I'm coming to enjoy Tera more as I level up more, especially as I get into groups and dungeons, but a number of issues with the game continue to highlight problems in bad design that act to hinder, rather than help, player interaction. It's a big issue I discussed in a Gamasutra feature article back in February, and while Tera's monetization strategy isn't at fault here, their grouping mechanics are.
I had two interesting experiences playing my Warrior in Tera tonight, both in Sinestral Manor, a dungeon for players levels 26-30something. The first time I joined the random queue as usual and entered the dungeon when it became available, but right away the Lancer tank left the group. We requeued to get a replacement. Nothing.
Warriors are supposed to be able to tank, and they have a number of abilities that enable them to generate aggro, but they can't actually enter the dungeon finder queue as a tank. Still, the group was willing to give it a try and I started tanking to clear trash while we waited for a new Lancer. It worked. Maybe a bit slow-going, but it was working.
Then real life interrupted and we also lost our sorcerer. Re-queued AGAIN to get two replacements. We kept clearing. Cleared everything up to the first boss. Still no replacement members. We faced the difficult choice of going on with what we had, and after much delay and hoping for more people (still no replacements!) we gave the boss a go.
Back in March I tried out the TERA beta and had mixed feelings. I still have mixed feelings. It's the kind of game I really want to enjoy, but it's just not quite tuned right.
I tried a few more classes since beta: lancer felt very sluggish. Sorcerer and Priest felt very plain: just shoot. Archer felt a wee bit more dynamic - you can move a little bit between shots - but all the skills seem identical. I ended up back on Warrior because, at the very least, you can move around a bit and try to hit enemies from behind.
Of course, that's only if you want to. You by no means have to actually use any of your skills or make an effort to employ tactics unless you feel like doing so. Even up at level 24 I can just mindlessly hack enemies to death with auto attacks and not see my health bar flinch. I know game developers are afraid that their MMO will be too hard and people will quit, but really, there's a limit here, and it's been crossed.
There is one big difference between my first and second impression of TERA though: this time I got high enough to do a dungeon. Dungeons are pretty cool. Dungeon boss fights are pretty fun. The fact that only lancers can tank is pretty discouraging. But, I'll definitely say this: dungeons are way more fun than grinding quests.
Last time I blogged about Rift I complained a bit about having a hard time "finding" the fun in the game anymore. After talking more about the topic with my guildmates in Infernal Dawn last night, I think most of us agreed that Rift is ready for more than just flat content: we want an expansion.
We've done what there is to do with the current character options, we've cast our spells or wielded our abilities ad nauseum. My role, Archon, has become bitterly depressing to play, as I simply cast 10 spells every 5 minutes, then push one button until they come up for renewal. I often just afk in trash because my 1 button attack is so meaningless and trivial that the 5 Archon auras are all that really matter. I used to enjoy casting Illuminate, at least, until Coda of Jeopardy came along and utterly trivialized that.
I'm also really disappointed with the trend towards more and more resists. I was annoyed at having to spend time grinding to build a water resist core for Hammerknell Fortress. I'm downright furious at having to build both fire and earth resist cores for ID. It's time consuming, it's not fun, and I don't want to have to do it. This isn't what playing a game is supposed to be about.
I think there's an interesting ebb and flow in MMORPG design, what I call the "vertical" stages and the "horizontal" stages. The vertical stages come in big jumps: when you produce new content that overwrites old content. Expansions that boost player level by 10, for example, and introduce new skills or abilities. The horizontal stages are the content additions that stretch out the periods between vertical additions: the extra dungeons, raids, and what-not that keep people entertained with the same set of tools they're already using.
Despite it's rough start and rougher going on since, Final Fantasy XIV is still running and the folks at Squeenix are still convinced they can fix it up. They did, however, decide to end the more-than-a-year-long free trial for the game back in December, and that's when I got locked out of the game. So it was with much curiosity that I noted the announcement of the Welcome Back Campaign.
In February of this year I discussed the server consolidation plans for FFXIV and criticized their original intention to split up non-paying players. Thankfully, they changed their plan and my social circles weren't destroyed. Not that preserving them did much good: when I returned for the free week, most of the players I knew had left the linkshell of which I was a member. So it was basically back to square one anyhow, and that's a rough position to be in when you know you're only there for a week.
I was hoping the game would have incorporated better party-finding tools so I wouldn't have to build up a social network just to level up and do some quests, but I was pretty much out of luck on that front. FFXI's /search command may have been clumsy, but at least it was simple and direct enough that everyone knew what to do with it. Now there's a convoluted set of menus involving parties and searching and recruiting and, gosh, I can't make heads or tails of it. And neither can anyone else, apparently.
FFXIV is definitely the kind of game that would lend itself well to automatic grouping, both for quests and for grinding. Squeenix should look to what Rift did with Instant Adventures and incorporate that into the underlying structure of FFXIV: pick one or more roles you're willing to play, queue up, get teleported to the action and off you go! Happyness ensues!
It seems to me that modern MMORPGs are based on Achievements. You grind to level up, you grind to get gear, you grind grind grind to achieve goals set forth for you by the developers. The problem is, with all the focus on carefully balancing those grinds to take as long as possible, MMO developers seem to have forgotten to make the games fun.
