Battle Bards Episode 128: Seaside port

Why not sail up to our dock and tie your ship to ours for an hour? The Battle Bards return for another great episode examining MMORPG music, with the focus this time around being on harbor and port music. Does the sight of boats sailing out into the open ocean inspire you? Then this music may be the soundtrack to your next great adventure!

Episode 128 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Selbina” from Final Fantasy XI, “New Bellin Port” from Risk Your Life, and “Hermalte Port” from Dragon Nest)
  • “Port BGM” from Lime Odyssey
  • “Lith Harbor” from MapleStory 2
  • “Aria de Coimbra” from Granado Espada
  • “Saltswept” from Final Fantasy XIV
  • “Port Noble” from City of Villains
  • “Epheria Port” from Black Desert
  • “Port Town Ilfalo” from Wizardry Online
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener notes: Katriana
  • Jukebox Picks: “Deliverance” from God of War, “Jump Up, Super Star!” from Super Mario Odyssey,” and “New Junk City” from Earthworm Jim
  • Outro (feat. “Port Malaya” from Ragnarok Online)
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Dealing with MMO feature bloat, pruning, and obsolescence

Today I’m going to combine a few rants/whines about MMO systems and look at it as a combined, rather than separate, issue. There are two situations that particularly bother me about developing live MMORPGs, and I’m starting to think that they’re related.

The first issue that I have are games that introduce new systems and then either fail to support them or end up deleting them in the future entirely. World of Warcraft is downright notorious for doing this. Blizzard is forever introducing expansion-selling features — glyphs, jewelcrafting, garrisons, artifact weapons, order halls — and then downplaying them or outright eliminating them come the next expansion.

This frustrates me because it creates an environment where nothing can be depended on to last. You get super-invested in these systems because the studio is pushing them hard, and then you’re left holding nothing for all of your hard work and effort. Star Wars Galaxies’ Creature Handlers know of which I speak. It’s also frustrating because then it develops an inner attitude of mistrust, of thinking “well, why get invested in this, it won’t last!” And that’s not the attitude I want to have when playing a game. I want to get excited about it, I want to revel in it, and I want to play with the reasonable expectation of feature stability as long as that game lasts.

The second issue I have are with MMORPGs that, over the course of time, have introduced so many additional systems that they are now bloated and incomprehensible to the newcomer. Long-time players (and developers!) who have been with the game through the introduction of each of these systems don’t notice the bloat, as they’ve gradually grown accustomed to them. But too much in the way of systems can be a barrier to anyone coming into the game who now has to read enormous guides, anyone who wants to come back after a long absence, or anyone who would like to roll a new character and has to navigate all of these systems to build up a proper toon.

Marvel Heroes, pre-shutdown, is a good example of this. That game was forever adding new systems and stats and various ways to develop characters to the point where it gave me a headache to try to figure out everything that had to be done in order to properly build a superhero. And that was a game where your primary interaction was fast mouse button mashing!

As I said, the more I thought about both of these situations, the more I realized that they really are two sides to the same coin. MMOs should and do add features over time. That’s just part of live game growth, and it can be really exciting for players. But MMOs do have issues with too many systems and unsupported systems that ruin the quality of play for newcomers and experienced vets alike.

There’s no miracle cure for this but rather a sensible middle ground. As MMOs introduce new systems, they have to commit to fully supporting them going forward. These new systems should integrate well with previous systems and not overpower, overwrite, or clash with preexisting features. And MMO studios should always be evaluating the number of systems and how they work together — and guard against bloat. They should consider streamlining obtuse systems and even combine two or more related systems together in an improved fashion.

And if a system really won’t be supported, it should be cut — but that should be the final resort rather than a regular habit.

A requiem for WildStar

Life is slowly starting to settle back into something resembling normalcy after last week’s craziness in which we packed up our house and moved to a new state. It’s a lot to get used to, and I feel like most of my life has been upheaved. For a guy who craves stability and routine and comfortable surroundings, it’s pretty jarring.

So I didn’t need to hear that on the day of my move NCsoft announcing that it was going to shutter WildStar. I didn’t need that. I was so physically and emotionally exhausted that day that the news didn’t impact me much because there was nothing left, but now that I’ve had a few days to process this news, I find myself incredibly sad over this sunset.

