June 2011

Come and get you some new free WoW. That’s right, WoW is to be offered for free; not free to play, at least not yet. But you can play up to level 20 without paying a cent. Apparently there are no time restrictions either. So what do I think about this? Is this a good way for Blizzard to attract new players to the game? To get in some fresh blood?

Have any of you tried to download WoW from scratch recently? Have you looked at the file size? WoW has been touted from day one as a brilliant game in the sense that it can be played on any computer, which is true. But any internet connection? Or any hard drive? Depending on where you live it can take days. And if you live in a part of the world where you have a monthly download limit then I don’t like your chances. It’s not something which endears itself to the casual and curious market. So good luck on this one, Blizzard.

I was reading this excellent post by Rem which crystallised a bunch of ideas for me. Levels in games were first introduced way back when Dungeons & Dragons hit the market. As such they have always been a given in any RPG since that time. And when you are talking about table-top games or even single player video games, then they make perfect sense. You go up a level, you get more powerful and then the DM or game itself directs you to where would be the best place to go. But in an MMO this creates immense problems, because an MMO is supposed to be a playable world. To put it simply, your character level does not represent your power, it is your actual power. You might have a super awesome magic sword that can kill nasty undead things, but if you happen to meet an undead mob that is 10 levels above you then that sword is useless, even if the mob is a silly zombie. You are dead meat. Which means that your ability to play in the world is dictated by your level. You can only play with friends if you are around the same level. You can only go to certain zones if you are of the appropriate level or higher, although being of a higher level has its own issues as you are now a literal demi-god whom no living creature can possibly harm. It might be funny the first time to go back to Westfall and have the members of the Defias Brotherhood wail helplessly against you as your back is turned to them, but it gets old pretty quick.

Having levels also means that all the effort that game designers put into content is for the most part wasted. As soon as you begin any game which has a levelling process then the game itself turns to a mad rush to get to the level cap. Developers wonder why players blow through to the “end game” so quickly, but their own design is working against them. It is only at the level cap where players are on an even footing and able to play together, but by that time the only part of the game left to play is either raiding or organised PvP.

Imagine WoW without the levelling process, but replaced instead with skills and equipment. As you had experiences in game then your abilities improved. You could elect to put a great deal of effort into particular areas. What if equipment was actually rare itself, so that the crafting game took on a completely different importance. If the finding of a sword, any type of sword, from killing a mob was rare in itself, then that sense of gear fulfilment that presently players have to get from raiding or doing heroics could be had from the world itself. What if spells were not automatically learned but discovered in the world after killing other spellcasters? The act of killing a spellcaster could gift you with his spellbook, which would contain the spells that he would have used against you. Which would mean that some spells would be rare and not guaranteed to be had by all players.

But best of all this eliminates the end game. In this sense there is no end game as such. You simply keep working on your character, and the world itself is the game. You can go anywhere from the beginning and have a chance at killing any creature from the beginning. You can team up with anyone, and even though you may be low powered compared to others, your presence would still be a valuable asset to a group planning on taking out a creature that had resisted all previous efforts to be slain. And thus is eliminated the need for developers having to continually come up with new content. The whole wide world is the content and there is no rush to a pre ordained level cap. In this way you are truly existing in a playable world.

There has been quite a few posts in the blogosphere concerning the new trailer for the upcoming Star Wars MMO. In case you missed it, here it is:

Oh and there’s also the intro cinematic that has been making nerds everywhere cream their pants in anticipation:

Most people writing about this have been wetting themselves over how awesome these are. This is fine. What is somewhat divorced from reality however, is making the connection that this will mean that the MMO itself will be awesome. Let’s get one thing clear; a trailer or an intro cinematic has nothing to do with how an MMO will look or how it will play. It’s sole purpose is to get you excited about the fact that the game is coming, while slyly making the conceit that it actually has something to do with the game itself. Which as I’ve already said, it doesn’t.

If you don’t believe me, let’s look at the original trailer for vanilla WoW:

Yeah, like that looks like walking around the Wetlands. I love it when people make comments like, “I’m so super psyched about playing a smuggler, they look so cool!” Well of course they look cool, in a video clip. You could probably make the Bananas in Pyjamas cool in a video clip if you really wanted to. I’m not quite sure if that would be a great class to play.

We should be doing one of two things; either enjoying these clips for what they are, pure entertainment only, or the game companies should be making clips that actually reflect in an accurate way what the game experience is about.

Today I was stuck in a very isolated town for five hours. The town had a newsagent, so I went in and eventually purchased this magazine. It’s called PCPowerPlay, and it’s an Australian video game mag. Hey, it was either this or get BiggerBoobies and the old girl behind the counter was giving me the evil eye so my courage failed me.

