Saturday, 18 July 2009

APB et al.

There's been a few comments on my last post on Wurm regarding the inaccessibility of it. I have little doubt the posters are correct, and perhaps my respect for the detail and involvement and time requirement of the world would be somewhat lessened if I had actually played the game for any length of time. Maybe it'd be the same as my experience with Dwarf Fortress, for example, as much as I loved the concept even with a graphical pack installed I found the entire experience far too oblique to get anywhere with. Still, one has to respect the model that Wurm uses, the fact that it is breaking away from the traditional MMO where you are just a passenger in the world and leave no lasting effect on it.

The open-source Worldforge project is another example of this, though it is very much in an unfinished state at this point. The concept is to produce a living, breathing world where you control things in the same way you do in Wurm - you plant trees, build houses and all that. I'm on the mailing list for the project as I did some work modernising their website, and I've been following their progress over an extended period of time. It's coming along nicely, though as a platform more than a game - the best we can hope for really is that it can reach the level where a game development company comes in a picks up the framework to make a truly unique game. It'd be something to see.

Another game making waves in the MMO world is APB, largely due to its novel take on what an MMO should be. It's an interesting idea, because while games like World of Warcraft and its many imitators (and games like Wurm too) have gone for the concept that it is the grind that makes the game worthwhile, the developers of APB have worked from the basis that it is the social element of the game that is more important - the ability to create yourself an identity online.

Its worth noting here that I'm not particularly judging either model. 'Grind' is a very loaded word that seems to have negative connotations of endlessly doing the same thing over and over again, whereas in reality it also equates to the progress and journey that one experiences playing through a RPG. You 'grind' your way from a beetle-fighting newbie to a heroic aventurer who slays fearsome dragons and all that, and you feel like you've earned it. If done well, I actually very much enjoy that, at least the first time I play through a game. But the social side of a game is also very powerful. It's what makes people keep playing an MMO when it's not at its most enthralling. You become attached to your guild, your online friends, and you have shared experiences that are all the richer for it.

APB is very much about the latter. The team working on it, Realtime Worlds, was founded by Dave Jones, the bloke who came up with the original GTA, and his influence is readily apparent. It's a dystopian online game based on the fighting between criminals and lawmen across a large, breathing open city. How staggeringly original, I hear you say, but there's a lot of good ideas in it.

The trailer gives a good feel of what Realtime Worlds are going for.

The basic premise is that a player chooses to be either a Criminal or an Enforcer, and joins a server which contains up to a hundred players. Each server is a different 'city', though you are not tied to a server in the same way you are in conventional MMOs. You can go and find trouble by completing a mission dealt out by NPCs, like 'rob a bank', and the game then acts as a sort of matchmaking service. If there's a bank robbery going on, seveal Enforcers may be given the mission to go and stop the robbery. And that's the meat of the game. It sounds a lot like an advanced online FPS, but in some ways it sounds rather flimsy. Is it the kind of game I see myself playing for a whole year?

Well, no, not on paper. But I think I'm underestimating the lure of APB. The staying power of the game is based around the power to create an identity for yourself, and I think that will be a very powerful lure. I remember that on WoW there were a couple of 'celebrity' characters on my server, like the guy who was always grinding honour in the early BGs so he could be the first bloke to hit Grand Marshall and get his hands on the epic gear it got. But that was it. The reason was basically because it's very hard to get known as a very skillful player, because there's only so much better a player can be than another reasonably competent player of his same class. You're constrained by the numbers, basically.

Conversely, shooters are not constrained by numbers at all. A good player is infinitely better than another one. It remains to be seen whether APB will do enough to make itself a viable persistent world, but they've added in a limited progression system to attempt to do so. Players will advance as they play, but only to ever be about 20% more powerful than a new player. This means that the game world doesn't need to be segregated between players of different levels. That I like. You'll be free to make your name by being skillful.

But the biggest feature that people are raving about for APB is the character and vehicle customisation features. They are literally fantastic, good enough the players could recognise you based on your appearence rather than your name tag. I won't bother describing them, just look at this video instead:

Probably worth £30 in its own right. I imagine APB will be the new machinima game of choice.

