Sunday, February 28, 2010


Let me hypothetically pose a hypothetical situation to you. One day, you find yourself in a ~~parallel dimension~~! It is just like normal, an average tuesday, chatting on Facebook (like usual) and talking with all your friends remotely. You call up one person and invite them over; it's just like every other time you've done so. Everything's the same. You talk, you hear, on both ends of every conversation. However, your friend (lets call him Moist), after talking and playing some AoC for a while, has the brilliant idea of going to see the Evil League of Evil, the elite team of super-villains. You travel all the way over to their secret headquarters - signing in using the secret password - and listen in on their fabulous and devious schemes. All is as it should be.

But soon things start to go wrong. After you leave the base, you decide to go to the frozen yogurt market. All sorts of frozen yogurt vendors from across the galaxy gather there to hawk their sales. But once you arrive, the world is in dead silence. Well, not complete silence, because there are the sounds of birds chirping in the background and some distant music (and ancient times) playing alongside. But nobody speaks. Whenever you walk up to a vendor, they shout a greeting to you, then hand you a slip of paper with a conversation on it - in the best case situation, you get to give a response (on paper, of course). Not that you have a choice what the response is, or whether you get to give it or not, but a response nonetheless.

Now, more astute metaphoricists will have noted, Hey! That's just like the current state of all MMORPS! Egads! Gadzooks! Conker! And you would be right. Walking down a back alley in Stormwind has exactly the same sounds as walking through the market district - it's all the same. Bioware is, you might say, the King of getting this.... nearly right. Playing through Denerim's market district has vendors hawking their wares, reactive responses from your party members, and fully-voiced dialog. MMO's can pick this up, and SW:TOR will probably be the first of many fully voiced MMOs to come. Well, nearly fully voiced. Because there has been one piece of the situation always missing.

That would be the player. Even if you are given 5 options to speak, you are only given 5 options - whether you can predict a new outcome or not, see the trap before it's sprung, have a counter-argument the developers never thought of, or generically make a pretty funny joke, it doesn't matter. It never matters. You only have the words, phrases, sentences, given to you at your disposal. Perhaps they will give the character a voice of their own at some point (though this runs the risk of further distancing the player from the character's dialog). This is how RPGs have always been, right? This is how they have been since their inception. WRONG.

RPGs began with the pen-and-paper - the In the Labyrinths, the DragonQuests, the DNDs. In these, NPCs did not exist (at least not how we think of them currently). Every character had a human brain behind them, from a goblin to a wolf to an orc to a housecat. Each was fully reactive, and the depth of the character was based on the person behind it. With MMOs, nowadays, NPC 'intellect' can be increased to a degree of nigh-impossibility, in the gameplay of the game - but they remain woefully ignorant in terms of Speech.

How do we solve this? There are a few options, and I'll list them in terms of time:

1) Add a ventrilo-style chat, in game, in place of a text-based system for /say speech. Have it diminish in terms of distance, how speech does now. Communities will shun those who yell stupidly - if not, ignore features and the like will follow just as text-based speech has forever.

2) Add a decent STT (Speech To Text) system into these games. This is mainly heightened by option #3, however it does allow for a fair bit of interesting potential - first, it is faster than typing, and allows for Text just as fast as you would receive voice commands (great for raiding or PvP or other quick decisions). Also, it frees up hands for doing whatever - fishing, grinding for Shadowmourne, dancing - while you can 'type' in guild chat with speech. As I said, though, mainly heightened by #3.

3) Add a decent TTS (Text To Speech) system into these games. Add accents, variants, sliders and more to increase customization - this will allow both players to role-play easier and more effectively, as well as allowing dynamic NPC speech without needing thousands upon thousands of Voice Actors (as in SW:TOR). Would make voicing in games nigh-infinitely easier. Also, sadly, by far the most difficult of the bunch. Possible, but difficult.

Modern AI will handle the rest - the anger, the inflection, the character behind the words. All it takes is for these to be built, and perhaps the Bazaar won't feel like a graveyard (no matter the number of people in it) any more.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Of MICE and MMOs

I'll dive right in to this post, because I want to. The Scourge cannot be stopped!

