Hotbars: Less Is More

Hotbars
There has been a trend recently in MMOs away from the WoW-like hotbar interface, i.e. three on the bottom and at least one on the side, to a more ARPG-like one, that allows only one row of slots. The three MMOs I bounce around between right now–Guild Wars 2, Wildstar, and Marvel Heroes–all have limited hotbar space. At first I disliked this change and viewed it as a dumbing down of my favorite genre. Now I recognize it as a design choice which, while occasionally frustrating, is actually preferable in the long run.

As an altaholic, the best thing for me about this trend is that it makes it really easy to get back into a class, or game for that matter, after being away for a while. The reason why I’ve never gotten past Moria in LotRO is that every time I come back I’m faced with the daunting task of relearning what all of my skills do and how they fit together, so I usually end up rerolling so I can relearn how to play over time. In games like Guild Wars 2, or Marvel Heroes, I simply have to go down the line of 10 or so skills I had active when I parked this character and read their tooltips and I’m set. Later I may swap out some my skills if they don’t fit the playstyle I’m looking for right now, but for the most part I can jump in and start playing with minimal thought.

Another recent trend that the changes in hotbars facilitates is the move away from rooted casting. Honestly, I’m trying to remember why anyone ever thought this was a good idea. Especially in dungeon settings, where players often have to run out of the way of things, putting casters at a big disadvantage. I guess it took away the disadvantages that melee classes have that I’ve been noticing in WildStar, i.e. squishy ranged classes can run and gun to avoid damage, but melee classes are kind of forced to just tank it out. Either way, one archetype or the other is going to suffer, and I’d rather not be forced to stand it one spot for several seconds at a time to heal or hit big numbers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, forcing a small number of hotbar skills means that the skills that are on the hotbar are more generalized and less situational. There are no spells in Guild Wars 2 that do extra damage to undead or only put fear on animals (there are potions that do extra damage to one type, but that’s different). Wildstar doesn’t have different breaks for different types of lockdowns. Everything is generalized. This is one of the places where it seemed like the genre was being dumbed down. But really, why should I have to remember which of my obscure hotkeys I only use once in a blue moon is the one I need in this situation? Is that really what the game is or should be about?

I am still a little frustrated with smaller hotbars. For one, as nice as it is that developers have done their best to reduce the number of situational skills, some still need to exist. Many times I’ve charged into combat in Guild Wars 2 with a portal or stability or run speed increase in my slot skills because I needed them once and forgot to flip them back to skills actually useful in combat by the time the cooldown ended. I also feel like Wildstar discourages me from experimenting with my build, partly because I have to buy my skills before I know if I want to use them or not, but mainly because I don’t want to give up part of the rotation I have now to see if something else would fit in better. Overall, however, I think the trend is a good one. If I continue to gravitate toward games that force fewer hotbar slots, it would seem to be a good trend.

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Crafting: What’s the Point?

There has been a trend in recent years of trying to streamline the MMO experience and get rid of outdated mechanics that only serve to annoy players (see my rant on WoW tapping in the previous post). It’s usually associated with “casualising” games, though I don’t think convenient and hardcore are necessarily mutually exclusive. In any case, there has been a lot of talk about reducing and/or eliminating the “gear treadmill,” that is, the end game mechanic of getting good gear so you can do dungeons and raids so you can get better gear so you can do harder dungeons and raids so you can get better gear so you can… you get the point. Debating the pros and cons of dungeon gear treadmills is beyond the scope of this post. But there’s one MMO mechanic that hasn’t been talked about as much that has me somewhat puzzled: crafting.

My first MMO was RuneScape. Crafting in RuneScape is what combat is in most other MMOs; it’s basically all your character lives for, and everything else is secondary. So when I started playing other MMOs like LotRO and SWTOR, I was a little confused as to why I had to choose just one crafting profession per character. But as I played those games I eventually came to realize the difference. In RuneScape, the whole game, most notably the economy, was centered primarily around player-made items or things that require non-combat skill levels; magic runes, potions, ores, weapons, armor, even most of the quests required high skill levels. In other MMOs, all of those things can be crafted, but you can just as easily get them from drops. In virtually every other MMO, you can get decent gear simply by killing things, anything from rats (where was this rat hiding these platemail pants?) all the way up to fire-breathing wyverns. True, the longer RuneScape goes on the more certain weapon and armor sets come from enemy drops, but there has generally been little to no bind on pickup/equip gear in RuneScape, so once an item has been out for a year or so the exchange is swimming in them.

