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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Vanguard Initial Impressions: Odi et Amo

Remember that initial impressions are just that. This is not a formal review. For instance, I haven't gotten to a high enough level to fully understand the combat system, so I'm not really getting into it at this time. The same goes for crafting and harvesting.

I Hate

Polish

No I don’t hate polish. The proper heading should probably be, “Polish, Lack Thereof.”

I would never tell any company working on an MMO that they have to imitate WoW. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons to be learned from WoW's success. No one would ever suggest imitating Anarchy Online but I would say there are clearly lessons to be learned there as well.

And the lesson is that players care about polish.

Maybe polish isn’t even the right term. Perhaps some would call it “a less than massive amount of bugs.” Others might define it as “a level of minimum functionality.” But I prefer polish because it incorporates those two concepts as well as adding the idea that the game is, in some sense, refined and ready.

However you want to define it, Vanguard doesn’t have it. Every play session I’m afflicted with scores of bugs, incredibly uneven content and just that general “beta” feel.

To me you can no longer debate the fact that a game should be released when it’s ready. And you can argue about what’s “ready” and “not ready” all day. But Vanguard is clearly not ready.

Look, even SOE has realized that polish is important by getting rid of their expansion policy (six month timetable) for EQII.

To not realize that players want a game that is, to some degree, polished at release goes beyond stupidity at this point and can only be attributed to sheer arrogance.

User Interface

The UI in Vanguard is just hideous. How that much development time can go into a game and produce a UI like that is beyond me.

When will developers understand that the UI is incredibly important? We stare at it and use it every second we play the game. It might not be the “sexiest” thing to work on but it deserves effort. Vanguard fails.

Now, there might be some great ideas incorporated in the UI. I love the fact that you can see what enemies are targeting you. I love seeing the icons that pop up under a mob to give you combat clues. But everything is just very off.

The map interface is particularly sickening. During the beta there was a big argument in a general channel because the map interface was non-functional. The gist of one side was that lack of maps leads to immersion. I suggested burning my subway map so that commuting could be more "immersive." But you can't hide behind immersion when you do implement a map system that works, but fails on every level of usability.

Someone's going to suggest downloading mods to improve the UI. That's fine, I love when the community tries to improve things. But a game company shouldn't rely on the community to complete one of the basic aspects of their game. And I paid my money for Vanguard to see the "vision" of the designers. If I have to turn to the mod community because the UI is just that bad, I find it hard to believe the designers really care about that vision.

Graphics

I’ve heard people talk about how amazing the graphics are, but I sometimes think steep technical requirements are confused with amazing graphics. “This game requires 4 gigs of ram to play smoothly – so the graphics must be incredible!”

I’m not going to knock Vanguard for having high system requirements. For one, I think some of the reports on this are just a touch overblown. Also, it’s a valid choice, even if I don’t agree with it. I’ve changed my mind on the system requirement issue so I’m not going to criticize them for their decision.

But I think, as Uncle Ben might say, “With great requirements come great responsibility.” If you’re going to ask people to upgrade their machines to play your game, you simply have to hold up your end of the bargain.

Sure, some aspects of Vanguard’s graphics are amazing. The volumetric clouds, the grass, and, most of all, the vistas. You can look into the distance and see some amazing and incredible sights.

But on the whole, it fails. The character models are just bad and the animations go beyond bad to terrible. Some of the textures are laughable. And yes, I've seen it run on a high end computer.
On the whole, simply too many areas are just bleh, to use a scientific term. You can say that graphics are subjective, and they are. But if you lined up 100 art professors to judge Vanguard, WoW and EQII, I’d bet serious money that the results for artistic merit would be “WoW, EQII and Vanguard.” And that’s unacceptable.

As much as I do occasionally marvel at individual aspects of the graphics (coming across a beautiful structure for instance), my general impression is an unpleasant one.

Take the font used to display NPC’s names. It’s simply hideous. I’ve heard a lot of rigmarole about how this gives the game a “classic old-school EQ feel.”

