Chrono Trigger, exercise, and me

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As I wait out the cold (but so far, not particularly snowy) Michigan winter and look forward to the days when I can take my bike out on the road again, I’m keeping my exercise routine going with a half-hour of indoor biking a day. It’s not as hard or thrilling as regular biking, that’s for sure, but at least it’s something.

I have a friend who has been on a program that involves going to a gym for an hour, hour-and-a-half every day and my mind boggles at being able to do such a thing. With four kids, I’m more or less tethered to the house or to at least a couple of them at all times. I haven’t been alone in my house for probably three years now — not even for an hour. So taking that much time to do a gym run is impossible at this stage in my life, and even going out biking for 40 minutes requires making sure my wife is in a position where she can handle the kids.

Anyway, I’m just glad I have the exercise bike at all. My wife bought it several years ago and then abandoned it, so I took it over and made it my own. Right now it sits in the corner of our living room, tucked in a small nook between a bookshelf and our couch. It’s far easier to step into a different room of the house to work out, let me tell you, than having to leave the house altogether. The kids can — and do — come into the room to read or talk, and I can squeeze in that 30 minutes wherever there’s time that day.

While I don’t get the freedom and sense of speed that real biking entails, there is one major plus about exercise biking: I can use my iPad. There’s a nifty little ledge on the bike panel that holds it perfectly, and as the timer tracks the half-hour, I try to lose myself in the tablet so that it all goes by quickly.

Reading, checking email, and following up on Twitter are all preliminary activities, but what I’ve been doing the most as of late is playing through Chrono Trigger.

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As much as I’ve always loved Chrono Trigger and picked it up over the years, I’ve only completed it once — as a teenager. I guess the other times were aborted starts and issues with platforms. But now, doing it in 20-30 minute chunks as I cycle, I have a feeling I could get through the entirety of it for a second time in my life. This is helped by its length; Chrono Trigger is actually a fairly short (~15 hours) RPG, which was offset by the game’s “new game+” mode with alternate endings.

And the iPad version is definitely not perfect. It’s a huuuuuuge download (have to have all of that music!), the graphics look too muddy and there’s no retina support, and the controls are sometimes too wonky (especially in switching between combat targets). But it’s Chrono Trigger, it works, and it’s still a whole bundle of fun.

I’m still quite charmed by the game’s expressive sprite and pixel art style. And while the music continues to get a lot of love and praise today, the tight plot pacing, the distinctive characters, and the way that it deftly handles the complexity of time travel deserves acknowledgement as well.

When I wrap it up, I’m planning on continuing with some other older titles. I have FFVI (purchased when it was on sale — I know the mobile version isn’t well-liked, but hey, it’s either this or I’ll probably never play it ever), Grim Fandango, Tales from the Borderlands, and Game of Thrones to go through. After that, maybe FFIX when it comes to mobile, which should be soon.

Got to say that I’m impressed that this iPad Mini 1 is still chugging along. I thought I would’ve replaced it by now, but since it still works and can play these games, why should I drop a few hundred for a new one? It’s hard to justify that.

The return of the MMO subscription?

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Some of the big MMO news last week all had to do with business models and how they’re changing up a little in 2016:

  • RIFT is starting to charge for earrings/Planeswalker: Water accessibility
  • Trove is adjusting the free store so that you can’t buy free classes any longer, will be putting undisclosed content behind a sub
  • RIFT and Trove are beefing up their subscription packages
  • The Secret World is increasing the value of its subscription starting this month
  • SWTOR’s subs are rising

And while the cynical might claim dying games (except Trove had a banner year and there’s no sign that RIFT is on the way out) and a desperate cash grab, I think it’s a sign that businesses are being smart and constantly reevaluating how their business models work. Other than the ham-handed way that Trion handled the RIFT thing (what with little advance notice and slapping up a paywall that seems to hurt new players far more than veterans), I’m in approval of these moves.

More than anything, I want MMOs to survive and thrive with their souls intact. That means that I want them to make money to not only sustain operations but keep adding content while not compromising the fun and engagement of the game with their business model decisions. And I think a studio always has to be looking at multiple channels for making revenue, balancing between the need to make money and the desire to please players with unfettered content.

We can’t get it all for free. We need to accept this. F2P and B2P models have a lot going for them, particularly in getting warm bodies in the door that can get to know the game with no (or a single fixed) up-front cost. And while a complete freeloader does add some value to a game — by providing a bigger community, more player “content,” and more word of mouth — they don’t put the food on the table or get expansions funded. The only way you can get money from stalwart freeloaders is by shoving ads in the game, which is something only a couple of MMOs (Dungeon Runners, Anarchy Online) have ever flirted with.

