Resurrected in Viking Purgatory

A new world to explore…

So what kind of a game will make someone who hasn’t posted in seven+ years to revive their blog? Not Minecraft although Wilhelm, myself and others must have spent thousands(?) of wonderful hours there. Not even World of Warcraft Classic which we’ve been enjoying immensely since its launch 18 months ago. While I’ve enjoyed those immensely, I just didn’t feel I had much to say about those experiences.

Valheim is different though. It had all the hallmarks of something not worth seriously considering– a survival game that was a Steam early access title and charging money to boot. Ha! Ula convinced us all to give it a go and the rest is history as Wilhelm has dutifully chronicled being the Venerable Bede of our virtual adventures…

Its been a long time since I really got that “five more minutes” feeling and then slinked off to bed after midnight on a work night. Not posting in seven years also means I’m even less likely to miss my bedtime. So what seems to be working with Valheim? Exploration? Check. Progression? Check. Base building? Check. Skill-based progression? Check. Co-op multiplayer (but not massively)? Check. Private hosted server? Check. Beautiful environment? Check. I’m sure COVID fatigue is certainly playing a role in fueling my escapist enthusiasm, but its not the only thing. It seems I’m not alone in getting sucked in.

If you asked me how I’d improve Minecraft to suit my play style, I think I’d end up designing something very much like Valheim. So much so, it feels like someone has been eavesdropping on my brain.

One of the challenges our small group has always been the varied amounts of time that we all have to play a given game. Progression mechanics tend not to be very forgiving for someone with limited play time. No one likes to feel like they are “behind” or alternatively that they are being held back by the slowest member of the team. Our little group made the conscious decision to carefully limit our progression during our times in WoW over the last fifteen years, as painful as that can be, in order to keep us all at the same level so we can experience challenging and level-appropriate content as a group.

Minecraft certainly allowed players with different time budgets to play together and collaborate, but it was always more about building than true progression. Combat, for me at least, was never compelling and more of an environmental risk than playstyle.

In Valheim, there just doesn’t seem to be a right and a wrong way to approach combat. There are situational choices that are favored– I’m not looking to attempt backstabbing trolls yet– but by and large, there are interesting choices to be made and those can simply be based on one’s taste. Positioning and reacting (blocking and dodging) can matter but its not so twitchy that my age addled reflexes are overwhelmed. Rumor has it that content difficulty is scaled to adapt to how many players are involved. I have no data on that, but if that is true, that may be the killer feature of the game. So far, I can thoroughly enjoy/challenge myself as a solo or with several friends on the same content regardless of relative skill level. Whether this remains the case over the long haul, we shall see, but for now. All is well in Valheim.

 

 

 

Time is Money

Tobold asks the question when will WoW go free to play and how that might be implemented. Blizzard has certainly learned the lesson all good gym owners know– the neglected subscription is the ticket to success. Who among us hasn’t joined a gym or health club with a monthly fee and ahem how shall we say… neglected to make full use of it?

I have no idea what the average is, but it must be a significant percentage of members continue to pay but, even with the best of intentions, stop going to the gym regularly or at all. Call it guilt, call it taking a wee break, call it preserving your access should you want to play, it’s still recurring income.

Blizz may get there, but I don’t think they’ve lost enough people to justify going F2P yet.

For other games that, in Tobold’s words, don’t justify a subscription when compared to many players’ level of interest or commitment, F2P is just the ticket. DDO, LotRO and now STO are three that have come back on my radar specifically because they went free to play. Being able to match my spend with my level of enthusiasm and or time commitment is a boon to me.

Even with a traditional sub though, in theory I could maximize my return on the sub by consuming as much content as my time budget would permit. If I were only interested in the leveling game in SWTOR, and played obsessively since launch, I might have consumed all the storylines for all the classes/factions by now. I could see SWTOR going free to play at some point following the path others have taken– pay for fluff, utility items, progress enhances and or access to content areas/modules for progression.

Eve however remains the anomaly. One can legally buy characters, and effectively in game currency as well, but one cannot buy progression. Eve progression is skill based and skill training is time based. The only way to continue to progress is to continue to subscribe.

So why doesn’t Eve just sell time?

If I really want to spend the next year working through a skill training plan (not an unheard of amount of time) why not let me buy the time now, apply it to those skills I want to train and be done with it? If I’m going to spend $180 to learn to fly a Titan, why spend it over twelve months?

One of Eve’s major barriers for new comers is never being able to catch up skillpoint wise to friends who have played much longer. Granted that progression can go in any number of directions, but to switch from a hardcore miner industrialist to a 0.0 capital ship pilot would take a very long time.

Seems like a natural progression for Eve. Eliminate subscriptions, sell a time equivalent for skill training, or just skill points out right to be applied to skills of a players choice, make that freely tradeable like PLEX and you would have the most flexible model in the universe. Players could truly exchange time for money in whatever proportion they wish.

Earn isk by playing, purchase training and it’s truly free to play. Buy isk or training and your time budget is preserved. Of course the one element that likely prevents this from upsetting the games balance is that to survive in Eve, you still need to learn how to be a good pilot. Something that you just can’t buy.

