Ardwulf Presents Returns! This time, STO

The new, long-delayed episode of Ardwulf Presents covers the charcater creation system from Star Trek Online. Just getting back into the swing of things… but there will be new episodes each week!

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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.

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.

Vanguard, Skyrim and EVE

Ad astra per aspera, I said in the last posts comments, so it’s fitting that we now move the discussion from fantasy sandboxes to the stars – from Vanguard, considered by many a failure as a game, a sandbox and an MMO, to MMO gaming’s most successful sandbox, EVE Online.

Every fantasy MMO is based on Dungeons and Dragons or some other game that was in turn influenced by D&D, including Ultima Online, a title lambasted for its problems in its heyday but now held up as a suspicuouly rosy sandbox icon. Like Vanguard, EVE is a game I love but have deep issues with, and unlike Vanguard has a history of growth and prosperity despite a rocky beginning. But EVE, too, has its lessons to be learned from Skyrim.

That EVE is the most successful sandbox in the virtual world space cannot be disputed; it has true emergent gameplay and a near-infinite variety of ways one can approach its gameplay. But it does have its failures, both in the banal nature of much of the gameplay and in its failure to provide immersive elements.

By that, do not misunderstand me; EVE is very immersive as MMOs go and more so that most. But the universe of EVE is only minimally interactable: asteroids are depleted and wormholes are closed by player action, and the market is shaped almost entirely by in-game activities, but it’s only in this last aspect that it truly fulfills the potential of the virtual world. NPCs are static photos that never change or move. Stations are great monolithic that are only destroyed in videos that don’t reflect gameplay. Players can build and destroy structures, but is that alone such a huge step up from copper nodes in Elwynn Forest that despawn when you deplete them?

Tabletop games have a unique asset that video games lack: a human gamemaster to administer the universe and react to events. Computers aren’t there yet, but a game like Skyrim shows me that a convincing simulated environment isn’t so far away as many of us think; Skyrim has its glitches but it’s pretty freaking close. It’s something few MMOs even attempt anymore.

The developers of EVE had the notion that you should be able to get out of your ship and interact with more stuff. In practice that turned out to be fairly half-baked, to be honest, and longtime EVE players rallied against it when it seemed to be competing for developer time against the core gameplay. EVE is balanced around that core gameplay, and taking too many players out of a vast space much of which is already empty would be very, very dangerous. So the solution was to minimize the appeal of off-ship activity and shunt the more exciting stuff off to a different game, Dust 514. The goal of integrating EVE and Dust is pretty audacious, but more ambitious still would be a game with a smaller space but more room for characters to operate within it. And you can’t subtract space; EVE players would throw a justified fit.

As with Vanguard this is a failure in fundamental design, one that probably cannot be addressed with ad hoc later development. You’d have to design the game around a mixture of starship and off-board operations from the get go. And no, Star Trek Online, a game that incredibly fails in more places than EVE and Vanguard combined, did not succeed in doing that, and in my opinion didn’t try very hard to.

This is ironic because EVE is one of the few games not defined by its adherence to the D&D paradigm that conventional MMOs almost invariably follow fairly closely through a long lineage of adaptations onto silicon. EVE descends from Elite and thence from Traveller, a game designed by people who didn’t know all that much about D&D but were well-schooled in the possibilities of science fiction, and who had been blown away by Star Wars a year earlier.

The irony cuts deep because Traveller is very much a sandbox game from thirty years before that term was ever applied to video games. Instead of D&D’s structured, linear adventures and campaigns you had tools to develop a universe and set the characters loose in it. You could run a sandbox using D&D, but that was never the expectation. In Traveller, even the adventures forced you into a sandbox.

EVE – Traveller‘s descendant in the modern realm of online virtual worlds – got a good chunk about what Traveller was all bout right, but it left out two-thirds of the possibilities. The Traveller party would never spend all their time in their ship; it was a home base and a huge asset but also a source of tribulations and difficulties. It’s hard to imagine how an EVE where you might lose a ship and be stranded doing odd jobs on some backwater planet and have to work your way back up to one might even work – in Traveller it was a common adventure hook, and getting a ship and the freedom to roam the stars – or plunder them – that came with it was a major goal.

