Damn you F2P, this is a low blow.

July 30, 2010

…because social F2P site TinierMe is offering for a limited time not only Vocaloid outfits for your avatar, but actual live concerts?

Way to hit me where it hurts.


EQ2 and F2P. How to do it wrong.

July 28, 2010

I guess we were having too slow a MMO news period, so we needed something to shake things up. That said, looks like it’s SOE’s turn. Everquest 2 will be opening up a separate F2P server or servers called EQ2-Extended.

I don’t play EQ2, so I can’t get into gameplay analysis. There are some problems conceptually. While separating F2P and P2P can help with keeping game balance for pure sub people, it is going to siphon off all the newbies coming in to the free server, and slowly choke off the paid ones.

The sub models they offer also suck. $15 a month doesn’t get you the ability to go past level 80, and only 4 races. It also doesn’t give you access to Sentinel’s Fate, only the $16.66 does. Ironically there’s no reason to choose the lesser value, because it isnt even cheaper. No station cash is given to $15 a month people, so they’d have to pay real money anyways, hiking up the sub cost.

And it makes SmokeJumper look like an idiot, he promised here that:

“As I said in that interview, we will not be changing your subscription model. We’ve heard you folks loud and clear that you do not want items with stats introduced, you don’t want players buying their way to power, etc. Your world will stay the way it has been and we will continue to support it with new content, items, etc.”

They wont be changing the subbed players model, they’ll just introduce a whole new server system of the same game.

The worst thing for me is that I think this is starting to become a tipping point. The more that convert to F2P the more they will influence the market, even if the F2P model is mediocre in terms of sales. That’s going to change the nature of MMO gaming to a few players paying supporting many players not.

Hopefully they’ll make this model into a more sane one through beta.

edit: for your threadnaught pleasure, 46 page feedback thread! Here!

5 things in Anime MMOs should not do.

July 27, 2010

Anime has it’s downsides. Here are 5 things no MMO should ever take inspiration from.

1. Don’t pander to the fans.

Anime out of all art forms is horrendous for this, coining the term “Fan Service” for gratuitous content that is solely tossed in to please the fanbase. Not only that, pandering to the fans can corrupt unique premises and make anime stereotypical if not distasteful. Sometimes the fan culture can be so warped as to corrupt the medium itself. I’m not going to link anime for this one, because most of them would be NSFW anyways, but nudity, fetish material, or even tired tropes like a cute little sister or a beach episode can count.

MMO culture is similar, though thankfully less creepy. we have been conditioned so long to like several tropes we cry foul if we don’t see them even if the game couldn’t support it. Sometimes you have to ignore people and stay true to your vision.

2. Don’t be opaque or insensitive.

This one is a little different. A lot of Anime simply is opaque to the non-japanese. It’s not just a factor of language, but of cultural references, same as any nation. We don’t reflexively know that character has a Kansai accent and absorb the little connotations that has on a character. We don’t know what the kotatsu is and why so many anime characters fall asleep under it: it’s because the table has a space heater under it and the cloth traps the heat making it very warm.

You can learn, but even then by being outside the culture there are many things we wont pick up intuitively. For MMOs it’s a danger of assuming that your players are monocultural.

This ties in to the second point, insensitivity. Watch Anime and you’ll soon see the Japanese have really little idea of what Americans are for the most part. Some directors buck the trend, but America gets mythologized a lot. Being monocultural again: To understand your own culture and try to observe others should always be a goal.

3. Don’t use filler.

Filler is a term to describe episodes in a series shot because the original manga series the anime is based on isn’t ready to be adapted. The anime catches up to the manga but needs to keep on going. So they shoot filler: talking heads, reusing footage from past shows to recap, or brand new episodes that are unconnected to the main storyline. This isn’t entirely bad: if done well filler can add to a series by expanding on new directions of the manga or fleshing out characters better.

But most of the time it’s just boring padding to keep a hot property going. It can be called “Shonen Jump Disease” from the name of the popular manga anthology magazine. Shows like Naruto, Bleach, and Dragonball Z suffer from this, and they also appeared in that magazine.

For MMOs, that means its better just to lay fallow rather than introduce meaningless grinding or filler content to keep a hot MMO going. Despite the fans raging, we all are heavily invested in the games we play, and it’s not as big of an issue as forumgoers make it to be. It’s better to release good content slowly.

4. Don’t get bloated: brevity is better than longevity.

I enjoy reading the manga of Negima?! It’s a manga take on Harry Potter, and although its way too heavy on the fan service it’s a good read. But the manga is at 25+ volumes, with an entirely separate recap/alternate take on the series Negima Neo at 3 volumes. I think there are roughly 4 full, standalone anime series to it.

This is not exactly point 3. Even at 25 volumes, Negima still has yet to get to the main battle and explaining the history of one of its main characters. It’s a common problem with the serial nature of manga (published by the chapter in anthologies) that it gets bloated very fast, very easily. Naruto is soon to hit 50 volumes of manga without resolving one of the main conflicts, that between Naruto and Sasuke.

