Free Realms – My First Hour

April 29, 2009

Free Realms officially launched yesterday.  It wasn’t until sometime late in the night that the download was actually available, though, meaning I had to wait until this morning to install the game and try it out.  I’d like to share my impressions of my first play session, as a player who knew very little about the game going into it, was not in the beta, and just started playing with launch.001

My first reaction is mild confusion.  The download takes place in my browser?  I create my character there, too?  It’s strange for me, someone who typically plays MMOs that are completely client-based and only rarely require any browser usage (usually only to create an account).  Something nice about this, though, is that new players have the option to start creating their character while the game is downloading.  Neat feature.

One of my fellow bloggers mentioned that Free Realms is all about choices.  Like most MMOs, character creation puts a big decision on my shoulders: what race/gender combination to play.  I’ve made it clear before that I tend to only play female characters, so the only choice left to me is between a pixie female or a human female.  Tough decision.  The pixie girl looks very cute, but my instinct is pushing me to pick the human.  Seems like a good, safe way to begin the game.

Character creation seems somewhat limited, and there is a major drawback in that you can’t spin your character while customizing, but otherwise there are a few nice features.  There is a wide array of skin color options, meaning your character can be any ethnicity you want (something that has been limited or absent in other games).  While there aren’t a ton of hairstyle options, there is a nice variety of color options for hair, including pink, blue, and many shades of blonde and brown.  You can also choose a starting outfit for the character, which is a neat touch.  For human females the options include a hoodie and sweats, a casual skirt and sweater, or a t-shirt and jeans combo — all in a few different shades.  Finally, you can give your character face paint or make-up (at least for females).

Naming is interesting also.  You can either choose from three wheels to select a name (the first being your first name and the second two comprising your last name) or you can submit a custom name.  I decided to stick with the wheels and choose a standard name.  I’m not very good at naming anyway, so the wheel was handy.  My character completed and named, I’m ready to launch the game.  Meet Zoe Honeydale! 002

My first impression on loading into the game is that the graphics are a lot less impressive than my browser made them appear.  It’s nitpicky, but the game designers should consider forcing players to create in the game mode, as that way they wouldn’t be disappointed when they see their characters go from smooth and pretty to dithered and dull.  Zoe’s cute, toothy smile on the browser now makes her look like a vacant mouth-breather.  It’s sad.  I’m not sure if there are graphics options, either.

That’s pretty much the only thing I’m unsure of, though, as the creators of Free Realms make sure every player gets a tutorial when entering the game for the first time.  This is an extremely basic tutorial (as in it’s designed for people with absolutely no understanding of how to play an online game), beginning with teaching the player how to look around and move.  It’s simplistic for those of us who have been playing MMOs for years, but it’s probably a nice touch for the game’s target audience: first time gamers and small children.  As I’m playing I’m trying to keep my 5 y.o. sister in mind, to determine whether it will appeal to her.  She’s a pretty quick leaner with the mouse, but she would obviously be extremely confused upon entering other MMOs.  Free Realms might make it easier on her.  It’s mildly annoying for salty MMO vets like me, though, because it feels like I’ve got training wheels on.

The tutorial zone presents me with another option, the one anyone who has read anything about Free Realms is already aware of: Chef vs. Fighter.  Because most accounts I’ve read of Free Realms show bloggers choosing to be fighters, I picked chef.  Being a chef brings me face-to-face with my first mini-game experiences.  The first mini-game required that I “harvest” fruits.  It reminded me of bejeweled or other shape+chain games, and was simple, perhaps overly simple, to complete.  I thought the same of the next mini-game, which required very easy tasks like hitting raspberries with a “hammer” (the mouse) or stirring a bowl of soup in a counter-clockwise direction.  At least, I thought that until I actually managed to fail one of the tasks.004

The tutorial ends by offering me the chance to learn how to do the other job I didn’t pick: fighter.  Basically you have to kill three goblins and the computer (which sounds a little bit like GlaDOS, eerily enough) guides you through the combat process.  Despite my experience using hotbar-based combat, Zoe lost about half her health during this fight.  I’m afraid that the combat tutorial might be a little too hard for someone like my little sister, who would probably lose much more health during the process than I did.  But it’s likely that the game instructs players on how to rez or whatever happens when their characters die, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  It’s all part of the learning process, you see.

Once I left the tutorial, I was deposited in a large starting zone full of new players.  I was instructed to visit a certain NPC, but despite that I still feel pretty overwhelmed.  The world looks huge, especially in comparison to my little tutorial world, so I’m a bit anxious going in.  Nevertheless, my quest tracker guides me (literally, there are little dots on the ground for me to follow) to the NPC, so I guess I’d better go see what this person wants of me.

She wants me to introduce myself to the other NPCs, one of them a pet trainer and the other a racecar driver.  The latter offers me a follow-up quest when I arrive, but I decline.  I want to explore the game, and don’t feel like being herded off to the derby.  I decide instead to visit the chef trainer, who gets me going on a bunch more mini-games and quests.  The mini-games so far are identical to those that I played in the tutorial, and frankly are getting a bit tedious.  I’m hoping they change a little somewhat.

To raise your level as a chef, you have to complete tasks for NPCs and do well in mini-games.  The latter is actually easier said than done, as the mini-games have lots of elite bonus tasks that I can’t seem to obtain, e.g. bonus scores and fast finish times.  Overall, I’m starting to get bored, so I head off on my next quest, to visit the royal chef, intending it to be my last.  When I get to the chef he asks me to, of course, cook some soup for him.  It’s easy enough, but incredibly tedious.  It’s all the same mini-games that I’ve been doing for the last hour, with all the same tedious tasks involved.  The chef mini-games are incredibly tiresome, and if they don’t change as you level up, I don’t see the benefit to being a chef.

I’m about ready to leave the game, but I want to experience more than just being a chef.  I run into an NPC who is also the liaison for the trading card game.  He offers to let me play with a training deck to get a feel for the game, so I gladly accept.  The first thing I notice is that the loading time to get into the TCG mini-game is extremely long.  I watch the little gold starburst chase its tail for several minutes, wondering when the stinky TCG is going to launch.  I’m even starting to wonder if this part of the game is glitched, or if I don’t have access to it.  Ultimately I went AFK and puttered around the house for five minutes, only to come back and find…that it was still “loading.”  Okay, forget that then.

I still want to give the game a chance, though.  Boyfriend encourages me to try the derby, so I agree, but have no idea how to get back to that lady who was going to take me there.  Fortunately I figure it out after teleporting around some and make my way to the speedway.  I enter a tutorial mini-game in which I’m riding around in a car.  The controls are sort of difficult to master (just in that they aren’t very sensitive or reactive) and the tutorial doesn’t make it plain what I’m supposed to do.  I thought it was a Mario Kart-esque racing game, with a track, but it’s actually more of a fighting pit in which karts smash into each other.  I did the basic and advanced tutorials.  While it seems like this might be a fun part of the game for some, for me it just induced a lot of dizziness.  You have to spin in a circle a lot to be able to smash the other karts, so if you have a weak stomach I wouldn’t recommend participating in this particular activity.

And with that I’ve completed my first hour of playing Free Realms.  Overall I’m a bit disappointed with the game.  The game play alternates between ridiculously easy and needlessly difficult.  Some of the games seem simple enough for my little sister — or even someone younger than she — to complete.  The chef mini-games in particular are far too simple for me to enjoy, but seem like they would hold her attention pretty well.  In fact, they remind me a lot of the Flash games she plays at the Sesame Street website.  Other things in the game seem difficult, or at least aren’t explained properly.  For instance, when I opened my map, I found I could teleport to anywhere I wanted.  I was only able to figure that out, though, because I am familiar with maps.  It would be better for someone new to gaming if the computer tutorial popped up to inform them of this feature whenever they open the map for the first time.

I’m hoping to spend some more time with Free Realms in the future, perhaps trying out some of the other jobs that I didn’t get to experience (fighter, postman, etc.).  Until I get a chance to see all of the game it’s hard to judge, but if the rest of the game is like what I’ve seen so far, I’m not sure how successful the game is going to be.  Sure, it will probably appeal to children, but I just don’t see the appeal as an experienced, adult gamer.  In the meantime, can any of my readers who have spent some time in the game offer suggestions on what I should try out next time?  Have I missed something amazing?  Let me know in the comments.

Want to read other bloggers’ Free Realms impressions?  Try these.



April 26, 2009

There’s been a considerable amount of controversy in the MMO blogging community about City of Heroes’ mission architect system.  Some bloggers (two distinct links there) feel that mission architect has given players the tools to create grind-intensive farming missions that destroy the spirit of the game.  Until recently, I hadn’t experienced one of these farming missions.  I played around with mission architect when it first launched and loved it.  I’m a writer, so naturally I made a story-based mission right away, complete with custom enemies, a rescue arc, and an underlying love story (between two ladies in a motorcycle gang, I’ll add).  When I read that other players were “abusing” the system to create missions for the sole purpose of gaining experience and tickets, I had mixed feelings.  I didn’t want to judge, though, until I had actually played through one of these missions.  Now that I have, I feel comfortable giving my opinion about this new development: I still have mixed feelings.

On one hand, I think about the existential questions of MMO gaming.  Is an immersive story less important than achievements?  Do players even bother with reading quest text or other story devices?  Are farm missions ruining the game experience for those who prefer a story-driven game to an achievement-based game?  Part of me worries that they are, that interesting, story-based missions are going to go unplayed while Massive Rikti Farm #4257 will have teams going through it by the thousands.  I also worry that massive farming missions cause players to level too quickly.  My defender went from 31 to 37 in about two hours, highly unusual considering I typically gain one to two levels per play session.  I also earned 10,000 tickets in that time, ten times the amount of tickets I had earned in two weeks of playing with the mission architect system.

On the other hand, I can’t help but see the farming missions as a helpful device for casual players.  Never been to max level in a game before?  Want to see what your tanker is like at level 50?  Just look around for an “AE farm,” sit back, and watch your level rise.  There are plenty of players who would rather power through content than read story.  Usually I’m one of those players who avoids reading long quest text, and I’m an avid reader and writer; I’d assume gamers who don’t enjoy reading or writing would be even less inclined to read quest text.  If players want to create a grind-intensive experience and power through levels, why should I or other bloggers or Paragon Studios try to stop them?

As for my personal experience with the farming missions, I am of two minds (again…you’d think, as a blogger, I could formulate a single opinion).  I enjoyed power leveling a blaster yesterday, as I had always wanted to experiment with one but hadn’t really had the chance before.  I also hope to power level a controller, another class that I have trouble getting into during earlier levels but might enjoy later on.  It’s nice to have the opportunity to sample classes that seem appealing but have always been out of reach for one reason or another.  It’s also great to have a steady stream of architect tickets, as they can be used to purchase high level enhancements, meaning I can use my influence for silly things like different costumes or adding wings to every alt I make.

There is this teeny, tiny problem I have with the farming missions, though.  As I said above, I wonder if I am going through the content too quickly.  Imagine making a level one human in World of Warcraft, then three hours later you’re level 30 and you still haven’t left the starting zone.  That’s sort of what farming missions are like for newer characters.  My blaster is level 17 and she has only left Atlas Park to visit my supergroup base.  Ordinarily she would have seen at least three zones by now.  I wonder if I’m missing out on some part of the game experience by powering through the levels so quickly.  After all, I don’t know what exists in City of Heroes at the “endgame.”  As far as I know, there really isn’t one.  If I power level my healer to 50, will I be disappointed when I get there?  Will I feel like it was all for nothing?

That’s the interesting question, though.  If the endgame of City of Heroes is as limited as I’ve heard, is it better for a player to have spent lots of time working to get there, or to have gone from 1 to 50 in a few days with little effort expended?  A long leveling experience could mean the player feels she had an enjoyable time playing the game even if her endgame experience is lackluster, or it could mean that the player feels her time spent in the game was wasted, that she spent months getting a character to the level cap and ultimately received nothing for the effort.  If it only took the player a couple of days to reach level cap, would it be more or less disappointing if the endgame experience has nothing to offer?  More disappointing because the player rushed to see an endgame and found nothing, or less disappointing because the player didn’t have to spend a lot of extra time trying to reach a non-existent endgame?

Existential questions aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a problem with farming missions.  It’s nice to have the option to participate in these missions if I want to, but ultimately their existence won’t affect me negatively should I decide not to participate.  I think it’s highly possible that The Powers That Be will do something to halt the increase of farming missions — it’s probably not in Paragon Studios’ best interest to let players power through content in two days when it should have taken closer to two months.  In the meantime I’m totally in favor of letting players do what they want with mission architect.  Whether that means creating grind-intensive farming missions or writing a mission that involves fighting off big-breasted, airheaded “Playtime Bunny” girls (thanks, “Easter Basket” mission), I’m fine with it.  The purpose of mission architect is to allow players to create the kind of experience they want to play.  If farming missions are what the players want, then let the players have them.

Book Swap!

April 25, 2009

I’ve never been the kind of person who can read many books at once.  Obviously no one can read multiple books simultaneously (I assume?), but I’ve known people who claim to have two, three, or more books in progress, reading one or another whenever the mood hits.  I was never able to do such a thing.

I still can’t.  I’m the type of reader who sticks with a book until the end, regardless of slow pacing, contrived plot twists, or murdered main characters.  I’ve only given up on a handful of books, and I feel guilty about it to this day (I call myself a Steinbeck fan, but for the life of me I can’t make it through The Grapes of Wrath, despite having read East of Eden three times).  I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to flit back and forth between books like certain friends and family members, but as of late I’ve been taking steps in that direction.asos

When I start a new book series, I tend to stay devoted to the series until I finish it or until I reach the end of what’s available (see: Wheel of Time).  I came to Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, and Sword of Truth late, only beginning these series once the bulk of their content had already been released.  I was able to race through the first five Harry Potter books right before the sixth came out, leaving me feeling faithful to the series.  Sure, I read all of Sword of Truth (excepting the final book) while waiting for HP and the Deathly Hallows, but it didn’t feel like cheating since I hadn’t abandoned the series while there was still material left to complete.

Where I was once a monogamous reader, staying true to my series until their completion, I’ve now become an absolute series slut, a literary adulteress, so to speak.  It all started with a curious foray into our junk room — home to an old television, massive amounts of books, and a couch no one sits on — and my discovery of a fantasy series I had heard great things about but had yet to read: the first book of the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones.  I devoured the book quickly, expecting to be able to dig right in to book two once I was finished.  But I was foiled!  Boyfriend’s preference for listening to audiobooks rather than reading physical copies meant I had to order a copy of the second book if I wanted to read it (and I did…I mostly hate listening to audiobooks).

fd2w1While I waited for the book to arrive, I saw Boyfriend enjoying a new series and became intrigued.  The books had come in a boxed set and had been a gift from me this past Christmas, so it was one of the rare occasions on which he was reading the actual book rather than listening to it.  I asked him a few questions about the books and was instantly hooked.  I picked up the first book and didn’t stop until I reached the last one in the set.  That was how I found myself addicted to the Sookie Stackhouse novels.


I'll thank you not to judge my new book by its cover.

A Clash of Kings, book two in the Song of Ice and Fire series, didn’t arrive until after I finished the last Sookie book we owned.  The rub was that our boxed set ended at book seven, and the author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels had released book eight a while back and book nine is slated to be released in May.  If I started reading A Clash of Kings, I’d be cheating on Sookie, but wasn’t I already cheating on the Song of Ice and Fire?  I ordered book eight of Sookie’s saga two weeks ago and held off on reading A Clash of Kings.  But then I was faced with a newer, shinier option.  Boyfriend was encouraging me to start reading The Hollows series, as he named his City of Heroes character after someone in the books and wanted me to get certain references he made.  Against my better judgment I relented and let him purchase the first book, Dead Witch Walking, for me.  I read it in less than two days.  I loved it.  I wanted the next book.

Instead I got From Dead to Worse, Sookie Stackhouse book eight, in the mail and read it.  Then yesterday I started A Clash of Kings (still working on it).  Now Boyfriend has promised to purchase the next book in The Hollows series for me tomorrow.  And here I am, a literary polyamorist, happily sorting through three series, trying in vain to keep character names and plots separated in my tiny lady brain.  In addition, I’m writing a novel of my own at the moment (almost at 30,000 words) and have a terrible habit of taking on the voice of authors I’ve recently read in my writing.  I’ve gotten better at suppressing it, but if I’m not careful it comes out; I can already see the subtle influence that George R.R. Martin (the author of Song of Ice and Fire) has had on this blog post.  Good thing I didn’t feel in the mood to work on the novel today.

I’m sure this seems very ordinary to most, but for me it’s an odd change.  It reminds me a lot of my attitude toward MMOs.  I always felt like I needed to stay devoted to a single game, and often ignored news about other games just so I wouldn’t be tempted to stray.  Now look at me: I’ve left WAR for CoX, but am looking longingly at Free Realms and even caught myself taking a peek at WoW wiki yesterday.  Is my abandonment of hobby monogamy a sign that I’m maturing, or is it as wrong and dirty as it feels?

