Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic - First Impressions (Part 1 - The Good)

Bioware - I had so many expectations going into this game.  I intentionally ignored the beta hoping that I wouldn't come into a world filled with nonsensical bugs and poor thought out mechanics.  But here we are.

I'm going to break this one up into three posts, divided by the usual review style.  This prevents a giant wall of text and shuts up people who have nothing better to do then complain about COMING TO MY BLOG TO READ THINGS, AND THEN READING THEM.  O.o

The Good

The general story line of all the characters flows well, and is clearly well thought out.  I still find myself skipping over filler, but I am genuinely intrigued at parts and find myself playing for 10-15 minutes longer then intended just to find out what happens next and hit a comfortable breaking point in the story.  While not terribly predictable, there are some parts that could've used a little more development.  In Particular, there are a few parts in one of the quest lines where I believe I won't be the only one that sits back and wonders how many hard narcotics were being used the night certain parts of the story were written. 

Combat flows well - but it's an ability/cool-down based system.  There is nothing even close to innovative about the combat in this game, and thankfully they managed to implement it well and spared me one more thing to complain about.

Graphically the game is a perfect blend of quality and performance - I'd rate the game a 7 out of 10; the character models and effects need work, but the environments are great and display themselves fluidly - and that's more important then it sounds, many gamers will be able to run this game well without the need to upgrade and/or replace their systems entirely.

The space combat (Yes, really).  I started gaming young, and I realize most of the audience for SWTOR is probably around ~18 years old, and therefor do not remember games like Rogue Squadron(1998) and its subsequent sequels which are nearly identical to the space combat you experience in SWTOR.  I was thrilled when I saw they chose to implement it this way - it works perfectly as an almost mini-game/break from the action of a typical MMORPG.  The rewards are on par and are well worth the brief missions (most are completed w/cut-scenes in less than five minutes - they're on timers).

The experience curve is excellent.  You'll spend an adequate amount of time leveling your character to 50 (the current max level).  I'm currently 30 hours into the game, and I'm sitting at level 25.  Granted, I did a bit of experimenting and exploring, but all in all, I mostly plowed through my quests with ease, and I'm barely half way to the maximum level.

The companion system is a very intriguing idea, but comes across as kind of a cop out and a borrowed mechanic from other games.  This is listed in the 'good' section because Bioware implemented it well, and built a game around it.  The system makes sense and operates fluidly - and I like it.  But in a way, it's also a major problem as it encourages players to solo content instead of group with other players (decreasing the social aspect of MMORPG's) and to an extent becomes cumbersome once you acquire 2-3 companions (of which you can only have one follow you around at a time).  You now also need to manage multiple sets of equipment, one for you, and one for each companion (or at a minimum one for you and your favorite companion.  That gets tedious, but that's a personal preference I suppose.  I'm leaving the loyalty section out of this, see the bad section in part two.

The trade skill system is a refreshing change from the norm.  In SWTOR, you don't actually craft anything, your companions do.  You pick three 'crew skills'; one to manufacture the goods, and two to gather materials.  Everything's done via a mostly well thought out menu, and you can assign any number of companions to undertake tasks at the same time.  One can be crafting light saber hilts while the other forages for power crystals - all the missions and crafting segments are done on timers, so you know exactly how long it'll take, and how much crafting an item, or gathering the material for that item will cost you.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Equilibrium - 12/25/11

I spent last night with relatives, discussing the happenings of the past year and looking forward to the next.  Somehow it came up that I was blogging and reviewing games on line, and eventually it turned into a debate about 'virtual' journalism, as my uncle deemed it, and 'real' journalism (which I don't see a distinction between).

The topic came up when I brought up a story (which I can not find for the life of me, but will look for and link here if I come across it) in which a reviewer for a video game site found himself in quite a bit of trouble when the company producing the game he most recently reviewed went public with the fact that he had only spent two hours in game.

