Going Faster Than Light

Last week a rather interesting little Steam title was brought to my attention called Faster Than Light.  I know it’s not an unknown title, so I’m probably late to the party on it, but it looked sufficiently interesting to pick up for $9 and try out.

FTL is kind of like an interstellar Rogue-like, where you captain a ship instead of a dungeon explorer and explore sectors of space instead of underground caverns.  It’s got some flavor of Star Trek, Firefly, and even Choose Your Own Adventure in it, although it strongly reminds me of another indie title called Infinite Adventures in Strange Space.

The goal is to make it to the end of your sector-hopping before you die or are captured by pursuing rebels.  That keeps you always on the move, and chance are you’re going to die along the way.  I still haven’t made it to the end.

But the hook of FTL is that it’s not about cool 3D spaceships duking it out, but instead a cutaway view of the inside of your ship where you order your crew around, adjust power levels, and take care of various situations.  Combat is more or less on autopilot, so your decision making comes into play when you have to figure out what rooms are best left crewed and uncrewed, whether you should order someone to put out a fire or open up an airlock to suck out the O2, and what systems need to be repaired in what order.  It’s the same kind of gameplay that I’m looking forward to experiencing with Star Command on the iPhone, if it ever comes out.

Because of the micromanaging, combat situations can get downright insane.  You can choose to cut and run, but only if you have a pilot at the helm and the engine repaired and a certain amount of time passed for FTL calculations.  I’ve been in battles where half of my ship was on fire and I was desperately trying to suck out all the air while bottling my crew up in a few remaining safe rooms.  And there’s been more than one time that I’ve sent crew to their deaths because I absolutely needed a system back online — but it was in an airless or blazing room.

Probably the most interesting scenario was when my ship got boarded by three aliens who proceeded to run through rooms, take systems offline (including the sensors, which left me in the dark) — all while a major fire was raging.  I couldn’t open doors because the intruders took those offline, so I had to bunch up my crew for a desperate firefight (which we eventually won), then have my three surviving members tag-team trips into oxygen-less rooms to restore systems so that I could open the airlock restore O2, and try to make it out of the sector alive.  Which I did.

Many jumps give you choices which may have good and bad consequences, and I’ve learned that it’s prudent to stick around in a sector as long as possible (before the rebels catch up) in order to beef up your ship and try to find parts and fuel.

There’s no save and only one life per game, so when you die, it’s restart time.  That makes every encounter twice as intense.

You can also gradually unlock additional ship types and extra options, although meeting the requirements for this are proving difficult.  Nice to know they’re there, though.

Anyway, it gets a big thumbs up from me.  A game lasts around 10 minutes or so, and every one is a different experience.

It’s not a flashy game, but dang if it isn’t involving — and a type of gameplay I’d love to see more of in MMOs.  About the closest I can identify are some of the pirate games.

11 MMOs I’d be playing right now (if I had the time)

Even with juggling (or, some days, attempting to juggle) four games, I cannot remain faithful to these few in my mind.  I’m just fascinated with MMOs in general, and there’s always so, so many more I’d be playing if I had the time.  And I’m not just talking about a spare weekend — I’m talking “If I lived alone, had no jobs but infinite money, and possibly six or seven clones” time.

So since there’s no way I can add anything else to my plate right now without taking something off, I might as well just get it all out here on paper.  If I had the time, here are ten additional MMOs I’d be playing right now:

1. Dungeons & Dragons Online: For all its user un-friendliness, there’s nothing *quite* like it in 3D MMO space — and nothing that is as “D&D”.  The cross-campaign focus is pretty attractive as well.

2. Champions Online: Between City of Heroes’ impending demise and Champions’ third anniversary, I’m really tempted to roll up a new suit.  I like that you can now purchase freeform characters from the shop for F2P instead of just archetypes.

3. Vanguard: Ah, free-to-play, you siren call you.  This is a world that I’d love to explore, particularly with some of its more unique classes and diplomacy system, but it also telegraphs to me that it’s a time hog.  And there’s no time for love, Dr. Jones.

