Friday, July 21, 2017

The Chrysler Effect and Gaming

For those of you outside the US, there is a consumer publication called Consumer Reports that tests and evaluates products. They do not accept advertising dollars, and the entire enterprise is funded by their subscriber base. Their testing is considered top notch, particularly with household appliances and cars.* If you end up looking for a new (or used) car in the US, odds are very good that you'll have at least one Consumer Reports magazine with you as part of the process.

As part of the review process, Consumers Union (the entity that publishes CR) not only covers the specifics of how an item behaves, but also provides clues on how well an item will last. They send out annual surveys to their subscribers to provide input on items they own, as well as whether they would purchase that item again. This last one gives CU a decent idea as to whether people are happy with their purchase decision, which when we're talking about cars is a multi-thousand dollar purchase that people may own for over a decade.

This brings me to Chrysler.

Chrysler, the US manufacturer now owned by Fiat, has had a checkered history. Chrysler created the minivan**, and were among the first car manufacturers to add standard airbags. At the same time, Chrysler has been in bankruptcy more than once, and that last bout of bankruptcy ending in the purchase of Chrysler by Fiat.

Why, you may ask? Partially it is due to the economic meltdown of the late 2000s, but also because Chrysler cars have a reputation for poor quality.

Both word of mouth and data acquired by CU point to Chrysler having --by far-- the worst quality results of all US domestic automakers. Even when Chrysler makes a well received vehicle, such as the newly released Chrysler Pacifica minivan, in the new car issue of Consumer Reports CU hedges their bets on the quality of the new vehicle, saying they expect it to have poorer than average quality. Essentially, it's a "until you prove to me otherwise, we'll assume that this is going to be a car that will be in the repair shop a lot."

***

When I posted my review of Rift the other day, I knew peripherally about how Rift had gone F2P and how it had burned through its fanbase's support by moving in the direction of a more "pay to win" cash shop. Still, I decided to post without dredging that up. However, Shintar's comments about how she felt that Trion had turned Rift into a cautionary tale about how to destroy a fanbase's goodwill, I felt that it is important to address the elephant in the room.

Should a development house's or game's reputation/behavior have an impact on game reviews? I'm not talking about specific posts about a company, because I've got tons of those over the years that are critical of development houses, but rather a review of the game itself. In other words, should the previous actions/reputation of a development house be reason to dismiss a game, or at the very least give the player pause before deciding to play?

In a way, this is the Playstation/XBox debate in a nutshell, where people take sides and sit in their glass houses, lobbing grenades at each other. This could also describe how people respond to EA or Ubisoft games*** with the "burn it all down!!" or worse. (Much much worse.)

But at the same time, a development house's reputation can't be ignored, because there's frequently a reason why a company/dev house has that reputation. If a coworker has a great reputation, you're likely to cut that employee some slack if they screw up. And on the flip side, if you've a coworker with a reputation as being a screw-up, you're thinking "yep, expected that" when things don't go well.

Look at Blizzard. When Cataclysm launched, it got a lot of nice reviews. I distinctly remember one review saying that the only real drawback to Cata was that you had to subscribe and have the previous expacs. But now, looking back on it from a 5+ year distance, Cataclysm was the expac that began the slow descent of WoW.**** It broke the story continuity, it had several meh major content patches that didn't excite the base, and the changes to the guts of WoW disappointed many who complained that WoW was being "dumbed down." Blizzard's reputation was such that it took a long time to admit that Blizzard could still lay an egg.

***

So what to do about Trion, and these reviews in general?

In this case I believe it is best to separate the game from the development house, and examine the game on its own terms. I can't control what Trion does and how the community reacts, but I can report on what I find in the game. If the game feels empty, I'll report that. If the community is toxic, I'll report that. And if I find bugs and crashes in what ought to be basic stuff, I'll report that too.

But I shouldn't let dev companies off the hook for their product, either. So another series, examining the dev houses behind the games, would be a good idea.

As for my statement about Rift being a survivor, I still stand by that statement. A six year old game still getting expac releases is not a small feat. I work in an industry that considers three year old equipment "ancient" and "in need of replacement", so anything that lasts six years is an impressive achievement.

