Archive for the ‘Game Mechanics’ Category

Sisyphean Silliness

Thursday, November 1st, 2012
Sisyphean Silliness

I appreciate the fact that with its modern-day setting and a decidedly non-linear character progression system (that lacks classes or levels) The Secret World tries hard to be different from traditional fantasy-based MMO’s. Instead of a skill tree, this game has a skill wheel, with enough possible combinations to require a calculator and a tolerance for enumerative combinatorics. Tired of question mark-bedazzled NPCs who misplace their weapons or have strange fetishes for animal organs? TSW has seven different mission types, most of which include a convoluted back story that resembles an episode of Twin Peaks. If you’ve ever had the desire to kill mobs with a katana in one hand, an assault rifle in the other, and a rocket launcher strapped to your back – while simultaneously wearing bunny slippers – this game’s got you covered.

Unfortunately, for all of its innovation and creative design concepts, TSW has some baffling, and at times game-breaking shortcomings.

The problem starts with the skill wheel. Each time the player completes a mission or objective, they are awarded skill points that can be used to purchase abilities on this wheel. There are nine different main weapon types to choose from, and each weapon has a total of 56 various abilities. Funcom has since implemented “decks” that give players recommended combinations of weapon abilities, but even with these decks as a guideline, selecting a skill combination that is ineffective or incompatible with your play style, is far easier than it should be.

The first time I played the game during beta, I didn’t even realize that I was expected to select two separate weapons. Being the minimalist that I am, I chose Blood Magic as my sole ability with the assumption that putting all my skill points into one method of combat would make me a Badass Blood Magician® (or BBM, for short). The game gave me no indication that this was a less than optimal choice until I had already spent several dozen skill points and come to the unfortunate realization that I was less BBM and more ZPB (Zombie Punching Bag). In a game that allows for some type of point reset, this would have been little more than a minor annoyance, but for whatever reason Funcom believes in the “No refunds, no exchanges” form of character development. The only way to improve your character’s combat performance is to keep playing, accumulate more points, and hope that you spend them more wisely going forward.

When the game went live and the skill decks were implemented, I choose a Blood Magic/Assault Rifle combination. The description for this deck suggested that it allowed for ranged combat and healing abilities that I thought would compliment my husband’s tank/fighter character. Since it requires a considerable amount of points (and therefore, play time) to acquire all of the skills to make a deck, I still spent a portion of the game floundering around with mismatched and ineffective low-level skill combinations. This problem was mitigated by the fact that I never played the game alone – I was always grouped with my husband. I can only imagine how difficult and frustrating it may be for players who attempt to go solo, particularly at the lower levels.

What does all of this have to do with the comic? Well, earlier I mentioned that TSW has seven different mission types. Specifically, they are story, action, item, investigation, sabotage, group/dungeon, and PvP. Initially I embraced this variation in quest mechanics. If I’m in a Sherlock Holmes mood, I take an investigation mission. Item missions allow me to be lazy with a simple FedEx objective that usually has the added bonus of connecting to the main story arc in some manner. If I tire of killing mobs, I can switch to a Sabotage mission that requires stealthy game play and an intentional avoidance of combat.

More options should mean more fun for a greater variety of players. Which it is…except when Funcom inexplicably decides to put these various missions inside a solo-only instance area. Then suddenly the game turns into a Do-It-Again-Stupid (DIAS) grindfest of frustrating proportions.

The problems with these solo-only missions seem to fall into two categories: Either the combat requires a type of skill that, up to this point, the player has never equipped or used. Or, in the case of the sabotage missions, the player is not given a clear understanding of the requirements and limitations of the game’s mechanics, which leads to an unreasonable amount of trial and error.

For the former, I would often find my character’s healing and ranged combat abilities to be completely inadequate against the mission’s melee-centric mob boss. This meant many repeat trips through the instance until I had mastered a entirely new set of combat abilities that, up to this point, I had had no reason to use. For sabotage missions, the DIAS factor was so high that the instance became a joke-worthy revolving door. Security cameras that seemed to see through walls. Mobs with questionable x-ray vision. I could spend an hour (or more), carefully sneaking through a warehouse or underground lair, only to be seen by a mob ON THE OTHER SIDE OF A WALL and dragged back to the entrance of the instance to start all over again.

