Monday, December 19, 2011

Star Wars - The Old Republic: A New Hope

By now, if you're reading this, it's quite likely that you've already played more of Star Wars - The Old Repubic, than I have.  But having played now for a few days, and having taken two characters to level 13, and a third to level 7, I've at least gathered up enough play time to have an impression.  And so I wanted to share some of my own impressions of the game thus far, while recognizing that the challenge here is to try to share something that hasn't already been said in far greater quantity and with far more eloquance in dozens of MMO blogs elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Quest for the Perfect Quest

So Pete Smith of Dragonchasers was ruminating somewhat on the nature of MMO quests in the way they compare to the quests in Skyrim.  His basic assertion was that the Skyrim quests somehow feel more heroic, even though the mechanics for the most part play out the same.  But one thing you don't have to do in the Skyrim quests is keep a running tally in your head on how many you've killed.  And this led me to remembering a very similar thought I had myself the other day with respect to the typical MMO quest mechanics, that I'd been meaning to write up my thoughts on.  So thanks Pete!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine!)

with apologies to REM...

So if you consider yourself of genre blogger of any sort, then whatever genre or industry it is that you concern your opinions and speculations on, occasionally certain watershed moments come along, and it is mandatory that you talk about them.  In the MMO genre, the news that comes out of Blizzard Entertainment's annual fan convention - BlizzCon, fall among those.  And for this year, more specifically, Blizzard's most recently announced expansion to World of Warcraft - The Mists of Pandaria.  (Am I the only one that wants to call it Pandara?)

Now as you undoubtedly know, there has been a great wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the blogosphere over the new expansion.  The first reactions were, nearly as I could tell, pretty much universally negative.  But more recently, I've seen more than a few people start to look at what exactly is being put out here, and come to realize just how much is going to be included in this expansion, and what it might actually mean.  I know for myself, even I rolled my eyes when I first heard Pandaria.  We're all familiar with the original April Fool's joke -- or at least you should be.  And like most people, I found my initial opinions being shaped by the overwhelmingly negative comments I read.  But once I stopped reading other people's opinions, and started reading what they are actually doing -- well the more I read, the more excited I became.  And so now -- well I'm hugely stoked about what's coming down the line for WoW.  So before you continue reading about what I think, if you haven't yet, I encourage you to jump over to the actual site and read what they are saying.  Form your own opinion.

You can find a nice overview of the entire expansion here.  You'll find a more specific discussion on the changes (and reasonings) behind the talent tree changes here.  And there is a great overview of the new Dungeons and Raids here.  Then come back and allow me to talk about why I think this is the absolute best time to return to World of Warcraft.

Panda Race?  Really?
So you don't want to play as a big fluffy teddy bear.  Or maybe you do.  I mean, on one hand you're probably thinking - Good lord they're the panda race!  How ludicrous is that?  But you might also be thinking Yeah but they're friggen Panda Bears!  And either approach is equally valid.  But I invite you to consider this.  When Burning Crusade came out, and we all learned that the new race was going to be based on -- gawd forbid, the Lost Ones, we all moaned loudly and facepalmed.  At that time, the only Lost Ones we had ever seen in the game looked like this:

Who the hell wanted to play that? But when Burning Crusade actually got around to coming out?  We got this:

If there is anyone that can make a race of pandas look cool and badass, I trust the artists at Blizzard to do so.

So much content!
As for myself, honestly, I don't care about the panda race.  I quite likely won't even play one.  And if I do, it will only be to experience their starting zones.  Because did you see what that one article mentioned?  Allow me to repeat it for you:

The continent of Pandaria's unique Asian-inspired landscapes are spread across five new zones for players to explore, as well as a panndaren starting zone and central quest hub.

Holy smokes five new zones!  I'm continuously amazed by the people that go on about how Blizzard is only focusing on changing the game and not providing new things and new content for players.  There is more new shit for players to do, see, and explore in this expansion pack than you can fucking shake a stick at.  And remember, we're talking Blizzard here - you know the art is going to be breathtaking.  Even if your first task in the beautiful new zone is to collect five bronze dragonette statues.. or incense burners.. or whatever.

The Talent System
I'm not going to go into a long winded discussion as to why I think Blizzard's changes to the talent tree are the absolute right thing to do.  Why, regardless of what you might personally think, balance is the most important thing to get right in an MMO, and why I always felt the talent system only ever offered limited choices, and quite often those choices were limited to the choice between playing something broken or not.

I will only offer this.  Say you're not a theorycrafter.  Say you're just a casual Joe that likes to log in, play his character, do some dailies, maybe run an instance or two, (or not), and log out.  When Mists of Pandraia launches - you will know as much about the new talent system as the hardest core theorycrafter.  The talent system is a big 'ol giant reset button.  And for quite some time, new players and veterens alike will be playing with talents, exploring possibilities, and trying out new and different things.  If you know anything about MMO's you know there is no better time to play one than when everything is new, and everyone is trying to figure out how things work.  Every build is equally valid.  No one is telling you Thou Shalt Roll Holy or Die, and you are less pressured than ever to conform to a specific role.  That alone should give you pause for consideration.

