When MMOs Need An Overhaul

MMOs are somewhat unique in that they are, by nature, persistent and ever changing and expanding. Single player games may come out with a few expansions or DLCs, but other than that, the developers generally scrap everything and create a sequel. In MMOs, however, you can’t really scrap anything, you have to constantly add new content if you want to keep players happy and coming back for more. This is one of the things that I love about the genre, but it also creates a problem. Sooner or later, the game gets bogged down in so many things–progression systems, extra gear slots, gear augmentation, etc.–that, at some point, it really starts to overwhelm new and returning players–sometimes even consistent players who don’t spend a lot of time reading forums and wikis and the like–and it really needs and overhaul. Marvel Heroes’ new 2.0 update (“Biggest Update Ever”) got me thinking about this. I had a big post written about the update that I never posted, partly because, to talk about all of the changes, it ended up being a mile long, but also because it ended up sounding more like a review, and there are people out there who can do that a lot better than I can. To summarize, I really like the update as a whole, I can also see where it went wrong in a few places, but most of all, this was a totally necessary change that, aside from a few hiccups, was handled more or less in the best way possible. So, I’ll be using Marvel Heroes as a case study to talk about overhauls in general.

If at all possible, updates should be done a little at a time. Overhaul one system, then, when that’s settled down, overhaul another. Marvel Heroes, for example, reviewed and overhauled one older hero a month for years. This approach is great because it allows the team to focus on one thing at a time, and it keeps panic down in the community. Speaking of community, they often know the state of the gameplay better than its developers do, so involving them as much as possible as early as reasonably possible is ideal. From what I’ve heard, this is something Marvel Heroes didn’t do so great at with 2.0, but hopefully they’ll take feedback into consideration for future updates. Sometimes, as is the case in Marvel Heroes’ most recent update, you really have to overhaul everything at once (you can’t just rework the whole way power work one hero at a time, and while you’re shaking up hero’s powers is the only really good time to redo the rather arcane and convoluted Omega system), and, when that’s the case, it needs to be communicated early and often.

When a massive update needs to happen all at once, the developers need to sit down and figure out what needs changed, what needs streamlined, and what needs removed altogether, and focus on that alone. I like that Marvel Heroes didn’t pair this update with a new content expansion; they just worked on streamlining the game and balancing all of the classes, and that’s pretty much it. Not only does it allow more crucial manpower to go into the overhaul part, but it also disassociates the overhaul from any other added content. For instance, I heard a lot of negativity about WoW Cataclysm, not because the endgame content was bad, but because it streamlined and accelerated the leveling process, removing and changing a lot of content from the beginning of the game that people knew and loved. As a non-WoW player who knows several WoW players, I don’t really know a whole lot about what Cataclysm added; I mainly know about what it took away.

At the end of the day, no matter what you do, someone’s going to hate it. It’s best to just resign yourself to that fact, both as a developer, and as a player. People who are content don’t tend to get on forums and write lengthy posts about how the update is nice, or at least marginally better than what we had before. It’s the people who are upset that their favorite class isn’t as OP as it used to be, or who have some reason why they liked the game better when it was inaccessible to new players, that will stamp their feet and threaten to leave the game forever if something isn’t done about it by next patch.

I know all of this is much easier said than done. I’m actually in the process of developing a single-player RPG with a friend right now, and just balancing that is hard enough, I can’t imagine a game with sixty classes that’s constantly being picked apart by min/maxers. I know video games are made by companies with higher-ups that aren’t always as interested in what’s best for the game so much as what’s best for the bottom line, and sometimes the only way you’re going to get funding approved for a major systems overhaul is if you bundle it with a paid expansion or other major content drop. But overall, I think Marvel Heroes has done a good job managing this update, and I’ve been really enjoying it so far.