Size Matters

With the NDA coming down on the hotly anticipated Star Wars: The Old Republic, those of us who have been as yet snubbed by EA/Bioware and not allowed into the beta are starting to get a better view into the game.

By all accounts that I’ve read so far, I think the expectation is evolution not revolution and that’s not terribly surprising considering the amount Bioware has invested in the game.  They simply can’t afford the game to be niche, so don’t expect radically new mechanics or game play.

True to form, Bioware appears to have thoughtfully injected story-driven instanced group content– Flashpoints– throughout player progression.  From my point of view, that is a good thing assuming Bioware has lived up to its reputation of providing compelling storylines that lead into and out of the instanced content.

IMHO, the tight integration of open world content and instanced dungeons makes for an entirely satisfying experience.  The poster child for this effort was vanilla WoW’s human starter experience in Elwynn Forest and Westfall that inevitably leads you to Edwin Van Cleef and the Deadmines, and ultimately beyond.

Of course, the DF wounded and then Cataclysm finally killed all this, though open world content became increasingly trivial solo content and thus the progressive story line experience was diluted to the point of nuisance.  Bioware hopes to have recaptured some of this magic, but we’ll see.

Part of what made these earlier experiences wildly fun of course was that we experienced them as a fixed group of five friends commited to staying together and progressing together.
So ideally, SWTOR would be ideally suited from a design perspective for our little group.  Except of course that SWTOR group size is four.

Ouch.

Group size has been a bit of a moving target over the years in MMOs and of course the degree to which group size matters is a fundamental design decision.  In the open world of Everquest, group size didn’t really matter than much depending on the challenge level of the content.

Wilhelm and I seemed to be able to find loads of challenging content as a dual-boxed foursome on Fippy Darkpaw and still had the flexibility to invite others as well when camped in a good area.  Group size seemed “suggested” rather than required.  In effect, you could scale your desired challenge level based on location and group size/composition and vice versa.

As instanced group content became the norm, group size started to matter quite a bit more.  Instanced content in most games tended to be tuned for an optimized group.  WoW chose five, Rift five, LotRO six, Guildwars six, DDO six, City of Heroes/Villains max of eight and now SWTOR with four.

Instanced content like WoW’s and LotRO’s (and I presume Rift though I’m not quite there yet) requires an optimal number and class composition.  EQ, EQ2, GW, DDO and CoX, not so much because of actual or effective scaling mechanisms.

So the question for us is how the heck do we experience SWTOR as our little group of five in a world that seems meant for four?

I’ve read that Companions work like henchmen in other games and can occupy group slots, so that conceivably would permit a group of five live players to occupy up to 10 total slots which would be two full “normal” groups, e.g., one group of three members and 1 companion and the other of two people and two companions.

I’m not sure I like the sound of that and as far as I know, SWTOR’s “Operations” or raid content isn’t available at lower levels.  Does anyone know whether “Flashpoint” instanced content can be experienced as a “raid” or 8 person group like the vanilla WoW end-game instances could (e.g., Scholo, Strat, etc.)?

It really bugs me that after so many years, MMO devs are still coming up with new (or continuing to use old) mechanics that manage to prevent people from playing together and/or experiencing all the wonderful content they’ve built into their game.

I’m not convinced that scalable content=meh if done in a thoughtful way.  I think instancing solves more problems than it creates, but instancing’s bastard child “phasing”– which is just hyperprogressive questing on acid– increasingly puts players in isolated boxes.

So how are others planning on experiencing SWTOR?  Solo and the LFD or random guildies?

Bridging the gap

This started as a comment to Wilhelm’s post but the tale grew in the telling…

Regarding SoE’s discussion point about selling max level characters…

As someone who doesn’t raid, I suppose I don’t really care.  In my mind, its a bit like hiring someone to carry you to the top of Mt. Everest so you can take a snapshot and put it on your wall.

But still, SoE’s proposed solution raises a more interesting question which many folks have been discussing of late– how do you reconcile vertical progression with a raiding end game and permit a game to grow and thrive?  How do you bridge the gaps for new and old players and between new and old content?  Or between current content and the “end game”?

What experience seems to show is that shoehorning both games into one does a disservice to both.

An ideal solution in my mind would be something along the following lines:

  • Raiding is a separate game along the Guildwars PvP model with limited world interaction
  • Leveling unlocks the ability to roll a new character at any level up to the highest level attained
  • With the purchase of each expansion, players may roll a character at the base level of that expansion
  • Experience curves wouldn’t be compressed, previous content remains intact

Raiders would get what they want and avoid the exercise of leveling through trivial content unrelated to raiding skills.

Levelers new and old could come into a game at any point in the game they desired and be with the pack but still have the opportunity to play previous content as it was intended.

Levelers could choose to level 1 to cap or leapfrog along experiencing a new chapter of content as they saw fit much like choosing which film or book of a series to read.

Completionists can play cover to cover and replayability is preserved.

Whether “expansion” characters would be permitted to visit the old world is something I haven’t fully considered.  Locking them out of the old world isn’t very immersive, but probably strengthens the lowbie economy.  Forced down-mentoring maybe to avoid the usual problems?