Four indications that the MMORPG genre might be turning a corner

Because I spend so much time thinking, playing, and writing about MMORPGs, I feel like I’m sensitive to how the industry is changing and shaping. Last year there was definitely a dearth of hope among many players, proclamations that the genre was dead (or dying), and despairing observations about the lack of future games being made and hyped. And going into the first part of this year, it wasn’t that much better, with five MMOs closing up shop in January alone.

Yet (and I really don’t want to prematurely jump the gun with this, so take it with a note of caution) hope has started to bloom this year in earnest. We’re not just seeing some really promising semi-MMOs in the making (Sea of Thieves, Destiny 2, Anthem) but some genuinely big, full-budget games in the works. Here are four indications that the MMO might be turning a corner into a more interesting and brighter future:

1. When you weren’t looking, we started accumulating some promising MMORPGs.

In the past week — just one week — we had two significant honest-to-God MMOs announced: Cryptic’s Magic the Gathering MMO (which is the first MMO based on an existing IP since, oh, Elder Scrolls Online) and Fractured (which is using SpatialOS, more on that in a bit). Wild West Online burst out of nowhere a month or so ago with a publisher-funded western sandbox.

While Amazon Game Studios has been quiet, we know that it’s working on at least one MMO (New World) and possibly a second with John Smedley at the helm. I see more studios, particularly newer ones, using the “MMORPG” label with confidence alongside more bold and innovative designs than what we’ve gotten in the recent past.

But going back to the Cryptic/Magic announcement, that’s a big, big deal. Cryptic handles two very successful IP-based MMOs (Neverwinter and Star Trek Online), and Magic: The Gathering still carries a lot of name recognition with the geek community. I felt this announcement got dismissed because it’s easy to hate Cryptic for lockboxes, but that studio’s put out some popular games and kept growing them over the years (and on various platforms). It would be foolish to ignore this.

2. Ashes of Creation’s amazing Kickstarter

Another topic I thought we’d see a lot more discussion about was the absolutely stunning conclusion to Ashes of Creation’s Kickstarter campaign. $3.27 million raised by fans in 30 days for an MMORPG that is an original IP and has no recognizable developer name attached. Did the team do such a spectacular job selling the game in advance? To an extent, yes, although there’s a lot yet to be revealed. But more than that, this powerhouse of a campaign — the biggest MMO Kickstarter ever so far — suggests that there is a huge demand out there for visionary, beautiful MMOs that push the genre forward and take bold risks. Just ask Chronicles of Elyria last year or Crowfall two years ago about their takeaway, and I’m sure they’d say the same thing.

MMOs aren’t dead and the MMO community hasn’t evaporated. It’s just hungry and ready for a real meal.

3. The rise of SpatialOS

Right now it really feels like too many people are oblivious about SpatialOS, but that is not going to be the case forever. We’re seeing story after story and game after game announced in connection with this acclaimed world-building software platform, with some seeing this as not just the future backbone of MMORPGs but many other industries too. It’s allowing smaller teams to create virtual worlds of a scope that would be well outside of their budgets and resources otherwise, and that is significant for future possibilities.

Worlds Adrift is being made in SpatialOS, as is Chronicles of Elyria, Identity, Seed, Metaworld, and Fractured. Jagex has expressed interest in SpatialOS for RuneScape. Bill Roper (of Diablo/Hellgate fame) has joined SpatialOS developer Improbable. Improbable has partnered with Google Cloud to help devs see their visions be made reality. Mark my words, this is the start of a revolution of some sort, and we should not ignore it.

4. The maturation of indie games

Part of the despair of 2016 was the fact that so little actually released, because all of the games being made were still cooking. Now in 2017, some (but not all) of these indie titles are nearing launch and we’ll see what the next generation has to offer. Albion Online, Worlds Adrift, Shroud of the Avatar, Project Gorgon, Dark and Light, AdventureQuest 3D, and SkySaga are all looking at a release this year, with another wave coming in 2018. And then there’s always the looming bomb (either explosive good or dud bad) of Star Citizen over the next few years.

It’s always hard to judge the state of an entire industry, but for the first time in a while, I’m starting to see real movement and real home where there were only glimmers before. All I know is that the future will be different than what we might have anticipated (or even envision today), but that there will be a future of massive online gaming.

Battle Bards Episode 100: Centennial Spectacular!

