Quest text in the age of cut scenes

I’m in two minds at the moment about quest text, and its use as a story and task delivery medium in MMORPGs. I am a fan of the video-clip delivery method used in SWTOR and TSW although I can’t help feeling that for all the polish and subtlety such videos can bring to storytelling there’s also the danger we become more passive in our engagement with content especially when repeating quests/missions.

Playing LOTRO and Rift again alongside SWTOR I am reminded constantly how old-fashioned quest text boxes can feel. But there are some benefits, if you don’t mind reading lots of text in a game, since with quest text you set the pace of reading it instead of the video clip’s director. Also you can very easily access everything in your quest log at any time – SWTOR does have a text based mission log to refer back to but it can only summarise what has been delivered by the dialogue in the cut scene.

The importance of the text in your quest log is highest where the pop-up quest box or the cut scene leave some details out. I was discussing the early World of Warcraft questing experience (before everything was on the mini-map/map for you) yesterday with friends and I seem to remember that back then quests weren’t that obvious on the first play-through. So referring back to that log text was the primary resource for clues to where you needed to go and what you needed to do. I’ve found in The Secret World a few times that the log text isn’t that helpful as a summary of the cut scene that sets up the mission. I guess that feeds into the style of the game since it has a lot of overt puzzle-oriented missions, even combat-focused missions can have some mystery to them.

Playing LOTRO again I am finding the quest text to be generally very well crafted and specific for most quests. It’s no surprise that of all the games I play it also has the most verbose quest text  – which is great if you don’t mind reading a lot while playing. The game does use cut scenes as well but only for more dramatic moments, quest text still handles the larger share of story-telling. I can’t say that I prefer one over the other, it’s nice to have the variety in my gaming.

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Subscriptions comeback?

This blog turned five yesterday – so I’ve been reflecting on the big changes the MMORPG industry has witnessed in those years. One, the conversion of so many games to a Free-to-Play model, seems to be reversing at this moment. I started blogging in 2011, just as the Free-to-Play conversion wave was building. Now it seems as though a studio-led push for a return to subscriptions is spreading.

SWTOR and KoTFE

Bioware were early on this trend, if trend it is, by encouraging us to (re-)subscribe to SWTOR ahead of the launch of Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion to gain bonus items and to benefit from the pre-launch bonus 12x experience rate. This Thursday, February 11th, we should see the first post-expansion story chapter open – again only if you subscribe.

The Secret World

In a move, perhaps, to address the financial issues of developer Funcom; The Secret World is revamping its subscriber benefits to more closely resemble the model in games like FFXIV where you accrue new items or other benefits based on the length of time subscribed.

Rift

Developer Trion has caused some controversy with planned changes to both Rift and Trove: certain items that were available via in-game currencies will become cash-only purchases. At the same time Trion have been promoting subscriptions for Rift with enhanced benefits.

Everquest 1/2

Daybreak Games also is busy backing away from its previous Free-to-Play focus. The seemingly very popular nostalgia servers for both Everquest and Everquest 2 are firmly subscription only, that’s quite a unique take on a subscriber benefit I suppose. Also the zombie-survival game H1Z1 is being split in two and it/they will be buy-to-play not free-to-play in future (see Wilhelm’s concise overview of this).

So is this a trend or a few isolated changes? It seems to me that MMO studios aren’t doing quite so well off of Free-to-Play. It’s a potentially worrying trend, not because I expect to play without paying anything, but because of the potential impact on group gaming. The big problem with the older “subscription or nothing” model for me was the big paywall barrier to just “jumping into a game with friends”. I’m not happy with having to cajole people into subbing to play a game with me. In the Free-to-Play era it has been much easier to try new games together. Invariably if I’ve stuck with a game for more than a month or two, I’ve spent money on it. If we are seeing a wholesale return to subscriptions then I may have to narrow my gaming selection somewhat.

I wonder if we’ll see other studios leaping on this trend in some fashion. It would be hard for non-hybrid Free-to-Play games like Neverwinter to suddenly put up subscription barriers but games like Star Trek Online, Elder Scrolls or Wildstar could conceivably start pushing subs again, perhaps?

Posted in EQ2, Gaming, Rift, SWTOR, Trove, TSW, WoW | 2 Comments

Memorable moments (LOTRO, Rift & SWTOR)

Over the last week I’ve had a number of random but very memorable moments in the MMORPGs that I’m playing. It reminded me why I’m always so happy to be playing in these rich, and often rather detailed, virtual worlds.

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Helm’s Deep!

I’m still way behind the current content in LOTRO but at least I’m making good progress again. Arriving at Helm’s Deep and the Hornburg fortress gave me quite a sense of accomplishment. It also means I’m closing in on trying my first Epic Battle; I’ve deliberately waited until I reach it in context in the storyline rather than queueing up for one when I unlocked the Rohan expansion.

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The industrious Stonedeans region

In contrast to the epic-quality of Helm’s Deep, I’ve also really appreciated the everyday details in the settlements in the Stonedeans sub-region of Rohan. It’s an unusually industrious area with a working waterwheel and a nicely designed open-cast ore mine – lots of lovely little details that form the background to the quests.

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Another memorable gaming session was our foray into Deepstrike Mines in Rift. I last tried this dungeon back in 2011 soon after the game launched, we were playing as a trio and probably under-geared and we made very little progress before giving up. This time around, with four characters some synced down in level, we completed the dungeon easily. Some of the monsters were nasty, although the twisting tiers of wooden bridges that form most of it proved to be a challenge as well! This dungeon is an example of beautiful instance design: non-linear, multi-layered with some interesting encounters.