Well... ~buffs nails~  As you of course know, it goes without saying that my first Pandarian expansion character will be a hot little Night Elf Monk named Dusty.  Of course.. I'm sure the name is taken.. so it'll probably have to be Dustee, or Dustie, or some such.  I can't take all the credit for the class, of course.. but I'm pretty sure they were thinking of me when they created it.  After all - a melee class that heals?  Say WHA?  Oh and it's a brand new legendary class?  You know that thing is going to be OP like nobodies business coming out of the gate.  I hated Death Knights.  Hated them with a passion, and suffered through months of face palms and rolled eyes as I made my way through Burning Crusade while being mobbed by the legions of Death Knights running across the waters of Zangarmarsh all around me.  Yeah I'm not making that mistake this time buddy.  No sir!  Monk Day One by gawd!

I kid - mostly.  But I have always loved melee dps classes.  My warrior doesn't even known how to hold a shield.  So a melee dps class that might also actually bring some utility to a group besides DPS quite excites me.  I'm hugely looking forward to playing this class.

Pet Battle System? Tchya!
Again, I honestly consider this genious.  First, we all know there are a gazillion people out there that collect pets by the hundreds - literally - hundreds, for no reason at all already.  I'm not one of them.  I have like, 5 pets, and 4 of them were given to me for free by Blizzard for being a happy customer.  Though, I think my Panda Bear pet from the original Deluxe Edition is now going to be solid gold in the expansion.  Oh yes!

But I digress.  When Guild Wars added the polymok game in Eye of the North, at first I poo-pooed it.  I don't need no stinkin' pokemon game in my MMO!  But then I played it. And then I got a few extra figures.  And then I found myself seeking polymok trainers so I could take them on and get their polymoks.. and then.. and then.. yeah, you know the rest.  Again, I'm amazed when I hear people complain that this expansion isn't giving casual players more stuff to do.  Here's a perfect example of a huge potential for tasks, contents, quests, and activities for even the most casual of players - and it has nothing to do with raiding.

Casual Dungeons and PvE Scenarios
I need to find the goods on the PvE scenarios, but as I understand it, they will offer a system similar to current battlegrounds, but focused on PvE content, that you can complete with any class makeup.  And if I understand this correctly, then this again sounds awesome to me.  Especially if this uses the LFG tool, as the LFG tool now allows you to group across servers.  So that means you - over there on Argent Dawn - and me - over here on Ysera - we could get together and run instances together, along with some other random (or not random) folks, without having to transfer servers, and without worrying if we have the exact right class makeup.  What about that can't possibly be good?

Let's Do This!
So yeah, I'm pretty excited.  This is the other MMO that is now making dibs on my time other than City of Heroes right now.  My goal is to have at least one 85, and possibly 3, by the time the expansion hits.  Shouldn't be too hard - my warrior is sitting at 83 right now.  And my rogue and hunter are both in their mid 70's.  There's not a lot to do right now in WoW, and everything you do is going to have a certain lame duck feel to it, to be sure.  But I have to get ready, and I don't know how much time I have!

Even if you think I'm a total idiot and these stupid mists and stupid panda bears are the final death blow to a game that was already on it's last legs, I want to hear from ya!  And if you read this, and suddenly find yourself thinking Hey.. maybe this won't be so bad.. then I especially want to hear from you.  After all -- what's not to like?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spooky Stuff!

So right now I'm in a strange place to be in - there are actually multiple, old MMO's that I am enjoying playing in!  That I'm actually, well, excited about!  I know many of you fear change, and look at the stuff that's coming out for some of your most favorite old MMO's and can't help but think there goes the neighborhood.  But I for one, am loving the stuff that's popping up in some of our oldest virtual worlds, and my only dilemma is which to play right now!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Better Blogger Blogging!

So it's begun!  Part of the reason I moved my blog to Blogger and dropped my WordPress site was the hope of better integration between my blog and Google+, which I think is quickly becoming the social network of choice for just about everyone I know.  It's certainly mine, and where I get most of the discussion on my blog.

So the first thing you can do is to replace your blogger profile with your Google+ profile.  So when people visit your blog, they see your google+ profile, and your posts on Google+, presumably.  This is a pretty small change, but I can see it as an important first step.  In conjunction with this, you can add your blog (and any others you contribute to), to your Google+ profile.  So now your G+ profile points people back to your blog - well that's a good thing! And finally, and this is definitely a plus - your blogs posts show up as posts in your Google+ profile.  Or at least, that's what I'm led to believe.  This little microblog post, which typically would be something I'd just put in my Google+ stream and not actually generate a blog post for, is specifically designed to test this out.

