Friday, August 17, 2012

Speculation on the Aftermath of Mists

Mists of Pandaria is coming out in just a little over a month, so for any future readers - this is all speculation based on what I've seen on the Beta (which is actually not a huge amount) as well as the recently-released cinematic.

Looking back at the cinematic, I think there's actually some really good subtleties, and perhaps even some predictions we can make. First off, notice how the Orc and the Human react to their new surroundings - the human takes the time to craft a weapon (quickly, while watching for an ambush) while the orc grabs the nearest weapon-like object after he's already attacked. This, which is also reflected in the Tushui and Huojin philosophies that divide the playable Pandaren between Alliance and Horde, respectively, kind of sums up the differences between the two factions.

Anyway, what's interesting is that Chen (it is Chen, right?) finds them brutally fighting each other, but then redirects both of them to attack him. It is so effective that when Chen takes away the Orc's improvised mace, the Human hands his mere-moments-ago-a-mortal-enemy his carved-oar spear. Together, the Human and the Orc... well, they don't beat Chen, but they do a bit better.

It's pretty obvious that if there's a moral to World of Warcraft, it's that we'd all be a lot better off if we could just work together for a change, but that old hatreds run very, very deep. Well, that and people tend to get corrupted and go crazy.

One of the people getting corrupted appears to be Garrosh Hellscream (he was crazy from the get-go, such that both sides will spend the final raid removing him from office.

So what happens after that?

If World of Warcraft were a normal, narrative story, or even just a different kind of video game, we could imagine that the Alliance and Horde would finally bury the hatchet (in fact, they did this in Warcraft III, but of course things flared up again.)

The problem is that game mechanics prevent us from ending the conflict between the factions. While I don't PvP, many people - especially those who play on a PvP server - consider it to be integral to the game. If, all of a sudden, you could team up with a Tauren and a Dwarf, and hop on the bat handler in Undercity and land in Stormwind, it would really make it hard to work PvP in there. Even PvE and soloing would cause problems in this regard: you couldn't exactly go in as a Worgen character and do the Forsaken quests in Silverpine.

But there is a middle ground. If Mists is where the War that started with the Wrathgate Incident (or the Battle of Undercity) reaches its climax, what happens afterwards? Garrosh will be gone, and unless each side gets an entirely different version of the raid, we have to assume it's a cooperative effort.

For everything to go back to full-scale war would make this whole escapade seem a bit pointless. So here's what I imagine we'll see:

The Alliance and Horde will sign a treaty and officially end the war (the Fourth War?) But, much as the aftermath of the Third War lead to a kind of Cold War that existed throughout Vanilla and BC, we'll be back to the cloak and daggers and the limited skirmishes.

Ok, so that's the conservative proposal - keeping the status quo on gameplay.

The far more radical thing to do would be this: to truly end the faction war. They say World PvP is dead, well what about if in all future content, the Alliance and Horde are partners? We don't know how many more expansions they've got in them (as long as they're making money, they'll keep making them) but you could imagine that as we go out to A. Finally kill off the Old Gods for real, B. Kill Sargeras, and C. Something else... I know we're supposed to be done with dragons, but what about the Infinites? I want a time-travel expansion, dammit! Anyway, these threats might require some real cooperation. We might all find ourselves within Velen's Army of the Light.

Many would cry foul, but the story kind of demands it.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mists of Pandaria Cinematic

So here's the cinematic for Mists of Pandaria.

These are, of course, fun, but ultimately not the biggest impact on the game. Blizzard wants to re-focus on Orcs and Humans (even as they add Pandaren) and the conflict between the Alliance (with a focus on humans) and Horde (with a focus on orcs.)

Honestly, I actually think they could afford to give the other races more screentime. Not that they are wanting for it, but I always thought the Forsaken should have been the main Horde force in Northrend.

There's also a huge amount of interesting lore with some of the lesser-seen races, like the Draenei, so I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of them.

In a way, this cinematic brought back the old tradition of "player characters fighting," that was the main focus of the Vanilla and Burning Crusade cinematics. That said, I think that if you want people to feel like they're seeing their characters, you should spread out the races you see.

We still have not seen a slick, pre-rendered gnome, worgen, or goblin, and we never got more than a super-brief, in-motion shot of a troll.

But, the major theme of Mists is the endless hostilities between Alliance and Horde. One moment I found both very funny and very telling was when the human hands the orc his sharpened stick - once again, when there is a big enough threat, the Alliance and Horde will learn to help each other - if only briefly.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Mechanical Art: Games Coming into their Own

Video Games (or Games in general, but let's be honest, far more money is put into creating new video games than new board games) have existed in a weird nether-space of "almost art" since they came about. Roger Ebert, the prominent film critic, argued that video games could not count as art, though his reasons seemed custom-designed for his argument, rather than previously-held opinions. The crux of his argument was that games require input from the player, unlike other art forms, where the audience is a passive observer - in other words, that the game maker cannot control the experience completely, and thus their artistic statement cannot be translated.

This seems like seriously faulty logic. Live theater or music benefits greatly from the input and energy of an audience. In theory, film is one of the most "static" art forms (once it's in the can, it's done - at least until someone does a director's cut,) a completed piece like a painting or a sculpture. Yet there are many other pieces - and not only performance art - that encourages audience input. Some of these pieces can be very conceptual, which often turns off audiences expecting something more conventional. As an example, a friend of a friend of mine has a small art gallery in his apartment. When he had his housewarming party, there was a sculpture where the viewer would grab hold of a rod, forcing a ball out of a tube. Some might say it is pretentious to assign this sculpture meaning, but the dissonance between the title, "Pop" and the way the ball simply rolled out of the tube, without the satisfying effect, elicited an emotional response - disappointment.

Defining art is one of those very tricky things to do, but in a very general sense, getting an emotional response out of the viewer/reader/audience describes a good chunk of that which we would call art (Brechtian theater notwithstanding - well, except that alienation is also an emotion.)

