Re-enactor MMOs

Weird ideas tend to jump out at me from time to time. Most often they’re some kind of crossed-wire damaged synapse juxtaposition of otherwise perfectly harmless thoughts or observations floating around my brain.

I was reading some article talking about the changes happening to the player population in Azeroth since the release of Burning Crusade. Someone quoted was ranting about how the reduction in raid size no longer made raid encounters in BC feel as “epic.”

Outside the MMO world, “epic” always conjures up one thing to me: Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Massive Roman and slave legions maneuvering across the terrain to engage in wholesale carnage. That’s when it occurred to me. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a “game” that would allow hundreds or thousands of enthusiasts to re-enact great battles of history online in real time?

My mind immediately leapt to that most fruitful of American reenactor enthusiast, the Civil War Reenactor. Now many are called, but few are chosen and the reenactor gig is not for the faint of heart. Enter the MMOS, the Massively Multiplayer Online Simulation.

Consider the possibilities: 160,000 players reenact the Battle of Gettysburg on a virtual battlefield in real time. That’s massive. That’s epic.

Not a virtual world by any means, but the event-centric MMOS wouldn’t need a fully-baked world environment, just the setting of the event. All those resources that would be devoted to world design would be focused on figuring out how to allow the MMOS to scale for 160,000 plus simultaneous players.

Wouldn’t this be the ultimate what-if engine? Reenactment societies all over the world could join in a single epic battle. Fight it with historical accuracy, or develop your own strategy to win the day. What if Pickett didn’t charge?

Ok, so maybe 160,000 simultaneous users is a bit ambitious. Especially if they are actually supposed to coordinate their attacks. But certainly a few hundred or thousand could be mustered for a headline event. If reenactors can get it together in real life, I’m sure they have the skills to organize that on-line. Hell, if I didn’t have to grow a neck beard, I’d probably try a reenacted battle IRL just for the heck of it.

An MMOS would offer things no historical reenactment could. First, scale. Its probably easier to get massive participation simply by hosting the event on the net. Call it enthusiast aggregation. Second, you can virtually kill people. No bang bang, your dead, now lie down until someone says its Miller time. That’s realism. Third, accurate period terrain and weapon physics. Down to the fence post and miniball. Finally, people do stupid stuff. The make mistakes, they panic, they don’t pay attention, etc. Hail lord Chaos.

Roll this platform out in any direction– Tobruk, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Waterloo, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Huns, Goths, Saratoga, Tet and on and on.

There’s gotta be a market for this stuff…

Shape up and Ship Out

I recently went on a reading jag about exploration in the age of sail culminating with a history of the Britain’s Royal Navy. Naval battles and quasi-naval battles (e.g., space warfare) have long been fodder for any number of computer strategy games (and table top games before that). Lots of cannonfire, splitered wood and the swashing of buckles. The idea seems to be gaining popularity as more of these games are being ported or developed for the MMO space.

Pirates Ho!

Pirates of the Burning Sea promises to be that sort of game. Sort of Eve Online meets Age of Sail (try it, the demo is still available).

According to the PotBS web site:

Ship combat in Pirates of the Burning Sea has all the action, intensity, and tactical gameplay of a single-player game. Speed, direction, and facing all matter, and you fire and dodge in realtime. As captain of your own ship you balance your crew health, sail integrity, hull armor, gun reload speed, and maneuverability, making decisions moment to moment and planning what’s going to happen in ten, thirty, or sixty seconds. It’s a white-knuckle experience, whether against determined NPCs or wily players.

Sounds exciting enough and probably all too familiar to veteran Eve pilots. Of course the big difference with PotBS is that yes, you can get out of your ship and have adventures on dry land as an avatar.

I like the idea and will certainly try the game when its out (currently estimated June 2007). If successful, I hope other developers will consider developing MMOs along this line. The combination of avatar and ship based play puts every naval and sci-fi scenario imaginable into play as potential MMO material.

Who wouldn’t love to travel to a galaxy of different planets, each with different zones, cultures, economies, etc. and adventure there? Toss in asteroid mining, salvage, interplanetary trade and ship-to-ship combat and I think you’d have a winner.

One of the things I see missing from this mix though is meaningful character differentiation. Sure, you could be a merchant or a pirate or stay land/planet-bound, but fundamentally, everyone’s a captain. You’re either a solo captain or a member of a fleet of captains, each with their own ship.

If I recall correctly, Lord Nelson didn’t really have heavily armored ships in front engage the enemy while lightly armored but high damage dealing frigates pummeled them from afar. Nor did they have chippie tenders running about repairing hull damage, dousing fires, repairing sails and healing wounded crew members. From what I can tell, PotBS wont either which brings me (finally) to my point: Whither group play in these multi-modal MMOs? (I can’t think of a better term for them, so since you are basically playing either as a ship or a traditional avatar, I’m considering each a modality.)

