Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Archive for May, 2008

Age of Conan: Level 25 Is Less Awesome

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 26, 2008

My ranger is now level 25, so I thought I’d write up how I felt about at this phase in the game:

Levels 5-19 continued to be great. I finished up my single player quest at level 19, and it was nice and satisfying. So as a self-contained whole, the first 20 or so levels of Age of Conan are an extremely solid game, almost worth the price of admission by themselves. They were nicely paced, too. Just as I was getting tired of the area and ready to move on to the new hotness, I was done with my single player stuff and was able to move on. I’m somewhat concerned about forcing every alt to go through this, but I’ll see how that feels if I roll another character. Some of my friends say it’s frustrating to do the same content so many times when making multiple characters.

Once you leave the island, you’re in the MMO proper. You get shuttled off to your racial homeland. Mine was the desert land of Stygia, which was nicely detailed and suitably barren. They did a good job of making it seem hostile and lifeless, while still having some personality. There seem to be about enough quests for 3 whole playthroughs from levels 20-30 (there are 3 races and thus 3 20-30 zones), and the quests were a nice mix of kill tasks and fetch quests. They did a good job of pointing out the cool parts of the zone, and I still love the graphics. At level 25, the game feels like a very traditional, but very pretty, MMO. However, I have a major beef with one of the core components of an MMO…

Remember when I said that the AoC UI worked really well? So, what that ACTUALLY means is that the AoC UI works really well solo. The parts of the UI that deal with grouping are crap. The interface for finding a group was mediocre (still nothing is as good as CoH’s), but the first problem I ran into is that I couldn’t figure out how to remotely invite someone by name. Apparently there’s a /invite command but it didn’t seem to work for me when I tried it, and there wasn’t any easy way to do it from the UI. Then once you invite them, you have to get to the right instance. When you zone it doesn’t do this for you automatically (as far as I can tell), and you’ll have to switch instances by clicking a very small triangle in the upper right. And then once you’re in the same instance? Your teammates don’t show up on your minimap. The game appears to be only doing proximity-based player sending, so unless you’re right next to your teammates, you have absolutely no idea where they are. We got around this by sending coordinates back and forth. Sigh. Oh, and even though you can’t see each other and are accross the entire map, the game DOES do loot splitting, just to mock you. The teaming experience needs to be dramatically improved.

Age of Conan is now significantly less awesome than it was last week, and that is not a good trend. I’ll keep at it until at least 40 or so (mounts sound fun), but I’m not sure I’ll be up for the long haul. I am curious how the PvP works, though. I seem to have already passed through the best parts of AoC, and what’s left is a sorta buggy, pretty, but kinda boring MMO.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Age of Conan Initial Impressions

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 21, 2008

I purchased and played Age of Conan for the first time last night. I didn’t participate in the beta, so these thoughts come from the perspective of a totally new player. Here are my impressions, from 5 levels in to the game:

Everything between wanting to purchase the game and creating my character sucked. First, there’s no digital download option, so I had to drive to Best Buy and pick it up. Then, the install size is so huge (30 gigs) I took the opportunity to purchase a 1TB disk drive. After going through that irritating process the game install was very long (do I really need the intro movie in 7 languages?). Every time you start the game it plays 7 intro movies that I couldn’t figure out how to automatically skip. The patcher kind of sucks. I got stuck at the server list for a few minutes trying to find the server I wanted. Oh, and the game was completely down this morning when I tried to play.

Character creation is fun. You’re on a slave ship, and you pick your appearance there. Picking your race/gender gives you a random appearance, and then you tweak it. Body and Face are split up with different sides of the interface and randomize buttons. So, you can randomize your face until you find a good one to match the body you worked on. The part scaling is really comprehensive, and felt like a version of Oblivion’s that actually worked right. Random always seemed to give me an appealing character to start with for tweaking, as opposed to the soulless husks of ugly that Oblivion always seemed to generate. I ended up making Stygian Ranger.

I really enjoyed levels 1-5. The game feels very much like a single player PC RPG, to the point that I kept looking for the quick save button. There are cutscenes, voice acting, full screen dialogue trees, the whole shebang. The dialogue trees are kind of funny because they are completely inconsequential. Threatening to kill who you’re talking to seems to have absolutely no effect on game play or plot, but it does help get you involved with your character’s identity. As far as ease of use, I had no issues. The tutorial area is a mix of guided and unguided play, and useful but easy-to-disable tutorial popups appear and help you play. I never felt intimidated or patronized, and I think they did a great job with the first 5 levels.

The interface is one of the things I liked the most. It has a VERY useful and attractive mini map. You can dynamically zoom from global scale down to local, and the map has tool tips for all mission objectives, shops, and important NPCs. I liked the quest list UI because it displays the quest reward ahead of time, which lets you make decisions about what to focus on. Everything is extensively tool tipped as far as stats go. The possibly best part is that when you hover over inventory items, they spin around in 3d which is significantly niftier than it should be. Overall, AoC likes to give you information that is useful for gameplay, and does so in a functional and attractive package.

