Monthly Archives: December 2014

MMORPGs to look out for in 2015

I try not to go too much into talking specific games on this blog, but as the year 2014 draws to a close, I think it may be appropriate to list the upcoming MMORPGs that interest me personally and will hopefully also interest the reader. Along with the game’s name, I will try to give a brief description of it – what makes it interesting, what negatives may come with it and why.

Pathfinder Online (link)

Based on the popular tabletop RPG franchise, PFO is a high fantasy title being developed by Goblinworks who, by all accounts, don’t seem like the most experienced developers in the industry.

The key features of the game as I take them are the massive open world, EVE Online -like territory control in the form of environmental hexes, emphasis on roleplaying, and freedom in character progression.

It is easy to conclude Goblinworks is taking a very sandbox approach, which is something the company has not been keeping a secret. CEO Ryan Dancey has in a couple of speeches made points as to why this approach was chosen. One of the reasons, according to him, was that a sandbox world where the mechanisms matter more than the content would be cheaper to develop for a small team in comparison a full-fledged themepark.

I do hold some skepticism towards this project. What worries me are a couple of things. The first thing is the release model: the game just went through it’s alpha period, after which there will not be a beta phase, but instead a phase Goblinworks refers to as early enrollment, a stage of development where the game is not nearly finished yet and that will last for a couple of years, but after the beginning of which characters will no longer be wiped.

What this seems like is an evolution of the paid beta model that has in the past years become very popular, if not the norm – you know, the model where the beta is only regarded as a marketing phase rather than a testing one. However, in Pathfinder Online’s case, the game doesn’t even have most of it’s core features like movement or combat in their final stages yet as the game enters the early enrollment phase.

Talking about unfinished, having played the alpha, I am worried the developers may be focusing slightly too much on complex systems and forgetting about the fun. The character progression system and the crafting system for example seem complex yet dull in their current, hopefully far-from-finished implementations. The same goes for combat, which has interesting concepts such as separate main and offhand attacks, but which currently feels extremely boring.

Now, one probably shouldn’t judge a game by it’s alpha (except in cases where the alpha is just a marketing period, ArcheAge acting as an example), so I will try to not draw complete conclusions here. I will say however that the designers probably need some redirection in terms of what players actually find fun. That being said, I will be keeping my eyes on the game.

Shards Online (link)

Here’s a pretty unique concept – a player run MMORPG. What makes Citadel Studios’ Shards Online intriguing is that they will be selling the server side software, promising each player run server to be capable of supporting at least 64 players at a time. Now, 64 players isn’t much, but it is only the minimum number the developer is currently sure player-run servers are going to be able to support. And more importantly, servers or shards may be connected together to form a cluster, allowing for much larger realms to exist.

While player run servers are interesting by themselves, the game doesn’t look bad on it’s own either – it reminds one of a slightly modernized Ultima Online, a game on which some of the developers have in fact worked in the past. Unsurprisingly, official servers with a monthly fee will also be available. What is surprising however is that not all servers will have the same theme – the plan, according to the developer, is to create multiple art sets for players to be able to play and create not only high fantasy but also steampunk, sci-fi, and other worlds.

Camelot Unchained (link)

For the players who fondly look back to the Realm vs. Realm battles of Dark Age of Camelot, Camelot Unchained probably seems like the most interesting thing on the horizon. The game is being developed by familiar faces from both, DAOC and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. I will not lie, personally I never was a big RVR person. But it will be interesting to see how a game with such a strong name and development team will do – whether it will find and be able to keep it’s own niche of RVR players or not.

Albion Online (link)

Another title strongly in the sandbox train, but this time with a focus on more open world PVP and bite-sized gaming – an unconventional combination. So far I have personally not been keeping up with Albion Online too tightly, mainly because of the fishy-seeming paid beta testing and the fact the game has been stated to be utilizing a F2P monetization model which I fear may not suit a PVP focused game very well.

