Are you still checking this blog?

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Hi there,

If you’re reading this, it’s my unfortunate duty to inform you that you’re woefully behind the times. Fires of War is no longer with us. I’m sorry for your loss. But fear not! The same guy who brought you this blog has a new project, Game by Night! It’s the same quality content you’ve come to expect here but, newer, shinier, and self-hosted  which automatically makes it better. Sweet deal, eh? Why don’t you head on over and have a look. Don’t worry, we only bite when milkbones are involved. We’re pretty sure you’re safe.

– Chris, a.k.a. “Raegn”

Challenging the Concept of Challenge

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Or, the truth about MMO gaming….

Since I started blogging, I’ve read a lot about how players want to be challenged. A good amount of this conversation has circulated around World of Warcraft and the WotLK difficulty drop. I always accepted these statements as understandable truths but lately I’ve been questioning just how true they really may be.

Do we play MMORPGs for the challenge? A lot of you will probably say yes and I’d have to disagree with most of you.

To better explain, let’s look at the definition of Challenge:

“A test of one’s abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking: a career that offers a challenge.” – Dictionary.com: American Heritage

Compare that definition to the current “challenges” of most popular mmos: pressing the right keys at the right times, staying out of the glowing shapes on the ground, try not to let the monster hit you, and put in enough time.

There’s more than that for some players but I think that about sums up the average players “challenge” in an MMO. The usual justification is that “it takes skill to play your class well.” Yeah, maybe, bust most MMOs don’t really require you to play your class “well” to succeed. They require you to fulfill your requirement which, we all know, doesn’t necesarily mean doing anything even near well.

By and large, MMOs follow a more time = more reward formula. Skill and challenge really have nothing to do with that. In the pursuit of equal opportunity, challenge has been lost in translation.

What does challenge mean to me? It means having to pay attention to a fight the whole time or risking death. It means more than auto-attack, 1, 3, 2, 2, 2. It means taking risks and making decisions that could make or break an encounter. In short, it means a much less forgiving game. For some players, dedicated raid/guild leaders and PvPers to name a few, that formula holds up. For the rest, time and repetition are the “challenges” they’re meeting.

But do we really play MMOs for the challenge of them? I sure hope not, otherwise we all went into this thing organizationally deficit, which, taken as a whole, is probably true (getting a group of people together is part of what makes a group leader’s job more of a challenge than most other aspects of play).

MMOs fill a different gap in our gaming lives. They provide a feeling of moving from one place to another, progression, that gives our gaming purpose. They give us a social outlet that gives it meaning and value. They give us a meta-game, a distraction from the day to day, and something to devote or intellectual resources to.

If I want “challenging” gameplay, I’ll turn to a game with difficulty settings. When I’m playing an MMO, I don’t expect any more challenge that knowing what buttons to push when and where not to stand — until that special little player comes along and pushes me outside of my bounds. The truth of why PvE will always top PvP in popularity is that most people in this genre want an MMO for what it is, a slightly dumbed down RPG they can experience with other people. And that’s not so bad.

Edit: I just read a recent article at Ferrel’s site, Epic Slant, that made me want to clarify something. He made the point that, yes, learning new encounters can be difficult. There’s no doubt about that. The reason I still feel that, on the whole, modern MMOs present little is that most people do not go through the effort of learning encounters themselves.  I wish more people would, I wish that I would, because it presents a far more exciting encounter until it’s mastered. There’s a social expectation, however, that counteracts that desire. The expectation is that you’ll either a) know what’s going to happen ahead of time; or b) keep up. That expectation pressures people to follow instead of learn.

WoW bought forth a massive influx of database sites so it’s no longer necessary for people to learn encounters on their own. The learning curve is drastically reduced for the vast majority of gamers because as soon as a guild or two clears through the latest dungeon, a strategy is put online that details everything subsequent groups are likely to encounter. Plus, for a guild with VoIP, only one person really needs to know the encounter well, and they can just tell the rest of the group what to do. Unfortunately, I also think a good chunk of gamers just want the gear upgrade at the end, too. Why bother with the frustration of learning the encounter on your own when the fight is just a means to an end anyways?

Perhaps a better statement is that modern MMO end-game is as challenging as players want it to be… most people just want it easy.

Non-MMO: Getting rid of my PSP

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I’ve had my PSP for about a year now and I’ve decided to trade it in for the Nintendo DS. Unlike many in the gaming industry, I’m not enamored with Nintendo or full of nostalgia for the golden days of eight-bit gaming. I have, however, had fun with their systems and thoroughly enjoyed many of their N64 titles (Goldeneye sniper mode was teh win). On the other hand, I can say the exact same for most of the other big game consoles.

