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Saturday, August 25, 2007

You Got Web 2.0 in My MMO!

I know, I know, it's cool to abuse Web 2.0 right now. There's been a ton of Web 2.0 backlash: a lot of the terminology (including "Web 2.0" itself) is cringe-inducing and companies with horrendous ideas are getting tons of venture capital thrown at them for merely including the world "social" in their business plans.

This criticism is perfectly justified and the bubble is going to explode. Back in the day people thought they would make billions with websites where you could buy cat food online. Now people think they can make billions with websites that have "social networks" for cats. No,
seriously. More than one.

But because of all the trash out there, it would be easy to miss the fact that there are valid ideas in the Web 2.0 world. In the original bubble and crash, were there a ton of garbage websites out there? Sure. But did we also have some awesome sites like Amazon and Ebay that we still use today? Sure. Likewise, sites like Digg or YouTube will be around for years to come and will be enjoyed by many.

So I'm going to try to find some Web 2.0 ideas that can be applied the MMO world. I'm sure there's going to be or already has been a lot of pontificating on this very subject probably with words like "folksonomy" and "clouds" being bandied about. So I'm going to try to be as concrete with my ideas are possible. To be honest, none of these concepts would be a selling point for me in deciding between games but I'm just going to throw them out there.

Feed Me

I want to be able to log on to Netvibes and have a tab fully dedicated to my MMO of choice with tons of delicious feeds. I'm going to use Netvibes and EQII as an example of what I would like to see, but you can substitute any feed-reader and your MMO of choice.

* Official News (obvious)

* Dev Tracker (preferably with different categories for Technical, Design, etc.)

* Community News Aggregator (one feed which aggregates all the community blogs and fan-sites)

Okay, those are fairly straightforward. But let's get more MMO specific...

* Server status

* List of friends/guildmates with online/oflline status and current zone information

* News specific to my Guild, both player generated (i.e. guild news postings) and automatic (guild status points)

* Ranking of Guilds on my server

* Ranking of Wizards on my server

* Ranking of Gnomes on my server

Heck, let's get even more specific on the rankings. Let me choose to have an automatically updating ranking of most damage done with a single spell by Gnome Wizards on Antonia Bayle in the level range of 10-20 in the Commonlands. You have the data - use it.

I'd also like to stick a widget in there which lets me search an item or player database.

The idea here is for me to be able to open one web-page and have absolutely all the news, resources and information I need, updated in real time.

Let Your Users Do the Work

Your users are an amazing resource. May as well tap into them as they are the best marketing department you can find.

The obvious one is supporting the people who contribute to your community with blogs, podcasts and fan-sites. For instance, EQII has the Town Crier which helps users find blogs and fansites they might not know about.

You could also make it easy for your players to capture screenshots or gameplay video and automatically upload them to a Flickr group or YouTube. Alternatively, a game could have it's own screenshot or video sharing page, with rankings for the most popular or most commented on media. Similar pages could be set up which allow players to post stories or artwork and let others comment and vote on them.

Every game should have a Wiki with user contribution. We all know official documentation is hopelessly lacking and dated. New users often have to spend extensive time searching for bits and pieces of information on the forums and it's so important to get new users over that initial learning curve. By having a Wiki, you have an up to date, living resource that can benefit both new and current players.

The final extension of this concept would be to allow for some form of user-created content in the game, itself. But that's a topic I've discussed before already and is too in-depth to get into here.

Get Social

I firmly believe that it's the social connections we make which keep us playing an MMO. The friends we make and the community we become a part of may just be the most important factor in our enjoyment of any game. So if a company can in any way facilitate those social interactions, they should definitely do it.

I don't use Facebook or MySpace so I'm a little out of my depth here, but what I am envisioning is a Facebook-esque page for each player. This page could have all of their character information updated automatically along with whatever personal data the player chooses to enter. There should also be room for a player's journal or blog, favorite screenshots and in-game videos and some fun widgets (some of which could be created by the company and some by users).

