The recent Developments in MMORPGs

I talked about my experience with the genre of MMOs last week. Today, I want to look at some of the developments and changes within the immensely popular genre. There are some fantastic games on the horizon and older games such as World of Warcraft still have a huge player base (even though it’s smaller than before). In the last 8 years I’ve played MMORPGs, many new features and changes have been introduced in various games. Some have made games better, some have made them far less enjoyable.

I find the direction many large RPGs have taken in making everything available to solo players very disappointing. In most games today, many tasks are easily accomplished alone and developers try to make all content available to everybody. I understand that some of these thoughts are especially made from a business point of view as publishers want to bind players to the respective franchises for as long as possible. Another reason is the fact that most players have already reached maximum level in older games, leaving the world unpopulated and empty in earlier stages.

But if nothing requires a group to complete, MMORPGs become similar to single-player roleplaying games, but trapped by the conventional tools of of a completely different genre. As an example, single-player games can offer meaningful choice with different paths to follow and different endings, while MMOs have much less room to differentiate, often only able to change rewards or the physical appearance of players. The greatest strength of the genre is the ability to bring like-minded people together. When there is no incentive to group up, most gamers tend to go at it alone. I find this a worrying tendency.

In the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online, everything will play out on a huge mega server, which is a development I’m looking forward to seeing in action. In The Old Republic, many players quit quickly after launch as their home servers became empty as many subscribers gave up after the initial free month. This forced Bioware to merge servers a short time after release. In World of Warcraft, server communities have eroded thanks to the fact that battlegrounds, dungeons and raids have become available as cross-server features to minimize wait times. Unfortunately, this takes away some of the benefits of having everything play out on one server. Unfriendly and mean players cannot be easily called out anymore, while unskilled and new players get less support when starting out their journey. Hopefully, this mega-server technology can combine the best of the two worlds, offering a lively and full world with less waiting involved, while keeping the ability to punish and help players as a community.

The most interesting development however are the changes in business models many games have gone through. With The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online two games I have played are free-to-play with the option to subscribe, while Guild Wars 2 uses the buy-to-play model with a pay shop. World of Warcraft is still entirely subscription based, but offers various trial modes and a pay shop for cosmetic items. The Elder Scrolls Online will also be a subscription-based MMO, while Everquest Next is expected to be either buy-to-play or free-to-play with no subscription fees.

Both models have their merits with free-to-play losing the stigma formerly attached to it. The Old Republic has been far more successful with the new model and Lord of the Rings Online has managed to survive for years. It offers players the meaningful choice between investing either their time or their money for features. As the generation of Dark Age of Camolot and Everquest players has grown up, this choice has become more and more important and attractive to gamers not able to spend all-nighters chasing down the biggest bosses anymore. The downside of the free-to-play model is the imbalance it can create between paying players and free players. This of course helps the publisher earn more money.

I still believe the patches in WoW to be the largest and most polished around. I never regretted paying the subscription fee for countless hours of entertainment they have provided me with. On the other hand, subscription models encourage the development of features designed to make players stay on longer without really being extremely innovative or even fun. As an example reputation grinds or the gating of content behind other goals come to mind.

Currently both models have their place in the genre. Guild Wars 2 has so far struck a fairly good balance between earning money with the sale of the game, having a pay shop without excessive benefits for paying players and the ability to continue to develop their games with patches and updates. I cannot say which model will take over the future, but it does seem like customers are becoming more reluctant to spend money on subscriptions, especially with the variety of free-to-play options out there.

What are your thoughts about the recent development of the genre? Do you prefer are singular payment model? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

What I’ve learned from Video Games

Over the last weeks I’ve noticed how video games have become a vital part of daily life and culture in general. The kids on the bus are busy playing on their cellphones, conversations in bars are about the newest gameplay video for GTA V and hangouts are dedicating to battling each other in FIFA. For this generation, playing games on a console, computer or cellphone is totally normal, like watching a movie or reading a book. I’ve looked at how books, movies and videos are intertwined in this post, so today will be dedicated to the benefits and perks of (video) gaming.

