Flourishing Communites

No Longer Mainstream

This morning I am struggling more than a bit to find a topic to write about.  I keep coming back to a conversation last night on teamspeak regarding our identification or lack thereof with the term “gamer”.  One of my friends talked about how he has slowly distanced himself from the title because it no longer really offered anything in way of meaning for him.  It no longer really clearly identified his interests.  I guess to some extent I am no longer a mainstream gamer either if you really think about it.  When there is a big show like E3 It is evident that I no longer care about the games that seem to get the most press like the Call of Duty or Battlefield franchises.  Granted there was a time where I was happy to throw money at both of these, but that time has passed.

Instead I tend to focus on the games that give me the most freedom to inhabit the worlds.  The narrative game play experience is still fun on occasion but the games I tend to play every night offer some way for me to inhabit them.  The top franchises seem to be mostly about fighting against other players, whereas I want to cooperate and collaborate with them in creating social environments.  The thing that keeps me tied to Final Fantasy XIV right now is just how vibrant and alive the community is, and how easy it has been to find the social strata I have craved.  It is something that has just been lacking from other games I have played in the last few years, and I am not really sure why exactly it is lacking.

Flourishing Communities

I wish I knew why that sense of community flourishes in some games but not others.  I think in part it is due to isolation from the more negative forces of the internet.  The games that have had some of the best environments, have also been games that I felt where under appreciated.  In Everquest II the Antonia Bayle server community is amazing, and has a thriving role-playing and community event presence.  Similarly in Lord of the Rings Online the Landroval community is equally amazing, and offers everything from casual concerts at the Prancing Pony to intricate community events.  In both cases these are games that are not pulling in the big attention and I think the end result causes a much more tight knit and insular community.  Similarly Final Fantasy XIV has been somewhat isolated from the mainstream and developed a community that flourishes around a love of the game.

So I guess my pondering is, do these communities thrive because the mainstream gamer has shunned them?  I’ve literally seen some of my more mainstream friends turn their noses up visibly when I have mentioned I was playing Everquest 2, or Lord of the Rings Online…  and I am sure the same would be the case with Final Fantasy XIV.  In the case Final Fantasy XIV there is still a lot of bad blood out there surrounding the failure that was 1.0.  In the case of the others, I think it is mostly because they were “not WoW”.  I am beginning to be of the opinion that playing a second or third tier MMO is the best experience, pending you find a server that still has a thriving and active population.  The people that have stuck around there, do so for various reasons… but it often means that the community is well established and stable… and with a little effort welcoming to new comers.

Gamer Lacks Meaning

Now to drift back to the original discussion from last night about whether or not gamer is a meaningful term.  There was a time where that term meant something, a shared experience that became immediately relatable.   Now gaming in general has become so fragmented that just because someone self identifies as a gamer, doesn’t meant at all that you have any shared experiences.  I ran into this Wednesday at the funeral with my cousins.  There were four of us nephews… of us at one time or another have self identified as gamers.  However as we started to talk about them two of them immediately started talking about their latest call of duty exploits, and another pair of us started talking role playing games.  So when the term gaming was summoned it meant two vastly different things.  I still find myself unwilling to fully abandon the title of Gamer, even though most of the images that currently evokes no longer really represent me.

Maybe I have shifted my focus in the way my friend Tam has shifted to “Game Designer”.  Maybe the fact that I am now a “Game Blogger” better denotes my interest in gaming and my point of view on it all.  Even “MMO Gamer” probably does a far better job of representing my interests than “Gamer” does.  I think some of the discussion is about whether or not labels are important at all, and I think they are mostly.  Labels, especially one ones someone self identifies with are a kind of social shorthand.  It is like a sketch of the person that they want the world to see them as, and is meaningful in trying to align interests but not much more than that.  Once you get to know someone you learn their hopes, fears and aspirations… the labels stop being meaningful at all.  Prior to that however they act as a way to grease the wheels of interaction.  The problem with this however is that gamer is coming to represent something I do not support and do not want to be part of.  I would love to think that I could reform the title and bring it back to something just, pure and true…  but I think we have long crossed the point of no return and are now seeing the last death throes of “Gamer”.

Change is Scary

Gatekeeping a Hobby

Yesterday was one of those strange days where a lot of people were talking about the same ideas.  I was not privy to the original source that sparked the discussion, but several of my friends over twitter were talking about the definition of a “real gamer”.  It seems that someone was spouting off in their lack of knowledge that tablet and mobile gamers were in some way lesser gamers than the those on the console or PC.  This once again gets back to the definition of what exactly a gamer is.  Over on the Moderate Peril blog he questioned exactly why we need a label at all.  In other hobbies, you don’t see the attempt to exclude people the way that we do within gaming.

I am very much one of those people that wants to assemble as many awesome people from as many different points of view around me as I can.  As a result I am always open to new interpretations of what exactly gaming is.  While I am not a huge fan of mobile and tablet gaming, just because the types of games I enjoy playing do not translate well without physical controls… that doesn’t mean there are not actual gamers there as well.  If you boot up bejeweled while waiting on a bus, you are just as much of a gamer as someone who camps a rare spawn for 20 hours.  There have been times in the past that I found mobile gaming to be lacking, but at this point there are tons of really detailed games that you simply cannot get on any other platform.

After seeing Hearthstone on a tablet for example, I feel like any other platform is somehow lesser because of just how cleanly it works there.  After playing Carcassonne on my phone, it felt so natural and perfect to be playing a turn based board game that way.  The big area that I am seeing taking over the mobile markets is the various kinds of simulation games.  While it started out with things like Tiny Tower, it has involved into extremely detailed and lengthy games.  Similarly I can see a lot of role-playing games flourishing on the mobile markets.  All of these things are real games, played by real gamers.  Shouldn’t we be including everyone in our big happy family instead of trying to exclude them?

