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World of Cokecraft

by on Sep.08, 2006, under games industry, geek culture, mmorpg, new media, WoW

TerraNova highlighted it, I watched it, and ‘iCoke’ blazes a trail for World of Warcraft into China. The ad is actually somewhat old, but combine it with this :

With 7 million subscribers, WoW is now in the list of the world’s top 100 most populous countries.1 2

It easily exceeds the population of Lebanon or Israel. It will likely surpass them both put together. Think of how all those Wow players could represent a significant force for massive social change, if only the damned Horde would stop getting in the way!

Priorities, priorities. 🙂

(Keep reading!)
(continue reading…)

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James Cameron’s Hollywood Reversal

by on Feb.03, 2006, under games design, mmorpg, moviez, new media

Like the Hollywood fare that inspires them, typical tie-in games for movies usually follow the same tired formula. A reskinned Quake clone where you follow the plot along as the protaganist (with suitable cut-scenes to prop up the story, ugh), and you uh, jump…and shoot stuff. Or possibly a themed RTS set in the movie’s universe, where you… destroy stuff.

Games based on movie franchises are NEVER as successful (monetarily or aesthetically) ones based on original IP.

Enter James Cameron, finally resurfacing from being underwater for like the last 20 years. Cameron intends on taking the classic movie-game concept and turning it on its end. This ambition is currently called, Project 880, and he essentially wants to make a multiplayer game and movie simultaneously, and then release the game first. The idea is that players will explore the universe and become familiar with it (addicted?), then go watch the movie to experience one thread within the gameworld’s narrative.

Hmmmmm. Is this a transparent marketing play, or a legitimate exploration in game-movie interactivity? Remember, the story I linked is in Business Week.

Cameron is not stupid, and this has never been done before. Lucky for him, this fact alone might make game and movie sell magnificently. Clever marketing, indeed. Risky, too! What if the game turns out like The Matrix Online? Yek.

Yet, as a seasoned optimist, I couldn’t help but race the possibilities around in my mind. The project seems interesting, but only when you start to think about it.

Lets assume that Cameron doesn’t care about marketing or money. Lets pretend, for a moment, that all he cares about are games.

Lets also believe that the game is so full of awesome, that you quit your job, your family and bowling club in order to fully experience everything it has to offer.

So what would a game-vie look like? Which compliments the other? In this perfect universe of gamedom, which entity benefits more? The movie? Or the game?

  • Consider that the fictional universe is fully realised and documented within peoples’ heads before the movie starts. In this case, the movie gets the benefit here, as the setting has been established, allowing it to concentrate on other things… like plot!
  • The movie’s subtext is readily understood. Here, the movie benefits again, as it inherits from a significant base of knowledge for the viewer. This provides Cameron an opportunity for more content within the film without having to explain its presence. That is, making nods and homages toward the game’s setting and characters in an effort to make it more entertaining. (Moviegoer : “Wow, those characters got ganked in the exact same spot I did!”)
  • The visual imagery and effects are incredible. This notion boosts the game, without question. With a Cameron budget, the game can only help to inherit the rigourous production calibur of a blockbuster film. In this, the game will most likely look fantastic, as the design and attention of an excellent production studio will be devoted to it.
  • Great performances and top-notch acting talent. The hype of a Cameron film, and the budget that he’ll undoubtably command, will attract high quality talent. This will obviously benefit both, but here’s a chance to make a game that actually has good voiceover work. 🙂
  • Story. I’m having a hard time imagining how the game may help the movie’s story, or vice versa. Perhaps when the player returns to the game after having seen the movie, they may discover another dimension to the game experience.

In the end, this isn’t quite as exciting as I had thought, as this seems more of a vehicle for the movie. Its hard to see it for much more than that. Yes, the setting and the imagery will likely be incredibly compelling, but the game has to be innovative and fun in order to justify this unique and directed combination.

Now, what if the outcome of the gameworld influenced the outcome of the movie? Now that’s exciting, and would make me want to play it (if only to witness the influencing elements firsthand). Sadly, with the extreme scheduling of the film business, this would probably never be possible.

How about you? If this mythical awesome-filled game were to appear tomorrow and offer you a chance to “direct” the plot of the movie, would you play it?

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Not all that WoW’d

by on Dec.09, 2005, under games design, mmorpg, WoW

wow nerds

After a long and undeniable fade, I finally uninstalled WoW and cancelled my account. Many months have gone by where I have not touched the game, for a variety of reasons. The strongest of these, hurridly scrawled below :

Despite my contention that its a complete design, a perfectly overflowing package with busy little treats for everyone, the game is essentially dead for me. Getting to 60, the current maximum level, was “mostly harmless” fun. Despite fits of sheer boredom, peppered with many instances of reading magazines during combat, I finally did it and by mid-summer dinged 60. Surprising yes, but a promise was made, and I always try to do what I say I will do. I was glad to have my compatriots with me while I did that : Iolo, Dorgrim, Thorgar, Davina, Iara, Gropp, Kali… the many nights of fun we had is undeniable.

