News From FanFest: New Shineys

Next up from the vids out of FanFest are a couple of short trailer-type pieces showing off some upcoming graphics upgrades. Finally the nebulae will be getting an overhaul, and the new ones look really great.

The next one shows new turret elements and animations. Also a big upgrade from what’s in the game now, but less immediately obvious for somebody jumping in.

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News From FanFest: Captain’s Quaters

The following two videos show the tail end of a presentation from FanFest, talking about the features introduced to EVE with the new character creator, and what’s coming. The second of the two is a gloriously low-res preview of the Captain’s Quarters, which is the first piece of Ambulation getting rolled out. It’s not a substantive addition in terms of content, but it’s a start.

The interesting thing here is that the Captain’s Quarters is a replacement for the current in-station screen, which is rather a nice touch, I think, in that it cosmetically enhances an existing gameplay element without really subverting anything that already exists or introducing a huge time-waster, which is the real danger than Ambulation presents. If you add a bunch of stuff for players to do outside of their ships, that takes away from the core, ship-based, EVE experience. CCP seems to be aware of this (they’ve discussed it in the past) and are moving cautiously.

The Captain’s Quarters ought to hit test within a few weeks.

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New Faces

I’ve been playing EVE sporadically all week, but hadn’t had the chance to play with the new character creator until the weekend. Finally, I have my new avatars.

Overall, I am extremely pleased, although I think there needs to be more ‘stuff’ – more options for hair and clothes in particular. But the engine is extremely powerful, and the whole package is smoother and better filled-out than it was when I fooled with it on Singularity.

The selection of clothes is going to be something of a problem. Not so much now, but when Incarna goes live, it’ll be an issue if every avatar is wearing one of the three different outfits in one of three different colors. You can pick and choose the pieces, so it’s not quite so bad as I’m making it sound, but we’re still going to need to see some mechanism for bringing new customization options into the game.

I would hope that this will happen via the existing economy, meaning that ‘outfits’ or costume pieces would be actual in-game items that need to be manufactured and transported by players, but time will tell – I’m sure CCP has put some thought into this. I just hope we don’t wind up with something as dopey as a cash shop where you pay $2 for a virtual shirt. Any such system will be incomplete, of course, unless it includes assless chaps.

And before I forget (as it went unmentioned by me for about two months,) if you’d like to try out EVE’s shiny new character creator, I’d encourage you to click through one of my banner ads, or follow the link HERE for a free 14-day trial. If you elect to turn one of those trials into a subscription, it helps to support this site.

The MMO News Story of the Week Is…

Rift Beta Event 5? Old hat. Guild Wars’ 2’s fifth class announcement? Small potatoes. DC Universe Online adding more servers? Bottom of the news cycle. No, the biggest piece of MMO-related news this week is this:

That’s right, Clear Skies III is coming. News courtesy of the EVE Report.

Failing the Challenge

Tipa at West Karana reminded us last week of her MMO Challenge. Which is, in short, to pick one MMO, stick with it for a whole year, and ignore everything else. The idea being that you don’t really get the full MMO experience if you dabble in a bunch of different games.

I pointed out at the time that she was quite right, and waved a hand or three at limiting myself to just one game, but it’s never worked out. I’m just not the kind of player that can play just one thing, and this dates all the way back to my tabletop days. I think I stuck more or less exclusively to WoW for about five months, but that’s where I stopped. I have failed at Tipa’s challenge.

What I have managed to do, since the original challenge, is narrow my selection a bit. EVE, which I am currently playing, and Age of Conan, which I am not but plan to get back to, are my go-to subscription games. Titles like DDO, LotRO and EQ2X are too attractive as free-to-play games for me to ignore entirely. And I have a lifetime sub to Champions Online, so I’ll be checking in on that again later this month. That’s my roster. Other games of which I was fond or that I played for a while, like Vanguard, City of Heroes, Guild Wars and WAR, I’ve written off permanently.

