Saturday, January 30, 2010

Quest wrangling

This morning I am wrestling with a quest that I want to add for the coming EQ2 expansion, The Sentinel's Fate. Since the beta is still under NDA I can't talk about any details, but I can say that writing this particular quest has been giving me grief for the past few days.

I've talked a little bit about the process of writing quests before, on the official EQII blog. Here's a link to that post, and below I've quoted the bit specifically about writing tradeskill quests:

On the tradeskill side of GU47, I just finished checking in another quest for the Grandmasters in the tradeskill societies to give out, this one in the level 60-69 level range. At the same time this goes live, the city faction merchants (both adventure and tradeskill) will begin selling a black version of the blue formal dress that city merchants sell, and this new quest ties into the appearance of this new item. Naturally, the various city factions would turn to their local tradeskill society to produce large orders of any new clothing that they begin selling. And when the local tradeskill society’s harvesting team fails to return with the required resources that will be needed, who should they send to investigate but a trusted local tradeskiller who has served them well in the past? Crafters level 60 and over who have completed the other quests the Grandmasters offer will be asked to investigate the missing harvesters, and save the day once again.

I don’t create nearly as many quests as many of the design team — other designers might be asked to create quests for entire zones at a time, and some of them are amazingly fast and clever at thinking up fun new ideas and implementing them. A lot of what I do is more dry, such as the creation of recipes, balancing of stats, tweaking of drop rates.

Tradeskills being technically part of the “mechanics” team rather than the design team itself, a lot of the work is less creative and more statistical. However, quests are fun, and tradeskilling players have not had many tradeskill quests to enjoy in the past, so I’ve added quite a few since I started here and I expect more still will come in the future.

How I design a quest can vary quite a lot, depending on the quest and where it’s intended to fit into our world and our lore. The first thing to do is consider what information I already know about the quest. Do I know certain characters who must be involved? Do I know a certain story I need to reference? Or do I know what the reward will be? Many times, I begin planning a quest with a specific reward in mind. I start by knowing that I have this nice new purple robe, for example, and I think that a quest would be a fun way to give it to people, so I start planning from there.

For this type of quest where I start by knowing what the reward is, I can then start thinking about how and why a player might earn such a reward, and construct the story of the quest backwards from there, by asking and answering for myself a series of questions about the quest. Why would a player be given a robe? Maybe the tradeskill societies are starting production of a new line of robes, and players could be given one of the first ones in thanks for their help. What kind of help? Well, what if the tradeskill societies are short of supplies. Why are they short of supplies? Maybe they have teams of harvesters who go out and bring back the supplies they need, but perhaps the team has failed to return, and our players need to investigate. What will they find? Well, they might find a few clues that will lead them in the general direction, and then they will eventually find the harvesters. Where does the tradeskill part of the quest come in? Maybe the harvesters are hurt, or having problems, and players can craft something to help them out. And so on, asking more and more detailed questions until I know the general outline of where the players will have to go and what they’ll have to do. 

Once I have this outline, it’s a matter of filling in the specific details of dialog, and so my next step is to generally create all the characters for the quest who have anything to say, and then creating the dialog chain between them and the players. This fills in pretty much all the remaining details of the quest’s story, and is also where I get to have a little fun being creative. I usually try not to be too long-winded, but I do try to insert some humor into the dialog so that people who do pay attention to the text will find it worth their while and be amused. Once the dialog is taken care of, it’s just a matter of putting any characters and objects required into the world, and then hooking it all up into the actual quest file that goes into the player’s quest journal so that the game knows character A’s dialog B updates quest step 3, and so on.

For some other types of quest, we may start out with a specific event or story that we want to tell, and the reward is actually fairly irrelevant. A good example of this might be some of the seasonal quests like Frostfell or Nights of the Dead, where we know we want to tell a seasonal story, and that story is more important than the actual reward. A tradeskill example of this would be the tradeskill epic quests: I started by knowing that I just wanted to do a tradeskill epic to go out at the same time as all the adventurer epics. Then I looked through some old EQLive tradeskill quests and traditions, and decided to base the epic on the Earring of the Solstice quests from the original EQLive. Next I worked out some modern twists and details to set the story in the present time of EQ2, and also to give each crafting archetype something a little fun and different to do. The steps in this quest were all about the fun and excitement, getting tradeskillers outside, into areas they might not have been into before, and picking some of my favorite looking zones and finding an excuse to get crafters into them. To be quite honest, this was a quest line planned out to intentionally include many “oh s–t!” moments of sheer terror for the people doing the quest, and it was a lot of fun to deliberately do that. I figured out the rewards last of all; in this case the rewards were almost irrelevant, the important part was that there be a tradeskill epic at all, and that it should be fun and very different from anything any tradeskiller had done before. Once the quest outline is known, however, the remaining design steps are pretty similar: create the characters and write the details of their dialog, place the things in the world, and then hook it all up.