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We’ve continued to play ‘catch up‘ on class stories and planetary stories on our Jedi duo and experiencing some of the plot surprises or twists in those stories. The pictured Jedi Knight mission at Uphrades was a particular highlight for me. We’ve just finished chapter 1, so chapter 2 awaits and the planet of Balmorra!

Here’s to more memorable moments to come!

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Rift gets new souls in the spring

We barely get into February and suddenly the MMO news is coming thick and fast it seems. There’s been a flurry of updates from Perfect World regarding Neverwinter and now Trion have posted details of what will come this year to Rift as it turns 5.

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The post linked above mentions “additional souls for all callings”, which is the most interesting element to me of the details given thusfar. They will come as part of the second of two major patches, slated for April and May respectively. I’m really enjoying the soul-system of flexible class builds in our recent return to the game and new options are certainly welcome!

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There’s also some details of ambitious upgrades to the game engine, to add a 64-bit version of the client and to enable multi-core processor support, both of which could see the game performing better in future! Not all older MMOs see this kind of investment in the game’s performance so here’s so I take it as a positive sign for Rift’s continued development.

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Neverwinter: 10th expansion has been announced – The Maze Engine

Although I’ve not been playing Neverwinter for some time I do follow the game’s development still. I’ve just seen the announcement of the latest expansion that continues the demon-themed storyline of the Underdark expansion.

Of the features highlighted in the linked news post, the new solo campaign is potentially of interest to me. I always enjoyed playing the game with friends but not so much solo as an action MMORPG the highest zones could become a bit frantic for the solo character. It’ll be interesting to follow this to see more detail, perhaps I’ll have a go at levelling my Control Wizard 70 later this year.

Posted in Gaming, Neverwinter | 5 Comments

LOTRO: warbands and roaming dangers

In questing sessions out in Rohan my Champion has died a few times just to ‘roaming dangers’. The wide open plains of Rohan can be surprisingly choaked with horse-riding orcs, half-orcs and goblins. If you get caught on foot or on your normal (non-combat) mount by these you can be in trouble before you even have time to swap to your combat horse. Elite versions of these goblinoid creatures can be a nasty surprise if they happen to cross your path. They aren’t the worst threat out on the fields of Rohan however, the fast-riding warbands are almost certain death if you get caught by one alone.

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Warbands are marked on the map but they move around in a large area and can go from stock still to a fast gallop in a moment. They consist of a very tough leader monster and a 2-6 assistants riding around in formation. I’ve narrowly avoided a few, have ridden across the path of at least one and somehow survived (head for the border!) and have been almost insta-killed by another that ran across the road I was stood on while looking at the map.

Although the warbands are the obvious threats in a zone, they aren’t alone. As mentioned above there are still elite mobs out in open zones in LOTRO so it’s possible to get into a fight over your head if you’re not paying attention. Even normal mounted-opponents can be tough if you pull too many. This is particularly true in my experience with mounted combat since you naturally roam back and forth with and around your current combatant as you ride – combat mounts at speed have a much wider turning circle. A few times I succumbed to accidentally riding through to many additional monsters while fighting the original target – usually where several of them are archers. These days I’m more cautious about where I’m riding; at least the mini-map gives you the position of most creatures in the area.

The first few times it happened I was rather annoyed, how dare normal mobs kill my character out in the open world? What on earth is a warband doing that close to a safe-for-travel road? Then I remembered the good-bad old days of Hellfire Peninsula in World of Warcraft back in 2007/8. Mounting and riding away in a panic because an enormous demon robot (Fel Reaver) was chasing you was fun!

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So I’ve made peace with the roaming threats in Rohan at least in so far as I have more of a routine of tracking warbands near my questing zones and I’m more methodical about what shortcuts across open fields I take or reject due to mob density. It does add something to the gameplay to be have to be at least a little cautious…

P.S. There is actually a new feature called Roving Threats in LOTRO that this article isn’t referring to, so I’ve renamed it to avoid confusion.

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Tying character or skill development to the virtual world.

Reading a thread on Reddit about skill-based character progression system design set my imagination wandering in a slightly tangential direction. What about tying character development or skill acquisition to the virtual world of the game? What about, for instance, if you could only learn specific spells at certain wizard colleges or from the spell’s creator? Certainly earlier Elder Scrolls games had this style of system (not the MMO though).

Maybe take that to a broader context beyond spell recipes. Different martial skills could equally be tied to certain cultures or master trainers that you have to go find. What if you have to do them a favour or prove your worth before you can learn that new skill? Guild Wars 2 had a hint of this with the skill point system. Some were simple “click on the glowy light” affairs but others required you to fight a champion or trainer to prove you were worthy of the skill point reward. A very simplistic idea but one that could be fleshed out into something more varied and robust – where you receive a specific skill instead of just a skill point.

Stepping away from combat-oriented spells or skills there’s other examples of this kind of learn by finding/exploring. Back in early World of Warcraft if you had engineering as a profession you always wanted to run the Black Rock Depths dungeon to grab the schematic for making the ever useful Repair Bot.

I suppose one reason why this idea might be less common or never fully realised in MMORPGs is the overwhelming deluge of wiki sites and databases that give detailed locations and instructions for finding every last item or NPC that you might need. So exploration doesn’t really come into it anymore unless you shut the browser and play in self-imposed “ignorance mode”. Even before such sites became popular it was difficult to avoid spoilers – if the self-same WoW engineering character ran dungeons and responded to a request for a repairbot with “I don’t know that recipe”; it’s likely they would be told “go run BRD”. But maybe the wonder of randomly finding such items, NPCs or skills is only one side to this – the other side is to give meaning to character development beyond selecting bland, yet balanced, talents or skill options as characters grow in power. It would link character development with your character’s journey and actions.

Do any modern MMORPGs do this?

Posted in Gaming, WoW | 6 Comments