Capping Guild Wars 2

300px-Normal_gw2logoI’m a great tryer of MMORPGs. I tend to move between games frequently, often sticking around only for a week or two, only to come back in three months of two years or whatever. It’s easy to do especially in these days when freee to play ios the rule rather than the exception, and I can play for even just a day or two before moving on or becoming tied up with real-life things.

On top of that, I tend to play with alts a lot, usually quickly filling all of the available character slots, and sometimes more if you can buy them separately. In EQ2, for example, I have crafting alts in every tradeskill, plus a couple of extra characters in classes that I just wanted to play. For the last three years or so, EQ2 has been my primary game during summer and winter breaks, and I’ve been making a conscious effort to level my main there.

Even in EQ2, though — a game I have put hundreds of hours into — I don’t have a character at the level cap in either adventuring or crafting. The only game to date that I’ve capped a character is WoW, in which I managed a sustained run of about 8 months in the WotLK era. Even there, I only capped my main, although I came close with a couple of other characters before the cap shifted further out of reach.

Yesterday I hit the level cap in Guild Wars 2, which took (as a guess) maybe 110 hours. There’s still a lot left undone there, of course — offhand, my gear is shit and I still have about 45% of the world left to explore, to say nothing of the running series of events that GW2 has been rolling out pretty regularly since its launch. I have also done little — very little — PvP despite this being one of the game’s strong points. I may have another try at that in the limited time I have left (just one week) before school starts again.

Over on the MMORPG.com forums, the running narrative among the nitwit set seems to be that GW2 is a big faceplant. Personally, I don’t see how that’s the case unless the metric of success is causing the downfall of World of Warcraft — which frankly no game except World of Warcraft is going to do (although it is managing it.) Sales were strong (over 3 million copies sold as of this past January,) and there’s still plenty of people in game; every North American server is at at least High population even at obscene hours.

Granted, it’s not a flawless game and we know sales have started to flatten, but at this point it’s fair to say that it’s aging fairly gracefully. Its trinity-less combat model hasn’t turned out as well as we all hoped; I think it works fine for play in the open world but in dungeons and against bosses it’s both screwy and dull. Too, the “living” world works well enough for the most part, but it’s not as organic as it sounded before launch, and frankly after 80 levels of it everything seems pretty stagy. Although I have been nominally leveling by exploring, and GW2′s open objectives are indeed a novel alternative to strictly linear quests, I haven’t felt like I was really discovering anything new for at least 40 levels.

It is also in some respects a frustrating game… although not nearly as frustrating as its predecessor, in which I tried (I really did) to finish all three campaigns, multiple times, only to eventually get stuck. It’s odd how similar the two games are, and yet how different, with GW being a true departure from the MMORPGs of its day and GW2 bringing the series much closer to the mainstream, but both sharing similar support models and art direction.

GW2 is getting good support but I wonder how wise ArenaNet was in opting for the current scheme of live support and regular updates instead of a dedicated (and marketable) expansion. I can see playing quite a bit more of it myself, but I’ll get shunted away into schoolwork in a matter of days… and I think we can already see some dwindling of interest that would be rekindled by an expansion.

Retro Servers and A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Some folks are talking about how MMORPG blogging is dying. While there are indisputably more platforms these days on which to spread your word, and many of the old blogging folks have migrated at least some of their material to those platforms, the problem isn’t that blogging is dying. Blogs, in fact, are as popular as ever. The issue in our little corner of the internet is that MMORPGs are dying.

Or, at least, MMORPGs as they have in the past been considered. The immersive virtual world, instead of being pushed forward, has been pushed to the sidelines by big companies chasing big money. Such worlds aren’t dead, but they’re now doomed to become a niche within the much broader definition of “MMORPGs,” which these days includes anything that is either multiplayer or vaguely an RPG. When League of Legends falls into the same category as EVE Online, I’m afraid that the category has lost any meaningful utility.

In retrospect it almost seems that Blizzard and its cash cow have been followers here rather than leaders. How many companies produced MMOs that superficially copied WoW, but only the elements that they thought were marketable to the masses, while leaving out the virtual world that made WoW so seductive in the first place? Meanwhile Blizzard was doing the same thing to their own game. Of course, EverQuest came first, laying much groundwork for the genre, which turned out to be part of the problem — by producing a game whose defining feature was “like EverQuest, but easier,” Blizzard sold a generation of game developers on the idea that they key to success and popularity was “easier.” Nobody noticed all those other good things that a Blizzard more or less oblivious to the huge pile of money in its future had done before the game launched. The world that you could spend thousands of hours lost in went away and all that was left was “easier,” “better balanced” and “more accessible.”

