The Spirit of Discovery

When was the last time you “discovered” something in a MMO? You are just going about your normal business when all of a sudden you find a new creature, item or area which you never heard of. With patch notes, developer comments, wikis, forums, fansites and everything else, there isn’t much room left for secrets. For the upcoming UO publish 57, which I talked about a bit a couple days ago, some people are requesting the new loot drops be published by the UO team.

My line of thinking is if it doesn’t need to be listed, don’t. Let players discover this stuff on their own. It isn’t as if this is a change to a skill or ability. These are decorations and artifacts which already exist in the game, just available in a new way. Some people will find it fun to explore these champions while the rest will find out within a short time what they carry.

A long time ago, some UO developer secretly slipped two new items into the game. After some time had passed no one reported finding them. I have no idea how long they were in, but it was long enough that a hint was provided that they existed. Players went out and found that Efreets carried daemon bone armor pieces. The other required a second hint (search some place cold), but was found to be the Glacial Staff on Ice Serpents.

If players were already inclined to search for secrets then these items would have likely been found without dropping hints. Or maybe some players knew about them and didn’t tell anyone. That would encourage more to go out and explore. But I think UO, and many other MMOs, have reached a point where nothing gets added without a note. So players just read the detailed guide on whatever they want to hunt and go do that.

Playing backseat developer for a moment, if I was working on UO or any MMO, I would make it a point that at least one secret gets put in every publish. It could be something small like a new decoration drop or something bigger like a cave with a special monster spawn. If no one finds it after a few months, then maybe a hint would be dropped. The goal would be that players would be encouraged to find this stuff on their own without hints. It is something small that will enhance the gaming experiance without a lot of effort.

Adding new content in this manner will also keep areas in the game fresh and interesting. A lot of MMOs suffer from the area treadmill of expansions, new ones replacing older ones. While the thrill of discovey will only be open to the first few who find it, just knowing that you might be the one who makes the next one can ehance the experiance.

A House is Not Held Up by Paint and Trim

These blog posts are turning out to be rather long. I am having to spend 10 minutes writing instead of the 5 I had anticipated.

When you build a house, naturally the first thing you do is pick out the paint colors and what type of moulding is going to line the walls. That is the foundation of a good house. Isn’t it?

Of course not. But when it comes to games these days, players think that graphics are what sells. Pretty avatars and dazzling special effects can help draw someone in, but they won’t stay if the floors are sagging and squeaky because the plywood under sheathing was not fastened correctly.

I am mixing too many metaphors in here. Let me just stick to gaming. Ever since Everquest came on the scene, there have been heated debates over whether UO should upgrade graphics to be more “modern”. People advocating a more modern style usually point to the game released that week (Everquest, World of Warcraft, Crysis, etc). Can you imagine how great it would look to stack 10,000 explosion kegs and let them blow up with the Crysis game engine? Of course only 5 people in the world would be able to run it on their computer, but still it would look pretty!

The graphics for a game is the outermost part of the structure. Like paint on a wall, it displays the story and creatures and objects. It is not necessary for function (as proven by early games which had no graphics) but it helps define the experience. If you stripped out all the graphics from World of Warcraft and Everquest II, what would you be left with? Move north. Move north. Attack orc. Loot gold.

If a developer expects to make up shortfalls in their game with eye candy, 9 times out of 10 it isn’t going to work. You might trick some people into buying the game but experiance will quickly spread through word of mouth. The movie industry does something similar when they know a film is going to bomb. They don’t have advanced showings and just cross their fingers that they make back what they paid to produce the movie on the opening weekend. After that no one goes to see it because word spread how terrible it is.

Where is all this going? Let me try and spell it out. If you have a good game, it does not matter what it looks like. You just need to make it as solid and fun as possible. If you can afford nice graphics, then do it. But don’t bite off more than you can chew and end up with inconsistent, cheesy and just plain bad looking art. UO has tried this twice now with Third Dawn and recently with Kingdom Reborn. The quality just wasn’t there due to a rushed product and obvious budget constraints.

When I see people talking about how great Ultima Online used to be, they don’t mention the art. They talk about additions or nerfs or expansions. If someone has seen a comment that stated “oh I would play UO but the graphics are just so bad!” please link me to it. Plus the people who chase after games for their art are just going to leave when the next game with jaw dropping visuals arrives later in the month. Chasing after these people for your game is futile.

