Neverwinter: Ironclad

So with the initial rush and excitement of Battle for Azeroth settling down — and my own efforts to settle into a new house and area — I felt that this was a great time to shake myself out of what had become a one-game routine for a good month there and diversify again once more. While I’ll continue my adventures in WoW and LOTRO (so much more to do in both) as well as group, I feel the need for new characters and horizons.

As such, I’m going to be rolling up brand-new characters in a few other MMOs this fall, starting with Neverwinter. Yes, Neverwinter, the popcorn game that might be as non-nutritious as it is weirdly flavorful. I keep getting reminded that there’s so very much content in this game that I’ve never seen. I blame MOP’s Larry for this recent foray, because he was talking up this game after spending time in the latest module at PAX.

I still can’t believe how few classes Cryptic has added to this MMO over the years, but I figured that I would try something different and go with a buff-happy Oathbound Paladin this time around. Race? Boring human this time (those racial bonuses are nice!), although I made her a little stocky on purpose to emphasize her power and muscles.

While I waited for the game to update, I amused myself by taking advantage of several free giveaways for in-game goodies. I mean, why not? Free is free if you’re using a disposable email address.

Between those and several promotional items that Cryptic winged (wung? wanged chun?) my way over the years, a new character is set up from the get-go with some nice items. I just really appreciate a purple companion and my ginormous spider mount, which might just be one of my all-time favorite MMO mounts.

High-five, zombie lich queen! Looking sharp and pointy there!

So while there is a ton of material that I’ve never encountered in this game to date, the problem is that I *have* gone through the opening 20 levels or so numerous times (and then keep drifting away and deleting characters so as to start over next time). I know I have to push through the ultra-familiar before I get to the new stuff and possibly arrive at a point where I can consume the fresh releases when they come off the line. Probably a pipe dream, but it’s a nice thought.

Anyway, after doing a little research on a capable soloing character, I went with the self-healing, self-buffing Paladin to give me the best prospect for adventuring in high levels without as much frustration as I was getting from my former squishy Rogue.

How does one put this much armor on a giant spider? Does it sit still for it every day? Feels a little redundant, since there’s an exoskeleton and all that, but oh well.

Over the course of a good night’s play session, I raced through the introduction quests and deep into the Blacklake District parts. Having the sparkle trail to follow, as I’ve said many times, is actually really relaxing, like following a GPS and not worrying about getting turned around. I can wander away as much as I like and not have to fret that I’ll get lost. That creates a pretty optimized and yet flexible play experience, which I appreciate.

Got to say that this guy’s pavilion was a little immersion breaking. And by “little” I mean “seriously, there’s the logo of the game right up there and everything, that’s not subtle, guys.” Kind of hard to peg the tone of Neverwinter, but I think that there is this underappreciated subversive humor that runs through the game. I’ll have to keep my eye out for that.

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Fornite and the freedom of gaming silly

My relationship with the uber-popular, can’t-escape-it Fortnite has been one of an educated outsider. I’ve covered it for news and have listened to my teens talk about it endlessly, but it’s not a game experience that I’m eager to have myself. Kind of like how I feel about MOBAs. I can acknowledge that it’s hot, I can understand why it appeals, but it’s just not for me.

That said, in attempting to dissect the Fortnite phenomenon, there’s an element here that I think a lot of the battle royale copycats have overlooked, which is the spirit of humor in the game. DayZ, H1Z1, PUBG — all, by and large, skew more toward gritty and realistic (not entirely, but by and large). Fortnite, on the other hand, has been a goofball since the very beginning. And that definitely has played to its favor. There’s a particular joy that can be found in games that free themselves up to be silly.

I’m not talking about nonsensical lunacy but rather “Weird Al” and “Simpsons” kind of silly. The type of silliness that isn’t afraid to go for the cheap visual gag, the doofy outfits, or the bizarre juxtapositions of a fight-to-the-death arena and players wooshing around in golf carts and shopping carts. This whole approach gives Fortnite some key advantages in drawing in large crowds, including:

1. There’s that attractive, colorful art style and palette that softens the PvP nature and is visually inviting (see: League of Legends).

2. Humor takes the edge off of winning or losing — because as long as we’re entertained and having fun, winning and losing don’t matter as much as they did before.

3. Being silly opens a game up to creative approaches that aren’t always grounded in reality. Look at the old Duke Nukem 3D. There were tons of 3D shooters at that time, but DN3D distinguished itself with an “anything goes” tongue-in-cheek approach that wasn’t afraid to push aside realism to have goofy, pointless fun at times.

4. It also allows over-the-top combat without anyone complaining that it is “immersion breaking.” Those fights become the game standard and everyone is OK with that.

