Following a tough act: Elder Scrolls Online

A daunting task: launch a successful MMORPG in the shadow of World of Warcraft.

Even in it’s decline, the 10 million+ subscriber megahit from Blizzard Entertainment leaves a crater of expectations for future titles.

Fearing no bar set too high, Bethesda & Zenimax Online aim to launch the multi-GOTY earning Elder Scrolls series into the MMO gaming space in 2013 with Elder Scrolls Online. From the preview shown at E3 2012, it is built on the sum of many good, old ideas, a few new ideas, and a wealth of first generation MMORPG development experience. The team includes veterans from Sony Online Entertainment (EverQuest, Starwars Galaxies) and Mythic Entertainment (Dark Age of Camelot).

The Elder Scrolls series, which includes Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, takes place in Tamriel, a rich fantasy world with lore that spans 18 years of award-winning single player RPGs dating back to 1994 when “Elder Scrolls Arena” was released. Few other fantasy franchise can boast such detail, and few others would be scrutinized as closely by fans protective of a world they grew up gaming in.

A central feature of Elder Scrolls Online revealed at E3 2012 is the PVP system, which shows the development team’s love for the three-kingdom epic scale combat that made “Dark Age of Camelot” popular. The similarities may end there though, based on how the active combat system has been described.

Creative development leads teased fans with descriptions of it’s active combat system and cross-class combination attacks. Gone are the messy UI, complex cooldown cycles and rows of action hotkeys. Players instead take more direct control over each weapon swing and shield blocks, perhaps similar to the high-action combat in Skyrim. Certain special abilities may have cooldowns but were also described as further enhancements to the active, reactive combat systems. The cooperative nature of the combination attacks players can perform together promise a more social online gaming experience.

Other key features talked about at E3 went further to highlight the focus on social aspects of the game. Public dungeons (remember EverQuest?) – the opposite of private, instanced dungeons – will challenge and reward players who work together whether or not they are in a prepared group. It will feature regular instanced dungeons and raids, too, for cooperative groups and guilds.

The biggest impression I got from the material shown at E3 and in interviews afterwards was not based on any one feature they talked about, but rather how deeply the development team seemed to love actually playing the game in it’s pre-beta state. Several times in different interviews they would stop trying to answer “why it’s not like Warcraft” or “why feature B is great” and simply state that we needed to play it to understand.

One final observation that I was very happy to see: support for Mac. Thank you! I look forward to seeing more details (and a beta signup) soon.

Rise – Diablo III Fan Review Part 2

Fire, Brimstone, Fantastic Art Direction. Thankfully, for all its traits both good and bad, Diablo 3’s success is not just skin deep.

First, the bad. While I had no issue logging in to play on the evening of launch day, reports on other forums suggest widespread technical issues spoiled the first impression of many fans. I did run into the occasional glitch my first run through, but far fewer than other recent multiplayer action-RPG titles (Fable 3 comes to mind). No doubt that not being able to log in at all would have been a big disappointment and I hope those issues are resolved now.

The classic title had it’s flaws too, and it’s back and better than ever. Blizzard shows it’s is not too big of a studio to learn something new, and brought more than polish for the occasion. It’s clear that effort went into the plot and stories of the games key characters, adding an unexpected, unobtrusive element of character development that is more than just complimentary. The way the characters interact with the player, and each other, lends to an atmosphere much more interesting than just squishing the hordes of hell (again). The dialog is tailored to the player’s class and gender, which left me eager to play the story through a second time as a different class just to see how the dialog changes. There are five classes. Well played, Blizzard.

About that polish I mentioned- they didn’t hold back there, either. Start with the easily recognized three and a quarter view, nearly 3 dimensional game field that IS Diablo. The hero is small in the center of the view, plunging into hordes of monsters and endless, dark catacombs with eerie mood lighting. No one piece of art is very detailed but as a sum make each setting seem rich, complex. The backgrounds and locations are beautiful and dynamic –  trembling, crumbling, burning and expanding as the hero faces the onslaught. Little of your surroundings are safe from the horrors of combat either, and each wall, table and pile of bones are scattered when struck with realistic physics that are a far cry from just animated crumbling rocks. It creates a very tangible dungeon experience (and more than a few potential achievements).

New to the franchise are the moving watercolor and sketch-style animated sequences that link the sub-stories of each act. They are slightly different depending on your class and gender, enhancing the sense of story. These do not replace the major cut-scenes, long a trumpet of the Blizzard franchise. While there are only four or five of the big production movie scenes, they are breathtaking and easily rival or surpass their Hollywood cousins.

