A very Bio Break Thanksgiving

thanksgiving

Thanksgiving seems to have snuck up on me this year. Funny how staying all sorts of busy will block out the incoming holidays. Our family likes to hew to a low-key Thanksgiving: going out to see a movie, eating a meal at Bob Evans, and then start setting up Christmas decorations. Maybe Syp might even get to play a game or two, but with the routine thrown out of wack, who knows.

Having a thankful heart is something commanded by my Lord and helps me have a better attitude in general. We can grouse all the live-long day about disappointments in our lives, but when I look at what I’ve been blessed with, complaining seems to come off as petty and ungrateful.

As this is a gaming blog and all, here are ten things that I’m thankful for with my hobby this Thanksgiving:

  1. A newish computer that runs my games great and has plenty of space for all of my media and projects.
  2. The choice of dozens of interesting MMOs at any given time and the lack of burnout due to the variety.
  3. My wonderful guilds that make me feel warm and welcomed every time I log in.
  4. Getting to play virtual dollhouse and enjoy the break from combat by setting up a cozy home in-game.
  5. Two new expansions (Legion, Starfall Prophecy) to play this fall and the revitalized interest in these games that they have caused.
  6. All of the MMO bloggers who keep me informed and entertained about other games.
  7. My Massively OP coworkers, who put in so much effort on this project while keeping the office space lively and weird.
  8. Getting my first Legendary in World of Warcraft. Almost like a Thanksgiving gift, that was!
  9. The joy that writing about games and gaming that Bio Break brings me.
  10. All of the video game composers who have produced such terrific music that I enjoy listening through.

So have a merry Thanksgiving and stuff yourself with gaming!

Are we getting too cheap for MMOs?

frugal

When I was growing up, our family was never very affluent. Oh, we didn’t starve, but we were most definitely in the lower-middle-class. Brand-new expensive purchases were extremely rare; my parents lived frugally and taught us to do so as well. My mom always looked for sales, clipped coupons, and even to this day shops at the dollar store for many basics.

I’ve had a weird reaction to this as I grew older. I went through a phase where I resented all of this penny-pinching and treated myself to the best of anything I wanted. But then I started to get more frugal, especially once my wife entered the scene and got us to stick to a budget.

It’s one of the reasons why MMORPGs have appealed to me, because while these games obviously wanted my money, if I was smart about it, I could get a lot of play for very little cash down. The time spent playing an MMO was time not spent dropping another $60 on a brand-new computer game that I would be bored with in a week. Considering how many years I’ve been playing some titles, I think that I’ve saved a lot in impulse purchases while getting my money’s worth in this genre.

The other week on the Massively OP podcast, we were tackling a listener question about whether or not we as an MMO community have become too cheap (or frugal) for these games. And that was an interesting question that made me think of how much the industry has changed over the past decade, particularly with its business model, and how that’s affected what we play and what we pay.

Cast your mind back to 2009 or before. It wasn’t THAT long ago, really, and in that time there was pretty much no option to play for free except in a small handful of titles. For the most part, if you wanted to play an MMO, you would have to plunk down your $15 a month, the same as anyone else. And that spread out the revenue generation very evenly while causing players (such as myself) to make strategic choices as to which games they were playing at any given time. Spending money on more than one or two titles felt extravagant, particularly because there was this nagging sense of guilt of wasting money if I wasn’t playing a game I was currently renting.

Now things have shifted dramatically, of course. There are a myriad of business models, but the end result is that there are countless choices of games to play that don’t require up-front costs. Whales help to finance F2P titles for us cheaper folk, buy-to-play titles could technically allow you to play forever without any further financial investment, and even in subscription games like EVE Online or World of Warcraft, there are ways to “earn” your subscription through the in-game economy.

Some people spend a lot more money on MMOs now than they ever used to, of course. But there are also the players — like me — that are spending a lot LESS than they ever have in the past, particularly during the subscription-only era. Other than a race change in World of Warcraft in September and pre-purchasing RIFT: Starfall Prophecy back when, I don’t think I’ve spent a single penny on MMOs this fall so far. So have I become too cheap for this genre? Am I part of the problem of declining revenues and increasingly desperate attempts by studios to monetize every aspect of the game?

I took the position on the podcast that I am not responsible for the financial success of a studio. I can pay money if I feel like it or if there is something that the studio is selling that I want, but I’m not going to wring my hands as a solo consumer and worry about how some corporation is doing. I want the games to survive, but my financial obligation is first and foremost to my family. Being smart with your money is important, and if I can enjoy MMO gaming on a budget, why shouldn’t I?

I’m not completely resistant to paying for stuff, it’s just that very rarely an MMO is selling what I want. I’d much rather pay for DLC and expansion content that I can play than for lockboxes, boosts, and shortcuts. Cosmetic outfits? Sure, if they look good enough and appeal to my tastes, but that’s always a toss-up.

