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Hearthstone: Blizzard’s Foray into Mobile

March 24, 2013 1 comment
Hearthstone User Interface

Hearthstone User Interface

Blizzard threw a curve ball at PAX East in Boston this weekend by announcing Heathstone, a mobile-friendly collectible card game based on the popular Warcraft franchise.  While there appears to be a fair bit of reaction ranging from disappointed indifference to outright rage that Blizzard would divert resources away from big-name titles, I think this criticism is unfounded given Blizzard’s tendency over the years of taking popular genres and polishing them.  And from what we’ve seen so far, and from having just spent dozens of hours traveling to and from New Zealand,  I can safely say Hearthstone would have been installed on my tablet if it were an option.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect Hearthstone to become my game of choice, but I think that’s part of the point: when can anyone say they were really blown away by a mobile game? Mobile games are as much a necessity in this day and age as traveling with a snack in your bag. It’s not that you necessarily want to eat the snack over actually getting a meal, but from time to time it’s necessary and expedient to do so. It makes sense that Blizzard would prefer people choose their version of the gaming meal-replacement bar over others. And just as I prefer Cliff bars over Power Bars for my travel snacks, I expect I’ll prefer Hearthstone over many of the other free-to-play games on the market.

The lack of information about an Android release for Hearthstone does surprise me, though.  The Android user base continues to grow at pretty impressive rates.  While it’s certainly more challenging and resource intensive to port a game like this to Android given the variability of devices and versions, I would have expected at least some projected timeline for those of us not on board the Apple train given Blizzard’s size. I’m interested in Hearthstone, but not enough to play it on PC or to go out and buy an iPad.  I doubt I’m the only one in this boat and hopefully someone at Blizzard will figure that out sooner rather than later.

For those who want to know more about the game, MMO-Champion has a great roll-up on what’s known at this time.

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Defiance: ComicCon 2012

July 14, 2012 3 comments

The SyFy network and Trion Worlds are boldly fusing storytelling mediums with their hybrid television series/MMO, Defiance, scheduled for release in April 2013.  The cast, writers, and lead game developers for Defiance took questions from audience members yesterday at a panel at San Diego’s Comic Con.  While I love SyFy and think the story and show looks fantastic, I’m still very skeptical about whether the MMO component of Defiance can live up to the hype after watching the panel and playing the game demo available. If nothing else, I can take solace in the fact that actor Grant Bowler is involved in the project; he handled tough MMO-related questions better than almost anyone else on the panel and he’s not even designing the game.

I hear ruined San Francisco is lovely in April.

Interplay between Show and Game

The words “Watch the show. Play the game. Change the world,” along with images of a ruined St. Louis and San Franscisco, are plastered up ubiquitously in downtown San Diego.  This promise that players of the MMO will be able to impact events in the television show is the chief draw of Defiance’s fused storytelling approach.  Unfortunately, how this crossover will happen was left largely to player imagination. We know the plot of the game and the show will stay synchronized with characters from the show sometimes moving back and forth between St. Louis (the show) and San Francisco (the game) to create a sense of story continuity. Several members of the crowd, myself included, asked for more details regarding the mechanics of players impacting the show or the game world, but the Trion developers side-stepped many of these questions with vague assurances that amounted “trust us, we know what we’re doing.”

The realities of TV production naturally limit the amount that the video game will be able to impact the television show, so I doubt anyone expected immediate daily impact between show and MMO, but these dismisals were less than comforting.  Thankfully, SyFy’s Kevin Murphy gave the crowd a bone with possibly the most detailed explanation of the night.  He assured the audience that there is already at least some interplay planned for each week between episodes where players will need to help synthesize a cure for a plague caused by razor rain, an atmospheric event caused by shrapnel from a destroyed alien ark stuck in the atmosphere periodically raining down from the sky.  SyFy and Trion also have plans to hold at least one contest where a lucky player will have their character cast and placed into the live show at some point.  We can probably expect this to be the exception, however. I would not expect it more than once a season.

Gameplay Impressions

The Defiance MMO is not yet in beta, but right now the game plays largely like Mass Effect 3 multi-player without dodging or cover and without class specific abilities to augment your weapons. The locked character I played was level 19 and I gained experience from killing hellbugs and completing events and challenges, but there was not a lot of information available about what leveling up does for your character.  The only customization I could find at this point was equipment.  You could choose your weapons (you can pick two), grenades, shield, and armor. For short movement, my character had a sprint and for longer travel I could summon a personal vehicle.

