Posted in General

Are smaller MMOs the future of online gaming?

There’s been some discussion as of late about the degradation of the MMO label and the virtues of smaller, persistent online RPGs that are on the rise in the gaming space. The thrust of the discussion is that while full-fledge MMORPGs are long in coming and new ones haven’t been that successful lately in establishing a foothold, more agile “micro-MMOs” are able to get an audience and provide players with that MMO feel even if there are fewer people on a map or in a particular instance.

I can see the logic behind this. It’s certainly more difficult to build a massively multiplayer space than it is a game that supports 20 people on a single shard. And titles like Valheim, Path of Exile, Guild Wars 1, ARK, and Fallout 76 have shown that there can be community, persistence, and progression with a more limited population.

I’m not against those games, just as how I’m not against single-player games. If they’re high quality and provide that social interaction, then I can see the appeal. But I still advocate for MMORPGs over them for a few reasons.

First, those limitations are, well, limiting. I’m not a big fan of playing on private servers, which is what a lot of these survival titles tend to use. I don’t like only encountering the presence or voice of one or two people during a journey. If you have a group of friends dedicated to gaming together, then these smaller servers can be perfect. But if you like to venture into online worlds to make friends there, then you’ve suddenly got a much smaller pool of available points of social interaction.

Second, while smaller online RPGs can specialize and be really great at a few things, they’re giving up a broader appeal and feature set — and that’s still really important to me. My engagement with MMOs tends to be far longer than other titles because there’s more variety of activities and a world that’s (usually) still being added onto. I make homes in MMOs — I can’t really say that about most multiplayer or single-player titles I’ve played. Not saying it’s exclusive or impossible, just that it doesn’t tend to happen that way.

I also worry that these smaller multiplayer games aren’t really there for the long haul the way that MMO studios aim to approach their games. Sure, the latter can dry up and studios shut them down, but if they go the distance, they really go the distance. Whereas, Ubisoft ditches The Division for The Division 2, The Crew for The Crew 2, and so on. Again, there are exceptions. No Man’s Sky certainly has been doing great keeping the updates going and going.

The field of gaming is certainly wide enough to allow for all kinds of games, and there is no need to champion one as THE type to rule them all. I simply want good games, period, and I’ll try to keep an open mind as online gaming shifts and morphs into the future.

Posted in General

How long does a crowdfunded MMO have before people lose interest?

Now that we’ve watched over a decade of MMORPG crowdfunding from platforms like Kickstarter and seen how the ensuing development’s gone, we’ve seen some tank, some succeed, some fall into development hell, and some still working toward a release. But one thing that’s been different about crowdfunded MMOs is the sheer length of time that it takes for most of these projects to go from announcement/conception to delivery.

Looking back at the earlier MMORPGs in the first few generations, studios pumped them out far more quickly than today. EverQuest took two years to make, World of Warcraft about five, and Star Wars Galaxies three years. But with advances in graphics, technology, and feature expectation, those times started to lengthen while the industry started to pull back on making them altogether. Smaller teams with more limited budgets are going to require more time to produce a comparable product, that’s for sure.

But after the initial flurry of fundraising and excitement, crowfunded MMOs always seemed to sink down into many, many, many years of subsequent development. One example of this is Star Citizen, which began development in 2010 and opened up for crowdfunding in 2012. It’s now been over a decade since we first heard of this game, and it’s still a long way off from release.

I guess the question that’s been coming up in my mind as I’ve watched these crowdfunded titles is also a concern of mine. Namely, how long will players wait for these games? At what point does a backer or a potential player simply lose interest in the project altogether? Because I truly fear that these super-long development times (which are also ballooned by feature creep) are doing just that — and working against the studio by diminishing its Day One playerbase to the point that when it comes out, nobody will care.

I mean, look at Shroud of the Avatar or Crowfall. These projects worked so hard to deliver regular dev updates to the community, tried to keep the interest going, but after too much time you could tell that nobody but the most hardcore cared any longer. Both games released and just about nobody showed up to play them. Compare that with Albion Online, which came out just a few years after its crowdfunding, and that title enjoys a healthy population.

I don’t want to put a hard number on it, but I’d say that if you announce a game — and especially if you ask fans to provide funds for it — you need to get your product on the shelf within five years of that. Any longer, and you’re just not going to have the fans left who want to play it. It’s why I look with nervousness at titles like Camelot Unchained, Pantheon, or Ashes of Creation, because they’re all pushing past that five-year mark with nary a finished game in sight.