Those are the two main ways I have approached quest creation so far. Apart from writs, which don’t really have any story, the tradeskill quests have all just been created through variations of the above. The one quest line that came closes to being an exception to this rule was the sokokar quest line for tradeskillers; the sokokar quest line for adventurers had already been written, but was not doable by tradeskillers, so I knew that I needed to add a separate quest or quest line for them. As time was short, I decided to simply take Srukin’s entire quest line for the adventurers and mirror it as exactly as possible, making fun of the original quest throughout. So for the sokokar quests, you could say that I started off knowing BOTH the reward AND the story, and the rest was merely changing details and inserting humor. The NPC who gives out the quest, Assistant Jones, is actually named after Srukin (Ellery Jones) in order to tease him for not including tradeskillers in the first quest. And while the adventurer quest has players out collecting drolvarg fangs and other heroic things, Assistant Jones is impatiently asking the tradeskillers what on earth she’s supposed to do with all the bags of smelly drolvarg teeth the adventurers keep bringing back to her boss, and by the way those adventurers are still busy out there killing things, so perhaps you could go deliver this hawk instead like the practical tradeskiller you are.

So, the tradeskill quest for the coming game update is checked in, ready for QA to begin testing. There will be a cycle of testing and bug fixing for a while, and then Test server will have their chance to break it and comment — and they certainly do a great job testing and finding new and unexpected ways that things can break! But if all goes well and all the bugs are fixed without issue, then that’s one more tradeskill quest added to the growing list and heading to a live server near you with game update 47. Hope everyone enjoys it!

That was written back in July 2008, a whole year and a half ago. Since then I've had a lot more experience with writing quests and in fact with everything, and I've put in quite a few more tradeskill quests besides, but there are always new challenges to meet and new things to learn.

I posted a little while back about some of the things that players want to see more of in tradeskill quests, and the quest and rewards that I mentioned in that post were in fact the thing that I am now working on. Based on their feedback I want to involve a little more mainstream lore into the quest, I want to send them out around the world and into some places they might not have otherwise seen, and I don't plan to include a large amount of grindy crafting (although there will be some, this being a tradeskill quest after all). What I'm currently struggling with is a combination of the situations I mentioned in the 2008 post: I both know what the reward will be, and I also know the general points of the lore that I want to include. But sometimes this actually makes it harder to write the quest, when you know you have to make the story pass through certain points instead of letting it just go in whatever directions make sense as you write it.  Sometimes - like now - it feels that forcing the quest line through predetermined points is a bit like trying to herd cats through hoops!

One thing I really hate and try to avoid in quest design is when a quest doesn't make it clear why your character would do the things s/he is required to do. I've seen too many quests in too many different games where there's no apparent reason why your character would get from step A to step B on their own. Either the quest explicitly tells them to do step B, or the player has no hope of figuring it out on their own and has to check a spoiler site.

For example, if the quest starts with you finding a mysterious item, and your quest journal just tells you "I should find more information about the item!" then you have no idea where to go to find out this information and probably need to check a spoiler site even to figure out what zone you're supposed to go to. On the other hand, if your quest starts with you finding a mysterious item, and your quest journal then tells you "I bet the laboratory of Lord Evilpants in the Deadly Forest would have more information on this item!" that's better, since you don't need a spoiler site to know where you go next, but it still doesn't make a lot of sense to the player since there's really no obvious explanation why their character would think of going to the laboratory of Lord Evilpants if their quest hadn't told them to. I prefer quests that fill in more steps and actually make sense: for example, you find a mysterious item. You look at the item and discover it has a rune stamped on it. You go to the library to research runes and discover this rune is the insignia of Lord Evilpants, last seen in the Deadly Forest. Now it makes sense why your character would next go to visit Lord Evilpants and perhaps search his laboratory for further clues. No spoiler site required, and also no sudden deus ex machina instruction appearing in your quest journal without a good reason.

So, the very first stage of writing this quest is to write out a point form summary of each step of the quest: each point of the story generally corresponding to each time the quest will update. I know how the quest will start, what the end reward will be, and I've picked some zones they need to pass through in the middle, and some people they will meet. And then I write in the details of exactly what information they gather or what clues they find that lead them between these key points. Sometimes it's fairly obvious, but for some reason getting the exact details to come together in a way that makes sense has been surprisingly difficult for this quest. What on earth is there about item A that would lead the player's character to think of going to zone B? What kind of clues could they pick up that would point in that direction? And of course, whatever clues there are have to fit in to the world's overall story and lore. If they find information in the library pointing to zone B, does it makes sense that the library would even have that information? If they find a relic that hints that zone B might be related to the story, where would it make sense the relic is found, and why would the players think to go check that place? If they talk to person A to find out more about person C, why does person A even know about person C, and why would they tell the players about him?  So far I've rewritten these intermediate steps three times and there are probably more revisions to come.

