Tag Archives: Shadowbane

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.

Attributes in non-combat gameplay

To continue with the theme of putting combat and non-combat gameplay against one another, when was it it that attributes (or stats/abilities if you prefer) such as Strength, Intelligence and Wisdom became strictly combat-related variables? After all, RPG players are used to attributes affecting many areas of gameplay, not just combat.

The idea of attributes is to represent the character’s capability in physique, brain power and the like in a general way. But the truth is that in the world of MMORPGs, attributes have just about always been regarded as combat stats and not much more. One reason for this is that the genre tends to be quite combat-heavy – and that’s because combat is some of the easiest content to create. But the other, possibly greater reason is that coming up with meaningful non-combat uses for attributes in a massively multiplayer online world is difficult. Where would it make sense to make an Intelligence check, for example?

Attributes could be made use of in quest-driven MMOs, but hard-scripted quests that don’t branch are cheaper to make and have no place for attribute checks that might indeed branch the story. The way to utilize attributes would be that a quest could for example at some point make a Wisdom check that would be used to determine whether a character has some (possibly divine) knowledge available to them or not. Depending on whether or not the player would pass the Wisdom check, the quest would branch differently.

The fact quests with multiple branches are more expensive to make isn’t the only obstacle in the way – there’s also predictability. Unlike in a game session with a Dungeon Master capable of making up and modifying adventures on the fly, in an MMORPG multiple people will complete the same quest. Even if the quest can branch multiple ways, it cannot be dynamically changed. What this means is that eventually players will discover the attribute levels required to pass a given quest’s attribute checks, and they will make it known on the internet. Not much fun to it if players feel forced to use a search engine for every quest-related attribute check they come by.

Scripted content in the likeness of quests isn’t the only place where attributes could be of use though. If an attribute like agility increased a player’s run speed, it would be useful in not just combat but just about everywhere else, too. Maybe Intelligence could increase a player’s chances of  getting a discount from a vendor. Dexterity could increase the chances of lockpicking or thievery further, or maybe increase the rewards or skill gain rate. Charisma could increase the gold gain from selling things to a vendor, or increase the rewards from tasks done for NPCs. And Strength could increase the rate of mining and inventory weight capacity, to give a couple of examples.

Many of the things I mentioned above have been done (the most common one probably being Strength increasing inventory capacity), however, none of them are particularly common in MMORPGs, and most of the time if an attribute has four or five uses in combat listed for it, there’s only one non-combat use, if that.

More importantly, even if an attribute affects a non-combat area of gameplay, it can still in some games only be increased by partaking in combat. It rarely seems to be the other way around, and while combat oriented players are generally more picky about balance (the PVP crowd especially) and hence a developer probably doesn’t want to force them to do non-combat content just for the sake of minmaxing, it is not just unfair but also, to put it in a word, lame to then do the same to non-combat players. Then again, such an approach is understandable in games that focus solely on combat – take Shadowbane for example where farming characters, no matter the class, would have had to allocate a lot of their attribute points into Strength for inventory capacity – forced combat made sense here because after all the game was advertised with the slogan “We don’t play to bake bread – we play to crush.” But generally speaking, it such an approach makes no sense.

I would like to see attributes utilized more in non-combat gameplay – for the sake of realism if nothing else. I wouldn’t want to force combat-oriented players to start doing non-combat content just to increase their attributes, no, but a character who’s been a miner all their life without a fistfight’s worth of combat participated in should have a Strength score higher than that of a brand new character. Combat attributes, such as those from gear, could in fact be separated – armour gives armour, and maybe in some cases increases a mage’s spell casting speed or something similar through an enchantment. And I am sure there would be other ways to balance it out, but to put it simply, it would be nice to be able to look at attributes as something a little more than numbers that increase my Damage-per-Second.

Balancing randomization in MMORPG combat

Roleplaying games are pretty much built around the use of random number generators (RNG). The history of this derives from the tabletop world of course, but there’s a reason randomization has stayed a part of the genre throughout it’s years of moving to the digital world of computers: player skill isn’t what is considered important, but that of the character – hence the term roleplaying game. The player does not play themselves but a character with a distinct set of skills and abilities.