I mentioned in my last post that many game pundits are commenting on the fact that most gamers are no longer one-title players, preferring instead to try out many different kinds of games.  Most TV viewers are able to dedicate time to multiple series across many networks, and only the most diehard sports fan restricts his viewership to a single sport.  Is it a natural development that players will eventually branch out and seek many games at once for entertainment, or that a prudish reader like me will slut it up with multiple book series?  I think it’s likely that this sort of path is inevitable, especially with increasingly better games and book series being released these days (and with so many of the book series getting adapted to TV shows and movies, the chance is only increased further).  I suppose it’s just something I’ll have to get used to, as I see the launch of exciting new MMOs and widen my reading interests.  I don’t have to like it, though, and it still feels horribly dirty.  I’m a hobby monogamist at heart, but a practicing hobby whore.  Won’t someone think of the children?

Free Realms Info

April 22, 2009

Considering that I recently expressed my disappointment with WAR and my agreement with many other bloggers that gamers these days are probably more interested in playing multiple MMOs rather than sticking to just one, it’s with some relevance that I post that the Free Realms NDA has been lifted.  Cuppycake, a well-known blogger in the game world and author of Cuppytalk, has an excellent write-up of the game already posted.

I haven’t been paying much attention to Free Realms, but Cuppycake’s post has got me interested.  I’m anxious to see whether I enjoy this game, considering that it sounds like it will appeal to fluff-loving casual gamers (a group that I consider myself a part of, at least in spirit).  Cuppycake admits that her boyfriend is a designer for the game, but her review seems objective.  When does this thing launch again?

Burnt Out Bloggers

April 22, 2009

A number of my fellow bloggers in the Warhammer Online community are shutting down their blogs.  Many are heading for other games while some say they’ll continue to keep WAR on their radar but will not play enough to blog about it.  At this point I’m feeling pretty similar, not much of a surprise considering I started this blog a few weeks ago knowing I would get to this stage eventually.  I haven’t logged onto WAR to actually play (I’ve gotten on to take screenshots for posts, give a guildmate some items, etc.) in at least three weeks.  I thought that perhaps the new live event would get me excited again, but at this point I’m too interested in City of Heroes to give WAR another shot.  I’m not sure what the fate of my WAR blog is.  I’d like to keep it up for a while longer, but if I am not playing the game I don’t see how it’s possible.  I’ve already done a few too many posts comparing WAR to CoX, something that my readers have tolerated so far but might not enjoy if it continued any longer.

I’ve seen a lot of theories about why the WAR community is dropping off so quickly.  Aside from the most obvious reason — that the game is no longer appealing enough to write about — some of the theories include the notion that MMO players are no longer monogamous with their subscription habits or that the MMO offerings of the past year have been somewhat disappointing in comparison to the dominant game of the past few years, World of Warcraft.  I think it’s very likely that a large number of people are part of the former category, and that gamers are no longer committing to a single game and are instead holding multiple subscriptions at a time.  For me personally, I find that WAR just doesn’t have the things I want in an MMO.

A large part of the excitement and anticipation I felt for WAR’s launch was that I wanted a game that could excite me the way WoW did.  I, along with many other gamers, really believed that WAR could be a WoW-killer.  Instead, WAR feels more like protein powder to WoW’s steak: all the nutritional value is there, but it’s a flavorless, odorless powder compared to a delectable cut of meat (odd that I bring in the steak analogy, when I don’t even eat red meat usually).  To further the analogy, WoW provides players with the naughty, guilt-ridden portions of the steak as well — the fat, the calories, etc., that in WoW’s case translate to things like fluff items, vanity costumes, and more refined systems.  WAR can give players a nutritional experience, but it doesn’t have the extra bits that make it juicy and delicious.

Enough about food, though, and enough about WoW.  I’m not going back to WoW, at least not in the foreseeable future.  I’m really enjoying City of Heroes so far, and I hope to maintain that enjoyment for a while.  I don’t plan on blogging about CoX extensively (though of course I’ll mention it on occasion) because I worry that my negative feelings about WAR were deepened by the critical eye I used to examine the game as a blogger.  Three times a week I wrote about WAR, discussing the aspects of it that I liked and criticizing those I didn’t.  I fantasized about ways of improving the game, whether through implementing new systems or borrowing features from other MMOs.  I think it’s entirely possible that the knowledge that those improvements would never come about soured me on the game experience.  As time went on and I needed more and more topics to blog about, I started looking out for things about the game that bugged me or that needed to be changed.  Had I not looked so closely at the game’s flaws, perhaps I would have been content to play it longer.

