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It has been in Beta, so it is fine

April 18, 2010 1 comment

Almost every piece of software has a public Beta phase these days. MMO’s have continuous beta’s by running test realms with future patches of the game. It is understandable, because applications have grown so large that it is almost impossible to test every aspect thoroughly. Beta’s gather large amounts of statistical data and allow players to give feedback (often through forums, but also through in-game bug reports). Simulating the actions of a very large number of people logging in and playing from many different countries is possible, but impractical compared to actually letting those people log in. Participating in betas gives gamers a chance to help make the game they will pay for later a better product.

Where things go wrong, however, is in assuming that a large amount of data is automatically valuable. Testing is a specialist job. Even programmers, or perhaps, especially programmers, are bad at testing. For one thing, a tester will try to cover as many different aspects as possible. Non-professional users, on the other hand, will spend most of their time on things they find interesting as if the beta is a free trial. Since ‘finished’ parts of a game will appeal most to the majority, these aspects will be played most. For example, if crafting is poorly implemented, a few hardcore crafters will complain about it on the forums, but most people will be out playing Dungeon X which is 99% finished and polished and thus fun. This means that most statistical data will be gathered on the parts of the game that need it least.

In Starcraft II Beta the Ultralisk is barely used according to the forums. While the posters in the forums can qualify why, statistical data is necessary to validate the reasons. And the question is if enough of that is gathered if “noone” is using them.

Betas (and testrealms) can be misused by developers to simply try things that have no basis. Or apply a nerf and then tone it down later after the forums have been stormed by raving players. The toned down nerf, still a nerf, is easier accepted then. The worst offense, however, is not planning enough time to actually do something with the Beta feedback. This leads to infamous patches like at the launch of Champions Online. While the patch was necessary to keep the game a bit challenging, the timing could not have been worse. Such major problems should already have been found and fixed in an earlier stage, or rather, there should have been more time between beta and launch.

Content that has been in beta is not automatically ready. The paid developers keep responsibility, not the paying players who are basically just helping out.

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Champions Online back on track

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I decided not to rant against Vibora Bay when it was announced and I am glad I did. After weeks of almost no communication, the front page of the Champions Online site is again filled with real news. As I wrote in a previous blog, there are three things I expected from Cryptic before I would start to trust them again: honesty, apologies and recompense, although the latter was a minor point. The State of the Game of February 9 actually addressed all three.

Revelation will feature a half demon/half angel. I'll admit that I made one in the costume generator some time ago...

Chronomancer admitted that they had not tested enough and promised to improve both testing and communication. There’s a GM blog up that shows they take their promises seriously. They biggest announcement, however, was that the Vibora Bay expansion would be free. It was renamed to Revelation and it is coming somewhere in March. I think that giving an intended paid expansion for free serious recompense. At least the marketing department finally realised that they needed some good press. One may conclude they had a revelation. It does not matter whether it was realistic of Cryptic to expect that people would pay for the expansion. They put effort in the project expecting that it would have to sell itself to the players. That simply must put it on a higher level than, say, the Winter Event. If Revelation is received well, it could revitalize the game.

Meanwhile, several PvP breaking powers and advantages like Swallowtail Cut (single blade), Where is the Kaboom! (archery) and mini-drive (gadgetering) were fixed. Their overpoweredness was not caused by design, but by lack of Quality Assurance. Since Chronomancer promised better testing, there should be less overpowered abilities that make it from the test shard to live. While there will always be strong builds, the reduction of power difference between normal and pure PvP builds will increase the amount of people who play PvP: getting steamrolled drives people away, but losing a good fight will encourage people to improve.

What’s next?

The future of CO purely depends on the number of players: enough income to make a decent profit for the company will keep the game online. Good expansion followed by good press will make the game thrive, althoug the superhero genre will probably never get the same interest as Fantasy and SF. Although Cryptic has lost points with the community in the last months, they are apparently working hard to improve their reputation. I hope it will be enough. For now I will keep my eyes on any revelations about Revelation.