I deeply understand the appeal of wanting to play for free, but I’m not a child. I know these games need to make money and I can’t resent them for taking moves from doing so. I just always rather them do so in a way that makes me WANT to spend money instead of feeling penalized that I’m not. I’d also rather not see lockboxes up the wazoo, but the world-weary realist in me knows that they make a lot of money, so as long as I can ignore them, I’ll turn my ire elsewhere.

Beefing up the value of subscription packages is a great way to wean players off the freebie teat and into spending regular amounts of money. Heck, I haven’t subbed to The Secret World since it went B2P, but you can better believe that now I’m going to with these changes. It became worth it for me to do so.

It’s funny to me that in 2014 we were decrying WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online for being so dumb as to launch as sub-only, and that now in 2016 subscriptions seem to be more of an in-thing. Oh, it was dumb for them to do that, but what conventional wisdom, which said “F2P or bust!” missed, is that it was the hybrid business model that should have prevailed. Most “free-to-play” MMOs actually sport a hybrid model that offers a subscription package, and even some buy-to-play games, like ESO, do as well.

Of course, there are bad ways to handle these models, and as players we should always be critically examining them. SWTOR’s subs are up, to be sure, but that’s also taking place in a game where you’re downright penalized for not subscribing and where gaudy “subscribe and get these shinies!” lures are shoved in your face. Practically everyone I knew playing the game was subbed up; F2P players were seen as an outlier in my guilds. It’s the stick-and-carrot double approach. Guess it works for them, but it feels kind of skeezy even so.

Really, gamers shouldn’t freak out to the level they seem to when studios make these business model adjustments. Nobody likes change and we all like our free stuff, but there is a problem with a game being SO free that it nose-dives into insolvency because players never broke out their wallets. Even World of Warcraft has shown over the past few years that it’s looking beyond the subscription to other revenue channels (WoW token, cash shop) to financially prop up the game.

The three factors that make Darkest Dungeon a truly unique dungeon crawler

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The central message of Darkest Dungeon — if we can be so serious as to make one — is that instead of making stronger, noble heroes, repeated dungeon delves in RPGs would cause serious mental and physical trauma. If these people were anything like us. It almost makes me wonder if this is a sly look at how combat veterans deal with multiple deployments and the scars (visible and internal) that they return with.

Then again, Darkest Dungeon could merely be a clever title that takes the bland tropes of being a professional munchkin and make a game out of considering the mental state of our party in addition to their physical. Either way, it’s a pretty impressive display.

Darkest Dungeon opens with a simple backstory: A rich man becomes obsessed with digging under his manor until he happens to hit on portals to eldritch realms, goes pretty much bonkers, then begs his relatives to go dungeon diving on his behalf and beat these monstrosities back. Even the surrounding town is ruined, slowly being repaired as the player progresses through the dungeons.

The central idea here is that players form teams of four characters out of a roster of off-kilter heroes, go into the various dungeons under the manor, and return with loot to expand services and strengthen the party. As the name implies, it’s a grim task that will most likely churn up bodies in a meatgrinder — if they’re lucky. If not, they’ll probably go stark raving mad from the efforts.

Dungeon delves are cautious, difficult affairs in which you must try to get as far as you can while keeping your party somewhat sane and hale. There’s turn-based combat, traps, and all manner of clickables. It doesn’t help that your torches keep flickering out, letting the darkness creep in…

So instead of a full review or an account of my playthrough, I wanted to highlight three factors that really go into making Darkest Dungeon a memorable, well-crafted RPG title.

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1. The Art

While at its core, Darkest Dungeon is really just a 2-D title with minimal animation, it makes up for any visual deficiencies with its art style. It reminds me of Paper Mario a bit, and also Flash animation, but mostly a really dark and gritty graphic novel inked with lots of personality and talent. The characters, the backgrounds, the attacks — all of it makes me think of an animated graphic novel, one which I would gladly read. The thick lines and lack of any sun (save for the intro) or cheery dispositions makes for a moody go. “Cute” has no place here. I could lose myself in how this game is drawn.

2. The Language

Even more than how the game looks is how it both reads and sounds. There’s a particular emphasis here on descriptions and narratives that sound like they’re straight out of a gothic story. Lots of older turns of phrases, heavier descriptions, and dour monologues abound.