Maybe that really is the way to success for an MMORPG, but if so nobody’s managed to do it on Blizzard’s coattails. Instead we have a game strangling itself to death slowly and a company seemingly unable to do anything about it, or even to correctly identify the problem. People being simply burned out on a game they’re explored very thoroughly is certainly a factor, but contributing to it is that each expansion has given players less and less world to explore and get lost in. Maybe the amount of physical volume is just as high, maybe there’s even more quests than ever, but all the little avenues of play other than the one that the devs give us have been slowly but surely stripped away or consigned to uselessness. Surely fatigue is important, but it would be less of an issue if WoW hadn’t lost an important element of what made it so popular to begin with.

We, the MMORPG fans who miss that big virtual world, have a couple of options. One is to wait on the chance that one of the next generation of virtual worlds will be what we want. I’ve mentioned my own hopes surrounding Star Citizen and EverQuest Next, and are some other titles as well, like ArcheAge and The Repopulation, that have potential. They’re all (save EQN) from smaller studios, but that’s okay — the market for this type of game needs to contract and developers need to stop chasing WoW money and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in development anyway.

Or we can hope for a throwback server, one that tries to replicate the experience of a younger game. But there are reasons why only one company even tries this, and why its attempts are halfhearted. The big obstacle is that there aren’t just five different versions of (for example) WoW: vanilla, BC, Wrath, Cataclysm and Pandaria. There are in fact hundreds of different versions, one corresponding to each step in the patch/update cycle. and of course you have two pieces of software to be concerned with, the server and the client. Which of the hundreds of versions do you pick? Assuming you even have archived versions of the software from that date? (SOE always maintains that it doesn’t even have that obsolete code, though you’d think that proper design principles would mandate decent version control.) The client today is vastly different from a version of the client from a random date six years ago, so you’d need to either distribute an old client alongside the current one of undertake a major piece of software engineering to make the current client work with both new and old versions of the server-side software.

This last is a dealbreaker, by the way. But let’s assume you even get that far. In that throwback version of the game there are surely cool things that have been lost today, but just as surely there is crufty, broken stuff that you’d want to fix — and it was fixed, one or ten updates down the line. Do you abandon all the good work that went into development of the live game during that time, in an effort to eradicate the bad? Eliminating changes the developers believed in at the time, defended in internal meetings and fought to achieve? Do you fix those things and effectively consign yourself to having a second development team working on a parallel game?

Now, you could theoretically see something like SOE has done in the past, most recently with the Fippy Darkpaw server, which is a fresh server with most of the newer stuff locked down or hidden, but even so there’s a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes, in the basic mechanics or in the functionality of the UI for example, that can’t be easily changed or rolled back, as indeed SOE does not. This is why you’ve never going to see a real WoW or EQ2 throwback server; because to do it right costs too much money and is too much trouble. The fundamental game mechanics have changed too much; it would be impossible to hide the new game under a visage of the old, as was done with EQ.

That leaves the last option, which is to hop to one of a variety of private servers that try to offer a retro experience. There are selections for vanilla WoW, old-school EQ and pre-CE SWG, offhand, among many other private server options, and if one of those is your thing you may find some happy times there. But these private servers can never really fully replicate the experience that we had “back in the day,” lacking the community and the live dev team that gives an MMORPG part of its dynamism. Private servers are also of, at best, questionable legality; the whole private server scene strikes me as a sleazy underworld awash in shady figures and dubious downloads.

Still, some private WoW servers are doing interesting things. Many have additional non-canon features aside from stuff like x100 XP rates, like significant rules changes or even entire custom expansions. Note that I’m reporting this based on stuff like the linked video above; I’ve only ever stuck my head into one private server and an generally very uncomfortable with the idea. Legal or not, though, clearly a lot of attentive work has gone into some of these. It would be nice if something could be worked out with the IP holder to allow legitimately creative modded servers to exist above board.

