Category Archives: Simulation

Black Desert Online: On the Fly CBT2 Impressions

Syl & Valor

Syl & Valor basking in the sunlight of BDO

So let’s get it out of the way before I start the nitpicking: Black Desert Online is every bit as gorgeous an MMO as the previews have made us believe. The characters I made in preparation for the second closed beta, all work beautifully and look as good and better ingame. The world is huge, detailed, vibrant and few high pop hubs aside because beta, I didn’t experience any lag on high graphical settings. The fact that this monster of a fantasy stage is completely persistent without a single loading screen ever to interrupt your travels, is impressive to say the least. The light, the weather effects, the sounds make this explorer’s heart beat a little faster.

The first towns have a distinct southern European feel.

The first towns have a distinct southern European feel.

Gameplay was not without its issues this second beta. I played my huntress past level 12, learning the ropes of a somewhat overwhelming UI that feels like a bottomless pit at first. Quest handling is familiar yet different, player resources such as karma or energy must be learned and understood. All the basics are accompanied by an ingame live action tutorial window (including audio instructor) in your bottom left corner which is a pretty neat idea (there’s also your personal Navi sprite for which I didn’t care as much). It kept me company while I was struggling to tag five quest mobs of this and that together with 100 other players and no chance of shared kills, something that made me lose the will to live quickly. There is no way this is still a thing? There were also glitches and texture loading issues I hope won’t make it past the set launch date of March 3rd.

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World map shenanigans. You even see weather effects in this view.

Fussing around a few things stood out to me, namely travel, quest NPC interaction and of course the combat system. Travel commands and map handling are one of this MMOs greatest forte: other than manually going anywhere, there’s a smart point&click system at work that can be used both actively while running or from world map view. There’s also the option to just right-click your buddy on the world map (friendlists and party invites working perfectly) and make your character auto-run to that location. Furthermore there’s a command to make all of your player characters run to different locations on the map while you are offline, accessed from the disconnect menu. That is some interesting stuff.

Conversing with NPCs wasn’t quite so great. There’s an odd mix of voice-overs and written dialogue going on with quest NPCs especially, whereby they say one thing while you read another. At first I didn’t grasp both were coming from the same source. Also voice-overs are mostly terrible to the point where I wish they scratched the feature entirely. Clicking through quest dialogue was fairly boring too, usually offering just a single option to click. What’s the point?

The combat appears to be the most novel and intriguing system in BDO. I can see opinions split on button-combo-based action combat; it did feel a little like playing Streetfighter or Xenogears, for those who know it. There is an assist window to learn combos but once I figured button mashing was more or less as effective, I didn’t bother learning all the moves. I will have to retry this with a PC gamepad next time because it didn’t feel very comfortable to me at all, but then I haven’t nearly given this the time it deserves so don’t quote me on it. For now, it’s different!

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50 euros = 5’000 pearls, ya rly.

Naturally I spent time in the item shop and was underwhelmed by the choices on offer and the very steep pricing. To be fair, Pearl Abyss are mostly keeping shop items in the realm of cosmetics and QoL improvements, however paying 50 Euros for one set of armor plus cosmetics and one pet is very steep for a buy-to-play title. One can also argue over things like extra bag space and weight limit increases requiring further expenditure. I would like to see adjustments here and definitely more armor and less underwear, of which there seems to be an abundance for female characters at least.

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Menu settings

What did stand out to me as a big positive were countless interface options in the settings that let you tailor your personal experience. Things such as character highlight options for any conceivable target are a long-standing demand of mine. There are pet settings for turning off other companions other than your own and system notification tweaks to your heart’s content – just to name few things. The commands for taking screenshots (including cinematic modes and slow motion), adjusting the overall colors&feel of the game or camera view, are outstanding. All I really missed was a way to make my character not auto-stare at the camera, which is freaking weird.

I will need more time with Black Desert Online before I can draw any type of conclusion. I am still adjusting to the combat and how the overall gameplay feels. The cash shop aside, my biggest concern at this point is probably the PvP factor: after hitting level 50, hunting season officially starts for you and all your other characters from there. With a vast world to explore as well as some potentially interesting sandbox elements (housing, farming, crafting, taming etc.) I have yet to try, I feel weary thinking of groups of lolkids ganking me at every corner. But even if Pear Abyss did add PvE servers for BDO, the game might struggle with lack of endgame PvE content just the way GW2 has done. At least this time around, we seem to be looking at a much sandboxier title. Time will tell…but gosh, it’s a beautiful world!

