Sunday, April 29, 2012

Falcon Twin

A lonely, withdrawn high-school girl gets teleported to a magical world where she starts getting impressive abilities and vague hints that she'll shape the destiny of... eh, if that sounds familiar it's because half the Japanese comics and anime industry is based on this setup.

Falcon Twin is a finished webcomic. It is a graphic novel, a single story from beginning to end. It is notable for two aspects. Mainly, it takes that "innocent, unlikely heroine saving the world with devotion and compassion" cliche and tears it to tatters, but it also shows great improvement as the artist progresses from awkward sketches to developing an actual style. Compare: better one or two?

Without running headlong into spoiler country, let's just say that by the end it had given me several kinds of "what the hell?" impressions, as well as a good dose of "but what happens with - ?"
The whole thing has some downsides. It will make a much greater impression on those familiar with the anime and fantasy-world tropes that inspired it. It contains gratuitous nudity and sex and more than enough violence to qualify it as a slasher flick, though the violence at least is necessary for its main effect. If you don't mind spoilers or you're not going to read it anyway and just want me to get to the point, highlight the next paragraph.

The heroine discovers that in the new magical world she's entered, she has mysteriously gained amazing fighting abilities and she is somehow also magically gifted to interact with powerful artifacts. She becomes the warrior in a standard RPG adventurer quartet including a wizard, cleric and thief, and starts fixating, romantically, on the (also female) thief. They begin to hunt down an amazingly powerful magic bauble and get into clashes with the villain representing an evil authoritarian regime. The main 'twist' is that the protagonist is an antiheroine. A lifetime of being the lonely, ostracized girl has obviously left her insecure and with a mountain of rage waiting to spill on whoever gets in her way. Her attempts at making things right are hamhandedly brutish and end up creating only more pain to those around her. By the end of the story, despite her childish desperation to secure the thief's affection and everyone's esteem, she only becomes another villain and dies betrayed and abandoned in a fight with her true pair, the main villain. The magical artifact remains lost, the world is un-saved, and all the story told was the fate of a viciously angry lost soul who broke under the pressure of heroism.

I don't know how much of this was intentional. Certainly the basic setup was present from the start, but the author's own comments point to being forced to cut out much of the plot, as it was growing a bit too large of a project. However, in a happy coincidence, any confusion these loose ends might cause only serves to add to the central topsy-turvy effect of the story.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ballad

The macabre can be beautiful. Other than that, it's hard to pin down any description of this comic. It includes a cozy, overtly Edwardian provincial town ruled by the Lord Bogg Noir, vivisection, rebirth, a Lovecraftian library rising out of the depths of the sea, a primitive dragracer, wonderlandish poetry ad-lib and... well, i'd say "you get the idea" but no, you probably don't.
It was sad that Deadmouse, its author, cut things off, but i can venture a guess at the main reason behind the decision. Ballad, in its very scope and detail, probably became too much to handle. Every facet gained a life of its own, every episode unfolded into a separate story. Retying so many threads to continue the tale coherently seems like the work of a lifetime. Already, before its untimely end, the artwork was showing signs of fatigue, getting slightly sketchier. The complaints over the hand-lettering alone must've been more of a headache than it seemed worth.

Still, it's in the nature of many comics, sequential as they are, to be eternally unfinishable. Even without knowing the over-arching purpose of Ballad's second life and the role of anarchy under the rule of Lord Bogg, the imagery of the existing episodes is enjoyable in itself. I suppose it helps that as one whose own thinking tends toward the chaotic, i can appreciate a good scatter-plot.

I do hope at some point to figure out what a Drake worm actually is, though.

___________________________________________

Edit: 2016/01/28
Ballad has been offline for a year or two now. Both moderntales and deadmouse.net are down. It was partly captured by the Wayback Machine, luckily. In another decade this little omage might get another few hits and I might just decide to post all I have saved of the comic. It deserves to be seen. For now, here's just one random page, reposted completely without permission, but with the best of intentions.
Thank you for the lovely work, Deadmouse, whoever and wherever you are.

My MMmanifesto - Crafting and Trading

Player interaction is most obvious when it's direct. The most blatant example is PvP. Nothing says "i'm affecting you" like an axe to the face or a rocket up your tailpipe. Other perennial favorites are purely social, like players chatting or showing off their latest gear. While this is all integral to the virtual world experience, everything is held together by indirect interaction, and this means a thriving in-game economy, the shift of wealth from one player to another through trading and various interdependencies.

