Sunday, December 6, 2009

Aion - haven't played it

I've been meaning to write something since a commenter asked if I'd tried out Aion. The answer is"no, I haven't."

When NCsoft were doing their "pre-order the game and get access to the beta" thing, I seriously intended to do so - with the cynical intention of cancelling my pre-order if I didn't like what I saw in the beta, of course. But.. I just never got around to it. I'm not sure why not. The time leading up to Aion's launch was right when my WoW guild scattered, so I certainly wasn't doing much in WoW. I think I might have just been grumpy with MMORPGs in general.

Anyway, some of my WoW guildmates went off to try Aion at launch, as did a guy I work with. Everyone spoke well of it initially. And then, after a couple of weeks.. they just stopped talking about it. I asked my workmate how it was going a few times, the answer always seemed to be "haven't actually played any since last time you asked." Before writing this I asked "what happened?" on my guild forums, the one serious answer I got was:

“Lots of people i talked to leveled a gazillion alts to 20 then got bored and quit.

The few that went all the way quit because there was nothing to do and no one to do it with.”

So there you go, I guess. I'm not sure if I know a single person who bought the game and actually maintained their subscription beyond the free first month. To be honest, that squares up with the feeling I've gotten all over the internets. Aion just seems like a game that promised a lot but ultimately didn't really deliver anything that anyone wanted enough to make them stick around.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Marchomir the Undying

Well, I said my LOTRO Warden was getting close to the tricky "Undying" title..

..made it, no problems.

This thread on the LOTRO forums was helpful, although I didn't follow all the advice there. In particular, I did a lot of lower level quests, simply because I was questing through The Shire for the first time (my other two characters are a dwarf and a man), and wanted to enjoy all the content. Doing quests below your level is obviously quite a safe way to level, but also slow, and for many people, the Undying attempt goes wrong not due to trying to do something difficult, but simply bad luck like a network dropout or game crash while in combat. So the slower you level, the more risk there is of that happening.

But yeah, I just ground it out, solo'd all the group quests in The Shire (although outlevelling them when I did), went to Bree-land at about level 17, and popped out quests there until I hit 20. Oh, and I had top-quality crafted weapons all the way due to my Champion being a weaponsmith, upgrading to a new crit crafted weapon every two levels. So my damage output was pretty high. That went a long way towards reducing the risk of multi-enemy fights.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turbine finally got me to open my wallet

Well, Turbine's second free "welcome back to Lord of the Rings Online" week did the trick and got me to open my wallet. I found I spent the week pretty much playing LOTRO to the exclusion of other MMOs, and the $9.95 "buy Mines of Moria including a free month's subscription" deal was finally too good to pass up.

So, now, with the Moria expansion installed, I was able to check out the two new (OK, they're not new any more, but new to me!) classes, Warden and Rune-Keeper. Inspired by this post on Dub's Diatribe, I decided to try a Warden, and I'm quite glad I did - I'm finding the "gambit" system quite fun, and it certainly seems to be a unique mechanic amongst the many MMOs I've played.

The super-quick summary is that it extends the "combo point / finisher" system used by WoW's rogues, LOTRO's champions and WAR's witch-hunters by having three different colours of combo points. Different colour combinations lead to different finishers, starting off with simple two-colour combinations (e.g. green-red is "Persevere", an attack that also places a mild heal-over-time on me) and apparently builds up to mighty five-colour combos like green-yellow-green-yellow-green, "Conviction", which places a heal-over-time on your entire group and also transfers threat from every group member to you. So far the most complex ones I have are a couple of three-colour combos, it does a good job of gradually increasing your options, with a new gambit being available every couple of levels.

I'm currently level 17 on Marchomir the Warden, and have not yet died. So I'm closing in on the apparently fairly challenging "the Undying" title which is awarded for reaching level 20 without dying. Once I hit, I think, level 10, I decided this might be fun to focus on. I'll be happy to get it, but I will confess that as I get closer and it feels like more is at stake, it is sucking some of the joy out of the gameplay. I'm not about to flex my muscles trying to solo a fellowship quest with a risk like that. Oh well, it'll be over soon one way or the other, then I can cut loose!

Friday, November 13, 2009

So much gaming going on #2

Over at Player Versus Developer, Green Armadillo posts about having too much gaming to do and not enough hours in the week. I know the feeling! I'm no less busy than I was last time I posted about so much gaming going on.