Running & Screaming in Terror: 7 Days to Die and individual Survival Instincts

I’ve been playing 7 Days to Die again this past week and everytime I return to the game, I find myself thoroughly hooked in that “ooops it’s already past midnight??”-kind of frenzy for a time. Really, survival games are the worst for time management, one minute you’re planting potatoes on your farm – the next, four hours have passed and you still didn’t take that shower before bedtime.

7 Days to Die is one fine title for anyone into survival and building sims, in fact the zombie apocalypse part is only about one third of that experience. Zombie encounters get more intense after a while but the balance between different activities is what makes this such a fun title. Survival is rough but not too rough, especially not in coop, and the dev team keeps putting great effort into making the game ever more interesting (and smooth looking!), adding more and more features and sites (air drops are fun! army camps are not!) as well as complexity to the already very accomplished crafting system. Whatever you decide to do, progress feels very rewarding.

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Improved graphics, weather effects and much more

Similar to DayZ which I have been duly impressed with in the past, 7 Days to Die is primarily also a game about atmosphere – maybe even more so. The sounds of the wilderness have been improved tenfold since the earliest builds and I get goosebumps regularly sneaking about towns or running from bears in the forest (I need a rifle!). The dynamics of the game change considerably once you got a team of three together for exploratory ventures and like with DayZ too, there’s some intriguing group psychology unfolding once several people start playing a fresh build together. Where DayZ was all about unspoken rules of conduct, 7 Days to Die coop mode is an entertaining experiment in terms of which measures of survival individual players will prioritize. In my own steady group’s case, the same scenario keeps repeating itself (Bee and Tee being my mates here):

  • Tee instantly starts base building: fortification is important, so a forge must be established immediately for things like iron doors and better defensive mechanisms. Also, we need firearms as soon as possible.
  • Bee is all about the farm and mining: we need crops for independent food resources and as many tunnels as possible down to the bottom of the world.
  • Syl starts hunting game and cooking: we need food and drink supplies. Also our entire storage unit needs to be organized and labeled, omg chaos!

I feel like such a cliché whenever I fall back to cooking for everyone but on my personal list of survival prios, food/drink are the most immediate. No potential death could be dumber or more embarrassing than dropping dead somewhere out in the wild, pockets bursting with loot, because you ran out of food or water. At least when you keep your character fed, you can run off to wherever and start building a new base there. Dunno, maybe that’s just me. I definitely enjoy how the game inspires everyone to play to their strengths (mine seems to be foresight and organization in this case) and take on different roles for the team.

Oh boy oh boy oh boy!

Oh boy oh boy oh boy!

7 Days to Die is officially still in alpha which gotta be the most consistently playable alpha development I’ve ever encountered. Build 13 is about to drop soonish and looking incredibly good, so if you ever thought about checking this title out, now is the time! Immersive survival sims don’t get much better than this.

What makes me happy in MMOs [#Blaugust 15]

Gracie has a topic up on ingame happiness for this rainy Blaugust Saturday (rainy for me anyway) and I decided to follow her example. On our blogs we often talk about our gripes with games or how MMOs have changed for the worse over time, yet clearly there must be things that still make us very happy or we wouldn’t be playing them.

I still feel that MMORPGs are the greatest genre there is. I didn’t expect too much of 2015 game-wise but in many ways, it was a much better year for MMOs than many of us anticipated. There were the GW2 and FFXIV expansions for one thing, Wildstar is going f2p any time now and introducing some new features and I’m also hearing good things about Project Gorgon from various bloggers. For now, I am rather content. As for the specific things that make me happy in MMOs, these are just the first ten that popped into my head:

  • Random kindnesses by strangers while soloing out in the field or running dungeons. Meeting players that will help you out when they don’t have to or go the extra mile just for you, without any notion of wasting their own time.
  • Laughs in guild chat and getting to know new people across the world with whom I can have so much in common.
  • Spotting the little things; fireflies roaming in dark corners when all other lights have gone out. The first sunrays creeping over the distant horizons. Windmills creaking.
  • Getting my character to a stage where I feel competent and look crazy good in my gear.
  • Unexpected NPC interactions that make the world come alive for a moment. Companion pets doing the wrong thing at the exact right moment.
  • Heavy rain soaking my clothes. My cloak fluttering in the wind.
  • The sound of snow under my boots as I cross a white snowy field. The way it sounds different from a cobblestone street or a wooden bridge.
  • My own little space, a room in a guild house or a fully decorated plot that is as unique as the next person’s.
  • Getting that mob down against all odds. Not giving up when all seems lost and somehow prevailing.
  • Idling in the city and seeing everyone around me starting to dance because somebody must have started.