From what I can tell, you cannot actually crash these things. Trust me, I tried.

In terms of missions, I was able to participate in two events.  The first was a small hellbug invasion where a massive queen-like creature kept spawning smaller hellbugs in a local region conveniently marked on my map.  Two other players and I fought off waves of hellbugs while simultaneously trying to take out vulnerable glands on the big bug to get it to expose a kill point.  Aiming was important to achieve this task. I opted to use a sniper rifle to take out the soft spots because the big bug had a tendency to stomp, knocking players back and doing a fair amount of damage (one hit almost knocked out my shield).  The second event I participated in was a solo challenge where hellbugs were sent at me in various waves for 2 minutes and I had to kill as many as possible.  At the end, my score was rated and I was awarded a bronze, silver, or gold cup and some experience. I got silver on my first attempt, but the game also showed me record holders for the event and it was repeatable if I wanted to try to best my previous score.

If there was a way to go first person, I couldn’t find it.

Overall, the game played like most other shooters, as advertised. Looking at the game map suggests that there may be several other kinds of events at release, but it is still far from clear how connected these events will be and whether they have any lasting consequences on San Francisco if players fail to complete them or not. I’m concerned that the experience may end up being fairly hollow over the life-span of the show if the game play fails to offer compelling reasons to play in San Francisco between opportunities to impact the show.

Random Facts:

There was a lot more information about the show and game discussed during the panel.  A few of the better questions and answers are below.

How many races are there?

There should be eight races, at least initially. Seven alien races came to Earth in space-arks looking for a new home after theirs was destroyed.  They crash and terraform Earth and now have to coexist with humans, which make eight races. We were given hints that another ark-bound race exists, but that they are more likely to appear as major villians during the story rather than as playable characters.  All of the eight races are roughly human shaped so that they are all the same size for shooter balance purposes and so that a character can be easily cast and played by an actor if it needs to go to the show in St. Louis.

What happens if the show is cancelled?

Trion Worlds has contingency plans in place to keep the MMO going should the show component be cancelled for some reason.  This is also why the players mostly stay in San Fransisco while the show takes place in St. Louis.  I say mostly because the panel did announce that there will likely be a contest for a lucky player to have their character be cast and placed into the live show at some point, but this will be the exception and not the norm.

Will Defiance be cross-platform?

Defiance will be released on PC, XBox, and Playstation, but it will not be true cross-platform due business problems related to getting Sony and Microsoft to play well together.  Also the developers believe that mixing the platforms would offer too different of playing experiences to be fair for players to compete against one another.

Conclusion:

I will definitely be watching the Defiance pilot in April, but I’m not yet convinced that I will be playing the Defiance MMO. @DefianceWorld confirmed that the game will not be free-to-play model so hopefully there won’t be too much of a barrier to fan cross-over as the story develops.  If nothing else, it will be interesting to watch this grand experiment unfold.

If you have any other questions not answered here  about either the show or the game, please feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll try to give you the best answer I can from what I saw and heard.

Give a Penny, Save a Penny

July 10, 2012 2 comments

Penny Arcade announced today that they initiated a Kickstarter project to completely remove ads from their site. There’s been a fair amount of hate and outrage over this decision.  Most of it comes down to the fact “for three hundred dollars the penny arcade guys will install adblock plus on your browser” (courtesy of @dogboner) or “Penny Arcade breaks rule one of Kickstarter” (courtesy of @misterbrilliant).

Well @dogboner, @misterbrilliant, and others: you’re kind of missing the point that money kills journalism.

Sure, you can just install ad blocker to not see the ads.  That doesn’t mean those ads away and the reason they exist remains.  Journalism on any topic, especially in a huge industry like gaming, is an invaluable public service. Given how much money we all collectively spend on games these days, I’d hope that more people would appreciate the kind of honest feedback and criticism that PA offers its fans.  I personally value their opinions and love that they are trying to be transparent about conflicts of interest. Giving them some money to help that goal is the least I can do given how much money they have saved me thanks to their coverage. [Incidentally, thanks for encouraging me to skip Prometheus, Tycho… that was $20-30 saved right there on a trip to see a bad movie.]