To anyone who is a gamer, the idea that games could be art is pretty obvious. But there is a question of what kind of art it is. We often point to wonderful storytelling as a good direction for games - and as an RPG fan and a writer, I can definitely say I like games with a good story - but then there's things like the Mario games. No one could ever accuse the Mario games of pushing the boundaries plot-wise, yet these are hailed as some of the greatest games ever made - and with good reason. You can pick up Super Mario World today and it's still very, very fun.

I think part of the reason that people have a hard time thinking about video games as art is that the central artistic quality of games is a new one. In literature, theater, film, and television, we have narrative and characters foundation for effective art. In painting, sculpture, and photography (and also the performing narrative arts) we have composition and technique to admire. In music, we have the harmony and (different kind of) composition.

In games, we have the gameplay mechanics. The mechanics make up the fundamental pillar on which the art of video games is built. The reason Mario succeeds so well, despite having simple, cartoonish graphics and a paper-thin story, is that the mechanics work with elegant grace. You can sum up Mario very quickly - you run to the right, jumping on or past enemies. Yet within that, there is a depth of nuance that makes for such a satisfying experience.

I think it is a lack of confidence that the game industry has had that has led to many games attempting to become movies. Yet we can see game makers changing the way things are making their games to become something movies could never be.

Take Mass Effect, for example. The game tells a very grand, epic story. While the combat plays pretty much like any other 3rd-person shooter, the real game is in the interactions with other characters. You spend a lot of time talking to your squadmates and everyone else in the galaxy, and it is in these segments that the major decisions are made.

While many games will simply have a plot that you play through, being rewarded with cutscenes or setpieces as the game goes on, the fact that Mass Effect puts so much control in your hands makes the resulting events that much more emotionally resonant. For example (and this is a BIG SPOILER for Mass Effect 3,) assuming he survived the second game, Thane is doomed to die in the third, regardless of what you do. It's sad, because he's a likable character, but the event is not nearly as haunting as the events on Tuchanka. You are given a choice - to prevent the Salarian sabotage to the genophage, but sacrifice your dear friend Mordin Solus and risk unleashing a rapidly-breeding, bloodthirsty horde on the galaxy, or to allow the sabotage to go through, dooming an entire species in the name of theoretical galactic peace and letting your dear friend Wrex die in despair. Even if what you chose was the right thing to do, you can't help but feel like you did something horrible regardless of your choice.

Bioshock, if you haven't played it (it's 5 years old at this point,) has one of the most well-orchestrated twists I've ever seen, and it makes a commentary on central themes via mechanics. SPOILER FOR OLD GAME: Throughout the game,  you get advice from a friendly Irishman who wants to help you get out of the underwater dystopia. Each time he tells you to do something, he says "Would you kindly..." and then makes his suggestion. And of course, this being a video game, the player does what he or she is told. Yet about three quarters of the way into the game (the end of the second act, in screenwriting terms) you make a shocking discovery. The character you are playing has a conditioned command phrase - "Would You Kindly," and you cannot resist doing something if you are asked in that manner, and that the Irishman (who isn't even Irish) has been using you all along. When Andrew Ryan, the misguided objectivist who founded the city of Rapture, reveals this to you, the control is taken away from the character, and you watch your own hands killing him as he begs you to resist the command. Before this point, when Atlas said "Would you kindly?" you never lost control - because you would still do what you were told. Bioshock contains within it a damning critique of the blindly-followed, objective-focused gamer, using its own linearity as a commentary on the linearity of games.

Contrary to Ebert's argument, it is the interactivity - the dialogue between the player and the game mechanics - that make games art. Much as photography and music are independent artforms that nonetheless can be used to enhance the artistic effect of another form (such as film,) the cinematic techniques incorporated into games are there to enhance the artistic effect of the game. The gameplay mechanics are what distinguishes games as their own separate form.

Incidentally, similar topics are discussed in two recent episodes of Extra Credits on Penny Arcade TV - look for the episodes called Mechanics as Metaphor.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Expansion Packs vs. DLC

An interview with Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, of CD Projekt Red has an interesting suggestion as a solution to the DLC issue: that DLC should be free - a service you pay for within the cost of the game.

As a gamer, of course, this is a very appealing idea. Yet, this being a capitalist society, we have to contend with the unfortunate truth that these sorts of things cost money to produce, so one must figure out a way to draw a line between the "included service" DLC, and the "extra effort" that is an expansion.

In this article, when I talk about DLC, I mean Tomaszkiewicz's theoretical "free service" type.

First, let me talk about World of Warcraft (the game that inspired this blog in the first place.) WoW is, obviously, not like all games. It is an MMO, and the biggest one of them by a wide margin. Also, WoW runs on a subscription. You pay $15 a month (slightly less if you subscribe in bigger chunks, as I do) and Blizzard does a couple things. Obviously, running servers that can host millions of people at a time takes a lot of maintenance, space, hardware, and engineering. But that's only part of it. Blizzard's development staff is constantly working on new content.

WoW's addition of content works in two different ways: patches and expansions.

Patches are automatically downloaded when Blizzard puts them up. Now, Patches themselves can be split between Major Content Patches and smaller ones. The smaller ones will fix bugs, and sometimes throw in a couple of gameplay tweaks (say Rogues are hitting way too hard with some ability, so they get nerfed down a bit.) Major Content Patches, though, are huge events. Entire zones can be created, and usually dungeons, raids, and sometimes battlegrounds are added. In fact, since the very first expansion, none of them have shipped with the final boss actually fightable in-game. The reason for this is that they want you to have time to work through the content. The entire raiding community, for instance, will be able to pool the shared knowledge of the latest raid, and it gives you the time to build up the stakes and experience the story at the pace Blizzard wants.

In many ways, these Major Content Patches are like the DLC Included Service Tomaszkiewicz describes (admittedly we still pay for it with our subscription, but the patches do not come at any additional charge.)

Expansions to WoW, on the other hand, are far more massive undertakings. New playable races or classes (or in Mists, both) appear, an entire continent is added (except Cataclysm, which sought to make the Old World new again,) and the level cap is raised while talents and abilities undergo huge changes.

Expansions are practically sequels, and really would be if it weren't for the desire and need for continuity of player characters.

