Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oh Look, a Fallout MMO!

JK bitches... except not really.

Let's be honest, post-apocalyptic scenarios are fantastic and enjoyable, but when you "borrow" an entire aesthetic feel and art style from something as popular as Fallout, you'd better be ready for people to draw the comparisons.

All that aside, I want to send a quick message to every game developer alive who wants to build their own MMO from the ground up:

The setting and story doesn't matter.

This is a common misconception since MMOs started out as a means by which players, who weren't fully content in their vanilla terran life, could explore strange new places and adventure with hordes of friends and be part of a world-shaping experience.

Over the years, that's changed. Just as non-digital games like Magic: The Gathering or D&D are more about manipulating the turn structure and mapping out deck/character builds to maximize damage output or survivability, MMOs are all about grinding and making sure the numbers associated with your character are a little bit bigger than your friends'.

This is why World of Warcraft is so damn popular, it provides end game content for hardcore loot junkies who want to own the biggest, most pimped-out orc in town. Hell, Diablo 2 is still bringing in plenty of revenue for Blizzard almost ten years after it was first released because of people's desire to own overpowered gear and max out their stats.

Look at Tabula Rasa. I must confess, I never played the game so feel free to shoot down this paragraph as unfounded, but it was hyped as being a reinventing of the MMO genre in hopes of making a deeper experience and giving players the feeling of being in the game's universe. And we all know how well that turned out.

I love that MMO developers are trying new things and putting their efforts into worlds that haven't had MMOs before, but the theme is not, and never will be, the point to a successful MMO.

Fallen Earth claims to have a complex character creation system, which is a huge concern for MMO players. Some Western RPGs like Oblivion and Fallout 3 already employ a complex and fully customizable character creation system within the single player realm and they are epic successes, but when customization is put into the multiplayer space, it often causes more trouble than it's worth.

Games like Guild Wars and Diablo 2 allow for an epic amount of customization through character stats and chosen abilities, but these systems don't inherently offer creativity. Within a month of Guild Wars' release, people were filling forums with character builds and the landscape was overrun by cookie-cutter characters of various hair styles and heights.

Thankfully in Guild Wars, you can refund your skill points and learned abilities whenever you're in a town so you aren't punished for experimenting. Unlike games like Diablo 2, where if you put three points into Iron Golem, you'll never get them back.

Customizable character classes offer a venue for creativity to a degree, but there comes a point when the most mathematically efficient classes sprout up and deviating from these established norms becomes a way of crippling your own character to an experience of always being a step and a half behind the players around you.

Balancing out the abilities to allow a plethora of these prime classes is the only way to still have a fun world to interact in a year after the game's launch. Fallen Earth is in closed beta right now so the developers are probably getting a pretty good look at what they need to tweak, and lets hope there aren't too many balance errors by launch.

I guess my point of all my ramblings, is that, after watching this video, I was given the impression that the developers of Fallen Earth had story on the brain and I really wanted to say that I think it's a flawed vision. If you have a great story, people will probably appreciate it more in a single-player experience.

That's not to say you can't have a story in an MMO, but you'd better be putting the lion's share of your efforts into content because most players will never read your quest dialog or back stories.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Quest to Finally Kill Diablo

Being a child of the nineties, I can't help but have fond memories of Starcraft, Everquest, the original Rainbow Six and, of course, Diablo. My older brother and I used to play the original Diablo a ton, we'd each gone through the main single-player and had figured out how to get online in BattleNet's infancy when you had to make sure no one was on the phone when you tried to connect.

This was before the days of server administrators, so griefing and hacking were commonplace and my brother and I were no exceptions. We had our hack programs and could dupe with the best of them. In my Godly Plate of the Whale I had killed Diablo plenty of times, even if I was running a sorcerer.

But by the time Diablo II came out, I had moved on from the franchise. My brother bought it and it was around our family computer room so I decided to take it for a whirl. I got my necromancer through act one and had enjoyed the fan service I found in saving Deckard Cain from Tristram, but I quickly grew bored with the game about hour ten when I was still running through the desert trying to find another arcane bauble for the horadric staff. I think that was about the same time I invested a few skill points into Iron Golem as well, which would be enough to turn anyone off of that game forever.

A few years and a PC upgrade later, I decided to give the game another shot. I dusted off my brother's old discs and set about installing the game. Given its massive hard drive requirement, for the time, it took me a while to finally free up enough space and then even longer to finally get it all installed. But after finally completing that herculean test of patience, I booted up the game to find my family PC's graphics card was incompatible.

Years later, when I moved off to college and finally got my own PC, I took the discs with me and gave it another go. This time I was successful in playing for a few minutes at a time before the color calibration would freak out, leaving me staring at a screen of yellow and purple dots that vaguely resembled my character.

