Podcast: Beyond Language Barriers

On the weekend, me and Braxwolf got together to talk about a vastly intriguing subject that’s sometimes overlooked when we communicate across blogs, social networks and guild chat: language barriers and cultural differences. For the most part, I pride myself to be very proficient at English and I don’t encounter any issues when dealing with native speakers online; misunderstandings are rare and funny puns or learning about colloquialisms is something I’ve always enjoyed. As for cultural differences, I always felt that on an individual level human beings have a lot more in common than they have not, even if there’s such a thing as overarching culture that makes it more or less difficult/customary to talk about certain issues at times. However, when we meet each other halfway and give people the benefit of the doubt, any topic allows for discussion and common ground. The things that move us are universal. Likewise, English has become an universal language, a lingua franca, that belongs to everyone and that keeps evolving with its diverse international community.

To listen to this episode of Beyond Bossfights, check out Braxwolf’s place for “Episode 15 – Language and Culture Differences” or the TGEN Network!

http://braxwolf.com

 

[FFXIV] Random Acts of Kindness are Contagious

“The unkindness of your own relations has made you astonished to find friendship any where.” [Sense and Sensibility; J. Austen]

One of the few things that weren’t tuned down in FFXIV compared to its more unforgiving predecessor FFXI, is that dying still remains a firmly inconvenient affair in terms of getting your character resurrected. Granted, the harsh EXP penalty is gone but in lieu of graveyards or self-rez options in FFXIV, players can either return to their homepoint (which is frequently on the other side of the world because you only die on those field trips off the beaten path) or well, lie around and hope for someone to rez them that has the required ability. In order to be found, a shout in zone chat is necessary together with <pos> to tell potential saviors of the day your exact position. This is of course fairly embarrassing but will save you time and money in case you are heard.

And to my great astonishment, I am always heard. No matter what time of the day, no matter the zone I am in, ever since embarking on this journey the community in FFXIV has been nothing but quick to respond, friendly and supportive. The few times I have died on my glass cannon caster, it took no more than 20 seconds for a player to get back to me via whispers, letting me know they are “on their way”. Never have I been mocked, always am I being welcomed to the game and buffed up by the usually far more advanced players. I don’t know if it’s just Cactuar or the general culture in this particular MMO but yes, everyone is suspiciously nice in FFXIV and I can’t help but wonder along with my fellow bloggers: what makes this one so different?

A typical FFXIV encounter.

A typical FFXIV encounter.

The player from above conversation who rezzed me so graciously, then also went on to invite me to their linkshell and insisted I accept a 25’000 gil welcome present to help this newbie on her further travels. I cannot remember the last time this happened to me in an online game; it’s both humbling and sad to realize I’ve forgotten how such random acts of kindness feel in MMOs.

What influences server culture? Is it about content and game mechanics, the way social play is encouraged or rewarded? Is it about more niche audiences versus jaded mainstream ones, as suggested by Liore? No doubt, it’s several factors come together that must work in unison longterm to make cooperative culture a thing – and yet, as a newcomer who knows precious little about rewards and the social engineering in FFXIV at this point, all it takes is a handful of positive experiences to make me want to become active part of a better community! I want to add my share not because of tokens and rewards and achievements but heck, because this feels like a world of human beings and I’m learning how to be one again myself. That’s awesome! Need a rez, anyone?

On Rock Paper Shotgun and “that” Molyneux Interview

Over valentine’s weekend, the gamesphere was busy dissecting and criticizing what went down over at RPS recently when John Walker interviewed Peter Molyneux on the whole Godus debacle (for details check Aywren’s article) among other past failings. In the wake of the “ethics in game journalism debates” of last year, I was hoping to read more blogosphere opinions on the matter. Now, I will say this: I am for the most part a fan of Walker’s work at RPS and his often candid and brutally honest writing that hasn’t made him the most popular videogames journalist in the past. I hold neither grudge nor particular awe for Peter Molyneux who seems to be notoriously overselling games ever since the wane of the Populous fame and making petty, snidy remarks about more successful developers like Notch – which is what got me to unfollow him years ago on twitter. He is, as far as my interests are concerned, a somewhat silly figure but I’m not a Godus backer, so I don’t harbor any ill will against him for screwing with my money (also, some of that is a risk you’re taking with KS).

