Friday, May 18, 2012

What if Planescape: Torment was a MMO?

Today, I address one of my greatest of dreams: What if Planescape: Torment was a MMO?

Planescape: Torment, if you are somehow unaware, is the best written videogame of all time.  As a lover of poetry and philosophy, the world of Torment is full of references and allusions to ideas made real.  As a lover of games and RPGs, Torment is the truest expression of games having true literary merit.  The story is simple: An immortal who loses anywhere from bits to full chapters of his memory whenever he "dies", seeks to find an end to his torment.

However, the way this tale plays out is nothing sort of awe-inspiring.  The world of Planescape: Torment is a multiverse where all ideas go to exist and co-exist.  It is a place where the metaphysical is made physical.  In his journey, the Nameless One (the protagonist of the game) meets people he has loved and betrayed, places he has lifted up and places he has destroyed: his journey is an odyssey through worlds that have bent their knee to embrace his existence, as damning and cursed as it is.

The active part of the gameplay of Planescape: Torment is regrettably dry.  Being based on classic D&D, it has a similar feel to most rpgs of that era, but far less customizable. However, if you are like me, and consider conversation choices, and unlocking new skills, stat bonuses, and ablities, through speech and exploration, as gameplay, you wouldn't go wrong with playing this game.  It is one of the few games where the vast majority of the combat can be avoided through the right speech choices or a basic stealth game.

But why would this make a great MMO?  Well, the world is so rich, dense, and amazing, that a MMO could quite literally be anything and almost anywhere.  The central location of Torment is Sigil, the City of Doors, and it functions as a nexus to all possible worlds.  Many of those other worlds are allusions to whole philosophies or are functionally similar to the pantheons of various world religions.  It truly is a setting so vast as to be infinite in scope and limited only by time and money.

The world is so fascinating that you do not even need to bend it to create an excuse for a MMO.  Where as a game like Ultima Online involved shattering the single-player world into a thousand separate ones, each capable of housing you, the player, Planescape does not need to go that far.  It would be perfectly reasonable to have every new player be The Nameless One all over again, if you wanted. That may seem strange, but in a world where simply giving a fake identity a multitude of times actually wills into existence a person of that identity, anything is truly possible.

As far as how it would all play, I am less sure.  In my head, the game translates perfectly, simply because I am so invested in the world, its characters, and its beliefs.  As I said, however, the gameplay on the active side leads a lot to be desired.  Of course, that also means that a new game could be open to any number of approaches, from skill-based to level-based or action-based to tactical.  If you do not forsake the elements of exploration and conversation, and find a way to keep them as central (if not more so) than the combat, then how the combat itself plays is hardly relevant.

Honestly, the setting lends itself so well to both sandboxes and theme parks that a loose copy of Ultima Online with a more modern sensibility of story telling and elements of instancing would be enough for me.  The key to a Planescape: Torment MMO would always be the participation in the world, the experiencing of experiences that can only be told in such a world, and re-visiting a videogame legend in a more social capacity.

After all, half the fun of the MMO genre is the world building, and derivative Tolkien lands or visiting another tired Sci-Fi IP is getting a little old.  Instead, let's open a door to the multiverse.

In closing, I leave you with a selection from one of my favorite poems, Swinburne's 'Dolores' (which a central secondary character from Planescape is inspired by):

And the chaplets of old are above us,
And the oyster-bed teems out of reach;
Old poets outsing and outlove us,
And Catullus makes mouths at our speech.
Who shall kiss, in thy father's own city,
With such lips as he sang with, again?
Intercede for us all of thy pity,
Our Lady of Pain.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Newbie Blogger Initiative: My Gratitude

In case you weren't already aware, this blog is a part of the Newbie Blogger Initiative.  I am a newbie blogger and thanks to NBI, I finally took the initiative to make something of a blog.  

