Thursday, July 31, 2008

Farewell to Warcraft

This post is actually several weeks late, as I canceled my World of Warcraft account last month and the subscription expired on July 11th. So, I will likely have very little, if nothing to post about WoW in the foreseeable future, which is a bit unfortunate as my posts about the interface and Heroic Mechanar are the most popular ones on this site. However, in replacement I hope to have an ongoing series about my very casual foray into Age of Conan, and I am in the Guild Beta for Warhammer Online and plan on creating a number of posts about my experiences that will be seen here as soon as the NDA drops!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Age of Conan: Initial Impressions Part I

I played Age of Conan during the 'open' beta and did not really enjoy it that much, so I decided to give it some time to see if Funcom would end up crashing and burning or if they would manage to pull their act together and quickly take care of the major issues. So, here we are, 2 months later and I found myself purchasing and installing a copy of AoC.

I'm hoping to document my progression through the game on a regular basis, though it will be a bit sporadic since I am also participating in the WAR Beta at the same time. So here we go with Part One...

First off, installation. Both installation and the patching process went smoothly, though I was a bit annoyed to see it taking time to copy the movie files in several languages to my computer when I had selected the option to install the English version. Why even give me that choice at installation time?!

But once I was in-game, my experience was quite fun. Performance was much better than when I was in the beta. I only had to tone down a couple of fluff settings to get a decent 45-50 frames per second. However, this did drop noticeably once I started encountering other players.

I'm not really interested in doing a bunch of standard run-here collect that quests in Age of Conan, so I resolved to only pursue the destiny quest until I got away from Tortage. Unfortunately, that revealed a hole in the Destiny Quest line. Mainly, the requirement that you be a certain level to proceed past certain sections. Now keep in mind that I wasn't doing any side quests, but I also wasn't avoiding combat. I killed anything and everything along the way and I still came up about 2/3 of a level short when I reached the part that requires you to be level 10, and a little over 2 levels short at the step that required level 15! Kind of annoying. I can understand having level restrictions for later parts of the Quest, but this is the starter, newbie island. It should be easy to complete this initial part and move on to the larger world. I could see it being especially bothersome when having to run through the same exact content for every character you make!

And, I do have to again complain about the fact that while I'm in my own private instance, I have to zone in and out of the houses! And to make things worse, the main quest NPC that you talk to repeatedly is also in her own private zone! Come on Funcom! Give me a break, here!

Anyway, since I had two levels to go before I could continue on my annoying, but required Destiny Quest, I headed over the Acheronian Ruins and kill some Picts while gathering up a nice Pictish outfit. As I made my way through the instance (which is very breath-taking. Kudos to the level designers for this zone) I saw a number of other players around. Most noticeable were the Necromancers who seemed to always have a number of pets and who would simply wade into the middle of a group of 4-5 Picts and emerge victorious, grabbing loot before moving on to the next pack. Meanwhile, I was left skulking about the edges, trying to grab lone Picts, two at most, though I could sometimes defeat three at once if I was lucky. I'm guessing that Necromancers the current uber-powerful PvE class?

Ended up with a LOT of deaths while grinding away in the Ruins (since I didn't have a half-dozen pets around to help me out). But I could see where having a couple of buddies to group with would make it much easier, and more enjoyable. It also seems that the NPC Picts are very good at seeing through stealth (or maybe stealth just becomes a lot less useful after level 10). I have my stealth maxed and the only time I was able to sneak up on a Pict was when they had just spawned.

I found the button-smash combat more interesting this time around. Perhaps because I realized that timing can make a big difference. And I definitely appreciate the interactiveness of the system, though it forces you to rewire your reactions when coming to AoC from other MMOs.

I ran into an odd bug with setting up hotkeys for the left-bottom bar. After quitting the game and then logging back in, the bar no longer displayed text showing me which hotkey was bound to which slot, but the hotkeys still worked. Not a hug deal, but a little confusing if you aren't aware of the issue. Another UI issue is the fact that the Feats screen doesn't display how many feat points you have available. You just have to try and select a feat and see if it works or you get an error message. Seems like a simple enough thing to fix, so I'm not sure why this issue is even in the game at this point.

Overall, my first few hours were fun, though it 90% solo, and 90% of that in my own instance. Hopefully my next installment will include some time spent with the Shadowclan Picts!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Gutting of Warhammer Online

In a very surprising announcement yesterday, Mark Jacobs informed the Warhammer community that Warhammer Online was cutting out some pretty major parts of their game, including all capitol cities except for Inevitable City (Chaos) and Altdorf (Empire) and four careers! Holy Feature-Cut Batman! I don't think I've ever seen such a major gutting of game features since the great MMO disappointment that was formerly known as Horizons!

This is a pretty huge blow in several ways. First off, the capitol city removal. To me, this is almost a game breaker. Not having a capitol city completely destroys the culture of those races who are now forced to inhabit a city that is not their own. Very sad indeed. Not to mention the pain of having to deal with traveling to your racial-specific areas from someone else's capitol city every single time you want to adventure there! All the quests are going to be dogpiled into these same cities and they will be the ONLY place to trade, sell, repair, etc, and I shudder to think of the lag that everyone will get to experience in these towns. It will be like WoW (pre Burning Crusade), where only one city on each side is the hotspot and the other capitol cities are ghost towns. And that makes me weep.

Mark Jacobs has posted further elaboration on the VN Boards, part of which includes a thought about maybe rotating in cities so that the focus is on one at a time. That is an even more horrible idea. Who cares if the players are spread out in three areas of the game? That's what the game is about! If one side decides that they want to make a serious push on one city, then maybe they would need to try and coordinate with the other races to focus on that particular section of the world. If they cant get organized enough to manage that, then they don't deserve to lay siege to capitol cities. Sieging a capitol city is supposed to be a big deal anyway, right? It shouldn't be happening every other month!