I landed in the closed beta of Allods Online, a new free-to-play MMO coming out of Russia. That runs for two weeks. I've only played one session last night, not enough to put any real thoughts together, but it's a slick and polished looking game, with a pleasingly different feel to its setting - it starts you off on board a flying ship locked in a cannon battle with another from the opposite faction, a far cry from the usual small village in a lightly forested, lightly hilly piece of Olde Englishe countryside.

Mechanically, I didn't see anything particularly original in my brief play so far - probably the most novel thing is that the combat doesn't seem to have any auto-attacks, it's purely the usage of special attacks. My biggest criticism so far? I have to say, it takes a tediously long time to beat a lower level enemy to death. The actual pace of the cut and thrust of combat feels fine - it just takes a. lot. of. hits. to take down an enemy - even one that poses no particular threat to you.

And now Lord of the Rings Online has just kicked off another free week. I kind of feel like the last one ran out before I made a conscious decision about whether to resubscribe or not, so I'll give it another chance. Especially since I read over at Keen & Graev's blog that Turbine are looking at re-working the epic questline to make it much more solo-friendly, to combat the problem that in a mature game with most of the players sitting at the level cap, it's not so easy for new players to find people to group with while levelling. This was something that bummed me during my last free week, as my quest log filled up with fellowship quests and I didn't see a lot of people to try to do them with.

On top of that, things are working out nicely on Frostmourne, my new WoW server. I hadn't raided since mid-July, but my freshly reassembled guild has run Trial of the Crusader 10-man the last two weeks. It's a fun little raid, for sure. No trash, five fights which are all pretty fresh and fun. Not very hard (talking normal mode here of course, not hard mode). And it's great to be raiding with the guys again, with all the trash talk on Vent and so on. I'm also (finally!) levelling a death knight, just so I have an alt on the new server, and it is definitely a fun class. I should have tried it sooner! Halfway through level 74 at the moment.

So, the stuff I was up to last time? Obviously I got my Alganon thoughts posted when the NDA dropped - and some links sent my way by Tobold and Lum the Mad gave me some rather unexpected traffic. I doubt half a dozen people had ever read anything I posted prior to that, and suddenly there were thousands of hits. Not to mention that it was very nice to get linked up from two blogs that I've been reading and enjoying for quite a long time!

Fallen Earth, to be honest, I didn't get a whole lot of play in during their free trial. Some, and it certainly felt better than it did when I tried it during beta. Didn't quite grab me though, and I can't exactly put my finger on why not. I think the hybrid of regular MMO combat with more shooter-style action was a big part of it. I'm sure a lot of people like it, but it just doesn't hit the spot for me.

So, plenty to do! And so few hours in the week! Between WoW, LOTRO, more of the Allods beta, taking another look at Alganon as it gets closer to its next release date, and who knows what else (WAR's endless trial maybe?), I see myself glued to the screen for a while!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Runes of Magic: what I didn't like

Previous posts in this series: Enter the strange world of F2P: Runes of Magic, Runes of Magic: what I liked

Following on from my earlier post about what I liked about Runes of Magic, here are my thoughts about what I didn't like so much.

Crafting - the grind, it burns

Crafting is something that I'm always quick to check out in any game, but I'm still waiting for one to truly blow me away. RoM got an initial nod of approval from me for the fact that they let you start off by learning all ten of their tradeskills. However, you can only learn the second tier of six of them, the third tier of only three, and the fourth and final tier of just one. Reminded me of EverQuest 2 in the concept of learning the basics of everything, and not having to decide what to focus on until you've had a fair chance to see what you like.

However, the actual crafting appears rather mediocre. Like most fantasy MMOs (unfortunately), it's a basic fixed-recipe system - two zinc sand and one ash timber makes a studded wooden club, etc. - with your skill rising as you gather or craft, in an experience point system like LOTRO or EQ2, as opposed to a "chance of skillup" system like WoW.

Gathering nodes (ore, wood, herbs) are ever-present. Rather than being a matter of hunting for nodes, gathering is more about running from node to node, with there almost always being another one on your minimap. However, the actual gathering is slooooow.. 5 seconds to gather one piece, and a node can have up to six pieces in it, I believe. That's 30 seconds of just sitting there watching your character fiddling with a node.

I can't say I've been inspired to push very far with crafting, but the word on the forums is that as you get up towards the higher levels the grind is excruciating, and the crafted items uninspiring.

