MMOs need to be doing a better job at guiding us in the endgame

Runway-repairsI’m sure I told you all that a few weeks ago, my SWTOR Operative hit level 60 and finished up the final storyline from the latest expansion. At that point there was a great sense of accomplishment and elation as I announced it to my guild, which had to feign enthusiasm for someone doing something they had already done many, many months ago (but they’re awesome like that, so I got a few all-caps GRATS! and one muffin gift basket).

Then I sat back, and as the glow of the achievement started to fade, I felt the cold claws of anxiety scrabble at the back of my neck.

Now what?  Now what, mister gamer? You’re in my world now. You’re in the ENDGAME. MUAHAHAHAHA. You should shave the back of your neck, you know.

We often mention “the wall” that MMO gamers sometimes hit (depending on the game in question) when the level cap is reached, and I’ve lost count of similar anecdotes from other players who felt lost, disillusioned, and even depressed when they reach what is promised to be the meat of the game’s content. Instead, it ends up being like you’ve arrived at some large party where everyone’s been there for a lot longer than you have and understand all of the weird social mores that aren’t explained to you and the conversation has way, way too many acronyms referring to places and things that are outside of your sphere of knowledge.

That’s not fun. That makes me want to run screaming and jump back into the MMO womb to be reborn as an alt rather than suss out what I need to do at this new stage.

And as much as I am a smart person who can figure things out if time and effort is applied, I think we need to dispel the notion that it’s on us to figure out what to do and how to play in the endgame. MMOs have traditionally been lousy at providing direction, instructions, and tools for this portion of the game, and I think it’s because the devs assume that (a) players will have figured it out on their own and (b) players will come up with their own guides for other players. That feels lazy and irresponsible to me.

Here’s what I’d like to see happen more in MMOs:

1. Integrate “leveling” and “endgame” activities so that they aren’t separate, untouching spheres of gameplay, but naturally flow from one to the next. What I’ve been doing during the game so far should be what I continue doing at the cap, just perhaps on a deeper level or with a twist. There shouldn’t be a bait-and-switch at endgame.

2. Don’t introduce the EPIC WALL OF GRIND at endgame because you assume that endgamers have nothing better to do and all of the time in the world in which to do it. You know what? We do have a choice. We can reroll or quit your game. In fact, why not be OK with the idea of us rerolling and perhaps offer us added incentives or new ways to do it?

3. Provide a clear tutorial or guide with all of the endgame options and then keep that tutorial available for players. Why MMO studios think that we only need tutorial notices for the first ten levels and then never past that, I have no idea. I’ve only ever seen one endgame tutorial window — Marvel Heroes, in case you’re wondering — and that made me wonder why we aren’t getting more of them.

Tell us what there is to do. Show us where you go to do them. If there are new or more complex systems, then for the love of Pete, spell them out for us. We don’t all live on the forums or exist in pro-raider guilds that can pick up the slack for a lack of information on the studio’s behalf.

4. If there is — heaven forbid — some long, grindy progression system at the endgame, then the very least you could do is give players a checklist in the game to help us keep track of where we are and what needs to be done. After all, this is what the game has done consistently so far with the quest tracker, etc. You have the technology. Use it.

5. Create an officially supported newbie endgame channel. No, the burden of doing so shouldn’t have to fall on the playerbase to cover up for your oversight (TSW’s noobmares channel comes to mind). New endgamers come around all of the time; don’t assume that everyone at cap has been there for ages.

6. If you can’t get a regular pace of new content out to players who are sitting at the cap, then create and release PGC tools so that the community can do that.

Pillars of Eternity: The six musketeers

musketI continue to creep and crawl, Infinity Engine-style, through Pillars of Eternity. It’s still fun, although the story’s taking a bit of a hit and I’m a little peeved at how micro-managing fights can involve too many button clicks. But I do have a stronghold and a full team, and I’m quite enjoying turning that team into a hit squad of sorts.

As I mentioned previously, Pillars of Eternity is wonderfully flexible with its character system. There are classes, sure, but enough leeway and overlap between them that you can build a team the way you want. My grand vision is to mold my team into a musketeer squad — all ranged, no melee. I don’t care if it’s optimal or not; I want a wall of muskets and blunderbusses and pistols flaring at the encroaching enemies. Other than the chant buffs, summons, and heals, I’m not going to be investing into magic much at all (and this Elf wizard is going to be the first one gone as soon as I find another character with a backstory to fill his place).

I like how the game gives you weapon focus bundles as talent options. You don’t pick just one weapon, but a thematic grouping of them (which seems to mostly always contain a ranged weapon). My main character has the noble bundle, which was great for the rapier, but she can also use pistols quite well too.

