MMOrgue: Episode #2

In this week’s show we’ll be discussing Age of Empires Online, which is set to soon crawl its way out of the womb of beta and bring with it an entire new subgenre into the wide world of online gaming. We’ll also take a look at the once-deceased APB Reloaded, since it is clawing its way out of the fresh dirt of its un-mourned gravesite, and shambling across the MMO landscape in search of brains. I mean … wallets.

But first up, a quick note on RIFT, and an invitation to join the fledgeling community for this show being hosted at www.jupitercolony.com

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Show Notes:

Age of Empires Online

All of the ‘classic’ RTS elements are here, and each individual mission/quest acts almost exactly like a traditional RTS campaign.

Strategy vs. MMO = Persistence

In order to add persistence, AOEO added:

– Gear
Worried that high-end PvP will be less about strategy, and more about gear.

– Talents
Actually a really great idea. I’d love to see something like this implemented into single-player RTSs, where your choice of tech advancements control which missions you can play through.

– Crafting and Materials
A HUGE pain in the ass! Not enough storage space. No explanation for why you might need some and not others. No information on rarity or approximate value.

– Socialization
There are options to trade (which is a necessary part of the Materials economy), visit other kingdoms, team up for elite co-op missions, and PvP. Because this is primarily an RTS game though, means that by-and-large you’re dealing with a Starcraft-type crowd, and not a social gamer scene. Very mercenary and cutthroat.

So, with all these things added, what did it lose from a standard RTS?

Not much…

– No immersive story
Granted the AOE franchise has never been big on story, but seeing a campaign unfold before your eyes has become an expected feature of RTS campaigns. But since most hardcore fans of the genre play these games for randomly-generated challenges and online deathmatches, this isn’t a huge loss.

– Any sense of urgency or loss
Your home kingdom can never come under attack. It is completely safe, and therefore the entire game lacks any feel of true conflict. Getting slaughtered by barbarians? All your villagers get killed off? No biggie – just quit out and try again, and you’ve lost nothing but time.

But really, neither of those are game killers.

The final thing that’s lost when making the jump to the MMO space, is a fundamental shift in progression paradigm of the RTS. You see, in most single-player RTS campaigns, progression is first dictated by tech barriers as you unlock new buildings, units or abilities, and then switches over to being solely about the PLAYER getting better at the game. However, in AOEO, a large portion of that progression has been replaced by gear acquisition and social networking. Meaning that instead of having to become a better player to beat a particular mission, you can instead brute-force your way past it by having better gear upgrades and bringing along a buddy or two to overwhelm your opponents. This is standard MMO faire, but in my opinion, it diminishes one of the core charms of the RTS genre – that only the skilled will survive.

Final Verdict: As a fan of strategy games, I personally tend to play them for specific reasons. They’re a mental challenge to overcome, and not a social one. The shoehorning of multiplayer features (excessive loot, large-scale economic balance, crafting timers, gated content, slow advancement) has caused players of AOEO to have to overcome the game mechanics themself, in order to enjoy it the same as they would a single-player RTS. And while I won’t necessarily call that a bad thing – especially as a fan of social gaming – I frequently get the feeling that I would prefer that they kept their chocolate out of my peanut butter. The additional layer of complexity that an MMO game adds to the established RTS traditions is an interesting change of pace, but it is just that – an addition. This is not a melding of the two game types, it’s an RTS + more. And not all players will enjoy what’s been added.

I haven’t touched yet on the fact that this game is going to be F2P, supported by a cash shop. This is for one simple reason: The cash shop is not yet open in the Beta, so I can’t see what the developers are selling.

They are saying that no game-balance-effecting items will be sold in the shop, and that it will be limited to content. But in the same breath, they’ve mentioned selling “special units” which sound to me like an option that could fundamentally change the balance of the game, especially in PvP.

Until I see the actual items being sold, and the costs, I’ll withhold an official opinion on the matter, but be forewarned that although there is no initial cost to play this game, the addition of a cash shop will ALWAYS mean that the best gaming experience will still cost you money.