Frustrated with Diablo II, I basically decided that no game could possibly be worth this amount of hassle. I still remembered the horrified glee I felt when I watched the closing cinematic of the first game, being shocked and dumbfounded as Diablo's glowing soulstone embedded itself into my hero's head as he reeled back in terror.

It almost felt a shame to let that story end there, with my hero deep beneath Tristram waring with the devil himself, even when I knew full well it continued. I also kicked myself for giving up on the game back when it was right in front of me so many years ago.

Damn you Interstate '76 for being so damn irresistible to my pre-teen mind!

I'm sorry Interstate '76, you know I love you.

Anyway, about a month ago my buddy Kato decided to show me some trailers for Diablo III, which I had been staunchly avoiding as the idea of playing Diablo III without having completed Diablo II seemed like watching Return of the Jedi without ever finishing Empire Strikes Back, and that's just wrong.

The moment I started watching though, I knew I had to right my canonical sins. A few days, and a shameful trip to Wal-Mart later, I loaded up Diablo II. This time forgoing my brothers old crappy discs for a new set off the shelf, complete with the expansion Lord of Destruction, which I had never previously owned.

I've been playing online with my buddies since and I've got to say it feels damn good.

After a few short weeks of clicking my way through dungeons, arid deserts and jungles I finally confronted the grand unresolved conclusion that had haunted me for so many years. As I double-swung wildly into the beast's pixelated body I knew I was correcting a grand injustice. Lightning and fire spewed forth from his hate filled maw and threatened to melt us where we stood, but my hero stood firm.

As the mighty beast howled its last, I knew victory was finally mine. After so many years, this painful, neglected memory was finally laid to rest.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Co-Authoring A Hoppin' Night

This past weekend saw a genesis in my gaming career that caught me completely by surprise. I’ve been playing video games consistently since I began remembering my life thanks to my family’s Atari 2600 which later gave way to the Super Nintendo. I’ve been playing table-top battle games since middle school when I picked up Warhammer and eventually fell in love with the lower-maintenance Magic: The Gathering. And, as my three loyal readers know, I’ve been playing table top role playing games for the past few months special thanks to a local Dungeons and Dragons group I shoe-horned myself into.

While so far, this is a pretty standard nerd resume for someone my age, but this past weekend introduced me to another form of gaming, specifically roleplaying, that really tickled my fancy.

Not that you perverts.

A friend of mine (in fact, the same friend of mine I referred to last week as our Dungeon Master who will hereby be referred to as “Kato”) was planning on writing a murder mystery themed party for his parents. You’ve probably heard of these kinds of games before, a ton of middle-aged people dress up in costumes and put themselves at a dinner party (or other large social gathering, depending on the setting) and try to work out a Nero Wolfe style mystery that their alter-egos are somehow a part of.

Most of the time these parties are entirely planned out, complete with suggested dialogue and key points that are designed to be triggered as events happen. While this allows dramatic action to unfold in front of the party guests, it is entirely controlled. And therefore boring.

Well, Kato and I decided that would be no fun from our standpoint so we decided to spice things up a bit. We wrote out cards for each of the guests with three to five points on them. These points could be anything from a character quirk that was completely irrelevant to a crucial clue that was a cornerstone of solving the crime. And that was it, each character had their story, their goal and their bullet points and we basically said “go.”

Kato and I were both at the party in character and all the guests knew we were two of the creative minds behind the project so it wasn’t uncommon for a guest to bring their cards over and ask a question or make mention of a cool moment that had transpired. For instance, the detail of the murder said that three 9mm bullets were removed from the body and only one character sheet specified that the character carried a 9mm (and he wasn’t even the murderer). As it turns out, one of the other mobster characters had brought an air-soft gun as a prop and it was designed after a common 9mm pistol, so when guests asked him if he carried a 9mm he answered with an affirmative and even showed them the gun. It worked out perfectly.

As the evening wore on, and the pony keg grew lighter, some of the guests expressed frustration in how difficult to puzzle was to solve and it was fun to have a stake in the narrative because Kato and I were able to interject facts and details while staying in character in order to progress the story. There were a couple of times when we sat by the bar and had an overly loud conversation while other players were within earshot as we projected potentially valuable clues in character. Nothing terribly obvious, but it was enough help people draw some conclusions.

I now know what it’s like to play a babysitter character in D&D and, to be honest, it’s kind of fun.

It was a blast to play a game with a group of inter-generational strangers and let this world unfold with all of their help. I was surprised at how eagerly each of the guests adopted their characters and played their parts. They also added a lot of depth by improvising details into their backstories that helped improve their character’s relationships with the characters played by their close real-life friends. Some of the dynamics that sprouted up on the fly were remarkable.

This was gaming at its finest. Even though I highly doubt any of the guests would even consider it as such.

Kato and I have decided to edit the game a little bit and post it online in the coming weeks (or months) and then, depending on the response, maybe even write some more for kicks. I’ll keep you posted.

-That Guy