After four years and over 700 MMORPG music tracks, the Battle Bards have arrived at their 100th show! For this centennial spectacular, Syl, Steff, and Syp reminisce about the most notable shows, their best soundtrack discoveries, and their favorite tracks. This super-sized show gets wrapped up with a bout of listener emails and a promise of another amazing hundred episodes!

Episode 100 show notes (show page, direct download)

  • Intro (feat. “A New Hope” from FFXIV, “Bard’s Guild” from EverQuest, and “First Light” from Guild Wars)
  • Favorite Soundtrack Discoveries over the past four years
  • Steff: TERA (“Sanctuary” and “Godspeed”), League of Legends (“Braum” and “Demacia Rising”), and World of Warcraft: Legion (“Lion’s Rest” and “Anduin”)
  • Syl: Runes of Magic (“Veranas Bridge” and “Traveling Tale”), Dragon’s Prophet (“Auratia” and “Candlelight”), and Ultima X Odyssey (“Town Life” and “Rule City”)
  • Syp: Lineage 2 (“Praise the Victorious Knight” and “Talking Island Village”), WildStar (“Bandits, Thieves, and Epic Loot” and “A Story of Hope and Healing”), and RuneScape (“Horizon” and “Arise Legend”)
  • Favorite single MMO tracks
  • Syp: “Freedom Theme” from City of Heroes
  • Steff: “Legacy of Romulus” from Star Trek Online
  • Syl: “Tidecaller” from League of Legends
  • Syp: “Spiritual Elysium” from Anarchy Online
  • Steff: “Sillus Mountains” from Aion
  • Syl: “Wolf at the Gates” from World of Warcraft
  • Syp: “Wailers and Waterwheels” from FFXIV
  • Steff: “Hills of the Shire” from LOTRO
  • Syl: “City of Tarir” from Guild Wars 2
  • Syp: “Smooth” from WildStar
  • Steff: “Sleepless Lullaby” from The Secret World
  • Syl: “Make Zone” from Lime Odyssey
  • Syp: “Peace, The Jedi Consular” from SWTOR
  • Steff: “Little Shepherd” from Blade and Soul
  • Syl: “Danaria” from Aion
  • Segment C: Listener feedback
  • Outro

Try-It Tuesday: Warframe

While I almost never see anyone blogging about Warframe, I keep seeing people playing this all over the place, especially in a casual capacity. It seems like it’s been one of those sleeper hits with numbers that some MMOs can only envy from afar, yet it doesn’t get a lot of lip service. I haven’t quite figured out what the deal is, unless it’s being promoted and spread in circles that I am not a part of (magazines? consoles?). Oh well, I can’t have my ear to the ground everywhere, so I’ll accept some mystery.

So Warframe. Very popular, some strong recommendations, purportedly a nice casual title. Sounds good to me, so let’s give it a try!

What I was first struck by is the fact that your character — all player characters, in fact — do not have a face. You’re “born” into the game world as a tenno, some sort of battle-suited warrior who the bad cyborg guys wanted to use but the good guys conspired to release. So I’ve got an omnipresent helmet, a la Master Chief or Tali from Mass Effect, and a feeling like the devs just didn’t want to bother with character customization at all. Hey, your game, your rules.

The first few missions are a sneaky tutorial in disguise, keeping you in the spirit of high adventure as you escape the clutches of this unknown foe and learn how to use your various weapons and powers. Also — POWER SLIDE. I do love the power slide.

I’ll give Warframe this: When it comes to movement and action, this game has it down. You’re jumping, wall-hugging, double-jumping, sliding, crawling, and sprinting all over the place… and it feels very fluid and natural. And my character has a virtual arsenal at his (her?) disposal, including magic attacks, a sword, a pistol, and an assault rifle. I ended up gravitating toward the last, although the sword was fun in close quarters when you wanted to see a lot of blood (and this game is quite bloody, with gibbets flying everywhere).

I wish I could say that I was following the story better, but all I could glean for the first hour or so is that Earth is a battleground and that as a tenno, I’m part of some sort of resistance. At least I had plenty of opportunities to take gorgeous screenshots. I heard that Warframe has a cool freeze-frame option for screenshot taking, although I haven’t investigated that yet.

In no time at all, I ended up on my own little spaceship, orbiting Earth and wondering why I was getting advertisements from the year 2017 on my ship screens. Again, just feeling things out at this point, but it seems like the ship is kind of a single player hub for your various needs before jumping into the next mission.

After running a half-dozen missions, I came to the conclusion that Warframe is a slick, well-made game with gorgeous art and fluid animations — and it isn’t for me at all.

