Jason Winter

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Jason Winter has held several positions in the tabletop and video-gaming industry since 1996, including writer, editor, marketing coordinator, and game designer. He's the former editor of Beckett Massive Online Gamer and almost considers himself competent in PvP. In addition to his work with Gamebreaker.tv, he also blogs about video games at http://jasonwinter.wordpress.com.

Blizzard’s Hearthstone blends traditional CCG mechanics with the world’s most popular MMO

You have to give Blizzard credit.

For all the talk and rumors and speculation about what the company would reveal at PAX East, I don’t think anyone guessed “online collectible card game based on World of Warcraft.” Hey, at least it wasn’t Diablo III for PlayStation 4, right?

It’s always dangerous to venture into comments sections, but I’ve done that on a handful of gaming sites, including this one, and the reaction to Hearthstone seems to be generally positive. There are a few “WTF Blizzard???”s, but there are a larger number of “This sounds cool”s, at least from my viewpoint.

At the very least, very few people are screaming about what an awful idea it is, which has to come as something of a relief, considering how recent gaming news has been and the often vitriolic reactions gamers have to anything that even remotely offends their sensibilities.

I’ve played upwards of 120 collectible card games, with around 25 or so of them in something I would consider a serious manner, and I used to be the associate editor of Scrye, the leading CCG magazine in the industry.

I’ve also worked for two CCG companies – well, one CCG company and one sports card company that decided to dabble in CCGs – including being the co-lead designer on two games. (Disclaimer: Everything you didn’t like about those games was done by the other guys.)

So I like to think I kinda-sorta know my way around this field, far more than my dubious expertise in MMORPGs would suggest. I’ve seen CCGs come and go, seen hugely hyped games fail and seen tiny ones succeed. And my overall opinion of Hearthstone, based on what we’ve seen so far?

world of warcraft mmorpg mmorpg     Hearthstone: The Next Big Thing?

More of the same… but that’s OK

I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that every CCG to come out over the last 10 years or so has touted itself as “easy to learn, but with enough strategy to please advanced players” or the equivalent thereof. It’s the classic “trying to appeal to everyone” line that we’ve seen, in various forms, in the descriptions of MMORPGs, and it was part of Hearthstone‘s exposé, as well.

It certainly is simple, at its core. The basic structure of the game is similar to a streamlined Magic: The Gathering, with simplified mana resources, a common trait in modern CCGs. Even MTG creator Richard Garfield has gone on record as saying that if he had the game to do over again, he would do away with land cards.

Hearthstone‘s general similarity to industry leader Magic is the exact same sort of thing MMO gamers lament when the latest “WoW clone” hits, but this doesn’t typically arouse the same ire among CCG fans.

The reason? In a physical CCG, you have to compute everything manually, so having familiar mechanics makes the basics of the game easily recognizable and allows you to quickly move on to more advanced styles of play.

In an MMO, most of the computations are done for you by computers, so the basic mechanics of the game require little thought. As a result, players look for more beyond those basics and when they don’t find them, they tend to rightly get upset at an experience that’s essentially no different from the one they’ve already been playing for years.

In other words, Hearthstone is a “Magic clone” as much as Rift or SWTOR are “WoW clones.” It’s not exactly the same, but it’s similar enough at its core that players of one can easily adapt to the other – and that’s the idea. In fact, it’s a strength, and very few non-Magic-style CCGs have survived, much less thrived, especially over the last decade.

world of warcraft mmorpg mmorpg     Hearthstone: The Next Big Thing?

Beyond the basics

Once you get past the relative simplicity of the mechanics, what else does Hearthstone offer? Is it really complex enough or offer enough strategy to please hardcore gamers?

We’ve only seen a limited subset of cards so far, but there seems to be a fair amount of variety. I imagine that high-level strategy will include intricate combos and devious tactics, similar to any CCG, that give highly intelligent players much-deserved advantages.

Most of these tactics will likely involve concepts such as resource management, direct damage, control, creature zergs, etc. It won’t be particularly special or unique, as compared to other CCGs, but it should nicely satisfy that strategic itch.

(Before StarCraft introduced the race, we used to call a certain type of zerg deck in Magic “white weenie,” and no, that wasn’t a sexual joke.)

What Hearthstone can do differently from its cardstock competitors is include elements that are difficult – or even impossible – for a physical CCG to replicate.

Take the simple card Sense Demons, which puts two random demons into a player’s hand from his deck. You wouldn’t see these kinds of cards in a non-offline CCG, because the means of selecting random cards would have been clunky at best.

Keeping track of minion health is another item that you don’t see in most CCGs, because it either requires some kind of tokens or memory. In fact, CCG designers often look to minimize or eliminate so-called “memory issues,” so as to prevent mistakes or arguments. (“Your creature only has one hit point left!” “No, it has two!”)

But that’s the exact sort of thing that a computer is perfectly suited for. Probably the best-known MMO-CCG crossover, SOE’s Legends of Norrath, didn’t often utilize these kinds of mechanics because – at least early on – there were aspirations of porting the game over to a physical format.

A lot has also been made of the special effects, like voice acting, animation, and so on, which are also nice window dressing for an electronic game. But it’s the “can’t be done anywhere else” powers that I think will set Hearthstone apart and open up new strategies that are truly unlike any that have ever been seen before in CCGs.

world of warcraft mmorpg mmorpg     Hearthstone: The Next Big Thing?

Does compute

But does Hearthstone even need to innovate on the strategy front? As previously mentioned, many Magic clones do just fine, and a Magic clone paired with World of Warcraft seems like a license to print money.

There’s talk of integrating Hearthstone with WoW in multiple ways, the most obvious of which would seem to be “loot cards.” Present in Cryptozoic’s World of Warcraft TCG, these were rare cards with a code that could be entered into your WoW account to provide a unique piece of loot for your character. The most impressive were the mounts, some of which sold on eBay for triple-digit sums.

Then there’s the payment method, which sounds to me like the best deal of all, and something that definitely couldn’t be replicated by a physical game.

It sounds like you’ll get a basic starter deck for free and then can earn extra packs either by paying $1 for five cards (not confirmed, but expected) or by earning points in game that will allow you to buy packs.

This sounds not unlike the method we’ve seen in other “friendly” F2P games like League of Legends and PlanetSide 2. No content is gated, and it would be possible – though slow – to play Hearthstone and become an expert player with a vast collection without spending a single dime. And all of that doesn’t take the awesome-looking crafting system into account.

I think Hearthstone will do just fine, with strong potential to be another great success for Blizzard. Creativity will be found less in the game mechanics themselves and more in how it’s presented and how Blizzard leverages its status as a computer game first and a collectible card game second to drive innovation.

Divided We Fall

MMORPG Servers And Factions Do More Harm Than Good

To whom do you owe your MMORPG allegiance to? Your server? Your faction? Nobody?

Perhaps the better question to ask would be, with whom do you want to play?

Gary, Quintlyn, and I had a rather heated exchange in voice chat the other day, when talking about faction restrictions in The Secret World. That game is far friendlier than many others when it comes to defining who you can and can’t play with. Servers are only loosely defined, and you can group up in PvE with members of any of the three factions (Dragon, Illuminati, or Templars).

The sticking point came when we were talking about guilds. You can’t form a multi-faction guild, so that means that Q and I (Dragons) can’t be in a guild with Gary (Templar). Ostensibly, this is because we’re all technically on different sides and shouldn’t be communicating all our secret agendas to each other.