If you were to chart MMOs on the spectrum of silly to serious, you’d probably get a good range… but would also see more titles lean toward the latter. Get humor wrong, and you alienate players. Include too much silliness, and you might be communicating that your game is just a joke.

Titles like World of Warcraft, WildStar, Fallen Earth, and TERA, in varying degrees, embrace their silly side. You get a lot of this from eastern titles, too, that have that anime bizarre wackadoodle attitude to them, although that’s not always appealing. Usually I don’t mind a game having fun in this way, but it does have to be incorporated into the game’s base design and personality — and not just appear out of nowhere as a non-sequitur.

I definitely enjoy when a game can cut loose a bit and have fun. As kids, teens, or adults, sometimes we need that, especially in our relaxation. There’s a value to going goofy, and it doesn’t exclude adults by default when that happens. Some of the silliest people I know are as old or older than I, because they know that it’s important to laugh and play as well as the other parts of life.

How the PlayStation 2 killed console gaming for me

While computer gaming was really important to me in the 80s and 90s, I held an equal fascination for console games. They simply worked, for starters, and that wasn’t always something you could take for granted with loading up PC games and trying to get them to run. They were popular, too, and full of fresh experiences. From the Atari 2600 through the original PlayStation, I spent countless hours playing Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and more.

In fact, the PlayStation quickly became my second favorite console of all time. There were SO MANY great games for it, including some terrific RPGs, and I depended on it greatly toward the end of my college years when my laptop was aging and couldn’t really handle any modern titles whatsoever. Getting the PlayStation 2 when it came out in the fall of 2000 seemed like a no-brainer. Yet it turned out to be the move that killed console gaming for me going forward.

Some of this wasn’t the PS2’s fault. I am, at my core, a PC gamer, and when I got a new desktop following my college graduation, I had the ability to play those PC games once more. Throw in the internet and the intriguing field of online games, and I found myself starting to distance myself from the SNES and PlayStation in my gaming time. I simply wasn’t following console market that much any more, and most new systems didn’t set me on the edge of my chair with anticipation.

But the problem was in 2000, I wasn’t married, I had virtually no social life, and I had way too much free time on my hands. If I wasn’t working, I was most likely home, and that gave me a lot of hours to fill up with gaming. A LOT of hours. For those four years prior to meeting my wife and three years prior to really getting into MMOs, I was starving for games. I simply ran through them too quickly and would be prowling Media Play on a regular basis looking for something new and different to experience.

Even though my interest in consoles was waning, when the PS2 came out, I remembered all the great times I had with the PS1 and purchased it on launch week. That did not pan out so well for me, because there really wasn’t that much to play — at least, no games of great interest. I held out for Final Fantasy X, which ended up being the only title on that console that I played to any great length, but for the most part, I’d buy or rent PS2 games, get bored of them quickly, and then despair that I had just wasted that money.

I was in denial that I had outgrown consoles, or at least what consoles were offering. The types of games that interested me — strategy sims, RTS, adventure games, RPGs — were not the games being made for the PS2. Yes, it was pretty, but it felt surface-level and hollow.

After a while, I simply stopped buying anything for the PS2 and used it, as many did back then, as a DVD player. At some point I sold it off, and after that, I never really looked back on the decision to divorce myself from consoles. Sure, I fiddled about on the GameCube and Wii, because who didn’t? But I never got back to those long sessions on the couch or cared much about the console wars after that point.

The PS2 had an amazingly long run, and I’m sure it’s a favorite to many who owned one. But it’s telling that I could not formulate even a top five — nevermind top 10 — personal best game list from that console. It was time to move on, and the PS2’s lackluster launch lineup and subsequent titles showed me that what the console market found interesting and what I wanted to play were quite divergent from each other.

Perhaps it’s time to break down and take the easy mode

Back in the 80s and 90s, I don’t remember computer RPGs offering difficulty modes — although first-person shooters sure as heck did. In fact, I vividly recall how Wolfenstein 3-D would outright taunt the player with difficulty levels ranging from “Can I play, Daddy?” to “I am Death Incarnate.” The easiest of those, I should mention, was illustrated by your hero’s portrait wearing a baby’s bonnet and sucking on a pacifier.

This got the point across to the player fairly well: If you go the easy route, you’re a baby. Even though it wasn’t a multiplayer game and no one else would ever know, the player would — and so the player’s pride and honor were attacked.

