23 Sep 2016

Warcraft: Legion – Endgame Perfected?

wowscrnshot_091816_141613With a few notable exceptions, levelling in MMOs is a temporary experience. We get a few weeks of meaty questing and cinematics, followed by months of waiting for content updates. It’s the Achilles Heel of the theme-park experience – rich and deep while it lasts, but bland and repetitive once the cap is reached.

I’ve made no secret about how much I was put off Mists of Pandaria, seeing a small forest of exclamation marks to mark the daily quest hub, as if to signify where I’d be spending the rest of the expansion. Warlords of Draenor tried to mix it up with the Garrison experiment, but it left me feeling less like a hero and more like a middle manager.

Which is why I’m surprised with how I feel about Legion. Sure, there’s an element of nostalgia here, as familiar NPCs play out a story that feels more like a main event than a timeline-based distraction. But it’s also been – and continues to be – hugely enjoyable to play, and that includes the time I’ve spent dancing around at cap.

How has Legion pulled off this magic trick? Looking deeper, I think there’s a clever blend of design choices at work, all acting together to make that endgame experience as frictionless and immersive as possible.

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8 Sep 2016

The Legion Dungeon Love-Affair

‘Thank you for fetching my tools, Wilkins. But, before I can teach you the secrets of Mid-Legion Tailoring, you must carry out one more task’

‘Yes, Master?’ The scruffy young apprentice looked up, hope welling in his big eyes.

‘Indeed. You see, we have run out of Milk. I’ve heard tales of the Naga breeding incredible cows, and I long to sample their produce within my precious Sin’dorei tea. You must travel into the Eye of Azshara, defeat the Naga, milk one of these cows and bring a pitcher back to me. Only then, will I feel refreshed enough to share such intricate work with you.’

The elderly figure, a stick draped in expensive robes, shared a wide, almost predatory smile.

‘But… but that’s Hero work!’

‘No buts, Wilkins. Now go, and don’t return without my Milk!’

By now, most of us have been chewing through Warcraft: Legion for a few weeks. On the whole, it represents a fantastic return to form for the ageing MMO, with a renewed focus on telling an immersive story and shrouding characters in a rich fantasy. It’s a formula that seems to have worked, with over 3.3 million copies sold and more players returning than ever before.

But, while most design updates have been enthusiastically received, one particular facet has come under increased scrutiny – the abundance of dungeon quests to gate content. If you want to complete your Order Hall missions, or even max out your Professions, expect to spend some intense combat time with four other people.

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19 Mar 2016

Crowdsourcing MMO Design


Today, I’m going to look at two related topics. The first came out of a new initiative from Carbine Studios called DevConnect, where the studio asks players for input on potential changes to WildStar. The first topic is about faction barriers – a subject that had grabbed my attention following Liore’s blogpost on it earlier this week.

Personally, I’m very pleased and encouraged to see Carbine open up in this way. It harks back to early days of WildStar’s development, where topics were shared and discussed amongst a curious and growing fanbase. WildStar Uplink, as it was known back then, led to one of my first blogposts about the upcoming MMO.

As for the second subject, that’s more about the current trend for studios to solicit feedback from players to help shape and mould the future of a game, and some of the interesting new mechanisms for doing so. While forums and social media might be a community’s bread-and butter, it feels as though studios would benefit hugely from an additional tool to call upon.

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17 Mar 2016

Why VR Matters to Me


Not long ago, I was asked about my thoughts on virtual reality. I’d played EVE: Valkyrie, Elite: Dangerous, and Star Citizen on my Rift DK2, and I was sent a couple of questions. One of them asked if VR actually added anything to the experience, over and above playing them with a standard display. As I grappled with this, I realised there was much more to it than a simple yes/no, or even a ten-words-or-less. Allow me to explain…

Why do we play games? One theory is based around escapism – picturing ourselves as heroes on a fantastical journey, acting out scenarios completely divorced from our daily lives. Beyond books or film, a good game embeds us in the story, shrouding us in an experience where our imagination is encouraged to fill in the gaps. From what I’ve seen and experienced, virtual reality is an extension of this, making that experience – that fantasy – all the more potent.

But what if one person’s fantasy is another’s real-life?

Back in 2004, I collapsed at work. I remember how I felt; I kept swallowing, as if I was trapped on an airplane and couldn’t balance my ears. A high-pitched whine echoed around my skull, and a slow whooshing noise gradually built up, like a washing machine on the slow cycle. I broke out in a cold sweat.

Then, my vision started to break. I couldn’t focus on my laptop screen any more – my eyes seemed to be stuck rolling to the right. All the time, the noises got louder and the pressure grew. I felt like I was going to break.

And then, something gave. I slid off my chair and slumped on the floor. I don’t remember much of what happened next – apparently, I threw up in a bin. All I remember was waking up in the ambulance. Mask, blue lights, sirens, the works. Eyes still broken, so I closed them again. At the hospital, doctors struggled to find a cause; was it diabetes, or could it be epilepsy? But after describing the symptoms, I was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease.

Now, there are some cruddy sides to this: I’m prone to attacks without much warning (although I take medication to control it), and I’ve suffered hearing loss (with a risk of going deaf in later life). That aside, I’m also someone who is barred from driving. I’ll never know the freedom of going on a weekend tour down country lanes, or going on a road trip to unknown places. You see, what might be an impulsive whim to some is a fantasy that remains out of reach to me. Always a passenger, never a pilot.

