Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vanguard, and Other Failed MMO Launches - Some Insight

Right off the bat I feel like the title of this one is a bit misleading.  For anyone who was a part of the MMO scene in 2007 when Vanguard Launched, I'm sure you're already conjuring images of the absolute insanity that was the launch of this exceptionally high potential MMO.  For those that weren't, allow me to recap:

Vanguard had been publicized for years as generally awesome.  It filled a niche market - somewhere between hardcore gamer and casual MMO enthusiast, and offered multiple paths of character development incorporated with unique racial choices, innovative (for the time) spell and class selections, and unicorns.  What was eventually delivered was a buggy mess, quickly earning the game the nickname of Vanguard:  Saga of Crashes (It's actual title was Vanguard: Saga of Heroes).

As a result of the poorly optimized graphical engine, MANY (probably 95%) of the users experienced problems with their systems and the display of the game.  Most grew frustrated, but being a proud group of people, we played with our settings, downloaded and re-downloaded drivers, and tried to tough it out.  Most of us were unsuccessful in doing so for more then a few weeks.  Other frustrating elements existed, server downtime, odd NPC behavior, quests and crafting not working as intended (or at all), some stats not working, or being reflected.  The list goes on and on.  Murphy's Law states; "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."  With that in mind, I classify Vanguard as having a Murphy's Launch. 

As a result of Murphy's Launch, the game began to hemorrhage players immediately, and in doing so became part of the ever-growing club of video games launched by production companies far earlier then they should have been launched.

One might be asking how this happens so frequently.  Vanguard, while an infamous example, is far from alone in experiencing this.  The market is literally flooded with rushed titles these days - some have SOMEWHAT recovered from their poor launch - Age of Conan comes to mind.  Note the word 'somewhat' before recovered; the game will almost certainly never be what it could have been had they waited 6 months more to release it and actually delivered on what they promised.  Or at least what was printed on the box.

So why do games get released early.  As you can probably imagine - software development has a budget.  Failure to meet that budget usually falls into one of the following categories:

-Failure to correctly obtain a level of effort (time estimate) on how long all the parts of the development process will take.
-Failure to account for the potential (and certain) problems you will encounter during software development.
-Poor Project Management
-Inexperienced personnel attempting to 'be the hero' and take on an extensive task in an unreasonable time period.  This forces them to either learn at a rapid rate and attempt to wing it, or to rush (or both), which generally leads to disaster.
-Inadequate QA throughout the development process, resulting in a lot of people saying "Oh shit" when launch time comes around and there are far more bugs in the software then are feasibly manageable.

So much can go wrong with software development, as the above is really just a small subset of potential mishaps, but I'd generally commit to nearly 100% of the rushed-launch games that we're seeing went over budget as a result of the above and needed to be rushed out the door to compensate.

So where does Vanguard go from here?  A patch with some additional content was announced recently.  It doesn't seem like much - but it shows development effort in a game that hasn't seen a major update since January of 2010.  It's a good sign - pending the community responds accordingly.

You see, while Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) gives us an inch, they take a yard.  Vanguard currently has no way for returning players to hop back into the game unless they pay the monthly fee (~$14 if I remember correctly).  That hurts everyone, especially SOE - but they probably figure that that people that re-subscribe to check out the game will provide more funds then those that'll re-subscribe after a free trial.  I disagree in the long run, but in the end, they run a business, and have to do what's been best for them, historically.

What it really comes down to is the success of this patch.  If the community responds well, they might start sparsely supporting it.  If not, Vanguard will probably be shut down, and or made free to play.  Both are good possibilities.  Free to play might be the best thing for the game - but they've already stated adding an item shop into the game will be very difficult and time consuming.  It's more then likely that if the community remains sparse, and the game stays unpopulated, that we'll see Vanguard shut down by this time next year.

In the end, game publishers care about one thing.  It's not whether you like the game, hate the game, enjoy grinding, enjoy groups, enjoy instancing, PVP, PVE, raiding, or crafting.  It's whether or not you're paying for it.  I can't imagine many people are paying for Vanguard lately (forums more or less confirm that suspicion).  Which leads to my prediction that despite its diehard and loyal community, Vanguard probably won't see another Thanksgiving.  Which is a shame.