I did try to storm the castle of the early game’s big bad guy, and although I did clear out the castle and dungeons, the throne room fight was far too tough for my current level. So I left it to return later, shaking my fist with promised vengeance.

Have I said how much I love the fact that there’s a slot on your character to equip a pet? Just a non-combat, follow-you-around-type pet. I have a few, including a zombie cat, which is the only type of cat I like.

“Daddy, are you killing that guy?”

spaceWhile I generally don’t game while my kids are awake, once in a while I’ll catch a half-hour in the morning and then inevitably one of them will come sit on my lap and want to be in charge of jumping.  Jump away, I tell them.  (For the record, it’s never TSW or a bloody game; here we’re talking LOTRO or RIFT or the like).

But I’m finding that engaging in combat has brought up a moral quandry in their lives, since they ask me that question: “Daddy, are you killing that guy?”

Now, we have impressed upon them that not only is killing wrong, but using such talk when angry (“I’ll kill you!”  “I hope you die!”) is as hateful a thing as can be.  So understandably they’re curious that their kill-aversive father has a character he’s controlling that is swinging a sword and making other people fall down.  No blood, but it’s pretty obvious what’s going on.

How do you answer that honestly?  Young kids aren’t ignorant of fantasy; they play pretend all the live-long day.  Sometimes their play involves fights, battles, races, and other activities with a winner and loser.  I think that’s normal and healthy to an extent, but that question got me to look at MMOs through their eyes.  After all, these games are so combat-centric that we don’t think about it anymore.  We’re conditioned to consider fighting in game as a solution for everything, including bringing peace to the world.  Punch evil in its face, etc.

If they asked that, I responded by telling them that I was helping others, although that wasn’t much of a better response.  I don’t, after all, want them to think that “helping” equals “swordplay to the death in your honor.”  But they don’t and can’t really grasp even the flimsy in-game context given for these battles.

It was probably an easier issue a few decades ago when I was a kid, because our video games were mostly silly, abstract, and bloodless. Pac-Man eating a ghost or the little gun shooting down Space Invaders didn’t have a lot to do with our present reality and were easy to disassociate from real life. And even though many MMOs are usually pretty bloodless and non-graphic, there’s some stuff in there that is more hardcore than a Saturday morning cartoon (such as WildStar’s habit of occasionally blowing bad guys up into gibbets upon death).

Thus I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least for now, if my children see me in an MMO then I should be engaging in whatever non-combat activities there are.  The kids absolutely love checking out my houses (although hilariously they think that all MMOs are the same game and are disappointed when I can’t go into my WildStar house from RIFT) and making suggestions for placement.  Maybe me gaming responsibly as a parent to young kids is not being seen as the person controlling violence, but of building and exploring.

I’d love to hear from other gamer parents on this.  What conversations have you gotten into with your kids on combat scenes in MMOs and what do you say to them?

4 reasons why giving up on expansions is a bad idea

fateLast year, Turbine announced that Lord of the Rings Online would be eschewing expansions going forward in favor of large quarterly updates (of which it did only three “quarters” in 2014). EVE Online has made the switch as well, going to smaller monthly updates instead of twice-a-year large releases. Recently, EverQuest II took the same stance, falling back on smaller DLC updates than yearly expansions.

It feels a bit like the MMO industry is getting out of the expansion business, although that’s not totally true — Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft, and others will undoubtedly continue to champion the expansion model. If asked to choose between more regular but smaller DLC and more infrequent but larger expansions, I would probably lean to the latter. As it stands, I think that giving up on expansions are a bad idea — and here’s why.

1. Despite developers’ promises, you don’t end up getting the same amount of new content.

One of the most common claims that you hear when a studio waves goodbye to expansions is that the new content delivery format will provide the same content over the same time period. It sounds good, and might even feel that way for the first month or so. But in my experience, the DLC model never adds up to a full expansion even by a generous viewpoint.

Let’s use a pie analogy. Say an expansion is a full pie — it’s huge, very filling, lots of stuff in it. The devs wanting to switch to DLC are saying that they’re going to take the same pie but cut it up and give you smaller pieces that can be assembled, perhaps over a year, into a full pie. But in reality you get maybe two-thirds of a pie in the end while the studio puts in less work and hopes you don’t notice. Remember how ArenaNet liked to say that Guild Wars 2’s living world seasons and feature packs would be considered “expansion big” if piled together? Yeah… nice idea, but two zones, a linear questline, and quality of life fixes do not an expansion make (not that I’m exactly complaining, as it was free).

Plus, one of the big selling points of expansions are major new features that aren’t usually in content updates and DLC, such as new classes, new races, and new systems. Good luck finding that in most DLC; you’re just going to get a bit more of the same, because a bit more of the same is easier to make in smaller chunks.

