Drooling over Ashes of Creation

When it comes to anticipating upcoming MMOs (and yes, there ARE upcoming MMOs), I have two lists. The first one is a list of potential interests, games that I’m nominally intrigued about but am reserving a lot of judgment until they’re much closer to launch and start to prove themselves. Games such as Chronicles of Elyria, any of the City of Heroes knock-offs, Crowfall, Star Citizen, and World Adrift. They may be good, they may not be, they may be right up my alley, and they may be fine games that just don’t turn out to be my thing. It’s a really uncertain category.

The second list is much shorter and concerns titles that I am much more confident about and interested in. Project Gorgon heads up this list, obviously, and after that is Sea of Thieves and maybe Peria Online and Master X Master. I’m waffling on two more titles, New World and Ashes of Creation, that probably logically belong in the first category but I’m far more excited about them than most early development titles.

In Ashes of Creation’s case, this out-of-nowhere MMO is definitely hitting a lot of the sweet spots to stir up my appetite. We’re getting lots of solid dev diaries and plenty of great videos that show a game that looks much further along than I would expect. To be sure, it’s probably a heavily doctored, very limited demo in scope, but… look at that thing! I love how it begins with a walk through a town and shows some other NPCs in action. The spell effects are bedazzling, and the UI, for as early as it is, has a nice, clean design to it.

Ashes is most definitely on my watch list, and I think the team is doing a great job priming interest for the inevitable Kickstarter. This just might be the second game I’ll ever crowdfund, unless I can get my fanboy hype under control. Maybe I’ve been too starved for strong upcoming MMORPGs that I’ll just leap to the first one I see, but dang, this game looks fantastic so far. More please!

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TSW: The relaunch heard ’round Agartha

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I’m still reeling a bit from the big news that Funcom is going to “relaunch” The Secret World over the first part of this year (starting in late March). Part of the difficulty of getting my head around this is that the only news we have of this is from Funcom’s financial report and not, say, a lengthy producer’s letter (which definitely NEEDS to be posted in the next day or so at this point). So we have the broad outline but not the specifics or any other details.

From the bullet points listed above, it mainly seems aimed at bringing in new players and those who have been turned off from the game (particularly from its combat system). The business model will switch from buy-to-play to what sounds like free-to-play, which is full of question marks. It’s not as though TSW was that expensive to start with, but ditching the DLC model for straight-up F2P definitely will make it accessible for all. It’s not as if TSW has put out a lot of content over the past year, and so it hasn’t had a lot of new content to sell.

I’m… tentatively excited about all of this, if only that TSW is going to get some nice promotion and is being given some much-needed attention from Funcom. Better combat? I’m on board for that. The business model change worries me, because that sort of thing can be done right or very, very wrong, and if it’s the latter, the game’s reputation will go into the crapper. At least Funcom anticipates that these changes will boost revenue, and that has the potential to ensure TSW’s continued development and existence, which I’m all in favor for.

There’s a lot more that I want to know here, with the biggest being “WHAT ABOUT NEW CONTENT?!?!?!?” Seriously, Funcom, it’s been just about forever since we had new missions, and we’ve been strutting around Tokyo for two years now. It’s time to move on, and I want to hear the devs say that there’s not only going to be new missions but also a faster delivery of mission content.

My imagination is revving up about how combat could be improved, but ditching the builder/finisher system for starters would be terrific. Better animations? Improved sound? Yeah, those too. Oh, and let’s use this opportunity to kill AEGIS and pretend that it was never invented, OK?

Argh. Need more info! But still glad to see TSW getting a vote of confidence from Funcom (unlike Anarchy Online and Age of Conan, which have been effectively back burnered from here on out).

The Secret World: Just the worst quest ever, that’s all (Besieged Farmlands #9)

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(Join Syp as he attempts to document a complete playthrough of The Secret World from start to finish. What will The Secret Adventures discover next? Find out in this exciting installment! WARNING: Spoilers and stories ahead!)

The Girl Who Kicked the Vampire’s Nest (action mission)

There’s a good reason why, when you hear Secret World players discussing their favorite NPCs and missions, that Transylvania’s Zaha never comes up. It doesn’t help that she’s pretty dull, characterization-wise, but it really doesn’t help that both of her missions are frustrating and deal with the local vampire headquarters. We’ll have to do the less-annoying one first, which is an action mission to assault the camp’s strengths and weaknesses and put the vamps out of business, at least temporarily.

