Wednesday, September 06, 2006

PAX: Fury, & The Nature of the MMO as an Evolving Genre

Now I’ve talked WoW before and will almost certainly talk WoW again but I’m here right now to talk about the bigger picture.

I’ve been playing MMORPGs for literally half of my life. I started around 9ish with Nexus Kingdom of the winds. It was 2d, there were only four classes, but it was a continuous online game. It was a good one too, simple, but the class structure was lacking. It’s also a game where you could see what would become the “Essential Model” already beginning. I played a mage, as I almost always do, but mages were a weird class in that game. The essentials were the guy in plate mail with the sword, and the healer. In this game they were called warrior, and poet. Poet was a caster who could do very very minimal ranged attack spells, but could keep a full group alive. Warrior had the most HP and arguably the best damage, but couldn’t live long enough to get anything done without a healer. Mages were the only class that could solo because we could attack from a distance and had functional but not great healing abilities. The key thing we brought to the table was the spell paralyze, meaning we were the only crowd control class. Rogues were in theory highest damage, but in practice that only worked out halfway.

From there it was Ultima Online which is, IMO, still in the running for being the best. I liked it for the freedom it allowed you. The combat and what would be thought of the “Normal” MMO activities had all kinds of flaws, but it was a game where you could progress to the grandeur as a craftsman. You could skip the whole of combat if you chose. I think it was neat, but ultimately doomed. It had the first beginnings of 3d, but it was a fixed perspective, and was functionally a 2D game.

Then came Everquest. Oh the madness that brought. 15 Expansion packs later that game still has clingers on. It was the first game to have every class with a clear role, it was the first game with classes that breached the roles, and it was the first game in real 3D. When you threw a fireball in that game you felt it. Warriors/paladins would tank, priests/druids would heal, and all different manner of us would provide the various forms of DPS. The basic model was in place. More importantly though the basic model was being under-minded, because EQ was the one that introduced hybrids. I’ll make no secret of the fact that I love hybrid classes. I love having that multi-functionality at my disposal. Hybrids are what cause power disputes though. Let’s take Paladin, which is a simple discussion. Paladins are tanks with healing abilities. How well should you let them tank? Clearly not as well as a warrior who doesn’t have healing abilities, but then you have to make sure they don’t heal as well as a priest. So if you have someone who’s just bad at two things why do you need them in your group? The eternal battle of the game developer is making a hybrid which isn’t just someone who’s bad at two things, but legitimately good at being that blend. This is also the battle of player, and why I’ve spent so much time explaining to other Paladins why my Paladin is beating theirs in every category


That bit of arrogance aside I return you to the main story. EQ began to go downhill because SOE hates their customers. I could go into that but you’ll have to just follow me on that one for now. I departed EQ into the glorious world of Asheron’s Call. This was the first game I played by Turbine, my 2nd favorite game company after blizzard.

Asheron’s Call was awesome. It was the first game without zoning, it had a great magic system, and a sub par armed combat system which I never really noticed. The graphics were good, the way the game flowed was good, and the classes were ridiculously simple. You were either a caster, or not a caster. If you were a caster you could do the full assortment of magic. I could buff, I could heal, and I could throw waves of fire at the insolent fools who stood in my wake. It was glorious. If you were a non caster you had an incredible armor class, because you put points into strength and could hence lift the good armors unlike us mages, and you had had your weapon of choice and a shield. You would rush forward and bash stuff while people like me stood in the back, kept you alive, and threw arcane doom at whatever we were fighting at the time. AC also had cooking, which was the pointless side skill I invested way too much of my XP into. I had all kinds of fun with that. It wasn’t by any means critical to the game, but it was crazy fun.

In time AC got repetitive, and it was about this time I met a man who was in the beta for a shiny new MMO called “Anarchy Online.” Not only was this one new and making improvements in the places where EQ was making mistakes, but it was a cyberpunk MMO. Cyberpunk is a genre I love. The only thing that even comes close is Steampunk, which still hasn’t gotten a good representation in a video game.

You heard me whichever company made the game Arcanum. Still Hasn’t Gotten a Good Representation in a Video Game. That’s not me being a jerk either that’s the sound of your game sucking.

