The Rise of “Guilds,” and the Fall of “Heroes”

As one MMO flies to incredible new heights, another that once promised players that very feature is coming to an end.

Recently the MMO world was hit with two big bits of news as “Guild Wars 2” developer ArenaNet posted on their Facebook page, that all first party digital downloads of the new mega hit MMO are suspended temporarily in order to insure server stability. While the game is still available through third party sites and retail stores, the developers themselves feel they have a responsibility to everyone in the game to hold off on new sales directly from them, so that play isn’t interrupted. Currently new methods to expand digital services are being looked at.

Hot off the heels of that announcement comes another from the publisher of “Guild Wars 2,” NCsoft, that they will be folding Paragon Studios, and therefore effectively bringing an end to that developer’s MMO title “City of Heroes” by the end of the year.

The reasons for these individual stories of success and untimely demise are both simple and complex, but ultimately revolve around each other.

First, in case you didn’t follow the insane pre-release hype, or immediately snatch up the product that finally launched, “Guild Wars 2″ is slowly taking the online world by storm in a way that no other MMO has done since “World of Warcraft” itself. It’s doing this through an incredible art style with a scope and integrity never before seen in a game like this, a PvP system that’s so brilliant and well executed it looks to make all other competitive systems irrelevant by the time it kicks into gear, and maybe best of all, a level of difficulty that rewards players for putting more time into it by actually making the game better as you go along, instead of creating more incentive for new players, and providing cold shoulders for veterans. Tying it all together, unlike “WoW,” “Guild Wars 2” is free to play, continuing one of the more welcome video game trends in some time.

I’ve had the privilege of playing the game recently, and I don’t think I could give you an honest critical review of it. That’s because despite some of its flaws, I have such a deep and abiding respect for the game that questions of review scores and likes or hates are irrelevant. It’s one of those stand up and take notice games that only come along once in a while, even if all of the specifics aren’t perfect.

Oddly though, it seems to achieve such lofts, a sacrifice of sorts had to be made. That seems to be the largest reason behind the cancellation of service for “City of Heroes,” as reports still have the game boasting a sizable player base, and even reporting some respectable sales figures as recently as last year for such an aging title.  However, earlier this year NCsoft reported its first companywide loss in a while, and at the time “City of Heroes” was at the bottom of the sales list. With other ongoing projects to support, and bigger titles on the horizon, it would seem “City of Heroes” fell to the archvillian known as fiscal reports, and nothing more.

Unfortunately it’s not easy to look at this as a case of one door closing and another opening. As good as “Guild Wars 2” is, and as great as it promises to be, “City of Heroes” long stood as the somewhat appropriate icon of hope in the MMO world. It wasn’t a fantasy or sci-fi game, yet it produced a well built and, initially, successful MMO. Now that it has fallen to a, admittedly well worthy, challenger to the “WoW” crown of fantasy MMO dominance, I worry that the message will become more and more clear in developer’s minds that new entrants in the genre are unwelcome, especially if they are trying something different.

In a year’s time I feel that the MMO market will be hotly divided by “Guild Wars 2” players, and by “WoW” addicts, and with good reason. At that time, the mention of a title like “City of Heroes” won’t lead to tears, but rather fond memories. Still, I wish that it were possible for the game to continue in some capacity for as long as it can. Because while the game’s sales figures may have been mild mannered like reporter Clark Kent, beneath the corporate visage of numbers lied an idea of originality, individuality, and innovation in the American way.

Underneath it, lied a true MMO hero.

The next great MMO: I need a game where the mechanics don’t break my immersion

World of Warcraft UI.

With any game, I always hit a point where I cease to be immersed in the game as a world and start thinking about the mechanics, the way the game actually works. In Counter-strike, it was the day I learned to jumpcrouch. Suddenly this game-changing mechanic turned me from a terrorist running about desperately trying to stay alive into a hopping ball of impossibly accurate death. In Halo, it was the way grenades would explode once they sat still. I perfected grenade trapping on every map, so there was always an extra burst of damage where and when I needed it. With Oblivion, it was discovering that I could beat the game at level one by choosing primary stats and never leveling them up.

