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.