Q and Gary think that’s awesome. I think it’s a bunch of crap that hurts the game far more than it helps it.

mmorpg     Divided We Fall

Splitsville

Maybe it’s because I didn’t “grow up” playing World of Warcraft, or any other strictly faction-split game, but I think that, as much as people naturally lean toward solo content in MMOs, a developer should do the absolute minimum possible to prevent players from wanting to actually, you know, play together.

Splitting your player base can come in many forms. As mentioned, The Secret World isn’t too bad about this, and clever players have found ways around the no-mixed-factions guild issue by forming private chat channels, but many other MMOs either strictly split up their players via servers or factions, limiting the number of people you have available to play with at any given time, usually just to satisfy a storyline framework.

Some MMO devs have even begun to realize that levels are another divisive factor. Games like City of Heroes sought to minimize this via sidekicking, and Guild Wars 2 also levels characters up or down – going as far as to use the superhero-y term “sidekick” – for certain content.

Why did you leave your last MMO? For many people, the answer is, “Because there wasn’t anyone to play with.” So why should games put in barriers that prevent people from playing together? It’s like they intentionally want their player base to dwindle.

Don’t get me wrong, I like story in my MMOs. I want them to be more than just places where I kill stuff to gain loot. I want there to be a reason for my guys to fight their guys.

But it’s not that hard to tweak story to allow characters of diametrically opposed factions to work together. Anyone who’s read or watched A Game of Thrones sees how quickly alliances form and dissolve, and how characters who were friends, or at least cordial, one minute are trying to kill each other the next, or vice versa.

Server splits are usually a little more technology-based, and if a dev can’t figure out how to make one-server technology work for their game, I give a little bit of a pass. But if they can do it, they should.

mmorpg     Divided We Fall

United we stand…

Some people, like my aforementioned colleagues, like the idea of strictly defined factions or even server-based communities. I can see the reasoning behind that. You want to play or win for your server, or for your faction. You feel like you represent that segment of the population, like you’re a part of something larger than you, your party, or your guild.

And sometimes it’s a good idea. Pretty much any game with open-world PvP, like Guild Wars 2 or PlanetSide 2, or various PvP servers in other two-faction games like Rift or World of Warcraft, requires those kind of splits.

But games without those features, or which marginalize them, like the way Guild Wars 2 segregates its World vs. World, don’t need such divisive policies. That’s my opinion, at least. I feel that having a robust and healthy player base matters more than “server pride.”

(Along those same lines, I think the way Elder Scrolls Online is doing things – only letting your experience your faction’s area and story until you reach max level – is a very bad idea that will divide its player base in not two, but three ways.)

Here’s the thing about gamers, or really any kind of obsessive fan base: They want to keep it small and personal. I’ve seen this in groups of gamers in all sorts of genres: MMOs, trading-card games, role-playing games, etc. They’re not openly hostile to new people (usually), but they’re comfortable with their small and familiar group dynamic and want to keep it that way.

The problem is, that’s antithetical to keeping a group actually going. If you only have 20 people in your clique, and two leave, you’ve lost 10% of your numbers. Two more leave and that’s another 10%. If you don’t boost your numbers somehow, soon you’ll only be down to a few diehards, or you won’t have anyone at all left.

MMO companies – the smart ones, at least – realize this. It’s a common business maxim that states, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” Stagnation is death. If you’re a new player who wants to find people to play with on your new server, it would be better to be able to choose from all the players in the game, not X guilds or players divided by the number of servers or factions in the game. If you don’t find those people, you’re less likely to stick with the game, and that’s no good for anyone, players or developers.

In short, a gaming group’s desire to keep its community small and personal – and divided – is at direct odds with the business desires of an MMO developer, which should, realistically, also be the goal of the player: to keep the game healthy, well-populated – and ultimately, functioning.

mmorpg     Divided We Fall

The more the merrier

I like to think of the big picture. More players are better for the game as a whole. And players will be more likely to play if they can play with who they want, when they want. I think that, like many MMO conventions, we’ve grown to assume that servers and factions are required components of any MMO experience. They’re not. They’re just what we’ve had for so long, many of us have trouble imagining anything else.

There still is room in a server-less and mostly faction-less MMO for group pride. PvP is one way. Quintlyn and I will always go on about how the Dragons are the best faction in The Secret World, and I hear plenty of mock racism in Guild Wars 2 chat. “Asura are the best.” “My charr eats asura for breakfast.” “What about sylvari?” “No thanks, charr only eat meat.”

I’m not saying games shouldn’t have factions, or even separate servers. And it might not work for every game. It’s hard to imagine the Jedi and Sith working together in Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example.

But MMO developers should seek to minimize, or even eliminate these splits whenever possible. They should serve as a framework to enhance the story, not an artificial barrier to limit who you can play with.

Put it this way: How many MMOs have you quit because you couldn’t find anyone to play with? I bet it’s more than the number you’ve quit because you didn’t like its faction dynamics or how much you could brag about “server firsts.”

TESO Hands On

By now, you’ve probably checked out the Elder Scrolls Online coverage at various places around the Internet. While the coverage has answered some questions, it’s raised several more, and we’d like you to chime in with your thoughts on the following topics:

Are divided factions a good idea?

In his article, Richie Procopio comes at the ZeniMax Online Studios dev team, Paul Sage in particular, with a very pointed query about factions. The response wasn’t exactly what he was hoping for.

[quote]I wonder, however, whether it’s necessary to segregate the population at all provided folks are in the non-PvP areas. I understand ZeniMax’s desire for players to feel attached to their chosen alliance, but it seems clunky to allow people to cooperate only after they’ve reached max level. [/quote]

It’s a valid concern (and one that I’m prepping an entirely different article for). Is it worth dividing your player base for the sake of story and lore?

Do you think you’ll find it hard to keep your friends together if you can’t play together until you reach max level? Or are you OK with ZeniMax “forcing” you to make characters of the same faction in order to play together throughout your leveling experience?

the elder scrolls online 2 mmorpg     Elder Scrolls Online: What Do You Think?

Do you like the idea of no cooldowns?

As Scott Hawkes reported,

[quote]There are no cooldowns for abilities; combat in ESO is a resource based management system. Those tanks going too far in focusing on increasing their Health stat will find themselves short on Stamina to unleash damage and maintain threat due to being starved of the necessary resource. [/quote]

Use of the stamina meter makes ESO sound rather like playing a rogue in World of Warcraft or a thief in Guild Wars 2. Your cooldown is limited (or nonexistent) but you have a pool that you can draw from to power your effects. When it runs out… well…

It does keep in line with abilities Elder Scrolls games, which have no cooldowns and are instead limited by mana or stamina pools, but as any veteran of the series can tell you, that just opens up potion spam to keep you in fighting shape.

Theoretically, in the MMO, there will be some kind of cooldown on potions to keep you from chugging them one after the other, but does that itself deviate from the Elder Scrolls establishment?

the elder scrolls online 2 mmorpg     Elder Scrolls Online: What Do You Think?

Do you really care about first-person view?

Now that first-person view – with hands, even! – is confirmed, the question is: So what? How much time have you spent using first-person view in an MMO? Except for taking screenshots, I’d guess the answer is “virtually none.”

Truth is, if this wasn’t an Elder Scrolls MMO, people wouldn’t ask for – if not outright demand – it here, either. People still want to play Skyrim Online, even though each passing day and reveal proves that that’s not what we’re getting.

First-person view works well enough in single-player games, where you don’t have to worry quite as much about your environment and what might be hitting you from the sides or behind. And it’s quite natural for games that require precise aim, like shooters.

