January 2011

I was talking with a good friend the other day about Star Wars: The Old Republic. He is a long time gamer and a huge Star Wars fan, but when I asked him if he was going to play the game he surprised me by saying that he wouldn’t. In his opinion it is going to suck for the simple reason that everyone will end up playing some version of a Jedi. While I can’t disagree with this point, I believe that TOR will suck for many other reasons as well.

It is no secret that EA want TOR to be their WoW killer, and they will have to with a $300 million investment. Their method of competing with WoW has been to make WoW in space. Star Wars space to be exact. From everything that I have been able to read online and watch on youtube it seems that they are trying to make it as accessible as possible to players who are familiar with WoW. EA is not trying to reinvent the wheel, they want to play it safe. Sure they have attempted to make their own mark with features such as Flashpoint Missions and Crew Skills, as well as enough voice acting to fill 20 gig on your hard drive. But most of it is a straight copy and the question is, after six years is it still feasible to kill WoW by copying it?

Because lets take into consideration where a lot of players are with WoW right now. The two biggest issues with WoW in its current state are immersion and the community, as in there is no community and there is very little immersion, (witness the blue post where they stated that they want to make loot tables accessible at the start of instances. Check it out on Nils blog with some great points from him as well.) Blizzards answer to solving the ‘kill ten rats problem’ has been to place the player on rails via extensive phasing, scripted gameplay, and linear questing. This together with the LFG system has made players realise that the only time they are actually playing an interactive MMO is when they are using the auction house. There are a lot of factors at play that could conceivably result in WoW losing extensive market share in the future to another MMO. But not an MMO that is copying WoW, and particularly copying the ‘kill ten rats problem’ and the storyline solo questing as well. You don’t gain market share by copying something that is on the verge of not working any more.

But EA has chosen this path. Cataclysm’s sales must have surely gladdened the hearts of the EA executive management, but this is merely a short term indicator of where the MMO market is in the present time. The EA louse and his loveable ramblings aside, it doesn’t seem that EA has its finger on the ball when it comes to working out what the hell is going on even when it’s punching them in the face. And even if they do realise the situation, what are they going to do; change everything now? I am sure that TOR will ship a very large number of units on release, possibly even the most MMO units ever sold. But with EA not even sure if it will be a free to play model or a straight subscription, the meat in the pudding will be six or even three months down the track after release. And EA have a terrible track record of MMO publications, quite possibly the worst ever. With EA being a public company, and thus having shareholders who are both champing at the bit to get the product out and worried about their share price, you can bet your bottom dollar that EA is leaning on Bioware at every point. Bioware might make good games, but you can trust EA to stuff it up. There is also the terrible possibility that Lucasarts is involved in making this, or at the least is looking over Biowares shoulder and giving or withholding approval as they see fit.

And even if all of this doesn’t pan out, well, as my friend said, just about everyone will play a Jedi.

There were a few things that didn’t work in Age of Conan, but the number one thing that caused me to dump the game was the talent tree. Coming as I did from WoW, I knew that the talent tree was very important and that I should make sure to put my points exactly where they were needed. The problem with AoC was that it seemed that the developers had put most of their efforts into the starter area, and kind of rushed through the talent trees at the last moment. The tree didn’t make any sense, it was poorly designed and laid out, and there was very little information on the internet which I could use to help me make an informed decision.

So by level 17 or so I knew that my toon was flawed, but there was nothing that I could do about it. This falls squarely under the category of unfun, (I know that unfun isn’t a word but I’m using it, okay?) WoW’s talent tree system is not poorly designed, and information about it can quite easily be found on the internet, but it too is unfun. The only choice that you have in the system is choosing which of the three talent trees you want to specialise in. Once you have chosen that, however, you are required to dutifully fill your points in where they are most needed. You can decide to do your own quirky tree, but only if your intention is to play alone. So we have a system which allows you choice if you decide to be a solo player, and the illusion of choice if you want to play with other people. On top of that, if you don’t do your homework and find out exactly where to put your points, people will call you a moron and actively make fun of you.

