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MMOGology: Grand Theft MMO

New Titles, Opinion, MMOGology, Crime, Rumors, CrimeCraft

On Tuesday, April 29th, 2008 Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV), one of the most anticipated games of 2008. Based on early reviews (all of which have been unanimously positive) it looks like the latest installment in the series has exceeded expectations. Everything about GTA IV appears to have been kicked up a notch. The graphics are more realistic, the gameplay has been refined and tightened, and the characters and storyline have more depth. While this type of evolution is to be expected, one of the most interesting new features about GTA IV is that you can play it online. Unlike previous versions of the Grand Theft Auto series, this one will allow Xbox 360 and PS3 owners the ability to play with up to sixteen friends online. While sixteen players doesn't exactly qualify as "massively multiplayer", it's a step in the right direction for those of us eagerly anticipating a GTA-style MMO.

It seems like a natural progression for Rockstar to bring their venerable series to the massively multiplayer arena. After all, you've got a built in, recognizable franchise name based around the most classic multiplayer concept known to man – cops and robbers. I think every child has played a real life version of this game at some point in their lives (although perhaps more G rated). It's one of those universal themes that everyone instantly "gets", and yet, no MMO developer has cashed in on the concept. The time seems ripe for Rockstar to join Blizzard in the money printing business.

So how realistic is it that Rockstar might be producing a Grand Theft Auto MMO? Is such a game already in development? I did a little digging and I'll show you what I've been able to find thus far after the break. I'll also fill you in on a few MMOs with similar concepts that you might be able to play as early as this time next year.

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MMOGology: Sex games

Age of Conan, Culture, New Titles, Opinion, MMOGology, Roleplaying

Can you feel it coming? With less than a month until Conan's release, the pressure cooker of excitement building for the new MMOG by Funcom is about to blow its load. At least part of this excitement stems from the fact that Age of Conan deals with mature themes. Unlike the cartoony World of Warcraft and cutesy Hello Kitty Online, Age of Conan is embracing what they call a "dark, decadent, twisted and corrupt version of Euro-Asian history." Aside from the prominent head lopping and blood letting we're also getting a side dish of sex; something we haven't really seen before in a prominent, commercial MMOG.

The idea of sex in video games is not new. You can go as far back as text based adventures like Farmer's Daughter on the Commodore 64, crude, arcade-style games like Custer's Revenge for the Atari 2600, or the multi-platform adventure game series Leisure Suit Larry that first kicked off back in 1987. Many early titles were so graphically crude that they left absolutely everything to the imagination. But as technology has evolved, so have the dirty minds of developers. And where dirty minded developers have come up short, many gamers have created modifications to fulfill their fantasies. Would you like some hot coffee while you wait to download the Lara Croft nude patch?

Given the heavy censorship present in the games industry it's actually surprising that Age of Conan will ship with a few lewd features in tact. With an M rating, Conan is one of the first MMOGs that's pre-screening its playerbase and tossing out the kiddies (along with the associated revenue stream from their parents). So what are the risqué features in Age of Conan and what will their implementation mean for future MMOGs? If Age of Conan is successful can we expect other developers to push the envelope further, or has someone already beaten them to the punch? If you're easily offended you may wish to skip what follows after the break.

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MMOGology: Gamerz is speshul

Culture, News Items, Opinion, MMOGology

Gamers have always taken a degree of flack about their hobby of choice. Some people call gaming a waste of time (whereas watching TV is completely productive), some people bash it as anti-social escapism (whereas reading a book is akin to attending a gala), some people deride it for its focus on violent content (whereas Hollywood blockbusters, boxing, and the nightly news are G-rated and chock full of joy), and some people despise it for its potentially addictive properties (cigarettes are a far safer alternative). I could go on. As a result, gamers are often seen as grumpy, antisocial slackers. But of all the labels associated with gamers one of the latest is just plain retarded - literally.

