Fantasy Fantasy MMO Again

Last week, I posted about how I’d design/build a world for a fantasy MMO.  At the end I said I’d post about how I’d take EVE’s character design and use it in a fantasy setting.

I’ve posted a few times about not limiting your players in their choices, and in fact a little over a year ago I actually talked about EVE’s design in reference to Fallen Earth’s decision at the time not to have respecs.  What I like about EVE’s design is that you need skills to use equipment and your skill only matters while you are using your equipment.  Applied to a fantasy setting it would essentially be: you are what you wear.

A warrior isn’t a class.  A warrior is the ability to wear heavy armor, take damage, use a weapon and perhaps a shield, and taunting abilities.  A wizard isn’t a class.  A wizard is the ability to use reagents and focus through a staff or wand and cast spells.  And so on…

A fantasy game under the EVE model would allow every character to have every skill if they take the time to train it, but what skills matter and what you are able to do depends entirely on what you are wearing/using.  If you leave town wearing plate armor, a heavy club and shield and your taunts, you are a warrior.  If you leave town in a robe with a staff, a wand and a bag of potions and reagents, you are a wizard.

The main thing that attracts me to this model is that it encourages players to play less characters.  If you get tired of being a warrior, you just switch gear and start playing as a wizard.  If next week your guild still needs a warrior, you can just put back on your warrior gear from last week and immediately be the warrior you were.  While I understand that many people like making alternate characters, and this wouldn’t prevent them from doing so, I personally have never enjoyed the work that goes into making sure my friends know where to find me.  I’d much rather be messing around with lesser used skills on my main character and have my friends be able to find me easily, than to be logged in as another character and have them have to track me down.

Obviously, a design like this would need to take care in how it allows people to wear gear and how much they can carry with them.  Letting someone carry around a few alternate skill items to swap in special situations is great, but letting someone carry around a full set of gear that they are able to use a macro to swap allowing them to cast fireballs between enemy attacks while tanking would be a disaster, unless you want the game full of macroing tank-mages.

Then again, I prefer a crafting driven economy over a mob-kill-loot based one.  Adventurers should find materials to sell/trade to crafters to buy/trade for finished gear.  But that is for another post…

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.

Removing Grouping – Conclusions

At the end of this, having now gone through the five elements of what a player gets, technically, from a group structure, it appears that grouping itself needs to stay unless the games are completely redesigned.  For example, in playing Wizard 101 I have been a part of a group many times without forming an actual group because the game is built around “casual grouping”.  If a player is in combat, to join them you need only step into the combat circle.  All combat is contained within a temporary group, four slots for your side and four slots for the enemy, and when combat is done the group is dissolved.  But it is turn based card/deck played combat, and not the real-time hack and slash spell casting of the traditional Diku model.

Also, as brought up by many of the people I discussed this with, grouping does bring a social element with it, a sense of belonging and direction.  There is just something about being invited to a group and joining that group that bands people together in ways that a random collection of people doesn’t have.

Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed this exercise.

Chat Filter Abuse

The other night I decided I’d drop in to Wizard 101.  It is a great game for just jumping in and banging out some combat or quests, then logging out.  It’s casual in the best sense of the word, in that you can play at your own pace and not that it only requires a browser and babysitting.

Anyway, I had forgotten where I had logged out previously and I committed the cardinal sin of Wizard 101: moving before looking.  I stepped backwards into the street and immediately joined someone else’s combat.  No big deal really.  There was only one monster, so I picked a card and attacked.  I picked my card first.  The other guy then picked his, but when it came to casting, he went first.  He threw a damage increase, death +30%, and then I fired off my weakest death spell, which amplified +30% only did about 90 points of damage.  A waste of the damage increase.  Now, keep in mind, when you pick a spell, everyone in your group can see what you picked and what you have targeted.  I picked first.  There was a good ten second pause for the other guy to make his move.  He could have said “Don’t use that.” or something, but he didn’t.

So the round is done and the damage increaser was wasted and the guy says, “your jack o as”.

