Monthly Archives: June 2012

A (Somewhat Lengthy) Aside on Negativity and MMORPGs

Am I the only one who isn’t riddled with angst or frustration or FIREY RAEG about MMOs?

Pictured: Absolutely Everybody Else who writes about MMOs.

As you may know, I just did a thing on Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft’s new “Mists of Pandaria” expansion over on Nightmare Mode, comparing how they both approach storytelling and whatnot during the early levels.  I did note that Blizzard’s approach and Bioware’s approach reflected their conservatism, but I did also take pains to note that I actually enjoyed the experience.

So, why, upon reading two pieces linked on Rock Paper Shotgun, do I feel like I’m the only one who has? One of them is a whole long harangue on Gamespy by Leif Johnson about how the genre’s broken because you aren’t dumped, lost and bewildered, into a world and system you can’t at all comprehend anymore. He seems angry that he can’t seem to recapture what he had back when he was doing early WoW raiding.

The other is a newbie to MMORPGs, Stuart Young, who’s game to give it a try, but who seems to be vaguely put off by the abstraction of it all. (And who, ironically, seems lost and a bit bewildered, though perhaps mostly by the patching process.) He’s not happy that opponents respawn, or that there are button bars, or that there’s big pillars of light indicating drops—which is actually a concession to the difficulty of finding things back in Leif’s day.

I respect what both people are trying to say, but there are a lot of issues here.

Stuart seems partially to be stuck in an empty server on the weakest starting planet of the lot of ’em. That’s unfortunate, but it’s fixable: reroll on a better server, and a better planet. I’d suggest Hutta. The Imperial Agent plotline is grand fun, and Hutta’s a fun environment to see it in.

Hhis other complaints seem to be unsolvable, however, because his issue isn’t with MMOs, it’s with RPGs. RPGs are about abstraction. That’s almost entirely the point of it all. The reason why you have those button bars in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft or a single-player RPG like Dragon’s Age is because they’re representations of activities that your character is doing instead of you yourself. That’s the case with pen-and-paper, too. Same deal.

Sure, you could replace abstracted abilities with some sort of direct action. Some MMOs do that: Everybody is going on about TERA right now, but DC Universe Online also jumps out as a good example of a game with direct attacks that are only supplemented by “button-bar” stuff. But the button bars exist for a reason: because the alternative is taking away almost everything your character can do and replacing it with “attack”. That’s how it worked in Everquest, and people HATED that.

He also pointed to the simplicity of combat at that early stage, but there’s a reason for that: he’s not the only newbie, and a lot of them need time to get used to things. It’s going to be pretty simple around level five. It gets harder.Though I have to admit to being a bit baffled by someone who’s never used the right mouse button to move the camera in a game before. Does he just play shooters?

As for Leif Johnson, well…I do understand where he’s coming from, but I think he’s dreaming in technicolor.  This guy was in Risen, which was one of the top-tier guilds of the time.  Risen were the first American guild to take down the final opponent of the original World of Warcraft. That was an incredibly, almost impossibly difficult achievement.

(The people whinging about how World of Warcraft is too “easy” have never actually tried the hard stuff. I still maintain that top-level hard-mode raiding is the most challenging co-op content in the industry. Yes, still. The hard-mode version of Cataclysm’s “Ragnaros” fight is no joke.)

C’mon, Leif. Of course your guild is going to have camaraderie. Of course you’re going to be playing around and experimenting. Of course you’re going to have that fun “flying by the seat of your pants” feel. YOU WERE ONE OF THE BEST IN THE WORLD. You were ahead of everybody else. You were fighting things that the rest of us have never seen. Despite what you may think, there were guides and videos and strategies and whatnot. We all lived on Thottbot and Allakhazam. It’s just that you were so far ahead of the rest of us that you never saw what the rest of us were doing.

It’s “the rest of us” that are the issue here. World of Warcraft‘s singular initial advancement over the rest of the genre was its accessibility. Everquest was a struggle, and it was a struggle that comparatively few people were willing to put up with. When raiding in WoW became its major focus, though, the same thing happened there: people like Leif were seeing things that the rest of us could never see, because we didn’t have the time to do it or the luck to find a group skilled and committed enough to do it with us.  Something like one in a hundred top-level players even saw that boss that Leif downed. Probably not one in a thousand beat him. The rest of us were mired in early raids, if we were even able to raid at all

Leif, the reason why the game appealed to you so much is because the game catered to you as a hardcore raider. The rest of us were out in the cold.

