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We know Cataclysm is coming. Please play our game in the meanwhile.

Even if the beta for Cataclysm, World of Warcraft‘s upcoming expansion, had not started and if there had not been a great amount of information and video‘s available, then it would have been clear that something was close to happening from all the other MMO news. The WoW population may be deep in the pre-expansion boredom, but many people are still playing. This is the moment to get their interest, before they get too excited about Cataclysm. My mailbox was filled with interesting announcements and offers from other MMO’s this week.

Global Agenda removed its subscription model. Now it is just buy once and play forever. Even the first Expansion, Sand Storm, is free. This is great. There was not enough content in the game for me to subscribe, but it is so much fun in short bursts. I had taken a break from GA, because I was wondering how much I would retain of my time investment when the subscription system went live, but it is definitely on my list to play more now.

The European Warhammer Online servers are transferred from GOA to Mythic, now Bioware-Mythic. The split in publishers between US and Europe has not worked out too well in my opinion, with late patches etc. To celebrate the consolidation, every present and former GOA player will receive two weeks of free gameplay. Warhammer is still the game that I expected most from and was thus disappointed most in. It is also the only game that I gave more than one try to see if things had improved, so I’m quite happy with this free period.

Finally, Age of Conan is offering a free trial of their expansion for 10 days by e-mail. AoC still interests me. It was horrible at launch, but when I got another offer of free game time around Christmas 2009 it seemed that the game had matured quite nicely. That trial was not impressive enough to make me resubscribe, but it did make me watch out for AoC news again. So that’s another offer that I am going to take up.

If this keeps up, I shall end up with too many games to play and that will hopefully help keep the siren’s song of Cataclysm quiet.

Star Trek Online – First impressions

January 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Blowing up Borg cubes in the tutorial

First impressions do so much, too much really. MMO’s are supposed to be deep and shouldn’t be judged until some serious time investment has been done. On the other hand, when you walk into a building and you see the cracks in the wall and feel it collapsing, should you walk on or run the hell out of there? I know what I would do. The following happened during my first Open Beta hour: I finished the tutorial while experiencing horrible lag, went to Earth Space Dock and bought a Bridge Officer. Only, I spent the credits (the combat log showed this) and the BO never appeared in my inventory or in my BO list. Of course, I had only cash to buy one BO. Then I went to do the first mission, Lost in Space, and got stuck in the instance after finishing the mission. Yes, I know how to get out of the instance by using the map screen, but the exit button should have appeared. I logged out. First impression: not good, not good at all.

The character creator is not as rich as CO's, but it is still pretty impressive

This was not really my first impression of STO since I had already clocked in some hours during Closed Beta. It was a buggy and unfinished game by then with some decent potential. The ship to ship combat is a nice departure from standard MMO combat, but Pirates of the Burning Sea had that already. The third axis added in STO barely adds anything (well, it adds confusion). Nevertheless, space combat is great fun, maybe even fun enough to compensate for all the current problems. The squad based away missions are another nice touch, but the AI made the Bridge Officers act like retarded lemmings. They actually ran into fires to attack those.

The worst offender for me was the way the map and mission direction worked: it may the setting feel low-tech! Low-tech in Star Trek! Directions in the missions where either vague or non-existent. A ground mission in which I had to find five objects had me wandering aimlessly over the map while looking for the things. My advanced tech was apparently not able to distinguish rocks from metal.

The episode missions did feel like Star Trek and there were even some nice twists and turns in the plot. The patrol missions on the other hand became repetitive quickly (fly there, kill some opponents, rinse and repeat). A better kind of mission are the Fleet Actions: large Open Missions that anyone can join. These play and feel like giant space battles. PvP on the other hand seemed decidedly unbalanced: Klingon Bird of Preys are very fast, hit hard and can cloak while attacked making them difficult to kill. They do pay for that power by having next to no shields and hull. Still, my short time in PvP did feel like more and if anything makes me buy this game it will be the PvP.

