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Defining the grind

We had a really good discussion going on Ventrilo tonight about what grinding means.  So many times people think grinding is a negative, and it’s used by many I know as a reason for quitting a game.  In my opinion, unless everything you are doing is 100% dynamic all the time, you are grinding.  I do not think grinding is bad, though.  I make a distinction between grinding and repetitive.

I have a friend who really hates grinding, but I think he means he hates repetitive gameplay because he’s now playing Darkfall. Darkfall is a huge grind, but rarely repetitive. I completely agree that ‘repetitive’ sucks.  I think about grinding in EQ.  We would find a spot and kill monsters.  In a sense, this was repetitive; however, the social element made the experience dynamic because I was always meeting new people and learning about them.  In many ways, no two groups were the same, despite killing the same mobs in the same location.

I’ve just added another element to complicate things: perception.  Perception, or in this case immersion, trumps all — even repetition.

Options are also a huge factor.  If something is repetitive, like killing the same monsters, then options are mandatory.  In DAOC I could kill mobs in one of 6+ zones or I could go to BGs or I could go to RvR.  EQ was the same way.  Games are far too linear and the grind, whether quest or kill, is inescapable.  The same can be said for end-game activities.  If all you have is one or two raids and you do the same bosses every week for gear to be able to go to the next two to get gear, the grind is too obvious.

To reiterate, grinding isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Many games function on the grind.  If the grind is too repetitive or poorly masked by immersion then players will become aware it exists.  That’s when the problems start.

Trailers: Do they cause more harm than good?

Trailers in the gaming industry are the first step in building hype for a game.  Often the trailer will come out as a teaser years ahead of the actual game.  Nearly every trailer features zero actual gameplay and the vast majority are done in CGI with scenes having little or nothing to do with what playing the game will actually be like.  When I watch a trailer the first thing that I do is try and identify what they’re wanting to accomplish.  Are they showing me what the game will be like, setting up a story, introducing characters, or simply giving me some really flashy scene to watch and drool over?

Here’s where I ask myself whether or not trailers cause more harm than good.  Let’s quickly evaluate a few trailers.  Some of these are going to be from past releases and some will be for future releases.  We’ll be able to compare in hindsight as well as identify similar qualities in trailers for the unreleased games.

Warhammer Online Cinematic Trailer – It’s a beautiful trailer.  But it’s epic for the sake of being epic.  There’s nothing in here that matches what the actual game was like. Characters are behaving in ways unlike they did in-game.  You don’t have Shadow warriors running on rooftops or squig herders hopping inside their squig (this was even billed a feature for a while). This trailer got people excited.  It caused more harm than good.

Allods Online Trailer – Rendered with some CGI and some in-game engine.  Here’s a trailer that clearly defines what will be going on in-game.  You have two sides that will be battling on air ships in the astral.  While the game itself may have floundered this trailer certainly did not do it any injustice.  I played the game to the max level and even went into an airship.   The game was like the trailer.  This trailer did well by the game.

Aion “Vision” Trailer – This one starts of so well by giving players a look at how the game will ‘actually’ change.  However, it then quickly degrades into showing a bunch of stuff that looks nothing and plays nothing like Aion ever played.  There’s not even room for believability here.  It gives people this false sense of excitement for something that will never be like what’s shown.  More harm than good for sure.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Teaser Trailer – I wrote about this trailer yesterday.  Here we have a story being set up in the beginning with absolutely no expectations being put onto the gameplay.  When the character in plate armor begins fighting skeletons, there’s a believability to the combat.  I’ve seen combat look like this in Batman Arkham Asylum and God of War.  It’s CGI but I’m betting not too far off the mark from what the game will look like.  They’ve left me interested in the story, knowing there’s combat, but not set up to be disappointed.

StarCraft 2 Ghosts of the Past Trailer – Not once in the entire trailer was there ANYTHING close to gameplay.  SC is a RTS game!  However, the entire trailer is about the story.  If you played the original StarCraft and have any memory of what happened in the game then you’re already connected to the trailer because you’re connected to the story.  Blizzard has a magical ability to enchant the sense with their cinematic trailers that make the movie industry look like preschool.  They’re usually always about giving you a glimpse at the story to set up how you should be feeling as you go in to play.  If you’ve never played SC though and you go into the game thinking you’re playing something like this trailer… I really do feel bad for you.

SWTOR “Hope” Cinematic Trailer – Bioware’s trailers for Star Wars are starting to give Blizzard some real competition.  They’re absolutely gorgeous.  There’s some story being told here.  I’m familiar with a lot of the history and story being told about the wars between the Sith and the Republic.  At the same time, this starts to fall into the same problems that Warhammer’s trailer did and a little of SC2.  The SWTOR trailers are a little too epic for the sake of being epic and if you have no prior knowledge of how SWTOR plays then you’re probably in for a disappointment.  We’ll see.