This is more or less the situation we have today with Minecraft, in fact, although that game’s suitability for both modding and multiplayer is in my judgement subject to debate. In the case of high-profile MMORPG titles like WoW or EQ such a situation would seem pretty unlikely. But Star Citizen promises something effectually very similar, with the ability to create mods and run private servers drawn in from the get-go. This will be a boon for those dissatisfied with some particular version of the game — they can just write a mod to roll the game back to some earlier version, perhaps with other modifications, and run the whole thing on their own private server, without the kind of legal worries that illicit private servers currently have to worry about.

So that’s my proposed solution — I’m pinning my hopes on EverQuest Next and (and maybe a little on Shroud of the Avatar,) with an ear to the ground on a few other projects, but Star Citizen, which hopes to make centralized server control by the publisher an option rather than a mandate, may be the Next Best Hope. I just hope I’ll have a PC able to run it.

What Was Lost

My recent playing experience has me convinced that World of Warcraft is a lot less fun today than it was in its vanilla days. This isn’t nostalgia talking — I wasn’t even playing WoW until after Burning Crusade released. But let’s say I’ve confirmed it and leave it at that.

The real question, though, is why. Without talking in vagaries or throwing down meaningless buzzwords like “sandbox,” why does the vanilla WoW experience seem so much richer than the game today? A lot of what we think about this is annoyingly unspecific; how far can we dig into it?

There’s no question that a lot of changes have happened in WoW over its 8-year lifespan. Many of those have been positive additions to the game — few would quibble with most of the new races, for example, or the fact that new lands have been added. The addition of auction houses in every city instead of just Orgrimmar and Ironforge is probably a good thing. Autoloot saves everyone some hassle.

At the same time, the very process of expanding the game also irreprarably broke some things. Crafting has never recovered, for example — crafted gear at any level other than the current cap is still tuned to a gear level before the current expansion, making it worthless as new drops have been added to the loot tables. The progresion speed within each tradeskill is still tuned to the vanilla leveling speed — meaning that now, you will outlevel your zones long before you’re able to finishing doing the crafting for those same levels, which stalls you one way or the other: either you stop level and grind crafting, or you abandon crafting and maybe get back to it later — whereupon you need to grind independently of leveling. Perhaps the vanilla game wasn’t as well-tuned as it sems today in comparison, but the general trend toward the leveling game just being a time-waster until you get to the top level was much less obvious then.

Too, it’s easy to forget just how nonlinear the questing was pre-Cataclysm. There were quests all over the place, and no particular pointers to them in many cases. Even standard zones like Elwynn Forest had breadcrumb quests between the major hubs, but also a ton of quests off the beaten track that you could find, and lots of intersting locations not directly tied to particular quests. You had chains that you’d pick up at one level and then resume ten levels later. It gave exploration value over and above the pittance in XP you got from unlocking the map sections, and you could find and do things in the order you liked, instead of just giving being given a set progression that you can’t deviate from in any significant way.

WoW was a little more challenging then, partly due to mechanical changes and partly due to even low-level gear being totally busted now. WoW was never really about challenge per se, but who doesn’t have a recollection of of dying a dozen times in the Burning Blade cave or the Fargodeep Mine, or to those fucking robots in Deadmines? In a way it was frustrating, but your forward progress never really stopped, so it could still be fun. even if you were pounding your keyboard in rage.

The world was bigger. This is an illusion, of course, but it’s a powerful one. With no mounts until level 40, no flying mounts at all, and the flight paths few and far between, for a lot of the game you had to hoof it. Which could slow the pace of play dramatically, but it also had an interesting side effect when players left the straight path and tried to find shortcuts. Sometimes they discovered something interesting up there in the hills, tied to somebody else’s questline that they would otherwise never see, or perhaps a relic of some abandoned thread of development from before release. Sometimes it was just something that ate extra time, but even then it was showing the wandering player the texture of a world that didn’t have every iota of content already lined up in order. The expectation was that things would take time, so you felt less inclination to rush and spent more effort on the journey and enriching it.

I’m hoping that EverQuest Next can capture some of this magic that even Blizzard seems to have lost their grip on. It’s probably the Last Best Hope for virtual worlds on the visible horizon; “sandbox” isn’t really the right term for this, but it’s what we’ve got.