The main point with crafting, as with PvE, PvP and everything else about a persistent world, is to integrate it into other player activities. The most important part is not giving players fully-usable items as drops from monsters. Almost everything usable in the game world should be created by players. There is a place for NPC vendors, but only of the lowest importance, as sinks for overflow loot or reliable places to get basic items so that players are never completely cut out of the game by losing their last set of gear. The materials for all those player-crafted goods should come from out in the game world, with everyone competing, peacefully or not, for the best mines, trees and mob spawns.
It goes without saying that 'soulbound' items that can never be used by more than one player have no place in a good MMO. It was only ever an offshoot of the idiotic reliance on repetitive class/level-based gameplay.

The end results of crafting skills should also always be usable. Players should never be 'skilling up' their crafting on piles of worthless items that will just go to NPC vendors. The lower levels of crafting skills should be taken up by modular pieces of finished items. For example, a weapons crafter in a scifi game would not start by making fifty worthless laserguns. He'd skill up by making bullets and coolant tubes. This also covers interdependencies between crafting skills nicely, as for instance a skill tree for spaceship engine manufacture could include at its lower levels skills for making jetpacks, batteries for energy weapons or rockets as ammunition.

The point is to never let players be self-sufficient, and make the flow of goods a major part of the game. Items should not be so expensive that players get attached to them. Instead, they should be mass-produced and degrade with use, with repairs only delaying their inevitable loss.
Players should be able to loot each others' bodies or capture each others' ships, but this should cause some damage to the captured loot, so it does not become a complete replacement for buying crafted goods.
Repairs should be performed by players with the appropriate crafting skill.
Both harvested materials and crafted goods should be bulky, requiring their movement from place to place using cargo ships, ox-carts, or whatever's appropriate for the game's setting, and also requiring storage space in the form of NPC banks or player-built warehouses, storage chests, houses, etc. Teleporting is a big no-no, and i'll have to rail against it separately.
This also brings up the issue of clutter or server load. It means imposing limits on the number of structures players can have at any time and on their proximity to each other. It also means player-built structures should decay over time so that shack built by someone who hasn't logged in for three months doesn't end up taking up space until somebody bothers to take a battering ram to it.
Buying and selling should be facilitated through a market system, and here i really cannot think of anything better than EVE's example. Players should be able to post both 'buy' and 'sell' offers. Whether or not it's feasible to maintain price histories depends on the range of items players can create.

Currency is a thorny issue. Normally, any game has one base currency, and keeping prices stable depends on providing NPC money-sinks and altering the amount of money dropped by mobs. There are other possibilities. For instance, different NPC safe-zones could have their own currencies, allowing for some automatic balancing as players start selling in different towns if one currency becomes devalued. A more advanced system would be allowing players to mint their own currencies, though this would be very difficult to implement, not only because of balancing, but because it would make automated trading much more difficult.
My personal favorite is avoiding a fabricated currency altogether and setting up useful materials as means of exchange, basically linking a barter system into automated trading. For instance, when putting an item up for sale, players could list its price in grass, sand, bone or wood, all of which would be used either in crafting recipes or as basic fuel.


Theft can be included in all this, and the main guideline is that it should never be so profitable that it outshines open PvP. Its results should be limited (for instance picking a player's pockets would only yield a small percentage of loot) and it should be tracked and punished by the game in some way, for instance through NPC guards or magic wards or surveillance devices that can report the act and cause various punishments.

Crafting also extends to large, cooperative projects. They are the pinnacle of a persistent world game because they double as means of controlling portions of the game world. They can take the form of farms or mines that automatically produce some kind of resource when built on top of the appropriate node, player housing that doubles as storage, defensive structures, ships and so forth. Ideally, players could link these together to create entire communities. The cost of their creation and destruction is one of the most difficult questions in terms of game balance, because nothing causes players to quit so reliably as losing the city into which they've invested the past five months of gameplay. The loss must be attenuated in some way, possibly through a refund of resources, and the act of destruction must be less profitable in itself than capturing shipments of goods or looting individual players, to take some of wind out of griefers' sails. Otherwise, the game will be unplayable because of bands of idiots running around doing nothing but knocking down buildings and sinking ships. In order to destroy anything large, players should have to invest in bringing expensive, vulnerable equipment like siege engines to the fight, and some form of protection must be provided against the element of surprise, a delay between the beginning and completion of the destruction. All this, however, depends so much on the individual nature of the game that it's impossible to discuss in general terms.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Savage 2 and Egomania: A Morality Play