Free to play, expensive to win

I've often heard the free-to-play model described as "play for free, pay for convenience." And RoM certainly offers a number of conveniences that can be bought from the cash shop. Extra bag space. Extra bank space. Mounts of various speeds. Teleportation runes to take you back home. And of course there are many cosmetic items for sale too: costumes, pets, fireworks, etc.

But, as I mentioned in my "What I liked" post, there are also a lot of things you can buy for diamonds (RoM's standard currency for cash shop purchases) that will materially increase the power of your character quite a lot. And frankly, they're not cheap.

The main thing that frightens me is the number of ways in which you can upgrade gear, with cash shop purchases, to make it considerably more powerful than it could be without spending diamonds. A few bucks on refining jewels to increase the pluses on an item: apparently getting to +2 is feasible with jewels purchased from vendors for in-game gold, but the cash shop will get you up to +5 or +6. A few bucks more to drill rune slots into items - and each one is more expensive than the last. And even more money for purified fusion stones if you want to transmute the perfect set of six stats of your choice onto an items. And then you end up with some uber-item like this:

Now, it can certainly be pointed out that there is a brisk trade in diamonds for in-game gold on the auction house. Theoretically, there's no reason why you couldn't grind a pile of gold in-game, buy diamonds at the AH, and buy all these upgrades without spending a dime of real money. And I'd be lying if I said I had any idea how great a grind that would be - my character is level 16/16, and while the price of diamonds (something like 18,000 gold per diamond) looks enormous to me now, I have no idea how much gold a max level character can generate.

But it's ominous when you read on the forums that without well-upgraded gear, you shouldn't expect to be welcome in endgame group content. Especially if you want to tank (and did I mention that my character, which I like, is a Knight/Priest?). That doesn't really encourage me to keep playing and hope that it becomes possible to participate without either hundreds of hours of grinding or spending rather more than a standard MMORPG subscription on cash shop purchases.


Look, this is not a bad game. It definitely has some charm, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of quest content, and combat is quite fast-paced and as fun as any MMO at my current low level. I can't see myself getting excited about getting to endgame given the situation I described above, but I have no doubt that I'll dip in and out of it now and then, when I'm in the mood for something different - because, hey, it's free! No reason not to!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alganon launch pushed back a month

Update on the Alganon front.

“After taking time to process player feedback, work with our strategic partners, and present options to our investment team, we have decided to move the release date for Alganon from October 31st to December 1st...”
- source

No doubt the extra time is sorely needed, and I certainly hope that this enables them to do a good cleanup of the UI and hammer down some bugs and glitches. I still fear far too much of the design is unimaginative and derivative though, and that won't be fixed in a month.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alganon NDA lifted, here are my thoughts

Disclaimer: This will probably read somewhat like a review. And some might say that reviewing a pre-release beta of a game is unfair. But this NDA lift comes only five days before Alganon's planned release date, and I am confident that version 1.0.3, which I have been testing, is not going to be far removed from what they are selling next week.

The first I heard of Alganon was when Tobold was giving away some beta keys over on his blog. I didn't win one from him, but I did win one from Massively a few days later.

Alganon bills itself as "A Unique Fantasy MMORPG," but in reality there is little unique about it, it's a very standard DikuMUD-influenced race/class/level/quest fantasy MMORPG. It is being developed by Quest Online, a company formed by David Allen, the original designer of Horizons: Empire of Istaria, after he was rolled out of Artifact Entertainment. It has a strong following amongst the loyalists who will tell you even now that Horizons would have been the best MMO ever (instead of, as it is widely regarded, perhaps the worst), if only Allen's vision for the game had come to fruition.

Character Creation

Pretty standard looking stuff. There are two races in game at launch, which also seem to represent two factions - Asharr humans (human-looking humans) and Talrok Kujix (funny-coloured tattooed humans). Four classes are available - soldier, ranger, healer and magus. I go for a ranger - the description talks about their animal companions but apparently that design has been abandoned and they are basically just archers now, I think. Appearance customization is minimal, and cycling through the face, hair, etc. options takes several seconds per click, making it an exercise in frustration. I hit "randomize" and accept my bald greybeard.

Entering the game

First thing I tried to do for this article is take a screenshot upon entering the game. It threw a LUA error. Luckily I was able to get a shot by switching to windowed mode and using standard Windows "alt-printscreen and paste".

Pretty standard looking interface. But.. wow, so ugly. Yes, that font really is Arial. Yes, that bottom bar is WoW's apart from the startling innovation of putting the backpacks on the left. That key icon on the far left? It's only there because WoW has a keyring with that button. Alganon doesn't have a keyring but they forgot to remove the icon when they copied the UI design.