Perhaps I'm being overly picky. I suppose there are many people who don't particularly care whether it makes sense that their character would figure out to go to zone B or whether their quest journal just tells them "go to zone B." Still, I know details like that do annoy me when playing, and I think that having those details is important to a well-written quest, so gosh darn it, I am going to be a stickler and do it right. Even if it means a few more hours sitting here on Saturday morning staring at the screen and asking the cat "but WHY would they do that?"

It may be confusing the cat at present, but I hope it will be worth it for not confusing the players who complete the quest in the end. =)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Farewell, STO, and good luck!

Star Trek Online open beta ends today at 6pm, after being extended an extra day.   Last night was the last night I'll get to play though, as I'll be at work till after 6pm today.  So, I logged on for a bit to try a few last missions and attempt to get a feel for the "massive changes" that were touted in the great 21 Jan beta patch.  I tried to play over the weekend also, but extended unscheduled server downtimes and malfunctioning account servers put a serious limit on the amount I managed to play (as did spending some time working).

There are definitely some improvements and new coolness - most notable improvement being that scanners actually work (kind of), and most cool being voiceovers by Leonard Nimoy himself.  The down side of the scanners though is that on ground missions they seem configured to scan first for "anomalies" you can investigate, and only second (when all the anomalies are gone) do they point to your quest targets.  Possibly there was a configuration option somewhere I couldn't find that lets you choose what order to scan things in.  I hope so, because on the missions I tried the "anomalies" were often invisible or untargetable, hidden under the ground or in geometry, so it was impossible to ever get rid of them and thus you could never scan for your quest targets, resulting in much running around in circles hunting.  Hopefully this will be addressed in a pre-launch bug fix; other than this bug, the scanners were a huge improvement and help.

The down side of having Leonard Nimoy is that in order to have a professional actor provide voiceover for the game, they presumably had to sign a contract with the Screen Actors Guild.  And that means they've almost certainly had to agree not to use any voice over talent that isn't also registered with SAG, which means much more paperwork and expense to do any kind of voiceover in the future - neither of which I'm guessing STO will be in a position to afford once they launch, so that probably means very little further voiceover work at all for the game.  Which is a shame, because voiceovers do add atmosphere to a game, and judging by the terrifying scary voice that my female Vulcan security officer kept using, they could definitely use a few more voice options.

Alas, most of the problems that annoyed me before remain even after the big patch.  Space combat continues to either bore me or frustrate me.  One mission I did on the weekend involved exploring unknown sectors - the mission went like this:

  • spend 1-2 minutes flying to an 'anomaly' in the specified sector
  • zone in to the system you thereby discover
  • get a mission to contact the planet to offer help
  • spend 5 minutes flying to the planet to get close enough to hail them (literally 5 minutes - I timed it)
  • talk to the planet, who demand provisions
  • leave the planetary system
  • spend 2 minutes flying to the sirius sector
  • spend 3 minutes flying to a starbase
  • spend 5 minutes running around the starbase trying to find provisions, and eventually manage to purchase them only by dint of selling every scrap of other inventory I'd previously looted
  • spend 3 minutes flying back to the original sector
  • return to the system that needed the provision, and deliver the food, completing the mission
15+ minutes of flying around - not even actively flying around either, just crank the engines up and stare in boredom while the ship moves itself around.  Not exactly the kind of gameplay I find exciting.  Still, was preferable to the combat missions where you have absolutely no options but to fight, and are hopelessly outnumbered, so that the only 'strategy' by which to win is to try and take out one ship before you die, then respawn, and try to pick off the next ship, etc.  With no death penalty and no way to win without using this kamikaze tactic, this seems to be an actively encouraged method of combat.

I took a screenshot of the inventory window, to illustrate how confusing I found it combined into one.  All loot goes into just one bag, whether it's personal wearables or ship equipment.  The icons range from not extremely helpful to completely unintelligible (rather like Champions Online) and you can't tell if something is ground-based equipment, ship gear, permanent, or expendable without pausing and mouse-overing every single item to see what the pop up says.This is my inventory window:

It's labeled below, but I invite you to look at the icons in the cropped shot above first and attempt to guess what they are, just for fun.  (For extra fun, look at the rest of the UI in the big shot below and try to guess what those tiny icons all do too.)  Maybe I'm just easily confused, but I do find it easier to be able to comprehend at a glance what is in my bags.