Savage: Battle for Newerth (oh it's 'new Earth', iseewhatchadidthere) was an old team FPS/RTS hybrid game of the standard size, about 20-40 players per server. It was quite enjoyable for its time, despite many glitches and balance issues. It featured a vague post-apocalyptic backstory about human civilization collapsing and various beasts achieving intelligence and fighting against the human survivors.
Best of all, the maps were created with this in mind, featuring crumbled stone structures in the middle of wilderness areas and hyena-like humanoids wielding bone clubs fighting against tribal human societies with bows and arrows and rudimentary hand-cannons. Magic played a small part aesthetically, but for the most part it was a steampunk/wilderness mix.

The sequel, Savage 2: A Tortured Soul, which came out a few years ago, was much better in all technical aspects: nice graphics, streamlined update system, integration with the company's website, nice, quick and responsive gameplay mechanics, and balance, balance, balance. There were some useless or overpowered units and abilities from the start, sure, but the dev team was making excellent efforts to knock these into their appropriate places. It had melee-centered units and speedy harasser units, and siege units, the usual RTS mix with all their strengths and weaknesses. Teams won by cooperation, filling whatever roles were needed and launching attacks in unison. It also had a microtransaction system which i've always condemned and this greatly unbalanced things, but it did not entirely kill the game experience.

Now before i go on it should be mentioned that S2Games was a small company. Each individual project was apparently not supervised by any uber-paper-pusher to make sure one catastrophic blunder doesn't wreck the whole thing. It also bears mentioning that one of the developers used the alias 'Maliken' (important plot point, make a note of this). He gained a certain reputation for spouting all the usual macho redneck trashtalk when he occasionally visited servers. He also may have been the head of the project or the company itself, i forget. Moving along.

Savage 2 dropped the steampunk/tribal feel almost entirely. Magic, in the new setting, was abundant, which meant a lot more flashing, colored light effects, and players could use units like something stitched together from corpses or a giant flaming demon with a big honkin' sword. The new backstory centered on one 'Maliken Grimm' (yes for some reason he's sporting a fu manchu) an all-purpose mystical 'badass dude' again with a big honkin' sword, who travels to hell and sparks a demonic invasion... or something, honestly, i lost track at about the third cliche.

Now, so far, we're just talking aesthetics, and while angry nerds like me will complain, it would hardly kill a game. No, here's the hilarious part. Just as the game was getting its stride, balancing things out, removing most of the bugs, gaining customers worldwide steadily if not rapidly, a new unit was introduced: Maliken. You could now gather items during a match and piece them together to spawn as the legendary badass dude himself. And dude, was he ever badass. His badassitude (badassness?) cannot be overstated. He had more health, more spells, more armour and probably a bigger dick, he could out-damage almost everything in melee and everything else at range, he could teleport, he could knock down buildings, he could heal himself, long story short, the first team to get a Maliken won. Why? 'Cause he's Maliken, dumbass, he's like, awesome! Players could even emote "Maliken RUUUULES!"

The game quickly and predictably devolved into a race to the overpowered. There was absolutely nothing to do but get a maliken on your team, or you'd lose. This meant that even for the dumbest insecure brats looking to play a 'badass dude' and kill everything in their path, the game got stale after a few plays through the same predictable match outcome. Now, you'd think that by the time the angry nerds like me started abandoning the game, a couple of weeks after the unit was put in, the developers would backpedal and remove the stupid ego-trip that was destroying their product, but the situation apparently lasted for months. The game lost almost all its customer base, to the point of struggling to keep a single server filled in each hemisphere.

Epilogue:
The devs did eventually remove the Maliken unit from the game, and the emote referencing him changed to "Maliken ruuuuules... my plant garden". I don't know whether they fired him, demoted him or just hit him with a rolled-up newspaper but i wouldn't blame them if they did mutiny and make him walk the metaphorical plank. In desperation to regain their customer base, they had to remove the $20 initial cost of the game and make it free to play, charging only to 'upgrade' to the full version which included access to the big flaming demon unit and i forget what else, and making a bit of money from players who use the legitimized cheating (microtransactions). Still, by the time it recovered most of its players, Savage 2 was old news, its hype burnt out. It's limped along since then, managing to fill a few servers consistently, but never reaching anywhere near the popularity it could've had.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My MMmanifesto - Quests

Quests drive single-player games. Players drive a virtual world. There is little or no room for quests in an MMO.

