Craving a colorful space sim MMORPG

Space sims are getting a nice profile boost in the MMO market these days, thanks to titles like Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen, Dual Universe, and the like. I think this is fantastic and shows that there’s a huge market for players who would be happy to trade in swords and staffs for spaceships and laser guns. I’m all for having alternatives to EVE Online’s particular style and focus.

But as much as I really would love to jump into an online space sim — and hope to do so, especially since I bought Elite in the winter Steam sale — I am not quite as enthused about this crop as I should be as a sci-fi and space sim fan. And I think it comes down to these games’ personalities — or lack thereof.

In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time diving into pretty much any sci-fi game I could find, from Star Trek 25th Anniversary to the Wing Commander series to the wacky Space Quest franchise. And thanks to the vibrant EVGA graphics and more light-hearted tone of the era, I kind of fell in love the idea that space could be “colorful.” That aliens could have really strange and memorable attributes and designs. That locales could be chock-full of branding and things to see and generally make me want to be there — or at least imagine that I was.

Even having gone through Star Control 2 for the first time last year, I was struck by just how… fun that game universe was. It could have been incredibly grim and dark with the themes, but the game designers put a premium on developing really bizarre and funny races with all sorts of personalities. I couldn’t wait to explore that galaxy and meet more of them as I grew my ship and fought the bad guys.

So if you were to ask me what pie-in-the-sky MMORPG idea I would love to see come to fruition, it’s the notion of a very colorful, very personality-rich space MMO with both ship and avatar components that carry this tradition forward. I’m tired of looking at the sleek and sterile designs of these Mass Effect-looking ships in 2018 and am feeling more and more nostalgic for the visuals and concepts of yesteryear.

This look and feel is what I chase in very stylized games like World of Warcraft and WildStar. Lately in WoW, I’ve been paying attention to all sorts of artistic details, and I continue to marvel at how much the devs were able to get out of rather simple shapes overlaid with exaggerated designs, lighting, and placement.

In other words, for me, it’s not the polygon count and high fidelity that matters, it’s the art and atmosphere. It’s the difference between going to Disney World and your average amusement park; both may have similar types of rides, but the former puts a lot more of a premium on the full sensory experience and whimsy of design.

I’m not necessarily advocating for a space MMO to be made with retro pixel art and 2-D sprites (although I would not complain), just that I would love to see a studio, somewhere, to see space as a platform for humanity, for humor, and for exaggerated imagination. We’re already getting our realistic games — maybe it’s time for a title that cuts loose a little, takes inspiration from the past, and injects some actual color (in all senses of that word) into its ships, its avatars, and its locations.

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Biting the MMO hand that entertained you

A week or so ago, two of my MMO blog buddies posted essays in which they, at least for now, had turned their back on this particular gaming genre. Syl discussed her rising despair over “broken” MMOs — usually in early access state — littering up Steam, and Wolfy mentioned how his weekly D&D session had started to take on more meaning than his previous MMO expeditions. Both have stepped away from MMOs, and both are saying (in their own way) something I have witnessed many times in following online gaming.

The general formula to it is this:

  • Be a very dedicated MMO player for a long period of time
  • Have some measure of burnout or find some other distraction/hobby
  • Exit the MMO genre (temporarily or permanently) and then feel a need to turn around and bite the hand that once entertained you

I mean this last statement as VERY tongue-in-cheek, by the way. There was once a time that I would have considered such players mild traitors or somesuch, but that’s just silly talk. You don’t “owe” loyalty to MMOs or suddenly find yourself unable to criticize them if you stop playing them. In fact, sometimes when we experience a change in our gaming routine or step away do we gain a new perspective. We should use these moments to reprioritize, to reassess, and to understand our own habits and desires.

What does mildly frustrate me is that these epiphanies usually aren’t as deep as we’d like them to be. I mean, pick any video game genre, play the crud out of it for years, and then experience burnout. You’re going to have some harsh words to say. We often are the most hard on those we once loved, after all.

It’s true, MMORPGs, even the most fully featured ones, can’t be all things to all people. More specialized games can do some of these elements much better — the combat, the story, the graphics, the ingenuity. But when we come to MMOs, we’re looking for an overall package that, combined, we can’t find anywhere else. We’re looking for progression, persistence, and people. That’s the magic combination that makes these games work.