The other thing Google has just added is this kind of cool new Dynamic Views view for the blog.  So for the moment I've eschewed my carefully formatted blog design, and am using this new format.  I'd welcome any feedback you have on whether you like it or hate it.  I'm pretty open to these sorts of things, so just let me know. And if you're interested in trying this stuff out yourself in your own blog, jump here to get started.

Finally, please leave your comments here, instead of in the Google+ thread, if you don't mind.  I know it's easier to generate the conversation right in G+, but I'm still trying to get a feel for how to sort out blog commenting and g+ commenting, so I'm trying some different things.

Next post will be back to game discussion.  I've been playing quite a bit of City of Heroes lately, and have more fun stuff to post up about that.  Plus a certain MMO we're all familiar with has all the bloggers frothing at the mouth about the recent changes they've announced, and I have a few opinions of my own.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of Your Freedom!

With apologies to the Soup Dragons..

City of Heroes has now gone completely free to play, and with the new release and game overhaul (and it is nothing short of just that), is now calling itself City of Heroes Freedom.  I took the plunge this weekend, trying the game out both as a new, free player, and as a returning veteran.  And this morning I've got the goods on what's new, not-so-new, and completely and utterly different in this seven year old MMO.  Carry on past the break to find out if City of Heroes Freedom has what it takes to either bring you back to the streets of Paragon City, or to take a bite out of crime for the first time.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Five Mechanics I Want to See in Blizzard's Next MMO

I had originally entitled this Five mechanics I want to see in my next MMO, but then I realized that really only SWTOR and GW2 are the next major MMO releases in the immediate future, and they are both done, for all intents and purposes, so it's too late to get these in them.  But Blizzard hasn't even officially announced the worst kept secret in gaming, so I'm banking there's still time. I also think Blizzard is the only developer with the ingredients necessary to actually attempt these things.  Those ingredients being (A) Enough cred with their publisher to do whatever the hell they want, and (B) Deep enough pockets to do pretty much whatever the hell they want.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Digital Distribution - Dark Days Ahead

So typically I limit by blogs to game development, and MMO's I might currently be playing.  You know, things I feel at least moderately qualified to talk about.  But you can't be a part of this industry for as long as I have without also noticing how things tend to shift about, and occasionally commenting on them.  Today is one of those times.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Lonely Quester

So I'm bouncing around a bit in a couple of different MMO's.  I've been progressing pretty steadily through the Nightfall campaign in Guild Wars, but the last couple of nights have found me back in Azeroth.  I continue to enjoy my return to WoW, because I'm playing the game on my terms - not the terms of the community.  Not being in a guild, and not having any fixed scheduled playing time are the things that allow me to have this freedom, but it does come with its caveats.

I'm playing WoW the exact same way that, in the past, I have always played WoW.  That is, I'm exploring the continents, while completing quests, to level a character.  Occasionally I foray back into the major towns to acquire skills, practice my professions, place a few items on the auction house, and empty my bags.  Then I return to whatever zone I was working in, and continue to work through the content.  It is the primary method of play I pursue in every MMO that I have ever played, and it is in that play that I have most of my most fond memories of WoW from over the years.  And to Blizzard's credit, as we know, the Cataclysm brought about plenty of changes throughout the land, so even now months, months after its launch, there's still plenty of content for me to see.  And for the most part, I'm having a good time, because it's what I like to do.  There's only one problem.  I'm the only one doing it.

As I travel through the lands, the vast majority of the time I'm the only human in sight.  Towns filled with well meaning, earnest NPC's in trouble.  Creatures patrolling their routes, filling the forests and caves, untroubled by heroes for hours, and even days at a time.  As I play, it's not really hard to see how anyone that tries to return to WoW would quickly become turned off, and leave again, especially if they are coming back on their own.  WoW has lost the very thing that distinguished it from other MMO's at the time of its launch.  And that is the ability to play alone - but with other people.

Think back to when you played WoW a lot, and was having the most fun doing it.  Think about those times that didn't involve you being in a battleground or a dungeon instance.  You most likely remember being in zones filled with people, running about, pursuing quests, and generally participating in the same activities you are, but at their own pace, while you proceed at yours.  Maybe you grouped up, maybe you didn't.  Maybe you felt frustration because of actually having to wait for some particular mob to respawn, or to wait for an NPC to turn himself back into a satyr after the previous quest turn-in turned him into a frog.  When WoW came out and came into its heyday, the designers at Ensemble spent hours and days studying the formula, trying to figure out exactly why it was so completely steamrolling the MMO market.  And at first we all came to the conclusion that is was the quest design, and solo-ability.  But in questioning person after person that had never played an MMO but was playing and staying in WoW, we learned it wasn't just that they had a direction to go in, a purpose to accomplish, but it was that they could do it in a social setting.  That they could be around people, and feel like they were participating in something grand with other people, but not rely on them, and more importantly for many, not feel like those people were relying on them.  Well for the vast majority of the world of Azeroth, while it's as soloable as ever - the second half of that equation - the people, are not there.