4. Star Trek Online: I miss my ship and space combat.

5. Allods Online: With its recent expansion, Allods continues to increase its allure.  If I was dirt-poor and this was the only F2P game on the market, I’m sure I’d be happy dithering about in it and nothing else.  But it doesn’t offer much above what I’m getting in my current games.

6. Anarchy Online: I always return to AO like a boomerang of nostalgia.  Maybe once again when/if the graphical update comes.

7. Fallen Earth: I always feel guilty when I think of Fallen Earth.  I have a gut feeling it might not be long for this world right now, and it remains the best post-apocalyptic MMO out there.  Ugh, if only, if only.

8. Magic Online: Not quite an MMO, but I mentally lump it in with the crowd nevertheless.  I miss my Magic fix, and really wish they had something on the iPhone for it.

9. Pirate101 beta: And soon to come, Pirate101’s launch.  I wish my kids were older, because I think we’d play this together.

10. Star Wars: The Old Republic: I want to see how my Bounty Hunter’s story ends.  I might return with F2P to see how the game’s shaped up since I left.  And I really wish I could just play the story quests and ignore the side quests. Maybe with loads of dungeon runs.

11. Glitch: I have a feeling that I need to give Glitch another chance, that this could really grow on me.  And I have a feeling that if I did that, I’d find myself up until 2 am in the morning.

The headwinds of the Secret World

It’s at times like this, when I’m accepting a mission from a 12,000-year-old mummy who dresses in expensive businesswear and is downright cordial that I hear that familiar refrain in my head: “Why aren’t more people playing The Secret World?  They’re missing out, they are.”

And it’s true.  The more I dig into the Secret World, the more I keep discovering how this is a diamond in the rough of MMOs.  It’s been dismissed too quickly by some and avoided by others, but even with the awesomeness of Guild Wars 2 out, I’m still inclined to say that this might be the MMO of the year.  It’s certainly the gutsiest, but its difference from the rest of the pack is part of its incredible allure.

I remember reading someone who said that TSW wasn’t really that innovative aside from the handful of investigation quests, and that statement’s chafed with me the more I’ve played it.  The whole questing system is a lot more involved than typical MMOs, and often quite challenging.  Stealth quests reward strategic approaches and non-linear thinking.  Even your standard “action” quests often involve puzzle solving and thoughtful approaches.  Just barging in is a recipe for getting oneself killed, and quickly.  I’ve also come to cherish every quest (excluding the sidequest) acceptance, because the quest givers deliver very memorable performances and stories that get you right into the mood of the game.

It’s not all perfect and I certainly don’t begrudge people forming an opinion based on personal preference.  For me, I’m very comfortable in saying that The Secret World is a great game, and I’m not going to swing over to the critics’ side to preface that statement with a bullet point list of perceived failings.  It’s messily brilliant, and I’m glad it’s on the field.

TSW really was destined to be a niche title, but I think it could really flourish if Funcom accepts that and stops trying to tap into the mainstream dollar.  It’s no secret (har) that TSW is struggling mightily with underperforming sales and a highly competitive market.  When I ask myself that question above, I already know the many answers.  The Secret World has a very strong headwind blowing against it, and it’s going to have to struggle for every inch of success from here on out.  So here are the four biggest issues I see for TSW gaining wider acceptance and greater profit — and what the solution to each might be.

1. Subscription-only

I can see why BioWare decided to go sub-only for SWTOR’s launch, but it’s really hard to understand Funcom’s reasoning with The Secret World doing the same.  After all, both its other MMOs have free-to-play options, so the studio is not unfamiliar with the doors that F2P opens.  Maybe the execs fooled themselves into thinking that very strong beta numbers were going to translate into the same amount of subscription-paying players.

In any case, that’s not what happened.  It’s a shame, because TSW has all the pieces for F2P (and Ragnar Tornquist pretty much said its an inevitability at this point anyway).  There’s a cash shop in place, and the game is segmented nicely into different world zones.  So just make the first (Solomon Island) free and charge for Egypt, Transylvania, and so on.  Or beef up the cash shop with loads of tempting cosmetic purchases.