Everything in the game is there because Blizzard chose it to be. If you look closely, you see the design and technical decision points all over. For the good and bad, it is what it is. I won’t fault Blizzard for the “why’s” of what they did, but I will fault them for the “because” – that is, the result of their decisions :

The end-game for WoW
As meticulous a design it is, did not appeal to me. I strongly feel that they really did a fantastic job with the game as a whole, and the effects of what they have wrought shall be felt throughout gamedom for a very long time. Yet there is so much missing from what could have been a “funner” game. The prerequisite for large group instances included a party of absolutely correct composition, but this manifested a direct barrier to actually playing and enjoying the game! If you couldn’t find the right healer or tank, you did not play. Why pay for a game that you cannot play?

The objective is fighting, yet combat is dull
The prevailing mode of point-and-click combat is hopelessly deterministic, thus removing the visceral pleasure one should have when vanquishing an opponent. A joyless exercise to be sure. And complete ignorance of the five-second rule.

The story? What story!
This is a huge world, filled with peoples and places and legends and history. Yet I challenge anyone to tell me five story threads from the top of their head. The God Hakkar did what, exactly? What did Overmaster Pyron do to deserve repeated assasination? ETC.

The warped and cartoon-like visual design
It fills the world from each end with a lovely, contiguous language making each corner different yet predictable. The work of a consistent hand. A god. But the lack of photorealism and the cutesy elements lead me astray from immersion. If they were to drop an entire new continent into the game (and they will), it would actually appear far too similar to what appeared before it, and no matter what they were attempting to render for us. One may argue, but the visuals actually get tedious.

The characters
By the characteres I mean the design. Not compelling and far too similar. Yes, they create ownership and uniqueness as a game reward (ie. time spent in procuring new “looks” in the form of weapons and armour), but too often I would meet another night-elf rogue that looked identical to me. My opinion (and you may disagree) is that this should not happen. And looking at my character’s face, right from the start, caused me to curl my lip in slight disgust.

Inertness
If you drop a sword in the forest, does it make a sound? Not in WoW. The world is a backdrop to a player’s interactions with a database. You cannot interact with the world in any way, nor can you drop items, move objects, build things, destroy them, or do anyhting to change or disturb this lovingly crafted universe in any way shape or form. This breaks immersion (at least for me). It makes the world less interesting to spend time in.

And thats it. I recall grinding my way through Azeroth’s Silithus region for a rare item, doing it for several hours, and decided to listen in on my guild Ventrilo server for the whole voyage, partaking in the conversation. Three hours of nothing but discussion of particular pieces of armour and weapons. “Those gloves are nice.” “Yeah if I combine them with this and this, that will complete the set I’ll need to do that and that.” “Fantastic”. I am not joking, this was a three hour non-stop discussion for two enthusiastic players. I will not fault them at all – its the game that they are playing, and they enjoy it as they have every right to. In my humble opinion, three-hour discussions about gloves and boots do not a game make.

For what it is, the game is great. But at this point, time-based games just aren’t for me.

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MMOre NNews

by on Dec.07, 2005, under game reviews, games industry, mmorpg


multiverse_logo.gif

From Terranova, I saw a recent post from Dr. Richard Bartle detailing a new game engine and MMO platform called Multiverse.

Its essentially a “do it yourself” toolchest for online game development. Their idea is to have multiple, singular MMO’s essentially linked to each other by a central registry. This is a serious foray into a distributed model of online games.

Aside from their bluster about “revolutions” in MMO development, its quite interesting. They give you the engine, some pre-canned assets, the server code, and an editor. Create the world you want and voila! Instant MMO. They even host it for you. They make their money by charging you a percentage of your game’s subscription fees.

The DIY aspect isn’t new. Bioware’s Neverwinter provided a dev toolchest with charge-for-use content and they seem to be very successful with it.

Yet, there does seem to be a lot of buzz around Multiverse. Bartle wants it for his research. I think others might like the challenge of making something fun with it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I’d like to see what the engine’s capabilities are. Check it.

In other news, I looked at the trial edition of Irth Online, just out of curiousity. Its a brand-new fantasy-themed MMORPG made by a smaller developer in Boston. I would be very tempted to call it an indie MMO, for a variety of reasons. It had almost no press or advertising, which struck me as odd for a brand-new commercial MMO. After looking at the game, I’m not surprised.

Its a complete clone of what we’ve seen already in that genre. Although they’ve obviously worked very hard on it, the most irritating aspects are that its very clunky, confusing and non-innovative. Damn. Every aspect of a typical MMO appears within Irth as if its merely fulfilling a checklist of what an MMO should have, all very hurriedly slapped together.

I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand, but there are quite a few problems with it. Generally, I find it very instructive to look at bad games as well as the good ones. In this case, I’ll suffer through the experience even if its merely to answer the question : is “Irth” an elaborate experiment or a true commercial product?