For all of Zaha’s talk of being this kick-butt vampire fighter, she sure does a lot of standing there with binoculars while I’m the one going in and saving the day single-handedly. I’ve heard this mission mentioned as one of the game’s worst, but I’d have to disagree. It’s not particularly hard, just very long and very repetitive. The vamp has a packed mob density, so being able to walk carefully and take out groups quickly is essential. Fortunately, I can do both.

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I have… no idea why the vampires build stuff that looks like it’s set dressing for Silent Hill, but they do and it’s very weird. Like rusty industrial with few handrails.

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I kill wave after wave of mobs, disable trucks, destroy supplies, eliminate blood supplies, and target their leaders. One tent shows me that these vamps have serious firepower at the ready — more than enough to conquer the region, if they have the discipline and know-how to drive these vehicles.

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What is interesting about this mission to me, at least, is how it paints a wordless picture of vampire society and organization. The use of Soviet tech, lots of industrial machines and metal, and brutal practicality is a far cry from the gothic vampires that we often get. There is no romanticizing any of this, no “gee I hope I get bit and gain vampire powers.” It’s vampires as nightmares, which is proper.

On my way out of the leader’s tent, I steal a supposedly important box containing a Blood Sample (side mission) to give to the Vampire Hunter. He thanks me, gives me a hug, and we go to Krispy Kreme to celebrate the beginning of our lifelong friendship.

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Bearing Gifts (side mission)

What do you get the girl who has everything and loves to criticize how non-stealthy you’re being? An ornate dagger that’s been plunged into the back of a warden of the forest, apparently. Here you go, Zaha. Feel free to stab me with it.

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The Cost of Magic (sabotage mission)

Here’s a fun game to play: Find a friend who is a Secret World player, simply say “Cost of Magic” to him or her, and then watch their response. And oh yes, there will be a response. Recoil, hissing, rolled eyes, grunts, PTSD flashbacks, the works. In an MMO where there are a lot of very challenging, very difficult missions, The Cost of Magic is one of the most notoriously hard quests to complete — and most assuredly very frustrating as well. I doubt it’s the hardest the game has to offer, but it’s definitely in the top five. Top three, even.

So what’s the deal with this quest? Well, if you’ve played the game you need no explanation here, and if you haven’t, you might think that we are whining a bit here. Let me reassure you, it’s worthy of its reputation.

Let’s highlight the main reasons why Cost of Magic is so hard and hated:

  1. It’s a sabotage (i.e. sneaking) mission, so combat is useless
  2. It’s very punishing, with ways that keep setting you all the way back to the beginning of each stage
  3. It’s quite long, with four sections that are each their own monumental challenge
  4. It’s far more platform-y than you get in most MMOs or even in most of the rest of this game
  5. It sucks.

Zaha wants me to gather ingredients for a magic ritual, but said ingredients are in the worst places possible. The first stage (my most hated one) involves going up on these illogical walkways in the sky where there are landmines, vampires that use a skill to push you right off the edge, and giant mobs that one- or two-hit you to death. I’ve never been able to master this part properly, relying mostly on luck and a lot of corpse runs to finally get to the ladder reaching the top.

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Proof! But before you get to this point? You will fall and die and fall and die and fall and start to construct voodoo dolls of Funcom developers and die and fall and die. I’ve seen some players say that this part is pretty easy once you get the pattern down right, but I’m not quite there after playing this only two times and I’m not eager to keep practicing after this.

Stage two has you trying to nab a heart from the middle of a poison swamp with patroling ghouls. There’s a back way in, and I was actually able to dart in, get the heart, and port out without a problem. Easiest step yet.

Stage three is… well, you know how there are always those deranged devs that love jumping portions?

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JUMPING STAGE!!!!1!

Yeah so you have to make your way up to the top of this rock by leaping onto floating magical disks that curve around. They’re timed and disappear after a while, plus you can only make these jumps at a full sprint, so you don’t have as much control as you would merely running. I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how many times I fell here.

20.

OK?

I fell 20 times. I do not do well on platforming bits.

The fourth stage is an obstacle course of sorts with land mines, punji pits, grenade trip wires, and invincible one-shotting patrolling golems. That I only died three times on this seems like a minor miracle.

But I did it. Took me about an hour this time around, much faster than last time, but I did it. And now that I’ve faced this horror twice in my life, never again. Do you hear me game? NEVER AGAIN.

Screenshot Saturday: RIFT, TSW, LOTRO

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Screenshot Saturday is a feature in which I post a choice selection of screenshots from my gaming adventures from the past week.