Borehammer – Age of Scenarios

The original layout was quite boring. I am quite partial to this design. It is the same as the one I created for the UORares website. Over time I will make more adjustments as I think of them.

I was going to write about this yesterday but then the whole closing of Tabula Rasa thing came up. Might as well write about what is most relevant that day! For the second time ever (the first being Eve Online), I went out to see what all this new generation MMO hoopla is about. I should mention I tried World of Warcraft for 14 days several years ago, but never intended to pick up the game.

The game: Warhammer Online
The lure: Massive PVP encounters
The result: I lasted 3 weeks

“Experience the glory of Realm vs. Realm! Declare your allegiance and join hundreds of thousands of mighty heroes on the battlefields of Warhammer Online” or so the website claims. War is not everywhere. When I played it was mostly in Battlegrounds………..errr……..I mean Scenarios. They are the exact same thing from the way everyone talks (I’ve never seen the inside of a World of Warcraft Battleground). Two teams fight over objectives and try to reach the highest score. The problem is it is the same thing again and again and again and again. Even if your team wins all the time, it can be really boring. Only 1 out of 10 matches I would estimate were really fun for me. Most of the time one side overwhelmingly crushed the other.

There were a lot of issues with the Scenario system. The biggest being that it relied on random chance for both sides to be equal. Unlike World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online restricts Scenarios to be from the same server only. That is a major flaw in my opinion. Players are always complaining how they want to do more than just the single one people farm experiance in. If they just made it cross-server, then this problem would be eliminated. The sides could be more balanced too because the pool of players queueing would be huge. Sometimes you can begin and know that loss is inevitible because your team has no healers or tanks.

When I stopped playing, I never saw a Scenario go off with more than 15 people. But there was room for up to 36 people. I would have loved to see one with 30 on each side. That could have been exciting. The kind of fun boasted about on all the advertisements. But most of the time you only have 8-10 people. Less when they start leaving because your side is not doing well.

The worst part about all this is Scenarios are required if you want to level fast for the end game. But it can either go really well or not be an option depending on the Order/Destruction balance on your server. There are quest and monsters to kill, but it just doesn’t go as fast unless you get with a group of people and run the risk of getting banned for killing mobs too fast.

All in all, I think Scenarios are one of the biggest issues in Warhammer Online at the moment but the developers don’t want to nerf them. Instead they are frantically trying to make open Realm vs Realm (which I will cover in another post later on) more appealing. But it has completely back-fired on them. Now “mortal enemies” are gaming the system and just handing the keeps you capture back and forth to farm the rewards. It is just a huge mess.

Too bad there couldn’t have been more matches like the one above ending with 1 point difference. One kill deciding the entire fight! Instead the spread averaged 200 points or more.

Tabula Setsa

For those who haven’t noticed, this blog is updating every day at 12AM Eastern. There is this nice feature where I can set the time the posts go live.

We all saw it coming. Tabula Rasa lost its creator, Richard Garriott, just a few short days ago. He said it was because of a new found enlightenment on his recent journey into space. Conspiracy theorists probably conclude it is from solar radiation and he is now being controlled by aliens. Myself? I think he is just tired of making games. He has been doing it all his life. While he enjoyed a lot of success up to Ultima franchise including Ultima Online, things have not kept pace. While City of Heroes could be considered a success, it wasn’t a hit. Now his latest creation, some kind of space universe, has met its demise.

I have never tried the game myself. Actually I picked up a copy for $1 at Gamestop a couple weeks ago when they were on clearance. That is certainly a bad sign in itself when your game is no longer going to be sold at the largest game retailer in the country. I suppose I will give it a go in a couple weeks, see what it is all about. Learn more about why it wasn’t well received.

But I can form a few theories by just reading the box. First of all it prominently displays Richard’s name at the top of both sides. “A science fiction epic from Richard Garriott”. I bet more than a few casual gamers have said “who is this guy?” The box doesn’t say anything about it, just that he made this game. If you are going to display someone’s name prominently on your product, it might be a good idea to have a sentence or two explaining who the heck he is. Perhaps something like, “Richard Garriott, the father of the modern MMO, of which millions of players now enjoy in a variety of worlds.” Then someone may say “hey, this guy was the one who invented World of Warcraft? I should check this game out!” Not exactly true, but a sub is a sub.

