Favorite Game of 2010

After skipping a number of Gamer Banters, this month’s topic caught my attention: “What was your favorite game you played this year?”

I played a few games this year that I really enjoyed.  Among them, Red Dead Redemption and Dead Rising 2 (and Case Zero) and Free Realms and Wizard 101 and a slew of others… but the standout, the one that has to be my favorite game of 2010 is the little indie that could, Minecraft.

The most amazing thing about it is that before and when I picked it up, I was in the LEGO Universe beta feeling like something was missing… and then I found Minecraft and knew what it was: absolute freedom.  As a kid I really loved dumping out the giant box of LEGOs and building stuff, and I had wanted that from LEGO Universe, which ended up having too much traditional MMO in it.  But in Minecraft I could run around and do pretty much anything that I wanted.  Sure, the survival modes of Minecraft are fun, but being able to just run around and create awesome stuff is just incredible.  Check out the map for this server that I play around on.

If you want to play this, buy it soon, because on the 20th of this month it moves from Alpha to Beta and the price is going up.

This post was part of Gamer Banter, a monthly video game discussion coordinated by Terry at Game Couch. If you’re interested in being part of this, please email him for details.

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The Game Fanatics

The Single Shard

One of the people from over at CCP, the people who brought us EVE Online, has written up An Argument for Single-Sharded Architecture in MMOs.  I fully support this idea.

The main reason I like it is the one thing that irritates me most of most MMOs is when I meet a new person in real life, realize we both play the same game and then realize that we can’t play together unless we a) start over/start new characters or b) one of us pays to move servers and leaves all our other friends behind.  Even the people with whom I played EQ with for many years can’t seem to get themselves on the same server when a new game starts, mostly because thanks to other games they have a couple of different circles of friends, and they want to play with all of them, but when twenty of their friends from WoW want to play on LotRO server X, and twenty of their EQ friends want to play on LotRO server Y, they have to choose.  And that sucks.

On the other hand, in a game like EVE, it is impossible for me to run into another EVE player that I technologically cannot play with (unless they play only on the test server).  All I need to do is warp to them and we play.  Even in Wizard 101 and Free Realms, which technically have multiple play shards, you can switch shards whenever you want and play with anyone you want.

Another reason for my like of a single shard comes to light every time I talk about EQ for very long to other people.  During my time in EQ I played on 4 servers.  My main server was E’Ci and I spent the bulk of my time there.  But I also piddled around on one of the PvP servers (one of the team ones, not the free for all) and one of the RP servers (were I spent most of my time in the bars of Neriak spinning tales for those who would listen – which surprisingly was more than I expected going into it, but unsurprisingly didn’t last long as power gamers flooded the RP server since RPers are much easier to push around and less likely to race to max level thus leaving high end content more available).  I also did time as a guide.  Each server had a distinct personality.  As a guide I was called in to deal with situations that didn’t happen on my main server, E’Ci.  E’Ci had a strong public grouping/raiding system, where other servers were entirely guild controlled.  E’Ci had, at the upper levels, guilds that, for the most part, maintained relations and raid schedules to give everyone a shot rather than fight, where other servers had guilds training each other and swiping raid mobs from each other and camping entire zones for days/weeks on end to monopolize spawns.  When I talk about the game of EverQuest, I’ve come to realize that not everyone played the same game that I did.  But a game like EVE or Wizard 101 or Free Realms or any other unified player base game, my stories are their stories.  If I talk about getting ganked in some system in EVE, I can bet another EVE player will know what I mean.  But when I talk about hanging out in the East Commons tunnel looking for deals back in the day, some people will say, “Don’t you mean Greater Faydark?” or “You mean the North Freeport bank, right?” or “North Karana was better.” because not every server evolved exactly the same locations for community gatherings.  But in EVE, the best place for you to go to buy stuff is the best place that everyone goes to buy stuff.

I hope more games take the single-shard design route.  Multiple servers were fine back in the EQ days when there wasn’t really much competition, but these days, even if I went back to EQ I’d have to choose which friends to play with since I’ve got friends on two or three different servers.  When I look at new games, my friends and I usually try to get on the same server, but eventually some of them vanish to other servers to play with other groups.  For me, this usually ends up with me losing interest in the game and quitting because I can’t play with all of my friends.

Lifetime Subscription Realms

At launch, I was a big fan of Free Realms.  It was a nice looking, well crafted game, and it was free.  I played it a few hours a week right up until they moved the velvet rope.  Originally, some professions were fully open up to level 20 and other professions were closed unless you paid.  I really liked this because it allowed you to see the game from the bottom to the top, at least in part.  The new model allows you to get up to level 5 in every profession, with further advancement behind the pay wall.  Because of the switch, I quit shortly thereafter, because frankly, even though I was enjoying it, it wasn’t worth $5 a month to play.

