July 2009


Darth Chauncey Gardener.SW:ToR is a cipher onto which more than a few people are projecting their hopes for a post-WoW MMO marketplace. Bioware’s Blizzard-esque closed-mouthedness about the game allows people to pin their expectations on the game because so little concrete gameplay information is out there.

Reading the SW:ToR forums is a hoot. Galaxies veterans hope the game is a return to open-ended, crafter-friendly community-building. Hardcore raiders want the game to out-poopsock WoW; nonraiders want the game to be less raidy than WoW. Both sides argue in a state of blissful ignorance of any details of the max-level game. Some PvP veterans want it to be Eve with lightsabers. Holy Trinity? Yes? No? Both?

What am I getting at?

Without details about max-level play — about which we have near-zero information — it’s simply impossible to evaluate SW:ToR as an MMO, rather than as as one developer called it, a set of stand-alone KOTOR sequels. Given the emphasis on henchmen and presumed phasing/instancing, the leveling experience is virtually guaranteed to be soloable from start to max level. We haven’t heard anything at all about the elements of massive games that fundamentally make them massive — crafting, pve raid content, pvp, exploration, guild-building — except for developers busting out the old Prego slogan.

It’s a savvy marketing move, I guess. But in the end, Bioware is allowing people to believe things about its game that it knows aren’t true because there’s no upside in disabusing people of false hopes. It’s certainly a savvier move than past MMO developers have made, by actively hyping expectations or by overpromising and underdelivering.

Bioware says it’s gonna be revealing more at some conventions / industry gatherings in the coming weeks. That’s good. At some point, expectations have to come back down to earth. At some point, Bioware has to paint a clear picture of what this game expects out of players after the leveling dust clears and the max-level MMO content begins.

And at some point, SW:ToR stops being a cipher and starts being a game.

Ever get sick in your game of choice?I’ve been quite under the weather for almost a week now with an ailment — kidney stones — that periodically lays me low. Unlke a lot of people with long-term ailments, mine comes and goes with little or no warning and has little effect on me when it’s not kicking my kidney into the ground.
I recognize that it kind of flies in the face of the empowerment fantasies that most of us seek in massive games, but are there any MMOs that really try to incorporate illness as a gameplay mechanism? I don’t mean something as simple as a buff/ debuff system. I mean something that actually takes illness and tries to address it through gameplay? Something along the lines of Psychonauts, maybe?

For something that is a part of so many peoples’ lives, massive titles really don’t, I think, have a history of looking at disability and illness as something other than a punishment for non-optimal gameplay.

SW:ToR. Taking aim at the market?

So I’ve had a few days to let the new SW:ToR video sink into my head.

Initial impressions of things I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else.

1) The UI seems designed primarily for widescreen aspect ratios, which I guess is a safe assumption these days. I know this was something of a big deal when Pirates of the Burning Sea did it a few years ago, but I suppose since 16:9 is sort of de rigeur these days, it makes sense.

2)  The game will be using “ranked” abilities in the traditional spell rank model used by EQ2 and WoW, which seems to imply it won’t be a “use it to rank up” feat-type system employed by LOTRO and other games. How can you tell? Look at the dialog boxes that pop up when the abilities are moused over. They’re in yellow over on the right of the screen. “Force Choke (Rank 1)” is one of them.

3)  The game uses the global cooldown model that WoW uses so successfully to create its pseudo realtime combat. How can you tell? Watch the abilities gray out with a little clock-hand wipe for about a second after they’re used. I’m a fan of WoW’s combat, so I think this is probably a “good thing.” I tend to get frustrated with combat systems that involve queueing attacks up or mashing a button repeatedly until a slow attack is off cooldown.

4) The dialogue, while amazingly well recorded, doesn’t lend itself to repeatable content. Strictly speaking, Everquest 2 is a (nearly) fully voiced MMO (if you download the optional quest voiceovers), but honestly it becomes rather tedious to listen to a quest giver go on for a paragraph and a half every time you talk to them. I loved KOTOR, but after a while, I would skip the line readings and just scan the subtitled version, and I can’t imagine doing any different in an MMO. I like voice, and I think it adds immersion, but I’m worried it’s a lot of effort for something most people will skip most of the time.