And I don’t intend to partake immediately in any of this year’s offerings, including Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve even cooled off a lot on Guild Wars 2, which I was pretty hot for a few months back. But if there’ll be an exception, GW2 will be it.

That’s because of the free-to-play phenomenon. It used to be that the available F2P offerings were all junky Asian grinders with predatory cash shops and a design and visual aesthetic that I just can’t stand. That’s not true anymore – we now have high-quality F2P titles built to big-budget Western standards. Consequently, it takes a lot to get me to pay a subscription fee these days. EVE and AoC offer me what I’m willing to pay a subscription for, while other titles do not – and that emphatically includes World of Warcraft.

But that brings me back around to the challenge. If you only could play one MMO – call it your desert island game – which one would it be? I suspect that for most the answer will be the pallid but agreeable WoW. For me, today, it would be DDO. I might have a different answer tomorrow, but it would be one of the games on the roster above, regardless. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

An Unpopular Sandbox

It’s been a long while since something Tobold write inspired me to write a post of my own, but we have one today. Tobold’s point is that sandbox MMOs tend to be less popular than themepark MMOs. This is correct as far as it goes, but drawing that conclusion from the facts available ignores an elephant in the room.

The point that gets missed a lot in these kinds of discussions is that “PvE” is not incompatible with “sandbox”. Tobold points to the oft-repeated data point that 80% of EVE players stay mostly or exclusively in Empire. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing sandbox-type stuff, it just means they’re not dabbling in EVE’s version of FFA PvP. The themepark in EVE is more or less limited to mission-running, which, while an important part of the game, is scarcely the whole of what’s available, even in Empire. I would venture to say that very few Empire-based players stick exclusively to missions, while just as many never much fool with missions at all, and most such players mix mission-running with other stuff such as mining, research, industry, trading, or even PvP – remember that corp wars allow for PvP in Empire, and there’s also factional warfare to consider, although I don’t have a good grasp of just how popular that may be now.

Sandbox games are less popular than themepark games, but observing the fact does not imply a general rule that this must therefore be the case. Indeed, such a conclusion ignores the biggest and most visible single element in the hobby – World of Warcraft.

There’s general agreement that the MMOs of the generation before WoW were better sandboxes than those that came later. The reason is obvious, and that’s WoW itself. It accrued huge success, but is that success because it’s less of a sandbox? Even bearing in mind that WoW, as themepark-oriented as it is, still has some sandbox elements left? I would argue that WoW, as bitter as many of us might feel toward it, has a whole lot more going for it than just its themepark nature – good controls, a sense of humor, a big mostly seamless world, good writing, vivid art design… I could go on. I think it’s both a tremendous stretch and very superficial to say that WoW is popular because it’s a themepark.

Certainly, the perception is there, fueled by WoW’s very success. Other developers, chasing the WoW money with big-budget titles, stick to the proven formula. Sandbox games may be innately less appealing to a broad audience, but we wouldn’t know, because nobody is even trying. The only developers pushing the sandbox envelope are rinky-dink little indie houses whose games have little chance of even middling popularity anyway. It’s a false causality.

The MMOs of the Decade

Ten Ton Hammer has ranked the MMO’s of the Decade. Inevitably, I have things to say about their choices, although I think they are mostly on target. Ish.

Best Community: EVE Online
Runners-up: EverQuest II, The Lord of the Rings Online
It’d be almost impossible to argue against this choice, although LotRO’s community is certainly “nicer” than EVE’s. But nobody has CCP beat for community investment. EQ2’s community I’ve kind of soured on; there’s just too much incessant complaining for my comfort.

Best PvP: Dark Age of Camelot
Runners-up: Shadowbane, Lineage
No argument with Dark Age of Camelot, although the heyday of Shadowbane was before my time and Lineage is just a rotten piece of ass. One has to wonder what exactly happened during WAR’s development process that it ran so far off the rails, given Mythic’s proven track record with PvP. I still have no plausible hypothesis. I would love to see a DAoC updated for 2011… the game that WAR was supposed to have been.