I recently read a book by Orson Scott Card, acclaimed science fiction author, about Characters and Viewpoint. I hadn't read much about the science of writing novels before this, so even the basic concepts it talked about held my interest for a while. One of the points he makes, early on, is about the four different kinds of stories, specifically novels, that exist. They follow the acronym MICE, and I'll briefly sum each one up:

Milieu stories are those that focus on setting and the world the characters exist in beyond all else. It can house such things as poems, recipes, songs, as well as extraneous and unrelated plot points, just to convey the setting (or Milieu) of the story. Examples of this are Lord of the Rings and Avatar.

Idea stories are written to push across a single thought, element, or idea. This can be something relevant, such as the intricacies of modern evolution or gender roles in American society, or something as fantastic as posing the question 'What if a giant lizard attacked Tokyo?'. Inside this category falls all Speculative fiction, and so a great deal of science fiction can be housed here. Examples are Waterworld and the Left Hand of Darkness.

Character stories are just made to show, reveal, and explore different characters in different situations. Most modern drama television shows fall under this category, as well as a few comic books. Examples are Firefly and the Dark Knight.

Event stories simply chronicle one event, one point in time, whether a conflict or a simple day at the park. Nearly every short story has to fall in this category because, you know, they're short. Narrative poems are usually here too. Examples include Poe's The Raven, and the first 20 minute opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.

A short disclaimer:
Yes, I know every single novel has every one of these ideas. But did anyone go to see Avatar for the characters? No. How about watching the Dark Knight solely for the events? It just doesn't make sense. The novels, or movies, we view as amazing, take Lord of the Rings, are strong in three of the four categories, but one truly shines above the rest. You can't tell me that the Battle of the Shire was for anything but more interactions in the world, nor Tom Bombadil, (which is in fact why both were cut from the movies). The characters, the events, the ideas, they all back a strong world that it is housed in. Some are ambiguous - Firefly had a very strong world - but in general, both movies and novels stick to these lines.

Now, you say, what is this doing here? On a blog so previously dedicated to events in the video game world? I'll tell you. Calm down. Relax, man, you're two tents.

I would argue, or at least postulate, that games follow a similar structure. Not quite the same, as they are two (very) different storytelling genres, but they share similar structures. While this could, with a little extrapolation, cover all games, I will focus on my MMO genre rating system that I call SPAM.

Sandbox/Social games take one category. They are not built by developers, but the players that play it. They may have a plot, or a world, that forms around it - even WoW has a massive following of machinima and comics - but true games in this category have all the following categories made up of the people, by the people, and for the people. EVE, Second Life, and LOVE all are versions of this.

Plot games follow a (usually linear, but not necessarily) plot that goes from point a to point b. They have a defined starting and ending, and whether DLC or expansions increase this, its is still a game driven by a single goal. (Every game made based on a movie, ever, in the history of ever, has been this type of game. Some of the blandest, most boring, and lamest games have fallen here too.) For MMOs, plots have been harder to come by - though we see major signs of plot- centric MMOs in Wrath of the Lich King, with Arthas's storyline, and (of course) in SW:TOR.

Amusement games are just made for gameplay. Combat, racing, puzzles, riddles, exploration, minigames, boss fights, sports, whatever you fancy - the developers had an idea for a fun game on the forefront of their minds when they built it. You, naysayers, may say that everything falls in this category. All games have to be amusing, or else they wouldn't sell! But I am using amusement in a "shallower", or more "accessible" sense. Free Realms and the majority of Kids' games fall right here. There are others here too, and games that make excessive use of combat can be tossed into this category. I know a number of people name Aion, but I'm reluctant to take a stance seeing as I've never actually played the thing.