I’ve played games on a Gameboy or on PC for years (my gaming history). My favorite genres are roleplaying games (RPGs), which allow me to immerse myself in fantastic adventures.  They take me to faraway worlds based on the medieval age or the distant, dystopian future. These games can be compared to “choose-your-adventure” books, as the developers often tell an elaborate story, while allowing you to pick the path your hero will wander down. Many of the them are set in an expansive universe, with in-game books and codices with stories and background information waiting to be discovered. Playing them, I’ve learned to not be afraid to explore your surroundings, but instead to check out every corner and nook for a hidden item or easter egg. Good RPGs award the curious.

The next genre I’m fond of are Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs), which take roleplaying games to the next level by adding other players to the equation. They’re similar to RPGs in wanting to tell a great story, but they include various elements of teamwork and competition. Throughout the game, you’ll encounter challenges that can’t be overcome alone and you’ll need to seek out help from others. This encourages teamwork and makes gaming a very social affair. I’ve met a lot of interesting people just by asking them if they would help me out fight virtual monsters. Unfortunately recent MMORPGs have made a lot of their content easier so they can also be completed alone. This has lead to the decline of one of the most interesting aspects of the genre: actually playing with others.

Another element in MMORPGs are Player-vs-Player (PVP) environments which allow you to test your skills against others. This can be compared to most modern-day team sports. Most PVP battles also involve a great amount of teamwork and strategy. Putting players in the right spot, preparing a plan for a battle or surprising the opponent with a well-timed attack is a great way to learn the value of great leadership and teamwork. It is important that every player tries to improve their own skill as much as possible and then plays their position as the team needs them to do. This is no different to football. Of course, sports has various health benefits, but studies have also shown that gaming can improve your reflexes and visual skills.

Last, but not least, I’d also like to talk about strategy games. If the game is properly balanced, this genre can be compared to the centuries-old board game chess, where every move from an opponent can and should be adequately countered. The name of the genre already says it all, playing these games has shown me that choosing the right strategy is everything. Knowing when to fight and how to pick the right spots for a confrontation have helped me in confrontations. And of course, they’ve taught me that access to advanced technology often leads to victory.

People used to look at video games as an inferior form of entertainment, asking why a person would waste his or her time playing them. On the other hand, you rarely see someone asking a person reading why they are wasting their time reading. I haven’t heard many question people who like movies. Of course, this also depends on the quality of the books and movies in question. Games are no different. Some games are definitely not worth the time, but many modern-day classics should be experienced and savored.  Even if they do not teach you anything, they will hopefully succeed in telling a fantastic story or make you appreciate the art they’ve created. As you can see, the time I spent in virtual worlds has inspired me and taught me a fair deal of things institutional education never achieved.

On Friday, “An elusive hero”, the story, returns after a two-week hiatus. I hope you’re looking forward to it! Thank you for reading and please like, share and subscribe.

Sincerely yours,

Albert

PC gaming and console wars

Last week I wrote about some of my favorite board games to try out. This week the E3, one of the most important entertainment expos, is happening in Los Angeles. At the event more information about the new generation of consoles has been released. As an avid gamer, I’m following the events of the week closely. This prompted me to look back at my gaming “career” and have a brief look at what the future holds.