Yes, that’s changed. WoW’s different. Raiding is more accessible now: LFR means that almost everybody gets the rush of large-scale co-op that he enjoyed so much. Dungeons are more accessible now: Blizzard’s taking time to make sure that Mists of Pandaria’s dungeons are accessible to the masses and challenging for the experts.  Leveling is far more accessible now, and a simply better experience than it was in his time, with a wider variety of gameplay verbs and actual honest-to-goodness stories. The interface is MUCH better now, in ways you only appreciate once you’ve played for a little while.  World of Warcraft is a better game. Set aside the nostalgia.

The genre is more accessible now. Leif blithely dismisses the free-to-play revolution, saying it “only masks the deficiencies of the aging gameplay and lackluster player interaction”. He’s wrong. The free to play games are actually doing quite well, as companies like Perfect World and Nexon are making quite clear.  That they ARE doing so contradicts his assertion that “I can’t see younger players ever latching on to single MMORPGs as we did”. The whole free-to-play model depends on social effects to work:  people don’t buy pretty outfits for their avatar if they don’t give a damn about who sees it.

The most frustrating thing, though, is reading something like this:

 To recapture something of that spirit of cooperation, what once passed for endgame gameplay needs to be integrated into the actual leveling experience somehow. The whole world needs to remain alive; zones that we passed through at level 10 should feel as satisfying at level 60. It can be accessible, but we need reasons to care about our fellow players.

This is exactly what everybody’s trying to do—Blizzard included.  Okay, they aren’t doing the “make level 10 zones satisfying at level 60” thing. There’s good reason to keep max-level players away from the newbies, because PvP servers would be absolute bloodbaths.

But everybody’s working to bring that sense of collective action to the leveling game experience. Cataclysm featured a whole host of quests where you were in the middle of huge war zones of NPCs and PCs, and deliberately moved away from “kill [x] of [y]”. Mists of Pandaria specifically focuses on getting players “out into the world” instead of huddling in cities, in using “scenarios” to bring players together outside of the dungeon/raid structure, and in using Blizzard’s phasing tech to create a living, changing world instead of a static one. Even SWTOR, whose gameplay is largely derived from Burning Crusade-era World of Warcraft, gives every player an NPC partner who has their own story, and adds those little instanced zones whose entire POINT was to have areas that actually changed in response to your decisions and actions.

Trion’s also working hard to make Rift more accessible to and more “alive”, too. That’s the whole point of their next expansion.

So, yeah. Things are changing. They’re even improving. Perhaps not as fast as some would like, and there are always going to be concessions to things like latency. Both articles seem to vastly overestimate the quality of people’s Internet connections, but that’s not a new thing. Both also are informed by really, really dated versions of MMO gameplay: Stuart’s view is understandable because he’s playing a new game with old mechanics, but Leif seems unwilling to even admit that World of Warcraft isn’t the same game it used to be. It’s not an uncommon problem. Game journos seem unwilling to acknowledge that MMOs are living, evolving services instead of static products. It’s still disappointing.

What’s maddening, though, is that the genre that is truly stuck in the past, First-Person Shooters, seems to get a bye about this sort of thing even as MMOs get hammered. I’m not fully sure why. My guess is that it has to do with the real reason why people get mad at MMORPGs: the Internet and our lost ability to focus.

But I’ll, um, get to that later. This was supposed to be an aside.

Oh, and a PS: Can people kindly stop arguing that Rift failed? Its subscription numbers dropped, true, but it clearly wasn’t ever intended to do WoW numbers. Trion’s done an amazing job of improving the game, and by all accounts it’s got some of the most loyal and devoted players in the genre. Trion’s hailed as magicians for the speed and quality of their game improvements. If the game had failed, it would have shut down or gone free-to-play by now.

(Starting picture’s from Blizzard.)

(Edited a slight bit for clarity.)

Gamespot, Goodrich, and Games about War

So, yeah, this happened:

As I said on Twitter, this was actively (nay, “authentically”) painful to watch.

Why? Bunch of reasons.

