“All in a row?”

Demonstrating a greater extreme of something I discussed last month, I tried a bit of Champions Online. Steam says, “13 of 713 Achievements Earned.” 713.

Oddly, within an MMO, that seems unexceptional. When you port it out to Steam, where most games are in the 2-digit range with monsters like Team Fortress 2 at 394, you wonder what Champions is doing to find 713 tasks and points of advancement worth special notice.

: Zubon

Engi Census

Playing the Steam free game of the weekend, I have come to wonder: how many games have an Engineer that builds a turret; how many games have an Engineer that does not build a turret; and how many games have a non-Engineer that builds a turret. (I think I will avoid counting Warhammer Online’s Magus and units/classes that “summon” rather than “build.” I’m unclear whether the Raven builds, summons, or do we count “deploy”?) Was there some first game that set the standard that Engineer = build a sentry gun? It feels like engineers and self-directed turrets have become a standard game item, but perhaps exploring some examples will reverse this. I keep finding near-hits, where perhaps they consciously avoided calling the turret-builder an Engineer in recent games. I wonder if non-builder Engineers are also intentional aversions? Inventory below the break, please contribute in the comments.

Edit: let’s see what happens if we add in enemies that do the same, some of which may mirror heroes. Continue reading Engi Census

PQ 2.0

Randomessa has a good account of Warhammer Online’s pre-release comments on public quests, which were entirely borne out. The public quests are more or less as advertised. You might dispute design decisions like the quick resets and having influence bars to fill (is that grind or rewarding repeatability?), but most PQ issues came from how other systems interacted with them. The main problem was population-based: you could not get past the first stage once the population lump moved past you, nor in PQs off the beaten path.

But does anyone really think that public quests are not good? When conditions are right for them to work, they work well. When conditions are not right, they limp along better than much non-instanced solo MMO content. They encourage socialization and teamwork. If you did not like particular PQs, fine. If you think the whole game is broken, fine, but this part works.

Steal this feature. Champions Online slots a PQ into the tutorial zone. If Guild Wars 2 and Rift are offering PQ 2.0, that will be an improvement from the current quest hub model (conditional on successful implementation). Are we just trying to rein in expectations about how awesome or revolutionary this is going to be, back to “good”?

Even if it is just putting sprinkles on ice cream, I like both sprinkles and ice cream, and that other place does not have ice cream on its dessert menu.

: Zubon

Early, Middle, Late

For a game that depends on a stream of income from subscribers or RMT shoppers, the first hour of play must be the top development priority. This is where you hook players. After that, the endgame is important because that is where your players will be spending time indefinitely and where your game’s chatter will come from in the long run. Next is the early game, when you build momentum. The mid-game has already fallen this far down the list, as you have certainly seen in a lot of MMOs, and frankly few care much how good the late-game is because they are already fully committed and racing for the end-game.

I stand by my repeated claim that optimizing the new player experience is of paramount importance. You must grab my attention within five minutes, and you must deliver a satisfying hour or two for my first play session. Without that, any free trial is worthless, and you may even lose some people who have thrown down $50 for a box. This is the part of the game that every single player will see on every single character, and if you cannot do a good job here, I have no hope for the rest of the game. Yes, it is hard to make things interesting while giving the player only a few buttons to play with. Suck it up, we all have hard parts in our jobs. That’s why they pay us. Continue reading Early, Middle, Late

Comment Spotlight: Cryptic’s Model

I was going to try a positive spin on Cryptic’s approach, but Sente covered it, so let’s pull that up from the comments:

The philosophy that Cryptic has applied here is one that is “player-driven development” in the sense that feedback from the players should drive much of the development of the game.

I think it is a nice idea and also something that puts less risk into the project, which I think is needed for MMOs. But going with a traditional subscription-based model topped with an item shop does not fit that well into this approach to development.

The offerings of 6 month/12 month/lifetime subscriptions for STO and CO is also something that does not quite rhyme well with this development approach.

Given the choice if Cryptic should have spent 2 years or 5 years developing STO I definitely prefer the current approach of 2 years. But it is not fair to ask customer to pay to wait for them to develop what initial player feedback might indicate.

I forgot at which blog I read a little model showing moving “release” a few steps earlier in several waves of “fix bugs and add content” (link it [thanks!] if ya got it). Of course, a downside is if an entire system fails. City of Heroes underwent massive overhauls to basic systems in years of beta, such as back when Origins were very important rather than 98.72% decorative. If you decide that your entire combat system needs to be re-done, there are few positive synonyms for “NGE.” If they decide in 2011 that Champions really should have been class-based, that is hard to graft on top.

: Zubon

In the Future, We Will All Be Hybrid DPS Classes

One positive incremental change in the MMO world is the introduction of different character modes. That is, you can hit a button and switch the focus of your character. You can fulfill multiple roles, but not all at once, with a way to switch between them. Examples include Champions Online and DC Universe (no classes, just modes), dual talent specs and Druids in World of Warcraft, and the Minstrel and Rune-keeper in The Lord of the Rings Onlineâ„¢. If you have the skill points and cash, you can also switch ships in EVE Online easily enough, which would be like hopping classes in another game.