On the bright side, as you see above I managed to obtain a tribble or two, which is surely a good goal for a Star Trek beta (even though I just bought it off the exchange from another player).  Vulcan still doesn't appear to be visitable or have a space station, however.  And I still can't explore my own ship.  Adding further worry, apparently some last-minute changes are upsetting people.  The last minute balance changes to Champions are a large part of why the launch was not well received - content was suddenly too hard, abilities were totally imbalanced, people had a miserable starting experience and left.  Hopefully this has less of an impact, but I hope it's not a bad omen.

Anyway, I still find the ground missions didn't grab me; the space missions still were either very lengthy or frustrated me in their requirement for kamikaze combat tactics; and as I couldn't find anything else to do (like explore, or seek out new life and new civilizations, or decorate my ship, or tradeskill for a living), I plan to hold off on playing further and see how it goes for a while.  If it's still around in a year and is reported to be much improved, perhaps I'll try it again then.  A lot of additional fun and polish could be added, given an additional year.  It seems that large numbers of enthusiastic Trekkers are queueing up to play, so the game may have enough momentum from that to continue adding content for quite some time.  This Trekker personally still finds the game's philosophy does not quite fit my own vision of Star Trek, but perhaps I'm in the minority.  I guess we'll see.

Farewell, U.S.S Cephalopod, NCC-92305, back to spacedock storage with you.  Farewell, Lt. Blythe, and Ensigns Emma, Ghissel, Salm, and Spork.  It was fun.  Perhaps we'll meet again in a year or so.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

STO follow up

I mentioned in a previous post that my expectations for Star Trek Online were not extremely optimistic. But, rather than judge on the basis of gut feeling and limited information, I signed up for the open beta to see for myself. Obviously, with my own upcoming game expansion to work on I haven't had a lot of time to play, but I've played enough to reach a few conclusions at least, and my initial opinion hasn't greatly changed, unfortunately.

However, this is still a beta and the purpose of a beta is to get good player feedback, so I have posted these exact same thoughts on the STO forums for whatever they are worth. I honestly hope the designers there are already working along these lines, because a well-designed Star Trek MMO would be awesome and I'd love to play it. Unfortunately the current STO beta that I'm in is nowhere near there yet, so it remains to be seen what can be addressed before their launch date.

So, for whatever it's worth, if I were a designer or producer working on STO, the following would be my top priority changes (ignoring actual stability and performance issues, which should be obvious):
  • Give players a tactical computer UI window they can bring up during battle to automate key functions that they choose. Allow them to turn on/off choices such as ‘autofire all weapons till target is dead’, ‘autotarget nearest enemy’, ‘automatically redistribute power to shields’, and possibly ‘autopilot in optimum firing position around selected target’. Honestly, did Kirk spend each episode mashing a button on his command chair nonstop just to keep the shields up? No.
  • Redo the main UI so that instead of looking just like the Champions Online UI re-skinned with a Star Trek colour theme and font, it looks like a Star Trek computer display screen or a ship’s view screen. Stick a big border all around the view screen area, and then displays and controls clearly at the side. This way if you want to do something, like go to warp or hail Starfleet, you click the clearly labeled button that says ‘warp’ or ‘hail’ instead of hovering your mouse over a dozen nearly identical miniscule picture icons trying to read tooltip text and find the one you want. It would be both easier to use and more immersive.
  • Stick a starbase outside every major federation planet mentioned in the shows/movies, just clone the existing one and repopulate with the local race. Add in some kind of canned message explaining why you’re not currently able to beam down to the planet. Really, the first thing 90% of Trek fans are going to do within the first few hours of play is go “ooh look, Vulcan” and try to visit. Currently they find an empty sector with one planet, no scan results, nothing to hail, no starbases, no ships, not even any satellites, and all they can do is ram the planet (which doesn’t even kill you). Fail.
  • Allow exploration. Currently you can’t beam down to explore anywhere you don’t already have a mission for. Exploration is dead. Granted there’s not time to allow true exploration but existing missions could be changed so that instead of requiring the mission from an NPC before you can go somewhere and beam down, allow players to acquire the mission when they enter a system where there is a mission available. Instead of “Lt. Fred has sent you to sector B to explore the alien colony there”, zone into the system and get offered the mission “I appear to have found an alien colony, I should explore and bring back my findings to Starfleet!”
  • Allow travel around your own ship. Currently you can’t. Building the entire ship is impractical in the time frame remaining, but instances of various ship rooms already exist, so at least allow players to enter versions of them for their own ship. For example, when an away team mission goes bad and everyone dies, instead of a boring “respawn”, have everybody wake up in the ship sickbay and have to beam down again. 
  • Rather than having one inventory where everything goes, from salvaged space relics to propulsion system upgrades to ration packs to personal weapons, instead separate ship and personal loot. Personal loot gained from ground missions can go into a normal inventory system, but ship loot gained from space missions should go into a separate inventory. Possibly you could access this inventory and manage it and install items gained from it by going to your ship’s Engineering instance.
  • Add more noncombat methods to complete missions – far too many missions are simply kill missions, and that’s very contrary to the Star Trek spirit. More stealth, more negotiation options, maybe other possibilities. (I realize that to do this thoroughly will take more time than they have till launch, but they could do what's possible and make it a top priority and make certain their players know it.)
  • Fix phasers in ground combat. Phasers are a one-shot weapon. You’re either stunned, or vaporized, there’s no in-between. STO has changed them completely so you have to take 5-6 phaser shots at a target to knock them out. Not only is this ridiculous, it also motivates players to ignore the phasers and upgrade to nastier high DPS weapons like nerve disruptors which is completely contradictory to Starfleet policy. There are at least 3 ways I can think of that would potentially allow phasers to be the one-shot weapons they should be without completely trivializing content, and something like this needs to happen. (Decrease accuracy so the challenge is in aiming, significantly increase reuse time, change 'health' bar to a 'luck' bar, convert phaser hit into a stun (essentially a mez) spring to mind immediately, there are doubtless other options too)
  • Increase the speed of space combat, crawling around is not fun and nor is sitting in place mashing keys for 1 minute 50 seconds just to blow up one undefended drydock (true mission experience). (Also, I’d love to give objects in space gravity, like they have in StarControl solar system combat.) While I realize that increasing ship speed is a potential progression path, the lack of it makes the newbie experience very un-fun, and at this point you can't afford to be losing any newbies. There are plenty of other ship progression paths (shields, weapons, maneuverability, special gadgets, bridge crew slots, etc) without needing to make newbies crawl like snails.
These are just the quickest, most obvious points of course that might be realistic as a quick fix in a short time frame. They might keep people playing a little longer, but there need to be much bigger and more substantial fixes and content additions ASAP.