I speak to Woss Jordan, the obligatory first questgiver. He gives me a quest to.. talk to his brother Tass Jordan, standing all of three feet away. The reward, +100 Ardonya Guard rep. Nice! Let's see how much rep I need to go up in the estimation of the Ardonya Guard!

Whoops looks like they haven't implemented the rep pane yet.

Tass Jordan puts me to work, demanding 8 Andar Wolf Pelts, and offering the princely sum of five copper pieces.. and another +100 Ardonya Guard rep! So off to kill the wolves I go.

But how does it feel?

Combat is dire even for a genre not exactly known for its interactivity, especially for level one characters. It involves lobbing off a "Power Shot" (a 10-second cooldown shot that seems to do roughly 1 more damage than my autoshot), maybe one or two autoshots, and then trading poorly-animated blows with my axe for fifteen seconds or so, watching the enormous Arial text float above us, until the wolf lies dead - and I'm on 80/80 health because he was doing less damage to me than I could naturally recover.

It's some ugly stuff, too. My arrow shots are slow-moving brightly-coloured blobs. Animations are very poor, not surprising for a low-budget title. Good-looking human animations are about the hardest thing for artists to get right. It's not helped by some seriously jerky movement. Mobs don't react immediately when you attack them, and when they did come for me, they often went straight through me and then rubberbanded back. Other times, my character would start swinging his axe (and, according to the combat log, connecting) when the target still seemed about twenty feet away.

Between the general quality of the graphics, the horribly ugly UI, and poor animations, I'm struggling to think of the last time I saw a game this unattractive. We'd definitely be going back to early this decade, to the days before WoW and EQ2 really raised the bar, in two very different styles.

The strangely familiar

Unlike WoW, where you don't get your first talent point to customize your character until level 10, Alganon starts you off with one talent, sorry, "ability" point, and you earn one more a level right from the start. Only problem is, what to spend it on? Seven of the nine lowest tier talents available provide boosts to abilities I don't have yet. I decide that 1% reduction in the cost of Power Shot sounds pretty minor, and go for +1% parry instead. The parry chance on my character sheet remains obstinately stuck on 5% despite my talent.

But speaking of talents, let's take a look at the talent window, comparing it to WoW.

..and the skills window..

OK, come on. I've heard a lot of excuses about how all fantasy games have various tropes in common, about how all MMOs have similar UIs, and so on. This is not a similar UI. This is outright plagiarism. Already I've seen mutterings about how Quest Online could be setting themselves up for a lawsuit with such rampant copy'n'pasting - my favourite comment from the beta forums:

“this Alganon interface is so close to the WoW interface that either it has been somehow sublicensed from WoW, or else it truly opens itself to massive lawsuits (if WoW should think it's worth it, but the way it look Alganon would be dying a quick death if it were to face the reviewers next week, and so it would hardly be worth the cost of Blizzard's lawyers).”
- Involution

Some game mechanics are frighteningly derivative, too, like the warrior (sorry, "soldier") and his rage (sorry, "anger") bar that grows during combat, and is spent to use combat moves. I'm much more inclined to give this a pass, though, since duplicated game mechanics do fall rather more into the "everyone does it" area.


Crafting is, as far as I can see, entirely derivative of WoW also. You can learn all tradeskills in the beta, but for release, apparently the limit is two. Same as WoW. Tradeskills are mining, blacksmithing, herbalism, alchemy, skinning, leatherworking, tailoring and.. salvaging? What's this? One of the eight tradeskills is not the same as in WoW? "Salvaging allows players to break down crafted and enchanted items into raw materials. An increased skill in Salvaging allows the breakdown of more powerful items." Aha, so it's disenchanting.

The actual mechanics are also appear identical. Fixed recipes, difficulties starting at orange for guaranteed skillups, then becoming yellow. I'm guessing green and then grey will follow, but I didn't have the stamina to grind that far.

What makes Alganon unique?

Alganon's "About Alganon" and "Features" pages talk about a lot of unique features which supposedly make the game stand out from the crowd. Just one problem: virtually none of these features have actually yet been implemented in game. A community rep has stated on the beta testers' forum that the website should be updated "soon," but it hasn't happened yet, and to my mind it is just unethical to be soliciting pre-orders whilst advertising these features in such a way as to make it seem that they are already implemented and will be in-game at launch time.