APB is slated for an early 2010 release, and I for one look forward to it. I still have my doubts though; chiefly because I worry that in gameplay terms APB is not going to be light years ahead of the latest online shooter, be it CoD or Battlefield or whatever. Many of them have basic advancement systems now, so APB is essentially taking their ideas and adding better matchmaking, and more open world and better character customisation to it. The traditional lure of MMOs has been the massive timesink into the grinding, where it takes you months to max out your stats and then burn through all the content. Taking it out is risky, because it's a huge part of the traditional MMO model. Powerful though the social element of a game is, it often doesn't kick in to the later stages of the game when you're in a guild/clan. I just wonder if it'll be enough to sustain interest in a game long term.
I certainly hope it does well, though. We're not going to get anywhere just releasing endless WoW-clones with slightly improved graphics each time.
EDIT - edited the entry to actually some thoughts on the game, rather than just reporting the facts on it...

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

And service resumes...with Wurm

It's been a long time since my last post, about seven or eight months all things told. My internet connection is still dire and will be for at least a few months yet, so I'm not actually playing an MMO at the moment. However, what I've moved into recently has been game design. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and started to work on a Crysis mod project with an excellent team working with me (visible at I've learned a lot about game design from it, and it's continuing to be a really great experience.

Recently, though, a couple of things have reignited my interest in the MMO genre - despite my crippling inability to take part in it. One is E3, and the new games that were demoed there. I'll speak of them in my future posts. The second is a real gem of a site called here. Let's get a few things straight, right off the bat. Wurm looks hideous, and appears to be time consuming in the extreme. These are two good reasons why I’ll never play it, barring the not-implausible eventuality where I get fired, but something about it really got me going nonetheless.

To me it is, in a nutshell, what MMORPGs were intended to be when they were first dreamed up. It’s debatable whether a year of not playing MMOs has taken the blinkers off my eyes, or just driven me batshit insane, but Wurm seems to be the logical destination of the road down which Ultima Online et al were pushing the genre before WoW turned up and started tampering with the signposts. Wurm strikes me as an enormous and somewhat broken game, yet one that is essentially beautiful because of it. Reading it brings back memories of playing the early MMOs and the limitless possibilities it seemed the genre once had. Though I'm very fond of World of Warcraft for proving that MMOs are most definitely a feasible business model (and that production values were a good idea), it was for all of its polish a very sanitised game. Just like in most MMOs nowadays, it was and still is essentially a slow-paced co-operative beat-em-up.

The kindliest screenshot I could find on the Wurm site in regards to the game's graphical prowess, or lack thereof.

I perhaps do the genre a disservice above by emphasising game mechanics over the vital and ever-present social element, but playing some of the more modern MMOs has made me wonder in hindsight if the genre had been taking steps sideways rather than forwards in recent times. Ultima Online had a world with things like persistent housing, which unsurprisingly has not been repeated in recent times because it essentially hid all the careful work of the level designers under an endless sprawl of real estate that was broken only by the occasional monster wondering why his swamp had been turned into a shopping centre. The one saving grace of the system was that it made you feel your actions in UO meant actually something in a small way – I mean, if you could get enough gold together, it could be YOU that owned the great big castle thoughtfully placed on top of the swamp where newbie players used to go hunting.

Everquest was admittedly also all about smacking bad people upside the head, but the true joy I found in the game was exploring the wonderfully creative, varied and expansive world of Norrath. Sometimes you'd stumble on a little camp or quest somewhere in an unpopular zone that probably only a handful of the players in the game had ever seen, which was a special feeling to me - something that would definitely never happen in WoW. For all of its accessibility and user-friendliness, WoW lost something by signposting every quest with giant yellow exclamation marks and steering the player through every major location through endless quest chains. Azeroth felt less like a real world than an enormous outdoor dungeon.

Wurm, on the other hand, is a completely persistent world where every one of your actions has a consequence. Want to build a fire? Then you've got to cut down a tree and make some kindling. But that tree ain’t gonna be coming back any time soon unless you replant it. There was one line in the RPS review that really grabbed me; "New players bent double over forges trying and failing to make fishing hooks over and over can look forward to making dragon scale armour one day (assuming they can find a dragon, which are believed by the playerbase to be hunted to extinction)."