But to be utterly fair to Syl and Wolfy and anyone else who has taken a short, long, or forever break from MMOs — I get it. It’s good to have that break, to try other things, and to demand something better of the MMO genre. I completely agree with Syl that the early access phenomenon is a plague that’s hurting rather than helping the genre. I would totally love to see more MMOs take a deep look at what makes pen-and-paper adventures special and try to emulate that past the combat-centric DIKU design. I concur that MMOs can be very time demanding and can start to take time away from other, more important areas of our life.

Stepping away is your choice, and it’s fine. And criticizing in those moments, although not always productive, is equally your call. Maybe it’s one of those therapeutic moments that lets us get off our chests everything that we wanted to say and can see clearly now.

But I just would urge those who do find themselves in this position to get it all out at once and then leave MMOs alone until or unless you’re ready to return. I’ve seen so many bitter former MMO players who can’t seem to find anything else to do but lurk on forums and Reddit and grouse about the evil they now see in these games. After a certain point, it doesn’t help, and it definitely makes for an embarrassing situation if you end up slinking back to a game and have to eat all of those words.

Pros and cons of single vs. multiple MMO adventures

As someone who has experienced a wide range of MMOs and gone through different phases in playing them, I’ve formulated some opinions on the pros and cons of sticking with a single game versus attempting to juggle multiple titles.

I’ll say for starters that I personally don’t favor one method over another. One, two, or several games all hold appeal for me at different times, and I don’t think I’ll ever settle into a single preference. It’s more situational — which games are hot right now, which are holding my interests, which have released new expansions or updates. Over the past year I’ve had periods where I’ve only played World of Warcraft day in and day out, periods where I was at just two games, and sometimes (such as now) where I’ve gone to four or five.

So let’s look at what the pros and cons are of the two main methods of playing MMOs.

Playing a single MMO

Pros

  • Never have to deliberate that day which game you’re going to play — you just know
  • You can really get to know a title and get deeper into it, including better knowledge of its systems
  • You can make faster and better progress
  • It opens the doors for more alts as alternative gameplay experiences
  • You get to spend more time getting to know your guildmates
  • It can be fun to dive deep into that game’s culture and community
  • You can pursue more long-term and grander goals
  • You are always at the top of content, ready for anything new that comes along

Cons

  • You set yourself up for a hard burnout down the road where, one day, you simply don’t want to play any more and find yourself in a gaming crisis of sorts
  • Or what if the studio shut down your game? Your world would implode
  • You fall out of touch with all of these other games out there
  • You chew through content faster than developers can produce it
  • You can get more upset over changes to the game and fall into the drama of the community that sees this as the be-all, end-all experience

Playing multiple MMOs

Pros

  • You feel more free to venture to where your whims and interests lie, especially if you’re a “grass is greener on the other side of the fence” type of person
  • You can choose a game that night to fit your mood and interest
  • You get more of a variety and experience a wider array of MMO “flavors”
  • You guard against burnout or an individual game’s shutdown by diversifying your gaming portfolio
  • By moving at a slower pace in any given game, you’re rarely running out of content and sitting there bored
  • You leave and return to MMOs without feeling guilty, especially when a game drops a new patch or expansion

Cons

  • You have to set some firm goals and be fair in your rotation or else face little to no progress made in any given MMO
  • You have to split your attention between multiple games, multiple goals, and multiple guilds
  • Obviously, you won’t get to know any one guild that well unless you’re part of a multi-game guild that uses a third-party social network
  • It can be a little difficult to give “fair” attention to your current rotation and swap between two or more games that night (finger memory!)

Syp’s spring MMO dance card

As I mentioned last week in my gaming goals post, I’ve started to realize just how much is happening this spring with MMOs. It’s certainly caused me to change some previous plans I had for these months as I’m shuffling around games that I want to play — or at least try. As of right now, here are the online titles that are vying for a spot on my dance card this season in order of when they’re coming out:

Wild Buster, Antaria Online, Broke Protocol

All of these are early access titles that I picked up either for dirt cheap at a Steam sale or for free. Figured that I would give them a look sooner or later, so they’re occupying that “whenever I have time” spot.

Closers Online (launches February 6)

This is one of those action MMO imports with fixed characters that I usually ignore, but I miiiight want to give this a shot. I love the cel shaded graphics and the modern setting, so at least my curiosity is piqued.

Tale of Toast (early access February 23)

I have a soft spot for very indie MMOs, especially ones with an interesting look or style. Tale of Toast meets these standards, although its “hardcore” nature will probably keep it from being more than an idle look and a once-off blog post.

