Sunday, September 24, 2017

On the Endangered Species List: The Story in MMOs

As I'm well into my third (and kind of poking around my fourth) MMO for my "Fun With" series, I've noticed something about some of these Asian MMOs that I've not noticed in the WoW branch of MMOs: that story is much less important than other factors.

True, I'll grant that ArcheAge is more story rich than TERA, but the more I've played the more I get the feeling that the story is father down the priority list than what you'd find in most of the WoW branch's MMOs. For ArcheAge, story is below PvP, Crafting, and graphics* in terms of importance, while for WoW, the story is likely only below the Orcs vs. Humans dictum. I could even make the argument that Orcs vs. Humans is the foundation of the WoW story and that a argument could be made that WoW's true #1 is raiding, but even then the story is a higher priority in WoW and its branch of MMOs than in ArcheAge, TERA, and (now that I think about it), Aion.**

As much as the post-Cataclysm story discontinuity drove me nuts, I can't deny that without a story WoW would have been closer to a MOBA than anything resembling its current incarnation.

Now, all this being said, I readily acknowledge that there are going to be Fantasy/Science Fiction tropes --that are primarily Western in nature-- that don't apply to Asian MMOs. (And vice versa.) This also impacts the development process, what parts of a game to put priority on, and how the story unfolds. So it's likely that I'm missing some parts of the story and overall thrust of some of these Asian MMOs that would be more apparent were I not so steeped in the Western SF&F tropes.

What is bothersome to me --and to others who prefer the story to be the primary focus of a game-- it seems that game companies in general are moving away from the story and more toward multiplayer competition. Remember how Mass Effect: Andromeda announced it won't be updating single player, and only multiplayer going forward? I used to think that maybe it was more due to the ME team needing to take a step back and refocus on what makes Bioware games tick and devote resources to making that happen, but now I'm not so sure. The more I've played the Asian MMOs and gone back and reviewed the rise of the MOBA and Overwatch, the more I think game companies are starting to abandon the story in favor of (cheaper to develop) multiplayer games where it's "Story? What story? I just want to kill things!" as the focus.

Even Blizzard had begun doing this with WoW by dumping major story points into novels that are then reflected in game; if you want to catch up with the story, you have to read all the novels.*** That has historically given me the impression that it was done as a cost saving measure, so Blizz wouldn't have to spend development dollars for something they'd pay an author to write. But at least Blizz still puts focus on the story, because without the story they'd be another Splatoon.

While I get that for some people, the story in an MMO is best left to the players --such as in EVE Online-- I'm not like that. For me, a story provides a framework for everything else that happens in an MMO, and while you can get away with a generic Fantasy or Science Fiction MMO as a pure sandbox, MMOs based on name properties would have a hard time pulling that off. If you've got a name such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars, you expect a game to have a WoW or Star Wars feel to it, and while you can stick a Wookie in a bar, that doesn't make a game "Star Wars" anymore than having some Orcs fight some Humans and call it WoW.****

***

Perhaps these things come and go in cycles, where story becomes more or less important based on what becomes the new hotness. Computer RPGs had an early golden age with Infocom text games, the early Ultima series, and the AD&D games developed by SSI, but there was a long period in the 90s where RPGs nearly vanished from the scene. It was 1998's Baldur's Gate that revived the RPG as a genre, so maybe we've hit a period where except for a few titles --such as Zelda and Horizon: Zero Dawn-- there's just not a lot of interest from the major software companies to fund new story driven games.

But I sure hope more of them get made, because while companies may not be interested in such games, the public certainly does.




*Yes, including boob physics. The nature of the boob physics in ArcheAge is that while breasts can move that way, because cloth and leather armor operate in-game as if they're attached to the frame of the toon, the breast movement is more akin to a naked person wearing body paint than a person wearing cloth or leather armor. In WoW, this "attached to the frame" aspect of toons is very obvious if your toon is wearing a tabard; in ArcheAge it is less obvious until you see a female toon move. Like TERA, the ArcheAge devs' implementation of boob physics is less about realism and still more about titillation.