Think about that concept for a second, because it's completely alien to any other MMO I've ever heard of - hunted to extinction. No more dragons for anyone, because they've been wiped out. You could probably argue quite persuasively that this is a monumentally bad idea, and I imagine many of you are. I mean, now no new player to Wurm will ever see a dragon, and that hardly seems fair, does it?. But this is an MMO and that's the nature of the beast - few new players to WoW will ever experience a 40-man Molten Core raid, because the game has changed in the meantime. The only difference is that it was changed from the top-down rather than the bottom up, stripping the players of any agency at all.

Part of the reason it reminds me of the original Everquest is the fact the UI is pretty much exactly the same colour and the graphics are pretty much on par. Difference is, EQ is about a decade old.

The beauty of what Wurm has achieved with the dragons is that suddenly there's a story, a legend, in the gameworld; “Hey guys, y’know, there used to be dragons around, but people hunted them to extinction. Probably that guild of powergames. What a bunch of bastards. I’m going to hate them forever now.”

There can be no stories, no legends, no evolution in a game world that is static, or one where change can only come from the developers. Empowering people the ability to change the world means that, yes, things can go horribly wrong - but that's part of the point. That’s the trade off you’re making. The fact there are consequences to your action means that every player is suddenly involved in the world, rather than just being a passenger.

I know that things can be abused, and that griefers could take advantage of the system and ruin things for everyone, and so some thought has to go into working out how to counterbalance that. No doubt the solution would vary from game to game, but I don't think the solution can ever be to have a world as static as those in the current crop of MMORPGs. You'd probably have a game that's less balanced and likely less polished than WoW, but at least you’d no longer be just another transitory figure acting his meaningless part on a stage that never changes.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

MMOs and the credit crunch...

Everyone here has probably heard of the credit crunch. It's part of the reason why this blog is being updated less frequently, firstly because I'll have a hard time getting a new job if I lose the one I already have and secondly because I'm actually trying to save the money the job earns me. However, a more interesting question is what effect the credit crunch might have on the MMORPG genre as a whole. My personal theory is that it will make the MMO-playing demographic swing away from casual playing and more towards hardcore powergaming, a reversal of the trend of recent years. Secondly, I think the proportion of immature WoW-kiddies is going to rise dramatically too.

The argument is fairly simple really. People are going to cut expenditure during the upcoming recession, and lesiure spending is going to get hit hard. People will spend less money drinking, eating out, watching sport, going to Disneyland etc because they simply can't afford it any more. MMOs will get hit thanks to the same thing, because they're actually getting quite expensive now. When I last fired up an MMO (Age of Conan), I was paying about £11-12 a month for the priviledge, tax inclusive. At the time, it was about $24 or 16 Euros. Plenty of cash then, approaching 40p a day. Given I'm now a fairly busy person and I might only play a couple of hours every couple of days during the week, I'd really have to pack the time in at weekends to make that worthwhile. At the end of the month, if I'd not played much, I'd probably pack my subscription in. I resent feeling forced to play a game simply because I'm paying for it, more than anything else. It shouldn't feel like a chore.

On the flip side, though, even £12 a month isn't much compared to a trip to a theme park or a night out on the town. Hell, it's barely even enough to cover a trip to the cinema if you include transport into the bargain. If you've got the time spare, MMO gaming is actually a very cost-effective method of entertainment. It was when I was a student, certainly. But that's the crux of the issue: the people who have less time to play are those most likely to quit their subscriptions. This is for two reasons - firstly, they're likely to be the ones who have jobs and thus other financial committments, so they'll have reason to be frightened of the credit crunch. Secondly, as the maths above has demonstrated, playing an MMO makes much less financial sense for them.

This means that we're likely to see the MMO-playing demographic swing towards people with a lot of time and few financial commitments, and that only suggests one stratum of society to me. Kids. They don't care about the credit crunch, so long as their pocket money still hits $15 a month. They don't care that they're paying out $0.50 a day, because to them it represents good value for money. And this is good news for the MMO developers out there, because it means we're highly unlikely to see many of the major MMOs fail.

It's less good news for the genre as a whole, because much of the interest in playing an MMO comes from the social aspect. I'm not saying all teenagers who play MMOs are illiterate douchebags, far from it (there were several 15-16 year olds in my WoW guild who seemed pretty switched on), but there is certainly a higher proportion of them in the population than in any other age range. The less mature people there are around to dilute them, the more unbearable they become and thus the less enjoyable playing an MMO will become.