There was a point in my life that I was much more into run-and-gun games, but these days I would much rather walk than sprint/slide/roll through levels. I want to check out every nook and cranny. I want to think through my fights instead of frantically whirling about my mouse to try to locate who is shooting me and respond in kind. And if I desire a semi-mindless clicker with lots of mobs and loot explosions, well, the Diablo clone army is more than enough for me.

FFXIV: Housing blues

FFXIV honestly surprised me the other night when I saw a cozy fireplace and thought about taking a picture next to it. I used the /sit command, and instead of my character plopping down in some sort of default sitting animation, she actually took a seat on the couch. This made me blink hard. Not many MMOs yank you into a seat when you go to sit, oddly enough. So good for this game.

I had a slightly unusual weekend, now that I’m into the realm of Heavensward. I didn’t really follow that expansion closely when it first came out, so I don’t think it ever registered that this was a snowy realm that we’d be adventuring through (which is a good thing, at least in my book). All I remembered was “dragons something elves something Catholic church substitute something.

I jumped over to join Aywren’s guild, because they certainly seemed like a lively and engaged group of players. And sure enough, they were quite welcoming and helped buoy my spirits in the game. A quiet or non-existent guild hampers my play experience in ways that are kind of difficult to articulate. Conversely, a great guild can make logging in a joy and add deeper dimension to the game.

I met her! I’m in the presence of internet fame! I think her plumage was happy to see me too.

With a free company established, my thoughts turned to exploring one feature of the game that has yet escaped me, which was player housing. Let me say that first off, I’m glad that FFXIV saw that housing was important enough to include, and it does seem like the community gets into it. I’m always a housing nut in MMOs that allow for it, so it felt like my play experience was incomplete in FFXIV until I got to check this out.

But that was really easier thought than done. Unlike some other MMOs I could name — RIFT, WildStar come quickly to mind — FFXIV puts as many obstacles between you and owning your own slice of space as possible. Again, props that the game has housing, but it doesn’t excuse it for being, quite frankly, a prohibitive and restrictive system.

Buying a real house was far outside of my budget. I had about 650K gil, whereas houses (if you could even find ones available to purchase) were in the millions. The most economical option was a 300K single-room apartment in the free company house, which I felt was fine. I wouldn’t have a yard or outside decorations, but oh well. It was something, it was a one-time fee, and I could afford it.

But I couldn’t access it, not yet, not even with the money in my pocket. Oh no. That would be too EASY. The game informed me that I also, for some reason, had to be second lieutenant in my grand company, which was a game feature that I had stopped paying attention to a long time ago.

Sigh, fine. So I plodded over there, saw that I had a lot of seals for the promotion, but that there were additional hoops through which to jump. Company hunting logs to complete! Two fun dungeon trials to run! It took the better part of an evening to get all of this sorted out and meet the requirements, but eventually I was allowed the privilege of sinking half of my wallet into this system.

People informed me that most furnishings either came from the marketboard or by making them, so I did a little shopping to spend a large chunk of my remaining funds on various fixtures. I would have appreciated a preview picture for these items, but such is life.

The whole “functional but not necessarily user friendly” theme continued as I went to my room for the first time and then felt like a fool trying to figure out how to actually decorate it. Apparently you have to access housing options from one of the little sub-menus to open up that interface, which I can’t recall the game every informing me about. Thank you, internet.

And while I was able to cobble together a room without too much difficulty, in truth, I was pretty underwhelmed. The interface to move items is incredibly clunky (a casualty of console controls?) and I couldn’t figure out how to rotate items and then make them stay rotated without resetting. I’ve seen much, much better systems in other games, but this is only the start of my working on this, so here’s hoping that there’s more going on here.

I did like the guild house and what they did there. It was pretty cute ‘n’ cozy, although we’re reportedly moving to bigger digs in the near future.

Goodbye The Secret World, hello Secret World Legends

I had been putting it off.

I knew that I needed to log back into The Secret World at least one more time before Secret Worlds Legends launched, if only to spend the rest of my Funcom points and snag outfits before those points got wasted. Seeing as how these (but not all) cosmetics are going to be just about the only thing other than reserved names to make the transfer to the new game, I might as well, right?

Yet I was pretty reluctant to do so. I didn’t want to say goodbye to this game that I love and appreciate on a different level than most other MMORPGs. Logging in would make me confront the fact that, yes, this was pretty much it for TSW, and yes, all of the progress, achievements, and material accumulations are about to be erased in a gigantic do-over.