Vanguard, despite all it's past faults and a poor launch, is still nothing short of a great game.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review of Skyrim - The Elder Scrolls 5

I've probably spent almost 100 hours in Skyrim now, and for the most part I've enjoyed my time there.  For whatever reason, I always felt like I was running somewhere in Oblivion. The next quest, next thing to do, etc.  I've actually found myself randomly wandering Skyrim often - just seeing what I can find.  More often then not, I come across people that for whatever reason feel the need to immediately kill me without reason.  I'm always more then happy to return the favor.

The Good

The only thing I thought when I experienced the character advancement system in Skyrim for the first time was "Thank God."  Despite the somewhat hokey control throughout the interface, they got leveling spot on.  I no longer have to wait about accidental skill-ups, finding a place to sleep, or accidentally ruining my character by not paying attention to my skills on a constant basis.  The perks you receive are descriptive and you can immediately see your investment's reflect in your gameplay.  Numbers adjust immediately on the interface (you aren't left wondering if the +20% damage is actually adding up correctly.)  There's obvious choices for each build - but I'll save that for another article all together.  Just know that unlike the frustrating, overcomplicated pain in the ass that Oblivion's trite of a leveling system was, Skyrim's interface is straight forward and rewarding.

The visuals are stunning, pending you have the system specs to support it.  Playing with your settings becomes part of any PC gaming experience.  From what I've seen and read - the Xbox and PS3 versions offer very little difference.  The game itself has a good amount of painstaking detail throughout the areas.  It's obvious the team in charge of the environment were passionate about their job.

The loading times inside most buildings and areas are still present, and annoying.  But given the size of the outside world, it's to be expected and honestly - the load times are brief on a modest system.  I can't speak for the PS3 and Xbox versions of the game, and it seems that the people playing them are also divided.  I hear and read everything from tremendously aggravating load times with unplayable frame rate lag, to seamless transitions - the one thing I have noticed is that the majority of the console-related complaints have ties to the size of the save file on their local machines.  Hopefully that gets sorted out soon - I feel for the people dealing with that.  While QA is never easy, something so widespread should've been caught by Bethesda.

Dual-Hand system.  Assign whats in each hand.  A spell and a sword?  Done.  Two spells?  Done.  The same spell twice?  You can overcharge it (with a perk... why do I need to spend a perk on this?) to increase the effect.  Perfectly executed.  I'm still dumbfounded why a guy with two swords can't voluntarily block incoming attacks.  Or why I can't parry attacks holding a sword and readying a spell in my off hand, but that's clearly asking too much (see below).

The Bad

Everyone complains about the general user interface (UI), without every really stating much.  I spent the last two and a half years designing UI's for a variety of challenging web and kiosk based solutions.  The UI isn't that bad.  People really need to stop crying and get out of their babysitter comfort zone of being spoon fed everything in a video game.  But why, if you're chastising people, are you listing the UI under the bad section?  Good question.  It's here for two reasons:

1 -The Performance.  The UI lags, the mouse clicks on places and people it's not even close to.  It's not hardware lag, or a video setting, its a lack of a broad base QA on multiple platforms.  As with most problems I'll mention here - I'm not alone in experiencing this.  Lots of 'fixes' are abound.  Most haven't offered much relief.  I've resorted to using the keyboard to scroll through my inventory and conversation options.  This was after far too many slipups in conversations, merchant exchanges, etc.

2 - Blatant, inexcusable lack of UI Quality Assurance.   One of many, many examples - on the main menu screen (when you push tab), you have four options on a compass-display.  Up brings you to your character progression and skills interface.  Down brings you to the map.  Left brings up magic, and right brings up items.  Except when you click magic, on the left-hand side, the interface opens up on the right hand side of the screen.  When you click items, on the right side of the screen, the left side interface opens up.  How did nobody notice this when they were testing it?  It's not game breaking, or even disrupting - but its a perfect example of what happens when you lose sight of basic functionality in the pursuit of the big picture.  Carelessness is unforgiving in the software design world - they're lucky this wasn't a bigger problem that went by unnoticed.