Best Art & Animation: Age of Conan
Runners-up: Aion
I can’t quibble with AoC’s excellent art design, but how is EVE not here, even as a runner-up? Granted, ‘animations’ per se aren’t among the game’s graphical strengths, but it’s unquestionably one of the best-looking games out there, not just in raw graphics but in design. Maybe it’s the lack of avatars, which I think everybody acknowledges is a problem at this point – albeit one that’ll soon be addressed. Aion? Point to any of dozens or hundreds of Asian games with the exact same look, and then tell me again about how great Aion looks. With a straight face.

Best Sound & Score: Guild Wars
Runners-up: Age of Conan, The Lord of the Rings Online
For my money, Age of Conan has the best score in any MMO, and sound at least on par with anything else as well. However, there’s no question that Guild Wars’ soundtrack is very good. Personally, I think LotRO’s is pretty flat, imitative of the movie soundtracks in a lackluster way. Funcom went for the exact same thing when scoring AoC and hit the nail on the head. I wouldn’t say LotRO’s soundtrack is actually rotten, but it’s nothing special.

Most Innovative: D&D Online
Runners-up: Guild Wars, Warhammer Online, Anarchy Online
A not unreasonable choice, although it’s hard to say of two broadly similar games, DDO and Guild Wars, which is the more innovative. Personally I’d say DDO based on the depth of the mechanics, which is unmatched in anything except EVE, but I can see the opposite case, as GW has a broader appeal (i. e. it’s more approachable by the common jackwad on the street,) and it made innovations in the financial model before DDO did. But Warhammer Online? The greatest failure in the history of MMOs? Innovative? For fuck’s sake, how? Based on the one laudable feature that we hadn’t seen before in that exact form?

Best Expansion: The Planes of Power, for EverQuest
Runners-up: City of Villains, Wrath of the Lich King
I can’t honestly offer an opinion on Planes of Power – it was well before my time. I’m prepared to accept TTH’s judgment that the choice was made on the strength of the raid zones. But it’s hard to imagine a single expansion adding more to a game than City of Villains did. Lich King… Lich King was impressive and frustrating for me in about equal measure. On the one hand it was mostly well-executed, but on the other it limited WoW’s gameplay to preset paths (or – more correctly – it continued a trend that was already established.)

Editor’s Choice: EverQuest II
I can see it… I mean, it’s not a real stretch. Except for a couple of big holes, EQ2 is full-featured, and many of those features (housing and guild management in particular) are second to none in the hobby. But the lack of decent PvP really hurts it in a crowd of games all of which do that better than EQ2, and the heavily zoned and instanced world fragments what ought to be a more visibly contiguous environment. As TTH’s “Editor’s Choice” I can’t argue with it, but my Editor’s Choice would probably be Age of Conan, with EVE, DDO and LotRO the runners-up.

Best Game: World of Warcraft
Not a surprise by any means, but it’s kind of a cowardly choice. Sure, WoW is the most popular game, by a lot. But is it really the best? TTH seems to think it is, based solely on that criteria (the only one given.) But it’s a mistake to pay attention only to WoW overwhelming popularity – sweeping its many failures under the rug. Most importantly, it failed MMOs – by undercutting the potential of the genre. And its many imitators followed suit, setting MMO development back five years. Its very success has stifled both it and the rest of the hobby. Among major studios, only CCP ignored the WoW model and went and did their own thing. Only CCP stretched what an MMO could be, rather than contracting it, whether through progressively narrower and narrower development (WoW) or by truncating their MMO during the design process and giving us part of a finished game on release (WAR.) I say epic fail on Ten Ton Hammer’s part, and give the title of “MMO of the Decade” to the game that deserves it: EVE Online.