Monday, December 15, 2014

Bloggy X-Mas Day 15: The Reluctant Community



(Sorry this is an hour late; I was being social and working on Christmas cards.)

If you're my age, your first exposure to video games was a social one.

Typically, you were over at a friend's house or attending some family party or whatnot, and your hosts brought out the Pong game --or the Atari 2600, Intellivision, or Odyssey-- and everyone gathered around for a turn at playing Asteroids or Combat.*

MMOs tap into those halcyon days by utilizing the wonders of the internet to play with people from around the world. None of this is exactly new to anyone, of course, but it is important to remember that video games were, at their heart, a social endeavor.

We often forget about the positive social aspects to video games when buried deep in the latest Skyrim or Dragon Age game, or when we're being yelled at to "L2P NOOOOB!!!!1!!" in Arathi Basin. It is quite easy to forget about things beyond the bare bones social contract when you're trying to make your guild's raid team.*** Or when you slew the elite boss guarding the maguffin you need for a quest, and another player ninja steals the maguffin while you were otherwise occupied.

But we MMO players are a community.

There aren't that many of us out there. Sure, WoW has 10 million subscribers, and that sounds like a lot, but not when you consider there are over a billion people hooked up to the net in some form or another. Compared to the rest of the internet, we're a niche within the niche of video gaming.

It's that realization that we consciously seek out social gaming in some form or another that makes MMO gaming special. There are MOBAs and console networks, but those don't have the social interaction on the same level as an MMO has.

What do the following have in common:
  • Random Gen Chat discussions.
  • Guild goofing off nights.
  • PUGs with people who you get into great conversations with.
  • Dance-offs at random moments.
  • You're attempting to beat an elite boss, you're losing, and suddenly a random passerby jumps into the fray to assist.

The answer is something that all of us who play MMOs know:  they're all possible in MMO space. I've been there, and I've seen it happen.

MMOs offer the chance to be awesome, both in the story and between other players. For example, I'll never forget the following exchange (paraphrased) in Tatooine about two years ago:

Player X: Need an assist with [can't remember quest name]
Player Y: I can help. Invite me.
Player Z: Man, you're L50. What are you doing here?
Player Y: I PvP in about an hour or so, but before then I like to hang around low level areas and help out those who need it.

That. Is. Awesomeness.

***

Make no mistake, MMOs are just a game. We slay internet dragons with our friends. And, more importantly, they are a tool, really, that can foster relationships with others.

It's all about how we use that tool that determines the community we reside in.

Just remember the immortal words of Bill and Ted:  Be excellent to each other!




*In a way, it was a bit similar to how I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons; that was a social format too, with a friend introducing the game to me after school while playing over at his house.

**Given that a lot of people had only one television at the time, this meant that you had to work around evening TV shows.

***Office politics remind me a lot of some of the backstabbing that goes on in some of the more high drama guilds. When companies grade everyone on a curve, employees will be tempted to sabotage other employees' work just to make themselves look better.

****No, I can't remember the name of the blog, but I saw their stats.


EtA: Added the graphic.
EtA2: Corrected grammar on story.  Sheesh, how'd I miss that?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Miscellaneous Friday Ponderings

After having seen the trailer for Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens, I wonder how long it'll be before we see cross bladed lightsabers in SWTOR. My guess is that it will make an appearance sometime next year in the Cartel Store.


Yeah... This.


Or maybe this one. (From Dorkly.)


***

From what I can tell, the WoW version of housing, Garrisons, is the pet battles of Warlords of Draenor. From what a local friend tells me, it's required if you want to do any crafting, but not as much for raiding at the moment. (She doesn't PvP, so that's an unknown for her there.) You set up shop in Draenor, and you pretty much go to town.

Does that mean that you'll have to start over in a new location with a new Garrison for the next expac, does the Garrison just migrate to the next expac's location (whatever it ends up being) like a gypsy caravan, or does it stay put, permanently set in Draenor?

By integrating Garrisons directly into Draenor, it seems that Blizzard is grounding them in such a way as to make them a permanent fixture of this expac.

Now, add the full Warlords leveling experience + one new expac, L1-105(or 110), and what becomes of the Warlords Garrison? Does Blizz move it out of Warlords entirely, like what they did with most of the Wrathgate event, or do they allow you to have a double dose of Garrison leveling (one in Warlords, one in the new expac)?

Yeah, it's nitpicking, but the design decisions do have a cost, and I would hope that Blizz didn't back themselves into a corner like they did with some design decisions with Cataclysm.

***

What happens in Gen Chat, stays in.... um.... nevermind.

This must have been one of the weirder weeks for Gen Chat topics.  Among the highlights were:


  • Which Spice Girl was the best one overall (don't look at me; I actively avoided the Spice Girls in the 90s).
  • Will "Han Shot First" be referenced as a joke in the new Star Wars movie?
  • Who was a better band: Doro or Rammstein?
  • What song had the most annoying lyrics?  (My vote: Careless Whisper, by Wham, although I could be talked into Girl You Know Its True by Milli Vanilli.)
Just when people thought Gen Chat was only good for racist and middle grade humor...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Wanted: A Long Term Growth Plan

These are fun times for an MMO player.

