Rise of the MMOs – Part 2

rift_collectors-edition

So far, I’ve discussed a few of the early MMOs that I have had personal experience with. Of course, for every one I’ve played, there’s many more that I haven’t played. Most the games I’ve mentioned have been successful. But of course, what happens to an online game when it is NOT successful? Think about it for a moment. MMO games are, well, Online. If the game does not do well, there’s a good chance that the company behind it may pull the plug. And if the servers go off, so does the game. What happens to that $50 you spent on the retail box, do you get it back? Of course not. This is the risk of gaming online.

There have been several popular titles that have experienced just this very thing. Some of them like The Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa, and Star Wars: Galaxies did in fact go dark. Usually, when this occurs, the game developers attempt to have some sort of a sunset period that allows some closure for the players both in terms of storyline and player satisfaction. Others developers just pull the plug on a specified date and that’s it. The later is exactly what is happening to players of Sony’s Wizardry Online and Vanguard titles.

The first failed MMO game that I was follower of was the original version of Final Fantasy XIV.

Boss battle for Final Fantasy XIV version 1.0

Square Enix, the company behind the Final Fantasy series nearly destroyed their reputation with the original release of Final Fantasy XIV. Riding off of the success of their first online game, Final Fantasy XI, the company was admittedly lazy with their second online offering.

The game was beautiful, there’s no doubt about that. But upon release there was almost literally nothing to do. The game had very little content. On top of that, poor backend engineering led to server problems and a number of lag and congestion issues. The game featured a flawed combat system and the design of the gameworld was both repetitive and confusing for players. The title was almost universally condemned by both players and critics alike. As a fan of the series, even I stopped playing in those very early days and turned my attention towards other games.

Backed into a corner, it seemed obvious that Square Enix was going to pull the plug on the game. But instead, they replaced the game’s lead producer and made a startling announcement, something that no game developer had dared do before: they were going to scrap the existing code and rebuild the game from the ground up. And they did just that.

While keeping the service active, and attempting to improve the quality of life for current players, the developers were busy behind the scenes creating an entirely new game engine and content for a relaunch. This is something that normally take an average of 5 years, Square Enix managed to deliver the final product in just two. Upon its re-release, Final Fantasy XIV was a massive success. It is also my current MMO of choice.

A panned out view of combat from Final Fantasy XIV 2.0

During my stint away from those troubled early days of FFXIV, I found myself seduced by a game known as RIFT. This title, in many ways is very much a World of Warcraft clone. I say this in terms of gameplay, not so much in a storytelling and art direction. But really, that’s ok. RIFT had my attention pretty heavily for several months, but once I reached the endgame content, I found myself bored with it. Apparently, I was not alone. As the game’s population dwindled and profits started to sink, there was much concern over the fate of the game. To resolve this, RIFT switched from a subscription based model to a Free-to-Play model. This has appeared to work very well for the game. Although, I do not play RIFT anymore, I’m glad to see that it did not end up being just another game on the list of deactivated MMO titles.

This same scenario occurred for another very popular title. The long awaited Star Wars: The Old Republic.

SWTOR

From the beginning, Star Wars: The Old Republic looked doomed to fail. The game had been in development for many years and the hype surrounding the title had reached epic proportions. I mean, who does’t love Star Wars? Everyone wanted to play this game. It was supposed to the Warcraft-Killer. I think maybe we expected too much. Signs of concern started even before the game was released. The game came with a premium pricetag both for the standard and the collector’s edition. On top of that, for the first time the Collector’s version of the game seemed to offer more than just a few vanity items. The CE actually featured a whole in-game vendor with a stock of gear only available to those willing to pay the extra money for a special edition of the game. Upon release, the game featured a very rich experience at the beginning, but for players who rushed to reach the endgame content, there was little there. Rather than fail, Star Wars also switched to a Free-to-Play model. However, unlike RIFT, some of the business decisions for SWTOR drew heavy criticism. For example, certain content is locked out for free players. Even some UI elements are unavailable unless you’re willing to pay a little extra. Regardless of these issues, the game does seem to be thriving under its current pricing model. Now… if only I could get that $200 back that I spent on the original Collector’s Edition.

So what’s the next for MMO gaming? As I type this, everyone is keeping a close eye on The Elder Scrolls Online. At this very moment, the game is currently in its Early Access phase. The game goes live for all players on 4/4/14.