Change is Scary

The cynic in me wants to think that the exclusion comes from a form of gaming Hipsterism.  The realist in me however sees that it is pure and simple fear.  Change is a scary thing, and we get rooted in our own inertia of the way we think things ought to be.  This is the gaming equivalent of “I walked to school uphill both directions and I liked it”.  In order to stay a vibrant and interesting market it needs to adapt to trends.  While I deeply love the Fallout series for example, I don’t expect every game to be the Fallout series.  Additionally while I have certain things that I like to play, it is perfectly okay that things exist that I don’t want to play.  Guild Wars 2 has become somewhat of a whipping boy for me over the years as a way of explaining what I don’t want to play.  That said I love that it exists because it makes a large number of my friends excited and happy to be playing it.

Expecting everything to be custom tailored for you is the surest way to end up angry in the end.  It is like walking into a store and complaining that a red shirt isn’t blue enough for you.  If you don’t want to wear a red shirt, don’t buy a red shirt and then expect it to change into the color you want it to be.  If you are like me and don’t like sports games…  simply ignore the fact that the sports games exist and move on with your life.  If you want to spend your nights playing nothing but Japanese Role-Playing games then do that with your free time, but realize that there is still a lot of room for games in even that niche that you may not like.  As the video states… it is perfectly okay to not like things, but don’t be a dick about the things you don’t like.  There should always be room in our community for folks that don’t look, think, act or experience things in the same way as we do.

Harder Isn’t Better

Similar to all of the above, there was a second topic floating around that Liore specifically wrote about.  I guess the old argument had resurfaced that you aren’t a “real gamer” unless you are always playing everything on the hardest settings.  For starters I don’t even know what a “real gamer” is, because if you are playing games of any sort you are a gamer.  There is no sign that says you must be this tall to ride this ride.  Now granted it is perfectly okay for there to be skill checks in order to unlock certain things.  These give us challenge and something to push for.  That said when a person accomplishes said skill check, it does not immediately make them a better person than someone who didn’t.  I find it completely valid that some content be gated behind these skill check mechanics, but the sort of elitism and classism that surrounds them needs to die in a fire.

Similarly playing something on hard mode does not immediately make you a better person.  I personally mostly play games on medium to easy mode depending on what exactly I want from an experience.  More often than not I am playing a specific game because I want to experience the story, and while I enjoy the moment to moment game play I am not there because I want the rush of excitement from being able to twitch my controls at exactly the right moment over and over enough times to unlock a special achievement.  I just want to see the story through the point of view of the experiences of my character.  In these cases I absolutely play on easy mode, and I personally love it when a game is like Wolfenstein New Order and allows me to drop the difficulty on the fly in the middle of a game session if I encounter a roadblock.

“Twitch moments” are absolutely the number one thing that kills my gaming experience.  When I encounter a moment that is significantly harder than the rest of the game play surrounding it, that is often a roadblock that keeps me from completing the game.  In an MMO or a Role-Playing game I can wander about and level up or get significantly better gear to mitigate the difficulty.  In most single player games however I simply have to have faster reflexes.  While I realize I can train myself to have faster reflexes, years of not playing twitch games have caused me to dull significantly.  The problem is… most games are not worthy the time commitment it would take to improve.  I don’t generally find achievement getting fun, nor do I find repeating the same mission over and over until I finally grasp it.  One of two things happens, either I lower the difficulty and beat it… or I simply stop playing the game likely to never return to it.

So I ask you the question, am I no longer a gamer because I do this?  No and I feel like you would tend to agree or you wouldn’t be wasting your time reading my blog on a regular basis.  I am a gamer because I game, not because I live up to some artificial bar set by someone being elitist and exclusionary.  Gaming is about having fun, and if in the course of whatever you choose to do you are enjoying yourself… then mission accomplished.  While gaming is about the journey and not necessarily about the destination… anything that stalls you out along the path is a bad thing.  This is why I love mechanics like the Echo system in Final Fantasy XIV and the system that World of Warcraft has.  Where over a series of wipes you are slowly buffed until you can defeat the content, because it maintains bragging rights for the folks who don’t need the buff… but still allows things to be fully accessible by anyone else.  At the end of the day I am an easy mode gamer…  deal with it.

The Illusion of Choice

Before this past week, I had not really followed the news about the Mists of Pandaria expansion apart from a mention here or there in my RSS reader.  So now that I am leaving the wow-free zone that I have created for myself, I am trying to catch up on all the tidbits of progress.  I admit, when I first got wind of the expansion I was just as bitter and cynical as the rest of the “kung-fu panda and pokemon” complainers.  I am not sure if it is the long leave, or the news I am reading itself but I am looking forward to it.

Never a Real Choice

One of the big complaints that did manage to invade upon my fortress of wow-less solitude, was the “dumbing down” of the talent trees.  When I first heard the news, like a good chunk of my friends, I was full of rage over them needlessly simplifying a process that already worked “just fine”.  I bemoaned switching to a system that gave up choice in favor of “hand holding”.  My talent trees should be tall and full of many widgets to click on, the way they always were!

I have come to the realization that despite the “illusion of choice” and multiple options, in each tree there was really only one viable path.  There are roughly 68 DeathKnights in my guild, and apart from  no more than a 5 talent difference, each us has almost the exact same blood tanking build.  For each class, and each tree, there has always been one spec agreed upon by the community to be head and shoulders above the rest.  So while it always felt like we had tons of options, in reality if we wanted to play on any serious level, we were going to go with the agreed upon path.

The thing is, this has been the case in every game I have played that has some sort of a talent system.  Rift added a bit more depth to the system, but the same winning combos were there as well.  This was so much the case that between my times playing it, they have added this nifty system that tutors you through speccing into one of these agreed upon paths.  This was a breath of fresh air, since with 9 potential talent trees to juggle per class, plotting a course became extremely arcane.

