An Ode to High Skill Ceilings

areluin-48I miss the days when MMOs created classes that had high skill ceilings. By that I mean classes where your success or failure actually hinges on how well you can play your class. This is why I love my rune-keeper in Lord of the Rings Online; depending on how well I’m playing that day, I can take on four or five things my level at once, or die after a single one-to-one fight. Like in chess, I have to think several moves ahead, about how long I can keep throwing DoTs before I switch to putting bubbles and HoTs on myself before switching back to damage. When it works out, it’s the best feeling on Middle-Earth. When it doesn’t, I have no one to blame but myself, and I’m ok with that. Somehow the knowledge that I couldn’t have possibly beaten an encounter because of my class and level makes the game feel scripted and robs it of some of its fun. Both rune-keepers and wardens are looked down upon by some players as “bad” classes, but I’ve seen people do some amazing things with both. It’s not the class that’s bad, it’s that it’s less forgiving to bad players. Sure, we need both–everyone has to start somewhere–but I love when I find a class that allows me to solo group quests, but doesn’t feel overpowered because I had to work for that win.

The worst case is when the skill required to do well is high, but the game doesn’t reward players for it. For instance, I remember when Star Wars the Old Republic’s Shadow/Assassin class could out-tank any other class if the player knew what they were doing. Their rotation was complex, with a lot of defensive cooldowns to make up for their light armor, but it was totally worth it to learn. Sadly, from what I’ve heard from current players, they’re only a shadow of their former selves (pun totally intended) in that respect. They can still tank, but at the end of the day they don’t make better tanks than the Knight or Vanguard, who have to do only a fraction of the work to accomplish the same thing.

Sadly, it seems like many newer games tend to have lower and lower skill ceilings. Some would say it’s because the genre is being slowly dumbed down and casual-ified, and, while there’s some truth to that, I would argue that it has more to do with balance. It’s much easier to balance classes that have a pretty low skill ceiling, because you’re fairly safe in assuming that everyone is going to be playing at or near that ceiling. Also, your testers don’t have to be experts in every class to get an accurate picture of how it will play in the hands of players, just average. I really like WildStar’s solution to this. In WildStar, classes are fairly simple, but player skill is still a huge part of doing well, because you’re constantly moving and dodging red telegraphs while making sure you’re pointed at whatever you’re currently attacking/healing.

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2017 Predictions, Hopes, and Resolutions

Well, here we are, another trip around the sun and the world hasn’t exploded, civilization as we know it hasn’t come to an end, and the MMO industry hasn’t completely evaporated. I know 2016 was getting a lot of hate, but as for me, I had a pretty good year. And I think the gaming industry–especially the MMO industry–had a pretty good year as well. I thought I’d use the first post of the year to talk about what my predictions and hopes are for next year, and what would a New Year’s post be without resolutions?

Predictions

A New Guild Wars 2 Expansion
This isn’t much of a prediction; we’ve heard very strong rumblings of a new expansion to Guild Wars 2 set in an area from Guild Wars 1. Sadly, I haven’t played much of the original Guild Wars, so I have no specific predictions there, but it seems reasonable given the direction the living world story is going. I predict that it will include a new class, probably something revived from Guild Wars 1, and a new zone that’s less vertical/gliding-focused (and, by extension, hopefully less awful to navigate). As much as I’d like to see a new race, I don’t think that will ever happen; it would be a lot of work to fit them into the existing storyline. I don’t think raids are going away, but I think we’ll also see a couple of new dungeons in 2017. I could be totally wrong on this one, but I think the community hasn’t been as thrilled about raids as ArenaNet thought, and I think they’ll finally break down and give us some new dungeons.

WildStar Sunsets Near the End of the Year
It really saddens me to make this prediction because I love Wildstar, I love its combat, I love its setting, and I love its housing, but I just don’t see WildStar lasting much longer. What’s worse is that it becomes kind of a self fulfilling prophecy; everyone keeps saying it’s dying, and nobody want to get invested in a game that’s going to shut down in six months, so no new players come in, and the game shuts down. But hey, it’s possible that it’ll just downsize and put content out more slowly than before and keep on keeping on for years to come. I really hope so. Only time will tell.

LotRO and DDO Flourish Under New Management
Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online recently went indie with developer Standing Stone studios. While the fact that they’re being published by Daybreak isn’t exactly comforting, as Daybreak has been making some weird decisions ever since it changed hands from SOE, not the least of which was the media silence and eventual demise of EverQuest Next, I think the fact that Standing Stone was willing to pick up development of the games says a lot about its future. I’ve popped my head into LotRO a few times over the last few days, and the community seems cautiously optimistic. I’ve talked to a few long-time players that say that the game was better when Turbine was indie, and hope that this is a return to that standard. It seems like the excitement is even bringing some past players back, which is always a good sign.