So let’s kick off this inaugural edition of Screenshot Saturday with my new snail racing mount in RIFT. Coolest and strangest mount that I’ve ever gotten in an MMO? Quite possibly! It was a gift from @Zyngor, who graciously sent me a spare code for this slimy wonder.

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Vampire Hunter takes out a backstabbing vamp with a crossbow bolt to the eye. Ouch.

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Body parts stuffed into a haystack in Transylvania. Why? Just… why?

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I love how warm and homey Bilbo’s kitchen is in Bag End. Wish there was more food, though.

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The funeral pyre post-Pelennor Fields is a sight to behold. Was an important interlude before the next stage of our journeys.

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Some friends invited me to do a raid skirmish in LOTRO last week, to mixed results. On the final fight, we plopped down all the banners. ALL the banners. It was like going to a rave.

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Taking a breather on the shores of the great river Anduin and realizing that I’m now the furthest I’ve ever been in the game. Still so pretty.

LOTRO: I finally caught up with myself

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Looking back over my LOTRO blog posts, I made my return to the game in mid-December 2016 after a lengthy absence. I spent the first couple of weeks playing my Captain and going through the first part of the post-Battle of Pelennor Fields content before deciding that I would much rather have my Lore-master be my main endgame character instead.

In early January, I made the switch to my long-abandoned (two-plus years) Lore-master and began the process of catching her up. She started out at level 76 and was at the very beginning of the Riders of Rohan, so I figured that I could plow her through the epic story without much else on the side (which I think I had been doing with her way back when anyway).

I got up to level 96 before realizing that I probably was doing myself a disservice by ignoring the Rohan and Gondor quests, since I probably would want the class trait points that can be gained from doing those (in my defense, it HAD been a very long time since I’d been in this game and fully aware of all of its ins and outs). So in early February, I stopped the epic and went back to do all of the Rohan and Gondor quest chains that gave out those points. At about one chain a night, that didn’t take as long as I thought.

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By last weekend, I was already back up to the Battle of Pelennor Fields. My son had become very interested in the game and its story and made me promise that I wouldn’t play through the whole battle story without him there. So I did slow down a bit to stretch the battle over three days so that he could witness it all.

And with that complete, I found my Lore-master finally to the point that I was two months ago with my Captain: fresh off of the big battle and going into the new zone and epic book. She has 76 class trait points (out of 82 I think?), two first age imbued legendary items, and high enough virtues that I’m not fretting. It’s a good place to be in.

By my reckoning, we have about a month to go before the anniversary and Update 20 start rolling out, so that gives me a few weeks to work my way through the new (to me!) content so that I can get caught up. I know that to get the two additional class trait points I’m going to need to complete some meta deeds for this zone, so I expect some grinding ahead. Not really interested in more flower picking, however. The devs and flowers, man, where to even begin. It’s beyond a joke at this point yet they still won’t let it go.

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I do appreciate that North Ithilien, the “Garden of Gondor,” is a visually attractive zone. I think we very much need that before starting our journey into the hellish landscape that is sure to be Mordor.

I think that most of us in LOTRO are waiting breathlessly for two pieces of information: the special activity coming in the 10th anniversary and the remainder of the details for the Mordor expansion (including the name, the High Elf class roster, the number of zones, and the pre-order details).

As for now, I’m shifting out of high gear and back into a somewhat more measured pace with my Lore-master. No sense rushing to the end but no reason to dawdle, either. The Wastes await!

6 things MMOs should do to make a good first impression

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You’ll never get a second chance at a first impression, or so the saying sort of goes, so it’s vital to make that impression count. For players — seasoned and fresh meat — who venture into an MMO for the first time, that initial hour or so can be a vital make-or-break moment that will either keep a gamer playing… or send them packing out of frustration, boredom, or annoyance.

So how can an MMORPG make the best-possible first impression? How can it get off on the right foot and serve to suck players into the experience from the start? I have six suggestions from my journey through many games.

1. Have an in-depth character creation system

It’s mind-boggling to me how many MMOs put forth little more than the bare minimum into character creation: pick a class, pick a head, name your guy, let’s gogoGO. Tell me, what does that do to invest a player into his or her character? Nothing. Go out and watch YouTubers who try out different MMOs, and you’ll see sighs and groans when they get games with bare-bones character creation — and you’ll also witness excited squees when they find an MMO that gives you many options (visuals, background, choices) before you get into the game.

