Another MMO Commentary…

One of the very first posts I did on this blog was a review of Star Trek Online. It was scathing at times and a bit harsh. I still mostly stand by it despite the progress the game has made since then. More on that later. Since that time, I touched on DC Universe Online, which, I should note, I haven’t touched since that post. When World of Warcraft’s Mists of Pandaria came out, I said… nothing… I was too busy playing the hell out of it. But somewhere in there, I missed Star Wars The Old Republic. This was deliberate, but I’m correcting that now.

There are two major reasons that I didn’t touch the game, The Old Republic, before now: I had personal, if petty, issues against BioWare (the developer) and I couldn’t afford another game subscription. So I never bought the game. There are additional reasons, mind you; I didn’t like the art style, still don’t like some of the play mechanics, and I didn’t particularly want to play in the Old Republic era of the Star Wars universe. Now that the game is free to play, I thought I’d give it a shot this week, and long story short, I’m coming down mostly positive on the game. I’m not going to say it’s flawless or even that I’ll play it long term, but I’ll say this much: BioWare knows how to make games and it can be an enjoyable experience.

I suppose I should explain my beef with BioWare. Back in 98 and 99, I started tinkering around as a programmer on an operating system called BeOS; I won’t go into that here and now, but it was a great little operating system and BioWare was pledging to support it with the new Dungeons and Dragons game Neverwinter Nights. Well, the client was never released and I was and am fine with that. I played the hell out of NWN under Windows and Linux, and I was happy with it. But suddenly around 2004, they were done with it, and handed the franchise off to someone else, which left me and the other players hanging. Fine. Then they got the rights to develop Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, and because they were nice and cozy with Microsoft and only interested in Windows development, really, they made it Xbox exclusive.

There’s one thing that you should know about me. I am very much anti-Microsoft. I am an Xbox 360 owner. I do use Windows (among other operating systems) on my computers. But I have no love for Microsoft particularly for their actions that led to the downfall of Be, the maker of BeOS, my employer from 2000 through August 2001. That deserves an unverifiable fact filled rant of its own, but I needed you to know why I began to despise BioWare.

Suffice it to say that they made themselves appear as a Microsoft exclusive developer and I wanted no part of that. Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Mass Effect came out as Xbox exclusives and pissed me off. When I finally caved and got a 360 (after I got my PS3, mind you) I got Mass Effect  and was very dissatisfied with the play mechanics. This brings us to The Old Republic. (Off subject but for the record, my 360 is pretty much a paperweight; I got it to play a few select 360 only games with friends, but I mostly use my PS3 or PC for gaming, Netflix, etc.)

When The Old Republic trailer was released I thought it looked great, but something obvious was nagging me. They’d used a lot of near photo-realistic action in the trailer, but I didn’t think any of it was using in-game footage. And I was right. Later when they revealed the in-game footage, everything had a much more cartoony look and feel to it. In fact, it’s still a bit cartoony now. Frankly, I hated that for the game, and I still don’t like it much. For Star Wars. Cartoony is OK if it works; I wouldn’t want it in all my games, especially not Star Wars or Star Trek Online. There’s a certain connection you build with franchises that have used live actors in live action films, you expect to see live actors or near photo-realism in games based off of them. That’s what I wanted and expected out of The Old Republic, and I didn’t quite get it. The game that I’ve played for the last few days isn’t as bad graphically as I thought it would be, but it’s not as good as I had hoped. But graphics aren’t everything.

The game play in The Old Republic is very reminiscent of WoW, but then again, it would be hard not to be. The control scheme is fairly simple and straight-forward, uses a number of the keys and mouse in a common sense sort of way. I have no gripes about that per se. There was something in the original announcement that made me cringe with regards to the controls, but either they since changed that or it’s not as bad as I thought it would be… Whatever it was, I can’t remember it and I haven’t yet run into it. So I’ll leave that alone. But there is one thing that I keep running into that fucking drives me nuts… Every now and then, when I’m running along with my finger on the W key to move forward, and I adjust my view slightly with the mouse, the entire view kind of flips in a weird way and I end up running my character in the opposite direction I was just headed, and the camera is staring up at my character from below. It could be me doing something, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a weird bug that hasn’t been significant enough for anyone to complain about. Well, here I am, complaining about it.