It stinks to develop with a time limit over your head, but I’m afraid that’s what you get when you go crowdfunding. You simply don’t get the luxury of puttering about “until it’s done.” You’ve got a certain window where your game will be relevant — after which it won’t.

Posted in General

Is my best video game behind me?

Recently, my friend Syl was openly lamenting the downward trend in quality of recent video games and posed this question:

“I personally think my best games lie behind me and it’s rather a sad thought,” she continued. “But it’s how I feel about the industry right now — so much derivative stuff and quick cash grabs. Or then college art projects that look nice but play like hell.”

I guess I understand a bit of that feeling when I look at the field of MMORPGs. There aren’t nearly as many high-profile, high-budget titles in the works, although some of the smaller stuff could (and hopefully will) be solid hits with potential for growth. I would hate for me to say that, right now in 2022, I’ve already encountered every robust and enjoyable MMO that’ll ever be made in my lifetime. It’d be great to think that some of the best is yet to come.

And while I can’t prognosticate the future or deduce much based on the current field, I can draw some answers to this question from my personal gaming history. Hit me up at different points in my life, and the question of “What’s your favorite video game?” would be different. When I was a kid, maybe Star Wars Arcade or Super Mario Bros or Zelda. A teen, and you’ll hear Chrono Trigger, Master of Orion, Wing Commander 2, or Star Trek 25th Anniversary. Young adult? I dunno, Age of Empires II, The Longest Journey, Fallout 2, and KOTOR. Then came the MMOs and so many amazing games that became my favorites — WoW, LOTRO, RIFT, Secret World, SWTOR, DDO, and more.

Even in recent years, I’ve enjoyed games that quickly became my favorites. Some are bigger studio products, while others are smaller indie fare. I’ve become more and more impressed with the indie scene for being far more daring and creative than mega-studios with their $100M budget games that play it way too safe.

I’m not worried about the future, to be honest. Chances are that I even have titles in my backlog that might one day become my favorites if and when I play them. There’s so much stuff out there that there’s no way I’m going to get to all of it, so why worry that I’ll run out of favorite candidates?

Posted in General

In search of a new(ish) summer MMO to play

As July heads our way, I’m feeling the intensifying need to shake things up in my current rut of gaming. LOTRO remains a faithful staple, but I don’t want to place all of my time and focus on a single game. I’ve found that leads to burnout way faster than normal and then I’m left without any alternatives. So I’ve started an investigation to diversify this summer, to either take up a title I haven’t played or played much before, or I need to return to an old staple.

And you know what that means — it’s LIST-MAKING TIME of serious contenders! (hey i like my lists, shut up)

FFXIV

  • Pros: I always love the idea of getting sucked into this involved community. Game is very healthy. I still have all of Shadowbringers and Endwalker to experience. Tab-targeting combat and ability to shift jobs.
  • Cons: This game has proven notoriously un-sticky for me past a month or two at a time. Subscription cost. Never quite found a class I that fits me.

World of Warcraft

  • Pros: Ultra-comfy option that’s easy to slip back into. Haven’t touched retail since early 2021. Could pursue my own objectives and ignore the endgame. Like the idea of starting a brand-new character. Dungeon finder.
  • Cons: Supporting Blizzard still feels yucky. Shadowlands is a dud and Dragonflight doesn’t look that much better. Not sure about a “future” in this game.

WoW Classic

  • Pros: Wrath Classic is on the way this year. Have a chunk of Burning Crusade left to do on my Shaman. I like the old school feel. Great guilds.
  • Cons: See above about supporting Blizz. No dungeon finder with Wrath. No news about what’s after Wrath.

Guild Wars 2

  • Pros: Well, there was that new expansion that people liked for two weeks or so. Lots of individual features I like in this game.
  • Cons: I feel over the whole package of Guild Wars 2. Storytelling is so dull. Expansion aside, Anet’s development for GW2 has really slowed down.

Project Gorgon

  • Pros: Haven’t gotten that far into this title at all, so plenty of unexplored territory. Great skill system. Imaginative.
  • Cons: Still looks pretty crude. Hasn’t launched yet. Heard it’s pretty grindy.

Neverwinter

  • Pros: Slick gameplay. Have wanted to try out the Bard class. Easy pick-up-and-put-down play.
  • Cons: Some obtuse systems. Haven’t been able to push past the mid-game in all of my previous attempts. Don’t want to get caught up in horrible grinds.

Star Trek Online

  • Pros: Ship combat rules. Updated tutorial. Some new content. Scifi as an alternative to fantasy.
  • Cons: I’m still pretty disillusioned on Trek as a whole thanks to NuTrek. Not sure if I’m in the mood for space stuff right now.

