6 things MMOs should do to make a good first impression

valley

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).

Why can’t I get into survival games?

survival

Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed the rise of a sub-genre of RPGs that collectively get called “survival sandboxes.” While the location and multiplayer functionality differ on these, most usually share the same template: You’re abandoned/deserted somewhere that’s foreign, hostile, and uncivilized and must craft and fight your way to a comfortable lifestyle. Since most of these roguelikes depend on making you go through this gameplay loop over and over, there are a lot of things that knock you down back to start (albeit perhaps with better stats or a stash somewhere), namely other players and very aggressive wildlife/sharks/zombies. The other key detail is that the environment is a strong factor and a challenge to overcome, whereas it’s a non-issue in most other RPGs.

From DayZ to ARK to H1Z1 to Conan Exiles, we’ve seen many developers try their hands at these lucrative and popular (and quite Twitch-worthy) games. They’re springing up just as fast as the MOBA craze of a few years back or the WoW clones of 2008ish, commanding top spots on Steam and creating bizarre stories like games that are eternally in early access somehow still selling full expansions.

(Oh yeah, they’re always in early access. I think if a survival sandbox ever comes out of early access, the developers are forced to drag it behind a barn and shoot it in the head because it’s not trendy enough and they’ll have to be responsible for the bugs.)

As we’ve established, I’m not exactly an early adaptor-type, but even after a couple of years of seeing the survival sandbox genre emerge, I still can’t get on board with it. I’ve tried a few of these games, found some things to my liking, some not, and always wandered away looking for entertainment elsewhere.

Is something wrong with me? Am I missing some sort of key revelation that would unlock the joyous fun that so many others seem to have found? Or is this some sort of mass delusion where a popular feedback loop is created, keeping mediocre titles more in the public consciousness than they should be because no one wants to be the first one to say that it’s all kind of a sham.

Probably subjective in the end, but I wanted to work through my thoughts.

Pulled apart for features, there’s a lot I can get behind for these types of games:

  • They’re kissing cousins to the MMO
  • They have a lot of RPG elements
  • I actually like factoring in the environment as a threat
  • The repeated fun of building yourself up from scratch (alts!)
  • The world feels dangerous
  • Lots of player housing
  • Crafting that matters
  • A nice compromise between hardcore permadeath and softcore corpse runs (rogue-lite)

Yet together, it still hasn’t gelled for me, and I have a suspicion that it might never. For starters, survival sandboxes seem married to the concept of throwing players at each other. To be sure, you can find PvE private servers, but that seems secondary to what everyone talks about and plays these games for. And I am seriously not a fan of PvP for many reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere.

Next, I have a certain tolerance for crafting that hits a limit and then gets me annoyed past that. Put another way, crafting is something I prefer to do on my own time on the side, not constantly as a central activity. Also, I feel completely silly making grass skirts and eating berries. I want the survival sandbox where I can pull into a McDonalds and pull away feeling accomplished.

I also have an aversion to player-run servers. In my gaming career, I’ve only rarely ever ventured on them, preferring official servers that aren’t the personal fiefdoms of capricious players. Plus, when there are hundreds on a server list, which one do you pick? And playing with only 30 or so other players feels downright constrained when one is used to an MMORPG.

But I think one of the biggest elements that these worlds feel generic and lifeless. I’m all for having players create their own structures and towns, but if there’s nothing much else out there other than random wilderness, it’s not very compelling to explore. I want the lore, the designed stories, and a world that has a history. In survival sandbox, I find myself missing those NPCs that we love to belittle.

Yes, it’s a different breed of game and maybe it’s unfair that I’m docking it for not being the type of game that I’m most used to and enjoy. I just feel a little bit puzzled and disappointed that what is obviously so captivating for many is shrug-worthy for me. Perhaps a game will come along one day to change my mind in this regard. Ain’t gonna be Conan Exiles, I can tell you that. The Secret Exiles? Keep talking…

Syp’s classic video game trivia!

Last night in RIFT, I had the pleasure of running our weekly trivia night. I themed my questions around classic video game trivia, and so to get the best bang for my buck, er, efforts, I thought I’d post them to see if any of you would like to try your hand answering in the comments:

  1. WHAT ARE THE NAMES OF THE FOUR GHOSTS IN PAC-MAN (you must name all four)?
  2. WHAT WAS MARIO’S ORIGINAL NAME (from Donkey Kong)?
  3. WHAT CLASSIC VIDEO GAME HAS THE SAME NAME AS A PLAY BY SHAKESPEARE?
  4. WHAT WAS THE JAPANESE NAME FOR ITS VERSION OF THE NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM?
  5. WHAT WAS THE FIRST HOME VIDEO GAME CONSOLE?
  6. WHAT FAMOUS TECH INDUSTRY FIGURE HELPED TO CREATE THE GAME BREAKOUT?
  7. WHAT NOTORIOUS PHRASE WAS UTTERED WHEN YOU BEAT 1986’s PRO WRESTLING?
  8. WHAT WAS THE PASSWORD FOR METROID THAT LET YOU PLAY THE GAME AS SAMUS WITHOUT HER POWER SUIT?
  9. WHAT WAS THE FIRST VIDEO GAME TO BE PLAYED IN OUTER SPACE?
  10. WHAT WAS THE SIZE OF THE LARGEST LICENSED NES GAME?
  11. BONUS: WHAT IS WIDELY CONSIDERED TO BE THE FIRST “KILLER APP” OF VIDEO GAME CONSOLES?