Villagers and Heroes mobile (releases on iOS February 26)

Still awaiting a good, dependable, and accessible mobile MMO, and I have high hopes for this one. I like what V&H does as a game, and as a mobile title it might just hit the spot for those off-hours.

Project Gorgon (early access in February or March)

I feel like I’ve been waiting to properly play this game for years now, and I’ve long said that once it hits early access (and lowers its chance for massive world changes), I’d start for good. Well, it should be happening fairly soon!

Sea of Thieves (launches March 20)

I do have some mild reservations about the PvP angle and the depth (or lack thereof) for this pirate title, but I am insanely excited about it even so. Can’t wait to join up with a crew and go treasure hunting on the open sea!

Shroud of the Avatar (launches March 27)

I once had hopes for this game, but right now it isn’t looking all that great for Garriott’s Ultima Online follow-up. Low population and a general dissatisfied word-of-mouth experience outside of the rabidly loyal. Still, I paid for it and promised that I would come back to see the launch version when it happened. We’ll see if it’s turned around enough!

RIFT Prime (spring 2018)

Depending on whether or not Trion will allow us to keep the characters from the new Prime server, I’ll be there with bells on day one. Really warming up to the idea of returning to this great MMO, especially with a new angle and challenge. Starting over is always fun.

Vowing to read MMO quest text

If I’ve heard it once over the course of my blogging career, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “This time around, I vow to read the quest text! I’m going to read it all and really soak up the lore and story of the game!”

It’s like some sort of new year’s resolution to lose weight that you just know the person is going to break within a few weeks. With MMO quest text, we have a hard time just reading it in most games. Have a hard time reading it, I should have said, without skipping past it and clicking “accept” on the quest button.

Is this on us or the games? I think there is blame in both courts.

MMO quest text has been around pretty much since the early days of the genre and was solidified when the World of Warcraft questing model took preeminence over the genre. It was a quick and easy way for a developer to initiate a quest, give us a briefing on the background and motivation, and send us on our merry way. We were mean to read and absorb these as part of our adventures, as evidenced in how WoW used to gradually reveal the quest text as if the NPC was speaking it. That quickly changed to showing the full box instantly and allowing us to accept as fast our our clicking finger could manage.

Why don’t we read quest text anymore? Or at least, why do we have difficulty sticking to resolutions to do so? Five big reasons come to mind, although there are probably more:

  1. So much of the quest text is irrelevant to knowing how to accomplish the mission. We know that the screen will now show us where to go and what simplified objectives to do. If it happens to be more complicated than that, sure, we can always go back and scan through the quest text or look up a walkthrough.
  2. Since we’ll only be interacting with this NPC a handful of times at most, we don’t have any vested interest in getting to know them, their struggles, and building a relationship with them. They’re disposable, and that’s how we treat the quests that they issue.
  3. While some writers honestly do put in great effort in giving us funny and interesting mini-stories, so many of these quest text boxes are a whole bunch of boring nonsense. It’s yet more justification of why we should go on a rampage against Group X, as if we need any reason other than “rewards.”
  4. If the quest text is small or awkward to read. LOTRO and EVE Online are two examples that come to mind.
  5. We get in the habit of wanting to progress as fast as possible and so have conditioned ourselves to stop absorbing the lore and details of the world in the interest of speed. To get back into the habit of reading quest text, we have to discipline ourselves to break that cycle.

I’ve made this vow many times to varying success. Some games I’m simply more interested in following along with the quest story. There are a few things that MMO devs can do to engage us deeper into the quest story, such as relying more on cutscene introductions (expensive but definitely more interesting), having us choose dialogue paths with the NPC (EQ2, DDO, Shroud of the Avatar), allow us to make choices at the onset of quests, and having the quests be part of an arc that counters the “disposable” aspect. But a lot of it is on us to actually see the quest text again instead of having it be invisible right in front of our eyes.

Generally, yes, I do enjoy reading quest text. I even screenshot a lot of it when it’s particularly interesting or humorous — and you’d be surprised how often this comes up now.  It’s something that I’m vowing to do more in my games this year, but old habits die hard.

8 more PC games I want to play in 2018

The other day I listed six games that I was looking forward to playing in 2018, but since then I realized that I had been overlooking quite a few promising titles. So why not another list? Here are some more PC games that I’m hoping to dig into this year:

1. Age of Empires IV

Oh HECK YES. The Age of Empires series is one of my hands-down favorite RTS series, and I seriously cannot wait to see what they come up with for the fourth installment. Release! Release NOW.