There’s so many great things about MMOs: their scale, their simulation, their longevity, their interactivity and social aspects. Most of all however, my magical moments lie in the unexpected. That’s when the game seemingly transcends the boundaries of its script and I feel as if the world was truly unique and live, just for me. MMOs leave room for that sort of thing when most games do not – they leave room for many individual experiences influenced by countless random factors. So I guess you could say I am most happy in MMOs when the game actually stops feeling like a game.

Day/Night Cycles for a Chance of Sunset

So Wildstar has a day-night cycle as was inquired about by John in yesterday’s topic here. I’m not sure that there’s one for all the zones of the Nexus but given that I’ve experienced it several times over this past beta weekend in Celestion, Whitevale and Thayd even, I don’t see why the mechanic wouldn’t be applied across the board unless we are looking at different planets and solar systems in the future. Or non-solar systems respectively.

While elaborating on day and night cycles is hardly ever a priority on any devspeak’s list, players tend to care a lot about the question of changing light and different times of the day for new MMOs. How many phases are there and for how long? Is it a 24-hour cycle? How dark is the night? Where can I find the timer on my UI?

I am a passionate supporter of this feature for “authenticity’s sake”, wherever there’s a fitting context to be found which is the case for most fantasy MMO settings. Whenever a day/night cycle is missing I am the sadder for it, yes even in open world RPGs that often tend to disregard them. Without changing light even a virtual life feels oddly stagnant. It feels like a missed opportunity too for developers and designers to install different events and time-relevant encounters in the game.

rainb

Rainbow over Oatbarton / mmorpg.com

There is an extraordinary creative power to light, no matter real light or fictional, that we can all recognize be we students of quantum physics or mere observers of all the indirect effects and cosmetic wonders that light bestows on our senses. There is such painterly glory in dynamic light changes to a point where even the more ordinary and literally lack-luster is elevated to a state of brilliance.

Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope’s just a sunrise away
[Fear not this Night – GW2]

The night becomes frightening and mysterious for darkness’ sake, that absence of light. A morning heralds a better day, a day of possibility and things to come. Light is the great revealer of our reality but it is also constant interpretation and therefore it is poetry. There may be nothing new under the sun but neither is there ever the same.

24-hour cycles or multiple mini-days

One of the biggest concerns for MMO players has always been server-time versus artificial days or WoW’s 24-hour cycle versus all games that will allow a full run multiple times during a real-world day. There are many who dislike the classic WoW mechanic for understandable reasons:

I played an MMO where it followed the 24 hour cycle and I was kinda bummed because I’d always play at the same time every day, and it was ALWAYS night time on the server. The world was always dark and I rarely got to ever see daylight.

If the day/night cycles could be offset by a few hours, it would ensure that everyone will experience all the different times of the day since most people tend to play at the same time everyday. [source]

I remember the times in vanilla WoW when I was questing in Westfall and only ever experienced sunset, beautiful sunset, and then moonrise. While Westfall is a zone that has much to gain from the night’s black ink, I was taken aback when I visited during noon time for once several weeks later. So different was the atmosphere, so much more unnerving the shrill yellow all around. For other zones however, the night becomes an obstacle and players weary of hunting and questing for hidden objects that time of the day. They’ll take prolonged coffee breaks or re-schedule their ingame agenda entirely if they can.

sylnub

Light on a stick, I haz it.

I’m not sure personally which cycle I prefer the most. There’s a good argument pro multiple mini-days, at the same time I dislike MMOs that rush their cycles and rush transition phases especially. I am fine with several hours of night if only I get a properly long and developed sunrise phase in return. I am weirded out when there’s a new nighttime every hour, a schedule that exhausted me quickly in Minecraft’s unmodded version. What day is too long and which night long enough? It’s a tricky balance and yet a discussion worth having. Light is ultimately a very important factor to our overall gametime and gameplay experience as well as greater immersion (for us explorers and suckers of the second home). I’ll happily take tricky, prolonged nights over none at all and bear a toxic afternoon sun for a chance of sunset.

Thanks John for inspiring this post today. It was the waning light outside my window that told me it was time to publish and get on my way home.

