Developers

Things are Looking Up: EQ2, PC Gaming

I spent the weekend thinking about gaming, and playing a bit. I kind of realized that I don’t envy being a developer trying to make games right now. I read somewhere that Battlefront 2 probably “only” sold 1.2 to 1.5 million boxes in it’s first month of sales – and is considered a complete failure. There are not many industries where doing over 100 million in sales in your first month (on a single title) – with Christmas sales and a supporting movie launch on it’s way still – that causes your stock to drop – but welcome to PC gaming and a broken capitalist system. It was #2 just behind Call of Duty on the sales charts.

We had some super hot titles such as Crowfall and Camelot Unchained that have largely fallen off the radar, and depending on who you talk to Star Citizen is either vaporware of the best self-funded perpetual marketing campaign in history. Didn’t Lord British launch a game? Or almost? Is that still in Beta or Alpha somewhere? Fortnite, a Co-OP PVE darling that I funded decided to (very successfully) copy Player Unknown Battlegrounds and finally find a niche they could be successful at. TONS of people are playing Fortnite : Battle Royale. The catch? They haven’t monetized the game mode yet. They launched a paid-for beta for a largely abandoned PVE mode to instead successfully find a niche in a free for all PVP mode that is not monetized. That that shake around your noodle for a bit. Heck, I was largely tempted to buy myself pre-alpha access to Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen – except I still don’t trust Brad and Fortnite swore me off of early access titles. Meanwhile, Paladins is in it’s 64th patch of Open Beta and has changed/altered their monetization methods four or five times in 14 months and have finally settled on one – that has their best supporters quitting outright, and most others following them. Despite an outcry to please listen and not ruin what makes their game great – they are not listening and ruining what makes their game great.

Yet, as the title says, I am very optimistic.

It’s the little things – like PCs and NPCs making eye contact when interacting

I visited Norrath again. I do this often in EQ1, but have not in EQ2. I have often updated EQ2 on my PC and thought about it but this time I finally did it, and spent hours. Stalbik was not my first character in EQ1 (That was Fisdib, a Gnome Magician in EQ Beta 1) but he was my EQ Guide avatar on the Rathe server. And instead of making a new character I decided to retrieve Stalbik from the EQ1 Guide only island and give him his first real adventure that does not involve a player camping dispute. He was off and on his way.

Before specifically discussing my EQ2 experiences I have to say that my year in review post is underway as a draft and where I spent all my time gaming this year was a bit of a surprise. Not to spoil it, but looking back makes me hugely optimistic for PC gaming. There are so many long running games that are so interesting and satisfying to play. There are platforms where small developers can launch great games and make money. There are still tons of sequels and big titles for the giant conglomerates to launch meaty marketing yet shallow but satisfying experiences. There is really something for everyone right now. Developers clamoring that if they can’t monetize something to death they won’t build it will only push gamers to games that are fun instead. If you can’t develop a fun game at a decent profit point then learn a new way of developing games. No one feels bad for you that you haven’t mastered the easy way to suck the blood dry out of a big enough fan base.

I should be a big target demographic for gaming companies. I have more disposable income to game with then I can imagine. I almost spent the $1000 on the Pantheon alpha because I have no issue with spending that on games in a year, and I can’t see where or how I will spend that in 2018 with what is coming up. Unfortunately for gaming companies I am a very patient gamer. I don’t mind waiting for 3 days for my next Warframe to be ready. I will pay for the extra slots and customization options though, so Digital Extremes gets my investment. They have found something that is worthwhile for me to invest in. It wasn’t forced either – I won’t spend money on a “you must pay this to be on a level playing field” or “you must pay this or wait!” items. I pay to reward companies for good gaming design that makes me happy. And I’m willing to pay a lot of they figure that out. Unfortunately, it seems many gaming companies are instead focused on triggering consumption habits that players can’t control – taking advantage of their weaknesses. That won’t last long, I am afraid.

Back to EQ2.

I have returned to this blog with the news of my victories! While EQ2 was very new to me it is also very familiar – both by being standard MMO fare with WASD and hotkeys, as well as being the sequel to my favorite game of all time. There weren’t many surprises along my first journey except the voice acting. As funny as it is, I don’t remember that when I first tried EQ2 back at launch. That is actually something pretty stand out that most MMOs still do not do (at least not the ones that I play) and I found myself paying more attention to the NPC interactions because of it.

I rolled an Enchanter because I really enjoyed playing one in EQ2 – sorry, Coercer. I always loved controlling a group of NPCs and making a “friend” of my enemies to fight with me. Here is a short list of thoughts / first impressions / questions:

  • I rolled on Maj’Dul server – I believe Izlain and Bhagpuss are both there.
  • Outlevelled the starting island really quickly, but I was invested in sorting out what was causing all the issues there – so I stuck through the story line to the end although all bad guys were grey to me
  • Impressed with little things – like how on one quest I had to disable totems as a source of infection, and during the last boss fight I had to notice there were also totems there – and that by disabling them it allowed me to damage the final boss. It didn’t prompt me to destroy the totems first, I just figured that out from my prior quest experience. One of those experiences that reminded me of The Secret World questing. Rewarding to solve something on your own.
  • Appreciate things such as quests that start by inspecting random loot – for example, zombie flesh – which leads to a bigger quest if I am willing to farm other pieces of zombies to really understand how they are put together. (badum-ching)
  • Aforementioned eye contact between PC and NPCs when interacting was a no brainer. Especially so as a gnome
  • Is there any reason to NOT trigger a heroic moment when soloing? Seemed like it did a ton of damage? Can you macro that to a spell hotkey, so you hit that and then a spell automatically?