Are encounters simply the equivalent of two full parties of mages frost bolting each other into oblivion from afar? Not that I’m against that sort of thing, but I’m a zealot for small, tactical group play. I like having to depend on and adapt to the different strengths and weakness of each of my differentiated group mates. In a multi-modal MMO you are either the ship or the avatar. Why does everyone have to be a captain? Why not a ship and crew members who contribute their differentiated skills toward the group effort in ship-bound mode?

As you can imagine, this raises lots of design problems. Not the least of which is who owns the ship, if anyone. However, that doesn’t seem like such a huge hurdle if player progression allowed new recruits to crew on navy ships (NPC) or privateers (player owned) to gain experience and the gold necessary to ultimately buy their own ships and hire a crew.

Engage

Star Trek Online (slated for release in Q1 2008) appears to be tracking in this direction, but sounds like it will stop short of having truly independently owned and directed cooperative ships. According to StarTrek-Online.net, the largest ships which will require multiple players/professions to command will be fixed player “hubs.Its still a little unclear how this is supposed to work, but it could be conceptualized as a moving instanced zone once all grouped players are on board.

This mobile instance model would work for many missions, but still wouldn’t give players the kind of freedom of action that Eve does. Everyone needs to be able to climb aboard and set a course for an adventure of their own choosing in a fully populated space environment (Roll 1d6 Space Pirates!).

It seems a natural that in a game affording cooperative ship-based play that through collective action, guilds could build and increase the strength of their fleets which would require the contribution of junior members to man and operate them. What a concept. Noob guild cabin boy can stand shoulder to shoulder with guildie Admiral Uber N3lson instead of only hearing in guild chat how 40 1337 level 70 members just took down Cthulu.

I’d join that navy in a heartbeat. What a great way for new players to literally learn the ropes, advance their character, get loot and contribute to the advancement of the guild.

Not enough peeps to ship out? Hire a crew. Plenty of able bodied crew members hanging around every port. Note to devs, better create a ship’s payroll/loot system native to the game or you’ll get keel hauled.

Shiny

To me, collaborative ship-based play would seem to be the be all end all for an MMO like Firefly (expected in 2008). To really live in the ‘verse you really have to have the group ship model down. Navigator, Engineer, Gunner, Marine, etc. all contributing to the group effort planetside and in space. We can only hope that Multiverse doesn’t do what every other company has done to the Firefly franchise: screw it up and piss off its fans. Still, hope springs eternal and I’m hoping that this one will help usher in a new crop of games.

Next Gen Ho!

 

 

10 Things I Want From the Next Gen MMO

While the thoroughly enjoyable discussion about MMO taxonomy triggered by Virgin Worlds Podcast #49 and further fostered by Wilhelm2451 on the The Ancient Gaming Noob continues there and among other blogs, I thought I’d throw out a few things I’d like to see from the next generation of MMOs. By “next generation” I mean something that will hopefully be less of a debate topic than the one’s we’re currently discussing.

Of course, I’m assuming that the best ideas and features from this generation’s games will be a given. Things like:

  1. Seamless world
  2. World-wide Player-based economy
  3. Top-notch graphics that require only modest systems
  4. Customizeable UI
  5. Re-Customizeable Avatar
  6. Sensible Instancing
  7. World Events
  8. Player/Guild housing

I’m sure there’s much more that we wouldn’t be able to live without I haven’t mentioned.

But what I really want to see in the next generation of MMOs is (in no particular order):

1. Decay, Death and Inheritance. Our players should age and eventually die or retire in old age. We should be able to pass on most of our possessions or wealth on to heirs we select. Most of our ordinary items should decay as well. The period should be reasonable of course, but limited. It should be neither exclusively time-based nor experience-based. If you play a lot, you shouldn’t be penalized, but neither should you get a complete pass from Father Time. The MMO world may not be ready for reproduction yet… or is it?

2. Dynamic User-impacted Environment. Players should affect their environment. One of my favorite features of old RTS games was when the player economies started to collapse as resources were over-consumed. Forests should change shape in response to harvesting, animals would become more scarce as populations encroach or they are over-hunted, etc.

3. Orthogonal Game Play Options. I do want to grow up and learn about my society, but I also want to “get a job” or pursue a bunch of careers and not just grind an escalating list of uber mobs. Benefits/detriments of ageing could dramatically affect this kind of play. I might be a fierce warrior in my youth but turn to more scholarly pursuits as I wisen with age and my vitality is sapped. Likewise, lets kill XP once and for all. If I want to be a better fighter, I’ll train and fight. If I want to be a better arcanist, I’ll study and use more magic. With some overall limit on my learning capacity, I would have to choose a mix that I want.