Actually, after the N64, I pretty much gave up on Nintendo. After seeing the route the company went with the Gamecube, I knew that our ways had parted and couldn’t really understand the fanboyism of some of my friends.

Then the Wii came along and, despite the gimmicky controls, I remained unimpressed. Nintendo seemed intent upon staying behind the times. I mean, come on… in this day and age they can’t even put arms on their “Miis”? What the heck, Nintendo. Still, some of the games were alright, definitely better for playing with other people, but not good enough to convince me to buy into the fad.

The same thing applied to the Nintendo DS. The Nintendo crowd could keep their little kid games and test their Brain Age all they wanted. I went for the PSP. Good graphics. Good games. Good stuff.

Except, after playing with it for a year, I find myself at a loss as it sits on the floor of my closet, even while I’m searching for a way to distract myself at work.

After some contemplation, I have it pinned down. The PSP is a system that doesn’t know what it wants to be. On one hand, they push for cutting edge graphics and strong gameplay but, on the other, each of those forces the games to be shorter and shallower due to the space limitations of the UMD.

Playstation wants you to believe that the PSP is a PS2 in pocket with such titles as Grand Theft Auto and God of War, yet it suffers because it simply cannot compare to the original games, again, due to space limitations and a muddy control system.

But, wait, it’s not just a game system! It’s a movie system! An MP3 player! A PDA! On all three counts, it does not live up to its charge. Movie selection is lacking, even when you find a store that rents their discs. It’s a freaking block, so no one uses it for an mp3 player. And, as for being a web tool, well… it works for rudimentary web browsing. As long as you don’t have to type anything in less than five minutes.

So, after all this time, I find myself looking again at the Nintendo DS.  Are the graphics as good? No way. But at least the DS knows what it wants to be. It’s a casual console, designed for in and out fun. They don’t want to engross you in hours of deep play. They want you to return to it, time and again, for little pieces of fun and, when you want, devote big chunks of time.

But they don’t force you. And they don’t give allusions to being more than what they are. Nintendo makes clear the audience they’re shooting for and give players the tools to do more with what they’re given.

After over 10 years of sitting firmly in the Sony/Microsoft circle, I’m looking towards a different corner of the gaming ring.

Wish me luck with my trade-ins. Even a PSP is worth more than fifty bucks.

More Aion Thoughts From China Live

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I got the chance to explore a little bit more in Aion last night. As I was playing a few thoughts kept popping up in my mind. Since many of you were interested in my impressions, I thought I’d post them here until I write another “impressions” post. I have to say though, because I feel it’s important, I had no interest in Aion whatsoever until I tried it. I’m very surprised with how much fun I’ve had. Before this, the game I’d had the most fun questing in was WoW, hands down. For better or worse, Aion matches that experience. Here we go…

-> Without a doubt, WoW fans will call copycat on this one.

By level six on the Asmodyian side, you’ll most likely encounter a quest that has you killing restless undead whose burlap sack headwear bears an uncanny resemblence to those in WoW. Likewise, the glowy yellow bugs a reminiscient of those in Zangarmarsh. Combining that with the similar UI and the playstyle similarities, WoW fans may brush the game off. Forgot to screenshot, sorry.

-> Aion makes you feel rich… but you’re not.

By level six, I have over 2,000 kinah. Since there’s no breakdown (correct me if I’m wrong) of money into different types, you wind up with a lot of it. Where some games reward you with 50 copper for an early quest, NPCs here will reward you with 900 kinah early on. There’s a lot of money sinks though, so it evens out. Still, it leads me to wonder about the cash rewards later in the game. Little known fact: the Asmodyian faction leader is the Monopoly man.

-> No news here: grinding is there but worthwhile.

There’s been a lot of talk about how NCSoft is westernizing the game. The common understanding is that this means they’re reducing the grind. Still, I hope they leave it as a viable form of advancement. Right now, you can choose to either quest, grind, or a mix of both and all three options are worth the time you put in. I like having the option to turn off for a while and still get something done. The experience actually reminds me a lot of the Final Fantasy SRPG series, where you’d have to level up to prepare for boss fights. To me, that’s a good thing. Apart from XP, grinding will also net you vendor trash which is suprisingly lucrative. I made over 1k just from killing mobs between two quest hubs.