I also think that the games hit hardest will not be the ageing games, apparently on their last legs but still somehow tottering along (EQ1, UO, perhaps EVE/Vanguard), but games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. The older, more hardcore games only have hardcore fans left, and those guys aren't likely to give up playing for anything short of armageddon. The newer games have a more diverse subscriber base and will take heavier losses because of it. WoW certainly has enough people to keep it chugging along happily, and I'd imagine WAR will be fine too. But a relatively new game like Age of Conan (where subscribers are still relatively thin on the ground but not yet whittled down to a truly devoted core) is probably going to find itself facing hard times, and I expect to see it marginalised in the next six months or so.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

The problem with reviewing MMORPGS

This article is on one of my pet hates - mainstream gaming websites like Gamespot and IGN reviewing MMORPGs. Some of you will instantly know why I find their reviews infuriating, others might need a few words of explanation. First out, I consider the idea of reviewing an MMORPG in a few pages as frankly ridiculous, and secondly I think the big websites serve to slow progress of the genre.

The first claim is easy enough to explain: MMORPGs are huge games. Now, I'm aware that MMORPGs tend to get reviews that run to five or six pages, much like high profile games like GTA4 or Metal Gear Solid or Half Life 2 all get, and I'm also aware that there are massive offline games too (the aforementioned GTA4 or Baldur's Gate 2, for example), but I refuse to believe and of the reviewers releasing a review a week after the release of an MMO have actually played up to max level and extensively tested raiding and PvP. Instead, they're just giving you their impressions of the game up to mid-level, during a period where the novelty value is still strong. In short, nothing that actually resembles what playing the game is actually like. Another part of the problem lays in the fluidity of all the content in an MMO. If I boot up Baldur's Gate 2 and have a play, it'll be exactly the same as it was five years ago. If I boot up World of Warcraft or Everquest and go to the newbie zones, the experience will be completely different now to how it used to be, so all the WoW reviews written even six months ago are probably outdated now.

This isn't just due to the endless tinkering with class skills and new zones/zone revamps, but it does play a big part. One of my favourite zones in the original Everquest was the Lake of Ill Omen, because it was huge, open, well populated and itemised, varied and simply beautiful. Lots of players felt the same, and in the Velious era that I primarily played in (often regarded as the golden age of EQ) it was always bustling. When the Shadows of Luclin expansion came out, it became faster to level up in the new zones, so the population dropped off sharply. Suddenly I couldn't group in my favourite zone so much, which made vast areas of it inaccessible and changed my playing experience a great deal.

It was usually MUCH busier than this, believe me.

Similarly, before Luclin came out there was a huge tunnel in the Western Commonlands where everyone used to gather and sell their wares (I'm not sure why all the world's traders congregated in that particular spot, but they did). Everyone would shout about their wares and prices in general chat, and business would be conducted by sending a tell to the person in question and then finding them and exchanging money for the item. Luclin brought with it the Bazaar, the first incarnation of the system that would later grow into WoW's Auction House, and predictably this instantly killed the informal market in the WC tunnel. It changed the game a great deal - trading became more convenient, but I did rather like the human interaction of the Commonlands tunnel. That's an aside, though - my point is that the market in the tunnel was a social phenomenon, and even if you went back to EQ now you wouldn't be able to experience it. An MMO is a game that's constantly in flux, a game where if you miss something then it is gone forever. A review will never be more than a snapshot, which is why it infuriates me that major sites treat them like normal games.

To compound matters, there is social churn. At its most basic, the same people won't be online all the time, so one person might really enjoy a dungeon run because they had a competent and entertaining group, while another person might find the same dungeon tests his patience because he tried it with a group of idiots. To an extent, guilds mollify this point, but the fact that a great deal of an MMO is the social experience is something that most reviewers seem to ignore. You can't really review a playerbase besides huge and somewhat useless generalisations (WoW is full of ten-year-old griefers, EQ2 has a friendly and grown up playerbase). There is some truth to them, but that doesn't guarantee that everyone will have the same experience - and, worse, the social side of an MMO changes even faster than the game world.