4. Dynamic smart spawns in Real Zones. No mob should regularly spawn anywhere. IF I have to kill 10 foozles, I’d rather go foozle hunting in the foozle forest than camp the foozle spawn points. This would also be affected by #2. The spawn rate could adjust to overall player population, but there should be a foozle lifecycle that I and the world economy have to live with. If I don’t have to kill 10 foozles for the baker to make foozle pie to get to level 2, this gets easier…While we’re at it, lets keep the mob mix reasonable (i.e., no zone could support hundreds of predators unless there were thousands of prey. And while there are more and less dangerous places in the world (e.g., Walden Pond v. the African Savannah) there is still a range of dangers in each area. Mix it up.

5. Smart Mobs. If I attack one foozle out of a herd, that herd should either stomp my ass dead or run like the wildebeest. If I pick a fight with an orc, I would expect his friends to help and not just stand by like nothing happened. Likewise, if I’m ambushing a camp full of orcs, I expect them to use cover, and coordinate their defense, certainly not stand around wondering “hey, where’d Stan go? Wasn’t he here just a second…thunk.”

6. Big Angry Vindictive Capricious Dieties. BOW DOWN. Take care of your gods and they’ll take care of you. Or, if you don’t take care of your gods, they’ll take care of you too, so to speak. And take care of you they will in big, disruptive world impacting ways as well as in small player specific ways. Neglect the Temple of Arfnarf and she may bring death, disease and pestilence to your lands. Likewise, appease Wootenloot and watch your enemies crumble. Gods can change the shape of the world.

7. Seasonal Weather with Real Effects. We’ve seen night and day, but lets see seasons and have them affect everything. Seasonal flora and fauna, speed of travel, combat attributes, the whole nine yards.

8. Dynamic Avatars. Start out as 90 pound weaklings and end up as a musclebound 250 pound barbarian or 135 pound spindly scholar or anywhere in between in response to your chosen careers and activities.

9. Changeable Career Archetypes. The end of traditional archetypes as we know them. We should be able to pursue our destiny and enhance our skills and traits in the manner we desire.

10. Dynamic NPC society. Go to BED! Go HOME! What are you doing standing around the same place all the time? If you’re a merchant open your shop, close your shop. Get a [virtual] life!

Obviously there will need to be some concessions to create meaningful gameplay, but in the next world in which we virtually live, I want that world to live and player characters to truly live in it. If there’s a theme here, its to truly make the game environment a living, breathing and dynamic environment– as dynamic as the player environment has been. Clearly that much interactivity will probably require significant advances in both cleverness of design and pure computing horsepower, but maybe not so much. I’m reminded of just how much game they were able to squeeze out of my old Apple II+ with 48K of memory and hope for the next generation.

Burning Crusade– End of the Azerothian Endgame?

Since we rerolled and started a new small five person group on a new server a few months ago, I didn’t really need WoW’s long-awaited Burning Crusade expansion to make my gaming life whole again. Been playing a little EQ2, doing a beta, and of course leveling alts on the new server to aid my new main’s economy.

So, I wasn’t really focused on digging my 60s out of mothballs to dive into BC. Nonetheless, curiosity did get the better of me and in addition to my launch day exploration of the Dranei, I dusted off my 60 pally, Megis, and stepped through the Dark Portal to see what BC had to offer.

Through the Portal, Darkly

I hooked up with a few of my friends from our old group to check it all out. We stepped through the portal and were immediately taken by the new visuals. Hellfire peninsula resembles the Blasted Lands, but the sky over Outland is more reminiscent of that of EQ2 or even Eve. You can see what it looks like on the current title graphic.

After stepping through the portal, we gaped at the demonic permabattle among NPCs that rages on the steps leading down from the portal. We were certainly not in Kansas anymore. The initial go-see-a-guy quest led us to the initial flightpath for the zone and instructed us to report to the quest hub at Honor Hold via griffon. Blizzard cleverly gave us an opportunity to survey the new landscape on our way to post-60 adventure.

Honor Hold is quest rich and was crowded and busy with experience starved 60s. Can’t click on the NPC vendor crowded. Even this crowded, there really wasn’t any appreciable lag. Frame rates dipped, but overall it seemed to be handling the load. Likewise, the dynamic spawn system seemed to be more or less keeping up with the demand for things to smash and collect in the not-so-noob zone.

We picked up a few of the initial quests and headed out to see how tough the new world would be.