Let’s get right to the point; this magazine is turgid. Reading this magazine made me want to cut off my tongue and shove it up my own arse. I knew it was going to be bad when I read the editorial. Written by some dude named David Wildgoose, it is an attempt at stream-of-consciousness-induced schizophrenia. In it, he has a conversation with himself that doesn’t come close to making any sense. What it does convey however, is someone trying very hard to be hip and cool. If this was the standard of the editorial, it didn’t garner a wealth of promise for the articles that were to come. After all, this guy must have edited them.

The articles ranged from bad to incomprehensible. Let me give you a brief example:

“… Lo, praise the prowess of Simkings, of sword armed hero-Sims, in spinoff games, and what honour the franchise won. No game have I known, so nobly brought charming tales and a more hailed genre mix, than Sims Medieval, for sooth and for fun. Feast on the story of the Megalot, of heroic deeds and villians undone.”

Makes you want to start licking your own butt crack, doesn’t it.

What is it with these so-called “writers” that they are unable to immediately delve into a topic, but must make the poor reader wander drunkenly through their miserable excuse for prose in a vain attempt to discover just what the fuck they are actually talking about? It seems to be a standard “technique” in magazine and newspaper articles today. The more vague and esoteric you seem to be, the cooler your writing actually is. This is all well and good I suppose, but occasionally it would be nice to understand what the topic of the piece is before you reach the end of it. There is an article on the inside back cover, the space usually reserved for the best bits of a publication, which has the title:


It then goes on to open in the following way:

“… Vic and I stood on the blasted heath and after a minute Vic swung his sword and cut the head off the guy who was lying on the ground for no reason. Vic turned to me, magnificent in his great bearskin coat, iron crown on his shaggy head.”

The last paragraph goes like this:

“… ‘FOR THE HONOUR OF OUR FOREFATHERS!’ screamed Vic. And then – because after all, no matter the glory of the sunset or the authentic chill of frost, I was still playing on PC – everything went blue.”

Yes, it really is written with that punctuation. The bits in between those two bits give no further clue to what the whole bit is meant to mean. Maybe it’s meant to mean that you can write a gob-smack of complete rubbish and still get it published. The thing that gets my goat is that these type of mags were exactly the same 20 years ago. They still haven’t got any better. They were shit then, and they’re still shit now. Every in-game photo snap has to have some “witty” caption designed to show how really achingly funny these guys are. Why are we as a video game audience still treated like a bunch of imbeciles? I suppose these clowns could use the excuse that their customers are not able to read for them not being able to write. But every gamer that I have ever known has for the most part been able to rub at least two brain cells together.

Oh, there was one well written article about Nethack. I better buy the next issue then.

Rant over, normal service will resume when I fucking well feel like it.

A couple of years ago James at Grognardia published a post about the different ages of Dungeons & Dragons. I was rereading it the other day when it got me thinking about how this same classification system could be applied to MMO’s. The great deal of discussion lately about the direction of the industry, the many posts questioning whether or not MMO’s have peaked, and posts asking whether or not WoW should just keel over and die, all point to the fact that we are at the cusp of moving from one age to another in the life of MMO’s. But which age are we entering into?

Using James’ original post as a template for these ideas, (I hope he doesn’t mind), lets have a look at the world of MMO’s and where they might be heading.

Prehistory (1986 – 1998)

Beginning with Rogue and Dungeon and moving on to games such as Neverwinter Nights, these early examples of online roleplaying games with multiple players were basic in the extreme, but were the genesis for what we take for granted today. Ultima Online was released in 1997 and was the first step in the genre gaining mainstream popularity.

The Golden Age (1999 – 2007)

With the release of Everquest in 1999 the genre entered a new and exciting period which would bring us to games such as Vanguard, Star Wars Galaxies and ultimately culminate in World of Warcraft. These games were designed by gamers themselves, and were primarily of a sandbox nature, with an emphasis on community and working together in order to achieve goals. Real world PvP was also a feature, with gigantic battles resulting in strategic points throughout the various worlds. For me the high water mark would be with the release of the Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft, an expansion which was the culmination of the raiding game, but which also sowed the seeds for the eventual demise of the genre.

The Silver Age (2007 – 2011)

The introduction of Badges of Justice in The Burning Crusade would be the beginning of an era which depended more and more on giving players rewards to stay in the game rather than the game itself being the attraction. With other MMO releases such as Warhammer and Age of Conan, we saw games released solely for the expressed intention of being “WoW Killers”. The world building and social aspect of the games began to take a back foot to content based gaming, where developers had to continually release new content in order to keep players interest.