So the question is - is it important? Does Blizzard even need to worry about it?  Is it worth their time and money to fix?  Well the actual truth of that matter probably depends on other factors outside of WoW.  Things like how close they are to launching Titan, how successful Diablo III turns out to be, and whether or not they can continue to lose players and yet still operate at a profit with the existing player base.  I don't have the answers to any of those things, so let's assume for the sake of conversation that Blizzard did want to fix them - that it was financially motivated to attempt to extend and perhaps even grow WoW's popularity.  What can they do to combat the leveling-zone ghost town effect?

New Players
A number of other MMO's have fought this starter-zone ghost town problem before, and the ones that were most successful did it by making the barrier to entry non-existent.  That is, they made their previously subscription game free-to-play.  Every system in an MMO works better when their are people to participate in it, and there's no better way to get people to play than to tell them it's free, right?  So Blizzard introduced the New Player Starter Pack, where you can now play the first 20 levels for free.  Done!  Right?  Actually no.  While the starter pack is a nice start, by itself, not only is it not bringing in new players, but without fixing the other broken things about the leveling experience, it's actually counter-productive.

Right now, if a player returns to WoW, (for free) this is their experience:  They create a character, and step into a zone, bereft of other people.  They begin a series of largely uninspired quests, featuring mind-numbingly easy-to-defeat mobs.  If they are a returning player that's been away, they are overcome with a crushing wave of "OMG been here done this" feeling, and they quit.  If they are a new player, they wonder around awhile by themselves, and soon wonder why they are participating in a largely single player experience with five year old game mechanics and graphic design, when there are so many better single player games out there - and they quit.  And this experience does not change for the first twenty levels.

Bring the Challenge Back
In Blizzard's attempt to make the progression from new character to cap faster, with each iteration they have tweaked the zone difficulty curve down, and I think it's probably gone too far.  My biggest complaint about the zone content right now is that it's just, flat out - too easy.  With a rogue - mobs melt in a hit or two.  With a hunter - often the mob is dead before my lazy pet can get there.  Paladins and priests and anything that can heal yourself - fuggediboutit!  Bandages, and potions and food - a whole sub-economy of consumables that once provided purpose and alternative activities has been rendered completely obsolete by pure virtue of the fact that they're unnecessary.  I'm not talking about going to EQ days of requiring 5 man groups make progress.  But push the difficulty curve back just a bit, so that fights last more than three hits, that you are asked to think about pulling mobs, or at least paying attention to them. I just think that if you made the minute-to-minute gameplay a bit more interesting, you stand a better chance of retaining some of those new players for a bit longer, perhaps even long enough for them to see another new player enter the zone.

Fix the XP Curve
This ties into bringing the challenge back.  Right now, as a number of people have noted, the leveling curve is just broken.  With absolutely no heirlooms, no friend experience bonus - just flat out new character leveling, when completing quests around a particular hub, you often gain experience at a rate that the quests themselves turn green or even grey to you before you complete the story line.  Nothing kills a player's desire to participate in your content faster than for them to be beat about the head and shoulders with the notion that they don't need to do it anymore, and that's what's happening here.  If you want players to discover other players in the zone, they have to be given reasons to stay in the zone.  Or at the least, don't give them a reason to abandon their quest line half way through, and go sailing off to the next zone. The one-two punch of mind-numbingly easy monsters and broken xp curve is driving any players that might want to participate in your content away.

Redistribute the Players
One of the things that WoW did in the early days, that was genius, was that they mixed new players and veteran players in the same area.  You'd pick up a flight in Stormwind at a young level, and then fly over these high level zones (Searing Gorge, Burning Steppes) on your way to Ironforge, and you'd see these high-level players below you, fighting high-level mobs.  It was exciting, it provided motivation for you yourself to want to get to that, and it was genius.  Well those days are gone.  If you're a new player returning to WoW,  you very well might assume the entire game is devoid of players, when in fact, it's just that all the players are concentrated into cities and instances.  If you want your world to feel alive, give reasons for your player base to be in it.  Provide compelling (read "Gear Oriented") reasons for veteran players to returns to those newbie zones, and those leveling zones.  More than just dailies, but quests that maybe reward veteran xp for assisting low level players; faction rewards for high level gear from contests held smack in the middle of low level zones.  Single, deadly, high level mobs wondering around a low level zone that offer compelling rewards for high level players to get together and defeat.   Blizzard needs to work to reverse the trend of WoW feeling like a lobby game with instances, and give their existing, high level players more reasons to get back out in the world, so the new and leveling players can see that there are players in the game.