I imagine that I’ll use first-person view in Elder Scrolls Online as an occasional novelty, but not during any real, dangerous fight. What about you?

There’s one more Neverwinter beta, starting this Friday, March 22 at noon PDT, and it’s going to be a doozy.

The big addition to this event is the inclusion of PvP, with players getting their first chance to bash each other’s skulls in — and you should take advantage of the gore-splattered action while you can. It’s been previously announced that PvP would be added to the game after launch, but maybe, if we all wish upon a broken, blood-soaked star, the testing will go well enough that Perfect World decides to include it at launch.

In addition to PvP, players will get their first taste of the Great Weapon Fighter, who’s sure to cut a swath of two-handed mayhem through his enemies. An increased level cap of 50 and two new zones – Pirates’ Skyhold and Icespire Peak Adventure Zones — round out the weekend’s agenda.

[quote]“The response from the Neverwinter community and members of the press who participated in our previous Beta Weekends has been amazing so far,” said Lead Producer Andy Velasquez. “On behalf of the entire development team at Cryptic Studios, I’d like to thank all Beta Weekend players for their feedback and support in making Neverwinter the best free MMORPG around!”[/quote]

Though Neverwinter will be free-to-play, there’s still time to get in on the various Founder’s Packs available for the game that offer a variety of perks and bonuses, as well as guaranteed access to all betas. Otherwise, you can sign up for the beta on the Neverwinter site and hope to get selected.

So what are you looking forward to the most in this beta? PvP or the Great Weapon Fighter? Or maybe both, at the same time? Or are you still exploring the rest of the game, the city of Neverwinter itself, or trying your hand at content creation via the Foundry?

Saints Row IV Coming in August

Deep Silver today announced the impending release of the newest entry in its pimp-slappin’ series, Saints Row IV, coming to consoles and PC in North America on Aug. 20, and in all other territories on Aug. 23.

The subhead on the press release? “Saints Row IV Announced, Bitchez.” Classy, no?

In this installment, the leader of the Saints has been elected President of the United States, which sounds like an arguably better version of reality than what we’ve had for the past decade or so. There’s an alien invasion to deal with, sci-fi weaponry to exploit, superpowers to be abused, and probably plenty of bitches and hos to slap around — and we’re not just talking about Congress.

[quote]In the next open-world installment of Saints Row, Volition continues the story of the Third Street Saints by elevating their status to the highest level – the leaders of the free world. In Saints Row IV, the head honcho of the Saints has been elected to the Presidency of the United States. But the Saints are just getting started. Now the larger-than-life insanity of the Saints series gets a new twist with a catastrophic alien invasion, and the aliens have transported the Saints to a bizarro-Steelport simulation. Wield gargantuan superpowers and fight to free humanity from alien granddaddy Zinyak’s mental grasp. Escape the simulation that’s trapped the Saints crew, or die trying.

Saints Row IV lets players delve into an arsenal of alien weaponry and technology that will turn each Saint into an ultimate entity of destruction. Utilize out-of-this-world superpowers to fight all the way to the top. With intensified action and enhanced customization, players can use their newfound superpowers and leap over buildings, outrun the fastest sports cars, or send enemies flying with telekinesis in the greatest, most insane installment of Saints Row yet.[/quote]

For ‘MERICA!

Is the Guild Wars 2 culling problem in World vs. World about to be solved?

That’s the claim made by ArenaNet developer Habib Loew in the most recent GW2 blog post, fittingly titled “The End of Culling.” Loew reminds everyone that culling — meaning the client not reporting nearby characters — will be removed in the March patch.

But the reason culling existed in the first place was to reduce bandwidth and help the game run more smoothly. So if all those characters are now going to be reported to the client, how will ArenaNet prevent the game from running like molasses?

Players will have the option of three settings for determining whether characters render in large fights. They are, as Loew describes:

  • High resolution models - These are the high-res character models that you’re all already familiar with.
  • Lower resolution fallback models - These are the models that we’ve been using as placeholders in WvW while the hi-res models load. They differ depending on race and armor class, though human, sylvari, and norn share the same model.
  • Nameplates only - We don’t render the model at all and instead only show the nameplate for that character.

Players can set how many nearby characters render with a model and how many with a nameplate and the quality of those models.

TL;DR: You likely won’t see every character in a big fight, rendered in stunningly beautiful graphic detail, but you’ll at least have some indicator — even if it’s just a nameplate — that they’re there, so you can select them to attack… or just run away, if you’re a coward.

On the one hand, this implementation seems to fix the issue, at least in terms of functionality. But it’s also a little sad that the dev team has to sacrifice some of the beauty and grace of their artistic design to make it work.

What do you think? Does this solution for culling satisfy you?

PlanetSide 2 Patch Adds VR Training and More

A new PlanetSide 2 patch hit this morning, adding a ton of features to SOE‘s three-faction shooter.

The biggest new addition to the game is a VR training center, where new and experienced soldiers can find their footing before being thrust into the thick of battle. All weapons and vehicles are unlocked, with indoor and outdoor shooting ranges for players to test their skills.

While in the VR training area, players can’t harm each other or become weapons-locked, but, obviously, no experience or stats are accumulated.

Other major changes include:

  • Most explosives now do greater damage near their source but the damage tapers off more quickly. No more “I’m sure I was outside that grenade’s blast radius…”
  • Similarly, most vehicle weapons with explosive rounds have had their blast radii reduced.
  • Total ammo capacity has been increased for nearly all weapons. The only listed exception is the Terran Republic T32 Bull, which had its ammo capacity decreased to 240.
  • All vehicles had their torque increased, which should result in higher top speeds when driving up inclines.
  • “Removed a non-functional capture point from the Esamir Biolabs.” “Guys, we’ve been standing here for 10 minutes, why isn’t this damn thing flipping?”
  • The minimap can now be zoomed manually, by use of the ] and [ keys.
  • A Flash can now carry a passenger, who can use his personal weapons.
  • The respawn screen has been reworked, merging with the map screen’s capabilities and listing respawn locations on the left.
  • “Vehicle horns should now be able to be heard from significantly greater distances.” BEEP BEEP!

A VR training center has been one of the most-requested features for PlanetSide 2 since its launch, and has always been described as a top priority for the dev team. Does its addition make you more likely to check the game out, or to get back into it if you played before?

You can read the full patch notes here.

GameStop VP Prison

GameStop embezzlement case reaches verdict

Screwing over your corporation in a game like EVE Online? Really cool and a sign of ruthless cleverness and ambition.

Doing the same thing to your real-life corporation? Still clever and ambitious, but somewhat less cool.

Former GameStop Texas executive Frank Christopher Olivera was sentenced last week to 51 months of prison time for embezzling $1.7 million from GameStop to the fictitious Cloud Communications LLC. According to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office:

[quote]Olivera directed GameStop to send the payments from GameStop’s offices in Grapevine to Cloud Communications LLC in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, Nevada and in Canada. In addition to creating a fictitious company, Olivera also created a fictitious person, “Jennifer Miller,” to serve as the point of contact at Cloud Communications. Upon receipt of payments from GameStop, Olivera would deposit the checks into a bank account held by Cloud Communications and then would transfer the fraudulently obtained funds into his personal bank account.[/quote]

As previously reported, Olivera was let go from GameStop in April 2011 and could have faced up to 20 years of prison time.

Maybe after he’s released he can trade in his worn-out prison oranges for some new duds?