A lot can still change in the last weeks of beta, so who knows what exactly will be the state of the game when it launches. I know some folks working at Cryptic and they're good folks, so I hope they can turn the game around and make it a success, with or without my $0.02 worth of feedback. But I guess we'll see in two weeks.

Good luck to the Cryptic team, and I hope I'm wrong.

Update to add a link to Scott Jennings' excellent thoughts on STO also.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Easily Distracted

I'm just not very good at levelling up in MMOs, I'm afraid.  It's not that I don't like them - I do - but something about the leveling process fails to captivate me.  I know it's supposed to get me hooked - just one more quest till the next level, just one more hour till the next reward - but I guess there's just something missing in the area my brain that controls that area.  I have had the same experience in every MMO I've played, from the original EverQuest to my most recent trial of Aion.

It's not that I can't level up - I do have characters at max level in EverQuest II.  But it's not something that I do for the sake of doing it, it's just something that happens while I'm doing other things, unless I really force myself, in which case it's a chore, not compulsive fun.  (The closely related task of gearing up is equally yawn-inducing to me.)

Of course, these days it doesn't help that after spending 10-12 hours at work on EQII, it's really not extremely appealing to come home and spend another few hours staring at more of the same.  When we're working overtime at work I find myself much more tempted to do other things besides play computer games when I get home - reading, cooking, even cleaning.  Still, I did log in last night thinking I really should get my dirge the rest of the way to 80 while I still have the bonus XP from my 80 wizard. (In EQII, once you have a max level character all other characters on your account get an XP bonus so they level up faster.  However, the max level cap is going up with February's expansion so I'll lose that bonus soon.)

As usually happens though I did a few quests but soon got distracted.  In this case it was by someone in the general crafting chat channel who was low level but trying to do a harvesting quest in the Kingdom of Sky zones, which are higher level than he was.  He was clearly having trouble figuring out how to harvest safely.  Far more interesting than levelling up a dirge!  I hopped on my lower level monk and headed up there, and offered to give him a little tour of the safe areas where low adventure level players can get to.  Of course, the reason he was up there was a quest that I myself created, so I suppose I was technically responsible for his predicament in a way.  But I used to give harvesting tours long to harvesters in distress before I was hired by SOE anyway.  And I can't think of any MMO I've played in the past 10 years where I was actively excited by leveling.