Grind also acts as a separating factor. WoW streamlined MMOs and in doing so they changed player’s expectations. Grinding will filter out people from getting to the endgame. While I’m not in support breaking down a game into casual vs. hardcore, I do think there’s value in making people earn max level. It gives the everyday player something to aspire to.

-> Legion (guild) banners are just cool.

Appears automatically after joining a legion

Appears automatically after joining a legion -- click to enlarge

I got myself into a legion last night and was surprised to see a new armor piece appear on my character. This is what trophies in WAR should have been.  Mythic, please take this example and use it in your game. Along with that though…

-> /Who search sucks.

No ability to search by legion tag? Poor. Demanding proper capitalization? Worse. This made it a chore to find members of the legion I was interested in because I couldn’t just search for “warmongers.” I had to go to the aionsource forums, locate members posts, search for their character names, and then move on to contacting them. And, beware people who have fun with capitals. “Cryptic” is not the same thing as “cryptic”.

-> I’m a little conflicted in how I feel about questing.

The polish in the questing experience is great. You can tell they cared about the quality of their questing experience and the mini cut-scenes (fly overs of your quest area usually) are really neat. Still, the quest text tends to be lengthy. Usually, I wouldn’t mind this since I’m among those who enjoy reading why I’m being asked to do something. Yet, since I know it will ultimately come down to kill, collect, or deliver, I find myself tempted to just skip it.

That’s about it for now. I’m really interested to dig into this game a little bit more now that I have a group of other English speakers to play with. I’ll put together another impressions post once I get my wings.

The Plan

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Since my last post, I’ve been absent. The largest part of this is that I haven’t played any MMO in a little while now. My wife and I had some extra wedding money left over, so we used it to buy an Xbox 360 (not that she really cares about it, unfortunately). I know, I’m behind the times. The upside to this is that I now have a wide variety of great and affordable games at my disposal.

So, for the last little bit, I’ve been enjoying the likes of Oblivion, Fallout 3, and even the likes of Sonic: Unleashed (nostaliga, what can I say?). I’ve even dove into the Xbox Live Marketplace and picked up a couple of Xbox originals (Fable and GTA: San Andreas) and Uno from the arcade selection, which is surprisingly addictive.

Oblivion is, by far, my favorite. Yet, for all of its RPG-goodness, it’s not quite the same as a good MMO. The problem is, I don’t know if I’m ready to put the Xbox in the #2 place this soon after buying it. My plan, then, is to mix up my playtime for the rest of the summer.

I hate to say it but I really don’t want to go back to LotRO right now. It’s a good game but it doesn’t have that “hook” to keep me interested. After spending the first 23 levels doing much the same (how many monster types did I fight again? Five?) it’s just taken on a feeling of bleh for me.

I even considered returning to WoW. Thankfully, I resisted that urge. I honestly believe that it would be an exercise in exasperation. It’s my old flare. My first MMO love. Yet, we’ve parted ways and I know that if I come back now, I’ll only find everything is still the same. And as slow to progress as ever.

Now I find myself left with a couple of options that I plan to move forward on. First, I’m going to spend more time playing the Chinese version of Aion. They have some really exciting things coming up the fence that have my interested (ie, patch 1.5 but, being honest and all, I’ve experience very little of patch 1.0+ having missed the preview weekends, so I have a lot to check out) and I honestly think that it’ll be the next game to give me that wow-like hook. A second home, so to speak.

The issue at the moment, however, is that with so few English speakers playing and no guild, it can make you feel a little lonesome. I’ve heard there’s lots of English-speaking guilds, however, so I’d imagine that this is only temporary. And it doesn’t detract from the questing at all.

Secondly, I’m going to tinker around in other games. I’m downloading Guild Wars: Nightfall right now to play around with. I tried the first one and liked it but that happened to coincide with when I found WoW and you can imagine what happened then. I’m also considering Final Fantasy 11 for my console but I’ve heard a lot of things that make me hesitant, so I’m not sure if I’ll follow through on that one yet.

Anyways, no. Contrary to popular belief I’m not dead. The wife hasn’t butchered me or made me into little Raegn sausages. She did, however, think it was funny when I told her people think my handle is pronounced Raegan since I’m devoutly anti-political publically. Go figure. It’s all good. I don’t have to be a silent G.

Early Aion Impressions

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Over the past couple of days, I’ve been playing about in China’s Aion open beta. I haven’t made it too far in yet but I’ve been able to form some initial impressions I thought might be worth sharing. I won’t be talking to much about grinding because the Americanized version presumably won’t have it.