SimCity disaster launch unlikely to affect long-term strategy

It’s been an unbearable six whole days since SimCity launched – or at least, tried to launch – sending shockwaves of righteous rage through the gaming community. The way I hear it, EA will never sell a game again, not after a disaster worse than the Titanic, the Hindenburg, and the Star Wars Holiday Special combined.

Bull, I say.

If you’re one of the people who bought SimCity on launch day and are currently among its most vitriolic detractors, I put forth that the reason you feel that way is because you love SimCity that much more than the average fan.

What will that mean when SimCity 6 comes out? You’ll ignore it because “FU, EA”?

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of folks out there who are angry enough take that approach, ones who aren’t so completely devoted to the franchise or who are sturdy enough to stick to their guns.

And a lot of people simply don’t care for the “forced multiplayer” aspect of the game and would have rejected it out of hand, even if the servers worked just fine.

But I think enough people will have put this incident far enough behind them or will adapt to – and even possibly begin to like – the online gameplay elements that the current game’s troubles will make only the smallest of dents in the next’s overall sales numbers.

Don’t think so? It’s already happened. With a Maxis/EA game, no less.

pc games     SimCity: Flamed Out

Virulent Spore

Spore launched in 2008 with DRM tool SecuROM and faced similar vilification from gamers. Barely a week after its launch, 2,016 of its 2,216 ratings on Amazon were of the one-star variety, mimicking the online blasting that SimCity has received.

This article, which quotes a former Maxis employee on the SecuROM/Spore fiasco seems like it could have just as easily been printed last week:

[quote]Also, they have thrown away a lot of the goodwill that gamers have towards Will Wright. I understand why they think the DRM is a good idea, but they haven’t even tried to make it ‘good’ DRM, by defending their position, making it clear when and if the DRM will be removed, or abandoning it the day it got pirated.

From a PR point of view, this is a disaster, as they have come across like they have their fingers in their ears and aren’t listening. Ultimately I think it’s sad, because this was a very original, high budget PC game release that could have been a great shot in the arm for PC gaming. Everyone loses as a result of this, EA, Maxis, and PC gamers. the only people celebrating this are the people who make a dishonest living from selling advertising impressions on pirate websites. It’s a totally avoidable disaster.[/quote]

Clearly, that “goodwill that gamers have towards Will Wright” wasn’t diminished much, if initial impressions of SimCity‘s sales are to be believed.

Going away from EA/Maxis, we have Ubisoft, long the primary villain in the DRM world. So much was the company and its DRM loathed that Assassin’s Creed II sold nine million copies. Oh, the horror. People hated Ubisoft so much that (DRM-free) Assassin’s Creed III notched seven million sales by the end of 2012. Short memories or a response to DRM removal? Or just a lot of rage about nothing?

And then there’s Diablo III. Error 37s and all, it sold 3.5 million copies in its first week and 12 million in all of 2012. That means that, even after its problems were well known in its first seven days, it still sold 8.5 million copies. If Diablo IV sells fewer than 10 million copies, I’ll eat my hat.

pc games     SimCity: Flamed Out

Fail Wail

It’s true that SimCity‘s defenders point out that the online-only mode is a required game function and a part of the design – not an oppressive DRM scheme. It’s possible that the developers envisioned it that way, dubious a design decision as it might have been.

But in the lightning-fast – or is that cheetah-fast? – world of the Internet, perception becomes reality. To the majority of dissatisfied players, the always-online requirement is DRM, meant to treat paying customers like criminals, and that’s the end of the story. EA/Maxis can’t spin this in a positive direction, no matter how hard they try or even what facts they offer forth.

The phrase “vote with your wallets” gets bandied around a lot right now, but the fact of it is that the number of people who are pissed off enough about the SimCity debacle to not purchase the next version – or even this one, once things are straightened out a little more – is probably very miniscule.

And it’s not like bad sales of the game – if they are realized – will “kill” EA, which has plenty of other cash cows, like Madden and FIFA to weather the storm of any one bad release. You not buying the next EA game will kill EA like you quitting World of Warcraft “killed” that game.

There’s not likely a whole lot you can do about this. By virtue of reading this, you’re in the minority of gamers who have the patience to get to the end of a 1,000-word article, which makes you very much unlike the types with the short memories and attention span of a gnat who will flock to retail outlets, physical or online, to pick up the next installment of a series that they loathed with such venom just a few years back.

In other words, that same fervor with which gamers demand their product right freaking now is used against them by companies that know that there will be an overwhelming number of zero-hour purchases that instantly swell their coffers, even if a relatively small number of people exhibit instant buyer’s remorse.

pc games     SimCity: Flamed Out

Money talks… quietly

If I had any advice to give, it would be to not put yourself through the same wringer next time. Because there will be a next time, whether it’s the next SimCity, Diablo, or even your favorite MMO that has its usual slate of issues at launch and beyond. If you’ve waited years for a game, waiting a couple more weeks won’t hurt you, and, if a game like SimCity‘s connectivity issues are any indication, you might not be missing anything by delaying your purchase anyway.

And if you really want to “vote with your wallet” without completely cutting yourself off, don’t buy direct. If it’s EA you want to spite, don’t buy from Origin. Buy from a third-party retail outlet, like Amazon or Best Buy, who takes a cut from every sale.

Don’t let your fanaticism work against you. Yes, a company that takes your money should give you a fully functioning product in return. But if you keep making the same mistakes in your purchasing habits, you’re just setting yourself up for inevitable frustration and are learning as much from your errors in judgment as EA and Maxis are from theirs.

TESO Full Voice Acting

Full voice acting confirmed for The Elder Scrolls Online

Previous “Ask Us Anything” sessions for The Elder Scrolls Online have been, in this writer’s opinion at least, rather lackluster, especially in terms of gameplay details.

This week’s installment makes up for that in a big way, as the team at ZeniMax Online Studios reveals several juicy details about the game and its presentation.

Full voice acting. As if people weren’t drawing enough comparisons between TESO and Star Wars: The Old Republic, now there’s this. BTW, TESO‘s still not using the HERO Engine.

Automatically sorted inventory, similar to what’s seen in Skyrim and Oblivion. Hallelujah. Why more MMOs don’t take this tack, I’ll never know. In addition to sorting based on type, like armor or weapon, more options will be available, such as sorting by value or when acquired.

Light-armor tanks. While ZeniMax says you’d rather use heavy armor in close-quarters fighting, the option is apparently there “to increase your health to the max and carefully choose your abilities” and create “a light armor character that would last a good, long time on the front lines.”

Narrowly specialized characters. While the skill system would seem to reward hybridization, there should be plenty of options for people wanting to specialize along a single track, such as exclusively being a healer.

Equipping weapons. The Q&A confirms that a system will be in place similar to Skyrim‘s, where you can equip weapons, spells, and shields on a per-hand basis, and you’ll also be able to easily switch between builds — something the single-player games have generally lacked.

Moral choices. While not as black-and-white as, say, choosing to represent the Light or Dark Side in SWTOR, there will be some “tough choices” your character will have to address which might range from having a minor effect on the story to having “lasting consequences.”

So which of these features sound the most appealing to you? And what else would you like to see in the game?

Nine Teso Races

Elder Scrolls Online lore is a vast and voluminous thing, encompassing hundreds of in-game books and hours upon hours of spoken words from the previous games in the series. Each race has its own unique history – some of it bloody, some of it humorous, and some of it just plain weird.

We’ve dug up some interesting tidbits for each of the nine playable races in The Elder Scrolls Online. Maybe you’ll find a bit of information that makes you want to play a particular race or explore its homeland – or to steer clear.

