Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Road Paved with Good Intentions

So I started thinking about how an MMO could increase immersion by translating heroic game acts into real world Good.  The first thought that came to mind was allowing players to choose a charity, and the more they achieve each month in game, the larger the portion of their subscription fee that goes to that charity.  It would diminish the “evil Wall Street corporation” image of the game company, do some real good in the world, and encourage players to play more and do more because they were having a positive impact through their virtual heroics. Seemed alright on the surface, so I took the thought experiment a little further.

Imagine that the charity you are playing for is fighting child hunger and poverty, and for every dungeon boss you slay and level you gain and townsperson you save, enough money is donated from your subscription fee to feed and clothe one child for a day. A new expansion has just come out so you’re playing and slaying like mad, achieving so much that the majority of your subscription fee is going towards feeding starving children.

Then you run out of content.  You’ve maxed out your character, done everything in game you want to do, and are driven to keep playing by nothing more than guilt at the thought of taking your money away from the charity by freezing your subscription or underachieving. 

Troubling Question #1: Is it unethical of you to reduce your achievement level in the game (or cancel your subscription), knowing what that means for the children?

Interesting content wanes as the game company is unable to keep up with the players, and while total subscriptions dip, the overall level of achievement falls much further, so the level of donations drops and company revenue increases.  By making the game temporarily boring, the company has increased their share of subscription revenue and reduced the contribution to charity.

Troubling Question #2: Is it the game company’s ethical responsibility to maintain a flow of engaging content in order to maintain charity levels?

Troubling Question #3: If the company was donating at a certain level, and all that changes in the next month is how many imaginary dragons were slain in the game, is it unethical (or at least publicly frowned upon) to reduce the number of starving children that they feed and increase the amount of money they keep for themselves? Or is it simply good that they’re giving money at all?

I started this idea with good intentions, but quickly realized that it could get twisted in a bad direction and lead to a lot of bad feelings for all parties.  A shame, because at first I really thought I was on to something.

I want to get your answers to these questions and see what you think!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rift Optimism

We're less than a week away from the launch of Rift, and I have to say, despite bashing their advertising campaign, I'm actually pretty optimistic about this game's success.  This is the first time I've been optimistic about an MMO's launch since LOTRO, and the first non-franchise MMO I've ever had hope for.  So best of luck, Trion!  Fight the good fight, dodge the shadow of the WoW colossus, and try to convert as many tourists as you can.  I'm rooting for you!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Square is going Soft

Seeing as how this is Square Enix week on Steam, I’ve been tempted by several great deals on Square games I never got around to playing.  Before buying I decided to go against my “trust Square’s every decision” instinct and downloaded the demos for Supreme Commander 2 and Front Mission Evolved.  I’m sure glad I did, because both of these games were awful.  Supreme Commander 2 is a hollow shell of what its predecessor was, with major changes that encourage turtling and hyper-specialized research.  Front Mission Evolved is not only a major departure from the franchises most successful gameplay (which I knew beforehand), it’s a crappy watered down version of its third person shooter predecessors as well.  The controls were clunky, aiming was hypersensitive, and the voiceovers were irritating.

Seeing two titles from my favorite game company fail this hard was not only disheartening, it was eye opening.  I took a moment to look back over Square’s history with my favorite franchise (Final Fantasy) and came to the realization that they’ve been putting out crap for almost a decade now. Starting with Final Fantasy XI, the company has continuously released games in the series that scrap the winning Final Fantasy formula in favor of relentless experimentation, striving to make games a showcase for their new ideas rather than fun experiences.  Final Fantasy XII and XIII were good games in their own regard, but it was clear that the focus was on the “revolutionary mechanics” of combat and advancement, pushing aside franchise staples like… fun and story.  Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t even need explanation, especially since the company has personally apologized for how bad it sucks.

