A Last Enfeebled Gasp

A couple of days ago Carbine announced that WildStar would be launching with a “hybrid” business model… by which they meant the old subscription model with a PLEX-like option. I share Wilhelm’s notion that it’s not a great idea, because based on what I have seen so far WildStar will boast a working economy in the same sense that World of Warcraft does. Which is to say not at all. But I didn’t feel the need to comment on it simply because I have no interest in WildStar, which as far as I can tell will be bringing nothing new to the genre, and in fact is arriving several years later than the rest of the WoW clones. I could be wrong about that, but nothing I have seen changes my mind. Chalk it up to NCSoft’s long history of backing winners.

Yesterday Zenimax announced that The Elder Scrolls Online will be a subscription game. They didn’t say there would be a $60 charge on top of that, but it’s probably a reasonable assumption. I am sort of interested in TESO, except for the fact that it’s not being developed by Bethesda, the studio responsible for the rest of the hallowed Elder Scrolls series. And the fact that Zenimax seems determined to leave out all the stuff that makes the Elder Scrolls series special, leaving the pedestrian combat and broken magic systems and first-person view pasted over linear themepark content. And the graphics aren’t up to even the shaky Elder Scrolls standard. Aside from that, it might be interesting. I’d have given it a shot if it were, as probably most people expected, free to play, or at least to dabble in. Which is all I personally ask before spending money.

Both announcements seem like they should be surprising. After all, we all know subs are dead for all but the niche-iest games, right? Well, yes. But we should not be shocked that these two unambitious and even cowardly games decide to use the most conservative extant business model. They are, after all, designing games that would have felt right at home released in 2004 alongside WoW, so why not copy WoW’s money model as well?

At any rate, since Zenimax has decided to go with the old model rather than the new model, or instead of heaven forfend trying something new, it looks like I will wait for the inevitable f2p conversion. Which will happen. TESO at least has a big name footprint in the common imaginations of gamers, so it will draw some attention but will wither sooner rather than later. It’s apt to be the newest Sims Online. WildStar, on the other hand, is owned by NCSoft and therefore will simply close. Six months for each?

The MMO Answer to Skyrim: DDO?

The idea that there ought to be an MMO that takes its cues from Skyrim is something that’s been talked about incessantly since 11/11/11. The modding community is giving it a try, but we’l see where that goes and in any event, making it work is going to take a while. And at best it’s not going to be an MMO version of Skyrim, but something more along the lines of a Minecraft multiplayer server, where a dozen or two people occasionally gather to axe stuff up. That’s worth keeping an eye on, but meanwhile back in the MMO realm, what have we got that’s close?

Well, not much. But there are a few games that have some of the pieces. Vanguard, for example, has a big immersive world, although it’s nowhere near as interactable as Skyrim. I might snidely argue that Vanguard replicates Skyrim‘s single player experience rather well, since the population is so low.

Too, there’s Darkfall, which is a lot like what Skyrim would look like as an MMO if the interface were somehow, amazingly, even worse than it is. And if it were about PvP and nothing else. I’d argue that the sort of unrestricted PvP that Darkfall embraces is not at all in keeping with the virtues of Skyrim, a game which is not remotely about “maximum challenge” but the novelty of exploring a living world. But down in the nuts-and-bolts of how the gameplay actually functions, Darkfall is closer than most.

From this perspective of the fundamental gameplay, though, it occurs to me that Dungeons & Dragons Online is actually a remarkably good match. You have the mostly targeted combat rather than hard targeting, a decent stealth game if you’re playing a Rogue type, and missile and spell combat that’s a decent implementation of the same ideas. DDO lacks Skyrim‘s exploration angle, which is a particular weakness of the game when you look at it through the lens of traditional MMO’s, but I think that wasn’t a design goal. Rather, what DDO set out to do was replicate the D&D tabletop experience as closely as possible within an MMO-like format, a paradigm in which the primary locus of play in is the dynamic of the party’s interactions among themselves and with the dungeon environment, in which widespread instancing of dungeons and outdoor zones isn’t as harmful.

Given the big fuss about DDO’s summer expansion Menace of the Underdark, I found myself playing a bit of it over the weekend, starting a new character on Khyber and farting around in the (very familiar) Korthos Village content. Having touched the game very little for the last year or more, I found myself playing it in a strikingly similar way to how I’d just spent weeks playing Skyrim. That the mob pathing is very problematic and much weaker was a detriment to this, but it basically worked. Stealth also doesn’t work as well, although there may be things at higher levels to mitigate this somewhat.

It’s not that Skyrim and D&D Online are especially similar games — in terms of core competencies I’d say they are about as far apart as two fantasy RPGs are going to ever get. But the actual button-pressing parts are remarkably similar. If DDO had a true first-person mode it would almost be uncanny.