6 types of MMO pet classes

squig

By now, most of you know that I usually gravitate to pet classes in MMOs (and any RPGs, for that matter). I love the virtual companionship, the feeling of “ganging up” on an enemy, the visuals, and the different playstyle. If I’m being honest, pet classes make me feel powerful, and that’s a huge motivation for me to play them.

From LOTRO to City of Heroes to Warhammer Online, I’ve tried out most of the pet classes that were proffered, enjoying some while rejecting others. One thing that I’ve grown increasingly aware of is that there is a tremendous variety within the pet class category. One game’s pet class might look and play entirely different than another, allowing for personal preferences to come into play.

Today I want to boil down most pet classes into six types, with the caveats here being that (a) I’m not even going to discuss species of pets (animal, humanoid, mechanical, aetheral), and (b) some MMO pet classes embody two or more of these types. Lots of bleeding over between them. So here we go!

1. The Tamer

The concept behind this pet class is being given the tools to go out into the game world and either permanently or temporarily turn an enemy into an ally. World of Warcraft’s Hunter is a good example of how a pet can be chosen and tamed, adding a meta game as players comb the world for certain types. EverQuest II, I believe, has at least one class with the core mechanic of charming enemies on the battlefield. I even had a Neverwinter companion pet that had its own charm-like ability, which was some Inception-level craziness there.

2. The Swarmer

Swarmers tend to trade in one powerful companion pet for a slew of weaker, more specialized pets that work as a team — or just to swarm over the enemy like piranha. Guild Wars/Guild Wars 2’s Necromancer is famous for the “minion master” build, and who wasn’t a fan of City of Villain’s Masterminds? Visually, this class can be very satisfying to watch, as now YOU are the one mobbing the mobs. It’s kind of messy and chaotic, though.

3. The Buffer

One of my least favorite pet types, the Buffer is the class where the pet is primarily a walking buff that does minor damage in combat. It’s primary there to be a boon to group content. LOTRO’s Captain comes to mind with its heralds or its Lore-master with the little spirit ball-thing. The one benefit of these types is that they’re more mobile than stationary totem-deploying classes, since you hopefully don’t have to keep resummoning the pet.

4. The Tanker

A Tanker class is any one where the pet draws aggro and is able to take a good-sized beating while you provide the damage. I split hairs here with pets that can draw aggro but probably shouldn’t and don’t tend to keep it for long. Tankers are great for players looking for low-stress combat and pair nicely with ranged weapons.

5. The Healer

Once in a while you do encounter a Healer pet class, where the pet either aids in the character’s healing role or does all of the healing itself. RIFT’s Druids and FFXIV’s Scholar both feature healing pets, and they are really awesome. It’s nice to have an autonomous companion healer in the midst of stressful dungeon crawls.

6. The Cannon Fodder

Cannon Fodder types are pet classes where you summon very temporary pets that are meant to do burst damage, take quick aggro, and die. Sometimes these come as swarms, sometimes not, but in every case they are pets that don’t stick around past their timer, even if the job isn’t done.

Why MMOs kicking your butt isn’t always bad

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When a whiny carebear needs some tough love

I’m sure that I come off as a whiny carebear at times here on Bio Break (“Your words, Syp, not mine!”), especially when it comes to combat situations. I hate the feeling of being roadblocked in MMOs when I can’t progress due to an encounter or particular mob being far too difficult — and not having any other workaround. I dislike mobs that are overly annoying (stop running away! Fight like a man… er, kobold!). I don’t want to be in a battle that lasts for more than 45 seconds. I’m apparently a hard person to please.

But today I’m going to step out of my comfort zone to admit that, yeah, it isn’t always bad when an MMO kicks my butt. In fact, sometimes it’s a very good thing, even if I resent it at the time.

If I can talk about my faith for a second, my worldview is such that I believe that life is hard. Sometimes very much so. And that instead of creating easy-peasy paths for us to travel down in comfort (I’m not a prosperity gospel kind of pastor, let’s just say), God strengthens us to deal with the challenges of life by trials and other at-the-time painful growth. Life doesn’t always get easier, we do suffer, but with His help we become better and more capable of dealing with it properly.

Because I’m used to this in real life, perhaps that’s why I resent it when I get challenged in MMOs. Part of me whines that I just want a relaxing, comfortable gaming experience for my unwinding time. Games are an escape from real life in a way, so why bring real life into it?

As much as I might resent how life has thrown me through the wringer and set challenge upon challenge upon me, I have to admit that today, I am a better person for it. I couldn’t have been the dad I am today 15 years ago, for example — I was far more self-centered, undisciplined, and inexperienced. So might MMOs be like that too?