2. Sunless Skies

I absolutely love the Fallen London/Sunless Seas universe and agree that it’s one of the best-written worlds in the industry. So yes, I do want to play this airship-themed spin-off, as long as I get more tales.

3. Surviving Mars

The Tropico team is bringing a colony builder to Mars. Love them sim builders! I’m not fully sold on the graphics of this one, but Mars is an interesting locale.

4. Vampyr

The Life is Strange team has been working on this vampire-themed title. Don’t really care for vamps, but I love LiS and will try it based on the strength of this studio alone. Speaking of, Life is Strange 2 is also in development.

5. Railway Empire

I have a particular fondness for train sims, especially ones that let you build up your own company and lines, and this title might just satisfy my dark, steam-billowing urges.

6. We Happy Few

I don’t even know what this is clearly about, but it looks like it’s parts alternative history and BioShock and dystopian civilization. Sure, sign me up!

7. Dauntless

Giant monster slaying in co-op isn’t normally my thing, but I do like the aesthetics of this title and the ex-MMO developers behind it.

8. State of Decay 2

I always felt like I should have spent more time in the first game, because I really did like that blend of survival horror. Making it more co-op and larger seems like a good move.

6 non-MMO games I enjoyed in 2017

Outside of MMORPGs, this was an odd year for my gaming. I had a lot less spare time this year, and while titles continued to pile out, only occasionally was I able to dip into a new game for Try-It Tuesday. Also, some games that I was anticipating — particularly Torment, Galaxy of Pen and Paper, and and Dreamfall Chapters — ended up being less-than-satisfying.

But when I look back on the year, here are the six non-MMOs that I ended up enjoying the most:

1. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2

For those keeping track at home, KOTOR 2 was pretty much the main retro game experience that I covered (Duke Nukem 3D and a handful of “try once and discard” titles were the only other ones). And even that wasn’t a regular event, as I could only cobble together enough gaming time since April for about 10 sessions. It’s just how my schedule is right now, and I’m afraid it doesn’t look like it’s going to change soon.

Anyway, I was pleased to get further into KOTOR 2 than I ever did before, taking my Dark Jedi-who-only-uses-a-blaster into this surprisingly story-rich title. While there’s some pressure on myself to move on to other games, I would like to see it through to the end. Someday.

2. West of Loathing

This single-player RPG set in the same universe as the multiplayer Kingdom of Loathing was a hilarious treat from start to end. Clever, funny, and fun, West of Loathing delivered this graphically minimalistic experience that was nevertheless deep and oh-so-satisfying. It tweaked RPG conventions (and western genre ones, too) left and right while teaching me how important it is to check every spittoon no matter how much grief the game gives you.

3. The Sims 4

I had previously missed out on the fourth installment of the Sims franchise, and when I found it on sale, I decided why not. I get Sims cravings every now and then, and for a few weeks I had a great time setting up houses and fiddling about with my virtual people. It was a great title for playing with my kids by my side, I found, especially when they got to voice input on my choices.

4. Hearthstone

There were a LOT of old mobile favorites that kept coming up on my phone — Fallout Shelter, Crazy Kings, Clash Royale chief among them — but Hearthstone was a pleasant surprise in my mobile gaming time when I finally went back to it after years away. The new expansion and general Blizzcon excitement prompted me, and I discovered a game that was still pretty accessible and engaging in short spurts. It still stinks when you go up against people with super-expensive decks, but I give as good as I get.

5. Divinity Original Sin 2

While I’m still scratching at the surface of this critically acclaimed RPG, I can definitely say that it’s among the greats from this year. After all, it lets me talk to animals and wear a bucket as a helmet, so that’s a sign of quality! I know I have a long way to go with this anything-goes RPG, and part of me is tempted to reroll and get a better start, but I like the idea of actions having consequences. It’s like the best modern Baldur’s Gate II I’ve played.

6. Love You to Bits

Speaking of mobile, I finally finished Love You to Bits, an incredibly creative adventure game in which your little space guy is trying to reassemble his robot love, one piece at a time. Each level has a unique theme, unique challenges, and tons of secrets to unlock. My favorites had to be the time loop one and the poltergeist level, and I was very impressed by the non-verbal environmental storytelling going on.

Honorable mention: SNES Classic

Tossing in an honorable mention for grabbing an SNES Classic this fall, which gives me great pleasure to play with my kids and remember some of my favorite games of the past. Of course, this now means I’ll have to play FFVI as it was originally published, since I’ve never beaten it. Please, Santa, give me more gaming time!