This is all sort of coffee-cup hypothesizing this morning, and I'm fully aware of it.  But every where I look these days I'm greeted with this huge sense of "been there done that" by existing MMO players, talking about the general malaise they feel with the genre and their favorite games.  I see opportunity to bring some what we found exciting about MMO's back to the game, without resorting to the Machiavellian design principles of the early games that drove players away.  If there's any company that has the means to lead the way forward by fixing some of the fundamental things wrong with the genre today, it's Blizzard.

Because I for one, actually still really love traditional MMO play.  But it's lonely out here..

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Focus in Game Development

What's a camel?
A camel is a horse put together by a committee..
At my former employer, Ensemble Studios, one of the core tenets of the culture there was a sense of shared design.  That is, it was really important to the founders of the company that everyone in the company - be they artist, designer, producer, or programmer - feel like they could participate in a game's design in a meaningful way.  And this wasn't really just hand waving - we actually worked really hard to actually execute on that notion.  And you can imagine the appeal of such an idea to the typical newcomer to the company - the concept that regardless of what role you play in the game's development, you could still speak your mind, and still count on that idea at least be entertained, if not executed, in the game's design.

This worked phenomenally well as the company was small, but as you can imagine, as the team size grew, it became exponentially difficult to reach design decisions that made everyone happy.  And it became almost impossible for any singular vision of a particular game, or even of any particular portion of a game, to survive, as it weathered the brunt of multiple raging conference meetings and play sessions of people either championing or lambasting it.  This was a pretty important lesson that I took with me from Ensemble.  Shared design had its pros - those of buy in, participation, and a feeling of connection to the game.  But it also had a pretty dark underbelly, as progress on the game could be significantly delayed when even the simplest of design decisions had to go through the company ringer and attempts to get buy in from everyone - whether they were involved or not.

So one of the things I was absolutely most excited about when I set about making Atomic City was that I could execute with focus.  I may not have a big team to work on all of the aspects of the game, but I did have a singular vision.  I could form a plan, execute the plan, and I could entirely avoid the days or even weeks of discussion that would inevitably accompany every decision made, as it would have been at my former employer. It may sound selfish, or a bit hedonistic, but when you've sat through those interminably long design meetings that consume entire days, and sometimes weeks, over whether or not Victory Points in an RTS are a good idea, it's hard to understate just how appealing the notion of making a decision and executing that decision is.

So, if you're a reader, then you know Atomic City started off as a prototype for an MMO.  And I had a pretty solid definition of the set of design mechanics that would form the root of that MMO.  And I was pretty darn excited about them, because they formed a carefully constructed blend of mechanics that were familiar to MMO players, but also presented some interesting innovations on some of those fundamental concepts.  And history has taught us that small innovations to a core familiar gameplay are the key to a new MMO's success.  At least, in my opinion.  But when I didn't succeed in getting a publisher to byte on the MMO, I set about stage two of my business plan, which was to turn the prototype into a "small" singleplayer game for the PC, with a definite story - beginning, middle, end.

Now, I play a lot of City of Heroes.  And there are quite a number of design tenets in CoH that I really like.  And if you've played Atomic City, you have undoubtedly noticed City of Heroes' influence on that game's design.  And for a significant portion of when I'm playing CoH, I often play solo.  And so are a whole lot of other people I know.  So honestly I wasn't too bothered about the idea of taking Atomic City's MMO prototype and turning it into a single player game.  After all, it's exactly how I play most MMO's I play!

Original prototype, complete with ability bars
So I set about doing exactly that.  I was still able to remain pretty faithful to my original design.  My design focus was not in any real jeapordy, and though building the content (the zones themselves) took far more effort, time, and expense than I had originally forecast, I wasn't too worried, because I had been able to keep right on marching with my tightly focused design, and execute on that design.  So sometime around November of 2010, I had crafted several complete zones, and I pretty much had completed the programming and design of an RPG like game built around abilities and talents.  I had already implemented over 45 abilities, split along three different talent trees, that were designed in such a way that the player would specialize in either plasma, beam, or missile weaponry.  There were offensive abilities, buffs, debuffs, damage over time abilities, and even some healing abilities.  Players and mobs had offensive and defensive stats, armor, and chances to hit, miss or evade.  You specced out a hotbar with four abilities, and you could get different hotbars for when you were on foot or on a vehicle.  So I took my almost completed game, that really had for the most part only zones left to build, and I showed it to a fairly good sized groups of trusted friends, peers and former colleagues, and began collecting feedback.

And it was.. almost a complete disaster.

Because by far and away the biggest amount of feedback I got, from among that group, was that the core gameplay really.. just wasn't fun.  Somewhere along the way, I had broken an implied promise that I had made to the player.  I put a gun in their hand, but told them they didn't shoot it, they fired abilities to use it. And I put them on a vehicle that had guns attached to it, but I told them they didn't shoot those guns, they fired abilities that used those guns to do cool things.  What was the most fascinating, was that those exact same mechanics, when presented in an MMO (CoH) that couched those weapons with other more "ability type things", like firing bolts of ice from your hand, worked just fine.  The player was able to buy into that design mechanic in that game without problem.  But when presented in a single player game that had its focus on shooting guns and getting on vehicles and shooting more guns - well players didn't want to fire abilities that used guns, and see Miss Miss Miss roll up over a fleeing mob's head.  They wanted to point those guns at those mobs and hold the mouse button down until they were dead.

