Monday, January 30, 2012

Bastion, thoughts on MMOs

I've played through Bastion once. I am playing through it again on the New Game + mode. Bastion is the rare type of game that comes in, makes a remarkable impression, and then leaves before its stuck around too long. It also has my juices flowing for a bunch of thoughts about things I'd like to see in an MMO.

The first and most unique element of Bastion is the narrator which narrates not only the story, but the player's every move. When I first talked about Bastion's narration to my wife she commented "so he just repeats back to you what you just did? That's annoying!". I attempted to sidetrack her from that position by showing her some of the game, but then "the kid" (the game's protagonist) picked up a giant hammer to which the narrator announced "the kid picks up his trusty hammer". My wife laughed and walked away. While this example is the game's narration at it's most basic it is not truly the genius that exists later in the game. The narrator is seemless, delivering not only the story but also filling in the gaps between fights and everything else that occurs in the game. By the time I finished Bastion I was a bit sad to say good bye to the narrator. I had grown accustomed to listening to his voice through my journey. It probably doesn't hurt that they have one of the best voice actors ever providing the voice and paired it with an award-winning sound track.

Where would a constant narrator fit into an MMOG? The first immediate example that comes to mind is Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO). I know I gave DDO a bunch of hate because it was just an RPG set in the D&D Eberron setting and because it missed the boat as far as what makes D&D fun (at least for me). With my personal tastes aside, DDO to a certain degree does have a narrator in place, known as the dungeon master. When adventuring through various dungeon areas the dungeon master will announce certain things such as the "the air hums with flies here" or "the smell of decaying flesh permeates". Usually these pieces of flavor are added for things that are hard to represent in a video game (smells for example). I wasn't sold on the idea when I played DDO, but having played Bastion now I think a dungeon master that follows your entire adventure and provides constantly evolving narration to your activities would work. The real trick would be making it work in a multi-player setting, which given some time I think a developer could work out.

The next outstanding feature of Bastion is it's namesake. The Bastion is a sliver of land, floating over the destroyed world that "the kid" is able to rebuild throughout the process of the game. Each area completed generally results in a shard being obtained. The shard can be brought back to the Bastion to restore a piece of the old world. These restored parts take the form of buildings that allow the player to perform different functions. In addition to the shards there are also relics from the old world that can be placed in the Bastion. Everything from a set of banners to a smoker's pipe add flavor to the player's Bastion. Some are for show and others serve other purposes (such as launching a side quest). Over time there is a real sense of progression to the Bastion.

Now it has always been my dream to have an MMO where the players are tasked with building the world from the ground up. The storyline in Bastion is the classic post-apocalyptic hotbed of building an oasis in the middle of a world wracked by destruction. This, to me, is the perfect setting for an MMO to launch into. It lets the players decide the pace at which the world progresses. Players hold the keys and make the decisions that will forever change their existence in the world. The so called "fourth pillar" of MMOGs is touted to be "story", but why does that story always have to be something the developers created? Why can't it be the story the player's create?

For bonus points, Bastion gets the mechanic for this world building correct as well. Players retrieve shards or relics that have immediate affects on their Bastion. In the case of shards, the player get's to spend them as a sort of currency to build the buildings they wish to have in the Bastion. This is almost directly transferable to an MMOG. Player's would be tasked with retrieving "shards" from the old, destroyed world to use and build items in the new world. Each player would have their slice of the new world in which to build. Guilds and alliances can join together to focus on improving a shared area.

Another part of the Bastion experience that makes the game so refreshing is the idea of player-directed difficulty via the in-game idols. Players can go to their shrine and activate idols they have unlocked. Each idol makes the game inherently more difficult. For example, one idol makes it so enemies randomly block one attack. The reward is increased experience gains and in-game currency. It's a simple idea, but something not seen in an MMO outside of the idea of "heroic" versions of some dungeons. Now it would be a challenge to develop, but I think an MMO could have every player set their own idols to dictate their own difficulty. The challenge would be in making it play nice together with other player's idols.