I sincerely applaud Funcom for attempting to do something different, and I understand how incredibly difficult world and puzzle design within an MMO can be. Having played Age of Conan, Funcom’s other (notorious) big budget MMO, I wonder if the mindset of the studio’s developers is one that conflates challenge with difficulty? If so, someone needs to explain to them that frustrating a player is not the same as challenging them.

One is enjoyable. The other leads to cancelled subscriptions.

A Face Only A Mother Could Love

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012
The future will be boring.

I’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 almost since its inception, and I take a lot of inspiration from its particular style of comedy. For those unfamiliar with the MST3K phenomenon, it is a TV show involving a man and an assortment of robots who watch, and mock, bad B movies. Heckling a bad public performance of any kind is something we humans have probably been doing since living in a French cave. But it was MST3K who made it sublime.

Unfortunately, as any professional (or otherwise) heckler knows, your jokes are only as good as your source material. There’s a sweet spot between your material being bad enough to generate jokes and so bad that it descends into a pit of mirthless inanity. Face of Mankind is an MMO that dangles on that precipice with almost a complete lack of self-awareness. Stated less eloquently: it’s a mighty dull game that’s hard to make fun of.

To be fair, Face of Mankind is a sandbox game, which I have been known to struggle with before. Unlike my previous experiences, at least FOM has a tutorial section that teaches you the game’s basic mechanics. The problem is that this tutorial can’t begin to prepare you for the game’s complete lack of aim, purpose, goal, or even aesthetic. Once you enter the multiplayer area of the game, you are confronted with an endless maze of bland corridors and empty rooms, completely devoid of purpose. With no full-size map, and only sporadic in-game signage, it became ridiculously easy to become hopelessly lost. I can only surmise that the game’s map designers were reading Dante’s Inferno while looking at M.C. Escher sketches and eating Taco Bell. It’s the only logical explanation.

The few NPCs you encounter throughout the game are either mute or respond with some canned variation of “I have nothing for you right now.” At one point during my travels I found a room labeled “cafeteria” that contained a handful of NPCs awkwardly dancing. There was no music and no explanation. In a corner of another map I stumbled upon a sushi bar. I knew this because there was a sign overhead that read, “Sushi Corner”, not because the NPCs under the sign actually sold any sushi. Eventually my meanderings left me stuck in a koi pond. I had jumped over a railing to investigate the pond, not realizing that jumping in this game quickly drains stamina. I was forced to stand in the pond while I regained my stamina, simultaneously losing my dignity. And my patience.

There’s mining and crafting in this game. Or at least, that’s what I was told. My one experience with the crafting mechanics involved standing in front of a computer terminal, watching a progress bar create the components needed to make a pizza. This in itself was a bit incongruous, considering the fact that the faction I had joined – Vortex Incorporated – is the transportation sector of the game world, famous for inventing teleportation. I guess they needed pizzas to throw through the teleporter gates for test purposes?

I suppose I should mention the game’s various factions, which are intended to be the source of player-driven politics and roleplay in the FOM world. There are eight factions altogether, covering everything from production and mining, to law enforcement and mercenary work. You are free to join any one faction at any time, or even remain a civilian. I’m sure the designers’ intent was to create a framework that would allow the players to engage in a variety of geopolitical machinations, but what I experienced looked more like a game of “Cowboys & Indians” than “Rome: Total War”. This type of gameplay only works if players are given a reason to care through conflicting desires, goals, abilities, and resources. It’s not going to be accomplished by dumping the player into an ugly, confusing labyrinth and asking them to make a pizza.

Overall, Face of Mankind was a big, boring pseudo-future world with little to offer in terms of player engagement or entertainment. In case you’re wondering, I never did find the infamous “Club 69”, or strippers, or even a basketball. But joining a faction did give me a new pair of pants.

You Won’t Find This On Google Maps

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012
Her cape was quite wrinkly.

The first time I played DC Universe Online during its beta period I gave up on it after only a half hour of play. The game’s console-focused interface has a targeting system that resembles a kung fu monk trying to blind fight while wearing roller skates. You don’t so much aim as merely suggest your attack’s direction and target – and hope that you hit something other than yourself. After a half hour of flailing around in a very NON-heroic fashion I gave up, logged out, and uninstalled the game. I wasn’t about to pay $14.99 a month to feel like Die Fledermaus’ near-sighted and even more ineffectual younger brother.