Marvel Heroes: Anniversary Apathy

I hate it when games that I’m not currently playing run events. Take Marvel Heroes for example. It’s a great game, and I enjoy playing it from time to time, but right now I just want to play WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online (yes, it’s sticking more than I initially thought it would… more on that another day). But Marvel Heroes is running its third anniversary event this month, and, as its players know, that always means lots of free goodies and, more importantly, massive XP boosts. I feel like I should take advantage of this opportunity to level a few of my characters and grind enough cake slices for a free hero ticket. I’ve got several characters around 35 or 40 that kind of stalled, and I should probably at least get them to 50 for their second synergy boost. Also there really aren’t any new heroes that I’m excited about at the moment. I’m planning on buying Ultron and Nick Fury when they come out, but, of course, that doesn’t help me now. A while back I considered picking up Green Goblin, but I’ve literally only seen him once, and that was in a hub, so I’m guessing he’s not much fun. I also got Black Cat from a pack, but have yet to do anything with her, so I guess that’s an option, but she doesn’t really seem like my type of character.

I’m generally feeling really apathetic toward the game right now, playing a little each day because I know that at some future date I will be mad at myself if I don’t take advantage of the XP boost and get at least one hero ticket. I hate this feeling of obligation to a game–it’s a game after all, it should be something I do for fun and not because I have to–but I hate the idea of missing getting something that I want for free even more. Fortunately the event runs all month, so hopefully I’ll be able to do a little each day and get everything I want by the end.

Licensed IP MMOs Aren’t A Bad Thing

Licensed MMOs
I saw a player proclaiming in Guild Wars 2 the other day that he or she would never play a game based on an unoriginal intellectual property. Their reasoning was the usual; since the creators do not “own” the story, they are limited in what they can do with the lore. It also opens the developers up to all sorts of criticism for “breaking lore” (don’t bring up the Rune-Keeper in LotRO global chat; it’s still a huge sore spot in the community over seven years later). As someone who just got back into Lord of the Rings Online for the umpteenth time, I actually disagree with this rather strongly. While ultimately gameplay is what makes a game good or bad, I think a licensed IP can actually be a really good thing for a game.

The License Sells The Game
Let be honest, MMOs are businesses, businesses need to market their products, and brand recognition is huge. I know it’s hard to imagine, but there are people out there–gamers even–who have never played an MMORPG and know absolutely nothing about Guild Wars, EverQuest, or possibly even (gasp) World of Warcraft. Those people, however, can probably identify several super heroes and have seen at least some of the Star Wars movies. Unless this hypothetical person has a friend who plays, there’s not much of a chance a game like Guild Wars 2 will catch their eye at Walmart, but if they recognize a franchise they like they’re significantly more likely to give it a try.

Many Players Already Know The Lore
I still feel fairly lost as to the lore of Guild Wars 2 after playing it for a couple of years, but as soon as I stepped into Lord of the Rings Online, I already knew the world because I had read the books and seen the movies (yes, in that order). The enjoyment in exploring Tyria is discovering new locations, whereas the enjoyment of exploring Middle-Earth is all of the moments that make you say “Oh! These are the trolls that Bilbo defeated!” or “Hey, this is the spot where Frodo got stabbed by a Nazgul!” or “Man, the Old Forest is a huge pain to find your way around in, just like Tolkien described it!” Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I tend to prefer the latter a little, mainly because I don’t have to trawl dev posts and wikis to learn the lore. The game may have to fill me in on the current political climate of The Old Republic era or the fallout of the destruction of Romulus, but the game world at large is already familiar to me long before launch day.

Storytelling Limitations Aren’t Necessarily Bad
Licensed IPs are like the storytelling equivalent to Twitter; some people prefer it because of its limitations. And really, it’s not that limiting. There are still plenty of stories to be told in the Marvel universe or the Star Wars universe. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be an ongoing franchise beyond the game. Furthermore, the vast majority of the individual writers, even in a game with an original IP, have a story pretty much handed to them. They may have the freedom to add a few minor characters or create events that change the world in small ways, but for the most part, by the time the game is a few years old the people who wrote the original story likely doesn’t even work there anymore, and if they do, you can be they don’t write every day-to-day quest added into the game. At that point the writers for a game based on an original IP is basically the same boat as someone who’s writing a story for a game whose IP is owned by a major movie studio. Yes, there may be more red tape and approval process for the licensed game, but either way they don’t have total freedom/