Presentation-wise, the game excels. One big part of their environments is that basically everything in it is dynamic in some way. The grass sways slightly, the water looks great, the flags all billow, and the corpses hanging from city walls look particularly dynamic. They’re all simple tricks but go a long way to sell the environment as alive.  There’s some texture pop in and such, but it didn’t bother me. The lighting is pretty decent, and there’s an “Ambient Occlusion Quality” option that has a large effect. I’m not sure what they’re doing (are they actually doing real time occlusion?) but turning that on made the environments look way more natural and interesting. In addition to the solid graphics, the sound was univerally excellent. It has a good musical score, dynamic in-combat music, good sound effects, and even some solid voice acting. I have no complaints presentation-wise.

From what I’ve seen so far, Age of Conan is really promising. I’m not entirely sold on the combat mechanics, but my level 5 ranger is pretty fun to play. This has essentially no relationship to how the game will feel at level 80, so we’ll see when (okay, if) I get there. Age of Conan has the best, most polished early (but not pre-) game experience of any MMO yet made.

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The World Ends With You: Best JRPG Ever

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 13, 2008

I’ve now played 30 hours of The World Ends With You (for Nintendo DS), and I think it is the best Japanese RPG ever made. It may not necessarily be everyone’s favorite (I think Chrono Trigger is still mine), but as far as game mechanics, presentation, and innovation, it is the current pinnacle of the genre. It may seem a bit weird at first (modern day setting? dual screen-dual character combat system? bizarre animal-shaped music enemies?), but once you get about an hour or so in, the game is transcendent bliss. Every time I thought of something that would make the game better, they’d do that exact thing. Here’s my capsule review:

The World Ends With You is a Japanese RPG set in an alternate version of modern day Shibuya, which is lovingly recreated and integral to the game. The conflict between the creative and destructive aspects of a style-driven place like Shibuya is central to the gameplay and plot. The main character, Neku Sakuraba, arrives confused and without his memories. Shockingly, the amnesia actually makes sense given later developments. He is forced to team up with a partner, and battle music-based animal enemies (Shrew Gazer, Gabba Bat, etc) in a two-character Action RPG combat system. You control Neku on the bottom screen using an extremely wide variety of stylus gestures to activate special Pins (you know, like Flair from Office Space). Your partner is on the top screen, and you control them using d-pad motions (or the AI can auto control them for ease of use). This sounds incredibly confusing, but after half an hour or so you’ll be an expert at focusing your attention. The main quest can take from 10-25 hours, and there is extensive post-game content. As far as graphics, it is one of the most attractive games on the DS. It features 2.5D scaled sprites with lots of detail and parallax. The characters are designed by the same guy who did Kingdom Hearts, and I much prefer them here due to a complete lack of Mickey Mouse. The interface is cleanly designed and very usable. The soundtrack is absolutely outstanding, and consists of a somehow cohesive mix of J-Pop/Rap and more Ambient pieces. If you own a DS and are vaguely interested in RPGs, Action games, Japan, Fashion, Theology, or Fun, this game is an absolute must buy.

With that out of the way, I wanted to talk a bit about some of the more innovative parts of the design. First, the overall structure of the game is great. It’s split up into 21 chapters, and all of them are self-contained experiences that switch between free-range sections and tightly controlled goals. Narrative developments tie them together, and there’s no extended “you now have an airship” portion of the game that drags down the pace. I found myself alternating between grinding and plot development, and the game supports whatever mix the player wants. The best part of this structure is that it drives the New Game + mode, which is an objective mode where you revisit past chapters. The goals tend to be fun and challenging, and finishing them opens up extensive information on the game’s back story. I’ll talk about Pins below, but the other major components of the game’s overall mechanic are Items. Items are either clothing or food, and you buy them from stores. Food gives you permanent stat boosts, and you can only eat a certain amount per day. Clothing gives you stat boosts while worn, as well as special abilities. The interesting thing is that these special abilities are unlocked for you by the various shopkeepers as you develop a relationship with them. The bondage pants only give you improved attack while in critical condition if you become friends with the creepy shop owner. Oh, and the brand of clothes you wear affects your battle performance. If you bring sweat pants and a hoodie to the high-class zone, you’re going to suck. The upshot of all this is that buying and trying on different items is really fun, and it’s extremely easy to lose yourself in this part of the game.