Thus far, it has been a blast.  While I have always enjoyed sharing my thoughts on a variety of topics but especially MMOs with my friends, it feels nice to codify my perspective into a publicly-viewable, written form.  And, it has been a fun hobby to pass the time.  

I have no idea what I will do with it, but I am happy to develop writing and communicating skills no matter what.  You would think that after 4+ years of college, focusing on English and philosophy that I might no how to do both with ease, but everyday I am learning.  Writing for pubic consumption is a different beast.  I have to be shorter, more concise, while also still being engaging.  No one is paid to read and grade everything I write, so I have to attract people to it.

No matter where this goes, I want to thank the Newbie Blogger Initiative for spurring me on and helping me develop something that I have always wanted to do.  It is a real pleasure to have people like you on the internet.

MMO Mash Up: Dark Age of Ultima

Imagine for a moment in an alternative universe.  In it, Mythic had never made Warhammer Online and was still, for the most part, a darling developer of the classic MMO community.  EA, though certainly no darling, decided it wanted to finally stop sitting on the Ultima Online legacy, and make a sequel (this time for real).  As the stars aligned in this perfect world, so too did EA realize that Mythic was the team for the job.  The team to make a MMO dream come true.  That dream? Dark Age of Ultima.

Dark Age's legacy rests entirely on the successes of Mythic's realm versus realm system.  The three major factions with their unique aesthetics, unique scenery, and unique classes made each faction feel far more distinct than any modern MMO equivalent.  The class design, when specifically combined with the unique faction aesthetics, also made for a rather memorable and infinitely repayable experience.  In particular, I think the skill-based approach to customizing your class really took the game several steps ahead of anything else at the time.

In contrast, Ultima Online's legacy does not really rest with any specific gameplay or design advancement, but rather with the overall feel of the game and its status as the grandfather of the genre.  Most notable for me was Ultima Online's sheer openness and its scope, especially for the time, which aimed at bringing a living, breathing fantasy world to life via the magic of the early internet.  I always felt connected to the world and the community because there was so much more to it than just slaying monsters.  I could be happy with a merchant character whose name was featured on gear throughout the server, and whose shop was often marked to recall to.

I may be unique in this, but I think the open, but structured PvP of Dark Age and the customizable classes would blend especially well with the open world and sandbox feel of Ultima Online.  I certainly think it could work if you brought back the Faction system from Ultima Online, where there were four distinct factions vying for control of every town.  Each faction could be made more distinct aesthetically and provide unique skills to pursue and unique abilities/spells to master like their Dark Age predecessors.  However, these factions would be open to joining and leaving by players, and help promote a more neutral group of players that could focus on tradeskills or even provide mercenary-style support to faction battles.

Each faction would provide the leveling curve in the form of ranks and ranking up.  There could also be some type of a political game added in where factions have elected leaders and appointed officials in charge of managing precious resources gained from controlling various locations on the map.  Faction leaders could help direct players toward specific targets of attack, such as weakened cities, or call for crusades to capture Relics hidden in the dark corners of the world.

I think a blend of the two approaches to character building could also be created.  Characters might master specific skills like Ultima Online by doing the action the skill calls for, but each individual skill could be more fine tuned to player's style via points earned from increasing the overall skill.  For example, your character may be a Grandmaster Swordsman who gained 100.0 points in Swordsmanship by using his sword effectively over time, but the 50 or so points he gained in increasing his skill so high allowed him to strike a good balance between two-handed and parry with just enough leftover to make sure his one-handed was strong for when he went to his shield. The points spent in tuning your Skill would unlock special abilities and improve specific stats, where as the overall Swordsmanship skill would determine general effectiveness, which weapons can be used, etc.