Idle Time and Idle Mind

In a way, I am deeply unhappy with Skyrim because it has so dominated the part of my head that deals with gaming. I have a lot of other prospects to play, but I’m having trouble getting into anything else… so, of course, what time I have had to play has pretty much stayed in Skyrim.

This week we have Star Trek Online going free to play at last, and I’m planning to give that a whirl. Meanwhile, I have been dabbling a bit in Wurm Online, which is (graphics aside) the closest thing to Skyrim in the MMO world, even surpassing its immersability in many respects. (Nota bene: Wurm is not much like Skyrim at all, and I’m only comparing the two in terms of immersion. Gameplay-wise it’s a lot closer to Minecraft.) Still, I’m finding it best in small doses.

On something of a lark, I installed League of Legends and took that out for a spin. As I’d predicted, it’s not for me. I also reinstalled World of Warcraft with the thought of using my long-idle trial account on their new “free” plan, and played close to ten minutes of that before realizing that it’s just too stale these days. I will say, though, that Blizzard has done a fine job of making the download and install a great deal less painful than it used to be, so that’s something.

WoW’s linearity these days seems to be the deal-breaker for me, which even Blizzard seems to be recognizing. Unfortunately, this comes after the complete revamp of Old Azeroth into Linear Land that Cataclysm brought. It’s good in a way, because I will be less tempted to dabble in a game I now regard as permanently spoiled.

At any rate, I find myself at something of a loss. I have installed and could readily play LotRO, Champions, DDO, APB, Fallen Earth or EQ2, and that’s just the MMOs. Yet my desire to play any of them is at an all-time low. Perhaps it’s time to unearth a long-fallow tabletop project.

The End of Skyrim

It had been my goal for the weekend to finish up the main plotline in Skyrim and move on to dabbling in Hearts of Iron 3, which will fit better with my schedule now that school has resumed. I had gotten about a third of the way through the main quest up to that point but had strayed far from it, logging close to 100 hours total and reaching level 41.

Over the break I finished up the story, and was very pleased with the outcome. I don’t want to spoil it, but the very final battle was a bit less epic than it could have been, but that was probably me being a bit overpowered for my level, with a full hit of Legendary Dragonplate enchanted out the wazoo and a bunch of Legendary weapons to boot. The level scaling in Skyrim is much more forgiving than it was in Oblivion. There’s a really nice way to play the denouement, too, that I really appreciated.

I did indeed start a game of HoI3 on Friday, as the French in 1936, based on the assumption that they should be easy to get started with in a very complicated game, and that any performance better that they did historically (they collapsed in six weeks) would be a moral victory. But when my primary time slot for gaming opened up on Sunday morning… I made a new character and played some more Skyrim. I’m probably close to finishing up for the time being, until some DLC and mods hit, but you never know.

Ardwulf’s Game of the Year 2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It will not come as a shock that it will land on many Game of the Year lists, as it does mine. It is to my great annoyance that for the second year in a row an MMO blogger is compelled to name a non-MMO the standout game of the year, and for the same reason: Skyrim has a better, more immersive and more interactive world than any MMO that has come out in the last couple of years. The new releases of 2011, namely Star Wars: The Old Republic and Rift, are both good games in absolute terms, but neither compares to Skyrim.

For those late to the party, Skyrim is the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series. The first two were released back in the DOS era where even Dragonborn fear to tread, so the modern Elder Scrolls experience began with Morrowind. Later games are not sequels to earlier ones despite being set in the same world. The series as a whole has been noteworthy for sprawling sandbox worlds and deep flaws, but for many the virtues – a kind of sandbox rare elsewhere – outweigh the lingering issues. In virtually every respect Skyrim represents a huge improvement over Oblivion. Morrowind deservedly retains its vocal defenders, but for my money it looks and plays too dated unless you mod it to high heaven, and its setting is a bit esoteric, hampering its accessibility.

Where Oblivion sometimes felt empty, Skyrim, which has a map of about the same size, is much more densely packed with things to see and do. The world is the deepest I have ever seen in a video game, and there are stories everywhere, some that you can take part in and many that have already ended. A shrine in the wilderness with flowers placed at its base, a kindly old woman with an dark secret or a mine taken over by bandits hint at chronicles untold. And there are hundreds of in-game books available with text to read if you so desire; some of these are easter eggs for players of the previous games, but even for a neophyte the net effect is of a world lovingly crafted and incredibly rich in lore and history.

