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MMOGology: Phasing phwns the phuture

World of Warcraft, Game Mechanics, Opinion, MMOGology

It's been fascinating to watch MMOGs evolve over the past fifteen years I've been playing them. They started out as text based worlds populated by a few hundred people with over-active imaginations. Today they're a mainstream hobby endorsed by celebrities like Mr. T and William Shatner. Whoulda thunk?

As the genre has matured so have the parameters of what defines an MMOG. One of my biggest gripes with them has always been that the worlds we play in are too often static and unchanging. You feel as though your character and his actions never have any real or lasting effect on the world around him.

Thankfully that has begun to change with the recent advent of a technology dubbed as "phasing". For those of you that haven't played Blizard's Wrath of the Lich King, phasing allows players to view a changed version of their world based on triggering events like the completion of quests. It's amazing that it isn't more talked about because phasing has and will continue to change the way we experience dynamic storytelling in MMOGs.

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MMOGology: Looking for incentive to group

World of Warcraft, Game Mechanics, Leveling, Grouping, Opinion, MMOGology

In a post-World of Warcraft world the concept of grouping while leveling has changed. Where grouping was once essential to survival in MMOGs, today it's an optional extra. As a result, leveling up can feel pretty lonely. In most MMOGs it's no longer necessary to group unless you're running an instanced dungeon or the rare quest geared toward a specific number of players. While I love the fact that I can play WoW on my own terms and my own schedule I feel like I'm missing out on the whole "massively multiplayer" thing. Isn't that the reason we play MMOGs to begin with? Why should we wait until end-game raid content to play together?

Most people don't group while leveling because there's no real incentive to group. Soloing nets you more XP than grouping and most of the content is easy to take on by yourself. There's no waiting around for others, no sharing of loot, and no arguing about what to do when. So why bother? I'd like to see developers provide players with more incentive to level up together. In my opinion, MMOGs should always work to increase entertainment value when players work together. Read on to explore ways to achieve that objective.

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MMOGology: What will microtransactions mean for SWTOR?

New Titles, Opinion, Free-to-Play, MMOGology, Star Wars: The Old Republic

Who's afraid of the big, bad microtransaction? Me. Count me with the skeptics when it comes to a microtransaction-based business model for Star Wars: The Old Republic. In case you missed the flurry of news surrounding the announcement, Shacknews reported that Star Wars: The Old Republic would use a microtransaction payment model in place of or in addition to a subscription model. After the article's release EA issued a brief response that, "no [official] statements have been made about the Star Wars business model." It's a story that's been covered and critiqued several times already on Massively, but I just can't leave this dead horse unbeaten. I've got to get a few licks in myself.

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MMOGology: Can Wrath keep us entertained?

World of Warcraft, Culture, Expansions, Endgame, Opinion, MMOGology

My World of Warcraft guild is fairly casual - so why do we already have level 80s? Pre-Wrath of the Lich King we farmed Karazhan. Gruul's Lair and Zul'Aman were regular runs, but we never tackled Black Temple or Sunwell as a guild. We leveled alts, crafted, PvP'd and told bad jokes in guild chat. Despite our relatively casual nature, five of our members hit 80 just two weeks after Wrath of the Lich King's release. There's already talk of running Naxxramas in the not too distant future (perhaps next Sunday A.D.).

I know that's not record speed, but holy crap! If my guild of casual players is quickly level capping, a good percentage of WoW players must also be nearing the end game. There were at least forty of them on my server late last night. It took Blizzard nearly two years to release Wrath and it seems like a lot of people are already prepping for end-game raids. How in the world will this expansion hold players' attentions past Christmas, much less until the next expansion? How long before we hear cries of, "There's nothing to do!"?

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MMOGology: Braindead

Game Mechanics, Opinion, MMOGology

You tiredly trudge up the cliff-side path, the rhythmic squish of your soaked boots beating a slow dirge. Cresting the ridge of the trail you see the full moon shining over Bloodstone's harbor where several galleons rot in their moorings. It almost looks like a peaceful town from up above the sweat and fish-soaked stench of the city. You sigh. It's been an exhausting trip dodging banshees and hollow men through the slime of Wraithmarsh. All you can think about is a mug of ale, a warm bed in the inn and perhaps a little company to take your mind off things. Bloodstone is known for its "hospitable" women after all. With a renewed sense of purpose you pat your faithful dog on the head and take the sloping trail down into town.

As you reach the outskirts of Bloodstone the rancid smell of a fish merchant's stall nearly slaps your nose off your face. You vainly wave your hand to clear the air.

"Wot's a matta gov?" the merchant asks, sneering. "Can't 'andle a little fresh fish?"

"That fish is as fresh as my feet," you reply. The short tempered merchant draws a rusty cutlass and grimaces. Several ruffians milling about sense an impending fight and begin to circle you.

