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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fantasy Wars

Turn-based strategy games are not exactly flooding the market, so I wanted to bring Fantasy Wars (available for purchase at GamersGate) to your attention.

I can't give a formal review because I haven't finished the game yet. Honestly, the only reason I'm posting about this one is that I haven't seen a single review or even advertisement for this game. I'm not quite sure how they expect to sell any copies.

What kind of name is "Fantasy Wars" anyway? Could you get more generic? Yeah, I was just playing some "Role Playing Game" and then "Platform Side-Scroller." But forget the name. It's basically a series of turn-based battles on a grid (though the field is a 3-D affair with fairly pretty graphics). You move your units, attack and defend against the enemy and take cities and other important areas. You also purchase new units, upgrade units and discover and equip artifacts.

Really, the game calls to mind Fantasy General, another game with a generic name and hex-based strategic play. It was a 1996 SSI release in the Five Star General series. Now, Fantasy General was one of the greatest games I've ever played and had a huge impact on me. The combination of compelling strategy, beautiful but simple art, incredible music and lengthy campaign were very memorable. I can close my eyes even now and I'm the Warlord Marcas, battling through the Vale of Sorrow, grimly resolute in the face of the Herculean task before me.

So I'm not comparing Fantasy Wars to Fantasy General in terms of overall quality. It pales in comparison. But that doesn't mean it's a bad game. The battles are exciting and there is plenty of depth and complexity. One of my favorite features is that when a unit levels, you can choose from a large branching tree of skills. So two units which start out the same may soon have quite different attack and defense skills. Some may be better in the forest and some on the open plains and still others may be experts at storming a city. The story is nothing special but the voiceovers are surprisingly not horrible. It is a challenging, fun campaign and I'm enjoying it so far.

I have noticed a few negatives. There are very few single mission scenarios included outside of the three large campaigns. The scenery looks a little too pretty and bright to me for a war game. And in general, when it comes to games like this, I prefer simplicity in the graphical design over bells and whistles. For instance, I much preferred the first three Heroes of Might and Magic Games to HOMM V because I liked the simple, clear map much better then the 3-D one. I hate having to constantly mess with the camera. But I'm pretty sure that's just me. I don't think most people will mind the graphics.

But don't take my word for it. Just download the free demo which contains two short missions and have at it. From
the main page just click "Bonus" and it's on the left hand side of the page under wallpapers.

Another option to consider for your turn-based strategy fix is Dominion 3. I could wax poetic about the depth of this game but in this case there are already
plenty of reviews out there for you.

And of course, no matter what genre you prefer, get Portal before any other game. Trust me on that one.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why Can't I Stop Playing This?

Via Independent Gaming...The Abrupt Goodbye, user-created interactive fiction.

It seems so simple but I can't stop playing it. Must close browser window...

It's pretty remarkable that the users haven't ruined it yet. See if you can pick out the Aggro dialogue in there.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Rogue's Revenge: MMO Influences on D&D 4th Edition






There is no debating that every MMO is deeply indebted to pen and paper D&D. It's the foundation we all game on. But I've found something interesting as I've casually followed the news of the upcoming 4th Edition of D&D. With 4th Edition, D&D seems to be taking strong inspiration from the MMO world. My information regarding the 4th Edition comes mainly from EN World, the D20 Source blog and, of course, Wizards.

I intend to look at some of the links between MMO's and the 4th Edition of D&D and the lessons each group could stand to learn from the other.

Technology

D&D Gaming Table

The D&D Gaming Table provides a way to play D&D online with other people. You can create maps, move characters, traps and monsters around and roll dice. Check the video out
here. They do some pretty neat things with lighting and "fog of war."

Hmm...a roleplaying game played online with other people. Sounds like an MMORPG doesn't it? Well, not exactly. While the online D&D Gaming Table is a multiplayer, online experience, the real "game" portion is taking place outside of the online space. And the number of players is limited.

