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Archive for November, 2011

An Exercise

I don’t have the readership numbers to justify polls, but I’m curious nonetheless.

Call to mind single player RPGs such as the iterations of the Elder Scrolls, GTA, or Fallout series. Do you consider these to be sandbox RPGs?

Why or why not?

Now imagine that these games had a massively multiplayer component. The same game, but with the floodgates open for thousands of players at the same time, with NO other changes made to the game. The multiplayer versions of the above games are, in your view:

Why or why not?

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While I’m sure it will not surprise anyone given my silence on the subject following one hopeful post nearly two years ago, I will not be playing Star Wars: The Old Republic. I have given a lot of thought about what I’d say about the game only if and when I had the opportunity to play it, and I was given that opportunity last weekend. It was probably not the best timing, given what it had to compete with, but it solidified a lot of things for me, culminating in my final decision on the fate of its purchase in our household.

Although I did note several similarities to WoW in the gameplay I sampled (rest areas being the most glaring one for me right off the bat), it was the Bioware traits that I ended up having most of my problems with. That’s right, I realized I don’t like Bioware games. I could have come to that conclusion when I never got farther than 10 hours into either Dragon Age: Origins or either KOTOR, but instead I figured I just didn’t like single-player RPGs. With dozens of blissful hours of Skyrim firmly behind me, I can kiss that notion goodbye, so it must be something that Bioware does that doesn’t sit well with me.

Considering where I left each of my prior attempts at Bioware games, I think I can safely say that that “thing” mainly is: trapping me.

[Beware spoilers below if you don't know much about the first 10 hours of DA:O, KOTOR, or KOTOR2]

I left DA:O the night I arrived in that town that is being besieged by darkspawn every night – the one you can opt to help or leave to their fate. I quit because prior to making my decision, I tried to leave and return to the town I’d been doing errands in earlier in the day, only to find that it had been destroyed and was no longer accessible. That left me with nowhere else to go. Sure, I could have denied my help to the townspeople, or chosen one of the other two story paths set out for me, but frankly what I wanted was something, almost anything else. I wanted to be able to go places in the world, even at my own peril, and DA:O said I could not. So I quit.

I left KOTOR in the sewers, after collecting Mission and her Wookiee friend and killing what felt like a bazillion gang members in as many rooms. I simply grew tired of sewers; I wanted to leave the sewers, and with my options being “continue fighting in the sewers” or “go dueling” I chose “none of the above.”

So, I thought, finally, maybe KOTOR2 would be more enjoyable? And this one seemed to be breaking the mold! No sewers! And I made it off the starting planet, and the second one, too! But I ultimately accepted my fate on Nar Shadaa, after cozying up to everyone imaginable and destroying a yacht just to get my ship back, only to remember that there was a Jedi to find and train with, and by that time I realized to my dismay that I no longer cared about any of the whole mess at all. Whatever juice Bioware uses to make so many others feel immersed and invested in their games, I must have been dosed with the antidote.

[end spoilers, if you were watching for that sort of thing]

It turns out that I simply do not have the patience for staying in one environment that Bioware demands of me. I have never fancied myself a sandbox lover (especially given the MMO interpretation thereof), and I love me some well-crafted and portrayed lore and cutscenes, but at least in most MMOs I’ve played I have a variety of locales I can move through in a relatively brisk manner, or, barring that, a variety of activities I can undertake to advance, even within the same environment. Side quests in Bioware never seemed to satisfy me the way they do in other games with main story threads like Guild Wars or LOTRO. Playing pazzak or swoop racing was not a substitute for tasty alternate story content, in my view.

So I tried to keep an open mind when I played SW:TOR last weekend. I wanted to like SW:TOR badly. I was raised on Star Wars  (feel free to insert childhood anecdotes that many will have also experienced) – we share a birth year and everything. It’s fate! But in the end, I was a little surprised by how much SW:TOR did not gel with me, though in hindsight the experiences I detailed above make it a no-brainer. I played a Bounty Hunter, a Smuggler, and a Sith Inquisitor, and it wasn’t until the third that I started to feel a bit immersed in the world, since it was the first story where I didn’t feel I was trapped in the environment by a stolen ship or a contest I needed to gain rep to participate in. Also, Seethe is the best power of any character or race in any MMO ever to exist. But by then the beta weekend was ending and I didn’t get to cash in the interest that had just started to build up.