WildStar wasn’t a perfect game made by a perfect studio — I think we can all agree on that. Carbine was a mess internally with too many forces pulling in too many directions, and the end result was an MMORPG that had ambitions but also misunderstood the market by being subscription-only with a hardcore endgame design. It hyped up paths only to give us this half-hearted system that failed to live up to its potential. It went a little over-the-top in some areas, like how the announcer would scream at you for challenges and level ups.

But it was a game that I loved, despite all that. There was so dang much to love about WildStar. The fusion of scifi and western with a touch of horror really worked. Nexus was a fascinating planet full of secrets that I genuinely wanted to uncover. There were abandoned laboratories, a ghost girl, a spreading infection known as the Strain, space pirates, amazonian natives, sentient veggies, and more.

Out of all of the MMOs that I’ve played, WildStar easily has the greatest collection of memorable NPC races assembled under its roof. From robot cowboys to the loot-obsessed Lopp to the clones of the Protostar Corporation, everywhere I turned I saw personality bursting at the seams. It was like the best Saturday morning cartoon had come to life and we got to play in it.

The graphics, the visuals — maybe not your cup of tea, but WildStar will always be one of the loveliest and most striking games that I’ve played. I adored the stylized and colorful graphics that didn’t make scifi this sleek and pristine thing. There were couches with busted springs and goofy-looking spaceships and hologram taxi drivers who would actually chat to you while you were en route to your next destination.

Undoubtedly, WildStar’s greatest legacy will be twofold: Its housing and its music.

My only quibble with the housing system was its slightly awkward placing tools, but past that, I adored it. Your own personal sky island where you could customize everything from the ground to the sky to your house outside and in? Functional plots that could be used to gather mats, take on challenges, and dive into pocket dungeons? It was amazing.

Because the art style of this game grooved with me so much, I really enjoyed setting up my home using parts of it. Being able to collect and even craft housing decor was the greatest carrot that this game dangled in front of me. I was never a master architect, but I had a blast putting together various homes and trying to figure out how to do fun things like give an unorthodox spaceship multiple interior levels or put a light source behind a window so it looked like sunshine was beaming in.

Jeff Kurtenacker’s score will be the only part of this game that will live on in a way that we can experience it, and for that, at least, I am glad. WildStar’s expansive score is flat-out stunning in its mastery, diversity, and enjoyability. It could be goofy, sad, creepy, stirring, and exciting in turns, and it lent a lot of personality to an MMO that already had a lot of it.

What else can I say? The holidays, the hidden secrets, the amount of stuff to do, double-jumping, hoverboarding, the crazy amount of pets and mounts, the fun of scenarios, that one dungeon where your party went insane and had to battle a giant vending machine, the zone where you had low gravity and could jump for miles, the joy of playing as a robot-toting Engineer, the tremendous costume system — it was all really, genuinely great.

It might seem hypocritical to say all this while not having played WildStar for well over a year now, but we all saw the writing on the wall. WildStar wasn’t going to make it, and there was little point putting in game time to an MMO that wasn’t being actively supported and developed. If we were living in an alternative universe where WildStar was reasonably popular, had a casual-friendly endgame, and had a studio that was pumping out regular updates — then yes, I’d still be playing. Heck yes, I’d be playing.

As it is, I feel heartsick over this shutdown. There’s a really good game here and so much work that’s being tossed into the trash. I don’t have any hope that NCsoft would sell or hand off this game, so that’s that unless we enter into emulator territory.

So I guess that there’s only this — thank you, WildStar, for a wonderful ride. You weren’t perfect, but you were far better than most people realized. You deserved much better than this.

World of Warcraft: Leveling nonsense and story sense

As the weeks go by, night by night I’ve been logging into World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth and rotating through my three main characters (Hunter, Death Knight, Warlock), pushing each of them a little further when it comes their turn. It definitely has slowed me down overall and make goals like unlocking the allied races far off at this point, but I’m genuinely glad I’m doing it this way. I get a really nice variety night-to-night and I’m not here feeling anxious that I left my alts behind to rot. It’ll all pay off in the long run, but for now it’s just slow and measured.