I started playing video games at a young age, starting with sports games such as FIFA 01 and NHL 01 before moving on to strategy and roleplaying games. My cousins had a huge impact on the development of my gaming habits as they showed me classics like Command & Conquer or Starcraft. When I moved to Germany as a 13-year old, happiness arrived in form of an internet flatrate. Finally able to surf the internet and play games 24/7, I took full advantage. My favorite game was Gothic 2, an open-world roleplaying game with a fascinating story about dragons. As I’ve mentioned before, the game is the reason I started writing, later becoming a moderator of the official Gothic RPG forum. After Gothic 2 had run its course, I turned to strategy games and MMOs, playing and watching a lot of Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, still the best game ever for me. Following the competitive scene and the world of e-sports closely, I worked on a few gaming websites and managed my own little team. Later, I even wrote my senior thesis in High School about e-sports. Of course, being a fan of all things Blizzard, I also spent hundred of hours playing their immersive MMORPG World of Warcraft. The beautiful, vast world with interesting characters and hilarious easter eggs is definitely  a great achievement, even if I feel the game has gotten very repetitive. Unfortunately, I never was a very skilled player, either lacking the necessary reflexes or drive to improve myself. In college, I got a macbook and that put my PC gaming on hold.

As a child, I never had a console and instead played Nintendo 64 at my friend’s house, being thoroughly overmatched at Goldeneye and Mario Kart. However, the N64 controller is still the pinnacle of video game controllers. Again, it was in Germany where I got my first console: the original Xbox. I don’t really remember which games I played it. Only Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind. Upon earning my first paycheck after high school, I upgraded to the Xbox 360 to play GTA IV and one of the NBA 2k games. It stopped working due to the infamous ring of death but helped my flatmates and me survive kill a lot of time.

We then decided to get a Playstation 3, the console I still own today. I’m very happy with it, as my group of friends routinely spend the month of September playing hours of FIFA and practicing the newest tricks. The Blu-Ray DVD player is a welcome addition. Being able to play games on the couch instead of crouched in front of a computer screen is another plus for consoles.

Unfortunately, a lot of the great features which make consoles fantastic additions to any living room are only accessible in the United States. The newly announced Xbox One looks great, but most of the features are aimed at the American market only. I doubt Swiss customers will be able to use the interesting fantasy football app andit isn’t clear if the console will be able to connect with the set-up boxes here. Netflix and Hulu are still not available here, making both the Xbox One and Playstations streaming capability less useful. The price of 629 CHF is high, but considering people spend that kind of money for modern smartphones probably appropriate. Another concern for consumers is the supposed inability to trade used games and the need to be online once a day. I don’t really mind the always online mantra games producers have nowadays, because I’m connected most, if not all of the time. But for gamers wanting to take their console on a getaway, it’s going to be a no-go.

The Playstation capitalized on these features by Microsoft, insisting they would have no online obligation and no restrictions on used games. The prize will also be 100$ lower than the asking price of Microsoft, giving Sony an early advantage. How long the two companies can hold off a price war remains to be seen. However, the PS does not include movement controllers like the One’s Kinect. The Kinect on the other hand is supposed to be on all the time and be able to look into your living room. With the PRISM scandal dominating airwaves at the moment, such a feature could come under increased scrutiny from the public and regulators alike. The Playstation also boasts the connection with the PS Vita as one of the main features. Since I don’t own a Vita, it is fairly useless for me. It’s still unclear what the new touchpad on the controller will be able to do besides improving navigation on the television.

I haven’t played many indie games over the years, but looking at the reactions on the internet, it seems as if Sony cares and Microsoft doesn’t care about them. The rapidly growing market shouldn’t be underestimated. The ability to self-publish gives games designer the means to bring their creations to a wider public. Like with books, a new dawn might arrive for creators as it has for independent, business-minded authors.

In the end, it will come down to which features the two consoles will be able to offer in Switzerland and at which price they will offered. PC gaming can only profit from better consoles. The lowest common denominator is higher for multi-platform games is bound to improve. Personally, I’m not sure if and which of the new consoles I’ll be getting as the living room capabilities of the Xbox One have a lot of potential, but some their other features are just not consumer-friendly. The Playstation seems to be a safer bet, but there it depends on the quality of games offered. Most likely, I’ll be returning to PC gaming.

Which console are you looking forward to and what are your favorite games? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

As always, please share this post with your friends and follow on the right hand side!

See you on Friday with chapter 7 of “An elusive hero”.

Sincerely yours,
Albert