And of course, there's the social aspect. A player should be connected to his friends from the game, guild, and people known in real life. Each of these "classes" of people could have different permission settings when it comes to viewing that user's page.

The great thing is that MMO's already have so many ready-made social groups. In addition to player-made groups like guilds or a friends list, each player is part of server, a class, a race, a level range. These groups are the perfect foundation for creating a social network.

Players should be able to send and receive messages or media between individual players and to send out group messages to all of their friends or guild. Friends should also be able to comment on the aforementioned screenshots or journal postings on the page.

And Back Again

Can we take some of these social and community aspects and bring them back into the game? Sure. Players could be awarded titles or house items for having, say, one of the top ten most popular screenshots in a given week. Badges could be given for having a great page in the social network or for other ways of participating in the community. This would tie everything back together and encourage people to utilize the community features. And likewise, the community features would encourage people to keep playing the game.

MMO companies have always been been leaders in building online communities. I know that SOE has already tried to accomplish many of these goals with EQ2Players. I'm just suggesting they keep at it and take it to the next level.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Equinox

You may have already heard about the upcoming release of Equinox: the Official EQII Magazine. You may even have heard that pre-orders grant you a Rise of Kunark beta invite.

But much more importantly, did you know that Equinox contains a never before seen Aggro Me humor column? Yes, the aptly named and completely honest column, "I Am Better Than You," penned by none other than yours truly, will appear in the premier issue.

While I don't know any more than you do about how the magazine will turn out, there are some promising signs. The company producing it did the official Eve magazine which was great. There's also a column from Cyanbane of EQ2Daily fame and I really enjoy his writing. And did I mention an Aggro Me column? Be sure to check it out.

Note for the record that I received no money or other compensation for this article and I dealt only with the publisher, not SOE. I have no vested interest and it will certainly not bias me one way or the other in my blog writing. I just thought it would be fun to see an Aggro Me piece in print. Hope you enjoy it!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Legends of Norrath

I've been reading a bit about Legends of Norrath, SOE's new CCG game connected to both EQ and EQ2. I would recommend the interview with Smed on MMOG for more information. You can also see some "clarifying comments" Smed made here.

I love the general idea. I enjoy CCG's - for me it's the combination of card art, strategy and luck factor that makes them so appealing. I really think it's fantastic to build this kind of meta-game to your MMO. It gives your community some diversity in gameplay. When people get bored of regular MMO play (which does happen no matter how good the game is) they may decide to go play some console games or an FPS, RTS, etc. But by offering this type of game, you're giving your players the opportunity to have that variety without leaving your community. And people who get really into the CCG will be excited to play EQ or EQII to find special cards as loot. In general, I just think it makes the community stronger by connecting EQ and EQII and by offering more opportunities for fun under the Everquest "umbrella."

I'll give you an example of how this precise type of meta-game can be effective. There are hundreds of websites out there which have tons of flash games to play. Many of those sites have the same games. So why would I pick one over the other? What would compel me to ever bother registering and giving my e-mail address to such a site?

Kongregate managed to pull me in with the mere promise of a CCG meta-game. Kongregate is the usual collection of flash games. But the difference is that they have special challenges where meeting a goal in a certain game grants you a special card to be used in the CCG they are working on. Note that they haven't even finished this game yet, but they still have me hooked.

If I'm going to be playing flash games anyway, why not have the added fun of winning challenges and collecting cards, achievement points and levels? Kongregate succeeded in turning a collection of flash games into an actual community.

So I'm a fan of the concept and I'm excited to check Legends of Norrath out. I do take issue with some of the details.

You can do either of these two things:

1. Charge money for card booster packs.

2. Use in-game loot as rewards for the card game.

But I don't think you should do both. You could either forgo the minor revenue stream and simply use the CCG to build community or you could make the cards "one-way" (i.e. get cards in game but rewards don't go back in). But when you're charging for cards that have valuable effects in game, well, you can see my problem...