I finished the starter Island and had the boat drop me off at the docks at  Qeynos. Qeynos was special to me in EQ1 although I never made a starting character there or venture within it’s walls much. The Qeynos gates was the end of a long journey for my Gnome pals and I. At launch, Minotaur Axes were one of the best starter weapons and of course they only dropped in Steamfont Mountains. We would farm them, fill up our bags, make the long trek to Qeynos and sell them for handsome profit at the gates. The city is familiar and brings me a bit of joy and a lot of comfort – although it is hardly the same except in name now.

Greeted at the docks, Moyna had an all too familiar style of quest to collect centipede meat so she could continue to fish. I was prompted to go to a nearby Inn to find a room – my new home perhaps? The tutorial kept flashing about housing and every once in a while Daybreak reminded me I could give them money for things, even though I had no clue what things were best or what would be wise to do. The docks were as good of a place to log out after Stalbik’s first adventure and like a creature comfort, I know he will be waiting patiently for me right there for when I return.

Where to next? Who knows! That is the best part.

Caught in the Cookie Jar : Developers

Destiny 2 has not been a favorite of mine for many reasons, and not going to rehash those at this time, but it was for purely game reasons. They have, unfortunately, stooped below the game-level issues I disliked. Literally slowing XP gains secretively on Bright Engram boxes. You know, those same boxes that you can also buy with real money, or grind for in game. Bungie has come out and admitted it – without admitting they did anything “wrong” of course – and are adjusting the practice. They are only admitting it because they were caught by the community as the community ran several tests to try and replicate the “bug” that made XP gains “inconsistent”.

Turns out it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. A hidden money making feature.

Trust is at a pretty low point with developers right now, I’d say. If it’s not for you, it should be.

Again – as discussed in this space previously – I don’t blame them, entirely. This is what a business is supposed to do. Profit. However, the pure dishonest nature of it all is what bothers me. When you program things in your game to affect the player’s expected experience you should come right out and say it. This is pretty scandalous, and should be treated as such. In fact, it is far, far worse than the EA Battlefront II lock boxes – at least EA didn’t lie about it or hide it. If you are going to slow XP gains to players to encourage payment you should just say so. If you don’t feel comfortable telling the truth to your customers about an internal decision you have made that impacts their gameplay dishonestly, chances are it’s the wrong decision.

It’s our fault, of course. We engage developers as if they are our friends, as if they truly care about the gaming communities we have fostered. We buy their games based on their past successes, even when we say we won’t.  I wrote about how I felt about developers and past successes back in 2009:

I am not  anymore a big fan of “rockstar designers” than I am of “rockstar CEO’s”. I believe their success is as much entrenched in timing and market conditions than their own personal contributions. Mark Jacobs, of DAOC/WAR fame is a great MMO manager for sure, but doesn’t have any unique or special vision. WAR is proof of that. Lord British had a great hit with UO 15 years ago but has been unable to follow up with any sort of recent success (in gaming – the man did make it into space – kudos). The Diablo team’s follow up had a short life span. Brad? – well, you read the above if you got this far. One success – no matter how successful, does not give you a design pedigree that you can fall back on – solely. Good business managers evolve – they do not rely on past successes and hope it carries them through. Even WoW has changed lead designers multiple times. Is it more important to have someone who knew what they were doing in the past, or someone who you think will know what to do in the future? Seems like a gamble either way

I am begging the industry to self regulate. The other two options – government regulation, or continue lying to the player base – are far worse.

Self regulation can be this simple:

  1. Any loot box style items will have the percentage chance of winning a specific item listed IN GAME before purchases (and companies will have their randomization code audited by an accredited third party)
  2. Any background/invisible mechanics in game that impede progress that can be circumvented through purchases are clearly outlined on the login screen.
  3. Any matchmaking mechanics that involve purchase history as a condition must be transparent

The first should have happened ages ago. Every company is lying about the odds of getting what you want by not sharing the chance. The second covers off hidden, dishonest grinds quite simply. I am sure there are several others the industry can agree to and if they don’t, anything the government(s) of the world could do could be much worse. Volkswagen programmed their cars to lie about emissions and fuel efficiency to incentivize you to buy Diesel cars. and avoid regulatory issues. Destiny programmed their game to lie about XP gains to incentivize you to buy boxes. They are in the same ballpark.

The only purpose of a gaming company – now more than ever – is to make profit. Once you start believing that and acting on that you will be far less disappointed. As consumers our direct ability to hold them accountable will shape the industry in the future – as it already has in the present.

 

UPDATE: Kotaku reports that when they adjusted XP gains to be consistent, they doubled the XP needed to level from 80k to 160k. No mention if this is a balancing feature from the increased XP gains, or a mistake. Nice article for other mess ups by Bungie. Consistent with my disappointment with Destiny 2.