In a lot of ways, the idea of giving a game a score is ridiculous anyway. Sure, if a game has massive design flaws then it might be worse than a game that doesn't, but if you have two well-known games it just comes down to preference. Is Half Life 2 better than Crysis? I'd argue not, but plenty of people would disagree. It just depends what you like. Slapping a score of 9 on WoW and an 8 on EQ2 implies that WoW is objectively the better game, but that's far too simple a picture. If you like depth, you'd do much better with EQ2. If you're looking for a consistently designed game with good accessibility, play WoW. The best a review can ever do is give a feel for the game, to let you see if you think you'd like to play it or not. That's why I put together my play diary for EQ2 and started the one for AoC - a normal review just doesn't give a good enough indication of how a game actually works. So I wish everyone would stop doing them.

A much better use of the Source physics engine than the stupid gravity gun.

The second allegation in my post was that the mainstream gaming sites hold back innovation in the genre. My simple argument for this is the fact that they only cover the biggest names in the business, which is partly understandable given how many MMOs seem to be in development, but this naturally means that the games that get the most coverage will always big the huge-budget efforts by Blizzard or Funcom or SOE or BioWare. In my mind, these guys will always play a bit safe with their games because they're spending a fortune on them and (with the possible exception of SOE) they all have a good reputation they don't want to soil by releasing a game that gets critically panned. And therefore they're not too keen on taking risks, on breaking new ground - something every genre needs. Some of the best games I've played are distinctly quirky, like Portal for example. The game Portal was based on was made by a small group of students who were hired by Valve (who are pretty left-field anyway) in the same way they hired the creators of Counterstrike. I just don't see one of the big studios taking a risk and releasing something a little different, a little quirky.

And, in essence, that's why seeing Gamespot and IGN trying to cover the latest MMOs makes me angry.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Star Wars: The Old Republic thoughts

Star Wars: The Old Republic is, apparently, going to be the definitive Star Wars MMO. The eagle-eyed among you will probably point out that there's already been one high-profile Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: Galaxies, but let's be honest here - this is the Star Wars franchise. You can expect a new Star Wars game to come out with every new generation of MMOs, simply because the entire franchise is a massive cash cow for everyone concerned.

Admittedly, it's a pretty damn cool franchise. Lightsabers, stormtroopers and X-Wings will never go out of date. But the risk is always there that some lazy developer will release something substandard, relying on the Star Wars branding to shift copies.

The standard-issue stormtrooper hairdryer developed a slightly concerning malfunction.

Thankfully, BioWare is highly unlikely to do this. You've probably heard of BioWare already - though their star has dimmed a little in recent times due to not having released anything absolutely groundbreaking for a while, they're still one of the most pedigree names in the business. One of their recent franchises was Knights of the Old Republic, the Star Wars RPG that no doubt led to them landing this gig in the first place. I played the original, and I must admit I was slightly underwhelmed with it all - it was pretty easy, didn't have a particularly great story and overall the whole thing seemed slightly disjointed. Still, for reasons I don't entirely understand, the game went on to become a classic. It had its moments, though, for example the inclusion of the homocidal droid HK-47 and a keyboard button used soley for twirling your lightsabers. Overall, it was pretty good, I just didn't think it was top-drawer.

The other big name BioWare was behind recently was Mass Effect, which I'm yet to play. Still, I don't overly care, because I still hold BioWare in the highest regard. The reason for this was a couple of games called Baldur's Gate I & II, which you may have heard of thanks to the fact that they pretty much defined the isometric D&D-style RPG for all of time. For hardcore RPG players, Baldur's Gate II is probably still the game of choice - it's huge, detailed and an unbelievable experience. It's even worth buying the game just to hear the voice acting of the main bad guy in the game, Irenicus - it's just that good. Overall, I probably prefered the lighter and more cheerful tone of the first game, but both are fantastic stories and gaming experiences.

And it's this storytelling (also apparently very good in Mass Effect) that leads me onto why Star Wars: The Old Republic might be something new and interesting - BioWare are firmly set on building the 'fourth pillar' of the MMO, the story, into the game. I'm not entirely sure how its going to work, though I'm not really sure of very much about the game thanks to BioWare staying pretty tight-lipped about it at their press conference, but I'd be interested in finding out. The switching between solo and multiplayer sections in Age of Conan was a bit of a pain in that ass that I'm glad ended after the first 20 levels, so I'm a little unconvinced as to how successfully you can work that kind of thing into an MMO, but if anyone can do it it'll be BioWare. Or Blizzard, maybe.