Here i should clarify a certain distinction. There is such a thing as cooperative PvE. This is what most people picture when they think of MMO gameplay. You gather a group of players, go inside an instance and play through various fights requiring you to use interdependencies built into your character classes in various scripted PvE encounters.
I'm willing to bet this sort of thing can be achieved without a monthly fee. Certainly it doesn't cost $15/month. We're talking about 5-man teams, or at most 40-man raids. Servers on this scale have been used for FPS games for well over a decade and they never required a subscription.
You could build a game around this easily. Create a series of maps or zones for players to fight through, linked by quests and cutscenes and whatever flavoring you want to invest in. Give players chat rooms to bullshit each other in with their avatars represented, a la Diablo 2. At no point does any of this require a persistent world, and it can be thoroughly enjoyable gameplay in itself. This sort of game is not my concern here.

Players drive a persistent world. Quests are counterproductive because they separate individuals or small groups. Get players interested in each others' stories, get them interested in what's happening across the landscape. Don't ever tell them "go over there and kill ten rats". The driving force of quests should be replaced by the demands players make on each other. An attack on one of your clan's holdings is a quest to defend it. An enemy clan claiming a metal ore mine is a quest to conquer it. A market order from another player for goblin eyeballs is a quest to hunt goblins and your empty quiver is a quest to travel to town and buy some arrows.
Put NPC town criers or datalink newsfeeds into the game to notify players of random events in the game world. Put articles and interviews up on your game's website about player activities, like EVE has been doing.


Never, and i mean never, put cutscenes into an MMO. That sort of theatricality is very useful in single player as a replacement for exactly the kind of varied player theatrics you should be encouraging online. Use the landscape and game mechanics to prompt players to create their own impressions instead. Arrange the terrain at the approach to a castle to make it impressively postcard-pretty. Let players build lookout towers with telescopes to watch the approach of an enemy army. Put in a little pause before various stages of a castle siege to give everyone a chance to shout 'yo momma !' at each other. Let defeated players haunt their killers a little while, whispering curses into their ears and distorting their game client's graphics.

There is a small role for traditional quests in a persistent world, but it's as small diversions or long-term, vague over-arching tasks. Drop a few NPCs into the game world, captured by other mobs, that can be rescued. Have an NPC ask for the blood of a dragon hatchling when nobody knows when and where a dragon will nest, having players just keep a lookout for the opportunity. Never make quests into specific, immediate tasks to save the thoughtless from realizing they're incapable of planning. Force players to figure out for themselves what they want to do at every moment.

Part of the role of quests could conceivably be filled by GMs, assuming we're not cutting costs by keeping as few of them on staff as possible. There are endless ways a GM could make players' lives more interesting, from spawning as a dragon or other gigantic monster and terrorizing the countryside or staging an assassination attempt against the leader of a powerful player clan to starting secret cabals in abandoned cellars in various player cities, instigating revolts and having players perform intricate, large-scale rituals, to taking the role of gods and bestowing blessings in return for sacrifices. There are a lot of thorny issues involved like costs and fairness or favoritism, but the potential is also so much higher than the eternal
"kill ten rats"

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Calling all numerologists

It's been four days again.

Months ago, when i first started this blog, i noticed my own tendency to post something every four days. I shrugged it off as coincidence but kept finding myself returning four days after the fact with a renewed drive to bitch and moan at the world. I tried shaking it, steeled myself to post something earlier or later than i'd planned but kept either procrastinating for a day or getting inspired a day earlier.

What mysterious circa-quator-diem rhythm have i stumbled upon? Is there some strange simian vitriolic prose urge passed down from when our tree-dwelling ancestors would gather every four days for the ceremonial poop-flinging festival?

Or am i just crazier than i think i am?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My MMmanifesto - "no classes, no levels"

The popular-wisdom reply to "what's an RPG" is likely to run along the lines of "well, it's a game where you pick a class that does one thing better than other classes like healing or shooting arrows and you get experience from killing monsters that give you magic items and when you have enough experience you level up and get stronger."

