Looking Back on 2008

A few reflections on my gaming and blogging in 2008 with a few follow ups from last year’s post.

The Blog

On the stat line:

Total Hits: just over 100,000
Posts: 228
Comments: 825

My blogging has been a bit uneven this year which coincides with my equally unpredictable work pattern.  Feast or famine it seems, coupled with a few periods of just plain nothing much to say.

While the pace of my posting has remained about the same, its nice to see many more comments coming in.  Something I attribute largely to getting picked up on the VirginWorlds feeds and cross traffic from other friendly denizens of the blogosphere.

My top 5 referring sites were 1) VirginWorlds, 2) The Ancient Gaming Noob, 3) Tobold’s, 4) Kill Ten Rats and 5) Keen and Graev’s.  Many thanks to them and all who visit and comment.

Games in 2008

World of Warcraft. Our instance group slogged our way through The Burning Crusade to cap out at 70 just as burnout set in and before Warhammer released.  The group has been diligently pursuing its ultra casual, keep everyone together approach for more than two years at this point playing together just a few hours each week.  After diverting to WAR briefly, we are back in Azeroth with the Wrath of the Lich King where we’re having a good time.  I’m looking forward to continuing our weekly adventures with a great group of friends.

So far, Lich King has been much more of what I loved about the WoW 1.0 and much less of WoW 2.0.  Still, progress is fast and even for our group, we’ll likely cap long long before there is another WoW expansion on the horizon.

Eve Online. I’ve been mostly diligently pursuing my two box strategy with Eve having built my miner up to Hulk-capability and my hauler up to an Iteron V.  Along the way, I managed to get both pilots into Drake battlecruisers and have developed their social skills to the point where mission running and mining the mission spaces is a fun hybrid way to experience the game.

Wilhelm and Gaff and I were going great guns for a while but Gaff ran of to Norrath and then Middle Earth while Wil has caught the EQ2 bug on Guk.  So for now, I’ll continue to pursue my Eve objectives since it can be so forgiving of RL scheduling conflicts (the game you can play off line!).  Real time skill training FTW.

Everquest 2.  I was convinced to fire up EQ2 again as an alternative to WoW burnout and WAR disappointment.  Mrs. P and I followed multi boxing Gaff and Wilhelm to a new server and new guild where Jaye and Darren are resident.  Revelry and Honor is a wonderful group and they have a gorgeous guild hall.

Leveling is much accelerated since my last visit.  I was enjoying myself with this year’s offering The Shadow Odyssey until RL conflicts and the inevitable schedule chaos that are the holidays interrupted our adventures.  I’m on the fence whether to keep our EQ2 accounts going since I’m not playing very much and the horizon is a bit fuzzy in that regard.

Warhammer Online.  I had little enthusiasm for WAR until the open beta and then I fell for it.  It was certainly something quite different from WoW and EQ2 at exactly the right time for me.  Unfortunately, as the month wore on, performance issues and dubious design choices made clear that it just wasn’t going to be the next big thing.  The open world RvR, when it happened, was great, but the performance of the client and the incentives were too undeveloped or misconceived to make it a good fit for our group.

Pirates of the Burning Sea.  I beta’d PotBS and gave it a luke warm reception.  I really wanted to love this game, but it suffers/ed from a few serious design problems.  When I left the game, it was apparent that the fundamental port contention system was in desperate need of a complete overhaul.  Its a beautiful game and I intend on checking back in a bit, maybe with Station Access.  The thing that really killed it for me despite the rocky state was the the lack of a real open world feel to it.  Instanced battle rooms with questionable entry mechanics made it feel too much like a game of boxes.

Likewise, the much vaunted economy was seriously out of balance and, imho, poorly executed.  I’m still secretly hoping someone makes an MMO set in something like the 1600-1700 age of exploration/fighting age of sail era.  Eve with scurvy please.

Age of Conan.  I beta’d AoC and while parts were promising, it became clear that Funcom was rushing it out the door.  PvE underdeveloped, system requirements too high, PvP not really implemented as well as game breaking bugs meant I was going to pass before release.

LotRO.  Generally unplayed this year.  With Moria out, I’m almost convinced to hop in and join Gaff in his return to Middle Earth.  Time will be the limiting factor, but I do intend to see Moria at some point.

Games in 2009

I hate to say it, but after the disappointment of 2008, I’m not really looking forward to anything in particular.  I’m interested in what 38 Studio’s has going on.  I’m interested in what Guildwars 2 might be shaping up to be, but details on both of those have been scarce.

Likewise, I’m somewhat interested in watch the two most cursed IPs develop as well– Star Wars:  The Old Republic and Star Trek Online.  Both seem to be in capable hands, but if past is prologue, we’re doomed.