An immovable force in LOTRO

Let me share a recent story. So I was finishing up Volume III of the epic in LOTRO the other night at level 91, and this particular mission sent me into an underground area of Isengard to kill six mobs. No problem, right? I haven’t really had any difficulty killing things on my LM, that’s for sure. But here it was different: The level 95 signature mobs had a host of tough, hard-hitting buffs that made them difficult to down and extremely dangerous to my level 91 person when they burned through my pet and started slapping me around. I started dying left and right, first perplexed and then angry at what was happening. I just wanted to finish this dumb “kill 6 orcs” quest! Why must it be so haaaaaaard?

However grudgingly, the game got me to respond by shifting my tactics. I tried different pets. I paid attention to the fight and figured out that staying out of melee range — even if the mob was only attacking my pet — was preferable, since the mob had AOE melee attacks. This was better, but not good enough to get the job done.

That’s when I cracked open my toolbox and got to work. I want to clarify how I feel about challenging encounters in MMOs: I only really start throwing a tantrum when there is no way past them with what I have on me. But if I can progress if I try different tactics and skills, then the encounter becomes a sort of “combat puzzle” to be solved — and my toolbox is my array of skills.

Like probably most players, I get into a fixed rotation for my battle and more or less ignore all of the rest of my skills. In some games where you only have a few skills, that’s no problem, but for others, like LOTRO, you might have dozens of possible skills waiting in the wings. If the game stops you hard with your routine rotation and makes you rethink how you fight, it can be a revelation to look at these ignored skills. I’ve had this happen many times in The Secret World, but I can’t recall LOTRO doing it to me before (in this case, part of the difficulty is the level disparity).

The mob had tons of strong buffs? I realized I was a Lore-master — and one of my specialties is debuffing. It’s not something I usually do, because fights with a pet and some burning embers are usually over fast enough not to need them. In this case, I went through my list of skills and pulled out a half-dozen debuff abilities, then gave them their own special section on the toolbar. In my searches, I also found an overlooked healing skill that threw a pretty nice heal-over-time spell on me and my pet which I didn’t even know existed. That discovery alone was worth the frustration that this quest caused.

With my revised strategy and toolbar, I started laying into these mobs. I hit them hard, throwing debuff after debuff and then attacking fast from range. This new approach worked, and my pet wasn’t even 1/4th of the way depleted before the mob went down. Victory! I went from frustration to being flushed with pride at overcoming an obstacle. And I walked out of that area with a better understanding of my class, a new healing skill, and a revised perspective. It was worthwhile.

So yeah, I might complain from time to time. It’s a blog, it’s my outlet, that’s what happens. But I need to admit that having my butt kicked out of complacency is something that needs to be done from time to time — whether it’s the game doing it or me doing it to myself.

Finding a purpose for my Amazon Echo

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One of the presents we got this past Christmas was a surprise Amazon Echo. It wasn’t even something on my radar to get/look at/envy/wish list. But apparently it’s the Hot New Thing that a lot of people have, so we set it up in our kitchen and have been trying to find a purpose for it ever since.

Issues of voluntarily bugging your own home aside (as Alexa is always listening for her activation word), I still don’t quite get the device. It’s still more of a novelty than a useful tool, having yet to jump that gap. My tablet used to exist more on the novelty side for a long time until it finally found its niche in my life, so we’ll see what happens here.

So what is the Echo? It’s a tube that’s an audio-activated computer coupled with a booming speaker. It listens for prompts that start with the word “Alexa” and then provides feedback or music based on that. You can ask it to play songs, give you the weather, deliver a news briefing, answer questions, set timers, and so on.

The thing is that I use this so infrequently when I’m in the kitchen, which is kind of a shame because I probably spend about an hour there every day cooking dinner, making lunches, and helping the kids with homework. The news briefing is nice, particularly because you can customize it to include certain segments. The music… is not so great.

The problem is that Echo is fully tied into the Amazon ecosystem, so while it can access music that I’ve purchased through Amazon, it won’t touch iTunes or my computer’s hard drive. So I can’t have it play the exact music I want to hear, and I can’t set it up with Spotify without a Spotify premium account, and so on. It just doesn’t have the best array of radio stations or access to music. I can upload 250 songs to Amazon’s cloud drive for free, but the next step past that is $25 or so to get 250,000 song storage for a year. I’m not about to spend money to upload music just for a year.

I could use the Echo as a bluetooth speaker for my phone, which has the music that I want. But I already had a bluetooth speaker and if I’m going to use the Echo for music, I’d want it to be fully voice activated (versus having to take out my phone, turn on bluetooth, and play my music).

Other features of the Echo, such as accessing smart gadgets (which our house has none), are not needed at all. My commute is five minutes down the road; I don’t really need Alexa to tell me traffic conditions. The various apps that you can load seem more gimmicky than not, although I haven’t explored these fully. I haven’t tried having it access Audible to read my books, but I probably won’t do that because I don’t always want my kids to hear some of the words in them (I usually wear headphones if I’m doing chores and book-listening).

I’d hate for this device to become a paperweight, so I’m still looking for its purpose. If it could access all of my music, that would be a huge benefit — I would love to be able to turn on my tunes on demand. As it is, I’m still looking.