So back to the original thesis: outside of RuneScape and probably a few other cases where the game is built around it, what’s the point of crafting? Take Guild Wars 2 for example. Aside from endgame crafting which is bind on pickup (which was added post launch), I could easily sell a handfull of materials for the price of a piece of rare (yellow) gear on the trading post, and get exotics for only a little more. Why should I burn hundreds of these mats for the right to make it myself? Better yet, I could simply kill things and get drops that are similar to, if not better than, crafted gear. I know all of the hardcore crafters are screaming at their monitors right now, but really, in a game where I get bags full of good quality drops, what’s the point? Isn’t this just a single player version of that gear treadmill everyone seems to hate so much these days? “Gather mats so you can make gear so you can gather better mats to make better gear, so you can make the best gear, which you have to craft for yourself.” I’m not a crafting hater–I’m just as responsible for the deforestation of Tyria and Middle-Earth as the next guy–and I do get the appeal of being self-sufficient when it comes to gear, but looking at it objectively, I’m not really sure why every game still feels the need to have an extensive crafting system, especially those with a dungeon gear treadmill in place.

Am I missing something?

WoW: Joining the Dark Side

WoW Sith
I never thought I’d say this, but last night I created a World of Wacraft account. Oh sure, it was the free-up-to-level-20 Starter Edition, but I’m seriously considering subscribing.

Why? The only reason there is for subscribing to WoW in this age of excellent free-to-play and buy-to-play titles: Jeremy Soule did the soundtrack for Mist of Pandaria. Just kidding, I refer, of course, to the fact that I have a friend who’s been trying to get me to play forever. My friend, who I rarely get to see anymore, has heard Azeroth irresistibly calling to him to return yet again, and this time, rather than make fun of him for never trying anything new (I’ve tried to get him to play just about every MMO I’ve ever been through, and he’s almost always turned me down), I decided to take the plunge with him.

It’s strange actually being in this game I’ve seen and read and know so much about, and yet have never personally experienced. Just about everyone I know that plays MMOs has played WoW. WoW was the game that, circa 2006, everyone left RuneScape for. I didn’t want to pay the three times higher subscription fee, so I contently stayed there, harboring just a little vague resentment toward WoW. Later, when games like LotRO started going F2P, I moved on to things that didn’t cost me money. I must say that I’ve taken some pride in being that one guy who’s been playing MMOs nonstop since 2005, but has never played WoW. I’m really not sure how I feel about giving that up. It kind of feels like selling out, but I can’t really give a good reason as to why. But I’ve come to the conclusion that, if I don’t at least give WoW a try, I am, in a way, just as irrational as someone who won’t play anything but WoW.

So, my first impressions? It feels… old. I’ll probably be tried and convicted for the high crime of being a WoW hater for saying this, but I feel like it hasn’t really aged very well at all. I’m perfectly willing to believe it’s because I know it’s old, but from the way every WoW player talks about the game I went in expecting to be wowed (pun only somewhat intended) by how perfect everything was. Character customization is pretty slim. Heck, RuneScape had more options than this when I first played in 2005 (granted, there are a lot of races, so there’s that, but couldn’t I at least adjust my character’s height or build?), and even with the recent character model redesigns, I’m still not impressed by the graphics. The interface feels a little cluttered. The settings menu isn’t organized very well (I spent a good five minutes or more trying to figure out if there was a way to stop my character from yelling at me because his spell was in cooldown when I hit it a second early or late, as I tend to mash the key a few times, and I still haven’t figured out how to move the buff/debuff box under my character portrait where it belongs). Also painful is the fact that I keep reverting to Guild Wars 2 mode and trying to run around the target while casting, either getting the “can’t cast while moving” message or worse, interrupting myself (I quickly switched to a Paladin, a class with mostly instant casts). And then there’s the miles of quest text they give you as motivation to go kill five rats. I know, I know, I’m totally spoiled by modern fully-voiced games, it’s true. But isn’t the operative word there modern? It really kills my momentum to stop and read stuff, and the temptation is so strong to just skip it and grind on. The writing had better be good later on or I, like so many players before me, am probably never going to do much more than skim any of it.