It’s better to end way before then, just to avoid fatigue and the story being exhausted. Another symptom of “Shonen Jump Disease.” is “Tournament Syndrome.” If your favorite series sticks its heroes in a tournament, the case is terminal. Negima!? has had two so far.

For MMOs, its better to run for four years and cut a sequel than to be a dinosaur at 10 or 12. It makes it impossible for new players to participate, when they even can due to low population and OS compatibility issues. It also increases the risk the game strays from its roots in an uncrecoverable direction. Live fast, die well.

5. Don’t stay yoked to the past. Some IPs need to die.

A problem with Anime is similar to the problems we have with Star Wars or Star Trek. Intellectual properties balloon to these huge monsters that dominate the cultural landscape. It’s not because the IP itself is relevant, but that inertia and conservatism keep the big companies churning out sub-par material because it will sell.

Those IPs often make real change and innovation hard. Hayao Miyazaki never makes the same character twice: each film is unique.  Sometimes a good property should simply run its course. MMOs, too. WoW, EQ, UO-all of these things can harden to dominate the future if held up to imitate.

A lot of these ideas are common to many aspects of media. Disney for example. But anime has so many of these I felt it highlighed the dangers best.

5 things MMOs can learn from anime

July 27, 2010

I’ve been on a large anime kick for the past few weeks, catching up on series I never got around to watch initially. Thinking about it, and why I like it, I came up with 5 things anime does well that could benefit MMOs in general.

1. The mundane and the magical should be merged, not kept separate.

You are a fifteen year old kid, chosen to pilot an immense robot. Yet day after day you also go to school, talk on your cell phone, walk home, and live a normal life. One of the most attractive things about anime is the sense of magic breaking in, and being as much a part of the world as your day to day activities. Whether it’s an eighth grade student becoming a Shinto God, or a police force that uses Giant Robots instead of cop cars, Anime combines the most outlandish fantasy with the real world.

MMOs are too involved in making very generic settings, with no sense of a world breaking into our own. It’s just never-never land, even famous IP like Star Wars or Star Trek. A dragon is much less powerful on a high lonely mountain than he is loping around our city’s streets. Though not anime, there was a reason why Godzilla always came to Tokyo.

2. People are connected.

One thing I notice while watching an anime is how few Dirty Harries there are. The solitary hero is rare, as opposed to heroes who act in concert with each other, either to directly fight or indirectly support. It might be a cultural issue, as group harmony and consensus are as vital to the national character of the Japanese as rugged individualism is to the Americans, but it’s there. No one is alone.

But in MMOs, we are all alone. There is just a single player. They rarely ever talk to players as a band, except when offering grindy guild perks. It’s a collection of self-contained individualists with no cohesion. If you are a wizard, what school did you come from? If you are a paladin in what unit do you serve? Why do they always ask just you? There is little connection between players: each does his own chores and once in awhile joins up to do chores too big for them. The sense of being part of something is missing.

3. There is power in subversion.

The most powerful anime take a theme and subvert it. Anime is very stylistic and often conservative, but those same conventions can be used to provide devastating effects on the viewer. Alien Nine takes the “gotta catch em all” spirit of Pokemon, the capturing and taming enemy creatures alongside a friendly creature and turns its upside down: the main character is terrified of her “partner” and they are being used to recapture things that want her dead possibly as part of a lab experiment. Shadow Star Narutaru is one of the most infamous anime ever made. Magical girls and powerful creature protectors are common, but imagine that limitless power given to bored, cruel, hateful, confused, and vulnerable teens who wreck havoc in the world.

Even minor subversions have power. Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS had a scene where one of the rookies was being chewed out by the main character. When asked why, they flashed to a scene of her having to go through intense physical therapy after one of the magical girl battles they had, and it’s a poignant scene.

MMOs though are all convention and no subversion. They are ripe for something which uses the conventions of killing mobs, experience gain, and other things and inverts or subverts them for commentary, for a richer experience, or to force a new way. In anime all it takes sometimes is something as simple as giving robots teeth. (NSFW) I’m sure MMO conventions can be altered in many ways.

4. Ambiguity is good.

Not everything needs to be explained. Some of the strongest anime deliberately choose to leave mystery in to allow you to form your own stories. Not every piece of landscape needs an NPC with a few lines of flavor text to give us lore. Haibane Renmei never explains why Rakka came to the town, or why they need to follow so many rules. Why can’t they use new clothing, or have money? Some of the film’s most powerful scenes just happen, and we know little more than the characters do.

But that makes the world so much richer, because it allows us to think and create our own stories. Ambiguity is not laziness: it’s not saying to kill ten rats with no reason why. But it is introducing objects with purpose but keeping that purpose mysterious.

5.  The world has cracks.

Embrace imperfections and difference.

Wabi-Sabi is probably impossible for a non-japanese like me to define with any real skill. But as an aesthetic, it permeates Japan. It takes pleasure in the rustic, the transient, the item used. A lot of anime is fantastic, but takes place in cracked, used, worlds. Look down at the streets in an MMO sometime. Can you see cracks in the stones where grass pushes through?