Solution: Go free-to-play, and do it soon.  If we don’t hear Funcom making the announcement of this transition by the end of this year, I’ll be very surprised.  Personally, I’d love to play TSW without a sub fee, and the F2P launch will give people a second opportunity to hear and try the game.

2. Mature rating

It might not be a major sticking point for some of you, but I can imagine that this gory and decidedly adult-themed MMO has turned a few away with its subject matter alone.  It’s an R-rated spectacle in a sea of PG and PG-13 MMOs, and that limits its playerbase in much the same way as movies do.

Solution: Huh… perhaps give parents and players a language/gore filter, but that would have to cover some substantial spoken/written dialogue and pervasive images.  It just might not be something Funcom can tone down, even if it would want to.

3. Unfamiliar genre blend

A large, large majority of MMOs are fantasy, and no matter how we moan about that fact, a large, large percentage of players flock to the familiar.  The Secret World is a strange blend of contemporary settings, horror, science fiction, conspiracy, and occult.  Those don’t have the widespread appeal of fantasy and haven’t made significant inroads into the MMO genre yet.  TSW is pioneering in several places, but it’s a tough sell for players who look at it and go, “What is this?  I don’t get it.”

It’s not just the genre that blends, but the gameplay itself.  The classes blend, the types of quests, the range from action to extreme puzzle-solving.  It’s just not something we’ve had on the market to this point.

Solution: Honestly?  Time.  I firmly believe that TSW is the type of game that not only requires people to invest time into it in order to become apologists for it, and that word-of-mouth will be the most significant factor in enticing friends and others to it.

4. Unfortunate timing

The Secret World came out at one of the worst times ever for a new MMO — just weeks before Guild Wars 2.  People flocked to it, were gushing about it, playing it, and then just abandoned it in droves for one of the most anticipated MMOs of the past five years.  It was something we saw coming, as many people said something along the lines of “This is my tide-me-over game until GW2 comes out.”

Even though GW2 and TSW are in different genres and have different business models, they do compete for each other’s time and population.  TSW simply did not have enough time to settle in and establish itself before facing a very tough fall of GW2 and plenty of expansions.

Solution: Again, time.  TSW needs to survive the year, polish up, and continue monthly updates to beef up the content.  Time helps to make a level playing field, and once the newness of these games wears off a bit, TSW might have a second chance at regaining or drawing new players to its fold.

5. Mismanaged marketing

TSW actually did a great job getting people all riled up about it before launch, with a huge beta and lots of press.  Since then, that’s all died down, and after playing the game myself I have to say that Funcom did not market its strengths so as to draw in the types of players who would really appreciate this style of game.  Nowhere did I see the studio say, “Hey, this is an adventure-RPG online!” which it actually is.  It’s the first of its kind that I know of, and that’s something to trumpet.  The studio’s been all over the map with marketing, and has ended up making TSW sound like every other MMO out there because of it.  That needs to change.

Solution: Targeted, focused marketing.  Embrace the niche and find players who are looking for horror, for contemporary settings, for adventure-style gameplay, for free-form character development.  Contrast against the limitations and stifled innovation elsewhere in the field and give players a reason to root for your success.

Conclusion

TSW has a long ways to go, but I truly hope that it’s there for that long haul.  It’s a game that I really, really hope is around years from now, because I haven’t gotten enough of it yet, and don’t anticipate doing so for a while to come.

Postscript

Someone in the comments made the good point that while TSW was marketed as a conspiracy/secret societies game, it’s way more horror than anything else.  I totally agree.  Doesn’t make it bad, but I do wish there was more conspiracy/mythological elements in it.

Too Long; Didn’t Listen episode 37 is up!

It’s the TLDL exercise hour!  We’re gonna burn your fat, one squat at a time!  Are you excited?  I know we are!  Now… bend!  Squat!  Extend!  Maximize your core!  We have no idea what we’re talking about, but we’re still going to jaw about physically exercising in MMOs!