Consumers like choice and value, and with MMOs it’s no different. Offer me something worth paying and I will pay — just ask Starfall Prophecy. I get something good if I buy that and am not penalized if I don’t. I’m happy to pay for that. I’m less happy to feel pressured into subscribing to SWTOR because the game will punish me if I don’t.

Maybe we are getting a little too cheap. Then again, you look at how much money we throw on crowdfunding campaigns for games we may or may not ever get — but certainly will not get right now — and there’s an indication that our wallets are at the ready if there’s something that excites and interests us.

The Jenga tower of MMO gear complexity

gear

In most MMORPGs, gear is a major part of the power and progression system that serves to doubly excite players by providing both visuals (I look awesome!) and stats/abilities (I fight awesome!). We are forever chasing better gear, not just to be a more powerful fighter, but also to unlock content that was barred to us before (higher level zones, dungeons, fashion shows, etc.). And hey, it’s fun to collect and always a welcome part of a gaming session when I get an upgrade.

But can I talk for a minute about a major pet peeve that I see across many MMOs when it comes to gear? The long and the short of it is that online game designers seem to revel in stupid complex gear systems that are unfriendly and arcane to the casual user. As content and expansion get added over time, gear grows increasingly complex, with new types, new slots, new ways to power them up, new grinds, new builds, new metas, and so on. The longer an MMO is out, the higher the chance is that trying to understand and have a workable knowledge of its gear becomes increasingly difficult to a new or returning player.

Very little makes me gnash my teeth as hard as trying to figure out how to properly gear up my character in an MMO that has multiple years and expansions under its belt. Sure, if you’ve been there all along and this is your only game, then chances are you’ve learned all of this as the devs have built that crazy gear Jenga tower, block by block. It sort of makes sense to you and you don’t have a lot of empathy for those trying to figure it out for the first time.

Marvel Heroes is such a perfect example of how gear went from being a desirable chase to an onerous task. The team kept adding new system after new system, to where there were so many different types of gear and specific things you had to do to get the best out of each piece of gear and ways that you could undermine your character’s potential that by last year, I just about threw my hands up in frustration — and I had been playing it for a while. Trying to deck out a new character wasn’t fun at all; it was like trying to navigate a maze that you sort of knew but was annoying even so.

The frustrating part is when I see these systems and think that some developer thought that this was the best way to implement gear for his or her playerbase. All gear and gear systems don’t have to be alike, but geez do some of them get dumb.

The Secret World fails hard in the gear department. QL10 gear was supposed to be the top — there was no QL11 — but then they had to add QL10.1 and up, plus glyphs and signets to modify gear, plus that dumb-as-bricks Tokyo AEGIS system, plus the scenario gear, plus auxiliary weapons. Just keep on stackin’.

RIFT is another offender that triggered this whole piece. When I came back, I thought that we had here a game that was pretty easy to grok. Yet two expansions’ worth of additional systems left me bewildered about upgradable gear and dream orbs and relics and what you had to do to get your character at an endgame baseline to match the rest of the crowd.

Another example from my own gaming history? LOTRO’s legendary items, which where slammed on top of a mountain of gear choices already and then teetered there like some unwieldy beast of options and grind. At least the devs eventually tried to tackle this and make it more manageable.

Is it too much to ask to make gear systems intuitive, easy to understand, and not dealing with a tax code amount of related stats? If you have to keep on adding systems, can you make them fun to interact with and not super-grindy and obtuse?

If your game has gotten really bad with this — as many have — MMO devs need to see how it’s become spaghetti code for players and streamline the whole mess so that it works together as a cohesive unit instead of some Frankenstein assembly. Make sure you explain things clearly in-game and point us where we need to go to improve our gear. I should never look at my gear screen and go, “What the HECK am I supposed to do to get better gear? How does this work?”

It’s an evaluation that needs to happen every so often in these games or else the entire Jenga tower might topple over and crush those who want to enjoy your game but can’t for having been smothered by its nonsense.

Is Retro-Bit Generations a serious challenger to the NES Classic Edition?

retrobit

About the time that the NES Classic Edition will launch (and, considering the pre-order situation already, completely sold out), there will be a lesser-known but similar product coming to the shelves. Retro-Bit Generations is, in many respects, a competitor to the NES Classic, boasting a bundle of old school games in a plug-and-play device.

But will it be a challenger? The obstacles are steep here. This console hasn’t been getting the press or has the instant name recognition that the NES Classic has. It’s also not going to feature any first-party NES games. Even so, it might have an edge on the Classic in a few ways that could make it worth picking up.