Shintar, however, is also right in that Trion Worlds made some bad decisions that will likely jeopardize Rift's ability to be around another six years, which is a shame because the game right now is pretty darn good.

The review of the game still stands, but a study of the dev house... That still needs to happen.




*Back in 1988, it was their review of the Suzuki Samurai that exposed the rollover problem of the Samurai during certain avoidance maneuvers, and their "not acceptable" rating of the car helped kill the Samurai in the NA market.

**I know that minivans are not well liked, but I like them. They work and they get the job done. When our old minivan died last year, I missed it.

***Think of the reaction to the buggy Mass Effect: Andromeda or Assassin's Creed Unity (or Syndicate).

****To borrow a Boromir quote in Fellowship of the Ring, "WoW wanes, you say. But WoW stands, and even at the end of its strength it is still very strong." WoW still likely has more regular players than the #2-#10 MMOs put together. MOBAs, on the other hand, are a completely different thing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Fun With MMOs: Rift Revisited

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Back in late 2010, WoW released Cataclysm. There was a lot of initial enthusiasm for the expac and the number of subs to WoW swelled to their highest point at that time of 12 million. However, by March 2011 the number had fallen back to 11.4 million and some of the playerbase had become restless. There were the usual gripes of "nothing to do" on reaching max level as well as the "instances are too hard" refrain, but there were also complaints from some traditionalists who missed the talent trees and a lot of quirks that Blizzard had eliminated in their desire to make WoW fresh and exciting.

Into that atmosphere came the software company Trion Worlds with their new MMO Rift.
This is one of five copies around the house, courtesy of Gen Con 2011's
goodie bag. Yes, even the youngest mini-Red got a goodie bag, which
inclued a mini-deck for Magic: the Gathering,  a.k.a. a free sample of crack.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Fun with MMOs: The Reviews' Guiding Principles

If I'm going to actually review some new(ish) MMOs*, I'm going to provide some parameters for both the effort itself and what I'm evaluating. What I don't want to do is just play for a few minutes and give the game an evaluation, because that's not so much an evaluation as taking a look at a trailer for the game.

That said, what I will review will be different than what other people review. Some reviewers focus on gameplay, sound, graphics, story, endgame, and polish, but I don't want to be constrained to that. I want to focus on the sense of immersion and whether there are things in the game that break it.

Here's a short example of breaking immersion from a non-video game aspect: the story in the film National Treasure. Yes, I'm aware National Treasure is a fun action movie --and it plays out like an RPG campaign, to be honest-- but I'm also a history buff.** When I first watched that movie I was glad I was at home, because I could then get up and go into the kitchen and silently rage at all of the misrepresentations of history before rejoining my wife. Fun movie, yes, but boy did it break my sense of immersion.

You got that right, Sean. Fun fact: Sean Bean's character
doesn't die in National Treasure, which is a pretty rare thing.
From quickmeme.

How do I intend to do all of this? Well, here's my process:

  • Create a toon for each faction represented in the MMO.
  • If there's only one faction, I'll still create two toons, one male and one female.
  • During the creation process, I'll take a look at all of the options to see where the limiting factors are. I'm thinking in terms of agency here, as I want people to not be restricted to playing a very specific type of player. I'm not using this as an excuse to push any sort of prudishness or moral/political viewpoint, I just want there to be options for people to play the way they want to play.
  • To properly evaluate gameplay and story, I'll play through the intro zone and the first low level zone to get a good feel for the game. Preferably, if the game has one or more capital cities, I want to at least reach that city before I end my evaluation, but I want to avoid the issue of Age of Conan where the intro zone --Tortage-- was fantastic but the low level zone (right after arriving at the capital city) was just so-so. My initial review of AoC was that it was a really good game, until it became a huge grind once you got past Tortage.
  • How other players interact, how global chat operates, and how other players present themselves will factor into my evaluation of immersion. I'm not going to get on a RP server if I can help it, but I will definitely stick to PvE as much as I can. I'm no longer a world PvPer, and I don't want that to factor into my evaluation.
  • I'll also keep an eye on how NPC's behave, look, and interact with the players. Clues as to what sort of game the developers want to present can be found in those details, as what developers present in game may be different than when they talk about the game.
Curse you, Steam, for making it too easy to find all of these games!
I realize that not everybody is going to find these reviews valuable, particularly given that some of these MMOs have been around for several years. Chasing the new hotness is pretty much always in vogue, and I'm definitely not doing that nor examining the most popular aspects of MMOs. My viewpoint is decidedly non-raid and non-world PvP, which puts me at odds with a significant portion of the MMO community; people who want to see those aspects in an MMO aren't going to get much of anything out of my reviews.

