Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Everquest Next

My pants are wet and no, I did not spill my coffee. Everquest Next was announced and shown at SOE Live 2013. To say SOE blew many pundits away is an understatement. SOE single-handedly re-invigorated the core MMO community. Everquest Next is everything a next-generation MMO should be. It is a game changer. Everquest Next, if executed to the presentation and glimpses given, will redefine the MMO genre for the forseeable future.

It is hard, really hard, for me to congratulate SOE on anything. After all, they still have my heart locked up in some backroom safe and only bring it out every once and a while to tread over it while wearing Star Wars Galaxies promo shirts. SOE has a track record of playing second fiddle to the rest of the market. Everquest 2 was destroyed by WoW. Planetside 2, while an OK game, is a game for five years ago. Star Wars Galaxies was shelved when The Old Republic was released. SOE seemed content with simply making sequels that didn’t advance anything other than the bottom line.

With Everquest Next, SOE is looking to shed the persona of comfortable. Everquest Next does not simply feature a single game changing idea; it features several. Every pillar of what makes modern MMOs is being touched.

Everquest Next starts with the very fundamentals with a game changing voxel-based engine which allows the entire world to be torn apart and remolded on the fly. This engine is not simply a gimmick. Alongside the voxel engine being used to generate the game world, SOE is launching a tool called Landmark which will allow players to build their own pieces of the world. Objects and buildings and are all possible. To top it off, player’s can sell their creations to fellow players and earn a profit. Crafting is now an entirely new ballgame.

The best voxel-based engine still does not make for a great game. Sure it’s great that a player can dig a hole to the middle of the earth or erect their own private castle, but what drives players to explore? What pulls players together? What makes this an actual MMOG and not just a giant box of legos? The answer is again in SOE’s willingness to step outside of the norm.

The first item is the Rallying Calls which are an evolution of Public Quests from other MMOs such as WAR and Guild Wars 2. With the voxel-based engine these can take on an entire new meaning. The world can be permanently changed on the fly by the developers or the players or the AI. These changes can be different across multiple groups of players and a player starting today is going to have a completely different experience than one that started a year ago. There will be real story telling and world building at the hands of the players.

Next is emergent AI. Gone are the monster camps of dumb monsters standing around waiting to be killed and in their place are actual functioning groups of enemies with a purpose and goal. Bandits may realize a town is not frequented by players so makes the perfect place to raid and plunder. As time goes on the Bandits build up their camp nearby and take over the town until players come and kick them out. During rallying calls the players may be building a city and goblins may start appearing in the woods. If the players don’t take care of the goblins they may raid the fledgling city and set it back or destroy it outright.

There is a danger though. These ideas have been tried before. Ultima Online tried emergent AI over a decade ago and it didn’t work due to players simply killing everything in sight and it has not been tried since. The infamous “time until penis” phenomenon has plagued any and all user-generated content games. The MMO genre is famous for promises that fall flat in the face of yet another WoW-clone launching. The disappointment I have met in the MMO genre is epic and SOE was at one point the center of that disappointment. If there is any MMO developer that can fuck a good thing up it is SOE.

However, with that said, SOE has clearly listened and paid attention to the gaming scene (not just the MMO scene). They have taken innovative ideas from Team Fortress 2 (players selling assets to each other) and Minecraft (voxel-based engine and world) and brought them to a genre that no one expected to see them in: MMOs.

SOE is not making a WoW-killer with Everquest Next and I don’t get the feeling that massive success is on their mind. They are making a true MMOG with a living and breathing world aimed at the core gamers that have stuck with them as a company over the past 14+ years. This is a game that they as developers and gamers actually want to play. This is a game that I want to play. I am excited beyond words to see what Everquest Next can accomplish. I applaud SOE for taking a bold step into the minefield that is new ideas.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

First Look: Solforge

I jumped into the early access for Solforge recently on Steam. I followed it’s kickstarter campaign but did not donate to the project (I’m kind of silly like that… wanting something for the money I spend). Solforge is a digital collectible card game (CCG) that takes advantage of the digital form via cards that level as the game is played (a mechanic that would be difficult to pull off in paper form). Cards are played onto a field that contains five different lanes (sections of play that allow a creature to attack a player). Opposing players take asynchronous turns battling each other until the first player is reduced from a life total of 100 to 0. Players can play spells which impact play or other cards in various ways or they can play creatures which occupy a lane and then can attack the other player directly or end up doing battle with the opponents creature that occupies the same lane.

Solforge is unique in that it features both deck building (think Magic the Gathering) and a “build your deck as you play” mechanic (think Dominion). Solforge decks consist of 30 pre-chosen cards to start. Decks can be built from the card pools of two of the four factions (Utteran, Nekrium, Tempys, and Alloyin). As cards are played during a game they are leveled up (levels 1 thru 3). When the card is played the higher level version (or a clone if it’s already level 3) is added to the player’s discard pile. Leveled up versions of cards are more powerful. As the game progresses, the player then levels up (aka player levels referred to as P1, P2, P3, etc.) and their discard pile is shuffled into their draw deck allowing them to potentially draw the next higher level cards. This leads to big moments on turns every 4th round as the next level of cards may come into play.

The leveling system is key to Solforge and ensures that games escalate towards a conclusion. There is always a mounting sense of destruction looming over each game and when the level 3 versions of cards start hitting the board the real fireworks start going off. The leveling system also ensures that the most powerful cards are not played until after turn 8 (when P3 is reached). This allows even weak cards to have a purpose in the game during the early turns and some of those weak cards turn into much stronger level 2 and 3 versions.

