Wushu, Trek and Heroes and Commitment

With the semester winding down I played a chunk of Age of Wushu the Martial Arts MMO that released on April 10. It has a lot to recommend it, including what appears to be significant depth, a big world, very nice graphics and some significant sandbox elements. Its learning curve is very steep, and understanding the game is additionally hindered by sometimes dodgy translation, a lack of (English) online resources and a UI that is both complicated and not always intuitive (but well above the average for Asian MMOs.)

Westerners, at least the old, grumpy kind who are set in the ways they’ve been doing things forever and hate having to learn new stuff, may find they have a hard time with Age of Wushu — it is very significantly different from the western MMO play experience, both because it is an unconventional sandbox and because it’s from offshore. Nevertheless, I judge that while its appearance of great depth may be fooling me, it may also be worth the effort. I have already given it more time than I have any other Korean or Chinese MMO, and I haven’t written it off yet.

Weirdly, though, Age of Wushu reminds me of a game designed in North America but recently bought by the Chinese — Star Trek Online. Which is not a sandbox in any sense but is so complex that it sometimes looks like one in the right light. Both games are well above the MMO average in terms of complexity. STO is easier to get into by quite a bit, but that’s largely because it’s been out for a while and there are plenty of English-language guides out there if you get stuck or confused. Both have a baroque quest setup with different kinds of missions and objectives, some of them delivered like traditional quests and some of them not. Both are also rich in minigames, although AoW’s are, as far as I can see, better integrated into the virtual world.

Playing Age of Wushu made me want to play Star Trek Online, when I got a little frustrated with it. But Age of Wushu, while it does have crutches like fast travel on short cooldowns, does have the stronger and more atmospheric virtual world. Which in turn made me think, again, of Vanguard.

I haven’t been playing much of anything at all, but I currently have twelve MMOs — true MMOs, not stuff like World of Tanks — installed on my PC. Which to be honest is way too many, but I’m fickle. The issue that arises is when a game like Age of Wushu or EVE Online or Star Trek Online or Vanguard makes and appearance in my personal Weltanschauung, one that really demands, if one’s to even approach the game’s potential, greater dedication over an extended period than I have put into any single game for any length of time. With maybe one exeption for World of Warcraft, but that’s one of the (now) many MMOs that doesn’t require any dedication.

This is frustrating for me personally, and my life as it stands won’t let that change anytime soon. So I rejoice that there is such a deep-looking game as Age of Wushu, but I’m sad that I’ll never get as much out of it as those happy few who can commit themselves to it will.

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Goals At All Times

So after five years in EVE Online — off and on, of course — I find myself with just north of 9 million skill points and 8 million ISK. Which is not bad as a starting point, as we may as well regard this. I do have a decent established infrastructure, with about ten ships mostly kitted out to work with including a couple of cruisers, an Industrial, a BC and some frigates, a station hold full of stuff including ammo and modules and a few blueprints and such should I elect to pursue that line of work.

No corp, and that’s a big minus that I will attempt to remedy at some point; previous attempts at landing somewhere active and helpful yet tolerant of my disappointing habit of disappearing for a year at a time have not worked out, so it’s something to look for. As far as goal setting, it’s on the list. Speaking of Lists:

Short Term Goals (Days Away)

  • Run missions (primarily L2s) to build up enough ISK to be able to fly, outfit and — most importantly — replace my baddest ship, the Hurricane.
  • On the way, it would be nice to build up enough standings with corps other than the Brutor Tribe to run Level 3s.
  • Meanwhile, keep skilling up in various areas but centered on cruiser/battlecruiser fighting. My skills in such areas as Industry, Social and that kind of stuff are adequate for the moment; I don’t intend to do any non-mission mining right now.
  • Get EVE Fitting Tool and EVEMon up and running again, assuming those are still the go-to tools.

Mid-Term Goals (Weeks Away)

  • The short-term goals are moving in the direction of being able to run Level 3 missions effectively. L3s are where they money starts to get better, and level 4s are where you can start to make so serious cash.
  • Start fishing for a decent corp. I’m not sure where I would like to go with that right now; nullsec or wormhole corps are things I’m considering. My volume of playtime is a factor against that kind of thing, but even then there are options. If I want to stay in Empire the options are slightly wider.
  • Continue to build up my repertoire of ships without buying anything terribly expensive, so likely some of the Tech 2 frigates are options for this.