The Elder Scrolls is a well respected and loved series of single player RPG games. So its only natural to want to extend that to an online world. Personally, I hope the game is successful. I have purchased the game, and I plan to begin getting my feet wet this evening. But despite my anticipation, the warning signs are already showing…

The Elder Scrolls Online

I participated in the beta test, and much like the original launch of FFXIV, the beta version of the game felt VERY incomplete. Yes, I realize that a beta test is just that, and early TEST. But trust me, there’s some things that should be fully working. I encountered frequent disconnects, incomplete textures and other strange issues during the test. Also, there’s again concerns with this game’s Collector’s Edition. Whereas SWOTR offered a CE exclusive vendor, TESO is offering a whole playable race that’s only available to CE purchasers.

I’m very curious to see what happens with this game. So instead of being an observer, I’ve decided to do an experiment. I’m going to use this blog to chronicle my thoughts on the game. I’m not a huge fan of The Elder Scrolls. I purchased the series Anthology but I’ve only logged a few hours into the most recent entry; Skyrim. I really like what I’ve seen of the series and I do plan to catch up in the near future. But for the time being, I’m a rookie. So to me, this is going to be a whole new experience.

I’m going to approach the game with an open mind and I’m going to try my best to set aside any expectations and pre-conceived notions I may have. The game comes with a free thirty days. I’m going to take advantage of the time and then make note of my observations. If this interests you, please look forward to the posts.

Rise of the MMOs – Part 1

Ultima_Online_cover

The nineties were a truly epic time for gaming. This decade saw many changes in the home console market. Handheld gaming became mainstream. And of course, PC gaming took off at a rapid pace. With the ever growing popularity of the internet, a new concept in gaming began to rise to the surface: online connectivity.

The first online multiplayer game that I ever played was a text-based adventure game hosted by a local BBS. It was called Legend Of the Red Dragon. The game was quite simple actually, but it totally floored me at time. The BBS in which it was hosted could only handle one or two connections simultaneously. When trying to connect during peak hours I’d have to command my modem to dial over and over until I was finally able to get on. LORD is a hard game to explain these days, but essentially, the first time you played it you made a character and you could perform a certain number of tasks daily. This is includes things like fighting monsters, exploring, flirting with the taverns girls, etc. I don’t believe you could participate with other players in real time, but you could leave notes for other players that they would see when they logged in. Also, a log of player actions and accomplishments were posted so that everyone could see what had gone on during the day. At the time, the whole concept was fascinating to me and I have many fond memories of the title.

Example of the LORD interface courtesy of Moby Games

LORD was a watered down version of what is known as a MUD, or Multi-User-Dungeon. These text-based games allowed multiple players to interact together to one degree or another. MUDs were the first “MMOs” in many ways.

The first full blown Massive Multiplayer Online game that I truly experienced was Ultima Online.  I had been a fan of the Wizardry series for many years, and I had recently came off a binge of playing every RPG game I could find on the PC. as a result, I had just finished a marathon of Ultima games and the franchise was on my mind. I remember seeing the game on the shelf of my local computer store and I recall the fierce debate that raged inside my head; do I really want to pay to buy this game and then pay to play it?

I had a somewhat moral objection to revenue model for this game. I had recently read about it in a magazine and I was appalled to learn that the game was going to have a monthly subscription. In my mind, paying for the purchase of the game was enough. I had all but decided to boycott the product, but yet, actually seeing on the shelf – I couldn’t resist.

 

I played Ultima Online for a couple of weeks, but I wasn’t able to really get a sense of understanding for the title. It looked and played like some of the later titles in the series. But the online element felt rather chaotic. Also, to me, there didn’t seem to be any clear-cut goals to accomplish. Maybe I just missed something, but by the time my free month had expired, I decided that the game wasn’t for me and filed in the back of desk drawer – swearing to ignore these types of “pay to play” games from now on.

Of course, a year or two later I was persuaded into trying the latest and greatest multiplayer title, Everquest. You see, by this time I had moved on from hanging out on BBS forums and I was a full blown Internet user. I used to hang out in an IRC chat room with other local people and all of them were big Everquest fans. They raved about it non-stop. So, I bought the game and indeed, I was impressed by the way the title looked and operated. I was quite ignorant about the inner workings of the game, and I didn’t really understand the community aspect that already formed around the game, but I was enjoying exploring and checking things out.

Everquest

It was only a few days after getting my feet wet with the game that I again decided, this was not the title for me. You see, every time my character would leave town, I would be attacked by a group of players. Being new and inexperienced, I was no match for them. I would literally take one step out of town and BOOM. These guys would kill me. It was my first experience of being griefed by another player. It was all I needed to say “That’s it. I’m done.” Despite this bad experience, the game still intrigued me. I could see the draw behind the game. Everquest reminded me a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. (The tabletop role playing game that I played a lot as a young teen).  I found the setting and most aspects of the game very appealing. But at that time in my life, I had very little patience and being held back by other players was just unacceptable. Today, the game is still active and in fact recently reached its 15th birthday. Since the time of its original release, the game has changed dramatically, 19 expansions and countless updates, the Everquest of today barely resembles the Everquest that I played in 1998. In fact, I believe it is even Free-To-Play now. I’m also sure that the type of player-killing I encountered now has some safeguard in effect, so for the curious, the game might be worth a look. It’s also important to note that Everquest spawned a sequel, Everquest II. A third sequel is also on the way.