DayZ – In the Land of Intense Colors and Unspoken Rules of Conduct

I currently live in a house where much of my weekend mornings and all of my evenings are accompanied by the loud and unbridled DayZ enthusiasm next door. I wake up to hectic commands shouted over voice-comm almost every Sunday (because like all sane people I sleep in on weekends) and go to sleep to “It’s me! Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” and “Identify yourself now!”. The better half is having a blast in DayZ and the very playable standalone early access has done much to rekindle that passion. Being a pretty obsessive gamer myself, I observe all of this with equal amounts of understanding and amusement. Far be it from me to begrudge anyone their gaming sessions. Until he forgets to wash and get dressed, anyway.

Naturally, I was gifted my own copy of DayZ recently and having always been fascinated with the harshness and unmoderated authenticity of this title, I’ve given it a couple of nights over the past few weeks running with an international clan. There is a lot of mixed information out there currently about DayZ which, in my humble opinion, fails to paint a fair or complete picture of this complex beast of a game, of the depth and psychological intrigue of this persistent world hiking and murder simulator with rogue-like elements. And that’s the shortest way for me to describe it.

DayZ always has been and in its current state certainly is legitimately a PvPer’s game just like some games are made for PvE or RP. While it’s entirely possible there will be other server modes again where killing other players isn’t possible, DayZ right now is about handling an outrageous mix of feelings – between stark loneliness and desolation, to the desperate search for food while a quick, inconspicuous death is haunting your every step. Like in the real world that DayZ takes such pains to simulate, you cannot tell friend from foe at a first glance. Like in the real world, due caution and clear communication may decide your fate. Like in the real world, there are stakes to what you do and decisions have tangible consequences.

dayzq

DayZ is the game where absolutely nothing happens for hours and you find yourself desperately lost in the wild world without maps and indicators. Where you can hike forever and a day and never meet a soul. And then you die. And death has so many faces. It’s the game of paranoid retreat and uncanny social contact, of foul betrayal and uncompromising bonds. It’s the game of fear of loss, of terror and so much hope. In summary, it’s a fascinating social environment that teaches us much about the way we will behave under social / peer pressure once all written law and agreed-on convention is lost.

If everything goes and everyone is equally hungry, what means and tactics will you resort to in order to survive?

In 2003 Postal 2 launched with a particular tagline: it’s only as violent as you are! Only DayZ adds the online multiplayer component. The question of how violent you are gets replaced by how the violence of your peers will affect you. And there are many ways in which individual players respond and adapt. Despite inviting more notorious gankers along with everyone else, DayZ isn’t all kill on sight but more frequently about caution and basic unspoken rules of conduct. One of my very first encounters with strangers in the game went like this:

Still fairly fresh, hungry and ill equipped, two zombies attacked me and I started bleeding. Bleeding in DayZ gives you a limited amount of time to patch up before losing consciousness (which equals death pretty much), as the game’s color saturation gradually and unnervingly decreases. The zombies right now in standalone are a shadow of their former self, dumb and slow, yet dangerous in packs when unarmed (and a nub like me).

Frantically getting away, I crossed a small township and as these things always go, another player and his rifle materialized right in front of me. Oh shit! I froze on the spot because approaching strangers is pretty much the most stupid thing anyone will do while intentions are unclear – and intentions are always unclear in DayZ. Like most creatures that inhabit this planet would never dream of just running into each other, you just don’t do that here either. Should you ever form bonds with other players they have been tested beyond all doubt. In DayZ, trust needs to be earned and cooperation justified.

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Friendly! Friendly!!

I managed to raise my arms waiting while the stranger started using proximity chat, the single greatest feature ever added to DayZ:

“Hello. Are you there? Are you okay?”

(At this point I haven’t figured out proxi chat just yet. I keep standing still looking dumb and expecting death by rifle.)

“Are you bleeding? I think you’re losing blood. Can you hear me?”

(I finally figured it out.) “I can hear ya! Hi! Yeah the zombies just got me down that road.”

“I assume you’re fresh, ye? Unarmed? I think I have some spare bandages if you like.”

(Overeager) “Yes I am friendly! I have virtually nothing! And I would really appreciate a bandage!!”

“Okay…..umm Bob, you can come out of the bushes now.”

(That’s when Bob, a second perfectly British gentleman who had been hiding in the bushes behind me, in case I turned out to be not so friendly, emerged.)

This was possibly the most hilarious conversation I’ve ever been involved in with random strangers online. It is also DayZ in a nutshell. That day, I lived and was saved by strangers. That day, I met the good people.