Exploring Levels Again: The Numbers

Getting back to the leveling discussion and the idea for an RPG without a level cap, I’m putting some numbers together just to see how they feel and to get an idea for the scope of a level range using WoW-style advancement. Let us make the following stipulations:

  • We have a leveling system with no true cap.
  • Characters and mobs both have levels.
  • The XP needed to advance to a new level is calculated as a number of mob kills of a level equal to that of the character. This is how WoW does it, by the way, although of course in practice you have other factors such as rest XP, XP from quests and so on that will need to eventually be figured in.
  • Mobs not at the character’s level will of course yield a different amount of XP, but that’s not important for the purposes of this particular calculation.
  • The power curve, i. e. just how much a level means in mechanical effect, is not considered here. In a non-levelcapped system I suggest that the power curve be pretty gradual.

Okay, so given those things, we have a basic leveling calculation:

x=16c^2e^r

Where x is the number of XP needed to get to the next level, c is the character’s current level, e is the mathematical constant e (equal to approximately 2.718) and r is a scaling factor equal to the character’s level divided by 10 and rounded to one decimal place. Using this forumla some scaling could be done either by moving the constant up or down or adding some number (probably less than 1) to r.

Truncating the actual XP numbers and plugging in some sample figures, wee see that a level 1 character needs 70 XP to reach level 2, while a level 11 character needs 21,890 XP to reach level 12, or 73,790 accumulated total XP. This works out to over a thousand mobs killed. I’ve calculated this up to level 100 (not a cap, just as high as I have taken the numbers) and it seems likely that very, very few players would surpass level 40, which requires you to have gained the equivalent of over 100K worth of at-level mob kills.

Now, as I said before, you would almost certainly have quests as a means to get XP, and those would yield as much XP as a batch of mobs. Plus there might be XP gain rate boosts of some kind, or XP from crafting, exploration, gathering and so forth. So it might not be as slow in practice as these numbers suggest, but hitting level 20 would be something. If the power curve is indeed gradual and as steep as I suggest, you could tailor quests to target a range of, say, seven levels, and have a lot of overlap within the level ranges in which players will tend to cluster, therefore reducing the need for the same kinds of content in multiple level ranges.

On the other hand, many players under such a scheme might feel, say, in the 20s or even the teens that it takes forever to level. So maybe there is some kind of sub-level advancement a la DDO or Vanguard, where you get your benefits for the next level during that level as opposed to only when you hit it. If the net power gain per level in +5%, for example (it’s probably impossible to quantify this so precisely, but there ought to be some kind of target to shoot at,) you might get +1% at 20% of the next level, another +1% at 40% and so on. You might also want level-independent intangibles (reputation might be one example) that players could go for as measures of accomplishment.

Would crafting be dependent on this overall character level? I’m not sure, but my inclination is to say that it would… but there’s also my other notion that level is supposed to be the result of power advancement rather than the cause. In an arrangement like that, a more complicated progression formula would be in order, probably one based on skill ratings. But I’m not sure you’d need to implement both ideas, actually.

The Vanilla Dream

In a sense, playing MMOs impairs our judgement. We can’t stand back and be impartial anymore, judging from on high. We can look back to the Elder Days but our vision is clouded by the fog of years and the memories of many, many man-hours in the trenches. Sometimes it takes an outsider to come in, look around and say something that makes everybody blink.

I started playing World of Warcraft around July of 2007. This was well into the Burning Crusade era, but other than starting Draenei or Blood Elf characters, I wouldn’t touch any of the expansion’s real meat for a long while yet. Changes were afoot then; the game was shifting under players’ feet even if they weren’t noticing. The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj had been opened long ago. XP rates had been accelerated and content gaps had been methodically filled in. Mechanical burdens on certain classes were being eased. Autoloot became available and quest trackers were starting to help lead players through the content. Even at low levels better gear became available in the starter zones, and thus in the auction house, and crafting was never retuned… and still hasn’t been to this day, making most crafting done below the tradeskill cap useless.

Even aside from the total revamp of level 1-60 content that Catacylsm brought, WoW has changed very substantially since it launched. Thousands of little things have changed, some called nerfs and others buffs, and some good and some bad, but the aggregate effect has been to make most gameplay easier and the world feel more programmed and structured. “Over-Managed” is, I think, the best way to put it. The game’s story is now Blizzard’s story rather than the story filled in by your imagination between pieces of Blizzard content.

It used to be that if you played on a PvP server you could only make characters of one faction or the other; you couldn’t have both Horde and Alliance on that server. By the time Blizzard lifted this restriction, almost nobody complained — because open-world PvP aside from the occasional random gank had almost completely ceased already. Blizzard had begun to gently herd PvP-oriented players into instanced battlegrounds and arenas where the gameplay could be more carefully controlled.