Honesty, apologies and recompense

January 24, 2010 1 comment

The official PvP forum in Champions Online has been filled with ‘goodbye’ posts. Normally, I detest these kind of posts, because most do not add anything to the discussion about making the game better. However, in this case several people who have been very active in the Hero Games and on the forums, even testing things on the Test Shard, have announced their leaving. Some of them had enough confidence in the game to buy 6 month or lifetime subscriptions. Their threads in the forum have been locked after a while. PvP needs a healthy amount of players to thrive and that means that CO PvP is currently on life-support.

The lack of updates on the website (the last front page item is from twelve days ago) indicates that all of Cryptic’s efforts are going to Star Trek Online. And, frankly, given the state of that game, they should. I understand that the time before the launch of a new game is hectic, especially one with a famous IP like Star Trek. I understand that it is next to impossible at this stage to get and train new people to help out with programming and bug fixes. I even understand that Cryptic’s future is dependant on the success of STO. However, I do not understand that they have not communicated about this to the Champions Online community.

Let me make something up:

The launch of STO is stretching Cryptic’s resources more than we expected. Therefore we have moved most of the CO team temporarily to STO. While there are no content updates to CO any engine fixes and new technology that we make for STO will also immediately benefit CO.We are still fully commited to Champions Online and there will be regular updates to the game again starting February with [insert moderately exciting announcement here].

As an apology to our heroic playerbase we would like to offer Open Beta keys to everyone with an active CO subscription. You will receive an e-mail about this today. Also, we will give everyone a free month.

My mock-up contained three elements: honesty, an apology and recompense.

It is probably too late to get players back on short notice. While I still love the whole theme and look of CO, Cryptic will have to regain my trust. That starts with being honest about their situation. Then they can admit they’ve been treating their players wrong by offering an apology. Recompense is not that important to me, because I have a lifetime subscription, but people who have been paying for these last few months with sparse updates and lack of bug and balance fixes deserve something, in my opinion.

Global Agenda

I bought Global Agenda, which automatically gave me beta access. After trying it for a bit, I decided that I liked the game, but I do not want to burn out my enthusiasm on beta. Contrary to my expectations, Mass Effect 2 is going to get some competition for my play time.

LOTRO Skirmishes for Champions, please!

January 3, 2010 1 comment

Fully scalable

Skirmishes are a new kind of instance that were added to Lord of the Rings Online as part of the Siege of Mirkwood Expansion. These are scalable event-driven instances that can be played solo or in a group. A short introduction quest has to be done at level 30 and from there on the instances can be accessed from anywhere in the world through a special panel. Skirmishes are like PvE battlegrounds from WoW and Warhammer Online in which locations (marked with banners) have to be conquered, freed or defended e.g. Siege of Gondamon is a survival style attack on the fortress city of Gondamon in which the player has to assist the defenders at the gates, while another Skirmish deals with freeing the hobbit town of Tuckborough from invading bandits and goblins. At level 65 more than ten Skirmishes are available to the player. Besides fun, these are also a great source of experience. My previously mentioned slow leveling in LOTRO has received a boost that has greatly increased my interest in playing the game for longer stretches at a time.

Not every class is able to solo well so every player has access to a special kind of pet called Soldier that is only available during Skirmishes. This Soldier can be customized to fit a role (tank, healer, melee dps, ranged dps, crowd control) and given special abilities as well as a custom look. All these options can be changed like traits for a modest fee. Characters in CO can be more all-round because of the open skill system, but something like a sidekick or NPC partner would fit the super hero setting.

Not all options are available from the start. Some are gated by level and others have to be bought with specials tokens called Skirmish marks that are gained by playing (more are gained by performing better). CO could use a mechanic with gradual rewards instead of grinding hundreds of mobs for only a cosmetic effect. People hate grinding but they do it all the time in MMO’s because the grinding is wrapped into something interesting and because there is a reward at the end. LOTRO Skirmishes have both: good content while gaining tokens for future rewards.