Goals for the Blog

Keep on keeping on.  The key to any kind of writing is to actually do it.  It gets easier and it (hopefully) gets better the more you do it.  I’ve been less concerned about my frequency of posting and generally pleased with quality and the type and number of comments I get.

A blog is a blog.  It doesn’t need to be a daily news feed unless you want it to be.

Goals for Gaming

I’ll completely rehash my last year’s goals because they STILL apply:

New Game #1. Find a game other than WoW in which to continue our group adventures. I love Thanksgiving, but I can’t eat turkey sandwiches everyday all year long. Some of us have a one game time budget, so it needs to be accessible and afford the opportunity to progress through the game in relatively small blocks of time– the mythical 2-hour casual gamer block maybe once or twice a week. If its that accessible, consider roping in some new blood for more fun and adventure. I’m not necessarily seeing anything on the horizon that fits the bill, but I’m willing to be surprised.

New Game #2. Find a game #2 that offers me a different experience than game #1 but that grabs me enough to cap out. I think you need to have a #2 that you can integrate into your game life in order not to burn out on game #1 or life for that matter.”

Thanks for visiting and Happy New Year!

Can RvR Ever Work?

Been reading a few of the “Woe is WAR” posts floating around like Keen’s and on The Greenskin.  I’m reminded of similar discussions around Pirates of the Burning Sea (technical issues aside) as the struggle for the soul of the game evolved.

I’m left with the question in my brain of whether a primarily Realm versus Realm MMO can really have any chance of succeeding, or whether the MMO genre is really just too poorly suited to this kind of gameplay.

A persistent world with persistent characters comes with a price that may have some inherent limitations or conflicts when brought into contact with most MMO character progression models.  I didn’t play DAOC in its heyday, so forgive the lack of insight there.

I wonder what discussions roiled around the conference room tables when the Mythics and Flying Labs of the world discussed designing a faction oriented pvp game.  Without being exhaustive, I’d think they have to have pretty good answers to questions like these, and more importantly, the answers to any of them can’t conflict with answers to others.  No small task indeed.

What happens if:

  • one side is more popular than another?
  • one class is more popular than others?
  • there are not enough people to overcome PvE objectives?
  • there are not enough pople to overcome RvR objectives?
  • the population is spread across a number of regions?
  • the population is spread across a range of experience?
  • one faction dominates RvR objectives?
  • no one engages in RvR?
  • if RvR objectives are only undertaken when there are no likely defenders?
  • if there are players that don’t want to engage in RvR?
  • if a faction is “victorious”?
  • if a faction is “defeated”?
  • players only have a 2-hour block of time to play?
  • if players are unable to coordinate with each other?

and on and on.  I’m beginning to think that as soon as you replace factional progression with individual advancement, you’ve lost the RvR game.  Likewise, the opposite seems true too– as soon as you replace individual advancement with RvR progression, you lose the MMO game.

A game about “us” seems incompatible with a game about “me” and vice versa.  I’m hoping someone proves me wrong.

Just to avoid any confusion, PvP /= RvR and doesn’t suffer the same conflicts.  “Warfare” in a PvP game like Eve, for example, is an extrapolation of a one v. one conflict to a many v. many conflict.  Though complicated conflicts require specialization and coordination (just like PvE games), Eve remains an individual experience, whether or not you are part of a big corporation, whether or not you are Gallente, Caldari, Minmatar or Amarr.

Ultimately the rewards of the corporate warrior or the doughty miner inure to the individual, and any collective effort via corps and alliances, etc. are at their core still motivated by that individual advancement mechanic.  In Eve, thats mostly pecuniary.  ISK is King, and all good things come from ISK.  In PvE games, that’s levels and loot.

Self selective collaborative group effort is still built on an individual achievement model, just like PvE MMOs.  We run the instance to get the loot for ourselves and for our group mates’ “selves” but not for any conceptualized “us”.

My individual interests may have been aligned with those of Varian Wrynn from time to time, but if the King of Stormwind said “Go slay 1,000 scourge”, the first thing that comes to mind is “What’s in it for me?”  PvP and PvE allow us to keep individual score.  An RvR game has yet to crack that nut.

So can it be done or are we all doomed to me first MMOs?

Being a Place Matters

A number of bloggers, including myself, have ragged on Age of Conan for the extensive use of zoning and instancing. Too much use of these design elements leaves you with the feeling of the “world” being merely a series of rooms connected by jumps rather than the impression of a contiguous world. In a word, it doesn’t feel like a “place.”

I got waylaid this (U.S. 3-day holiday) weekend by a last minute work project and got almost no decent gaming in, but I made time to soak up some of the Mars Phoenix mission events. Being a total space dork, how could I not? One of my earliest memories was watching Neil Armstrong step on to the surface of the Moon.