But fast-forward a year later in which DCUO – like so many other MMO’s – has gone free-to-play, and where my tolerance for bad online games has been polished to a high sheen. I decided to give the world of Gotham and Metropolis another try.

This was my tour guide, ADanger. When not rescuing lost super heroes he volunteers at the local retirement home.

My second attempt at DCUO was no less awkward than the first, but this time I decided that I wasn’t going to care. “OK game. You want me to mash buttons like a 3 year old? I can do that!” I button-mashed my way through the starter area and the first couple of missions before realizing that I was actually having fun. Sure, the interface is clunky, confusing and unnecessarily obtuse, and the missions’ storylines are hanging out in the deep end of the cartoon absurdity pool, but there is something genuinely cathartic about pummeling bad guys with wanton abandon and having Wonder Woman tell you just how special you really are. Who needs therapy when you can save the world on a regular basis?

If only your innate super powers came with built-in GPS. Or heck, even a compass.

DCUO’s navigation is not for the directionally challenged. The game’s missions routinely take the player between the two main map areas of Metropolis and Gotham City. These two regions are large but not excessively difficult to traverse, especially since the game provides your hero with a travel superpower from the moment of creation. The problem lies in the fact that they are not directly connected to each other, and the game conveniently forgets to tell you this. I spent at least 20 minutes flying from one end of Metropolis to the other, trying to find the door marked “Gotham City -> This Way”. If it hadn’t been for the oddly misnomic “ADanger” who took pity upon me and gave me a walking (okay – flying) tour of the Escher-esque Watchtower (which connects the two areas) I’d probably still be out there somewhere. Flying in circles like a crop duster.

Despite the consolitis and all of its associated shortcomings, DCUO can be an enjoyable diversion. The art design is colorful and vibrant without the cell-shading and black outline that I found so unappealing in Champions Online. And as goofy as the mission premises can get, their execution never felt as repetitive and monotonous as those in City of Heroes/Villians. Although I understand why SOE made this game dual-platform, I think doing so was an injustice no superhero should endure.

Move Along, Nothing To See Here.

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Disclaimer: This is not a review. If you like Mortal Online, please feel free to stop reading right now. Really. You won’t hurt my feelings. I promise. Also, this is not a “Leslee Plays” type of post. I’m not attempting to write a story about the game from my avatar’s point of view. Instead, this is an actual account of what happened to me during the first 2 hours of play.

Trust me, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Mortal Online is a new MMO by Swedish developer Star Vault. It is a first-person, open-world, sandbox-style game that uses the Unreal Engine. The “Unreal” part means your avatar is guaranteed to be uglier than a half-orc with a bad haircut and a Botox addiction.

Want proof? Here ya go…

During the character creation process your avatar is naked. This lack of clothing might make more sense if it wasn’t for the fact that the only customizable features besides hair style/color and skin tone are cheeks, eyes, mouth, ears, and 2 separate sliders for the nose and eyebrows. Yeah. My character’s junk is swinging in the breeze while I’m fiddling with the slider for his nose bridge? Must be a Swedish thing…

Once you’ve finished the creation process and selected your character’s ‘background’ (which determines what professions you have access to), you are unceremoniously deposited into the game world.

Did I say “deposited”? Make that dropped on your ass in the dark with nothing but a half-written owner’s manual and a rusty sword that you can’t figure out how to use. The game has realistic day and night cycles. If you are unlucky enough to enter the game during a night cycle, you must stumble around in the dark until you find a lit area. Or you fall and break your neck. Whichever comes first.

I eventually met a friendly German player who was willing to help me rather than using me for target practice. (Did I mention that this game is PvP-centric with corpse looting? Yeah, it’s one of those.) He kindly offered to show me the way to the nearest city where I could purchase a torch from an NPC. There was only one problem with this plan:

I never did find the city or the torch-selling NPC. Instead, I walked, and walked, and walked until the virtual sun finally began to show over a horizon. With no in-game map or compass I had no way of knowing from which direction the sun rose. Could have been north, for all I knew. There were also no road signs or points of reference. Eventually I couldn’t even find any fellow players – friendly or otherwise.

