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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.

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“What MMOs Can Learn From Red Dead Redemption” or “Emotionally Penalized”

June 30, 2010 9 comments

Preface

I have been playing red Dead Redemption lately. The statistics tell me I have finished “18.6%” of the game. Note that this number isn’t necessarily a reflection of the main storyline. It is a figure designed for completionists like me, that will obsessively fuss over the smaller tasks and side-games to ensure they get that precious, oh so precious, 100% completion statistic!

Thought: Why do we never see random world encounters in MMOs?

Spinks has a post up today that spoke about activities your character engages in between organized group activity sessions. One of the bullet points listed was as follows:

“The origin of our grinds is not just to keep people playing but to answer the question, so what does your character do when they aren’t killing dragons?

  • Maybe they just like wandering the world (not really much to do in most MMOs here.)
  • …”

This got me thinking: why is it that in MMOs, you go to specific locations to accomplish specific objectives only? Whether its a world boss, or a quest, or a daily, or a dungeon, you take the shortest path to the location, completely ignoring anything and everything else between point A and point B. What is the fun in a persistent online world if everything can be found on WoWHead or (the now-defunct) Thottbot, before you even attempt to do it, where everything is explicitly and exactly laid out? Why is it that no MMO (that I know of) has randomly generated world events for players to participate in? For if that were the case, maybe more players would actively engage in world exploration and wandering, beyond questing for the first time.

Red Dead Random

Red Dead redemption has a fantastic storyline and stellar voice-acting. But beyond the central narrative, as is the case with most Rockstar Games, you can take on a wide range of missions and side-activities either for monetary gain or social stature (fame or infamy). Some of these activities have to be sought out, such as “kill 5 Coyotes before they harm you”. But there are several missions that pop out of the blue as you are horseback riding your way through the countryside. You are at complete liberty to accept the mission (no prompt or anything, you can just choose to participate in the action), ignore it altogether, or shoot the mission starter in the face if that is what pleases you.

Let us take an example of some missions I have come across in Red Dead Redemption and juxtapose them against counterparts quests in an MMO, specifically WoW.

The Kidnapping – Red Dead Redemption

I am riding on my horse down the dirt-path carved into the terrain by frequent travelers. I am minding my own business, on my way to meet a new contact who goes by the name of Irish. I am contemplating if I should just fast-travel to the location; in retrospect, I am glad I didn’t exercise that option. You’ll see why in just a second. Suddenly, I hear someone in the distance say:

“Please sir, would you help me? They’ve taken my wife!”

I pause, wondering if this was a mission marker that I missed on my map. The rider who has sought my help turns up as a blue circle on my mini-map. As I contemplate my response to this stranger’s query, he simply takes off in one direction, eager to get to his wife. As the blue circle grows distant, I get a message on my screen suggesting I follow the rider. I think a second longer and decide to follow the poor guy, and see what this random encounter has in store for me.

The man rides at top speed down bushy knolls and grass highlands for a little bit, and then he stops short of a posse of hooligans. His wife sits atop a horse, with a noose around her neck. Before I can even so much as gauge the situation, a firefight breaks out. I take out my trusty Winchester Repeater, and over the next few seconds, gun down the three perpetrators.

Then I realize I was too slow. They have already killed the husband, who lays crumpled next to his dead horse. I look over at the wife. The shooting has scared off the horse atop which she sat, and she is hanging from the tree branch. I panic. I run over to her increasingly limp body, but even as I am closing the distance I get a message on-screen that says matter-of-factly: “The victim has died.”

I am utterly devastated. Had I been a few seconds faster, both in the decision to follow the man and in the shootout, I could have saved their lives. I know they are digital beings in an artificial world, but the sense of loss is still palpable.

I came across this encounter a second and then a third time. The second time I ignored it altogether, because it was late and I just wanted to finish one last story mission before calling it a night. The third time I immediately followed the man, this time to a different location, with the kidnappers using a cart as cover, and the wife already hanging. I managed to save the husband, but the wife perished. The husband collapsed at the hanging, limp body of his wife and wailed.