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This is not a post about Battlefield 2.

by on Jun.29, 2005, under game reviews, games design, mmorpg, WoW

Shadowfang
Binds when equipped
Main Hand Sword
29-55 Damage Speed 2.70
+4 – 8 Shadow Damage
(17.8 damage per second)
Durability 75/75
Requires Level 19
Chance on hit: Sends a shadowy bolt at the enemy causing 30 Shadow damage

I have done well in my life to always heed the words of Mutha. So when he says, “Don’t miss out on the FPS Squad game of the year”, you no longer have free will.

So of course I listened! I rushed out and bought Battlefield 2 as soon as I could. Well, actually, I tried. Virgin Megastore Vancouver has been axed by its distributor so no more PC games for a while, LOL. I am certain that the competition will be happy to hear this.

Instead, I bought Diablo 2 for 10$ in the clearance bin. 🙂

Note : I did get Battlefield 2 eventually, so watch for a review soonish.

So I took my new 10$ purchase home, installed it, and levelled my fresh and sparkling Paladin to 7.

So what the hell did I do that for? Why should I waste money, time and CPU cycles for a game that was originally released in June 2000? Doing it just for clicks? A click down memory lane? Gah, sorry about that. Diablo was alllll about the clicking.

The main reason was Blizzard, actually. I must admit to some fascination with their story. Although the Blizzard of today is probably different than the creature that created those cool games back in the nineties, I think that the core staff has probably remained. Blizzard games have rivalled iDSoftware Valve in both their fan and developer devotion. Today, it is owned by Vivendi Universal, a French media conglomerate that includes DefJam Records and STUDIOCANAL. Their most recent release has become one of the world’s biggest and most popular MMOs. In fact, their subscriber numbers so exceeded their best-case scenarios that they’ve had to madly scramble to produce more boxes, add world servers and hire personnel. Quite the success story!

But back in the day, there was Diablo. Not high tech, even for the day. But solid. Well constructed. Playing Diablo today allows me to re-experience that polish and attention to detail, as I click my character through each hackfest on his way through the story. And the more I played it, the more I realised that really truly, the template for the design of World of Warcraft exists soley within the domain of Diablo.

Looking back to this game, I was shocked to see how far the roots of WoW extend. Aside from the obvious and unavoidable similarities with other games of the MMO, RPG and MMORPG genre, I see a complete replication of core Diablo elements that make me wonder why they chose Warcraft as the centerpiece theme of their new MMO at all (most likely a market decision, not a design one). Examining the “Diablo on steroids”, World of Warcraft exists as one absolutely gigantic treadmilling machine. In every conceivable direction, the game has been designed from the very foundation to keep as many people playing it for as long as possible. Again, the game was not designed to disguise this, because the treadmill is the fun.

It owes this to Diablo, which turned into its own phenomenon because :

  • It was exremely simple to learn.
  • Little effort was required to excel in the early game.
  • Did not overextend the technology so that it ran well.
  • Clean and predictable RPG UI. Didn’t rock the boat.
  • Attention to the “feel” of the world. Sound effects and music, etc.
  • Happy to be stupid!

Was it stupid? Well.. yeah! As a player, it was a repetitious, grinding machine. it barely had “virtual worldness” in its 8-bit universe. But because everythin was so complete, it was a place you could sort of hang out in. It was predictable, at least in the established visual language. Just like WoW. But there was something more to Diablo 2 that kept a significant fanbase playing…right up until, well, last night! How could a mindless hackfest do that?

RPG Combinatorics.

  1. Combine item A with item B and you get item C. [Crafting / Loot]
  2. Equip character X with item C and receive benefits Y and Z. [RPG abilities]
  3. Allow these “world primitives” to be interchangeable and collectable. [Game mechanic]
  4. Then combine it with competitive or cooperative online play [Quests / Instances]
  5. Add a touch of visual reinforcement to show who was better [Characters]

and voila! People are still playing it today. Warcraft 1, 2, or 3 did not achieve this.

Obviously there are other elements involved in these games. But if you look at the long-term viability of World of Warcraft, you need only look as far as Diablo. The items are the game. In fact, the loot is so important, that the upper level WoW game (the “uber game”) is exclusively devoted to the procurement and display of the most powerful and unique items in the game. And it is so important that its almost like gambling when you hope that the next drop will be one that nets you tangible in-game benefits. And really – how does gambling in virtual space really DIFFER from gambling in real life? Our world of dollars is truly as constructed as the so-called “fake” world of gold. Even WoW has a rudimentary economy, just as evolving and dynamic as the western world’s.

This is an MMO that is essentially designed to make the players feel unique, and does this through stark, staring materialism. It really does say something about the depth and genius of the WoW game design. It takes all of these elements and wraps them up perfectly! (except for the grind, aspect, ahem)

Its amazing what games can teach us about the world we live in.

I found it hard to write about Diablo without writing about WoW (and vice versa). They are the same game. So… when my new Paladin struts around, swinging his “Green Curved sword of the Fox” against Troll Priests, I know that I’m really playing…. which?

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