At a recent British Psychological Society convention it was announced that, "hard core gamers can mirror certain aspects of Asperger's Syndrome." For those of you who don't know, Asperger's Syndrome is a psychiatric disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum of psychiatric disorders. Asperger's is typically characterized by impairments in social interactions and repetitive behavior patterns. Dr. Charlton, one of the researchers on the study states that, "Our research supports the idea that people who are heavily involved in game playing may be nearer to autistic spectrum disorders than people who have no interest in gaming."

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MMOGology: Playing around

Culture, Opinion, MMOGology

Whether it's completing quests, running dungeons, or taking down super villains, any good game has decisive goals for player progression. Most of the time there is a clear and structured path that will get players quickly from one goal to the next. You level up, you unlock new abilities, you get better gear and you take on more challenging and entertaining tasks. It could be as simple as that; a straight and narrow path to completing a game. So why do many of us get in snowball fights outside of the bank in Ironforge? Why do we join others playing music outside of taverns in Lord of the Rings Online? Why do we jump off the highest structure we can find, only to fall to our deaths? Could it simply be because it's ... fun? MMOGs afford us interesting opportunities to goof off with others and "play" a game in ways that developers may never have intended.

Of course, many people don't like playing around, even when playing a video game. They love the challenge of being the first to complete every objective. They consider any diversion from the leveling process to be a waste of time and potential experience gained. While I fully understand and appreciate the desire to have the bragging rights as the first guy to hit the maximum level, or the first guild to take down the latest raid boss, I personally could never do it. I guess I'm somewhat of a slacker when I play MMOGs. Sometimes I like to fish, or climb the highest mountain and stare at a virtual moon. I don't mind that I'm not progressing toward the end of the game because I'm just enjoying having fun doing whatever it is I'm doing at the moment. Sometimes when our gaming experiences become overly competitive I think it's healthy to stop and smell the virtual roses. After all, we're playing a game. Shouldn't our main goal be to have fun, however it's defined?

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MMOGology: A touch of class

Age of Conan, Classes, Game Mechanics, New Titles, Opinion, MMOGology

With all the Age of Conan news hitting the press lately, the Conan hype machine has finally caught me in its greasy, barbaric cogs. With a visceral, action-based combat system, player-city building and mounted combat, it looks like Age of Conan is doing enough unique and exciting things to make it stand out from your typical World of Warcraft clones. As the May release date draws closer, I've been scouring the Web for more detailed information about the game.

Any time I get excited about a new MMOG one of the first things I check out is the list of classes on the developer's site. When you start the game you'll select a race (Aquilonian, Cimmerian or Stygian) and up until level five you are considered a "commoner". At level five you'll select a major archetype which consists of rogue, priest, soldier, or mage (mages being limited to the Stygian race). You'll stick with a particular archetype until around level twenty. At level twenty you'll finally specify which particular class you want to play. that class being a refinement of the archetype you chose at level five. As an example, the Rogue archetype can become a Ranger, Barbarian, or Assassin, depending on your race. [ Edit: Apparently the information I had on staged class selection was outdated! Thanks to my readers for informing me otherwise.]

The list of classes available for play at the time of this writing includes: Assassin, Barbarian, Bear Shaman, Conquerer, Dark Templar, Demonologist, Guardian, Herald of Xotli, Necromancer, Priest of Mitra, Ranger and Tempest of Set. While there are definitely some interesting nuances among these classes, most fall into your standard archetypes: Damage Dealer, Tank, and Healer. Almost every MMOG I can think of has this type of structure for its classes. Is this a good thing, or should developers move beyond typical perceptions of class structure?