Warning: Potential spoilers for those who haven’t played the previous Elder Scrolls games ahead.

mmorpg elder scrolls online mmorpg     The 9 Races Of The Elder Scrolls Online

Redguards

All Redguards are natural warriors, but the best of the best are the sword-singers. The best of those were the Ansei, or “Saints of the Sword,” who “wandered the country side engaging in battle, writing wrongs, and seeking to end the strife.”

In addition to being masters of the blade, the greatest of the Ansei could form a sword from the essence of their own spirit: the Shehai, or “spirit-sword.”

If that doesn’t sound like a special racial ability, I don’t know what does!

Bretons

Throughout much of its history, including TESO‘s Second Era, the Breton home province of High Rock isn’t a unified kingdom. Rather, it’s home to several smaller domains and city-states, as exemplified by the autobiography of King Emeric.

High Rock is home to the Adamantine Tower, the oldest known structure in all of Tamriel, supposedly created by the godlike aedra to discuss small matters like how to make the world.

For my money, “Ancient Tower of the Gods” sounds like a fantastic setting for a dungeon.

Orcs

Technically, Orcs are elves. Crazy, huh?

The proper name of the Orcish race is “Orsimer.” “Mer” is the suffix for elvish races – or maybe just races with pointy ears – like the Dunmer (Dark Elves), Altmer (High Elves), and Bosmer (Wood Elves).

Then there are the Dwemer, who were the Dwarves, but they’re not around any more. Well, one of them is. Well, half of one of them is…

In any case, if you like playing elves but are tired of the traditional beautiful wizard/archer stereotype, try an Orc. Just don’t call one “Legolas.”

mmorpg elder scrolls online mmorpg     The 9 Races Of The Elder Scrolls Online

High Elves

If you don’t hate these guys enough for being asshats in Skyrim, one account from a diplomat in the First Era contains this delightful tidbit:

[quote]“High Elves consider themselves to be the only perfect race. Over hundreds of generations they have bred themselves into a racially pure line, and are now almost identical to one another in appearance.

The theory that the High Elves do not reproduce as quickly or as often as humans is false. Rather, and to my horror, they kill nine out of ten babies born to them in their obsession for purity.”[/quote]

Great guys, those High Elves…

Wood Elves

The weirdest thing about Wood Elves? They practice cannibalism. The weirdest thing about where they live? Their capital city walks around.

Described as the “walking city of trees,” Falinesti had, at the end of the Third Era “rooted itself for the first time in recorded history.” So, in theory, it should still be mobile in the time of The Elder Scrolls Online.

Whether and how ZeniMax will attempt to implement it remains to be seen. It would sure beat having to run back to a city to sell vendor trash or turn in quests… “In Soviet Valenwood, city runs to you.”

Khajiit

Just as there are dozens of breeds of cats in our world, there are 17 breeds of Khajiit, determined by the phases of Tamriel’s two moons when they are born. 16 of them are fairly common, though we’ve only seen a few breeds represented in Elder Scrolls games so far.

The 17th, the Mane, comes about only when both moons are in alignment with each other and, supposedly, a third moon appears.

Not surprisingly, the Khajiit revere the moons, and the potent drug moon sugar – and its refined form, skooma – is like catnip on steroids, driving Khajiit wild with ecstasy. It’s also good in coffee.

mmorpg elder scrolls online mmorpg     The 9 Races Of The Elder Scrolls Online

Nord

The Nords’ distrust of elves – which can be seen in the open racism in Windhelm – dates all the way back to the First Era, when the Nordic city of Sarthaal was the victim of a surprise attack by the elven peoples who had predated the Nords’ arrival.

These events are detailed in the Mages’ Guild quest line in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but the repercussions should be very evident in TESO, where the Dark Elves and Nords are united under the Ebonheart Pact.

In other words, the Ebonheart Pact should be the most fractious of factions – and it’s not like the Nords have any love for the Argonians, either.

Dark Elf

Slavery is a hot-button topic in America, so will we see it in the Dark Elves’ home province of Morrowind?

Slaves were a frequent sight in TES III, though the practice was apparently abolished shortly after the events of that game. The Dark Elves saw slavery as their right, and it was guaranteed by the Armistice with Tiber Septim in 2E 896 – which means it should be in full bloom during the events of TESO, three hundred years earlier.

At most, I think slavery will be relegated to the background of the game, and that we won’t be likely to see the slave pens or hear of the uncommon brutality that was evident in Morrowind. But if they’re going to remain true to the game’s history, ZeniMax can’t eliminate it entirely.

Argonian

As if being an inhospitable swampland isn’t enough of a deterrent to visiting the Black Marsh, the homeland of the Argonians, there’s also a virulent plague running through it.

One of the very few sets of firm dates we have for the time of The Elder Scrolls Online involves the Knahaten Flu, which is said to have run its course from the years 560 to 603 of the Second Era. TESO starts in the year 582.

The disease killed nearly all non-Argonian peoples in the Black Marsh, and one wonders if this will have an effect on characters traveling to the region. It’s even reported to have spread past Black Marsh, into other regions of Tamriel, so it could be a major storyline for all factions in the game.

If you’re a fan of all the history books you can find in a typical Elder Scrolls game, you’re in luck. ZeniMax Online Studios has made available on its website a fragmented autobiography of the Breton High King Emeric, leader of the Daggerfall Covenant, one of the three player factions in The Elder Scrolls Online.

The story follows Emeric from his days as a heavy dragoon and through two sieges of the capital city of Daggerfall itself, one of which was precipitated by his spurning of a rival king’s daughter to take her place as his queen.

The book closes on a note that sets the scene for the political climate of the MMORPG, commenting on the chaos in the Imperial province of Cyrodiil and sounding off about what needs to be done to set things right. Hint: It doesn’t involve harshly-worded letters:

[quote]These are terrible times, but our destiny lies before us as straight and true as the Reman roads: we must march on Cyrodiil, overthrow the false empress and all her brood, and restore the Empire of Tamriel. Then once more peace and justice will rule the provinces, rather than blood and fire.[/quote]

The story finishes out the trilogy of background materials for the leaders of the game’s three alliances, complementing works about the leader of the Aldmeri Dominion, Queen Ayrenn, and the Ebonheart Pact’s Jorunn the Skald-King.

Spawn creator touts Project Copernicus as 90% finished

Stop us if you’ve heard this before — one of the big names behind 38 Studios’ doomed Project Copernicus says that the game was amazing and virtually finished and someone would be crazy not to pick it up.

In an interview on Kotaku from Toy Fair, Spawn creator — and Copernicus Art Director — Todd McFarlane says that Curt Schilling “got it 90 yards” and it was only “10 yards away from the goal line.” Never mind that Schilling played baseball and not football.

[quote]That was the one that, to me, was going to raise the bar. And I’m hoping that, once all the dust settles, maybe somebody would be smart enough to come in there and pick up the pieces and just take it to the finish line.[/quote]

If I could pontificate for a moment… putting aside the question of quality, which is subjective, there seems to be no objective way to state that Copernicus was 90% complete, as McFarlane seems to claim. As one commenter on the Kotaku article states, having a working beta is about 50% of the job. It may seem like there’s not much left after that point, but as any experienced MMOer — much less MMO developer — knows that’s only the beginning.

And, as someone who’s done some programming himself, I can testify getting your code to compile correctly and run without errors is great — then you’re just down to making it run correctly, which is another chore in and of itself. And for games, there’s the added duty of making it be entertaining, which is another, more nebulous, milestone.