After digging around through several layers of poorly labeled interface windows, I discovered that my character had the ability to tame wild animals. This led to Gary the Attack Gazelle.

Gary was supposed to be able to attack or defend on command. Unfortunately, due to server lag or AI pathing issues, he couldn’t go more than 100 yards before resetting to his original position. I suppose I should have named him Gary the Boomerang Gazelle.

After a couple of hours of this torture masquerading as a game, I finally gave up. Although I can appreciate the concept of a class-less, level-less, build-you-own-destiny type of game, the complete lack of objectives, goals or narrative is incredibly unrewarding to me. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that this type of game allows the player to construct their own story. But without a more defined framework and set of tools for the player to use, the ‘story’ becomes more Homer Simpson than Homer’s Iliad.

I never did find a torch. D’oh!

Baby Seal Clubbing

Friday, February 19th, 2010

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m no fan of player-versus-player (PvP) combat in MMOs. According to the Bartle Test, I fall squarely into the “Explorer” category. I’m more interested in surveying the virtual world around me than in being pwned by a 12 year old.

Although some MMOs are PvP-centric, most keep it cordoned off from the PVE sections of the game, and provide players with the choice to opt in or out at their discretion. Often, if PvP combat is the central theme of an MMO, the game designers still provide a protected “beginner” area where players can learn the game’s mechanics before being thrown to the level 50 Wolves of Ganking.

Player versus player combat has always been a part of Pirates of the Burning Sea, and for this game’s genre, it makes sense. Epic sea battles are its mainstay. But what doesn’t make sense, is the developer’s decision to allow high level players to attack low level players in the beginner areas.

PotBS has a map conquest system that I profess to not completely understand. It involves seizing your enemy’s ports by attacking their ships as they sail in or out. Players often exploit this by camping outside the ports of the beginner areas, because they know that low level players will be attempting to move between the ports to complete PVE missions. It makes sense strategically, but it creates a miserable experience for new players. I recently got stuck in a British port at level 10, unable to complete any more quests because high level pirates would attack anyone who tried to leave. I asked in chat if there was any solutions to this problem. Someone suggested – without a hint of irony – that I should log out of the game until the pirate players had left the area.

PotBS’s player population has been declining since the game launched 2 years ago. Slow, repetitive combat and a steep learning curve were some of its biggest drawbacks. Currently, Flying Lab Studios is in the process of closing 3 of their servers, leaving only two – a US and a European server – remaining. In light of this waning player base, it strikes me as odd that FLS would allow a game mechanic that is so detrimental to the retention of new players. One veteran player cynically referred to it as “baby seal clubbing”. I call it “going bankrupt”.

Still Fixing What Isn’t Broken

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Whew! I’m back after an extended and unexpected blogging hiatus. The New Year and a New Job really kicked my ass.

I had always been fond of FreeRealms. Even though the game’s combat was never particularly complex, it was varied enough to keep it entertaining. Your character would obtain a new combat skill every 5 levels. Upon reaching level 20, you’d have 5 abilities from which to choose, each serving the usual melee, AOE or ranged functions. When I wanted a break from WoW (or whatever the current MMO de jour may be), I’d log into FreeRealms for a few minutes of easy fun.

Sadly, SOE must have been cribbing notes from Mythic, because they took the whole fixing-what-wasn’t-broken concept to a whole new level of… brokenness.

Now the combat in FreeRealms consists of 3 buttons that you mash repeatedly as you attack wave after wave of monsters. It’s boring. It’s repetitive. And unless they were shooting for the Under-the-Age-of-Five demographic, I can’t begin to fathom SOE’s reasoning for this change. Hell, most 10 year olds have better video game combat skills than I do!