Between 1997 and 2002 Square was an RPG powerhouse, raising the bar for the genre with every release.  Now it seems as if their hunt for innovation has made them forget their winning formula:

Add 1 part beautiful story,1 part gorgeous vistas, 1 part innovation, 2 parts familiarity, a great ATB combat system, Nobuo Uematsu and lots of chocobos. Not that hard, Square.  If you want some help getting back on track, feel free to hire me.  In fact, here are two big tips for free:
-More Strategy RPG's
-Whatever happened to the FFVII remake?  Scrapped? Well unscrap it!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pixelated Memories

Two games came out this month that are sequels (one direct and one “in spirit”) to two of my favorite games of all time.  Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 and Tactics Ogre (spiritual sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics) have both been getting great reviews, and making me languish the fact that I own neither a PSP nor a PS3.  But this entry isn’t actually about these new games, its about my original favorites, MvC2 and FFT.

Aside from the incredible gameplay, ridiculous replayability and visceral combat effects, these two games shared one thing in common: They were both crap graphics for their time.  FFT was a 2D isometric game that usually looked like it belonged on a SNES instead of a Playstation.  MvC2 was a Playstation 2 game that was composed almost entirely of 2D sprites.

As a result of these amazing games having crappy graphics, and other favorite games of the times having distinctly different graphics styles compared to now, I (along with many of you I’m sure) have a natural fondness for pixelated games and classic games with bad graphics. It takes me back to a time when games had to showcase good mechanics to make up for the lacking visuals, when limited audio capabilities tried their best to do justice to the beautiful scores of video game composers (ie: Nobuo Uematsu), and when game genres were still discovering their boundaries and potential.  Most of all it takes me back to simply being a kid and falling in love with video games.

What makes me sad is that the new generation of gamers doesn’t have that nostalgia and never will.  They didn’t watch game graphics improve from 8 bit to 16 to 32, they’ve seen life like 3D graphics fall into the uncanny valley and slowly climb out.  We watched graphics evolve styles, while they’ve simply seen improvement.  Thus they won’t connect graphics of the past to fond memories, and will simply continue to clamor for improved visuals.

I’m sounding like an old codger “when I was your age”-ing, so I’ll just say one more thing.  I think it was a smart move for Kongregate to start carrying Unity games, because the new generation isn’t going to have the tolerance for visually underwhelming indie games.

What were your favorite “outdated visuals” games?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Player Created Content: 1 Masterpiece > 99 Wieners

I tried the free version of Minecraft recently, and in the brief time I explored the world and mechanics I saw what everyone was talking about.  It really is an amazing sandbox game, which you don’t hear very often.  Merits of the game aside, what hit me more than the potential for creation was what players had already created.  It just reinforced for me a point I’d been thinking about lately.

Our gamer culture has produced a very wonderful situation, if you haven’t noticed.  We have created a huge pool of intelligent people who are in love with games and will do and learn and try almost anything to make a living off of video games.  That’s why sites like Kongregate and Newgrounds exist, why game development blogs are so popular, why colleges now offer game development programs, and why positions in established game studios are so competitive.  But the end result is a pool of talent much larger than the demand for that talent.  This means that there is a lot of eager talent being wasted.

Games like Minecraft allow this underappreciated talent to shine, showing the level of dedication that they have to quality content creation.  Its free content/publicity for the game and a great showcase for the player.

Now obviously the caveat here is that for every Wonder there are about 99 player created wiener jokes of content, and its unfortunate that that’s what we focus on in discussions of player created content.  But to be perfectly blunt, 99 out of 100 people in the real world create very little incredible content for the world (children aside), but that 100th person can end up as a Leonardo Da Vinci or an Andrew Carnegie or a Mark Zuckerberg.  The point is that the world benefits more from the incredible 1% than it is hurt by the less-than-epic 99%.  

Net gain, but only if you give people the chance to try.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Established Mythos: Sales Boost or Blood in the Blogwater?

