Displaying Category: Game

My first look at Mass Effect 2

I admit, I'm behind the times... I just played the first 100 minutes of Mass Effect 2 and here are my initial thoughts (that, by this time, almost certainly aren't original). My first thought, "OMG, it's Robocop!" Next, "Wait, it's Serenity?" Let me explain... There's the Alliance... There's this crew cobbled together from all types... There's the helmsman, Joker, who seems an awful lot like Wash. Serenity had Reavers, Mass Effect has the Reapers. Serenity had the planet Miranda, Mass Effect 2 has the character Miranda. That's it so far, and I'll admit, a lot of this applies to Mass Effect the first as well, but ME2 is now fresh in my mind and this is what I experienced almost right away.

It's been a while... and now this!

It's been about seven years since the last MechWarrior game. Now we see the first gameplay footage from a new series reboot. HOT. There's also a press release.

It's not what it used to be...and neither am I

After the WoW client crashed twice trying to fly back to Orgrimmar, I gave up and tried playing some Ultima Online, connecting to a new player-run shard. I had been in a couple nights before, but the client had crashed moments after getting in game (I guess fullscreen doesn't work so well). This time things seemed to hold a little longer and I was able to hit some skill gates and pick up some equipment to get me set up. I talked with one of the GMs and met up with some guildmates.

So here's the thing, while some things are different since I played in the late '90s, most is the same... and that's not a good thing. Most of all, the interface is seriously problematic. I often find myself having to click very small objects or drag objects onto small hot spots with very little feedback as to whether I've hit my target. The interface is also sluggish, so any sort of click or drag action takes a beat or so to display any sort of acknowledgment that I've attempted an action. Keep in mind, when I was playing this game more than ten years ago I was playing on a Pentium 500 (I think). Now I'm playing on a Core 2 Duo 3.16GHz. Apparently, local CPU speed has no impact on client performance. There are also the replication issues where a player will try to move somewhere and you'll see a delay or stuttered attempt. I could see this as a problem with the bandwidth or processing power of the player-run shard, but these exact issues existed with the regular commercial version as well.

I make these same sorts of discoveries every time I go back to play an "old" game. While the original gameplay might be sound, trying to adapt to and accept old and broken interfaces from days of yore is generally just too much. I don't care how much fun I used to have with this game, I simply can't put up with this crappy interface long enough to enjoy the game. Unfortunately, I really can't see myself sticking with UO much, if at all. The crappy interface simply detracts from the experience and makes me feel like I am wasting my time fighting the interface instead of enjoying the game.

I haven't figured out if I should feel bad about that or not...

3D Realms Ending More Than a Decade of Nothingness

News is breaking around the webiverse that infamous 3D Realms, the creators of the irreverent Duke Nukem series, has been shuttered. The followup to Duke Nukem 3D was originally announced back in 1997 and has now been vaporware for (doing the math) ~12 years. I've known at least two people who worked on that project at some point and the stories we've heard... wow.

I seriously doubt anyone will shed a thought about shedding a tear over this news, though it's always sad to see developers lose their jobs... it might just be time to move on, folks.

So What's the Problem With WoW?

As I type this, I am downloading patches for World of Warcraft. Playing this game is something I have been actively avoiding since the game's release in 2004. My only experience with WoW prior to this has been a brief six hour "test" during the beta, and extensive conversations with my friends and guild mates who have played or continue to play the game. Why I am choosing to play now isn't immediately important (I'll talk about that later if I do end up enjoying the experience), what I want to explain here is why I have put so much effort into not playing.

First, a bit of background on my experience with online gaming. It basically began in the early '90s with MUDs on the local BBS I frequented. I never really liked or got into the MUDs. Next came Neverwinter Nights on AOL somewhere around 1993, which was basically a massively multiplayer version of the old Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box series. This was fun, but I had a difficult time wrapping my head around the complexities this game introduced to roleplaying and stats tracking and so on. I watched friends play NWN and other games like Meridian 59, which seemed nice, but still not what I was looking for. In September 1997, Origin Systems released Ultima Online, which I still consider one of the best and most unpolished online experiences I've had to date.