Your class abilities however, are set. You gain abilities as you gain levels after being trained by your class trainer. Every rogue, for example, gets the same abilities. We all get smoke bomb at level 85. So here there most certainly is no choice. So what if we swapped this around? What if the talent tree was set in stone, and that as you gained levels your points were placed automatically in the tree? The tree was there solely as a diagram to guide you. That would mean that your skills could be chosen. There would be more skills than could be used at any one time. For example, lets say that in total there were 30 skills but a level 85 rogue could only choose 18 of them in total. You could choose only damage dealing skills, thus making your rogue great at dealing out the dps but leaving him with no utility. Crowd control abilities, raid buffs, stealth, AoE, self heals, all of these could be listed under abilities. You could also have the option to choose two builds; one for PvE and one for PvP, but not two in the same category.

A system like this would go some way to giving players some choice and avoid the cookie cutter builds that have been the case since the beginning of WoW. I suppose that EvE is an example of this system, now that I think about it. Balancing would be tricky on the devs part, so long as they didn’t fall into the trap of designing bosses with maximum dps builds required, (thus restricting players to only taking dps promoting abilities). Obviously the talent tree would have to be designed in a different way, as you couldn’t base it around abilities which players might not necessarily choose. But this is just a crazy idea that I’m throwing out there. Throw it back in my face if you so desire.

Quite an eventful week as far as blogging arguments go, with the mud-slinging being flung as hard as possible, mostly by me of course. With all of the hoo-ha surrounding whether bloggers should attempt to be honest with their readers and hold to some form of integrity, I was pondering yesterday over a number of rounds of excellent Australian beer whether or not it is possible for the videogame industry, and the MMO genre in particular, to have a vibrant and critical journalism attached to it. Consider some other popular forms of entertainment that have risen over the last century. Film, television, and music all have two common attributes which encourage the written critical form: they are easy to digest, and they are released in a complete form.

If you wish to review an album, a film, or a television show, you will at most have to invest a couple of hours of your time in what is a passive involvement. All you have to do is sit and watch and/or listen, and while doing so you can begin to formulate your response to the material. A video game is a different beast, however. The reviewer cannot approach the material in a passive way. They must learn the game, and progress to a decent level within the content in order to be able to write a fair and satisfactory review. Single player games were a little easier in this regard in the past, as the game was released in its complete form, and reviews could be written with the first two hours of gameplay in mind. But today’s games are released incomplete with a barrage of patching waiting in the months following to fix and form the final product. Is it even worth reviewing Civ V now when the game may look completely different in 12 months time?

Which leads us to the MMO genre. Here are games which evolve by the month, even by the week, with continual changes and patches, both driven by the developers and also at times by the players themselves. How does one write a traditional review with its accompanying 5 star or percentage of 100 rating system to a product whose development never ends? A game could begin badly and then get better, it could begin well and then get worse. At which point do you write your review, and at which point would it be more relevant? The technical aspects of the genre itself limit written appraisal and criticism in the traditional way.

The preceding years have not helped very much either. Some of the gaming magazines with the biggest circulation are written by the game companies themselves, such as Xbox magazine or PS magazine. Imagine if this was the case in the music or film industries. I can’t imagine that there would be many bad reviews. On top of this it appears that the single most important factor with an MMO in determining its worth as a game is by how many subscribers it has. If we take this across to the film or music industries then this would mean that Titanic is one of the best movies of all time and that Whitney Houston is genius incarnate.

One of the many comments on yesterdays post saying the same thing:

“… nobody is forcing anybody to use the Dungeon Finder to run (Heroic) Dungeons. Any player can easily try to organize (steady) realm groups.”

For those of you who believe this to be true, and for those of you who do not believe this to be true but are sick to death of people saying it, I would like to direct you to two most excellent posts:

Klepsacovic and you can still do things the old fashioned way.

Nils and The Fun Fallacy.

To put it simply, in a multiplayer game, if 99% of the players are using a feature such as the LFG system, then you by default are also forced to use that system. That is unless you are prepared to do an obscene amount of effort to organise things your way, alla Gevlon and The PuG.

Have a good weekend.

Back in Burning Crusade I didn’t have any problems finding a tank or a healer for a heroic run. I had a long list of them. They were found in my friends list in-game, and to the extent that a person can have friends online, they were indeed just that. I was not friends with them merely because they were a tank; the tank part was an added bonus. But I enjoyed their company, their gameplay, their personalities, and their selflessness above all other aspects. Some of those other aspects were indeed the ability to tank and heal. I myself brought the ability to play a rogue. Notice that I did not say, DPS. I was known on my realm as a most passable rogue. I could be counted on to kick, sap, kidney shot, pick locks, remove traps, stealth and scout and all other matter of abilities, including the good old fashioned one of doing some damage and not dying regularly in the attempt. I also didn’t ninja drops.