This process was already underway when I started in mid-2007. If I say that I think WoW was a more compelling game then than it is now, it would be tempting to call it nostalgia, and to be honest it would be hard to convince even myself that nostalgia wasn’t a factor; I’d just be nostalgic for mid-2007 or thereabouts instead of late 2005 or whatever.

Without any of this explicitly in mind I re-installed the WoW client a couple of weeks ago and fired up a trial (the so-called “starter edition”) account that I’ve had for some time now. I started playing a number of different characters including the new Pandaren, the slightly less new Goblin and the old-but-revamped Tauren. I didn’t break level 7 in any of these examples, and the whole process felt not just uncompelling but actually distasteful. A lot of good things have been brought to WoW over the years but it seems that a lot has been lost, and the direction, at least, of that chain of events is very clear. But is that just nostalgia talking? Do I just remember the Azeroth of 2007 fondly because those were the early days of my MMO hobby?

Maybe it’s possible to get an answer to this question; there’s been some talk of late in the MMO blogosphere about a project called Emerald Dream, a WoW ‘private server’ that replicates the state of the game in late 2006, before Burning Crusade patches started to hit, a time when the launch problems were straightened out but before the first of the major direction shifts away from the open world had taken place.

Now, I think there are reasons to be leery of the private server business. For one, it’s a murky gray legal area at best; basically at any point the Blizzard boot might come down and the server could be shut down. In this particular case the people responsible aren’t making any money from it (and don’t even appear to be taking donations as far as I can tell,) but they aren’t going to quite the same lengths as, say, some of the pre-NGE SWG “emulators” to insulate themselves against potential legal action by requiring you to obtain your own properly dated version of the client. Blizzard has come down hard in the past on people who were trying to make money off of private servers, but (apparently) not-for-profit private servers appear to be very abundant and not at all hard to find. It seems unlikely to me that Blizzard doesn’t know about them, and yet some appear to have been running for years.

Too, there are (admittedly interesting) technical challenges faced by a team running a private server without access to the actual server code; from my understanding the server-side part of the game is basically recreated from scratch by deciphering the packets sent out by the client. I’m not sure where the Emerald Dream folks are with this, but in the presumably similar cases of pre-NGE SWG projects, there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s not working yet.

I’m not being coy in saying that I have never played on a private server and have generally stayed well clear of the whole slightly sordid (at best) business. Yet I have been tempted twice; in both cases not by games that I played years ago but by games I missed in their heyday: Pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies and now Vanilla WoW. I was also tempted by and did indeed play on EQ’s “throwback” Fippy Darkpaw server, but that effort is not a true (or even really close) emulation of the classic game; rather, it is the modern game with some superficial changes made to it to make it look more like EQ as it was back then. Imagine a “vanilla” WoW server that took out flying mounts and expansion content, capped levels at 60 and maybe turned the XP gain rate down a bit, but was otherwise the same as the modern game — that’s basically what Fippy Darkpaw is. Nevertheless, this wasn’t why it didn’t work for me. With no nostalgic connection to the EQ of old or indeed much affection for the current game it has evolved into, I simply couldn’t overcome the sheer datedness of the whole thing, and I abandoned it after a couple of hours.

On the other hand, Fippy is run by SOE and is therefore far less troublesome to me. If Blizzard were to offer even a slapdash vanilla server or two I’m quite sure that they’d be boiling over with population and that lapsed people would resubscribe to play on them; the demand for such might be enough to keep a smaller MMO or two afloat. But it’s likely seen as a play for chump change by Blizzard, and the effort of setting such a server up is not trivial; if you think it is, then I would gently suggest that you have no idea what you are talking about. So I think that any official effort in this direction is very unlikely for the foreseeable future, although I can think of a couple of creative ways in which it might be done with official sanction from Blizzard.

Wilhelm floated the idea of subscribing to WoW but choosing to play on Emerald Dream instead; this would put a player in the ethical clear but perhaps not the legal one. On the other hand, if Blizzard were to offer some kind of classic or vanilla server then I would be strongly tempted to check that out, and I would feel a whole lot more comfortable with that.