The droids reacted angrily to the suggestion they should work overtime.

Pedigree of developer and their ideas about storytelling, there's not a lot to talk about regarding this game yet. It's set in the KOTOR universe, many centuries before the events of Episodes IV, V and VI, which sadly means no X-Wings or TIE Fighters (but no doubt their precursors will be around). It's also apparently in a playable state, which is good to hear. Graphics wise, it looks pretty damn nice. The graphics are stylised and thus the colours are bright and vibrant, but not Clone Wars stylised (ie, rubbish), which is a good balance. There's currently two factions, the Jedi and the Sith, and this might work really well. Unlike in most MMOs, where one side is far more popular than the other, the Jedi and the Sith are both really cool and will no doubt attract plenty of players.

Oh, here's another talking point - NPC companions. BioWare games are well known for letting players build a party of five or six adventurers, only one of which is the player character. The others are recruited from the many in-game, each of them fully-fleshed out characters with storylines and likes and dislikes. If you group with the tree-hugging druid, expect her to leave the party or even attack you if you decide that it'd be a good idea to murder a bunch of defenceless children. Similarly, if you group with a bunch of brigands and outlaws, expect the same to happen if you DON'T murder children on a fairly regular basis. Party members would often chip with dialogue and banter on your travels, and some of the characters would even become potential romances.

Maybe it's just me, but I didn't remember seeing that much spandex in the films...

BioWare are apparently employing this idea in Star Wars: The Old Republic. This can only be a good thing - not only because it might make the game mechanics a little different to most MMOs, but because it might actually add some more character to the world and its inhabitants. The most interesting thing at the conference, though, was this little quote: "We did the calculations and we realised, a long time ago, we had passed the point where we would have more story content than every BioWare game made to date, combined. That's all the Baldur's Gates, Neverwinter Nights, KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, all the expansion packs. All those combined do not touch our content amount."

If you've ever waded through Baldur's Gate 2, you'll understand why that sums up pretty much all of my hopes for this game.

Friday, 17 October 2008

5 Games You Should Have Played Already

I was having a chat to someone in the pub who played games, but wasn't exactly an avid gamer. There were a few games we had played in common, but I mentioned a few classics that he'd never even heard of, which surprised me a little. There are some games that are just so genre-defining that everyone should have played them at least once in their life, games that any seasoned gamer will have no choice but to nod reverently at the very mention of their name. I've put together a list of five games that you should have played by now.

(The list is PC only, so games like Final Fantasy 7 which would otherwise be pushing for inclusion have been turned away because they're merely console ports on the PC.)

So, in no particular order I give you:

1) UFO: Enemy Unknown - This game is often voted the best game of all time for a good reason. It quite possibly is. You take control of the forces of humanity fighting against alien invaders, fighting them in the skies and then on the ground. You manage your aircraft, you manage your budget and your research and your bases and your manufacturing, and then you take your men into combat in turn-based warfare. It's a truly sublime experience - many people have tried to copy it over nearly two decades, but nobody has come close to the experience that Microprose created with the original. The daddy of all strategy games, and quite possibly still the king.

Just savin' the world.

2) Fallout (2) - A franchise that will no doubt become better known now that a third installment in the series is about to hit the shelves, the original two Fallout games are two of my favourite games ever. They are both open-ended RPGs with awesome combat systems that allow you to target individual parts of an opponent's body, along with a superb post-apocalyptic setting and hugely varied character customisation. There is a lot to do in both games, a lot of it genuinely intelligent questing rather than just the standard fare you get in most RPGs. It's nice to play a game where you actually get treated like an adult, rather than some kind of retarded child.

Fallout therefore has a rock-solid foundation for a game, but what pushes it into the realms of a genre-defining classic is the tone of game, which is absolutely perfect. The post-apocalyptic setting allows a very tongue-in-cheek play on the culture of the 50's, and the wit is absolutely superb right the way through. I don't think any game has ever made me laugh out loud besides the Fallout series, but both have made me laugh on so many occasions it more than makes up for it. Both games are absolute gems and rightly enormous cult classics among seasoned gamers, which is why Bethesda were so keen to make the third one in the series. Let's hope they do it justice, eh?
The world of Fallout looks dull and grim in screenshots, but actually is anything but.