Right now and until August 2nd, SOE is running a special, $30 lifetime subscription for Free Realms.  Due to a few freebies and other gifts I’ve gotten over the last year, I had accumulated 2800 Station Cash points, and the store said I could buy the lifetime subscription for 2999 points.  I cracked open the wallet, bought $5 worth of points and bought my lifetime membership.

Sadly, this means that Free Realms technically doesn’t belong in the Freeloading category anymore, so this will be my last post on this game under this heading.

I think the game is totally worth $30.  Especially if you have kids.  Sure, there are still many items in the cash shop, and so your spending days may not be over, but the game will have no fixed costs, which is nice.  And you can always dole out Station Cash as allowance and/or rewards.  Personally, I like the game for the same reason I still like Puzzle Pirates – I like short arcade-style mini-games, but I love that doing them contributes to an overall game and world.  Sure, I could play Bejeweled or other matching games over at Popcap or on Facebook, but they don’t earn me anything.  In Free Realms, when I do well at mining I get ore which I can smith into weapons that I can use in my fighting professions and so on.  Plus, I like running around in huge worlds and seeing stuff.

Now, the only issue I have with Free Realms is their silly 1024 x 768 minimum resolution limitation that prevents me from being able to play on my 1024 x 600 netbook.  Puzzle Pirates is still the winner on that device…

Wizard 101

This will be my one and only post on the game Wizard 101 under the Freeloading heading on this blog.

Back when this game was under development, I got an invite into beta.  The basics of the game are a collectible card game, not unlike Magic: The Gathering or other similar games, but to speed up the process they’ve removed the concept of land and resources and replaced them with hit points and mana which you have from the start and carry around like any other MMO.  I immediately liked the game.  One, because it was so vastly different from the MMOs that I had played thus far, and also because it seemed like a great game for kids.  Not that I have kids or anything, but I respected the hell out of the game because they obviously chose their market and built a game nearly perfectly designed for that market.  That doesn’t happen as often as it should with MMOs.  Usually MMOs start off very generic and then through beta testing they start tailoring the game to some demographic for launch, which is often not the same demographic they will court over the life of the game.  But Wizard 101 started in one place and have stuck with it, and done it well.  That said, when the game exited beta and launched, I didn’t play… because I was playing other games at the time and this one just wasn’t what I was looking for.

First, let’s get technical.  I’ve got a 2.3Ghz single core processor, 2GB RAM, and a GeForce 7900 GS.  Its an older PC, probably two years at this point, and it wasn’t exactly top of the line when I got it.  Wizard 101 runs like a dream.  It is fast, loads quick, and never lags.  I’ve stood in the Commons with easily 50 or more players on my screen and everything moves fluidly.  And the game looks great.  Sure, its not FarCry level of realistic detail, its cartoony, like World of Warcraft but aimed more at kids.  And I’m running at the highest levels of detail with the best textures all at 1920 x 1200 resolution.  More games need to be able to do this.  Now on to game play…

As with the other game currently appearing in the Freeloading heading, my goal with Wizard 101 was to play without paying.  So I loaded the game up and my beta character was still there.  Level 5 (I think), wearing only gear that he’d gotten playing the game as I had never bought anything.  I’d played through all the content of Unicorn Way in the beta (well, almost all, it seems that a couple of quests had been added since, but those didn’t take any time at all to finish off).  I don’t remember how long it took me to accomplish that, but I can’t imagine it took me more than a couple or three days, maybe 8 hours of play at the most.    So, what remained was Golem Court, Triton Avenue and the Haunted Cave.  Every other door was either locked or would present me with a screen asking me to buy the area or a subscription.  Three days.  Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday Morning.  That’s how long it took me to finish up every single quest I could find that didn’t require entry into an area that wasn’t free, so if I had been starting with a new fresh character it probably would have taken a week.  But then again, this game wasn’t made to be played hardcore like this.  It’s designed to be done in small chunks, a quest or two at a time.

One of the most awesome things about Wizard 101 is that if you need help fighting a boss that is too difficult and there is no one around (likely because the game put you on a lower population server when you logged in) you can go to the options screen and switch to another server or another copy of your area, literally within seconds (one loading screen, which is even faster than other loading screens because you’ve already loaded the zone).  This made getting stuck nearly impossible.  I’d get to a door to a boss and wait a few seconds, look around, and if I didn’t see anyone heading my way, click click click, I’d be on another server.  If there was still no one around, I had to wait 60 seconds to be able to switch servers again.  It never took more than 2 or 3 server hops to find someone else standing at the boss’s door and we’d go in and fight together.

Much like Free Realms, Wizard 101’s greatest weakness is its social interaction.  Being a game aimed at kids, they’ve put in plenty of parental controls and the only way to ensure that another player can read what you say is to stick to the canned text.  Click the word bubble icon in the upper left of the screen and navigate the menu to find something like “I need healing” or “Let’s go fight [insert quest monster here]!”  If you type your own words, you run the risk of people seeing only “…” which is what the game replaces questionable text with.  The most important use of the friend list isn’t actually to keep track of your friends, but to use the “Teleport to Friend” function to get through a door you can’t get through on your own.  Not into pay areas for free, I tried, but some boss doors will not be available to you if you have not gotten to that part of the quest chain yet.  Instead, the person with the quest invites you as a friend, they enter, then you use the teleport function to join them.  My friends list is full of people I used or that used me to get inside towers.  I practically jumped out of my chair the first time I encountered a person who was actually chatting.  We talked for about a minute, but they had to log out.  Its been nothing but canned text ever since.

Again, like Free Realms, even with the social aspects so weak, the game is actually quite fun to play.  Like any collectible card game, there is strategy to building decks, choosing your cards to include, and strategy in the order to play them, and game knowledge of what monsters have what cards and guessing the builds of their decks.  Especially if one gets into the PvP arena area of the game, I can easily see this being many long hours of building decks and playing matches.  I messed around in the practice area myself and quickly realized that if I wanted any real challenge I would need to pay to get access to the ranked arena as my deck simply blew away most of the people I played with.  (Hint: as most card gamers know, a fat deck is not always better, I use the Starter Deck that has less slots so I can more predictably get the cards I want, reducing the luck of the draw.)

The one place that Wizard 101 really shines over Free Realms is how they do their unlocking.  Both offer a subscription that unlocked all game content, Wizard 101’s is more expensive by a couple dollars, but Wizard 101 does not lock any classes or cards (at least that I’ve run into) requiring membership to use.  Free Realms is lousy with them.  Probably 60% of items I get from questing in Free Realms I can’t use as a free player.  Wizard 101 also allows you to buy areas, unlocking them forever.  So if you want to go to Firecat Alley, you can buy it for 750 crowns (in game cash) which equates to about $1.50, less if you buy crowns in bulk.

And this is why this post will be Wizard 101’s one and only appearance under the Freeloading heading.  Where Free Realms hasn’t yet convinced me to spend any money on it at all, yesterday I dropped $10 on Wizard 101 for 5000 crowns so I could unlock more areas to play in.  I’ve heard you can unlock the entire game for $80 (with the exception of the arena, which you pay per fight or per day, or subscribe for unlimited play).  That is about the best review I can give a Free 2 Play game: it hooked me enough to give them money.  You win, Wizard 101.  You win.

Stop! Socialize!

Back when I played EverQuest, I often described the game as a chat server with a D&D style game tacked on to it.  This felt right because most of the game could be played without paying specific attention to the graphics.  Most of the action happened in your chat window.  People talked, the NPC text scrolled by, even damage output was all in this little window (until they allowed you to customize the UI, at which point I shoved all the damage output into a tiny window that I barely paid any attention to so I could focus more on the chatting).  With World of Warcraft they put more of combat into the hotkey bar, made you care about refresh timers and started dragging your attention away from the chat window.  They even eliminated the wall-sitting exp grind and forced you to keep moving around, so you had to actually watch the screen instead of just waiting for the puller to get back with a mob to fight.  In Free Realms, the mini game design requires so much attention that I find myself playing for an hour and realizing that I haven’t been reading the chat window.  I complain about not being able to find my friends in Free Realms, but to be perfectly honest, they might have come on and sent me tells, but I missed it because I was too busy chasing NPCs or looking for quests, or in mini games where I’m too busy playing a game to be watching chat.

The progression of MMOs that I am seeing is to get people more involved with the game, but less involved with the people.  In order to socialize in Free Realms, I have to actually stop playing and stand around.  In EQ, progression and socialization could happen (did happen) simultaneously.  And we won’t even go into the fact that I have not once grouped with anyone in Free Realms, even when I’ve wanted to and tried, it just doesn’t seem to be something people care about… or maybe they simply aren’t seeing my area chat asking for a group because no one is reading.

One of the best things about the Xbox 360 is the built in voice chat that works by default in all games.  If you play multi-player, you can chat with the other players.  It would be nice if MMOs could integrate voice chat more fully since they are taking our eyes away from the chat box and using our keyboard more for play than talking.  Ideally, a game would have some sort of spacial chat, similar to the way “say” worked in EQ (and other MMOs), so people within a certain distance would hear you.  That way when you were hanging out with your group in a dungeon, your group hears you, and when you walk in to town you hear players within an X foot radius, approaching people you want to hear, moving away from people you don’t.