As much as I have really enjoyed the questing, stories, and areas of the expansion, I’ll freely admit that progression has been a big fat nothing on the way from 110 to 120. Many other bloggers have pointed out that there’s really no purpose or reward to leveling. You get stronger in stats, but so do the mobs thanks to scaling tech. There are no new skills or talents to chase (I honestly can’t remember the last time Blizzard added a new talent tier — Draenor, I think — or additional high-level skills. The studio seems to be obsessed instead with retinkering with the current lineup). It seriously raises the question of “why have new levels at all?” — a question which Blizzard has ignored because Blizzard does what Blizzard wants to do.

Let’s be honest: Leveling from 110 to 120 is nothing more or less than a time gate and a grind to hold players back from doing endgame activities like world quests and high-level dungeons and the like. When you look at it this way, it’s just a long prologue that can be enjoyable for the experience of doing it but not rewarding for your character’s growth.

In fact, other than gear and stats, most of the growth of this expansion comes from leveling up the Heart of Azeroth, and boy does this whole system feel underwhelming and undersupported compared to artifact weapons. I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t have nearly the hook or excitement value that the previous expansion’s weapons did. It is nice to pick between mini-talents, and some are very helpful indeed.

But leveling up the Heart is pretty much divorced from traditional XP leveling. You can sometimes get azerite from quests or treasure chests, but from what I understand, most of it lies at 120 with world quests and island expeditions. That’s fine, I’ll catch up, I’ll get what gear I can, and I’ll look forward to two years from now when all of this will be scrapped for the Girdle of Azeroth, an even more powerful artifact that was sent by Amazon Prime but got lost along the way.

There isn’t a lot that I actually miss from Vanilla WoW, but I do miss the excitement of hitting a new level and looking forward to what it unlocked — a talent point, riding, skills, zones. Blizzard used to be really good at dangling these carrots, but now it has moved those carrots elsewhere and kept leveling in because it added another feature point to the expansion’s list and gave us busy work before the main event.

Decluttering

I’ve recently had the opportunity to go through two major rounds of de-cluttering in my life. The first was two months ago, when I cleaned out my office of 18 years as they refurbished it. That place was pretty much my second apartment/home and had more junk and decorations than I care to admit.

The second has taken place over the course of August, as my wife and I prepared to move to a new house. We’ve lived in this home for a decade with four kids, and while none of us are excessively messy or hoarders, you can imagine that stuff piles up.

Our moving strategy was to cut clutter to the bone — we gutted rooms, packing only what we really wanted to keep and donating/selling/trashing the rest. We cleaned out areas that hadn’t been touched since we moved in. We got rid of half-used paint cans, dug through a mess of outdoors stuff in the shed, and sold more than half of our furniture through Facebook groups. I found myself going through boxes of stuff that I had been lugging around since college and chucking most of it (I kept only things that I would want to share or give to the kids some day). I shed myself of about ten boxes of books that I’d packed up once I got a Kindle.

The thing was, the more we did this — both in my office and at home — the more we started to like our environment. When it came time to move back into my office, I didn’t want to unpack that much because I liked how clean and modern it looked. And we kept remarking how open and clean our house looked without all of the stuff that had been taking up space here and there. It wasn’t that we wanted to live an ascetic life, it’s just that somewhere along the line, we had gotten used to a certain level of clutter and stopped seeing it around us. Once it was gone, the house felt refreshing and new.

I’ve certainly experienced this on a smaller scale by “de-cluttering” parts of my life. Maybe I was too busy in one area or too disorganized in another, and I fixed that. Often it was straightening up my work space or coming up with a storage system that kept the clutter firmly under control.

As I head to a new house and new office this week, I’m hoping that we can take this newfound appreciation for a clutter-free space and try to carry it forward. I think that electronics have helped to consolidate some of the entertainment/work clutter of the past, but there’s always kids’ toys, kitchen goods, and the million other things that we lugged along with us on this journey.

City of Heroes’ progeny: Ship of Heroes

Let’s finish our quick tour of the three City of Heroes spiritual successors currently in development by checking out Ship of Heroes.