The other part of the shrine that works so well is that it's not just a UI element in Bastion. It is an actual building the player has fought to restore for the sole purpose of using it's services. This gives better weight to the player setting their idols and takes something that in most MMOs is just a UI element and makes it part of the world. Everything in Bastion is managed via these buildings that the player builds. Want to change your equipment load out? Head to the armory and swap them. Want to change your unique character traits? Head to the distillery.

Oh and the distillery. Let me talk about that. It's a brilliant idea just like the shrine is.  In the distillery player's set up "spirits" (aka alcoholic beverages) which modify how the player's avatar works.  Some add straight up stats like +10 health while others are more complex such as offering a counter attack mechanic.  However, the beauty really isn't in the details.  It's in the fact that the distillery takes the monotony of the stats screen out of the UI and inserts it into a practical in-game solution.  It doesn't hurt that the player can visit the distillery at any time to "respec" their character.

I understand some of the ideas I bring up here are not entirely original and in most cases there is an example game on the market that exhibits some of the traits that I mention. However, there really hasn't been a mainstream game that has attempted to tackle any of these elements. "The game that shall not be named" with full on voice acting does cover some of the narration, but it is not dynamic and at it's base level is still just uninteresting filler for quests. Bastion's narration is so far above and beyond that it's hard to compare. A Tale in the Desert covers the "let's build a world together", but really that's about all it has. Plenty of MMOGs feature "hard" or "elite" versions of dungeons, quests, or monsters which sort of works out to be like the idols of Bastion, but that's a loose connection at best. The "UI-built-into-the-game" element would be a first for MMOGs, as far as I know. In fact, a lot of MMOGs are more about the UI then the actual game (I'm looking at you EVE and at you World of Add Ons), so seeing an MMOG work towards removing as much of the UI as possible would be interesting.

My concluding point is that we haven't seen an MMO that incorporates a lot of what I've talked about and that's a damn shame.  Bastion feels like a really simple idea, but its clearly taken time for something of it's caliber to hit the market. It's a brilliant game and in my opinion, a blue print for a successful MMOG.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Demo Reviewed

The Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (KoAR) demo was released on Steam and I had a chance to put about an hour into it. I've been hard on the game in the past for it's very generic nature in the marketing spins produced by it's developer 38 Studios. Having played the demo now, I am still worried the title is a little bit too generic fantasy to rise above the field. However, there were a couple bright spots that gave me some hope for the game.

KoAR starts as almost any RPG starts by providing an origin story for the player's character. In this case, the player's avatar died on a foreign battlefield and their body dumped into the Well of Souls. As luck would have it, the Well of Souls ends up working to restore the character to life. It is a very organic introduction to the game and setting up the player's character. It also gives a blank slate entrance into the world and sets up a plausible re-spawn scenario.

Once resurrected from the pile of bodies in the Well of Souls, the player is whisked through some battles. Apparently the "bad guys" are attacking the Well of Souls. A few combat training scenarios later the player is on their way.

The combat felt very "actiony" (if such a word were to exist). However, after a while I felt like i was just left and right clicking like mad. The controls were as expected (WASD movement, click to attack), but I couldn't quite figure out how to hot key cast spells. It required a button press and then a right click. I'd much have preferred just to press a button.

One glaring problem I had with combat was targeting. Many times it looked like my avatar was targeting a specific monster only to unleash my attack in a completely different direction. Or just the opposite, I was charging an enemy down and attacked only to have the attack choose a target to the side. Fortunately, once hitting a target the game does a good job of keeping the player locked on. The combat varies a good bit based on the weapon selected and it was refreshing to see that spell casters could still handle themselves in melee combat.

Even with the targeting issue, the system showed promise. The move to action combat is a welcome sight for open RPGs and KoAR does a good job to fit the action in with the rest of the RPG goodies. There are still potions and other things to do all accessible via quick menus that work very well. The menus are well laid out and offer mouse click or hot key movement. I found most of the UI intuitive from character level ups to inventory management.

Overall I think KoAR will be a good RPG, but it still feels and looks generic. The action combat helps separate it from the crowd a little bit, but I'm not sure it will be the game's ticket to success. I think the keys to the game are locked outside of the demo. The supposed open world, non linear progression, and complex destiny ( aka class ) system may sell the game to the RPG faithful. I'm interested to see how the game does.