But that's fine with me. I'm not trying to keep up with the latest MMO out there, so when I get to it, I get to it. And I'm not likely to be the only person who comes into an MMO late, so taking a gander at an MMO that has had time to mature isn't a bad thing at all. And really, people who read this blog are well aware of my lack of time/desire to go raiding, so there's no real surprises.

So let's do this. First up, an MMO that I examined six years ago and found a lot to like, but I didn't want to leave the confines of WoW to explore something new.





*For my purposes if not for anybody else's. As the youngest mini-Red pointed out to me, her sister is quite capable of making the decision of whether or not to play on her own. "True," I said, "but if someone asks me for my opinion, I want to give an informed one, not one driven by the internet." She was fine with that response.

**I minored in History in college. No, it didn't have anything to do with my major (Physics), but I enjoyed the subject enough that I took a lot of my electives in History (and Philosophy) just because.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

How Do I Get Roped into These Things?

The oldest mini-Red came to me not too long ago and mentioned that one of her friends had suggested that they play an MMO together.*

"Oh?" I'm not so uptight that I want to control what she's playing, but I was curious why she asked.

"Yeah, I haven't heard the game before. I think it's TERA."

My brain let out a little scream.

"Have you heard of it?"

"Um, yeah, I have. It's well known for how the female toons run."

You know, like this:



And yes, I did show her this video, which looks like something Piers Anthony would have dreamed up.**

"Oh."

"Yeah, outside of that and that the female toon garb tends to be really skimpy, I don't know much else about it."

"Well...." she began, mulling things over. "It is F2P. Maybe I should at least check it out to see what I think."

I scratched my beard as a sinking feeling settled into my stomach. "I guess I should check the game out too as well. Due diligence and all that."

Which is how I arrived at this point in time: I've spent the better part of the past several days on Steam, downloading 3 newer MMOs (and one old one that I tried back in beta, RIFT), and steeling myself for what I might find. I'm not prudish by any means, but I do know that games that are Asian or have a heavy Asian influence (Aion, for example) have a completely different viewpoint on how female toons should look, dress, and act. The subservient "sex toy" vibe that some female toons exude in these games gets on my nerves, particularly when the toon should be a Type A badass.

Compared to my normal (and previous) standbys of LOTRO, SWTOR, STO, and WoW, these games are likely to have gear that should never see a battlefield.

Yeah, like this.
(This meme can be found all over the net.)
And don't think for a second that because I enjoy the Hyborian Age of the Conan stories that I also think that Conan or his female contemporaries in Age of Conan get off the hook. But the one thing that AoC does do right is that it is internally consistent: both male and female toons show a ton of skin, and their toon reactions are anything but subservient in manner and attitude. I know that I'm likely to find in these new MMOs a distinct difference in attitude and presentation between male and female toons, and that is going to annoy me.

At least there's some internal consistency in Cimmeria.
(From Demotivational posters, found all over the net.)

So why go ahead and examine them when I "know" I won't like them?

Because "knowing" is not the same as really understanding. If I'm going to explain my likes and dislikes of a game, I'd better have firsthand knowledge of that game. And if I'm going to give my kids advice on a game, I'd better not be making judgement calls solely on secondhand data. Reviewers will have a bias --just as I will-- but I'll be able to understand that bias and explain myself far better after having examined the games first.

So I'll be off trying some of these games that I've read about only on Syl's and Rohan's blogs, as well as other places.





*Yes, it's a male friend. No, I'm not quite so worried about them hitting it off in game or something, as they already hang out. If they were a year closer in age, I'd think they were an item, but that two year age difference is a bit of a brake on any potential relationship. There's a big difference between, say, 27 and 29 versus 17 and 19. Still, given my extensive observations of teenage boys --fatherhood, you know-- he's quite mature.