3) Starcraft - Any game that has become the national sport of an entire nation must be doing something right, and Starcraft did pretty much everything right. The single player campaigns are interesting and varied, with a fantastic storyline spread across three races, and they're reasonably challenging too. The superb story continued with the expansion pack, BroodWar, which turned the campaign into probably the best story ever told in an RTS. If you've not played it, grab the game before SC2 hits the shelves and spoils it all for you.

Online though, the game shone even more. The three sides provided far more varied gameplay than most RTS games offered, and they're not just copies of each other - each side plays vastly differently from the others. The phrase 'zerg' has even become common usage on the internet to denote a mass rush tactic, in honour of the standard tactics of the Zerg players when the game first came out. But with every unit having a counter, and endless variations on tactics available, the exquisite balance of online play in Starcraft has made it an enduring hit online. It's a game that defined a genre (and added no end more prestige to Blizzard's name) and you really need to play it, even if only the single player.

4) Half Life/Counterstrike - Perhaps this is cheating, but I'm including these two games together because I see CS as the online version of HL. To be clear, though, I'm talking about HL1 here, not HL2 - I still view the first as vastly superior (for reasons eloquently stated by Rock Paper Shotgun here). It's a genre-defining game, even if the storyline isn't too original. You're a scientist messing about with stuff you shouldn't, and then you open a portal to an alien dimension and everything goes horribly wrong. You've seen it all before, but not like this.

HL1 is a masterclass in storytelling and atmosphere. You progress through the game, fighting alien monsters, and every now and then the story is advanced by little flashes of dialogue you hear through air vents or suchlike. The gameworld feels alive, from the moment you press an elevator call button and promptly see it plummet past with a couple of scientists trapped inside, to the times you're talking to someone and they're dragged off into an airvent by some alien monstrosity. It's not a scary game, exactly, as it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it creates a superb atmosphere. The moment that the marines appear for the first time and start machinegunning the scientists that thought they'd just been rescued is brilliant too. Overall, it's a superb game. Half Life 2 is a good game too, but the two just seem completely disconnected to me. Go for the original if you had to choose one of the two.

What I loved about Half Life was that you didn't have to elaborately stack objects with a gravity gun to solve problems - you just shot at them.

Counterstrike is obviously still going strong, now in its Counterstrike:Source incarnation. When it was first made as a mod for the original HL, though, it truly took the world by storm. I remember playing it, having never played anything like it before, and the world truly changed for me. Maps like Aztec, Assault, Dust, Militia and Siege I can still remember like the back of my hand despite not having played them for nearly five years. Sure, the population of players are generally a bunch of preteen idiots, but the game itself is superb. It's been copied in pretty much every way since it came out, so I guess it's hardly revolutionary any more, but if we're talking about the history of online gaming its not so much a landmark as a towering monolith that easily rivals WoW in size and importance.

5) Civilization - If you've played this game in any incarnation, you'll know why its on the list. If not, go out and buy Civ 4, because that's a fantastic update of the series that keeps it at the forefront of what strategy games can achieve in modern times. In terms of destroying your weekend, there's nothing that can quite match it. Yeah, Tetris is an addictive game, but it has nothing on the sustained addiction of Civilisation. Building your nation from cavemen with clubs to rolling over your enemies in tanks and bombing them with nukes is an absolute joy. Playing Civilisation makes even the best RTS games feel shallow and inadequate afterwards.

And there we have it - my choices for the five greatest PC games ever. As ever, comments are welcome.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Is there are place for hardcore MMOs any more? (long post)

Everquest was a hardcore MMORPG, and it was very successful - nearly a decade ago now. Vanguard was by the same developer and was intended to be equally hardcore, but it was a bit of a flop. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, was designed with a more casual market in mind (and we all know how that one turned out). So does this mean that the hardcore MMORPG is a thing of the past?