**I suspect that Black Desert Online is in the same vein. Not so sure about Vindictus, however.

***It must be said, however, Blizzard still would have a ton of story in each WoW expac.

****Some boardgame designers forget that when trying to design games based on named properties. For me, Pillars of the Earth, based on the novel by Ken Follett, is a prime example. When you take out too much theme --or try to wrap a theme around a mathematical exercise-- you end up with a result that looks nothing like the source material.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Why I Likely Won't Play EVE, Part Whatever

I was originally thinking of writing something a bit more lighthearted for Friday, but I came across this little post in Kotaku from Wednesday:


A game that prides itself on its no-holds barred/Machiavellian environment* in a space economy is the only place I'd expect to see something like this. Sure, it makes for fascinating reading, but I know I couldn't handle this sort of shenanigans. It'd be like watching real work intrude on my gaming fun.**

Oh, and the spreadsheet aspect of EVE isn't something that I'm enamored of, either. Sure, I'm good at spreadsheets, and I use them even outside of work, but it's not something I like to do but rather something I have to do. Like keep track of college data so we can drill down on what universities mini-Red #2 should be focusing on when we go to the college fairs.*** Or working out the cost details on house projects. But if you want to be good at EVE, you need to run spreadsheets. LOTS of spreadsheets. And that doesn't spark my interests.

Still, more power to those who love to play. It's the difference between respecting somebody who is good at the old Avalon Hill boardgame Diplomacy and actually playing it: the people who are best at both may not necessarily be the people you want to hang around with in real life.




*With the major exception of out of game threats of violence being met with a perma-ban.

**The main reason why I won't read A Song of Fire and Ice and other, gritty SF/F novels is because if I want to read about gritty realism and how characters must suffer and die, I'll go turn on the news.

***Seriously. There's not enough time at those things to cover every university that is there, so you have to focus on the ones you're most interested in. Add to that the complexity of finding universities that have majors that you're interested in --English or Chemistry is easy, finding a university with a Music program that has an Oboist, not so much-- and you've got the makings of a pretty challenging environment.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Well, That was Unexpected

I've been working on Archage for my next review, but midway through my playing of the game they had a server merge. So, there's that little surprise.

And then I discovered that unlike some other games that are F2P where you can create a maximum of 2 toons per server, Archeage gives you a maximum of 2 toons period.

So, my little side exploration into one of the other race options meant that I accidentally locked up all of my toons for the game, so I had to delete that other toon in order to free up the space.

But....

When you delete a toon in Archeage, you have to wait 5 days (or so) for it to clear. I'm not sure if that was due to the impending server merge, but the toon was on a server not affected by the merge so I think this is a regular thing with Archeage.

All in all, Archeage really really REALLY wants your money and has no qualms about really restricting things in odd ways. For all of those people who complain about SWTOR and it's restrictions, at least you're not restricted in toons the way Archeage is.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Mashup Made in Geek Heaven

It's pretty much gone mainstream these days, but Settlers of Catan (now called just Catan) started out was an import here in the US. It was one of the original Eurogames that made it to our shores in the mid 90s* and began the boardgame revolution that we see today.

And Season Seven of the television adaptation of George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice, HBO's Game of Thrones, just ended.

So what do I find when flipping through the big Con book from Gen Con? This:

The oldest mini-Red freaked out
when I texted her this.
Its a shared venture between Fantasy Flight Games (which holds the Game of Thrones license) and Catan Games. Here's the info on FFG's website.

Let the geeking out commence.





*Our copy dates from roughly 1996.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Time for the Lottery Drawing

Things have changed a bit in 30 years, but dorm life apparently isn't one of them.

Sure, there's wifi (and network access in general), newer washing machines, smartphones*, and air conditioning**, but the dorms are filled with students, and students haven't exactly changed much over the years.