Fully customizable

Why Skirmishes would fit in Champions Online

There are several reasons why Skirmishes would fit better in CO than more lairs:

Flavor

Super heroes are often reactive. They respond to a crises. Even a proactive team like The Authority waited (most of the time) for trouble to start before they got involved. Because superheroes often react to crises solo or in a small team, the instanced Skirmishes would fit the setting as well. And, frankly, stopping a giant monster on your own feels a lot more heroic than doing it with the other 99 people in the main world zone.

Replayable Group/Solo content

There is too little group content in CO, but, to be honest, there is also to little solo content. Scalable content fills both holes and people are not dependant on others if they really want to run a certain scenario. The Nemesis instances already scale so the technology seems to be in place. By getting a token system in place, the content is replayable.

Reuse of assets

The LOTRO Skirmishes use familiar locations like Weathertop. These places already exist in the normal world, so no/limited new artwork had to be created. If CO does something similar and cuts out, for example, a part of Millenium City, then the development time can be reduced.

They are already in the game, kind of

The crisis zones in Millenium City, The Desert and Canada are pretty close to being Skirmishes, but Stronghold Prison is the closest with its scripted assault through the levels of the prison.

B.A.S.H. Talk

December 27, 2009 Leave a comment

All action is happening in the chat box this time

PvP’ers tend to be more competitive than PvE’ers. Of course, there are the guilds that vie for ‘World First’ boss kills in World of Warcraft, but in general PvE’ers have less drive to prove their superiority to other human players than PvP’ers. On the other hand, programmed routines are easier to deal with than other humans when you get to know their pattern. While people do follow patterns (conscious or not) they are able to change them and adapt on a level that cannot yet be reached by Artificial Intelligence.

Emotions tend to rise in competition, turning mild-mannered people in real life into screaming maniacs when they lose. Especially in the safe anonymity of the internet. Not so in Champions Online PvP. While the PvP community has shrunk over the past months, it has also grown tighter. My last B.A.S.H. game before the holidays was spent talking to several people about a variety of topics including which red wine should be bought for an X-mas party. This is not the first time it happens. B.A.S.H. is a great place to cross swords (because almost everyone has a sword to apply swallowtail cut), but also for a chat or asking about builds and play styles.

Sure, people will lose their temper in CO like in any other game and most of the regulars will have at least a few broken or overpowered powers (we do like to win), but I have seen very little true abuse. Of course, seeing someone throw a tantrum is just a form of entertainment as well.

Cryptic’s decisions over the past months have caused the community to shrink, but I expect that a friendly group will be better in retaining new people than a bunch of cursing CAPSLOCK addicts. The general laid back and friendly atmosphere in CO gives me good hope for next year.

Getting toyed with

December 20, 2009 1 comment

While the snow in real life is slowly burying everything outside, Millenium City is not covered with snow, but with presents thanks to the Toymaker. Unfortunately, the Black Harlequin replaced several of the presents with dangerous Misfit Toys. The Winter Event has come to Champions Online. It’s a true fluff event: there are no useful upgrades to be found or new permanent zones/mechanics/powers added to the game. Actually, I am glad it is a bit sparse, since I assume the developers are now focused on fixing the existing content.

Presents everywhere

Humans are collectors and easily motivated by quick success. The packages scattered all over the zones speak to both those basic instincts. One can almost always see the next the present while opening one. Most don’t contain anything beyond a piece of coal or a gingerbread cookie, but some contain action figure parts. The Toymaker in the center of Millenium City gives a quest to assemble Winter versions of the Champions. Each is split in head, torso and legs so there’s a trading game to it as well. As said above, some packages contain violent toys, but these are easily killed and can drop present loot as well. There are also temporary disguises that can turn you into a toy army man or teddy bear et cetera.