The most innovative part of the game comes with the Pin system. Pins are what you use to activate powers, there is a huge variety of them. They work by tapping the screen, or scratching enemies, or by drawing a path, etc. Every gesture you can think of is used. Additionally, the pins all have a Brand (which ties into the zone), a description, some art, and possibly an Evolution. Pins can evolve through battle, shutdown (gained for real-world time spent between plays), or mingling with other players (you get exp for talking to people who own TWEWY, with other DS’s, and with “Aliens” that randomly occur). So, there’s a complex and complete system for evolving pins into other pins, and the pace of evolution is very high. But where do you get Pins from in the first place? Most Pins drop from enemies. So, you spend a lot of your time in game repeatedly killing enemies in order to get rare drops. What’s so innovative about that?

The vital part is that drop rate is part of the game mechanics. At any point, you can lower your effective level to increase Pin drop rate. Additionally, if you chain together more than one battle, you get an additionally boosted drop rate. So, the game encourages you to fight as difficult a battle as possible, and there is a risk-vs-reward dynamic for getting the 1337 drops. Oh, and you can also tweak the AI difficulty (which switches classes of items that drop, instead of just frequency) in addition to your own level. Plus the better you do in combat, the more Pin experience you get at conclusion so player skill is encouraged. On top of that it gives you a comprehensive list of all possible item drops (with undiscovered drops listed as ????) with percentages, so you know what you need to fight. And if you fail at the battle (once you pass certain point), you can retry right away at a lower difficulty if you just want to progress in the story. To make it even better, the Pin progression system (because it’s so fast and easy) ensures that you switch pins out frequently. This means that each battle plays out differently even against the same enemy. If you add all this together, what you get is a system where grinding isn’t required, it’s totally awesome. I’ve fallen for this part of the game in a way I never fell for Diablo 2 or Pokemon, and it’s because it’s just so fun and non-frustrating. I’m pretty sure I’m going to master this game (which I don’t think I’ve ever done to an RPG before), and enjoy it a hell of a lot in the process. I can honestly say that so far I have enjoyed every single minute of this game, and I don’t think it’s going to let up any time soon.

Posted in Game Design | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

EA Does Something Right

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 9, 2008

As an update to my earlier post on Mass Effect and Spore DRM, EA has changed it’s mind. The new scheme for both games is online activation when you first play, and activation when you go online for new content or community features. This is a reasonable scheme, although they’re keeping the 3 activation limit. They claim to solve this with: “EA customer service is on hand to supply any additional authorizations that are warranted. This will be done on a case-by-case basis by contacting customer support.” So it’s not as good as Steam, but it’s at least moderately acceptable.

The actually interesting bit is that EA changed their mind on this. My theory is that BioWare wasn’t particularly happy with the DRM, so started talking about it as soon as possible, knowing there would be this backlash. BioShock’s DRM wasn’t talked about before launch, and they sort of tried to sneak it in, while this is the opposite. So, seeing the reaction of the internet, Penny Arcade included, BioWare had some leverage to push back on the EA corporate/legal masters to try and get a more reasonable DRM scheme in place. The needs of our armed forces were specifically mentioned (they often go overseas with no internet for months at a time). Anyway, the system isn’t perfect, but it does show that publishers are responsive to customer complaints. We as consumers need to keep up the complaints, and not let publishers get away with this kind of shit. This proves we can do something about it.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

EA’s New Copy Protection

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 7, 2008

Update: EA changed their mind.

Derek French from BioWare revealed the copy protection plans for Mass Effect and Spore on Saturday.  In response, the internet erupted in indignation. Because of what I’ve said before, I’m going to join in. This is a horrible idea. If you didn’t follow it, the summary is that Mass Effect and Spore PC will use a new copy protection system from SecuROM. A physical DVD is no longer needed (yey!), but you can still only install it on a max of 2-3 computers (boo). The new exciting feature is that the game needs to talk to the SecuROM servers every 10 days or else the game shuts down entirely. Let me say that again. If you successfully install and validate your game, and then lose internet access, you can no longer play your entirely single player game. I feel very bad for BioWare and Maxis, because this is a horrible idea that will lose them money.

This is the most blatantly anti-consumer DRM yet in the gaming space. I have a laptop that I use for half gaming and half travelling. I only boot it up every month or so, and often immediatly take it on a trip where I play games on it. Galactic Civilizations 2 is great for long airplane rides. With this new Copy Protection, I would not be able to play any games on this laptop. This is exactly the kind of invasive DRM that the music industry was pushing down our throats 5 years ago. Remember when it seemed a given that ultra-restrictive spyware-ridden copy protection was the only way we would be able to get music in the future? At the time, I didn’t believe some of my software activist friends who said that music DRM could be stopped, but they were right. These days, large parts of the music industry have smartened up, and it is actually easier and more convenient to buy music today than it is to steal it (via eMusic, Amazon Music Store, iTunes without DRM, Radiohead).

