Classic Spike

I have zero interest in playing WoW Classic.  I already did that 15 years ago.  I am however interested in the nostalgia meta.  WoW is a very interesting subject given that numbers around the game have been around for so long.

Without question the launch was very popular.  Peaked at 1.1m on Twitch where the normal average is ~80k.  I’ve followed a fair chunk of news/blogs on it, all quite interesting.

Apparently Ragnaros & Onyxia are dead.  Not sure why people would rush through Classic.  Seems to defeat the point and all the selling points of “a real world”.   On the meta level, it’s interesting that the most basic dungeon in retail has more mechanics than both of these classic raids combined (also, apparently people really like farming Silithus for Hydraxian faction).

Sure, people are talking about all sorts of learning curves.  Things that people thought would work (e.g. summon stones) but didn’t get set up.  Hit chance.  It’s interesting to see that relearning curve…it’s not like people’s memories are based on patch levels after all.  Things that came in with TBC and WotLK are all blended into the pre-Cata window.  Sort of like me thinking of older Easy Bake ovens.  They were hotter than my oven, and meant for kids.  Completely different than my memories.

A more recent trend is engagement.  I’ve written at length about the impacts to retail, but here in Classic we’re a week away from the 1 month line.  My gut was telling me that it would drop by 50% in 30 days, and then down by 80% by month 2.  Not necessarily a criticism of the game, but just that in 2019 gamer’s attention and willingness for time sinks isn’t exactly massive anymore.  Twitch numbers are down by ~80% from peak but triple their average.  It’s not the best tool for measuring popularity, but it is a trending tool all the same.  The news to read from this is that the MMO-tourist still exists.

I am reading across the blogging/forum world that there’s a general drop in players.  Again, expected.  Where the floor of players ends up is the real question.  And how many people who had dropped BfA, came back for Classic and are giving BfA a new try.  The new Blizz doesn’t do anything without financial incentive, so the number crunchers over there must be doing crazy OT to see how this plays out.  I’d be somewhat surprised if the overall retention numbers increase as both BfA is much better now than even 6 months ago, and the shock of Classic/Retail will surely keep some people subbed.

AC Complete?

I finished the last (first) DLC the other day.  That felt like a more traditional DLC or “more of the same”.  One of those cases where the plot moves the characters rather than the other way.  The naval portions were more meh.  I can see why people were not really enthused by it on release.  Fate of Atlantis is like a triple decker sundae compared to ultra vanilla.

I would be hard pressed to call the game complete though.  I still have a dozen (?) side quests to run through.  A fair chunk of land to fully explore (15%?  something like that).  More levels to gain – I’m 79 of 99.  Some more builds to test out – I’m 5% away from a 100% crit build.  Then there’s the super side quests (blue ones) that need to be run through.  Fair guess is there’s at least another 10 hours of content to go.  And that’s not counting the weekly quests that take about an hour to complete.

I can easily see how people would have spent over 100 hours here, which frankly is bonkers in 2019.

Overall thoughts:

  • Main storyline is ok.  Kassandra (female) seems like the logical default choice.
  • Combat is much improved on Origins.  The various skills allow for a lot of horizontal growth.
  • Engravings are neat, but end up game breaking at top levels
  • Enemy variety is what you expect from AC. A fort is a fort is a fort.
  • Boss encounter can be fun and hectic.  The dodge mechanic makes some of them trivial.
  • Naval warfare still isn’t at the AC4 level – but considering the setting it’s still decent.
  • The seemingly infinite ability to climb anywhere doesn’t get old.  Old Greece is surprisingly vertical.
  • Customization of armor pieces is neato!
  • The world is crazy massive.  (the game engineers who allow this size and not have my PC melt deserve a bravo.)
  • Fate of Atlantis is worth the price of admission alone.
  • It’s very pick up and play.  Most missions are 10 minutes or less.  But you’re always getting that just one more thing feeling.
  • The MTX store is never in your face… I barely noticed it at all.  Not sure how revenue positive it was, but I greatly appreciate it.
  • Nearly every single system was dramatically improved and expanded upon from Origins
  • The next game (Vikings I hear) has some massive expectations to meet.