First, Aion is very reminiscent of World of Warcraft. The stylized and colorful environment the Asmodian’s start off in reminds me a lot of Zangarmarsh, sans the giant fungi.

There’s a wide variety of imaginative mobs to fight. One of the problems I had with LotRO was that it felt limited because you spent so much time fighting the same wolves and wights… even when you changed zones. Like WoW, Aion doesn’t suffer from this. There are no lore limitations and you can tell that the world designers let their artistic sides loose to create some neat wildlife models.

I rolled a Mage to begin and, unsurprisingly, the class starts off almost identically to the WoW mage with a firebolt skill as the primary attack. Shortly after, you gain a frostbolt type attack. Unlike WoW, you also start off with a root on a longish cooldown.

Since I’m still virtually at the start, it’s hard to say whether or not these comparisons will pan out over time. However, the echoes of warcraft I’ve picked up on only serve to make a better game. Aion may well have taken another cue from WoW by taking what works and building upon it. WoW was a great game in a lot of ways, so I don’t really mind if Aion draws on it.

Second, unlike many bloggers, I’m not drooling over the graphics. Character models are great, they’re on par with LotRO and far surpass WoW, but that’s about it. Environmentally, the game may be a half-step ahead of World of Warcraft but that still leaves it behind a lot of its competitors.

What it lacks in textural detail, it makes up for in style. I don’t think you need ultra-high graphics to make a beautiful game. What you need is artistic design and Aion drives that point home. The environments I’ve played through have been so well realized, that I only took a glancing notice of the “flattened grass” terrain I was running on. Adding to this, if I turn AA off, I can set the graphics to their highest settings and still get 30+ FPS in most places while on my laptop. To put that in perspective, I’m running at 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB DDR2 RAM, and an nVidia 8600GTM 512MB. In short, even an older rig can play this game well and still have it look good.

I have to say too, water in this game is beautiful. It doesn’t suffer from texture quality issues. One of the early quests has you running through a small lake picking flowers. When you come to the lake for the first time, you see that a giant tree grows in the center, glowing with a blue ambiance which lights up the water below. Combined with the reflections of the local greenery and roaming wildlife, it’s like you’re running around through a neon sign.

Third, PvE doesn’t seem to be as lacking as I had worried. Now, it IS the same old thing; however, the game has enough flair to make it interesting rather than mundane. So far. Quest givers tend to talk to you a little bit and give you a good amount of context. Occassionally, you’ll even get a little cutscene that will show you the area you’re heading into or a target mob. Though I couldn’t put my finger right on it, questing in Aion reminded me a lot of playing an older Final Fantasy game. The asian character models may have had a little to do with that though 😉

Going in, Aion seems like it could be a PvE game. If you had no idea that RvR was going to be a part of it, I think a new player could certainly enter in and get the same PvE satisfaction from levelling that first handful of times that they could get with WoW.

Finally, money has a defined importance. Again, I see this as a good thing. I hated how money was virtually worthless in WAR. In Aion, you’re shelling out for a lot of stuff, even going as far as to charge a stipend to bind yourself to a local obelisk (like setting your recall location). However, money doesn’t seem hard to come by. It cost me 100K (k=kinah, their “gold”) to bind. At that point (level 4) I had done enough quests and sold enough to have 1300k already and the potential to receive another 730k from a quest I’d just received. Vendoring mob trash has thus far been a great money maker.

There is one other note I’d like to bring up, in the Chinese version, there is grinding. I know, shocking. It’s not bad though, mostly. Actually, I found it quicker to xp by killing quickly respawning mobs than to complete quests. Most likely, we won’t have such grinding in the American Aion however, so I won’t talk much more about it in the future.

It’s been fun so far. I’ve moved from “bitten and shy” to “cautiously optimistic.” I’ll be honest, there’s a lot that I’m liking so far but I know from experience that a lot can change once you get twenty or thirty levels in. I’m trying to skip the honeymoon here and see the horse for it’s big teeth.

Whatd’ya say, Mr. Ed, shall we log back in?

Dungeons and Dragons Online Goes Free to Play

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Here’s something interesting, Dungeons and Dragons Online is turning to a F2P/P2P model. It looks like you can choose to play for free or pay the subscription for some extra perks and a monthly stipend of Turbine Points to use in their RMT store. Check it out here.

More and more, it looks like the industry is moving towards RMT. I’m against unregulated RMT but a bit ambiguous towards the Free Realms/DDO version.

We’ll have to see where this ends up…

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