For starters, Generations has more games (90 versus 30) that span several consoles (NES, SNES, arcade, and Gameboy, mostly). It also has a stronger third-party focus, with Capcom, Data East, and Jaleco leading the pack. Many of the games are more obscure, but there are several classics in the list, including Bionic Commando (which was shamefully omitted from the NES Classic), 1942/43, Knights of the Round, Bases Loaded, Commando, Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, Gun Smoke, two Kid Niki games, and R-Type 3.

It also has an SD slot to save/transfer games and possibly expand on this list, something the Classic lacks. I’m ambivalent about the controllers, which are modeled after the Genesis, but we’ll see. The price tag, $60, puts it right there against the NES Classic, and might be a hard sell without the nostalgia design or strong first-party titles.

This YouTuber actually seems more excited about the Generations console than the Classic, so check it out:

Syp’s new tablet

tablet

With my original iPad mini starting to creak and groan from age (a shocking four years old!), I have increasingly given thought to upgrading to a newer tablet. The mini, which was a Christmas gift from my father-in-law back in 2012, has served me well in a variety of capacities — being a great distraction while I used my exercise bike, going on trips with me, entertaining my children, etc. But its 16 GB memory, fuzzy screen resolution (no retina here), and general slowness spoke to a limited future.

So I socked away some money and after doing some research, found out that Apple sells refurbished products for less cost than brand-new ones. I’m all on board with refurbished stuff, especially considering that Apple throws in a new battery, runs a bunch of tests, and gives a one-year warranty on it.

Thus I was able to snag the 2015 model iPad mini 4 (64 GB) for around $380. I am a fan of the smaller screen size on the mini; full-sized tablets feel too big to me, and the mini’s size (which is about 2.5 times as big as my iPhone’s screen) is a good fit. I also purchased a nice-looking cover that makes the tablet look like it’s a slim leather-bound book.

It’s definitely a nice upgrade, with a much sharper screen, less weight, better performance, and more memory. I’m hoping that with some more mobile MMOs coming out over the next year (including this week’s AdventureQuest 3D), I’ll be able to put it through its paces. But it does feel a tiny bit extravagant to get, because there’s always overlap with other devices (phone, computer, Kindle) and I don’t like upgrading if there’s still use I can get out of older machines.

I know I will get use out of it, especially to help out more with work. I’m hoping to get a keyboard and dock for Christmas so that I can use it to do more writing.

I am repurposing my original iPad mini to be for my kids. There’s a few apps, such as a nature exploration one, a Bible reading one, and a spelling one, that they greatly enjoy. And having Netflix on it makes for an option if I want to set up a TV session in some other room of the house.

5 YouTube channels I recommend for MMO fans

A couple of months ago, I flirted with the idea with starting up a proper Bio Break YouTube channel — mostly to show off retro gaming sessions, I guess. It seems that this and Twitch is where all of the hotness is right now (is printed word dead? Perish the thought!). But I don’t have the abundance of time and skill to record and edit videos, nor do I have the upload capacity for Twitch (although the latter is a possibility).

So instead of focusing on me, I thought I’d highlight six YouTube subscriptions that I’ve been enjoying when it comes to keeping tab on tons of different MMOs.

(1) TheLazyPeon

Good narration and editing take this channel a notch up from many others that I’ve seen, and the fact that he tackles a number of MMOs makes him a guy that could be a bosom buddy (or at least a likable chum) in my book. Lots of helpful first impressions and analysis of games that I write about daily, plus some interesting roundups of topics, such as indie MMOs and the best Steam games for a particular month.

(2) TheHiveLeader

I cherish content creators who know the value of “short, succinct, and sweet” when it comes to audio and video presentations. Anyone can ramble on for hours, but not all of us have time to consume that. This is one of the reasons that I love Hivey: Most of his videos are in the 4-6 minute range, and they are informative, funny, and entertaining. Plus, he loves Project Gorgon just as much as me, and so I have another

(3) Bog Otter

Richie is a former Massively colleague who always made well-polished and informative videos. A change of address hasn’t changed that; his stuff is still pretty worthwhile to watch. My only quibble is that he tends to get, er, bogged down in just one game for a long time, and currently it’s Guild Wars 2. Always wished I had a voice that was as good as his.

(4) WoodenPotatoes

I am a sucker for a well-done presentation, and WoodenPotatoes has that. While it’s mostly just Guild Wars 2 stuff (and when I’m not playing, I’m not that interested in reading/watching it), occasionally he diverges into other games and topics.

(5) Let’s All Game

When I do have time for longer-form videos, I’ll head to this channel because the hosts do line up a lot of MMORPGs to play and deliver first impressions. There’s a really, really nice selection of games that they cover, from Albion to AdventureQuest 3D to Ultima Online.