It should go without saying that two hours is nowhere near enough time to form an educated opinion about anything when it comes to digital entertainment - even things like the user interface (UI) or the overall graphics/performance of a product, it takes time to experience multiple things, play with your settings, take notes, etc. 

What followed was an interesting scenario - one I could easily find myself in now that this website is starting to get some regular traffic.

After the company slammed the negative review of their game with the fact that the reviewer only spent two hours playing it, the website that published the review immediately backed their writer; saying that they believed him when he said he had spent significantly more time in game.  This just made everyone look stupid, but lets examine the situation a bit further, as there's a few scenario's.

First off, as someone who's built and implemented multiple software solutions I can certainly understand the game development company's stance on a negative review being published with only two hours of playtime under the reviewer's belt.  I'd have probably been outraged as well, and rightfully so.  But what are the real options here?  Sure, you can check the database and see just how much time he logged in game, and perhaps even divulge those figures to the website posting the review - but you're fighting a losing battle, the website will never come out and say "Yeah, he didn't actually play your game.  We'll pull the review and fire him."  That would be the right thing to do, and corporations rarely do the right thing - let alone go make drastic reversals like that.

If you were the game developer, you could go the legal route.  You'd first make the website aware of your intent to do so, and provide them with the evidence you plan to use - IE a copy of the database and any logs present to show you didn't manipulate the data (which can be hard to prove depending on how you're storing your data).  If they didn't budge, then you'd file suit - arbitration would be involved, a mass of expert testimony, and then you could sue them for damages and various things involving journalistic integrity - which could result in HEFTY fines for the website (and anywhere else linking to the review) and quite a bit of money for the game developer if the court finds the review was damaging, malicious (due to the lack of time spent playing the game and then reviewing it) and then award you accordingly if sales dropped off.

I wonder why the game development company didn't go that route.  There's nothing to lose and everything to gain - if it's indeed true that he only spent two hours playing their game before writing up an article for the masses to read.

But this brings up a more interesting point - how can journalists defend themselves?  What if the game development company manipulated the data to show that the reviewer only spent two hours in game, when he had actually spent 50?  Suppose they also delete the logs, and hide the manipulation, and you have no legal recourse as a result?  I'm sure it's happened before - and if it happens again, someone can and will probably lose their job over it.  That's a bit crazy.

So what's the best defense?  I'm not a big proponent of Xfire, which is a gaming community that deploys a number of applications, one of which tracks your game time.  Something like that could work - it involves a third party and is very difficult to fake without extensive technical knowledge and/or an unnecessary hassle.  It's probably be easier to just play the game.

The only recourse to countering something like Xfire's tracking would be for the game development company to say that the reviewer didn't actually do anything in game, or that he sat around AFK (Away from Keyboard) for hours to run up his game time.  That's pretty easy to prove though, accomplishments in games are noticeable and definable, especially when you're first starting out. 

I'm not sure what I'd do if I was in that position, while it's relatively easy (through legal means) to prove what you were doing on your computer at X time, it's also easy for companies that don't like negative press to throw you under the bus and cheat the system - not saying there's many out there that would...

...But there's many out there that could.

And that's my thought for this week.  Happy (AND SAFE!) Holidays everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Eve Online And Dust514 - Part 2

I really hate sitting down to write something when I have an outrageously negative mindset.  Go ahead, call me a 'bitter' Eve veteran if you want, but the fact is CCP screwed up the Incarna expansion so badly, and it cost them so dearly that I just don't see a positive way Dust514 can be integrated into Eve-Online without it becoming a complete disaster and forcing even more of their customer base away from the game.

That statement holds true (for me at least) regardless of how good of a First Person Shooter (FPS) Dust514 turns out to be.  Needless to say, it must be an outstanding one to even compete on the market.