Now, nothing will ever, ever replace for me the excitement of sitting around a table and gaming with real people. But this option will give me the opportunity to play D&D with people I met through playing MMO's or through this site who do not live anywhere near me. And I'm truly looking forward to that. I do think it may take a few iterations before this first attempt is a truly solid product. And remember, the real game takes place between the DM and the players. Wizards is just providing some tools to play that game. You could honestly play D&D online right now in an IRC chat room or even Second Life. But I think it's great that Wizards is attempting to give us a polished option to take our D&D game into the virtual world.

Character Creator

This is direct from MMO land and looks just like any MMO character creator (you can view the D&D Character Creator in the
same video about 2:58 in). While characters created using this tool can be imported directly into D&D Gaming Table, I think it may also prove handy for games played around the traditional table. It's just a cool way to set up your character sheet and even have a graphical representation that you and others can enjoy. I wasn't blown away with the video but I do see it as having nice potential.

The Business Model

It's pretty interesting to see D&D working the subscription model, a true MMO staple. In fact, they even reference MMO's in their Ask Wizards feature:

"At Gen Con, we did state that the price would fall somewhere between the cost of a single print issue of Dragon magazine and the monthly fee of a MMORPG (in other words, between $10 and $15)."

I believe some people (especially DM's) will sign up for this subscription service even if they never intend to use the online Gaming Table. Rather, they will use available tools and additional resources such as the DM Toolkit or the Campaign Vault to better their real life D&D experience.

Patching = Errata

What happens when there's a bug in your MMO? Well, it gets patched (or at least you hope it does). It's a pretty good system and I appreciate when companies patch their games often. But what happens if there's an error in a D&D book? Well, they can't really patch that can they? It's a physical text. But Wizards may be borrowing the concept of patching for D&D. See the following quote from
here:

Another factor that will change the face of errata is the implementation of the database, which plays such a central role in our management of 4 Edition. With the institution of ebooks that accompany one’s physical copy, we have the option of keeping one’s ebook updated with the latest changes, from the very small (a “+2” instead of a “+3”) to the very big (changing the text of an ability or feat). That’s not to say there still won’t be a physical copy of the errata, but we might simply compile quarterly changes made in the database into a readable format, rather than the sporadic release that now exists.

If they handle this the right way, they could build a ton of goodwill with customers. Here's my opinion of the "right way:"

1. Player buys the Monster Manual at a gaming store and takes it home.

2. There's an error in the text.

3. Player enters a code from the Manual on Wizards' website and is given access to a special section dedicated to updating the Monster Manual. (I don't believe there should be any subscription fee for this feature if you purchased the book).

4. Player prints the change and affixes it to his or her physical book.

I think that kind of D&D "patching" could be great.

Game Updates

But updates in MMO's aren't only about patching existing problems. I know I looked forward to each Update in EQII to see if new abilities, new weapons, new items and even new zones were going to be made available. I felt this was a terrific way to keep players excited and interested in the game. MMO's have the advantage of being able to do this online.

Now D&D will be able to accomplish a similar goal through their online services. By getting issues of Dungeons Magazine and Dragons Magazines online, in addition to other information provided through D&D Insider, players will be able to supplement their games with new adventures, items and skills. This could truly be beneficial to both Wizards and the players.

Going Further

In one case Wizards seems to be borrowing more from the broader Web 2.0 world than from MMO's. Wizards has a website called
Gleemax (awful name but horrid website names are web 2.0 to the core) which looks to be a sort of Facebook for D&D and Magic players. Although various MMO companies have attempted things like Gleemax, I think Gleemax looks to be more robust. Well, it's pretty much exactly what I was talking about just a few posts ago. I do think it will take Wizards some time to perfect the system. And while I wholeheartedly endorse the idea, I think the design and layout of the website need serious work.

The Core

All the above relate to technology, which I view as supporting but secondary portions of the 4th Edition experience. What I found most fascinating is that even at the core of the 4th edition, the actual pen and paper rule-set, you can see what I think are MMO influences.