Star Trek Online, LOTRO, SWTOR, WoW, GW2 and Neverwinter all have dropped major expacs (or continuing storylines) in the last few months.*

There were two major AAA releases this year: The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar.

But all I hear from my local friends is about League of Legends. Or Call of Duty. Or Dragon Age Inquisition. Or Assassin's Creed Unity**.

Of all my local friends and acquaintances, there's two people who are playing MMOs, and one is playing WoW while the other is playing Aion. In fact, I have more friends excited about the release of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition than anything MMO related.

This is a far cry from when I first took up WoW back in 2009, when I was occasionally surprised by who I knew who also played MMOs. The majority played WoW, to be sure, but some still liked EQ and other games. We didn't exactly swap war stories, but there was a shared experience that we could all comment on. It also confirmed the size of the playerbase that the WoW commercials of the era alluded to.



Now, it seems that the genre is more of a niche these days than before.

Sure, you've got WoW back to over 10 million subs (for the time being), but how much of that is cannibalization of other MMO player bases is an unknown.  I do know of several people who returned to WoW for Draenor (Deftig among them), but WoW doesn't seem to have quite the same mojo outside of the MMO niche than it once did.

***

I think it is telling that the television spots for Draenor are vastly different than what they were a few short expacs ago.

Hard to believe this is an oldie in YouTube years.


Fangs like that, and not one 
casting callback for True Blood.  Not one!



My wife, on seeing the Warlords trailer, asked me "Are they the good guys or the bad guys?"

I get her point. While both trailers emphasize ACTION!!, the more I watch the Warlords trailer***, the more I wonder whether the trailer is designed strictly for lapsed players as opposed to recruiting new ones.

Contrast these videos with tv spots for some other, newer games:

Didn't I see this during the Super Bowl?

Yes, that really is Kate Upton. Makes me wonder just how 
much she got paid to say "Come and play with me!"


Both of the newer games are for mobile devices, true, but both also are attempting to cast a wider net than the WoW commercials. They are aiming for growth and more players (and, in the case of Game of War: Fire Age, sex appeal so blatant that Evony would be jealous), and their tv spots have eschewed the serious grimdark in favor of whimsy.

They stole Blizzard's thunder by co-opting one of WoW's greatest strengths: its ability to not take itself seriously.

In 2007, WoW had ads with Ozzy, Verne Troyer, and William Shatner, full of sly humor and the "you can be anyone you want!" tagline. 2009 saw the WoW Mountain Dew tie-in with two women fighting it out in a grocery store.

Because you can't have enough William Shatner.

And really, you can't have enough Kaldorei 
and Orcs fighting it out in the local Mega Mart.


But now, there is no humor in Blizzard's WoW advertisements. It's all uber serious grimdark.

Last I checked, WoW itself still has plenty of humor in it. Why surrender your advantage to mobile games?

***

In the end, I guess you target your audience with what you think will work. Maximizing subscriptions is the game, and investors are a fickle "what have you done for me this quarter?" bunch. Blizzard wants their old subscribers back, and as far as I can tell they're succeeding.  But new blood in the MMO genre? Not so much.

I fear that we've reached a point where the MMO market isn't going to change much in size. MMOs will be marketed to those who already play or used to play extensively. New players aren't marketed to, and a lot of really good games will be overlooked because MMOs are no longer trendy.

This December should feel like Christmas morning with the abundance of really good games to choose from, so why does it feel like Jacob Marley needs to stop by?





*There's also a new release for Rift, but I don't play the game.

**I hear about Unity for all the wrong reasons, I might add. The bugginess of the Unity release is so bad it rivals the old Microprose Darklands game for buggy releases.

***You can't avoid the trailer right now on sports channels. It's about as ubiquitous as erectile dysfunction ads.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Message, Spock?"

One of the best things that can happen in LOTRO is an impromptu concert in Bree:

Yes, the mini-Reds are in among the crowd.


I watched my kids having a blast listening to the concert while they tried to stump me with the toons the band was playing.  (One of the tunes was Birthday by The Beatles, but I'm old enough to remember THAT one.)  This is one of those moments in LOTRO where you just wonder why this has never been appropriated for other MMOs; it brings the world to life in a unique and vivid way.

Five minutes after this screen shot, I had my answer.  A troll came running into the midst of the concert, trying his best to disrupt it.*

I shook my head; I could only imagine what would happen if people tried to do this in a game where trolling is far more frequent.

Oh wait, we do.

The irony about this is that the Serenity Now Funeral Raid highlights the best and worst parts of MMOs. You have a community getting together to honor one of their own, and you have the community being ripped apart by people who have no sense of respect.

MMOs need more community building, but it also can't be forced.  Forced community building goes over about as well as forcing people into dailies just so they can gear up to raid.** Players have to want to get together to do cool things in-game, in a public space, for the culture to change. A friend who used to play MMOs was a member of The Bards of Azeroth (Wyrmrest Accord), who would put on poetry readings in Thunder Bluff. A friend of Navimie's married her real life fiance in-game in 2013. When the old tree form was going away just prior to Cataclysm, there was an impromptu Farewell to the Trees parade.