One of the great things about Wizard 101 is that it is very very kid friendly.  There are two forms of chat.  The first is completely restricted and only allows you to speak in canned phrases like “Help!” and “Let’s go fight [insert quest target enemy here].” and other such things.  The other form of chat is free form typing, however, every word you type is compared to the Wizard 101 dictionary and if it doesn’t exist in there the word will stay in red on your screen and will appear as “…” to everyone else.  What my groupmate was trying to say was “you are a jack ass” but if he had it would have gone out as “you are a jack …” or possibly even just “…”.  I honestly forget how harsh the censoring is.  So, because of the chat filter, a new slang has emerged in Wizard 101 using approximate swears.

Back to the group… he then tells me “fine ill let them kill you i wont attack at all” which was fine with me, even though a second monster joined in I can easily take two at a time in this area.  Of course, he proceeds instead to target everything I target in an attempt to make me not fight.  *shrug*  We win and then he says, “more on” “flock off bench” “your a noob end of story there”.  Translated: Moron. Fuck off bitch. You’re a noob, end of story there.

Flippantly I threw in a “less off” in there in response to his “more on”, and when he was done I said “You’re”.  Which he took for arguing, like I was saying he was a noob when in reality I was correcting his language, his misuse of “your”.  He then followed with lines that included “sheet o face”, “little bench” and he tried to explain to me that “you’re”, “your” and “you are” all mean the same thing.  “master o bait”, “shut the flock up”, “as o hole”.  The really funny part is when he claims that because of my spelling and refusal to type insults around the word filter it is because I’m a little kid.

What?  So, in most MMOs, people spouting obscenities are often younger, less mature players.  But in Wizard 101 I’m being told that proper grammar and not swearing is a sign of immaturity?  Huh?

The sad thing is that the filter while preventing real swearing also prevents real communication.  The guy asked how old I was, and I couldn’t answer because the game would not allow “35” or “thirty-five” or “thirty” or “five” to be said.  In fact, at the end of our conversation he said, “i can tell from your crop of insults your not even third team”.  Since the game splits players between “under 13” and “13 and over”, I assume he meant “13” but had to say “third team” to get around the filter.

The entire situation ended in irony.  This guy was so pissed at me for the one miscast spell and my further arguments about his grammar that he reported me.  If you go to the Wizard 101 FAQ page and click on the question “What happens when I get Reported?” you will find the following text:

When you report someone, or you are reported, a message is sent directly to Mr Lincoln that includes the chat logs of everything that was said before and after that report.

Mr Lincoln then reads the log and assess the situation. He determines how bad the offense was, looks up prior offenses for the reported individual, and based on that assessment he issues sanctions such as muting or banning and sends an email to the offending account explaining the violation and the sanctions.

If the report was falsely made, that is determined as well, and the player who made the false report is investigated as to whether or not they have made previous false reports. False reports are just a egregious as valid ones, and similar sanctions can be levied against repeat offenders of false reporting.

Everything that a player enters into the chat window is logged. These larger chat logs are also routinely checked for those infractions that are not reported.

Under the question “What is considered a Reportable Offense?” you’ll find:

We appreciate that our players want to make Wizard City the best it can be, and we’ve placed the tools in your hand to report players for inappropriate behavior. We ask that you use the reporting feature to identify truly egregious behavior, such as creative profanity (swearing around the filters), solicitation of usernames/passwords, predatory threats, racist comments and other such actions as outlined in the Terms of Use. The old story of “the kid that cried wolf” has a lot of bearing in this situation and we trust that all reports received by players are valid and require support intervention.

So, shortly after my new friend departed (I did add him to my friend list), a pop up window told me I had been reported.  Shortly after that, my new friend vanished, both from the game world and from my friend list.  I can only assume my friend managed to get himself banned.  On the other hand, my account was muted for 1 day.  I asked for clarification and got it.  Apparently, when my friend said “you little sheet” and I responded “Sheet of what?” my use of “sheet”, a common sidestep for the word “shit”, was enough to warrant a 1 day mute warning.  I have asked if any action was taken against my friend, and I emailed them screen shots of the conversation, since I was unable to report him myself.  No word as of yet…

Oh well…

DDOU: Missing the Point

Of all the IPs to be licensed, Dungeons & Dragons is actually the one where real money transactions (RMT, or microtransactions) make the most sense.  Why?  Because D&D has been doing microtransactions for decades.  In fact, of all the games on the market, Wizard101 is the game that currently mirrors the pen & paper D&D model the closest.