The top headline on the back of the box, below an even bigger headline exclaiming who made this game, states “Explore massive alien worlds, immerse yourself in deep storylines, and face the consequence of the choices that you make.” How many people are going to care about deep story lines? I am not joking here. Hardcore players rarely do. Casual players might have a passing interest. This is just not a selling point of games today. Deep story is not going to pull people in. It will help keep the people already playing. If you are going to advertise this on your box, at least tell me what the story involves. I don’t even see the name of any alien race on this box. People read books for a deep story. People play games to have fun. Several games have actually had such convoluted stories recently, that it might turn some people off.

Next headline down, “Take Role-Playing to the Battlefield!” Are you kidding? Whoever designed this box is not very good at marketing. I just grabbed the box for Bioshock (real journalistic research here), lets see what is says. “Bioshock is a shooter unlike any you’ve ever played, loaded with weapons and tactics never seen.” Unlike anything I’ve ever played? Hmm, that sounds interesting. It goes on to say how you can modify your DNA to fight and stuff. It actually tells you what the game is about. There is absolutely no mention on the Tabula Rasa box about this “deep story” that is supposed to draw me in. I was going to compare it to the Warhammer Online box, but that has nothing but a picture on the DVD package. I can’t locate the sleeve that it came in at the moment.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but it certainly helps. The last thing I am going to nitpick, because there isn’t much else to do since I haven’t played the game yet, is this absolutely ridiculous blank space. There is a section that lists 3 features (consensual PVP, crafting & economy [whatever that means, what MMO doesn’t have those?], and voice chat). The list itself is fine. The space underneath where you could fit 2-3 more points is not. It is just devoid of information or aesthetics. Is this an omen as to what the game itself will be like? I’ll do another post once I actually try out the game.

Making a Reward Rewarding

I am wondering whether or not I will be able to come up with a topic each day. This is actually pretty fun to do. I hope I will be able to keep up with it.

A rather big set of change is coming to Ultima Online. Bigger than perhaps anything else in the past 3 years. For those who don’t follow UO, there has not been an expansion since August 2005. So this is no exaggeration. (I am purposefully ignoring Kingdom Reborn)

Publish 57 brings three new things to the game. There is the Scroll of Transcendence which will accelerate skill gain. There are decorative rewards being added to all champion spawns. Then there are the powerful new replica artifacts being added to champions as well. I am going to focus on the new item drop rates more than anything else.

When you add something permanent to a MMO, it needs to last. If you add a boss, there should be a reason that players need/want to defeat it over and over. At the moment there is no reason at all to do the champion spawns in Ilshenar facet because they drop no loot at all. This is not a joke. In fact none of the champion spawns added with Samurai Empire or Mondain’s Legacy had special loot either. I can’t imagine why this happened. Why would you go through the trouble of adding a boss and forgo a reason for players to defeat it?

Felucca facet champions are different because they drop highly desired Power and Stat Scrolls, unavailable anywhere else in the game. This draw is so great that all group PVP in UO has shifted to revolved around them. Massive guilds have been formed to fight rival guilds over this bountiful resource. The best scrolls, boosting you to 120 skill, used to only drop 10% of the time. After 5 years, that was changed to a 20% drop. Each champion could give out up to 12 power scrolls. The Harrower can give up to 16 stat scrolls.

Okay, that should be enough explaining. What I am getting at is these special rewards were added in summer of 2002 and are still sought after to this day. This is due to their very low drop rate, difficulty in obtaining them and being a one-use item. Our guild still spends virtually every night acquiring them unless there is something else interesting to do.

Instead of a 10% or 20% drop rate, the new rewards are designed to drop 90% of the time. Not only is the drop rate so insanely high, but some of the best rewards are shared among all the champions. There are 24 champion spawns located throughout Britannia. Unless the developers plan to swap out the decorations and replica artifacts every 6 months, this has no hope of lasting. We saw it with the Minor Artifacts, once insanely popular but now players throw them on the ground. Heck, we even see with the recent Halloween event. After the first 2 weeks, participation in the graveyards went way down. Once you own a piece of equipment in today’s UO, you own it for life.

Unless the reward is a desired consumable, then you can’t have a high drop rate. It only leads to disaster once every player has what they want for life and the market has so many that they are sold for less gold than it takes to gather in 15 minutes of hunting. The drop rate of 90% should probably be cut by 90%. A low drop rate also means when you finally get that item you want, it is that much more meaningful.

My take away strategy is you can always raise a drop rate which is found to be too low, but you can not easily reverse one too high as the items will be too numerous by the time you realize it.

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