As for the interview itself, at some point I wasn’t sure I could continue because it’s so bloody long and extremely awkward. You can’t possibly not feel some degree of empathy for Molyneux who is starting to disintegrate halfway through, appearing less and less credible and informed about his own projects, until he arrives at the inevitable (sulky) conclusion that maybe he should not be giving press interviews anymore ever. And maybe he shouldn’t – it wouldn’t be the first time a genuinely enthusiastic and creative person isn’t fit for the whole business and marketing aspect of their enterprise. Anyone more PR savvy should have stopped giving an interview after being asked “are you a pathological liar?” and yet he did not, he walked right into it and once more, talked himself into another pickle for one and a half hours. If he’s not in fact pathological as Walker suggested, he is either too narcissistic to understand what’s happening or kindly put, a little out with the fairies.

So yeah, I kinda feel for his romantic optimism but I don’t feel sorry for Peter Molyneux – a man with lots of resources at his hands who doesn’t understand why “I really believed with all my heart this would be successful” (half of his defense paraphrased) doesn’t quite appease his crowdfunded investors. There needs to be a degree of transparency and accountability when you operate in the field of selling promises. I’d rather not imagine him working in investment banking.

And no doubt, John Walker delivered the most insistent and unwavering line of questioning in a developer interview I have ever read. He conducted the interview at eye level, emancipated from the type of crippled “fan interviews” we get to read all the time by grateful enthusiasts. As a professional, he was adamant to get his points addressed without much wiggle room. The opening question was an aggressive and ironical double bind because strictly speaking, if you’re not in fact a pathological liar, “yes I am” would be the best way to prove you are not. Given that this wasn’t a cross-examination of a witness in court, Walker came across as accusatory but hardly malicious. There are two sides to this debate and generally speaking as a consumer, I would want my advocates to be as thorough and unceremonious as John Walker. Accusations of him “kicking a puppy” in this interview are frankly ridiculous and not very respectful towards Peter Molyneux, who is not a victim.

Gamers need to check their softened up standards when it comes to the “heroes” of their hobby; do you want videogame journalists to seek accountability or stop and smile (as so many do) whenever it gets uncomfortable? In the games industry especially, the power balance between producer and consumer is still askew. Opinions welcome.

At Daybreak you shall know their True Colors

It took no more than 10 days for Columbus Nova, new owners of the late SOE, to announce their first layoffs at Daybreak consisting of former MMO staff members from Austin and San Diego studios, including figureheads such as director of development Dave Georgeson, lore expert Steve Danuser or CM Linda “Brasse” Carlson.

I am perplexed. There go knowledge authorities and community figures that have steered the hype train for this next generation of Everquest games and especially Landmark, for months and months. And sure, it takes many excellent people to develop MMOs but let’s not kid ourselves – when you remove the lead singer, drummer and lead guitarist of a band your fans have come to love and follow, you are basically leaving that audience with a corpse. And you don’t care.

If there was any trust left in me when I wrote about my EQN misgivings yesterday, it has been shattered with the layoffs of Dave G. and team, people who tirelessly engaged with the community on the forums and signalboosted Landmark builds on twitter ever since alpha. They all deserved so much better than this.

This is another dark day for MMO players. Anyone who believes this could be a potentially positive thing for Landmark and EQN’s development (because the guys calling the shots behind Daybreak have all these “awesome and fresh MMO ideas”?) will sadly come to regret it, I fear. Nobody who has earnest plans to continue a project and legacy like Everquest and gives a damn about the community would just lay off the know-how and trust owners of the franchise. Re-asses strategy? – Okay. Re-organize management level? - Okay. But the fact that core team members are not kept around to consult on further development is all you need to know.