The kudos system, the consignment system, deities and crusades, custom dynamic quests, pets, appearance changing as you level up, instances, UI customization, battlegrounds, indeed PvP of any sort: all of these features are described on those two pages with no mention whatsoever of the fact that they are not yet in game.

About the only distinguishing feature which is present is the "studies" system. This can best be described as the skill training system from Eve Online, bolted on top of the class/level system. Various studies - some combat related, some magical, some crafting related, etc. - can be queued up to train real-time. The intention being that all players, regardless of whether they can dedicate heavy or light amounts of time to playing, will advance at the same rate in at least this area of character development.

My initial dabblings found studies taking times ranging from 10 minutes to 1 day to complete. There are combat-related ones which do things like "increases your accuracy when using swords and daggers", stat-boosting ones, and crafting ones which apparently grant access to new recipes.

They're not massively interesting, and I have to wonder how well the real-time advancement is going to interact with Quest Online's decision to cut all but two races and four classes from the initial launch. Assuming more races and classes are added at a later date, anyone who wants to play one of them is going to be put in a position where they have to abandon all of their study advancement and start from scratch to do so.

So much missing

Interestingly, a lot of elements not yet in game are able to be accessed through the keybindings menu. Some, like Kudos and Pets, bring up mostly laid-out windows with placeholder text. Others simply throw LUA errors. The "achievements" window keybind brings up an empty window. I haven't seen any mention of achievements on the website, so this was interesting, almost an easter egg!

One does wonder when they plan to clean out all this half-finished stuff, though, given that the game is supposed to officially launch in five days time, and headstart access for people who pre-order is supposed to start in three days!

What's the conclusion?

Alganon, as it stands now, is unattractive, unoriginal, uninspired and unfinished. It is being plugged as some sort of niche title, but I'll be damned if I can figure what niche it is trying to target. To me, a niche game is something like Eve Online or Darkfall which very consciously features design decisions that will only appeal to a subset of gamers. The design goal behind Alganon, as far as I can tell, is "slavishly imitate WoW, and then add a couple of new features that we think would be cool." The only problem is, the imitation is of the poorest imaginable quality, and hardly any of the new features have been added.

Why is Alganon launching in such an unfinished state? One can only assume that the money has run out, and they need to shift some boxes in order to keep paying the bills. Talking the big talk about features and selling pre-orders while the game is still under NDA is one way to try to raise some cash.

I can't imagine it's going to lead to anything other than a trainwreck though. Games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online have demonstrated how remarkably little tolerance the gaming public has for games launching in a poor state - and both those games were in much, much better shape than Alganon. I've probably played 15 or so MMORPGs over the last six years, and I cannot see any way that three more days work by Quest Online is going to make Alganon anything other than the poorest title I have ever seen on the market.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Runes of Magic: what I liked

Previous post in this series: Enter the strange world of F2P: Runes of Magic

So I've spent some time playing Runes of Magic over the last two weeks - enough time to get a character up to level 15/15. And so far, here's what I've found likable about the game.

My general impression of RoM before I ever played it was that it was regarded as "a free-to-play game that was polished enough to be a subscription game". Interestingly, though, googling for reviews just now in the hope of finding some pithy quotes, it seems that most reviewers slammed it for it's overall lack of polish. Maybe they've gotten a lot of work done in the seven months since its initial Western release, because I didn't find it lacking at all. The general feel of the interface, the graphics, the sounds, the game mechanics, stability, etc., was indeed all good enough that I would not have found it out of place for this to be a pay-to-play title.

Class system

Getting into the mechanics, I'd heard a lot of "WoW clone" talk, and I guess I was expecting it to be a lot more WoW-like than it actually is. Sure, it's a race-class-level system, but if you stand it next to other race-class-level games I've played in recent years, such as Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online and EverQuest 2, it is no more similar to WoW than it is to any of the others - they're all different takes on the general concept that dates back to pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s. And personally, I found RoM's "primary class / secondary class" system quite interesting.

Basically, RoM has eight classes, generally pretty standard fantasy archetypes like warrior and mage and priest. But once you've hit level 10, you can select a secondary class, which allows you to use some of the abilities of that class as well as those of your main. I started off as a priest and took knight as my secondary. This allows me to use some holy melee skills (whereas as a plain priest I couldn't do anything useful in melee), an armour buff and debuff, etc.

