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.

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Warcraft Movie: Why the Hate? (Spoiler Free)

Durotan RoarI walked out of the theater last night after watching Warcraft with only one thought on my mind: “That was really good. Why did this get such horrible reviews?” With a current Metacritic rating of only 32, to say that film critics have not received Warcraft well would be an understatement. Ok, so movie critics are just categorically biased against video game movies. The fans will like it, right? While some did, much of the gaming media has jumped on the hate bandwagon as well. Seriously, were they in a different movie than I was?

Let me say up front that I don’t know Warcraft lore well. At all. I played Warcraft III a little, but mostly in multiplayer, and that was years ago. I have had a lot of friends who have played WoW off and on over the years, but if any of them were lore junkies, they didn’t talk about it to me much. As such, when Stormwind and Dalaran look too much like they do in the era of WoW and not how they should look at this point in history, I don’t know the difference. I’m not saying that my ignorance excuses the film makers’ ignorance (or worse, willful disregard for major details), I’m just saying that it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie the way it would if I were a Warcraft fan. If I were, I’m sure I would rage right along with them on those points.

That said, I really thought that this movie, in a vacuum, did a lot of things really well. The CGI, for example, was amazing. I went in expecting to hate the orcs–they look ok in the super-stylized fantasy world that Blizzard has created, but their exaggerated proportions and weird tusks can’t possibly make the jump to photorealism, right?–but they were so expressive, something that is usually lost with CGI-ified characters, that I forgot within the first ten minutes to try to look for places where they look fake. I would argue that Warcraft does realistic, expressive CGI characters better than Avatar did, and everyone raved about how great Avatar’s characters were (granted, Avatar was 7 years ago, but few movies have managed to top it). I simply never felt, as many have accused it, like it was a bunch of people prancing around in front of a greenscreen. Magic was also really well done, especially in 3D. Only in one scene, involving a giant wall of lightning, did I think the spell effects looked cheap, but other than that they did an excellent job with it.

Another criticism is that there isn’t any character development. That simply isn’t true. I can’t talk a lot about it without spoilers (maybe I’ll post some spoilery thoughts if people are interested, let me know in the comments), but I think a case could be made that several characters show as much development as any character in most other blockbuster movies. Again, I can’t speak to whether or not the characters develop in a way that is consistent with the games, but to say that there is no development is a gross exaggeration. Also, many people felt that the movie jerked you around a lot, trying to tell too many stories in too many different places at once, but I’m not sure how you could possibly tell the story of Warcraft without showing both sides equally as well as the strife within each faction’s own ranks.

The most ridiculous claim that I’ve seen is that it’s some kind of Lord of the Rings wannabe. This claim is simply laughable, and makes me wonder if these reviewers, first of all, have even read The Lord of the Rings books (or at least watched the movies), and second, if they actually watched Warcraft or just watched some clips and made assumptions. If Warcraft is a Lord of the Rings ripoff, then literally every fantasy story of the last fifty years is as well. Lord of the Rings has had incredibly far-reaching impact on the fantasy genre, to the point where many would say that Tolkien invented the modern Fantasy story. Yes, there are orcs fighting humans, with the occasional magic-user thrown in… but that’s literally where the similarities end.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie isn’t without its flaws. It skims over some of the details, like how exactly the Dark Portal and fel magic corruption work and how the various characters came to have access to them. What’s worse is that the Dark Portal was changed a lot for the movie, so it’s not like they’re skipping over details they figure the audience knows, it was just poorly thought out. Also, several of the main characters’ deaths are rather sudden and unceremonious, killing them and moving on before it has sunk in. And (I don’t think this a spoiler since it was in the trailer) the whole thing with Thrall being orc Moses was really weird. That said, I don’t think it was any more flawed than the vast majority of movies that get much better ratings than Warcraft.

So why all the hate? I know only a smattering of the lore from the Warcraft ‘verse, and my wife knows even less, and we both came out of the movie extremely satisfied with the story, production, and thoroughly confused about all of the hate it has been getting. What am I missing?

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.