I think what we need to do is find some threshold between "DLC," which would be the free-service type of content, and Expansions.

For an example, let's talk about Elder Scrolls Oblivion (as Skyrim is the latest, I think we can be confident Oblvion isn't getting any new add-ons.)

Bethesda raised an uproar over their first experiment with DLC, which was utterly useless, cosmetic horse armor (for those of you who haven't played, your horse is useful, I guess, but hardly a central part of the gameplay.) So there's clearly some stuff that should have been free.

I have the Super-Awesome Edition, which added two major bits of DLC to the game. The more prominent one, the Shivering Isles, is what I would put under the "expansion" category. The Shivering Isles is an entire new area - not quite as big as the original game-world of Cyrodil, but still quite substantial. This whole area was built from the ground up, with everything from new beasts, characters, and quests to even new plants on the ground. Your character from Oblivion was free to go back and forth between the worlds, but no one could argue that this was a minor addition.

Then there's the Knights of the Nine. This, I would say, is probably the toughest one to nail down. The Knights of the Nine adds a quest chain, a couple dungeons, and a new faction (complete with awesome armor that you can easily upgrade as you level up.) It's not a terribly long chain, but it gives you a faction to work through if you want to play the Holy Warrior Paladin type.

Still, unlike Shivering Isles, this is not a whole new world, just a single quest chain and a cool little priory that you basically get to use as your new home base. It's a good series of quests (and the bad guys have awesome looks to them,) but is this an expansion or DLC?

It's a good question. Unlike Horse Armor, which probably took only one concept artist. one modeler, and one guy to program it, this was something that probably required a bit more effort. Yet can we really call it an expansion? If this had been part of the original game, it probably would have felt like just one more part of the whole.

I don't know if this is the best definition, but I think an expansion - as in, additional content that we have to pay for to alter an existing game - requires it to really feel New. We've got to see a real change of story, gameplay, or location.

For example, take Javik from Mass Effect 3. (Full disclosure: I do not have this DLC, so what I know of him is from Youtube clips and the Mass Effect Wiki) Javik is the long-cryogenically-frozen Prothean - the last of his kind, who awakens to find a very different galaxy than he remembered, except for the whole "Oh crap, the Reapers again!" (Probably wishes he'd been unfrozen a couple thousand years earlier, so he wouldn't just escape one apocalypse to find himself in the next.) Anyway, there's a quest to get him, but after that, he's just another squad member. Sure, he has his own dialogue and little scenes on the citadel (the Hanar are really freaking excited to see him, considering how the Protheans are their gods.) Yet is one more squad member (in a game where you can only take two at a time) really that big? Unlike Tali, Garrus, EDI, and the Virmire Survivor, there isn't a lot of inter-game backstory they need to worry about. I mean, he's very cool, don't get me wrong, but it's not like we have a whole quest chain where we reawaken a whole bunch of Prothean survivors (oh man. Now I'm disappointed that didn't happen.)

I'm also usually skeptical about Day One DLC. If you had this ready (and granted, they might have finished it after the discs were pressed - not sure how the manufacturing process works) why didn't you just include it with our already pretty damn expensive game?

So in the case of Javik, I think this should have been in the "Free Service DLC" form.

Now, on the other hand, if you added a whole new plotline where you traveled to new planets, recruiting... I don't know, the Thorian's species (which I totally think built the Catalyst in the first place) that would be an expansion.

Now, to praise Bioware where it is due (though this is really more fixing a problem that should not have been there in the first place,) the Extended Cut Ending DLC was offered for free. By the time I beat the game, this was already available, so when I finished, I was a little sad at the bittersweet finale (Armin Shepherd, Savior of the Krogan, Peacemaker of Rannoch, Defender of Earth, Unifier of Organic and Synthetic Life, RIP) it was still a very satisfying conclusion to the 3-game epic. But the fixes required - like making it clear what the hell I was doing, or making it so I didn't have to play online multiplayer or some iOS game to actually get the best ending, despite being the savior of the Krogan, making peace between the Quarians and the Geth, and just generally being awesome - were the sort of thing it would be criminal to charge for, and Bioware was wise to offer this upgrade for free.

In conclusion:

The Omnipresent Internet Age has meant very big changes for Computer/Video Games. Games are a fantastic art form, but the sad fact of our society and our world is that, in order for them to be made*, someone needs to find a way to monetize them. The Game Industry is experimenting, and will continue to experiment, in how to handle the idea of a game that is not an exclusive unit, but a changing organism, and what parts they should charge for. As much as I wish I could play every game for free, I do want the artists and engineers that make these wonderful things to be compensated for their efforts. Let us encourage the creativity of those who wish to enhance existing games with expansions (ie Wrath of the Lich King,) but shun that which is cynically designed to maximize profit with the barest level of effort (ie Sparkle Ponies.)

*Yes, there are plenty of people making games for free, and I salute these artists who care not for material compensation. In a way, I am your kin, with my totally free fiction up on Dispatches from Otherworld. But just as Dispatches are short, quick bursts of story, many of these free games lack the epic sweep and grand scale of the games that require a studio full of people.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Case in Point: Skyrim. Also, this would be cool: Steampunk Airship Bethesda Game

As I attempt once again to finally finish the main quest chain in Oblivion (the hurdle I am forcing myself to complete before getting Skyrim - while I also wait for the price to drop) I have been admiring Gamespot's Top 5 Skyrim Mods of the Week, which is way more entertaining than it ought to be.

Anyway, while I doubt I will be able to enjoy all the mods shown in this series (not sure if they can be applied to the 360, and don't just tell me to get a gaming PC - those things are too expensive) it has got me thinking about the Bethesda style of RPG.

Now, Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3 are not exactly my favorite type of game, even if I do enjoy them quite a bit. I tend to enjoy sandboxes with slightly more guidance, and with somewhat more forgiveness if you screw up (and a leveling system that actually rewards leveling up, rather than Oblivion's, which punishes you.) That said, I have enormous respect for the ridiculous level of detail and size of their game worlds. These days, with the internet a quick click away, it's very easy to lose the "exploration" element from games. Bethesda remedies this by essentially saying "screw conservation of detail, let's just add ten times more stuff to our games than you would have to find to finish them."