"If ya don't like it, you and that mangy dog can bugger off!" he responds, kicking your dog in his hinder. Your dog whimpers and sits next to you, tail between his legs. The bolder members of the encircling crowd brandish knives and mock you and your dog. They see a tired traveler and easy pickings. As tired as you are, you can't help but laugh to yourself and shake your head. Your eyes begin to glow a soft white hue. The humid air of Bloodstone begins to crackle. Time to teach these lowlifes a lesson.

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MMOGology: The price to play pt. 2

World of Warcraft, Opinion, MMOGology, MUDs, Consoles, Casual

Why do people continue to game on the PC? There are many reasons; some of them obvious. I'm going to mention what I feel are the three most important.

The first reason is one I alluded to earlier: versatility. You can do so many other things with a PC besides game. You can surf the web, you can email your friends, you can edit your photographs and mix your own music, you can edit your goofy home movies and upload them to YouTube. These are all things that you can't currently do with a console. For many families, buying a gaming console isn't an affordable option. These folks want one device that does as much as possible. The fact that computers can play games is a nice bonus. There will always be gamers out there that game on the PC because that's the only option they have. As we've seen with the recent boom of cell phone games, people will play games on anything capable of gameplay.

The second reason is that consoles don't provide the intimate gaming experience that is only possible through the mouse/keyboard control format. Not only are a computer's controls fluid and pin-point accurate, but using them requires the gamer to sit up close with his computer. It's a very different experience than laying on the couch with a control pad far from the TV. The mouse and keyboard are the ideal control inputs for controlling first person shooters, strategy games and MMOGs. For MMOGs in particular, the PC is really the only option – for now. Some MMOGs like Age of Conan have already decided to release console versions, and other MMOGs have attempted the same in the past with limited success. In any case, the MMOG, FPS and RTS are the few genres that continue to keep PC games on store shelves. They succeed primarily because of their input interface.

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MMOGology: The price to play

World of Warcraft, Culture, Opinion, MMOGology, MUDs, Consoles, Casual

October 20th marked the 30th anniversary of the very first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD). For those that don't remember MUDs, these text based multiplayer computer games were the precursors of modern MMOGs. I think it's safe to say that multiplayer computer gaming was the exclusive domain of hardcore gamers and geeks back then. People playing MUD1, Elendor MUSH or Pern MUSH were nerds, like myself, that knew computers, knew gaming, and loved roleplaying online. With the advent of online games with graphics, MMOGs like Everquest and Ultima Online began to attract a wider variety of gamers. The gaming demographic began to shift.

Modern MMOGs like World of Warcraft ushered in a new era of gaming and a very different demographic of gamer. WoW's colorful, friendly style, easy to use interface and simple gameplay concepts make it very easy to pick up and play. WoW appeals to almost everyone: parents, kids, men, women, and people that might not normally play video games. It's about as close to mainstream as you can get in a MMOG. While the Wii is often credited with finally capturing traditional non-gamers, I submit that MMOGs like WoW did it first and continue to do it well.

A key to WoW's success also lies is its low system requirements. Recent MMORPGs like Age of Conan and Warhammer may have more sophisticated graphics, but their higher system requirements work against their success in capturing a broad demographic of gamer. High system requirements are not just problematic for those particular games, but for the health and growth of PC gaming in general. Let's face it, when compared to console gaming, computer gaming isn't as cheap, accessible or simple. In order for MMOGs to continue to thrive, something needs to change at the hardware level. Without competitive pricing and standardization, PC gaming will continue to wither.

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MMOGology: I lost a friend to WAR

World of Warcraft, Culture, New Titles, Warhammer Online, Opinion, MMOGology

Last week I wrote about Blizzard's Recruit-a-Friend program and my experience leveling through World of Warcraft with triple XP. The Recruit-a-Friend program is a seemingly brilliant strategy on Blizzard's part. In addition to recruiting new players, it also serves as way of keeping existing players occupied while waiting for Wrath of the Lich King; players that might otherwise divert their attention to Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. Who can resist the allure of triple XP, right? My friend Rob couldn't and for a while we enjoyed the rush of leveling as fast as we could.

But the thrill of light-speed-leveling wasn't enough to hold his attention for long. It was still the same content we'd run through time after time. An astute reader of mine, Jeromai, left the following comment about my last article, "There's a sidelong danger to power-leveling fast. All the content you once enjoyed as content now becomes a means to an end. It's a headlong race right towards the burnout phase of a game." Jeromai couldn't have been more right.

I logged into WoW a few nights ago, ready to blast through another level or two with my friend. He never showed. A few days later I called him up and realized I'd lost him to WAR.