Lastly, Milieau games are all about the world you exist in. In fact, they are very similar to Milieau stories, in that they push worlds in front of them. However, this also encapsulates the Character piece of the novel - because either you are a character, or the character is part of the reactive NPC world. I can't think of an MMO that doesn't, or shouldn't, fall into this genre. World of Warcraft (esp. Vanilla) is most definitely in this breed, with its voluminous lore and all sorts of unnecessary background. Another example would be Star Trek Online, and indeed most franchise settings (because people who pay to play one of these games will leave disappointed if they don't feel entrenched in the world). Avatar: The Game should have been in this category. It wasn't.

And, to end, a brief hypothetical summary. I feel like this makes sense. If not to you, or any developers, then to me. Good MMOs, like good Novels, highlight one of these aspects beyond all else, and use the other aspects to foil that piece. I'm not saying that anything should be done to lessen how well each is executed, just that a game needs to bring the other genre's up to par. If you want to immerse your players in a world, that's fine! Just don't tell them that it's also all about a single plot. Want it to be a very community game? Neat! Just don't waver between a world you build and a world your players build. SW:TOR chose story. LOVE chose gameplay. EVE chose sandbox. It's those other games, the EQ2's and the AoC's and the STOs and oh so many more, that don't (to me) have one outspoken genre. By no means diminish what you have - all pieces, from community to world, are necessary for a successful MMO. But without an point of contrast, the whole masterpiece fades.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tips to MMO'ing on 15$ a Month

It's tricky to play two MMO's, there's no doubt about it. However, it's a a very hard time finding cheap entertainment in this economy, and some times - you just get bored with one MMO. It happens. That doesn't mean you won't want to play it from time to time, or you won't want to raid with your guild on Tuesday evening any more - it just means you want another option. Makes sense. However, getting another MMO can be downright expensive - playing CO, AoC, War, Aion, CoH, STO, LotRO, and any number of others at the same time can cost you a rather large fortune. Luckily, you have other options!

1) Free to Play is your friend!
There are a number of free, yes, free MMOs out there. And even better - there are quite a few good ones - not just flash-based browser games like AdventureQuest or NeoPets that can scarcely call themselves MMOs, or things like... *shudders*... Runescape.

The thing about these free games is that basically all of them have microtransactions. Meaning, if you have a collector's habit of wanting to get every minipet or title, it'll probably end up being more expensive for you to play this than to open up a new account in AoC or EVE.

However, if you can stand not buying the newest sparklepony on the block, there are some pretty fun, good, decent games out there.
  • Chronicles of Spellborn: Free to play for the moment, didn't have an extremely solid beginning, but is working its way back. Has an interesting combat system - otherwise, haven't gotten a chance to check it out.
  • Runes of Magic: Despite being very good at blatantly destroying contests, Runes of Magic is an often-toted WoW Clone. A decent one, but very very similar to it nonetheless - if you're looking for more WoW, go for it; otherwise, you might want to try something new.
  • Free Realms: Targeted for a younger audience than most multi-MMOers, it still deserves note as one of the most interesting MMOs to date, simply because it removed the 'requirement' of combat-based leveling from the MMORPG genre. With kart-racing, cooking, and exploration all being ways to level, along with about 6 or 7 other options, it is an interesting and refreshing take on the genre.
  • Allods Online: A pretty cool looking sci-fantasy game with hints of that over-used 'WoW Clone' branding, still in beta and said to be released at some point this year. Check back on release - the graphics are, well, stunning. Not Aion, but still very cool.
  • Torchlight Online: Still in production, but promising to be a very cool game if the dungeon-crawler it is preceded by, 'Torchlight', is any indication. Not much information other than it will be free to play and micro-transaction based.
  • Almost forgot! Dungeons and Dragons Online, better known as DDO, is a game turned recently from pay-to-play to free. It's been around a while, meaning it already has a decent fanbase and a bit of history - not a thouroghly innovative game, but decent and, best of all, free.
2) 1-Time Purchases
Even if you only have, say, 15$ a month to spend on your MMO, you might still have money you normally spend on those other, single player games. While I'm not going to cover those here...because this post would encompass several small terabytes... I can tell you about those 1-purchase MMO's that you pay for once - then you're done.
  • Guild Wars (plus like 5 expansions): Arenanet attempted to revolutionize the gaming subscription models with this game. They thought, hey, we can sell these games - no subscription attatched - just like any other game, and it could work if we sell enough! Cool! However, when it was released, people slowly began to realize that it wasn't an MMO at all. The entire world outside of cities was instanced - making it just a couple of visual chat rooms with solo or group games that you can play out of them. Still worth noting, because it can be a fun game.
  • Guild Wars 2: They came back, 5 years later, reevaluated, reassessed, and decided that it was time to make a new MMO - same subscription model of a 1-time purchase (though a number of expansions) - however, in an actual virtual world. Coming out (probably) some time this year or next, definitely keep your eyes peeled for this one. Looks to be a very, very cool game.
  • Global Agenda: This one's a bit tricky, and not necessarily an MMO persay, however I'd brand it one. However, the stuff that typically brands it as an MMO - crafting, end-game leveling, open world environment - only are unlockable with a (you guessed it) 15$ a month subscription.