Anyway, Fallout 3 was a kind of proof-of-concept (as well as being a very fun game) that the "First Person Scavenger" genre could expand beyond Elder Scrolls' swords and sorcery, fitting equally well (or if you ask my friend Tim, better) into a post-apocalyptic shooter.

So I figured I'd just post this idea I had. If you're not interested in hearing an armchair game designer coming up with new ideas, I apologize.

What I could imagine is a sort of Steampunk/Gaslamp Fantasy setting (for those of you unaware of the latter, it's the fantasy version of Steampunk. /end redundancies) that allows you to use Guns, Melee Weapons (think industrial hammers and ornate military swords,) and Magic/Contraptions.

Overall, this could follow the same basic format of quests and exploration as Elder Scrolls/Fallout, but the major draw here would be that you would gain access to an Airship. You would pilot your ship over vast areas, and there would be floating towns in the sky, as well as airborne hazards, like Sky Pirates. (Blowing Pirates off your ship with a concussive blast would be an obvious tactic, so you'd probably start encountering enemies with personal rocket packs, who would need to be killed more conventionally.)

Vastness would be the real big gameplay theme. I can imagine that there could be mountain-sized monstrosities (such as the Scarabs from Halo 3) that you need to land on and take out from within.

Anyway, there's my game pitch. I would like to play it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Console Generations: The Era of the Wii, the PS3, and the XBox 360

When I was very little, the NES still reigned supreme. However, in '91, when I turned five years old, the Super Nintendo was released in the United States. My first video game experiences were on the Mac (my dad, a professor of computer science at MIT, always admired the inherent strengths of the Apple computer design, so we were a straight-up Mac household. As someone who always had to defend my beige box from mockery from PC people, it is very strange that Apple is now the success it has become - oh, and before we get into a whole discussion of the inhumane manufacturing practices Apple is guilty of, I should point out that the very same factories in China produce nearly all major PC brands as well. But this post isn't about the politics of labor or even about home computers, so /end tangent.)

Anyway, back to the point: my first gaming experiences were on the Mac, playing Cosmic Osmo - an objectiveless exploration game by Robyn and Rand Miller, who would go on to make Myst (which has been a huge influence on me as an artist.) While I had friends who played various systems, I only got my Super Nintendo five years after it came out, in 1996. At this time, the N64 was the new big thing.

I got a used N64 about a year later, and I've been a Nintendo loyalist through thick and thin. Granted, now that I'm in my 20s and living with roommates, I have constant access to their XBox.

It strikes me that every generation has its own kind of revolutionary step forward. Starting with the NES (Atari etc. predates me a bit, so I won't go into those earlier systems,) we had the rebirth of home arcade games. Zelda brought us the very first save files in a game. It is a bit odd to think that one was expected to finish all of Super Mario Bros. in a single sitting, but apparently that was the case.

The Super Nintendo, to me, is the true gaming era of my childhood. Even before I had a console myself, the SNES was a golden age. It was also the heyday of the old Nintendo/Sega rivalry. Nintendo's goofy, earnest plumber Mario was set against Sega's totally radical, extreme hedgehog with an attitude Sonic (as much as I wax nostalgic about the 90s, the "totally radical" "edgy" children's cartoon characters have not aged well.) At the time, the Console wars were just as heated as the Mac vs. PC war.

Ultimately, Nintendo prevailed (probably due to just better games. I mean, compare Mario, with its tightly-tuned platforming challenges, with Sonic, which seemed to value the sensation of speed over clever level design,) but in this era, these were the two titans.

Interestingly, the only real qualitative difference I can think of between the 8-bit generation and the 16-bit generation is the number of buttons on the controller. The NES literally had just a D-pad and the A and B buttons (well, plus Start and Select.) The SNES added X and Y, as well as the shoulder buttons (that no modern shooter would work without.) The Sega Genesis actually gave us six main buttons (A, B, C, X, Y, Z,) which I have to imagine was just them trying to one-up Nintendo.

There are many incredible classics from the 16-bit era, and I think I should take a moment to point out how awesome Squaresoft used to be, with its Final Fantasy VI (III for the philistines,) Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and the excellent Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (where you got to have Bowser throw Mario at your enemies as an attack!)

The 32-bit era (64? I thought the whole point of the N64 was that it was 64 bits, but the PS1 was 32, and they had comparable graphics, I think... anyway...) was another very serious revolution. While the 16-bit era had toyed with it (Starfox, for example,) the next generation really brought us 3d games for real. Mario 64 taught the industry how to handle the camera perspective in a 3d environment, and very quickly, the old top-down or side-scrolling games became the exception, rather than the rule.

This was also the beginning the downfall for Sega, as the Saturn was not a terrible system, but Sony's new Playstation arose, leveraging a very large library (not to mention the backing of a much larger company) to become Nintendo's true competition.

Sega, in an ambitious, but ultimately ill-fated attempt to get a leg up, released the Dreamcast in 1998. Truthfully, this was the dawn of the next generation (128-bit, I think, though at this point I don't really know how accurately these bit counts represent the actual power of the systems.) The Dreamcast burst onto the scene with next-gen graphics, yes, and was not an entirely bad system, but I think there was a combination of people not yet being ready to move onto the next console and Sega's diminishing brand-power that led to it pretty much falling apart before the other companies even caught up.

In 2000, Sony came out with the Playstation 2, and Nintendo followed a year later with the Gamecube, while Microsoft entered the ring with their XBox. The 128-bit era, like the 16-bit era, did not really bring the most sweeping changes in the console generations, mainly improving graphics and the scope of its worlds. We did start to see voice acting much more in this era, and demand for production value went up (the Metal Gear Solid series - including the Gamecube remake of the original PS1 title, for example, plays out like a - mostly - interactive movie.)