 

There are better games out there.  But I struggle to think of any game that costs this much and gives this much quality in return.

AC:Odyssey – Fate of Atlantis

School started, life’s getting back into some routine.  Hockey for the kids starts this weekend, scouts in a bit.  Rather be busy that not.  Makes it a bit hard to write though.

I’m farther along in AC: Odyssey – much farther.  The main line game “stops” at level 50, but the actual cap keeps on going til 99.  The 1-30ish portion is just chocked full of content.  A stupid amount truthfully.  The road to 50 past there is still dense compared to nearly every other game, but it’s also clearly more focused on the main quest that pure exploration.

I completed the main quest, took out all the cultists, and have completed something like 50% of the map.  It is hard to explain how much stuff there is here.  I killed a Minotaur, solved a Sphynx, killed Medusa, did Hercules journey, fought a dozen conquest battles, cleared hundred of forts, took out dozen of leaders, killed at least 100 bounty hunters, dove for sunken treasure, found hidden tombs, found engravings, customized weapons, solved murders, caused them too.  It’s like everywhere you turn, there’s something to do.

There are 2 DLC that follow the main quest.  First is about following the footsteps of assassins from Persia.  I’m only a small bit into there since it takes place in the main map.  The other one is the Fate of Atlantis, which I recently completed.

It smartly removes the systems that didn’t work all that well (ship combat, conquest battles, bounty hunters) and instead focuses on story and exploration.  There are still some fights, and enemies are more complex and deadly.   But that’s more the exception.  You go through 3 (large!) maps, solve a bunch of quests, and get a good look at the Isu civilization that underpins the entire AC series.  Quest choices have consequences.  It’s a great capstone and probably worth the purchase of the game all on itself.  Honestly, the last DLC to even come close to the sheer amount of content is XCOM2 – War of the Chosen.

The downside here is that as you get more levels and more ways to upgrade items, you start becoming a walking god.  Where in the main game I would have to sneak around, I have enough engravings and boosts to items to be running with 100% crit chance, +150% damage, 35% faster cooldowns and a single attack (Hero Strike) that takes down every enemy in 1 hit.  Bosses may take 4-5.  Even Rush Assassinate can chain kill 4 enemies.  Entire bases are cleared out by just walking through rather than taking out strategic targets.  Sure, it makes sense to become all powerful, but it takes a lot away from the mechanics (probably why the Fate of Atlantis is so focused on not having combat).

Still have to take out the first DLC to consider the game “complete”.   Still stand by my initial reaction that this game offers more content than pretty much anything else out there.  I’m a little sad that I waited this long to pick it up.

 

Final Fantasy Series

There are lines here to read.

The first FF game launched in 1987.  FF15 in 2016, and FF14’s recent MMO expansion a few weeks ago.  We’re over 20 years in this series, with expansions/DLC/offshoots a plenty.  It’s one of the few Eastern RPGs to actually sell in the West.

Each game in the series has similar foundational elements, builds on previous systems, and takes some new twists.  Whether it’s adding classes, improving skills through use/osmosis, random battles, auto-battles, or a dozen other systems that either worked, or tanked.  Everyone has a favorite in the series (mine is FFX).  The series fans will generally try the next “main line” iteration, meaning sales are somewhat baselined.

Where this model and the MMO model differ, is that players cannot play their favorite versions, they have to play the most recent one (or play a pirate version of the old one.)  What keeps them similar is that everyone has a “perfect” version of the game, a time-boxed version where they as players, and the game meshed.