Think about it… to start playing D&D, you need to buy a couple of rule books, namely the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook.  With those two books and some dice, in theory, you never need to buy anything else to play.  You can make all your characters, make your own dungeons and monsters, you can even make your own loot.  Of course, not everyone is as skilled or as imaginative as everyone else, so D&D sells gaming modules which include a dungeon, monsters, loot, and perhaps even a city or town, story lines and quests and events.  You need to buy each module to play each module (or at least someone in your gaming group needs to).  This is pretty close to how Wizard101 functions, only the DMG and PH are free.  Create an account, download and log in.  You can play the first few areas of their world for free, and then you have to pay a small fee for additional areas.  Of course, there are other things you can buy in the game, items and houses and whatnot, but if you just want to play the game, I believe currently you can get everything for around $80.  For many MMOs you’ll pay $50 just for the game box and the first month, and at $15 a month, just three months in and you’ll have spent $80, and you can’t really finish all of most MMOs’ content in 90 days, so you’ll pay more.

Money amounts aside, however, DDO should have been built this way to start.  The base game with a small number of dungeons, the base classes and whatnot should have been a fixed price, or even free.  Then, much like games release expansions on Xbox Live, put out new dungeons, new modules, for a small fee every month or two.  New classes could even be released for a small fee, much like how D&D puts out expanded books to introduce new classes.  Perhaps they could have even run a hybrid model, charging players $1.99 or $2.99 a month for access to the game, and then $5-$20 per module (amount based on size of content).

Anyway, that’s just my thoughts.  If they’d started with that design, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to switch to their new Free-to-Play/Pay-to-Advance model.

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.

The Wizard Knight

I don’t want to be overly harsh here. But ultimately, I didn’t like The Knight and The Wizard, the two volume tale The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe. However, your tastes may vary, so if you see it in the book store, flip through the first few pages and see for yourself.

Now, why didn’t I like them?

The story was pretty good: a boy crosses into another world, one of giants and ogres and more, and becomes a man and a knight. Fairly typical, but with some interesting twists, like this world isn’t just one world, it’s seven worlds that layer over one another and the normal world, as far as normal goes in a fantasy setting, is smack in the middle, with three worlds above and three worlds below. Plenty of the characters were likable, and overall I enjoyed meeting them throughout the tale.

The one drawback, and to me it was huge but may not affect other readers as much, was that the entire story, across both books, was told as if the main character was writing down what happened in an enormous letter to his brother, back in our world (you know, the one we live in, without magic and dragons). As such, almost the entirety of the two books feels like someone is telling you a story, so as much as I wanted to get immersed in this world I was constantly kept at arms length by the writing style. It bugged me.

Along with this was also the author’s choice of weird formal language. The following is NOT an excerpt from either book, but is just an example of how many conversations go within the story:

“I have something that I must tell you, and I need you not to ask me questions while I do.”
“That is fine, but before you start I must know how you got here?”
“I came in a strange manner which will be clear when I tell you what I must tell you.”
“Then I will hinder you no longer. Tell me your story.”
“The story I am about to tell is strange and you may not believe me, but I ask you to trust that I am telling the truth of it.”
“I will take you at your word as I have no reason to doubt you.”
“I knew that you would as you are a trusting man. Here is my tale…”

About a third of every conversation between characters was verbal foreplay, telling each other that they want to tell each other things, interrupting each other to say things that didn’t need to be said at all. Now, this actually happens in real life. You are sitting with your friends at the local pub and you say, “Hey, I’ve got to tell you this story about work.” And they say, “Its not about the copy machine again is it?” And you say, “No, it isn’t, and if you let me tell the story you’d know that.” However, in real life this doesn’t happen all the time. In the book it happens all the time. It got to the point where I would literally see it coming and then skip two or three paragraphs to get to the point where the foreplay is done and the real conversation would begin.

Despite the style of the writing though, I did enjoy the world Gene crafted in his two volume tale. So, as I said before, if you see the book in the store, read a few pages, maybe a chapter or two, and if the writing style doesn’t bother you, pick up the books, it’ll be worth it. If the style bothers you, pick these up only if you are into world crafting and don’t mind it not being a smooth easy read.