The strange thing about this generation is that Nintendo, who had revitalized the industry and been pretty much top dog through three generations, found itself in an odd place. Perhaps because of the wild success of the Pokemon games, Gamecube was regarded widely as a "kid's console," and many of the old, more mature (and "mature") titles passed it over. Nintendo also had to face up to the fact that technologically, they were outmatched by Sony and Mircosoft. While Nintendo and Sega had been the two major rivals, both were pure game companies. Now, Nintendo's two competitors are much larger companies, with a wider range of resources to push technical limitations. The Gamecube was kind of a dark era for Nintendo, but it led to a very big development in the subsequent generation.

It should be noted, too, that much of what defined the current generation had its groundwork laid by the 128-bit era. Consoles were getting hooked up online, and while memory cards were still a big thing, we also started to see hard drives coming with the consoles.

The current generation (256 bit? Are we still counting bits?) began with the Xbox 360 in 2005. Microsoft seemed to learn from Sony's success in the previous generation that launching early and getting some major titles in there would be very good for them. (Of course, Sega had tried this with Dreamcast, but...) At least at launch, the three consoles hit very different marks.

The 360 included an HDDVD player (the format that lost out to Blu-ray,) but was not that much more expensive because of it. The major innovation of the 360 was that more and more, Microsoft was making their console act like a PC. While you could technically buy a cheaper 360 without a hard drive, the ability to store large amounts of data allowed for the beginning of the DLC-era. You can download entire games to your console, and existing games can be updated or expanded with digital downloads. If this generation has a legacy, I'd say that's it.

The PS3 was not quite as successful, due in large part to the enormous price it launched with. At $600, Sony must have been really banking on people wanting both a console and a hot new Blu-ray player. Coming out nearly a year after the 360 and at a much higher price has made Microsoft's console look a lot more attractive. I don't have the statistics in front of me, but I can tell you this: in the six years that the PS3 has been out, I have literally only touched one once, and played about 3 mintues of MGS4 (damn do I wish that were on the Xbox.)

And then there's Nintendo's sneaky little bugger, the Wii. Nintendo came to a realization during the Gamecube era: they would not be able to compete with the other consoles on a pure horsepower level. So, instead of making just the next generation, with a controller that had five prongs (look at the Gamecube controller - it might be more ergonomic than the N64 one, but it does have four prongs) they decided to change what a video game controller could look like. Thus the Wii-mote.

Now, the Wii was not the greatest console for an oldschooler such as myself (I play Smash Bros. Brawl with a Gamecube controller) but damn if they didn't find a way to innovate. As the Wii, with its far lower price and intentional "blue ocean" marketing, managed to out-sell the other consoles, Sony and Microsoft perked up.

Sony came out with a blatant copy, with its own glowing lollipop version of the Wii-mote. Microsoft came up with the actually quite revolutionary (even if they're still trying to work out the kinks to make it more than just a gimmick) Kinect.

Actually, the Wii also had another very cool selling point - the Virtual Console. If Nintendo has a strength, it's its history of great games. The Virtual Console makes many of those games (that are quite hard to find now) readily available.

What I find interesting is that the would-be selling points of the current generation (HD Graphics, Hi-def DVD support) have really taken a back seat (Blu-ray came out only a couple years before we kind of gave up on physical media anyway) to the real big innovations, like the virtual console and the rise of DLC.

So what does the future hold for the next generation? The Wii U (please change the name,) the Xbox 720 (um... so we turn twice?) and the PS4 (originality is Sony's great strength. Hence all the memorable Sony characters!) Well, that's tough to predict.

The only one we've really heard much about is the Wii U. Nintendo wants back into the Hardcore market, and while the Wii-mote controllers can be used for some of the games, the new controller paradigm they're looking at is the tablet - with the grand success of the iPad, Nintendo basically wants to work such a thing into their console. Interestingly, when it was announced that they were going to have a Revolutionary controller for the Wii (then code-named Revolution,) I had assumed they were going to go with a touch-screen. One generation later, my prediction holds.

The Wii U will also feature a normal controller that looks almost exactly like the 360 one (this is not a bad thing - while the original Xbox controller was a blocky piece of shit, the 360's is possible the most ergonomically pleasing one yet.)

The strange thing, though, is that a lot of the high-profile Wii U titles are already out or are launching on older systems - Assassin's Creed 3, for example. Actually, even more bizarre is Mass Effect 3 - the final entry in a series that really, really benefits from having save files from the previous games. The thing that's worrying is that we haven't seen any real "next-gen" games announced for the Wii U (should we just call it the U, like the 360?) Now, I'm sure we'll have the next awesome Mario, Smash Bros., and Zelda (am I the only one who liked Twilight Princess more than Skyward Sword?) but I hope that this generation, Nintendo will truly climb back into the top dog spot, and have developers chomping at the bit to get their games on the Wii U.

So, here are my predictions to make myself look super dated in five or so years: I think we're going to see a bigger growth in digital copies of games. While I personally prefer having a physical copy (for back-up purposes if nothing else,) I think we're going to see digital distribution overtaking physical sales.

The awesome side of this is that it will make it far easier for indie developers to get their games out, which is a very important step in the elevation of the Video Game art form. Additionally, we can probably start demanding lower prices for games, and the publishers can do everything for cheaper, and thus still make a sizable profit even if they sell at lower prices (not that they will.) Plus, as we've seen with this generation, we will be able to have constantly expanding games, growing larger with new DLC that can make our favorite games go on that much longer.

The dark side of this is kind of a mirror image. The big danger, of course, is the "greedy DLC," the stuff that clearly should have been in the original game, but was cut out so they could charge you an extra $15. While I'm sure that does not account for all DLC (sometimes it really does feel like an addition or expansion,) I would not put it past the big publishers to push for this new revenue source. The other danger of the online, digital distribution era is the overbearing DRM issues. Diablo 3, for instance, was a bit of a lightning rod for this issue, where a single-player game that could certainly just run entirely on your own computer needed to be connected to the internet via a server (that was overloaded and crashed in the early days, and has to go down for maintenance every week.) As Consoles become more like PCs, many of these issues will become more commonplace.