It might be tempting to think of such an MMO as two discreet games bolted roughly together, as Star Trek Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea are, although one would hope that one of the faces wouldn’t be quite so gallingly weak. But even two games in one that were equally good would be a failure to really reach for the stars. No, you’d want seamless integration between the two in a setting specifically designed to encourage it – one much like the rough implied Imperium presented in the Little Black Books in 1977.

Making such a setting truly interactable would be a huge challenge. It would be a setting with all the possibilities of an EVE combined with the possibilities of the other two-thirds that never saw development. Vast planets, although not necessarily a vast volume of space with thousands of stars that would spread players too thin. A single subsector, eight by ten parsecs, would be enough to start, and you could accommodate thousands of players in all the nooks and crannies of its worlds and asteroid belts and starport dives. You’d have to be clever about populating it with NPCs, alien critters and AI starships, since the simulation cannot be even close to perfect, and you’d have to be very careful the let both the player and NPC parts of the universe evolve on their own, organically and synergistically with as little manual moderation as possible. But clever design can hide a lot of soft underbelly, and Skyrim makes me think it’s possible.

As much as I talk about fantasy MMOs, that there is my dream title. Traveller Online, and a lot of the guts that you would need are already there in 34 years of lovingly developed tabletop product; algorithms for procedurally generating worlds and stars and ships and guns and freaky alien stuff. Sure the science in it was stale as hell even in 1977, but popular science fiction (as opposed to SF in the written word) hasn’t really evolved that much since the days of Flash and Buck.

It could be done. To the stars, my friends, along a rough road.

Star Trek Online Going Free-to-Play

Massively is reporting that Perfect World Entertainment, which recently completed its acquisition of Cryptic, will take Star Trek Online free-to-play by the end of the year, a move predicted by many, including myself. It’s also a move likely to get me (and likely Mrs. Ardwulf as well) at least trying STO out.

I’d played a brief trial not long after launch and didn’t find it compelling enough to buy or subscribe to. But it has by all accounts improved a ton since then, and a zero entry cost f2p solution takes a great deal of pressure away from an MMO, as my own experience with LotRO demonstrates; once I didn’t feel compelled to overplay it because I was paying for a subscription, I enjoyed it a lot more. I’m hoping that this will happen with STO as well. I’m also hoping that Cryptic shakes things up a bit from the way they did F2p with Champions Online, a less than optimal system that, as a Lifer, I don’t feel obliged to care much about. Perfect World has a lot more in their f2p tookbox than Cryptic did, and I’m hoping they’ll apply it here.

A Look Backward and Forward

Some trivial controversy has erupted over Massively’s recent Player Choice Award. The thrust of the arguments seem to be that Star Trek Online doesn’t deserve the accolades of coming off as the year’s top winner amongst new games.

While there are many arguments that could be made against this kind of award, particularly since it was based on a poll of fans and therefore had loads of potential for ballot box stuffing by the most rabid enthusiasts, I think it’s important to point out that this kind of thing in general – posting articles that stir up discussion in the community – is exactly what a site like Massively is in the business of doing.

Too, while STO may not be a very strong game in an absolute sense, the awards are for the year of 2010 alone – and the competition STO was up against was especially dire. You have one major release (APB) that did a faceplant of historic proportions and swiftly closed, another highly-touted title (FFXIV) that launched with Vanguard-level problems and is desperately treading water and shuffling both staff and blame, another (Mortal Online) that only the community’s most vapid participants were touting as the Next Great Thing but which practically vanished upon release and by all accounts was laughably bad, and a fourth (Global Agenda) that probably isn’t an MMO at all and which almost immediately claimed to be free-to-play in a desperate attempt to pander to potential players, even though it continued to (and still does,) charge a fee for a (physical or virtual) box.