Defined Player & Monster Roles

One of the strongest MMO connections in 4th Edition is the intent to define player roles more clearly. They may be calling the roles other names, but I sure recognize Tank, Healer, CC and Ranged and Melee DPS. I know some people are worried that this will take away from the variety of the characters. But I believe that 4th Edition is actually going to give players more options to customize their characters both in and out of combat. The use of player roles is more about making it easier to balance groups. There should be no more "oh, you have to play a cleric, the party needs one." So this change should result in more options, not less. And it should make balancing encounters a lot easier for the DM.

Now, where D&D is going further then MMO's is giving the mobs (or monsters if you will) similar classes. So some monsters will be tanks, other will do crowd control and so on. This will definitely make it easier for DM's to put together solid, exciting encounters in much less time. Believe me MMO's would love to do this - it would make combat far more exciting. And to some extent they have, but it's really not there yet. The beauty of D&D is that you don't have to worry about AI, because the DM is the AI. But I think MMO's will reach this point someday. Just think about fighting a group of orcs in an MMO. Would you rather fight five orcs who just sit there and swing the same club at you or a coordinated group with tanks, healers and ranged dps? It would lead to so much more excitement as players put together different strategies based on what they are facing.

Raising the Level Cap

Just like an MMO expansion, 4th Edition raises the level cap to 30. I wonder if this is a direct response to the fact that many MMO players are used to more levels then 20. Even if not, it's a move strongly reminiscent of MMO-world.

Level Balancing

It's one thing to raise the level cap. It's another thing entirely to make every level just as fun and playable as every other level. But that is one of the major stated intentions of 4th Editon. It's also something that's often been discussed in the MMO world. MMO companies are always trying to ensure that the lower or middle levels are as fun as the higher levels, or vice versa. Their success is debatable so I think it will be interesting for MMO fans and developers to watch how Wizards handles this.

Racial Bonuses

MMO's and D&D are both faced with the challenge of making race actually mean something. Whether you choose to be an elf or a dwarf in an MMO does the character play any differently, graphics aside? When you roll up an elf or a dwarf in D&D does the character play any differently, roleplaying aside? MMO's have made strides in this area. EQII, for example, introduced special racial quests and racial traits. In LOTRO, different deeds are available for different races, allowing you to further customize your character.

D&D also seems to be headed in this (positive) direction by allowing for different racial traits to be achieved as the player levels. This attempt to make classes of different races play differently from one another seems to be one of the focuses of 4th Edition. The goal is to make an elf fighter play differently then a dwarf fighter, and so on.

Note the importance of both MMO's and D&D making race a factor as you level. If you play an MMO and choosing an elf gives you 5 points more dexterity when you begin, well, that's great. But that difference will be long forgotten when you're at level 50. It's important to make the distinctions in play continuous ones that effect you at the high as well as low levels. Gaining new racial traits as you level is certainly a way to do this.

Character Customization

Just as it's important for race to play a role in your character, it's also critical for you to continue to customize your character level by level. Again, this is important in both D&D and MMO's. You never want your wizard to be the same as every other wizard, no matter what game you're playing. Allowing customization is key to building that connection and emotional attachment between player and character. I think Wizards is really refining the customization of characters with feats and talent trees, just as we have seen further refinement in the MMO world.
Wizards also seems to have picked up a lesson which MMO companies learned. Just as it's important to have character customization, it's also important not to have players feel trapped by "bad choices." EQII and WoW allow for spending money to change your character customization decisions. Likewise, 4th Edition will apparently allow for swapping out or switching various feats and abilities.

Choice of Classes and Races

One thing I find of great interest in the MMO world is the amount of classes and races each game gives you. The obvious feeling may be the more the merrier and variety certainly is important. However,
back in August of 2006, I argued that, based on some very interesting scientific studies, perhaps too many choices is a bad thing. To dramatically oversimplify that post, a quick summary is that consumers faced with more choices actually purchased less. And students given less choices for an assignment actually performed better. So I'm not bothered that 4th Edition will somewhat reduce the amount of races and classes in the game in an attempt to hit the sweet spot.