Due to these experiences, I stayed away from MMO RPG style games for a long time. My multiplayer experience was restricted to first person shooters almost exclusively. Then, one day I saw an article stating that Square Enix was looking for players to help test a new online game, this game would be Final Fantasy XI. This struck a chord with me. I had enjoyed the Final Fantasy series immensely and for the first time in a while, I found an MMO that interested me.  I’m not going to go into too much detail here now, because one day I will post a whole article about XI. But, this game is the MMO that finally managed to hook me. I played the crap out of this game. I have wasted years of my life… seriously. It’s actually kind of sad.

Final Fantasy XI

In Final Fantasy XI, I found the perfect balance I has always been looking for in a multiplayer game. FFXI has a wonderful storyline. So, you’re not just walking around killing monsters and getting stronger for no apparent reason… you’re doing it so that you can continue experiencing the game itself. In fact, everyone is doing this – as a result, teamwork is encouraged. It finally all made sense. FFXI really opened my eyes to the magic of MMO games. Since that time, I have tried several titles over the years with varying degrees of success.

No discussion about MMO games would be complete without a mention of what is arguably, the most popular of all time, World of Warcraft. WoW is the title that really brought MMO games into the public consciousness. I should go on record as saying that I am not really a big fan of World of Warcraft. I have played it, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But by the time WoW popped up on my radar, I fully invested in Final Fantasy and WoW did not offer enough compelling gameplay to tear me away from my home. That being said, Warcraft certainly offers a lot for new players and it’s very easy to get into.  One feature that really set WoW apart from the other games at the time was the concept of player alliances. You see, when creating a character in World of Warcraft, you have to choose between creating an Alliance character or Horde character. This represents your character’s allegiance or affiliation. Originally, this had a big impact on gameplay. You could only befriend and talk to other players on your faction, members of the opposition were considered enemies. This has become very watered down over the years, and the concept really doesn’t mean as much as it once did. In many ways, the World of Warcraft has reached the sunset of its lifetime. Over the last couple years, the game population has dwindled as more MMO games have captured the attention of players. Now, players can often even create characters that are instantly granted maximum level in the game. This is a practice I disagree with.

Regardless, WoW really did wonders for the genre. It introduced concepts and practices that were very much needed and still permeate to this day. For example, in Warcraft, when you encounter an NPC that offers a quest, there is an icon floating over the head of that character. This let’s you know that they have something interesting to say. In prior games like Everquest and Final Fantasy, there was no identifier. To uncover quests and assignments you pretty much had to wander around and talk to every NPC that you encountered. WoW also popularized the Quest Tracker. This provided an in-game log of assignments and your character’s progress on them. Until now, these sorts of things had to be kept track of manually on paper by the player.

Character Creation for WoW

After the success of Warcraft, it seemed that there was a new MMO popping up every time you turned around. Conan, Vanguard, Guild Wars, the list goes on and on. For the most part, I managed to ignore most of these games and stuck with Final Fantasy. But occasionally, I ventured off my tried and true path.

I admit being sucked into buying the original Guild Wars and all of it’s expansions. This game intrigued me with its beautiful art-direction and pricing. You see, unlike most other games, Guild Wars does not require a monthly subscription. It functions off a model known as Buy to Play. After paying for the initial boxed software, you can play the game for free. As a result, the content in the game is somewhat limited compared with other MMOs, but there’s certainly no shortage of things to do.

One of other side effects of this sort of pricing I discovered, is the general immaturity of other players. Up until now, I had found MOST other game participants to fairly friendly and mature. This was especially true for Final Fantasy XI. WoW certainly had its number of jerks, but nothing like what I experienced in Guild Wars. I’m not sure how it is today, but back in 2007/2008 you could almost guarantee that the first thing you would see when logging into the game was a line of half-naked women dancing or people arguing in open chat. One time I asked another player if they wanted to team up for a quest and I was told repeatedly to “eat his farts”. So… free to play and buy to play gamers, be prepared to grow some thick skin against this type of nonsense.

The beautiful world of Guild Wars

I’ll be continuing my thoughts on MMO gaming in another post within the next couple of days. If this is a subject that interests you, stay tuned.