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“Player Controlled World Events!” or “Here’s to Hoping They do Something Right!”

October 31, 2010 1 comment

I am not a big fan of Cryptic. This isn’t to say they don’t work hard or their games aren’t popular. I am at odds with the developers over at Cryptic because every action that comes from then seems to be entrenched in making more money as quickly as is humanly possible, and has little to do with customer satisfaction. Maybe that is generalizing too much from select isolated incidents, but the fact of the matter remains: my trust in Cryptic is minimal at best and it will likely take a miracle to restore any faith.

I digress. Massively last week reported that Cryptic’s Star Trek Online will allow players to generate content though The Foundry. There are two questions that pop into one’s mind with such an announcement:

  • First, will anyone be able to generate and post their content and are there any quality control mechanisms in-built?
  • Second, is this a smart move by Cryptic to allow the thousands of individuals with their creative skill sets to contribute to the evolving world, or is this simply clever way to mask the fact that they developers have no idea what the player base wants in terms of content, so they are conveniently handing over the reigns to said players?

The first question, lo and behold, was answered in the same post. All user-generated content will be properly reviewed and subject to intense scrutiny by both the player base and the developers before it makes it onto the live servers. Good strategy, there should be a comprehensive check and balances system to ensure only the best of the very best makes it to the live servers. But then the question becomes, what if the best of the best simply isn’t good enough? Does it automatically get in because there simply isn’t anything better? On a personal level I am quite excited about this step, because I believe the player base can best design (or at the very least inform) content that it wants to engage in itself. However, I look at half-finished, unpolished, and at times downright botched work from Cryptic earlier, and I fear that this little experiment will go so awry, no other developer will ever attempt it again.

This isn’t the first time user-generated content has made rounds of the MMO world. Several WoW addons allow you to create in-game quests to (re)enact events or forge entirely new adventures. Though the use is primarily restricted to RP, such as the excellent 4.01 compatible Verisimilar addon for WoW, it goes to show there is interest in the community for community generated content.

The second questions, however, remains a mystery. If my review of the Blood Moon Halloween event (exactly a year ago to the date) is any indication, Cryptic has never been particularly good at adding content to their games. So perhaps by handing over the driving seat to the player base, they will be able to garner interest that their own content development team failed to illicit. It also means that they can add content to their title, apparently completely free of cost, since I sincerely doubt players will be rewarded monetarily for generating content that makes it to the live servers. I suppose time will tell the true merit of this bold move, and I for one hope its to get the community involved in the project, and not because the folks at Cryptic have run their idea well dry.

If implemented correctly, I think it can be a defining moment in the ongoing MMO evolution. Imagine you gather atop a hill with your friends. Your guild master, an aged veteran of countless wars is briefing you about the undead plague that has spread though the country farmlands in the past week, and how you must use overwhelming numbers to charge and eradicate every undead soul in your path till nothing is left standing in your wake. As a reward, you will get guild points that you can use to purchase things from the guild bank, or repair your equipment. The GM is your quest master and your raid leader rolled into one. And then you charge, axes and swords and battle-hammers raised high, playing out a user-generated event with in-game buddies for in-game fame, glory, and some form of user-generated currency.

I think that would be a helluva lot of fun, so at least for going boldly where no studio has gone before, I salute the team at Cryptic for their audacity and willingness to take risks.

“Massively Sneaky” or “Cryptic’s Cryptic History”

March 19, 2010 5 comments

Massively, in their regular segment The Daily Grind, asked players what they thought of Cryptic, developers of the superhero simulator Champions Online and the space-based Star Trek Online. You can find the user comments here. Here are some interesting snippets:

  • “After 3 MMOs, I firmly believe that they do not make good games. I think of them as the “bench players” and BioWare or Blizzard are the “star players”.” – gerkshz. [Bronte: I agree with the fact that they don’t make good games for the MMO genre. But I think it is unfair to compare them to BioWare. Although Star Wars has a rabid following and astronomical hype, I still don’t think it is fair to judge a book by its cover. Especially if that book isn’t out yet!]
  • “They are good at giving players customization options and individuality. They are bad at putting in interesting content to keep those individuals engaged. They are good at making visually appealing worlds. They are bad at hiding the real reason they make their games is to squeeze every penny they can out of you.” – FrostPaw. [Bronte: I think this encapsulates my feelings on Cryptic the best. Cryptic is all about sticking to harsh development schedule without paying nearly enough attention to what the players may want. Also, although I only played Star Trek Online beta, I think this review from PC Gamer sums up my experiences with the MMO the best.]
  • “Cryptic are the “own brand diet cola” of dev houses in my experience. They make pretty enough games, but seem convinced that writing a handful of missions and then vaguely re-skinning them is enough to keep people long term. It’s not, and at least for me I’d rather go back to “the real thing” after a couple of months in a Cryptic game (CoX, CO, STO… the similarities are glaring… and not in a good way).” – whitcombe. [Bronte: This is precisely the kind of thing I addressed in my experience with Champions Online on Are We New At This. Read up on some of my past posts on CO here.]
  • “When Cryptic makes a mistake (and they do that often) they hold up their hands and admit to it. A lot of other MMO companies could learn from this.” – Renko. [Bronte: I agree. Cryptic may push unpolished content out the door, be insidious when it comes to squeezing every dime out of your pocket and may provide uninspiring gameplay and rehashed content, but they always admit their mistakes. That being said, what’s the point in accepting a mistake and having an open dialogue on it, if the next iteration suffers from the same inherent issues?]
  • “I think Cryptic needs to take their in their development and not rush. Two years of development for STO is not enough, they need another three or four years to develop the game. For Champions, maybe another two or three years. Both of those games still feels like it’s in alpha and beta.” – Vlo. [Bronte: That is one of the biggest concerns I had with CO. It always felt like the product was in beta stage, being tested live, but with paying subscribers.]
  • “Personally, I think they make solid games but not good subscription MMOs – nothing they’ve made (including CoH) has had any lasting appeal for me.” – Vulturion. [Bronte: Again I have to agree here. Champions Online could have been a great single player (or even multi player) game. It had decent lore, an incredible costume creation tool, and other innovative elements. However, it was a terrible MMO. Social interaction was limited, you could solo 95%+ of the content and the zone chats were densely populated with crickets.]
  • “Having experienced Cryptic at its finest, I will never waste my money on a cryptic product ever again.

    (I) Massive game changing patch with no warning => i.e. the infamous Champions Online launch day patch. Way to break player trust from the very beginning.

    (II) Perception of greed. Full sub + item shop for a game that offers significantly less launch content at launch than its competitors? Now that’s just silly. Every announcement about cryptic seems to be another money grubbing news item, Charging for ‘mini expansions’ which most other games include in the cost of subscriptions, charging for races like the Klingons and Ferengi, what a public relations nightmare.

    (III) The perceived firing of Community managers. Once upon a time Cryptic had a pair of very excellent community managers. In spite of seeming to receive contradictory messages from their superiors, they worked very very hard and maintained a positive outlook. Then one day they disappeared without warning! What did the big bad Cryptic do to them? We will never know children. we’ll never know.

    (IV) Lack of content. One should never have to chose between grinding mobs or completing every single quest in the game. *cough* Champions

    (V) Some bugs should be caught and addressed quickly. If you have a bug that causes player mail to be eaten, it really should not still exist two months after launch.

    (VI) Dismissive attitude towards players => certain Devs are more responsible for this than others.

    I’m just going to stop the list right there. I went from a player who had been following STO from its development at Perpetual and prepared to plop down the cash for a lifetime sub product unseen, to someone who will never touch another Cryptic product ever again. If the two months that I played out of my 6 month Champions online subscription was worth anything, it taught me two things: That first that customization is something that every MMO company should put more effort into, the second is that I now know the true value and quality of a Cryptic product.” – marquis.montrose. [Bronte: I think this guy absolutely nails it. Well said sir!]