A few things to remember:

  • The mission was completely optional
  • If you chose to take on the quest, you simply followed the husband, there was no mission log to keep track of the mission, and no prompt saying that you were now on this mission. In fact, you could abandon course at any point and just go your way if you so chose.
  • There were multiple outcomes: you could save both husband and wife; you could save just the wife; you could save just the husband
  • In any of the scenarios above, you weren’t penalized for failing (unless you take into account being emotionally penalized); if you failed, that family was dead, you were responsible for it, and there was nothing you could do to change that

The Kidnapping – World of Warcraft

Here is how WoW handles the same quest. There is a quest giver that is always found in the same exact location. In order to take on the kidnapping quest, you have to go to the quest-giver, you won’t come across the quest-giver at random. The quest is formally accepted, and shows up in your quest log. You are now officially tasked with the rescue of the fair damsel. The husband quest-giver does not accompany you, he does not lead the charge to get his beloved wife back. He just stands there, expressionless, leaving the responsibility to you.

In fact, you are not the only person he sends to save his wife, he sends along anyone and everyone who approaches him.

You go to the location where the wife is being held. The location is static and never changes. You could repeat the quest with 10 other characters, the same wife will always be in peril and be found in the same exact location. Why does she always get kidnapped? Why do the kidnappers never learn and change locations?

There may be the possibility of you failing the quest in case the wife dies. If that happens, you can simply abandon the quest, go back to the quest-giver, and he will give you the same quest as if nothing ever happened to her. You can go back to the mission location, and there she is, magically resurrected from the dead!

If you succeed, you either escort the wife to the husband, or she runs away, apparently to reunite with her husband. You never see her again. Even when you go back to the quest-giver, she is nowhere to be seen or found. And the husband continues to stand there, never moving, almost as if he is expecting the next kidnapping to happen any second, yet he does nothing to stop it.

The Juxtaposition

Let us construct a table.

Red Dead Redemption World of Warcraft
Mission is optional Mission is optional
There is no mission in your mission log There is a quest in your quest log
The mission-starter is randomly generated The quest-giver is always found in a static location and the location never changes
The objective’s location is randomly generated The objective’s location is static and the location never changes
Tactical situation varies (cart being used as cover; more vs . less kidnappers) Tactical situation remains the same
Failure has consequences; the family dies permanently; there are emotional consequences though Failure has zero consequence, you simply hit the reset button
You can partially succeed or partially fail You can only succeed or fail
Whether you fail or succeed, it is highly unlikely you will come across the same couple again in the same situation If you succeed, you will find the same quest-giver in the same place, offering the same quest, with the same damsel in distress in the same location

The question then becomes: why can’t more MMO developers introduce more open-world gaming to their titles? Why must everything be static, pre-determined, fated to occur in the same exact manner for all eternity (or at least till Deathwing comes along and fucks things up for everyone!)

There is an inherent fallacy in MMOs. As a powerful champion in the world, you are supposed to be able to create a meaningful and lasting impact, saving the world time and again from endless threats and predicaments. Yet your actions seem to have zero impact on the physical world.

  • That village you saved by killing the 10 wolves nearby is still under threat from said wolves.
  • That Deathlord you vanquished still taunts denizens from the depths of his dungeon.
  • Even the wife you rescued is never reunited with her husband because she is suddenly and inexplicably kidnapped again by the same group of miscreants you just dispatched.

It is ironic that MMOs are designed to give the player a feeling of power and control over the world, yet the world utterly fails to show any signs of a positive (or negative for that matter) impact by the player. Every threat remains. Every wolf still howls at the gates. Every damsel is in perpetual distress.

I long for the day when they craft an MMO experience that mimics the random world encounters of Red Dead Redemption. Till then, I suppose John Marston will continue to handle the discrepancy.

“Why Lore Matters” or “Frostlord in Midsummer?”