Lessons from DayZ

There is an emotional roller-coaster to DayZ, a ‘rawness’ of the simulation and in extension, basic human interaction both good and bad, that makes for some of the most exciting encounters and meaningful decisions in the world of online gaming today. I will never be a shooter fan but I am full of envy for the tension, terror and exhilaration this seemingly simple game is capable of producing. It’s what MMORPG players like myself dream of: the risky tactical play, the screaming and cheering on vent, the epic wins, the real scares and strong sense for friend or foe. The meaningful rewards and choices that can only come from risk and real chance of loss.

None of this would be possible if DayZ changed its present core mechanics or started imposing too many restrictions. I’m all for different server modes, after all that’s what self-hosting is for, but I love PvP DayZ and hope it will always remain this harsh and thrilling setting of basic social mechanisms. Traveling Chernarus, like Minecraft before it, has made me keenly aware of the things I miss in other MMO sessions –

1) Sharing with your next wo/man
There is an overwhelming sense of community in DayZ’s group play, encouraged by both the scarcity of resources and bag space, as well as omnipresent fear of death (which means starting over naked at a random location). Players can’t hoard and won’t hoard because two armed players are better than one and four are better than two. Even as a completely new player, I had people watch my stuff in DayZ, meet me halfway to re-equip me and make sure I was good on food and drink. It’s been a most humbling experience to have others look out for me in such manner.

2) Constant risk, decisions and consequences
Centered around survival with and against other players, DayZ is a game of endless decisions that often need to happen quickly. Dilemmas abound: Do I cross that public square in broad daylight for a chance of food or do I risk my hunger longer? Do I take a chance at the exposed well or try the popular food store? Do I have my weapon at the ready or do I prefer the faster run speed? Do I talk to that person and risk getting shot? Do I shoot first and risk to be heard? If I get heard, what’s my fastest way out? It never ends and paths lead in all directions.

3) Communication, caution and (self-)awareness
We take so many things for granted in other games – zone chats, grouping tools, location indicators, nametags and colors of allegiance that we have stopped communicating our intentions and wishes precisely. There is no need to act considerately or with caution because our actions don’t tend to affect or harm others, so there is very little in terms of self-awareness, of watching our movement and general behavior in MMOs. DayZ brings back the sign language, the reading cues and the very clear communication: Who are you? What do you want and why are you here? What are you up to? Without nametags indicated, identifying yourself to your buddies becomes a test of its own. In my partner’s clan, allies will ‘wiggle’ when approaching the group and state on voice-comm what they are wearing.

4) Running and screaming in terror
What it says. How much I have missed this!

5) A sense of gratitude
Due to high risk and strong sense for friend or foe, DayZ creates moments of gratitude with ease. In contrast, gratitude is something that is mostly gone from the games I am playing; when resources are plentiful, loot is individual and nothing and no one can really harm or save you, there is less need to rely on others and therefore also less opportunity for gratitude. You could say that’s the nature of all PvE-centric games that don’t tend to pressure-test social mechanics outside of maybe high-end raid content but I’m not sure it needs to be. In any case, I’ve really missed gratitude in my social games and DayZ made me realize it. How ironic that an emotion depending so strongly on community and acts of kindness should exist in a PvP rogue-like a lot more than in PvE enviornments.

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And a beautiful world it is too.

Final Words

While this has become quite a love letter for a game I probably won’t make a main, I believe DayZ deserves our attention and curiosity as far as its less popularly promoted aspects go right now. It would be wrong to dismiss this title over its potential for griefing and asshattery or judge it based only on the most visible forum crowd. Paradoxical as it may sound, DayZ offers a wide spectrum of positive social experiences and chances for cooperation (not to forget creativity and hilarious pranks). Such is the nature of freedom – that it can be applied in any which way. And in my limited experience, it’s group play where DayZ really shines.

Like for other games I’ve played in the past and that fall outside my usual high-fantasy MMORPG bracket, I’ve tried to look for inspiring features and opportunities here (while hiking an awful lot). As far as I’m concerned, DayZ is a rich canvas other social games could borrow some intense colors from while still being in this modest stage of early access. The sun hasn’t even begun to rise over Chernarus yet.

2014: Year of Voxels

A voxel (volumetric pixel or Volumetric Picture Element) is a volume element, representing a value on a regular grid in three dimensional space. This is analogous to a texel, which represents 2D image data in a bitmap (which is sometimes referred to as a pixmap). [Wikipedia]

I’ll be honest and say that I never really paid attention to the term voxel before SOE revealed upcoming EverQuest Next and Landmark this fall of 2013. In my very simplified terms, I understand voxels are basically cubes on a grid for all intents of 3D-gaming purposes and they’re what makes extreme sandbox experiences à la Minecraft possible – although Minecraft is in fact NOT a voxel game and mixing up the two will get you educated swiftly enough in certain corners of the gaming world. I can’t say that I am particularly concerned with the terminologies.