Freedom to Fail

The point of view I have eventually come around to is one that I would have argued until I was blue in the face a few years back.  In the end, all having a talent tree does is really give a player a chance to screw their character up to the point of being unplayable.  I had a friend, who shall go unnamed that decided to try and build a “Jack of all Trades” hunter in vanilla WoW.  Instead of focusing on one tree and then some secondary talents, he spread his points out evenly trying to pick up the best all all the early talents.

The end result was a character that had no glaring weaknesses, but no real bonuses either.  He could solo just fine, but when it came to running dungeons he lacked the raw damage output needed to support a team effort.  Believe it or not, I have seen many people make this mistake over the years.  The freedom of picking talents, also gives you the freedom to make characters that simply don’t work.  Ultimately the designers have intended us from the start to try and reach those top tier talents. As such when a winning hybrid spec exists it usually gets “fixed” to restore the balance.

Less is More

So in returning to what outraged myself and others, at face value the Deathknight talents are going from 41 points to only 6 points.  Initially like everyone else I thought to myself, my god they are watering these classes down.  Last night I copied my Deathknight out to pandaland and quickly found out that my assumptions were completely wrong.  In truth the new system is going to give us far more personalization while still remaining viable.

Just like with Cataclysm, when you first open an empty talent tree you are asked to choose a specialization.  Previously this just gave you whatever the signature ability was for your class.  Keeping with the Deathknight analogy, choosing Blood gave me Heart Strike, Veteran of the Third War, Blood Rites, and Vengence.  However my talents gave me all the other abilities that made tanking as blood viable, namely all those handy “oh shit” cooldowns.

What it took me a long while to understand, is that in Mists of Pandaria, when you choose a specialization you are essentially receiving with one single click that previous “optimal spec”.  Instead of getting those signature abilities from before, I receive 17 active and passive abilities that made up the golden path everyone chose.  What this really does, that has never existed to this point is set a clear baseline of abilities that one can expect every possible spec to have.  This completely takes the guess work of whether or not a player has some critical ability out of the mix.

Fluffy Goodness

Basically the talent points are now a series of decisions that occur at level 15, 30, 45, 60, 75, and 90.  Each of these decisions changes the flavor of your abilities, or adds new functionality to your class.  When I switched my Deathknight from Human to Worgen, the thing I really missed was the Every Man for Himself racial.  Previously in Wrath it was not terribly difficult to build a viable tanking spec that included the ability Lichborne.  However in Cataclysm, you had to give up some high threat talents and utility to get it.

With the MoP talents at each level you are basically making a choice and in essence sacrificing other abilities.  Most of the tiers, for the classes I have seen all are similar abilities with a similar theme.  In the case of Lichborne, I can take it as my level 30 pick, but I am giving up on having Anti-Magic Zone and the brand new Purgatory ability.  None of the choices really take away from my viability, but each shapes the flavor of my character.

So while at face value it looks like you have less freedom, in reality I personally feel like I have more than ever.  I cannot count the number of times I have respecced just to change one or two points.  That was the only real control I had, and in general I have had less than 5 points that could realistically be juggled.  This time I am getting to make 6 choices, each of which has some pretty significant ramifications.  I can be a tank with Bladestorm, or a Deathknight with AOE Deathgrip (Gorefiend’s Grasp), or Combat Rogue with Shadowstep.  I get to make these fun choices knowing that I am not trading my viability for flavor.

Ode to the Trinity

I have to say I am honestly shocked after writing this all out, that I am really looking forward to the expansion.  I made as many catty comments about it as the next person, but the more I read about the changes the more I like.  The funny thing is, I know I am contradicting things I have said I wanted in the past.  I have seen enough of the “post-trinity” games that I know that I don’t really enjoy them.  At the end of the day, I really like having clearly defined roles.

The main problem I have had with abolishing the “trinity” is that without them I feel like I have no purpose.  While this is great for soloing, grouping in games like Guild Wars 2 has been sheer and total chaos.  The classes that generally get hurt the most are the melee, and those are the only thing I have ever been interested in playing.  I cannot be happy unless I am sinking a weapon in monster flesh.  Playing a “finger wiggler” just lacks the visceral quality that I crave.

So when I would try and take on a difficult/elite/etc encounter with group members, this little scenario would play out.  I would run in and begin to attack, sword and board in hand.  Sooner or later I would pull aggro, and begin trying to back out.  Ultimately I would fail at shedding aggro and die while trying to heal myself.  The fighting to stand up would fail as well, since we are fighting a big monster and not easily killed by throwing stones at it.  At this point I rez, and try and run back into the action which may or may not be all the way across the current map.

Even in games that have blurred the lines a bit, without going into battle knowing your role it feels like every bad pvp experience I have had.  “Lets all run in and throw ourselves at the enemy, I am sure they will fall to one of our flailing bodies.”  I like knowing who is the tank, who will be providing dps, and who will save all our asses by healing us when we do something phenomenally stupid.  A well balanced party was the key to pen and paper RPGs and honestly it still makes sense for MMO grouping.

Solo Friendly

I think the nugget at the center of every “post-trinity” argument however is pretty simple.  Everyone wants to be viable in both a group and while soloing.  SWTOR tried to solve this by giving everyone companions that essentially turned you into an instant somewhat balanced group.  WoW has added in a lot more self heals, and other ways to save yourself when things are going wrong.  Ultimately, everyone wants to be able to play the way they want to play and still be viable doing so.  For me that is usually tanking, which I guess places me firmly as a pillar of the trinity. 