Our oldest mini-Red is now at university, living in a dorm with three other women. I've heard the common complaints ("classes are overwhelming at times") and emergency requests that comes with life from someone in music/band ("I need my flip folder sent to me so that I'm ready by Saturday's game"), but I've also heard items that are closer to a modern sensibility ("wifi sucks" and "I need to get this program loaded but the instructions for installing it are all screwed up").
"Hey Lazlo! Wanna see a demonstration of gravity?"
The dorm wasn't too far off this, but with a LOT
more cinder block and a lot less graffiti.
From Real Genius (1985) and getyarn.io.
By comparison, when I attended college you couldn't connect to the university owned network from your dorm or rented house until my junior year. And even then, you needed a modem to handle the dial-up connection.*** The internet? Ha! Good luck with that, because it was the province of only the professors and a few lucky students who could use the net for research purposes. (Remember, the web itself was about 7-8 years away.) The concept of using a word processor to write up a paper was still pretty alien, as very few students had computers that could even handle a word processor. I was lucky that my Freshman roommate had a Commodore 64 and a printer, but until I reached my Junior year I frequently relied upon my old Smith Corona electronic typewriter to write my reports.****
We still have my wife's old Smith Corona around.
I haven't seen mine in decades. From ebay.com.

The Commodore 64 --and, to a lesser extent, the Apple IIe-- were what my fellow students frequently had if they had any computer or game console at all in their dorms. The NES was still a rare find on campus as most students couldn't afford to have one in their dorm --you more often found a hand-me-down Atari 2600 than an NES-- so the C64 was also the primary games machine for a lot of students.*****
There are times when I really do miss this
machine. Considering they were built like
tanks, I suppose I could find one
if I really wanted it. From Pinterest.

While I have very fond memories of my roommate's C64 --it introduced me to Ultima IV and Infocom games such as Planetfall-- the gaming landscape today is a wee bit different than thirty years ago. Among other things, tech's integration with society has had a huge impact on the public's perception of gamers. The very concept of being a gamer has much more acceptance today than it did in the 1980s, when "gamer" as a slang or descriptive term really didn't exist.

What we call gamers today were basically lumped into generic bucket of "nerd" activities. Played D&D? Nerd. Played video games? Nerd. Owned an actual game console? Nerd. Was into science? Nerd. Was into computer science? Nerd. Watched cartoons? Nerd. Read comics? Nerd. Was into science fiction and fantasy? Nerd.
Life is hell when the Alpha Betas are in charge
of the frat council. From Revenge of the Nerds (1984).
From giphy.
Sure, those activities are still nerdy, but the term "nerd" was much more pejorative back then. Today, video games are big business. So are boardgames and pencil-and-paper RPGs. The list of top grossing movies dating back to (roughly) 2000 has been an 80's nerd's paradise. Hell, even MTV, that purveyor of hipster teen/twentysomething coolness, has had SF/F shows on their lineup.

All this has translated into today, where having a dorm roommate who plays video games or D&D isn't so out of the ordinary.

***

When I arrived at my dorm my freshman year, I walked past the hallways of people carrying boxes into their own rooms. Some had begun putting up posters of rock bands, hot bikini babes, and odes to greed.
Yeah, like this. This and the posters of Budweiser
swimsuit models pretty much scream '80s.
From Yahoo.

I walked into my dorm room, and there were a few boxes set neatly to one side. A signed photo of Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, sat on the two person desk next to a pair of prom photos. My roommate came through the doorway carrying a milk crate of stuff that had a copy of Dragon magazine on top, and I grinned. I was with another member of my tribe.******

This cover, actually. I remember the Mystic
College article very well. From rpg.net.

Fast forward to the other week when the oldest mini-Red was getting settled into her dorm, she put up a few posters --Rogue One among them-- and her roommate began talking about the copy of Smash Up that the mini-Red had tossed onto her bed. Thirty minutes later they were discussing D&D 5e and maybe getting a campaign together.

I wore a silly grin for the next five minutes.

As I later texted my brother-in-law, "Sometimes, you just win the roommate lottery."




*The dorm that the oldest mini-Red lives in was built in the 50s/60s and had places for telephones hung on the wall. But --surprise surprise-- those phones are now gone. If your kid doesn't have a cell at this point then they can't call anybody without a laptop or tablet using Skype. Of course, some teenagers might read this and think "Who CALLS anybody anymore?" I guess I'm getting old...

**One of the universities we visited during the selection process was my and my wife's alma mater. During the group tour it came out that yes, we were alumni, and one of my fellow parents asked me what I thought of the dorms that they were presenting. "I'm amazed that they have air conditioning," I replied. "All of the main dorms didn't have A/C when I was here."

