Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Battle.net authenticator, noobery narrowly averted

My World of Warcraft account has been inactive since April this year, when I ran out of things I wanted to do in-game. But a month or two back, a post by The Ancient Gaming Noob about yet another inactive account getting hacked brought it to my attention that (a) what I’d always thought of as a WoW account authenticator is actually a Battle.net account authenticator, and (b) you can attach one to your account, no problems, regardless of whether or not you have an active WoW subscription.

I’d always shrugged off these authenticators in the past, since while they’re cheap ($US6.50!), the postage and handling to ship one to Australia is blisteringly expensive – $US20.68 last time I looked, bringing the price of an authenticator close to that of two months worth of subscription. Ouch!

But, by fortunate coincidence, shortly before I read this story, the company I work for assigned me an iPhone for testing purposes – and the mobile authenticator iPhone app (there are versions for Androids and other phones, too) is free! So, a few minutes later..


Easy as that! Visit the Battle.net account management. Select the menu option to add a mobile authenticator. It sends an email to your registered email address with a link to add the authenticator. Download the app onto your phone. Run it. It gives you a unique serial number for the install. Go to the link you were emailed, enter that serial number, enter the current code from the authenticator app, and bam! You’re done. Didn’t take even 5 minutes.

But of course, as Stan Lee taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. And once you’ve attached an authenticator to your account, you’re in trouble if you lose it, or break it.. or forget to deactivate it before your work gives you a new iPhone 4 and takes the old phone back.

As if anyone would do something as silly as giving their phone back to their boss without deactivating the authenticator, though! Ho ho ho! What a noob they would have to be!

It’s easy to avoid: log into Battle.net account management – you’ll need your authenticator to do this, of course. Click on the [Remove] link shown in that picture above. It will prompt you enter the next two codes from the authenticator – clever, even if someone has intercepted a code in transit, they won’t be able to use that one code to unprotect your account. And you’re done!

Then follow the same original process to hook up the new authenticator app on your new phone, and you’re sorted!

Friday, September 17, 2010

No Vindictus? Denied!

Nexon’s new free-to-play blood & guts fest Vindictus has just started an early access beta, and every MMO site under the sun is handing out beta keys like candy.

What would have been a good idea, however, would be to prefix the announcements and giveaways with a giant message saying “USA AND CANADA ONLY!”

The giveaway I snagged a key from didn’t mention any territory restrictions.

The page where you enter your key didn’t mention any territory restrictions.

The Nexon passport signup page clearly says “To register for a Nexon Passport, you must live in the United States, Canada, and Oceania. Access to Nexon America games is not supported outside these regions.” I’ll confess I didn’t read that fine print, but since I live in Oceania, even if I had, I would have obviously felt that I was still on the right track.

It’s only once you have created an account, entered your beta key, downloaded the client, installed, waited until September 15th, tried to run it, gotten an unhelpful error, and gone to the Vindictus forums that you’ll find the storm of nerdrage about the territory restrictions and the sticky post with the innocuous title “Vindictus Service Region” which reads:

Greetings players,

Please be aware that Vindictus is currently available in US and Canada ONLY. We have no information regarding expansion plans into other territories such as Oceania at this time. However, if we do have additional information, we will be sure to provide it here.



Look, I’m not angry that Oceanic players like myself don’t have access to the beta. That’s the sort of thing which always happens when you’re dealing with foreign games being run under license. But come on, did it really not occur to anyone that it would be a good idea to put a big bold warning everywhere so there could be no confusion about who had access?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Switch to free-to-play makes a mess of LOTRO community, film at eleven

Many were the dire predictions that the LOTRO community would take a nosedive in quality once Turbine launched the new free-to-play business model. And they were right – sort of. This last week, reading the LOTRO forums has made me want to bash my head against a wall due to the stupidity and selfishness of a large slice of the community.

Needless to say, I’m not talking about the influx of new players since the game went free-to-play. I’m talking about a large slice of the old-timers.

Here’s a quick summary of what Turbine have done with LOTRO. Last week, you could:

  • Pay $15/month and play the game, or;
  • Pay nothing and not play the game

This week, you can:

  • Pay $15/month and play the game, or;
  • Pay nothing and play the first few zones, with some restrictions on bag space, etc., or;
  • Pay one-off fees to unlock zones worth of quests, as well as other traditional cash shop perks such as mounts, storage space, etc.

You may notice that this week, you have exactly the same subscription option you had last week, plus the option to pay as you go, plus the option to at least log in and do some stuff for free. So, naturally, a large slice of the player base chucked a colossal tantrum and started carrying on like spoiled two-year-olds because Turbine didn’t give them everything in the game for free.

The core of the tantrum being people who felt that having purchased the base game box (Shadows of Angmar, aka SoA) at some point in the last few years should entitle them to unlock all the quests in all the zones in the base game. This is nine zones, which would cost a little over $50.00 to unlock one by one, and would, effectively, give anyone who ever had an account during the pre-free-to-play era a lifetime subscription. The majority of them could quite comfortably cancel their subscription, never spend another cent, and enjoy the game in a manner scarcely distinguishable from how it was previously when they were subscribed (since most character restrictions, like bag space, riding skill, trait slots and gold cap, are waived for characters created or played while a subscription was in effect).