WoW suffers from this immersion problem as much as any game. Creating a class for the first time, you rarely think about the different racials. If you’re going to PvP, though, it’s obvious that human is your best choice. I always loved Beast Mastery on my hunter because I got to have a big scary pet and, in Wrath of the Lich King, unique pets, but when Blizzard nerfed BM damage into the ground, it pretty much killed my favorite way to play the class. Hunters lost a lot of flavor for me that day, and it was because of a mechanical change.

The thing I’ve always loved about MMOs is the flavor of the different classes. While I love to try different things, I’ve always been a player who settles into the class I enjoy most and really identify with. Every time mechanics intrude on my class immersion, I wonder how the next great MMO will deal with it. I started taking a look at RIFT recently, a game that has been getting a lot of positive attention in its beta phase. To me, the game looks too much like WoW for me to seriously consider it. If I’m going to pay a monthly fee for WoW or a game that looks an awful lot like WoW, I’m probably going to stick with WoW if only because I have so much time invested in it. Still, I was trying to keep an open mind on RIFT, until I read the talent trees for the different classes. They’re basically the same kind of boring crap you get in Warcraft. Increases your spell haste by 3 percent. Increases your damage from this spell by 10 percent. Gives you a chance to get a free spell cast. None of that stuff is fun or flavorful – it’s all mechanical. It helps your name climb up the damage meters. It doesn’t make the game any more interesting than it was before you put your talent point there.

My hope is obviously that someone will find a way to blend flavor and mechanics for an MMO, but it’s going to take someone with serious vision. I think a lot of developers confuse depth with complexity. League of Legends is a great example of a deep gameplay experience without a super complex experience. The fact that my hunter in WoW has 50 action buttons on the screen seems to me like a design failure. With so many different skills, I’m immediately sucked out of the game to worry about where to put my latest macro. While the four button approach for LoL may be too slim for the MMO experience, there has to be some happy medium, one hopefully much closer to four buttons than 50, that allows me to engage with the game world intuitively and simply enjoy my class for what it is.

WoW PvP: crowd control gone wild

WoW Arena.

I’ve been spending a good bit of my game time playing World of Warcraft and I’ve been enjoying the expansion so far. Yes, it is more of the same, but my favorite class (hunter) has been reworked and feels like he did in early BC when I learned to love him. It’s been good to see Blizzard speed up some of the more tedious aspects of the game, and it’s nice having populated worlds again.

My main focus in the game now is PvP. I did the raiding thing for a while, but I just don’t have those big chunks of time to put toward a single dungeon any more. I want to jump in some BGs, go work on my Archaeology, go bleed some gold from the auction house, and work on my professions in a play session. PvP is a lot more conducive to that. PvP in WoW has always disappointed me a bit. There are just too many different skills to worry about from the different classes, and without thorough study, it can be tough to know what happened to you in a fight. I often find myself looking at the combat log (a feature League of Legends desperately needs) and then googling the various effects to see what the hell they are.

The biggest problem, though, is CC. Crowd Control in WoW is one of the worst active game systems on the market today. It is entirely plausible that you will be unable to control your character for stretches as long as 30 seconds, during which you will most definitely die. Blizzard woefully tries to address this with diminishing returns, but those returns are player specific, so you can get chain-disabled by a group of 2-3 players without them incurring much penalty.

There are a lot of good ideas out there for fixing this, but I thought I’d share my own variation, from a post on the Battleground forums:

The CC in WoW always brings me back to a simple game design principle: is the anti-fun generated by the mechanic greater than the fun generated by the mechanic. The answer is overwhelmingly yes.

Someone in the thread mentioned that the goal of WoW PvP is to deny your opponent the ability to fight instead of outfighting them. It’s unfortunately true, and again, really not fun for either side. Do I get a sense of accomplishment when I kill a target that doesn’t move and I just shred away for 15 seconds? No. And the guy getting killed is obviously having very little fun. Loss of character control will always be a crap mechanic for the receiving player. The fact that it can last as long as 20-30 seconds (with disables from a couple toons) is just absurd.