Beyond that, my biggest problem with The Old Republic is the fact that it’s set thousands of years before the Star Wars events I know so well. I can’t tell you how many Star Wars novels I’ve read; it’s certainly a number measured in the dozens. I read the entirety of the New Jedi Order series and all of the ones that followed it to date. I read the X-Wing saga, and all the Timothy Zahn books, and quite a few of the Republic Commando books by Karen Traviss. I know that Star Wars. I have even read some of the books from the Old Republic days, including Darth Bane Path of Destruction. I’m familiar with a great deal of legend and lore in the Star Wars universe, even if I don’t know the details. It would have been entirely possible to make a game called The Old Republic that was set much closer to the more modern events, but BioWare chose to go old school. There are hints of things familiar all through out the game, and I guess that’s what keeps me playing and interested so far, but by the same token, there’s nothing keeping me excited about the game. Every time I think about it, I think “Meh, it’s alright.” And that’s just it, it’s alright. I can think of worse ways to spend your time, but I wouldn’t give it a raving review. Would I subscribe to it? Perhaps if I had a paying job, but as that’s not the case, I’m going to enjoy the free-to-play aspects as much as I can. I have a rant coming up on free-to-play, so stick around.

In the nearly three years since I wrote the review on Star Trek Online, it has changed a lot. You can now, for instance, visit your ship’s bridge and move around the ship. Quests are often a little more complex and interesting. There are more moments that make you feel like you have an awesome ship, especially when you get to the top rank, level 51 Vice Admiral. (Which, by the way, I have been since July 2010, a little more than a month after my review, and in that time there has been absolutely no level cap increase!) In the last year or so, they added the ability for fleets (the game’s term for guilds) to have a starbase that gets improved through the contributions of the fleet’s members. They added duty officers which perform tasks that earn various rewards and abilities as you go through the “ranks” of assignments. Most importantly, they fixed a shitload of bugs! But the biggest fundamental problem still remains… The game is still mostly boring, and I still don’t bother to read most of the missions. For the most part, it’s still “go here, kill that, scan this, report your findings.” I suppose I should cut STO a break… That’s pretty much the standard procedure in almost every MMO, so why should I be so hard on it? I’ll put some thought into it and get back to you on it. Nonetheless, there’s little that draws me to the game. Late last year, I did spend a considerable amount of time in it, trying to get new ships and, now, try to help out the fleet I joined recently.

What probably angers me more than anything else is the fact that I spent in excess of $200 to become a lifetime member, and the game is now free-to-play. Sure, there are perks to being a lifetime member, but I hate receiving these fucking “lockboxes” as rewards, then having to spend the Cryptic/Zen points that I receive as a monthly stipend (or bribe to keep playing) to get it. And you know what? Even though various special ships are supposed to be in some of those lockboxes, I haven’t gotten one yet! That’s the only reason I open the damned things! Any way, free-to-play may have saved STO, but I would also contend that it’s ruined it… Again, more on that in a bit.

Another problem I have with STO is the fact that it’s hiding two separate and distinct game engines tied together, and that isn’t working terribly well. I had a fairly long conversation with one of my best friends, Maxx, today about STO and the many places they went wrong. He believes that they went wrong in not following the J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise, and that game play should have included things like doing a space jump onto the drilling rig, as seen in the film, and fighting on it. I found myself in the odd position of defending STO because the game engines just couldn’t handle it. And that’s the part of the problem with STO. Cryptic sold the copyright/license holders on a great concept that was way too long in coming, and then they did a half assed job in putting it together by developing a new game engine for the space combat and travel, and married it to a game engine they already had that wasn’t really up to the task. Instead of building a game engine specifically for STO, with games offering all sorts of capabilities like Assassin’s Creed out on the market, they chose to limit themselves to what they thought Star Trek should be and/or has been. They saddled us with space game-play that has no option for legitimate 3D maneuvering; true that most people would probably prefer 2D or even the 2.5 -ish that we have, but there are those of us that would love to have 3D maneuverability! They then combined it with a lame ground game-play engine which, after three years after release, still isn’t as smooth as it should be. There’s a lengthy (20-60 seconds depending on the day) while the game switches between these two distinct engines! Not to mention there are terrible issues like not being able to actually enter most buildings on away missions. How do they usually handle it? You click on the doors and wait while the game loads the new area! There’s no running back and forth between areas for the most part, except in a few lucky zones in the game. You can run back and forth into and out of almost all buildings in The Old Republic!

I personally love the fact that they continued on with the original timeline in the Star Trek universe (which is mainly what our argument was about), but Cryptic really fucking dropped the ball with the implementation of the game. Another direction they could have gone, which Maxx and I agreed upon, was that you could have played as a crewman on-board a ship, doing your job and getting called upon for away missions or repelling boarding parties. You would advance through the ranks until eventually you get assigned to be a part of the bridge crew, and your career would culminate in becoming captain of your ship! But what did we get? Once you’re done with the tutorial missions,  you are the captain of your vessel with a rank of Ensign. Yeah, I pointed out that ultimately, everyone wants to captain their own ship, but in a five minute span of sitting in the Sol System (the main Federation base around Earth), you can probably count a hundred or two hundred ships warping into or out of that system. Does everyone really need to have their own ship?