I could go on for hours writing here with the number of trailers out there.   Trailers are supposed to get people excited but there’s definitely a line.  There’s a line for the people making them where they have to consider who is watching and what they’ll be expecting after.  There’s also a line for those watching to know that what you’re seeing is most likely not representative of the real thing.

Choosing whether or not trailers cause more harm than good, I would definitely conclude that they do indeed cause much more harm.  Regardless of how much responsibility is on the viewer not to get excited, it happens and it happens to me all the time.  I know it happens to you too because I’m not the only one buying the games that turn out nothing like the trailers.

Trailers are only a single ingredient in this enormous hype recipe, but they’re usually the first and they’re always one that appeals to the senses most.   I want to see more trailers that do a better job at either telling a story or providing us with more realistic expectations.

The MMO’s of 2009: A Slippery Slope of Inadequacy

Only one word truly describes this year’s MMO releases: dismal.  It was disappointing and inadequate.  One hopes that each year there will be steps taken in the right direction, ones that will better the industry, but this year saw steps taken in the wrong direction or in a direction that simply makes no sense.  Let’s look at a few of the big ones of 2009.

The year began with Darkfall.  One could say the year ended with Darkfall but that would just be mean.  Darkfall didn’t do anything save for showing what not to do with a game you spend a decade developing.  It looked great at first.  Aventurine painted this picturesque and ideal game where the hardcore pvp’ers wanting a sandbox game could retire in eternal bliss.  What we got was the island of misfit toys.  Let’s just toss the “don’t release a game before it’s finished” lesson out there and be done with it.  What gets me the most with Darkfall is that they didn’t think ahead.  The skill system was a ticking time bomb with people being able to shoot spells at the sky to rank up, zero limitations, and a ‘sky’s the limit’ straight vertical progression.   Tossing lots of cool things into the game and hoping it works resulted in a bunch of hodgepodge that crumbled when the time came for it all to hold up.

Next we have Champions Online.  Every so often a MMO comes around that really tingles my Spidey-sense.   C’mon, this coming from the guy who has been burned a dozen times by thinking a game will be fun just to find out it’s not, when I’m negative about a game right out of the gate it’s at least worth thinking about why.   Redundant instancing to the point of having no servers and just a bunch of instances, mundane combat full of all flash and beat-em up with no substance, the feel of a sloppy port, and completely shallow and uninteresting content are but a few of my grievances.  What boggles the mind is how Cryptic thinks this model works.  They’re even going this route with Star Trek Online!   On top of it all, they charged a lifetime subscription, introduced microtransactions after-the-fact to nickel and dime their players, and still don’t have a clue.   I’m not shocked at all to hear that the game has been hemorrhaging players and feels like a ghost town.

Aion hurts the most.  On the outside it’s a gorgeous game with an interesting art direction, great animations and most of the right answers.  The first twenty levels are great.  There is lots of content for the players and most of it is fun.  Then you hit this slow patch.  The Asian market’s love for mindless slaughter of little creatures bleeds through the Westernization.  A year’s worth of patching becomes obvious as you run through a dungeon at level 25 and think “This rocks!” just to run through a dungeon at 30 to think “omg this sucks!”, come to find out the level 25 dungeon was added later.  Then you hit a wall.  There’s no content.  It’s all a grind.  If only the game had content!  I found myself wanting to play badly but I couldn’t bring myself to log in knowing that I had about 50 hours of grinding ahead of me.   Leveling up can take a long time and it can be difficult, but at least give me something fun to do.  The PvP was one of those ideas on paper that sounds like it could work but from what I experienced it ended up just being a clusterfluck of timed fortress flips — a little work on changing some of the mechanics would be nice.  That’s why Aion hurts the most.  It’s fun but needs work.  Showing us a movie of what’s to come just to find out it’s a “vision” and not stuff that’s actually on the way was a slap on the face.

When you simply don’t mind logging off or find yourself thinking that you could be just as happy and occupied by not playing a game as you can by playing it, you know that something is wrong.  Fallen Earth fits this description nicely.  There wasn’t anything pulling me in.  The crafting system is a good start but allowing everyone to craft everything eliminated specialization and a truly functional player economy.  There was never any need to even think about other players because the game catered to and encouraged the individual becoming this self-sufficient and self-sustaining post-apoc worker bee.  People wanted to make their own clothes, their own ammo, do their quests, mine their own stuff… it lacks a social game.  A lack of housing for players to create shops, no guild buildings or other mechanisms of socialization and infrastructure, and overall a lack of that ‘extra mile’ ultimately leave Fallen Earth as a mediocre game when it could have been really great.