No Man’s Sky

  • Pros: This game’s really built up a huge amount of content and features. Always feel bad for not having seen more. Flexibility of crafting, adventuring, and base-building.
  • Cons: Have to be in that survivalbox mindset. This title has overwhelmed me in the past regarding its learning curve.

New World

  • Pros: Really been meaning to get back into this for a second take. Lots of desirable MMO features here. New shotgun weapon.
  • Cons: Numbers and popularity has fallen dramatically. Worried about future of the game until it stabilizes.

RIFT

  • Pros: Miss the heck out of this game. Has a full package of MMO features for me. Curious if there’s a community still there.
  • Cons: It could be closed at any moment. No future for the game.

CONCLUSION

It felt helpful to write down this list and encouraging that there are several games that are of current interest to me. More than I thought at first, to tell the truth. I haven’t decided yet, but perhaps I should schedule a month to one or two of each of these for the remainder of the year, see what sticks after that month.

Posted in General

The fickle fates and fortunes of MMORPGs

Recently I’ve been working on a column for MOP about MMORPG sunsets — especially ones that were more sudden and shocking. It’s kind of a macabre subject for a player like me who doesn’t want to think too much about MMO shutdowns. Yes, they happen, but nobody’s happiness is going to last if that’s all you think about.

Thinking, one day my game will shut down. This illusion of persistence and permanence is actually less permanent than video games from the 1970s that you can easily access a billion places.

But it isn’t the inevitable shutdown of MMOs that I wanted to talk about today, but rather the evaluation process that comes with returning to or checking out a MMO. Because one of the first questions everyone has, myself included, is “How stable is this game’s population? How active are the developers? Does this look like it has a future or is it circling the drain?”

Case in point, I’ve been thinking about heading back to RIFT for a stint — call me weird — but I love RIFT. I do. I miss it. And yes, it’s technically still operating. It might continue to exist in this limbo of maintenance mode for years to come. But ain’t nobody going to tell you that it has a future. Gamigo could easily shut it down tomorrow and I don’t think most people would blink an eye in surprise. That precarious factor makes it extremely difficult to return, because why would I want to risk getting re-attached to a game and community, only for the increased likelihood of it being taken away in the near future?

It’s also in part why I think players are a lot more skittish in sticking with new MMORPGs. There’s that day one success, sure, but if there’s a drop-off by week two or three (and there always is), people flock away, afraid of a shakier existence and thereby endangering the game’s future prospects. New World is a great example of this kind of Catch-22. Again, it’s not the ONLY reason why people bounce off of new MMOs, but I suspect that the FOTM factor is a major component.

It’s why we look for “healthy” live MMOs with much better odds of endurance and survival. And while the field of MMORPGs is literally in the hundreds, if not thousands, the “healthy” games — the ones with population, activity, development, and other positive signs — are maybe a dozen at best. More, if you expand your definition of MMOs, but not too many more.

In a way, that might drive us back to older MMORPGs that have weathered time and become more constant and dependable. I know it’s where I find a lot of my prospects when I’m fishing around, even though there are newer titles that I haven’t tried yet.

Posted in General

When an MMO patch — or expansion — isn’t for you

Patch Day or Expansion Day in an MMO can be one of those events that instantly makes a particular month more exciting. New content! New features! New realms to explore, classes to play, stuff to check out!

And while usually those days are thrilling, sometimes they’re… not. You know the ones of which I speak: the patches or expansions that simply don’t have much — if anything — for you personally. It’s a PvP patch, and you hate PvP. It’s a balance pass, but not for your class. It’s a whole beefy expansion, but it’s not really up your alley, so to speak.

Hashtag #firstworldgamingproblems and all that, but it’s not a fun feeling, is it? Because not only are you let down by the offerings, but now you’ve got a long wait until the next content release. If it’s a big enough bummer, it might drum you out of the game for the time being.

A good example of this in my life is World of Warcraft’s Dragonflight expansion. As with all expansion announcements, I was sitting there practically daring Blizzard to win me back. Instead, it’s as if the company did all sorts of detailed investigation into my likes and dislikes and came up with a feature roster that is dull as dirt to me. Dragon stories? Dragon people? A class that can only be played by dragons? Flying dragons? Dragony dragon dragons?

Apart from that dragon overdose, the only real attractive elements here are the typically beautiful zones and the return of talent trees. But neither of those are must-experience, thrill-a-minute additions in my book. And so I look at this and go, “What a waste! A whole expansion, and it’s not for me.”