Now, even if you do both of the above, you can still get away with it if the in-game rewards are purely fluff. And I think that is SOE's stated intention. So my only remaining issue is that our definition of "fluff" may be different. To me it's purely titles, house items, decorative effects, or pets. But from the official website, the effects don't seem too "fluffy" to me (note that this game is not yet even finalized).

I'm not outraged or anything - I think it's a great idea that just could have used a few tweaks to avoid concerns of paying for in-game benefits.

Kong Day

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a documentary chronicling two men's pursuit of the Donkey Kong high score, opens today (though in quite limited release for now).

The official site is here. GameSetWatch has been doing quite extensive coverage on this flick, so if you're interested you should head over there. It sounds like a pretty amazing story - I'm going to try to catch it this weekend.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Is This Really Happening?

Is this for real? Is GameTunnel really not doing their monthly review panel of independent games anymore? Say it ain't so, Game Tunnel - that list usually accounts for one-third of my monthly gaming!

If anyone knows of any alternatives please let me know. I really hope someone steps up to fill the void. I'd rather it not be me so go for it people!

Roguelike Roundup

"If you were stuck on a desert island indefinitely with no internet connection, what game would you bring with you?"

This question may seem like it has a very subjective answer but I believe the one true answer is a roguelike. You might think that Final Fantasy XXIII - Chocobo Dance Time is your all-time favorite game and that you'll never get sick of it. But believe me, after the hundredth play-through you will. Only a rouguelike gives you the complexity, replayability, randomness and challenge to keep you entertained for decades. And it would probably take you decades to win Dungeon Crawl with each class, let alone messing around with undesirable race/class combos.

This is my roundabout way of saying I've been playing a lot of roguelikes lately and I'm going to list some them. I'm not going to define what a roguelike is, that's what Wikipedia is for. I'm also not going to bother discussing the Big Three (Nethack, ADOM and Angband). Plenty of people have done that already. And to be honest, I don't play the Big Three anymore. I think they've gotten a little overwrought and gimmicky. But that's me - I don't even like side quests in my roguelikes.

Also, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm an ASCII-ist. Yes, I can't stand ASCII graphics which I know means I'm definitely not cool in the roguelike world. But my first roguelike was Epyx's Rogue on the Atari ST which had actual graphics. It's really hard for me, a decade and a half later, to play a game with worse graphics than that.

But where I thought I could help is by spreading the word on some of the lesser-known roguelikes. This list isn't even in the realm of comprehensive but only focused on games I have actually played.

Dungeon Crawl: Dungeon Crawl (or Linley's Dungeon Crawl) is easily the most popular game on this list but it still gets far less attention than the Big Three. I'm not sure why, since it's my favorite roguelike. It not only has a better graphical tileset than the Big Three but it's gameplay is just excellent.

There's a wide variety of classes (28) and races (26) to pick from and playstyles can vary starkly. To add even more variety, the deity you choose to worship (if any) has a marked effect on play. The challenge level, while tough, is consistent. The itemization and monsters are well done and there is enough variety in the levels without straying too far from the core play.

Some aspects do seem unfinished - if anyone knows the difference between a Mountain Dwarf and a Hill Dwarf be sure to tell me. I'm also not crazy about the way the skill system works. But all in all, it's a fun ride that will keep you coming back.

The wikipedia page has links to the latest official release as well as to the graphical tileset. But it does seem that most of the development action is on the Stone Soup variant, which is also linked, so I'd advise playing that.

Although most recommend a Dwarf Fighter to start, I've found that a Spriggan Venom Mage is the easiest class for the initial few levels which gives you a chance to grasp the gameplay when you're first starting out. There's not quite as many keyboard commands to learn as in some other roguelikes.

The Tombs: This is not the greatest roguelike ever. It's probably the worst roguelike on this list. But yet it's still awesome. Why? The Tombs is a Flash game. That's right - I'm telling you can get some delicious roguelike action in your web browser, at work, without having to download a single thing.

It's a pretty nice ride. You can choose to raise your base attributes or select special skills each time you gain a level. There is a fairly enjoyable magic system. And the graphics are right up my alley - nicer than ASCII but still very simple.