Levels Reassembled

Levels have an important function and heritage in RPGs. They are a feature disliked by many and dismissed without understanding the reasons why they are looked on favorably, and without articulating why they are objectionable. The use of level as a measure of character power harkens back to Dungeons & Dragons, of course, from which all RPGs in whatever media ultimately spring. Even early on, however, there were games that did not feature them — 1977′s Traveller and Chaosium’s RuneQuest spring immediately to mind — and their use or disuse has driven many a controversy and feud over the decandes.

Detractors say that a level-based game makes certain assumptions about the nature of starting characters that might be undesirable; if you try to model Elric in D&D at first level, for example, he’s going to not only be very weak, but a key element of his character is neccesarily going to be absent. Thus too with Conan, the Gray Mouser, Gandalf and other classic fantasy characters. Similar characters built in systems without levels might be no more powerful but at least the conceptual barrier of making such a character “at 1st level” is torn down.

Proponents of levels point out that they provide a balancing mechanism which can be handy if implemented well, and that they provide convenient achievement benchmarks to feed players’ sense of accomplishment. And when we start talking about fantasy RPGs in particular, it’s hard to dispute that, no doubt at least in part due to the example and expectations set by D&D, the game just doesn’t feel right without some kind of ordinal advancement ranking. Level-less FRPGs have historically gained very little traction in the tabletop marketplace unless they are very specialized, like White Wolf’s Exalted — and even that has indirect leveling in the form of the Essence characteristic, which has a heavy effect on overall character power and tends to be increased in a fairly predictable way by players.

I’ll stipulate that fantasy games ought to have levels in some form, but not necessarily in the form proferred by D&D, while games in science fiction and other genres can get away without them, and may in fact be better off doing so. But let’s break that down and take apart where levels really come from.

In the D&D model, shared by numerous tabletop games and virtually all fantasy video game RPGs, you get some kind of currency as you play, typically called “experience,” and when you’ve built up enough, you level up. This brings with it some concrete benefits that increase the character’s power; more and better abilities, additional endurance currencies such as hit points or mana and increased success chances are all typical. There are also less quantifiable benefits, in that you can accomplish things at a higher level that you couldn’t at a lower level, and have added a pip to the Brag-O-Meter.

The actual specific mechanism of advancement and the benefits of additional levels aren’t important here, and of course there are also achievement metrics like money or reputation that exist strictly outside of the leveling ladder, the value of which varies from game to game. But then you have the offbeat example of the Elder Scrolls series, in which leveling is an elective process that you can in principle skip, as indeed in Oblivion you were indirectly encouraged to do. But for that very reason the series provides an interesting example, in that some metrics directly relevant to character power are tied to level, but not all of them are.

I do not think there is any a priori reason why one could not extend this idea to its logical conclusion by making levels irrelevant to character power at all, as Lethality suggested in a comment on the last post. But that displaces one of the primary reasons for having levels at all, as mentioned in the proponent’s argument above, as useful method for the game or the game master to judge character power for balance purposes.

However, a different approach might be to make levels the result rather than the cause of character power. You don’t level to improve your abilities, you level because you improved your abilities. This is sort of how things work in Skyrim, for example, but in that game there a number of things that still increase or are attained because of level, namely health/mana/stamina and perks, and those have a large tangible impact. In the mechanism I’m talking about you would have some kind of formula based on total skills or average skills or wharever, possibly with some other factors involved as well, and when that calculated figure hits a certai point, you level to a fanfare or back-slaps or something. (I’m especially fond of the White Tree animation you get when hitting certain levels in LotRO.)

One could in principle graft this kind of system onto any level-less game like Burning Wheel or GURPS or whatever, but you would need to mechanize it very carefully to minimize ways in which you could increase your character’s power without also increasing the challenge-increasing metric of level. This is exactly what occurred as the result of a halfhearted implementation in Oblivion, for example. You might also want to hide the details of the calculation from the players, or possibly include some randomizing factors that would vary leveling time by some degree. This all sounds like a big pain in the bookkeeping ass for a tabletop RPG, but a programmed or program-assisted game could do it for you.

This is, I think, part of one potential solution to the problems common to many RPGs, MMOs that suffer from the additional hindrance of finite content in particular. I’m hashing out ideas here rather than writing a manifesto, though, so if you have feedback to offer, I’d love to hear it.

Mists of Pandaria Cinematic Trailer Hits, Deemed Irrelevant

As of today the Mists of Pandaria cinematic trailer is up for perusal on YouTube. As such things go (I like to try to judge these things as short films in their own right,) it’s very nicely done. But I doubt it will change anyone’s mind.