I loved Rift at launch, it was a great time in my life to play an MMO of that genre, and it hit all the right notes.  Summer vacation hit, and when I came back there were some big changes in the game that made it less attractive.  I tried the nostalgia server for a bit, and it certainly felt familiar.  As a player though, I had changed and the model just didn’t hit the same notes.

I’ve probably “finished” FFX a good 6 times now.  It’s an 18 year old game.  The first complete playthrough was something like 60 hours, and I did that as a dedicated game.  I gave it another go last fall, and got to the monster hunting phase with a couple celestial weapons.  I played it off/on for a few months, as a side project.   After a few days of not playing, I figured I’d just get it over with and take out the last boss (which is like 1 shot when you’re looking to max characters).  Didn’t take down a single Dark Aeon.  It was still good, but there were other interesting things taking my time.  I didn’t need it, but I certainly appreciated it.

Other games in the series are OK after FFX.  FF11 asked for way too much time from me.  FF12 was really impressive mechanically, but I felt it was really bloated in the middle.  FF13 looked great, and had some strong strategic options near the end… but it also had a 20 hour tutorial.  FF14 is solid, though I’m an expansion behind.  FF15 simply never clicked with me.

I’m aware that this is my perception and that other folks are fascinated by nostalgia.  I mean, war re-enactments are different level, but there’s plenty of people fascinated with 50s fashion.  Certainly enough for niche markets to develop.  And we’re in the age of remakes for movies.  I mean, I get why industry is doing this.  Past money often means future money.  Why risk a new IP that will tank, when you have an existing client base?  I can count at least 12 releases of FF6.  Chrono Trigger can probably be played on a fridge now.

Yet… selling a box and supporting a box are two different things.  Opportunity costs abound. RIFT Prime is gone.  EQ’s progression server management has generated at least 100 posts from Wilhelm alone.  UO tried and it didn’t fly (though emulation servers abound, with wildly different rulesets).  Even WoW’s classic version is full of debate of what “true” vanilla is, and there’s certainly a lot of questions on both sides about what happens once Naxx is released.

Seems like everyone’s past is for sale.

Odyssey – The Scale Batman!

I’ve have Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on my Steam wishlist for a while, and it recently went on a big sale with all the DLC.  I did play Origins, and found that world massive, busy, and bland.  I mean, there’s only so much you can do in a desert in terms of visuals, right?  In terms of potential though…jeebers that game was chocked full.

Odyssey, so far (level 20) is what happens when a company is in the refinement phase of a product.  The world is absolutely massive, and the NPC coding here is astounding.  Athens alone takes nearly 10 minutes to cross and every NPC is doing something. Greece is an island nation, so the ship play is more in line with AC:4, and there are plenty of ships abound.

What really takes the cake here is the amount of choice presented.  Sure, you have the traditional minimap icon-fest in all Ubisoft games, but the actual locations are much more thought out and purposeful.  Forts aren’t just there for plundering, but work into a larger political game to challenge local leaders, and then a battle for supremacy.  Crafting loot has been dramatically simplified, meaning that Alpha animal kills are as much for their material as they are for the large loot chests in their caves.  Speaking of caves, they now have much more vertical space to play in.   There are fewer tombs (yay!), which makes each new one an interesting adventure rather than the same old device.

And it’s good looking.  Good golly, there are some spots where you just completely stop what you’re doing to just stand still.  And you realize that every single bit of it was placed/built by someone.  The world building team here is simply amazing.

That said, there’s still an experience level factor here.  Anyone 2 levels from you is going to be very challenging.  5 levels and you will die in 1 hit.  The main quest line is not sufficient to keep you at the right level, so you’ll need to do other things.  At least the other things are fun and varied.

There’s the same lead choice as in ME, either male or female.  I took Kassandra, who looks like a cross-fit champ.  I’ve taken a look at the male alternatives in videos… I made the right choice for me.  Hats off to the devs to have the character’s names spoken aloud – no Commander Sheppard here.