This post has rambled on a lot longer than I had originally intended.  I guess in hindsight I should have broken it into multiple posts, but at least in my mind all of these things are connected. I am still pretty shocked that I am looking forward to roaming around Pandaland.  What I have seen of the areas, I have enjoyed.  I will go on at length another time, as to why I feel Cataclysm failed whereas Wrath and Burning Crusade did not.  Suffice to say, I feel Pandaria will be a return to the world building experience of the first two expansions.  I am looking forward to exploring this new and beautiful world.

Guild Wars 2 Beta Weekend Rundown

gw020In all honesty I thought I would never be writing this post.  I got an opportunity to play the game last year, and what can I say, I really hated it.  The entire thing felt extremely “grindy”.  I felt clueless as what I should be doing and what I should be focusing on.  I went from heart to heart, and event to event, and would still end up having to go out into the fields and grind random mobs just to get to the next story element.

All that said, I was just honestly expecting too much for the state the game was in.  There has been so much obnoxious hype surrounding this game, and so many often times violently devoted fans force feeding the notion that Guild Wars 2 was the gaming Messiah.  After all of this, and after reading the Guild Wars 2 Design Manifesto blog post, I was expecting bottled magic.  When this unrealistic expectation did not appear before me, I rejected it wholly and had essentially written off the game.

What changed my mind

gw055I really hated the original Guild Wars, but even saying that I own two different accounts from two different attempts to play the game.  I expected to give Guild Wars 2 a chance, regardless of my pre-disposition.  With the very public beta weekend coming up, I went ahead and preordered the game to give it another chance.  Essentially I went into this weekend expecting the game to be horrible, based on my previous experience.

I allowed myself to play the game with a fairly clean palette.  What can I say, the game has grown on me.  I can’t entirely attribute this to my change of attitude, because really the game is in a much more polished state.  Previously most of the mobs were not even properly itemized, so that only added to the feeling of purposeless grinding.  This time around I allowed myself to wander aimlessly, explore, and work my way through the various objectives on the map in a much more fluid way.

The Strong Points

gw012Dynamic Mentoring:

This is by far my favorite feature of the game.  As you move through the world, and it is a huge one, your level is automatically mentored down to the content.  If you wander back in a level 4 area at level 15, you will be scaled down to level 6 or so allowing you to participate in events.  The best part of this is that you gain experience and karma similar to your native level.

gw002

Auction House Anywhere:

This weekend there were some major issues with the Trade post system, but when it was working it was nice.  Essentially you can open up your commerce window, and buy and sell from the trade post anywhere in the world.  Once the bugs are ironed out, this will allow you to clear your bags of anything worth selling very quickly.  The only negative of the system, is that it is not terribly straight forward, and it takes a bit to figure out that you have to physically go to a trade post location to pick up your items and earnings.

gw007Dynamic Role Switching:

Early in the process, they have claimed to be abolishing the holy trinity of MMOs.  This is certainly true from one perspective, but I like to look at it slightly differently.  Each weapon set, gives you your first 5 hot bar abilities.  Each weapon combo, gives your character a completely different feel, and you can swap these out on the fly based on your situation. 

I tended to focus on a sword and board style tanky warrior all weekend, but my choice of main hand greatly changes the flavor.  From my shield, I gained hot bar slots 4 and 5, but if I equipped a sword in my main hand, I gained a good deal of mobility with a nice leap, as well as a powerful cleave.  If I swapped in an axe, I lost the mobility, but gained a strong 360 multi target AOE.  If I changed it out again for a Mace, I gained several new defensive abilities, including a really strong block/counter attack combo.

If I dropped the shield entirely, and equipped a two handed sword, it gave me a series of very powerful AOE attacks, perfect for playing a more dps role.  If I equipped a rifle, I had the ability to actually do powerful ranged damage.  To complement these weapon abilities, are a series of skills that you purchase with points earned by doing the various skill challenges spread across the map.  While there are still very clear tanky, dps, ranged, style roles, it feels like you have the freely to swap between them at will just by changing out your gear.

gw025Huge Detailed World:

I cannot emphasis this one enough.  The world is massive, and filled with tons of exploration candy.  I put on several levels by just roaming around aimlessly trying to unlock the various points of interest on the map.  A lot of times in these games, you sacrifice detail for size.  However every little corner of the map seems to have the same artistic care as the main hubs.  I found lots of little secret paths, stuff hidden under water, and plenty of other reasons to go off wandering.

I have a friend who claims she is part mountain goat, and she would have felt right at home in this world. If you can see it, there seems to be a way to get up there.  I’ve only actually seen a very tiny portion of the map in my roughly 20 hours or so of gameplay.  I’ve already seen snowy mountain peaks, lush forests, and murky swamps.  The best part of the world are the cities, they are more detailed than I have ever seen in an MMO.  They didn’t just get the city proper right, they got the surrounding land, and suburbs as well.

The Weak Points

gw006

Limited To Original Server Choice:

This one is pretty massive to me.  When you first log into the game, you are asked to choose a server.  At this point there is no real way to fully understand the ramifications of this choice.  Essentially this server becomes your home server, and the only way to change servers is to pay 1800 gems (which if it follows standard cash shop trends equates to $18).  There is a system in place, that lets you play on other servers as a guest, but since this was disabled during beta weekend it is uncertain how limiting this will be.

Why is this such a huge deal?  Well this is just one of the ways the game is not super friendly to groups of friends that want to play together.  As a long time guild leader, it is always a struggle to try and get all of your members on the same server at the launch of a game.  SWTOR had a great system that let you preload your guild onto a server intact, but even with that there were a good number of stragglers that could not be bothered to sign up for the system.