The best parts of Skyrim, though, aren’t the tales placed there by Bethesda – although those are excellent – but in the stories you inevitably make for yourself as you interact with the world around you and the world interacts with itself. I ambushed a party on the road and while I was killing one fellow the other ran off, and after dispatching his comrade I set out on a breakneck pursuit through miles of wilderness, on the way stumbling into another party that I also felt obliged to massacre. When I finally caught up with my quarry he was in the final moments of a struggle with the huge bear who’d jumped on him. It’s this kind of completely unscripted stuff, emerging from the player’s interactions with the world and the world’s interactions with itself, that makes Skyrim special.

A watered-down iteration of Oblivion‘s level scaling mechanic makes Skyrim‘s quest lines largely nonlinear, and the main plot supports this as well, because as you adventure in Skyrim you learn more words of the dragon language, fortifying you against the day when you have to face the final villain… and even after that, you can keep on adventuring as much as you like. Meanwhile, the game sets you up to go where you like and do what you desire. There is some direction through the main quest, but along the way you will acquire and stumble across a huge number of additional things to do and places to explore. Skyrim is densely packed with activities including harvesting, crafting, housing… you can even get married to one of a large number of NPCs.

The modified level scaling, where some encounters scale to your level while others do not also makes it possible to feel like a total badass and still be challenged. Sometimes enemies scale to your level when it’s important to one of the many available storylines, and the semi-random encounters with dragons always do, but creatures in many parts of the world have flat levels, so there are a few places where you need to tread carefully.

As many have pointed out, Skyrim is not flawless. Bugs and glitches are common, although it’s far more polished and stable at launch than its predecessors in the Elder Scrolls series. Even the graphics, which look absolutely amazing on the surface, have some serious issues upon closer inspection, with chunky shadows and depressingly low-res textures, and the character models aren’t all they could be. The UI out of the box is a work of art in its terribleness; it’s a bad console UI even though console players are accustomed to clumsily pawing their way through menus with a controller, and ported to the PC it is simply atrocious. It’s usable – if it weren’t Skyrim would be taking a lot more heat than it is – pretty but opaque and unwieldy and the worst thing in a game as otherwise close to perfect as you’ll find.

Despite these and other flaws, Skyrim deserves the raves and the ratings it’s gotten. For all the problems, none of which are new to this fifth Elder Scrolls installment, it’s just that good. If you’re a fan of open-ended, open world adventure there is simply nobody doing it better than Bethesda, and no series so strong as the Elder Scrolls games. Certainly, no MMO has or had a world this open and interactable, and most MMO developers aren’t even trying. Even out of the box, its flaws are forgivable.

But there is also, for those not confined to Console Hell, a modding community which, despite lacking a formal toolset, has already accomplished some pretty remarkable things. Texture replacements, FPS enhancements and a Large Address Aware patch (as well as the inevitable nude mods, for those who have neither left puberty nor discovered that there is actual porn on the internet,) came very quickly, and now there are full UI replacements, magic mods to add new spells, new crafting options and a great deal more… and a very ambitious multiplayer package is being worked on which will either prove that this kind of game can work with nultiple players or highlight why it can’t. Once the toolset, set to launch in January, does release there will be an avalanche of additional content, world features and so on, to say nothing of the confirmed DLC and two expansions. If Skyrim stands up to modding remotely as well as Oblivion did, there will be years of this stuff built on a foundation that is already far more solid.

Skyrim is a game you don’t want to miss, even if you’re annoyed by the meme-spamming. It’s the first legendary classic of the decade, and players will still be recalling their experiences in it by decade’s end. It sold eleven million copies in the first month, is the hands-down best selling and most played PC title of the year, has spawned a dozen memes already and is shattering concurrency records on Steam. Within its subgenre of video games it is peerless and even by MMO standards it is spectacularly good, a better MMO than almost any MMO. MMO developers should be very uncomfortable that a game that is neither muitliplayer nor online has managed this.

This year’s runner-up is Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Despite Eidos’ inability to make sense of Latin, it’s the strongest cyberpunk game I have ever seen, and extends that genere with new and more up to date ideas about how the cyberpunk future might actually look. It is immersive not in the same way as Skyrim but in the same way as the Mass Effect games are, with a compelling if linear story and a well-drawn world.

I again decline to name an MMO of the Year. Star Wars: The Old Republic provides nothing new, and its only competition is Rift. Good games, as I said, but not much of a contest. Even among extant MMOs it was an unexciting year, with all of the biggest news in the transitions to hybrid f2p models that are now old hat. Next year might show us something new in Guild Wars 2 or one of the indie offerings. For heavens’ sake, I hope so.

Why Play MMOs?

Games, even just video games, are varied. There are lots of different kinds available from the preposterously fantastic to the incredibly realistic, from the casual to the hardcore, from brain-rottingly easy to the extremely challenging, and in a diverse array of genres. So what is it about MMOs in particular that interests us in them? What drew us in at the start, and what keeps us around?