To be honest, knight as a secondary class doesn't feel terribly useful for a priest. But! When I'm in town, I can switch it around to become a knight with priest as my secondary class. In this fashion, characters have two distinct choices to switch between, much like WoW's dual talent specs. So I can be a priest/knight, and heal, or I can be a knight/priest, and be a tank with some healing abilities. This seems like a particularly powerful combination, having priest as a secondary grants my knight several healing spells, including a fairly powerful instacast heal over time, which combined with the knight's ability to regain mana using a melee move makes me feel almost immortal.

I'm not sure how many combinations are possible (it's not the full 8 x 7 = 56 since some classes are human-only or elf-only), but it's quite a few - certainly more than the number of classes offered by any single-class game, even WAR with it's 24 classes.

Item upgrading

We're all accustomed to the search for better and better gear being a huge part of any fantasy MMO. What really caught my interest about RoM is that customizing and upgrading your gear is at least as big a part of the game as obtaining it in the first place.

In WoW, for instance, weapons and most types of armour can be enchanted, with there being generally a handful of endgame-quality enchants to choose between. And some items have sockets that you can put a gem of your choice into, to enhance a particular stat. RoM, on the other hand, has no less than four different ways in which you can customize and upgrade items.

It can all get as complicated as hell, here's a thread on the RoM forums covering the various processes, but basically you're looking at stripping stats from unwanted items to put them onto your gear, breaking down other unwanted items and using the results to increase the "tier" of your gear, using refining jewels to add "pluses" to your gear, and finally drilling sockets in your gear in order to fit runes. It seems like an absolute mini-maxer or theorycrafter's delight.

And it really appeals to my opinion that crafting in MMOs should be all about customization, not just about making your own items but about making them exactly the way you want them. RoM's actual crafting system is nothing special - a pretty standard fixed-recipe system, not much different from a bunch of other games - but the item upgrading really forms a crafting metagame.

The downside is, to do a lot of this fun stuff, you need to spend money at the item store. Perhaps a lot of money. Using components purchased in game, you can put three or maybe four desirable stats onto your item - using purified fusion stones from the cash shop, you can get six. Using refining jewels purchased in game, you can realistically upgrade an item to +1 or +2 - using refining jewels from the cash shop, you can get +6. And as for rune sockets, if your item doesn't have any to start with, drillers from the cash shop are the only way to add them.

Needless to say, this flies in the face of the "play for free, pay for convenience" model of f2p MMOs, and will form a big part of my "what I didn't like" post.

Next post in this series: Runes of Magic: what I didn't like

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Enter the strange world of F2P: Runes of Magic

There's been plenty of talk around the internets this last year or so about the wave of "free to play" MMORPGs which is apparently poised to swoop in from Asia and become the next big thing in the West. It's a simple enough concept as an alternative to the traditional Western monthly subscription feee: let people play the game for free, and sell "stuff" through an online store. Make it attractive enough that the people who enjoy the game spend cash.

The closest I'd gotten to the concept was checking out Dungeons & Dragons Online, formerly subscription-based game that went free-to-play as something of a last-gasp attempt to save a game with poor subscriber numbers. Their model is based not so much around an item store as a content store: basically, if you play for free, there are only a handful of dungeons you can access, so you'll need to grind them repeatedly. But for a few bucks each, you can buy access to others, giving a much less repetitive experience.

But recently I decided to check out Runes of Magic, a Taiwanese game, translated and managed in the West by a German company, and apparently a very representative example of the free-to-play plus item store model. They have recently released their first expansion, The Elven Prophecy, have boasted more than two million players (although I take this to mean more than two million accounts created, who knows how many stuck around), and generally seem to be going pretty well. And hey, it's free! Let's see what it's like!!

The first first impression was not great. After installing and firing up the game, it naturally wanted to download a patch. The patching process failed due to lack of disk space - OK, my fault. But the error message had two spelling mistakes in it, and after I had cleared up some disk space, the loader still insisted on re-downloading the entire patch (couple of hundred megabytes) before trying again.

Anyway, that out of the way, once I was in-game the first impression was much more positive. Very familiar in style, with the usual MMORPG second person perspective, unit frames top left, minimap top right, action bars at the bottom, etc. One ultra-brief tutorial later, I was given a goodie bag and a temporary horse and sent on my merry way.

The world is colourful and the sound effects are very gamey rather than realistic - I'm assuming this is the Asian aesthetic showing, as the atmosphere was more like a console platformer than medieval Europe.

Following posts in this series: Runes of Magic: what I liked, Runes of Magic: what I didn't like

So much gaming going on

So many MMORPGs, so few hours in the day.