To set the dead horse on fire; the UI mostly works.  There are some questionable additions, however I believe a lot of the complaints stem from inexperience, and lack of willingness to experiment.  The skills section is perfectly done in my opinion.  You can click on a skill to see the perks tree, select your perks, and mouse click on any of them for a closer look.  The game confirms everything, so you can't misclick and accidentally spend a point, and if you don't want to click, you can use the scroll wheel on your mouse to scroll through the skill trees in a linear fashion.  Too many people cry first and experiment second.  There's nothing wrong with the interface.  Go complain about the Giants sending your followers into orbit with melee attacks.

Stemming from their shortsightedness on the QA also brings up a point about their lack of a tutorial.  The game literally tells you almost nothing - this is especially in regard to the favorites system, where you can favorite spells, items, weapons, armor, etc.  Which you won't know exists unless you try to modify the controls, and or accidentally push the wrong button while hovering over an item - at which point the game tells you about the favorite system you just had to figure out on your own.  Brilliant.

Artificial Intelligence is a mighty complicated thing to develop.  So it's with a heavy heart that I chastise Bethisda on their mediocre effort to produce just that.  I could swear I read something about the AI being updated for Skyrim - but aside from the enemies now occasionally (40% of the time, at best) sidestepping ranged attacks (and who can blame them for not wanting to eat a fireball, or catch an arrow with their throat) I can see no difference in the AI between Oblivion and Skyrim.  Melee enemies will hopelessly chase you, only to eventually catch up (maybe), come to a dead stop and then try to swing at you, only to miss because you've already taken a few steps back and lit the floor around them on fire, which they'll proceed to run through, and die in, after they finish trying to swing at the opponent (you) that was there a minute or so ago.  It's comical at best.

Kiting, or running around in circles while your nearly retarded enemies chase you around, remains a constant AI problem.  And despite the often close-quarters combat you're confronted with in Skyrim, the addition of sprinting really enables the player to take advantage of the nonsensical decision making of the NPC's throughout the game.  Sprint to one end of the room, ranged attack and/or spell, sprint to the other, repeat.  There's no penalty for running out of stamina, and your base walk speed is usually equal to, or a little faster then most enemies, so you can stagger sprinting into your escapes and easily stay out of melee range for most encounters.  What really needs to happen here is a severe penalty for miss-managing your stamina gauge.  If you sprint until it's empty, currently your character huffs and puffs awhile and then stamina starts regenerating again after a few seconds.  How about a 75% movement speed penalty, and decreased melee speed and spell casting charge-up times, or an additional cost to cast spells while fatigued.  Something, anything.  Also, to fix kiting, make enemies pick a point on a wall and then choose two separate paths there, to box in a player, or, you know, make them not run and then come to a dead stop before attacking.  Also, try making them faster, or giving them sprint.  Not that I want a ridiculously hard game or anything, but the insanity of this AI being proposed as an improvement over anything is really just making me reconsider the value of the continued existence of the human race.

They put wards into this game too.  Spells that take up a hand and let you block other spells.  Every character comes with two wards, the A and D buttons, which safely let you dodge every spell in the game except lightning-based ones, which don't hamper physical damage dealers in any way, and are really just invitations to smear the caster's face on the ground with a hammer.

Why can't I block while dual wielding?  Why can't I parry while holding a sword (or anything) and readying a spell in the other hand?  I'd clearly much rather eat a a mace to the face then put one of the two swords I'm currently holding in between the incoming attack and my teeth.  But that's just me.

And finally, the pathing.  Enemies will stand dumbfounded for minutes at a time as to how the tree that now stands between you got there, and how they can possibly navigate it.  Ten Foot tall Giants will be incapable of stepping over two foot high rocks while you face-feed them arrows or set them on fire from the safe harbor of the other side of a rock.