Critically examining my hobbies tends to take all the enjoyment out of them for me.  I guess I thought I could avoid that fate with WAR blogging, but it was probably inevitable.  When I played WoW and raided consistently, all it took was an afternoon of pondering what I was spending my time on to make me never want to raid again.  MMOs are inherently silly time sinks, but so long as we don’t think about that fact, gamers usually continue to enjoy them.  Similar moments happened to me for other hobbies as the one I experienced with raiding.  What was I getting out of making custom greeting cards, of watching cable television, of painting ornaments?  I enjoyed those pastimes, but when I considered the time and money spent on the experiences compared to the value of the result, I found I couldn’t enjoy them any longer.  Fortunately my gaming hobby has avoided the trap somewhat.  Sure, killing 100 foozles to get to the next level seems pointless, but somehow, once I have recognized the pointlessness and said “good riddance” to a game forever, I am able to recapture the enjoyment after a short break.  Could a short break be what I need to get excited about WAR again?  I hope so, but I’m just not sure.  In the meantime I’m going to continue playing CoX, continue blogging (though, again, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with Girl IRL), and see where it takes me.  You’ll come along for the ride, right?  Great!

Give Me a Boost

April 15, 2009

Official image from the NCsoft store

It’s easy to name the best feature in City of Heroes: the character creator.  With seemingly countless combinations of costumes, the creator provides for unending enjoyment.  Combine that with the fact that players can change their existing costumes at any time (for a hefty fee) and can purchase new costume slots at levels 20, 30, and 40, and you’re looking at a game that is extremely customizable when it comes to a character’s physical look.

NCsoft, the current owner of the franchise, has obviously realized the superiority of their game’s character creator and the love players have for it.  The NCsoft store offers a variety of booster packs that, for $10, give the player access to a handful of new costume items and, occasionally, a special power (usually something neat but not the sort of thing that would give a player an edge in combat).  The booster packs are a pretty recent addition to the game, the first being released in September 2008.  Players had the option of choosing a cyborg pack (provides various robotic costume pieces and special emotes like “power down” and “robot dance”), a wedding pack (self-explanatory? includes wedding costume pieces and “throw confetti” and similar emotes), and a pack that includes the Valkryie costume pieces that shipped with the Mac version of the game.

This week, a new booster pack was introduced with a magic theme.  Detailed cloaks, witch outfits, and fancy coats provide visually interesting costume pieces and a new special power — read fortune — lets players give allies random temporary buffs or, if the tarot cards portend misfortune, debuffs.  Another great part of the new booster pack is that players can use special emotes to animate their characters when changing costumes.  Previously, players who switched costumes just suddenly looked different.  Now players can spin around in a whirlwind and appear with their new costumes, change behind a puff of smoke, or use two other animated emotes to make costume changes that much more exciting.

What’s really great about these booster packs is that they show that CoX designers listen to their customers and provide them with the extended customization options that the CoX player base really enjoys.  Some players might grumble about the $10 price tag, but it is a pretty negligible sum, in my opinion.  Instead of eating out for lunch one day, I eat a sandwich from ingredients I already have on hand and – poof – $10 magically saved.  Suffering through peanut butter and jelly is worth it, for me, when the result is that I am provided even more customization for my creative whims.

Apparently I am not the only CoX player who enjoys purchasing booster packs, either.  Last night my server was on the fritz as huge numbers of players attempted to sign on to test the mission architect system while simultaneously editing their costumes to include the new costume options.  The NCsoft website was flooded with players wanting to purchase the new booster pack; connection time-outs happened frequently and many players found their credit cards charged multiple times because of volume-induced site errors.

I really believe that more games should embrace the booster pack philosophy that CoX and other games foster.  Imagine World of Warcraft with more non-combat pets or vanity clothing.  Warhammer Online could offer rare dyes, special trophies or — gasp! — more customization options at character creation, such as new hairstyles, faces, and accessories.  I also wouldn’t mind seeing WAR add some vanity clothing like many other games have, the kind of stuff you can wear around town but that doesn’t add to your stats in any way.  If WAR or WoW offered cheaply purchased booster packs, I think it would be a big hit with players who enjoy the fluffier side of MMOs or the collector types who enjoy gathering all the unique items introduced.