The images returned of the Moon returned by the Apollo program transformed the Moon in people’s consciousness from being effectively a 2d small floating disk to a bona fide three dimensional world of its own. As Carl Sagan would say, the Moon became a “place.” A place where we could imagine that we could go and explore and see ourselves walking over a distant horizon.

A similar transformation occurred in 1976 when the Viking missions successfully landed on Mars and began returning pictures like these:

I’d been to places like that. I could see myself in that landscape and wanted more than anything to sprint off toward the horizon to see what was over that next ridge or hill. For me Mars became a “place”. Even though the Viking landers were totally stationary, they managed to convey the impression of a complete new world. Not bad with just a few static images.

Seeing the latest today from the Mars HIRISE observer, those feelings are rekindled. This is my new favorite picture (the first of a spacecraft in the process of landing on another world). Click for the full width shot. Its really breathtaking.

With images like this, Mars is more than a place. More importantly, space travel and planetary exploration is made more real in our minds. We’ve seen the NASA animations about how these landings are supposed to look, but we’ve never seen them happening until now. I can almost see the lander drifting across the Martian landscape in its last few minutes of descent not unlike so many other similar images or scenes we’ve actually witnessed back here on Earth. Its like we were there.

No human has yet visited Mars, so these images in effect create merely a virtual Mars in our collective minds (like the virtual Moon). With each new mission and new set of images brought back, the impression is created that Mars as a world has become larger and more unbounded. Its an illusion, but a compelling one.

To create a compelling game world, for me at least, the designers have to similarly stitch together their resources to create that illusion. Simply having zoning doesn’t mean that’s broken. In EQ, zoning, while a necessary evil, didn’t seem to break the illusion of a continuous world. A few seams, maybe, but if you’ve ever stitched a few side by side vacation snapshots together to create a panorama, you know that the resultant composite image says so much more than the individual ones that the borders between pictures don’t really matter. They match up, there’s a small hiccup going from one to another, but leaving from the left of one, you enter from the right of the next.

Even with zoning, EQ was able to create that sense of place which persists into EQ2. Likewise, environments like WoW and LotRO’s seamless outdoor worlds are indeed places in my mind. I never got that impression from games like PotBS and certainly didn’t from AoC. I felt boxed in like there was no horizon over which to travel. Neither in my mind’s eye, nor in the game did I ever get that same feeling I get just by looking at those few pictures from Mars.

Shipwreck on the Burning Sea

istock_000004152026xsmall.jpg I’ve given up.

After quite a bit of hand wringing, I decided not to renew my subscription to Pirates of the Burning Sea when my initial 30-day subscription runs out. I mentioned in an earlier post that the best that we bloggers can do when giving impressions of a game is to answer the question “Am I willing to make a $50 bet that it wont suck later?”

As to the first part of the question, despite some misgivings, I was willing to make the bet. I definitely think the bet was worth it. I think the jury is still out on the second part of the question. And to be fair, the second part relates to an individual’s own preferences.

I think we need indie studios producing indie games that are different and innovative. This is good.

I also think that we need to put our money where our mouths are and also vote for quality. While I think FLS has done a great job with certain aspects of the game such as ship combat (which is excellent IMHO), other aspects are still kinda rough. No, not Vanguard rough by any means (not even in the same league), but frustrating enough in these days of $50-a-box and $15-a-month to get in the way of the fun at least for me.

Likewise, there are still a number of core features that are subject to a bit more than tweaking or balancing. Ultimately, the more you explore a game, the more you run into the impacts design decisions have on gameplay (highly zoned or instanced play, etc.). When the goal posts are still moving, however, its tough to decide whether to stick it out.

Keen and Tobold have several excellent posts analyzing the nature of the RvR-based PvP and the in-game economy and some of the challenges FLS (and players) faces in that regard. Some of these continue to be the subject of not so minor tweaking. I still have hope for the game and plan on checking back in a while, but right now, I feel like I’m paying for a beta. A very good beta, but a beta nonetheless.

Unfortunately, I think a few more months with a large closed beta population could have greatly benefited the game in terms of the minor polish issues (UI functionality, mission bugs and tuning, etc. ) as well as having a real opportunity to address game play mechanics (port contention, alt and society interaction, the economy, population/faction balancing mechanics, gank squad PvP, etc.) that are the major source of my frustration right now.

Some of this stems from the unique difficulties in creating a PvP-focused game. Because each encounter among live players is unique, PvP will test every boundary of play mechanics and mercilessly punish faults. It seems that in an RvR game which has persistent effects, these can be multiplied and accelerated (e.g., “accelerated” port flipping). If a PvE quest has a bug or exploit, it may be frustrating, but its hardly a show stopper unless it completely bottlenecks progression. Most PvE players wont care if an encounter has a problem that amounts to an “I Win” button, but such a problem would be utterly game breaking in a PvP game.