City of Heroes and Guild Wars 2 are two excellent examples of MMOs that worked hard to give you a lot of character choices during this stage so that by the time you logged into the game, you already knew a lot about who you were and were connected with that character.

2. Give you tutorial flexibility

Not every player going into your game is coming from the same place, so they don’t all need to be pigeon-holed into the same inflexible tutorial. WildStar had it right on with its tutorial revamp that allowed players a full-fledged “I don’t know anything about MMOs” approach, a “this is my first time in WildStar but I’ve played other MMOs before” path, and an option to skip the tutorial altogether. When I make my 16th alt, I don’t want to have to beat my head against the tutorial popups or be told how to move my character with the WASD keys.

3. Pace things right — not too fast, not too slow

I find that pacing is a big problem in the early stage of an MMO. I’ve seen games that are just pondorously slow, which is made worse when your character has like one attack skill and no ability to move faster than a casual jog. Even worse are those titles that seem worried that they’ll lose your interest and keep shoving cutscenes and inescapable actions at you instead of backing off and providing some breathing room for players to comprehend and absorb. Find a good middle ground here and test the crap out of this intro.

4. Let players explore off the rails

This is my big thing: I don’t want an MMO to be forcing me down a linear path for the first half-hour. It’s not immersive and it honestly makes me cranky. Let me wander around a little bit. Let me get a feel for combat on my own terms, not from carefully staged encounters. Let me have time to fiddle with the options and hotbars and everything else. Provide direction and then let players proceed at their own pace and in their own way.

5. Make low-level combat look and feel great

Just because a character at level 1 needs a lot of room to grow doesn’t mean that you need to punish a player for being at the start. There’s no excuse for making low-level combat as dull as possible. Give a couple skills that pack a visual and aural punch and have at least one ability that shows off the class’ signature approach. Oh, and keep it pretty fast (10 seconds or under) — a long time-to-kill is inexcusable for a level 1.

6. Provide social connections right off the bat

Players should be able to form guilds from minute one in MMOs. None of this needing to get a bunch of gold or gathering signatures crap. That’s antiquated and is absolutely stupid.

MMOs should be doing all they can from the very start to hook players up with old and new friends. Get those social connections going so that they don’t feel alone and so that they have an additional reason to log in. Does your game have robust player searching and friends lists? Do you have a chat channel devoted to newbie advice and help? Do you have any sort of auto-grouping for difficult encounters? In what way will you encourage — not force — your players to interact with each other in that starting area?

I would like to challenge the Guinness World Records, please

guinness1So it was brought to my attention that Final Fantasy XIV is the recipient of three recent Guinness World Records: most prolific game series (fair enough, there are a lot of FF titles to date to be sure), longest end credits (an hour and a half? did they thank the entire population of Japan?), and “most original pieces of music in a videogame (including expansions)” at 384 tracks.

Now I have no idea what goes into the selection process of picking a Guinness World Record, but often I get the impression that it’s more a thing where people and companies call up Guinness to submit an entry rather than  Guinness going out and doing the homework. Especially when it comes to video games, it seems as though the records took the first applicant who made a claim and could back it up without checking all of the competition to see if there were any others that actually deserved the record more.

Final Fantasy XIV has a terrific and diverse soundtrack, and obviously at 384 tracks, it is no slouch. But it’s also most definitely not the world record holder for most original pieces of music in an MMO, never mind video games at large. I’m not an expert, but I have dabbled in video game music (and MMO soundtracks in particular) over the past few years, and off the top of my head some challengers come to mind.

RuneScape, for instance, boasts a staggering 1,151 original soundtrack pieces, with more coming every month. My World of Warcraft music folder has 772 files, and even if some are variations or duplicates, I’m pretty sure that easily tops 384. Both of these titles have the advantage of having been out a lot longer than FFXIV too, so it’s not to diminish FFXIV’s musical accomplishment to date that I post this, but just that it would bug me if it went unsaid.

Any other challengers? I don’t have a definitive count on EverQuest II tracks, but I know that game’s been adding them since launch and there are quite a few. WildStar is about 280 tracks, and I have about as many for SWTOR, so they’re up there but not quite. Lineage II or Aion? Maybe but I’m not sure how much are in those games that haven’t been officially released. I have about 245 tracks for LOTRO, but I know that there are a lot of more ambient pieces I haven’t gotten yet. A weird challenger might be City of Heroes, which had around 370 mostly short pieces of original music (20-30 seconds apiece for the most part).