Whether or not the F2P model will work out or not remains to be seen. With stylized graphics and gameplay that has had a pretty polished feel to it even during testing, as well as cross-platform support (which is very important to me personally, being a Linux gamer), the game will still be worth following – and in the best of scenarios, even playing. It has already grown a pretty strong following for itself.

Corecraft (link)

After a little bit of thinking I decided to include this one here. Corecraft isn’t a new game – it is an emulated World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade server.

While there are a lot of private WoW servers out there, Corecraft is unique in the amount of attention it has spawned. While it utilizes the open source MaNGOS emulator, the developers have rewritten a lot of previously existing systems themselves to get them functioning better. This is an exception from the norm in the emulation community where it is common for server owners to only be capable of creating simple scripted events but not much else.

The biggest selling point of the server is that it will be releasing the content of WoW’s first expansion in an unnerfed state and in the correct order, with all the attunements intact, albeit classes will be balanced for the later months of the expansion due to the 2.4.3 client.

I’ve personally witnessed a couple of popular emulation projects crash and burn so some level of scepticism is only appropriate. But if everything goes as planned, I believe many people will be able to squeeze a nice amount of nostalgia-filled gameplay out of the server.

Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen (link)

After the business failure that was Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Brad McQuaid has for whatever reason appeared as a pretty hated figure in the MMORPG community. Having been one of the original idea guys behind EverQuest, he still has his fans however, and those fans are surely waiting for his next game, Pantheon.

Similarily to Vanguard, the main selling points of Pantheon: ROTF are uninstanced dungeons and group-focused gameplay. The target audience is quite obviously the same: older EverQuest players.

While the game has suffered from difficulties with funding and malicious rumours being spread on various forums, some concerning Brad’s personal life, some how the employees of the developing company are being paid, a modern open world themepark is a thing a lot of people are sure to be interested in. And unlike a year ago, it does seem like the game is actually going forward, for update videos are being made on a monthly basis now. It remains to be seen what comes out of this project.

Project Gorgon (link)

While currently at a very early phase in development, Project Gorgon is already showing quite a bit of promise. It’s goal is to be the sandbox for the PVE player, and despite the team’s (currently) very limited resources, the pre-alpha version of the game, available for testing purposes free of charge, feels surprisingly solid and thought out. It shouldn’t be very surprising to hear, then, that the small team behind the game consists of veteran developers who have worked on such past titles as Asheron’s Call one and  two.

Early into development or not, a sandbox without open PVP is something a lot of players have for a long time been asking for – Project Gorgon might just one day be able to offer that, but we shall see. There is at least one obstacle on the way to mainstream success however, and that is that mechanically the game probably feels rather dated to the younger audience.

Shroud of the Avatar (link)

What would this list be if it didn’t include the game of two very familiar faces of the MMORPG world: Richard Garriott and Starr Long?

Shroud of the Avatar is to be another medieval fantasy sandbox title, which in itself probably isn’t very surprising considering who’s behind it. There are a couple of reasons to keep an eye out for this game. The combat system for one, which is to deviate from basic tab targeting and apparently will be having something to do with cards. There’s also the fact the developers are desperately looking for ways to not segregate PVP and PVE players, but allow for the playstyles to co-exist. It remains to be seen how this is handled. Lastly, its worth noting that like a couple of other titles on this list, SOA also uses the Unity3D engine – rather surprising from Garriott, but then again we live in another decade now.

The Repopulation (link)

The mandatory sci-fi game on the list, The Repopulation is another title claiming to aim for a very open sandbox experience, this time in the spirit of (and I am quoting here) Star Wars: Galaxies and Ultima Online.

Personally I am not into the theme of the game, which is non-space sci-fi. Hence, I have not been keeping up with news on development. However, the game is planning on going with a free-to-play model, which is worrying considering it will feature open world PVP. The sci-fi crowd has less games to play than us in the fantasy field however, so I will be following how development progresses. It is currently at an alpha stage.