I got AO the day it came out, and what ensued was the worst launch in recorded history. The server was constantly crashing, you essentially couldn’t zone, and the whole thing didn’t work. I decided to check back in a month when I figured they have everything up and running. I forget what exactly happened during that month game wise. I think it was Diablo II. It my have been on of the final fantasies though. I never stopped playing other games while playing MMOs; it’s just that the MMOs are played for such an extreme length of time that it’s easy to tell the story through them. In either case I came back a month later and things were great. I was a fixer, I had a submachine gun and supernatural hacking abilities and I felt great. I soon earned a reputation as a Blitzer. Blitzing in AO was the art of running past all of the enemies in a mission and grabbing the reward then bolting away. I could get a mission reward in 30 seconds, not counting travel time to the mission. I became so good at this that I wrote a guide to blitzing, and the Master Blitz List, which was my compiled list of items that were worth blitzing. It’s part of the “Essential fixer guide” in the fixer forums. As great as that was AO quickly developed problems. Funcom, the company that made it, was more interested in making new content then they were in fixing the bugs in the existing content. The bugs got worse and worse as time went by. What would’ve been the final blow was struck when they released the Shadowlands expansion pack and brought a whole new load of bugs and a bullshit fantasy element to the game. By then, however, I was involved with the most fun guild of all time. Xtronica Entertainment. We ran the social scene in that game. The actual game play became a secondary item to just hanging around and messing around with my friends in Xtronica. There’s a long story there, but it’s bittersweet and not relevant to the point of this.

From AO I began jumping around. I played Dark of Camelot which had its merits. I played Star Wars Galaxies which is an offense to star wars fans the world over. I dabbled in city of heroes which I thought was a load of fun but far too repetitive. It was during my CoH time that I got an invitation to the World of Warcraft beta. Blizzard? Making an MMO? It was a dream come true.

And it really was. WoW was, is, and most likely will continue to be amazing. But standing as I do now on the vast mountain of experience in this field I must say that WoW wasn’t a standalone creation. It’s what MMORPGs have been evolving towards all this time. The whole cycle has been the gradual refinement and perfection of this singular vision, and WoW is just the best instance of it to date. And I’ve think I’ve seen the next instance.

Warhammer Online. It’s gotten a lot of semi-deserved flack for having an art style that’s amazingly similar to that of World of Warcraft. I myself sometimes refer to it as “World of Warhammer Online Craft” mimicking a Penny-Arcade comic I would link if I had internet while typing this. I really have been spoiled on broadband. Anyway, I played the Warhammer beta, I’m signed up for open beta but haven’t gotten word in yet, and I think that it could go amazingly far. All it has to do is learn its lesson from WoW, and then take the idea of fast intense involved combat that is its central dogma, and not screw it up. There is much potential in that game, I won’t be canceling my WoW account anytime soon, but Warhammer could go far.

That is until Fury comes out. Oh my God you guys Fury, Fury you guys, oh my God Fury, oh my God. That game was awesome. It’s if you took the best elements of WoW style game play, and pulled out all the PVE leveling item grabbing crap, and revved the whole thing up by a factor of 5. Warhammer has my cautious optimism. I’d put money on Fury. It’s fast, it’s tactical, it’s vicious, it’s brutal, it’s in your face and it’s glorious. It’s the game play that people have been trying to get for years finally put the way it should be. They were the ones who were willing to stick their necks out there and merge RPG style combat and FPS speed. I think this is what a lot of us have been looking for all this time. And make no mistake there are those who don’t want this. They want the big group PVE dynamic, but you know what? WoW has got that down solid. If you want the big kinda slow 20-40 person raiding experience, and it’s a great experience, go play WoW. If you want the breakneck adrenaline pumping PVP combat experience, and it’s also a great experience, go play Fury. Now Fury isn’t out yet, but once it is I think the rift in gamers that’s always existed will finally be the way it’s supposed to be. There will be a game for slower “Basic Model” PVE style players, and there will be a separate game for fast paced PVP jerks, and I’ll have to pay TWO monthly fees, but I won’t care because it will be glorious.


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