Quite clearly voxels are the new megapixels and everybody has them or if they don’t, well then they’re going to! Five minutes casually spent browsing the Steam store will yield results such as upcoming Forge Quest, Castle Story and Craft the World, alongside Vox which looks a bit like Trion’s upcoming Trove, and let’s not forget Picorama’s somewhat troubled Cube World project. While most are not content to simply copy Minecraft and/or Terraria gameplay at this point, I think we can agree that we’re going to see a lot of randomly generated sandbox crafting worlds in 2014, Year of Voxels.

https://picroma.com/cubeworld

https://picroma.com/cubeworld

I guess it’s understandable that two years into Minecraft’s great success, other developers finally decided it’s time to get a part of Mojang’s cake. As someone who enjoyed MC quite a bit, especially for its high customizability via supported server and client modifications and its community inclusion, I wonder a little how upcoming voxel sandboxes will be faring. No doubt, it’s a great concept for allowing players to go wild at content creation while running on your average PC. Yet, I think the longterm challenges of running a pure, crafting oriented sandbox game, likely online, can be greatly underestimated. Depending on how profitable you would like it to be, anyway. While Minecraft made an impact on this particular market just the way WoW was able to for MMOs, such mainstream debut successes aren’t easily recreated.

There is such a thing as “sandbox fatigue” for the average traditional player who, once basic mechanics have been internalized and the dream house was built, doesn’t really know what to do or where to go from there. Randomly generated maps have a tendency to become a little blah after a while, too. Then, there is the question of how well similar titles can set themselves apart from the competition; like for MMOs, players will likely opt for one or two such games at the most. This is where the degree of freedom offered in each game, combined with innovative play modes or successfully mixing genres in new and fun ways, is going to make all the difference.

Personally, I’m unlikely to jump on the voxel train; I did tolerate Minecraft’s graphics style because as the first of its kind, it’s become an amazing milestone of player creativity. As far as longterm commitment goes however, I like my (online) worlds a little more shiny and less quadrangular, as well as a little less randomly generated. After a few months of going back to Minecraft, I also did find my personal crafting fatigue, but that’s not to say I won’t be watching the voxel trend while playing some hopefully shiny new MMORPGs soon.

So, what about the rest of the MMO sphere – are you excited for any upcoming voxel sandboxes or sticking with your guns, TESO, Wildstar and Co. next year? Or maybe both?

Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

NextGen Sub model or B2P launch? A Desperate Thought Experiment

The blogosphere is abuzz with next gen subscription analyzis. MMOGC reminds us that subscriptions aren’t in fact back and she’s not alone in her suspicions. While some MMOs in the past were forced to revert to f2p, by now we have reason to believe such moves may be calculation. Tobold calls this new generation payment model “The bait & switch business model” and apparently it’s what any smart (and ruthless) business person would do given the current market. Others have chimed in on twitter how there really is no disadvantage here profitwise – subs must win by a landslide. Meanwhile, Tesh is full of eyeroll over the TESO sub and declares personal boycott. While I have a soft spot where Tamriel is concerned, I agree with every last word in his article; I would sign up for that MMO utopia yesterday.

May I raise a question here though? How superior is this route really, compared to the buy-to-play (and cash shop) alternative many expected? Especially given the crazy competition 2014’s AAAs will be facing, somehow I have my doubts this is such a clear winner. If anything, re-introducing a subscription-barrier in this particular scenario seems weird? LET’S THINK OUT LOUD HERE:

Let’s assume for a moment both Wildstar and TESO are going live sometime during Q1 2014, with Everquest Next on their heels in Q2 – and let’s completely ignore that Blizzard too may have a big expac up their sleeve around that same time. For the first time in years, the MMO mainstream is bewildered by too many AAA-choices and as we know, hardly anyone cares to pay for two subscriptions at a time. For the two sub-MMOs that essentially means a guaranteed loss of the usual potential playerbase. Alright, TESO have come up with a 1-month freebie but there are still box prices to pay too and it’s already bad enough these games launch so closely together. I don’t know anyone who appreciates that.

I doubt the mutual exclusivity of this situation is beneficial to either Carbine nor Zenimax. It’s the nature of MMOs that communities will form during the first few months into a game and that after a given time, players don’t care to join games that are already advanced in progress. They might dip a toe in but they’re less likely to settle and therefore less likely to purchase any virtual goods. We’re itchy to make decisions early when committing to new MMOs.