If you were asked to name ten new MMO’s that released this year chances are you couldn’t do it.  Would you be shocked to know that somewhere in the ballpark of FIFTY (50) “MMO’s” were released?  If you saw the pile they’re shoveling you too would be saying “You call THAT a MMO?”.  Heck, you call THAT a game?!  Somehow the reigns of this industry have been handed over to a village idiot.   Anything that wants to be a MMO just needs to slap on the MMO tag and if it beeps, toots, or is somehow capable of having more than one person playing in any form of multiplayer it is a MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER game.   I’m not even counting the Facebook games or iPhone craps.  I’m not even harping on the Free-to-Play model.  I’m talking about pure quality.   We’re actually being inundated with shovelware at this point and it’s disgusting to hear that they are profitable.   Do yourselves a favor and simply resist it.  Speak out against it.  Draw a line and take a stand.  The bar has been lowered six feet below and it is slowly killing the industry as we all slide further and further down this slippery slope.

I’m calling for the bar to be raised again.  Let’s think about what we consider quality, what we want in a MMO, and stop settling.   Aside from the shovelware MMO’s, the big names of 2009 were not acceptable.   Developers need to be accountable for what they release to us but we also need to know what we want.  That’s a bit part of my 2009 regrets, not knowing what I want or losing sight of it, and I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.

There was a definite trend this year of bad games, but many of the titles from years past have shown remarkable improvement.  Even games that have been out for many years are still coming up with ways to ‘wow’ veterans and attract new players.  This type of improvement should be an indication that the industry is moving ‘up’, but when we see the trend of this year it looks more like an attempt to keep their heads above the water.   It would be great if marked improvement could be bolstered by great games releasing alongside.

Let’s hope for 2010 to be a better year.  My predictions post closer to New Year’s Eve will highlight what I expect, but I will tell you now that I’m optimistic that the “quality” will go up.  Whether or not the games end up being what we want or end up being fun remains to be seen.  Here’s hoping that in 2010 I’ll be able to speak highly of the industry’s achievements.

Edit:  I do feel the need to add, although no one has brought it up, that I have no way of knowing whether or not a game was a success in terms of turning a profit.  That’s not really what I’m talking about either.  I’m basing a lot of this on my own opinion of what makes a good game (obviously) but also on popular consensus.  Try as one may, it’s hard to say why or how a game was a failure or a success.  What is the definition of success in these games anyway? Whether or not we, personally, are playing?  It’s easier to describe it as a ‘feeling’ more than putting your finger on any particular reason.  That ‘feeling’ this year was overall a year of letdown.

My thoughts on Aion 2 Months Later and Aion’s Future

It is now roughly two months after Aion’s release in North America.  For me, Aion wasn’t a major launch.  It was a game that came out of left field after being nothing more than a name until just a couple months before launch.  As such, my expectations for the game were little more than it being something new, exciting, and hopefully traditional with content capable of sustaining me until SWTOR (In other words, year+).  I beta tested the game, or rather I played their marketing version, and got Aion on launch day.  I posted my impressions of the very early game and want to give you my perspective on the game now after two months.  I’m going to focus on the biggest issue and not focus on details like the crafting being boring or bots being everywhere and stuff like that.  I’m a big picture kind of guy and why worry about the details when there are bigger problems, right?  Right.

Aion has a lot of grinding.  This is its greatest downfall for me and the MMOG community.  People are intolerant of grinding and will stay away from a game as though it were a contagious plague if the grinding is not masked.  That’s Aion’s problem:  It does not mask its grinding.  Whether its disguised as a questing treadmill, dungeon camping, dungeon crawling, difficult lengthy encounters that require thought and tactics, or loot pinatas ultimately doesn’t matter as long as you’re not expecting the person to simply kill dozens of mobs in quick succession knowing full well that they’ll have to invest dozens of hours to see progress.  After all, that’s why we do these things — for progress.

Aion’s content in the mid-level range is horrid.  I was faced with an insurmountable hurdle of grinding and investing time doing awful runs through the same dungeon for no reward other than a scrap of bread’s worth of exp.  To put it plainly, leveling in this range feels like I am starving to death and that the only thing keeping me alive is that one grain of rice.  Content and progression shouldn’t feel like an ascetic lifestyle.

There is simply a lack of reward where I am at in the game.  I don’t have loot to look forward to, I don’t have exp, new special abilities, places to go, content to see, or anything realistic and obtainable to latch onto except for the hope of a better future after the suffering.   This better future comes, from what I’m told, in “newer” content that was patched into the game.  I can absolutely believe this.  Why?  Because the content (Training Grounds) is newer.  Apparently the newer the content, the better.  But why push that all to the late 30’s and 40’s?  I’ll be honest, if your game isn’t fun to me right now — or I can’t see the fun coming very soon or even see how long it’ll take me to get to it — then I’m not going to play.  Might sound picky, but I’m far less picky than most and you know it.