I truly hope I'm wrong here.  If you couldn't tell, I love Eve.  I've met some incredible friends through that game - friends I've kept in touch with for years even though we've moved on to other frontiers and live across oceans.  Eve offers so many unique things about it (some which also contribute negatively to the overall experience) that it will always remain one of my all time favorite games.  I feel CCP can learn a lot from Incarna; but I also feel that after losing 20% of their workforce and facing countless amounts of scrutiny from their player base that CCP will overlook the lessons learned in favor of trying too hard, and ultimately stumble over themselves like so many development companies have done before during recovery periods.

Again, let's hope I'm wrong.

The fault with Dust514 lies inherently within its key feature - it must be integrated with Eve-Online.  In doing so, both worlds have to meaningfully contribute with each other - and in order to do that, they must (to an extent) rely on each other.

In a symbiotic relationship scenario (like the one we're looking at here) Dust players will rely on Eve players, and Eve players will rely on Dust players, equally.  We don't know much about it - which is part of what makes the future seem so dim - we only know Planetary Interaction (PI) will be the keystone for their involvement.

That's a mistake on CCP's part - because Planetary Interaction directly involves only one thing so far, and that's the market and production-based players in Eve.  So I get that resources can be controlled and jockeyed via Dust Mercenary's competing over PI installations - and that's a cool idea, but making one world rely off the other is nothing short of a terrible idea.  Forcing players to communicate cross-games isn't something that's been done before, and in software production that's usually something you stay FAR away from unless you have the resources to continually invest and develop it to its full potential.  Again, CCP lost 20% of their workforce last year, they aren't 'doing fine'.  They're probably just 'doing'.

For starters, Dust514 is only available on the PS3.  What happens if the PS4 is released next Christmas?  (The PS3 isn't backwards compatible, hopefully Sony fixes that with the PS4, but I won't hold my breath).

The Playstation Network (along with the majority of Sony's servers) experienced a good amount of downtime this year from a combination of hacking attempts and natural disasters.  What happens if that occurs again, and this time Eve-Online is directly effected as a result?  Do you think the players will stand for their Eve experiences being disrupted because the Dust servers are offline?  I think not.  After all, look how many people still complain about Eve's hour of down time every day.

What happens if Dust flops?  If it's a mediocre shooter in an already-flooded market, it'll die quickly, make no mistake about that.  Eve is a very successful game by MMORPG standards, but its not a well known game outside of that niche of gamers.  It's unlikely you'll find people willing to abandon Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield titles to play (or even try) Dust unless there's some massive incentive.

Any of the three situations described above leave Eve's population looking for Dust players in order to achieve goals.  Either they won't find anyone, or it'll take a considerable amount of time.

But in the end, Dust using PI as a touch point will only directly effect producers of market goods and anyone using PI as a source of supplemental income.  What about players that do neither?  They probably won't care about Dust at all.  That's bad.  Also, how/why will Dust players care about Eve?  We already know that they can instantly-queue for deathmatch type games at any time, why compete over contracts, etc. if money is available through other means and lacks the complexity of communicating with someone in another game?

Perhaps you could work Dust into the sovereignty system for 0.0 space, allowing players to hire mercenaries to assault control towers, space stations, etc.  That could be worked out as advantageous to one side, but ultimately not game-breaking as the number of ships (and the skill of the pilots) fielded would still provide the greatest advantage to an alliance looking to take over an objective in space.  But perhaps mercenaries could disable shields, or damage armor from the inside if victorious, speeding things up a little bit.

That would solve one of the problems above because even if no Dust players signed up, the outcome is still decided by players and their actions, instead of waiting around for resources to accumulate and hoping you will still have control of the PI installation when the time comes to get them.

When it's all said and done, I hope CCP learns from its mistakes and develops Dust with some of the great features Eve fans have come to love, like ship outfitting.  We know that vehicles will be a huge part of Dust, and that fitting them will work similar to how capsuleers outfit their ships in Eve now.  That's a huge drawing point if done correctly - aside from guns, most FPS titles don't offer any true customization to their features these days.  Dust could be the first FPS/MMORPG that not only offers true field-noticeable customization BUT integrates with an already successful MMORPG.  Let's hope they develop that to its maximum extent.