The notion that an art director with virtually no background in software development could label an MMORPG — which are among the most complex systems in all of gaming — as practically done seems more than a little dubious, even if it does come from someone as successful as McFarlane.

Video Game Board Games

Last week at New York International Toy Fair, USAopoly announced several upcoming board games based on video game properties, such as Trivial Pursuit: World of Warcraft and RISK: Mass Effect Galaxy at War Edition.

We thought this was only the tip of the iceberg and began to wonder what other video game properties – especially MMORPGs – would work well as board games. Here are some of the best video board game ideas we could come up with:

SWTOR Operation

Instead of extracting body parts, the object of the game is to extract money from your players in the most creative ways possible. Free game, but comes with half a tweezer; the other half must be purchased separately.

PlanetSide 2 Connect 4

Like regular Connect 4, but instead of an 8×8 matrix, it’s 800×800 and is for three players. Players must drop their tokens into the matrix from orbit.

Firefall: The Board Game

We’re not sure how it plays, but it still says “In Development” on the finished box product.

World of Warcraft Chutes & Ladders

Land on one space and subscribers go up by 700,000. Land on another, and they go down by 400,000. Only one move may be made every three months.

The Secret World Scrabble

All the tiles are written in ancient Sanskrit. Put them together in the right order to summon an ancient horror. Or maybe just bees.

Magic Realm: EVE Online Edition

If you’d ever played Magic Realm, you’d get the comparison. EVE looks about as complex as Candy Land by comparison.

Trivial Pursuit: Elder Scrolls Online Edition

Answer such exciting questions as “In what year in the Third Era did Emperor Uriel Septim II assume the throne?” and “What mine in Morrowind has the most ebony?” (Due out later this year, but we’re not going to show you practically anything about it.)

Guild Wars 2 RISK

The classic war game re-invented for Tyria! Before invading a neighboring territory, however, you must spend at least 10 minutes banging down the gate to that region.

TERA: The Board Game

Gorgeous components, and seems to require a good deal of skill, but it takes at least 20 hours to get to anything resembling fun.

Rift Chess

Plays like the normal game, with white and black pieces, except that every few minutes, pieces of a different color enter the board and mess everything up.

(Answers to the TP:TESO questions: 64 and Mausur Caverns)

GUILD_WARS_2_SPIRIT_WATCH

There’s a new Guild Wars 2 PvP map in the works that looks to borrow PvP elements from other MMORPGs and add it to GW2′s established control-point style of gameplay.

Spirit Watch was unveiled today in a blog post on the official site, and like all PvP maps in the game, players will battle for control of three points across multiple vertical levels.

In the center of the map is the Orb of Ascension — hey, we wondered what happened to the orbs they took out of WvW! — which a player can claim and then run to one of the three capture points, each of which represents one of the norn spirits of the wild: Wolf, Raven, or Bear. The Orb carrier suffers a 40% speed penalty and is unable to gain swiftness or stealth are disabled for the Orb-carrier. Teleporting or being downed makes you drop the Orb.

Taking the Orb to a point your team controls nets your team 30 points, while taking it to an opponent-held point gives you 15 and immediately neutralizes the point. The Orb then resets 10 seconds later.

The Orb of Ascension adds something of a capture-the-flag element to the game, but the option to carry it to opponent-held territory might also remind some players of Huttball from Star Wars: The Old Republic. Now if ArenaNet could just find a way to work in the match commentary: “Score one for the Rotnorns!”

Spirit Watch will be part of the patch coming on Feb. 26, the second part of the Flame & Frost living story content, titled The Gathering Storm. In addition to continuing the story, the update will also add guild missions, two-team rated PvP, and the ability to pick and choose one’s daily achievements.

What do you think of the map and the new secondary mechanic? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Skyrim Food

Elder Scrolls Online Food Truck Hits 11 Locations This Summer

Someone stole your sweet roll? Don’t worry, ZeniMax Online Studios has got you covered!

The Elder Scrolls Online developer announced today that it would be sending a food truck to five major conventions and six college campuses throughout the United States from March through October. A schedule for European sites is said to be in the works.

You can catch the TESO food truck at the following venues:

  • SXSW 2013 – Austin, Texas (March 10)
  • PAX East – Boston, Massachusetts (March 22)
  • University of Massachusetts Amherst – Amherst, Massachusetts (March 29)
  • Michigan State University – East Lansing, Michigan (April 12)
  • University of Colorado – Boulder, Colorado (April 26)
  • University of Arizona – Tucson, Arizona (May 3)
  • E3 2013 – Los Angeles, California (June 12)
  • Comic-Con International – San Diego, California (July 18)
  • PAX Prime – Seattle, Washington (August 31)
  • University of California, Los Angeles – Los Angeles, California (September 20)
  • University of California, Berkeley – Berkeley, California (October 4)

The SXSW stop in Austin will also feature the musical stylings of singer/composer Malukah, whose haunting covers of the Skyrim soundtrack are all over YouTube. Give her a listen, will you?

If we want to really speculate, could the fact that the tours wrap up in early October point to a possible launch of the game after that date? Or maybe that’s just when they figure they’ll run out of food? Hey, these are gamers and college students we’re talking about, so let’s hope they bring about double what they expect they’ll need.

The larger question might be: Is the way to geeks’ hearts through their stomachs? Maybe. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an Elder Scrolls food truck. I’m sure that the nords in their mead-halls used napkins, especially ones with “Skyrim” printed on them. And as the blogger writes, the promotion was effective:

[quote]I, personally, have never played any games from The Elder Scrolls series, but the food truck got me looking into the game and talking to my friends about it.[/quote]

OK, so maybe that’s not the perfect comparison. Just as long as they don’t serve authentic Bosmer cuisine.

It’s the weekend, and you know what that means!

Well, OK, maybe you don’t. So let’s just look at funny YouTube commercials, shall we?

In the spirit of that commercial show that aired last Sunday — and the football game that went with it, I guess — I’ve found some of the most… uh, “interesting”… commercials for MMO games out there, with topics running the gamut from basketball to stalkers to beautiful Chinese swordsmiths.

Yeah, that’s right. So let’s take a look, shall we?

Crafting or bust(s)

Here’s an ad for a Chinese MMORPG, which apparently boasts of a crafting system where failure is always an option. But so long as your sister — we’ll go with that, OK? — pulls you back from oblivion and sends you a note… and the sword you were trying to craft… and, uh…

Well, it had me in tears. The good kind.

Gotta be the shoes

Though the title claims that this is a Nike commercial, there’s a URL to an actual game site that appears operational. It’s all a little surreal, though — or is that actual gameplay? The cel-shaded graphics aren’t terrible, per se, but –

– wait, what is that at 0:46? Seriously, WTF is going on there? I’m out.

Extreme stewardesses

There might be a game associated with this commercial, but let’s be frank — you’re not paying attention after the first minute, are you? The first listed comment pretty well sums it up:

[quote]Didn’t understand a single word but.. LOVED THE VID! xDD[/quote]

Sexism online

Here’s a clip that features a game you might have heard of — Ragnarok Online — as well as being in English. That just makes it easier to understand its sad and pitiful commentary on gamers.

“I can’t chase you — but I can fight for you!” Because girls are bad at MMORPGs, yo, and need a man to tank for them. If I were her, I’d get a restraining order filed, stat.

Guild Wars 2 Expansion

Time for your monthly update on all things NCSoft from our good friends at Korean investment firm, KDB Daewoo Securities — and they’ve got a doozy of a proclamation this time.