I consider myself very fortunate to have played D&D during its golden age. While I also played MMO’s in their golden age the problem is that, unlike D&D, one can never go back and play those games. Virtual worlds are by their nature constantly changing, so one can not visit the past. But one can learn much by comparing the past with current reality, and when we compare Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft some striking similarities emerge. (Why compare these two? For the simple fact that they both have dominated their respective fields by a clear margin).

In its heyday D&D was the clear leader of its field. While many other games attempted to usurp D&D’s virtual monopoly, or at least poach some its countless players, when one looks back at the golden age of tabletop RPG’s one does not immediately think of Tunnels & Trolls. But not only was D&D huge in RPG circles, it also had a broad impact on the general culture of the time. Players ran the gauntlet of 60 Minutes and the Catholic Church, as well as most concerned parents groups of the time. With such exposure and success came the interest of big business, and commercial interests came to override those of the people who had invented and played the games in the first place. Money is a hell of a drug. D&D still exists to this day, but its present incarnation is a far cry from what the creators originally envisaged. Which is no real issue, as one can still pick up the original rules and get a game going. MMO’s however, tend to just get switched off.

For me however, the most interesting aspect is the number of people who played D&D at the height of its popularity compared with the amount of players today. A straight comparison shows a huge decline in player numbers; so where did all those players go? It seems reasonable to assume that many of them happened to play the game due to both its exposure and its social impact at the time. D&D is now looked upon as some quaint hobby of bygone years, up there with model aeroplanes and valve radios. The automatic assumption nowadays is that WoW’s 11 million players will gravitate to the next big MMO. But if we are to learn anything from history we might do well to consider the fact that the vast majority of those players will simply cease to play these types of games. We can only guess what the Bronze and Dark Ages have in store for us, but my hope is that the accountants and business executives hop quickly onto some other bandwagon, leaving us to toddle along in peaceful pleasure of games that are once again made for gamers.

With the news that the key bag is to be taken out of the game, and after reading Klep’s post where he is pretty sure that Blizzard has formed a new company division called The Pointless Change Team, I want to give some thought to other changes that the team could put into place. I mean, there must be many areas of the game where changes need to be made for the sake of change, to give the illusion that Something is Being Done! After all, if something is seen to be done then obviously that means that things are being done, and if things are being done then that must also mean that changes are being made, and with changes comes new possibilities so it must all be good. There can be no other explanation. A lot of people have commented that removing a key bag does not equate with removing keys. How right they are! So with that in mind lets look at the possibilities open to the changes that must soon be made for the betterment of all.

Stage One – Class Trainers.

We all know that it’s such a drag having to actually walk, no ride your land mount, no sorry – fly to where the class trainer is in each city. And for what? For them to just wave an imaginary magic wand over you, give you some new abilities and spells, and then take your gold? How stupid is that? So now, with the removal of all class trainers from the game, Blizzard can now introduce the long awaited training system by osmosis. How it works is that when you go up a level you automatically get all the new powers, spells and abilities associated with that level. Gold is removed from your bag to compensate for this. If a player did not have enough gold to pay for all the new abilities then the gold will be deducted from all future gold earnings with a small interest charge compounded at 17.5% per in-game day. We are sure that players will be relieved that the onerous chore of having to actually go and see a class trainer in person has been lifted from their shoulders.

Stage Two – Spells and Levelling.

Since the removal of class trainers in the last patch, and the unmitigated success it has been with no player going to a class trainer since that time, we at Blizzard have decided to take this one step further and give players the streamlined path to success that they have been craving. To that effect we have decided to remove spells and abilities from the levelling process. This way your fresh faced level one toon will have all the spells and abilities ready at hand to face the dangers of the world. Many players have been crying out that it is unfair that level 85 toons have more abilities than they themselves do at level 1. Blizzard does not want to associate itself with unfair discriminatory practices such as this, so you can all rest assured that on creating a level 1 toon you can now do everything that you want. Gold will still be taken out of your bags to pay for these abilities, which will accumulate with a low interest rate of 17.25% over the course of your levelling time. We are excited at this change and cannot wait to the see the positive effect that it will have on the player community.

Stage Three – Spells.

The introduction in the last patch of all abilities at level one has been such a big hit with more level one toons created than ever before, that we have decided to take it one step further. Blizzard is proud to announce the removal of all spells and abilities within the game. From now on players will simply be able to do whatever they want. Players will now find a big red button in the center of their action bar. When this button is pressed then everything targeted by the player will automatically die in horrendous ways. We felt that it was unfair that some players were at a disadvantage to others by having to remember all the different spells and abilities. With this change we can truly say that WoW is a level playing field suitable for everyone to join in and enjoy.