I’ve been an unwilling herald of bad news lately and so be it: I foresee no future in which the EQN that we’ve got presented at SOE Live 2014 will come to completion. Daybreak will cut their losses and either really release EQN status whatever “in the near future” as announced, or this project will be shelved Titan style within another three to six months, maybe to be disemboweled and re-purposed. And by the gods of Norrath, I hope I am wrong!

The Bird is the Word! Exploring the Realm Reborn Anew

Over at Party Business, an MMO blog I only recently discovered and that you should check out, Kunzay talked about getting his Chocobo and what he’s generally up to in FFXIV. Having only just completed the Chocobo step of the main storyline myself, I can say that I haven’t been this satisfied unlocking a mount in an MMO for a good while –

Sylberry all psyched on her new Chocobo!

Sylberry all psyched on her new Chocobo!

It’s true that FFXIV makes you work for almost everything: unlocking mounts, dyes, cosmetics and more. Nothing comes for free, except for that very generous bagspace – someone at Square Enix must really hate bags in MMOs. That’s okay though because thus far, all of the perks are reasonably attainable for the normal player and usually tied to the main storyline, anyway. It gives me satisfaction to unlock new features as I go and I’m already knee-deep in the multi-classing system which has always been this franchise’s big forte.

I don’t know what endgame will hold and I’m in no rush to get there; endgame is made for achievers, not explorers such as myself. This is the good time right now, this is my time in a new MMO when there’s still a vast, strange world to explore and so much to see and smell and listen to. For me and my kin, MMOs tend to get smaller and smaller the closer we move towards endgame, not bigger. I do not wish to complete this part of the journey.

The world is beautiful (new gallery!) and the story is well-told. It puts a wide smile on my face whenever I meet old friends or hear familiar tunes, like the time when I embarked on my first airship journey and parts of Liberi Fatali from FF8 played in the background. I even love learning the lore of the three different cities and main factions, granted the quest text and speech bubbles get a bit too much at times. You can tell that storytelling and world building are SE’s bread and butter – if they can’t do this type of stuff, who can?

On Immersion in A Realm Reborn

I’ve been debating if FFXIV:ARR suffers from its loading screens between zones as opposed to more persistent worlds such as Azeroth or Tyria; I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not really the case except for the loading times inside cities that get somewhat tedious. Eorzea for one, shares the virtue of a very life-like and authentic topography with LOTRO, whose wilderness and nature are second to none in MMOs. Even majorly important and too often overlooked aspects of immersion, such as scale and sound effects, come close in FFXIV where a forest sounds like a forest and thanks for that. Ul’dah or Limsa Lominsa aren’t quite Bree, yet they don’t feel as anachronistic and oversized as Divinity’s Reach and offer the more interesting and fun “NPC life” by far. Furthermore, SE employ a neat little trick to make outdoor zones feel more connected: even when you approach zone gates, you can in fact see the adjoining zone. It’s a very effective illusion and example of how small things can make a big difference to how big the world feels to the player.

Eorzea’s day-night cycle is somewhat frequent which allows players to enjoy the changing light conditions which, along with the weather effects, are pretty spectacular in FFXIV. When it’s not foggy, cloudy or sunny, there are at least three different stages of rain I’ve experienced so far, from a misty drizzle to a soaking curtain and windy gush (leaving your clothes all glossy wet). What I will say is that the transition phases I love so much aren’t celebrated the way they deserve: dawn and dusk happen far too quickly for my taste but this is hardly a make or break criteria.

Will the rain ever stop?

Nasty weather in FFXIV

If I have one big gripe where immersion is concerned, then it’s the invisible walls in FFXIV that seem so random. There’s rocks you can jump onto, hills you can climb and edges you can jump down from and then, there’s those where you can’t for no discernible reason. There are caves you can stand in front of and gaze inside but never enter for that invisible hand keeps pushing you away. Now to clarify, this issue isn’t nearly as big as in games such as Witcher 2 which boil down to “generously railroaded wilderness”; for the most part FFXIV is perfectly traversable. However, that just makes the random, invisible walls stand out all the more.