The vast majority of these friends were not in my guild. I did not meet them by raiding. I met them as I levelled up. The first of these friends I remember well. We met in Westfall, when I spied him being jumped upon and beat up by some nasty, nefarious gnolls. I rescued him from his predicament. I then helped him to complete his quest, and then he helped me to complete a few of mine. He was a priest. He went on my friends list and we ended up raiding karazhan together many months later. Another wonderful friend I met when I was asked to help in a Blackfathom Deeps run. He was a hunter, and he had the strange habit of being very effective, as well as a boon companion and ninja-free. He too was added to my friends list, as I was to his own. And he also made many an appearance in Karazhan as well as other raids later on.

There were many other friends that I found in this manner. They were found due to the necessity of seeking help, and the quick realisation on all of our parts that good players should be valued and friendships nurtured. The act of logging-on at that time was cause for a series of whispered hello’s, and a general ask-around of what everyone was doing. Perhaps a 5 man would be formed, perhaps not. But the opportunity was always there. Occasionally a bad apple would come sneaking in to our group of friends. But once this bad apple had been identified, they would have no other choice but to transfer realms. Bad behaviour was not tolerated, and there were consequences for being anti-social.

Because of the unique skills that I as a rogue brought to the table, there was never any talk of me not pulling my weight by playing a DPS class, purely because of the uniqueness of my skills. And because we were all friends and we had found each other on our own realm, (even using the realm unique dungeon/raid/quest/group search finder at the time), we were not only always available but our behaviour shaped the realm where we were. Actions had consequences, both good and bad.

Over the course of the last two expansions there have been two major changes that have broken this system of MMO gameplay. The first was the introduction of the cross-realm LFG system, and the dramatic effect that had on realm communities. The second has been the recent and ongoing homogenisation of the DPS classes in particular, to the extent that one is as good as another in any situation. Both of these changes have been made by Blizzard, not the players. The effects of these is the situation that we now find ourselves in:

1. The antisocial behaviour due to there being no reason to make friends and no consequences for actions.
2. The only two ways to find players to run something with is by the LFG tool or by joining a guild.
3. DPS find themselves in the situation where not only are their skills found in any other class, but with the introduction of dual specs many former tanks and healers are willing to jump in the queue as DPS when it suits them.

As a consequence of antisocial behaviour, many players who play tanks in particular are now unwilling to tank a run for anyone but those already known to them or in their guild. As tanks in particular are easy to run through the LFG system, tanks can gear up quickly in comparison to other roles, thus giving them the quick option of opting out of the entire LFG system.

The call by Tobold and other commentators for DPS players to shoulder the burden of playing a tank is a bandaid solution attempting to cover a gaping wound. Not only does it place the blame for the current situation on the wrong people, it does nothing to address the real and deep-rooted problems that plague the game. In the space of two expansions we have moved from a healthy and vibrant MMO community to a selfish and antisocial collection of unhappy and dissatisfied players. The rot is setting in, and the delusion that is felt is widespread. Turning on each other at this time is counter-productive. We need to understand if the current state of the game was in fact Blizzard’s intention. If it is, then it is better to walk away. If it is not then we would do well to try and understand how it can be resolved.

Reading Tobold’s latest post, which is about some weird form of morality this time, I’m beginning to think that this is all a con. Nobody can truly write things like;

“… The position to play only DPS and refuse to ever play another role only works because *other* people are willing to tank and heal.”

and be expected to be taken seriously. So either he has had a minor stroke and we’re not aware of it yet, or he’s doing this deliberately to get a rise. I’ve seen this in the past, where a blogger will write something supposedly deliberately inflammatory only to come out later and proudly state that he was doing it all on purpose to show everyone how silly there were in actually believing that crap, and that his greater plan had been to actually show by our collective outrage that the moon is indeed made of cheese. Everyone then lets out a sigh of relief and congratulates said blogger on being so “clever” and we can then all get back to picking on warlocks.