“The Needs of the Many” or “Lore: Delayed”

December 3, 2009 2 comments

The more I find out about Star Trek Online, the more I am excited. I have been critical of the game’s set-in-stone and seemingly rushed deadline, and especially critical of the developer, Cryptic Studios. But I have been a fan of the IP for as long as I can remember, and maybe my subconscious mind is perpetuating the notion that this may, in fact, be a good thing.

I have been closely monitoring the flood of information and media collateral coming out of the Cryptic camp, but one piece of news struck me as very odd. Via Massively, it turns out that there will be a novel tie-in to the MMO’s launch. Penned by Star Trek veteran author Michael A. Martin, the book will be called “Star Trek Online: The Needs of the Many”. The novel will be available March 30, 2010, nearly two months after the February 2, 2010 MMO release date.

Don’t watch the clip below if you haven’t seen Wrath of Khan (shame on you!). But if you don’t care about spoilers, go on ahead.

I am excited about the book just because of the title alone. But it begs a few questions:

  • Why release it nearly two months after the launch of the MMO? Surely you want to set up the events that lead to the game prior to the game launch?
  • The above is void if there is no correlation between the two, and if there isn’t, why have the tie-in the first place?
  • If there is a tie-in, will the two month delay in the book’s release, juxtaposed against the events in the game, make the book pointless? In short, it seems almost as if the apparently rushed deadline might screw up the prospects for the tie-in novel.
  • Nimoy’s Spock made a return in Star Trek 11, despite the time line shifts and the rewriting of the universe’s history. I wonder if he continues to play a crucial role in the book and /or the game. I mean that is one of the most memorable (albeit socialist) quotes from the Vulcan!

I suppose time will tell. I will keep my fingers crossed. I mean, after all, William Shattner is not authoring the books… *shudder*…

Categories: Opinion, Star Trek Online

They Said Whaaaat?: “Roper Talks Sense” or “Launch Day Blues”

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

As skeptic as I am of the upcoming Star Trek Online by Cryptic Studios, this gives me hope:

“The biggest impact was that there was a lot of outcry when it happened and this leaked into reviews – even from editors that never played in the head-start time period. It was something we had to do for the good and longevity of the game, but trust us – with Star Trek we’ll have a LOT more people in the beta near the end to better test the global experience and difficulty curves.”
– Bill Roper, MMOCrunch: An Interview with Cryptic’s Bill Roper, re: Lessons learnt from the launch of Champions Online.

They Said Whaaaat?: “The Neverending Story” or “Additional ‘Ship’ping Costs”

November 17, 2009 Leave a comment

“We’re definitely planning to add more and more ships to the game as we move on. It’s the nice part about designing an MMO – it’s never really finished.” – Cryptic, responding to additional ship types in Star Trek Online, post-launch.

*facepalm*

Could have been put better I suppose…

“Darth Kirk” or “Jean-Luc Kenobi”

November 11, 2009 4 comments

Over the course of last week, plenty of news came out of the BioWare and Cryptic camps regarding their upcoming space-age MMOs.

Going Online Where No Star Trek MMO Has Gone Before

Star Trek Online will be released on February 2, 2009. This is very disturbing for me. Please understand that when I say I am a Star Trek fan, I don’t mean I liked John Cho reprise the role of Sulu as a Katana-wielding martial artist. I mean I own every episode of every series (except the animated one), and I have read all Star Trek books, including all volumes of TOS and yes, the narcissistic verbal diarrhea from William Shattner masquerading as works of literature.

I have been fairly blunt in my criticism of Champions Online in the last month or so. The game grew on me post-launch in unexpected ways. But the sheer lack of polish, compounded by the plethora of bugs / design flaws have taken their toll. I last logged in on Halloween, made this post about the sorry state of affairs in the game, and I haven’t gone back since. Of course it doesn’t help that I have WoW’s upcoming patch, EvE’s every changing world of political and regional conflict, Dragon Age’s anti-heroes and Borderlands’ cell-shaded, head-splattering goodness to keep me from it.