To all the people saying the equivalent to “get cleansed bro,” players don’t always have a cleanse nearby, and suggesting they should get one doesn’t at all address the problem. Nerf the CCs, and nerf cleanse with them so it doesn’t get to the point that you can’t lock that warrior down.

A [global diminishing returns system] would be awesome, but I’d also love to see some system where CC breaks when you take some percentage of your health in damage – let’s say 10 percent for the sake of argument. You get stunned, as soon as your health is reduced by 10 percent of it’s max, the CC breaks and you become immune for X amount of time. I say reduced because heals could prolong it – this would hopefully remind people to kill the damn healer. Fights would have so much more back and forth and be infinitely more interesting. It would also rightly encourage people to use CCs against their off-target for spell interrupts. Put that kind of system with a GDR and PvP is instantly more interesting. You’d probably have to move the damage/healing slider a bit, but any change would require some across the board tweaking.

Even though WoW is the rampaging juggernaut of the video game world, it could learn a lot from burgeoning fields, like the MOBA world. I’ll let you know how it feels when I have a couple hundred games under my belt, but for now I feel like I’m either getting disabled to death or doing the disabling. It’s not very often that I’m hitting someone who’s hitting me back.

Why I almost skipped Cataclysm and the reasons I changed my mind

WoW: Cataclysm.

As of this past weekend, my mind was made up. I was going to skip Cataclysm altogether. I wasn’t going to try it, play it, think about it, nothing. I hadn’t seen anything wild or crazy that would make me want to come back and I was perfectly content with the other games that could fill my free time. I was so convinced.

But lo and behold, I ran some errands today and came home with a copy of the game. It wasn’t really an impulsive decision – I had done a decent bit of research about the expansion so I knew what to expect. I really went for it because, well, why not? I hadn’t been a part of an expansion launch yet. I missed Burning Crusade because I had started playing shortly before it came out. I missed Wrath because I had taken a break and didn’t feel compelled to come back at the time. As someone who writes about games for a living, it seems appropriate that I should see at least one launch.

So far, things have been pretty good. I’m playing a Balance Druid, something I’ve never really messed with before. The new zones are certainly bright and colorful and there is plenty of new content to see. I am pretty disappointed, though, by the lack of time spent in the old world. The whole point of this patch was a shattered Azeroth, a world we used to know being torn apart by this big, evil dragon. So why am I swimming around underwater? Why not send me back to the barrens to do some leveling. The old world place I’ve spent most of time is Orgrimmar, but that’s not really different from previous expansions. I’ve always had to go to Orgrimmar for various things, mostly the Auction House. It’s really cool that it’s been redone, but I want to see more of that in other parts of the world.

For now, that’s my one big criticism. I’ll be playing over the next several days if anyone feels compelled to join in. I play on Archimonde under the name “Milkstout.”

The confusing state of raid lockouts and badge loot

Icecrown Citadel.I know this is a subject that has been covered time and time again, but my friend (who you know here as Bojamba) and I have spent a lot of time talking about dynamic game environments and what it takes to keep a player interested in a game. With raiding as the end goal for many players in WoW, it seems the current raid system is a confused mix of incentives and gear, a system that tries to encourage team and solo play and really only promotes solo.

Let me start by saying this: I am painfully aware of the fact that WoW, and every other game, is a business decision at the end of the day. The game has to make money or no one publishes it, no one supports it, and so on and so forth. The more people that pay month to month, the happier Bob Kotick is. I do think, though, that higher quality design and focus on the customer (player) would yield even bigger profits than current models of business.

As it stands, raid lockouts serve a couple of purposes. For one, they limit the amount of loot you can access. This is really a dumb reason to have raid lockouts, especially in the current game system. Farming heroics, which can be done without penalty, nets you gear that is just shy of progression level raiding. In a couple days you can be ready to rock ICC if you want to be. And what of the ICC buff? So you want people to experience the content but not the gear? Artificial limitations to progression point to a flaw in design, and I think that flaw is the social aspect of the game.