When I did the interview with Funcom’s devs a month or so ago, I remember them asking if I still played TSW following the announcement — and my incredulous reply of, “Of course not. What’s the point?” My persistent world is no longer persistent when it gets maintenance moded in favor of some sort of quickly revised reboot. TSW will linger on, but everyone’s seen the writing on the wall. It’s time to leave.

Thus, I logged in. Bought two outfits to flesh out my collection, plus a couple of retro bags. I think I got some acid-washed jeans I never had before. And I positioned both of my characters to say goodbye.

For Yeti, it was definitely a bitter and sad moment. I’d had this Templar ever since I started the game, five years ago now, and she’d been through pretty much every adventure there was. She’d been the one who I had kept at the edge of content, all of the way through Tokyo. She was the toon I took into dungeons with our guild. She was my J-pop, blue-haired, 80s-loving girl, and I loved her. I put her in an oddly lit doorway in London and logged out, determined to recreate her if at all possible in SWL. At least I still have her name.

And then there was Syppi, my Illuminati alt I created back in 2014 with the intent of replaying and documenting every non-dungeon quest in the game. She was representative of a huge project that got the axe for me, and now that there’s no point of continuing, I sat her down at the campfire in the Shadowy Forest, staring into the flames and thinking of all of the accomplishments and obstacles that lay behind her.

Oh, and I used a snowblower to have some fun with the locals, because you can’t be a TSW player and not be prone to goofy black humor now and then.

With that session out of the way, my attention turns forward to Secret World Legends. Folks, I’m not going to lie — I am worried. Deeply worried. At this point we’re only a few weeks away from the non-Steam PC launch, and Funcom is giving every appearance of being way in over its head on this. The NDA is still up, because if that’s not a sign of no-confidence I don’t know what is. From several sources I keep hearing that the game just isn’t ready yet, and my gut agrees. My gut also thinks that the studio is really eyeing the July Steam launch for its real audience and might be willing to consider the June crowd collateral damage and free beta testing.

Funcom’s messaging has been scattered-to-nonexistent. This is a major project for them, but the SWL website has been abnormally quiet since its debut in March, with three articles that month, NONE in April, two in May, and one in June so far. The new weapon specialties and mechanics don’t even warrant a developer diary but are instead treated to 15-second Twitter videos.

And then let’s talk about yesterday, because I was banging my forehead on my desk SO HARD over all of us. First, Funcom abruptly tweets that there will be a headstart for launch on June 23rd for those who have supported the game. Is this for everyone, AKA an open beta? Just TSW owners? What’s all this about? Instead of posting a real article about this, which you would think would be done, players were left scratching their heads and waiting for the devs to answer these questions on the Twitter thread. Following that, Funcom tweets that TSW owners are all going to get into the beta today, but hey, NDA is still up (unless the studio changes that by the time of this posting). Again, very few initial details and a lack of information ANYWHERE ELSE than Twitter. Seeing as how Funcom controls the SWL Reddit and they have this shiny new website, you’d think the team would be putting this there too. But no. Let’s be vague, abrupt, and confusing, because that’s the way to settle down our anxious playerbase.

So yeah, I’m worried. I’ll still roll up a character, I’ll still play, and I’ll still cross my fingers and hope for the best. But I am seriously worried that this is a project that’s being cobbled together with an unreasonably small budget, a tiny team, and under pressure to release at a certain date instead of when it’s ready. Prove me wrong, Funcom, but so far you’re giving me no cause to get excited.

LOTRO: I like turtles

It’s hard — or perhaps weird — to believe that we’re already at week nine (of ten) in LOTRO’s anniversary scavenger hunt. I’ve been faithfully knocking out at least one of these hunts every week, and to tell the truth, I’ll be a little sorry when they’re gone. Of course, there will always be next year, right?

So out of the trio of options this week, I went with what I thought was the one that looked both the most interesting and the easiest to do, which was Middle-earth curiosities. This is why I signed up to do these quests (well, that and the rewards), because I want to be shown things I’ve never seen before or missed in this game. And while I knew about two or three of these, the rest were complete surprises.

A snowman in Ered Luin. An ice skater in Forochel. OK, yawn. The cat lady’s house… everyone knows this one, although that lady never seems to come home. But then things started to pick up when I had to find the turtle guy’s house. I’d never even heard of the turtle guy, which is because I didn’t do his short quest series. I had to rectify that, because there was no entering his house to get the quest update if I didn’t, and ultimately I was glad I did. It’s an amusing series of quests around Bree that are totally turtle-themed, leading into a house decked out with turtles everywhere. Even had their own open exhibit.