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MMOGology: Identity crisis

Culture, Opinion, MMOGology, Roleplaying, Virtual Worlds

Ed Norton is a mild mannered claims adjuster. He's a friendly fellow and a model employee. He's never late to work. He keeps his workspace nice and tidy. He always speaks in a pleasant and clear manner during staff meetings and never raises his voice. But underneath the freshly pressed shirt and polished shoes lies something sinister. Mr. Norton has a dark secret. As night falls on the quaint suburbs where Ed resides, a blue-white light flickers in the otherwise dark bedroom of his modest home. Ed hovers in front of his PC's monitor; the glare reflecting eerily off his horn rimmed glasses. He smiles wickedly as World of Warcraft finishes loading. Suddenly, Ed undergoes a hideous transformation. His perfectly shellacked hair becomes a wild jungle of frizz. His eyes sink back into his skull. A demonic, green light leaks from between his pointed teeth. Ed has become Durden, the blood thirsty, undead warlock. Using his epic staff of carnal destruction, Durden reaps the souls of his victims with reckless abandon, laughing at their pathetic pleas for mercy. He is guildmaster and raid leader and wields ultimate power. All shall obey his commands or be forever be exiled from his presence.

Does this sound like you? If so, please seek psychiatric help immediately.

While most of us don't undergo the dramatic personality change illustrated by Mr. Norton when playing our favorite MMOG, many of us do have an online persona quite different from the one we present to the real world. Akela Talamaska's recent post about the Daedalus Project lead me to a fascinating survey that examined player role reversals. The survey highlights several different scenarios in which the roles of the players are completely inverse from the roles they play in real life. What are some of these roles swaps and how do they tie into our personalities? Why do we chose to act they way we do in our virtual worlds? Find out after the break!

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MMOGology: Build your own adventure

Culture, Game Mechanics, New Titles, Crafting, Professions, Opinion, MMOGology, LEGO Universe

I hope all of you got to check out Elizabeth Harper's great preview of the upcoming LEGO Universe MMOG by NetDevil. I'm personally a huge fan of LEGO and proudly admit to playing with those little, plastic blocks well beyond the recommended age rating. There's just something great about a product that gives you the tools to create without limiting the possibilities of your imagination. When it comes down to it, LEGO is simply another medium like clay or paint. It's up to the artist/designer to manipulate the medium into something unique and meaningful. NetDevil's product will allow us to partake in that enjoyment in a digital fashion, although, unlike creation in Second Life, it appears as though artists and designers will not have free reign over content creation.

In the context of an all ages game, the choice to place limits on creativity seems like a valid one. Allowing users to create anything they wanted with LEGO obviously opens up a Pandora's Box of offensive possibilities. I'll take the high road for now and refrain from mentioning the many examples of naughty things you could create in LEGO. But beyond potentially offensive things, creating absolutely anything you wanted in a game could potentially destroy the game from a design and gameplay perspective. User-created content brings up a variety of questions. To what extent can users shape their worlds without breaking them? To what extent can they expand and add to the content without altering the original vision of the developers? What role can user-generated content play in the future?

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MMOGology: Control yourself!

Game Mechanics, Opinion, MMOGology

Another day, another MMOG canceled. In case you missed the news, Microsoft recently announced their abandonment of the Marvel-based superhero MMOG under development by Cryptic Studios. Gamespy recently posted a roundtable discussion that speculated on the reasons for the cancellation of this once highly anticipated game. During the discussion, Gamespy staffers cited possible cancellation reasons such as Microsoft's unrealistic monetary expectations (based on the high bar set by World of Warcraft), an unwillingness on Microsoft's part to develop and innovative within the genre, and an inability to implement a successful product on both the PC and Xbox 360. The element of the discussion that intrigued me most dealt with the difficulties encountered when MMOGs try crossing the console barrier. One of the prohibitive elements to a successful console implementation is the incompatibility between PC and console controls.