First, I don’t feel like this interview should have happened in the first place. It wasn’t even really an interview, or at least it wasn’t clear who was interviewing who. It LOOKED like a designer taking a writer to task for what he’d written about the game. If it really was that, then there was no reason for Gamespot to go through with this, because it opens the door for developers and publishers to gleefully intimidate everybody and anybody who says a mean thing about their games. Writers aren’t necessarily going to be the snappiest debaters, and that’s not what they’re being paid to do.  McShea would have been better served by some sort of email exchange scenario…which would have been interesting to read.

Second, there was just a complete lack of communication there. Someone needs to tell Greg Goodrich that “authentic” is basically a synonym for “realistic”. Claiming that you’re being “authentic” but not “realistic” just doesn’t work as a defence.  I’m not saying he was being deliberately disingenuous. How could I? I’m not camped out in the man’s head and have no idea why he’d make one argument over the other. I believe he was being honest, but never clearly communicated what he thought the difference was.

Third, though, was the fact that Tom McShea is a game writer who should know what the hell ludonarrative dissonance is. I feel like Clint Hocking needed to roll in from stage right, yell “LUDONARRATIVE DISSONANCE!!” and then run off or something, just to tell Tom what he’s on about. The thing he’s complaining about, and that Goodrich is avoiding, is that attempts to add in plot and characterization moments that are “authentic” mean absolutely jack if they’re being constantly undermined by the gameplay.

I can understand why Goodrich wants “fun” gameplay, and why he’d be following the Battlefield/Call of Duty lead. They’re popular and, yes, they’re a lot of fun. But those games aren’t remotely “authentic” in their combat in any way, shape or form. Attempts to try to make a serious, authentic, powerful story in the face of this cartoonish version of military combat is going to be so incoherent that it’s just going to come across as laughable. No matter how many real Marines or SEAL guys you base your story on, it’ll end up as farce.

Yet McShea never really brought that one home.  Maybe he would have if Goodrich hadn’t been in his face.

Another thing that bugged me, though, is one that never really gets discussed that much, either in the McShea piece or in the interview:

What about the guys on the other side?

One of the reasons people were really offended and disturbed by Medal of Honor, from what I saw around Twitter and elsewhere, was that real-life tragedies were being served up as gaming content. The tragic situation in the horn of Africa that has given rise to the Somali piracy problem is not something to be treated lightly, and a lot of the people in those situations end up having little choice about who they can or can’t fight with. It isn’t just the stories of the western soldiers that deserve telling; there’s a lot of stories on the other side too, of people who are just as human as the men they’re fighting against.

Yes, the men (and it is almost universally men) who send them in are often brutal warlords and dictators. Many will be violent thugs. But you can’t blithely assume that most of the people you’re fighting are going to be like that. That was already somewhat of an issue with Modern Warfare, but Modern Warfare carefully subverted and leveraged the issue; from what we’ve seen with Medal of Honor, that isn’t happening here. It’s played straight.

That’s where these claims to “authenticity” completely fall down, unless there’s a whole lot more here that I haven’t seen.  These are complex sociopolitical and geopolitical issues that sweep up a lot of people into conflicts that they don’t really want yet can’t see the means to avoid. If you want to be “authentic”, you can’t handwave that away and turn the opposing force into straw figures in a warmed-over shooting gallery. You can do goofy depictions of violence, and you can do realistic, disconcerting depictions of violence…but mixing them together ain’t gonna fly.

(McShea did touch on this a bit with the whole “headshot!” thing, and that’s where I thought he was strongest, but he didn’t seem to follow through on it.)

One last thing:  I winced a little when I found out that McShea was making these critiques without first-hand experience of the game. Goodrich had a fair point in bringing it up; McShea probably should have made a point of trying out the game before sitting down to discuss it. In fact, a really great way to do this would be to have the discussion while playing the demo, which would have given McShea the opportunity to show what he was getting at. He needed to know what he was talking about, and it would have been good for him to be able to illustrate his points.

I suspect the PR handlers wouldn’t be okay with it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodrich were wary too; but if Gamespot had made it into a condition for the interview, it might have made for an excellent moment of game criticism, instead of the somewhat painful experience we saw here.