A spark is needed, but will has to be behind it. The willingness and desire to make a difference, and to keep trying.

Unless all that people want out of MMOs is to kill things. That's fine, of course, but MMOs could be so much more. Why settle?




*It didn't work; everyone put him on ignore.

**See: Mists of Pandaria.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sounds on a Thanksgiving

"Don't let him aggro!"

"I've got this."

"Stay with him, I can heal you!"

"Don't run away, stay in the area!"

"Aaaaaa!!!  We were so close!!!"

"Are you out of fire oil?"

"I'm putting my shield spikes on, wait a sec."


These sounds of a LOTRO instance were brought to you by the Mini-Reds, who are attempting to three-man a six-person instance in LOTRO, the Great Barrow Maze.


Postscript:  "Dude, I'm gonna go to the Prancing Pony and make my toon drink SOOOO much!"  (That was after a marathon 45 minute game of Star Fluxx.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Let's Pretend Nobody Else Exists...

There are a lot of things Blizzard does right with WoW. Even the most ardent WoW hater has to concede that in general Blizzard doesn't release a buggy product when a WoW patch/expac comes through.* WoW also gives enough people what they want that they still dominate the MMO market, and they shamelessly steal ideas from other games and give it their own unique twist.

But there is one aspect to WoW that Blizzard has done poorly in, and it concerns how the US and European servers are configured.  Namely, that you'd never guess that the other one exists.

All of the other MMOs I've played in have at least given you the ability to create a toon on every server the game has, but WoW for some reason won't allow you to do that on European and U.S. servers.  You get one or the other, and that's it. A long long time ago, I saw the announcement of cross-server grouping as a way to finally get a chance to play with some of my blogger friends over in Europe, but I was quickly disillusioned when I realized that the US and European servers still don't seem to know the other exists.

This kind of turns the wonderful love fest of the Looking for Group documentary on its head, since I can see that Europeans play WoW via the blogs, Tumblrs, podcasts, and fan made art/videos, but I can't play with them without purchasing the game again for the EU region.

I bring this up because other games, such as LOTRO and SWTOR will let you play on European servers. Age of Conan consolidated all of their servers this past year as well.  GW2 is a bit closer to the WoW model in that you're locked into the server you start with --and creating a toon on a European server means your license gets transferred to the EU region-- but it still lets you select a European server from the start.

My kids have LOTRO toons across several servers, and they've often commented to me on people occasionally speaking in French on Gen Chat.** I recently rolled up a new Smugger on a European server in SWTOR, and I can attest how connected you feel seeing guild recruiting ads saying "we are an all Polish guild" or "we're an all Russian guild". Or that you'll see someone let loose some British slang in Gen Chat. You get that sense of togetherness, the feeling that people all over the world are hanging out in Coruscant with you right now, without having to leave the game at all.

And really, the lag for the European SWTOR servers is only slightly worse than the lag for the West Coast US server that I typically play on.

I understand that there are license issues at play here, but it still seems odd that this restriction is still in place a decade later, particularly when the world has shrunk with the advent of new social media and the explosion of smart phones and tablets. It just seems a relic of the past, when the most exotic location a fellow player might be from is Buffalo.





*Design flaws, yes, but bugs are minor compared to most other AAA software releases. Having spent time in software QA back in the 90s, I've occasionally wondered just how much pull the software QA team at Blizzard has. Typically software QA is a small speed bump to the rest of the release train, and even if the QA people are screaming that something isn't ready for release the software will ship regardless.

**Which they find incredibly cool that they're playing a game at the same time someone in France is.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The More Things Change....

I'd been watching the news about the release of Warlords*, and it seems to be a bit more difficult than the usual launch troubles.  There's the initial chokepoint of having everyone click on a single NPC to access the Warlords content, but between that and the rush of people to get in there was nothing unusual.  But then you throw in a strong DDoS attack, and you've got a real mess.

I saw some of the net traffic charts and it seems they're originating from China, which kind of puts the kibosh on any conspiracy theories concerning GamerGate, but that also makes me wonder whether the DDoS attacks that happened shortly before I unsubbed were actually a test run before the main event.

Personally, I don't think much of a Chinese hacker DDoS attempt against a game launch, because there's nothing critical there to be concerned about. It's akin to a bunch of pigeons crapping on chess tables out in the park: you shoo them away, you clean up the mess, and you can go play. There's no real reason for it other than to simply be an asshat, in spite of what Lizard Squad says about "improving server farms" in their DDoS attack on Sony's Playstation Network and phoning in bomb threats on a Sony exec's plane.

The servers will go back up and people will start playing again, so unless we see a repeat in the next week or so, the DDoS didn't really have any lasting damage.

Go play, people.




*I still think of the old Atari game Warlords when I type that, and WoD means "World of Darkness" from White Wolf Publishing for me.