Such a scheme would, as far as I can tell, basically destroy Turbine’s revenue stream, and kill the game. But regardless, it all boils down to one simple thing: these whining ungrateful little shits have just been given a bunch of stuff for free, not had anything taken away from them, and they’re screeching and crying as if Turbine just stole their teddy bear at gunpoint.

It makes me sick. Fortunately, I can mostly avoid it by staying away from the forums, and in-game, with the relatively inoffensive new players and their stupid names, “your gay lol” idiocy, and inane chatter about how WoW sucks balls and is the worst game ever made / WoW rulez and is a million times better than LOTRO. I’ll take a week of that over an hour of whining brats trumpeting their sense of entitlement.

In other news, I was quite proud when I got the ”Undying” title on my Warden. I’ve done it again:


And I’m even more proud to have achieved it with a completely untwinked Burglar on a new server – and a new server suffering from some heavy load and lagspikes - than I was with my Warden kitted out with the best weapons and jewellery that my other characters could craft.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

One must queue to simply walk into Mordor

Something I have never seen before in LOTRO:


This was on the new server Crickhollow I chose – there was also queues on a number of other servers. Looks like I’m not the only one enjoying the free-to-play relaunch!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

LOTRO Free Middle Earth arrives

So, Turbine’s new “Free Middle Earth” free-to-play version of Lord of the Rings Online has landed, hot on the heels of EverQuest II Extended. I jumped on briefly last night, creating a new character on one of the four new servers, to see what was happening.

First of all, the game is buzzing just as crazily as EQ2X. The server was packed with players, and from the conversations in chat, quite a lot of them are entirely new to the game. I think there is definitely potential for this to replicate the success Turbine had with D&D Online when they relaunched that as free-to-play.

Secondly, LOTRO was always an attractive game, but since I last played, I’ve replaced my PC with a new rig. The patch that accompanied the free launch added DirectX 11 support, and by happy coincidence, my new machine has a Radeon 5770. So I enabled the new DirectX 11 stuff, cranked all the settings up to high and turned on anti-aliasing, and now we are talking a seriously attractive game.

LOTRO00003 LOTRO00005

LOTRO00006 LOTRO00007

Those looks, running at a rock solid 60 fps, definitely put a smile on my face. It’s hard to believe that this game is well over three years old and has had its graphics kept up-to-date like this.

I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about LOTRO’s free-to-play / subscription hybrid model yet, but I have to say, I expect it to be much better suited to my playstyle than EQ2X’s “subscribe or bust” approach.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

EverQuest II Extended – does it hit the mark?

So, it’s of course old news by now that Sony are launching a free-to-play version of EverQuest II, known as EverQuest II Extended. It is technically still in beta, but there will be no character wipe between now and “launch”, so effectively, it is launched.

I played EQ2 a while ago. Can’t remember exactly when, probably mid-2008 when the pre-Lich King ennui made me suspend my WoW account. There was a lot to like about it, but ultimately, I didn’t feel it distinguished itself enough to keep my interest, as well as suffering from a few key issues like boring combat and a low server population.

But certainly my memories aren’t entirely negative, so I decided to check out the new F2P incarnation of the game. I’ve played a few sessions this week, getting my Barbarian Inquisitor to level 16, and have some opinions about the hybrid F2P/subscription model that Sony have come up with.

The hybrid model

We saw this idea when D&D Online went free-to-play – there is still the option of a traditional $15/month subscription, but it is supplemented by a greatly restricted free option, with microtransactions to unlock various restrictions. Turbine have also announced a similar model for the upcoming free-to-play change to Lord of the Rings Online.

EQ2X is similar – you can play for free (“bronze” membership), you can make a one-time $10.00 purchase to remove some of the restrictions (“silver” membership), or you can pay a monthly or yearly subscription (“gold” and “platinum” membership). And I get a strong feeling that Sony’s goal is to push people, not towards casual play and microtransaction purchases, but towards the subscription plans.

What do you only get with a subscription? There is a membership plan matrix here, but some highlights include:

  • Access to all classes - only 8 are available without subscription. You can’t even buy them individually, although I believe Sony have said that are planning to add that to the shop.
  • Access to the highest levels of ability upgrades.
  • Access to the highest grades of equipment, Legendary and Fabled.
  • Access to the broker system – although, again, this is to be added to the non-subscription accounts in the form of tokens on the cash shop, i.e. a cash fee for every item you wish to buy or sell on auction.

To me, that is starting to feel more like the bronze and silver memberships are an extremely generous free trial, rather than a genuine free game.

What I don’t think will work well

Class and race restrictions. The free game only allows access to 8 out of 24 classes, and 4 out of 19 races. On the face of it, selling access to classes and races might seem a good model, but the problem is: you need to get F2P players hooked in order to get them to spend money. And once they’re hooked, do they want to buy access to a new class and race, and then ditch their existing character to reroll from level one? I wouldn’t be terribly inclined to do so.

Chat restrictions. Bronze members cannot use “broadcast” channels, such as /auction, /level, /shout, or any other chat option that broadcasts to a large amount of other players. Many people feel that this both makes the game feel rather empty, compared to the buzzing chat channels people are used to; and also that it makes it rather hard for new players who are still getting the hang of the game to actually ask questions or seek help! This feels more like a restriction you’d put on a free trial account to discourage spammers than something you would inflict on people who you see as genuine customers.