This is basically a description of Dungeons and Dragons. That's wonderful. It worked for Dungeons and Dragons. Unfortunately, because of D&D's success, we've had decades of companies thoughtlessly copycatting these ideas like classes, experience and 'leveling up' into computer games that share the superficial RPG label regardless of whether or not they fit into the new designs. As far as MMOs go, there is a large portion of their core following which has for the past decade been requesting various features like the ability to build their own houses and cities in the game world, mobs that do more than stand around waiting to get killed, quests a bit more complex than "kill ten rats" or a player-driven in-game economy. Though particulars vary from year to year and game to game, the list of requests is likely to be topped by "no classes, no levels" because these two so-called features are blatantly extraneous to the basic idea of a persistent world.

Levels are, in fact, unnecessary for computer games overall. Certainly, it's a very useful number-crunching crutch in pen-and-paper RPGs, a low-digit determinant of anything pertaining to a character's stats. For a computer that can randomize the hydrogen atoms in a cubic light-year of space every three seconds, levels are about as necessary and useful as dice.
This is so far ignoring the difference between single and multi-player. In a single-player game, levels are just extraneous. These RPGs are generally story-based and fairly linear, and the player levels up as the game moves along. For a persistent world, they are counterproductive. Every game that has levels has to be split into low-level and high level areas. For one thing this restricts player choice. At level 37 everyone needs to be in the level 30-40 zone. There is less room for player populations to spread out naturally simply by avoiding overcrowding. It also ends up leaving large portions of the game world depopulated, as players crowd into only the highest-level areas. You end up with large empty stretches of the game world that still have to be maintained by the company, content that customers pay to maintain online even as they are denied access to it because they're the wrong level.
There is nothing aside from their own mental inertia to prevent game designers from trickling in character advancement without using levels. Instead of one overall experience/level bar, give players skill increases for using each particular skill or let them buy whatever magic spells they want from trainers when they want to. In a pen-and-paper RPG this would be a game-stopping hassle, writing down a skill increase every few seconds and keeping track of individual strengths for each skill, but for a computer it's a drop in the bucket.

Classes, on the other hand can be quite useful for single-player RPGs. They provide replay value and shape the player's moral choices to some extent. For a persistent world, though, replay value comes from player interaction and this also defines the player's moral choices. Moreover, while a pen-and-paper gaming group will stop and choose their character classes beforehand, creating a viable team, players are supposed to mix freely by the hundreds in a persistent world. Player populations are predictably unbalanced. One of the constant problems in class-based so-called MMOs is the game-ending "we can't find a tank." What's more, a regular team's RPG lasts for a few quests, but a persistent world is supposed to be, well, persistent. We're talking years and years of being unable to do anything because you can never find a particular class to fill out your team.
I'm not saying that players should have complete freedom, lacking any identity for their characters, but there should be some mutability involved. Moreover, this is so blatantly obvious that games try to bank on the necessity for more flexibility by making alternate characters a part of the game, making players run through the entire levelling treadmill, through the same static content as a new class over and over again. There is no reason not to simply throw  out the classes and let players choose what skills they want to combine.

The funniest part is that levels and classes are often used as each others' justification. We need classes so that players will use the low-level content more than once - or - we need levels because it's the primary mode of advancing class skills. Two wrongs don't make a right; get rid of both.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My MMmanifesto - PvE

Farming.
Wait, no. Kill ten rats! Nonono, wait, that's not it either. Well, it has something to do with hitting pixelated goblins on the head with a magic sword, but aside from that, what's the role of PvE in a game that's defined by player interaction?

The main point of it is to provide excuses for that interaction. Here we're getting into a lot of issues that stem from the transition from single to multi-player games. There are many features that were just carried over seemingly without thought to whether they fit into the social setting of a virtual world. Levels, classes and quests i'll deal with in other posts, but the main point here is the necessary shift away from the focus on making fights against AI interesting.

In a persistent world, the point of killing a mob is not the fight itself. It's the reward. Mobs should be varied, with varied abilities and a great deal of randomization. There will inevitably be a lot of farming, and one way to spice it up is by giving mobs rare abilities they only use once in a blue moon. They should generally not be just sitting around waiting for players to come smack them over the head, but wandering around on their own agendas. The population of mobs in a an area should vary, possibly based on player actions. This is in part the replacement for the complexity of individual fights in single-player, keeping things fresh, but it also keeps players moving and interacting, and helps even out the natural imbalance between larger and smaller player groups.