There’s probably a lot to be said about the future of MMOs — subscriptions vs. microtransactions, the blending of the two, etc. — but that’s not really my shtick.  It’ll suffice to say that I really love the idea of microtransactions (though I think $10 isn’t really considered “micro”) being combined with a subscription game, as it seems like they provide for a periodic revitalization of the game community.  Aside from that grand sentiment, I love them because they are fun, offer players new customization options that supplement the lack of customization in most MMOs, and give players who purchase them something special that is unique but not game-breaking.  CoX has regained my attention because of its player-friendly customization, and its booster packs are only serving to strengthen my allegiance to the game.  WAR, WoW, and upcoming MMOs take note — Girl Unplugged thinks booster packs are something you should consider in your business model.

Day Job: Architect

April 9, 2009

In most MMO games, the player is offered very few ways to create content.  The most ubiquitous is through character creation, though some games have a far simpler character customization system (Warhammer Online) than others (World of Warcraft) which in turn are considered lame in comparison to those that do it well (City of Heroes).  In some games, players have the option to customize their characters further, form guilds, or create unique housing for their guilds/characters.  Otherwise, players have always been on the receiving end of content, never able to really affect the game in any meaningful way. image_8

With the release of City of Heroes’ Mission Architect system, which went live on Wednesday, players now have a tangible way of creating and sharing their own personally created content.  When Syp at Bio Break first mentioned the mission architect system, suggesting that it might be the wave of the future for MMOs, I was skeptical.  I can’t say why, really, I was just pessimistic about it.  I figured it would be impossible for a game to implement such a system and for it to be fun and immersive.  Boy, was I ever wrong!

I played with the mission architect system for well over 5 hours today — Ysharros from Stylish Corpse wasn’t kidding when she said it took her between 6-8 hours to create her first mission — and so far am really enjoying it.  There are a lot of problems, some of which Ysharros and others have mentioned, most notably that mobs are mostly randomly placed, that there is no map editor/creator, and that the system is not as intuitive as it thinks it is.

I think one of the biggest problems is that, once the mission is created, it’s difficult for a player to test it by herself.  Since missions in CoX scale with the size of the group participating, players who solo test missions will see less monsters.  However, there are lots of options available to make the monsters extremely hard, meaning that a solo player will have a rough time trying to gauge the difficulty of the encounter.  It’s possible that, where a pure healer with very few damage abilities cannot even put a scratch on a boss, a full, well-rounded team could defeat the same boss with ease.

Fortunately, once a mission has been published — saved and given to the rest of the community to play — it can still be edited, so any errors or bugs that players find later can be fixed without having to recreate the mission.  This is especially helpful considering that some of the options for mission creation are a bit confusing.  The maps the player can choose from, for instance, have certain restrictions on them that limit the amount of encounters that can be placed on the map.  This happened to me with my mission.  I wanted lots of groups for players to kill through, but had to use the largest map available to do so.  When I tested the mission, I discovered that the map was so large I got lost and couldn’t find many of the groups I had generated!

Players can play published missions and, once finished, can rate them and leave feedback.  When playing a mission, players earn special tickets that can be exchanged to a vendor for goodies.  It looks like mission creators earn tickets whenever players try their missions as well, which means you can still earn a decent amount of tickets as a full-time architect without having to grind missions to catch up with other players.  Some of the things tickets can be exchanged for include enhancements to increase the effectiveness of a player’s powers and special unlockable content to enhance created missions.

So far I have only created my mission and tested it, but from what I have seen the new mission architect system, it really is an amazing addition to the game.  Players are constantly complaining about the monotony of dungeon crawls in MMOs, the lack of creativity, and the overly simplistic encounters.  Now those players have the opportunity to show the world what’s possible, and perhaps even put traditional game designers to shame.  I would love to see more user-generated content in other MMOs, but perhaps the reason it isn’t so prevalent is that designers of huge game franchises fear what would happen if they gave players that freedom.  Would players out-design the designers?  I think it’s possible, but I’m not sure that’s a valid reason.  Once the rest of the MMO world sees the success of Mission Architect, I think they’ll forget any reluctance and rush to create a similar system.  At this point it’s a feature that will be high on my list of priorities for future games, and I’m sure other players will feel the same.