Ultima Online was, on the surface, a fairly simple game. Your character only had three stats: strength, agility, and intelligence, which determined your "bars" of: health, stamina, and mana. There were no character levels in the game and no "experience" in the traditional sense. The game was skill based and each player could advance any number of skills by performing actions that utilized those skills. So for example, using an axe on a tree to gather wood would utilize your lumberjack skill (as well as improve your character's strength). Then using a knife on the gathered wood along with feathers would utilize your fletching skill. Firing arrows at an orc would utilize your archery skill. In my mind, this was all completely intuitive and straightforward without any complicated formulas or templates or classes or races or whatever else. You just had your human character who had skills that went up when you used them and atrophied when you didn't. Simple.

Ultima Online also featured a world completely devoid of automated quests. What? How is this possible you ask? Once again, it's completely intuitive. There are parts of the world that are more dangerous than others. Of course there are dungeons filled with all sorts of horrors, but there are also stretches of forest where liches are common (usually near ruins, crypts, and graveyards). There are forts populated by orcs. There are wandering creatures like headless, deer, and bears. A player might decide to strike out on his own to see what he runs into in the forest or maybe go to gather some wood or find a mountain to do some mining. He might join up with some buddies and go in search of trouble in a crypt or hit a dungeon or, something that happens often, gather up a group to go help out a mate in trouble with a cry of "To the rescue!" The result of all this random adventure is a series of player generated narratives. Friends and guild mates tell stories about that time they had to rescue you from the orc fort, or track down a thief who just stole heap of gold. That's our story. No one else can claim it because it was entirely unique to our individual experience.

After UO I played a little EverQuest EverQuest and then some Asheron's Call. EverQuest was much more of the traditional D&D-like MUD, but with graphics. Asheron's Call was a bit of a hybrid in which characters had both levels and skills. I was never fond of EQ's system, but rather enjoyed how AC was put together. Unfortunately for me, both felt too complicated for me to really be comfortable in. I tried some betas including the World of Warcraft beta, but never really found anything to satisfy my MMO needs. That's basically been it and I haven't played any single MMO for more than a week or so in the last six years.

So what's the problem with WoW? Millions of players the world over adore this game, how could I possibly find fault with something that so many people find so right? To start, let's talk about the things WoW does right. Like all of Blizzard's games, WoW is incredibly polished. There's a unified artistic vision that guides all of Blizzard's products and it is pretty damned appealing. I actually really like WoW's somewhat cartoony look, I think the art direction is pretty much genius. Blizzard clearly paid very close attention to the other MMOs on the market and either adapted the things they did right, or improved and polished the things they did poorly. This shows clearly in the very polished, attractive, and functional UI. WoW introduced things like quest logs and displays to tell the player how many of x item he's collected vs how many he still requires to complete a quest. Very clear identifiers for NPC quest givers. Some new ways to display timers on buffs and debuffs and so on. There's a rather wide assortment of pets and mounts. Players can find clear and useful information about items. Players can mail items and gold to other players within the game. The game was also designed with very low system requirements in mind. Players don't need powerful computers to have a satisfying experience in WoW and this serves to include instead of exclude players, giving Blizzard a much broader player base from which to recruit new addicts. WoW does all of these things extremely well and certainly better than any of the games that had been released up till that point. But... (big "but")... while these things improve the player experience, they are really just the cosmetic bits surrounding the tragically spoiled meaty center.

The very first thing, and possibly the greatest single flaw, is WoW's laser-like focus on questing. From start to finish, players are guided through the game by quests. These quests are either small and standalone, or follow larger story arcs that explain background of characters and races and the relationships between these races. Characters basically run from quest giver to quest giver, collecting and completing quests in order to get better equipment, money, or experience. For the player, this keeps things fairly simple. Players are told exactly what needs to be done and when completed, are told the result. Simple and neat. There are even addons that guide you through the quests, no thinking required!

Next there's the issue of how quests impact the persistent game world. In the simplest terms possible, there is no persistence. Let's look at an imaginary quest in which an NPC asks that a player gather 6 bear pelts by killing these embiggened bears, so as to thin the population of this invasive and dangerous species. No big deal, right? Except, the player is killing bears, and that guy over there is killing bears, and that other guy is killing bears, and the 4.7 million other characters who started off in this zone had to kill these bears. By this time, all the bears, all of the bears' ancestors, and all of the bears' potential ancestors for the next hundred thousand years should have been annihilated. Nearly all of the quests I am familiar with are of this nature in which everyone is asked to do the same thing and everyone completes it, giving me the distinct impression that every individual in this world exists in his own personal reality bubble that never seems to intersect anyone else's reality bubble. I feel like I'm playing a single player game in which other players happen to be walking through.

Out of these quests comes the stuff, usually referred to as "loot." That which you get from the successful completion of quests or off the corpses of those felled in battle. Loot is a reward. Most loot comes in the form of weapons, armor, or components necessary for tradeskills. These items serve the dual purpose of assisting characters in battle by way of their various and often unique characteristics, and to identify to other players what quests or other accomplishments a character has completed. Usefulness in battle aside, these items are mostly just achievements. Something to show off to others. Other than achieving the highest levels possible, acquiring the bestest loot is pretty much the only goal of the game for the vast majority of players. This is really just the game catering to the basic human desire for validation from his peers. While all games do this, it's the WoW-like games that emphasize it as a driving force of the greater player-base. This is where acquiring loot becomes significantly more important than, say, following the game's major story arcs. We're not going into that dungeon to find out what happened to the valiant hero of legend, we're going to acquire the holy mace of bear smiting! And related to my point of a lack of quest persistence, there is an unlimited supply of these "unique" and special items. Anyone who meets the requirements can get a hold of an uber item, so even though this mace is mentioned in the ancient texts as the mace the valiant paladin took into battle with him on his final day, 674,000 characters somehow managed to find and wield this same mace...simultaneously. At least until they found a better weapon and auctioned the mace off.

My final major issue looks at how anti-guild WoW is. This may seem odd to most at first blush, afterall, WoW comes with extensive guild-management tools built right into the game. Players can form a guild and manage it with ranks and privileges and all manner of titles and tabards, but that's not what I am talking about. The problem with guilds in WoW has to do with the game's level-based structures and rules. Nearly all of the game's content is segregated so that access is limited by character level or sometimes even character race and class. This creates tiers of access and gives players something to work toward. You may be level 20 now, but you've heard guildmates talk about how cool that 40th level dungeon is, so you put some extra time into power-leveling through so you can see it for yourself (and get some of the great loot that gets rewarded down there). That's great, except that as the only low-level player in your guild, you are pretty much forced to run through all those levels on your own or with other random strangers. What's the point of being in a guild if you spend the first 70 or so levels playing without your friends? The strict level-based system stratifies the guild members into groups of similarly leveled characters. Sure, they still have people to play with (hopefully), but your exposure to guild members is going to be limited to those around your same level. Then what happens when one of the guys you usually play with falls behind or power levels ahead? People you're used to playing with are no longer available to you. It's really frustrating to be playing a massively multiplayer online game and feeling completely alone, not because you don't have any friends, but because the game's own mechanics are telling you who you can and cannot play with.

Without a doubt, World of Warcraft is the premiere MMO. It is surprisingly well known among people who have never played or seen a video game in their lives. It's been the source of real life love and real life tragedy. It's created friendships and enemies. It's made some people rich and others destitute. There is no question that World of Warcraft has impacted the world and changed how we view and play MMOs, and above all else, that is my greatest issue with WoW. People now identify WoW as the benchmark by which all other MMORPGs shall be judged. Because WoW is a success, any other MMORPG that wishes to achieve even a fraction of WoW's success must meet and exceed WoW's basic play mechanics. In short, WoW is creating and nurturing an industry of copycat MMORPGs because players have developed and built the expectation that any "good" MMORPG will be at least as good as WoW in the ways that people are familiar with. In fact, the only place that MMOs really try to diverge from WoW's formula is to dramatically increase the visual aesthetics of their games, which will almost always end up hurting them as they reduce the pool of potential players who meet the system requirements. As good and as popular as WoW is, as a gaming experience it has been built on a deeply flawed foundation that is now propagating throughout the industry. I can only hope that some innovating developers can find a way to eliminate these issues and strike out in new directions, forging new ground, and creating new completely unique holy maces of bear smiting.

Big Huge Games not so much big or huge these days...

Found an article on Blues talking about the recent trouble Big Huge Games has been going through. THQ acquired BHG about a year ago, and now they're looking to sell or shut the studio down. BHG is mostly known for it's Rise of Nations games, but it also recently did the Settlers of Catan conversion. called Catan, for XBLA.

This is mostly a "how the mighty have fallen" type post. I visited the BHG studio several years ago for an IGDA meeting and found the place to be really nice. Everyone had an office and there were real wood accents everywhere. There were Razor scooters all over the place and a really nice common area where folks could play console games. It was a really nice set up. So, it's sad to see a formerly successful studio fall on hard times, but it seems to be more and more common these days. Good luck guys!