These vary in their ease or extent of switching between modes. The two main LotRO healing classes need about 10 seconds to switch modes fully mid-combat. My WoW Paladin lost all her mana when switching. Other games might require you to go back to town to switch, which is still nice although certainly not the one-click, mid-adventure thing I am talking about. The effectiveness of doing so depends on how flexible other aspects of your character are. In LotRO, you must visit town to change your traits, and I know how I hate it when our healer is traited for damage. In WoW (late game), you would want to be carrying a second set of gear if you switch from Retribution to Holy.

Another way to implement modes is to switch focus within a role. A Lord of the Rings Onlineâ„¢ Hunter has solo and group DPS modes, the former with higher threat and mana costs, the latter decreasing them but losing bonus damage. (Solo mode: good for pulling targets off the healer, not worth much else post-Siege of Mirkwoodâ„¢.) Switching your Warcraft Mage from ice to fire is probably a less dramatic change.

While I love my alts, I am in favor of anything that will let you stick with one character. Let me stack all my options on one guy and switch which option I use, rather than switching between Zubon, Zuba, Zoobown, and Zupwn. While that will make hotkey management interesting, it saves me from having separate friends lists, guild rankings, vaults, key bindings… (You could also implement saved (and importable) or account-wide friends list, guild affiliation, shared vaults, key bindings…)

: Zubon

[Update: I see that Tobold just hit this theme from the POV of a DPS class in the post-LFG WoW world. Yeah, dual-spec does not seem like a huge boon for them. Having played ranged DPS in quite a few games, while I cannot address how WoW is this week, we are generally doing fine and soloing brilliantly, even if we are over-competing for group slots. I feel more for my healers, like my poor CoH Controller who fought bosses by putting his damaging hold (“stun” for WoW folk) on auto-repeat while I went AFK and waited for the pitiful DPS.]

Champions Zone-Servers

Most MMOs make it difficult to play with your friends. Levels are a common culprit, as are character- (not account-) specific friends lists, but servers are today’s topic (and City of Heroes solved both those problems anyway). My friends play World of Warcraft on however many servers, and I can pick one on which to spend two months leveling to catch up. We have never been able to get everyone together on the same server for any game but EVE, except when we had so few people playing that we could not field a full group anyway. Whatever else you may say against the Champions model, it avoids this. There may be fifteen copies of that zone you are in, but you and your friend can meet in the same one no matter where you started.

It is a hard thing to make someone choose which 99% of the population to wall himself off from before making his first character.

Another virtue is the inherent scaling. Games have this problem across their lifecycle: how can you accommodate both early crowding and the later population shift? You do not want The Shire clogged with 500 hobbits at once, but you want new hobbits to be able to play once the horde is level 50, and then you want the level 50 experience to remain fun after the horde that sat there for nine months moves on. What about that group content?

In the early days of City of Heroes, you might have seen a dozen copies of each low-level zone as additional instances spawned. Champions Online takes the next step by eliminating the top-level server. Each zone has a lower population cap, so it is easier to have the “right” number active in it, and more instances appear as the incoming population expands.

There may not be a shared world, but you always have the right number of shared playgrounds.

: Zubon

Re-trying Champions

Champions Online is letting everyone play for free right now, so I thought I would give it another shot. Patch installation only crashed once. I found the character creator improved in little ways that help, and getting from start to a finished character felt more intuitive, although some of that might have been having seen it before. Everything was much improved by adjusting a few settings, especially eliminating those character outlines I hate so much (tolerable in Borderlands). The power-up auto-attack is a great tool for getting that feel of constant rock-em-sock-em action, with big booms off the charged-up power. I already knew where most things were from beta, so I was off at a run. I found that I wanted to like Champions.

Then servers crashed about half-way through the tutorial. Checking a few hours later, they were up, and there was a complete roll-back. I logged in my born again virgin character to see him at the starting point. The tutorial is not so good that I want to run it multiple times per day to get through it once. Maybe next free weekend, Cryptic.

: Zubon

Reverse Ad-Libs

Elder Game is one of my favorite MMO blogs, and each post is worth its weight in gold (especially at about 12 a year).  Eric gave me a morning chuckle hypothesizing the creation of Champions Online’s profanity filter such that the filter started attacking NPC text.  When NPCs are saying stuff like ““put that $#@*^!& a pine box”  what do you think the normal MMO player replaces with the censored text?  I think that would be a fantastic April Fool’s joke for an online game.  Create a “censor bot” that replaces a few words in every NPC’s text with the comically stylized cussing text.  It just sucks, especially in Champions Online’s case (according to Eric), when it is not really a joke.


Barbed Wire

This is basically my view as well. Enjoy paying for beta, and they should be ready to launch in a few months.

Here’s the thing: people are enjoying it. Bully for them. PC gamers, and MMO players especially, have a long history of working very hard to have fun. Gordon Walton called it “crawling through barbed wire” at IMGDC 2.0, and he talked about how it is something most people will not do. You want a very particular kind of fun, and you are willing to put up with an unimaginable amount of crap to get to it. I don’t know about you, but I have set my PC to change settings, boot differently, and all other sorts of chaos to get it to play particular games I really wanted, whether that meant the bleeding edge game or getting a 15-year-old one to run on a modern system.

Now me, I’m not willing to do that anymore. I have more money than time, even if I am cheap. I pay people to remove inconveniences from my life, not add them. But for those of you still crawling through the barbed wire, sincerely, enjoy the prize when you get to it.

: Zubon