All in all, I think the two games would make a perfect mix.  And as much as the world needs a new Ultima Online, it also needs a new Dark Age of Camelot.  Both games are classics in their own right and deserve to once again get some attention.  I am not sure that in our world I would want the current Mythic to take over the Ultima Online franchise entirely, but at this point, I will take almost anything.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Excited for: Guild Wars 2

I am not going to bother create a huge write up where I rehash, recycle, and restate what you already know: Guild Wars 2 is coming and it is worth being excited about.  I will, however, state a few impressions I had from the last open beta test:

Not Worried About:

  • Graphics:  I knew from the concept art that this was going to be a good looking game, and there was no disappointment at all.  The sheer amount of action the game is capable of comfortably displaying on the screen as background really helps to make for an immersive experience.

    The opening human area really had me begging for some peace and quiet after its kinetic masterpiece of an invasion bombarded my screen with centaurs, explosions, and storms.
  • Character Creation: While a few more options or a little better explanation of how the story might play out would be appreciated, I loved the character creation.  For each race, I was able to make characters that seemed unique enough but also reflected my own aesthetic ideals.
  • Character Customization: I spent a great deal of time in the player-versus-player trying to get a feel for a variety of builds on a variety of classes (mostly necromancer and warrior).  It was an absolute blast to feel like the character fit my playstyle through my choices rather than I fitting the playstyle of the character because a lack of other options.

Worried About:

  • Cooldowns: I get it.  Cooldowns are the backbone of strategy in almost every MMO.  However, in Guild Wars 2, with so few overall abilities, which I feel is a good thing as far as maintaining serious lines between how each weapon plays, many cooldowns felt a little long.

    As the game currently stands, I felt forced to switch weapons just to access another set of cooldowns to spam off, which seems to defeat the strategy of a weapon swap in the first place.  Of course, that could just be my bad play, but then I would argue that the game is actively promoting bad play as the natural first strategy via its lengthy cooldowns.
  • Public Quests: Sure, I will take most anything over the quest grinds that the World of Warcraft design philosophy has forced down our throats.  I would even return to a straight camp and combat grind.  But what Guild Wars 2 does, while a definite improvement, doesn't feel as revolutionary as was billed.

    I did like their system, especially when it came to not promoting same-side players to cruelly steal kills from one another, but it all felt a little too mechanical.  With the objectives so clearly noted on your UI, it just felt like they slimmed down the Quest Grind and gave it a face-lift, rather than completely replacing it.

In Praise of the Past: Trolls in World of Warcraft

Yo mon.  I be da sexy wone catchin' ey bit uf eezee breezee on da right.  Ya know, da one dat be a troll an all.  Dee otha brutha be my ol guil-masta from da Maelstrom serva. An taday I like ta pay speshall tribute ta mai favorite ting in World of Warcraft: trolls.

Of course, I don't think you want to continue reading my badly aged trollspeak, so it ends here.  I apologize to your eyes for the harm I have already inflicted, however.

You would have most likely called me a casual player back in vanilla WoW.  I never made it past or even completed Molten Core, I did battlegrounds a lot but never with any set group, and I spent most of my time just pretending to be a troll.  The pretending to be a troll part, especially.  I never joined any roleplaying groups, but I liked to throw around a  horrible attempt at a Jamaican accent from time to time in guild chat.

Gruul attempt where I was packing some "serious" numbers
Despite my rather generic name, Abaddon was my first MMO character that I really felt was uniquely my own.  Sure, I had tried to build identities before in other games, and I definitely did an alright accent on any of my dwarfs in Everquest, but I rarely made it as far as quirks, and never backstory.  Most of my attempts at roleplaying in those games were just me mimicking empty husks of stereotypes, hoping no one roleplayed back any deep questions.

Abaddon, however, was a friendly troll who just really liked to go crazy and kill anything around him.  As a rogue, I also had a fascination with making people bleed (naturally went with a very ineffective Hemorrhage build) and I often licked both victims and friends as either comic relief or a threat.

As I moved into Burning Crusade, I had the good fortune of joining the guild <Roll Initiative> where I finally found my favorite WoW playstyle: raiding.  Where once before my biggest concerns were battleground queue times and if enough people were going to log on to get something started, my attention soon turned to DPS charts and securing the best loot for my DKP.  All of the screenshots I have left reference this period and really show how focused I was on the numbers rather than the game itself.