I’d love to see it happen, because the current trend of having to choose between playing and socializing is killing my interest in their games.

The Postman

This weekend I got my first job to level 20 in Free Realms.  Postman.  To be honest, I would not have thought this would be the first, but grinding postal jobs is relatively easy.  Unlike cooking, it requires no supplies, and unlike pretty much all the other free jobs, you can just sit at the mailbox and play the mail sorting games over and over.  Throw on top of that a star bonus, and I went from 14 to 20 very quickly.

The reason I chose to focus on Postman was because I wanted to create a guild, and you have to be level 15 in some job to do that, and Postman was at 14.  My next closest was Brawler at 10 and Chef at 9.  Adventurer was also at 9, but that job is the longest/hardest to level since you have to actually run around discovering stuff.

So, anyway, with my Postman job at 20, I created my guild. <and what army>  Initially I was going to go for an alternate spelling, like calling it the “anwatt army” or “ahnwot army”, but in the end I decided just to go traditional, so now in game I appear as “Jhaer Buegren <and what army>”.  If you haven’t gotten it yet, its a play on the idea of when you say you can beat someone and they retort, “Oh yeah? You and what army?”

Of course, I am the only member of my guild, because my friends list is STILL empty.  I just can’t seem to get online on the same server at the same time as the people I know who play.  Perhaps in the future this will change.  If you are playing Free Realms and want to join, let me know and I’ll look for you.

In the meantime, I’m still grinding out quests trying to see if I can exhaust the free content.  Sanctuary is getting pretty bare, and I’ve put a large dent in that area with the hedge maze that I can never remember the name of… the real trick is making note of the repeatable quests.  No offense to the game (or any game for that matter), but repeatable quests are rarely designed to be truly repeatable.  Sure, you can do them over and over, but the quest text often doesn’t lend itself to explaining WHY I can repeat it.  If you have lost something and I have found it, seeing that you’ve lost it again and I can find it again is particularly lame.

The freeloading continues…

The Art of the Pull

This past weekend I spent my time in Free Realms grinding out some Brawler levels.  I was only level 4 and had that stupid “Get level 5!” as my only brawl quest.  Well, I had other quests for the brawler, but they all required that I fight things recommended for level 5 and over.  So I went and found a few random encounters and got level 5, then set about questing again.

Back in the days of EverQuest, I played a monk.  The reason I chose a monk was because the guy who introduced me to the game said it was hard to play and was the class least reliant on equipment.  And it was true, in the beginning.  My monk was about 80% effective when “naked”.  Of course, as the game expanded, monks became just as reliant on gear as every other class.  But the point is, I played a monk.  One thing monks did in EQ was called “pulling”.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, it means that my group would pick a safe spot to sit and I would run out and find monsters for us to fight, dragging them back to the group for the kill.  The reason monks did this was because they got a skill called Feign Death which allowed them to escaped monsters if they happened to get too many chasing them.  Play dead, monsters go away.  As all monks did, I learned the observable mechanics of the game, how monsters would walk back to spawn points at different times, how some would “reset” their “hate list” upon reaching their spawn, and lots of other little things.  Over time, as I observed more and became a better puller, I used Feign Death less and less.  I learned how to pluck a single monster from a group just by standing in a particular place a particular distance away at a particular angle.  Honestly, being a puller in EQ was probably what kept me playing for so long.  One of the main reasons I quit was at the high end game during raiding your team only needed one or two monks for pulling, and any extra monks were just a part of the killing team.  Auto-attack is boring, especially after a life roaming zones in search of danger.

The point of that little trip down memory lane is to preface the following: Monster pathing and aggro hasn’t changed much over at SOE.

I find myself going under equipped and lower level than I should into brawler fights and using my monk skills to splits monsters and fight them one at a time when they are clearly intended to be fought in pairs or threes.  You can even run from most groups of monsters and watch your “radar” to see when most of them turn around and go home, leaving just one tenacious follower to combat.  I’ve even gone so far as to defeat “events” that clearly shouldn’t be something I do alone.  In one quest instance, you get to a certain point and it triggers waves of monsters to attack.  If you stand and fight, you have to take them on 3 or 4 at a time, but instead you can run off to the side and hide, wait for all the waves to show up, and then use aggro and positioning to pluck them one at a time out of the mess.  Sure, it takes longer, but seeing as how actually finding people to group is one of the most difficult things to do in Free Realms, taking the time and doing it on my own is preferable.

Anyway, I managed to get myself 4 levels doing Brawler quests, and then I headed back to Sanctuary to see if I could exhaust it like I did Seaside.  I haven’t yet, but I’m getting close.