But I digress. Cryptic pushed out Champions Online on a strict deadline. Frankly that is commendable, considering the industry is notorious for development, publishing and release date delays. But there is a fine line between sticking to the deadline, and compromising content and design elements to satisfy the production timeline. In their bid to enter the fray during an economic downturn, Cryptic ended up relinquishing quality over release date rigidity. Blood Moon, the highly anticipated mini-event, aside from the incredibly fun PvP elements, was an unpolished, grind-infested and ill-designed abomination that may have turned away more players than it attracted.

It simply may be because the economy is in such a terrible condition, the only way for these studios is to push content out quickly and make the quick bucks to keep afloat. And I can certainly sympathize. Most recently Mythic fired 80 employees, which allegedly makes up 40% of the workforce directly responsible for 90% of the content. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts cut 1,500 jobs. What that says for the state of the gaming industry and the MMO arena in particular remains to be seen. But the need to rush content is no excuse for some of the sloppy and downright careless work we have seen so far. In retrospect, it is sad how these little elements, which individually would have had negligible impact, now stand between me and another $15 for Cryptic, to play an otherwise exciting and adrenaline-pumping title.

So when I hear that merely four months after the release of Champions Online, the studio has a set-in-stone deadline for Star Trek Online, my heart sinks. The true tragedy of the matter is that my loyalty to the IP will likely force me to pick it up and play it, that maybe I will find a diamond in the rough. The initial impressions have been quite positive, so I remain hopeful. And hope (no, not love), is what makes the world go around.

Perpetual Entertainment, the studio that had been working on Star Trek Online for four years, shut down in 2008. On January 15, 2008, production was moved to Cryptic. Star Trek Online was officially announced on July 28, 2008. Last week, the release date was set as February 2, 2010.Technically, at release time, the game would have been almost six years in development. Cryptic is responsible for two of those years. So for all the criticism Cryptic has faced recently, maybe Star Trek Online will become the genre-bending space MMO that I have craved since the days of Earth and Beyond.

Pros and Cons:

  • (+) It’s Star Trek, and you get to be the captain of a ship
  • (+) 6-year long development title; Cryptic has spent over two years working on the game
  • (+) Cryptic already has an MMO launch under their belt
  • (+) You get to fight on ground in away teams and in space in tactical ship battles
  • (+) The game promises to build a lot of nostalgic lore moments from the series into the world
  • (-) Cryptic‘s track record for quality control and polished content isn’t exactly noteworthy
  • (-) Content past release has been sloppy, repetitive and uninspiring
  • (-) Like Champions Online, many features that sound exciting “might” be part of the game, like a Galactic, dynamic economy

Star Wars: Ye Old Republic

BioWare, normally, rests at the other end of the spectrum for me. I am, in many ways, their unpaid mascot. The news coming out of this camp has been quite heartening. Bear in mind that although I own every Star Wars movie, and have read quite a few of the tightly structured novels set in the universe, I am not as big a fan of the series as I am of Star Trek. So it goes a long way to show the studio’s credibility if I am still looking forward to the MMO.

For anyone who has played more than a few hours of Dragon Age: Origins on a high-end PC knows the game looks breathtaking. The first major skirmish between the King’s army and the Darkspawn horde gave me goosebumps in a warm, cozy, well-lit, room. Suffice it to say that BioWare is very well ahead of the curve when it comes to graphics and technology.

Yet, last week, they invested in a new occlusion culling technology from Umbra. In layman’s terms, the technology keeps track of what a player is actively looking at, and reduces the graphical intensity and polygon count of the unseen parts of the environment. This reduces the strain on the processor, freeing it up for more complexity and graphical richness in the immediately visible area.

Second, a new novel was announced that details the story behind the MMO. The release date is July 27, 2010, a full eight and a half months away. It would be natural to assume the MMO would be released after this date, ergo, the MMO is at least nine months away

Third, There will be no initial testing for the mac. This is great news. I hate macs. Justin Long can get bent.

Finally the Imperial Agent class was revealed by BioWare. I believe only two classes remain unknown at this stage.

If Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect were to serve as examples, we know that this is only the beginning of a torrential downpour that will form a flood of marketing collateral, eager to devour all in its path. We are barely seeing a trickle right now. You have been forewarned.