As a result, even with that system in place it was a mess those first few weeks getting everyone re-rolled in the right place.  Essentially there is no re-rolling on a new server without an additional cash outlay.  This system is going to be a wholesale nightmare for large guilds, and will likely cause a certain measure of un-necessary fragmentation.  I know personally that I can afford to pay to swap servers, but not every member of my guilds can.  My only hope is that for a few weeks after release they turn on the home server moves for free.

gw005Overflow System:

This honestly could have just as well gone as a positive, but it has some rather crippling side effects.  When you load into your server, instead of placing you in a queue, you get placed into the Overflow system.  This is great because it allows you to get in and play immediately, but in essence it places you in limbo.  You are not really on the server as the rest of your friends. 

So if you are trying to hook up and play with other players, you can wind up in separate instances with no way that I could find to swap between them.  Since this entire system is a bit murky, I figure this is going to cause more than a small bit of headache.  All that said however, I applaud the efforts they have made to remove queues from gameplay. 

gw033No Golden Path:

This is what gave me so much trouble when I had played it last year.  You have series of instanced storyline quests that move the tale of your legend forward.  The problem is there is no clear path outlined for you to get from point a to point b.  If you were like me and went into this expecting the same basic quest construct as the rest of mmo-dom, you will likely find this as mentally jarring as I did. 

Guild Wars 2 essentially is a sandbox, much the same way as Skyrim was.  Quests exist out in the field, in the form of the various hearts on the map, but there is no guiding hand to make sure you go by and visit them all.  On your map, there is a completion score showing how many hearts you have completed, points of interests discovered, and waypoints unlocked.  I found that wandering around and exploring, took me across most of the major hearts and events, but I just had to change my mindset.

gw032Voice Acting:

This is something odd, because while playing this weekend I recognized a good number of the voices from SWTOR.  The male warrior voice, sounds like the same actor that played the Jedi Consular.  Another voice I recognized as the woman who says “Oh Spanios” during “Lovers” quest on Tython.  The problem is, the voice acting as a whole is not nearly as high quality as it was in SWTOR.  While some of the same actors obviously were involved, the delivery just feels a good deal more stiff, and forced. 

On the positive side however, the world is full of dialog.  As you walk through the cities there is often times a murmur of multiple conversations going on at the same time.  It really makes these areas feel more lived in.  The only place you really notice the stiff delivery of lines, is during the story quests, when you have nothing else fighting for your attention.  It wasn’t bad enough to keep me from playing, but it was noticeable.

The Takeaway

gw029As the weekend has gone on, the game has grown on me more and more.  Essentially I have adjusted my outlook to fit the game, rather than trying to mold the game into what I was expecting from other games.  GW2 harkens back to an older era of MMOs, where the focus was on exploration rather than following a pre-planned path. Will I be cancelling my paid subscription MMOs to play it?  Not likely, but I will be playing Guild Wars 2 when it releases.

Scarybooster put the game in perspective for me this weekend.  Essentially he said that he is viewing this game as competing with the other free to play experiences.  When you view it in that way, then it wins hands down against the other f2p titles.  The world is huge, engaging, and as you move through it you are in no way gimped for not having spent money.  When you look at the game like that, it is a complete no-brainer to buy.

For many players this game will be enough to make them cancel their subscription accounts.  For me, it just scratches a different itch.  I have no plans on cancelling either EQ2 or SWTOR for the sake of this game.  I am in the position where I can do that.  I think for your average player, this game will be enough for them.  The game is a much more polished experience today, than it was at the tail end of last year when I initially tried it.  So I have some hope that all the little bugs and annoyances will be given a thick coat of shine before release.

So all this said, I am taking back my opinion on the game.  I am officially “un-writing it off”.  I look forward to release, and look forward  to seeing how the  game progresses as we go through other beta weekends.  As we close out the weekend, I made it to level 15, after 20 or so focused ours of gameplay.  With 80 levels worth of content, and large chunks of it unique to each race, it looks like there will be more than enough content to satiate us.  Fun combat, lots of content, and no subscription fee seems like a win to me.

On Recapturing the Magic

or “I’m New Here So I’m Going To Start By Disagreeing With Bel”

Bel’s post below, "Warcraft Broke Me" got me thinking. I’ve been in largely the same boat he is, having finally stopped playing World of Warcraft without getting heavily into any other MMOs. You should read the post, it’s a good one, but as a quick recap he’s rediscovering the joys of not being tied to a game and, as he’s put it to me a few times, is "living an actual life again".

I’m doing the same thing. In the last month I’ve started working out again, picked up painting, get out and hang out with my friends a lot more often, and largely don’t really see a massive lack in my MMO schedule. When I play (Rift, currently), I play because I want to and I have fun, and when I’m through having fun I stop and do something else. It’s probably terribly inconvenient for the hardcore in the group, but I actually legitimately enjoy every moment I spend in game, which is something of a surprising new feeling.

For me, though, it doesn’t feel like a whole new paradigm, or a huge shift in the way I play games from here on out. I remember the feeling when I left Everquest, and how I played a few games hyper-casually (and even not so casually), but without the devotion of scheduled playtime and other things. I played a handful of other games before sinking into Star Wars Galaxies and dropping down that rabbit hole… despite the feeling I had at the time that I would never get into a game as heavily as I had Everquest.

The Pendulum

It all feels like a pendulum to me. Back and forth, with one end being a total disconnect from MMO-playing and the other end being the depths of hardcore, scheduled raid leadership. It hovers at the edges of the swing, but it still feels like it’s swinging, and when I don’t expect it, it’ll come hurtling the other way and while I look around now at my "freedom", I’ll play something, blink, and then realize it’s three months later and I’m leading or helping lead a raid group.