The broker restrictions. I love to see a vibrant economy in a game. I’ll reserve judgement on this one until I’ve properly checked it out for myself, but I’m worried that banning non-subscription players from buying and selling at auction will seriously hurt the economy – and that this will hurt the subscription players as well as the free players.

Legendary and Fabled item restrictions. I’m not enough of an EQ2 vet to know how restrictive this is, but I’ve already read of the disappointment of finishing an epic quest chain and receiving a reward that you’re not even allowed to use! It has also been suggested that this renders group dungeon runs pretty pointless for free players since the loot will be unusable. But this is also an opportunity for Sony: why not sell consumable “legendary and fabled attunement” tokens in the cash shop, so each such item you get your hands on requires a nominal real-money spend to use?

But we’ll see

Look, certainly the game is drawing a crowd. Certainly, comparing the starter zone I’ve been playing in this week to my experiences of two years ago, it’s chalk and cheese. There are a lot of players running around. And this is playing in Australian evening time, not prime time. I’m having some fun, and I’ll certainly carry on giving EQ2X a chance to see how it goes this time around for me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Community through labour

Back when I was involved in an ill-fated startup company, I used to share an office with our partner company, a games studio. The guys there were a convivial bunch, all pretty young, all male, united by making games at a place that was, frankly, something of a sweatshop. They had a bit of a regular thing going where they would generally go out drinking at the local pub on Thursday nights - and then often shamble into work on Friday morning rather the worse for wear.

One day, one of the newer guys asked one of the old-timers, "Why do we do this to ourselves? Why don't we go out for a drink on Friday night so we don't have to get up and come to work the next morning?"

The response? "Because on Friday night we go out with our real friends."

What's the point of this anecdote? Keen from Keen & Graev's has been writing a series of blog posts on "Old MMO Mechanics I Love and You Probably Hate," and this morning I read part three in the series. He's talking largely about mechanics from the original EverQuest here, and the common theme of group camping, rare spawn camping, dungeon camping etc. seems to be the community this engendered.

Hanging around with a group of other players while one person goes and pulls mobs back to the camp to be killed? To the current MMO generation that probably sounds like a bad thing, that would happen if people ran out of content and were forced to grind XP. To Keen, this was "the most fun [way to level] because it allowed me to socialize with people and form a connection with others playing the game. This was a catalyst for a very, very close-knit community later."

And this is what made me think of socializing with workmates. I've worked for eight different companies in my career as a programmer and I have really enjoyed the camaraderie at all of them. When you spend a lot of time with people, working in a common cause to do something that can often be boring or frustrating, you make friends. But you know what? I've made friends doing things I enjoyed doing too, friends that I shared interests with, not just an employer. Making friends while doing something boring is a consolation prize, not a reason to do something boring.

And that's why Keen is right to predict that I would probably hate these mechanics.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How quickly is it OK to judge an MMORPG?

So I got into the closed beta of Battle of the Immortals, an isometric style MMO being translated from the Chinese by Perfect World Entertainment. I wrote a moderately lengthy post about it on the mmorpg.com forums which I may fatten up into a blog post, but the quick summary is, I played for a few hours, got to level 24, and didn't like it, concluding that it was (a) a confusing, poorly translated mess and (b) considerably less fun to play than Diablo II (my main point of reference for isometric action RPGs), despite that game being almost ten years old.

Anyway, I was taken to task by one of the regular posters there, who reckons that my opinion is not going to be taken very seriously when I've only seen the early game, and not tried PvP (which, apparently, becomes accessible at level 31). Basically, he said, all games are the same from level 1-20, and not a single one is any good.

Needless to say, I disagree with this. If there was not a single MMORPG which was any good for the early hours of play, this hobby would have been dead in the water a decade ago, and it certainly wouldn't have been my main leisure activity these last six years. But it got me thinking: just how quickly can I judge an MMORPG without being unreasonable?

My thinking is, as someone who has tried an awful lot of MMOs, that I can judge pretty quickly if a game is no good. Every MMO that I have spent any significant amount of time playing - Horizons, WoW, EVE Online, LOTRO, EQ2, Runes of Magic, Atlantica Online - has had something to it that hooked me right from the start. Whether it was immediately fun gameplay, intriguing mechanics, story, or just plain being different from the crowd, they all made me want to log back in and play more.

Battle of the Immortals did not. I played a couple of sessions and had to force myself to even log in to play a third to get as far as I did.

So, while I can conclude that every game I have enjoyed had some hook right from the start, I can't necessarily argue that no game which did not have that hook would be entertaining. It's very possible that there are games that I've tried for a couple of hours and ditched, which would have opened up and become genuinely entertaining if I'd given them a better chance.

But, you know what? I don't care. I'm not starved for games to play. If a developer can't manage to build an early game which isn't boring, I don't feel bad about denying them the chance to wow me with their endgame. I think possibly the biggest blight on this genre is that developers have learned that Achiever-type personalities can be lured into playing games which simply aren't fun in order to achieve in-game goals, and for that reason feel they can avoid making gameplay their number one priority.