Well, in the words of MC Serch to 100 Proof on the White Rapper Show: “There’s a difference between respecting the old school and paralleling the old school. You’re in a room with a bunch of wolves. They’re all hungry and they’re all in the now.”

I respect the old school. Vanguard parallels it. And players don’t deserve to dedicate a year or more of their lives to someone’s vanity nostalgia project.

Quests

If the graphics are bleh, I would term the quest content "blah." There is nothing memorable or interesting there, nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before. And it’s okay to do stuff we’ve seen before, if it is done very well. Vanguard quests are just mind-numbingly average. You will get a gem in there every once in a while, but they are few and far between.

It might get better later on in the game. I don’t know.

The content is also very uneven. Starting out as a High Elf in Thestra I was put to sleep with completely uninteresting, generic starter quests. But as a Dark Elf in Kojan I was immediately drawn in with exciting, emotional content.

Now, some people might not like the almost cinematic opening quests I am referring to in Kojan. It does give a history to your character which might conflict with the one you have created. But either way, these are two incredibly uneven openings.

And the Kojan starter quests show me the Vanguard team is capable of producing exciting quests with good storylines which create emotions in players. I just don’t get why I’m struggling through generic kill ten x quests when I see there is an alternative.

Character Creator

Yeah, it has a million sliders so if adjusting your “brow depth” is important to you, you can do it. But what do we really notice when we see players in the game world? Their face and hair. You can mess with the limited selection of faces with the aforementioned sliders. But the races I've played have literally only four hairstyles. And you will usually see the population latch on to one or two out of the four hairstyles. So, hello, attack of the clones.

This may seem like a minor issue. But connecting with your character and feeling unique is very important.

I Love

I've been pretty hard on Vanguard so far, but they should take that as a compliment. I haven't cared enough about a game since EQII to get this angry about it. It's my love for this game that sparks such a passion.

Diplomacy

Wow, this is great. This is pretty much exactly the type of fun, strategic, skill-based game I was thinking of to replace the typical crafting "gameplay" in MMO's. Okay, so it's not about crafting, it's a whole new aspect of gameplay. That's still great.

The key thing is that this game just plain works. It's fun, exciting and challenging. I love getting a new card, I love deciding which cards to use against a specific opponent, I love winning a difficult parley.

Some might say that a game involving cards to represent diplomacy takes you out of the world and breaks immersion. But the way it's designed actually makes me feel more connected. By having the actual quest dialogue progress for each point you win, you make reading that dialogue feel like a reward and not a chore. I read every word of my diplomacy dialogue and I just can't say that for regular quests. What's more, the diplomacy quests I've done so far are just very well written and exciting.

Of course, diplomacy suffers from the same fate as the rest of Vanguard - lack of polish - and it kills me to think of what diplomacy could have been at launch with sufficient development time. My excitement at getting my first timed diplomacy quest was immediately killed by finding the key NPC was just missing. There are other minor bugs and issues I've had and I am reading that things get very "grindy" once you finish the quest lines. I don't expect features like Diplomacy PvP or raiding (which are being discussed) to be in the game at launch. But stuff like broken quests, writs and informants should clearly have been fixed.

I don't blame the diplomacy team for this. When I first played the beta, the entire concept of the diplomacy game mechanic was different (and to be honest it didn't look at all promising). The current card game was nowhere to be seen. So I appreciate that the diplomacy team did such great work in such a short time, and I'm happy with the direction they are headed. I pretty much love every post Aruspex has made concerning diplomacy. I just wish they were given a little more time to work on the system prior to launch.

Finally, I do hope Diplomacy fits into the game as a whole and does not suffer from a feeling of isolation. I think the Civic Diplomacy concept is brilliant (working together at moving metaphorical levers in each city to give city-wide buffs). But it's also a little too altruistic for me. Diplomats need their phat lewtz just as much as any other class. Crafting and adventuring gives direct, tangible rewards. I hope Diplomacy doesn't feel unrewarding.

I've pointed out some concerns but I absolutely love this aspect of the game. I can't wait to play it more and I can't wait to see what the future has in store.