To me, more impressive than the art alone was the art direction. Both prior titles suffered from repetitious environments and monsters despite being more or less random every time you play. Third time’s the charm though. Each dungeon and environment is far from just a new skin on old corridors, and are varied dramatically. Clever camera and perspective manipulation highlight certain encounters. By the third and closing fourth act, the places themselves have built a story that is more than just “tougher monsters in the next dungeon with a boss at the end”. The gorgeous music fits perfectly.

Of course, the art, plot, characters, music and creative direction might keep us playing but it’s the gameplay itself that we bought it for. It’s deceptively easy to pick up and challenging to master. The first play through on “normal” difficulty concludes somewhere around level 30 (results may vary widely based on playstyle), with level 60 being the max. After that you unlock “Nightmare” difficulty, followed by “Hell” and “Inferno”, the latter of which not even the game designers have beat. Each step up, your character starts with all the prior advancement and gear at the beginning of the story against progressively tougher foes, earning even more powerful moves and gear. Diehard fans looking for a much steeper challenge can unlock “Hardcore” mode, in which your character gets just one life to attempt the same feat – die once (even to lag), and the character is gone. Succeed and earn rare achievements, loot and bragging rights.

The combat is a blast, and the monsters and AI are well thought out. The boss encounters are hair-raising and liberally spaced throughout the story. Easily just as challenging are the “elite” monsters randomly encountered throughout the game, which at times can be hard enough to leave you rethinking your strategy while licking your wounds back at your most recent checkpoint. The challenge and AI instantly adjusts to the number of players in your group – it’s not just extra, tougher monsters either. Be prepared to learn how to work together to make effective use of complimentary skills or find yourself quickly overwhelmed by inexhaustible waves of foes. It’s thought provoking, engaging and very fun.

All in all it is a knockout hit – a badly needed success in the action RPG genre, and a big win for Blizzard.

Faithful – Diablo III First Impressions

Dress it up how you like, there is no mistaking Diablo 3’s classic roots. Blizzard plays it safe, sticking to gameplay elements, setting and storytelling that worked the first time. New players are quickly acquainted with the lore and characters at the heart of the original, most successful Diablo title.

Speaking of dressing up – Blizzard didn’t skimp. The new animated sequences are beautiful, and tailored to your character choice no less. The voice acting is above par for a Blizzard title. Better still are the ambient tracks and musical score – each lending to a rich and faithful return to Tristram and the blood-chilling catacombs that lay beneath.

Combat and character advancement is familiar and easy – perhaps the most streamlined, usable of the trilogy. Despite borrowing resource and attack synergy concepts from the massively-complex World of Warcraft playbook, the same clever style is tamed to just a few action hotkeys and your two mouse buttons. All the time you might have spent learning a more complex interface and combat system is far better spent doing what made Diablo so fun – clicking on swarms monsters to kill them.

So far, the multiplayer elements seem to combine both their own experience and lessons learned from other popular titles, as well as the familiar matchmaking of systems like XBOX Live. Players each receive individual loot without worry of competition or messy loot rolls, and grouping with others is refreshingly no-fuss and instantly fun. It is clear Blizzard put extra effort into taking the learning curve and tedium out of these key gameplay elements.

While I have only played through the first bit of the story, it is clear that the hype can be substantiated. Full review after the credits roll.


Cataclysmically Superior

After seven years of reserving the toughest “end game” content for the top 1-5% of players, World of Warcraft “cataclysm” concludes with a raid dungeon tuned for casual players. It’s epic online gaming now available at the drive-through, and it’s good.

Getting there was no easy feat for Blizzard. Historically, dungeons that required five players to complete demanded coordination and communication between teammates, and ten and twentyfive player raid dungeons were challenging enough to exclude the majority of players who did not have the time or dedication to devote to perfecting their characters and gameplay. To attempt the same dungeon with four (or twenty four) other complete strangers was folly. These latter types of groups were dubbed “PUGs”, or “pick up group” and were frequently, famously horrible bad dungeon attempts that would end in frustration.

The carrot, at the time, was to encourage players to team up with friends and make new friends to work together to defeat the toughest content. I could not find reliable statistics, but sources suggested only 1-5% of World of Warcraft players were successful in completing the toughest dungeons from each expansion.

Later, at launch of the most recent expansion “Cataclysm”, Blizzard introduced what seemed like a streamlined PUG making machine, for all horror and apprehension it was worth, called the “dungeon finder” feature. It was a match-making service that automatically paired you up with four other appropriately geared strangers to complete a dungeon, including players from another server. Given that the difficulty of the dungeons at the time rivaled the toughest dungeons from the original game and first expansion (Burning Crusade) this seemed like a fast track to frustration.