Aion suffers from late game syndrome.  You can’t PvP until the late game (don’t tell me you can or I’ll tell you to go PvP at level 30 and report your success).  You can’t do many of the things that represent Aion as a complete experience until the late game.  What does it need to do to correct this problem?  Introduce more content. It’s as simple as that.  Give me more dungeons 30-35.  Give me more quests.  Give me more rewards.  Let it take just as long if you’re really that set on keeping it a steep curve, but give me something to do to take my mind off of it.

Let me turn your attention to Aion’s future now with this video.

Highlights:

* Swimming added
* New underwater zones, cities, dungeons (and even more zones)
* More Quests (+ Questing revamp)
* New Classes (According to Korean forums and translations)
* New Skills for existing classes
* Revamped Combat (More action oriented)
* Improved graphics and animations (DX10)
* Dynamic weather effects
* Customizable player housing
* Animals you can tame and use as riding mounts (some mounts can carry 2 players)
* Mounted combat
* New weapons (whip & crossbow)
* Revamped Sieges
~*And More coming as the translations finish*~

Epic, right?  That is content I want to play.  If I could be doing the stuff in that video then I would not even be writing on my blog because I would be engrossed in a glorious battle against some dragon or flying into battle with an enormous monolithic golem against the enemies homeland in a sieg … or even decorating my house.  But I can’t do those things.  I’m fighting the same spriggs I’ve fought for three levels and the fastest way to progress is to fight them for another three.  All that I have to look forward to when I log in is either killing mobs or waiting for an hour to find a group to a dungeon that takes 10 minutes that rewards me less than if I had killed spriggs.  I can’t tell you how tired I am of “KWIII!!!!”” KWIII!!!!”

The future of Aion, if it isn’t exaggerated in the video, looks epic in every sense of the definition.  But right now I have little incentive.  When/if this comes, it is my opinion that it needs to start sooner in a character’s life than later.  Don’t make me go through another 50 monotonous Fire Temple runs or kill any more worgs, basilisks, or spriggs to some how be worthy of flying alongside dragons and doing the stuff in that video.  No matter how amazing that content is, it can never justify having to put up with crap on the way.  I am a firm believer in making entire games that fun while still maintaining the natural flow of starting low and building yourself up to greatness; this is where Aion gets a failing grade in an overall above average game.

Although Star Trek Online is slated for February, Aion will still maintain itself as the only “newest” AAA title of the traditional type for many more months before the next title capable of destroying it comes along.  If Aion can implement what we see in the video and make that type of gameplay and experience universal, then it has nothing to fear and will be an amazing game.

Bad quest dungeon is bad (Aion’s Sky Temple)

My Chanter is about 5% away from dinging 30 and I spent three hours this evening in a really frustrating group.  There’s a campaign quest dealing with Three Keys to gain access to the Fire Temple Instance and in order to complete it you must take a full group into the Sky Temple (I think I have these names straight…) and obtain keys blah blah… it’s basically attuning yourself to go to Fire Temple.   Anyway, the Sky Temple place is really annoying.  The mobs have a lot of hp and they’re set up in such a way that getting adds is incredibly easy — too easy — and if you’re not really careful you’ll wipe.

Several times while going through these different wings to get the keys you have to drop down to other platforms.  The drop would probably kill you so it requires you to  glide.  The ideal way of getting down is to fall until you’re just about to hit, glide to break the fall and break the glide to land essentially where you drop.  It’s really not that hard… or so I thought.  Half the group either died on the way down or aggro’d stuff leading to half the group being dead at the bottom and the other half up top.  At one part we were forced to wait 45 minutes while two people ran back because they glided off the platform and were forced to release.  Problem is, we couldn’t leave the instance because you can’t get back up once you jump down and they couldn’t get back in because there’s a big nasty elite guarding the entrance.  They had to wait for another group to come along and clear it.

I ended up spending somewhere between 3-4 hours doing this quest and losing 450,000 exp (probably 75-100k Kinah).  I’m happy that I am now attuned for Fire Temple (a place where I can have a chance at getting loot and a decent quick group experience) but the loss of exp + fanny fatigue + grumpiness = log off.   While waiting the group started talking and we can’t figure out why this place was designed to be nothing but a PITA.  It’s not even fun.  It’s designed so poorly that what could be a challenge isn’t a challenge — it’s a PITA.  It crossed the threshold between acceptable challenge and entered the realm of horrible design.  The exp was abysmal (less exp per kill than I get solo at about 1/5th the speed)   Completely the polar opposite of Naschana Training Camp which is a fantastic instance.

If you’re planning to go to Sky Temple to do your Three Keys quest bring a good group and several hours.  It’s annoying and stupid hard.

Would it kill someone to provide a consistently fun and well designed experience these days?  C’mon.

Logging off let me watch my Angels finally win a game though.  We’re not out yet!