Freshocity

Ah, freshocity: that well-known combination of pure freshness and newness. How sweet, how very sweet it can be.

The reality is that Vanguard is the first fantasy MMO worth wasting my time in since EQII and WoW launched. And that's been a while.

Even though it's unfinished and I don't agree with some of the decisions made, the fact is that you can be online playing Vanguard right now. And it is playable (barely but it is). Sometimes you just feel the weight of history and levels is too much in the more established games. Sure WoW and EQII have their expansions, but it's not quite the same thing. Sometimes you need to feel you're exploring a new world along with everyone else.

You have that amazing feeling of exploration in Vanguard. The excitement you get when you come to the edge of a cliff in Qualia and see Khal in the distance for the first time is incredible. And Vanguard is a huge world to explore, that is certain. While games like Dark and Light clearly prove that size doesn't matter, the sheer amount of places to see in Vanguard is a pretty nice aspect. And so far I enjoy the combat, items and abilities (though I'm not overly impressed with any...yet).

This might not sound like a lot. It might sound like just being in the right place at the right time. Well that might be enough. For a time everyone thought it was easy to start an MMO. It's not. Vanguard may be a failure in many respects, but I don't think it will fail, and that's saying a lot.

If you're enjoying your current virtual world, I say keep enjoying it. There's certainly no rush to play an unfinished game. But it is a valid, if shaky, option for the more jaded player looking for a new journey. Keep an eye out for me in Telon.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Station Exchange Whitepaper

Not the Station Exchange again. Please, Aggro, don't bore us. Oh, I'll bore you.

SOE recently released a white paper (think of it as term paper you get paid to write) on the first year of the Station Exchange service. What's more, Smed did an
interview with Gamasutra about it. You can download the entire white paper for yourself on the last page of that interview.
First off, major kudos to SOE for releasing this data. Very few companies would ever do that.

And the Gamasutra interview was excellent. They nailed the first thing I thought of when I read the white paper, the "popcorn analogy," and asked some tough questions. Smed was excellent and gave some honest and thought-provoking answers.

The white paper itself was informative and readable. I don't think it was great, but it was acceptable. The writer, Noah Robischon, is actually fairly accomplished in his field. You may know him as an Editor at Gizmodo but you can see from
his bio (near the end of the page) that he's done a large amount of this kind of writing. I couldn't remember where I heard the name, but then I realized he does the occasional segment for NY1 (a NY-centric cable news network).

I'm not out to knock SOE or the white paper. I just have a few points to make. There's been a lot of commentary already and I honestly haven't read all of it. I may have more to add at a later date. These are just initial impressions.

Money, Money, Money

The first point is: Everyone relax. I've seen a lot of people going wild about the amount of money involved but not one person yet distinguishing revenue from profits.

Everything seems so fabulous and massive when you see numbers like 1.87 million (cash that passed through the system). But cash that passes through the system doesn't mean a whole lot. What are the revenues? $274,803.

That may seem like a lot, but as Robischon states "Station Exchange is not a significant source of revenue for SOE, nor was it expected to be."

The number is also a little misleading to the casual reader.

Revenue, according to wikipedia (which we all know is never wrong), is "not to be confused with the terms 'profits' or 'net income' which generally mean total revenue less total expenses in a given period. "

So don't think SOE profited $274,803 from the Station Exchange in a year.

This is the point in the white paper where I would have loved further information. How much did the Exchange system cost to develop? How much was spent on marketing it? Factor in those costs and my bet is you're looking at a loss, not a profit.

But now I'm the one being unfair. Those are one-time costs, for the most part. And the Exchange will continue to bring in money. Well, I still think you have to factor in at least a portion of the initial start-up costs, but okay. What about the continuing costs? There have to be some bandwidth costs. There has to be at least one person who has to deal with Exchange related technical issues and at least a portion of his or her salary has to be considered a cost.

Let's make a random stab and say costs were $74,803 during that year (I really think I'm hitting the low end). So $200,000 in profit. At $14.99 per month over the course of that same year, one player pays $179.88 to SOE (at $14.99 per month). I'm being generous and not factoring in Station Players extras or an upgraded Total Access subscription.