Two topics in 30 minutes or your next podcast is free. You know you would listen to all this if it just wasn’t so… long!

Listen to episode 37 here!

Guild Wars 2: The ultimate casual MMO?

Despite economy concerns, temporarily halted sales, and other rough spots, Guild Wars 2 appears to be flying high following its first couple weeks of operation.  That’s great — fly,fly, I say.  This morning we heard that the game’s crossed the two million units sold mark, which feels like one of the fastest-selling MMOs in recent memory, even including SWTOR.  Of course, without subscriptions and announcements regarding such, GW2 gets to sidestep the whole “how many people are still playing?” argument that plagues new releases.  Instead, just like with GW1, ArenaNet will get to keep announcing bigger and bigger numbers of total copies sold.  That seems like a pretty sweet deal for them.

The larger scale of the game’s success aside, I still find myself itching to get in and play almost constantly now, which tells me that it’s certainly “stuck” in a good way.  From my perspective, I see Guild Wars 2 as the ultimate casual MMO that respects instead of demands your time.  It’s ludicrously fast and easy to log into, and mostly just asks you to live in the moment with your activities instead of chugging through a quest list. While I do get a meal of GW2 gaming time now and then, mostly I just log on for 10-30 minutes, accomplish a few things, explore a few vistas, and see if there are any events going on nearby.

Even grinding mobs feels relaxing.  I’m still experimenting with my Engineer setup, waffling between weapons and skill loadouts.  I’m extremely partial to turrets, especially during events (they do a great job helping you be in multiple places at once and tagging lots of mobs), but I forced myself to try the other skills including a speed buff elixir that’s now part of my rotation.  Pewpewpewpewpew — it’s bliss.

Aside from 100% map completion, my other major goal is to unlock eight character slots and other gem store goodies without paying real money.  I know the trading post and economy has its critics and fans, but as for me, I’m engaging more in the economy now because of the easy of the TP’s interface and accessibility, not to mention the allure of earning gems by doing things in-game.  I’ve already purchased one character slot and am on my way to a second.  Sure, I’m disappointed how little sells well on the TP these days, especially for crafting mats, but there is some demand for certain items (cloth, animal parts in particular) that I am still making a good profit.  I earned 50 silver yesterday through it, and have decided to spend half of what I earn every day on gems and save the other half (for eventual training tomes and other expenses).

In a weird way, it reminds me of very old school RPG mechanics, where acquiring money to buy gear from vendors was of all-consuming importance — so the money was actually a rush to get.  Usually I don’t even think of money in MMOs, but GW2 has hit a sweet spot in me with its loot and economy, so the inner Gecko Gordon in me is coming out.

Other than that, I just am eager to dive into any group event.  I’m finally done with all of the 1-15 zones, so I’m on my second 15-25 area and discovering that events are becoming more challenging and more complicated.  I’ve seen groups start to adapt to the challenge by eschewing mere zerging and instead pulling tougher mobs away from their friends, set up heal zones, and lay down spell strips that allow others to trigger combos.  It’s kind of really neat.

One funny side effect of now juggling four MMOs is that my finger memory is getting all sorts of messed up.  Guild Wars 2 uses F to loot, TSW uses V, and LOTRO and RIFT require clicking.  I keep messing all those up all the time now.

Anyway, whether or not GW2 exudes a casual feel to you, it does to me.  It’s not a game I feel any need to rush through, but instead just to be content where I’m at, to savor the experience, and to really see my surroundings instead of the distant horizon.

Four games that would make great mobile MMOs

I continue to be disheartened about the lackluster field of mobile MMOs, wishing that there would be something engaging that I could enjoy on the go.  The field that’s out there right now is either trashy (low quality, high microtransactions pressure), kind of weird/obscure, or a little too hard to control with a smartphone.  Spacetime Studios’ titles and Order & Chaos are probably at the top of the short list, but while I’ve repeatedly tried them, I can’t stick to either.