There's almost always something more interesting to do than plain old XPing, in my experience.  Sometimes I hear a newbie in the chat channels who needs some help, and I go and do that.  Sometimes I decide to decorate someone's house.  Sometimes I help random people or guildmates with quests.  Sometimes I go crafting, or exploring, or finish off some collection quests, or some achievements.  Often I'm tempted to make new alts, since I really enjoy trying out new race/class combinations and thinking up new character appearances and names and backgrounds.  In Aion I've gone through three alts so far without getting any of them to 25 yet.  In City of Villains I can't even count how many villains I made, none of whom reached 30.  In WoW I managed three alts, even though I quit the game in frustration before any of them reached 20.  Champions Online was so broken it actually forced me to quit the alts before I wanted to, so that probably doesn't count, but even in Conan I had two going and that was painful indeed (one of them was a female bear shaman, the most broken possible combination at launch).

I know this is fairly unusual; MMOs are full of people who seem to enjoy leveling up just for the sake of leveling up, and it's practically the basis of gameplay in many of them.  I guess I'm fairly unusual in my lack of interest (or maybe other people like me just don't tend to play MMOs).  I still have lots of fun doing other things when a game permits me enough lateral options to have a broad gameplay experience, and EQII in particular is very good at supporting lots of different play styles.  Still, I sometimes feel as if I enjoy MMOs despite of their core design, not as part of it.  Now that I actually work in game design it makes me wonder how I would design a game that isn't so leveling-centered, and what aspects of MMOs I would actually make the core of gameplay if I were trying to appeal to people like me.  I like exploring, I like the social interactions, I enjoy the creative side, and the crafting (as in making useful stuff for other people) aspect.  And I'll generally choose any of those over XP leveling any day, as they're just more interesting to me.

Perhaps it's wrong to think of making separate games at all; perhaps it would be better to think of ways to integrate the different play styles better into one game world.  Perhaps they're just two sides of the same coin and could support each other solidly.  I sometimes feel EQII is almost there in the way it allows crafters to level up separately from adventurers, but there isn't really a true interdependency either.  In EQII it's more like two independent systems running side by side in the same world, and while that's good in many ways, I still feel there could be a better integration somehow.  Though at least it's better than most MMOs; too many try to force the different play styles together in ways that don't really make a lot of sense.  For example, in WoW you can't tradeskill without going out killing things for components, and exploration is pretty much impossible at low adventure levels as aggro range increases the larger the level difference.  In Aion your crafting skill is capped by your adventure level.  So if crafting or exploring interests you but killing things does not, well, these games are obviously not going to be ideal.  In a real world context it makes no sense - how good I am at cooking or sewing has absolutely nothing to do with my skill in karate or hunting, that's nonsensical.  Yet so many games try to force the two to relate in some way, and of course it feels awkward and forced.

I hope that as MMOs continue to mature and develop, we'll start to see more developers moving away from this forced dependency and lazy assumption that leveling is all that's needed to make gameplay fun.  EQII was a great step in the right direction (as was Star Wars Galaxies) but it's been 5 years since either of those and I'm just not seeing anybody else moving in that direction yet.  Is it a nasty catch-22 in that the current generation of game developers entered game development through their enjoyment of leveling-oriented MMOs, and therefore assume that everybody else must love them too?  Or is it just that the 500b gorilla of MMOs, WoW, is not particularly innovative in any area, and therefore new game developers (and their investors) are nervous about trying anything different?  I don't know, but I'm going to keep hoping (and poking and suggesting, where I get the chance) that future MMOs will try to broaden the types of game play options available.

(In an unrelated note, having stated my pessimistic predictions for STO in the last post, I felt obliged to sign up for the open beta now it's open, and so I'm currently downloading the patcher in the background.  We shall see ... though, judging by the snail's pace this download is crawling at, it won't be tonight.)

(Update: this comment by Zubon re: STO open beta made me nod agreement.)

Friday, January 08, 2010

Where no MMO has gone before

It's January, and if you're a Star Trek fan you may be aware that there's a Star Trek based MMO currently in beta, and due to launch on February 2nd.  (If you haven't been following it, here's a handy link to "everything we know about Star Trek Online" from the STO forums which will likely answer most of your questions.)

Rumours of the game have been circulating for years; it was originally being developed by Perpetual, but they failed to release it, and the rights to develop the game were acquired by Cryptic some time around early 2008, the same studio that brought us Champions Online last year, and long before that, City of Heroes.

I grew up a Star Trek fan; although I'm not quite old enough to have seen it in its first run on the air, I grew up with reruns, and there was a time that I could have quoted every original series episode and the animated series too.  I had a collection of the Star Trek novels that ran into the hundreds, and somewhere in my parents house there are still probably little painted models of the Enterprise in various versions, not to mention Romulan warbirds and Klingon birds of prey.  I still remember how excited I was to read that "The Next Generation" was going to be made, and where I was when I heard Gene Roddenberry died.  I can even still remember an essential phrase or two in Klingon - nuqdaq yuch daPol?