I think the only time things have ever really not worked out has been when I’ve tried to push the pendulum one way or the other before it’s good and ready. I tried to force myself to drop out of the raiding scene in WoW at once point, stop playing the game entirely and concentrate on some important stuff (like getting a job), and while I had the discipline to stay away until I’d accomplished what I needed to, it was less than a week after that I’d come back to the game, voraciously seeking what I’d tried to be rid of. I’ve started MMOs with the plan of having a solid group, planning on hitting max level and grouping together and even raiding, and it always seems to fall apart. It feel s forced, like I’m stopping the pendulum mid-swing and trying to make it reverse.

The Priority

I’m almost certain I’ll end up back in the hardcore scene at some point in the future, sticking to a solid schedule, showing up on time (or early!), making sure everything is in order and accepting no distractions, going through all of the trouble of recruiting, helping people improve, and dealing with drama and the other issues that come up. When that happens, it’ll almost certainly be fun, and I’ll have no idea what will trigger it. It might be tomorrow, it might be years from now. At the time I went from being an egregiously casual WoW player to a hardcore raider, I would have told anyone who asked that that switch was the least likely thing that could possibly happen, but there it went.

Right now, my priority is having fun. The pendulum swings, and I have fun. Best I can ask for, yeah?

Rift 1.02 Patch Rundown

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Taking a quick break from the “Why You Should Be Playing Rift” series to throw up a semi related post.  Today a deceptively small patch was applied but it has some pretty major ramifications for the players.  You can view the full patch notes in their unadulterated form here, but basically the patch can be divided up into three major features.

Coinlock Feature

COINLOCK FEATURE — Account Security
* If your account is logged in from a significantly different location, your characters will be ‘Coin Locked’ until an additional ownership verification is made.
* A Coin Locked account will receive an e-mail to their registered account address containing a code to enter in-game to unlock the account.

* A Coin Locked icon will appear on the bottom center of your screen if your account is in this state.
* While you are Coin Locked, characters on your account cannot:
– Access the Auction House.
– Send Mail (can still receive and view mail or remove items).
– Sell to vendors.
– Salvage, Runebreak, or destroy items.
– Trade.
– You can continue to play and gain coin and items, but cannot get rid of them.

* If you are Coin Locked, click on the Coin Lock icon and enter the code found in your e-mail from Trion.
* You can also have Coin Lock emails re-sent to your email address by clicking the button on the Coin Lock interface.
* Once you have verified ownership from a new location, that location is whitelisted for future account access.
* If you cannot access your email or are otherwise unable to change your Coin Locked status, contact Customer Service.

For the last few weeks the assault of hackers of players accounts has become epidemic.  This is a new paradigm in the MMO industry, never before has a brand new game been assaulted this quickly and this thoroughly by the goldseller community.  Trion has been quick to address things like spammers, and this patch adds additional features for that as well, but protection against account hacks takes time to design and develop.

That said… we are still seeing countermeasures roughly 3 weeks after release of the game.  I think by anyones gauge that is extremely fast service.  So far all of their bug fixes have been extremely timely and setting a new standard.  It will be extremely hard to go back to the previous norm of having bugs that are not “exploits” take months (if ever) to get fixed.

This seems like it will work a lot like the system WoW has put in place after years of being deluged with hacks.  Primary difference here is that you can still play the game, you just can’t remove anything from your characters.  I think overall it’s a better solution since if you want to log in to check on something from a friends house, you don’t have to go through the rigmarole of unlocking your account just to get into the game.

Lessening Mob Aggro and Dismounts

* Made a number of changes to how NPCs react to higher level characters:
– Characters under the effect of Exposed no longer have an additional chance to be dismounted.
– Reduced the minimum aggro range of monsters significantly below a character’s level.
– Increased the rate at which aggro range reduces as a character’s level increases relative to a mob.

This addresses one of the major rallying points of the complainers in the user community.  I personally did not mind it as bad as some, but I will definitely agree it was damned annoying when running through Freemarch at level 40+ and getting dismounted by a level 8 wolf.  Another major complaint was that the exposed debuff not only made you take more damage, but had a greater chance to get dismounted.

We will have to see how this shakes out in game, what I hope it does not do is make running cross zone completely safe.  Personally knowing that I could not outrun a mob meant that I was less likely to skip my way through content, or at least be more cautious as I do.  One of the things I have come to appreciate over time is that no matter what level you are, you are not the gods we were in WoW.  However these changes should make it much nicer for when a group is rolling from rift to rift.

Additional Spam Filters

* Reporting mail as Spam now works a lot more like the chat and /tell spam system.
* Sending mail that the game filter recognizes as spam results in an additional coin charge.
* Mail you receive that has been flagged as spam will go to the Spam tab of your mailbox UI.

As Trion buffed up their in game chat spam filters, it pushed spammers to start using the mail system.  We’ve all known the annoyance of getting to our hunting destination only to receive a mail message that sits there blinking incessantly, making you wonder will this be the 1 in 100 time someone actually sent me a real message.  The chat spam system has worked amazingly, and any improvement to the mail reporting system to make it more like that should be excellent.

I hope all of these changes send a clear picture to both the gold sellers and plat buyers, that this game does not want their ilk.  Trion has been criticized over the number of hacked accounts and the amount of initial gold spam, but I honestly feel they are doing as well as they could be for a fresh mmo right out of the gate.  Based on what has happened in previous major MMO releases like Aion and Warhammer, no one could conclude that the hacker community would get so sophisticated so fast.  Especially considering that it took years for WoW to reach the state it is, where basically if you are playing without an authenticator you are asking to have your items stolen.

Full Patch Note Listing

Rift 1.02 – 3/17/11

COINLOCK FEATURE — Account Security
* If your account is logged in from a significantly different location, your characters will be ‘Coin Locked’ until an additional ownership verification is made.
* A Coin Locked account will receive an e-mail to their registered account address containing a code to enter in-game to unlock the account.