Perhaps the worst mechanic, one that I thought even WoW would have dropped by now, is mob tapping, the idea that, as soon as you do damage to something, you own it until one of you is dead and no one else can get quest progress, XP, or drops from it. I’ve heard the argument that it’s somehow supposed to encourage people to group up (something you can’t do as a starter), but to me it simply removes all incentive to help other players. If I’m supposed to form a temporary group to kill things for one quest, how is that different from open tapping? What’s worse is when there’s exactly one specific, unique person I need to kill for a quest (and believe me, those Blood Elves have a thing for bringing peoples’ severed heads to them). I must have waited 10 minutes to one-shot some loser elf, impatiently waiting my turn among a crowd of other “newbies” (mostly in heirloom gear with that obnoxious orc chauffeur motorcycle) also waiting to kill said elf. And this was on a medium population server. It got better as I moved farther away from the starting point, but it’s still an incredibly frustrating mechanic that, in my opinion, has no place in a modern MMO.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the game or anything. There are a lot of nice touches. The voice toasts when you click on NPCs, for instance. In a game where you’re stuck skipping reading pages of questgiver text, they’ve done a nice job of having a nice array of voice clips to give you something to go on. Similarly, Blizzard has always done a great job of giving different races unique personalities. You can almost guess the character’s race simply by reading what they said to you. Also, capes. It’s silly, but I’ve missed capes since going to games like SWTOR and GW2. Why GW2 hasn’t included capes yet is still a mystery to me. I mean, I get that cloth physics simulation is hard and all, but a good cape looks way cooler than a rose growing out of your back or those dumb flappy wings. Perhaps the most appealing advantage of WoW is its extremely well developed endgame. As someone who much prefers the journey to the destination, even I find this appealing. It’s something that’s often a little lacking in F2P/B2P games, and I wouldn’t mind running on the gear treadmill for a little while.

My biggest fear with the game is that I won’t find it worth my monthly $15. Honestly, if I didn’t know anyone who was playing, there’s no way I would even be interested at this point. But I’ve spent a lot more than $15 in a month to spend time with friends, so I guess it’s not unreasonable to just be a social WoW player.

5 Franchises That Would Make Great MMOs

I think a lot about MMOs, and, inevitably, when doing the occasional non-MMO things (which I do sometimes, believe it or not), I start to dream about how awesome they would be as an MMO. Other franchises have MMOs that just don’t live up to their potential. Here are the five that I keep coming back to:

Avatar: The Last Airbender
There were two things that I couldn’t stop thinking about when watching the Avatar series. First, it’s incredibly well done, especially for a Nickelodeon kid’s show. Second, how is this not an MMO yet? The class archetypes are so obvious:

  • Water Bender: Healer
  • Earth Bender: Tank
  • Fire Bender: DPS
  • Air Bender: Support

And each of those has at least two fairly obvious specializations within it:

  • Water: Spirit Water: Healing focus, but could also use something along like those spirit layzorz we saw in the last season of Korra
  • Water: Ice: A paladin-style heavy healer, focusing on group buffs and heals
  • Earth: Stone: A short-range tank
  • Earth: Metal: Heavy with a mid-range DPS focus
  • Fire: Flame: DoT-based DPS
  • Fire: Lightning: AoE and Burst DPS
  • Air: Glider Staff: Buffs and AoE DPS
  • Air: Cyclones: Debuffs and Crowd Control

The air classes are admittedly a little questionable, since there’s comparatively little airbending done in the show (for reasons made obvious by the show’s title), but I think it could work. You could also come up with a few other classes like lava bending and combustion bending (does that have an official name?) if you wanted to. Maybe even some non-bending, martial arts only classes as well. Sadly, given the quality of, I don’t know, every TV-to-game adaptation ever, I imagine it wouldn’t be as awesome in practice as it is my head. I guess I’ll just have to stick to my Guild Wars 2 Elementalist for my Avatar MMO fix. Seriously, some of the ele’s attacks are so similar to ones used in the show, I find it hard to imagine that the creators of Avatar never played Guild Wars, and/or vice versa.