The Balanced

Throughout the game you'll have the ability to get followers.  Unlike most game's implementation of assisting NPC, Skyrim's follower system is pretty good.  They'll be generally helpful in combat (unless they're a pure melee, then the just get in the way) by casting a good amount of spells, summoning their own minions, staying out of your way, and doing a moderate amount of damage.  They won't win combat for you, and they still make you somewhat watch their back just as much as you watch there.  There's a diverse amount of companions available to you.  They'll also carry things for you, and generally keep quiet.  All excellent features in my book.  Also, they'll get blasted off the planet if they're lucky enough to come into contact with a Giant's melee attack.  A must-try if you haven't seen the thousands of video's about it already.

In my opinion, Magic is overpowered (OP).  Slashing weapons are OP.  Maces, OP.  Heavy Armor?  Light Armor?  No Armor?  OP, OP, OP.  Conjuration?  Ridiculously OP.  The game is a slaughter fest, where the majority of your enemies have absolutely zero chance of hurting you - let alone killing you.  And it's a hell of a lot of fun that way.  The challenge usually comes after you get wrecked for stepping into a room without looking around first.

You'll load a save (and you'll save OFTEN) and approach the situation differently and usually come out victorious on the second or third try.  So why is this in the balanced section?  Because as the game progresses, and you learn your character more, you'll also begin to play it better, and react to the increasing difficulty of your enemies faster.  That being said, the game occasionally laughs in your face and mercilessly punishes you for your errors in combat.  Load that quicksave, take your time, and you'll be just fine.

The perks in the game all have some use.  Obviously certain abilities see more use then others, but they've all got their niche.  You can make a multitude of different characters and have them all be viable throughout the game - some just require more finesse.  Keep an eye out for my upcoming articles on character builds.

The Legend of Zelda; Skyward Sword - First Impressions

I picked up this game with little expectations - I had read the standard reviews, of which they praise anything with the word 'Zelda' on it, and talk about revolutionary game play, etc.   I really had the generic corporate ass kissing that most reviews pose.

Don't get me wrong, praise is often deserved, and I'll be the first one to say "Hey, you got ____ right.  Good work."  But I'm equally as quick to crucify a developer for not QAing their software, or developing an idea past its most basic form, etc.  

That being said - here's my first impressions on Zelda's Skyward Sword.
For reference, I'm about 7 hours into the game at this point.

The Good

It feels like a Zelda game right off the bat.  Even though you don't don your typical uniform until a few hours into the game.  When you do get the uniform (which they note as a typical 'knight's' uniform) it looks nothing like anyone else is wearing.  Why bother?  They had so many other ways to introduce a uniform (no spoilers), they didn't need to work it into the storyline, albeit briefly, like they did.

Speaking of the intro and my immediate impressions - I usually despise the first two hours of any game, especially subsequent titles in a series.  Zelda isn't infamous for it - but so many titles make you go through the motions to re-learn the controls, characters, story points, basic game mechanics, etc.  Even though Zelda stole a bit of the climbing mechanics from Assassin's Creed, I don't think Ezio or Altair will be too upset - they work well and the jostling of the remote control adds some creative play rather then just holding a control to one direction.  Nintendo even managed to get through the tutorial of the swordplay pretty cleanly - but who are we kidding, anyone playing a Wii when the motion+ came out has seen all these controls before.  Nothing new, innovative, or revolutionary here.

I'd talk more about flying, but it's pretty basic and seems almost stapled into the game.  Much like swordplay, nothing that hasn't been done to death in other Wii Motion+ games.  It's a nice mechanic, but seems more like a mini-game and a time sink/transportation method then a real value-adder.  Hopefully this changes as the game progresses.

The Bad

The swordplay isn't exactly 100% responsive - I don't expect it to be, but in the heat of multiple-encounter fights, I often find link doing slashes that I didn't indicate via the control.  It's almost as if its anticipating my motion from one position to another instead of reading it.  Slowing down your attacks, while annoying, fixes this problem.

I rarely complain about graphics - I still play Everquest pretty regularly, that says something.  But this Zelda bears resemblance to other titles that came out half a decade ago.  This is in no way game breaking, and I understand how underpowered the Wii is, but its certainly aged compared to newer stuff.  I wonder if Nintendo didn't bother trying to optimize the Wii's display capabilities, or if they've truly maxed out it's potential with titles like this.