June 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The Midsummer Festival in Azeroth is coming to an end. It is a 10-day long affair, that has players travel far and wide to pay homage to their own faction locations, while desecrating the festivities of the opposing factions. There is also torch juggling, torch tossing, and of course torch selling (I have made over 700 Gold just selling those beautiful torches!) But what I find most interesting is that the event also has you battle it out against a seasonal boss: Ahune the Frostlord. Wait a second, Frostlord? That’s a little strange, considering the festival is spanksville for pyromaniacs with all its flames and fires.

Although I know why Ahune is the boss during the Midsummer event, I realize that I am likely in the rapidly diminishing minority in a generation of instant gratification that focuses on barreling through the objective and ignores the lore. I am the minority that actually carefully reads quest text to try and enjoy the subtle nuances and side-stories that make up the worlds we so cherish. I am in the minority that is moved by an emotional tale of a Deathknight having to slaughter a woman who once held him as a baby. I am the minority that gives a damn about the story, the narrative and why we are trudging through this damp, dark dungeon slicing and dicing through Ahune, the Frostlord That No One Really Cares About.

The tale of Ahune is complex and deeply entrenched in lore. Trouble is afoot in the realm, and sinister forces conspire to bring about an event of devastating proportions. The elaborate quest series starts with a simple task: “Unusual Activity”. You travel to the distant Zoram Strand in Ashenvale Forest, and exact your wrath on puny Twilight Cultists that you can slice through like a hot knife through butter. And why shouldn’t you? They are about 60 levels lower than you!

The objective is to try and find a clue, some indication as to what the Twilight Cult is up to, and therefore figure out a strategy to stop it from happening. After conducting a small genocide, one of the cultists drops the Twilight Correspondence”. Right-clicking this item in your inventory reveals the following:

“Loyal servants of the elemental lords, OUR TIME IS NOW.

Too long we have languished in the shadows, biding our time, serving our masters, seeking the end we know must come. Now, as the flames of Ragnaros’ Appeasement burn brightly through the night, we have in our grasp the tools to incite war and chaos on a cataclysmic scale!

The Firelord is imprisoned in our world. He is not at his full power, but his might is formidable. Given an equally formidable opponent in this realm, the resulting clash would begin the great elemental war that will bring about the end we have sought.

In Neptulon’s service is a great frost lord by the name of Ahune. Even now he is marshalling his power to wage war against Ragnaros. All he requires is a gateway into our world; a gateway we will provide. We have the allies. We have the location. We have the strength and the will.

Final negotiations with our new faithful allies and guests will be conducted in a safe, out of the way location northwest of our primary location in Ashenvale.

Before this “festival” of the ignorant masses comes to a close, Ahune shall face Ragnaros in the shadow of Blackrock. The world will quake with the forces unleashed.

All our toils have worked toward this moment. Our masters will rise against one another in one glorious battle that will tear Azeroth asunder.

We live in the end times, my brothers. Hold to your tasks. Strive on. We will soon be triumphant!”

The message talks of one of Neptulon’s servants, a Frostlord by the name of Ahune, and shadowy allies that convene to plot the end of the world. The cultists are of the opinion that if they can have Ahune and Ragnaros face off in a battle of titanic proportions, it will bring about a calamitous battle that will rip Azeroth asunder, and thus fulfill the Cult’s mission. Using the Totemic Beacon in your inventory, you then call the Earthen Ring Guide, and share what you have just discovered. The Guide gives you the Orb of the Crawler, an items that transforms your physical being into an innocent-looking crab, and asks you to spy on the conversation between the cultists and their unknown counterparts nearby. The unknown allies turn out to be the ever-nefarious naga, and eavesdropping on the conversation reveals some crucial information:

This confirms the correspondence obtained earlier. The naga are working with the Twilight Cultists to bring Ahune into this plane, have him clash with the Firelord Ragnaros, and bring about total annihilation for Azeroth. A naga called Skar’this leads the effort to summon the Frostlord in the depths of the Slave Pens. As the conversation suggests, some ice stones are being used to ensure Ahune’s arrival is smooth and untoward-event-free. The Earthen Ring Elder in the capital city asks you to travel to the Dark Portal in Hellfire Peninsula, for it is there that the ice stones are being put to use. You are dispatched to the location to use the ice stone, summon one of Ahune’s templar protectors, and slay him in the hopes of forestalling the Frostlord.