And suddenly, my game's much heralded tight focus wasn't worth shit.  To make matters worse - it didn't test poorly with everyone.  With people that typically didn't play video games, they loved it, because it was so gosh darn easy.  You didn't have to put any crosshairs on anything.  You pointed the vehicle in the general direction of a mob, pressed '1', and explody-shooty things happened and you felt really good!  And those, honestly, were the type of people I wanted the game to appeal to.  So I had actually succeeded in my goal - I had built a very casual friendly 3rd person RPG action game that involved weapons and hoverbikes and was fun for anyone that wouldn't normally play these games.  But extraordinarily unfun for anyone that had ever picked up a game like this before, because of their already preconceived notions.  Hell even I wanted to just shoot the gun at the mobsters, once I let myself think about it.

So I was faced with a huge dilemma.  Monumental.  Because you don't just wave a wand and fundamentally change the precepts and assumptions around which months and months of code was built.  I had to decide - do I stick to my guns and finish the game as I had originally conceived it, or did I acknowledge the feedback I was getting, and undertake the monstrous task of fundamentally changing the game's core mechanics to make it more action oriented. Would I abandon my focus and do exactly the kind of thing I had railed on designers at Ensemble for doing.

Well if you've played the game, you know what I chose.  Because the game didn't come out for another 8 months later, and the game is very much a 3rd person action shooter game, and all of those RPG mechanics were mothballed when I changed the game's design.

The moral, of today's parable, if you will, is that design fails when it's practiced at either extreme.  When you have a company of even a few dozen people, much less a hundred of them, and you try to meet the needs of every one in the company in your design, your game is going to flounder in a morass of indecision, argument, discussion, and watered-down-compromise-based design.  But if you build an entire game on a single person's vision, in what is essentially a design vacuum, you run real, genuine risk of building something that just isn't really, all that fun, or is going to do well.  And that is easy to see when that single person is someone else and you're the one picking on his design.  But it turns out it's quite a bit harder to see when that person is you.

I still don't know if I made the right decision for Atomic City Adventures.  I feel like I did, because in the end I liked where Atomic City ended in terms of its design, and I feel like it's a helluva lot more fun than it was when I was "almost finished" back in November.  And I'd be interested to hear what you think as well.  And if you haven't played it yet, well for cryin' out loud go pick it up and give it a try!  And come back and tell me what you think.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Company or Person? Identity Issues as an Indie Developer

In October of 2008, the management of Ensemble Studios gathered the entire company together in the conference room, and informed all of us that Microsoft had made the decision to close down our studio after Halo Wars was shipped.  It was, for many of us in that room, a watershed moment.  It certainly was for me, because it was at that time I decided the time was right to take the biggest risk I'd ever taken in my life - to forsake a steady job and a paycheck - and to attempt to form a new studio to make games.  A whole lot of us then were thinking that same thing.

But the thing you find when you talk to independent developers, or those thinking about becoming such, is that we all have our own vision of what the next great thing will be.  And because we've quite often spent years working on someone else's vision, we're pretty darn reluctant to let go of ours.  Occasionally you'll find two or three that have a shared vision, and honestly, those are the ones that succeed.  Or at least, have the most chance of success.  But there are a whole lot of us out there that have a dream (tm), and we are extraordinarily loathe to give that dream up.  So though I did try to convince a few of my peers to join me on my endeavor, I honestly didn't try very hard. Because I knew I had my dream, and I knew they had theirs (which included getting paid, curiously enough, something I couldn't offer), and I just didn't feel right asking them to punt on their dream to come help me work on mine.  While I'm extremely proud of what I've accomplished, in retrospect, I would have tried harder.  And would have been more willing to find compromise.  If there is one bit of advice I can offer, it is that going this route alone is very hard.  I do not recommend it.

But regardless of what I say, many of you will do exactly as I did, and you'll form a company that has one person.  Yourself.  And so we get to the crux of what this post is supposed to be about, which is then - how do you present yourself?  As a company, or a person?

Well, for myself, I went the company route.  I wasn't Dusty Monk.  We were Windstorm Studios, and that was how we presented ourselves.  The reason for this was that originally I wasn't trying to build a game.  I was trying to pitch an idea, to publishers.  And publishers really aren't interested about one person shops.  They want to hear about you team.  Well I had a team - I had a full group of about a half dozen artists that I was contracting with to produce assets for the prototype.  I had a music composer and a talented voice cast -- all that I was contracting with for their work and their time.  So I didn't have any employees, per se, but I certainly had a team.  So throughout the process I presented Windstorm Studios the company, and never really talked too much about Dusty Monk the dude.  Now, I do want to interject here I never lied about Windstorm Studio's size or its make up.  If ever asked by anyone I told them exactly how it was - one man company, with contractors for hire.  But I just didn't really promote the fact that I was in reality a single guy working in his house on a prototype.