This MMO arrived late to the party, announcing itself in late 2016, which was two to three years after the other projects began. It also seemed a bit like a goof: a superhero MMO that was set on a massive spaceship that just so happened to contain an earthlike city inside of it for some reason? I’m still not convinced about the need for a city-ship if you’re zipping across the galaxy and exploring other planets; it always felt like the team wanted two different things and was working too hard to make them both happen. Superheroes and Star Trek? Hm. It took some getting used to.

And can I mention how much I dislike both the title — which seems bland and derivative — and the MS Word Art-style font that the team chose for its logo? That looks incredibly ’90s.

Probably the biggest mistake that this rookie MMO development team made was pushing for a Kickstarter campaign before generating a critical mass of support and truly conveying its vision. The campaign sought $400,000 but quickly canceled after a few days when only $35,000 or so came in. It was apparent that it wasn’t going to fund and that there wasn’t some sort of huge groundswell for this game.

That all said, Ship of Heroes navigated a few rough opening months and acquitted itself with regular blog posts, a development timeline with milestones that it’s been meeting, actual gameplay, some limited alpha tests, and a very full-featured website.

What has impressed me that, rookie or not, this dev team is passionate, hard-working, and taking this MMO project very seriously. Initially the members came off as “We love City of Heroes so much and we’re going to make a sequel happen if we keep loving it so much!” Now I have to give respect to the work that’s been put into the game.

It still has a long, long way to go. It’s only seen limited testing on various systems (combat, raid, etc.), and I thought that there was supposed to be some sort of public character creator released by now, but maybe I’m mis-remembering that. But Ship of Heroes most likely stands the best chance right now to release first and bowl over the competition with its design, feature sets, and vision.

I’m still a mixed bag on whether I think I’ll like this game or not. The visuals are still a work-in-progress and are decent, but not that good yet. Characters still look plasticy to me, and the pristine sci-fi city lacks a certain personality and lived-in quality that I’d like to see.

Still, I’m impressed with the progress and desperate enough for a good superhero MMO that I’ll take this gladly if it’s the only game that comes out in this genre. I think the team needs to hire an artist or two to add some more personality, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a front person who had a better promotional voice and experience with publicity. Ship of Heroes has a real shot here, and I’m happy that the Kickstarter failure didn’t tank it.

Past this, the other two announced projects — the long-dormant Redside and the largely ignored Heroes and Villains — don’t look viable. There’s also the question of City of Heroes emulators (Paragon Chat, SEGS), but those aren’t legal or endorsed, and I don’t put a lot of stock in their future.

City of Heroes’ progeny: Valiance Online

Today I’m going to evaluate the second of City of Heroes’ three main spiritual successors — SilverHelm Studios’ Valiance Online.

Valiance came onto the scene sometime in 2014 in much the same way as City of Titans. It was a response to City of Heroes’ demise, it was driven by volunteer developers working in a virtual studio, and it launched a Kickstarter campaign. Only instead of seeing City of Titans’ success, Valiance ended up canceling the campaign once it was apparent that there was no way it was going to garner anywhere near the $150,000 desired.

I well and truly expected this project to flop, but to the team’s credit, they persevered with a minuscule budget (the game’s only raised $58,000 through its website), pushed through the first phase (of six) of development, and moved into an investor alpha as of October 2017.

Valiance is, in many ways, the underdog of underdogs in this City of Heroes successor race. It has the least amount of money, arguably the least publicity, and hasn’t been the best with communicating on a regular basis.

Yet there’s some good stuff going for it, starting with the best website out of all three games. Seriously, it’s genuinely good and makes the game effort look like a million bucks. The team’s also released far more screenshots and videos than Titan, not to mention getting players in on a limited basis. The alpha test is coming “soon,” by which they hopefully mean “2018” but we’ll “see.”

In terms of design and aesthetics, Valiance Online has my attention. I know it’s all early, but I really like what I see and dig the cleaner version of the City of Heroes UI that they are using. It definitely looks like a game that will scratch that itch, but I’m really worried about the limited finances and talent that the studio has for this. It might be the least likely to actually launch, but it’s my most wanted right now.