Overall I really enjoy Solforge even though it has a very limited card pool currently (~60 cards) and there are some balance issues (I’m looking at you Packmaster and Hellion!). Also currently we have access to all of the cards so can build any deck as needed. In the future, cards will have to be purchased via digital booster packs or traded for from other players (both of those features are not yet in the game). Over the next week the game will see the release of the first full set of cards (most likely to be named the Alpha set). It is expected to be over 200 cards. This will significantly increase the variety the game has to offer to the early access testers.

If you are looking for a solid online CCG that will is multi-platform then Solforge is an excellent choice. Due to its asynchronous nature it makes a perfect mobile game that can be played a turn at a time and games can be stretched over a long period of time (I have games that took over a week to complete). Solforge is currently only available on PC via the Steam early access, but it will be released on iOS and Android in the future.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Solforge deck building guide

I've played a lot of Solforge over the past few days.  Solforge is an online collectible card game that is currently in it's early access phase via Steam.  The game is a combination of build your deck as you play games such as Dominion and traditional deck building as seen in Magic the Gathering.  It features asynchronous play in turns between two players who can play spells or creatures each turn while battling it out in five "lanes" on the playing board.  Inside the industry this type of game is often referred to as a "laner".  Solforge is a good game and I want to take a minute to help out any interested new players.

Currently. there is a limited number of cards in early access and there are two well known, completely broken decks that dominate a lot of games.  However, what I'm about to talk about should apply later down the line when more cards are available to shake up the scene.

The first thought when building a deck is to decide on two factions as you can only pool cards from a max of two of the four factions in the game: Tempys, Utteran, Nekrium, and Alloyin.  To compare them to Magic the Gathering colors and play styles:

Tempys = red = quick and direct damage and DRAGON
Utteran = green = lots of big meanies
Nekrium = black = lots of creature removal
Alloyin = white/artifacts = defense, defense, and buffs

This is just a general outline, but it holds pretty true for the set of cards we have as of today.
Popular combinations currently are Nekrium/Utteran, Tempys/Nekrium, Alloyin/Utteran, Tempys/Utteran.

The next step is to decide whether you want the deck to be more spell heavy or creature heavy.  While it may be possible to go all spells, it is not recommended.  At some point, creatures will be needed on the board.  Really only the Nekrium/Tempys combination can get away with heavy spell usage.

Once a balance is decided between spells and creatures, the next step is to look at the three different versions of each card.  Each comes in a level 1,2, and 3 version.  Cards level up everytime they are played.  Example: player A plays a level 1 Death Seeker.  A level 2 Death Seeker is added to his discard pile.  When he levels up to level 2 as a player after turn 4, the player now has a chance to draw the level 2 cards that they have leveled.  Its an odd concept but it boils down to this: the cards you play determine your deck later on.

With this knowledge in hand, it is wise to look for combos that can be followed through the various levels.  Some cards may not have an ability at level 1, but their level 2 version does.  Some cards are not useful by themselves, but when combined with other cards they become key to victory.  And really the combos are where the game is won so keep your eyes out for synergistic cards.  A good example combo is Corpse Crawler and Death Seeker.  Corpse Crawler comes into play and Death Seeker is sacrificed to pay for Corpse Crawler.  This in turn triggers Death Seekers ability to return a 5/5 creature to the board in it's place. Add this into the Grimgaunt Devourer who receives + to attack and defense anytime a creature dies and a player can quickly build up a combo engine to dominate the field.

The end goal is build a deck around a solid combo engine.  The over all deck size is 30 cards.  At 30 cards total, it is very likely that in the first few turns the required cards for the combo engine will come up together.  After that engine is established it is all about support and escalation.

Due to the nature of the leveling of cards, Solforge matches quickly escalate into slug fests which brings games to a finish relatively quickly compared to other card games where stall tactics can be used to drag games out.  With this tidbit to mull over, players need to consider what exterior cards from their core combo engine benefit the most from that engine as well as provide the late game strength needed to push for a victory.  If a player finds themselves losing right as level 3 cards start to appear in hand, then chances are the deck lacks sufficient level 2 strength.  If the deck ends up in a level 3 slug fest with multiple rounds of level 3 cards facing off, then chances are the deck lacks a finisher.

Play testing is key.  There is no easy tip to give when a deck fails to even get to the level 3 cards.  Evaluating how a deck played and where it struggled in the flow of the game is critical.  Sometimes looking back on a game log shows where a wrong play was made or maybe where a creature was left on the board at 1 life and a slight deck adjustment may mean next time that creature won't be hanging around with 1 life.  There are a lot of variables to consider so play a lot of games.  Bad decks will generally fail at the same phase of play.

With all of this said, here is what I have been playtesting for over 7 hours of Solforge gameplay:

3x Cull the weak
3x Lightning Spark
3x Death Seeker
3x Ashuran Mystic
3x Uranti Bolt
3x Corpse Crawler
3x Magma Hound
3x Epidemic
3x Firestorm
3x Grimgaunt Devourer

The theme is control and the main combo engine is centered on feeding Grimgaunt Devourer plenty of deaths; both your own troops and your opponents.  Complimenting this are plenty of removal cards that help keep the lanes clear for beefed up Grimgaunt's later in the game.  I've also bred in some balance to handle a few unique situations that are popular in the current meta game.  The deck so far is at about a 40% win rate (keep in mind, there are just flat out broken decks currently because of the limited card pool and they get played all.. the... freaking...time).  Against the hard AI, I enjoy more around a 75% win rate (again losing to the problematic decks).

EDIT: Corrected guide to reflect that deck size remains at 30 throughout the game.