Having now established how completely hopelessly nerdy my childhood was, let me get back to the subject at hand, the Star Trek MMO.  I haven't actually been following the news about it closely, and I'm not in the beta, so all I have to go on is the FAQ linked above and the occasional article or trailer I've seen.  But a friend challenged me to make a game prediction for the new year, so here's mine:  much as I'd love it not to be the case, I really don't see how Cryptic's STO can possibly be a success.  I predict a buggy launch, poor balance (both class and economic), and content both too detailed to be popular with only casual Trek fans, while simultaneously being too vague or unfaithful to the original to please the hard core Trek fans.

Why I predict this:
  • I can't imagine any way that Cryptic could possibly have had enough time to develop a solid game in the 1 year they've had the license.  EQII releases one expansion a year, and that's just an expansion based on a very solid existing game and toolset.  Create a brand new game from scratch?  (They got to keep some art assets from Perpetual, but nothing else as far as I've read.)  Even using the Champions Online engine and tools it's a ridiculously short time frame to try and do anything in the enormous world of Star Trek.  Most new games take years and years to develop.  1 year seems insane.
  • I was had a few disappointments with Champions Online, so I naturally worry that, being released so close to it, Star Trek have similar pitfalls to avoid.
  • All the trailers I've seen of STO feature almost nothing but combat ... even the trailer that is ostensibly the "exploration" trailer.  No.  This is not Star Trek.  Star Trek is not about guns blazing and ships blowing up and phaser shots to the head.  It's certainly easier to make a game about those things, but it won't be a Star Trek game.  The reason Star Trek was so popular in the first place was Roddenberry's message of peace and optimism.  We can outgrow our violent beginnings.  We can look forward to a future of peace and health and safety.  People who are different can learn to trust each other and work together as brothers.  Star Trek's message was hope, exploration, the triumph of peace and rationality over violence and war.  The STO trailers I have seen have nothing to do with hope, peace, or logic.  They have nothing to do with Star Trek apart from using the same ships.
Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see a Star Trek MMO.  I'd love to play in that world.  There are so many complexities of the Star Trek universe that could make fascinating MMOs on their own.  Imagine playing at political intrigue and rivalry among the Romulan houses, in a political/space game similar to Eve.  (And my ideal Romulans will always be the Rihannsu of Diane Duane's excellent novels, not the confused mess they have become since Roddenberry's death.)  Imagine exploring space and forging the first United Federation of Planets.  Just the day to day workings and missions of an enormous Constitution class starship would be fascinating.  The holodeck could be a game tool on its own with enormous possibilities for player mods.  Heck, I could spend at least a day just wandering around exploring the inside of a fully detailed model of a starship.  Away missions, making contact with new civilizations, Starfleet Academy training, the Kobayashi Maru test, all of these would be fascinating.  Of all the things that I could do in a Star Trek online game, blowing up other starships or going head-to-head in phaser battles has to be the least interesting and least Star Trek-like of all the possibilities.  (How do you even adapt phaser battles into an MMO combat system?  One hit and you're either stunned or vaporized.)  But alas.  I haven't seen a single trailer that isn't heavily focused on combat.  And even if Cryptic's development team hadn't had a rocky start with Champions Online, I don't believe the best team in the world could create a product that would succeed in such a short time frame.

So I haven't applied to the STO beta, and I'm not getting my hopes up.  That's my game prediction for this year: STO will not be the Star Trek game I hope it could be  I hope I'm wrong, but I very much doubt I will be.

I guess we'll know in about a month.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

It's good to be home again

After a lovely Christmas vacation in the United Kingdom, I'm back home in San Diego getting used once again to warm weather, sunshine, and my adorable cats.

I'm still getting over a cold, but the sunny San Diego weather should soon cure me, I hope.

In the mean time, the first order of business (after unpacking and greeting the cats) was to log in to EverQuest II, where a number of seasonal live events are under way!

Most exciting to residents of Freeport was the sight that met their eyes when "Update 54: Will of a Tyrant" arrived.  The floating Dethknell citadel has crashed into West Freeport and Overlord Lucan de Lere is missing, and chaos reins in Freeport as various factions fight to take over power in his absence.

I had a chance to log in briefly just a few hours after the patch, and it was great to see the huge crowds of players standing around stunned, investigating the scene and trying to understand what had happened.  Dynamic events like this that really change the landscape in the world are just fantastic for keeping an MMO world feeling exciting and real.  This change is particularly shocking as the floating citadel has been a permanent fixture in Freeport since the game launched, and we don't generally make big changes to the main cities, so the occurance of a change this big and this dramatic has an extra impact.