Assassin's Creed® Odyssey_20181210182219

You can visit everything you see here

There’s a weird balance between meaningful and busywork. here that I did not find in Origins.  You can still take a 2 hour detour of things to do while on a main quest.  I’ve done it enough.  But the things you are doing in the middle of nowhere have an impact on the rest of the world (sidequests, engravings, mercs, cultists, nation power).  Maybe it’s the bird.

Let’s talk about that for a bit.  The Batman games have a fundamental problem – most people only play with the Detective Mode on.  That allows you to see bits of scenery and enemies based on purpose.  Grates you can enter, enemies with guns or stuns, and so on.  Seeing this with your regular eyes is all but impossible… just as it’d be damn hard to do in real life.  It’s cool and all, but it’s a crutch of game design.

AC games have had a similar, though temporary mode.  Still there now, but it’s practically useless in open spaces.  Origins gave you a scouting bird to sort of enhance that feature.  It was a neat gimmick, but not much past that since it was still open fields.  Here though, it’s vital for any large enemy base, since it’s mostly closed walls.  Identify all the enemies and targets, methodically make your way through.  Controls are a lot tighter now too.  It’s detective vision since everything is tagged, but you still see the real world.

Quests.  There are simply too many to track, and the menu to do so is straight out of the late 90s.  They are generally better than previous games, but if you do any exploration before picking them up, odds are the locations are empty by the time you go back.

Combat is much improved on Origins.  Same inventory system of gear, but now you have stats on each piece that tends towards ranged/melee/assassination damage.  With 8 pieces, you’re looking at ~100% more damage of a given type if you slot accordingly.  You need to do this if you want to 1-shot any enemy with a bow.  You should do this if you want to 1 shot enemies with assassination.  Melee is honestly an afterthought since the wide majority of damage will comes from a single assassination skill (Hero Strike).  I will say that kicking someone off a mountain, that doesn’t get old.  I find it more varied than previous entries, and depending on the enemy type, even 1v1 battles can end poorly.  Rather impressed, truth be told.

Overall, the game takes the foundation/re-build that Origins put out and improves on nearly every single aspect.  Looking objectively at what Ubisoft crammed into this game really makes you wonder how big their dev team is.  There’s a case to be said that there’s too much here, and the amount of time required to consume it all is probably on-par with MMOs.  As a distinct game, it’s insanely impressive.  As a gauge of game development, if the next game has the same delta improvements as between Origins/Odyssey, I truly struggle to imagine what that would include.

 

Virtual Worlds and Video Games

Bel made a comment on my Classic post, in that the feature set differences do a good job of delineating the difference between a virtual world (classic) and a video game (post Cata).  While on the surface I agreed, the reason why was what interested me more.

Clearly the first step is figuring out the definition for each.  So let’s invert that a bit.

Video games: something players can consume, alone or with groups, where the impacts of that play are limited to the players doing the consumption.  By that I mean that in the broad sense, only the people doing the act have any results from the actions – dungeons are instanced, mobs respawn, loot is shared, grouping is automated.  Not that it’s necessarily easier but that the social mesh doesn’t really exist.  This applies to pretty much every game out there.. with exceptions to the survival genre (e.g. ARK).

Virtual worlds: something that players co-exit with, with both consumption and production, such that the world shared between all players.  In that sense, players build/destroy the world in such a way that players that they don’t know are directly impacted by said actions.  The game is predicated on a healthy social fabric.  For a long time, this was only in the MMO space, since most of them were glorified chat boxes.  Ultima Online is the one that immediately comes to mind for me.  Also includes things like Second Life, the original EQ, and WoW Vanilla.

There’s a particular note that many early MMOs were virtual worlds – the golden age if you will.  Why that is the case I think has more to do with the type of player/dev rather than the type of game.  UO is a prime example of Garriott building a game that he wanted to play, and that was a crapshoot to make money.  EQ and WoW are similar, in that they were longshots by dedicated developers.  Given that internet access wasn’t all that popular in the late 90s early 00s, it bears to reason that people playing those games were of a similar cut.