Play2Crush (link)

The last object on the list could well be a hoax, but when a developer associated with the creation of Shadowbane along with another name about just as familiar from Ultima Online promise to be publishing news about their upcoming project in the near future, its probably worth the effort to keep one’s eyes and ears open.

Conclusions

That’s quite a nice amount of games coming up. Reading it, two things come to mind. The first is, a lot of new small developers have started up recently, many of them going for crowds one can with good conscience refer to as niche.

The second thing to take home is that the use of Unity3D is a rising phenomena. I have yet to see a finished MMORPG created with the engine that was a success, but it looks like we’re heading towards something new in the MMORPG industry: a standard. This has the potential of speeding up MMO development and making the market more varied. It will remain to be seen, however, whether or not any of the MMORPGs made with the engine make it big.

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Innovating on combat

Had one read an online forum focused on the topic of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games a couple of years back, they would’ve seen a lot of discussion on how the tab targeting combat system was outdated and needed to be replaced by something more modern.

Today the opposition to tab targeting doesn’t seem quite as vocal as it once did. That may partly be thanks to the era of clones-of-a-certain-big-game being about to draw it’s last breaths. But at least equally importantly, new systems have been tried in the past couple of years. Darkfall‘s combat, however clunky, is about as close to true FPS combat as you can get – its almost as if playing Quake in a fantasy setting and in a fully open world. There’s TERA with it’s semi aim-based system and rather console-like feel. There’s GuildWars with it’s modified tab targeting, and there’s WildStar with it’s telegraphs.

Now that’s not a definitive list of everything that’s been attempted recently, but the amount of different combat systems has increased. Granted, some of the attempts have been imperfect at best – Darkfall’s take on FPS-like combat for example falls short due to certain bad design decisions and lack of polish in the UI and control sections. But what’s for sure is there’s plenty of alternatives to tab targeting now – alternatives that have actually been tried in practice.

Is there really anything wrong with tab targeting, though? I think some people who used to think they hated tab targeting are now coming to realize that the system isn’t really that bad.

A couple of years ago, when players were practically being fed clone after clone by the market, it was easy to put tab targeting into that pile of features that made a game a WoW clone, amongst other things. See, players like to think they know what they want. But the truth is, often times they really don’t. They know they are bored with what is currently being offered, so they do know they want something different. But putting a finger on what needs to be different is surprisingly difficult.

That could be what made tab targeting so unpopular for a while. Because it was the de-facto system of combat, players felt it needed to be changed. At this point in time though, it is easier to see the system in a more neutral light – that it is just a system amongst others. It suits some games well, even very modern, action-packed games – FFXIV for example. One could go as far as claiming it is one of the best systems for a RPG even because it is not super reliant on the player but more on the character. And yet, with slight modification it is very flexible and can be transformed into something that feels very different.

But that’s enough about tab targeting. As great a system as it is, it indeed is just one system amongst many. So talking about those other systems, which ones have not been utilized in an MMORPG as of yet?

One source of inspiration could be lobby-based battle games like MOBAs. There are various types of them, and one in particular comes to my mind when thinking of MMORPG combat: Bloodline Champions. It uses the usual fixed camera view from an angle, but instead of targeting, abilities are aimed using the mouse pointer and they have travel times in the fashion of missile spells. That’s one concept to think about.

As for the systems that have already been tried, it would be interesting to see first person combat done properly in a fantasy setting. Darkfall and Mortal Online have both tried, but both games have major problems unrelated to the combat system itself, making them remain extremely niche products.

TERA’s third person, aim-based combat system is an intriguing case as well. Now, if only a Western fantasy themed game tried utilizing it, but with a little less flashiness.

Endgame: is leveling really necessary?

EverQuest is what first introduced the DikuMUD model to MMORPGs. It was World of Warcraft however that really popularized it.

By definition, Diku is heavily combat and character progression driven. In modern times,  thanks to the influence of EQ and especially WoW, that progress for the most part happens after reaching the level cap, through the acquisition of better and better equipment.