I've been presenting the ideal persistent world as PvP-centered, with destructible player-built structures like houses or entire cities. Larger groups of players (zerg guilds) will inevitably be more powerful than smaller ones and will be more able to secure profitable resources like mines or forests. This is desirable in itself as a reward for organization, but it cannot be allowed to progress to the level of an actual victory where one group of players chokes off all the resources in the game world. The balance can be attained through the difference between static and mobile resources. Shifting, traveling mob populations shift out of the control of zerg guilds and provide smaller groups of players opportunities for lucrative hunting.

As far as individual fights against monsters go, variety is more important than complexity or challenge. PvE should not advance to the point where players spend all their time in attempt after attempt at defeating the same raid boss, cut off from the rest of the game world.Certainly some monsters should be harder than others, some encounters should require large groups of players to defeat, but they should not require them to focus exclusively on that one encounter until it becomes necessary to segregate them into instances so they can do it in peace.
It's difficult to say what PvE should look like because as long as it feeds into the player crafting economy or affects the game world and doesn't interfere with player interaction, every addition, every variation is beneficial to the game.

- Hordes of mindless zombies shambling around waiting to get shot
- Skittish, fleet-footed deer that run away form players and have to be driven into traps
- Bloodthirsty sharks that can be lured by leaving an unlooted fish carcass in the water
- Devilish trickster mobs that pop out and nuke players to death in random places
- Monster villages waiting to get cleared out
- Invasions that deny players access to certain resources or NPC cities until enough people band together to end the infestation
- Buffalo herds migrating across the landscape as gigantic bait for players to compete over
- Giants or dragons rampaging through the countryside destroying everything in their path
- Mobs that hunt other mobs, competing with players and requiring extermination

Honestly, as long as it doesn't become a minigame unto itself, sky's the limit.

It's just a game

Yes, while i'm here, writing this, the game is just a game. When you're bullshitting with your little buddies at the mall, games are just games.
However, when you're in the game, the game is all that matters. You play for the objectives and you play as well as you can. You help your team without any regard to your own individual success.
Don't ever justify incompetence by trivializing the activity, no matter what it is.

Monday, April 16, 2012

My MMmanifesto - PvP

The importance of PvP to an MMO is serving as a driving force, as an endlessly renewable vehicle for the rest of the action in the game world. Yes, we're back to that 'coherence' thing. If done right, it is a much cheaper way of creating varied content than PvE because of the lesser predictability of the players themselves. It is also the most straightforward form of player interaction.

The problem is usually that PvP is introduced as 'a feature', just one more activity for players to indulge in, separate from all else. It has no point. This appeals only to the idiotic masses who go in for the sadism of ganking as a reward in itself or for the endless dick-measuring contest of who won such-and-such duel. It's as if soldiers were shooting each other in the real world just so they can yell "lulz dood i totally fragged u ur noob omg" across the trenches. Building a PvP-centered game means building a world in which players have something to fight over, in which they are competing for resources or for goals greater than self-aggrandizement.

There are two basic variants for PvP in a persistent world: freeform and faction-centered.

Freeform is the closest to the 'sandbox' ideal and it's the one i generally push whenever i talk about a persistent world. The world is filled with resources. In the standard fantasy setting this means there are animals walking around waiting to be killed and skinned for body parts which can be made into various usable goods. There are trees that can be chopped down, seams of metal ore to be mined, bodies of water to be fished, unique monsters to track down for unique crafting components, etc. The trick is being the one to get access to those resources while being vulnerable to attack at any time. The megalomaniacal dream of becoming a big cheese of an ever-growing group of players rests on building cities, houses, ships, blimps, whatever your programmers can cook up, but that in turn has to rest on securing the resources for all that PvE through PvP, which is in turn fueled by PvE crafting of weapons and armour, food and spell reagents, padlocks and lockpicks, all of which is in turn fueled by smaller-scale PvP... dear sweet morning-star, please tell me there are at least some of my fellow apes that can understand this pattern.
The 'story' of that MMO becomes the expansion and shifts of power between various player groups. Your personal character advancement is the role you play in that competition. I remember a PvE player (only interested in trading) in EVE saying "and then such-and-such war started and my friend and i just cashed in on running ships, guns and minerals to the borders of both alliances, easy money". A good PvP-centered game creates its own demand for PvE.