What I love the best is the narrator, who gives this game a severe gravitas. Whether you’re perusing the small hamlet’s services or getting pummeled in a dungeon, he’s constantly popping in with something to say — and what he says gives weight to the atmosphere and actions. Again, it’s like someone took a really great fantasy novel and then broke it up, sifted it for all the best sentences, and then parceled them out to us.

“Survival is a tenuous proposition… in this sprawling tomb.”

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3. The Stress

As I said earlier, the stress/mental health mechanic is what sets Darkest Dungeon apart from its contemporaries, and it’s a well-thought-out mechanic at that. Each character has a stress bar that goes from 0 to 200, and the higher it goes, the more a character starts to lose it. At 100, a character’s “resolve” is tested, which could well result in obtaining a negative trait that will stick with him or her until treated.

There are simply scads of quirks to be found here, many of which radically change how the group functions. Have  your healer become paranoid? She might stop healing or refuse help, thinking that everyone is against her. I had a Plague Doctor who got the curious quirk, so he would automatically touch every dang thing in the dungeon whether I wanted the party to or not.

Seeing your team unravel — and trying to do everything you can to keep them from doing so — is where the stories from Darkest Dungeon emerge. Sometimes it gets downright hilarious, but often you feel genuinely bad as these adventurers go mad trying to push to the end of a dungeon run. At least you can plop them in a church, tavern, or sanitarium afterward to give them some respite.

Bio Break’s MMO Timeline page gets a major overhaul

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I crossed off one of my blog to-do items this week by giving the MMO Timeline page a pretty big overhaul. I’ve always wanted this to be an easy-to-read layout of MMOs throughout the last 40 years — when they launch, when they released expansions, and when (if ever) they closed. I’ve been continually adding to it over the years, of course, but it needed some attention.

So here’s everything that I did for the revamp:

  • Created a new header graphic
  • Created new graphic headers for every year (much bigger than the older ones) that feature a major MMO release from that year
  • Cross-referenced Raph Koster’s MMO timeline for some additional dates and changes (we disagree on a few dates and his focus for that list is a little different)
  • Added several games (especially older titles) and changed the dates for a few things, probably about two dozen new line items in all
  • Decided to list early access “launches” from the past few years since studios are treating these as major release events

Check it out and let me know if I’m missing any important games or dates!

Could Diablo clones be the future of MMOs?

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Back around 2007, I was in the beta for a little game called Mythos. Flagship — yes, that Flagship — originally created it to test some tech for Hellgate London and then liked it so much that it decided to spin it off as its own game. Unfortunately, the whole Hellgate/Flagshipped saga sunk any hopes of Mythos ever getting released, which was a shame because it was a fun little game (and this was before Hanbit got ahold of it and made it into a reanimated corpse of what it once was).

I was truly excited about it at the time because Mythos took the Diablo-style gameplay (action RPGs or “clickfests”) and put it in more of an MMO-style persistent world. Dungeon Runners was doing something like that as well and fared about the same in the end. I thought the combination of Diablo and MMO could be a hit, and it was disappointing that both games failed to get the audience and studio they deserved.

Today, however, I feel like we’re on the cusp of seeing MMOs move in some exciting new directions. Smaller indie projects that are taking risks once more. Flirting with virtual reality. And strong growth and popularity in the OARPG sector.

Diablo III, Path of Exile, and Marvel Heroes have all shown that not only is there a market for these kinds of (semi-)persistent games, there’s a huge market for them. These aren’t traditional MMOs, with an over-the-shoulder view, slower combat, and more skills than you could fit on four hotbars. Instead, it’s isometric country with frantic clicking, a handful of skills, highly repeatable content, and fast kills. Some players prefer it. Some, like myself, like it as an alternative for other MMOs.

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We’ve got more on the way, too. Last year Trion took a stab at getting a slice of the market with Devilian, which is probably the most MMOish of them all, even if its classes and world are pretty generic. John Smedley’s Hero’s Song, Lineage Eternal, Lost Ark, Tree of Savior, Dragon of Legends, and the much-rumored Torchlight MMO are all on the way or being discussed.

Of course, OARPGs aren’t universally liked. They might lack the sticky factor that some need to really plant roots in online games. The isometric viewpoint can be a dealbreaker (not for me, though). But they are a different option for those that feel frustrated with theme park, action, and sandbox MMOs.

MOP’s Bree and I have been talking about OARPGs a lot on the podcast lately, as these games represent a segment of the industry that seems to be (1) on the rise, (2) incorporating MMO elements such as housing and raids fairly well, and (3) very accessible for gamers at any point along the hardcore-casual spectrum. We don’t have a lot of big AAA-budget games being developed at this point, but there is a nice little wave of these OARPGs on the way, and that’s cause for cautious celebration.