You do as you are commanded, but apparently it has limited effect, for the next and final chain in the puzzle involves taking the fight to the Frostlord himself, and trying to protect the end of the world by any means necessary:

And that is the reason you get to slay a Frostlord in the middle of the Midsummer celebrations, and a powerful reminder for why lore matters and how much it drives the overall narrative.

Honestly: how many of you actually followed this story? And how many of you just engaged in endless slaughter for the new shiny epix? [Poll above!]

“Mighty Morphin Power Orphans” or “That Orphans’ Got More Gold Than I Do!”

May 5, 2010 2 comments

World of Warcraft is an expansive universe… and perhaps due to its sheer scale, it can be a little strange. It is a world where the primary means of fighting are with swords and maces and axes and daggers and wands and… guns? it is a world where you travel by horses and bears and griffins and proto-drakes and… choppers? It is a fantasy universe of might and magic and arcanum and ancient prophecies and… spacecrafts? The point is, although the level of anachronism WoW is capable of can be confusing at times, there are elements in the game that go beyond time and space irregularities.

Take the world events for instance. These days it is Children’s Week, where you sponsor an orphan and take him around to see the world and accomplish various (ridiculous) achievements. But there are a few things that throw me off.

First, isn’t it just a little offensive to call your orphan using a whistle, like you would with a pet? Here boy! Come and get it! And as the item description suggests itself, you have agreed to look after that orphan. So shouldn’t you keep the kid in your sight at all times? Why do you have to constantly use a whistle to gain the kid’s attention? Maybe the kid has some serious ADD issues?

Second, how come my orphan can offer me oodles of gold for the plethora of quests (between 6-7 quests, depending on which orphan you got), as a reward for every location I take him to. How does he have access to so much gold? Where does he even keep all this gold? Is this orphanage some sort of elaborate scam? Sucker you in with the promise of some achievements, only to con you out of all your savings, forcing you to mortgage your house, sell your time-share and trade in that Prius for a 10-year old Subaru? Are the kids really not orphans? What the hell is going on man?

Third, as is the case with most companion pets, my orphan can run at the blazing speed of my 120% speed land mount (Crusader Aura: na-na-nana-na!) That is an incredible skill! Where we regular mortals need ground mounts to achieve that sort of speed, these little guys can muster enough energy our of their legs to accomplish the same feat. And if the kid is so agile and dexterous now, how much more powerful will he be once he grows up?

"Help! I'm being chased by an orphan!"

“Eggcelent Suggestion” or “The Definition of Insanity”

April 6, 2010 3 comments

What is the definition of insanity? Doing something over and over again with no difference in the outcome of your actions. Such is the main objective of the Noblegarden festival in World of Warcraft, an MMO I have played for a long time, and that I just subscribed to again.

While loading back in and tweaking with a few mods, I decided to check out the festivities associated with the Noblegarden event. If you would like an excellent guide on the in-game event, you can find one here. Since the most critical aspect of this event is gathering eggs, you can find a guide for quickly accumulating those eggs here.

Inspired by this last post from WoW.com and through my in-game experiences with the event, I would advise all egg-hunters to camp the following spot in Goldshire. You basically need to go to Goldshire, go around the outside of the inn, and find a little nook on the southeastern side of the building.

The left circle is where the entrance is. The right circle is where you want to be.

If you stand where I am standing in the attached screenshots, you can click on four egg spawns without having to move. A fifth one (requiring you to move) is just a little to your right.

Click to enlarge. The while circles are egg spawn points.

The spot also has the added advantage of being in the digital confines of the inn, so you will be seen as “resting” by the game in this spot, and if you logout, it will be instantaneous, instead of having to wait for 20 seconds. Enjoy!