Here’s what the music industry realized, and what most game publishers haven’t: tech-savvy consumers are willing to pay for convenience, guaranteed service, and community involvement. What they’re NOT willing to pay for is crippled software, technically buggy activation schemes, and guaranteed obsolescence. What does DRM do? It encourages people to use pirated software, because the pirated software is free of all the broken crap that comes with all DRM schemes, ever. The only people that DRM helps are DRM providers (yet none of them have been able to ship a solution that even vaguely stops piracy), and software pirates. It certainly doesn’t help developers or users.

There are two correct ways to approach copy protection for PC games:

  1. Heavily integrate online functionality into your title, and tie copy protection to the online functionality. This is the approach taken by Valve, Blizzard, and all MMOs. Because online functionality is a key component of the game, the fact that validation is tied to it does not feel artificial and anti-consumer. You can also bundle it with pro-consumer functionality such as anti-cheating, software updates and community interaction. I have absolutely no idea why Spore isn’t taking this approach, because that game has significant online functionality.
  2. Take a simple, one-time stab at protection, and then get out of the way. A simple one-time validation check like Steam does, or some sort of unlimited install-time verification, is not invasive and will stop the casual pirates who aren’t technically apt. Stardock chooses to skip this step, which is their choice but I do feel they’re losing a bit of money. But, once you’ve verified that the copy is valid, you need to get out of the way. A one-time check is not seen as intrusive and will generate no user and press ill will.

If you try to tack online validation into a single player title, it will come off as invasive, insulting, and condescending. Yes, SecuROM does basically the same thing as WoW, but it feels a lot different, because it has no legitmate purpose outside of telling players what they can’t do. I don’t want to feel like a thief, and I prefer to actually be one (for games with invasive DRM, I often buy the game, never open it, and install a pirated copy). I’m definitely not going to be installing a commercial PC copy of Mass Effect or Spore, and if you want this kind of crap to end you shouldn’t either.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

City of Heroes User-Created Content

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 3, 2008

This week, the lead designer of City of Heroes announced the future addition of user-created content. I don’t have any insider information (since CoH got sold to NCSoft, Cryptic has nothing to do with it), but it’s definitely still a story worth talking about. Based on the one paragraph description and my knowledge of the mission system in CoH, basically what they’re talking about is a way for users to create and share the kind of missions that City of Heroes shipped with. So, I would expect full control over things like enemy types, general map tileset, and flavor text of all kinds. This is pure speculation, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect much in the way of complicated mission behavior or custom map layouts. You might be able to make a map entirely out of that horrible 6 level cave tile piece, but if you do no one will want to play it.

This is a limited, but essential, first step towards a fully user-created MMO. This should satisfy most of the desire to create interesting story and narrative, and I fully expect users to fill out the fiction of the CoH universe, as well as create their own crazy parralel narrative spaces. The most exciting part of this for me is that it’s kind of like fully integrated, officially sponsored fan fiction within the community context of an MMO. I thought some of the writing in CoH was superb, but some of these missions will certainly reach or exceed that level. However, most of them will be useless dreck.

There are a bunch of problems that need to be solved for user-content in an MMO to be a viable and worthwhile endeavor. The first one is content guidelines. Since this is basically fan fiction, it will be about 10 seconds before someone makes a mission involving Statesman having sex with Miss Liberty or something. What will NCSoft’s response to this be? Are they planning on manually screening all content, or depending on community policing? Manual screening has huge manpower requirements that I doubt NCSoft really wants to sign up for, and community policing suffers from the problem that, hey, maybe the community really does want to see Statesman/Miss Liberty. How will the designers and managers of CoH deal with a community that doesn’t necessarily agree with them on what is acceptable or desired? The history of CoH is about this conflict between community and creator, and I’m very curious how the new management will handle it.

Beyond that, the two other major problems are exploits and the issue of content quality rating. There’s a continuum between freedom (which leads to easily exploitable gameplay that could break the rest of the game) and control (where the user’s creative urges are restricted too much and dramatically reduce fun. ie, Supergroup Bases). The current Dev team is headed much more in the direction of freedom, so I’m curious where they’re going to end up when it comes to user missions. I think the concept is cool enough that they should really just live with the fact that someone might be able to make a power-levelling mission. As for user content quality rating, I imagine they’re just going to copy YouTube. Seems to work well enough, but there’s a lot of complication in the details, and if they screw that up, the 99% of crap that is all user content will overwhelm and destroy the good 1%. There has to be a way to get a reliably good mission experience, or else most users will never try it and the system will be a failure.

This is the first step towards a new (well, or just renewed) vision of MMOs. Because of budgetary and creative reasons (competing directly with WoW is a guaranteed losing proposition), the future of MMOs is in dynamic, changing content. What the CoH team proposed won’t get us all the way there, but I’m VERY curious as to how this limited experiment works out.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »