ArcheAge, Land of Promise

I have been keeping an eye on the Korean MMORPG ArcheAge for a good while now. Its chief archtiect is Jake Song, former developer of Lineage. With ArcheAge‘s emphasis on its virtual world, though, and on providing its players a plethora of play directions, it appears to be a game with a lot of promise.

On the one hand, I tend to dislike Asian MMORPGs. I disliked Lineage in particular. On the other hand, ArcheAge looks like it pushes a lot of the same buttons as Vanguard, as Chris over at Game by Night has recently pointed out, and as I myself observed a while back over at MMORPG.com. A lot depends on the quality of its localization.

Thankfully, after languishing for quite a long time, the North American distributor turns out to be the respectable Trion Worlds, makers of the uninspired but very competent Rift. I think that the game will be in good hands here. Even Trion’s F2P practices are pretty fair and acceptable as far as I can tell.

Here’s a video of some gameplay, and there are more to be found on Jewel’s channel. I myself would like to try it out, but I’m afraid the Founder’s Packs, which grant alpha or beta access, are not in my budget at this time. So I’ll have to wait for open beta or launch.

That’s kind of a blessing, in a way. The game’s been out in Korea for over a year, and Trion needs more time to finish up its localization, so one would hope for a pretty polished experience once the game does formally launch. Of course, I have been wrong once before in a similar situation. So as always I’m hoping for the best but am prepared for the worst. Meanwhile I’m going to keep watching video on it.

Ardwulf’s Big Rift Giveaway! Rift+Expansion+30 Days

A code from Trion, courtesy of Raptr, has come my way. The code includes the Rift base game plus the Storm Legion expansion plus 30 days of game time — and word is you can use to to claim the expansion and the 30 days even if you have a lapsed Rift account.

Due to time and energy constraints I’ve decided not to use it myself… but that’s no reason to waste it! So I am instead giving it away. How do you get in on this deal? Easy! Hit up my Twitter account, and retweet the Twitter post linking to this blog post. About 48 hours later I will DM the code to a random rewteeter via Twitter.

I’ll also throw in codes for a Storm Legion Arbiter Helm and set of Stone Spaulders to two other retweeters, so chances might not be all that bad you’ll end up with something if you retweet. But you do have to retweet to win!

How Not to Stress Test

I have to assume that, given the severe misbehavior of the Guild Wars 2 servers thus far during headstart launch, that the many-times-a-week “stress tests” that ArenaNet was doing leading up to this day were nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

The servers went up a full three hours early, which was nice. For the first hour or so the condition of the game ran from “unplayably laggy” all the way to “disconnected.” But things appeared to settle down after that, and I got several enjoyable hours of play in before finally passing out with my nose in the keys. This morning the login servers have been down for at least an hour or three.

Now, I don’t see any sense in getting too wound up just yet. It’s not too late for ArenaNet to pull a smoothish launch out of this. But then, I did have 7 hours in last night. Some people may have been trying to get actual gameplay in last night, shrugged and went to bed, and now can’t get in this morning.

Moral of the story: If you’d like your launch to go smoothly, have beta testing that is actually testing instead of bullshit. Go check with Trion for details on how to do this, they seem to know how.

Additional Wisdom: If bloggers are playing your game they are not writing angry blog posts about how they’re not playing your game.

More thoughts to follow in due course.

More From Ardwulf Presents: Returns to Rift and Runes of Magic

Here’s a couple of late-week additions to the Ardwulf Presents stable, both follow-ups. The first offers my final thoughts as I wrap up a round of play in Rift. I went over most of this on the blog earlier in the week; praise for the game but also my reasons for not sticking with it.

The second is a quick revisit to Runes of Magic, where I take a quick spin around the brand-new Dwarf starter area that launched with the Chapter V: Fires of Shadowforge update.

More new vids are in the planning stages, so be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel.

A Rift Too Far

Since Trion and Raptr were kind enough to provide me with a retail code for Rift, it’s been my more-or-less main game this week. A lot of others have come back as well in the wake of the announcement of a very substantial-sounding expansion.

Having played through all of Silverwood back in the beta before opting to pass on the game, I chose to go the Defiant route this time. The game is about as good as it was back in beta — meaning very well-done. The rift events seem better tuned and the pet and mob pathing seems less flaky, and there’s some quests and stuff that appear to be new. And you no longer have to unlock souls — you have your pick from all those available to your Calling (archetype) from the get-go. I’m not sure how you get PvP souls now, but I’ve no inkling that that’s changed.

And Trion has done a great job supporting Rift over the sixteen months since its release — such a good job, in fact, that even SynCaine, that whirlpool of scorn for all things WoW-like, has expressed his admiration for Trion’s management of the property.

I’m now level 21 and well into the second Defiant zone, Stonefield. I’m playing a Mage centered on the Pyromancer soul and am very happy with the way the character plays. Despite that, I am probably only good for another ten levels or so; I’d like to see the next couple of zones, but unless they somehow blow me away I will not be plunking down the $15 to keep playing, and indeed will probably have lost interest before the 30 days are up — as I predicted would happen before launch and which was my big reason for not buying the game in the first place.

I once wrote a post about Warhammer Online not having a soul. By that I meant that it was a sterile, by the numbers design which while well-executed in some ways ultimately lacked the creative spirit that belongs in an MMO. It played like a game and not a world. There’s a lot of titles out there like that now, and a big one (WoW) that has moved farther and farther in that direction as time has gone on. Rift is another. In fact, as I have pointed out in the recent Ardwulf Presents, Rift plays a lot like Warhammer Online, except that everything actually works. That it does is to Trion’s great credit, but ultimately there is a “something” missing despite the game clearly firing on all cylinders. It’s a terrific game in so many ways and the upcoming expansion sounds like gangbusters, and I went out of my way to start a trial even (just) before the Raptr giveaway — and I’m glad to be able to try it out without the level 20 cap and whatever other limits are on trial accounts. Yet I am strongly disinclined — at this point and I don’t see the next ten levels and two zones changing this — toward paying a subscription fee for it.

This isn’t just a resistance to subscriptions in the face of a field increasingly dominated by free to play titles, either. I’ve been paying monthly for Vanguard for a while now and just upped that to a three-month SOE All Access pass for a summer (hopefully) loaded with Vanguard and EQ2 and maybe even a whirl in Planetside since the sequel is looking more impressive every day. Would I play it if it were fully free to play, inasmuch as much games are? Yeah, probably. In fact, while I respect Trion’s decision to go all in on the sub model, in this respect it’s a game I would compare not to WAR but to LotRO, which was a title I couldn’t stick to until it switched over, and have since spent a couple of hundred hours in. And LotRO is in many ways not as well-designed as Rift. In basic handling and combat feel it’s not even close. But soul… now that it’s got.

I figure by the end of next week I’ll be done. And there’s probably another video ahead where I talk about this and relate it to some other factors and other games.

Ardwulf Presents 12: Rift

This time Ardwulf Presents brings you a bit of Rift, playing on the level-limited Rift Light trial. The announcement for the upcoming Storm Legion expansion was made literally while the video was compiling, making it instantly out of date.

Storm Legion sounds insanely ambitious, with two new continents that about triple the size of the game world, ten new levels, new dungeons and raids, and the promise of more new types of dynamic content. Plus what sounds like some kind of player housing. This is what paid expansions are supposed to be like, folks.

Betas: Guild Wars 2 vs. SWTOR vs. Rift vs. TSW

A beta event for The Secret World has been announced for this weekend. I am signed up, am downloaded and patched, and plan to do a video since there is no NDA. I will not be doing as much coverage as I did for the recent beta weekend for Guild Wars 2, for a variety of reasons.

Readers may recall that I played in both the Rift and SWTOR betas and elected, in the end, not to buy either game. I am taking the plunge with Guild Wars 2 but am in the same position with TSW than I was with SWTOR and Rift — that is, intending to probably not buy the game.

Star Wars is, from my perspective, a tired and threadbare IP, bloated and festering, the days of its glory long past. The amount of wretched Star Wars material now far exceeds the quality stuff. I have great fondness for the first two films (and even to a lesser extent for Return of the Jedi,) but everything else save KOTOR alone can die in a fire as far as I’m concerned. Still, Bioware has a very strong history with the brand, and the extension by them of Mass Effect’s dialogue systems is a natural fit. And the cinematic trailers were freaking amazing. Plus, when I played it, I felt like the quality was very high, beta or no.

Rift had an intriguing core concept, a workmanlike fantasy world and the best implementation yet of the dynamic event idea. The beta was polished and in far better shape than many other MMOs were many months after launch. Trion clearly has its shit together. But in play it was frustrating, and doomed to become more so as population in the leveling zones thinned out. The scaling of the dynamic events was clearly off and level made too big a difference in practice; a gap of a couple of levels between you and the Rift spawns meant near-instadeath.

The Secret World looks to have some interesting character mechanics that I am interested in seeing in action, but the whole modern supernatural/conspiracy thing isn’t really my cup of tea. From a genre standpoint am am interested in it somewhat less than I am in Star Wars. I have, however, liked such games in the past on the tabletop (Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension and Unknown Armies being the offhand examples,) so there remains the possibility that the game will win me over. I haven’t been paying all that close attention to it, so it’s plausible that I just haven’t seen the stuff that will sell me yet.

Now, prior to getting into the GW2 beta I had already bought the game, whereas with both Rift and SWTOR I was on the fence, or at least half on the fence in the former case, when I played their test versions. My position on TSW is in that ballpark. What makes the difference? Why was I willing to buy Guild Wars 2 but not SWTOR or Rift before I tried them, at exactly the same point in the decision-making process?

I see TSW as a game that is more promising than SWTOR or Rift. I think the hobby needs more games without levels, for one, and more games outside of traditional fantasy for another. But the holy trinity, which TSW will retain, is an anchor around the neck of the whole genre, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m also tired of tightly structured progression. GW2 gets away from both of these things and provides an experience that, while not really a “sandbox” in any true sense, is at least less linear. That’s a huge thing for me.

So I shall belly up to the TSW beta this weekend for at least an hour or two, and report back with my findings. I don’t expect to fall head of heels for it, but there’s always hope.

Rift On A Downward Spiral?

Elementalistly over at Lowered Expectations took another look at the numbers of Rift on the tracking services yesterday, and had a number of interesting things to say. As often happens, my response to that bloated and swelled until it became a post of its own.

The spark for his discussion was a comment over on the MMORPG.com forums, to the effect that Rift’s numbers are down 20% from peak, so it’s obviously deflating. Of course, as he and various commenters in the thread point out, this was predicted even by the most ardent fans of Rift of whom I am aware. The dropoff after 30 days is just something that happens. Mr. Knucklehead then further posits that Rift will probably be at “50% of peak” by next month, in an amusingly epic failure to understand what “peak” implies – that the numbers will be less than that at all other times.

To me, a 20% dropoff (not after 4 weeks but 6, mind,) along with reports of persistent server queues even to this day, seems spectacularly good. After two weeks of Warhammer Online you could feel players flowing out of the game. Remember, you can stop playing before your sub runs out, and many did just that, myself included. A loss of 20% (measured in playtime,) implies very strong ongoing performance in terms of retaining players who are actually active.

Maybe a lot of Rift players are becoming unhappy with the game. But usually, that’s reflected in player crosstalk; for Rift, all I see is the usual complaining from the usual quarters, and if anything, not a very large amount of that. There’s a certain… I dunno, tone that’s present in the crosstalk when a game is shriveling, a near-unanimity of opinion that it’s headed in the wrong direction. We saw it with Vanguard and WAR, but I’m just not seeing it here.

Too, we should consider that Rift’s first-month sales were way, way higher than anyone expected six months prior to launch. It’s my considered opinion that, 6 weeks in, the people at Trion are still shitting their pants with glee. Sure, some folks got bored and went back to WoW or whatever other game they’d drifted in from, but everyone – absolutely everyone – knew that was going to happen.

There’s still room for things to go south, of course. Trion could screw something up, introducing some ill-considered mechanic that breaks the game. Or people might start to hit a wall at the edge of the current endgame if Trion fails to push new stuff out fast enough.

But Trion has already pushed out a major update, with a big new world event and a new raid zone. Admittedly, this was in the works even before launch, and its release was timed specifically to encourage those folks on the edge at the 30-day mark to stick around, but that itself is a good sign – having future content waiting in the wings is one of the factors that illustrates that Rift was actually ready for launch, unlike some (and by some, I mean almost all) other titles, regardless of what you may think of the game as a whole – and I didn’t go wild over it, although I thought it was well put together and had fun with it while I was playing.

Moral of the story: MMO forums are filled with idiots.

Rift, Expectations and the Blueprint For Success

Rift’s headstart goes live today, at 1 PM EST if everything goes off according to plan on Trion’s part. They seem to have things in hand, and I expect no major delays.

In charting the course of its development the interesting thing has been to watch it grow from a relatively obscure, nichey-looking game into what appears, on the eve of formal launch, to be a major contender going forward. Nobody’s touting it as a “WoW-killer” only because most commentators have come to realize just how asinine that appellation is.

Meanwhile, WoW continues on the same trajectory it’s been on for years. People get tired of the content, and an expansion releases. Folks return to the game. Eventually, they get bored again, a cycle which has sped up every time in every respect except the time between expansions. The dedicated people stick with it, but people with a shorter attention span jump to the new hotness when it releases, only to go back to WoW when either the New Hotness has worn out its welcome, or when Blizzard releases another expansion. A few probably never return.

I point this out because as much as people (rightly) do not consider Rift a WoW-killer, Trion has also positioned its product in direct opposition to WoW. The ads on TV and all over the internet tell us we’re not in Azeroth anymore. Those ads appear on many a WoW site, including WoWHead and WoWWiki. As much as we’d think, and as much as Trion would like us to think, that Rift isn’t directly challenging World of Warcraft, it is.

A large majority of potential Rift players are likely to come from the pool of current or former WoW players, and the timing is good for Trion, with enough space from the last expansion for some players to have tired of it already, yet far enough from the next expansion, and from the release of SWTOR, to give Rift a chance to cement a place in the market before everybody jumps ship. The longer Trion can keep those people, the more likely it is that they’ll start to think of Telara as their virtual home, and the less likely it is that they’ll jump away once WoW hits the top of the news cycle again (and no, the re-release of two retuned old dungeons won’t do that.)

Trion has done a lot of things really well ramping up to their launch, but one of the things that’s most impressed me is how they’ve managed expectations. Nobody thinks Rift is going to shake the foundations of the hobby. Nobody is calling it the Jesus game. No knucklehead from Trion is shouting about millions of players from every rooftop in sight. What they expect instead is a solid, novel yet familiar experience, something that’s fresh yet conforms to their expectations of what an MMO is supposed to be and do. Compare to the WAR buzz for an example of the opposite.

The key here is that people will consider Rift a success if it has 200K players six months from now. If it has 500K players it will be the biggest success story in MMOs since the release of WoW itself, handily. Even at the lower number (and somewhere in the middle is what I personally expect,) it’ll mean that Trion, along with Blizzard, CCP and Turbine, has become one of the development studios that other folks look to when cooking up their own blueprints for success. And that’s really something.

So Rift Does Break a Mold…

Thank KTR for the lead, in a marginally related story. But in a recent interview with MMORPG.com, Trion Worlds COO Scott Hartsman said regarding Rift:

The overall stability has been far greater than we could have hoped for in our wildest expectations. It’s precisely because of that stability that our engineers have been able to focus on a lot of the gameplay improvements that we’ve been trying to make and the gameplay tuning that we’re doing right now.

So now we have an inkling of just how Trion managed to get a requested feature like public grouping out the door so quickly: because, as he put it, “instead of our engineers running around because our servers are on fire, they’re able to react calmly to actual gameplay improvements that users care about.”

An MMO development studio using a beta for what a beta is actually for. This is just not how things are done, Hartsman. Really, it’s just appalling.

Kidding aside, this is why, even though I’ve cautioned against inflated expectations, I have also predicted that Rift will do very well; because Trion has given every indication of being a studio that has its shit together. Last September I asked the question: “Is Trion the next CCP? Or is Rift the next Vanguard?” It’s this quote from Hartsman that has me 98.2% convinced that the question’s been answered. Trion may not have done anything as mold-breaking as EVE, but they look to be in a position to get off to a very solid start, while keeping a stable enough base that they actually have a foundation to build on, and without having spent so much money in making the thing that they have a huge cash gulf to overcome right off the bat.

The comparison between Rift and Warhammer has been very common of late; I made it myself the other day. But while the two games share some of the same features and have a broadly similar look and feel, the situation under the hood might be widely different. It’s probably just as fair to make the comparison with another game that looked very polished and stable right before launch: LotRO. Which actually did prove to be polished and stable, and which could also be said to have had the last successful MMO launch. That was close to four years ago, which is ages in MMO years. We’re due for another one.

At this point (even though I’m still not buying it,) I’m more confident in Rift’s prospects than I am in SWTOR’s… or even those of Guild Wars 2. Part of that is how well Trion seems to have handled Rift’s development and marketing, and part of that is how well Trion seems to have handled the budget, which I suspect is far, far lower than what’s being spent on SWTOR, or Guild Wars 2 (which I’m starting to think is closer to SWTOR in this department than people suspect.) Maybe even less than was blown on Warhammer.

It may even be that Hartsman’s history at SOE – of bringing product out with a small team and a tight budget – may have helped Trion to do this with without selling the children for scientific experiments.