All of that said, I agree that there are downsides to licensed IPs. The biggest and most obvious downfall is the license itself. If Lord of the Rings Online was an original game it could go on indefinitely, maybe shifting into maintenance mode at some point, but still there for the loyalists to hang out in. I don’t mean to bring this up every time I post about LotRO, but its Tolkien license comes up for renewal next year, and I think there’s a real question as to whether or not all parties involved will feel like it’s worth their time and money to renew it. The other downside is that, for every player the IP attracts, there will be one more that it pushes away, like the player mentioned at the start of this post. I’ve played some pretty awful movie tie in shovelware games in my day, and I can see why players would associate those games with games like LotRO, SWTOR, or DCUO.

Marvel Heroes: Lawyered

So I’ve had more than 400 Eternity Splinters burning a hole in my inventory for a while now, and haven’t been able to decide on which character to buy. Magneto? Seems too much like the AoE nuker classes I’ve been favoring a little too much lately, and I’m looking for something different. Rocket Racoon? I was pretty close to picking him up, but then I heard his summons got a big nerf, so that was a turnoff. Cyclops? Everyone says you should at least level him to 50 for the XP bonus synergy, but they also say he’s really boring. I could go on, but you get the idea. So the other night I was bored and started messing around with a few of the classes I haven’t tried with the new “every character is free up to level 10” feature they added a while back. For some reason, I tried out She-Hulk, because, while I’m a little put off by Marvel’s proclivity toward making female versions of every super hero, come on, she’s way cooler than the original Hulk. Not as strong perhaps, but how cool is it that she’s a green superhero lawyer? Not to mention all of the legal puns involved. After about 15 minutes of playing her I knew I had to buy the unlock. I just fell in love with her playstyle; stomping around and punching baddies to build up combo points, then spending them on one high-powered AoE slam to finish them off. I really like how some skills require zero combo points to be at full power, and others require–but don’t use up–full combo points. She also has a refreshing way of doing melee, a playstyle that I generally don’t like in this game (I have both Thor and Wolverine, and both got boring really fast) by giving her a variety of powers that make her leap into the fray. Plus her “Objection!” skill makes her lob a briefcase full of legal documents at her enemies. What’s not to love?

Forget headphones Star-Lord, make a $20 Phoenix Wright costume for She-Hulk and you'll make millions.

Forget sweatpants Hawkeye; make a $15 Phoenix Wright costume for She-Hulk and you’ll make millions.

Long story short, I got her to level 25 Friday night alone, which is a leveling speed record for me. I had planned to play WildStar that night, but couldn’t tear myself away from Marvel Heroes. I’m also seriously considering buying her lawyer outfit next time there’s a costume sale, because I think it’s a lot cooler than the weird swimsuit thing she comes with. Considering that I’ve bought a grand total of one costume up to this point, that’s saying something.

If you had told me when Marvel Heroes came out that my favorite characters would be people like Squirrel Girl, and She-Hulk, I probably would have thought it was some kind of joke, because I would have been completely unaware of the existence of any of those heroes if not for Marvel Heroes. That’s one of my favorite things about the game; it exposes non comic readers like me to some of the more obscure heroes and villains of the Marvelverse that will likely never make it into the movies.

Marvel Heroes: Master Marketers

Magneto's new costume: Money Manipulation

Magneto’s new costume: Money Manipulation

Since Dungeons and Dragons Online opened the floodgates of mainstream F2P MMOs, we’ve seen a lot of gimmicks used by studios to fund their “free” games–pay gates, character restrictions, in-game advertisements, pay-for-hats, buy-to-play, and the dreaded and ever nebulous pay-to-win–but they generally have one thing in common: annoy the player into opening their wallet to make things easier or the experience better in some way. Then there’s Marvel Heroes, which applies the opposite strategy. At launch two years ago (has it really been that long?) I was initially really excited about it because I had just finished playing through Torchlight II for the second time, wishing there was an MMO like it the whole time. Marvel Heroes seemed poised to fill this void, but it had a pretty rough launch. Heroes were really overpriced, and the only way to earn them in-game was from a random hero token that dropped (rarely) from bosses. On top of that, some of the heroes (like my original starting character, Fantastic Four’s The Thing) were both boring and underpowered. Disappointed, I quit the game for about six months. When I came back, I discovered that something magical had happened that it feels like we see less and less of in MMOs these days: the developers listened to the community and made the game better. Hero prices were reduced, and hero token drops were replaced with eternity splinters that players could spend on the hero (and later, teamups) they wanted to buy. Heroes have been balanced and rebalanced on a regular basis, which is crucial when you essentially have an MMO with nearly fifty classes, and they’ve done a surprisingly good job of it. They’ve added multiplayer mini-games and PvP that are actually fun and not just something to keep players from complaining.