WoW is starting to slide in a big way, losing another million players last quarter alone, and the launch of Guild Wars 2 in under two weeks is going to hurt it some more. But not permanently, I think — many of WoW’s players will dutifully return to check the expansion out. The real issue is Blizzard’s own complacency that has slowly chipped away at player confidence and enthusiasm; the content updates for a game which is starved for new content designed to be digested by players in mere days come less and less frequently, and the expansions have gotten less and less ambitious even while they really didn’t add much to gameplay and while other gameplay elements have gradually been backed out of the game. It’s a leaner, shallower game than the game that put Blizzard on top of this market in the first place. I can’t see any alternative to the notion that this is a game on the verge of life support, with Blizzard trying to squeeze out maximal revenue for minimal investment while the party lasts. That’s a valid strategy from a business standpoint, but it’s clear that Blizzard doesn’t believe in this product any more.

As for me, I have a vague intention of checking the expansion out at some point, but certainly not when it launches at full price — and given how historically sluggish Blizzard has been at lowering the price of aging products, I’m not motivated to do so any time soon… maybe next summer or something. But given how fast the market is evolving, with almost everything no longer requiring a subscription, and with numerous entries even within the same fantasy themepark niche offering more features, greater depth and in some cases comparable polish, I can’t see any reason to do more than step in for a month or so. For different reasons, games like Rift and EVE Online are more attractive for a subscription price, and titles like GW2, LotRO, EverQuest2 and Vanguard offer more for (potentially) less money. Even The Secret World at least offers novelty when compared against a contracting game that we have probably all played more than enough of, and to which nothing really new or appealing is being added with this expansion. Unless you have a thing for Pandas in particular.

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.

The Road Ahead: 2012 in MMOs

An end is come to 2011, and it was, shall we say, not a banner year for MMOs. The year saw two successful launches of games mired in their lack of ambition, and the rest of the year was older games doing interesting things like going free to play or launching nostalgia servers. Still, as we say in Cleveland, “there’s always next year.” Which is now. So what’s on the horizon for the next twelve months (minus a couple of weeks,) and how will current market entries evolve? Here are my (only slightly late) predictions.

As far as I can see, the only “triple-A” title with a real chance to shake things up in a big way is Guild Wars 2. Even if it doesn’t come through with everything it’s promised, it’s going to make the year’s big splash, with top-notch production quality and a stated desire to abandon some of the hobby’s most pernicious leftovers from the EverQuest days. Holy Trinity, this means you. The move toward dynamic world events rather than static quests may provide a sense of non-linearity. On the other hand, I worry about the cohesion of its world and the side systems that are so important to fleshing out an MMO, like crafting. And the semi-static cutscenes, while artfully done from what I’ve seen, may subtract from immersion and sense of place. There’s also the technological element that I tend not to favor in a fantasy game, and the inevitable cutsey race, but I intend to do my best to live with those.

A game that will have less impact but which may be just as innovative is Funcom’s The Secret World. It ought to be graphically top-notch, if system-crushing. It’s going to fill the modern supernatural niche that’s been underserved by MMOs up to this point, and also promises to depart significantly from established tropes. It’s scheduled to launch in April, but my guess is that it’ll be pushed back to July. The big fear with this one is that, as they did with Age of Conan, Funcom will mis-target the game and end up courting the wrong bunch of players. But hopefully they’ll have learned a lesson from AoC’s troubled evolution and the marketing and community folks will be rowing the same boat as the developers this time.

Not likely to shake things up at all is Mists of Pandaria. More of the same, yawn. Blizzard has unquestionably left the era in which they can do no wrong, and their Big Dog will continue to shed subscribers, but by late in the year — November or December — Mists will cast off, and WoW will still be on the top of the heap. Expect a formal announcement of whatever Titan turns out to be at Blizzcon.

I’m now thinking that my earlier prediction for Star Wars: The Old Rebublic — 2-3 million subscribers at peak and 500K six months later — is going to bust. I now think it will peak substantially lower — say a million and a half — but that it will hold on to the players it has much better than recent history would suggest. Whether it’s actually a profitable enterprise for EA is likely to remain murky, no matter how many people are playing it. Don’t be shocked to see it holding on to a million subs by the end of the year… but we’d better see some substantive update/expansion news by then, too, or we’ll see it start to peter out after that. The slow rollout of new content is poised to hurt SWTOR more than other titles because it’s likely to be even slower than usual.