One could say that essentially raiding focused games today are group dungeon crawlers that also feature an open world fit for socializing on the side. A cynic could say the open world has been reduced to nothing but a lobby space from which players enter various minigames – but we will leave that debate for another time. Anyway, if the player isn’t currently raiding in a game of this type, it is very likely they are at least working on something that is related to raiding or increases their raid performance.

At this point I should probably point out that I realize not all Diku-inspired MMOs focus on raiding – LOTRO for example has shifted it’s focus almost completely away from group content. And it should probably be mentioned that in this post I purposefully choose to ignore the most casual population of the games that feature raiding – those players who in WoW for example, despite the existence of features like Looking-for-Raid, do not raid.

Back to raid-centric MMORPGs. For many of them, raiding is quite simply the end-all-be-all of relevant content (some would call these type of games WoW clones). Now, raiding being as important as it is begs the question: why spend resources on other content when you could spend it on improving the raiding experience further? Why have, for example, an open world full of quests a lot of people will find to be an annoyance anyway when you could just spend the  development time on designing interesting dungeon encounters instead?

I have mentioned before that for hardcore raiders a big motivation to do what they do are the bragging rights. Standing in the middle of a great city in your spiked armour known to drop only from one of the hardest boss encounters in the game with newbies drooling and whispering as they walk by feels extremely rewarding.

And while even the hardcore cannot raid 24/7, they will from time to time want to play the game outside of their group’s raid times. Hence, incentives to log in outside of raids times are needed – as fun as raiding might be, people don’t want to be completely tied to the schedule of others to do anything relevant in-game. Farming money or consumable items, or maybe simply working towards cosmetic improvements like mounts in the open world turn out to be valuable timesinks when it comes to keeping players interested.

Because of the above reasons, the open space, the persistent world outside of raid dungeons that defines these games as a part of the MMORPG genre, can be considered to be an almost necessary part of raid-centric games, even if nowadays less and less time is being spent outside of instances. I don’t believe a lobby-based game consisting of 100 % raiding could be made to work very easily. But one cannot help thinking: would a game focusing a greater proportion of it’s resources on raiding work?

Take WildStar for example, a game prior to release advertised to be a raider’s paradise. Personally, in the case of this game I believe most of the development time spent on the questing experience may have been, to be blunt, wasted. Of course development of the game engine probably took the most money, but I have been pondering whether the game would be doing better than it is now, financially speaking, had it only focused on the endgame without the fluff of the linear and (to many) boring quests and other scripted events that fill the outside world. The leveling simply feels like it was slapped on top, for no other reason but that’s how it has always been. But was it really needed? What if the game had simply been designed so that you started at the maximum level, or rather that there were no levels at all, and the only progression there was to be made was through gaining better equipment or some other form of character power and status?

For just about all the Diku-derivative MMORPGs today leveling isn’t what it once was. Level caps are expected to be reached in a very short time. Levels still increase character power, but because of the comparably small time investment, the real game may as well be treated to start at the maximum level. I know I am not the first one to say this,  but leveling in games that focus on raiding has been reduced to a sort of a tutorial to the game or the player’s chosen class.

To get to the point, I feel the concept of character levels may be needless if you are to make a game focused on keeping the hardcore raiding niche entertained. It would be very interesting to see whether or not a raid-centric game without levels would work. Personally I think it well could.

Pretending its not there

While currently it may feel like the MMORPG is a stagnating genre, a couple of years back it was still heavily evolving. It turned out not to evolve in the way many of us had expected however: instead of creating more and more immersive and complex virtual worlds, developers started taking a more game-y approach to these online spaces, focusing on bite-sized and instanced gameplay rather than world simulation. Partly thanks to the influence of the lobby based MOBA games, features such as Battlegrounds and the Dungeon Finder became standard features of modern MMORPGs – at least the themepark subtype of them.