"What do you remember the most?"

"The smell. Imagine 40-50 guys on one floor, with no A/C, and the smell of sweat and dirty clothes. It got really fragrant at times."

***My housemates and I my senior year pooled our money and splurged on a second phone line so we wouldn't tie up the main phone by connecting to the university.

****Remember Wordstar? It was a competitor to Wordperfect at the time, and it's software could fit onto one 5.25" floppy disk with enough space for your papers. That meant if I had access to a PC around campus, I could pop in the floppy, start Wordstar, and work on a paper. It did have one major flaw in that if you got too eager and began to pull the floppy before it completely stopped spinning, your data file would get corrupted. I sadly discovered this the night before my final in my Advanced Lab class, where I lost 3 lab reports at 11 PM. The data was there, but unrecoverable. I had to rewrite those 3 reports --each report 20-25 pages long-- plus the one that was unwritten by 8 AM. I still don't know how I managed to write about 80 pages in one night, but I was so hyped up on coffee, adrenaline, and sheer terror that after I turned in all the papers I simply couldn't get myself to calm down and sleep for another 4 hours.

*****The NES back in 1987 ran typically from $100-150, with the deluxe set $179. In 2017 dollars, that's $220-330 for the commonly found versions of the NES and $400 for the deluxe set (courtesy of the inflation calculator at saving.org). These numbers are pretty much in line with what a new PS4/XBox One/Switch costs in 2017.

******You can buy those milk crates --even though they don't hold milk anymore-- at all of the discount stores such as Target and Walmart. Another nod to things that never change.

And for the record, yes, we did have some non-geeky posters on the wall too. Like the obligatory 6 foot tall poster of Samantha Fox. Yes, THAT poster. And yes, when my parents visited my dorm room later that year, I thought my mom was going to have a heart attack. (They never even noticed the D&D stuff tucked in a corner.)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Years in the Bunker

In case you hadn't noticed, Ophelie of Bossy Pally is back posting after an extended hiatus. She's been focusing on single player games these days, and she's been working her way through the Mass Effect series.

Her most recent post was about single player versus multiplayer games, their profitability, and the potential future of Mass Effect titles. While I think that ME will make a return after the bones of the system (the Frostbite engine in particular) are fleshed out enough to accommodate the RPG that Bioware wants to create, the lure of cashing in on ME style multiplayer might pull the game in a direction that fans of Bioware RPGs might not like.*

That said, a link to this article by Kotaku author Jason Schreier really caught my eye. It was a detailed article on the development process for ME:A, and everything that went wrong in development. (TL;DR: a LOT went wrong.) Schreier even mentions in the article that it was amazing that ME:A actually shipped at all, given all of the issues with the development process.

But for me, reading the article felt like deja vu.

***

As I alluded to in a previous post about the potential issues of new software releases, I worked for several years in a software development house. Those five years were some of the best years of my life, when I worked hard for bosses that both pushed me beyond what I thought my limits were and yet respected my effort and output. I made some friendships that are still going strong today, and the skills I learned during my years in the barrel (so to speak) still serve me well today.

But those five years were also among the most stressful I ever experienced.

When you're on the inside of a development house there is an occasional tendency to get consumed with the work that's right in front of your face. Teams who work together day in and day out develop the feeling that their (piece of the) project is the most important part and frequently miss warning signs. But if you can break out of that silo, you can also see a train wreck coming a mile away. Sometimes it's salespeople who overpromise to critical customers without asking in advance "can we do this?"; sometimes it's the defection of critical personnel that a company had relied upon for years as a hero to fix the emergencies at the last second; other times it might be the promotion of people who prove to be incompetent at managing a development team; and then there's the occasional directive from the top to change direction in a project. Sometimes you might just get three or even all four.

I've been in good releases and bad releases, but the one that still haunts me is the last release I was involved in, which was a real shitshow.

This particular release was a perfect storm of overcommitments to customers, loss of senior staff to higher paying jobs**, an inflexible deadline set by said commitments, and major stability issues with the development environment. In spite of all of the (new) development staff we had, there were personnel shortages during the entire release cycle as the company had underestimated the new devs' capabilities.*** I was our team's representative on the weekly release meeting, and every week there were major complaints from all of the QA teams about the quality and stability of the product. We felt that the product needed at least 2 months to straighten out all the bugs, but we were informed by upper management that was simply not possible.