**His Xanth series started out somewhat tame, but then they eventually veered into weirdness and overall creepiness with a heavy dose of "panties!" in descriptions.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Big Tent

I've occasionally harped on how representation matters, but I was reminded of that when I was cruising through YouTube last week.

YouTube surfing is like free association: you find something interesting, watch that, and you're pointed in the direction of other potentially interesting videos. Either that, or you end up being distracted by whatever is on the sidebar.*

But one of my "recommendations" was a blast from the past:


I remember vividly the first time I watched this cinematic trailer for SWTOR, because of the reaction of the mini-Reds.

Sure, all three loved it, but when we reached the 2:37 mark, the reactions among the girls changed from "wow!" and "cool!" to stunned amazement.

"I want to be her!"

"I want to play her!"

Representation is not a matter of trying to sideline people who are in the majority, but a way of telling the sidelined "Hey, you're welcome here, have a seat at the table."

It's akin to what happened when an old university friend and his family stopped by for the weekend a few years ago. Their two kids, a girl and boy, had recently discovered Star Wars,** so when they stopped by I was ready. I motioned over the younger kid and pulled out one of the mini-Reds' toy lightsabers. "You know what this is?" I asked.

He nodded wordlessly.

"Go ahead and push the button."

The lightsaber sprang to life, light and sound and everything.

His eyes were as big as saucers.

A second lightsaber found its way into the hands of his older sister, who knew exactly what to do. And for the rest of the afternoon, there were lightsaber battles and young padawans in awesome Jedi poses.

The last I checked, both kids were confirmed Star Wars fans, "For life!" one of them told me last year.

There is no reason why geekdom and the gaming industry can't say "Hey, there's a seat at the table for you, no matter who you are." There's absolutely no reason to feel threatened by making the tent bigger, because we all win when we open our arms wide in welcome.




*Probably both.

**Their dad helped a wee bit.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

When a Gamble Doesn't Pay Off

"You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're only second best."
--Lancey Howard, The Cincinnati Kid


If it isn't obvious, I have a low opinion of gold farmers.

Gold farming, particularly the large operations, are a source of account hacking and MMO economy manipulation. They are by no means the sole source of either, but they are far from an innocent bunch. By using real money to purchase in in-game source of currency, the gold farmers encourage the "pay to win" mentality in what is at times a very obnoxious form of hard sell. There was a time in late-Wrath through all of Cataclysm where you couldn't walk through an Alliance or Horde city and not run into a bunch of bots in formation spelling out the name of a gold farmer website.* And even today, at least a few times a week I get spam mail in SWTOR from gold/credit farmers, which I find quite hilarious given that it is so easy to spend a day and accumulate enough credits to buy most items in the auction house.

I've occasionally wondered why gold farmers do what they do. Sure, the short answer is "money", but there's plenty of other ways to make a living than dealing in the MMO version of Bitcoin. Well, Cracked magazine's website has a post up about a gold farmer leaving the gold farming business behind.**

(I should also note that Massively OP also picked up on the article and posted a referring article on their website.)

The article itself is worth reading, if for no other reason than that it confirms my opinion that Blizzard's attempts to combat gold farmers using the WoW tokens was a shot across the bow of the WoW gold farming industry. It also deals with the nature of MMO/WoW/video game addiction, and that addiction is very much a real thing.

Oh, and the real gold mine (pardon the pun) is pairing this article with one from a year ago, about how a small time gold farming operation looks from the inside.

My single biggest takeaway is that small time/independent gold farming operations remind me of small time professional gamblers. I don't mean the people who are on television at Texas Hold 'em poker tournaments, but the people who gamble at casinos, racetracks, and online for a living. Sure, someone may strike it rich at any time, but those times are very rare. You may even have a better shot at making it as a pro athlete than as a small time gambler or gold farmer, but that dream of making it big is a siren song.





*No, I'm not going to provide a pic of it. Why give the site(s) free advertising?

**I remember when Cracked was Mad Magazine's wackier cousin. When did Cracked actually start putting up some serious stuff in addition to the humor? I know that they were already serious when Robin Williams passed away and they had a couple of really good articles about the intersection of comedy and depression.

Monday, June 19, 2017

An Oldie but Goodie

Courtesy of the LOTRO forums comes this little graphic from Yosoff:

If novels followed MMO logic. Just sayin'...

Yes, I am amused.