A lot of people would say that WoW is the most social of games. After all, there are 11 million players. But what about the game experience is truly social? Raiding is, and it’s the reason that most guilds exist. With the new badge system, though, you don’t really need a guild to raid. The big loot pieces are achieved just by running the place (and a daily heroic), regardless of what you get from bosses. Guilds just give you the (hopeful) chance to limit the amount of mistakes made in a raid setting. There is accountability to other players. For casual players, though, guilds don’t make a lot of sense any more. If your play schedule changes week to week, it’s actually better to just PuG the content. I’ve seen most of Icecrown Citadel this way, and it’s very likely I’ll see a Lich King kill in a PuG before the expansion. That was the rarest of circumstances in BC, but it’s pretty common now. This has turned a lot of people from guild raiders into solo raiders, and some of those people are among the best geared on their given servers.

At it’s core, WoW is a solo game. Yes, groups are important, and yes, you need a group to see the highest level content. But most casual players have variable play schedules, meaning even if you start to level with a friend, within a couple weeks you’ll probably see a large level gap, or one of you will move on to a different toon. The methods Blizzard previously used to encourage team play, like raid lockouts, are largely irrelevant because of the badge system and the simplified content. In a way, it can be a good thing – guilds that exist to be social are organic social systems, not forced. On the other hand, it has killed off a lot of the social aspect of the game. Random heroics are silent affairs, unless you’re running with friends.

Blizzard needs to reconsider the social side of the game separate from the loot system in order to provide quality social experiences. If attaining loot is the only thing that encourages social play, the game will quickly turn into a solo experience, and that’s just not all that fun.

Cataclysm CE features announced, I sigh

Cataclysm Collector's Edition

I’ve never understood the collector’s editions for World of Warcraft. I really enjoy the game, but there are so many easily attainable pets (which is the only thing that really entices me out of the feature list) that I can’t really understand dropping the extra cash on it. People spend money on weirder stuff, and I guess there’s enough involved to keep the crazy lore freaks happy.

Here’s what you get:

CATACLYSM EXCLUSIVE BEHIND-THE-SCENES DVD:
• Over an hour of developer interviews and commentaries, discussing the game’s development from early design through finished gameplay.
• The Cataclysm intro cinematic and major content patch trailers complete with Director’s Commentary.
• A special Warcraft retrospective examining the rich gaming history of the Warcraft universe.

COLLECTOR’S EDITION SOUNDTRACK:
• Seventeen epic tracks from Cataclysm.

THE ART OF CATACLYSM:
• 176 pages of art, featuring never-before-seen images from the archives of the Blizzard Film Department and the World of Warcraft development team.
• Progressive visuals from every stage of development – from early concepts through to finished, detailed art.

WORLD OF WARCRAFT®: CATACLYSM™ PC/MAC GAME:
• The full World of Warcraft expansion set on CD-ROM and DVD-ROM.

WORLD OF WARCRAFT TRADING CARD GAME STARTER PACKS AND EXCLUSIVE CARDS:
• One 60-card deck from the new Wrathgate series featuring two extended art cards and visuals from several of fantasy’s top creators.
• Two exclusive hero cards, marking the first appearance of goblin and worgen heroes in the WOW:TCG.
• One full-sized rule book to teach you how to play.

EXCLUSIVE IN-GAME PET:
• He may not be a breaker of worlds… at least not yet… but Lil’ Deathwing will still aid you in your titanic struggle to save Azeroth from his much, much larger counterpart.

CATACLYSM MOUSEPAD:
• A special-edition mouse pad depicting Deathwing menacing the ravaged continents of Azeroth.

See, there’s some good stuff in there. Gamestop lists the box set at $79.99.

All Roads Return to WoW: The people are still the important part

Keep your people close.

I know a lot of you don’t enjoy WoW, or at the very least you’ve burnt out, but I’m still having a lot of fun playing, and I can only see that going up. The main reason: people.