Kickstarter Falls Out of Favor
To say that 2016 was not kind to kickstarters would be like saying that a few celebrities died in 2016. Mighty No. 9 was a colossal failure, VR was (predictably) not as game-changing as Oculus et al. claimed it would be, the Pebble smartwatch sold out to Fitbit and canceled most of its Pebble 2 preorders, John Smedley’s Hero’s Song failed it meet its Kickstarter goal and then closed its doors just after Christmas, a variety of kickstarted MMOs suffered from setbacks, delays, and disillusioned backers, and that’s just to name the ones I was following. I think people are starting to realize that making a video game is a very expensive endeavor, and that maybe paying for it before it’s even produced isn’t the best way to motivate inexperienced developers to release a quality product. I really like the idea of crowdfunding, but I’m going to need a lot of convincing before I back anything else.

Hopes

A Strong, Traditional, Western MMORPG Appears
It doesn’t have to come out in 2017, but we really need an announcement of something to fill the void that EverQuest Next left. I’ve played EQ2 for maybe a couple hours total, and even I was extremely disappointed in EQN’s cancellation. I’m not saying that if one of these games doesn’t materialize in 2017 the entire MMO industry will be doomed to stagnation and death, I’m just hoping for this because I enjoy playing new and different MMORPGs. All of the scrappy Kickstarted indie MMOs floating around out there are nice, but I don’t know if they’re going to have the presence, impact, and drawing power that EQN would have had. I think we need a big AAA studio to come out and make a statement that, scoff all you want, but there’s still lots of money to be made in MMOs, and plenty of life left in the formula.

SWTOR’s F2P Gets Better
Star Wars the Old Republic has always had one of the most restrictive free-to-play options. I know of no other game where you have to pay to hide your head slot or have enough hotbars just to have access to all of your skills. But with the addition of the Galactic Command and the removal of weekly content passes, they’re basically telling free players not to plan on doing any endgame without subscribing. I was really hoping that SWTOR’s business model would get less restrictive over time, not more. I’m really hoping that there’s enough negative feedback that at least some of it gets reevaluated, but I’m not holding my breath.

Resolutions

Play More Mobile Games… While Exercising!
I have a desk job, and my MMO hobby isn’t exactly the most active one, so my wife and I have been looking at putting our Christmas money toward an elliptical, and I really like the idea of motivating myself to exercise by finding a game that I only play while I work out. I’ll probably be looking for something turn-based like Hearthstone or the various Final Fantasy games available on Android, so if you have any suggestions, let me know.

Spend Less On Steam, More On MMOs
I have over 350 games on Steam right now, and I’ve only finished a handful of them. Generally, the average Steam game I buy gets played for a couple of hours at most, yet I’ve spent countless hours this year playing MMOs. Why, then, do I tend to spend way more money on single-player games than on MMOs? I want to make a conscious effort to spend less on Steam and more on the MMOs I play. I just wish MMO cash shops had as many sales as Steam does.

I’ll pull this post back out a year from now and see how I did on everything. Happy new year, everyone!

MMO Obligations

Life is full of obligations. It’s not always fun, but we have to put up with it because that’s life. So it’s weird that, as MMO players, we so often set up so many obligations for ourselves in our free time.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks playing SWTOR for the Dark vs. Light event. I keep trying to write about it, but “I did solo dungeons repeatedly until I couldn’t stand it, then I did some story quests” didn’t seem like it would make for a very interesting read. About a week before the event was over, I finally made it to the Eternal level, which was my goal. That’s the highest I was ever interested in getting, because I basically just wanted the extra companion (it looks like it’ll be the Chiss Jedi, which is the one I was really hoping for, since Chiss are one of my favorite Star Wars species). I’m excited for this, but the last few days, as much as I’ve been enjoying Knights of the Fallen Empire’s much improved cinematic storytelling, I’ve been really wanting to get back to some other games (both MMOs like WildStar, Marvel Heroes, LotRO, Elder Scrolls Online, and non-MMOs like the Master of Orion remake and the new Pokémon), but I keep having to tell myself that I can play these games when Dark vs. Light is over, because I’m running out of time. In other words, if Dark vs. Light wasn’t a thing, there’s no way I’d be playing SWTOR right now. Marketing wins again.