2. An expansion is an event, a DLC is a blip.

So when’s the last time you saw a media or community frenzy over the coming of a DLC? I cannot think of any within my field of observation. Now expansions, those are hype-worthy events, with tons of coverage, beta testing, pre-orders, and the like. An expansion is a big, big deal for a game, a sign that its team has faith in its future, and a reason for the community to celebrate. The launch of an expansion feels a lot like the game’s release, right down to the influx of new faces and getting a spotlight for a few weeks.

DLC? Doesn’t do any of that. In fact, in my mind I lump DLC in with “monthly content patches” in terms of my excitement — moderate, but hardly something I’m going to count down the number of days until it arrives.

3. Expansions justify a box price; DLC is a mixed bag.

Maybe a studio figures that if the price per slice of pie adds up to more than the cost of a single boxed expansion, it makes more financial sense. This might be the most subjective of all of my points, but I’m not always convinced to spend money on DLC the way I am about expansions. I would rather buy one big ticket item than a bunch of smaller ones, because with the expansion I feel like I’m getting some serious money’s worth — with the DLC I feel like I’m being a bit nickel-and-dimed.

Plus, what if your fans don’t buy as much DLC (dollar-wise) as they would put into a single expansion purchase? That’s totally possible, since you’re giving players a choice about what parts of the content they can buy (which is the one positive aspect of DLC). As a studio, you end up losing potential revenue by chopping up your product and allowing players to not buy it.

4. You won’t get onto my MMO Timeline page with anything less than an expansion.

And that’s the worst tragedy of them all.

Watching kids play teaches me a lot about games

transmOver at Mama Needs Mana, she talks about her struggles with figuring out the right amount of “screen time” for her son every day. In this day and age, it’s something that pretty much every parent has to deal with, as there’s TV, video games, mobile devices, and the like out there.

I do not judge other parents’ decisions on this, but as for our family, we allow the kids around 45 minutes of TV in the morning while the parents get ready, and that’s it for the day. Video games are a very occasional treat and we haven’t caved to get them tablets yet. I’m not worried that they’ll be slow to pick this stuff up, because kids adapt so quickly to tech that it’s scary. But it’s great right now to just let them be kids in a multimedia-free environment, develop their motor and social skills, and get exercise.

One of the things I really enjoy doing is simply watching how my three play. Sometimes they do their own thing, but often they group together and entertain themselves with very little prompting on my part. As an adult who still likes to play — although my “play” is mostly video game-related — it’s fascinating to observe how unstructured play occurs. Here are a few notes:

  • Kids love to tell stories: Pretty much everything they do is narrated by them, particularly when they’re playing with action figures or other humanoid toys. In their heads, they’re spinning an epic tale which then has to be spoken out loud to become fact and to communicate to the others what’s going on.
  • Kids mimic what they’ve experienced: Our kids will often enact scenes (copied or made up) of their favorite TV shows, but will also play roles such as doctor, parents, teacher, and so on. My daughter loves to be bossy and put herself in the lead in most situations, especially when she comes over and firmly delivers instructions to me while she gives me an eye exam.
  • Simple can sometimes be the best: The most popular toy in our house for three days running was a normal air-inflated balloon. Egads, they went bananas for this thing like they’d never seen one before, playing all sorts of “keep it up in the air!” and “you can’t get it!” games. Today it’s hand-sized bouncy balls. Later on it might be a box or their toy bucket that they’ll empty out and pretend is a submarine.
  • I can set the mood and watch as their imaginations run away with it: When I play with them, I will try to create a fun situation or scenario and then see what they do with it. We have a “pirate cave” in a closet under the stairs that I painted, tiled, and strung up with Christmas lights. Once in a while I’ll tell them that the cave is open for business, and they’ll bring their “treasures” in and have a blast with flashlights as they talk about being the best pirates on the seven seas. Or I’ll throw blankets over some chairs, get the flashlights, and tell them it’s time for a campout. The important thing is to quickly hand over control to them to let them develop the story and direct the action.
  • It’s very physical: While my kids will take breaks to quietly build something or read a book, most of their play time is a frenzy of kenetic motion. It’s just part of their age group (2-5) and the need to run, jump, crawl, roll, tackle, dance, throw, and so on. For adults in the same indoor area, there’s a huge tendency to want to tell them to stop, but we try not to do that unless they’re getting too out of control. Kids need to move — and moving is good for them. Plus, I feel bad for them being couped up inside during the winter months.
  • There are surprising opportunities to teach: Playing isn’t mindless; my kids are often thinking a lot about what they’re doing. It’s not uncommon for them to run up and ask if a plane can really do such-and-such, or what the name of this animal is, or how to fix something they just broke. I think I spend about half of my waking hours constantly explaining all sorts of little things, even as they play, which is OK because they actually remember a lot of it. I also try to emulate and teach them how to interact with each other and with other kids — that you can be gentle while roughhousing, that you can be a peacemaker in situations where two people want the same toy, and that my youngest always looks up to his older brother as his role model and how important it is to acknowledge that.