Of course, most of these issues are present today. I doubt I would be able to predict the really major, memorable changes that will define the upcoming generation. Doing so would make me seem like the guy who's certain the HDDVD/Blu-Ray war is crucial while everyone else is watching stuff on Netflix and Hulu.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Now That's What I'm Talking About

There's a recent WoW Insider article talking about the new face of the Alliance we'll be seeing in Mists. The gist of it is basically that the Alliance (presumably galvanized by the Pearl-Harbor-like invasion of Theramore) is finally ready to kick Horde ass.

Just to get everything straight - the Alliance has, since the Wrathgate (which I would consider the real beginning of the renewed Alliance/Horde conflict, and I don't think I'd get much argument,) been on the defensive and losing ground. Far worse, from the point of view of a player, is that you do not, at any time, get to participate in a resounding victory against the Horde (ok, maybe you do against the Shatterspear Trolls in Darkshore, but again, they aren't really the Horde.) While Horde players can beat back the Stormpike Guard in Hillsbrad, kick the Night Elves out of Azshara, and bomb the ever-loving crap out of a civilian druid school (admittedly, one could argue that Krom'gar was acting as a renegade, but would you even know that if Garrosh hadn't shown up - after the damage was done, mind you - and given his little speech?) Alliance players sometimes see the aftermath of battles (Camp Taurajo is the only victory that comes to mind, and it's clear that this was an utter clusterfuck) but any time they're fighting Horde in the current game, they're either losing or it is a stalemate.

While I do not know exactly how it will go down, I've come to understand that the basic progression of the Battle of Theramore will go thusly: the Horde comes in and does a sneak attack (which is why the Alliance heroes are not there to meet them) and is ultimately able to conquer the place, but at great cost. After the battle is over, or at least mostly over, the Alliance gets there and aids Jaina in evacuating the survivors. As I understand it, her Mage Tower will teleport away (it'd be cool to see that place hovering above Stormwind, Dalaran-style) and the Alliance gets a Dunkirk-style retreat.

This actually characterizes a lot of the Cataclysm-era Horde/Alliance conflicts, but we get the sense that this is, truly, and at long last, the final straw.

So now, in the battle for Pandaria, the Alliance gets to come in, guns-a-blazing. Before we get too excited, I should note that A: the Alliance quests are broken for me, so I haven't actually been able to do anything than stand on the Skyfire and make rude gestures to the Horde forces below, and B: the Horde gets a fairly mirror-imaged version of these quests at the north end of the zone.

However, there are slight differences. The Alliance manages to shoot down Nazgrim's airship almost immediately, whereas I believe (and I could be wrong) that the Skyfire remains intact. There's also just a general sense that the Horde forces are less well-prepared and somewhat scattered for this new environment, whereas the Alliance forces are for the most part intact.

Not huge, but the Alliance needs to take its victories where it can get it.

The point is this: making the Alliance chumps who always get beaten by the Horde is not just bad for Alliance players - it's also bad for Horde players. When I first started playing, I really liked the Horde because it was cool to see Orcs, Trolls, and Undead as good guys. But when the Horde is beating the crap out of the Alliance and never getting any sort of comeuppance, it's no longer fun. You want your enemy to be a real threat to you, or else you feel like a dumb bully.

Of course, we know where this is all going. The final raid of Mists is going to be the dethroning of Garrosh Hellscream. My hope is that this will restore balance between the factions. They don't necessarily need to get along, but the way I see it, regardless of which side unseats him (and depending on which side you're playing, there will be two versions of that event) the Horde and Alliance will have been brought to the same level.

If the Alliance beats him, they will have demonstrated themselves as a serious military force that can pull off an amazing feat. The Horde will have to regroup to become more defensive if their enemy can strike within the very capital city. If the Horde beats him, it means a gigantic political restructuring - pitting the Garrosh loyalists against the heroic rebels, and they'll need to handle their internal problems before they try to grab more land from the Alliance.

When you have players on both side of the conflict (or many, like me, who straddle it) you really need to keep the story balanced as much as the mechanics. Here's to the hope that Mists will achieve this.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Retrospective on Cataclysm

4.3 has been out for quite a while now, and with Mists of Pandaria less than two months away, I think we can safely assume that Cataclysm, as a package, has wrapped up.

Each expansion is like a new incarnation of WoW. While the old content is generally left alone (though this last expansion, of course, recreated much of it,) you won't find yourself grinding the same heroic dungeons or generally hanging out on the same continent as the last expansion. New level caps, new looks for gear, and new abilities, rotations, and talent systems define these expansion eras (some spec, like Protection Paladins, play almost entirely different from one expansion to the next. Even with all the "Active Mitigation" changes, Mists will be the first time I don't have to completely re-learn how to tank.)

So, with Mists, we will have the fifth incarnation of the titan of the MMO genre. But while that is exciting, I thought I would take a moment to talk about the fourth incarnation, or the "Tom Baker" of WoW (though I doubt it will live on with as much popularity.)

The big issue with Cataclysm is that it is really two different expansions wrapped into one. The two previous ones gave us ten new levels and either a new race for each side, or a new class, but other than the new starting zones (or really "starting experience" for Death Knights,) the old world was pretty much left untouched. Cataclysm added a smaller high-level questing game in the interest of revamping the entire 1-58 experience, which had been practically untouched since the game launched.

So let's talk about Cataclysm in two parts: The New Old World and Deathwing Throwing the Elemental Planes Out of Whack.

The New Old World

This is where I think Cataclysm really shined. Granted, a handful of zones were overlooked, even some that really should have seen big changes, given the content of the expansion (Silithus! The zone is all about Old Gods and Twilight's Hammer! How could they have left this the dreary, boring mess that it is? Or Arathi Highlands - where the full strength of the Alliance could finally put a stop to the relentless expansion of the Forsaken?) But most of the world was heavily refurbished, not only making leveling smoother by giving each zone an easily-followed quest chain (rather than the old "go to Tanaris at 40. Do one quest. Come back at 45. Do three quests. Come back and 49. Do two quests) but also giving the player a pretty clear path through which to travel from zone to zone. For example, an Undead character can fairly easily go Tirisfal-Silverpine-Hillsbrad-Arathi-Hinterlands-WPL-EPL-Badlands-Searing Gorge-Burning Steppes-Swamp of Sorrows-Blasted Lands, leveling up to 58 without having to suddenly figure out some good 35-45 zone on another continent.