I was an analyst for the government and military for the past five years, so I absolutely appreciate the necessity of knowing who or what is influencing the sources information you rely on. No one can play and test every game out there, so we all rely on people like the writers Penny Arcade supports to do some of the leg work for us, finding the good games and criticizing the bad.  Penny Arcade goes one step further and gives us humor too (and for free). They’re like Steven Colbert compared to Fox and MSNBC of the gaming journalism world, complete with a Penny-Arcade Nation thanks to conferences and scholarships they sponsor.

Maybe the critics prefer game coverage that reads like the author is on the company payroll and takes jabs at viewers asking questions answered in coverage they may not have read among the hundreds of websites clamoring for attention around a game’s announcement.  That is totally their prerogative.   If you don’t want to support the site or don’t have the means to do so, that is completely within your rights. I personally don’t pay for the New York times because I don’t think their writing is shoulders above many other news sources, but I would pay for Penny Arcade compared to many other gaming sites. I think they offer unique and useful coverage and would hate to see them succumb to the whims of advertisers.

So today I am going to be one of those people pledging help Penny Arcade achieve their goal. Choose not to if you want, but just remember to thank those of us who do when the quality of the site improves and you reap the rewards for free.

The Elder Scroll of Speculation

May 3, 2012 2 comments

Game Informer today confirmed the not-so-secret existence of an an already-in-development Elder Scrolls Online MMO.  Porting the highly successful single-player Elder Scrolls franchise to a massively-multiplayer environment is a high risk, high reward move for ZeniMax Studios.  On one hand, already having a huge fan base to draw on means that the studio can count on a fair amount of revenue up front on release as long as they deliver a working game.  On the other hand, those same fans are going to demand the kind of game experience that they’ve come to expect from other games in the franchise: a rich open world where players decide how they want to play.   Translating that single-player experience into a multi-player environment may not be simple, so ZeniMax will have to come up with some fairly creative solutions to bring the Elder Scrolls alive in a way that mediates the demands of the MMO genre with expectations of their players.

While ZeniMax probably won’t give away too many details about specific game mechanics this far out from release, we can probably expect to hear soon about overarching design concepts and major game features.  When Game Informer releases an exclusive trailer tomorrow, my biggest fear is that we’ll see a game that resembles another attempt to piggy-back off World of Warcraft.  While this approach has arguably worked for some MMO franchises (e.g. Rift and SWTOR), it also tends to draw a lot of criticism from MMO players and probably cut hard into those franchises’s potential growth than if they’d tried a different approach.  Don’t get me wrong, WoW is a great game even seven years after release – but if I want to play it, I’ll play Blizzard’s version and I believe many other players feel the same way.   Blizzard had seven years to flesh out what is, at its core, a very structured MMO experience.  Even a great emulation of that style of game play, especially without those seven extra years of development, is probably going to pale in comparison to precedent set by the open worlds of previous Elder Scrolls game.

Tomorrow, if we’re comparing ZeniMax’s Elder Scrolls MMO to any other game on the market, I hope we’re talking about EVE Online.  While I do not want ZeniMax to copy EVE wholesale, for many of the same reasons I do not want want them to copy WoW, there are definitely lessons to be learned and some features which may be too useful to pass up when moving Tamriel to the internet.  EVE is probably the best implementation of a massive open online world where players can have direct impact on the world itself.  Instead of picking classes as in other more structured MMOs, EVE’s players choose how to develop their character using an expansive skill-tree system.  They can specialize or diversify across skills that impact various aspects of the game’s social, economic, and combat systems, gaining more depth the longer they play.  This flexibility in game play and character development are the same reasons why everyone I know enjoyed Skyrim.   As the last Elder Scrolls game to be released, players will almost definitely expect similar flexibility in the Elder Scrolls Online.

As I said earlier, what works in a single player game may not work in an MMO, but the reverse is also true.  Trying to give players an open world like EVE’s without losing the richness of content and story is a challenge in itself.   It’s a lot easier to account for one player’s actions in a game world than it is for thousands, and if it’s a true open world, that’s thousands of opportunities for players to undo any work developers put into the game.  Game Informer’s tease about The Elder Scrolls says that ZeniMax has already decided structure the player versus player aspect the game with three set factions.  This design is not entirely surprising given that ZeniMax’s president used to work on Dark Ages of Camelot, which also featured a three-faction PvP system.  It remains to be seen, however, if the studio will cede more freedom to players in other aspects of the Elder Scrolls Online experience.

If nothing else, the next year will be interesting to see how ZeniMax chooses to balance these competing forces.