In me, at least, this cultivated a long-standing tradition when it came to any game that offered difficulty levels: Never, ever, ever take the easiest one. In fact, never go below “normal” in any circumstance. To do so would be to admit defeat, and that was unacceptable.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this, because I’ve seen other players mention as such. Easy mode doesn’t exist for us, because even though we’re not Ironmen or Vikings, we have some standard of toughness.

But…

But maybe I’m starting to relent on this, especially when it comes to RPGs.

The thing is, RPGs these days take an insanely long amount of time to complete. Less, of course, than the eternal treadmill of MMOs, but still, you plop Fallout 4 or Witcher 3 in my lap, and you’re asking for a time commitment from start to end that is pretty staggering. These aren’t walking simulators done in two hours or action games done in 20. We’re talking 80, 100, 150+ hours to finish. And that number tends to skew on the high side if the game’s combat is difficult or impedes progress.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 recently put out a definitive edition or somesuch, and as part of that, it offers a new “story mode” that is easier than the easiest mode that it originally launched with. From what I understand, the story mode doesn’t eliminate combat, but it does make it far less punishing and reduces fights as an obstacle to progression.

That actually has some appeal to me. Not every RPG is created equal — nor are their combat systems. Some games have combat systems that aren’t as much fun to me as others, and I’m not the type to relish an encounter that takes 10 minutes to resolve these days. So a more streamlined approach actually sounds appealing, especially if it would let me see more of the game world and experience the story.

Then again, there’s always my pride. And that baby bonnet. And this very public admission that I might be losing my edge in my middle age.

Battle Bards Episode 128: Seaside port

Why not sail up to our dock and tie your ship to ours for an hour? The Battle Bards return for another great episode examining MMORPG music, with the focus this time around being on harbor and port music. Does the sight of boats sailing out into the open ocean inspire you? Then this music may be the soundtrack to your next great adventure!

Episode 128 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Selbina” from Final Fantasy XI, “New Bellin Port” from Risk Your Life, and “Hermalte Port” from Dragon Nest)
  • “Port BGM” from Lime Odyssey
  • “Lith Harbor” from MapleStory 2
  • “Aria de Coimbra” from Granado Espada
  • “Saltswept” from Final Fantasy XIV
  • “Port Noble” from City of Villains
  • “Epheria Port” from Black Desert
  • “Port Town Ilfalo” from Wizardry Online
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener notes: Katriana
  • Jukebox Picks: “Deliverance” from God of War, “Jump Up, Super Star!” from Super Mario Odyssey,” and “New Junk City” from Earthworm Jim
  • Outro (feat. “Port Malaya” from Ragnarok Online)

Dealing with MMO feature bloat, pruning, and obsolescence

Today I’m going to combine a few rants/whines about MMO systems and look at it as a combined, rather than separate, issue. There are two situations that particularly bother me about developing live MMORPGs, and I’m starting to think that they’re related.

The first issue that I have are games that introduce new systems and then either fail to support them or end up deleting them in the future entirely. World of Warcraft is downright notorious for doing this. Blizzard is forever introducing expansion-selling features — glyphs, jewelcrafting, garrisons, artifact weapons, order halls — and then downplaying them or outright eliminating them come the next expansion.

This frustrates me because it creates an environment where nothing can be depended on to last. You get super-invested in these systems because the studio is pushing them hard, and then you’re left holding nothing for all of your hard work and effort. Star Wars Galaxies’ Creature Handlers know of which I speak. It’s also frustrating because then it develops an inner attitude of mistrust, of thinking “well, why get invested in this, it won’t last!” And that’s not the attitude I want to have when playing a game. I want to get excited about it, I want to revel in it, and I want to play with the reasonable expectation of feature stability as long as that game lasts.

The second issue I have are with MMORPGs that, over the course of time, have introduced so many additional systems that they are now bloated and incomprehensible to the newcomer. Long-time players (and developers!) who have been with the game through the introduction of each of these systems don’t notice the bloat, as they’ve gradually grown accustomed to them. But too much in the way of systems can be a barrier to anyone coming into the game who now has to read enormous guides, anyone who wants to come back after a long absence, or anyone who would like to roll a new character and has to navigate all of these systems to build up a proper toon.

Marvel Heroes, pre-shutdown, is a good example of this. That game was forever adding new systems and stats and various ways to develop characters to the point where it gave me a headache to try to figure out everything that had to be done in order to properly build a superhero. And that was a game where your primary interaction was fast mouse button mashing!

As I said, the more I thought about both of these situations, the more I realized that they really are two sides to the same coin. MMOs should and do add features over time. That’s just part of live game growth, and it can be really exciting for players. But MMOs do have issues with too many systems and unsupported systems that ruin the quality of play for newcomers and experienced vets alike.