I'm also personally rather pleased that in this particular event, it was the (male) Overlord of Freeport who was kidnapped, not the (female) queen of Qeynos; her kidnappers were foiled (through the heroic efforts of the players) and she is left to keep order in Qeynos and encourage efforts to rescue the Overlord.  It would have been so easy to have the pretty girl get kidnapped, and I was one of those making the argument that we should buck stereotypes and avoid that.  And I think it's worked out very well; looking forward to seeing this story continue to unfold!  Unfortunately I didn't have time to actually run through the quests related to the kidnapping events until returning from my vacation, so I've spent some time this weekend doing just that.

Also since I left, the EQII winter holiday event "Frostfell" has arrived, with more quests to do and more items to craft, in addition to many of the old familiar ones from previous years, and I played some catch up on these this weekend also.  It's interesting to watch how Frostfell has evolved over time.  A couple of years ago one of the daily presents that you could get by talking to one of the holiday NPCs was a collection of snowglobes: visit the NPC each day, and you could eventually collect a whole set of snow globes with different scenes inside them from around the world.  The first year they were introduced there were just two: Freeport and Qeynos.  The year after that a whole bunch more were added, and since you could collect the entire set of them on every alt, it became a bit problematic where to put them all.

When players started posting screenshots on the housing forum showing how they'd built entire rooms within their homes using nothing but snow globes, we started to think that perhaps we'd given out enough snow globes, so the following Frostfell season there were no more snowglobes offered.  The NPC who'd formerly given them out was changed so he would just say sadly that someone had beaten him up and taken all his snowglobes away, and a different NPC gave out the presents that year.  But players started asking what happened to the original NPC, why were his snowglobes taken away, who did it?  This led our live events guru, Kaitheel, to introduce a new quest line this year allowing players to help the snowglobe NPC and find out the answer to who took his snow globes and why.  I love watching this kind of growth and interactive development of content within our game.

Another exciting thing for me in EQII this week was the start of the city festivals!  This is a small monthly live event that for now is a simple merchant fair that will be visiting each of our player starting cities for one week each month, one city per month. The original idea wasn't mine, and the early implementation was started by devs Kaitheel and Windslasher, but when they both got called onto other more urgent projects, I found a little time to implement the base version that will, with luck, be built upon by others over time.

The Far Seas Trading Company, a ubiquitous presence anywhere in Norrath there's profit to be made, rolls up a little caravan to the city of Kelethin (this month) and sets up a small market row selling food, drink, festival clothing, and fine furnishings they think may be of interest to the city's residents.  (There are specialized items tailored to each city, as well as some common items shared by all.)  There are also some basic quests to do, as well as "flavor" NPCs to add interest to the setting.  EQ2 Traders has some great write ups as usual, even though the festival isn't particularly tradeskill-related.

I've learned that the little touches of flavor are hugely effective in making a quest or event seem "real" and "fun" or not, so I had some fun adding in a few characters that I thought might be drawn to fairs like this.  There are workers, of course, who generally just stand around chatting amongst themselves and making comments on the profitability of the venture.  One nearby (not shown) offers some quests, and the crier (above) wanders around announcing the fair has arrived and gathering attention.

There's a fortune teller who'll charge you gold and tell your fortune for the month.  She'll only give you one fortune per month, but it's different for each character.  I had a lot of fun thinking up some Onion-esque horoscope type fortunes for her, and I hope players will enjoy discovering them all as the months pass.

And some fire breathers to put on an entertaining show, and occasionally some terrible comments:

The festival layout is similar but slightly different in each city depending on the location, of course.  Mostly the Far Seas traders travel by caravan, but of course, when they head for Gorowyn, it's an island, so they may need a boat instead... I tried to suit the layout to the city in each case.  Here's a section of the market row from the festival in Qeynos, which was on Test server prior to the update.  They too have random call-outs (on a timer, so it's not too spammy) and emotes to make them feel more alive and real.

As always, one of my biggest challenges was coming up with names for the characters.  In this particular case, if you're curious for more details, I talked briefly about how I picked some of these names on the G.I.R.L. blog back in October.

All in all, it's just a little event without a huge significance to the game's overall story.  But it's one more thing of many intended to make the world feel more alive and dynamic, give people something to look forward to each month, and keep things interesting.  I'm glad I had the chance to lend a hand to the live event team, on a number of events this year, since live events are something that I really enjoy and value in the games I play, and I feel they're very important to a game like ours.  I'm looking forward to seeing how the city festivals develop over the coming years, whether it's done by me or by the normal live events team!