Last but far from least, the music deserves a special mention: I don’t know why I came to Masayoshi Soken’s work so late (maybe because the entire soundtrack is such a royal pain to acquire) but the music for A Realm Reborn is nothing short of delightful, an incredible companion to my adventures in the field. Nevermind the heavy-handed and complex multi-phase pieces for the primal battles which players seem to upload more than anything else to youtube – it’s the city and town tunes where it’s at, the zone music and battle themes. Right now, the FFXIV soundtrack makes up 50% of the reasons why I am playing and having such a great time, so really check it out sometime and let me leave you with three of my favorite tunes for the day!

So, should I still look forward to Everquest Next?

Chatting with comrades on teamspeak the other night, the topic of Everquest Next came up along with “vaporware” and equally unflattering comments. I admit, I really wanted to believe in EQN; SoE sure made their other upcoming MMO(RPG!) sound and look exciting before the launch of Landmark. And really, what is there left in the AAA-segment after EQN? THIS NEEDS TO BE A THING!

EQNlogo

That notorious green picture of many years.

I get how the Everquest veterans feel about this title however, which has become a running gag of sorts ever since the early days. One day, some day sure, there will be a next Everquest! And by now, I am not feeling it anymore either, I certainly don’t expect to see it launch this year and god knows what the whole acquisition by the grey men might mean for the future of these MMOs. All the more surprising therefore that official press statement, referrring to EQN’s more imminent launch:

“Sony Online Entertainment, newly rebranded as Daybreak, is a great addition to our existing portfolio of technology, media and entertainment focused companies. We see tremendous opportunities for growth with the expansion of the company’s game portfolio through multi-platform offerings as well as an exciting portfolio of new quality games coming up, including the recently launched H1Z1 and the highly anticipated EverQuest Next to be released in the near future” [Jason Epstein, Senior Partner of Columbus Nova]

Now ‘near future’ is a vague enough term but it still suggests things happening in under a year or so. May be that a senior partner of an investment company with a career in venture capital doesn’t have a clue about MMO development speed, may be that it’s just the usual corporate marketing speech to appease the masses. Or maybe they really intend to release EQN on a set date in the near future no matter what, which would add another chapter on catastrophe to the great book of MMO mishaps.

Ever looking for an upside, I wish it was neither of these options; I wish that EQN was farther ahead in development than SoE let on until now and that they’ve just kept things quiet – which makes no sense whatsoever really and is not how they are typically handling their pre-launches.

Call it vaporware, call it getting the Titan vibes, what’s pretty clear to me by now is that holding out for EQN as the next great thing requires a considerable effort in wishful thinking.

Blog Update and Quality of Life Improvements for Commenters

It only took me 2.5 years since the big wordpress move to finally get my blog into shape with jetpack, which now means I am logging on via the .com site again rather than .org and it’s all a little confusing. When it comes to upgrading systems that aren’t exactly broken, I am a horrible conservative but so far I am loving all the extra functionality (yay related posts)!

Since the somewhat frosty look of my old style got to me, I have also taken (yet) another opportunity to update my blog’s shiny layout and header. While I’m not 100% happy with the image yet, it feels a lot warmer and more well, adventuring vagabond to me. The free SUITS theme for wordpress is quite sexy, so I can definitely recommend that if you’re currently undergoing your own blogexistential crisis.

Quality of Life Improvements for my Commenters

While tweaking stuff, I was made aware of a rather astounding number which is my blog’s total count of comments for all time: 4’589 to date. Naturally as my regular visitors will know, half of these belong to me because ever since day one, I’ve made it my mission to get back to 99.8% of all comments that I receive. That still makes this comment count incredibly awesome and I know that without all these engaging and fun encounters and debates over the years, I probably wouldn’t be blogging today. So now that I am fixing the blog up for reals, it’s time I also did something for my commenters and regular visitors!