Honestly, I think what happened, looking back at it, is that Cryptic had hoped to make some quick money with STO and then shut it down when it wasn’t successful. That explains the lifetime memberships like mine: a quick and easy $200, plus a lot of other people paying $30-$60 for the game, and then monthly fees to boot. Even before they went free-to-play, they were selling ships and some other stuff. They were probably hoping for a quick buck then were going to get out of the Star Trek franchise and licensing. But there was enough interest and support to keep them in it, until they got bought, and now they are stuck with it as a part of Perfect World Entertainment. I really do think that they dropped the ball so fantastically on this game that it had to have been deliberate. I’ve got no evidence, but the way it functions seems to indicate it. I think that’s why it’s improved over the last year or so; the developers that were expecting to drop it at some point are now realizing that they’re stuck with it, and are getting around to fixing the problems. But ultimately, it’s still two lame game engines married to each other. If they’re going to make this turkey a swan, they’re going to have to scrap the current two-engine design and build one custom one from scratch. Otherwise STO is doomed to remain a black sheep of the Star Trek legacy.

Any way, this brings me to DC Universe Online… I took a look at the game on November 3, 2011, and wrote the commentary on my trouble getting into the game at that time. I would have sworn I wrote an actual review, but I don’t see it… Maybe I put it up elsewhere, or simply deleted… No matter… I didn’t like the game much. I had problems with it all over the place, and didn’t load it again. Until a few minutes ago, when I decided to try to take another look at it for this commentary. That’s when I downloaded a 140 MB patch which, like last time, was followed by a much bigger content patch. This time it was about 7 GB of data it wanted to download. As I wasn’t going to be able to finish that tonight and play it before I finished this lengthy commentary, I’m skipping it, and probably won’t attempt to load the game for another year or more…

All of this brings me to the first and best MMO I personally have and currently play, World of Warcraft. WoW has its critics. There are tons of people griping about it all the time. Hell, I saw people complaining about it while running around this last week in both STO and The Old Republic! It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that murdered the previous 600 pound alpha male, Everquest, and left it to rot in the woods… (Yes, I know Everquest is still around and got some reasonably impressive upgrades recently, but it was never one of my games.) The fact of the matter is that you can’t talk about MMO games without at least mentioning or comparing it to World of Warcraft. Why not? Because it’s that good. Blizzard (I refuse to call them by their new Activision enabled name) developed a crown jewel of a game years ago, and have polished it repeatedly over the years. Yes, the characters and environments are cartoony, but that’s acceptable for the game: it’s never had a live action movie or television show. Not to mention it fits in with the rest of the game franchise. A while back, WoW went free to play for its first 20 levels or so, but it doesn’t matter, because Blizzard isn’t using free to play as its primary way of making money off the game, but as a demo or trial period for the game…! They want to get you hooked on playing it and the subscribe! And you know what? The latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria, makes a compelling argument for subscribing!

Although Pandaria is obviously inspired by and influenced by Chinese culture and environment, perhaps some of the other Asian countries as well, the thing that makes it such a success is that the storylines used in the quests are fascinating! They tell stories through out the quests and the actions you undertake in-game. You feel like you’re advancing the storyline yourself, not just watching it happen around you. You participate in the events, and even though you may be an utter bad-ass, there’s always a challenge to the game. The game makes you want to explore, and find all the details they put into it. Yeah, there are silly things in it, and sometimes I got pissed off playing it, but I wanted to play it every day for a long while after MoP got released! In fact, I did from September through November, when I decided that I needed to play STO for a while. WoW isn’t and probably never will be perfect; I can’t stand the fact that they keep rewriting the damned skill system and that certain abilities my rogue has had since 2005 are now gone, but, fuck, I love this game! I love the fact that, during development, it was determined that loading screens should be minimized! I’ve run characters from top to bottom of continents without ever seeing a loading screen, or in the case of the Ghost Lands, only having seen one loading screen. That lends credence to the world aspect of the game. One of the things I hated about watching my friends play Everquest was watching them reach an obvious wall between zones that triggered a loading screen… You almost never get that in WoW; the key exceptions are when going into instances/dungeons or from continent to continent. I can live with that. It shows that someone thought that loading screens were irritating, and wanted to eliminate them. More games need to do eliminate them! You can’t go an hour in STO, unless you ‘re in a fleet action, without hitting a loading screen. And I’m being way too generous in that statement. Blizzard, thank you for MoP, I hope the next expansion is just as well thought out and detailed!