Last month’s report hinted at a Q3/Q4 2013 surge in profits, which we speculated as being related to a Guild Wars 2 expansion in the latter half of the year, an impression KDB representatives may have received after visiting NCSoft’s Korean offices. This month’s report is somewhat less vague:

[quote]We anticipate NCsoft will also launch a mobile version of Blade & Soul in 1H through one of Japan’s leading mobile-gaming platform operators, DeNA. NCsoft plans to roll out its new title WildStar (currently being developed by US-based Carbine Studios) in 2H using CD packages in the US and Europe. It also intends to launch Guild Wars 2 in China, Taiwan, and Japan. An expansion pack for Guild Wars 2 is slated for a 2H release in the US and Europe.[/quote]

Well, then.

While that’s not quite as set-in-stone as hearing it straight from the horse’s (i.e., NCSoft’s or ArenaNet‘s) mouth, KDB obviously has a direct pipeline to NCSoft bigwigs, as evidenced by their recent office visit, and as we learned during the 38 Studios fiasco, folks who aren’t in the gaming industry and who don’t understand the importance of leaking release dates… well, tend to do so.

As for other NCSoft-related properties — hey, there’s a second half of 2013 launch predicted for WildStar! The report alsocites Blade & Soul‘s launch as “underwhelming” and singles out Aion as a game that exhibits “a decline in the number of players.” The report also praises GW2 and Lineage as primary reasons for the company’s 654.4% (!) increase in year-to-year operating profit.

So what do you think? Does this pretty much solidify for you the notion that we’ll see a Guild Wars 2 expansion before the end of the year?

Neverwinter Dungeon Preview

First Impressions Of The Neverwinter Beta

Neverwinter was the one game that eluded me at PAX Prime, so it wasn’t until this Wednesday that I got my grubby little gauntlets on the game for the first time. The tl;dr of my first impressions? It’s solid and does most things well, with most other issues being the usual quirks that can be chalked up to beta.

neverwinter mmorpg     Winter On Neverwinter

Cloak and daggers

I was summoned to a level 16 dungeon, the Cloak Tower, to accompany three other press-types and Neverwinter Lead Systems Designer Chris Metz. I was playing a guardian fighter, one of the three classes available for the event. There were three of us in the party, along with a trickster rogue and a devoted cleric. As a dwarf, I was, of course, the handsomest of the bunch.

In about the three minutes that Chris briefed us on how to equip things, choose our powers, and so on, I was able to become completely familiar with my character’s skill set. I had two basic melee attacks, one each on the left and mouse buttons, and four “button” moves, tied to the Tab, Q, R, and T keys. There was also an “ultimate” ability that I built up the power for over time, and when I unleashed it, it knocked back all the mobs around me. (I choose to believe it was a “sweat meter,” and when I got worked up enough, everyone wanted to get away from the stinky dwarf.)

Neverwinter uses a non-targeted, action-combat system, not unlike TERA, and it takes a little getting used to for someone who’s accustomed to tabbing to targets. You do have a reticle, and when it lights up over an enemy – or an ally for heals – you can activate the power.

neverwinter mmorpg     Winter On NeverwinterThis can be a little tricky at range, such as when I was using my charge attack (which I often accompanied with a call of “LEEROY!”) and thought I had the shot lined up only to press my key and have nothing happen. The group’s healer also commented that it was often difficult to single out friendly targets, and I imagine the same would apply to long-range bow- or spell-using characters.

What makes the combat unlike TERA, or even Guild Wars 2, is that you can’t activate such powers – or at least the ones on my guardian fighter – without a suitable target. So I would never go charging off into oblivion, missing my target by three feet and slamming into a wall. The “pure” action-combat fans might be put off by this, but I think it’s a good compromise between action combat and a targeting system.

In melee, where I spent most of my time, it was pretty much button-mashing my two attacks – one of which provided me with a small heal – and my three non-charge powers: two tank-like taunting powers and a stun. Several of the tougher enemies telegraphed their attacks by lighting up the floors with their areas of effect (a la WildStar), but I was usually tough enough to take it – or, if I wasn’t, I had a healer and lots of potions.

Our trickster rogue, on the other hand, was often losing health at an alarming rate, which I’d attribute to his not paying as much attention to the enemies’ attacks and positioning himself appropriately. For us burly, heavily armored fighters, it wasn’t too much challenge to suck up what the bosses did to us, but I can see how squishier classes would need to pay better attention.

neverwinter mmorpg     Winter On Neverwinter

Ad-Vansi-ed tactics

The challenge level ramped up significantly, though, when we faced the final boss, a beastly she-orc named Vansi Bloodscar. We were doing our usual rofl-stomp on her king-sized health bar when she summoned adds. Lots of adds. Oh, and then she did a move where she knocked us all back, right into the waiting arms of said adds.

neverwinter mmorpg     Winter On NeverwinterDid I mention you can revive other party members in combat with the F key? If we didn’t learn that before, we did during the Vansi fight. While I did a spectacular job of tanking Vansi and her minions – which included plenty of running for my little dwarf life with about 10 orcs hot on my heels – the other party members pitched in to get us all up in fighting shape. Eventually, we wore the mean old lady down and then there was loot to be had. Ah, loot. You’re why we do this in the first place.

My overall take on combat? It merges elements of the games I’ve already mentioned above, and I see nothing wrong with copying parts of what works in other games and finding the proper way to implement it in your own. With all the obvious “tells” for enemy attacks, I was rather lamenting the absence of any sort of “dodge” mechanic, but maybe that’s just reserved for rogues and other mobile classes – or at least classes more mobile than my stumpy little dwarf fighter.

[Edit: I later learned that my guardian fighter couldn't dodge, as some other classes can, but I can hold down the Shift key to raise my shield in advance of those particularly nasty attacks.]

I tend to think that the boss fights – Vansi Bloodscar excepted – were made fairly easy by the presence of a dev and possibly overpowered armor. Though we were all noobs, the fact that you only have a limited number of powers to choose from makes it quick to pick up on, which may have helped us to look like old pros. Difficulty level is something that can be easily tweaked as beta progresses, and if I have to earn that gear instead of just having it handed to me, it’ll probably make the fights more challenging.

neverwinter mmorpg     Winter On Neverwinter

A ‘shroom with a view

Graphically, the game looks great. I was honestly impressed with the character models, textures, and environments, which are on par with the best the MMORPG genre has to offer. The Cloak Tower environs flowed seamlessly from wizards’ keep to subterranean, crystal-lined lair to cave structure with giant mushrooms, because you can’t make an RPG these days without including a cave with giant mushrooms. It’s the law.

Sound is one area that still needs improvement. While there was plenty of hacking and slashing, it just seemed a little empty, audio-wise, and there was as yet, no voice acting. I’m sure that’s just something that will be remedied as the beta process continues; it’s typically one of the last things that gets finalized.

neverwinter mmorpg     Winter On NeverwinterAs we cleared the dungeon, there were various objects we could interact with, such as books and orbs, if we had the proper non-combat skills. Having blitzed through character creation, I couldn’t tell you at what point those skills are chosen, but there were quite a few options in the process, such as background and choice of god, so even with a fairly limited set of classes, you’ll have ways to stand out and customize your character to be useful to a party, even if there is some class overlap.

Speaking of class customization, I only had the briefest of moments to look at all the talent trees and other build options – which were probably abbreviated for the beta anyway – but there seem to be plenty of ways to spec out your character, as one would expect.