The quests are also far more varied, and while you still have the aggravating "collect 6 bear asses" on occasion, it's much easier to deal with when there are plenty more "fly around bombing these pirates" or "swing on a rope like a swashbuckler and fight your way down into the ship."

I would also put the new races into this category. Now, while I love the Draenei (they're my favorite color, and they're space aliens in a fantasy world, and they can be either hilarious or solemnly badass) I think Cataclysm had a far better assortment of new races. The Goblins really should have been in the game from the beginning, and their insane lack of a sense of self-preservation is amusing. The Worgen are the the most badass thing in the game (well, race-wise. Death Knights are probably the most badass class,) and have an absolutely excellent starting zone.

If there are any failings within the New Old World, they are mostly within the places where it seems like they ran out of time and just kept things the same. So, Arathi Highlands, Silithus, Dustwallow Marsh and Northern Barrens probably stand out the most. That said, certain zones, such as Searing Gorge and Eastern Plaguelands, found ways to take old quests and make them feel new.

The only "problem" is that because leveling is so easy with the revamp, one can feel the wish to turn off rest experience so that one doesn't level out of a zone before its story is complete.

We also saw the first huge revamp of the talent system, which laid the groundwork for Mists' utter reworking of it. While the system did not eliminate the issues with the old talent trees, they did solve a few problems. The level 10 spec choice, with basic bonuses and the ability that came with it, contributed greatly to making you feel like you had actually done something with that first talent point. Granted, from that point on it felt pretty much the same as the old talent system, but it was a good start. (And also useful for noobs who might think that over-specialization would be bad and spread their points out across all three trees, which is totally not something I did when I first started playing...)

Deathwing Throws the Elemental Planes Out of Whack

And the Twilight's Hammer Gets Their Day in the Limelight

So now we come to this - the high-level questing and the new dungeons/raids.

Here is where Cataclysm came up a bit short. While I'm still impressed that they managed to do a whole underwater zone (I don't care what people say, I think Vashj'ir is awesome,) and some of the environmental concepts were cool, ultimately the five zones that took you from 80 to 85 were a bit disappointing.

For one thing, there was practically no difference between the Alliance and Horde experiences until Twilight Highlands, and that stops when you're about halfway through.

Also, the extreme linearity of each zone means that if you get sick of a particular series of quests, your options are to either tough it out or go level grind in dungeons. You also only ever get one choice for which zones to go to, at the very beginning. You can do Hyjal or Vashj'ir, but here's the catch: You should really do Hyjal. If you did not do Hyjal, you will not get a single reputation point with one of the four major factions (Earthen Ring is split between Vashj'ir and Deepholm, and even though it's tricky to get to the ER quartermaster if you haven't done Vashj'ir, you can just do the first quest to get the swim bonus or take a potion or two and swim down) and additionally, you can't do any of the non-raid content that came with 4.2 unless you've gone about three-quarters of the way through Hyjal.

Despite the fact that Hyjal is probably the dullest of the Cataclysm zones, it is inadvisable to do Vashj'ir (which is probably the most original and interesting.) And after that, it's Deepholme, Uldum, and Twilight Highlands.

The odd thing about the five high level zones is that their intention was to make them feel more a part of the Old World, yet their isolation from one another made them all feel more like disconnected islands, without a consistent theme.

The lack of choice is probably the biggest theme in what is wrong with this part of the expansion. At launch, there were 7 new dungeons, and 2 revamped heroics. At 85, there were only three top-level dungeons, despite the fact that heroics were tuned to the point where you really needed to grind hard on those regulars. Wrath had four regular level 80 dungeons (not counting ToC or the Frozen Halls,) but its heroics were (mostly) less punishing, and BC had seven level 70 regulars (not counting Magister's Terrace.) Of course, in Mists they're getting rid of level cap regulars, which hopefully means level 90 heroics will be relatively tame.

Anyway, things got worse when 4.1 hit, and all of your dungeoneering was syphoned into two very difficult former raids. While you could still grind valor on the old dungeons, you were passing up the better gear (and Maelstrom Crystals - remember, there is a functional difference between purples and blues beyond having better stats) for dungeons that were still pretty damn hard. But if you were tough enough to do them, you were pretty much compelled to stick only to the Zandalari heroics, and only those two, for all of 4.1 and 4.2.

Also, while the initial raiding tier had a respectable twelve bosses (thirteen counting Sinestra,) tier 12 had only 7, and tier 13 had only 8. The entire expansion had a total of 28 raid encounters, compared to Wrath and BC, which both had 50. Raiding had the same problem as the dungeons (and I actually sympathize here with Blizzard, as there was a very vocal but - I'm almost certain - tiny minority who complained at how easy Wrath content was) which was that they were tuned to be very punishing. While Naxxramas (Wrath Edition) cultivated a sort of good will with people who wanted to try out raiding (while I did run Karazhan a couple times in BC, Naxx is where I really cut my teeth as a raid tank,) tier 11 pummeled you with very hard encounters right off the bat. There was no recourse if you were having trouble, because it was the very first raid tier. While Ulduar was also difficult, if you were having trouble with it you could just go back to Naxxramas to get your guild some raiding practice.

Anyway, things got a bit better with 4.3, at least on the dungeons and non-progress front. The Hour of Twilight heroics were a return to the quick and easy (but still mechanically interesting) style of Wrath dungeons (Murozond is one of my favorite boss fights in the game,) and while there is still no "just throw me in to any level 85 heroic" option from the dungeon finder (which, I mean, come on, there should be - with greater variety of random dungeons comes less burnout) at least these go quickly enough that you don't mind running them over and over (well, ok, there is a limit, but it's much farther than the "oh, thank God I've got the gear I need from the Zul dungeons" limit.)