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MMOGology: WoW on easy mode

World of Warcraft, Leveling, Opinion, MMOGology

My buddy Rob and I play World of Warcraft frequently, but between the two of us he's got the most /played time. He's got a few 70s on a PvP server and a few 70s on the PvE server where we're spending most of our time. He's also an alt-a-holic and has tons of mid-level characters. He's played every class in the game; most of them thoroughly. After spending so much time leveling so many characters he recently resolved not to level another character until the release of Wrath of the Lich King.

His resolution didn't last long. When Blizzard announced their Recruit-a-Friend program a tiny seed was planted in the back of his mind. A seed that slowly germinated, wrapping its diminutive roots around his cerebral cortex until every thought in his head screamed, "MUST HAVE TRIPLE XP." And so, after a very small amount of convincing, I joined him to level up yet another alt. Our new goal was to level a couple of spacegoat shammies.

After about 12 hours of /played time we were level 26. I know that's not a record by any means, but for us it felt pretty amazing. In fact, it almost felt like we were cheating. In a way it was like paying for a power leveling service where you do all the work. Sure the XP flew by, but Rob had paid for the game and the expansion all over again, as well as paying for a second account. Still, watching a level 14 paladin run by us and knowing we were out pacing him so drastically, it made me wonder if the Recruit-a-Friend program had somehow cheapened the accomplishment of hitting 60. Remember when hitting 60 felt like it meant something?

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MMOGology: Why bother with story?

World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Game Mechanics, Opinion, MMOGology

I recently went through a burn-out period on MMOGs. In addition to a job change and lots of personal commitments that limited my time, I'd simply grown bored with the genre. I think we all go through those periods. Times when we're just done with the grind and we need to recharge our gaming batteries on something different. This seems especially true once we've reached end-game and we're grinding the same old dungeons and flailing away in the same old PvP battles. It seemed like the only thing I had to look forward to was an eight year old telling me how bad I got pwned or watching yet another piece of gear drop that I couldn't use.

My burnout period also coincided with the purchase of a brand new gaming rig. I think the last machine I purchased was back in 2004, and I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a new rig. If you're like me (and I know I am), the first thing you do when you get a new gaming computer is test it on the most graphically advanced game you have available; that special game that brought your old machine to its knees. For me, that game was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Although my old machine could run it with the settings on low, now I can finally play it at high resolution with all the bells and whistles turned on. I'm proud to say my new rig cuts through Oblivion like a hot knife through butter.

I played Oblivion a lot when it originally came out, but because my old rig struggled with it, I never played more than about a quarter of the way through the game. I decided to start over from scratch and as I progressed I remembered why I love single player RPGs: the story. A great story provides a level of immersion that's only possible to achieve when playing alone. It was really refreshing. And it made me wonder, why do MMOGs even bother with the pretense of a story at all?

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MMOGology: Will mobile MMOGs evolve genre expectations?

Game Mechanics, New Titles, Reviews, Opinion, MMOGology, Mobile, Casual

What makes an MMOG an MMOG? When we talk about massively multiplayer games, certain expectations immediately form in our minds. Looking at the components of the acronym itself it seems pretty straightforward. We know that MMOG stands for massively multiplayer online game. The qualifications of what constitute an MMOG seemingly describe themselves right in that acronym. MMOGs are games that, on some level, support a large number of players in an online multiplayer environment. Despite that simple definition we often have preconceptions about MMOGs that are much more specific. Preconceptions like level grinding, subscription fees and a dearth of willing healers.

Early in their existence MMOGs were easy to define by example simply because there were far fewer games available. Games like Ultima Online and Everquest clearly helped set the standards of the genre. On their terms, massively multiplayer means hundreds of other player avatars running around and whacking mobs in the same environment. They also established gameplay standards based on computer roleplaying game staples such as gaining experience to level up, upgrading gear and growing the character's skills and abilities.

But as the genre has expanded and evolved so has our definition of what constituents an MMOG. As I discussed in my last column, mobile MMOGs have very unique challenges to overcome in order to prove successful; but their success will undoubtedly come in time. As those successes arrive, our expectations of MMOGs will likely change. Today I'll be looking at a specific game that claims to be an MMOG for the iPhone and iTouch. It defies the typical conventions of what we'd consider an MMOG. I'll describe some of the interesting features it offers after the break and you can decide whether or not it qualifies as a true MMOG. One thing I'll tell you right off the bat though; even though it's unconventional, it's fun and addictive.

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MMOGology: Mobile MMOGs

World of Warcraft, EVE Online, MapleStory, Game Mechanics, Ragnarok Online, Opinion, Second Life, Free-to-Play, MMOGology, Mobile

Several weeks ago at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) Steve Jobs announced the 3G iPhone. The announcement wasn't much of a shock to industry experts since other cell phones have been using 3G networks for several years. In order to remain competitive, it was only natural for Apple to hop on the 3G bandwagon.