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Moddin’ Morrowind

So as I said in my last post on Morrowind (o the shame!), I’ve started playing it, and noticed that it looked really good for the time. And, yes, that’s kind of faint praise. It’s prettier than Daggerfall, in its way, but the graphics clearly haven’t any better than any relatively-early 3D games. It was also an XBox game, after all, and while both that platform and the PS2 could do surprisingly good graphics, a big open-world game like Morrowind means that something’s gotta give.

So while Morrowind looks good for the time, you’re still going to notice a whole lotta flaws. The water doesn’t look great. The buildings are made of a small number of polygons and have really visible seams, as well as low-res textures. The human models aren’t much to speak about, and the less said about the faces, the better. It’s not really a distraction, because it’s an older game. I wasn’t terribly concerned about it. I wanted an authentic experience, warts and all.

Thing is, I was concerned about the bugs. Morrowind isn’t as buggy as Daggerfall, but it does still have a lot of issues. Like Daggerfall, it still has some save corruption issues, and there are a lot of bits where things can easily break if you do something the designers didn’t expect or where they obviously cobbled a system together under serious time and resource constraints. I value authenticity, but there ARE limits, and Bethesda didn’t include the same quality of bug-prevention and bug-recovery tools with Morrowind that they did with Daggerfall. I was uncomfortably reminded of the fact that Daggerfall’s probably unfinishable without its little hacks and fixes.

But that’s the thing about open platforms: you don’t need to rely on the developer. If you have a problem, rest assured that others have as well. If enough people run into your problem, sooner or later someone is going to try to figure out a way to fix the problem too. That’s what happened with Morrowind, where people not only provided bug fixes to the game’s data files, but fixes and optimizations of the Morrowind executable itself.

(As an aside, the code patches are ASTONISHING. A game is fundamentally a piece of software. The executable of a piece of software is the game when you get right down to it. And these modders have taken this game and made a BETTER game, better than its original creators.)

One problem: I didn’t want to jump through the hoops to do all these patches and get this thing working. So I was really happy to discover the so-called “Morrowind Overhaul”. It has an auto-installer that does EVERYTHING for you. It installs the files, configures them, and in a few amusing cases, actually takes over control of the mouse so it can click on exactly the options you need to make all those data and code patches work properly. It was perfect.

Perfect, sure, but it was also gigantic. It’s around five gigabytes of data compressed into a 1.5 gigabyte download for a game that’s maybe half that size. So why’s it so big? Well, because it’s an overhaul, and that means graphics. It didn’t just install these bug fixes; it also installed dozens of other mods that make thousands of changes, improvements, and additions to the graphics of the game.  It installed them all, and then showed me pictures of the various things it could add, if I wanted it to.

After seeing those pictures? Yeah…so much for “authenticity”. This updated Morrowind is gorgeous. Sure, it’s not perfect. It’s still built on an older game. But, well, here are side-by-side comparison shots:

(These are intended to be side-by-side; I’m still working that out. Let me know if it’s not quite sorted out on other browsers.)
Same spots. Same game. But not the same at all. Look at the difference. It’s astonishing. Sure, you can still tell that they’re working from the base of a decade-old title that was already hampered a bit by its Xbox connections. It’s not Crysis. But who cares?  It’s still damned pretty. In some respects it rivals Skyrim. In others, like the water, it probably exceeds it.

It’s not just a texture conversion, either. It’s not even meshes. The modders actually go to the extent of re-rendering the gameworld to extend the viewing distances. Notice how you can see so much farther off in that latter screenshot? How it looks like a real environment, instead of Superman 64? That’s not Morrowind itself. Morrowind‘s engine literally cannot do it. That’s the Morrowind Graphics Extender mod, which has you do an extra out-of-game rendering pass, hijacks the graphics engine, and subs in all those extra areas that Morrowind can’t handle. You can even see it in-game: MGE gives you a hotkey that lets you add and remove those extra areas in real-time.

I do care a lot about authenticity. I do admit to some misgivings about playing a game differently from the way it was originally made. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t really changed the gameplay much, beyond adding in a hotkey that lets you cast while holding a weapon, as you can in all the other Elder Scrolls games. The leveling and stats and whatnot are all still the same. I think I’ve changed up Skyrim more than Morrowind.

In this case, though, I think I’ll stick with the modded version. I might take a tour in the vanilla version just to see what everything looks like, but the experience is compelling enough that I think that it’s worth it.

So, with the modding and preparation over…I can finally get to the game itself.

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