There is an alternative, which i'm not quite so big a fan of because it's less grandiose, less complex, and that's the pure PvP game, logically (though i suppose not necessarily) centered on faction combat. At character creation, players choose a faction to join and fight against the others. This is basically a team PvP game taken to MMO proportions and it's already been done, with some success. Planetside provided excellent examples of both good and bad features of the concept, the worst of which are the difficulty of creating group identity within the larger faction and the lack of personal choice. Still, the 'massive' aspect is there, as hundreds of players at once shift across the map trying to take various objectives based on their strategic importance to their faction.

In any case, the worst excuse for PvP is the half-hearted attempt to slap something on top a PvE game just to be able to advertise that you're offering PvP. For one thing, the game mechanics are very different. Crowd control is more important for PvE because it can easily become overpowered or have to be nerfed for PvP. Movement speed changes, on the other hand, are easily overpowered in PvE but crucial to PvP. A game system that tries to mix the two will predictably make neither side completely happy. Sacrifices have to be made.
A PvP-centered game can have plenty of PvE, but it won't have those highly complex 40-player fights against 'raid bosses' where every player has his particular role to fill.
On the other hand, PvP in a PvE game is pretty much pointless. All of the player abilities are likely designed to make things interesting against monster AI, but that means little tricks like incapacitating something for 30 seconds will be impossible to balance against other players, and aggro management will end up serving no purpose. PvPing ends up meaning playing a gutted, simplified but still unbalanced version of the PvE portion of the game, usually in an 'arena' or 'battleground' that has no connection to anything else. Anyone with more than half a brain can see you can get better gameplay on the same scale in any Counterstrike or Quake ripoff.

addendum:
It goes without saying that there is no place for PvP rankings in an MMO, nor for PvP rewards. The rewards are the resources to which your player group gets access for winning the fight. If there was nothing to fight over, no resource node or rare animal to skin, there should be no reward. Rankings are just an idiotic dick-measuring contest that belongs only in deathmatch FPS games, never in team games. An MMO is about the world itself, not the individual players.

addendum the secondum:
PvP mechanics also concern the game engine. Companies are used to graphics as the biggest selling point, but for a PvP game, responsiveness is crucial. Even though an MMO likely will not anywhere in the near future provide twitch-gaming because of increased lag, the players must still be able to quickly and reliably control their characters' movements. Regardless of whether or not they're pretty, the graphics must scale smoothly with increasing numbers of players in an area, and all effects, icons, character details and so forth must be created to be first of all recognizable and provide feedback. You have to be able to instantly see whether your enemy has drawn a sword or a bow or whether your fireball was resisted or not, and this feedback must not interfere with any of the rest of the mountain of information on your screen. Low-key, simple graphics are often the best way to go.
To spell it out even more clearly, developers, you can save some money on the most expensive part of the game. Please. Skimp on the graphics.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dark Days Are Coming

The crucial aspect about the release of The Secret World is its place in the greater shambles of online games. It is the first in years to be in the unique position in which World of Warcraft found itself at its debut. There are a lot of players online tired of the-same-old-thing and ready to expand their horizons, the company has the funding to support a true persistent world and it has an existing playerbase, both low and high-class from its previous games while not making TSW the next in a series. It even promises players something new.
Of course, WoW also had the same freedom and funding and chose the mass-appeal course, but in their case the temptation (justified somewhat by their insane success) of being the first MMO to break onto the mass market was much greater. Now that's been done and that pie has much fewer, smaller pieces left, one can only hope that TSW's developers will feel a somewhat stronger pull towards quality.

It's a modern-day MMO. Look, ma, no elves! Good.
It has a relatively mature look to it. Almost no attempts to draw in the under-ten crowd. Better.
Instead of macho military tropes or elves and orcs, it went for a Lovecraftian dark fantasy setting.
Better and better, but wait, there's more.
Aside from other hype, there is one quality of the game that sells it to a small following, and its name is Ragnar Tornquist. He's the one who managed to make a name for himself with something as simplistic as an old point-and-click adventure/puzzle game, The Longest Journey. He is now the 'creative director' for an MMO, and whatever that means aside from having his name appended to it, it's a good sign that FunCom would even want what passes for 'artsy' street cred among computer gamers associated with such a large project.