Imagine playing an arcade shoot-em-up which isn't very good. Endless waves of similar enemies, no variety, a single slow-firing gun on your ship. You're about to walk away with your pocket still half full of change, when someone tells you how awesome the final boss battle is.

Do you bang your head against an un-fun game for hours (spending a bunch of change in the process) to try to get to this supposedly fun boss battle? Or do you say, "screw that, I'm playing 1942 instead, that game rules."

I'm of the latter school of thought. If you can't make your game fun to play from the start, there are other developers who can.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Turbine makes me an offer I can't refuse

All the LOTRO expansions you don't already have, plus a month's play time, all for only $9.99? Now that's an offer too good to refuse. I jumped onto LOTRO's latest free weekend this morning, knocked over a couple more stages of the now-soloable epic questline (finally, Dori, you are free, after a year or so on my quest log!), and then found this deal being advertised.

I haven't actually applied the key to my account yet, since hey, I'm playing for free this weekend, might as well make the most of it! And I have to say, I'm not sure that the Mirkwood expansion offers a whole lot for my puny level 39 self. But $9.99 to lock in a month's playtime, and getting my account fully up to date with the latest expansion in the process - that, I had to say "yes" to.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

News of the fortnight

I never ended up posting a second post about Darkfall. This isn't because I fail at blogging (although I do!), it's because I hardly played any more after my first couple of sessions. I tried, I tried a couple of times, but it always ended up with the world spinning wildly as I tried to clicky-click-click on a tiny little goblin with a tiny little cursor, until I decided that if the FPS-style combat was entertaining me a lot less than FPS games I played more than twelve years ago - like Quake II - that this probably wasn't the game for me.

Having said that, I've posted on a few forum threads and blog comments that if you have any interest in MMORPGs as a genre, and you don't check out Darkfall, you're a fool. It stands boldly apart in doing many things in a very different manner to other MMOs, and while maybe those differences will suit you and maybe they won't, you owe it to yourself to spend a buck and some torrent time to find out.

In other news, it's somewhat old news by now that there has been a night of the long knives over at Alganon, with lead visionary David Allen repeating his achievements with Horizons by being fired and replaced. This time, by controversial industry figure Derek Smart. There have been a number of news articles about the affair, but if you read only one, it must be this piece at Gamasutra, where you can witness the unique spectacle of Derek Smart and a couple of former employees ripping into each other. And damn, this is no-holds-barred stuff, rich with allegations of incompetence, deception, insubordination and flat-out embezzlement and fraud - to the extent that I'm not going to be surprised if I look back later and find that Gamasutra have taken the whole lot down for fear of legal ramifications. I've saved a copy just in case!

In gaming news, I have continued to play Atlantica Online pretty heavily. Heavily enough, indeed, that I've not taken any time to blog about it because I've been playing so much. It's been about a month and half now since I first installed the game, and I actually think I have to say that there has been no MMO since World of Warcraft that has enthralled me to this extent over this initial span of time. I'm level 76 now, in a nice guild, and have spent some money in the item mall. I will definitely try to write more.

And finally, I got an email this morning with a key for the latest round of closed beta for upcoming fantasy sandbox Dawntide. It was a while ago I put my name down for this one, and I haven't been following development closely, but I'll be very interested to see the state of it! Additionally, one of the things that has distinguished Dawntide is their NDA-free beta process, so I'm free to post about it. Don't worry guys, I know this one is still a fair way from release, so I won't be reviewing it as I did Alganon, just posting thoughts and impressions.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fellowship of One

So, Lord of the Rings Online has just had it's first major content patch since the Mirkwood expansion came out: "Volume III, Book I: Oath of the Rangers". Although, as the name suggests, this moves the epic storyline forward into volume III, the patch also includes "massive changes to the first Volume of The Lord of the Rings Online Epic Story."

There's a developer diary about these changes, but basically, they acknowledge that the steps of the epic questline which require a group can be frustrating to do these days, since LOTRO is a mature game with a predominantly max-level player base, making it often difficult to find a group to do these quest steps with. So, they have reworked all of volume I, apparently, so that every step which previously required a group can now be done either in its original state, or in a solo version where you are heartily buffed to make it possible.

I've written before about being frustrated when looking for a group for the epic questline, and how I was looking forward to this change. This definitely makes me want to re-subscribe to LOTRO for a spell. Well done, Turbine! Now I just need more hours in the day to fit this in alongside Atlantica (still having lots of fun there), WoW (my guild is now up to the Lich King in 10-man, and only a few bosses short in 25-man) and everything else (like spending more time on my Darkfall trial).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Darkfall (cue ominous music)

So, the infamous harder-core-than-thou PvP sandbox Darkfall has celebrated its first birthday by giving the curious their first opportunity at a, well.. almost free trial.

Years of slings and arrows and cries of "vapourware!" meant that I didn't expect much when Darkfall launched, but its resilience has surprised me, it has seemed to be a genuine quiet achiever, with the word being steady growth and improvement over its first year. And, I have to say, rarely have I seen anyone make any game sound as good as SynCaine over at "Hardcore Casual" makes Darkfall sound. So this was not something I was going to miss.

First of all: "almost" free? Yes, it costs a buck to activate an account for the 7-day trial. This is novel: we've seen games selling trial CDs in shops for a tiny fee before, but have we seen a fee like this for no physical media? Not that I know of. It's caused a bit of debate, with both supporters and detractors. My take on it? A buck is nothing. It's meaningless as a sum of money. It's clear that the purpose of the nominal fee is to give Aventurine the means to exert some control of any abuse of trial accounts that might occur.