However, the whole me being a troll thing never stopped.  Ya, I didn't use it all the time like a real roleplayer, but I definitely tried to maintain elements that were, to me, as essential to the character as my Sinister Strike button.  And I never stopped scouring wikis and lore articles to get more background on trolls.  I was never a big Warcraft person, so the lore to me has no real value, except when it comes to trolls.  Even now, despite long being done with the game, if I hear even the faintest hint of new troll content on the way, I prepare immediately to read every spoiler I can.  I really loved Warcraft trolls.

Even though I would have labeled myself a powergamer and a fairly serious raider (at least as far as my server went) first, the roleplaying always kept me invested in a way that spreadsheets and loot would never achieve and could never achieve.  As a reward for that investment, I went on to raid for nearly the entire Burning Crusade expansion and I met many friends doing it.

So, naturally, I blame trolls for still being stuck with those bastards.  Kidding of course! I love trolls and I love you guys. /lick

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What if Risk was a MMO?

What if ... is an article series in which I attempt to use my preferences in games and my experiences in the MMO genre to outline how certain intellectual properties might work as MMOs.

Risk is one of those games that I still absolutely love.  Sure, my friends have all grown up and scattered to the winds, but the memories of global domination still provide awesome "war" stories to remind one another of.  As a big Risk fan, I own many versions and copies.  I own the wonderful variants of Risk Godstorm and Risk 2210, both of which add cards and special units to make the game far more interesting.  I also own the more recent release of Risk with its new Mission-based design (which I think is an incredible improvement to the classic game).

My favorite Risk story belongs to a category of stories about the game that every serious Risk fan has gone through.  My friend Luke and I were playing in a Risk tournament for a class in highschool (don't ask, I went to a strange school).  We made it to the final round, and as we were pretty close, we decided to team up to rid ourselves of the competition.  We kept the alliance subtle and under the table as best we could, so as to not alert the suspicions of the other players.  As the game wore on, I had a decidedly strong card turn in coming up and I had amassed some strength in Europe in Africa.  Luke had held North America most of the game, but he was notoriously unlucky with his dice rolls, so he hadn't spread out much further.  Although we still had an opponent with some decent strength left and another still hanging on by a thread, I saw my opportunity to strike.  I turned in my cards, gathered all my armies, and instead of helping Luke in Asia, I dropped every single unit in Iceland.  Ten minutes later and I had rolled over North America with minimal losses.  An hour later I won.

Luke has never forgiven me for that betrayal, and I have never apologized.  He let me be the best man at his wedding a few years later, so the game did not drive a permanent wedge between us.  However, it did create a unique experience, a unique moment, a unique memory in much the way that sandbox MMOs do with their players.  Sure, everyone has their epic story of how they had to pay a guy to drag their corpse out from the depths of an Everquest dungeon, but those stories still feel uniquely our own because they have such a specific context and created powerful memories.

I think it would be possible to build a Risk MMO around this principle.  Forget the horrible Xbox Live Arcade version with cats and zombies or the Facebook port.  Instead, let's update the size and scope of the game tenfold.

While the original has 42 territories to fight for, how about a game with 4,200 territories per server. In keeping with the turn based nature of the game, a server could have a start time where 4,200 individuals sign up, receive their territory, and name their empire.

As a departure from the board game, everyone would move at the same time. Each server would have a specific time limit to manage your resources and input your moves.  As an example, let's say 12 hours.  That should also give enough time for players to meet, greet, and plot, in server locked chatrooms and forums.

The premise is still the same as the very original Risk.  However, instead of several territories, you begin the game with just one.  Sure, the early rounds would see huge swathes of territories demolished, but as the pool narrows and alliances form, the game comes into its true form.

