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World of myCraft

March 25, 2012 4 comments

Last week, Blizzard issued a massive release of new information about Mists of Pandaria, the next expansion pack for World of Warcraft.  The information confirmed that the expansion will include a Pokemon-style mini-pet battle system announced at last year’s Blizzcon.  It also announced a new in-game faction that will allow players to take care of their own farm, reminiscent of the hit Facebook game Farmville.  While these additions are only a fragment of the new content being offered, the two games within the larger game seem to signal that Blizzard may be setting World of Warcraft up to evolve to a more immersive content delivery platform where players can tailor the kind of game experience they want while still experiencing the Warcraft universe.

Pet Battle System
source: mmo-champion.com

Massively-multiplayer persistent worlds inherently appeal to many gamers for their ability to preserve a player’s time invested playing a game.  Playing WoW’s in-game version of Pokemon or Farmville will offer players experiencing burnout entirely different game experiences within the persistent world without having to switch to a new game or platform.  Perhaps more importantly, players who never were into crawling dungeons or fighting other players in arenas now have a reason to try and perhaps stick with the franchise.   Blizzard has always had a strong track record of taking established game paradigms and expanding them in new ways, so their incorporation of highly successful game that appeal to a variety of audiences only makes sense as they attempt to make World of Warcraft more applicable to an increasingly diverse gaming audience.

Tiller’s Farm
source: mmo-champion.com

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that these alternative games within the larger game seem ripe for adaptation into mobile platforms.  Blizzard recently expressed interest in eventually offering a way to experience the game via the iPhone and other mobile platforms.   It will probably be some time before players can experience the entire game on a mobile platform, but Blizzard already offers ways to access parts of the game experience via mobile apps to chat with players in game and conduct business on the in-game auction house.  It would not surprise me if we saw mobile apps fairly soon after the expansion allowing players to engage in the pet battle system or managing their farm while on the go as well.   These new alternate games not only diversify what World of Warcraft players experience, but also potentially how they experience it, likely setting the setting the bar for future MMOs.

World of Warcraft may be getting up there in age, but these developments make me confident that Blizzard has a few more tricks to show us and that gets me even more excited to learn what the company has in store for Titan.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait like the rest of the annual pass holders out their for their turn at the Mists of Pandaria beta.

Finding the Edge of Skyrim’s Open World

March 4, 2012 1 comment

As I reread this for the typos I’m prone to make, I feel the need to start off with a disclaimer about the tone of this post.   I may  come off as be fairly critical of Skyrim, but only because it was worth playing.  As my girlfriend put it, I had a month-long affair with the game.   Don’t worry though; we’re still together – the girlfriend and I that is.   Using the metrics of playtime and fun factor, Skyrim is definitely amazing and worth purchase if you haven’t played it; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the game’s design across multiple characters.   The main issue issue I ran into, though, was that I couldn’t help but wish that the game’s open world was capable of more intelligence response to my decisions in game.

The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim was the most recent installment, is one of the best examples of an open-world role playing game concept.   While many other games emphasize a main story line, sometimes ushering a player through critical decision points in order to maintain story integrity, Bethesda Games places minimum constraints on players’ actions while they experience the game.   You can, for instance, spend hours chasing optional objectives and side quests and hardly ever advance the main storyline.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, think Grand Theft Auto with swords and Vikings instead of guns and criminals.  On second thought, those two things aren’t all that different, but that might make the comparison even more apt, because some people experience Skyrim by running around and killing and stealing everything they possibly can.  To each his own.

Open worlds are compelling because they offer, in theory, a richer gaming experience than completely scripted games.  Rather than just experiencing an interactive movie, you’re literally shaping the events around you, as you see fit, and when you see fit.   In practice, open worlds often don’t live up to expectations due to the complexity that actually coding cascading decisions can have on a game world.  The result is that players can make hundreds of decisions, but these decisions usually have only first order shallow consequences at best.  The freedom to do anything ends up coming with the price over being able to do everything.   And if you can do everything, what exactly becomes the point of doing anything?  This was my experience with the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion.  I got so caught up in the side quests that I forgot about the main storyline.   While I became the leader of some of the game world’s most powerful factions, the power I’d acquired in the process trivialized the main storyline’s difficulty and sense of importance by the time I got around to it.   Adding insult to injury, despite making dozens of decisions that resulted in my being what can only be described as the most important person in the game, none of it mattered.   Dialogue options were the same as if I’d been a vagabond in rags.  In short, the totality of my decisions still resulted in very little real change to an open, but mostly static, world.

A friend of mine from college recently posted a comment on this same topic, stating “I’ve been playing Skyrim lately, and while it’s a great game, I’m starting to pick up on how shallow it is, despite an initial impression of enormous complexity.”  I tried lots of ways to say this in my own words, but that’s basically my experience.  Skyrim was a leap forward from Oblivion in that it took me much longer to find that edge where my decisions no longer seemed to matter, but I still managed to find it even when I specifically tried to avoid it by pursuing a strategy of limiting myself to one major side-quest arc per character I made.   While it extended the life of the game for me by giving each play-through a slightly different focus, it also still exposed a lot of missed opportunities to add even more depth to the open world.

One of most obvious missed opportunities was the civil war storyline in which the game world’s eight cities, or holds, have to side with either the Imperials or the Stormcloaks.  Your choice to side with one or the other or neither has little to not impact on your ability to complete the main storyline.  As one of the few mutually exclusive side-quest choices the game offers, this was the perfect place to make some gameplay changes with no risk of altering a player’s ability to “finish” the game.   That’s actually how I expected it to play out, but after completing the story arc for both sides (which turned out to require nearly identical missions), I discovered my decisions and actions offered only a simple cosmetic swap of leadership in the conquered holds.  I didn’t get any new content to explore and none of the game’s characters really seemed to notice that the war even happened (except perhaps the dead ones).  By that point, this lack of impact shouldn’t have surprised me, because even during the war your allegiance had no impact on many people in the game.  As a Stormcloak, running across Imperial patrols was not a threat unless I inadvertantly shot an arrow at one.  I believe making those enemy patrols attack you or assist you based on your allegiance, varying the actual campaign quests for each side, and adding some bonus content only available to the side you won with would have been relatively simple additions to the game which would have vastly improved its replayability.   As it was, I’d found the edge and didn’t have much left to play.

If Bethesda adds more major decision points that offer a changing game world, I’ll definitely be excited for the next Elder Scrolls game.   Either way,  Skyrim was a quantum leap forward over previous Elder Scrolls games and I definitely look forward to the next one if for no other reason than to see the world they create (which for those who have not played a Bethesda game, includes among other things, dozens of little mini-books that you can read in game which have nothing to do with the game’s objectives and only serve to add depth to the setting).  I’ve got more to say about this game, but I’m going to save that for a later installment since it addresses very different gameplay issues and this has already gotten long-winded.  As always, I welcome your thoughts.