* A Coin Locked icon will appear on the bottom center of your screen if your account is in this state.
* While you are Coin Locked, characters on your account cannot:
– Access the Auction House.
– Send Mail (can still receive and view mail or remove items).
– Sell to vendors.
– Salvage, Runebreak, or destroy items.
– Trade.
– You can continue to play and gain coin and items, but cannot get rid of them.

* If you are Coin Locked, click on the Coin Lock icon and enter the code found in your e-mail from Trion.
* You can also have Coin Lock emails re-sent to your email address by clicking the button on the Coin Lock interface.
* Once you have verified ownership from a new location, that location is whitelisted for future account access.
* If you cannot access your email or are otherwise unable to change your Coin Locked status, contact Customer Service.

MAIL SPAM FILTERING
* Reporting mail as Spam now works a lot more like the chat and /tell spam system.
* Sending mail that the game filter recognizes as spam results in an additional coin charge.
* Mail you receive that has been flagged as spam will go to the Spam tab of your mailbox UI.

GENERAL
* Made a number of changes to how NPCs react to higher level characters:
– Characters under the effect of Exposed no longer have an additional chance to be dismounted.
– Reduced the minimum aggro range of monsters significantly below a character’s level.
– Increased the rate at which aggro range reduces as a character’s level increases relative to a mob.
* Fixed Forest Disruptor companion so his footsteps are not as loud as a full-size Treant.

ZONES
* Runic Descent: Expert: Corrected an issue where this instance could end with players still inside.
* As a result of the above change, the Captured Soul NPC will be re-enabled after this update.
* Moonshade Highlands: Rational Ward: Fixed issues with quest not updating.

RAIDS
* Greenscale’s Blight: Ongoing tuning for Duke Letareus, Infiltrator Johlen, Oracle Aleria, and Prince Hylas.
* Greenscale’s Blight: Prince Hylas is immune to player abilities that reduce healing taken.
* Greenscale’s Blight: Fixed an issue that could cause Greenscale’s protective Life Aura to occasionally not spawn.
* Akala: Reduced health of Stone Wardens in the Akala outdoor raid to make the first phase possible with 10 players.
* Akala: Akala’s Aegis of Stone and Gift of Laethys buffs can no longer be purged.

Why You Should Be Playing Rift: 02 – Porticulum Network

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Over the last few weeks I have become some what of a “Rift Evangelist”, as I have spent hours preaching to my friends why they should come over and play this new game.  It is not something I have really consciously done, but I seem to have a constant stream of “isn’t this cool” moments to share.  This series is devoted to these little sometimes overlooked features of the game, that all help to add up to such a rich experience.

Episode 02: Porticulum Network

 

wysbpr_02_porticulum

The Porticulumn Network is one of the coolest features of the game, but is also one of the most indirectly complained about systems for players coming from other games.  I will admit at first I was one of the complainers, even going so far as to post on the beta forums about it.  However after living with the system, I have come to appreciate exactly how amazing it is, both for rapid transit and the way it very gently nudges the player population to be community minded.

wysbpr_02_defiant_map

What the Porticulum Network gives you is the ability to transfer from between any two ports on the network instantly for a nominal fee (that gets less and less nominal the further away from your current hub you go).  This is what we loved so much about the Dalaran portals in WoW, Fast Travel devices in Everquest II, and the various Plane of Knowledge portals in Everquest.  This allows you to move quickly to wherever in the world your guild needs you to be.

The player starts with no portals connected to his or her network.  They receive the first connection on their hub by visiting the Porticulum Master for their faction’s capitol city.  From that point on, they can connect additional ports to their hub by talking to the Porticulum Masters in each of the zones explored.  The above image shows a complete network for the defiant side (minus the new Porticulum at Knight’s Stand added in 1.01 patch). 

When you talk to any Porticulum Master you are given the option to Bind Soul for a small charge.  Doing this will give you the Soul Recall ability, and allow you to return to your bound porticulum.  This ability has a hour long cooldown and a brief cast time.  With the Total Recall guild perk you are able to reduce the cooldown to 50 minutes.  This allows you to rather quickly get to anywhere in the world once an hour.

What You Give Up, And Why It’s a Good Thing

Now we get to the point of complaint many users including myself initially have.  The zones in rift are fairly massive, and take a large time to cross.  If you notice, most zones have only one portal.  What the game lacks is an intra-zone taxi system, like flight points and horse paths that have been utilized in various other mmos.  Initially this seems like a massive thing to give up, players like to be able to go where they want to when they want to with minimal effort.  However, like the heading alludes to, not having these ways to travel intra-zone safely is a good thing.

Taxi systems general allow the user to skip large areas of content safely.  In a game like rift, where part of the design is a constantly changing world where rifts and invading armies besiege towns, it requires community interaction to turn the tide of events.  As you move through a zone, you are forced to confront these forces head on to survive.  As a result I have seen random groups of players gathering to take down rifts on a regular basis.  This kind of impromptu interaction is what I feel will keep the player community active and thriving.

As you move into some of the larger and more difficult to traverse zones there are multiple porticulum in the zone.  For example Iron Pine Peak a 40-45 zone, had 3 well spaced portals allowing you to pop between major questing hubs easily.  When you enter this phase of the game, the lack of an intra-zone taxi system really goes out the window.

It’s All About Immersion

One of the things has been amazing about this game is the level of immersion the player has.  As you travel across a zone you carefully cling to the roads, knowing that just off the path lies your likely death.  The game brings back the edginess and fear factor that so many early MMOs had.  In Everquest, I knew that if I went wandering off in unexplored territory I was likely to find something that would squash me like a bug.  However in the World of Warcraft era, we as players have become lazy as we are used to being able to wander zones with godlike impunity, or simply fly over the top of them ignoring all of the would be pitfalls. 