Many of the new features introduced to MMORPGs in the past couple of years divide opinions. Already before the Dungeon Finder instancing itself was frowned upon by a large part of the community. Everybody has those features they dislike in their game of choice – no game is ever perfect. The question is: how do you deal with features you strongly dislike?

I mentioned the Dungeon Finder right at the top of this post. That’s because one of my biggest personal gripes is with this feature. Of course, as with any opinion, I am not saying my opinion is the only right one – that being said I tend to make my opinion heard on the fact I dislike this particular feature. I also tend to stay away form games that implement it. On the internet I’ve had many a discussion about the feature, and time and time again the same argument has come up:

Why don’t you just ignore it?

Turns out the Dungeon Finder is a particularly good example of why this argument does not work. In the case of this particular feature, if a game utilizes it, it is a near-impossibility for a player to play the game without it. Not only are many games nowadays designed all around the use of this feature from the get-go, even if it is introduced into a game post-release (which is what happened to WoW), it will be the optimal way to do things and hence everyone will expect you to use it. Often it even introduces extra rewards as opposed to the method of running dungeons in the “normal” way. Good luck finding a like-minded group of people to run dungeons with without using the tool.

Finding that group of like-minded players isn’t the only problem making it difficult to enjoy a game if you despise the Dungeon Finder of course. You aren’t alone in the virtual world – that’s what persistent MMO worlds are about after all. Even if you and a couple of friends refuse to use the feature, most others will not and this will affect your gameplay one way or another. You will see people getting equipment faster and easier than you. Other players will be capable of getting around the world quicker than you thanks to the non-class dependant teleportation system of the feature (which is a particularly unimmersive thing by the way). And most of all, everyone outside your group of friends will expect you to use the feature, and if you don’t, they will be confused. They will think you are stupid. You are being inefficient as a player, a burden to others.

But this post isn’t just about the Dungeon Finder. The suggestion of ignoring the existence of a feature to enjoy a game is an ignorant one almost no matter what the feature is, be it instancing, the DF, localized banking or there being no penalty to dying. If somebody wanted an MMORPG to have harsher death penalties, would you really go ahead and suggest they could just destroy their own property on death and that would solve the problem?

When players have to make up artificial rules to enjoy a game, the situation becomes comparable to that of a couple of children playing cops and robbers. No written-down rules exist and what ends up happening is neither side can agree on who shot first and whether or not the bullet hit. Now, to some extent that approach can work – see roleplaying servers of some themepark games for example – but that requires a very specific mindset. Literally going down to the level of childlike play for the sake of enjoying a game isn’t a satisfying solution – games, by definition, have rules. We shouldn’t have to pretend something does not exist, period.

Artificial difficulty: there’s no such thing

There are hard bosses and there are easy bosses when it comes to raiding in a themepark MMORPG. However, there are varying types of difficulty. This, I am afraid, is often not recognized when arguing whether this or that boss is more difficult than the other. Difficulty is still difficulty, even when it comes from a different source than the one one would expect, and that is what I want to address in this post.

Lets take a look at World of Warcraft, a game most of us have played. Time and time again on various discussion platforms one runs into difficulty comparisons drawn between the boss encounters of past expansions and those of the more recent ones.

Take the common claim that modern (Cataclysm expansion onwards) hardmode boss encounters are much more difficult than, say, the hardest of content offered by The Burning Crusade, the game’s first expansion pack. The arguments usually given are something along the following lines:

  • In The Burning Crusade, boss mechanics are rather simple – fire on the ground, debuffs that do damage to nearby friendly allies, debuffs that must be dispelled at the correct time, hard DPS checks with a slight twist.  Modern boss encounters often use the same mechanics, but there are also new ones and there are more of them per boss, making the newer encounters generally more complex.
  • Modern character classes have more buttons they have to press regularly in their second-to-second play (rotation) during an encounter.