I'll keep researching Dust and watching it's development closely - while its a title I'm not optimistic about, its one I'm anxious about.  I can't wait to see how CCP pulls this off, and to another extent, I hope it helps to rekindle the fire for many Eve vet's like myself who are devoted to the game, but somewhat disappointed with where it's gone lately.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic, And Why I Avoided The Beta

Free beta testing is one of the more fantastic things about the gaming industry.  Those lucky enough to make their way into a beta test often end their sessions with a better idea of whether or not they will purchase the final product.  The beta testers also provide valuable opinions and information to the masses once they take to the forums and share their opinions on their time in-game.

It's not that I'm jaded, but after spending the better part of a decade playing most major MMO releases I really feel like I didn't miss a thing staying out of the Star Wars: The Old Republic's (SWTOR) beta test, even though I received an early invite.

It's not that I don't love Star Wars - quite the opposite.  I also not very concerned that Bioware, despite this being their first MMORPG, won't do something profoundly stupid like make another cookie cutter end-game equipment grind.  And despite my inner gamer's best efforts I've mostly stayed away from the forums as well - except to assure myself the world hadn't changed yesterday, when I checked around a few places and made sure that people were still complaining about waiting in long log in queues during early access launch events.

Everyone always complains about the queue to log into a server.  You see, game companies often throttle (or slowly let in) players onto each server in an attempt to accomplish two things:

1 - Keep the server load from getting too high.  More players = more chances of things going wrong.  Letting them slowly grow in a production (real) environment means they can be monitored and logged as they eventually expand.

2 - Monitor the popular servers and discourage overcrowding.  When anxious gamers get into a game for the first time, the last thing they want to do is wait another four hours (or even longer) to play.  Sure, some will stick it out to play with their friends, but more often then not the tactic of bumping up the queue time on the popular servers will help keep the crowds away and eventually lead to them picking another server to play on.

In the end, opening more servers is a dangerous proposition; open too many and you end up with unpopulated servers that ultimately cause more trouble then they are worth.  If you open too few and potentially turn off customers.

It's a balancing act really, something that most game companies fail miserably at.  The end result is usually a two-thirds scenario (in popular and well-received games). Two thirds of the servers will have healthy populations, while the remaining one third will be ghost towns (relatively speaking).  Ghost towns usually get merged into other servers once its obvious that they're failing (if the company is smart, which is rare).  But in this industry server mergers are often taken as a sign of a failing game - and this eventually leads to those ghost town servers being abandoned by the population for greener pastures (or just a more populated server).

Despite the pains of log in queues - early access is actually brilliant idea.  It's when companies provide those who pre-order their game before release day with a week or so worth of 'early access' into the game.  This gives players a head start, and ultimately ensures that everyone isn't crowing the beginning areas of the game when the doors open to the masses on launch day.  It also keeps the population relatively small should something catastrophic occur and cause the game company to shut off their servers for a few hours in order to fix a problem.

And lastly, early access provides a nearly complete image of what the final product will be on launch day, the beta testing period usually offers only small (and buggy) glimpses of the big picture. 

And that's why I stayed away from SWTOR.

Not because I wasn't willing to put up with bugs, or restricted access, or even incomplete content - because when I enter the game for the first time, I don't want to be on the look out for all the things I hated in the beta.  I don't want to deal with previous experiences guiding my play time through different locations, and I certainly don't want to deal with whiny idiots who think they're entitled to complain about something they aren't paying for.  I don't miss any of that one bit.

I also don't miss playing unfinished games.  So many times over the past few years I've gotten access to a beta and logged into a world half built, with a multitude of missing features (and broken promises).  I've had a lot of great experiences with Bioware, they make nothing short of incredible games.  But an MMO is a different monster all together, and I suppose I just wasn't ready to have my heart broken again.

I'll be picking up the game this week, and cataloging my adventures extensively.  Keep checking back for more updates - hopefully my first few days will be good ones.