Diablo clones, so to speak, won’t be the only future of MMOs, but they could be quietly and surely growing into an important part of the coming years of online massively multiplayer gaming. I hope we see more emerge.

Homer gets muscled

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So I was watching the Simpsons’ Hullapalooza episode tonight and I did a double-take at the above scene. Had to make a graphic to see if I’m not the only one who thinks that this is a pretty funny (and unintentional) visual connection.

My dungeon experiences across 14 MMOs

Now that I’m running a dungeon almost daily in FFXIV, it’s making me think of my long and sordid history with dungeon experiences in MMOs. What I’ve always noticed is that when it comes to dungeons, it’s not me — it’s the game. That is, I’m usually willing to run dungeons in theory but not every MMO makes it easy to do so or attractive to do so.

So here’s a rundown of the MMOs I’ve spent a fair bit of time in and my dungeon experiences in each:

Anarchy Online

Since my early years were mostly spent solo — and guildless — I wasn’t even aware of any dungeons existing here.

City of Heroes

The bulk of the game experience to me was grouping up and entering one of many modular instances. I don’t know if you can call them dungeons proper, but they functioned much the same even though they used templates matched with random mob placements and difficulties. Mostly these experiences boiled down to the tank pulling a large group into a room and having the rest of the team activate their special particle effects light show until the mobs surrendered due to being dazzled with our brilliance.

World of Warcraft

Obviously I did a lot of dungeons here, especially post-Vanilla when the dungeon finder came into play. Before then dungeons were more of a rare treat due to being a headache to organize (I did appreciate high-level players speed running us through Deadmines and letting us keep all the loot). Generally had a great time with dungeons here and even flirted with raiding in Kara. Wasn’t present for the LFR era.

Warhammer Online

WAR wasn’t really big on dungeons, if I recall. I think they had some public dungeons, per the design philosophy carried over from Dark Age of Camelot, but I only ran one in the Badlands (?) a couple of times and felt fairly disappointed with it.

Dungeons & Dragons Online

What dungeons?

Ha, just kidding. Obviously the entire game is nothing but dungeons, and as long as I could find a group or had a regular weekly team, they were pretty awesome. Great design and the addition of good storytelling (I still contend the invisible GM voice is one of the neater additions to MMO dungeons), puzzles, and traps made these dungeons a cut above the MMO crowd. Plus, you didn’t heal health the same way, so they felt a shade more dangerous.

Lord of the Rings Online

Dungeons were always something I wanted to do more of in LOTRO but never quite did. I did run several over the years, but really what I did more of were skirmishes. The Inn of the Forsaken, with the Goonies theme, was easily my favorite.

WildStar

The higher end of difficulty and dungeon length made dungeons very unappealing here. I much preferred expeditions and adventures, which are instances under different names. Only ran Stormtalon a few times — and never finished it.

The Secret World

TSW’s combat system isn’t the zenith of the game for me (that would be storytelling, quest ingenuity, and environments if you care), so I can’t say that dungeon diving was what I lived for. Still, I did a lot of it since our weekly group did for a while. I appreciated the mostly trash mob-free approach. They could be very, very tough.

Fallen Earth

If I recall, Fallen Earth had public dungeons too. I only ever did one, the prison in sector one. It was really neat, but like some other MMOs, there was no easy system to group up and get right into dungeons here. You had to find a group and physically travel there, so that cut down on most people doing them.

Guild Wars

Were missions considered dungeons? Otherwise the game didn’t really have them, did it. Still, did a lot of instances with a team as I worked my way through the storylines.

Guild Wars 2

My disappointment for Guild Wars 2’s dungeon design still gets me a lot of comments on this blog. For the record, I thought the actual instances were neat and the multiple choices of how to approach a dungeon was a good idea. It’s just that actually running them became a wacky exercise of stacking, sprinting past mobs, and farming them (pre-Heart of Thorns) for gold instead of loot.

RIFT

RIFT remains one of my favorite MMOs in which to run dungeons. The dungeon finder — in from practically the beginning — made it really easy to do so, and there were no strange twists for how the game did dungeon runs. Very straight-forward with a tried-and-proven approach, and I liked that. Ran many, many dungeons with groups here.

SWTOR

The Old Republic was much like RIFT: straight-forward dungeon design with tab-targeting and the holy trinity. Good stuff, plus some amazing set pieces. Did a lot of them and enjoyed most thoroughly.

Star Trek Online

Did STO have dungeons? It must have, I guess, but I didn’t do too much group stuff in this game so I never found out.