I also had a huge problem with the way Bioware morality is assigned. More than once I boggled at the choices that led to Light Side points over Dark Side, and felt like I had to choose between “staying good” and doing what I felt would give my character internal consistency. I saw replies on various forums saying that these choices ultimately did not matter, since you could “grind out” LS/DS points of your choosing doing flashpoints, but since gaming the system is a playstyle I don’t participate in, I didn’t find the notion very comforting.

I also had a problem with the options for multiplayer that SW:TOR offers. I’m tired of people scoffing at Warhammer’s open groups or Rift’s public groups as though they are such unoriginal and failed ideas, when they are the only two games I can think of that offer such a seamless way to join with more than 3 or 4 people in the open world (and content that can be easily found and tackled with groups of such large sizes to boot). There are heroic areas with elite mobs in SW:TOR, but they are just as static as the non-heroic areas (or, they were on the level 1-10 planet). I could have grouped, but there was nothing compelling me to. By this I don’t mean that I would only group if forced to by content that would kill me; I mean there was no overarching area threat that could have benefitted from players banding together to deal with it, nor a mechanic to allow that to happen organically. And I get that that’s not what Bioware is going for with SW:TOR, and more’s the pity for it.

As for the stories themselves as presented, I thought they were all right, my favorite of the three being the Sith Inquisitor story. In fact, I wish now that I’d started with it, but that brings me to another problem I’ve always had with Bioware’s take on SW:TOR, which is to tie gameplay style with story. I didn’t want to be a mage, I wanted to be a heavily-armored rocket-shooting crowd-controller, but it turns out that that story didn’t interest me as much, so it was off to be a mage I went. I played as a purely Light-Sided Sith, which amused me although my dialogue options tended to be boring. I’d have thought it’d be more interesting to play against type, but it didn’t play that way, so I ended up making up my own interesting quips in my head, and when you’re doing that in a Bioware game, I think you’ve missed the plot.

I think that rather sums up my experience playing this and other Bioware games rather succinctly. I’ve missed the plot. I wanted to like it, I’ve heard such excellent things about it, and I’m not terribly opposed to the traditional MMO-ness of it (I am still playing LOTRO, after all). I’m just out of phase or something, stubbornly immune to, or incapable of appreciating, Bioware’s charms. I’m sure that every one of the negatives I listed above have made their way onto someone else’s “must have” list, and so, with something like a kajillion pre-orders, I’m sure Bioware can do just fine without my support.

I do, genuinely, wonder if the sales will sustain themselves into ongoing subs six months or a year down the line, and think it will really depend on how quickly and robustly Bioware adds content (no mean feat, with voiceovers to add for everything). Tying gameplay to story means that I don’t think everyone will play through every storyline just to see how the story goes, there’s bound to be repeated content across factions, and as it stands it’s easy to see the fallout from your various dialogue choices by escaping out, so curiousity won’t drive that bus too far, methinks (and locking people into their dialogue choices without a means to back out would summon a hue and cry that could be heard from Alderaan).

I don’t think SW:TOR has anything to fear from other upcoming MMOs coming down the pike, except from people who have already admitted that SW:TOR is only a stopgap on the way to another anticipated game (and I wouldn’t bet there are terribly many of them). The only people who would leave other than that are those who have no particular attachment for the IP or company loyalty, but rather will play anything with “MMO” and “new” written on the tin. People who are playing because “it’s Star Wars” or “it’s Bioware” aren’t going to go anywhere, because, well, it is what’s written on the tin. They are its target audience, and they are well loved.

In closing: enjoy, target audience! I’d be pretty excited right now, if I were you.

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Having been playing mostly Skyrim for the past several days (with brief detours into LOTRO and a weekend beta for some other upcoming MMO for the heck of it), I find myself converted as a believer in the type of single-player world Mr. Randomessa has been trying to sell me on for years. I knew buying that copy of Oblivion for him would pay off someday.

Whether it’s because the technology has finally been able to catch up to the graphic quality I expect and envision in a fantasy world, with years of improvements on previous Elder Scrolls incarnations like viable 3rd person view and NPCs that don’t trigger my uncanny valley horror reflex, or some other factor, I don’t know. All I know is that Skyrim is the first single-player game I’ve truly enjoyed enough not to quit before the end of the first act.