About Free to Play…

Now here’s the thing about free to play: it’s both a boon and a curse to MMOs. Naturally, almost all games are made with the premise and hope of making money. Most MMOs are developed with the subscription monetization game plan: sell subscriptions to repay the investment costs and to bankroll the continued development and support of the game. That works out great in the case of games like World of Warcraft: they earn tons of money that way, and most MMO games start off as subscription only. Maybe they have a trial period maybe they don’t. Maybe they offer lifetime subscriptions because they’re secretly hoping to leave their players high and dry in a couple years, but fail to act on that plan successfully because they get bought out first…

Along comes the concept of microtransactions and the sale and purchase of in-game content and abilities, and suddenly companies get the idea that they can make more money that way than they can through subscriptions. Sometimes that’s true, as is the case with a number of games out of South Korea. (I’ll be damned if I can name one; nine times out of ten they’re advertised on the side of your popular web comics and gaming sites though.) Most of the time, they keep games that would have otherwise have died a cruel or premature death, games like three of the four MMOs I’ve touched on in this commentary, up and running. In some cases, they make the game significantly more popular, as those that would never have purchased the software and then subscribed to it now have the opportunity to do so. That’s the good and beautiful aspect of it. WoW capitalizes on it, and gets new subscribers out of it. If I had a job, I’d consider the same thing for The Old Republic. I’m on the verge of vowing that STO will never get another dime out of me, but as I’m already a lifetime subscriber and never have to pay them another dime, I don’t see the point in making the vow. I’m fully in support of games being self-sufficient in these terms; they should be able to make income and survive, even if it is a niche game.

But the dark and evil side of it is that some games nag the living hell out of their free to play users! I haven’t seen what WoW does, but STO annoys the shit out of me, a lifetime subscriber, with options to buy stuff. I couldn’t tell you how many different currencies are in STO, but I know you can buy with dilithium with real money which can be used to buy ships and equipment in-game, or be sold for the energy credits which can be used to buy other stuff. I also know you can buy Cryptic/Perfect World’s cryptic/zen points which allows you to buy still other stuff, including “master keys” to unlock the goddamned lockboxes I mentioned earlier. Lifetime members receive a stipend of 500 cryptic/zen points every month to do with as we please, but when you’ve stockpiled 30-50 lockboxes in a short period (and I did!), and the keys cost 150 points each, you can’t exactly run around unlocking all the fucking things to get the real reward they promise… And I’d like to reiterate that I’ve opened quite a few of the damned things, and still have never gotten a ship out of one. Why aren’t the fucking keys given as quest rewards on occasion?

And you know what? In some ways, The Old Republic is even worse! No matter what class you play, no matter what race you choose, there is a big fucking orange coin sitting at the top of your screen. You can see it in the gallery below. That lets you buy an in-game coin which in turn will let you buy better weapons and equipment, and unlock other things, such as different playable races, and CARGO SPACE IN YOUR FUCKING SHIP! That’s right, my level 15 bounty hunter has her own ship, but she can’t just leave anything in her inventory on-board her ship, because she has no cargo space! She has to carry it all around with her unless I spend the money to buy the cargo space! Even STO gives you a certain number of free bank slots! I tried to get a screenshot of the screen on-board the ship demanding 80 coins for the cargo slots, but, oddly, you can’t take screenshots on-board the ship! Could it be because they don’t want you sharing the fact that you’re nagged repeatedly about either subscribing or buying upgrades? I can’t tell you the number of times I was presented with a quest reward that never appeared in my inventory, but whose icon gave a message to the effect of “if you were a subscriber, you’d have some options for this reward.” What it effectively does is say “fuck you, you don’t actually get to have this reward until you pay us.” I suppose that’s fair, to some extent, but why not just give me nothing? Why not as part of the mission/quest completion just say “A reward for this quest is provided to subscribers” instead of giving me an item that disappears before reaching my inventory? If there’s one great flaw with The Old Republic as I see it currently, it’s the free to play system is fucking annoying.

Make money on the game, I don’t care. Make money through the use of free to play, again, I don’t care. But stop being so fucking annoying about it!

Sheesh! Ok, I’ve just pissed myself off about that again, so I can’t think of a better reason not to end this commentary. They talk about the in-game advertising that’s been on its way for a long time. Maybe that’s a good way to make money on games. I don’t know. But in terms of what I’ve seen of free to play, it almost defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place. No one wants to be nagged constantly about upgrading or buying this or that thing that by all rights they just earned in-game. So we’re getting to play for free… Who cares? We’re playing a game that you are making money on, that’s all that should matter to you. You should at least be a little more respectful of our desire to not be bombarded with reminders that we’re being blessed with your work at no charge. Give us something worth seeking out to buy in-game, rather than presenting us with non-stop nag features. If that doesn’t satisfy you, give us the damned in-game commercials like television has. Instead of a bland loading screen, subject us to the occasional 30 second commercial from Coke or Pepsi, Apple or Google, and leave the game play and game experience the hell alone.