The thing is, I'm not that driven by achievement-based gameplay. I've never cared for the most blatant form of that: achievement points. But the grinds past that don't really interest me either: questing to level up is a bore, grinding Instant Action for PA levels or Inscribed Sourcestones to unlock a useful ability or buy a useful piece of equipment is a pain, and sitting around week after week to do one raid run is downright upsetting.
Another thing that's bugging me in Rift is the lack of gear inheritance to a number of key game facets. For example, if you play a Warrior, your HP goes up as your gear gets better. But if you play a Mage, while your HP also goes up, the HP for your pets remains unchanged. So when monsters get tougher to provide challenges to the other three classes, Mages can't stay relevant. And in raids, I play an Archon, and many of my abilities provide fixed bonuses. +360 damage was cool when people were hitting for 360, but now that people hit for 1360 my ability feels lame. Trion needs to incorporate gear scaling to ALL abilities, including pets and buffs/debuffs.
I think what I really want to see in Rift is the PvE equivalent of Planetside: trying to conquer territory for no reason other than the pure fun of it. Fight off invasions to defend wardstones, take out enemy strongholds: basically, their world invasions on a much more meaningful scale. Crucially, I don't want it to ever stop. I want to be able to log in any time and instantly jump into that action. So, yeah, combine instant action and world invasions and produce something that focuses on the fun of the gameplay experience, rather than the rewards you obtain for participating.
I managed to wriggle my way in to the TERA beta this weekend to check it out. So far, I've played a Warrior character through to level 12, completing the tutorial island. I don't know if I'll get much further. Here are my thoughts.
Quests: The game is loaded with utter crap quests. Walk over and talk to that other NPC. Then kill 5-10 monsters that pose no threat to you whatsoever - just walk over to them and hold the attack button down until they're dead - and they're all spread around. The hardest part of the quest is tracking them all down. On the bright side, TERA lets you click on a target's name in the quest journal and the target lights up on the minimap, on the dark side once you turn in the quest you can't click the target's name again to unselect them off your map.
Combat: Combat is fun. It's much more action-oriented than most MMOs. I started playing TERA off the heels of Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning - which I found more fun than I was expecting - but there's a key element missing. First of all, the combat is a lot more sluggish: I often press the button for a skill and wait, wondering if the command went through to the server. This game DESPERATELY needs a skill queue so if you push a skill slightly too soon you don't end up doing nothing. I also really loathe the cooldown timer on what would seem like basic abilities, like dodging. Dodge once every 5 seconds? Brilliant. There's also a lot of delay between when you make an attack and when you can move again afterwards, adding to the sluggishness of the game.
Character Development: This is the other thing that kills combat: there's no character customization or development as you progress through the game. No talent trees, no alternative weapon choices, nothing whatsoever to give your character a bit of a unique feel. One of the things I found exciting about Kingdoms of Amalur was that I had access to more abilities than I could meaningfully use in a fight, which gave me choices to make during fights. Should I use my long-range chakrams and ice mines? Or maybe my lightning bolt and then charge in with my daggers? TERA is utterly choiceless. Every fight you'll have in the game is basically the same. No matter what level I reach, I'll still be swinging the same two swords in the same way, with the same dodge, same follow-up attacks, same style. I'll never have enough abilities to have a meaningful choice between styles: I'll never charge into a fight thinking "will I use this tactic or that tactic?"
So Trion, the folks behind Rift, are merging some of their less populated servers into the more populated ones. Or, rather, "not merging" those servers, but simply "suggesting" that everyone on the underpopulated servers transfer to the populated servers so the underpopulated ones can be converted into trial servers for upcoming promotions.
Population consolidation does make a lot of sense. MMORPGs are more fun when the populations are "massive" so leaving players spread thin across a number of servers isn't as good as having everyone clustered together. I suppose, in an ideal world, you'd only ever have one server (EVE Online), if the technology made it viable. In the case of Rift, as with most "classical" MMORPGs, multiple servers are a necessity. However, unlike most of those other MMORPGs, Rift offers free server transfers to its players, so they can already (and often already do) solve low population issues by transferring to more populated servers on their own.
From a technical standpoint, this is why Rift doesn't have to do a server merger. The whole point of a server merger is to merge players who cannot transfer on their own. In fact, despite the hint of "mergers", players still don't have to do a transfer, they can technically keep playing on the trial server. As Trion explains, Trial Servers are like normal servers, so subscribers with characters on trial servers can technically keep playing and leveling up and all that, they just can't create new characters on the trial server or transfer characters to the trial server.
Of course, news of converting underpopulated servers coming at the same time as even deeper subscription price slashes with service offered for as little as $8.25 a month, all the MMO doom-sayers are coming out of the wood-works (again) to, well, say that Rift is doomed. I disagree. Want to know why?
Happy New Year everyone! And to kick off the new year, a very special podcast with Bernd Lehahn of Egosoft, the company behind the X games. Our main topics are the recently released X3: Albion Prelude and the upcoming X: Rebirth. I'm a big fan of open-ended sandbox games and X scratches an itch that plagued me since the days of Elite and First Encounter. A bit of a learning curve, but, as we discuss, the upcoming X: Rebirth aims to reintroduce the series for new users. But why wait?
Stream this week's episode:
You can also download the whole episode in MP3 format.
If you haven't tried any X game yet, check out the Official Site to find out more about their games. You can also buy X3: Albion Prelude on Steam or get the X Superbox to get every X game in one sweet package!