I won't suggest additional delays to the release date (which would be fine with me), but personally, I would much prefer to have some sort of placeholders in place instead. I don't mind if my capitol city doesn't grow in size and cant be sieged and maybe doesn't even have all the amenities of those for Empire and Chaos. But I do want a place to call home. A place where I can meet up with my fellow Greenskins that is OUR home. They can always patch in city improvements later, but losing that cultural quality in the initial launch is a hard thing to swallow. And yes, I know that they'll add in the cities at some point. But how long will it take? Will the cities be less interesting because a majority of the player base has already outleveled a significant portion of their content? Given the loss of entire career options, its not as if each race has a lot of options for replayability. And how much of that initial awe and excitement of being part of our own capitol city will be lost? Too much, IMO. I really don't care how fancy Inevitable City is. I'm not planning on playing a Chaos character. I'm a Greenskin at heart and I want a Greenskin city, not a couple of token Greenskins in someone else's town. Knowing that you'll be making major changes in the future allows you to plan for that ahead of time and lock off parts of the capitol city area as needed. Blocking them off entirely is a demoralizing and crushing blow to those races.

The loss of no less than four careers is a bit less galling to me (likely because it didn't hit any of my main class choices directly), but probably even more damaging in terms of gameplay. Those races that have lost careers are now much less viable as single-race entities, especially the ones that have lost their tank class! Single-race guilds are reeling beneath this announcement. ARAC all the way it seems, which makes me weep even more. If you wish to read more, there's also a thread covering this topic.

These changes seem to really destroy the concept of racial-pairing and will have a huge impact on both RvR and PvE.

So, I issue a heartfelt plea to Mythic. I certainly understand the desire to get things right and not release half-assed efforts, but I also understand that MMOs go through a lot of changes, especially in the first few months after launch. I can only speak for myself, but I would rather have partial, incomplete content that maintains the immersion and flavor that I've been eagerly awaiting for well over a year, instead of HUGE missing gaps that force players into a big, generic mash that undermines the concept of racial pairings. Let us have our cities and classes, as incomplete as they might be rather than completely denying each race their individuality.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Crafting and MMOs: A Look from Three Perspectives

Crafting has always been a system that has attracted my attention, especially from a design standpoint. Partially because most games seem to relegate it to a sidebin.

As serendipity would have it, there has been some minor discussion from three different games in development about their crafting systems. Those being Warhammer, Earthrise and Darkfall.

WAR released a podcast several weeks ago where Mark Jacobs talks about crafting in WAR. This was followed with a three-part interview (which seems to be divided into three parts just to be annoying since each part only has 3-4 questions).

In these , we find out that the WAR devs claim that their crafting system is non-recipe based, which is a bit disingenuous. There is a recipe system, its just not presented to the players up-front, and it is more flexible than crafting in most games, which tend to go for crafting systems that are extremely static (IE, X +Y makes Z with no variations). In WAR, the crafters will be able to play around with various ingredients to alter the results of the standard recipes.

WAR also plans on having only a few, limited crafting options at launch; three gathering professions and two crafting. In the interview, Jacobs explained that they would rather start with a small subset that can be expanded later and do it right, rather than trying to do everything at once. And that's certainly a philosophy I can agree with. Three years after launch, WoW is still working on trying to make their crafting professions useful, and failing for the most part.

The ability to customize your potions based upon your needs is great. The more control you give to the crafters the better. I also find their idea of having more gathering than crafting professions interesting, though we'll have to see how it plays out in-game. Is the world going to end up flooded with crafters who cant get hold of materials because there is too much competition for them? WAR also wants to make it so that crafting doesn't replace item drops and quest rewards, which I'm a bit leery of. Now we're headed back into EQ and WoW territory, where the crafted items are only minor bonuses compared to what you get from defeating the Big Bad Boss.

On the other side of the coin, you have Earthrise. In a recent interview, the talked about their plans for crafting (which are also revealed in a post on their forums. They are planning on making crafting THE way to acquire items. Players will be able to craft every item in the game, and they will also be able to make customized items by sticking various parts together. A complex system, and a bold venture by Masthead, but one that I hope works out well so that other games will feel emboldened enough to make crafting more than a side diversion from their amusement park rides.

And then, to round things out to a nice even three, I also want to include mention of a recent post from the Darkfall devs (yes, apparently they are still alive). In Darkfall, the plan on letting players
"You can gather crafting materials from killing mobs, and looting and/or skinning them. You can harvest materials from the environment, for example from rocks, trees, bushes etc. You can get the materials faster from organized resource production, like mines and farms, while collecting in nature is slower. You can craft crafting materials used to build complex items when they’re made of building blocks. Finally you can kill players and take theirs."

Hey, they're stealing my ideas! Though I didn't go into complete detail in the linked post, I've actually had a similar concept floating around for some time, so as you imagine, I'm excited to see how Darkfall handles it (assuming that they ever release their game). I really like the idea of being able to harvest from almost anywhere, ala Ultima Online, but also encouraging player cities/guilds to invest resources and time into creating semi-permanent structures that function as advanced resource harvesting centers. Not only does it allow for multiple levels of play and interaction, just within the harvesting system, but it also provides focal points for interesting conflicts between players.

So, there we have it. Three games will very different philosophies about crafting, though all look to be trending in the direction of giving more control to the player. I certainly hope that this is a sign of things to come in the future of MMOs.