APB Reloaded

REASONS TO HOPE FOR SUCCESS:

1) Customization of Content

APB’s robust character customization tools allowed players to take control of their avatar’s appearance in unprecedented new ways. The sliders and facial morphing are impressive, and the ability to design custom logos, then place them onto your characters’ T-shirts or car hoods, was something no MMO had allowed in the past. Additionally, the game encouraged players to take these customized items and trade them to one another for in-game currency, allowing a substrata of the economy to grow around a single mechanic that has ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT on gameplay.

The loss of this series of features from the MMO landscape when APB was closed down, was a sad day. So imagine my excitement when I heard the news of APB’s resurrection at the hands of GamersFirst!

2) Future Resurrections

This is the first time that we’ve ever seen a big-budget ‘top shelf’ MMO get a second lease on life after failing to impress fans following a dismal launch. PlanetSide, Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault… all of these titles could have warranted a similar treatment back in the day, but nobody was willing to take the risk. Could this be the beginning of a new era of second-run MMOs? Could games that begin life as a financial flop, look forward to resurrection at the hands of a new owner? Time will tell if APB’s story of a second coming is a unique situation, but it would be short-sighted to ignore the potential impact that this could have on the MMO industry if APB Reloaded becomes a successful game with a long lifespan and active playerbase.

PRIMARY HURDLES:

1) Cash Shop and a Pay-to-Win atmosphere

I mentioned earlier that there will be a cash shop within APB. This is because GamersFirst is doing away with the previous subscription system, where players would pay per hour of game time, and replacing it with a Free To Play system that is supported by microtransactions. Now, I can already see many of you rolling your eyes at this, and saying things like “nickel and diming” and “pay to win.” Well, let me tell you… your concerns, are my concerns.

You see, when I first met APB, I saw a game ripe for cash shop exploitation, in the form of gating off their massive customization tools into a series of unlockable features driven by microtransactions. Hair packs, tattoo packs, shirt packs, jacket packs, nose packs, beard packs — all of these could’ve ended up on an in-game cash shop, and people would’ve paid thru the nose for a new nose. And it would’ve had absolutely ZERO effect on the game’s PvP-driven game content, doing away with concerns of it becoming a Pay To Win atmosphere.

But no, that’s not the way GamersFirst does things. You see, they are primarily an Eastern Market publisher, and cash shops in Asian MMOs are known for their Pay To Win offerings. Especially in games with PvP. While American and European markets tend to eschew this financial inequality, it’s been embraced by the Eastern markets for years now, and has become a core part of their long-term business models for many different MMOs.

The result, is a cash shop for APB that offers things like Rocket Launchers, Machine Guns with unlimited ammo, and extra-durable vehicles that can take a massive amount of pounding. Yes, you heard me right, in a deathmatch shooter where survival is frequently determined by the quality of the gun you’re toting, you can now spend real-life cash to ensure that your survival is more likely than the enemies’. Pay To Win.

Players unwilling to spend money on goodies like this out of the gate are destined to suffer through a pretty brutal starting process of being nothing but cannon fodder for their more well-equipped teammates, while earning tiny portions of the overall mission bounty, until they can either scrape up a decent weapon or break down and purchase one from the cash shop. So not only will you be at a disadvantage for being new, but you’ll be at an additional disadvantage if you don’t slap down a credit card and start spending.

2) The Gameplay Itself

It’s up to each player to determine if a particular game suits their habits, budgets, and needs. Despite the bleak picture I’ve painted here of a cash-driven power struggle, I actually think that APB is destined for success this time around. The game has a visceral, fast-paced and action-packed feel to it that many gamers are sure to enjoy, and the additional layers of complexity offered by customization and exploration could definitely win over some long-term fans. I will forewarn you though that this game is not standard MMO faire, and instead should be considered more akin to a massive deathmatch shooter with a seamlessly integrated matchmaking system and persistent graphical lobby. You’re not likely to spend time getting to know your fellow players while you’re lobbing grenades at the opponent, or racing the wrong way down a busy street. Or sidewalk. You’ve got a gun to aim, and badguys to kill. The rest is just flavor, and not the main course.

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NEXT WEEK:  Superhero edition!

  • News from inside Marvel Universe casts doubt on the game’s viability as an MMO.
  • SOE’s network outage casts doubt on DC Universe Online‘s continued operation.
  • Atari’s announced divestment of Cryptic Studios casts doubt on Champions Online and more!
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