There’s no miracle cure for this but rather a sensible middle ground. As MMOs introduce new systems, they have to commit to fully supporting them going forward. These new systems should integrate well with previous systems and not overpower, overwrite, or clash with preexisting features. And MMO studios should always be evaluating the number of systems and how they work together — and guard against bloat. They should consider streamlining obtuse systems and even combine two or more related systems together in an improved fashion.

And if a system really won’t be supported, it should be cut — but that should be the final resort rather than a regular habit.

A requiem for WildStar

Life is slowly starting to settle back into something resembling normalcy after last week’s craziness in which we packed up our house and moved to a new state. It’s a lot to get used to, and I feel like most of my life has been upheaved. For a guy who craves stability and routine and comfortable surroundings, it’s pretty jarring.

So I didn’t need to hear that on the day of my move NCsoft announcing that it was going to shutter WildStar. I didn’t need that. I was so physically and emotionally exhausted that day that the news didn’t impact me much because there was nothing left, but now that I’ve had a few days to process this news, I find myself incredibly sad over this sunset.

WildStar wasn’t a perfect game made by a perfect studio — I think we can all agree on that. Carbine was a mess internally with too many forces pulling in too many directions, and the end result was an MMORPG that had ambitions but also misunderstood the market by being subscription-only with a hardcore endgame design. It hyped up paths only to give us this half-hearted system that failed to live up to its potential. It went a little over-the-top in some areas, like how the announcer would scream at you for challenges and level ups.

But it was a game that I loved, despite all that. There was so dang much to love about WildStar. The fusion of scifi and western with a touch of horror really worked. Nexus was a fascinating planet full of secrets that I genuinely wanted to uncover. There were abandoned laboratories, a ghost girl, a spreading infection known as the Strain, space pirates, amazonian natives, sentient veggies, and more.

Out of all of the MMOs that I’ve played, WildStar easily has the greatest collection of memorable NPC races assembled under its roof. From robot cowboys to the loot-obsessed Lopp to the clones of the Protostar Corporation, everywhere I turned I saw personality bursting at the seams. It was like the best Saturday morning cartoon had come to life and we got to play in it.

The graphics, the visuals — maybe not your cup of tea, but WildStar will always be one of the loveliest and most striking games that I’ve played. I adored the stylized and colorful graphics that didn’t make scifi this sleek and pristine thing. There were couches with busted springs and goofy-looking spaceships and hologram taxi drivers who would actually chat to you while you were en route to your next destination.

Undoubtedly, WildStar’s greatest legacy will be twofold: Its housing and its music.

My only quibble with the housing system was its slightly awkward placing tools, but past that, I adored it. Your own personal sky island where you could customize everything from the ground to the sky to your house outside and in? Functional plots that could be used to gather mats, take on challenges, and dive into pocket dungeons? It was amazing.

Because the art style of this game grooved with me so much, I really enjoyed setting up my home using parts of it. Being able to collect and even craft housing decor was the greatest carrot that this game dangled in front of me. I was never a master architect, but I had a blast putting together various homes and trying to figure out how to do fun things like give an unorthodox spaceship multiple interior levels or put a light source behind a window so it looked like sunshine was beaming in.

Jeff Kurtenacker’s score will be the only part of this game that will live on in a way that we can experience it, and for that, at least, I am glad. WildStar’s expansive score is flat-out stunning in its mastery, diversity, and enjoyability. It could be goofy, sad, creepy, stirring, and exciting in turns, and it lent a lot of personality to an MMO that already had a lot of it.

What else can I say? The holidays, the hidden secrets, the amount of stuff to do, double-jumping, hoverboarding, the crazy amount of pets and mounts, the fun of scenarios, that one dungeon where your party went insane and had to battle a giant vending machine, the zone where you had low gravity and could jump for miles, the joy of playing as a robot-toting Engineer, the tremendous costume system — it was all really, genuinely great.

It might seem hypocritical to say all this while not having played WildStar for well over a year now, but we all saw the writing on the wall. WildStar wasn’t going to make it, and there was little point putting in game time to an MMO that wasn’t being actively supported and developed. If we were living in an alternative universe where WildStar was reasonably popular, had a casual-friendly endgame, and had a studio that was pumping out regular updates — then yes, I’d still be playing. Heck yes, I’d be playing.

As it is, I feel heartsick over this shutdown. There’s a really good game here and so much work that’s being tossed into the trash. I don’t have any hope that NCsoft would sell or hand off this game, so that’s that unless we enter into emulator territory.

So I guess that there’s only this — thank you, WildStar, for a wonderful ride. You weren’t perfect, but you were far better than most people realized. You deserved much better than this.