Because, as many have pointed out: Darkfall is not a game where you can stick trial players off on their own island, and have it be any sort of trial of the game. It's not a game where you can impose significant restrictions on chat and trade and interaction (as most MMORPGs do with their free trials), and have it be any sort of trial of the game. You have to put them in it as if they were real players, and if that means taking a credit card number to enable the blacklisting of people who want to use trial accounts to spam, or test out hacks, so be it.
And so, one extremely fast 7 gig torrent download later, on with the game!
Zitron-meter™: 2 hours 10 minutes played
So, in my opening couple of hours of Darkfall, I have killed some goblins (as you do), been killed by goblins once, fled from goblins like a scared little girl several times, fled from goblins that I couldn't see but which were shooting me with bows from somewhere several times, done some mining, logging, herbing, caught some fish, cooked some fish, and killed a deer with a bow and arrows.

The recently introduced "New Player Protection" system is surely a blessing. It's true what everyone says about the interface and controls being rather different and feeling rather strange at first, for anyone who has played a bunch of other MMOs with their similar controls. I'm willing to brave PvP but if I got ravaged by another player when I was five minutes into the game and had just switched into UI mode again by instinctively right-clicking to try to turn my character, I'd be peeved.

But, I've got no argument with the explanations I've heard for the interface decisions: when they feel like they're getting in your way, I can see that there are solid gameplay reasons why. Can't freely spin your camera around? PvP decision - it's to make you actually turn around if you want to check if anyone's behind you. Can't autoloot, but rather have to sheathe your weapon and drag items one by one to your backpack? Looting is intended to expose you to vulnerability, not something that is a mere quick shift-right-click in the middle of a fight.

I have to say, I don't enjoy aim and click melee combat, though. I've never played a game where it was enjoyable. Trying to whack a goblin with a sword was a frustrating mess of spinning around as this tiny little thing scuttled around me, not helped by the fact that frankly I'm not getting a particularly great frame rate out my somewhat-elderly PC. I think I would definitely prefer to specialize in ranged combat or magic in Darkfall.

My few attempts at shooting at goblins with a bow, I never hit a damn thing. I did, as I said, kill a deer though - deer don't fight back, so you can creep up close to one, shoot it, watch it run around in a panic for a bit, and then when it settles down, creep up and shoot it again! I actually got a real zing of realism from this: shooting a moving target with a bow is hard. You need to practice on easy targets first. I'll do more of this.

Resource gathering reminded me very much of EVE Online. Park your ship (yourself) next to an asteroid (tree, boulder or shrub), turn on gathering, and relax while every 10 seconds or so, another unit of material appears in your inventory. Or in Darkfall's case, fails to do so, because I'm a noob with skill level 1 out of 100 in mining, logging and herbalism. But don't relax too much - this is an area where I can see that the "no spinning the camera" restriction is going to bite hard. You practically have to push your nose up against the node you're harvesting, leaving you in a very vulnerable state indeed. It's not like EVE where keeping an eye on your scanner will alert you the instant potential trouble arrives.

As for the use-it-to-skill-up skill-based character advancement: playing a game that worked like that really brought home how rarely you see that these days. There have been plenty of CRPGs that worked that way over the 25 years of so I've been gaming, but MMORPGs? So few and far between. They all followed the Dungeons & Dragons level-based model rather than the RuneQuest based skill model. I didn't play Ultima Online, so this might actually be the first time I've hit it in an MMO.

Obviously I'm way too new to say how well it works in Darkfall long-term, but there's no doubt that it brings a level of feedback-excitement over a level-based system. Rather than a regular rhythm of that bar filling up, ding!, and then filling up again, skill-ups are all over the place. As a total noob almost every fight was dinging something. Even just heading back to town was dinging my running skill. Dings all over the place! It would clearly give you a lot of choices in how to work on your character, too. Do I kill tough monsters with my sword, since that's what I'm good at? Or do I go and kill weak monsters with an axe, which I'm useless at, to build up my skills there.

My grand overall reaction on the game is still a bit unsure. My time so far has been spread over a couple of sessions, but then this afternoon I played some Atlantica rather than firing up Darkfall again, so it hasn't really grabbed me yet, as such. I'll see how it goes and post more (along with the updated Zitron-meter™!) as the week progresses.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Alganon to go free-to-play, it seems

So Alganon finally launched, to a reaction of pretty much universal apathy. I've glanced at some news and discussions every now and then, my vague interest mostly due to the fact that my impressions of the beta were the most popular thing I've ever written. Anyway, things haven't looked good - unconfirmed forum reports have claimed that there were less than 100 people online during prime time, even straight after launch, and even the few enthusiasts I've seen on forums seem to have mostly abandoned the game.