Another reason for the existence of randomization is that it’s an easy and cheap way to make gameplay more varied. In the tabletop world this point isn’t as crucial because no campaign will ever be exactly the same, even if run by a the same game master, but fighting for example the same monsters in a computer RPG would get boring much more quickly without RNG as every fight against a particular monster type would be exactly the same as the one before. Here we step on the main point of randomization: it spices up the gameplay.

While previously pretty much an unquestioned part of the genre, as competition has become a regular aspect of the multiplayer CRPG, especially the massively multiplayer online variety of it, random number generators have come to be a subject of debate. Especially in games that involve player versus player combat the subject is seen as one of great importance. It of course also affects another form of competition, the competition between raiding guilds to down encounters faster than others, but this is  to a lesser extent and hence I will not go into that in this post.

Its easy enough to understand why randomness is regarded as such an important subject in PVP-focused games – after all, continuously losing to another player due to bad rolls can with fair reason be called lame. It makes one question whether a game is suitable as a competitive platform to begin with.

With that in mind, it is surprising to me that, from my subjective experience at least, in games where losing in PVP can present a far greater penalty, RNG isn’t discussed nearly as often as in some games where losing to another player presents little to no penalty at all. I am talking about two distinct game types here: the open world, free-for-all, full loot games such as EVE, Darkfall or the bygone Shadowbane, where death can mean the loss of your entire property at worst, and games where just about all PVP is instanced and rather sterile, and where defeats represent nothing but a mere loss of time and rating – for example the Arena minigame in World of Warcraft.

At first glance it seems weird RNG is discussed as little as it is in open world PVP games in comparison to ones where competition happens in a far safer environment in terms of what one can lose. But what it maybe comes down to are two things.

First, because open world PVP is already not artificially limited by a set of rules that would, for example, limit the amount of participating players, there already exists such a great level of randomness that the addition of randomized damage ranges, hit tables and whatnot does not seem like such a big deal.

The second reason is social: the game types appeal to different kinds of people. From my personal experience, players in open world PVP games tend to have backgrounds in the RPG genre, where as people into instanced PVP often have at least some background in esport-type games – FPS, MOBAs and the like – and often little to no background in roleplaying.

While in instanced PVP randomness is especially frowned upon, just about no game that offers this feature has completely gotten rid of it. There’s has to be a reason for this. What that reason probably is is that developers realize having at least some randomness to combat is actually beneficial even in a competitive game. The question to ask is: what is a suitable amount of randomness to spice up the game without making it too random.

Once again it comes down to what a game’s playerbase expects from the game – what sort of player the game appeals to. The competitive arena player who watches esports streams on Twitch probably despises randomness and wants things to be decided based on player skill. That being said, while some would claim otherwise, having a level of randomness doesn’t completely eliminate player skill, not even close, and despite numbers sometimes being more in favor of another team, in the long run randomness always balances out. A reasonable amount of randomness in a game of this sort can make it slightly more interesting to watch and play without completely deciding matches – critical hits, damage ranges and the like. Pseudo-random systems are not bad either, and many MOBA games utilize them despite these games being very balanced.

Contrast to arena players and the like, players of open world PVP games tend to be more used to traditional RPG mechanics and expect them.This alone makes them more prone to be acceptable of randomization, but in addition to this, world PVP is already almost always unfair in one way or another. Of course a randomly generated streak of missed strikes causing a death and loss of property is annoying, but just about equally annoying is getting killed by a group of two players who happened to stumble upon you as you were adventuring alone. In such an unbalanced, unsterile environment RNG does not get to stand out in a negative way very often due to the huge amount of other factors that affect who actually wins a fight. This, I would conclude, is the reason RNG is so little discussed in open world PVP games.

Now, if we did want to completely remove randomization from combat, one could ask: what harm would that do? The problem is that as for PVE, random number generation is almost necessary, because encounters are normally tightly scripted. Without randomization, PVE would quickly become extremely dull, because the exact same strategy without the slightest bit of variation would work every single time against the same encounter.

Few games have a completely separate combat system for PVE and PVP, so the two must overlap – if randomization is part of PVE, it must also be part of PVP. That has to be accepted by the developer. But the amount of randomization should probably depend on the type of game they are making, and the type of playerbase they are aiming for – different types of players expect different things.