After playing the demo I wouldn't buy the game myself, but that's because I'm pretty spoiled by Steam sales and have a back log of great RPGs to play. At a later date with a good sale I would feel comfortable buying this.

View my screenshots here.


I didn't have enough time to redo my entire site to black it out, but I have made the theme black in my protest of SOPA/PIPA.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Phsycochild nails the whole Ilum bans thing

I'll let Phsycochild do all the talking today:

Psychochild says:01/02/2012 at 22:54
Here’s the problem: MMOs are multiplayer (it’s the second M). Which means that someone’s actions have a far-reaching effect for others. As a service provider, an MMO operator operating a game like SW:tOR needs to take action to make sure that things are fair for most players.

Yes, the perfect solution is not to have such an exploit in the first place. Okay, once reality intrudes we accept that some problems, bugs, and exploits will ship. So, now you have to look at the effect that an exploit like this will have on the community as a whole. If the company allows the exploit, then it becomes like a prisoner’s dilemma; you either must exploit this cheat and game the system (likely breaking immersion for people playing the game for the story), or you will be disadvantaged.

The next best solution is to patch to remove the exploit. But, making hasty patches to an MMO is not a smart thing. This leads to server crash bugs, where people can’t play. Players certainly don’t get cranky when they can’t play an MMO this close to launch or anything…

So, the next acceptable solution is to stop people from abusing the exploit while taking the time to do a proper patch with testing to make sure the fix doesn’t break something else. That’s what they’re doing, I assume.

Of course, anyone who gets caught with their hand in the cookie jar will pitch a fit and try to win points in the court of public opinion.

TL;DR – This is the best possible solution that doesn’t screw over most of the players. Exploiters will exploit, then whine if caught.

2012, the first post

2012, the first post.  Where in lies a reflection on predictions of the year that was: 2011.  And maybe some prognostication of the year that's just begun: 2012.

I kept the predictions light for 2011 and I'll tackle all five of them in one go:
1. World of Warcraft will maintain its dominance.
No doubt World of Warcraft is still top among MMOs, but to say its maintained its dominance is ignoring the fact that WoW took a significant hit this year and had to break out the pandas to keep people's interest.  In the larger genre of persistent online games, League of Legends has soundly trumped WoW's numbers with over 30 million active users and concurrent user numbers well beyond that of WoW.
2. Free 2 Play will continue its march forward and many will consider 2011 the year that F2P becomes the dominant business model not only for MMOGs, but for any online game (MOBA, FPS, etc.)
There is no doubt that Free 2 Play has landed with most major publishers having already published or considering to publish a F2P title(s).  2011 also marked the arrival of F2P on Steam; the premier digital distribution platform for games.  The subscription MMOs fell like flies to a flyswatter this year as several joined the F2P ranks and enjoyed immediate success.
3. "the game that shall not be named" will NOT launch this year.
OK, it squeaked into 2011, but just barely.
4. The "next generation" Xbox will be announced by Microsoft. Nintendo and Sony will stay with their current generation.
I was way off here.  Xbox 360 is marching strong and Playstation 3 is still playing third fiddle.  Nintendo, of all companies, is the one out front with news of their new Wii U console.
5. This blog will be completely different and may actually feature commentary and experiences from games I'm actually playing.
Proof: I posted about Fallout: New Vegas and I actually played that game!

Now onward and upward to my predictions for 2012 and beyond

1. The world will not end.  (just wanted to get that one out of the way)

2. I will post more than I did in 2011.  (just wanted to give ya'll something to look forward to)

3. "the game that shall not be named" will have a tough year, but will survive.  The argument to take the game Free 2 Play will begin around July.

4. Warhammer Online will be shut down this year.

5. DOTA2 will launch, but fail to make much more than a drip into the MOBA scene.

6. League of Legends will hit 50 million players and still be flying under the radar in the online gaming market

7. A major game will "surprise launch" this year with little to no notice and possibly be Free 2 Play

8. Indie games will continue to creep into the spotlight and we will see another Minecraft-level indie break out this year

9. At least 4 of these predictions will be right :)