The answer is up for debate, and as this is the 50th post on the blog I'll go into my views here in some (lots of) detail. My perspective has changed a little recently, for the simple reason that I've now started a full time job where I'm out of the house for around ten hours a day, and on top of that I have to revise for exams for the next three years so I can qualify as an accountant and get a big fat raise for my troubles (though technically I'm a consultant rather than an accountant). Before I went into gainful employment, I was either a lazy college or university student, with plenty of spare time. When I played MMOs, I would play at least two hours a day, with four as the minimum at weekends.

Right now, I'm thinking about renewing my EQ2 subscription in the near future - checking out Kunark, which I've yet to see in all of its glory. I'm also currently on mobile broadband rather than a landline, so this'll allow me to see how viable it is to play MMOs over the connection I currently have without having to splash out and buy the box for Warhammer Online. Thing is, though, it's about £10-12 a month to play an MMO for a month. That's a hell of a lot of money, given that I'll now be playing a max of an hour a day during the week and maybe 5-6 hours a day at weekends, if I decide to turn all my spare time over to the game.

And chances are, I won't. I have a gym membership I'm actually using at the moment. I have a social life, and I seem to lose half the weekend to hangovers anyway. So I'm not going to be playing an MMO for huge amounts of time, which means that suddenly the £10-12 that I didn't mind paying when I played EQ2 more often suddenly seems a bit excessive now.

If you look at any major MMO, though, there's PLENTY of hardcore powergamers out there. Maybe it's just because I didn't come into contact with too many people who didn't play for at least a couple of hours a day in my in-game social circles, but most people seemed to sink vast amounts of time into the game. Even WoW, famously casual-friendly, has become the ultimate super-hardcore powergamer haunt - so much so that Blizzard is always struggling to find new things to keep the endgame players entertained.

So in that way, you've got to say that there definitely is a place for the hardcore MMO in the modern genre. After all, if you're charging people a subscription fee to play the game, the logical result is that you're going to have a lot of people who put a lot of their time into the game.There's actually enough of these people around to mean that most MMOs will be sustainable. That's why games like Ultima Online and Everquest are still around nearly ten years after release - people still play them.

It's interesting, though, that the majority of them play the most casual friendly MMO out there. Why? Because it's the game with the most mainstream appeal, so it's the most acceptable for 'normal' people to play - people who aren't really interested in roleplaying, or the gameworld, etc. But invariably some will find that they do like the medium, and become interested in the gameworld, and maybe even find an online identity and start roleplaying.

Powergamers. I would imagine they don't have full-time jobs.

My view is that casual-friendly MMOs like World of Warcraft and now Warhammer are far more sustainable in today's market. I loved Everquest when it came out, truly loved it - but now I have a job, I wouldn't buy the game again if it was released tomorrow. I spent hours exploring the world, doing endless other things than just the grind that modern MMOs have become, but that was because there was a lot more to do. Lots of things I just don't have time for as a working man. So I'll turn my attention to the more casual-friendly games instead.

And its the casual-friendly games that actually breed the hardcore players in the first place. Some will get bored and move onto other pastures, but others will stay. And the problem with creating hardcore MMOs is that you're relying on stealing hardcore players from other MMOs, because you're not going to attract them from the more mainstream market. Your potential playerbase is therefore much smaller than casual-friendly MMOs, and it's also going to be very demanding and labour-intensive to look after. After all, who complains the loudest on the forums when something gets nerfed? Yeah, the hardcore raiders, the people who have invested huge amounts of time into the game. Jack who plays five hours a week pays just the same subscription fee as one of these raiders, but he doesn't have time to kick up a stink when something he doesn't like happens - he's too busy playing the game.

Hardcore MMOs are still viable, then - Vanguard was panned on release and has less than 50,000 subscribers, but you don't hear about them making a loss. They will be profitable, provided that too many games don't try and crowd the niche out. But that's exactly what they are - niche games. Players who have powergamed to the ends of Azeroth may want something a little more challenging than World of Warcraft and seek out a more hardcore alternative, but for every person who does that ten more will find WoW is perfectly adequate for their needs.

There's nothing wrong with hardcore games or casual-friendly MMOs and, in a sense, its barely worth comparing the two any more. They set out to do different things. One sets out to have mass market appeal by offering a shallower but more accessible experience, while the other does the opposite. Both have their own charms, so judge them on their own merits - just don't be afraid to jump the fence if you have to.