StarCraft
I know, I know, people have been asking for this one since about 2005. I’m going to talk about it again, because it’s my blog, dangit. For better or for worse, World of Warcraft was and continues to be an unparalleled, industry-dominating, runaway success. And yet, with the Blizz turning their vaporware MMO Titan into the class-based shooter Overwatch (which, admittedly, as a person who generally hates shooters, actually looks strangely appealing… not as appealing as if it were an MMO, but appealing nonetheless), it seems they’ve lost faith in the MMO industry. This is especially sad since I think StarCraft would have made the MMO transition as well as or better than Warcraft. Anyone want to try a three faction MMO? If anyone could pull that off, it would be Blizzard, but more likely the factions would either follow the recent single faction trend or have Protoss and Terrans be playable fighting Zerg. I’d love to wander around the various planets of the Koprulu Sector as a Dark Templar stealth DPS or a Terran Marine tank, running dungeons centered around taking out Cerebrates and Zerg-infested Terran colonies. I’ve always thought sci-fi was a much better setting for an MMO than fantasy anyways; it’s easy to explain varied environments as different planets, it’s more difficult to make them all seem like they exist on one continuous plane, especially when it comes to adding new zones.
There exists a very impressive mod of StarCraft II that basically turns it into an MMO (maybe I should move this to the “deserves better” section below). To be honest, I’ve never played it (it’s been on my todo list forever), but, regardless of how good it is, it’s a free, fan-made mod; it’s never going to be as good as a full-blown MMO developed by the monolithic Blizzard Entertainment.

Pokemon
It’s no secret that Nintendo hasn’t made it in the black for the last couple of years. Hopefully that’s changing (now that there are finally some actually good titles available and in the works for the Wii U), but if they really want to move software and its associated hardware, look no further than a Pokemon MMO. Who wouldn’t want to run around in a Pokemon world populated, not with NPC trainers, but real people? Trades and battles would be only a click away. X/Y’s Internet connectivity was ok, but it doesn’t beat actually seeing other players and talking to them while you trudge around in the tall grass for wild Pokemon. There have been a couple of fan projects to do something like this, either from scratch or by hacking multiplayer into the originals, but, to my knowledge, none of them have made it far enough to be viable, and generally get sued before they make it very far. I’d settle for a shameless ripoff of the Pokemon formula if someone would just do it well.

Games that have an MMO, but deserve better:
Shadowrun
This is a franchise that I’ve only recently delved into. I picked up the excellent Shadowrun Returns on sale recently. It’s a reimagining of a popular tabletop RPG as a tactical strategy RPG. I love tactical RPGs, and the high-quality, hand-painted graphics, and tabletop-style descriptive narrative really immerses you in the cyberpunk sci-fantasy world. Naturally, I started poking around to learn more about the series, and came across Shadowrun Online. Granted, I haven’t played it, but from what I’ve read in various reviews, it’s basically a lackluster cash-in on Shadowrun Returns’s success, with minimal multiplayer elements. While the game is still in early access, the reviews on Steam are almost universally negative, the positive ones being more along the lines of “well, it’s getting better” than actual praise. Combine that with the fact that the game costs as much as Shadowrun Returns and its expansion, Dragonfall, combined and I think I’ll be giving this one a miss. Still, as I play through Shadowrun Returns, I can’t help but feel that this would make a great traditional MMO. It has a loyal following and a ton of lore built up, and I think it would lend itself to shooter-style action combat perfectly. The classes and spells are already spelled out for you, all you have to do is make those work in an MMO and you’re golden. Besides, the world needs more sci-fi MMOs.

Lego
Seriously, how has Lego not made their own version of Minecraft yet? How cool would it be to walk around in a world made of Lego bricks that you could pick up and move around at will? It wouldn’t have to be an MMO, but games like Landmark and Trove are proving that there’s a market for Massively Multiplayer voxel builders and the formula does work. It would be easy to incorporate elements from the pantheon of Lego franchises as NPCs and mobs.
There’s a free-to-play Lego MMO out there called Lego Minifigures Online, but it’s basically a Diablo clone for kids. And when I say for kids, I don’t mean in the way that the Traveler’s Tales games (Lego Star Wars, Batman, Marvel, etc.) are, that is, simplistic, charming, and more fun than you thought possible. I mean it’s really watered down and downright boring. It’s basically a plot to sell physical minifigures with a code so you can use them as characters in the game, a la Skylanders. I suppose I would have had fun with it when I was under ten (it’s like that’s their target audience or something), but isn’t Lego all about being fun for people of all ages? Minecraft-like games fit that bill exactly.

I’m sure I could go on with many more franchises that would be the perfect fit for an MMO. Sadly, licensed MMOs are a risky venture, and, while titles like Lord of the Rings Online and Marvel Heroes prove it’s possible, I don’t really expect to see any of these things any time soon. Anyone else have any theoretical franchise MMOs they’d like to see?