I predict that TERA will be the next Mortal Online – mildly hyped before launch and sinking like a stone after. But I could be wrong, and if the game pulls off the action-style combat at its heart it could do better than I expect. TERA is going to live or die by two things: how well the combat plays, and how well the combat plays one-handed, if you catch my drift.

WildStar looks promising, if conventional, but I don’t think we know enough about it to dismiss it just yet. It’s coming out of the NCSoft House of Winners, so my expectations are low, but it’s not being developed by NCSoft, so there’s a chance it will turn into something palatable. Its visual style, though, sings “WoW Clone,” and many might not be able to get past that even if it varies from bog-standard more than expected. I think it will release in Q4 of 2012.

Dust 514, the ground-based counterpart of EVE Online should finally launch in 2012. It had better — Microsoft and Sony are gearing up for the debut of the next generation of consoles, and this year is likely to be the last chance for titles to make a big splash before people start looking more at the new round of hardware than the current one. I predict modest — very modest — success on this one; it’ll be hobbled both by CCP’s lack of cred in the shooter marketplace and by its exclusivity on the lagging PS3. God only knows how clean it will launch, but nobody is better than CCP at shepherding a title through a modest debut and into long-term growth. Expect to start hearing about a PC port around the end of the year.

Speaking of CCP, we may or may not hear anything new on World of Darkness Online. It’s not shelved, exactly, but expect the focus for the year to be on EVE and Dust. Next year I think we’ll start to hear some serious noise about this title.

Warhammer 40K: Dark Millennium will not launch in 2012.

Neverwinter is a wildcard. Like TERA, it’s supposed to be action-oriented, but my hopes are not high for it in this department. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’m predicting a Q3 launch.

Korean entry ArcheAge has all the hallmarks of a Vanguard — big promises, low quality control and a lead developer past his prime. No other game manages to look so promising yet elicit so many utterances of “really?” Open world, super-detailed crafting and construction, mass battles on land and sea… and player run jails and other harebrained-sounding stuff make me excited yet extremely leery. It may release in 2012 — I think it will — but my guess is that a North American release is months behind the Korean launch, maybe into 2013.

Less worrying is The Repopulation, despite its awful title. With early talk centering around the influence of Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, it’s not likely to be a massive hit, but it’s got a chance to shake the hobby out of its torpor. I expect a launch in 2013 at the earliest. It’s one to keep an eye on.

Planetside 2 will launch in 2012 with major problems and withering scorn in the blogosphere, but will be a modest success for all that. “Modest success” is the best SOE is going to manage for the moment… but they have a big opportunity to do something special with EverQuest Next. Let’s hope they don’t blow it, but in any event I expect to hear only token news about it in 2012.

Vanguard will still be running as of the end of the year. I hope to see a freemium move, but SOE appears to not be considering that for the moment. I should finally see some long-awaiting development and new content, which may boost its (currently dire) numbers.

The most promising-sounding thing in development is Pathfinder Online. Goblinworks seems to be telling me all the right things… start small, don’t spend a gazillion dollars, don’t plan for more players than you have even the remotest chance to get or keep, and create a realistically-scaled sandbox world. But it’s really early, and I’m not even convinced that the project will materialize at all. These guys are really new and untested, so I think they’ll either bring a number of fresh ideas to the table and actually advance the state of the art, or evaporate before accomplishing much of anything. I’m rooting for them.

Among older games, EverQuest II, LotRO and City of Heroes will keep on trucking under their new freemium models. EverQuest will continue to endure, but I think we’ll see another historic sunset some time during the year. My guess would be Dark Age of Camelot, but Warhammer Online is very, very vulnerable, especially with a companion game (Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes) that takes the fun(ish) part from WAR and makes it a game of its own. Bioware/Mythic may also decide to tighten their business up if they’re taking to big a bath on SWTOR, the basket all their eggs are laid in, so Ultima Online could fall here as well.

We’re going to start to see the many entries in the freemium MMO marketplace shake out into tiers. This has already started, but it’ll become more apparent in 2012. The biggest player in the freemium market is going to continue to be LotRO unless something very dramatic happens, but APB is giving it a good run for its money right now, and Star Trek Online has a shot at landing in the top bunch if it can hold together.

We’ll see in a year how I did.

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.