I reported lots of bugs during my play sessions, but in the end the game felt to unfinished to me to continue putting much time in. My major complaint about Champions Online is that it is too shallow. It has many features but each and every one of them, except the character creator, is quite limited. The same seems to be the case with STO. I felt it needed a solid three to six months more development time.

Fleet Actions (open missions) feel like real large scale battles

Star Trek Online has a lot of potential, but the slow reaction time on issues with CO has made me cautious and even a bit cynical of Cryptic’s abilities. It is definitely a game that I’m going to keep my eyes on, but I’ll let it mature a few months first.

The view from Earth Space Dock.

Away missions are a nice break from space

Forced Grouping

January 10, 2010 Leave a comment

MMO’s are per definition social affairs. We actually pay a price for being able to play with our people: the world becomes static and whatever we do, it will not change. In single player RPG’s like Dragon Age when we kill a dragon, it says dead and the town is saved, but it will be back every week in an MMO and the town it threatened will never be free. Blizzard solved this partly by introducing phasing content: it hides or shows certain aspects of the world depending on where you are in a quest chain, for example: building a fort starts by securing the area, then help gathering materials and then the fort is ready. However, this limits the social mechanic because people cannot see each other in the phased zone if they are in another part of the story.

Grouping is social, so social is grouping?

Social interaction can happen on several levels:

Presence: while playing you see other characters active that are not NPC’s and as such are not predictable. This makes the area less static and helps convince you that you are really in a living world.

Communication: talking to others about the world, but also about real life. However, there’s also a negative side in the form of spam.

Cooperation: playing together, trading to mutual benefit, PvP, Roleplaying

Competition: having other real people in the world is not always beneficial, there’s the risk of kill stealing, ganking, killing quest givers etc. On the other hand, fighting against real people in PvP adds a level of unpredictability and learning ability that no artificial intelligence can mimic so far.

Thus social does not mean grouping.

Flavors of grouping

I never played Everquest, but people who did told me that you could not get anywhere without a group. My first MMO was World of Warcraft and I could do most things on my own. However, the best items required playing together with others to conquer the 5man and 40man dungeons. And that made sense, because the scale of the dungeons showed that no single person would be able to fight through the armies and giant monsters that awaited there. Super heroes too a have long history of teaming up to defeat powerful foes. My characters that did not group could get adequate gear for the content they did and PvP provided its own rewards.

Playing in a group demands different skills and poses a different challenge to playing solo. If an MMO wants to have grouping at end game there should also be grouping while leveling, because otherwise the endgame will be filled with people who have no idea how to behave. The many complaints about pick-up groups in World of Warcraft are caused exactly by the fact that one can go to maximum level without ever grouping. A game should teach people to group by making it worth their while to group. WoW’s Dungeon Finder has done exactly that. The epic quest line in LOTRO does require grouping while leveling and this is fine because it is just one quest line, but everyone wants to do it, because it is truly epic.

Five heroes banded together to take down Shadow Destroyer...and I'm still the one getting hit.

On the other hand, public quests in Warhammer and in Champions Online allow a kind of non-communicative grouping: everyone in the quest area contributes to the quest objectives. The quest gets progressively more difficult and that should, in theory, let people cooperate to finish the objectives. I like the idea of public quests, but I have not noticed much coordination and communication between players most of the time. Still, I think that public quests will be the way forward, especially if more storytelling is added to them to really draw players in.

Team vs Team PvP. Playing together in a team against other players is basically the same as grouping for a dungeon.

Roleplaying is also a form of grouping. Developers cannot control where RP happens, although they can facilitate by providing locations without opponents where people can RP undisturbed.

In conclusion

Social interaction does not require grouping, but grouping allows for encounters on a larger scale and demands different skills from players. While players should not be frustrated in their progression, they will have to accept that not everything is soloable as long as they can get gear appropriate to their level of play. Playing in a team is not a skill that everyone has naturally and thus the developers have to encourage, teach and reward grouping.

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