Things were so bad that they had to create a tiger team dedicated to simply having a workable daily environment for devs to code with, because every other day it seemed like some new code change would crash the entire system. I got drafted into that team for a couple of months, and I lost a lot of sleep because my pager (remember them?) would go off multiple times a night letting me know that a build had failed and we needed to find what code change broke the system.

In the end, you can kind of guess what happened: the product shipped, it was incredibly buggy, and the company took a lot of flak for it. A year and a half later, the company was gutted of "overpriced personnel" and sold to a competitor.****

So yeah, I know what it's like to be in Bioware's shoes with the result of the ME:A release.

***

The thing is, the development cycle didn't have to be that way.

Blizzard is practically alone in not announcing a release date until it feels that the software is ready to go. But that's because while Blizzard has given themselves a ton of goodwill from the gaming community over the years, they have also their reputation as a producer of good and stable games at stake. Of course, they have had their share of release fiascos lately --such as Diablo III and Overwatch-- so they're not immune to problems either. But I do believe these issues also stem from the pressure that Activision is placing on Blizzard to release on a regular schedule, in much the same way that ME:A would have benefited from an extra year of work rather than release on a date set long in advance (whether internally by the staff or externally by the suits).

The ME:A release disaster was another perfect storm of staffing, management, focus, new tech, and time. And the Bioware Montreal office paid the ultimate price by being shut down and absorbed into EA Motive. But this disaster should be used by Bioware to focus on the weak points and improve them, not to go and hide. Shelving the (single player) Mass Effect franchise would be the wrong solution to the problems of ME:A.

Now, if only the suits would let Bioware work out the solutions...





*Think of it this way: Blizz was known for the Diablo, Warcraft, and Starcraft franchises. Now, along comes Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, and Overwatch. The money that Blizz gets out of the latter three have muscled aside the original three, and so guess where the development dollars go? While WoW still pumps out content but it is no longer the star of Blizzard's lineup, and that means that WoW will take a back seat to content for the new titles, which are correspondingly cheaper to develop and maintain. (Such as a lack of story content to the level that WoW/Diablo/Starcraft have.)

**This was the late 90s, when the original dot com bubble was inflating rapidly. I knew several of these people very well, and almost all of them cited the desire to a) make more money and b) feel appreciated. While this may sound at odds with my statement as to how I was respected, you have to realize that these people had been taken for granted by management that they'd be around to clean up everyone's messes. They'd been around for a decade or longer, and they'd realized that the internet revolution was passing them by, so they jumped ship.

***The new devs also had an alarming lack of discipline. If they were assigned to work on boolean logic issues, we'd frequently find them deep within the mathematical algorithms instead, claiming that they wanted to see where the bug led them. We had to explain numerous times that it's not your job to worry about the algorithms, we have an entire math team to handle that. Hand the bug off to them and let them deal with it. Curiosity is one thing, but when you've got 10 bugs to work on and you need to get them fixed in 3 days you don't have the luxury of drilling down past the code you know.

****By then I'd already left the company, as everybody could see that the CEO was going to cash in by selling us and getting his golden parachute.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fifty is Nifty

Hard to believe a little wargamer get together has evolved into this:

From Geekdad.com. And yes, I've been there, just
not on a Thursday right before the opening.
Or this:

From icv2.com. I was in there... somewhere.

But Gen Con turns 50 this year, and the geeks have descended upon Indianapolis.

If you were, like me, hoping to go to Gen Con 50 and you don't have a ticket, you're out of luck. All of the tickets for Gen Con 50 sold out this week, and the tickets for Thursday (the first day) and Sunday (Family Fun Day) sold out well in advance.

I'm reduced to watching livestreams from places such as Boardgame Geek's twitch.tv stream, but I don't mind. I'm just happy that my clan has showed up to game in numbers not seen before at Gen Con.

If you want to see the BGG twitch.tv livestream, here you go:

Watch live video from BoardGameGeekTV on www.twitch.tv