I plan to write an article later on the modern information cycle and its relevance (and detriment) to the video game industry. For now, suffice it to say that between the intensity of the blogosphere and our almost constant connection to the web, there is an unprecedented amount of analysis, scrutiny and mudslinging that takes place when even a tiny bit of information about a game is released.  This is particularly destructive to MMO’s, who naturally have a longer development time and thus more time for each bit and beta to be blown out of context and proportion.

The effect is worst for MMO’s based on established franchises.  If you hear that a game called Rift is coming out, and hear nothing for three years, how much would you have been able to criticize or speculate on (actually maybe a little bit, if you’re anything like me)?  On the other hand, if you hear that a Star Wars MMO or a Warhammer MMO or a Star Trek MMO is coming out, every moment of those three informationless years will be filled with speculation, naysaying and high expectations.

My point is, the MMO market seems unusual in that an established mythos gives little benefit to sustained sales, since it raises expectations and allows for a much longer window of naysaying.  A game with an unestablished mythos may have weaker initial box sales, but it won’t have to fight the negative tidal wave to hold subscribers.

Let’s hope this is true in another market!

Edit:  Just to preemptively clarify the links, Ravious is scrutinizing and analyzing, not mudslinging.  And I agree with Syp.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ad Nauseum: Rift

While most people are discussing Rift’s gameplay and lore, I wanted to touch on another aspect of the game that doesn’t bode well for its long term success.  We who read blogs know about a game’s release long before the average gamer that relies on traditional media, so it’s easy for us to forget that traditional print and television ads are an enormous contributor to the success of a game’s launch sales.  Trion has launched a multimedia campaign spanning television, internet ads and even comic book pages, all with the central tagline of “We’re not in Azeroth anymore”.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that these ads look pretty cool, with the tentacles of an enormous monster clawing its way into the world as the hero looks on.  And on the surface the tagline seems like a good idea, because it could suggest that Azeroth was a boring and soft place compared to Telara, playing off of the phrase’s origin in the Wizard of Oz (Azeroth being Kansas, Telara being Oz). But I think this campaign could end up working against Rift’s success.

First of all, naming the world of the World of Warcraft is tacky and fanboyish, as they’re acknowledging WoW’s current dominance by relying on it's brand recognition for a clever tagline.  Combine that with a famous phrase that has been copied ad nauseum, and they end up with a rather low class cornerstone for a marketing campaign.

This ad is also misguided because they’re stressing the point that this game is VERY different from the most wildly popular MMO ever.  That might attract the minority of WoW players who are disgruntled with their current game, but fresh off the release of Cataclysm that minority has shrank significantly.  The context of the tagline and imagery of the ad suggests that Rift will be scarier, more dangerous and more difficult than WoW, only further alienating a playerbase who has slowly dragged WoW down into becoming more casual and less difficult.

Finally, even the metaphor they’re using doesn’t bode well for them, since they’re comparing WoW to Kansas and Rift to Oz.  I haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz in a long time, but I’m pretty sure Dorothy tours Oz (for less than thirty free days) then ends up back in Kansas.  So it almost seems like Trion is inviting WoW tourists.  Nice work, ad department.  At least the art is cool…

Friday, February 11, 2011

Titan Conjecture

With MMO fans frothing at the mouth for details on Blizzard’s mystery MMO –codenamed Titan- any and all official information is going to be hyper analyzed, and premature predictions will abound.  And I’m no exception, so prepare yourself for a conjecture lecture!  Based on scant previous details and yesterday’s tidbits from Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime, here’s what we know:
1) Titan will be able to coexist with WoW
2) Titan will address MMO issues that WoW can’t “because of the design decisions we've made, you just can't address”
3) Titan will break the mold of MMOs, and "To break the mold, sometimes you have to start over"
4) Titan will be a new franchise
5) Playing with friends is critical to an MMO experience (stressed by Morhaime)

Titan will be able to coexist with WoW – This means it won’t cannibalize the playerbase, meaning different enough to bring in new/different players, but familiar enough to still fit Blizzard’s winning MMO formula.  This is on the other side of Zubon’s Genre Uncanny Valley, and will require pinpoint accuracy the likes of which only Blizzard is capable
Titan will address MMO issues that WoW can’t- WoW created an entire generation of casual MMOers, and did so by excluding some genre staples.  Expect these in Titan, including player housing, non-combat classes, true exploration, and unsoloable public areas.  This also likely refers to multi-server infrastructure, and I agree that Titan will likely be an EVE-like single universe.  Hopefully this also means an alternative to the leveling treadmill, maybe they’ve discovered the elusive solution.