Instead of cards, we add basic resources and some special units.  Specific territories could contain special resources, but instead of continent bonuses, the world will be randomly divided up among special resource hotzones.  For example, imagine if controlling all of Africa gave you a huge bonus in diamond production, which let to more money to buy additional troops, technologies, or resource boosting buildings.

Resources add a dynamic new element to the Risk formula: trade.  In a game this large, just duking it out for supremacy might quickly become stale as giant alliance blocks tenderly exchange weak blows without any forward movement.  For these moments, trade would give players an alternative path of conquest.

As you conquer more territories, the game's complexity and the strategy organically grow.  In a way, this will mimic a typical MMORPG leveling curve, but without forcing you to grind out experience points.  As your resources grow, your armies increase in power and number.  And when the world condenses to a few super powers, every move becomes potentially riskier and riskier.

Finally, every videogame has to make money, and even our made-up dream games are no exception.  I have two models in mind for a game like this:

First, I think this game could work as a free to play title with a store for cosmetic items, but I don't think that alone is enough.  In addition, I think it would be fair to allow players to only play on one server at a time (with each server taking several weeks to several months to finish) unless they pay a small fee to join additional servers.  In a sense, it is following the Facebook model of social gaming but to a somewhat more natural and common sense point.  As every move would take a long time to play out, this style MMO would function more akin to a social game where you play it on the side, daily, but not for very long.

Second, a microsubscription approach.  While I don't think this idea is as viable, I like the idea of charging everyone a relatively small amount of money per month to play the game.  Unlike large AAA titles, a Risk MMO would not require the massive servers, customer service, or new content.  As most of the game would be fairly limited visually, all you really need is a maintenance team to keep it all running.  As such, I believe $2.50 to $5.00 dollars a month would be fair.

All in all, I think a pseudo-social gaming, F2P version of Risk could function very well as a MMO.  It definitely would have a massive amount of players, the game leads to a natural progression path to reflect RPG elements, and the game would be open enough for those classic sandbox moments.

How would you do it?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In Praise of the Past: That One Tree Outside of Crushbone Keep

This may seem like a strange dedication to most people, even those who played Everquest.  In fact, I am pretty sure that I am the only person with a fondness for a particular tree in a particular zone in this particular game. But it is not just about a particular tree, it is about the way that Everquest effected me as a kid - the way that many MMO games effect their players.

MMOs have an ability to create unique contexts and situations that stick with us, the players, as fond memories and stories.  This particular tree is nothing special to most, but to me it is a tree located precisely outside the window of the Crushbone Keep throne room.  Often, I would climb up it from the outside to see who was camping the room and if they wanted any help.  Eventually, however, I started climbing up it and looking in just to have a conversation.  It was a great way to make acquaintances and pass the time, even if it didn't really advance my character's level or get me any new gear.

Unlike most other games, MMOs can be fun when you aren't even really playing them.  From standing at the bank and chatting, to running circles and circles around Orgrimmar as Trade chat lights up with conversation, the social aspects of MMOs really make them something special.  Though I don't necessarily want to go back to climbing virtual trees to see if the spot I want to camp for the next few hours is open, I do miss the sitting and chatting and community building.

Sure, it was slow and boring.  It was not well-designed nor well-written gameplay.  But it provided something that most games today don't even acknowledge: it provided a means to meet those who populate the world you are a part of.  Nowadays, games send us from one queue to another, and lock us away deep in our own virtual slices of the world.  Cutscenes, scripts, and generally fast-paced dungeons, only further incentivise players to not sit down, to not wait, and to definitely not talk.

Again, I am not asking for a return to camping bosses and quest mobs.  Bad design like that doesn't have a place anymore.  I just want designers and developers to pay closer attention to the aspects of classic MMOs that kept me returning day in and day out.  It was never the gameplay, nor the loot.  It rarely was the story, and only sometimes was it the journey.

It was the friends I had met along the way, and the friends I still had yet to meet.