My thought is that mobile gaming requires MMOs to be tailored to those devices’ limitations and abilities, instead of trying to force a square peg of PC gaming through a round hole.  MMOs typically require a complex HUD, multiple input keys, and navigation through 3D spaces, all of which are difficult to pull off on something a small touchscreen interface.

However, if there had to be adaptation of current MMOs to the mobile platform, here are four I think would do the trick just fine:

1. Wizard101

Even though Wizard101 navigates through a 3D world, the battles are pretty much just picking out cards when they pop up — quite easy for a touchscreen.  Plus, the UI in that game is already simple and has a built in simple chat feature that allows you to pick between phrases.  Doesn’t seem like it’s too graphically complicated, either.  So yeah, I’d love to see this make the jump.

2. Realm of the Mad God

2D feels much more natural for mobile gaming — at least then you don’t have to fiddle with camera controls.  RotMG has a cool retro pixelated look that’s already popular with mobile gamers, and it’s a simple game when it comes to combat and items.  This would be my top choice.

3. MapleStory

Nexon keeps making feints toward bringing MapleStory to mobile devices, but so far it’s all been offline solo stuff only.  I’ve never played MapleStory, but it’s got the 2D down and a strong following, which seems ripe for the plucking.

4. Glitch

Why not?  You can’t access this Flash title from Apple devices, but it seems like it would be awesome as a mobile game.  Light platforming, lots of crafting and gathering, 2D graphics — perfect.

Any of those I’d welcome into my mobile arsenal with open arms.  What about you?  What games do you think would make great mobile MMOs?

RIFT’s ants are in my pants

Despite several options to pursue at max level right now in RIFT, I’m feeling a bit directionless.  Part of this comes from the knowledge of November’s expansion pack, which kind of negates any current pursuit of gear upgrades.  I’m itching to level again, to get those 10 extra soul points and a new soul to play with, and the idea of housing just out of my reach is driving me mad.

I was all on fire to plow through Ember Isle, but I’m less on fire these days for it.  It’s still proving to be at least a slog, if not a tough slog, with regular mobs boasting enough hit points to make every fight last longer than I’d like.  Right now I’ve pared down my focus for that zone to be the main storyline, and even with that I don’t know how far I’m going to go with it.  I do hope the end results will be worth it.  Maybe this is a great zone for those who have all purple gear and needed a good challenge, but it kind of makes me feel like I’m dog paddling like mad to stay above water.

So here are a few options I’ve been mulling over to cover the time between now and November 13th:

  1. Start a new character (most likely a mage) and level him/her to 50 using dungeons and instant adventures.  This has a lot of appeal for me, seeing as how it will be pretty new, take the focus off questing, and group up more.  The mage has a couple great pet classes, plus I really like the battle mage soul coming with the xpack.  The downside of this is spreading my interest between alts too wide.
  2. Keep at Ember Isle until completed.  Right now that gets a big “meh” from me.
  3. Nix Ember Isle and go back to do other level 50ish zones that I leap frogged to get to EI.  Shimmersands is something I’ve never done before.
  4. Go back to my focus on achievement hunting, particularly for all the lowbie zones that I missed my first time through (most of those being on the Defiant side).
  5. Just run IAs and dungeons on my cleric to keep my edge and gradually gear up.
  6. Shift my focus to doing the sagas.  I don’t know how feasible this is, particularly without strong guild support.

I haven’t really decided any which way here, but I’m perhaps most tempted with the first and fourth options.  I’m not complaining about my ants — if anything, RIFT has so much to do that I’m unlikely to be bored in the near future.  It’s just that I need a set goal for my own personal satisfaction.

For those of you playing RIFT, what were your goals at level 50?

The all-seeing eye

“Well, we certainly captured that white-haired nose ring demographic!” “We sure did, Phil!”

Quick: What does a mud-encrusted person, graffiti, a dude firewalking in an alley, and a lady swimming through an underwater dining room have in common?  The answer: Absolutely nothing.  A very distant second answer: They’re in Guild Wars 2’s “launch ad.”