So: It looks at a glance that 2010 was a weak year for MMO releases. That the mid-tier STO emerged as the champ of the new titles isn’t surprising considering that there weren’t any top-tier releases at all, and the other mid-tier offerings did poorly. Good for STO, I suppose – it looks at this point like a moderate success and should be at least stable with room to grow. Considering that Cryptic’s last attempt didn’t perform as well, it’s a step in the right direction.

Lest the memories of MMO aficionados abide by their history of staying short, however, let’s summarize the previous couple of years and made some comparisons.

2009
Darkfall, Runes of Magic, Free Realms, Aion, Champions Online, and Fallen Earth launch. No WoW expansion. Tabula Rasa, Shadowbane and Matrix Online close. Of the new launches, Aion makes a big splash before its western audience evaporates. DDO goes free-to-play. Overall, especially given the closings, not a great year, but we got two games, Darkfall and Fallen Earth, that appear to be in small but stable niches a year later. A comparable year, I’d say, to 2010.

2008
Pirates of the Burning Sea, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and Wizard 101 launch. Sims Online closes. Warth of the Lich King dominates the year despite releasing at the very end. AoC and WAR both have strong starts but underperform in the early months. Of the two, after two years, AoC is unquestionably the stronger game, but both appear to be on sustainable trajectories keeping them in the middle of the MMO pack. A very exciting year in terms of releases, but in hindsight, not a very successful one for anyone but Blizzard.

So what will 2011 bring? It may be a huge year for MMOs, in that we have two titles (SWTOR and Guild Wars 2) which look like they stand a chance of making a dent in WoW. Of course, we thought that might prove to the the case with WAR as well, which proved to be foolishness in the end. We also have what looks to be a strong mid-tier contender in Rift, but I’m not convinced that DC Universe Online or The Agency are going to do anything other than sink like stones – the latter would have been exciting had it released in 2008, but nobody seems to care anymore, and SOE has burned a lot of goodwill over RMT and FTP. There are dark horses in Earthrise and Black Prophecy that might make some noise in corners of the hobby, and Champions and APB will debut as free-to-play titles – and maybe some others we don’t yet know about as well. And there’s oddities like World of Tanks and Company of Heroes Online, which I’m not even sure how to categorize.

Sitting at the starting line, 2011 looks like it will be a very busy year, at least if all these games make it to release. It should certainly be a bonanza for bloggers – here’s hoping this MMO blogger will actually be able to nominate an MMO for Game of the Year at the end.

Irons in the Fire

After a couple of weeks playing a ton of DDO and getting a variety of alts about where I’d like them to be, and bearing in mind that we now have regular groups playing two nights a week, I’m taking something breaklike by playing something else during the day.

So what else am I playing?

Guild Wars lasted a couple of days and about 6 hours in total before I got frustrated with it again. I’m not uninstalling it but I have no desire to play any more of it right now.

There’s also World of Warcraft, which I’m playing about once a week. My subscription runs out in a couple of weeks and if I were making the decision right now, I would let it lapse. I’m just not playing it enough, and while I was playing a ton for a while there, I needed a (non-permanent) break from it.

I scored a 10-day trial key for Star Trek Online at Origins. I just activated that and will be giving it a whirl in the next few days. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about it.

I think that the NDA allows me to reveal that I’m in the LotRO F2P beta. Can’t say anything else, although I’ll tell you that I’ve spent some time with it.

Lastly, there’s Champions Online, to which I have a lifetime sub and which I figured this would be a good time to get back to. I spent a good chunk of the morning playing it and it’s just as fun as I remembered it, although the pace of its action is very different than that of DDO and that took some adjustment. I’ve been playing Matterhorn, my might-based brick, who is feeling incredibly badass right now.

So right now I’m primarily playing DDO and CO. Here’s hoping I’ll get out a post or three on one or both in the next couple of days.