I think that when we feel this way, we do understand that there’s a level of ego-centrism happening. Game development doesn’t have to revolve around just you or just me. I get that. But it’s also valid to have a reaction to a patch or expansion that repels rather than attracts you. Devs should be angling to please as much of its audience as possible, because it doesn’t help the long-term prospects of a game if you’re only appealing to 10% of players with a patch while leaving 90% out in the cold. “Spreading the love” is the phrase I like to use.

But even with that in mind, devs can’t please all of us all the time, and I get that. It’s regrettable when that disappointing patch day arrives, but hey, there will (probably) be another.

Posted in General

Self-medicating with Life is Strange: True Colors

So last week was a highly unusual one in my household, in that my wife took all four of our kids to visit my folks while I had to stay behind and work. I cannot stress how strange this is, because I’m never alone in that house. I’ve never had it to myself for more than an hour or two since we moved here four years ago. And suddenly I had all of this quiet and space for an entire week.

I treated it — the part that I wasn’t working — as a staycation of sorts. Just a time to really soak in the solitude, recharge my batteries, and spoil myself a bit. And because I knew that it would get in my head a little that I was all alone, I splurged on an adventure game to fill some of those hours. I ended up landing on last year’s Life is Strange: True Colors, which is the latest in the series that kicked off with the terrific original title. I’d heard good things about this entry and figured, why not.

It was a good purchase, all things considered. It starts with your standard Girl With a Troubled Past — Alex — who arrives in an idyllic mountain town to reunite with her brother after eight years apart. Her arrival goes hand-in-hand with the player’s arrival into this game, and both get to know the setting, the cast of colorful characters, and (gradually) the lurking tensions, mysteries, relationships, and stories of the place.

Like Max’s ability to rewind time in the first game, Alex has a special power. In her case, she can see emotional auras in people and objects and peer into them to learn some vital details or secret thoughts. It’s not quite as compelling a special mechanic, but it kind of works to take this girl on a journey out of her shell to understanding other people and connecting with them.

Looking back at other games like this, I was struck by how many of them feature a somewhat shy female protagonist. Aside from Ethan Carter and Firewatch, I can’t think of another recent “walking simulator” that doesn’t have a girl at the centerpiece. Maybe the more emotional tones of these games is well-suited for a female lead.

Another thing that stood out to me is how the setting of Haven, Colorado is obviously the developers’ fantasy brought to life in a video game. This setting was so dang pretty, cozy, and perfect that it — at times — felt like a carefully tailored theme park rather than a living, breathing town. Not that it made it any less interesting to explore.

I really took my time and explored every bit of this setting and story, knowing that when it was over, that was it. Overall, it was a very satisfying experience, albeit a short one, and I’m glad I had it to keep me company.

Posted in General

Rejecting grimdark for cozy fantasy

If the whole spate of highly popular TV fantasy series like Game of Thrones and The Witcher weren’t a big enough clue, grimdark fantasy is quite the rage these days. It’s been going on even longer in the literary world, with authors like Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence embracing anti-heroes, bleak scenarios, bleaker endings, and all the wince-inducing violence that you cannot stomach.

And there is an understandable appeal for grimdark in that it upends the traditional rules of “Tolkien fantasy” and creates an anything-goes, more-realistic-while-still-having-blood-magic setting. There’s a whole lot of imagination that goes on in these books and shows, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed some of them.

Yet I’ve also come to really dislike marinating in these settings. One memorable example was the Poppy War, which everyone was raving about as one of the best new fantasy books of recent years. Initially I liked the coming-of-age Asian fantasy set in a school, but soon enough the book started dipping further and further into increasingly violent and macabre situations to the point that when I finished the book, I had zero interest in reading the sequels.

It’s disturbed me how much grimdark has started to infiltrate other genres and IPs, too. When Star Trek Discovery decided to eschew the upbeat, optimistic tone of Trek for a dour Battlestar Galactica-like angle, I noped out of that show.

In fact, I’ve started to hop on board a more recent movement that can be seen as a backlash to this grimdark approach, which is to gravitate more toward titles that embrace cheery and so-called “cozy” tones. You look around, and you’ll see this cozy fantasy trend picking up steam as people are looking for stories that aren’t unrelentingly dark but instead feature likable characters on fun adventures and living out in worlds that aren’t always obsessed with snorting smallpox and dishing out torture.