When MMOs were proven to be popular, they attracted the eye of investors.  MMOs came up every other day, though often developed by people who were not as passionate, didn’t have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of early games, and focused on replication of popular games.  Quality was really poor (think of the game crash of ’83) and the bottom fell out.  MMOs need to maintain a LOT of players, for years, in order to keep running.  That takes either a hell of a head start, or a heck of a back account to float.

All that to say that virtual worlds still have a fan base.  But they are clearly not the only fish in the ocean, and competing for eyeballs means that they either double down on their model, or branch into video-game features.  Or that nostalgia is enough, since in 10+ years gamer tastes have changed.  There’s an entire book’s worth of comments on how society today is built for consumption rather than production… but I’ll leave that for later.  Suffice to say that many people today get their sense of belonging / value from Twitter/IG/Facebook/YouTube, and that they don’t need games to address that gap.

Not saying that we won’t see another mega-hit virtual world, but more so that it’s not going to be primarily a video game… and instead be pushed through social media-like structures.

The Long Game

A few recent posts from both Isey and Kaylriene got me thinking. in relation to long term development.

In the micro level, development focuses on the immediate.  You get the assets you need for the game you are building, and think about how they could potentially be reused within the same game.  Sure, you maintain a code library for potential use elsewhere, but its not the primary goal.  You spend money and you want to recoup that cost soon.

At the macro level, planning is on the annual basis and across multiple streams.  For someone like Ubisoft, they are thinking how Assassin’s Creed, Rainbow Six, Watch Dogs, For Honor, and Far Cry can help each other out.  The more overlap they have, the less it costs to develop each instance, and therefore the larger the profits.  I would think that most people can understand why this is important.

Where things get complicated is when a developer is willing to absorb and significant loss when they are looking at the potential of a future investment.  We’ve all seen news articles where a company will purposefully take a loss in order to offset some higher profits elsewhere.  While hard to understand why someone would NOT want that money, complex tax laws make it more efficient, and likely to cross multiple years.

In my work experience, I have dealt with a few vendors who were willing to take a loss on one contract in order to ensure higher profits on the next.  The scale of that loss is where things get interesting.  Sometimes it’s on purpose, other times it’s about minimizing loss.  Maybe there’s some really interesting IP/coding that comes from it that can be used in a future project, or resold.  If you look at Epic Games, they certainly appear to hold that model.

Which brings me to Anthem.  From the outside, and the various reports, it seems like the management team had a vision that came too late, and it’s been a scramble to get it working since.  It would be folly not to see this launch as a failure – in the micro sense.  Anthem did not reach its goals, and its roadmap is massively delayed.

However – it did help launch the Origin subscription service, there’s some online matchmaking code development that will certainly be reused, the lore IP is ripe for exploration, development of group-based dungeon instances is being refined, and they are on the hire for “loot based engineering”, which is clearly a long term investment.  None on their own will help Anthem recover, but as a whole they may.  Each on their own does have value for other development projects.

EA has a habit of shutting down games with short order if they don’t meet their objectives.  That this has not occurred yet would indicate that both EA and BW have some long term investment here at play.  That’s the good news – Anthem isn’t likely to go anywhere.  The bad (?) news is that the development moving forward has Anthem as a secondary goal, and is instead looking at how the pieces can be used elsewhere.  In really simple terms – Anthem is a beta test for BW’s asset development.

There’s some discussion to be had about how Blizzard is not doing this – aside from reusing art/lore assets in HotS/HS.  There’s certainly some network engineering shared between the various games, but systems don’t appear to have much overlap.  If Blizzard’s goal is to decrease development time (as per recent quarterly report), then it’s going to need to apply a much different approach to development than used in the past.  How that impacts the actual games… time will tell.