But now, news emerges that they are planning to adopt "a new subscription-free pricing model." And, according to the usual Alganon rules of quality control, this news has emerged not through an official announcement, or interview, or anything like that, but a post regarding some arcane changes to the addon API made by one of their programmers.
As you have probably already seen elsewhere on the site, The new subscription-free pricing model that Alganon is adopting introduces the concept of Tribute. This is what part of the new API for the last patch includes.
Upon the realization that this info was not meant to be announced yet, he added:
please be patient and wait until the information that this post refers to is made available before jumping to too many conclusions about it's meaning. I'm sure that said information will be released soon™

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More on Atlantica Online

Previous post in this series: "Howdy, y'all!" from the lost city of Atlantica

In my first entry on Atlantica Online, I got so carried away writing about the turn-based, party-based combat system, that before I said much else, I decided the post was quite long enough already and hit "publish."

Now, I have complained in the past about being bored of "race/class/level quest-to-endgame-and-then-PvP sword & sorcery themepark MMOs". Does Atlantica fit into that category? Well, it is class/level based - however, the class system is mitigated by the fact that it is party-based. My character is an Archer. But there are Archer mercenaries available. If I was playing, say, a Swordsman, and had an Archer merc as part of my formation, I don't think it would feel significantly different to my current situation of playing an Archer and having a Swordsman merc.

If I want to experiment with some different classes, I don't need to roll an alt of a different class, I can get a merc of a different class into my party. My main frustration with the class/level paradigm is that once you're established in a game, trying another class means leaving behind your levels and starting from scratch, so it's nice to not have to do this - sure, my new merc will be level one, but at least the rest of my party is still strong and can continue adventuring while I raise him up.

(note: storage space for unpartied mercs does need to be purchased, either at the item mall or for in-game currency, otherwise you won't be able to keep your old merc in reserve while you play a new one)

Quest to endgame and then PvP? Well, I'm level 36 now, and while I have indeed been supplied with quests the whole time, never needing to grind, the bulk of this questing has been in a single massive chain leading me around. There haven't been that many side quests, really, so gameplay has been a bit lacking in that "which of these quests shall I do next?" feeling.

The quests are mostly pretty standard "kill ten rats" and fedex style things, as with many MMOs they really just provide a structure to the gameplay rather than truly standing out for their own merits. If I wasn't taken by the turn and party based play, I'd certainly be bored by the quests. Although the quest dialogue does have a "subtitles from a Chinese martial arts movie" feel to it, which has some charm. And it's also interesting that a lot of the tutorial elements of the game are integrated into the main quest chain - e.g., you get questgivers giving you a quests to do such things as use a scroll in battle, equip an item, buy and sell items from vendors, even open your world map and look at it! It's a nice way of making sure a new player doesn't miss any of the basics, whilst giving more experienced gamers a little gold and xp for nothing.

But one thing which Atlantica has certainly gotten right which so many MMOs do not is that PvP is by no means an activity solely for the endgame. There are various competitions which run regularly in game, the main one being the "Free League". I believe you have to be level 20 to participate in this competition, which realistically means that by the time you've learned the ropes of gameplay, you can start PvP'ing. Entering involves merely clicking a button, and sees you matched against an opponent, using a division ranking system so you should get a relatively fair fight. My record is currently standing at nine wins and eight losses so I'd say the matchmaking works pretty well!

PvP certainly challenges your formation-building and tactical skills far more than PvE - in PvE, mobs tend to whack away at random members of your party, and have few special abilities, but in PvP you can expect to be confronted by a broad mix of classes and thus many different abilities, with your opponent (if they're any good!) doing their best to hammer you with stuns and silences and heavy focus-fire on your most important party members. I was planning to write more about it in a separate post, but I'll finish off by saying that I think that Warhammer Online is the only MMORPG I have played which offered this much PvP entertainment so soon after you started playing - and lord knows that game had enough problems to counterbalance that quality.

Crafting? Atlantica has a lot of crafting skills - literally dozens of them. Every type of weapon and every armour slot it its own crafting skill. And you can learn all of them on one character. Needless to say, to do so would require such effort and expense that you won't be doing it any time soon!

The system is fixed recipes, e.g. sword crafting skill level 1 will allow you make a Spirit Sword for 5 Copper Flakes and 4 Maple. There are no gathering skills, by the way, raw materials are all monster drops, also all the ones I have seen so far can be purchased from NPC vendors for a fixed price.

However, unlike most games, it's not a "click a button, watch the progress bar, and bam! you now have a sword" process - after clicking the button, you need to accumulate a certain amount of "workload", which you get by fighting monsters. At my low level, crafting one item seems to require maybe one or two fights, so it's pretty quick. And you can get books of "crafting secrets", which are consumables that give you workload. I've gotten a bunch of these as rewards for competing in the PvP league, so if I want to craft something quickly, I can use them to do so.

There are a few other wrinkles, like being able to dismantle an item that you are capable of crafting to learn extra crafting xp, but you can only do this once per day. On the whole though, crafting seems pretty grindy, even to keep a single skill up to pace with your level (say, to make crafted weapons for your main character) looks like it would take quite a lot of money, materials and effort. I'm not sure that I'm particularly gripped by this aspect of the game.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Howdy, y'all!" from the lost city of Atlantica


There was one phrase I'd always heard used to describe Atlantica Online: "free-to-play turn-based MMORPG".

And that always made me think "what the hell??" How can an MMORPG, which by definition, you would think involved a bunch of people doing a bunch of stuff all at the same time, be turn-based? Well, I finally got around to having a play with it, and now I know the compromises involved. But the end result is a game which definitely has some charm, and, importantly to me, passes the test of being genuinely different to the other MMORPGs I have played.