Which is why virtual reality, and games like EVE: Valkyrie, are tremendously important to me. For a moment in my broken existence, I have that freedom to hit the road, or reach for the stars. I choose the heading, I gun the throttle. It is the closest I’ll ever get to being in control of a vehicle, without putting myself or others in danger. And even better, I can be the hero while doing so – I can be part of the team, learn from others, and be cheered. It sounds so simple it’s almost infantile, but that doesn’t reduce the potency of the dream.

This might be why I’m exuberant when I talk about VR games that I’ve played, as every single one is a new experience that I cannot relate to anything else. It means that I view the headset as some kind of magical device, instead of just a tool that allows me to drive a virtual car instead of a real one.

It’s also why the dismissive attitude around VR also cuts and stings more than it should. When people who have never tried the new generation of headsets start pontificating about how it’s a blind development alley that leads nowhere, it frustrates me. Here is a device which has given me experiences that others take for granted, and yet some want to snatch it away. You can’t have that. It’s a dumb idea, and it will never catch on.

I don’t think virtual reality is without problems. GDC this week has highlighted two of them – the impact of jump scares and dangers of online harassment – that make me think it will be some time before we have the tools to build MMOs using the device. But the potential is incredible, maybe not next year but five years from now, once the technology is ubiquitous.

Ultimately though, VR represents a dream that I’m desperate to see flourish, as it has the opportunity to be life-changing for so many people. Just as communications have brought us closer, virtual reality has the potential to break down barriers that most of us don’t know exist, but that some deal with as a daily part of their lives. To me, that alone makes it worth championing.

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16 Mar 2016

The Changing Face of MMOs


Sometimes, MMO commentary feels cyclical. Back in 2014, we were musing how Blizzard’s cancellation of Titan signalled an end to the grand MMO genre. Now that Daybreak Games has shoved EverQuest Next out of a similar airlock, the same opinion is doing the rounds (although with a little less doom-mongering this time around). Some existing MMOs are continuing to hold steady, while others (like WildStar) are faltering. Meanwhile, the market feels dominated by semi-persistent quasi-MMOs, and  Eastern imports that have an established record.

This in itself is not surprising. A high-quality MMO with mass-market appeal is incredibly expensive to produce today, with budgets typically breaking $100 million. They’re also incredibly time-consuming to produce, often taking seven years or more. It’s no wonder these games look dated when they finally launch, considering the age of some of the technology.

On top of that, MMO genre veterans are some of the most fickle and divisive fans in existence. We simply can’t decide on what we want. Sandbox or theme park, PvP or PvE, directed or open-ended, instanced or open world. Each possible parameter has its cult of adherents that would willingly put anything that doesn’t measure up to fire and the sword. And woe betide any studio or publisher that slips up, as your transgressions – however minor – will always be brought up.

But here’s the flip-side: MMOs are like a second home to many of us. We sink years into these games, building friendships and lives in these digital realms. When the studio makes a design choice that shatters that world, or a publisher decides to pull the plug, of course you’re going to feel bitter about it. Now repeat that time and again over ten or fifteen years, and it’s no wonder that the genre’s created the personification of cynicism. It gets tiring to put down new roots again and again, and I honestly don’t blame people for wanting the perfect game to do it in.

Brutally, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another grand MMO, at least for now. Bill Murphy has an op-ed over at, with some great insight into this changing landscape from the developer point-of-view. As Syp points out over at Bio Break, we’re likely in a contracting phase, where publishers avoid investing in the genre. The next wave of MMOs is likely to be from small, independent studios that focus on a particular niche aspect – titles like Crowfall (disclaimer: I backed the Kickstarter), Camelot Unchained and so on. Ardwulf makes a point on this – the advent of Unity 5 is helping studios to do the heavy lifting on the engine front, allowing them to focus on mechanics, systems and settings. The same is true of the Unreal Engine, powering small shooters and survival sandboxes alike. Where the infamous Hero Engine failed, others are picking up the slack.

So, where next? As Syl at MMO Gypsy put it, MMOs are here to stay, although the form that they take might well be different. They’ll certainly be smaller in size and scope, requiring less investment, fewer people and a shorter time to build – much like how EVE Online and Runescape started some fifteen years ago. The kind of games that start out small, but could grow to build a legacy.

I also think that battlegrounds and arenas will vanish as an aspect of MMOs. Over the next year we’ve got Gigantic, Battleborn, Paragon, and Overwatch, all fighting it out to become the next big competitive brawler. With all these offering to scratch a similar itch, is it worth trying to build that inside of an MMO, complete with all the inherent arguments about balance, seasons, and gear issues?

Radically, I think that the future may involve the player taking more control than ever before. Much as we used to run Quake servers in days gone by, and Minecraft servers more recently, I think we’ll start to see MMOs adopt some form of roll-your-own server. Don’t like the rules set in Ark: Survival Evolved? Rent one for a few dollars, and choose your own. It’s not that far-fetched to see this evolve into a hub-and-spoke model, using a central area to congregate with other players, and your own back yard to mess around with as you want.

So there you have it. The future of MMO gaming: tightly controlled and regulated PvP arenas on the one hand; quasi-MMOs that build persistent online experiences to established game types on the other; and fragmented, diverse, small-scale and experimental online experiences in the third, gripping hand. Nothing grand for a good ten years, unless it rises up from the small stuff organically. And huge community involvement, from building your own pocket dimensions, to designing new costumes, weapons, and more besides.

Cynical? Pah. I’m too old to be cynical.


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