Most major, mainstream MMOGs like Lord of the Rings Online, World of Warcarft, and Everquest have complex interfaces organized in a very flat, context-free structure. Movement, combat and non-combat functions are accomplished via the classic mouse and keyboard control combination. Most functions, especially in regard to combat, are accessed via a string of action functions located on "hot bars" or "skill bars". These functions can either be clicked upon directly with the mouse or bound to specific keyboard keys. Although there are occasional exceptions, each key has only one particular function, regardless of the player's situation within the game. Compare the large number of actions located on skill bars to the number of buttons available on a standard PS3 or Xbox 360 controller and you can easily see where basic interface design decisions just don't correlate well between consoles and PCs. It's not that one interface is better than another; they're just inherently different. In attempting to build a game that works on both PCs and consoles you've got to design to the least common denominator. If the console's controller can't support 50 buttons for different actions or can't accommodate quickly selecting actions via a heads-up-display, then you've got to streamline the experience or make it more context sensitive and intuitive. This act of streamlining an interface can only serve to benefit both console and PC gamers in the long haul.

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MMOGology: Exploiting the matrix

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

You can't deny it; there's something exciting about seeing something you aren't supposed to see. It may have happened to you before, perhaps accidentally. You were minding your own business, just jumping down a flight of stairs in the Sunken Temple instance. And then ... BAM! Suddenly you're staring into a sea of light blue. "Am I dead?" you ask yourself. "What happened?" You rotate your camera angle and notice you can see three floors below you. You rotate it a little more and suddenly the grand design of the mighty level developer is revealed to you. You can see the entire dungeon stretching into the distance of ethereal blue. You've accidentally crossed over to the other side. You've entered the matrix!

OK, so maybe it's not always quite that dramatic, but it's definitely interesting when you accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose stumble upon these little tears in the fabric of MMOspace. Many of us enjoy the exploration components of MMOGs. We love to find the hidden nooks and crannies of the world, the small places not often visited by our fellow gamers because they're in remote locations. Sometimes in our desire to see absolutely everything in the game, we stumble across these glitches that let us see a bit more than we're supposed to see. I think it's only natural to want to pull back the veil on our unrealities and see the "Wizard behind the curtain", so to speak. But of course anytime you begin participating in things that go slightly beyond the boundary of what you're "supposed" to be doing in a game, it starts to bring up questions about exploits and cheating. Viewing the underbelly of an MMOG hardly seems like a crime, but at what point exactly do you cross the threshold that will get you into trouble? At what point are we talking about account bans?

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MMOGology: Gear of war

World of Warcraft, Culture, Game Mechanics, PvP, Endgame, Warhammer Online, Opinion, MMOGology

Last night several members of my Alliance guild initiated some old school, world PvP attacks on Tarren Mill. We were bored, looking for a fight, and boy did we get one. It was fun for a while, but it wasn't long before I realized we had no chance of winning the skirmish. It wasn't a lack of skill, strategy, or cooperation that drove our faces into the ground. It was the fact that our group didn't have the gear necessary to be competitive. There's nothing more demoralizing than getting utterly pwnd by someone that you can't even scratch; despite the fact that you're of equal player level. I've realized there is a Grand Canyon sized gap between a freshly minted 70 in quest gear and one that's been raiding or participating in arena battles. It's the equivalent of a level 60 attacking a level 40. There's a very noticeable difference.

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised by this in a game that's so gear-centric. One of the primary draws of World of Warcraft is the amazing gear that you could potentially get; if only you'd spend hours and hours running and rerunning instances or competing in arenas or getting your hinder stomped in the battlegrounds thousands of times. But for casual schleps like me, the gear divide is a source of endless frustration. It becomes less a battle of skill, and more of battle of who has logged the most hours playing the game. Maybe that's the whole point of PvP in an MMOG; reward playtime over ability. But does it have to be this way?

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MMOGology: Group dynamics

World of Warcraft, Culture, Guides, Grouping, Opinion, MMOGology

Leading a group in a dungeon instance can often feel like herding cats, especially if you're playing with a pick-up-group (PUG). Unlike a guild group you don't have the luxury of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the other players. PUGs also tend to have more members with less experience running the instance. Many instances I've run in World of Warcraft have involved at least one of the following situations: The huntard claims he must be the official puller and then won't shed the aggro to let the main tank do his job. The healer blows all his mana on the soft targets that shouldn't have aggro. The priest or warlock freaks out and fears off the mobs who flee to their comrades in waiting, join forces, and eat the reckless noobs stumbling through their dungeon.