It’s also not very realistic to assume either game may go free-to-play after the first 3 months. The Secret World was special in its swift conversion for various reasons. Assuming a switch is already planned for both Wildstar and TESO, there’s no reason to believe either would switch after 3 months, given the much bigger hype around these titles and risk of bad PR (switches so soon after a launch are generally regarded as failures). Personally, I think a switch is way more likely to happen after 1 year – just like ArenaNet announced the first ever trial weekend for Guild Wars 2 only this August 2013.

12+ months are a lot of water under any virtual world’s bridge. It’s very likely players will test the other game as soon as it goes free – yet, that means they never payed subscriptions on the competition and they’re less likely to have spent a dime yet on virtual goods anywhere. For those switching from one sub to the other halfway through, both titles basically share player base. However: how many players were lost completely to one title due to community, or to both due to box+subscription model fatigue? How would GW2’s buy-to-play model truly compare to this assumed “early gold digging” scenario, considering a heavily contested launch?

An entirely hypothetical, simplified and sadly flawed calculation

Let’s assume 4 million players are ready to jump into either TESO or WS early 2014 and that neither turns out to be a clear “winner” (as I am not interested in that particular outcome). Why 4 million you ask? Given what Rift has managed in the past (pre-switch), that seems a very generous assumption.

2 million subscriptions each during the first 3 months, before players start dwindling. After that, let’s assume 50% of said players remain, while another 50% move on; 25% leaving for the other sub for another 3 months, 25% leaving for a f2p game for good. Between months 7-12, only 50% of overall players are retained while the game is still on a subscription. In this hypothetical scenario, box sales (60$) and subs (15$) for TESO/WS would yield the following for each:

chart1

Variables not accounted for: double subbers and/or box buyers, shop items. The first group adds marginally towards outcome and shop items are less eagerly bought in MMOs with subs. In any case, I am ignoring them for simplicity’s sake but you can add your own number if you like.

From here, it only gets more complicated when attempting to simulate a comparable B2P/shop scenario after GW2 fashion with a (better) shop like Rift’s. Unfortunately developers hardly ever make numbers public when it comes to cash shop habits and revenue – just like we don’t hear about active account fluctuations for subscription games. But since I am feeling lucky punk today, I’ll give it a go anyway and assume two different and hopefully somewhat realistic B2P/shop scenarios.

cölint

(Already I regret this whole idea!)

This time, we will assume 5 million players are ready to jump into either or both TESO or WS early 2014. Why 5 million this time? Because I am generously assuming that B2P games attract a wider target audience than sub MMOs. One reason why GW2 has sold 3mio copies by now is the one-time cost. Some players always stay the hell away from sub games. There is also a second difference, as I will assume 50% of the entire potential player base are “cross-buyers”. It’s rather likely that over the course of a year, a big part of that community will buy both WS and TESO, given it’s a 120$ in total and no more than that (in comparison one game with 12 months of subs would cost 240$). Means, 3.75mio boxes/account sold each. After that, we venture deep into hypothetical morass…but I’m already 11 paragraphs in and it’s too late to stop now!

Cash shop scenario 1) is more even-spread; it assumes that over the course of one year, the total of players per game will spend the following on micro-transactions: 30% spend 50$, 40% spend 20$, 30% spend nothing.

chart2

Cash shop scenario 2) is more radical; it assumes that over the course of one year, the total of players per game will spend the following on micro-transactions: 10% spend 100$, 30% spend 20$, 60% spend nothing.

chart3

As you can see, even with a lot of goodwill and no small amount of simplification, the subscription-model seems superior – by some. We still haven’t accounted for several more factors though where B2P is concerned. Variables not accounted for: whales, cross-shop purchases and box sales after year one. Especially that last part is worth taking note; B2P MMOs have the tendency to keep being sold longer than sub MMOs. Of course that argument is redundant if the sub games also turn B2P after one year, duh.

So that was a lot of effort for nothing?!

What was the point of all this? Well, it looks like especially in the short term, subs are more profitable. Still, the difference between the two models isn’t as drastic, considering there is a huge margin of error in all of my calculations. And this is in fact good news! Why is it good news? Because from here, one could think of ways to tip the scenario either way.

So, help me refine this: was I too generous on cash shop sales or not nearly generous enough? Would a B2P maybe attract twice as many box sales than usual? Under which circumstances could we still see the B2P model win the upper hand? Where did I go wrong the most (real data would be awesome)? I guess that’s where a proper business analyst would come handy, for once.