Well, publishers didn't bite - at least the ones I talked to, and it had always been a part of the contingency plan to turn the prototype into a game if they didn't, and I set about doing that.  But I still really presented Windstorm Studios as a company.  Because I wanted it to be a company.  Hell I still do!

But somewhere along the way, in fact, really only recently, I came to the realization that perhaps, I was doing it wrong.  I looked around. I looked at other what other indie developers were doing, and I came to realize that, once you decide to go independent, then maybe it was time to stop presenting yourself as a company full of bustling people, and instead, just let people know who you are - a guy working out of the upstairs bedroom of his house to make a game.  Maybe I should stop trying to obscure that fact as a weakness, and instead point to it as a sign of strength!  Maybe it was time that I embraced my indie-ness, as it were.  So I did.

Which is why on the website, and in tweets, and in just about anywhere I'm promoting Windstorm Studios and Atomic City Adventures, you see a lot more I's and less We's.  And this is to not by any means to take away from the incredible contributions that everyone that worked on Atomic City Adventures put into it.  The people that I contracted did amazing work, and they put forth way more time and effort than their contracts called for, because they too absolutely began to believe in the project and wanted it to succeed.  But I'm the one that took the risk.  And if you're someone that's recently decided to not take a steady job but instead build the next Words With Friends or Minecraft while living on a waiter's salary or no salary at all, then you're taking a hell of a risk too.  And the cold hard truth of the matter is, for most of us, that risk isn't going to pay off in riches, and we know that going in.  But the fact that you're doing it is pretty damn significant.

So I guess I would just advise to be true to yourself.  Be proud of what you're doing, and of the risks you're willing to take to do them.  Until you are a company, be a person, not a company.  I know, pretty cliche message.  But for a guy that actually think's he's pretty smart, it took me a helluva long time to figure it out, and I still struggle to do it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In which we discover Jennur's Horde is hard!

So with all the buzz about Guild Wars 2 these days, I've decided to return to Guild Wars 1, and see if I can work on my pathetically outfitted Hall of Monuments.  I already had a few points, as I've actually got one statue for completing the Factions campaign.  And I spent enough time running the Dajkah Inlet challenge mission to outfit four heroes, plus a pet, to place in my fellowship monument.  So I'm up to ten points.  The next goals I'd set for myself were to complete the Nightfall and EothN campaigns - both of which I have made numerous forays into, but have never actually completed.

So last night's adventure in Nightfall had me making attempts at a mission called Jennur's Horde. There is a description and walkthrough at that link.  The thing about this mission that makes it especially difficult is there are multiple paths to failure.  First, there are fairly large numbers of static mobs milling about in close proximity to one another.  If you're using minions, and pets, and/or henchies and heroes, then it's extraordinarily easy to aggro nearby groups, and to quickly find yourself overwhelmed.  And because it's a mission, party wipe means mission failure.  Second, there's the dreaded vulnerable NPC that must be kept alive.  He stays near the mission entrance, but every two minutes a group of mobs is spawned at the back of the zone, and starts making a bee-line to the NPC.  Miss that group of runners - let them get past you, and the NPC is quickly killed, and mission failed.  Finally, scattered throughout the mission are these deadly melee creatures called Harbingers.  Harbingers are immune to all of your forms of attack.  The only way they can be killed is to carry an item that is given to you, and drop it at their feet.  This makes it even more difficult for melee classes to complete, as most of theirs skills are turned off while carrying an object.  Thankfully I'm a caster, so I can still be effective while carrying things.  Oh - and to make it more interesting, for each of these Harbingers you kill, the size of the group that is spawned and runs towards the NPC gets larger.  Fun, right?

So there are several walkthroughs for this mission, and I definitely suggest reading them.  What I'm going to do is offer some additional tips on completing this solo, with heroes and henchmen.

Flag your group to the top of the stairs at the end of the hall
First, as the walkthrough suggests, it may be wise to leave the first two Harbinger's alone, so as to keep the runner group spawn size low.  I too definitely suggest this.  However, with a group of heroes, this can be easier said than done.  What I found worked for me was not to lead them through, but before you aggro the first harbinger, flag your heroes to the stairs at the end of the hall.  They will run past the harbingers, and through the static group at the base of the stairs, taking some damage, but that's okay.  Let them.  Hopefully, by the time you get to the top of the stairs, you'll be beyond the leash range of the second harbinger, he'll run back to his spawn location, and you can finish off the static group.   One note here - I definitely recommend waiting for and killing the first running group before you drop the Light of Seborhin at the harbinger at the top of the stairs and kill him.  If you kill him right away, the first run group will run and attack the Spirit of Seborhin, and trying to kill them will mean you will almost certainly also aggro one of the static groups at the top of the stairs.  This can get pretty ugly pretty quickly.