No matter how good a player you are personally, you can't save a group from the four other morons that make up your party. Maybe once or twice you'll get off a group saving heal, or manage to get the aggro back onto yourself if you're a tank. Nine times out of ten, though, when the same craziness happens on the next pull, it's a wipe. So imagine my surprise when I joined up a with a group of total noobs to run the Blackrock Depths instance in WoW, and managed to finish most of my quests and take down nearly all the bosses with only one wipe. This was a group of extremely inexperienced players. Besides myself, only one other person there had even run the instance before. Because we were both on alts that hadn't seen this content in a long time, neither of us really remembered the details. So how can a group succeed when it doesn't have experience? How could this be possible when I'd run the same instance with veterans and higher level characters with less success?

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MMOGology: Thieving hearts

World of Warcraft, Culture, Economy, Guilds, Opinion, MMOGology

I logged into World of Warcraft last week, excited to invite an old friend to my guild. After hopping on and chatting with him for a bit I opened the Social window, selected the Guild tab and was about to add him to the guild. It was then that I noticed the Add Member button was grayed out. All members of the guild (except initiates) had invite privileges the day before. Now, suddenly, I didn't. I checked to make sure I hadn't been demoted. I checked the guild's message of the day to see if I had missed something, but the MOTD still had information about the upcoming Karazhan raid. So I asked one of the officers if he could add my friend to the guild for me. "Sure," he responded, before realizing that his member adding privilege had also been revoked. What was going on?

Fortunately, one of the founding members of the guild was also online at the time. I asked him if he'd be kind enough to add my friend. Instead of the usual "Sure!", I got the third degree. "How long have you known him? What level is he? Why does he want to join?" I let the founder know my friend was level 61 and that he was switching back to some of his old characters to take a break from his primary server. Satisfied with my response, the founder switched from his alt to his main, and invited my friend. Of course, the very next thing I did was ask why our invite privileges had been revoked. At first I thought maybe it had to do with the fact that we were now over 200 members or that the guild had an adequate representation of most classes by now. But, after the questions about adding my friend I had a hunch something more sinister had taken place. Why would an open invite guild suddenly become an invitation only guild? There had to have been some breach of trust.

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MMOGology: Leaving home

World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot, EverQuest, Culture, Opinion, MMOGology

Persistent, virtual worlds fascinate me. There's something mind-blowing about the simple fact that they exist without us. They evolve over time; refining rules, adding new areas of the world to explore, and new goals for players to achieve. That evolution makes them feel like a living entity rather than a static stage for events, and makes MMOGs unique among video games. The successful evolution of a persistent world is important because it is the key to retaining its player base. As long as players can consume new experiences and grow their avatars they'll keep paying their monthly fees to the publisher. If handled correctly, that influx of cash can be used to further develop and enhance the virtual world. It's a cycle of success breeding future success. Players continue to play and developers continue to grow the world.

As game worlds evolve and grow, player expectations expand as well. We look for refinements in avatar class structure, new quest content, and new lands to explore, among other things. The more we continue to play in our world of choice, the more time and effort we invest in our avatars. We work hard to obtain gear and levels and become more powerful. As we level ourselves up we build memories of our play experience. We join guilds, make friends, and take down rivals in PvP. The memories of all these play experiences grow fond and we become further and further attached to our avatars and the world in which we play. In short, we invest ourselves heavily in an MMOG in a way that we don't invest ourselves in other games. They become second homes to us.