I assume you’ve seen it.  It’s hard not to.  It’s by far one of the… weirdest marketing ads I’ve seen for an MMO, and I’m doubly flabbergasted that it came from ArenaNet.  Putting aside the logic of releasing a launch trailer two weeks after its launch, this is just bizarre avant-garde crap.  It’s like something you’d see from pretentious film students, really.  Just slap together a lot of artsy shots that don’t have anything to do with each other, but be bold enough to release it so that people feel stupid not “getting it” and then struggle to apply some sort of logic so as to feel better about it.  If you haven’t guessed, I really, really don’t like this type of thing.

I’m not against doing live action for an MMO trailer/commercial — it’s been done, and even done effectively.  But again, this is Guild Wars 2’s launch trailer.  This should be exciting and, I don’t know, more than 10% about the game itself.  There’s no narrative here, despite what the voice-over might make you think.  It’s a launch trailer about a fantasy MMO, and most of it features live action people in a very contemporary setting doing nothing that has anything to do with GW2.  Is this really from the studio that’s brought us a whole bunch of kick-butt videos, starting with the manifesto?  It’s like a whoopee cushion at the end of an opera.

I’ve heard a couple theories on it.  I’ve heard that it’s just weird to get people talking; mission accomplished, but I don’t know how much the thought of “These are weird people and I should stay far, far away from them” helps the cause of sales.  I’ve heard that it’s not for gamers, but for the mainstream, to sell them the game.  That doesn’t pan out either, because it’s got to be just as weird and nonsensical (if not more so) for non-gamers, and it’s a launch trailer.  Remember TSW’s launch trailer?  I do.  That thing was a masterpiece, and it was all about the game, showing in-game footage.  That made sense.

This… I’m just reeling.  And according to a bunch of “What the what?” discussions on Twitter, I’m not alone.

It’s just a trailer, who cares, I know.  But this is a big whiff when it should’ve been a grand slam for a terrific game.

Tidying up LOTRO

I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone, but prior to a game releasing an expansion, I like to tidy up my character in preparation for it.  LOTRO’s been getting some attention from me here and there lately, but not as much as prior to TSW and GW2 (for obvious first month reasons).  Besides, I thought I was pretty much ready for Riders of Rohan, but when I sat down to write up a to do list, I realized I had quite a few things to do:

1. Finish Volume 3 Book 6

Since the expansion picks up after book 6 (with books 7-9), this is probably the most important item on the list to accomplish.  After all, how bad would that be to be left behind on that first day of the expansion because you haven’t completed all your homework?  Er, quests?

Besides, it’s a good way to get back into the main storyline and mentally prepare for the shift to Rohan.  I’ve heard nothing but great things about the epic story of the expansion, so being ready to experience it on day one is important to me.

2. Tidy up storage space

LOTRO is a bad enabler for pack rats, because the game throws so much stuff at you and you’re always a little afraid to delete any of it.  But even with all of the storage options enabled, I’m plum out of room across the board.  Three of my six bags have a permanent set of items — potions, extra LIs, other “essential” items — and I am constantly running out of room.

So I’ve decided to do some spring (er, fall) cleaning.  I’m going to clean out my vault and perhaps mail a bunch of stuff to alts.  And I am going to get those three full bags down to just one.

3. Create a few new outfits

My fashion’s getting a bit stale, because even though I have eight outfits, I only wear one or two of them.  I’m going to give myself permission to get rid of the old designs and try to come up with something that looks new and fun.  And if I have to go on a dye shopping spree?  So much the better!

4. Work on virtues

I really, really don’t want to do this.  I know I was all on fire about virtues a couple months ago, but that represents time I don’t have at the moment.  The cap’s going up to 16 with the expansion, and I would like to be ready for it.  Virtues are not a high priority on my list, but they are there.

There’s a lot more to do if you’re really an achiever, so I’ll point to this thread on the forums that one enterprising player put together as to how to prepare for RoR!

 

Class

Guild Wars 2 makes me feel like I was slacking in Guild Wars 1 class: “Now, if you had really paid attention, you would appreciate the significance of all these ruins!”

But then again, I’m kind of glad I’m not that far gone, you know?