First of all, in an element reminiscent of non-MMO CRPGs, in Atlantica, you control your "main" character, and a team of "mercenaries". Apparently at endgame you can have eight mercenaries, but it builds up gradually - my level 34 character is allowed to have six. Selecting an effective combination of classes for your team is a big part of the game - the options to customize individual members are not that extensive, but picking a good "formation" with a good combination of offence and defence and healing is key. Looking at the website, there are 23 different classes of mercenary (many of them have a level requirement and require a quest to unlock, I believe), so obviously the number of possible combinations is absolutely enormous.

Combat may be turn-based, but this is certainly not a game where you can plan your strategy in a leisurely fashion. You have 30 seconds to take your turn, and can move up to five characters in that time, so while we're not talking Starcraft levels of clicks-per-minute, you need to be fairly sharpish with your decision-making, and should probably adopt the attitude that a suboptimal move is better than no move at all because you ran out of time.

The complexity curve of combat starts off quite gently. As I said, the number of mercenaries you control grows as you gain levels, and also, each individual mercenary will not have a lot of moves available - initially, it's "attack" or "use magic" (although later, some mercenaries will have up to three different magic spells rather than just one). "Attack" varies by type: some mercs, like a Swordsman, make a single-target attack on an enemy in the front row. An Archer, however, can target any enemy, even if they're standing behind someone else. And then some hit multiple targets - a Spearman hits a target, and whoever is standing behind him. A Viking hits a target and anyone standing directly next to him. So you want to pick the appropriate target to maximize the number of enemies hit by these multi-target attacks.

Plus, you want to arrange your own formation so your softer characters are standing behind more robust melee types. This is especially true for your main character - if they die, it's a wipe, no matter how many of your mercs are still standing. So you'll seldom want to put them anywhere near the frontline.

Magic effects include more powerful attacks (like a Swordsman's "Flame Sword"), crowd control (like a Viking's "Frozen Axe", which freezes up to three enemies and renders them unable to act for a couple of turns, or an Archer's "Silence", which prevents its targets from using magic themselves for a couple of turns), healing (always vital of course!), buffs, etc. Spells have cooldowns which prevent you from using them every turn, as well as consuming mana from a traditional blue mana bar, so you'll want to pick the right moment to cut loose with them, especially in PvP.

As you get a larger party, you run into the "no more than five characters can act per turn" limitation. Now you have to consider which mercs you want to use each turn, as well as what you want to do with them. Sometimes the choice is easy (no point using your healer to do a weak magical attack if nobody needs healing), sometimes not so much, as you really really want to use everyone.

But anyway, how do all of these thirty second turns fit into a persistent multi-player world? Well, that's where it gets a bit dodgy. When you're out and about in the world of Atlantica, you'll see other players running hither and thither, and wandering mobs shuffling about, much like every other MMO. It's just a single human figure, though, representing each player, even though it's really a group of up to nine. And a single monster figure represents a group of monsters, generally three to six or thereabouts in my experience. And, when a player engages a monster, both figures just stand there with a little sword icons over them to indicate that they're fighting. If you stood nearby, you'd see the monster keel over dead a few minutes later (actually, I think you can right-click on the mob and choose to observe the battle, haven't done that myself though). Additionally, I haven't seen any aggressive hostile monsters yet - they all just wander around and wait for you to attack them. At first I thought this might be because I was low-level (given that many MMOs don't make you deal with aggressive enemies at first), but I'm 34 now and no sign of any change!

This adds up to a somewhat less than immersive world. It feels very game-y, moving from zone to zone, ignoring the hordes of monsters that you're not interested in fighting, and then activating the turn-based combat against those that you do want to kill.

Still to come: my thoughts on how Atlantica approaches some other standard MMO tropes, also its PvP, and the deal with the interaction between free-to-play and the item mall.

Next post in this series: More on Atlantica Online

Monday, February 1, 2010

Many people are enjoying Allods. Me, not so much.

So Keen, from Keen & Graev's, wrote a nice piece entitled “Max Level in Allods Online: The Adventure is just beginning...” He has been hitting the Allods Online beta pretty hard, and has written a number of interesting posts about it - and as that title suggests, he's pretty impressed by the game. So I was maybe a little impolitic in saying:

..I’ve spent quite some hours in the various phases of closed beta, and while it’s all very competently done, I find it absolutely 100% bland, derivative and boring. I’m struggling to say there’s even a single element that I have seen in Allods which is in any way interesting to me, given that I’ve already played WoW, LOTRO, EQ2, WAR and various other fantasy MMORPGs. I certainly can’t imagine ever playing through Allods long enough to get anywhere near its endgame. Maybe the world needs another race/class/level quest-to-endgame-and-then-PvP sword & sorcery themepark MMO. But I don’t.

Back when I first mentioned Allods in passing, my feelings were reasonably positive. And when a number of commenters on Keen's post suggested that the Empire faction was the one to play if you wanted a change from the standard sword & sorcery setting, I was reminded that I did indeed play Empire on my first spell of closed beta.