And it’s not just time-limited events that create obligations in games. We also set up a lot of guild-centric activities and obligations as well. Raid nights, guild meetings, guild bank contribution–most guilds don’t make these things mandatory (and if they do, they’re probably elitist jerks I don’t want to be in a guild with anyway), but, whether they are or not, there’s an unspoken feeling that you really should, because otherwise you’re really just leeching off of the guild without contributing anything.

Subscription fees create a kind of obligation to play on a regular basis as well. It doesn’t make sense to pay $15 for a game and then play it less than a game you’re not paying monthly for. Companies know this, of course, which is how we got into the weird spot we’re in right now where almost every MMO out there is free to play with an optional subscription to entice you to stay (some are less optional than others, as in SWTOR’s case).

Feelings of obligation can be stressful, which is ironic given that we play games to get away from real life and its obligations. It’s what keep many of my friends out of the genre. But, just like many obligations in real life, things that require obligation are also rewarding. I now have a set of +50% XP boosting armor, a new companion and a crapton of (mostly ugly) cosmetics because of Dark vs. Light. Raiding, while it takes a lot of coordination and commitment from a lot of people at once, as well as the frustration that comes from relying on other people, provides an experience that you simply can’t get anywhere else, not to mention a chance at some shiny new gear. I guess it’s a cost/benefit thing, and, for me, the benefits of MMO obligations outweigh the costs.

My End Goals in Various MMOs

I’ve been playing a good amount of Star Wars the Old Republic lately. I’ve been meaning to get back in and see the last couple of expansions’ stories if nothing else, and Dark vs. Light gave me incentive to do that. Then recent announcements about changes to endgame that basically say that they don’t want my money unless I subscribe (cliffnotes version: no engame gear for F2P players, F2P players can no longer buy weekly passes for dungeons, raids, PvP, etc.) had me ready to ragequit, but, when I thought about it, I realized that I have literally never done a raid in SWTOR, and it’s been years since I did a dungeon with anything other than a PUG. Sure, this means that I will never expand beyond this kind of occasional, casual play that means I will give them little to no money, but still, it doesn’t mean much for the way I play right now. This got me thinking about what I really want out of my MMOs. The answer I came up with was that every game’s end goal was unique. Here are a few, in no particular order.

Star Wars the Old Republic
Since we’re on the subject of SWTOR, let’s start here. Since BioWare has basically told me the only thing I can do as a free to play player is story, that’s all I’m likely to be playing. After all, it’s what BioWare is best at, and what their focus has been on for a while now. If I skipped this expansion it wouldn’t be the first, but Knights of the Fallen Empire has me interested, so I’ll probably stick around at least enough to see the story once. I bought a couple of character slots while they were on sale, so I’ve been playing some vanilla content I’ve never seen before along with the newer stuff, which has been fun. It’s not likely to keep me in the game for long, but it’s fun for now.

Guild Wars 2
I created a new guild with some friends, and, in the first couple of weeks, the eight of us have done more as a guild than I (and several others) had done with their much larger guilds. This, combined with running the Halloween event (I finally got the Hexed outfit!), has, strangely enough, renewed my interest in the game. I’m looking to get enough hero points to finish off my elite spec on a couple of my favorite characters (necro is mostly done, working on my revenant now, as well as my healing ranger a little) and I’ve been running dungeons with friends more often. I’ve somehow never done fractals, so I’m looking to do that soon. Maybe even get into some raids eventually?

Rift
I like Rift, and I finally have a couple of characters that I like, but I’m still not sure what my goals are for this game. I’m certainly not playing it for the story, and I’m not sure I’m dedicated enough to want to get into endgame dungeons or raiding. I guess I’m just playing for the sake of a new game to level in? Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

WildStar
I actually have a decently geared Esper healer, and I was signed up to go raiding with my guild shortly before they fell apart. Finding a new guild has severely decreased my interest in playing, which is sad because WildStar remains one of my favorite MMOs, and it needs all the players it can get right now. The death of my guild has, however, freed me up to finally check out the opposite faction. I’ve been slowly but surely leveling a Dominion engineer, which has been a fun experience. I may have to level one on the Exile side when I’m done. I like the Exile faction a lot better in general, but man, their capital city is a dump. The one for the Dominion is so much prettier.

Elder Scrolls Online
This one is almost the same story as Rift. The story is a little more interesting, but I don’t have any clear goals, and the angst that comes with building a new character is paralyzing. I decided to put this one on the shelf until One Tamriel came out, but now that’s here and I haven’t decided on a character to play.

Lord of the Rings Online
Really, all I want is to simply walk into Mordor.
Seriously, though, my only goal is to see all of the world/story content in this game. I keep getting right up to the gates of Moria and stalling out. The rune-keeper class really clicked with me, and I want to get back to this one as soon as possible.