First impressions of an MMO are often where people form their everlasting judgments, for good or for bad. My first thoughts on Neverwinter is that it’s a worthy addition to the Dungeons & Dragons legacy. It’s difficult to explain, but it just feels like D&D, at least the dungeon-crawl aspect of it that I experienced. And there’s still a lot more to be added to the game.

There are obviously some kinks yet be worked out in beta, polish to be applied, and bugs to be squashed, but the content I experienced seemed well-designed and just about ready for prime time. I, for one, can’t wait to see the finished product.

For Troy Blackburn’s impressions of the recent Neverwinter beta, click here.

Elder Scrolls Online wants to make players stand out

Penny Arcade’s Sophie Prell recently got the chance to talk turkey with The Elder Scrolls Online Game Director Matt Firor about individuality in the MMO and how it’ll allow players — who are used to being solitary heroes — stand out among a cast of thousands.

According to Firor, NPCs will recognize players for their heroic deeds with responses that only that player can see. So if you’ve saved the village, NPCs might thank you but they won’t say the same to your non-heroic friend.

Then there’s the possibility of becoming emperor by excelling in the PvP aspects of the game, which will be determined by an as-yet-unfinished formula. Whether any actual power will be attached to that title remains to be seen.

Then there’s the question of guilds. In Elder Scrolls games, guilds are basically quest hubs, not the player-run organizations of MMORPGs. Both will be present in TESO, and as your reputation with an NPC guild increases, you’ll receive further options to customize your character’s appearance.

Overall, it sounds like ZeniMax Online Studios is doing everything it can to make sure TESO players still feel, to some extent, like they’re playing a single-player game. There’s a clear focus on trying to make players feel like they’re not just another anonymous face in the crowd.

But is that something an MMORPG can even do? Even with all the little touches Firor talks about, will you still know, deep down in your heart, that you’re not the only “hero of Kvatch”? Or that you’re not the only person that an NPC entrusts with his or her super-important mission?

The bigger question is maybe, should you even care? Should you approach an MMO with the notion that you’re going to be an individual hero or should you save those expectations for single-player games? Should MMO devs even waste the energy on trying to “fool” you into thinking you’re the hero?

Taking Aim At ESports

I think we were all a little surprised by the recent news that Sony Online Entertainment would partner with Major League Gaming to bring PlanetSide 2 to the MLG competitive circuit. While we’re all still wondering at the “why”s and “how”s of the deal, maybe the question we ought to be asking is: “Should?”

It seems like we’ve just recently come to an era where most MMORPG developers realize that they’re not going to match World of Warcraft‘s numbers. There are occasional boastful rumblings, but for the most part, the days of anticipating the “WoW killer” are gone.

But what would the Captain Ahabs of the gaming industry do without a whale to hunt? Nowadays, the focus on “beating the best” seems to have shifted from people in the game to people watching the game, and nearly every new entry in the MMO industry seems to be taking a stab at e-sports.

Is this a valid goal? Can or should MMOs be developed with e-sports in mind? Or are developers just setting themselves up to fall short of expectations – again?

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Million airs

It’s easy to see why companies would take this approach. The undisputed king of e-sports, Riot GamesLeague of Legends, drew over eight million viewers to its World Championships in October, and you better believe that brings in some serious coin in advertising revenue – not to mention simply exposing the game to a bunch of potential new players who can directly line Riot’s coffers.

To put those 8.3 million viewers into perspective, the #25 broadcast program from that week scored 9.4 million viewers, meaning League of Legends likely would have rated in the top 30 or 40 among all television programs in the United States.

(Yes, I know that many of the LoL viewers weren’t American, but it’s still a fascinating stat.)

So it’s only natural that companies like SOE, ArenaNet (Guild Wars 2), Red 5 Studios (Firefall), Hi-Rez Studios (SMITE), and probably countless others are exploring the possibility of adapting their games for an e-sports audience. But should they?

In many ways, League of Legends is like World of Warcraft: It came along at the exact right time and did for MMORPGs what LoL did for e-sports. It introduced tons of new players to a developing genre and made a new style of gaming relatively mainstream.

Can that success be duplicated? That’s what SOE and others are banking on, though they probably don’t quite expect numbers on par with what LoL pulls, whether it’s 8+ million viewers for a World Championship or League‘s overall numbers of 70 million accounts and 32 million active monthly players.

mmorpg esports     Taking Aim At E sports

E-xpectations

Or do they? Executives – in any company – are a “numbers first” bunch, who don’t necessarily understand the disconnect between data and reality. While I’m sure someone like John Smedley “gets it,” what about his boss? Or his boss’s boss? What did Smed need to promise to get the go-ahead to sign the deal with MLG and the requisite cash that will be required to execute the plan? If LoL gets 8.3 million viewers for its World Championships, what percentage of that does PS2 need to make its big event worth the investment? 10%? 25%? 50%?

(From my personal experience… when developing a new trading-card game, a co-worker and I made the semi-error of remarking in front of an executive that it “wouldn’t be the next Pokémon,” which the executive responded to by saying, “Why not?” Our response: “Because it just won’t be.” That didn’t satisfy him.)

Even if a CEO doesn’t have a suit to satisfy, his own ego can be his downfall. Enough games have tried – and failed – to match WoW‘s numbers without any external pressure that it’s not hard to see the same thing happening even for fully independent studios like Red 5 or semi-independent ones like ArenaNet.

This isn’t to say that Mark Kern or Mike O’Brien – or Smedley, for that matter – are overreaching when it comes to their goals of developing their games for e-sports. But just as with the first few years of WoW‘s existence, where everyone looked at WoW‘s numbers and thought “Why not us?” nobody really knows what the ceiling for e-sports is. The first few MMOs released in the wake of WoW probably thought that five to 10 million players was a totally reachable goal; after years of often-painful experience, we now know that to be a nigh-impossibility.

mmorpg esports     Taking Aim At E sports

A sporting chance

All this isn’t to say that MMO devs shouldn’t try to take a bite out of e-sports. The money’s definitely there, and the concept is new enough that there’s probably still room to make a big splash, if done right.

But, as we’ve learned with people trying to “chase” World of Warcraft, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the rest of your game. Some games are well-suited for e-sports, and some aren’t, just as some games are suitable for a mass-market audience like WoW‘s and some aren’t. The key is knowing what you have and being realistic about what you’re trying to do.

League of Legends, with its focus on small, competitive matches and skill-based gameplay, make it a perfect game for medium. Other MMORPGs, which dedicate much of their resources to mechanics that aren’t meant for the e-sports crowd — such as crafting, exploration, most PvE, and some types of PvP — might see e-sports as a “Hey, let’s try to do this, too, in addition to everything else we’re doing.”

E-sport talk is just “tacked on” to the package as a whole, making it more of a feature than a core part of the game, hurting its chances to really establish itself with the e-sports crowd, which — like MMO players who like one of the above types of gameplay — expects the entire game to cater to what they want to see.

Maybe SOE will prove us all wrong with PlanetSide 2 and innovate a new era in e-sports that goes beyond the “small-team” games like League of Legends. Instead of two-side, five-on-five matches, maybe they’ll figure out an effective way to manage and broadcast three-way battles involving hundreds of players. If they can pull it off, it should be entertaining as hell to watch.

But if their effort comes up short, will it discourage other companies from trying? As long as League of Legends continues to pull in millions of viewers – just as World of Warcraft pulls in millions of players – someone will always try to duplicate that success, no matter how many other games fall by the roadside.

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