“Well, that’s no ordinary rabbit. That’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on. Look, that rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide, it’s a killer! He’s got huge, sharp — he can leap about — look at the bones!”

Probably the one locale that really caught me off guard was the Three Little Bears house. I’m guessing this is one of those easter eggs that everyone else probably knows about by now and has escaped my attention, but I was cracking up when I found it in Rohan. Garden gnome, three bears, three beds, sleeping Goldilocks, porridge, the whole works. And it doesn’t look that out of place in this game world, even so.

While the quest was entertaining, I have to say that I’m becoming a little let down with the rewards. Actually, in eavesdropping in our kin chat, I think this is a shared sentiment. Every week you do a fairly complicated quest with these scavenger hunts and are then rewarded with at least two objects — usually pets, housing items, or cosmetics. I’m all down for that, but apart from the pets (I love the cow!), nothing’s really amazed me. A big spoon? Another raggedy cloak? I was kind of hoping for something a little more amazing here.

I did make a point of stopping by the anniversary vendor in Bree last night, seeing as how she’s returned for a limited run for those of us still racking up tokens from the hunts. I spent as many as I could, buying mostly housing items (I wasn’t that thrilled with the dragon-themed outfit and horse armor).

Did FFXIV’s story finally get good for me?

So there’s like this… adage, this maxim that you often hear from FFXIV players that goes like, “Just stick with the game, the story gets good! It gets amazing! It’s just a little slow at first.”

And as I learned, this was akin to saying to ice age dwellers, “Stick with humanity, it gets really good. Internet and vaccines and everything, just hang in there.” Life doesn’t move fast in the FFXIV world is what I’m saying.

When I first played the game last year, I spent four months wondering when this story was going to get good. To be fair, there were moments of interest, charming bits of character studies or some fascinating developments. But by and large, it was… average at best. Lots of backtracking, nods employed in bulk, and characters breaking every two minutes for another cutscene of people talking about world events in an office. By the time I quit, I was about 80% through the 2.5.5 content and had my fill of all of this “good” story.

In what might be a slight stroke of irony, it turns out that I quit right before the story actually did get good. The other night I was a little excited to be plowing through the last few quests prior to Heavensward — the official end of A Realm Reborn — and was hit with one of those notices that you only ever see in FFXIV. Only in this game are you served with a warning that the next 30 to 45 minutes of your life will be spent doing nothing but watching a long, long string of cutscenes. And THEY ARE NOT KIDDING.

I don’t mind these, as long as they’re entertaining, and this one actually was. In fact, the longer it went, the more my eyebrows lifted and my heart raced with excitement. What it felt like was the end of a TV season when the writers have gotten a little sick and tired of their convoluted plotlines and characters… and they just decide to employ a tactical bomb and reset the playfield. Blow things up, wipe out pieces, and reset the story (or at least throw it on a totally different track).

In the space of about 20 minutes, everything I had known about the MSQ changed. Characters died, killed, were framed, fled, sacrificed, got limbs chopped off, betrayed, and performed spectacular fight moves reserved for top-level Final Fantasy summons. I wasn’t dismayed that everything was changing but rejoiced that something was finally happening. Something awesome. Something that felt vastly different than what we had gotten up to this point.

And I got to see Yda’s eyes! Well, one eye, but still, it’s something I always wanted to see. I actually liked most of the Seven Scions, save for Midriff Barbie, and sure, it was a little dismaying that disaster had unfairly come upon them. But sometimes you need that Long Dark Night of the Soul for stories to get interesting. Being a world-saving hero isn’t so gripping if you’re always surrounded by a team of super-skilled fighters and a personal army. Time to get rid of that and head into the expansion to see what lays in wait there.

I hope this isn’t a fluke. I sincerely hope this isn’t the only good story beat I’m going to get for the next 200 hours. It’s a good start, at least.

Oh, here’s something small to brag about: I used all of my tomestones that I had accumulated to buy a full healer’s outfit. Not only does it boost my healing ability in group, but it’s easily the best I’ve looked in this game to date. The white/black/grey design pops.

Here’s another look of me and my fairy off the shores of Costa del Sol. I guess it’s waterproof, too!

As a total aside, can I say that I’m starting to soften up on my contempt for the Lalafel? Tataru is totally winning me over with her little escapades. And that hat! The flower! Maybe I should change my character to one of these little guys…