Forums Frenzy

If there's one thing MMO's and D&D really have in common it's the insanity on the forums. Both communities are intensely passionate about their games and whenever a change or expansion is announced there is a mix of excitement and anger. And it's a wild ride. You get the same personalities and even many of the same arguments on the D&D forums that you do on MMO forums. And I understand the concerns people have.

But for me it's simple. It comes down to the fact that I trust these designers as much as any group of game designers out there. They have the passion for the game and they have the design skills. I don't have to agree with every move they make, because I have faith in the overall picture.

As for the financial aspect, I know it stings to buy more books. But you really don't have to. I think you can ride 3.5 for another decade, especially with the Open Gaming License (and the OGL better be just as strong for 4th edition - it's critical). If you sit down and analyze the entertainment value you received from D&D and compare it with your financial outlay, I'll think you'll agree that this is a value investment, especially when compared to other forms of entertainment.

Bilateral Lessons

MMO Companies Should Learn This D&D Lesson

If you listen to Episode 16 of the official D&D podcast (available for free on ITunes) you will hear some ideas regarding monsters in the 4th Edition that I think MMO developers could stand to hear and apply to mob AI and mechanics.

* Interesting At Any Level - Just because a mob is Level 3 doesn't mean it has to be ten times less exciting than a level 30 mob. Designers should strive to make combat exciting at the early levels to hook new players. In the podcast, the designers discuss changing the mechanics of a Level 2 monster, the Kruthik, so that it is a challenging and exciting encounter for players. How many incredibly boring low level monsters do we encounter in MMO's?

* Making the Mechanics Match the Story - When we are fighting a monster in D&D or a mob in an MMO, we're basically fighting a collection of numbers: attack, defense, hit points and the like. So what makes one monster different from the next? What makes us feel like we are fighting a Griffon or a Beholder? In MMO's we have graphics and in D&D we have our imagination and roleplaying. But if you put that aside and think about it, doesn't it seem like many of the monsters we fight, especially in MMO's, are very similar?

So how do we make fighting a Griffon seem different then fighting a Beholder? The D&D designers stated that they really made an effort to make the actual combat mechanics for each monster match the backstory and "feel" of the monster. I think this is crucial. I realize it is harder to accomplish in an MMO, but it's worth the effort.

* Differentiating Similar Monsters - If an MMO asks you to kill 10 orcs and then to kill 10 goblins and then kill 10 gnolls, is there really a difference? Sure the graphics might be a bit different, but that's it. On the podcast, the designers discuss attempting to significantly differentiate the backstories of similar monsters. And then the next step is to make the mechanics and "AI" match the concept. An example given was that Gnolls might attack you like a pack of hyenas while Hobgoblins march towards you like Roman legionnaires. This variation in attack procedure is based on the differing backstories of each race. Again, the mechanics aspect of this is harder to capture in an MMO but I think it's something worth striving for.

Wizards Could Learn This MMO Lesson

If there's one strong lesson to be learned from the MMO world over the last few years, it's that taking the time to polish and playtest is incredibly important. Just look at WoW on one hand and Vanguard on the other. Heck, even SOE has caught on to the importance of a polished product, breaking with their previous hard-line expansion release schedule. But I don't think Wizards learned that lesson.

I believe that Wizards has not allocated enough time to polishing and playtesting. In reading and listening to the comments of the designers I just don't think they are in the place they should be to release this product on the timeline they want to. And even though I know they shut the whole company down for months of hardore playtesting, I don't think they have allocated enough time to exterior playtesting. I could be wrong in this assessment but it is my belief. I just think polish is key these days.


Conclusion

It's a wonderful and exciting time to be a D&D player. Let's not forget that there have been some really tough periods in D&D's history. It's great to see Wizards continually working to bring us the best game they can and experimenting with different ways to do so. And this isn't only about current players. I have to think that this will be good for new players and even those who, like myself, have been away for a bit. That can only help the game.

I will say that the views expressed in this post are coming from someone who has not actively played in a while but who is dying to get back in. Current players may have a different (and more informed) perspective and I certainly understand and appreciate that.