I guess for me it comes down to this: Grimdark can be interesting but it doesn’t help me unwind or foster daydreams of living in these worlds. Cozy and optimistic stories are the opposite of that, the kind of stories in books and movies that I loved growing up. I like heroes who are actually heroic and fast friends, settings that excite the imagination, and books I can’t wait to return to because they feel comfortable and welcoming. It’s definitely the type of stuff I’m seeking out more and more in my entertainment these days.

Posted in General

Excuse me, do you have a minute for me to enthuse about my new bike?

So I don’t know if I’m doing a disservice to the age bracket I now find myself in, but I still absolutely love getting birthday presents. I do. I know it’s silly, I have disposable income, I’m a (technical) adult with SRS jobs… but I really don’t mind a day where people dump cool stuff in my lap. I already gushed about my new Kindle, but let me tell you about my other big gift, which was from my wife.

She got me — after wheedling me for ideas — a Zizzo folding bike. I really got behind the idea of folding bikes a year or so ago when I was doing some research on them. The idea here is that the bike collapses and can be folded up into a much more manageable size for storage or to confuse people on the street who think you’re doing some sort of magic trick.

I mean, they want to toss a dollar or two my way for my efforts, I’m not complaining.

The reason I wanted a folding bike is that while I love my lightweight aluminum road bike, it’s not always easy or practical to take it places. We have SO MANY bike paths here in western New York, but for the most part, you got to drive to get to them. And for a couple of reasons that you’ll have to trust me on, a bike rack wasn’t going to do it for me.

Instead, the folding bike lets me put this into the back of my Mazda 5 for use anytime and anywhere. It’s really great for going on little biking trips with my kids, I’ve found, because I can get in a second kid-sized bike in the car with no problem. We’ve had a lot of fun zipping around town and exploring bike paths that I’d never visited. I even used it the other day to park a little way off from a parade and then coast down the street to where my family (who had driven there earlier) was stationed. I folded up my bike to save space on the sidewalk, and then used it to get back to my car.

I’m generally very pleased with it. The Zizzo Campo looks a little odd with a longer vertical handlebar and a lower cross-section — kind of like if a kid’s bike had puberty in the neck. It takes maybe 20 seconds to fold or unfold — once in the midsection, once on the handlebars, and then the two pedals. That’s it. It even has multiple speed settings and handlebar breaks, which I appreciate.

There are only two drawbacks, other than getting some odd looks when I take this around. The first is that the seat isn’t the most comfortable (I honestly miss my shock-absorbing seat from my bigger bike). I did get an improved seat to replace it, so that’s on my to-do list. The other drawback are the smaller wheels. This means more effort going anywhere and less coasting time. It’s not a significant increase in effort, but it’s noticeable. And the smaller wheels make the bike feel less stable in turns — I keep feeling like it’s going to slide out from under me.

But overall, it’s been a terrific gift that I’m already getting some good use out of. I just found out our city has a Slow Roll community that meets once a week to take 10-mile tours, which I think I want to try over the summer.

Posted in General

Would I ever be an MMO guild officer again?

I don’t exactly recall how we got on the topic, but the other night in LOTRO kin chat we got to talking about officer roles. And in that conversation, it came out that a number of us normal kinship members were, at one time, officers in various MMO guilds. So we shared memories of that and also reasons why we weren’t interested in doing that again (at least for the time being).

In my salad days, I had a few stints as a guild officer and one or two leading small guilds. My time as a guildmaster wasn’t that interesting; usually it was just setting up community groups for Massively. But I was pretty heavily invested in being an officer in a couple World of Warcraft guilds as well as at least one LOTRO kinship. In fact, my very first blog was for my WoW guild’s entertainment.

But would I do it again? No, I don’t think so. Certainly not at this point in my life, where I’m measuring free time in precious 15-minute segments. My general maxim to volunteering is that if you can’t do something the right way and to the best of your abilities, don’t sign up. It doesn’t help anyone if you can only give a sporadic 20% of what’s needed.

And the thing about guild leadership is that it’s very, very time-intensive. Officers need to be present more often than not, which doesn’t really gel with my work schedule and family time. Most officers that I know tend to fall into the “we have more time than responsibilities” arena — no judgment, mind you. But a lot of at-home parents, retired folk, people on disability, or jobs that are part-time at best.

The other reason why I wouldn’t want to be an officer again is that it takes time out of your gaming while you’re in the game. You’re kind of always “on call” to lend advice and assistance, and that can be a little tiresome when it’s been a long day and you just want to log in and veg out doing your thing. I’d rather help people because I want to, anyway, not because it’s part of my in-game job description.

I’d love to hear from any of you — have you been or are you now a guild leader or officer? Is it worth the time investment to you?