And FreeRealms is not alone in this recent ‘dumbing-down’ trend. In World of Warcraft I recently created an Orc Shaman named Urgulanilla (I pride myself in naming all of my characters after real people, even if they lived over a 1,000 years ago). I wanted to experience the Barrens area of the game before it gets revamped in the upcoming expansion. I was dismayed to discover that the aggro of the mobs in the starter area has been reduced to nothing, causing the first five levels of the game to be so simple that my character could sleep-walk through it. Booooooring.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an MMO fangrrl that stomps her feet and whines the moment a combat skill is nerfed, or a game mechanic is simplified. I prefer that the starter area of any game be relatively easy, so I can learn the interface and explore my surroundings before being dumped into the deep end of the combat pool. But when you simplify the game so much that I can play it with with one hand while solving a Rubik’s Cube with the other, you’ve just sucked all the fun right out of it for me.

I really hope that the folks at FreeRealms rethink the changes they’ve made to the combat. I miss my Swiffer Mop-wielding Medic.

Fixing What Isn’t Broken

Monday, January 4th, 2010

You know an MMO is in decline when they get rid of their dwarf-tossing and replace it with painfully pedantic beginner quests. Case in point: Warhammer Online.

WAR has always suffered from putting all of its eggs into one PvP basket. Their “public quests” – cooperative PvE encounters – are a great idea in theory, but they are a complete failure if the player population is too low to support them. (For more information on how Public Quests work, watch this video.) Mythic didn’t take into account the fact that as a game ages, players move out of the lower level maps, creating population imbalances on the server. This means that all of those exciting beginner and mid-level Public Quests are as empty as a Greenskin’s head.

Mythic’s answer to this problem was to redesign the starter area. Initially, each race had their own beginner quests that were tailored to their specific racial histories within the overall storyline. These quests were fun, informative, and even involved some dwarf-tossing. The redesigned beginner area lumps everyone together doing generic we’re-at-war-so-go-kill-stuff quests, and involves tutorials so simplistic that a 10 year-old would be offended.

Sadly, I don’t think Mythic was seeing the bigger picture, and was attempting to fix something that wasn’t really broken. Yes, player population densities do shift, but the game would have maintained its population and attracted new players if they had addressed the lack of content and uninspired quests at the mid-levels. When my first character, an Empire Witch Hunter, got to level 20 the available quests became sparse and the quest rewards were often two and three levels above her. Nothing kills player enthusiasm quicker than receiving rewards that you can’t even use!

The irony of the situation is that although the combined beginner areas may give the illusion of player density, they have done nothing to improve the mid-level PvE areas. I logged into my level 32 Bright Wizard, who was last standing in Eataine – a Tier 4 area appropriate for her level.

The entire map was deserted.


Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

SOE’s EverQuest2 is an MMO that takes its name seriously. Very seriously. In fact, InfiniteQuest might be a better name for this game.

The original EverQuest is one of the few MMOs that I have not yet played. When it launched in 1999, the memory of my unpleasant experience with Meridian 59 was still fresh. As friends began to exhort the game’s virtues (it surprised me how fast the term “EverCrack” sprang up), my immediate reaction was, “Oh, hell no!” I imagined battles with my modem that would exceed any in-game combat. I was content to continue enjoying my single player games, where I could be blissfully ignorant of concepts like ‘ping’ and ‘latency’.

Fast-forward 10 years where I’ve played almost every popular MMO in existence except EverQuest and it’s younger sister, EverQuest2. A free trial offer and a download later found me rolling up a Human Swashbuckler and venturing forth into Qeynos.

I was initially beguiled. The extensive use of voice actors lends a unique sense of charm to the game. I found the player community to be mature and friendly, as I was quickly adopted by a helpful guild that was willing to show me the ropes. I completed all the missions in the beginner area and eagerly headed to the mainland.

Here’s where I should mention that there are two different types of people in the world: Those who like lots of options and those who don’t. I fall squarely into the second category. I’ve been known to walk out of restaurants that had too many items on their menu. Give me too many choices and my brain will seize up like an old engine with a bad oil pump.

The EQ2 designers seem to subscribe to the philosophy that more is always better. By the time my character reached level 20 she had a quest journal that resembled the classified ads, four rows of quick bars containing skills I had no idea how to use, and an inventory full of items with dubious levels of importance. In a word, I was OVERWHELMED.

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, I had the opportunity to talk at length with one of the game’s original quest writers. Apparently EQ2’s ‘kitchen sink” approach stemmed, in part, from their lack of understanding of player behavior. They created the content with the expectation that players would pick and choose which quests they wanted to do. They never anticipated that we would attempt to pick up every quest in a given area until our journals were overflowing.