I’ve come to appreciate the uncertainness and randomness of encounters this game has brought back to the MMO genre.  I remember the sheer fear I had the first time I stepped foot into Muire Tomb in Dark Age of Camelot, or cautiously running the zone boundaries of Kithicor Forest trying to get through to the safety of Rivervale before nightfall.  While I considered it inconvenient at the time, and was happy to see things like that gone in World of Warcraft… I have come to realize now that I have it back how much more depth it gave the game.  After all, isn’t the reason why most of us play these games to have a break from our normal lives and be thrust into epic battles that just don’t exist in real life?

Why You Should Be Playing Rift: 01 – The Map

wysbpr_logo

Over the last few weeks I have become some what of a “Rift Evangelist”, as I have spent hours preaching to my friends why they should come over and play this new game.  It is not something I have really consciously done, but I seem to have a constant stream of “isn’t this cool” moments to share.  This series is devoted to these little sometimes overlooked features of the game, that all help to add up to such a rich experience.

Episode 01:  The Map

wysbpr_01_mapshowinginvasionsOne of the running themes with Rift seems to be taking the best features of other titles, improving on them and presenting them in a very solid interface.  The in game mapping system is a perfect example of this.  Above is an example of the main map during a Freemarch Death Invasion.  It gives you a nice live heads up on what is going on with the world.

In the above example I have hovered over one of the invasion units represented by the crossed swords icon, you will come to be familiar with.  When doing so, the map highlights the trajectories of all the current invasion forces that are on the move.  This lets the players quickly see where these forces are converging upon, so you can cut ahead of the push and be ready to present a defense.  In the above example it appears that all of the enemy units are converging on Eliam Fields and Kelari Refuge.

In addition to the invasion tracking there are numerous other things being shown on the big map.  You can see there are a number of purple death rifts that have popped up.  The player can mouse over any of them and get the status, level and whether they are major or minor.  Each of the NPC towns is marked with a star icon, and each enemy fortress with an icon denoting the faction, dungeons marked with a green jewel and each major mob center marked with a castle like icon.  I’ve not seen another game that gives the player this much information without having to rely on add-ons.

Waypoints

wysbpr_01_minimap_waypoint All of the above is nice, but where the system truly shines is in the waypoint system.  The player has the ability to right click the map and set a waypoint.  On the main map this is shown with a line drawn between you and that location.  If you noticed on the image of the main map, at the bottom there is a simple and clean coordinate system.  The addition of being able to set a waypoint makes it extremely easy for you to travel to a precise location in the world.

In addition to it making it easier for you to travel to specific locations, waypoints work while grouping.  If you notice on the minimap I have highlighted the X> icon of the waypoint, and it pops up various information.  In a party or raid you receive the waypoint of your party members.  For traveling from rift to rift or coordinating defenses, this is a super simple way of letting folks know where you will be heading.

You can also see in the tooltip shown in the screenshot you are given a distance away.  The most amazing thing about this is that while tracking quest objectives, it also denotes whether or not the location is above or below you.  How much time have you spent in other games roaming around on the wrong floor of a dungeon looking for the quest mob that just isn’t there?  I will probably cover the quest tracking system in another post, but the mapping system makes it simple to figure out exactly where you need to be to complete an objective.

But Wait There’s More!

Every so often in this game, there is an idea that just makes you think “why didn’t anyone else think of this?”.  In the 1.01 patch Trion added in an extremely powerful feature without much fanfare.  By opening a chat window, and holding shift as you right click the map to set a waypoint, it now sends that waypoint as a link over chat.  When other players click on your link, the waypoint is set on their map as well.  Take a step back for a moment and ponder the power of this.

How many times have you been sitting in guild chat, as a new player is leveling through an area and asks where a hard to find mob is located?  Instead of having to do the “its by” dance, as you clumsily try and explain where it is, you can simply open up your map, from anywhere in the world and link to them a close approximation.  Since this went in last week I have already used it a dozen or more times in guild chat and zone chat to answer folks questions.  I find this kind of attention to detail simply refreshing.

Tracking

wysbpr_01_minimap_tracking While not as sexy as the waypoint system, the tracking system in this game is everything you would expect it to be.  If you click the magnifying glass icon on the side of the mini-map you are given a clean checkbox list of available tracking options.  While tracking these appear both on the mini-map, and on a zoomed in view of the main map.

For the most part these are the standard set of options that were presented with games like Warhammer and in WoW with the Cataclysm expansion.  It is just expected that at this point any game on the market will allow for tracking of multiple items, and this does it well.

One thing you will notice missing from the list is professions.  Profession resource tracking is handled a little bit differently in this game than that of WoW.  When you learn a profession you get spells that toggle on and off the tracking for that gathering profession.  This was a little weird to get used to, but I appreciate it in the long run. There are various kinds of conditional tracking like the Reaver “Track Death Creatures”, that if included in the checkbox list would make it extremely cluttered.  Trion has done a great job of presenting lots of information in a very clean interface.

I mentioned this feature for waypoints and quest objectives, but the above or below tracking works for resource nodes as well.  How many times in other games you have spent tracking to figure out where exactly that node was, only to find it that it is in a cave you didn’t know existed?  If you simply mouse over the mini-map icon you can tell immediately whether or not the node is aboveground or not.

Wrapping Up

The Mapping system is one of those things players just expect to work.  When it doesn’t work, it is one of the first things players try to augment with addons (Cartographer / EQ2map project etc).  Why is the Rift mapping system so amazing?  Well mostly that it gives you all this functionality, in a clean, easy to use form factor… and completely out of the box without any user modification.  It is functions like this that make me think Trion actually plays its own game, which is a point I question about many MMOs.  It is this attention to detail that really has me so enthralled with this game.

Sidenote

Since this is the first one of these features, please let me know what you think.  Was this useful?  What would you like to see in the future?  What overlooked features really have impressed you?  Comment below and I will respond.