When I came back for closed beta round 4, though, I played the League faction (an Elf Demonologist, to be precise), and if the Empire is "a far cry from the usual small village in a lightly forested, lightly hilly piece of Olde Englishe countryside," the League certainly is not. Once I was out of the introductory zone and approaching the city of Novograd, I was deep in cod-medieval "kill ten wolves .. kill ten bears .. kill ten boars" territory.

And I think that without the steampunk gloss of the Empire faction to distract me, I was really struck by just how uninteresting the game itself was, to me. I put in a day of pretty solid play on CB#4, and I just don't think there was anything in the gameplay that made me think "wow, that's fresh."

Select from two factions - same as WoW, WAR, EQ2, etc. Select a race. Select a class. Same as pretty much every MMO in history. You've got a button bar with a few abilities. You've got a health bar and a mana bar. Same as everything else. There's a guy standing in front of you offering a quest. You do quests, and the combat they entail involves targeting monsters and tapping your ability buttons until they die. You level up. Levelling up allows you to pick a stat to increase and a talent point to spend - a system which, although it isn't the same as any recent MMO I've played, is much the same as Diablo II. Add in some rep grinds with items to buy at various rep levels - just like WoW and LOTRO - and I was yawning.

Crafting I didn't really get to test out. I intended to try tailoring on my Demonologist, so I took dismantling first, in order to get some cloth to tailor with.. and then discovered that you only get one tradeskill unless you spend hundreds of gold to get access to a second. So I can't comment on that area of the game.

Look, it's all very slick and polished - and it's free to play - so I'm sure a lot of people will enjoy it. The endgame of astral ship combat does sound fresh, if you can get that far. But I've probably played ten or more sword & sorcery MMOs, to various degrees, and I really need something different if it's to stand any chance of luring me away.

Coming up next - a game which probably won't capture me long-term, but which is undeniably different from the competition: Atlantica Online.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Intercontinental Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games

Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires has written a piece about "Enforced Localization" in MMOs, and his experiences as a Scot playing MMOs both nocturnally and in more normal hours.

I had my own slice of localization chaos in World of Warcraft. I'm in Australia, and when I started playing at release, there were no Oceanic timezone servers, just the US west/central/east ones. So I started up on Blackrock, a US west server that was adopted as the "unofficial Aussie server" by a number of large forums.

There was heaps of activity there, indeed so much that Blackrock became horribly overcrowded and had free transfers off the server opened up in one of the first rounds of server transfers Blizzard offered.

My friends and I jumped ship to Daggerspine, which would prove to be my WoW home for a number of years. Our social guild merged with a few others to form a cross-timezone raiding guild, <TDA>. We raided serious 40-man on Friday and Saturday evening server time, which was Saturday and Sunday afternoon Australian-time. And with Daggerspine having quite a large Australian, New Zealander and Singaporean population, there was no shortage of recruits in both timezones.

However, roughly a year after WoW's release (October 22nd, 2005, according to WoWWiki), Blizzard launched the first of the Oceanic servers. A few of us rolled Horde characters on Frostmourne to see what it was like but didn't stick around beyond the mid-20's.

But while our raiding on Daggerspine continued quite well throughout 2006, we should have known that the writing was on the wall. When The Burning Crusade landed, with its switch to 25-man raids as the largest PvE group, we thought "OK, let's have separate US and Aussie raid teams, and we can raid weeknights, rather than just the small slice of the week that works for both sides."

What actually followed was a slow slide into fail for the Aussie side. It was great at first - 10-man Karazhan being the first raid content of the expansion, we had no trouble assembling 10 top Aussie players and as I recall, we left the guild's US raid team in our dust when it came to clearing Kara. But we simply never managed to get 25-man raids up and running seriously.

With Wrath of the Lich King, the Aussie arm of the guild split off to form a fresh separate guild, <Rule Thirty Four>, to seriously reboot and make a big push at it. It worked well at first - the renewed focus and enthusiasm was great, and we cleared all 25-man content in 3.0. Downing Sarth+3D, in particular, was one of the most satisfying kills of my raiding career. But moving forward, the ever-increasing shortage of Oceanic players on Daggerspine began to bite. We did clear Ulduar, but it was a chore, with raids cancelled due to lack of players not being uncommon, and when we came to look at hardmodes, it was apparent we simply did not have 25 skilled, geared and dedicated players, nor any real prospect of recruiting them.

At this point, a bunch of our most serious players said "screw this" and transferred to Oceanic servers to join more hardcore guilds. I resigned myself to the fact that "the band had broken up," so to speak, because I pretty much felt that I'd rather not raid at all, than raid with a bunch of strangers, after playing with the same team for so many years. Seems everyone else came to the same conclusion, though, because it wasn't long until they all said "let's reform on Frostmourne."

So there I was. On Frostmourne, the original Oceanic server. I transferred just one character over, my priest main - and, being drunk when I did it, I forgot to load up with cash, so I only had about 2000g of my bankroll with me. We formed <Rule Thirty Four> anew, started 10-man raiding while we waited for the 3.3 patch to arrive, and the moved into 10-man Icecrown Citadel.

And a few weeks ago now, we had recruited enough people to get back up into 25-mans. Now? Six bosses down in ICC-25. All-guild 25-man runs. Good new people, who are both good players and fun people to game with. Damn, I really wish we had jumped ship back when the Oceanic servers first launched. That's all I can say.