I killed your god

We were all a bit disappointed when we picked up the initial quests—kill x, collect y, go-see-a-guy. Still for casual players like us, it was amusing to see Über 1337 3pkk Playrz reduced to kill ten rats status. They might have been taking Rags down yesterday, but now they’re collecting them.

So we thought, kinda ho hum until we noticed the rewards. We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore. Despite the criticisms that WoW is already overly-gear dependent, Blizzard itself had noted that BC would require a significant step up in gear for players to be successful in Outland.

Likewise, Blizzard also needed to create sufficient incentive to lure the Über 1337 players out of Azerothian endgame content and into Outland to make it a success. This will undoubtedly have a giant impact on what used to be the Azerothian endgame—for casual players and raiders alike.

A few examples:

Megis the pally was basically the guild blacksmith and a solo alt I took to 60. He had collected some Lightforge set gear and a few blues, but nothing spectacular. I have to be in a particularly tolerant mood to subject myself to PUGatory.

Megis had been shield poor for some time. He had an Ironhide Shield with an int buff he had picked up off the auction house. Nothing special but serviceable and it looked cool. He had lusted after the Sacred Protector which was a 100% guaranteed quest reward from the Blightcaller raid quest in Eastern Plaguelands, but never got around to organizing or getting into a PUG to do it.

Next best would have been a Rattlecage Buckler which drops from Rattlecage in Scholomance. Of course, that means you need to get a group to do Scholomance, the shield must drop (~10% drop rate) and you’ve got to win the roll or be gifted the drop. Because of the dearth of good shields, many pallys/shammies would find themselves competing with warriors for this drop.

So what does BC offer up? Landslide Buckler as a quest reward for killing 20 orcs just outside Honor Hold. Green shield. Dude.

Now hold on to your pantaloons. After our regular little group disintegrated last year, our tank decided to at least complete his warrior Valor (Tier 0.5) armor set. To his credit, he set out across PUGatory to seek the rarified drops from Strat, Scholo and UBRS. Early on he got pretty lucky and completed most of his set from fortuitous drops and apparently bearable PUGs. Then the dry spell set in. 80 Baron runs through Strat (honest and for true) and still no Legplates of Valor. As a result, he was wearing one of the many pairs of Lightforge Legplates that had dropped.

So what does BC offer up for our intrepid warrior in the first 30 minutes of the expansion? Magistrate’s Greaves as a quest reward for picking up 8 pieces of wood and 8 pieces of metal off the ground outside the quest hub. Ouch.

And on and on. In our first hour of play in BC, we gleefully discarded more than a few of our most cherished and hard won (at least for casual players) gear in favor of significant upgrades that rained out of the sky like manna from heaven. I hear the situation is not much different even with old world epics.

I hearthstoned back to a deserted IF to unload bags, and do some other admin stuff wearing my new gear. At the mailbox, another pally was happening by decked out in his complete Lightforge set. No mean feat at all. Not being Über, I’m still impressed by stuff like that. He was walking by then stopped abruptly near me. I could only assume he was inspecting my still unfamiliar looking gear (the shield most likely as it has a completely different look than most Azerothian shields).

I took the opportunity to inspect his gear. All Lightforge and blues and included an Intricately Runed Shield which drops from Ras Frostwhisper in the lower levels of Scholomance. Not an easy fight, not all groups fight Ras and about a 12% drop. A nice shield. A better shield for a warrior than a pally, but good shields were few and far between. You took what came along and liked it. I could almost feel his sense of disappointment as the moment wore on. I killed his god.

Baron doesn’t live here any more?

Since we are all playing with a new lowbie static group we were thinking about what the path to BC looks like for our newer characters. It took about five seconds for one of us to ask, “Why would anyone do Strat, Scholo or ever try to complete their dungeon sets?” And we didn’t really have an answer.

Now I like five person groups and Scholo, Strat, UBRS and Dire Maul have always been both interesting and fun even if a bit challenging for those undergeared or too far below 60. But as relatively undergeared 60s running around solo or in small oneseys or twoseys, the gear obtainable in Outland may well completely trivialize these dungeons (and to an even greater degree the 20 and 40 person raid content in Azeroth as well. I can see a jump from Sunken Temple or BRD straight through to Outland once a player hits 58.

How long until we see “Looking for a few 70s to run me through Onyxia. Will pay 5G.” in chat? I’m not really sure what Blizzard has in mind for the world left behind. As our little group becomes “portal worthy” I wonder if we’ll bother to run the former higher level instances in anything other than a “Pirates of the Carribean” ride fashion. Do it once, see it, move on. The Baron may get very lonely indeed.