Pros and Cons:

  • (+) It’s Star Wars
  • (+) It’s BioWare
  • (+) Stellar storytelling; 12 full-time writers, some of whom have been writing for the project for well over 2 years
  • (+) Compelling morality dynamics in that Jedis aren’t necessarily righteous and pure, and Sith aren’t exactly evil or corrupt
  • (+) Its a fresh foray into an old IP. There is no reference to the movies, the game is set millenniums prior to the events in the Lucas films.
  • (-) Its a fresh foray into an old IP. There is no reference to the movies, the game is set millenniums prior to the events in the Lucas films. (See what I did there?)
  • (-) It’s over-hyped. Granted BioWare always lives up to the hype, but this is a colossal IP, and brings with it quite a rabid fan base. Any faceplants may be back-breakers.

Ominous Statement

Time will tell… only time. And Metacritic.

“Buck Bang” or “Immersed in Walls of Text”

October 21, 2009 6 comments

One of the coolest things about Star Wars: The Old Republic is that every in-game individual, be it a playing character or an NPC, will be fully voiced. Apparently that is too much work for Cryptic Studios, who’s first MMO, Champions Online, has recently come under some criticism from the blogger community.

“It adds something to the game, but I don’t think that VO-ing all of your text provides for that big a bang for the buck in terms of immersion.”
Craig Zinkievich, Executive Producer, Star Trek Online

I couldn’t disagree more. As a gamer, immersion is one of the core elements that attracts me to any game. Syp over at Biobreak has already commented on how NPCs in MMOs seem to always have their feet glued to the ground. This in effect works against the immersion factor tremendously and causes the player to be subliminally aware of the static and stagnant nature of the individuals he or she is interacting with.

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I believe the same logic applies to in-game voice overs. Not to belabor the obvious, but you will never walk up to your friend who needs your help moving, only for him to hold up a placard with a wall of text explaining why he needs your help and the logistics involved therein. Voice overs create a unique and stylized sense of immersion. The NPC you are interacting is no longer a cluster of 3D pixels and animation with no personality and no depth. That NPC now has a voice, an agenda and is now a vibrant part of the game world.

What’s more troubling is the rest of Mr. Zinkievich’s statement:

“What we want to make sure we do is be able to have a pipeline, is be able to make content and get that content out to the player as soon as possible after launch, and continue to update the game and continue to do things to the game. Putting that big huge VO section right in that pipeline makes things a little bit more difficult in terms of getting content out.”
Craig Zinkievich, Executive Producer, Star Trek Online

The statement above effectively tells me that the Star Trek Online team is more worried about adhering to strict deadlines than being focused on providing players with a feature-rich immersive world. The pipeline and associated deadlines exist for a reason, yes, but if that reason violates the sense of association with the player or shatters the illusion of it being a ‘living world’, then that pipeline needs to be revamped.

“Very Funny Scotty, Now Beam Down my Pants!” or “Picard > Kirk”

October 20, 2009 4 comments

Cryptic Studios, a new contender in the MMO arena, is currently neck-deep in three MMOs.

The first is is Champions Online, that I have been writing about quite extensively over the last week or so.

very-funny-scotty-now-beam-down-my-pants-or-picard-gt-kirkThe second is Star Trek Online. Criag Zinkievich, Star Trek Online’s executive producer has recenly confirmed to Videogamer.com that Federation ships will ship (lame pun intended) sometime in early 2010. Anyone who was present for the launch phase of Champions Online has Vietnam-esque flashbacks to the game-breaking changes that were introduced on launch day and beyond. Let’s hope the launch of the studio’s first MMO was a major learning experience and the quality of Star Trek Online is not sacrificed in the name of maintaining said deadline.

Without giving you the date, which I’m not allowed to give out or else the marketing people will come and smack me in the back of the head, I can tell you that the game will be out the first quarter of 2010.
Craig Zinkievich, Executive Producer, Star Trek Online

Cryptic Studios also has a third, as-yet-unrevealed MMO in the works. The screenshots, found here, offer no conclusive clue. But it sure looks cool!