This next part sits somewhere between upsetting and downright weird.  The game introduces a few new 'tricks' to the Zelda franchise.  The first is Dousing, or using your sword to find your next objective.  The game is EXTREMELY linear in terms of game play so far.  It's small and nearly impossible to get lost - nothing exists after 7 hours of play that would confuse even a child making their way through this game.  Yet I'm forced to 'douse' to find certain areas.  Areas that were right in front of me, and I would've walked into had I only kept going forward instead of stopping to enter first person view and listen to my sonarsword telling me where Zelda could be next.  Stupid.  Every time I do this, I still can't believe someone thought adding this mechanic was worth while to any extent.

Another choice they decided to put in that borders on the ridiculous occurs when flying.  You'll see these tornado/whirlwind storms come up in the distance, and if you don't move and fly straight into them, you'll get knocked off your bird.  What happens next?  You push down and your bird comes back in < 1 second.  Why bother implementing this into the game?  It adds nothing, takes away nothing, and sets the play back a grand total of a second, or two, max.  You'd have to be playing drunk in order to hit these things anyway.

The last major problem, which plays off the dousing point above, is the CONSTANT babysitting the game does.  Go here, go there, add a beacon to the map, douse, or you can do what I do and just keep walking straight until you hit the next objective.  It's unreal how much this game baby's it's players.  I realize it's probably meant for a younger audience, but still.  The amount of guidance given borders on the insane.  I don't need my objective displayed on my saved game file - I know which one's mine.  I also don't need my guide (which lives in my sword - I wish I could throw the sword in the river and go around punching things) CONSTANTLY droning on about what to do next.  If this was Ocarina, yeah, I'd get lost.  But so far, after exploring 5-6 areas (of which they took 5 minutes each to see all of) nobody playing this game would need a guide of any kind - let alone one that sounds like a generic robot from a Star Trek episode.

The Balanced

Perhaps my favorite thing about this game is that enemies actually make you take stock of your situation and react accordingly.  It's not a game you can just button mash through - don't take this as a bump to the difficulty - if you play video games even regularly, and have eyes, you'll be able to breeze through 99% of the game.  The game punishes you for doing stupid shit, like swinging wildly when surrounded by enemies, etc.  You'll actually drop pretty quickly if you decide to just hack away at a defender while his friends stand there, and while the game takes some queue's from the Assassin's Creed series as mentioned above, the combat thankfully doesn't.  A group of enemies won't stand there and watch you annihilate their friend.

This might be the first Zelda that doesn't jam the Triforce down your throat from the onset.  Subtle hints exist, but no direct mention of it after ~8 hours of gameplay.  I like that - I know (guessing?) that the Triforce is part of this game.  There are triangles subtly places everywhere, but perhaps they moved away from it - who knows, but I like that sense of mystery.  And while you're (of course) out looking for Zelda, again.  This time it's not a direct result of her doing something stupid and getting kidnapped.  My hat's off to Nintendo for actually getting me hooked on the story of a Zelda game.  Hopefully the next time I revisit Skyward Sword on here, the plot can get moved into the good section.

It's been a long time coming . . .

The decision to start this blog stemmed from the marriage of two life-long passions; video games and journalism.  Amongst the thousands of hours I've spent enjoying digital frontiers, and the equally countless hours I've spent writing about them (or in general) it's never occurred to me to begin my own site to share my thoughts - until now.

Looking forward, it'd be nice to say that I hope this site will flourish and become the mainstay of satirical, comical, and insightful reviews for some of the greatest games ever made.  But in all honestly, my goal here isn't necessarily to spread my angst for incompetent video game design (or software design in general), or my praise for a well-designed game; but more so to provide my fellow junkies with my generally angry, humorous, and hopefully insightful view into some of their favorite places to waste their lives away.

Stay tuned for regular updates - and by all means, feel free to share your own comments, concerns, death threats, etc.  after each post.