But new virtual worlds pop up frequently. They all compete for their share of that sweet revenue stream. This year we'll see Age of Conan, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, and Mythos (among others). Their potential for genre innovation and new content will inevitably pique our curiosity. Many of us will try out one of these new worlds. However; more often than not, moving to a new game means leaving the old one, or giving up a substantial amount of time in the old world to invest in the new one. Given an infinite amount of playtime this might not be an issue, but for most of us time is a precious commodity. Leaving an old world and old friends behind can be rough. As games evolve and continue to improve, leaving them seems to become more and more difficult. How do you kick an old game (and avatar) to the curb when you've invested so much of your time and energy into it?

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MMOGology: Keep it simple, stupid

World of Warcraft, Dungeon Runners, EverQuest, Classes, Culture, Game Mechanics, Opinion, Free-to-Play, MMOGology, Casual

I've been playing a lot of Dungeon Runners lately. Doing so has reminded me that simplicity can be a very good thing. With the exception of its tongue-in-cheek nature and the ability to cross-train class skills, there's nothing particularly original about DR. It's your standard medieval hack and slash RPG in the vein of Blizzard's single player classic, Diablo. Quests are easy to obtain and complete thanks to a rip off of World of Warcraft's quest system. Combat is even simpler than WoW. You left click on a monster to attack and right click to use an assigned special move. Occasionally you press a number key on your hotbar for an additional attack or ability. That's about it for the first ten levels or so; and perhaps the entire game. You might think this simplistic gameplay would get old quickly, but it's the straightforward and simplistic nature of DR's gameplay that make the game so appealing and so fun. It hearkens back to simpler days of gaming and reminds me that just because a MMOG is complex, it doesn't necessarily make it deep, fun, challenging (in the right way), or good. Sometimes complexity is just complexity.

Many modern MMOGs require players to interface with the game using multiple hotbars, key bindings and macro scripting. WoW even supports a multitude of user created interface add ons. In the instance of macros and interface add ons, it often feels like you're helping to program the game to make up for it's design deficiencies. The fact that not all users utilize these optional extras can leave uninformed players at a disadvantage, especially in PvP. Macros and adons can be fun to experiment with and I'm glad that Blizzard typically supports the community of developers that create such additions to the game. But, why should players be expected to spend time researching a game's "bonus features" and assisting in its development in order to play it properly? Personally, I'd rather spend my free time actually playing the game. Is it too much to ask for a game that just freakin' works right out of the gate? A game that you don't have to modify or spend hours researching prior to playing. With DR, you can sit down for twenty minutes and enjoy some carefree hack and slash without investing hours of research in PvP strategy guides, talent calculators, quest guides, or scripting tools. You simply play a game. What a concept!

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MMOGology: The sappy, holiday special edition

World of Warcraft, Real-Life, City of Heroes, Dark Age of Camelot, EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, Culture, Opinion, Star Wars Galaxies, MMOGology, MUDs

The most defining characteristic of a massively multiplayer online game is the very fact that it's massively multiplayer. Until the advent of the MMOG (and yes, I'm including MUDs as MMOGs) playing video games was either a solitary experience or one you experienced with a few existing friends. MMOGs are wonderful in that they allow us to meet new people across the globe; breaking the physical boundaries of our real-world environment that would otherwise prevent our interaction. The relationships formed and fostered during our time gaming often end up transcending the game itself.

Take my friend Rob, for example (Please! Ha!) Rob and I have been friends since middle school and went to college together in Florida. After college Rob got married and eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia. MMOGs have been great for us because they've allowed us to stay in touch while enjoying a hobby we both love. When we started to play Dark Age of Camelot, Rob met a guy online named Josh who lives in California. Josh played a tank class and Rob played a healing class. Since both of these guys are arrogant goofballs with a similar sense of humor they hit it off right away. As they played together, learning their classes as they went, they became excellent players of their respective classes. Over the years they've stuck together through Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, Everquest 2, Lord of the Rings Online and, of course, World of Warcraft. Although they do mix it up occasionally they almost always stick to the same roles of healer and tank. As a result of knowing their roles, and knowing each other so well, they typically dominate whatever game they play; whether it's in PvE or PvP. But more than just becoming great gamers, they've become great friends.

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