The raid itself - well, my guild kind of fell apart (due in large part to the ball-crushing difficulty of the 4.0 instances) so I can't really judge the encounters of Dragon Soul. It would have been nice to see cool new models and environments, but I respect some of the unique concepts - such as the lighting chains or the "back of a dragon" mechanics.

The more important thing was the introduction of the Raid Finder. Overall, I think it was a great addition. The flaws in looting will hopefully be fixed by the Mists changes (I'm sure future me will have something to complain about.) I just think it is a great step forward for the game to allow casual players to actually get to see the conclusion of the story and experience the epic battles you can't really find in a 5-man. As accessible as Wrath of the Lich King was, you weren't guaranteed to see what it was like to face him atop the Frozen Throne.


One last note. I like RPGs because of the interesting worlds and stories you can set in them. Now Deathwing had a lot of potential as a character. Sadly, the direction they took him in left him a bit bland.

I mean, I get it. He is so consumed by rage that he becomes a flying volcano. He's the essence of a fire-breathing dragon bent on destruction. Not only that, but he is, in a high-fantasy way, the kind of Cthulhu cultist who goes batshit and starts murdering until he's put down. It's a different kind of antagonist than Arthas or Illidan.

Here's the thing: as much as people complained about having Arthas show up all the time to taunt you ineffectively, Arthas was an awesome villain. Not only was there justification for why he didn't want to kill you yet (and, as we see in the end of the Lich King fight, he could have killed you at any time,) but the one time he does seem to go on a murderous rampage (at the end of Halls of Reflection,) he becomes a terrifying, unstoppable force that you can only attempt to evade, and not fight.

Deathwing was meant to be a terrifying, unstoppable force, but we never get to know him as a person - to see that there is diabolical intelligence behind his rampage. Now sure, he's been driven mad by the Old Gods, so maybe that intelligence isn't there. But that just makes him a less interesting villain. We could be getting out of the way of a meteor for all we cared.

In a way, I wish that we could have seen him preparing for the Hour of Twilight. We hear about the Hour of Twilight a whole lot, but never really get a sense of what it is until Ultraxion is dead and we find out we've already foiled it.

The story of the high-level zones focuses a great deal on the Elemental Planes, and we do get the sense that Twilight's Hammer is trying to throw them out of whack in Deathwing's name, but at no point do we feel that he really has a role in any of this beyond serving as an role model of someone who has given himself over completely to destruction and chaos.

Rather than playing through an extended Indiana Jones parody (and mind you, I love Indiana Jones. Well, Raiders and Last Crusade at least. You know, the ones with the Nazis,) I would have far preferred going through Titanic vaults and discovering how Deathwing plans to destroy the world. There could have been a fascinating series of quests (perhaps aided by Nozdormu) in which we see the progression of Neltharion into Deathwing. We're told there was a time when Neltharion was one of the most likable and benevolent of the Aspects, and was best pals with Alexstrasza, but even though we travel into the past, we only ever see Deathwing as Deathwing. Also, I wish the Tol'vir had been more than just boring, boring Cat-people with no personality whatsoever.

Going way back to the pre-expansion event, I liked the way that Twilight's Hammer was preying on the fears of the people - even as they were driving forth the upcoming apocalypse. Twilight's Hammer is an interesting set of villains. I think they did an all right job with them (not so much a fan of the blue & red aesthetic, purely from an artistic perspective) but it was most interesting when we were seeing things from the inside.

Regarding Vashj'ir, I wish they had wrapped up the Naga and Neptulon plot there. We still have to deal with Azshara some day, so there's definitely potential to revisit this problem.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, I believe that Cataclysm was part-noble experiment, part-necessary refurbishment, and part-disappointment. Obviously, the numbers are not in its favor - WoW hit its high point (so far, one hopes) of 12 million subscriptions during Wrath, and it fell to its current point of 9 million.

Make no mistake - 9 million is still an enormous number of subscriptions. That said, I doubt there are many who believe that Cataclysm was WoW at its finest.

On the other hand, from the perspective of a new player, who is just getting into the world and trying it out, Cataclysm offered a far more polished leveling/solo game for 1-58 content than had existed before.

We should also note that while I do think that Wrath of the Lich King and Burning Crusade brought more to the table content-wise, the mechanical changes that came with Cataclysm were nearly all for the best.

The other thing to bear in mind is that WoW is not a new game anymore. WoW became the genre-standard for MMOs, and even eight years later, it is still by far the most popular. Yet to all of us veterans (technically since Vanilla for me!) you need to work really hard to surprise us.

And let us not forget that even in the less-successful high-level half of Cataclysm, there were some real treats. The Horde introduction to Twilight Highlands is awesome. We got some truly unique environments - particularly as we delved into the various elemental planes (if you don't think Skywall is gorgeous, you have something wrong with you.) We got a number of memorable characters (I liked that nearly every Earthen Ring NPC was a character who showed up in multiple zones. How can you not love Stormcaller Myrla?) as well as a much better sense of the precarious political balance and the difficulties of fighting another faction that is not, like so many things we fight, pure evil. And they managed to do an entire freaking zone underwater? How is that not something people are crazy about?

Cataclysm - flawed, and indeed, I am glad that we'll be moving on soon, but I still salute Blizzard's effort. They earned my subscription fee.

Looking Forward, Into the Mists

We really have no way of knowing what Mists will be like. Yes, there is a Beta, but everything changes when you are actually making progress on your long-held characters. I can't imagine there's anyone who's actually farming gear or grinding VP on the beta (and if they are, they are freaking insane.)

The thing that excites me is that this time, Blizzard really has been able to focus on the endgame. The old-world revamp for Cataclysm was a huge drain on resources. Worth it, I would argue, but a drain nonetheless. Now, however, other than the Wandering Isle, they get to put all their content resources into Pandaria.

I like that they've really decided to let you play as you will. I haven't done scenarios yet, but the idea of a more casual kind of instance appeals to me. So far, at least, Pandaria seems to be a living, breathing enough setting that the people there should hopefully not suffer the fate of the Tol'vir.

They're going into pretty untested waters here, with a new continent and very little pre-existing lore, but if it manages to recapture that sense of exploration and fun, it should get back to the whole point of an RPG.