The Winter Event is not a very exciting event, but I have to admit it has already eaten a few hours of my time. It’s simple lightweight fun. Of course, pet collectors have a lot to do now.

The next present is already in sight

Clarence

A giant teddy bear is summoned once every hour per instance by the Black Harlequin. Join the global clarence channel to find out where he will appear next. It’s a zerg fight for everyone. The bear takes and receives damage scaled to your level so a level 10 could be as effective as a level 40. I think this is a very good mechanic for this kind of event. If you’re not paying close attention Black Harlequin is going to be down before you’re even at his spawn (random location in MC) and the bear itself doesn’t survive much longer.

Black Harlequin summons Clarence

Everyone jumps him and turn the poor bear into a light show

A few minutes later, he's down and the hunt goes on in the next instance

All hail the Tank Mage

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment

It's a mage! It's a tank! It's a TANK MAGE!

The concept of the Tank Mage is as old as Ultima Online. For those not familiar with the term, check this article on gamasutra (it’s an interesting article about hybrids in which the Tank Mage is explained on the first page). Basically, the Tank Mage has the survivability of a tank and the power of a mage. What a surprise. If the mage has healing spells as well, the Tank Mage is a holy trinity all by itself. Designers try to avoid Tank Mages for PvE because it makes other players redundant and for PvP because it is by definition more powerful than any other concept.

Tank Mages in an MMO with classes are bad. They can solo more than anyone else and if they have to group they can stick well under the intended group size. It’s even worse in a PvP game. The constantly  shifting of class balance can suddenly allow one class to become a Tank Mage and dominate, while the other classes can do nothing about it. Therefore, Tank Mages should be avoided by the designers to keep their game healthy.

Tank Mages in an MMO without classes are unavoidable. If players have completely free choice then they will gravitate to playing the sturdiest character with the best damage output. The question is if this is a bad thing. In terms of PvP balance it seems no problem: if everyone is overpowered, then no one is. However, this is only true if damage output and survivability are balanced. Let’s use Champions Online as the example. While Mindful Reinforcement (ranks 2,3) was bugged, people had incredible survivability, but not enough damage output to defeat each other, which led to very long or infinite battles. On the other hand the current situation sees very high damage as done by STC (for rants about that, check the forums, in short: it removes 55% of someone’s health in 10 seconds while ignoring all mitigation) and (de)buff stacking with force cascade and power armor which leads to oneshots. In the first situation the Tank Mages can kill anyone but other Tank Mages, while in the second everyone can be killed, it just depends on who gets the first shot off. Neither situation is desirable.

PvE balance is just as difficult. Can the designers assume everyone is a Tank Mage? Probably not, which means some teams will struggle while others will breeze through the content purely based on power selection without any regard to individual skill in playing. Also, if everyone can do everything then the roles (tank, healer, damage) players can take up are gone as well. Nothing makes a WoW dungeon fresher than going through it in another role. The lack of roles will actually cause burnout sooner.

The worst situation that can occur is if it is very difficult to make a Tank Mage; only one or two builds qualify as one. Because all information about builds is open, many people will jump on the flavor-of-the-month turning the beautiful open choice system in practice in a one class game. This has already happened in CO to some extent: powerful PvP builds have scared many people away in tier4, while forcing everyone to pick up STC in lower tiers or die.

Since an open skill system cannot avoid the Tank Mage, it should be relatively easy to build one and there should be many viable paths. This will lead to a spread in skills and choices that will make the overall game easier to balance, while individual players keep a sense of power and versatility (especially while soloing). Also, because of the many paths to the Tank Mage, there will be some role diversification anyone, e.g. some will have more tank than mage and vice versa.

So, while the Tank Mage is something that should be avoided in class-based MMO’s, it is a concept that classless MMO’s will have to build around to provide a fun and equally challenging game to everyone.