5)  Targeting and ability use is also in the WoW / EQ model of tab it and fire an ability, and nothing revolutionary along the lines of Age of Conan’s swing system or Tabula Rasa’s pseudo-shooter combat. Again, fine by me, but I like a lot of WoW’s systems.

6)  Speaking of aping WoW, check this out. Near the end of the clip, there’s a Sith player character doing some combat against some Republic troopers. Now, in a previous IGN interview, SW:ToR developers have said that Sith and Jedi will use energy / combo point based systems, not unlike WoW rogues.  Well, check out the Sith player’s unit frame — a little slowly ticking upward energy / combo point bar, again strictly in keeping with WoW practices (though employed elsewhere, to be sure.)

What am I driving at with these observations? Simple — I think the Bioware folks have very deliberately tailored their game expecting WoW players to want to be comfortable. They appear to be gearing up for an Apple-style “switcher” campaign: Our game has everything you love about WoW, plus you can force choke.

I could be wrong, and I know that will peeve the hell out of some of the more virulently anti-WoW folks out there, but it really seems clear to me.

Ever wonder why players get mad at each other in raids? Melvin Konner’s book, “The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on Human Nature” gave me an idea.

A large number of experiments have shown that pain, irritation, frustration, and fear increase the likelihood of aggression in a wide variety of situations in animals and humans — confirmations of the “frustration-aggression hypothesis.” … For example, two rats are placed near each other on an electrified grid and shocked; one typical response is to attack each other, particularly if both are males. In other experiments, pain is not directly involved, but motivational behavior of various sorts is aroused in the animal and then deliberately frustrated. This situation also typically increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

This is what happens when instance servers die in World of Warcraft. There are at least a hundred players hovering in front of the instance portal on their mounts. Was quite impressive.

Keep track of everything.Raiding successfully in World of Warcraft, at the very highest end of the progression range, requires the use of mathematical skills many of us haven’t used since high school.

Then why can’t the makers of the game accept this and incorporate it better into the game?

To step back and explain:

Web sites, even open-source software, do a flourishing trade in parsing logs to show precisely who damaged what for how much, and who died from what, and when bosses cast what abilities to what effect.

If you’ve not raided in WoW, suffice it to say that the game, as shipped, is insufficient to complete the content contained therein. I’m not even talking about UI mods or boss timers. I mean strictly the external software that parses combat logs. In order to succeed at raid content, you’re virtually required to use software that is not in the box to even know what is going on in a given fight. Rog once referred to WoW raiding as World of Excelcraft. I wouldn’t go that far, but then again, I don’t mind spreadsheets.

I’m as guilty as anyone else; my raid group uses StasisCL parses, and they’re fantastic. But I actually _like_ combing through neatly ordered rows and columns of data to try to parse out a story. When I was a newspaper reporter, one of the best skills I had was being able to read a municipal budget and quickly figure out what the story to be told was.

But should a game that we pay money for require us to comb through spreadsheets like an accountant? Bliz has done a great job of incorporating popular UI mods into the default UI. The game now features a built in threat meter, quest helper mod (coming in 3.2) and raid warnings — none of which were available in the vanilla WoW UI.

It’s easy to say that encounter design shouldn’t tune encounters such that minute parsing of combat data is required. And with WoW’s current multi-mode raiding, where bosses have easy and hard modes, it often isn’t. But for the most challenging raid content, it still is, and I don’t see any way to tune encounters to multiple difficulties and be faced with players wanting as much data as possible at their command.

Shouldn’t the game provide a built-in combat log parser, too?

Welp, we’ve got a release date for DDO Unlimited — August 4. I’ve been playing the beta, but I haven’t really done enough to get a feel for the for-pay changes.

They do seem pretty extensive, such that what you’re getting to play for free seems to amount to little more than a try-before-you-buy scenario.

That said, I still maintain it’s a pretty criminally underplayed game that was doomed by a crapulent launch. The game is so similar in its play feel to Guild Wars to me that I keep wondering how well it would have done if it had just launched as Box + free online.

WarCry Network : News : DDO Unlimited Release Date.

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