Titan will break the mold, and to break the mold you have to start over- Start over? Didn’t WoW start over and reset most genre conventions to a basic casual level?! How much further back can you go to start over?  Here’s a hint: Get those twitch reflexes ready.

Titan will be a new franchise- No Diablo, WoW or Starcraft, which means no Gothic, Medieval or Aliens.  As tempted as I am to believe Titan will have a space theme, I can’t help but feel that it would cause brand confusion between itself and Starcraft.  And  for anyone thinking Titan is a clue that the theme will be mythological, forget it, there’d still be too much overlap with WoW themes.

Playing with friends is critical to an MMO experience- Pretty basic, I think we all agree, but it leads to a interesting train of thought on implementation.  Finding people to play with in an MMO used to be a great challenge, but with the advent of WoW’s Dungeon Finder it suddenly became a snap (unless you’re DPS).  When you log on now and see which friends are playing, depending on where they are it may be difficult to meet up immediately.  Look for a more Facebook-esque approach in Titan, with a constantly updated friend list giving you all their recent accomplishments, locations, and a “Teleport to them” button accessible most of the time.

So what to make of all this?  Here is my prediction:
Titan doesn’t imply anything about its theme or franchise, its actually a simple comment on its own scope.  Blizzard will have about a decade of MMO superiority under its belt, pushing our expectations for Titan even higher, meaning it HAS to be huge. Not genre bending, not genre breaking, but genre assimilating.

Blizzard has singlehandedly grown the MMORPG genre population by several orders, and it would be risky to a fault for them to assume another MMORPG would somehow continue to grow the genre population without cannibalizing WoW. However, in the broader meta-genre of MMO games, there are tons of markets untapped by Blizzard.  I believe Titan will be a central context and hub for several different genres of gameplay to come together, all in the same universe, allowing players to switch between their favorite kinds of gameplay/genres without ever logging out of one game.  Picture this scenario:

You log into Titan and your avatar wakes up in his private room in a huge star destroyer-type spaceship. You proceed out of the barracks into the mission hub, where dozens of different mission types are listed, relating to the exploration, exploitation, colonization, defense, conquest and sterilization of surrounding worlds. Having worked all day in RL you just feel like some mindless tower defense gameplay, so you choose a defense mission on a nearby planet.  You then enjoy a crisp, Blizzard polished Tower Defense experience, until you begin to lose interest in TD gameplay.

Now you feel like getting down to the ground level and taking a more direct approach to the action, so you change to a First Person Shooter assault mission on another planet, spending the money you earned during the TD mission to do some last minute upgrades to your assault gear.  In the midst of capping some baddies and increasing your assault mission rank, you get a message from one of your friends to help him out on a conquest mission, so you accept his invitation and transfer into a RTS style gameplay, helping your friend secure a new colony in unclaimed territory.

After a great session of several types of combat, you head back to the mothership and find that all these missions have given you enough experience points to level up your macro rank, unlocking new types of missions and gameplay!  You visit the store, where you spend the money you earned from the various missions to buy some equipment for the new mission types you’ll be trying tomorrow.  Seeing that you don’t quite have enough game money, you make a small micropurchase, just to ensure you have an edge on your next ____ type mission.

Sound farfetched?  Sound like an impossible mega-game with too many disparate gameplay types to develop, program and balance?  Sound like it would take even one of the greatest game companies years and years and years to create? Absolutely.  Blizzard may be the only company in existence with the budget, expertise, reputation and patience to make it happen.