This same year marked a sharp decline in Warcraft subscribers – no direct correlation to any particular feature is necessary, some players were just ready to move on after six or more years.

Yet, with a little time and more content, Blizzard fine tuned many aspects of the game to keep it challenging and still friendly to the majority of players. The dungeons were softened up, but were still interesting and extremely accessible. Gear curve finally matched the content and story – if you let the improved quest system lead you to the content, you’d be ready to complete it with a group. In a way, they have “dumbed down” end game character advancement and dungeon roles to help ease more players into the final chapters of the game.

Once adopted, using the dungeon finder ushers your character to the next most challenging set of dungeons once you have sufficient gear. Assuming you learn your characters basic role in a party of five or more people, you will continue to encounter tougher dungeons until you are ready to begin the final three dungeons that tell the expansions closing chapter: The Hour of Twilight.

Following the Hour of Twilight dungeons, and assuming only minor attention to equipping your character with the best gear available from those dungeons, you qualify to use the “Raid Finder” match making service to join in the twenty-five man “easy mode” version of the final raid dungeon: the eight boss sequence concluding in the showdown with Deathwing the Destroyer, the enormous molten metal dragon from the TV commercial. It’s a blast – an “ah-ha” moment for World of Warcraft. Why reserve the “end boss” of a game for only the 1-5% of the most dedicated players? Whatever the reason was seven years ago, it seems short-sighted in comparison.

Blizzard, in the meantime, has been busy in the kitchen. Very busy. With “Diablo 3” and “WOW: Mists of Pandaria” both completing beta soon, and the top-secret “Titan” project coming later, the online gaming pioneer has no plans of fading into history.





RAGE – act one? (spoilers)

Epic, post apocalyptic blank canvas. Id software leaves us wanting more in it’s latest shoot-em up “RAGE”. The successor to the popular Doom and Quake series is built on the long anticipated id Tech 5 engine, which like it’s flagship title is a great start.

RAGE takes place in a barren, near future world ravaged by a meteor impact, where survivors of the armageddon struggle to survive swarms of mutants, and each other.  Your character gets a familiar set of weapons ranging from the indispensable settler pistol, your trusty shotgun and a sniper rifle to more fantastic weapons. For example, once you’ve got the hang of the wingstick, a self returning thrown blade, you’ll keep a few of them handy in all situations. There’s a lot more – a silent crossbow with various bolts including explosive tipped and mind control darts. Remote controlled bomb cars, automated gun turrets, pet sentry robots, EMP grenades and much more.

Each area of the game has a distinct style and several types of opponents including various mutant types and many different styles of bandits. The AI keeps the combat fresh despite the mostly simple smash-and-loot and occasional escort mission style. The enemy tactics, reactions and audio feedback are very well thought out and add rich texture to the combat. The fights are frequently difficult, some with emphasis on learning how to properly use all of your equipment to come up with creative solutions to big, mean and ugly problems. A shooter, well done.

Adding depth between sessions of frantic closed-quarters shootouts is tightly integrated armored vehicular combat. The size and detail of the outdoor world is only more complimented by the relative lack of loading screens, with the exception of the two main quest hub cities. Exploration is rewarded and there are plenty of distractions to keep you busy. Mysterious robot drones hover in various places in the wasteland, and like any post apocalyptic armored buggy driver worth his spit, you are rewarded for finding the correct way to launch your vehicle off available terrain to crash into them. It gets tricky. While the racing mini-games in the main cities themselves are mostly a distraction from the story, they provide a fun way to gear up your buggy for hours of mayhem demolishing bandits in the wasteland. In RAGE, the vehicle game play could stand by itself.

Spoilers here. If you have read any reviews at all, you may have read about the ending, or lack of one. I absolutely loved the game but brace yourself now: there is no boss fight. It’s not even an anti-climax. It just.. ends. If this effect was deliberate, gimme part two already! Without going into the story itself, you could summarize that this was just the beginning of a bigger picture. This was back story, a canvas. It’s primed for downloadable add-on content, or could even make a good stage for an MMO or persistent world.

I felt the amount of time to beat the game without solving the numerous side quests and exploring each optional area to be just right. I’ve read folks beating it in just one day, skipping non-essential content. I could have stayed longer. I look forward to seeing what’s next.

ten year commemorative pen NOT mightier than

…these swords! Blizzard skipped the pens for their employee five, ten and fifteen year commemorative awards. See for yourself:

epic loot!

better late than mediocre

“A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”

In classic Blizzard tradition, the ship date much anticipated sequel “Diablo 3” will be pushed back until early next year, costing them a holiday release. This isn’t news to many fans though, who are used to waiting. In twenty years of genre dominance, I don’t think they have released a major title on time. Or too soon, as it were.