A list of the new comment features installed:

  • You can now spellcheck and edit (yes!) your own comments for the duration of 10mins, as long as nobody has replied to your specific comment in the meantime.
  • You can now subscribe to follow-up comments or new posts per email and never miss replies again.
  • You now get to see a max. character count per comment, in order to keep the overall discussion within an agreeable frame for dialogue (3000 is still a lot honestly).
  • Frequent commenters get their own honorable VIP-badge, starting at rank 1 (20 posts) and going all the way up to 7! Yeah, this one is more of a goofy gimmick but I like it – even if it seems to depend on IP too.

For now, I will give these a go and wait for feedback. It’s all in a testing phase for me, so let me know if a particular feature doesn’t work or if you think it needs adjusting. And as always, thank you for your comment!

[GW2] Heart of Thorns: How excited should I be?

My initial reaction to a GW2 expansion was one of positive surprise. This is going to be a slow year for MMOs, so it’s nice to have something to follow and look forward to. Of course I have no experience as far as Guild Wars expansions go, so I read the announcement details with some interest.

gwhot

Turns out, the things that I would naturally look for in an expansion aren’t featured in HoT: there’s no new big world, level cap raise, new race or player housing. Instead, the horizontal progression which has proven to be no less grindy in GW2, continues with sub-professions and more gear. There’s a new class, guild halls and erm, hang gliders. That last one scared me right away.

And then there’s the much inquired mastery system which I didn’t really understand until I read this article about how “GW2’s Mastery System could change MMOs Forever“. Now it wouldn’t be ArenaNet if they didn’t aim for some type of innovation and am certainly not opposed to that, but after reading several times over how the progression approach for Maguma Juungle is basically an MMO spin off Zelda or Metroid, I cringed a little. The map is designed to be vertical, with different levels your character can only access by unlocking certain skills and well, gimmicks really. It sounds like the Bazaar of the Four Winds on steroids.

And hey, skill-based progression is great and all but in the end it’s just another word for grind of a different kind. MMOs that want to be successful, unless they’re called Wildstar, don’t alienate their player base by making things too hard and random for you not to learn by heart, via trial and error. All the while I am with Bhagpuss here in wondering: what is there in HoT for explorers and potterers like us? Where is the whole new world, the carefree straying off the path to end up in a random event or epic dragon encounter?

And I don’t even like jungle zones.

Time vs. Money in MMOs and Arbitrary Lines in the Sand

Omg I am doing it again. Stahp m….too late!

Two bloggers against whom I harbor no particular ill will, which helps when ordering and formulating thoughts, are going at it: Eri is very angry at the free-to-play model, in regards to a specific, exploitative subset of games. Tobold argues that free-to-play games aren’t in fact funded by masses of poor and gullible people, again by example of a specific subset of games (which gets another reply from Eri). They’d probably really agree on many basic principles, if they were actually talking about the same thing; there are some pretty awful mobile games out there right now and some MMOs do f2p worse than others. On the other hand, it’s probable that in games like LOTRO or Allods, dedicated longtime players spend more money overall than short visitors, especially when the shops offer power-ups for alts and endgame-relevant items. Not all F2P is created equal.

Meanwhile in comments and elsewhere, the discussion has gone completely off the rocker once players start defending their love/hate for payment models by (ab-)using the old worrysome “addiction”-card. The issue aside that we cannot exactly equate lockboxes or micro-transactions in games with casino-like gambling since psychologically this is a simplification with certain problems, I am really quite vexed that something as complex as addiction gets pulled into payment model arguments by...players . There’s already a degree of compulsive behavior being facilitated by basic, everyday MMO design without qualifying as addiction. Addiction doesn’t “just happen” because of game- or payment model design, any more than depression happens because you watched too many sad movies. Addiction to games or gambling (or anything else) shows when other risk factors (such as distraction or withdrawal coping mechanisms) are already at play – which yes, makes many activities potential escalators.