What was, perhaps, more unexpected was the consumer friendly price point of $199.00. Of course there are a few not-so-hidden caveats involved with that sweet price point. First you have to qualify for the subsidized price, then there's the mandatory two year contract with AT&T and an increase in the price of the iPhone's data plan. Regardless, what it means to gamers is a budding mobile gaming platform. The iPhone now has its own software developer's kit (SDK), 3G network capabilities, and is priced to sell. Increased accessibility, higher data transfer speeds, and the ability for developers to conjure up new applications can only mean good things for the future of mobile MMOGs – especially on the iPhone.

Of course, maybe the future of mobile MMOGs seems so bright because its current state is so dim. As someone who has never even attempted to play an MMOG on a mobile device, I'm curious as to what exactly is out there and if anything is worth my time. If you're curious too, join me for some more info on mobile MMOGs after the break. I'll discuss the current state and limitations of the platform, some existing offerings, and take a look at what the future might hold.

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MMOGology: There's no place like Azeroth

World of Warcraft, Culture, Opinion, MMOGology

I was running my daily quests for the Shattered Sun Offensive this week when one of the officers from our guild popped online. He said he was back from a session with Age of Conan and was having a blast with it. I asked him if he liked the combat mechanics – he did. I asked if he liked the quest system – he did. And he was, of course, impressed with the shiny new graphics and level of detail in the game. So naturally, my next question was whether he planned to give up World of Warcraft permanently to make Conan his new home. His answer? "Nope."

I guess his response shouldn't have surprised me, even given his enthusiastic praise of Age of Conan. It seems like World of Warcraft operates as many gamers' home base. They might leave for a while to try out a new MMOG when they inevitably burn out on WoW; but most eventually gravitate back. The return might be in anticipation of an expansion, it might be that the gamer misses his guildies, or maybe it's the old, comfortable game mechanics. Whatever the reason, many of us can't seem to escape the black hole that is WoW; and maybe that's partly because we don't want to escape.

I know that there are definite exceptions to this trend; those gamers who cancel their WoW accounts and never look back. But for many of the gamers I know personally, something always pulls them back to WoW and hooks them again, usually for several months at a time. Even when they're playing another MMOG they often keep their WoW accounts active to check in on friends, run a random instance, or do a little PvP. Which makes me wonder, are multiple MMOG subscriptions becoming more common?

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MMOGology: Age of Conan, PC vs 360

Age of Conan, New Titles, Opinion, MMOGology, Consoles

Age of Conan's official release date is tomorrow (May 20, 2008) and MMOG players around the world are salivating at the chance to get down and dirty in the world of Hyboria. In fact, the level of interest is so intense that as I'm writing this article I can't even access the official Age of Conan website due to the high volume of traffic. With Funcom reporting one million beta test subscriptions, it looks like Conan may lay down some serious competition in the MMOG market.

Any time an MMOG looks to bring in big numbers, people inevitably ask whether or not it can challenge the current king of the hill, Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Personally, I don't think that's Funcom's goal. Sure they want to be successful, but unlike Blizzard, they aren't targeting a broad demographic of players. Instead, it appears that Funcom's goal is to capture a mature audience of hardcore gamers. The violence and sexual content that give Conan a Mature rating are obviously two indications of this target audience. Another indicator is the game's steep system requirements.

Typically steep system requirements are a barrier to many gamers. However, unlike most other MMOGs, Age of Conan won't be solely available on the PC. Gamers have the unique option of playing AoC on Xbox 360 and possibly on PS3. I'll discuss AoC's system requirements and the pros and cons of both platforms after the break.

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MMOGology: Attack of the bots

World of Warcraft, Culture, Exploits, Game Mechanics, Opinion, MMOGology

A few weeks ago Tateru Nino wrote a great piece about the use of bots in Second Life as marketing tools to make virtual worlds feel less lonely and appear more populated than they actually are. The article got me thinking about the use of bots in games and the many purposes they serve, not only as virtual avatars, but more frequently as tools used by players to assist them with everyday tasks.

So what exactly is a bot? Although bot is short for robot we're not talking about Tom Servo or Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (although I guess technically they're puppets). Bots are programs with some level of artificial intelligence that are typically created to automate mundane tasks otherwise performed by a human. At their finest, they are tools that help make a gaming experience more enjoyable by streamlining our gameplay, providing us with useful information, or automating otherwise irksome tasks. At their worst, bots are exploits used by hackers to grind through a game while the player is away from their keyboards. For the purposes of today's article, I'll be referring to the "legal" variety.

Even if a bot is perfectly legal to use and is not technically exploiting the game, it's still automating tasks you'd otherwise be performing yourself. When we're talking about playing video games, if a bot is doing some of the "gaming" for us, then what exactly are we doing? In automating some of the hum-drum tasks of a game has something of the fun or challenge been lost; or, do bots just help us get to the parts of the game that are fun and challenging?

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