I got back into WoW basically because I knew that a buddy who plays League of Legends was around. I didn’t think – not in a million years – that I would be back with my old raiding guild just a month after I started playing again. It’s actually pretty exciting and has turned out to be the thing I missed most from the game experience on the whole. It’s really nice to have a group of people consistently around for a game. I have that to a smaller extent currently in LoL, but I spent hours with these guys (and gals – hi Ishi!), for good or ill, and it’s been fun to reconnect.

If you find yourself bored or disinterested in any game, I’d recommend one of two things – get to know some people in game, or get to know some people in real life. Either way, you win and win big.

All Roads Return to WoW: Playing the Auction House

Hoarding your gold.

It had been a few weeks and I was starting to lose interest in WoW. Well, I thought I was starting to lose interest. What was really happening is that I was only playing the few parts of the game I had yet to experience. I was running heroics – a lot of them – and kinda doing little else. I did go through a crafting spree, leveling jewelcrafting from 1-450 over the course of a few days, but I wasn’t doing all of the things I used to love about the game.

The crafting was a start, but one of the things I really enjoyed in WoW was the Auction House. It seems a little see, and frankly there are a lot of games in the world with in-game currency houses, but nothing has gripped me quite like WoW. I love digging around to find deals, trying to find the hottest items, figuring out where sellers are over and under charging. For whatever reason it feels like a safe way to feed that gambling itch everyone seems to have (at least everyone I know). I’ve made thousands of gold over the past few days alone, and sure, it’s just pixels on a screen, but it does provide a simple thrill of success I find truly enchanting.

There are other aspects of the game I’m slowly remembering to return to. More on that later.

All Roads Return to WoW: I want to slap the guy that invented Gear Score

gear-scoreI finally got my druid to level 80 and I’ve spent the last week or so getting him geared up through heroics and the occasional PUG raid. It’s actually been a lot of fun. I’ve always enjoyed tanking, and despite my relatively little experience doing it, I’d say I’m starting to get fairly skilled at keeping a critter’s attention so my group can kill it.

The problem now, though, is that there isn’t a ton of loot left for me to pick up, and I’d really like to see some more content before the expansion comes out. I thought that would be fairly easy to do, but dear god was I wrong.

According to most information out there, I’m ready to start tanking the 10-man version of Trial of the Crusader. It’s a pretty straightforward zone from what I can tell, and my health pool, avoidance, and overall mitigation should be more than enough. I just have to learn the fights. Unfortunately, the people running those raids are looking for a Gear Score over 5000, and I’m somewhere around 4500. What’s worse, the items that will bump me more than 50 of these arbitrary points per slot are typically from 25-man heroic raids that are no longer being run or the normal modes of raids for which I don’t apparently qualify.

I finally got a guy to ignore the GS issue and let me into a ToC 10 and when our melee pulled the fire from the second boss straight onto me while I was tanking adds and proceeded to follow me around, guess who got kicked? Yeah, it was me.

All Roads Return to WoW: Tier set models are lame

Tier Blah.

When I first started playing WoW I was so excited about the style of the game and enjoying the leveling process so much that I really didn’t care too much about tier sets. As I got more and more involved in the game, though, I started to lust after that gear a little bit. The original tier gear had really cool models, which is a big part of my drive for getting a piece of equipment.

In Burning Crusade it was the same thing – the tier sets looked incredible. The Tier 4 sets remain some of my favorite in the game, and Tier 6 was amazing as well. I wasn’t a fan of most T5, but that might just be me.

The current sets, though, are appalling. Most of the Tier 9 and Tier 10 sets look like a monochromatic blob of trash. Gone are the cool shoulder animations (remember those sweet priest shoulders with the blind faces of justice on them?) and the nifty details in the chest pieces and leggings. It doesn’t help that everyone is rolling around in the same gear because of the ease of the badge system, so as ugly as the sets are, I get sick of them much more quickly.

Lucky for me I’m playing a druid, I guess. Bears always look the same…

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