It’s unfortunate that EQ2 lost me in its sea of options and endless possibilities. The game had a lot to offer. But that, in itself, was the problem.

* Desert Bus is a game that involves nothing but driving a bus from Tucson, AZ to Las Vegas, NV – in real time. It is very, VERY boring.

The Shortest Distance

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

If you’ve ever lived in Chicago as I have, you know that the mass transportation in that city can be a bit…challenging. There’s the CTA “L” line, or elevated train, which gets you around downtown Chicago. There’s the Metra train, which goes out to the suburbs. And I think there’s another CTA rail line that takes you to the airports. I have to confess that during the 7 years that I lived in the area, I never did quite get the whole system figured out. The point is that sometimes getting where you need to go can be expensive, confusing and tedious.

So why do game designers feel the need to make transportation in their virtual worlds expensive, confusing and tedious? Don’t we get enough of that in real life?

My first dedicated MMO experience was Dark Age of Camelot. Perhaps things have changed since I last played the game over 5 years ago, but back then getting around in Albion, Hibernia or Midgard was a giant PITA! Yes, there were teleporters in the major hub areas, and your character could eventually purchase a mount. But the majority of the game was spent taking the public transportation, which consisted of watching your character riding a horse. For a very…long….time. Some of the longer horse routes make the flight times in World of Warcraft look like a jog around the block. It was tedious, boring and unnecessary. How much fun can you really derive from looking at the back of a horse’s butt for 20 minutes?

Speaking of horse’s butts, let’s talk about the transportation options in World of Warcraft. Here’s a quiz for you: You’re a level 60 human warrior standing in the middle of Gadgetzan. You own conventional and flying mounts, but you’ve recently used your hearthstone, so you can’t teleport to your bind point for another 30 minutes. You need to get to Zangarmarsh on the Outland continent. Quick! How do you get there? And how long will it take you?

The recently released children’s MMO, Free Realms takes a refreshing approach to game travel: Open your map, click on where you want to go, and *poof* you’re there. Want to meet up with friends in the game? Click on their name, select “teleport” and you’re instantly standing next to them. It couldn’t be easier, and it makes the game a lot more enjoyable. You can still be pedestrian and explore the world on foot to your heart’s content. But you’re not forced to do so.

Which makes me wonder, why don’t all MMOs make transportation this easy? Sony realized when they were creating Free Realms that they needed to make “getting to the fun” as simple as possible, or kids would quickly lose interest. But developers seem to think that we adults ENJOY tedium, or at least they believe that we’re willing to tolerate it. Sure, it’s fun to explore. But at what point does ‘exploration’ become an imposed potty break?

The Apocalypse Will Be Confusing

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

I really wanted to like Fallen Earth. After the untimely demise of Tabula Rasa I longed for an MMO that did not contain haughty elves or magic missiles.

With its FPS/RPG hybridization, classless skill-based character advancement system, and real-world post-apocalypse setting, I was highly anticipating the opportunity to create a female Mad Max and make a name for myself in Grand Canyon Province.

Things started out well enough for Mad Margaret as I navigated her through the tutorial section of the game; a story instance that has the player running for your life from a “secret underground facility” as a disembodied voice gives you instructions on basic game play and story elements. Fun, informative, and what I thought was a taste of things to come.

Boy, was I wrong. Upon completing the tutorial you are dumped out into the starter area of the game where things quickly become buggy, bland and downright perplexing. Although the game’s graphics aren’t terrible, they aren’t exactly awe-inspiring either. For whatever reason, the interface was small, fuzzy and hard to read, no matter how much I tweaked my graphics settings. And it also wasn’t particularly intuitive, as I struggled to figure out how to switch weapons or access my character’s stat sheet.

The worst part of it all was how amazingly complicated the character skill system was. Skill attributes, that could have been described in just a couple of brief sentences, instead had paragraphs of text that looked like they had been written by an astrobiologist! When I play an online game I want to have FUN. Not feel like I’m preparing for a math exam!

* Actual text taken from the game. If anyone can explain to me in SIMPLE TERMS what all of that actually means, I will review the MMO of their choice in an upcoming post.