My Lord of the Rings Online welcome back week ran out - I haven't taken up the $9.99 Mines of Moria + a month's play offer yet and don't plan to in the immediate future. It may still happen though.

I have been beta-testing Alganon and working on a long blog piece about it, which I need to finish up ready for when the NDA drops on October 26th.

I have also been playing some Runes of Magic these last few weeks and working on a blog piece about that. It's not nearly finished but I probably should drop it out there as part one, and write a second part at a later date.

And Massively just gave me a key good for a 15-day free trial of Fallen Earth. I beta-tested that one a few months back and thought it had real quality issues and some serious design flaws, so I never even considered buying it, but since launching it has attracted a fair bit of praise from bloggers whose opinions I quite respect, so I'll take another look - if only I can find the time!

Because on top of all that, a bunch of guys from my World of Warcraft guild (which scattered so completely a few months ago) have reassembled on Frostmourne, an Oceanic server. They have formed a new guild with an eye to getting 10-man raiding back in action and maybe recruiting back up to 25's. So I transferred one of my characters (my main, a dwarf priest) over there to see how things go. I would really like to see Icecrown Citadel when patch 3.3 lands, and see it with my friends, not trying to pug it months after it's old news.

Unfortunately, in a moment of Friday beers induced foolishness, I completely forgot to stack my character with money before transferring him. I intended to take the maximum, 20,000 gold, with me, since I'd be on a strange server without all my tradeskill alts and supporting infrastructure, but no. As soon as I arrived I realized I only had what I'd been carrying, just over 2,000 gold.

Well, it will have to do!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

LOTRO: The moral of morale

As I was walking to work this morning, something that occurred to me about Lord of the Rings Online. A tiny change of terminology takes a mechanic that is common to basically every MMORPG in existence, and makes it make a lot more sense.

So you have this green bar. When bad people hit you, it gets shorter. When you use healing spells or bandages or such things, it gets longer. If it gets down to nothing, you're dead and have to respawn at a graveyard, or run back to your body as a ghost, or some such thing. Some games call it "life", some call it "health", some hark back to D&D and call it "hit points."

LOTRO calls it "morale," and their take on the concept is a clever one.

When your morale falls to zero, you're not dead - you've been defeated. And you don't respawn at a graveyard - you find yourself back at a safe spot to which you have retreated. So there's no suspension of disbelief about dying and dying and dying again.

Similarly, on the healing front, instead of magically "healing wounds", various means exist to "rally your morale". This works well, because while Middle Earth is certainly a world of magic, the magic in the world is ancient and powerful, and not really the domain of player characters. There are no low level priests and mages running around. So "healing" is the domain of minstrels and their inspiring tunes, or captains and their rallying cries.

Mechanically, scarcely a difference from WoW or any other fantasy MMO. But just that little tweak to the terminology makes such a difference to the feel.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Welcome back to Lord Of The Rings Online

I played The Lord of the Rings Online for a month back in July 2008. I didn't set up a recurring subscription, just played the free month that came with the game. But afterwards, if you'd asked me "why not?" I would have found the question hard to answer. There was nothing specific I could put my finger on, just that, like many other MMORPGs, LOTRO didn't quite "grab" me.

A well-timed email from Turbine arrived the other week, offering a free reactivation of my account from October 15-21. I was in a bit of an MMO lull, my World of Warcraft subscription is still active but I've not been playing a lot since the spectacular disintegration of my guild a couple of months back, so it was a fine time to revisit Middle Earth. They had released their first expansion, The Mines of Moria, since I left, and the word around the internets was that the game was in good shape with a small but satisfied subscriber base.

I spent a fair slice of the weekend playing: I took my dwarf champion Maligalin from level 23 to 27, questing around Bree and in the Lone-lands. I finished Book One of the epic questline and did the first couple of quests of Book Two. I got up to expert weaponsmithing and completely mastered journeyman weaponsmithing. And I knocked off a few deeds along the way. So now I'm ready to ponder what I'm liking and what I'm not.

What I'm liking

First thing I noticed when I got back in: wow, my memory of what a good-looking world this game has was not wrong. It is seriously attractive. I've always been an advocate of art direction being far more important than polygon count or shader complexity - which is why I laugh at people who say WoW has bad graphics - and LOTRO's artists have nailed it. This really is the world of Peter Jackon's movies brought to life. The rolling landscapes, the ancient ruins, and especially the doorways to hobbit-holes in the side of hills - just perfect.