The problem with this, however, is that this tactic can also be used by a blogger when he realises that he has been a complete fucking idiot but doesn’t have the stones to admit that he had been wrong. Thus he can pretend that he had been taking such a silly stance on purpose to teach us all some greater wisdom, when in fact we had been dead right all along in calling him bad names.

There is no way to tell any difference between these two tactics. Luckily for me I consider them both equally irrelevant and vacuous, and thus I can safely place the blogger in the box marked, “dipshit”. However, many other readers can get suckered in by these tactics, and thus believe the blogger to be much smarter and honest than they actually are. There has been a bit of noise lately in the video game blogging world bemoaning the lack of any type of decent gaming journalism, mostly due to the fact that many writers secret wet dream is to work in the gaming industry itself. Thus, they don’t ask the hard questions, nor approach a topic from an unbiased viewpoint. I have pointed this out in the past with my review of the Twisted Nether Podcast, (click the podcast tab on the right to find it). When they interview a blogger, a question that is always asked is, “if you could ask Blizzard for anything what would it be?” And far and away the most common response is, a job. Which as I pointed out is fucking pathetic. I agree that bloggers need to lift their game if they are to be taken seriously. And one of the fundamentals of journalism is that you stand by what you write. Trying to trick the reader by pretending to give them some hidden moral lesson is dishonest, and eventually the writer will be exposed for the cur that they are.

Based on Tobold’s last two posts, I have been able to come to the conclusion that he is a moron. It remains to be seen if he is also a dishonest one.

My little sister is eleven years old. If you know anyone that is eleven, then you’ll know what I mean. The thing that characterises a lot of children this age is the lack of self control. That’s what temper tantrums are all about. She hasn’t had one since I’ve been back, but it’s a waiting game. It’ll happen soon. Which is fine, it’s all part of the learning process. As we get older we learn about self control. Well, some of us do. Some of us also become social workers, but that’s too far out in left field for the purposes of this post. And with self control then comes social responsibility. Self control is the basis for every stage of learning. You can’t learn anything, or teach anything for that matter, if the students are not capable of exercising self control.

Tobold yesterday demonstrated a lack of self control. The type of self control that connects your brain to your fingers when you’re typing on a keyboard. If his brain had been connected, and he had been exercising self control, then he wouldn’t have written the fucking stupid pile of dogshit masquerading as a post that he did yesterday. It was news to me that social responsibility extended into a game played on the internet. I mean, have you been in a PuG group recently? But apparently it does. And what’s more, it seems that people who choose to play healers and tanks are being socially responsible. Which is really weird, because I thought that they were playing healers and tanks. Tobold seems to think that DPS have not only brought all their problems onto themselves, but that they are the actual problem in the equation. Their selfish behaviour has created the situation that we find ourselves in, where DPS have to queue for inexorable lengths of time, while healers jump in fairly quickly and tanks get in immediately. If he had half a brain then he would realise that Blizzard created the game that we play in. The players merely react to the conditions therein. And the reality is that tanks are not an attractive role for a lot of people, and even for those that do it, very few indeed wish to throw themselves into the horror of the LFG system.

Why? Because it is an anti-social mess where the sane do not wish to tread. Who created it? Blizzard. Well, that’s what I thought. Apparently us anti-social DPS mongrels caused it for actually, you know, wanting to play a class that we may actually enjoy in the game that we pay to play. Blaming the players for a games limitations is pretty fucking stupid. I thought that Tobold was better than this, but apparently not. But expecting the same players to then turn around and solve the same problem is taking wishful thinking to new alternate universes where small furry animals play hacky-sack while smoking cigars.

With self control thus comes knowledge and learning for learnings sake. I suppose that an experienced player would know when choosing a new character that they will stand a much better chance of having shorter queue times by choosing to play a tank. I challenge you to ask a person who doesn’t play WoW to read that sentence and tell me what the fuck I’m talking about. If I load up the starting character screen, I do not see a flashy neon sign telling me that tanks are under-represented and I will be skirting my social responsibility by not playing one. It’s just not there. But, thanks to Tobold’s wisdom, now I know. And in order to live up to my social responsibility I will have to re-roll a new toon and level him all the way to level eighty-fucking-five, and then willingly enter the hell that is the random dungeon finder, and then, and only then will I be a socially responsible gamer.

I’m sorry, I just can’t. I don’t have the self control.

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