Haibane Renmei elevates this to an art form. Old Home where the Haibane live is a desolate, abandoned dormitory. Half the rooms lie unused, and the roof is in poor repair in some of the wings. But it is beautiful because of that, because the flaws make it real. Swords in an MMO never are chipped. They don’t lose some of their jewelry in the pommel, and armor often looks so outlandish that it’s impossible to imagine a person moving in it, let alone be protected by it.

It’s a reflection on mortality, and it’s ironic that MMOs in game rarely show wear over time, when the games themselves are transient, lasting barely a decade for even the best.

I’ll follow this up with 5 things MMOs should not learn from anime, because like everything in life, it has its downsides.

Fiesta Online

July 23, 2010

I’ve also been playing Fiesta Online, by Outspark. This game is probably one of the best F2P sleeper games out there, and it’s surprising how little notice it gets.

The setting is generic fantasy. Imagine a slightly more grown up 3-D maple story, and that’s it. Dogs with flowers on its head, slimes, imps, and the usual collection of critters. There’s no overarching story, not even a beginning cutscene. Classes are basic, fighter, ranger, mage, and cleric. Quests are the usual. Sounds boring right?

What is hard to explain is how polished the game is. It’s very deep for a f2p game. You have multiple crafting systems, a whole series of group-based instances you can do at any time, a lot of quests and abilities for each level as well as the ability to customize abilities by spending points on things like damage and cooldown time. The game feels very stable, and the community is one of the largest I have seen: there always were 12 or more people doing instances, and zones were full of people. I’d say Fiesta probably can beat out the population of many MMOs. It has mentor and guild systems in place, and even congratulates players server wide when they reach milestones, like level 20, or getting married in game.

The cash shop never felt needed so far. I leveled up to 20, and it was surprisingly engaging. The cash shop is pricy, and seems to revolve around pets and 30 day costume rentals which boost stats.

I have to say, I was surprised at how engaging it was. It isn’t innovative, but is just a well-done basic MMO you can play for free or for little money. If more F2P kept this level of quality (even the westernization is good, no engrish on the quests and even some humor) there’d be less arguments against the genre.

Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine

July 23, 2010

So, next on the F2P trying list is Megaten Online: Aeria’s online devil summoner game. If you aren’t familiar with console games, Shin Megami Tensei is a series of Japanese games focusing on ordinary people dealing with demonic beings in often apocalyptic settings. The most famous of these games are the Persona series in which high school students have to deal with demonic invasions of the real world.

Megaten games set themselves apart from the pack in several ways. A big focus is on negotiations with your demonic enemies. You can bribe them, flirt with them, bully them and more. This can lead to them fleeing, being impressed as your familiar, or getting angry and attacking. Another way tends to be much more serious themes than other jrpgs: death and despair are always a part of that world.

Megaten Online is very true to the series. The back story starts right at the title screen. In 20XX, the world is devastated by the aftereffects of nuclear war, and the survivors in Tokyo buils a huge tower for safety. However 3 demonic shards soon surround it, and the demons that were once vanquished start to reappear. The tower is called Shinjuku Babel. Your tutorial plays on this, as you are a rookie demon buster caught up in a horrible accident and awaken in one of the outlying shelters called Home 3.

The graphics are simple, but capture the megaten vine nicely. Imagine basic Ps2 graphics, but in a stylized mode unique to megaten games: lot’s of gray and muted colors. It works well, although many might find it basic. Character design is very basic at start, but it gets rid of the usual cliches: you can dress in civvies, in combat gear, even in dresses.

They also capture the demon aspect well. You can impress demons just like in the offline game, and they act as a realtime pet, fighting alongside of you. The AI seems pretty good, and I saw a wide variety of them. I haven’t scratched too deeply into the game, however.

Combat is a mixed bag. On the plus side it’s a limited sandbox style: you can specialize in melee, ranged, or support, and customize your demon to support you. However it feels off, because you often have to do multiple clicks for some of the actions like shooting.

The worst aspect of the game though is unprofessionalism. A lot of things you take for granted simply aren’t there. There’s no full screen mode in options, and many basic keyboard shortcuts aren’t included. “I” doesn’t open items, and “M” opens the demon screen instead of the map screen. Cash Shop items are sold in regular shops, and a lot of things simply aren’t explained well, like how to impress a demon, how magic works, or if crafting exists.

It’s tough, because while I love the license, those flaws make the game a chore for me. I’d say try it if you like megaten games, but it’s not something that would keep you playing long.

Another World

July 19, 2010

One thing I notice in La Tale is something that is also present in Mabinogi, and it’s something that Western developers ignore. In both F2P games you are someone from another world alien to the game world.

Both games somewhat handwave it. La Tale so far has no explanation. You dream of Iris, and are just thrown into the world with little explanation. In Mabinogi it’s a common thing for otherworlders to come: Mao guides you through the transition, and world npcs comment on it, with one humorous example being they know you aren’t from around here because your name is floating over your head.

I wish more games would take this approach and run with it, instead of being generic elf in genericland, or even in games like fallen earth where you quickly become part of the landscape. It’s one of the enduring tropes in fantasy, the stranger in a strange land, or the person from our world entering into another.