Once you have your beachhead at the top of the stairs, from this point on, you want to practice a slow and methodical approach of alternating between killing static groups and runners.  This is not a mission that you want to rush through.  But there are times when you need to hustle.  Essentially, you kill a running group, then immediately kill a static group.  When you finish off the static group, return to the middle and wait for the next running group to intercept and kill.  If you're super fast, don't be tempted to take on two static groups between runners.  Rest up, mana up, and be patient.  And if you take too long killing a static group, then keep an eye out for that runner group, and be prepared to break off if need be and flag your heroes over in front of them to intercept.  If a single runner group gets by you, the mission is all but assured to be failed.

Figuring out which order to tackle the static groups was tricky for me, and again took me a couple of attempts to get right.  Especially if you're going for the Masters reward, and want to get the two Harbingers and their groups up the stairs to the right and left of the center chamber.  The order that worked for me is that pictured here.  Clearing these floor groups before attempting the stairs helps in not accidently aggroing them when attempting the stairs, plus if you have to break off and race across the floor to intercept a running group, it's much easier if the floor has been cleared of enemies.

Among Nightfall missions, this one definitely stands near the top for me in terms of difficulty.  But like all things that present a challenge, there's a huge sense of accomplishment when the Master's Reward double-sword and spear sing across the symbol.  If you're just returning to Nightfall or Guild Wars and your travels take you through this mission, I hope these tips help you out some.  And don't get discouraged if the walkthrough's you read were written in.. say.. 2006.  We tackle our MMO's when we're darn good and ready by gawd!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Return of Of Course I'll Play It

So one of the things I promised myself I'd do, once I finished Atomic City Adventures, was to return to blogging, in some fashion.  And since the introduction of Google+, I'd already decided that I'd take up the mantle of blogging here at blogger, with the notion that I'm hopeful when it gets rolled into and under the Google+ umbrella, it's done so in a first class citizen fashion, as G+ is where I spend the majority of my social network time right now anyway.  What would be especially swank would be if comments on a G+ thread that is linked to a blog on blogger would get turned into or in someway push back to comments at your blog site, so you can capitalize on the impressions a bit.  That is, at least, my hope.  Regardless, I realize that comments at blog sites are pretty much going away these days, with people doing their discussion at the almagamater - G+.  So I figure blogger is best poised to take advantage of that in some way.

So I've got a little over 2 years of posts though at OfCourseIllPlayIt, and as I was creating my blogger blog, I saw an Import option.  "Oooh - I can import my old blog!  Sweet!  Of course they'll support WP import.. I mean it's the most popular blogging platform in the world!"  So without really checking further, the thirst thing I did was to restore the old OfCourseIllPlayIt WP site.  About four months ago, I was forced, due to circumstances beyond my control, to transfer all of my domains to a new account, and at that point I backed up OfCourseIllPlayIt, but decided not to restore it until I could return to it.  So I busily set about this morning setting up a new MySQL database, uploading my old WP site to a directory on my webspace, and even jumped into MyPhPAdmin and imported the entire WP database.

So the first thing that went wrong was that, even though I had specified UTF-8 encoding on both import and export, a rather significant number of the characters in my posts and comments were mangled.  Like.. pretty much every double quote, single quote, whatever, was now some collection of latin character sets.  And brother, let me tell you, I use quotes a lot!   Well.. I said to myself.. it's still readable.. and these are old posts, so I guess we can live with that.

But the site was up and readable, all the posts and comments were there.. and I was golden.  Or so I thought.  Because when I went to import my blog - guess what blogger allows you to import!  That's right... other blogger files!  Gah!  So a bit more googling later, I found an online coverter that would take a WRX WP exporter, and turn it into a blogger exporter.  So I ran my already munged WP blog through the magic xml converter tool, and imported the blog.

So.. apparently something the XML converter guy didn't bother with was trying to maintain paragraphs.  So yeah.. now I've got 74 posts, hundreds of comments, all rife with mangled character sets and with all paragraphs, bold, italics, everything - stripped out.  Each post is just one like continuous single paragraph. Bleah!

So we're starting new!  Welcome to the new Of Course I'll Play It!  I'll be mucking about with the theme over the next few days - suggestions are welcome - and I might even return to the old blog and see about restoring a few posts I thought were worthwhile, but for now, it's forward!

Of Course I'll Play It will continue to focus mostly on MMO's - both ones I'm playing, and design thoughts on same.  But as I've just completed creating a single player 3rd person action game, I'm also playing more of them these days, so there will be plenty of posts about gaming in general here as well.  If you're new, welcome!  And if you're one of the 5 loyal readers that visited the old site - welcome back!

Comments?  Sure, feel free to leave them here!  Or if not, I'm at Google Plus too.. :)