Not so in PvP. Every PvP encounter has a winner and a loser, and with a not insubstantial loss penalty, the amount of time invested in acquiring skills, materials and equipment may be simply too high a price to pay when unintended consequences flow from bugs and exploits. So the RvR PvP of PotBS faces unique challenges to accommodate the needs of its ultimate playerbase, but for now, I’m going to sit it out until the dust settles. When it does, hopefully it will be a game I’ll want to play and pay for.

Pirates of the Burning Sea Underway

Pirates of the Burning Sea went live yesterday after a few weeks of limited pre-boarding. I did the pre-order for PotBS after open beta. I also did the pre-order period for LotRO which resulted in a very smooth launch for that game– in part because the economy got a jump start and the number of players impacting the starting areas on release day was reduced resulting in a less lagtastic experience. Turns out it was a very good idea.

With LotRO, I pre-ordered from a large online retailer. I ordered two copies of that game through them. Long story short, it was a cluster. They only made one pre-order code available, its was buried in their site without instructions on how to retrieve, etc. Then, when release came around, they said they’d send the retail box (with activation code) something like 2 weeks after release… After a few phone calls and some huffing and puffing, I got my two activation keys before release and the boxes actually arrived the day of release.

Fortunately, Turbine planned ahead and gave a grace period so that pre-order peeps could continue to play while their retail boxes got delivered. So while dealing with the retailer was frustrating, getting in and continuing to play the game was never an issue. Unfortunately, FLS didn’t make the same choice much to the consternation of many players.

Still, I vowed never to do either the electronic download or online order experience again. So for PotBS, I went with Fry’s. The evil you know versus the evil you don’t know. I bought the pre-order there, dutifully saving my receipt. I went there yesterday at lunch accompanied by my preorder box with receipt and found the retail box. With a relative minimum of explaining how a pre-order purchase works to the retailer selling it(!), I walked out of the store with the retail box.

Since I had to finish work that day, I checked in to see what was happening in the forums. I know, I know, but it was a slow day. Lots of peeps reporting difficulties and frustration getting activated for the game. Lots of issues seemed to surround the the company we love to hate (SOE) and the activation/registration process. My unscientific survey seems to validate my approach. Direct download and/or online retail customers seemed to be having the most problems.

Still there were probably some true SOE-induced issues– like not recognizing game cards as a form of payment upon activation and requiring a credit card to be entered. Likewise, misunderstandings that a credit card is required even though the first 30 days subscription is included with the box. For some, at least, the whole tin foil hat credit card over the computer/internet thing is a religious issue.

So with some trepidation, I left work hoping that I might actually get in game on release day. I went home. I opened the box. I found the activation key. I launched the game. It asked for my activation key through SOE’s account management page, entered it without dashes (don’t know if it mattered), put in payment information, looped back and entered my “Landing Party Key” (which allows me to continue to claim pre-order rewards on any new characters– needed dashes this time), put in my super secret open beta reward key and launched the game. The retail box also ships with a Buddy Key to rope your friends in. Not sure if online/direct download offers the same thing.

And a few seconds later, I was in game. Start to finish– about 10 minutes. Of course I’m on Guadeloupe which is apparently slightly less populated than Pluto, but there were no crashes, no lag and wonder of wonders, the /whocount was showing that the French population was rising (huzzah!). After reading the forums, you’d think it was the Anarchy Online Launch, Part II. For me at least, this was painless. Yes, a little needlessly cumbersome, but generally painless. Kudos to FLS on a painless launch for this sailor.

I dropped into Tampa and noticed right away that the only spot of contention on the map was New Orleans. The Spanish which appear to be the largest contingent on our server, had obviously coordinated their efforts and were creating massive gobs of unrest around N.O. I popped over to see what the fuss was about and nearly got sunk by my own in attention as the PvP zone expanded. This carebear has a few things to learn about PvP… Full contention by about 10 p.m. U.S. West Coast time. Yikes! Even more frightening was the number of level 27-28 Spanish trolling off the coast. Someone’s been very busy.

So rather than risk my hard earned ship in a gank fest, I decided I’d just spend some time harrassing Spanish shipping outside Havana and getting a bit of fighting experience in my new ship. I managed to bring port contention in Havana up to a total of 5 (10,000 required to trigger a full PvP zone) all by my lonesome. Heh, go me, that’s sticking it to the man. All in all, I’ve got to echo Keen’s sentiments that having port contention turned back on really adds back the excitement that the pre-order game was lacking. Looking forward to hooking up with my society mates and doing a little hunting.