Is It Possible To Balance Melee and Ranged Classes?

It’s a perennial problem for MMOs: either melee classes have the advantage or ranged ones do. In WildStar, the constant moving and dodging out of red means ranged classes have an advantage simply because they can keep attacking while they move. In older MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online, where most of the ranged classes are rooted casters and most of the melee classes have a lot of instant casts, melee classes have the edge. From what I’ve heard about SWTOR, it seems that they’ve recently swung the pendulum; melee classes have always had more DPS/tanking potential, but many of the recent dungeon and raid bosses have included mechanics that require melee classes to move back to avoid massive damage, thus limiting their output. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I do better with melee classes in games with action combat like Elder Scrolls Online because I’m more likely to miss with ranged attacks. Sure, this isn’t really a balance issue so much as a “stop failing” issue, and probably less of an issue in dungeons where, if it’s anything like every other MMO I’ve played, most bosses are the size of a small house, but still, this is a genre where people create massive spreadsheets of damage output to determine the META, and I’ve seen people literally complaining that one race or faction has an “advantage” over the others because their casting animation is a little more subtle.

The best solution I’ve seen to this problem is in Guild Wars 2’s, where most classes can be either melee or ranged depending on what weapon you’re holding. This allows the developers a lot of freedom when designing fights because everyone should be able to step back and hit things from range at least sometimes. Unfortunately, it also means that you really have to have at least one ranged weapon set to be viable most of the time, which is annoying because there are many classes that have two melee sets that I like (for instance, Revenant’s Mace/Axe and Sword/Shield). Couldn’t I have a whole bunch of weapon sets like Guild Wars 1?

So what do you think? Is it possible to truly balance these two class styles? Have you played any MMOs with any clever ways of bringing these two class types into balance?

I Don’t Hate SWTOR’s Dark vs. Light Event

Dark vs Light

Why is the light side represented by a Chiss? They can’t even be Jedi/Sith without a legacy unlock.

There’s been quite the kerfuffle (kerfuffle is a great word, by the way) in the Star Wars The Old Republic community about the Dark vs. Light event. Announced last week, it basically gives rewards to players who roll new characters and do certain achievements, rewards, including XP boosting armor and some much sought-after lockbox rewards. Also, perhaps more interesting, based on the total number of players’ light/dark decisions, BioWare will be giving out either a Jedi or Sith companion to players who reach the Eternal tier. Many players claim that it is simply a ploy to get users to subscribe and buy character slots, playing on their fear of missing out on limited time rewards if they don’t. To that I say, of course it is. They have to make money, and if they’re going to give me a companion and a chance at getting Revan outfit pieces without spending millions of credits on the GTN, then I’m willing to subscribe for a month to get the latest chapters of the Knights of the Fallen Empire story.

That said, I can totally understand why these players are upset. I’m a very casual SWTOR player these days; I play only sporadically, and when I do it’s for the story, not for anything that will hold me long term. If this were, for instance, Guild Wars 2, where I already have characters of every class, who are all decently leveled if not capped, I’m sure I would join in the protest. It’s really unfortunate that there’s no reward for veteran players who have already done all of the objectives on the list, but I’m not sure what the alternative was. You can’t just give out all of the rewards on day one to anyone who plays SWTOR exclusively and has a million alts at the level cap. The point of the event is to give players something new to work toward. Plus, if you give a consolation prize (say, the companion and no lockboxes or cosmetics) to everyone who already has both Republic and Imperial characters at 65, there’s inevitably that one guy who will have his characters one level short who will make a big fuss because he wasn’t notified soon enough that he needed to get all of his ducks in a row to get the rewards. You can’t please everyone with this kind of thing, so, sadly, sometimes it’s best not to try. It’s unfortunate that veteran players are getting mostly ignored on this one, but I honestly don’t see a better way.

This isn’t Guild Wars 2, though, it’s SWTOR, the game that rewards altaholism with unique stories for each class and loads of player choice. If any game was going to run an event that encourages rolling new characters, SWTOR is the one to do it. This event is tailor made to get people like me, former players who have lapsed, back into the game to start fresh and hopefully try out the content that they’ve generated since we left. And, you know what? It worked. I’ve been toying with the idea of coming back, and this was the incentive I needed. And, by the looks of it, I’m not the only one. Last night I saw 150-300 people in each of the starting zones.

So, while the event is a little tone deaf toward veteran players, I personally think the Dark vs. Light event isn’t completely awful. Its only purpose is to give new and former players a reason to come back, and I think it has succeeded at that. It’s got me excited about the game again, and I can’t wait to get my armor set and free lockboxes!

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.