QOTD: Virtual Worlds

The “G” in MMORPG is the one letter we could do without. I’m not here to play games. I’m here to see worlds. (Bhagpuss)

I don’t do quote-of-the-day posts often, in fact this is maybe the second time ever on MMO Gypsy. That’s weird considering how much I love words and quotes but the reason is probably that QOTDs don’t create discussion. They do however spread words worth spreading and that is one hell of a quote-worthy statement right there. Happy Monday, all ye MMO world travelers!

Back to Minecraft (and my first video documentary!)

After the longest break since my first, very intense Minecraft spree over a year ago, it was decided last week, somewhat collectively out of the blue, that a revisit to Mojang’s prodigy was due. Truth be told, my absence from the game has had much to do with the unrestrained pace of my first encounter; I was completely and utterly hooked to MC for some weeks, spending nights in front of the PC exploring its depths (and creating my big ass castle dream). As a result, I burned out too quickly on what was still a limited game at the time, struggling with pre-release issues. Thus the last block of cobble stone set in my castle wall marked the ending of that first chapter.

But oh, have the times moved forward in Minecraft! With the arrival of the (approved) Spoutcraft client, Bukkit server mods, myriads of fan-written plugins and customization features, right down to some amazing and downloadable adventure maps, Minecraft has burst into what can only be described as (even more) baffling heights of community effort and player creativity. All the while, Mojang have kept improving and adding to the game, offering even more possibilities and freedoms to shape your unlimited, virtual space.

With great freedom comes great variety. While there are no default player classes in Minecraft, the game certainly brings out all sorts of playstyles and character types in its audience – from nutty engineers, to brave explorers, peaceful settlers and diligent carpenters. There are even MMO servers now with all the textbook MMO/RPG features you can think of, for both PVE and PVP, in a sword&sorcery, steampunk or zombie apocalypse themed world (where poisonous rain keeps falling…which you could’ve known if you actually read the tutorial).

I’ve visited a few public MMO servers and was duly impressed; after being run through a detailed starter/tutorial area, I was amazed to see item shops, teleport hubs, vendor and questgiver NPCs, PvP mini-games and more. Maybe a small detail but no less enjoyable for a soundtrack nut like myself: any designated area in Minecraft can now be attributed its own background music, hallelujah!

Public MMO servers

This is where it gets particularly interesting (and scary) because a “Minecraft MMO” can potentially offer the kind of tools and impact the current MMO market can still only dream of (known sandboxes included). It’s also where we see best how gameplay, fun and freedom trump everything else, top graphics first and foremost. The biggest woes of public MC servers right now are stability and bandwidth related, which is where big business MMO ventures will always have the upper hand.

Still, if a visit to Minecraft was highly recommended before, by now it is an absolute must! If you have any time to spare between your MMOs, RPGs and other games (and you know you do), have a look at MC! You will never install any game faster than this one.

My first omg-video documentary

Starting off on a fresh, customized server with friends, I quickly realized how behind I was on MC’s current flora and fauna, which inspired a small project called “the underwater greenhouse”. I am also still working on a much bigger scale hedge maze challenge but that’s for another time.

At completion, it struck me how I always wanted to give video commentaries with fraps another go (back when I was playing WoW my old PC was hopeless) which is how my first ever Minecraft (and for that matter first ever videogame documentary) came to be. In hindsight, I should probably have rehearsed this more…but I am a lazy person and easy to satisfy.

And yes, I am fully aware that everyone can hear my voice now. Oh noes!

Creating this video was actually so simple and fun that I am definitely doing more in the future. Maybe next time I’ll also manage to make less silly noises with my lips.

Quick Fraps how-to

Without exaggeration, making a video commentary like the one above is as easy as blogging. I was surprised how simple a tool fraps really is, with minimal setting up involved. My smartphone is more complicated than fraps! Together with a youtube account and two more, free tools, you are fully equipped to create your own gaming videologs which are lots of fun to do. And here’s how:

– Get a full version of fraps to be able to record more than 30secs videos
– Capture your ingame video (I use custom 15fps setting and record voice via headset)
Watch this guide on using Xvid and Vdub for file compression
– Upload your compressed video to your youtube channel

Works like a charm! And you can add extras like a title pane or annotations with youtube later. I love learning new things by myself, so it’s not unlikely I’ll look into Sony Vegas or similar video enhancement software soon. So I guess that’s one more way how Minecraft can boost your creativity!