In observing all of these things and more, I’m seeing trends that carry right on to the video games that we big people play. We do love to tell stories, we are sometimes fascinated by simple and addictive elements, we learn, we mimic, and we engage our imaginations.

I’m reminded of a seminar that I went to many years ago where an elderly youth pastor was talking about the importance of gameplay and how we shouldn’t dismiss or marginalize it, but to use it purposefully and see its positive benefits. Games bring people together, boost self-esteem, and can be fantastic teaching moments.

Pillars of Eternity: My new obsession

pillarsI’d like to say that I spent my gaming time this past weekend on all manner of MMO adventures, but save for a couple brief stints in LOTRO (more on that later), I was completely and utterly enthralled with Pillars of Eternity. It’s got its hooks in me bad in a way that, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition failed to do.

I was a bit sick, so I sat on the couch under blankets with my laptop, going through this game with increasing fascination. It really is, in so many ways, a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate 2 (and many other Infinity Engine games). Instead of taking the full 3-D pseudo-cinematic route of Witcher and Dragon Age, Pillars opted to return to an isometric format where the backgrounds are mostly detailed 2D with the characters and some objects in 3D. But more than just the looks, Pillars is such a callback to the grand old days of CRPGs that its triggering waves of nostalgia and admiration in me.

What I like best, I think, is that it took the old format and updated it to make it much more user friendly and interesting. Character creation and growth, for example, is not a hodge-podge of complex statistics or overly simplistic choices (hello Mass Effect), but a clearly explained system that has many, many choices to allow you to develop the characters you want.

For example, I rerolled my main character after an hour into the game because I had a better idea for her. So now she’s a Moon Godlike (for the endurance boosting) that I’m making to be an expert fencer. She dances on the front line, striking quicky, all while doing chants and summons (and if you’re a Chanter, let me say that Phantasm *rocks*. I had one fight where my whole party was knocked out and the Phantasm helped to kill the last guy and save me from a complete wipe).

Combat is more interesting now, too, with the dual pools of health and endurance. Instead of just having one mass of hit points, you have endurance (which I think of as “fight hit points”) and health (which are “campaign hit points”). It’s easier to heal endurance than hit points, but both are important to keep up. I like how it allows for your party to be knocked down during a fight but not killed outright, making for less stressful encounters.

But probably my favorite aspect of Pillars of Eternity so far — about 8 hours in — is the story and worldbuilding going on. It’s just an interesting fantasy world with plenty of cool little stories (many of which told in descriptive text boxes) and nailbiting choices. I like how there are dialogue options that open up depending on all sorts of background choices — what your stats are in various areas, what your race is, where you’re from, etc. And some parts are simply rendered in “choose your own adventure” prose with sketches displaying the scene in question.

I also really like — and recommend — the option to turn on the voiced developer commentary. It’s slightly spoilery, but I appreciated the insights into making every zone and knowing some of these background details.

Right now I’ve managed to clear out and claim my stronghold, which definitely reminds me of Baldur’s Gate 2’s keeps. Oh, another detail I am warming up to: fights don’t give you XP. They do give you lots of loot, but not tying XP to combat frees players up to fight, stealth by, or talk past some groups. That’s cool.

Anyway, I’m highly recommending this game, especially if you have fond memories of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or Planescape: Torment. Here’s hoping the fun keeps going!

Pillars of Eternity: Character creation

chanterPillars of Eternity wasn’t high up on my “must play” list until lately — or even on my radar, to be honest. I saw pictures of it, it looked like an old-school isometric, but didn’t investigate much. But what a difference a week can make, especially when a lot of people are talking about something, and then you see a few positive reviews, and you take the time to really look into it. It was about yesterday that I realized I really had to play this, and so I picked it up today on GOG.com as a lunch break game.

I just finished installing it and rolled up a new character. Already I’m really impressed with the character creator. First of all, it’s easy to understand with a lot of explanations and tooltips so I don’t feel like I’m lost. Second, there are SCADS of options. I was really torn on a few of them, but listened to my gut when it got tough. I very much liked the several screens of options choosing a background — which had nominal stat boosts attached, but I always like picking the backstory to my characters.

So I created Syppi, a Hearth Orlan (the halfling-ish wildling race) Chanter (summoner/buffer) who hails from the White that Wends. I buffed up her primary stats, but invested a few extra in doing damage and making her a little more perceptive. I’m most happy that I have a spell to summon a phantasm to fight for me; one of my favorite things in the Baldur’s Gate games was to use monster summon spells in fights and overrun my enemies with tons of pets.

Back to the game!