Here is a link to the original Diablo 3 teaser trailer, posted 2 years ago..

Diablo 3 Teaser on YouTube

Few game companies could afford to consistently miss release dates, or delay games for as long as Blizzard has delayed some of it’s titles. At a glance, it would seem that they risk releasing a game that is graphically or technically inferior to competing titles developed to leading edge standards in less time. Yet this has yet to make much of a difference, given that Blizzard titles are comparably “graphics-light” stood next to other eye-popping graphics-heavy competition.  Compare the graphics in the initial release of World of Warcraft next to a number of competing MMO titles that were out about the same time. Starwars Galaxies, Anarchy Online, Asheron’s Call 2 and EverQuest 2 were all very glossy, high end graphics productions. World of Warcraft was cartoony by comparison,  but demanded far less in terms of system requirements and as franchises go; left the competition in the dust.

It later closed the gap in terms of high end graphics support, while still allowing players like me with average hardware to enjoy the game with the extra eye-candy turned off.

Blizzard’s 180 degree turn

Blizzard recently announced it would partner with Paypal to support buying virtual assets with real world currency from other players in the upcoming “Diablo III” in-game auction house.

Read the press release here:

This is a crisp 180 degree turn for Blizzard, who has invested much effort to combat the unauthorized sale of gold, items, characters and accounts in “World of Warcraft”.

Not dissimilar to buying premium content in single player titles like “Farmville” or numerous other successful mobile titles, this will allow players the option of purchasing in-game items they might otherwise not have the time or inclination to earn themselves. It also ups the potential for reward for any player who does acquire very rare in-game content.

Fans are grumbling, but sale of gold and items in World of Warcraft persisted despite ongoing efforts by Blizzard to put a stop to it. Dedicated gold-selling players became increasingly clever, giving rise to various sophisticated tactics used to gain access to other players accounts with intent to sell the virtual belongings for easily transferable gold, which would be sold for real world currency. Such tactics included phishing scams in email or on web sites to trick players to give away their passwords, to much more aggressive malware keylogging viruses such as the one found to have infected a computer aboard the International Space Station. (see following ZDnet article).

Blizzard’s surprise change of policy towards buying gold and items may be a gamble worth taking; by giving malicious gold-sellers legitimate competition.

a theory of fun?

I’ve been interested to read Raph Koster’s “A Theory of fun for Game Design” ever since I saw its title. He is “Designer Dragon” of Ultima Online fame and was Chief Creative Officer for SOE’s “Starwars Galaxies” when it was at it’s peak. Both games were groundbreaking just over a decade ago – peerless in some respects. They both also saw rise of key challenges still faced by game designers today.

Ultima Online practically invented PVP combat in an MMO, and saw the birth of many social (and anti-social) phenomena that rose from competitive, anonymous player vs. player interaction. Most of the actual software written to govern anti-social behavior in UO was written after the initial game was finished. (which was the groundwork for rules generally assumed to be functional in most future MMO titles). What started as “arm the players to police themselves” with a functional crime and honor system was far insufficient to protect the majority of casual gamers from a very small percentage of players who played only to cause casual gamers grief, interrupt their game play experience, or even cause loss of virtual assets (experience, loot, etc).

Only after peeling back the player vs. player features of the game till they were almost non-present would they casual gamer find peace, at the cost of numerous features previously fundamental to character design. This sweeping redesign changed the game completely, as well as the direction for future content releases.

The same type of problems dogged Starwars Galaxies, despite a promising start that encouraged better division between casual and competitive players. Numerous game redesigns rendered Starwars Galaxies unrecognizable next to its original released form.

EverQuest (also a SOE title worth it’s own series of blogs, which built on the success of UO in the same MMO space) had a very interesting faction-and-deed-based system of player vs. player combat and character advancement, but that system was more or less abandoned soon after release and today features mainly cooperative and solo play.

Fast forward ten years. “World of Warcraft”, easily the most successful MMO ever, polished “optional” Player vs. Player combat as both separate from cooperative player vs. environment advancement and occasionally tightly integrated. Even still, game dynamics that govern PVP in WoW are in constant flux and have been central to a few minor redesigns. Warcraft raised the “fun” bar very, very high. It will take a truly kingly title to ever rival Blizzard’s runaway success.

I am interested to see what Raph has to say about fun in a game, a decade later, and if it touches on any of the many social aspects of his previous game titles at all. Either way, the future successor to WoW stands on the back of folks like Raph – that is assuming that Designer Dragon doesn’t pen it himself. 🙂

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