On the downside the challenge level is uneven. It can be hard for the first level or two but then very easy for quite some time until you meet your first winged viper at which point it gets very hard. It then quickly turns into cruise control again until you meet another certain monster at which point it gets very hard again. This just doesn't sustain the right level of excitement.

Powder: Powder is an excellent roguelike with great items, excellent challenge level and fun magic and skill systems. It's also very fast moving. Indeed, the creator states that one of his definitions of a roguelike is "Steam rolling monsters. If a critter is in your way, and weak, you shouldn't even notice it is there." I agree.

I would play Powder on the PC all the time, but the great thing is I don't have to. Powder is a roguelike which is specially designed for the GBA (there's a DS version as well). Of course you do need a whole flash cart setup. I've probably played more Powder on a handheld than any commercial game.

Lost Labyrinth: Lost Labyrinth has the best graphics of any game on this list (not that they're anything special). It's a quirky but fairly enjoyable game. It's definitely good for short gameplay periods (although it's not as fast paced as some other roguelikes). This game is very easy to pick up and play and has a much gentler learning curve than others on the list.

I really love the character set-up. Rather then picking races or classes you pick from a very large list of skills or abilities. You can even select flaws, which have a negative impact on your character but grant you additional points to spend on skills. So my character usually has no ability to use magic, is hated by the gods, is cursed and has only a toothpick and paper bag to start off with. But, hey, if I can get past those first few levels, I'm cooking.

One of the quirky things about this one is that the monster don't move. Bizarre, I know. They just sit there. However, most of the game is in narrow corridors so it works better then it sounds and there are ambushes. Another strange thing is the way you level. One of the very few things I liked about DDO was the way you leveled by completing quests. Likewise, in Lost Labyrinth, you level when you take the staircase down to the next floor, regardless of how many monsters you killed. This allows for different playstyles to be effective.

There is a lot of variety to the levels in this game, much more than most roguelikes. All in all, it's a different but enjoyable experience. This is also the first game that actually made me want to spend money on a torch or lantern. You'll see why.

Castle of the Winds: This is a commercial game that is now freeware. It's nothing special but it is decently fun and polished.

Dwarf Fortress: This game is definitely the New Hotness in the gaming community. Pretty much everyone who is into roguelikes is checking this out. I'm the exception because of my ASCII-hating ways but I did manage to play a few games and I can see what all the excitement is about. The Fortress mode, where you create this insanely complex dwarven city is just fascinating. It's far from a traditional roguelike but I can see how it would be very fun, and there is a more traditional roguelike included (Adventure Mode). If you don't mind ASCII, this is the one game on this list you should be checking out immediately.

Incursion : Unfortunately for me, this is another ASCII only game. However, I was interested enough to try it because it uses the D20 system. I couldn't get into it, but if you're into D&D, this might be the roguelike for you.

IVAN: You call it IVAN, I call it Iter Vehemens Ad Necem, let's just call it awesome. This is my current obsession and a truly fascinating take on the roguelike experience. The thing most people fixate on with this game is that it deals with the body parts of your character and your enemies discretely. Sure, you can have your arm chopped off by a unicorn, pick that arm up, beat the unicorn to death with it, pray to your deity and be granted a new banana arm which you then transform with a scroll into a shiny new iron arm. And then you vomit just to top things off. But there's a lot more to this game then that.

There is no class or race selection in IVAN. All your characters start off the same. There is also no identification game. A major part of most roguelikes is identifying just what the scrolls, potions and wands in your posession do. Not in IVAN.

But it all comes together to create a very fun experience and the game has a relatively pleasant graphical tileset (your equipment even actually shows up on your character visually). The itemization is superb and the combat is challenging and fun. It's a great game, but it is flawed. I haven't put my finger on exactly how yet, but I will.

I've barely scratched the roguelike surface here. Maybe sometime I'll do a post of non-fantasy setting roguelikes. Until then, I'll be trying to slay the Enner Beast on Level 5.