Long-Term Goals (Months Away)

  • Be able to afford an effectively-fitted battleship (I have my eye on the Maelstrom) and fly it decently well. This might fit into the medium term goals, but I’m not in a tremendous hurry on that; I would rather wait and do it well. I do have the skills to fly Battleships now but only at the most rudimentary level, like take it out of stations and shoot the guns, as long as they aren’t good guns. Lots of skills need work in this department.
  • Level 4 missions. PLEX and such. To make paying for your sub with PLEX a viable option, you need to make about 400 million ISK above whatever you need to pay for whatever else it is you want to do. So such a thing is a ways off and not worth getting hung up on at this point.
  • Get back into mining, eventually. Hulk mining, most probably, and I’m a decent distance from that, although I could fly a Mining Barge fairly shortly if I wanted to.
  • Get out to nullsec. Depending on how the effort of finding a corp goes, this could potentially happen a lot sooner, but we’ll see.

There’s No Going Back, Until You Do

Having EVE Online be your first MMO is probably an unusual occurrence. That’s probably why EVE magically stays off the radar of even dedicated MMO enthusiasts who continue to pine for the very elements it offers. EVE has a culture and community that’s very different and largely segregated from those of other MMOs. I don’t know if there are numbers to back this up, but I would wager that the percentage of current players who have played only their current MMO and nothing else is substantially higher in EVE than it is in, say, EverQuest II. The same is almost certainly true for World of Warcraft as well. What does that say about what the two games have in common? In terms of nuts-and-bolts gameplay, really very little, although there is a certain similarity in broad vision that’s common to pretty much all true MMOs. But they are the two games that least exist in the shared MMO culture that, for example, we bloggers are largely a part of.

There’s little question that the gameplay of WoW is more immediately attractive than that of EVE. As I’ve gone on about in the past, finding the fun in EVE can be challenging, although it tickles the same accomplishment funnybone that all MMOs do. In WoW there’s never any question about what you should be doing or what your goals should be, unless you’re one of those people who, as I did for a while, drop out when you hit the level cap, because you need to make your own goals once you get there. And even now, at least for a first-timer, that can take a while. For a hundred or two hours you’ve been focused on questing and gaining those levels, and then you reach the end… and while there are still quests, the nature of them changes and unless you’re some kind of automaton who’s just going through the motions, you set objectives for yourself in the endgame or lose interest fairly quickly.

And there are indeed some viable goals you can set; getting the best endgame gear, maxing out your crafting, or going for achievements, pets or mounts are common, but they are finite. At some point, they will be accomplished, and you need to move on to the next goal or — again — drop out. At least until the next expansion arrives.

EVE is not structured that way. As I and others have pointed out in the past, in a sense EVE drops you into its endgame almost immediately, at least upon completion of the (now significantly expanded but still ultimately optional) tutorials. You have to be setting goals for yourself right away instead of getting many dozens of hours to explore the game during which some attractive potential accomplishment might present itself. Again, you have choices… and just as in WoW, when you reach one goal you need to set others. But unlike it, in EVE the options are consciously much less limited.

We call this the “sandbox” but I’m increasingly finding that term to be inadequate, at least in application where many like to label some games as themeparks and others as sandboxes, with seemingly no understanding that the two represent a continuum rather than a dichotomy, or of the history of World of Warcraft over which fewer and fewer non-scripted goals remain available. But that’s probably a different post (albeit one I have already written a couple of times.)

So, having failed to find the fun in EVE many times in the past, why am I back now? Why haven’t I thrown up my hands and at least called it one of those games I respect but just don’t like?

Part of it is probably that your first MMO is the one that most awakens you to the possibilities inherent to the form. I’m not talking about nostalgia; I mean the frame of reference that your first MMO gives you. EVE is the only game that’s been around as long as it has to have left those possibilities unbetrayed, and even in some ways enlarged. There are other “sandboxes,” at least a couple of them equally ambitious. But that first game — and EverQuest or Ultima Online veterans will know exactly what I’m talking about — sets your expectations of what MMOs can and should do and be.