So it’s the case that I enjoy the sandbox elements of Skyrim, the removal of rails, the ability to go spelunking without a care that I might run into an invisible wall, or that I can’t leave a town until I’ve sufficiently pleased enough inhabitants to obtain passage elsewhere. But I also enjoy the elements of convenience; that when someone mentions a town to me, it appears as a landmark on my map, and that once I’ve traveled there in person I can hop back at any time. I like that I can learn my skills by using my weapons, or I can find someone who excels at that ability and pay for them to train me.

I know that there are elements of these features in previous Elder Scrolls incarnations, but in the wistful talk of some gamers who would love to see something like Skyrim translated into MMO form, some of these, such as fast travel, are the kinds of features that would be shouted down on any gaming forum. I commented on my love of Skyrim’s fast travel on Keen’s blog, only somewhat facetiously, but it did get me thinking about the ways in which Skyrim has only served to make me more excited about Guild Wars 2.

Everyone acknowledges that GW2 is a themepark MMO, not a sandbox. Some have helpfully offered the term “sandpark” to describe the ways in which ArenaNet has blurred the edges of what we have come to think of as “themepark” play. Yet what people generally think of as sandbox when it comes to MMOs is far removed from what I experience in Skyrim. It sometimes seems to me that when people want an MMO to be more like a sandbox they want it to be more obtuse, explain less to the player, remove elements of convenience as though these are what make a game a themepark. Yet I keep seeing features in Skyrim that remind me of my time playing Guild Wars 2’s demo.

In Skyrim, huge text floats over my head when I discover a new location or obtain or complete a quest. I can track every single quest objective in my journal all at the same time. That I can choose which to complete, and in which order, is merely icing on the cake; I always know exactly where I can go to get something done, while still retaining the freedom to veer off and do something else entirely.

In my demo experience of Guild Wars 2, the UI is more prominent, with an event log keeping score in the corner of the screen. However, I rarely found myself having to talk to an NPC to contribute in some way to completing a task (although I could if I wanted to). As in Skyrim, sometimes I merely followed the shouts of NPCs to a place where something big was happening; more than once I just had to follow the smoke to a fire.

Is there a main storyline to Guild Wars 2? Yes, as there is in Skyrim. But do I have to do it at once, or even at all? As with Skyrim, the answer is no. I can ignore that green diamond as easily as the quest marker in Skyrim, and simply fill my roster with “Miscellaneous” (in Skyrim), or pick up eggs and place them in trees to please the Raven Spirit (in GW2)… and incidentally, when a dragon in Skyrim landed, breathing fire, I pummeled it with magic and sword alongside several screaming NPCs, and was reminded of doing the same in Guild Wars 2 at PAX Prime.

Scouts in GW2 serve the same purpose as that random person you meet in Skyrim’s towns who  “tell you more about” the inhabitants, unlocking the location of the mill, the market, the nearby farms, and the taverns so that you can talk to and help the inhabitants there. It’s just that GW2 circles those spots on the map for you and dots them with a heart. Even features such as learning skills based on weapon and magic use are features that ArenaNet has implemented in GW2 and “feel” similar to the way in which I get better at one-handed sword use in Skyrim.

I “learned” how to make specific alchemical potions by combining “optional, optional, and optional” in a similar manner to how we have seen crafting demonstrated in Guild Wars 2 as well.

I wish that rather than hard terms such as “themepark”, “sandbox,” or even “sandpark” we could recognize that such games run on more of a continuum. When we speak of sandbox MMOs providing player freedom, we are so often only referring to freedom to create content (which is not a bad thing depending on whom you ask and what the content is) but not freedom to explore existing content, which is what I happen to be much more interested in. Guild Wars 2 might not provide much of the former outside the WvWvW realm of the Mists, but in my opinion it does offer plenty of the latter, in a manner surprisingly similar to that of “vanilla” – sans mods – Skyrim.

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Words -> Mouth

I was trying to think of a good topic to post on juxtaposing my experiences in LOTRO with my expectations and excitement about Guild Wars 2, but then November 11th hit and, well, Melmoth says it better and more succinctly than I could.

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