All that to say, the thing that makes Marvel Heroes so appealing is not its story (which is mediocre), not its combat (which is fun, but not very deep), it’s the feeling that the company behind it actually cares about their game and the people who play it. The game basically rides on the goodwill of its players, and Gazillion knows it. They give away mountains of free stuff, not just through in-game drops, but daily login rewards and coupon codes through email blasts as well. They’re even giving away a free hero of your choice today to celebrate the second anniversary, and we’re also getting a free pet and team-up in the coming weeks. They do anything it takes to keep the player coming back. And the crazy thing is that it works. A popular sentiment among players is “I’ve gotten so much gameplay time and free loot from this game, I’m ok with putting $10 in the Gazillion tip jar for a costume from time to time.” Personally, as both a player and a developer I would prefer this kind of model than the aforementioned annoyance model. Granted, Marvel Heroes probably doesn’t have the highest development cost on the planet, so maybe “success” is measured by a different standard than other MMOs, but still, they don’t show any signs of slowing down.

They’re also good at removing barriers to players enjoying the game. For instance, the most recent patch has removed respec potions, which were more of an annoyance than anything, and given how often they were handed out for promos and quest rewards, I can’t imagine they made much money on them anyway. The only sad thing about free respecs is that “Retcon Device” is the coolest name for a respec potion ever. I hope they figure out something else to use the term for. Additionally, they recently made all unowned heroes free to play up to level 10. I had a lot of fun just messing around with the ones I didn’t own, and, knowing full well that I was falling for their fiendish schemes, ended up buying Wolverine while he was on sale (not a huge fan of the character, but I’m as big a sucker for a DoTs and HoTs class as I am for sales) despite the fact that most of the characters I already own are under level 25.

Marvel Heroes may not be my favorite MMO ever, and it will probably never be my go-to game, but the studio really has really nailed the fine art of making the game a purely fun experience.

P.S. Dear Marvel, forget Ant-Man, can we please get a Squirrel Girl movie? Thanks.

Marvel Heroes: Occasional Anti-Hero

We are Groot.

We are Groot.

Marvel Heroes finally released Venom as a playable character. I’ve been looking forward to playing as him since they teased him nearly a year ago, and I have to say it’s been worth the wait. He has a really interesting mechanic in that his mana (normally known as spirit but renamed ichor specially for him) only regenerates when you use attacks that do damage at the cost of health, and many ichor-burning attacks regenerate health. It’s a really cool way to represent the symbiote/host relationship, and the double resource management makes for an interesting alternative to many of the “hold right mouse button to win” characters that I’ve played in the past. Like most characters in Marvel Heroes, his “rotation” is sweet and simple: build ichor and take out trash mobs with his AoE, then hit the survivors with the more powerful ichor based attacks, either ranged or melee depending on the situation. If I’m running low on health, I can use my basic (left mouse button) attacks. I’ve had a hard time deciding if I prefer the high damage melee or the long ranged one, but I’m starting to lean toward the ranged one. After all, they both regenerate the same amount of health, and I have other skills that are more efficient at dealing damage, this one is for keeping me alive. Plus, if I’m in a tough spot I’d like to be able to keep as much distance between myself and whatever happens to be shooting at me at the time. I’ve loaded up on health regen gear so far, so it hasn’t really been much of an issue, but when bosses start hitting hard it’ll be nice to be able to build my health back up quickly.