So that $200,000 in profit represents 1,100 players. How much did SOE lose in terms of good will and reputation value? How many players left or stayed away because of it? What if the development money spent on the Exchange was spent on bettering the game or simply marketing it? How many players would SOE have gained? What about the costs of running two additional servers?

I honestly could be misinterpreting the numbers. I admit that. But it is also completely possible (based on my understanding of the way the word revenue is used) that the Exchange is running at a net loss.

So, again, relax about how this is the future of MMO profit until you have the full picture.

Customer "Service"

If you're going to point to something in the white paper this is the way to go:

"Prior to the introduction of Station Exchange, 40 percent of customer service time was spent on disputes over virtual item sales. Since the debut of the Exchange, the overall customer service time spent has dropped 30 percent."

That seriously is impressive. But there is no mention as to whether that is only for the Exchange servers or for the game as a whole. Oh wait:

"The remaining 28 EverQuest II servers are likely to see just as much illicit buying and selling as in the past. "

Wasn't one of the main ways the whole concept was "sold" to the players is that all the people who wanted to buy plat and all the sleazy sellers would simply move to the Exchange servers? Let's isolate all who like to use RMT and the rest of us can live happily ever after. This has clearly not happened. The activity on the remaining servers simply did not change.

But, hey, "Station Exchange was never expected to replace or eradicate the use of third party auction services."

So what did we learn? Legitimized RMT can reduce customer service costs. But it's all or nothing. All RMT on every server or none at all. I'll take none but, hey, that's me.

How about a simple: "Our customer service policy is not to get involved in disputes over virtual item sales. Period." Congratulations, you just eliminated 100 percent of the time spent in disputes over virtual item sales.

Step 3: Profit

Everyone loves to look at studies like this and wax poetic about how people can earn a living by playing a game. But let's be realistic. Yes, the Top Seller sold $37,435.47 worth of goods. But how much did he or she buy? What other costs did he or she incur? And look at the very steep drop-off point. Top Seller number 3 sold less than half of what Top Seller number 1 did. The more telling point is this:

"None of the top 20 zip codes showed a profit for the first year, although the June 2006 end date may not represent a full year of trading for these sellers." None. It's not like people are raking in the dough.

If you take the average numbers from Robischon's assertion that you can make between $200 and $500 a month spending five to six hours a night ($350/5.5 hours x 30 days) you're making $2.12 an hour.

I'm not even going to get into the fact that Mr. or Ms. $37,435.47 had better have a really good accountant if they are thinking that is tax-free pure profit. IRS: Oh sure, 37k, no we don't expect tax on that, much love - keep the change kid lol. Hey, sure, maybe that's possible.

Boredom Overtook Us

Following is my favorite part of the white paper:

"He is, in essence, getting on-demand access to the best battles and quests in the game."

"It offers a fundamentally different approach to play: a means of skipping the boring parts."

That just says it all. Here's a novel, revolutionary idea: Don't have boring parts in your game.

The early levels are boring and should be skipped? The early levels should clearly be the most exciting part of the game. They should be your best stuff. If they're not, you're doing something wrong.

As a bit of a play on Robischon's popcorn analogy: Let's pretend you go to see a movie. It's great. Only every twenty minutes there's nothing but a test pattern on the scene for a boring five minutes. As the producers of this movie do you:

A. Remove the test patterns.

B. Charge people $10 to skip each test pattern and get to the "good stuff."

Look, I'm not saying SOE agrees with Robischon's comments. I'm sure the designers who worked so hard to create the "boring parts" sure don't. And EQII's early level revamp is clear indication to me that the EQII team is hard at work making all aspects of the game exciting. I'm only pointing out what I believe to be the fallacies in the "get to the good stuff" way of thinking.

Final Note

"What’s more, players enjoy strutting around and showing of their wares in front of a live audience."

What are you strutting about? No, seriously. You figured out how to enter your credit card into a computer? Congratulations.