There’s a way of making statements pro/against payment models for games without dragging in the flawed narrative of those who hate online gaming in the first place –

What I would appreciate and that’s a general statement, is that players stopped drawing that arbitrary line of ‘money spent’ being worse than too much time spent on MMOs. It absolutely isn’t true – losing grip on online gaming can have the same devastating effects (and happens a lot more often I’d wager) than erm, going broke. I don’t know anyone that went broke but I do know people perpetuating an unhealthy state of mind through escapism (I also know the opposite), to a point where it ruins their social and professional lives. That’s why the whole ‘dangerous addiction’ argument within anti-f2p arguments is so disingenuous. Let’s just agree right now that to a person that is already at risk, and only then, an awful lot of things can be harmful – lest we not start sounding like those who blanket condemn all online gaming because of its dangerous social hooks and manipulative progression-based content. (In reply to Azuriel elsewhere)

So much for that. Tangentially, my own brother is the one anecdotal example I can think of in terms of financial debt because of his Ultima Online addiction 17 years ago, amassing phone bills in the thousands of Euros for my parents in that early age of dial-up modems. UO didn’t have lockboxes any more than WoW does and yet, these MMOs are fully capable of serving good or bad, depending on a person’s situation.

In conclusion, once more

It’s important to be a vigilant consumer and be critical of what you’re served. It’s equally important not to turn a blind eye to what’s already there just because you’re more familiar with it. F2P games can be insidious cash-cows; F2P games can also allow someone with a small budget to participate in social gaming activities. Subscriptions can be a great, straightforward deal for regular players; subscriptions are also known to create a sense of “obligation” that some players actively avoid because it ain’t good for them personally.

But then, I have this feeling all along that our good old (and young) blogosphere is mostly in agreement on these matters, once all that righteous rage is spent anyway.

Payment Models in MMOs: Yeah, Still Don’t Care

It’s the never-ending topic whenever games have a bad launch, a mid-term low, a one-year crisis: it’s the payment model’s fault. Tobold goes as far as saying it’s the players’ fault when investment companies with chilling grey websites acquire a videogame developer like Sony Online Entertainment. If players aren’t willing to pay for games, well that’s what happens.

When it comes to this particular topic, I am out of fucks to give. Either I am not a very representative MMO player or an awful lot of people have it wrong when it comes to the effect of payment models and the viability of MMOs. The very first podcast discussion I joined was Liores’ Cat Context episode 28, and to this day my opinion is largely the same:

I want to play good games. I am more than happy to pay for good games. I’ve paid subs in WoW, LOTRO, Rift, Wildstar and Final Fantasy, to name a few. I’ve bought into buy-to-play and free-to-play games; free-to-play is just another word for “I’ll buy dresses and mounts instead” and I am vastly disappointed when developers present me with a lackluster shop I can’t spend any money on. That is on them (and happens all the time).

As for pay-to-win, hardly an MMO exists that truly deserves that label. What pay-to-win definitely is not is paying for airdrops in H1Z1 that fall visibly and audibly from the sky, for everyone on the server to see and retrieve, with a minuscule chance for upgrades. H1Z1 airdrops are paid chaos – there is more P2W in buying a silly hat in GW2 that distracts the enemy in WvW.

It cannot be up to players to know which payment model is the right one for a given game and it cannot be up to players to finance MMOs of a particular payment model just to “make a statement”. Heck, players don’t know what they want or what’s needed half of the time. Don’t put that type of impossible responsibility on their shoulders. Want me to pay for your sub? – Make a great game! Want me to pay your box? – Make a great game! Want me to invest in your f2p? –

Make a great game!

Make a game I actually want to play and that doesn’t crash and burn within three months because you’ve epically miscalculated your budget. Thanks!

i-did-the-math-lolcat

lolcat knows her numbers!