Venom vs Symbiotes

Can you spot the player in this screenshot? (Hint: I’m the one that’s not dead)

A little strange was the quest Symbiote Infestation, which has been in the game since launch, that had me fighting off symbiote infected office workers, including a section that had me activate a Sonic Emitter that’s supposed to disrupt the sybiotes’ hold over people. Yet I was completely unaffected. Apparently my symbiote has his soundproof earplugs in. I suppose it’s not any stranger than having multiple Human Torches or Thors running around in the same room, but it was somehow more unsettling to know that I’m fighting myself. Ironically, when I got to the room at the end where I’m supposed to fight boss Venom, the cutscene bugged and wouldn’t let me continue the quest. I guess I confused it.

Also this December I got the Holiday Groot team-up from a giveaway in the newsletter. He’s my first team-up, and, while his festive lights may look a bit tacky year-round, I love Groot, and I see no reason to spend money/splinters on a team-up if I already have a free one. He adds a little bit of tanking and damage, but honestly I haven’t really needed it yet, so I can’t really say how good or bad he is. I’m sure I’ll be changing my tune if I ever get to extreme difficulty, though. Either way, I’m glad to have the extra inventory space he adds.

I continue to be amazed at how far Marvel Heroes has come. At launch, it was pretty much unplayable if you didn’t pay money; the free starter characters were mostly garbage (especially The Thing, the character I started with), and there wasn’t much hope of getting new ones (hero tokens dropped rarely only from certain bosses). The Eternity Splinter system, frequent giveaways, and daily rewards mean that I’ve never been tempted to spend money on anything but heroes, and I’ve bought only two of the eight heroes I own. Unfortunately, it still has the nagging problem of being a little lacking in content, and the fact that most things are instanced and you can do everything alone doesn’t give it much of an MMO feel. It’s more of a microtransaction-heavy single-player ARPG with a few multiplayer hubs. They’ve tried a few things to bring players together, but it ends up feeling more like a mini game that you can’t do on your own to distract you from the main game. I can’t say it really bothers me too much, but it sometimes feels a little gimmicky.

Marvel Heroes: An Unexpected Return

Human Torch 1

Something unexpected happened while I was recovering from my recent surgery: I had a random urge to play Marvel Heroes again. I was really excited about Marvel Heroes when it first came out, because I’ve recently become a fan of this particular flavor of ARPG. Ever since I picked up Torchlight (I never got into Diablo, but Torchlight, especially its sequel, really clicked with me), I’ve dreamed of a Diablo-style MMO. So when I stumbled upon a random beta gameplay video of Marvel Heroes, I was pretty excited. I actually considered buying one of the hero packs, but decided they were (and are) overpriced. It’s a free-to-play, no need to commit cash until you know it’s worth playing, and I’m not sure I would notice the difference between the Iron Man suit from the third movie and any other costume.

When the game came out, I picked The Thing for my first character. I usually enjoy tank classes (I loved my engineer in Torchlight 2) so I figured Thing fit the bill. Unfortunately he felt slow, had uninteresting powers, didn’t do much damage, and was just generally not that fun to play. I was more than a little jealous as I watched Storm and Spider-Man and Rocket Raccoon blow their way through groups of mobs while I plodded my way through one at a time (I just got out-DPSed by an animal who eats out of garbage cans, how embarrassing). The game got a little more interesting when they gave me a second starter character character for free, Hawkeye. He’s mostly built for crowd control, which I also sometimes enjoy in the right balance. He was fun for a while, but by level 20 or so I could tell he wasn’t going to be much fun to level. Also, I was a little frustrated with the launch rush overpopulation and the general overpricedness of the game. The game isn’t quite pay-to-win, but it certainly isn’t pay-for-hats either. It’s more like pay-to-be-awesome: you can have a good experience and not pay a dime, but if you want to play as your favorite heroes, you’re going to have to shell out some money. In the end, I chalked Heroes up to the category of a good idea with poor execution and moved on.

Then I saw a Massively article about the game’s 2.0 patch, with a new zone and, more importantly, new heroes added to the starter lineup. I’m not sure why, but that was all it took to suck me back in. Continue reading