Over the last year or so, while I have been absent from EVE, it has been less on my mind than at other times, when dipping in for a little while meant laying out subscription dollars. Now if I get a hankering for some genre or theme or mode of play I can hop in for a while and go to town, a distracting and absolutely poisonous gift for an MMO dilettante like myself. And nowadays the rise of f2p has left me with a realization that remarkably few games are worth that subscription dollar. EVE is, and so, probably, is WoW, but to make it worth it, as was ever the case, you need to pick your game and stick with it.

So how sticky will EVE me for me, this nth time around? Will I consider, again, at the end of my arranged time in the game, that I had fun but elect to not continue? Maybe, and I’ll figure it out by the end. But I know I’m not going back to WoW, because even I, a relatively unaccomplished player, have exhausted its possibilities. I may in principle reach that point with LotRO or EQ2 or Vanguard, because those too, while possessed of aspects lacking in WoW, are ultimately finite environments. But no one is able to claim to have “finished” EVE Online, and where the possibilities of other MMOs contract or remain static, EVE’s frontiers continue to expand.

A Hint of Custom Ship Colors in EVE?

The video embedded below is about two months old now, and is part of CCP’s promotion for the Inferno expansion, parts of which have been live for a month or so. It’s the kind of graphical improvement that CCP has been doing for some time; in this example the Angel (and NPC faction) ships are being reskinned. The video’s only about a minute long, so have a look in HD:

Now, the new look is an improvement, but it’s not as through anything in EVE really looks shabby anyway. So yay, but not something to get terribly excited about. But here’s the interesting thing: the new skin includes both some kind of space camouflage pattern (the idea of which is weird, but it looks nice here,) as well as the logo of the Angel faction. Is this the first concrete inkling that we’ve seen of corp logos for player ships? And maybe the first glimpse of the technology to allow player ships to have custom paint jobs, a feature long said to be in the works?

Revisiting Star Trek Online

As we all know, Star Trek Online went freemium last week, and since then I’ve managed to drop a couple of hours into the game. I’d last tried STO a couple of months after launch, I think, and kind of liked it, rough and half-done as it was. But there’s that little guy in my head that asks, when trialing a subscription game, “do you like this enough to pay $15 a month for it?” And the answer was no. It’s the same process I went through with Rift and later, SWTOR, that led me to not buy those games as well, even though neither was bad in any substantive sense.

Although I am indeed able to spot some changes, I don’t know that I can see a remarkably changed game today versus when I was last logged in. But then, a big part of the issue at that time was lack of content, and that seems, by all accounts, to have been remedied — at least as long as you’re Federation, and aren’t at the level cap. There has been an almost year-long content drought for reasons Cryptic discussed with Massively today.

Star Trek Online is a conventional MMO in most respects… very conventional if you look only at the ground game, which functions mostly as a veteran of WoW or any of its clones would expect. But not entirely — you have an Away Team to back you up with their own progression and abilities, and some of the missions do seem to require some care and attention to get through. So that’s novel.

There’s also crafting, which appears unsophisticated to my eye. It’s similar to but narrower than the system in Champions Online. The in-game economy… well, I haven’t seen any sign that one exists, really, so this really isn’t out of line with the source material.

And there is, of course, the space game, and I give Cryptic a great deal of credit for including both ground and space operations in the finished product. The space game is both more interesting and better-developed than the ground game (which I’m told is much improved from where it was.) It’s no EVE Online, but it captures the basic feel of starship combat in Star Trek fairly well; I’m definitely getting a Star Fleet Battles vibe, although it’s not nearly as complicated at least at the start. Just as you can improve your character as you advance, you improve your ship as well, and eventually you unlock new ship slots and ships.

STO is also pathy and linear, but not quite in the usual way. In most such games there’s a linear quest/mission progression that you go through one piece at a time. The main story sequence in STO is like this, and there are side missions as well, but there’s also a great deal of content that scales to you, and a regular cycle of in-game events. I think the variety of content I have seen so far is pretty good, although I am guessing (and I hear) that this gets stale after a while.

It’s early yet (I just hit Lieutenant 7 today) but I’m enjoying myself reasonably well so far. STO is not a flawless game by any means, but you know, at least it took some chances, and I’ll take an ambitious but flawed game over a polished but pedestrian one any day.

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.

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.