Captain Beliandra stands in front of a hobbit-hole in north Bree

I don't think I really got my head around the character development options when I played last year. But I'm digging the way that the unlocking of virtues and class traits through deeds adds another dimension to your character development beyond a straight line from level one to sixty. I'm quite happy with the class traits I've unlocked on my champion - I currently have Deadly Strikes, Vicious Strikes and Blood-lust from the Berserker set equipped, since I figure questing is all about pouring out the single-target damage. But my virtues I'm not so happy with, I know I don't have five slotted which I can look at and say "yep they're all great for me". And I like the feeling that, instead of just focusing on leveling, I could choose to pore over deed lists and figure out what I could do to improve my virtues.

Crafting, when you get right down to it, is just another example of a "fixed set of recipes, make a bunch of rubbish to get the skill to learn better recipes" system, like we've seen in so very many MMORPGs. But I do think LOTRO has done more with the paradigm than most. With the mastering of tiers to open up the chance of critical success, the optional rare components to boost crit chance, the different quality tools, the single-use recipe drops, the quests to learn new tiers of crafts, and the crafting guilds with their rep grinds: they have certainly put in a lot of stuff to liven up what could easily be a pretty stale mechanic. I can't deny that it got me interested in keeping my weaponsmithing progression going alongside my levelling,

What I'm not liking so much

I find LOTRO's combat.. fiddly, I guess. I feel like my champion has more moves than he really needs: why do I have both Swift Strike and Wild Attack as fervour builders? Having Savage Strikes, Brutal Strikes and Relentless Strike as finishers to spend two, three and four fervour respectively seems like overkill - flexible, but fiddly. And the mechanics of queueing up skills, waiting for them to start their animation, then queueing another skill, while monitoring my fervour (which ticks up by itself over time when I'm in my offensive stance, as well as being generated by moves) and dealing with short cooldowns (four to ten seconds on a lot of skills).. well, I find myself spending fights squinting at the wee buttons on my action bar. It's obviously going to take more than just a solid weekend of play to get a reflexive feel for this.

"There and Back Again" - it's not just a alternative title for The Hobbit, it seems to be a guiding principle of LOTRO quest design. I lost count of how many times a questgiver would do something send me off into some den of goblins to kill a bunch of them - and then send me back there to, oh, gather some crates - and then send back there again to kill their leader. I'm not a fan of the hyper-streamlined quest design WoW has moved towards with Wrath of the Lich King, which seems designed to prevent you from ever going somewhere twice to do two things rather than making a single trip. But really, even in a couple of days play, I was feeling the overkill on the back and forth.

What I'm not sure about

LOTRO is a game that gives you ample opportunities to grind. But I don't think it really insists that you grind.

Certainly the levels I gained from 23 to 27 didn't require any grinding: there were heaps of quests and I found myself doing a bunch that were well below my level purely because I got into the rhythm of doing anything an NPC asked me to do.

The monster-slaying deeds can be a grind and then some. Some of them, like wights in the Barrow Downs and goblins in the Lone-lands, I completed in the process of questing. But others, like killing a total of 240 crebain (blackbirds) are a little intimidating. But then you have to ask yourself: why do it if I don't want to? To be honest I probably wouldn't even slot the trait that it provides (Honesty, giving bonuses to power, fate and armour), but even if it was something I would use, slaughtering hundreds of birds for a few stat points is surely optional unless you're a hardcore mini-maxer.

Crafting, if you gather all your materials yourself, seems to require some grinding. I got a lot of barrow iron while questing but I was still a distance from mastering journeyman weaponsmithing by the time my progression had taken me into areas where it had been left behind and replaced by tier three ore spawns. So this meant some running around Bree-land mining. I don't see this as a bad thing though: mastering crafting probably shouldn't be something you can do without making any extra effort, just gathering everything you see while you're levelling.

What's next?

The point I'm up to in the epic questline is a group quest, "Breeders of the Dead". Given that I'm in Australia and thus my evening play time is deep in the middle of the night for the North American playerbase, it will be interesting to see how easy or difficult I find it to get a group. The server I am on, Elendilmir, I chose because it was recommended for Oceanic players, and I've seen a few mentions of Aus/NZ guilds, so hopefully I'll find it at least reasonably alive during Aussie primetime.

First two days impressions, though, are pretty positive. I'd say I'm leaning in the direction of at least splashing out the $9.99 to buy the Mines of Moria expansion and the month of playtime that comes with it - it's a generous deal and really not too hard for Turbine to sell me on!

I shall write more in the days to come.