If we simply compare the amount of mechanics of a modern hardmode boss to that of a boss from TBC, we can easily see that sure, the newer bosses have more mechanics. On the other hand, classes now have way more tools on short cooldown to deal with these mechanics – there are sprints, damage taken reducing abilities, multi mob tanking abilities, instant crowd control abilities, etc. And in The Burning Crusade, threat management (not overaggroing, and in some encounters, tank swapping by pure threat control) is still a mechanic where as it doesn’t exist in later expansions, mostly because tanks’ threat generation is through-the-roof and bosses are no longer immune to the Taunt ability which instantly moves the tank on top of the threat list.

As one can see above, there’s disagreement even on whether modern boss encounters really demand more mechanical expertise from the player or not. But lets, for the sake of argument, assume for a second that mechanically modern boss fights really are more difficult, demanding more individual player skill (of the twitch variety that is.) Does that mean The Burning Crusade would be a walk-over to the modern raider?

Despite classes’ PVE rotations in most cases being simpler back in the day and despite bosses having less mechanics, many bosses still took a very long time to kill in The Burning Crusade. In addition, now that the old content is no longer available on the official servers, private servers offer the experience of the old expansions  (although not in a perfect manner), and even on these servers guilds struggle on certain fights despite all of the strategies now being thoroughly known and players having reportedly come better at the game.

Now, time and time again some people who feel boss encounters in modern expansions are higher up on the scale of difficulty than those of past times make the argument that the above is simply due to something known as artificial difficulty. What exactly do they refer to with this term?

As far as I’ve gathered, artificial difficulty, to those who use it as an argument in said debate, is any difficulty that comes not directly from boss mechanics the player must react to in real time, but from external factors such as raid composition, logistics, consumable farming and the like instead.

An example of artificial difficulty often used is M’uru, the second last boss of Sunwell Plateau, the last and most demanding raid dungeon of the Burning Crusade expansion. The boss was infamous for “breaking guilds”, for it’s pure number requirements in terms of required healing and damage output were so high an extremely optimized raid composition was required. A very small percentage of the raiding population ended up killing the boss before the preparation patch of the next expansion.

M’uru forced many guilds to recruit certain classes such as shamans and warlocks en masse to meet the number requirements. Players also had to change their professions – about four fifths of the raid needed the Leatherworking profession so that they were able to use a certain consumable item. Lastly, the amount of gear and consumable farming (potions, foods, magical scrolls…) required was, to say the least, immense.

As said, only a very small percentage of players ever managed to beat M’uru when it was relevant content. However, mechanically speaking the fight isn’t that complex. There are monsters that need to be tanked and killed quickly and there is constant raid-wide damage going on, the amount of which grows as the fight drags on. Its nothing fancy, really – players just need to do what they normally do but in an extremely efficient manner. A single mistake can wipe the raid – be it a tank not picking up a monster fast enough of a damage dealer missing a global cooldown which ends up in the raid not meeting the number requirements.

So M’uru certainly isn’t a complex fight by the number of mechanics, but does that mean it isn’t difficult? Not at all. In fact I would argue it is one of the most difficult boss encounters in the game to date.

The thing is, not all that counts as part of difficulty is what happens inside the raid dungeon itself. You know the hassle of recruitment guilds went through to get the correct class composition to beat M’uru (or the leveling of alts)? That was part of the difficulty and somebody had to do it. The gearing up of the raid, the consumable farming, the whole logistics affair of it was indeed very challenging. Getting 20 players to roll a new profession certainly isn’t easy, let alone getting them online at the same time regularly to practice the encounter.

Boss mechanics the player needs to react to certainly aren’t the only thing that make a boss difficult. Sometimes different skills are required than simple reaction times and the ability to press the right buttons in the correct order – efficient recruitment or organizational skills, or maybe even calculating the optimal ways of dealing damage or healing on an encounter are all challenging deeds, too. All of them are part of encounter difficulty, and they certainly are a very tangible thing.

There is no such thing as artificial difficulty.