Having done a lot of reflection on the subject both over the last few years and recently in the wave of Skyrim, I think the basic appeal of the MMO is threefold.

First of all, you have the big nominal selling point for many, especially among the commentator set, in that in an MMO you’re playing with other people, often “friends” of some description. Yet most MMO players (but not necessarily most commentators) play mostly or exclusively solo, either be preference or due to problems getting together with the same bunch on a regular schedule. Surely, the presence of other players is appealing to some, but just as often other players in the game can be a distraction or an annoyance. In quasi-MMOs like Guild Wars or multiplayer Diablo their presence is entirely optional, such that you don’t even have to notice them if you don’t want to. It’s my thought that the presence of other players, no matter that it may be very important to some folks, is a secondary concern, and the other two factors don’t rely on it.

Second, you have immersiveness. Many different types of games can be immersive, while others don’t even try, but almost anything calling itself an MMO, as well as a few examples that fit only marginally into the category, at least make a passing attempt at it. Some level of immersiveness is a commonality among MMOs. To me, the social part of the game, while attractive, is less important than this, but the two factors are unalike in that nobody plays a game becuase it’s not immersive, but plenty of people play multiplayer games because they are profoundly antisocial. For some it’s a social outlet that they find they can manage, while for others it’s an outlet for their antisocial tendencies. This last type of verminous individual has an impact beyond its numbers.

Third is the open-ended nature of the MMO. Few examples are really open-ended in truth, but they can seem so in practice, because some players will simply never exhaust the finite content, or never get bored with the repeatable content. You can, if you want, play regularly for years and never see the same stuff, or just deal with it. There’s a sense of progression, but you have that in many kinds of games, not just RPGs, let alone MMORPGs. In an MMO, though, you should ideally not very often feel that you’ve reached the end of the line as you would in a game like Dragon Age… and if you do, you may quit or at least put the game aside for a while until there is something new to do. This is the one that gets mentioned the least, but is perhaps the most important. How many folks do we know who left an MMO because they felt that they’d done all they wanted to do in it?

This last is also where the World of Warcraft formula, of easy advancement made even faster and more trivial over time, starts to look counterproductive. It’s a good thing for a game to be accessible, as WoW is, yet it burns players out faster, too. Lost in the fact that WoW has more players than other MMOs is the related fact that more people leave it, too, and I would bet that happens at a higher rate. It’s an easy jump to thinking that, for example, EVE players, in a more open-ended game with a steadier advancement pace, might be by and large more loyal to it.

This calculus also says something about why Skyrim has, by and large, been so immensely appealing to MMO gamers in particular, and why it took over the MMO blogosphere to such a great extent before players were wrenched away by the must-play SWTOR… and why some didn’t make the jump, despite all the hullabaloo. It’s an immersive and open-ended game that happens to lack an MMO’s social multiplayer aspect. Not that there aren’t other factors, of course, but this is one of them.

Today is Triple Station Cash Day. Oh, and Skyrim Online. Yeah.

This weekend has inadvertently become a Big News Weekend.

First, and Green Armadillo caught this first; I did not becuase for reasons unknown I only get about 10% of the e-mail notices that SOE sends out. But today, December 17 (by Pacific Time Zone Reckoning) is a triple Station Cash day. This apples to SC purchased directly as well as to time/SC cards punched in. Which is an amazing deal any way you look at it, but as GA cheerlessly (and accurately) points out, there’s going to be some raging about it from existing EQ2 players, namely those who bought Age of Discovery for $40 mere weeks ago, who could now have it for less than the cost of a $15 points card.

Assuming I can hit up Best Buy at some point to grab a card (or four – remember that Mrs. Ardwulf is now playing as well and could use some points,) this likely means a spate of Gold for me as well as an AoD pickup month ahead of schedule, and a Beastlord.

As to the other bit of big news… well Skyrim Online, that’s what. It’s just a mod, and the video footage captured is pretty freaking shaky, but it’s in the very, very early stages and has a lot of promise. Those commentators who feel that a game like Skyrim won’t work in a multiplayer environment are about to get a hard comeuppance or (more likely,) will get a passel of specific reasons why it doesn’t… but also that same list of things that would need to be changed to make it work. Minimally, the project will be a tremendous learning experience for many, including myself, who are wondering about the latter.

Also, ten million copies in the first month, people? Really? Those numbers are comparable to what Modern Warfare 3 has sold. Bestselling game in Steam history? Beating sales of all other PC games combined by threefold? Can we please take the “mass audiences don’t like sandbox games” nonsense to the basement and shoot it in the back of the head now?