3) Lifetime Subscriptions
The last... and the most difficult to suggest. Whereas you can pay 15$ a month until you want to stop, some MMOs nowadays are offering limited lifetime subscriptions for a fixed rate, until the game goes under. I urge caution for a few reasons with this category:
First, most MMOs offer this as a limited offer, only allowing you to purchase it before or within a few weeks of release. You might not know what you're getting in to.
Second, the world of MMOs is just that, a world, evolving an constantly changing. you never know when your game developer might pull a NGE on you and reverse your loved game into a graveyard overnight.
Third, the 'industry standard' for the cost of these is 200$ - and rising. This is pretty expensive, and if you play for a full year and two months you'll barely break even. If you plan on playing more, great, but otherwise... meh.
  • Champions Online (Over) This is one to pay very close attention to if you're thinking about getting a lifetime subscription - apparently, Cryptic has released additional, important and almost necessary content to the game - for a price. Think like a full patch, a whole zone, held only for people who pay. Even the ones that shelled out the 200$ at launch. It's a bit sketchy.
  • Star Trek Online (Over) This is one I got in on, however, we'll see how it works out. First off, it's a good 40$ over the standard price, and with the same people that made Champions Online. However, I have one explanation for why I bought it, despite all of this advice - I liked it. I liked the game. It was fun. Entertaining. A cool IP, with so much potential and even more interest. I don't see it as a WoW killer (stupid term, by the way) or anything, but I can see it being a fun game. Also, I know I won't be able to afford two accounts at the same time, so it makes sense to buy it now - when the value is constant and will thin with time.
  • Lord of the Rings Online This one's 300$, but only after their own limited offer of the standard 200. However, it is available still, which is pretty neat and a great giveaway. However, with it being 3 years old, it is an odd choice to buy now, with a necessary 1 yr 8 months to break even.

In recap, there are a number of ways you could, and can, play multiple MMOs - without ever subscribing to a game, or just subscribing to one.

Monday, February 1, 2010


I officially hate Amazon.
Wow. Really?
So, I tried to buy the Star Trek Online lifetime subscription. I only really can pay for one monthly MMO at a time, and STO attracted my attention, so it made the most sense - just a really expensive, 1 time purchase game. However, when STO says 'offer available until February 1st', they actually mean 'offer available until when we feel like it, or more the retailers who we don't actually keep in contact with so if you really want to buy it now then you're just out of luck'. They wouldn't give me a pre-order code after many calls and emails... eventually leading to one individual telling me that they can't give out the pre-orde codes until TOMORROW. Which, seeing as the lifetime subscription offer ends tomorrow, doesn't make much sense.

Why didn't he just order it like a week ago? What an idiot.
Well, seeing as this situation still stands, I am off to go get Dragon Age. Take that, Cryptic.

EDIT: Well, I still dislike Amazon for being stupid about things, but Cryptic pulled through for me! Yay! They bumped up my account to pre-order status, and I purchased it then. Whew. Go Cryptic.