There are, of course, many issues remaining. The Longest Journey deserves its own blog post, but suffice to say it's fans know that that its creator is capable of giving us an immersive world and interesting characters. Regardless of his indulgent art-student conceit, the man can create atmosphere. This is, unfortunately, not much of a guarantee when it comes to an MMO. I know Tornquist can create a world, but i'm not sure he can create a game.
All the niggling details and gigantic flaws that i keep ranting about in my ongoing manifesto are still up in the air, all the gameplay issues of failing to link player activities together, of centering an interactive game not on interaction and group goals but on repetition and individual self-aggrandizement. FunCom promises much of what i and other players have demanded. It won't be a real persistent world, that's unfortunately already certain, but they're at least paying lip-service to its core nerdy audience's "no classes, no levels" demands and the more mature setting i mentioned above. Still, realistically, it is likely that the company will go for the tested method of fighting for a piece of WoW's customer base instead of trying something new. The game can still be expected to slide downwards into simplicity and complacency. Gotta keep in mind, this is the same company that put out Age of Conan, of all nonsense.

What can i say. I'm jumping right back in and getting my heart broken by another MMO. I've pre-ordered the stupid thing.
I couldn't help it. The videos just look sofreakinCOOL!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

24% more fun by volume than your average-sized barrel of monkeys

I keep running across this amusing attempt to quantify the entertainment value of a computer game by listing the number of ... things... it contains.
57 different classes!
432 different spells!
15 kinds of animals you can ride around!
728 pokey-men!

The funniest comment was by a player on the boards off the then-unreleased Darkfall. Sure they'll have a thousand different spells. You got your magic missile, then lesser magic missile, greater magic missile, lesserer magic missile, greaterer....etc.

Honestly, there are plenty of examples which avoid that redundancy while still offering excellent replay value because of the varied interaction of their few elements. Demigod and Savage 2 jump to mind.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Shipping News (and another crackpot theory)

Headline: damaged misfits find new lease on life

I'm ashamed to say i've never read the book. I'm talking about the movie. In particular, i find it a nice example of the ability to create a sense of physical presence, of solid reality of the world on screen. There is a slight theatrical exaggeration throughout that emphasizes the contact between objects, limited to one distinct effect in each otherwise static scene: water flowing from a car being pulled out of a river, rain beating against an actor's face, a character's footsteps crunching on frosted-over grass through another's monologue, and of course taut cables singing in a strong offshore wind.

It reminds me of a crazy theory i had once that most good directors share the peculiarity of being strong tactile thinkers (yes i take credit for making that up), of interpreting physical contact in all its attendant sensory details, and this is the best point of many of the best movies, the visceral quality lent to scenes on a flat screen. Of course, knowing nothing at all about film-making, it could just as well be the seventh cameraman from the right that's creating that effect.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Video killed the typewriter star

I am sick of this trend.
I can barely get info on any game without having to download some video narrated by a nasal-voiced code-monkey trying to sound macho and nonchalant.
Get this straight: i can read. Can any of you cardboard diploma cubicle-fillers write?

One page of text - how is your game like all the others and how is it unlike all the others?  What are you selling?
'Cause a video of some schmuck trying to sound cool and create hype is not what i'm looking to spend money on.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sinfest

A heartwarming tale of redemption and the human spirit.
Well, no, not really. More like an angry nerd poking fun at the self-imposed human condition. Start out with a character selling his soul for the promise of a 'supermodel sandwich' and go from there. It's all about considering your options. The strip is running out of steam as the author ages, losing some of his feistiness. The elements are all the same as they were from the start: general goofiness, bitter political attacks, lots of fun poked at various religious mentalities, and a bit of personal drama, but mostly foibles, lots of foibles. It's only the proportions that have vastly changed, moving more and more towards a melodrama based on what was once sinfest... which is not bad. He's doing a nice job of mixing humor with a bit of character development.

The only major issue is the feminist bias that appears as you go through the later archives. From earlier jokes at the expense of both men and women, ridiculing both male and female instinct driven behaviors, the strip has fallen into the modern-day politically correct pattern of portraying men as vicious, brutish oppressors and women as sugar and spice, enlightened, faultless earth mothers who only ever err by siding with male viewpoints. The author exchanged much of his balanced Buddha nature for his own character Seymour's hollow righteousness in obedience to a supposedly higher power.

As to what that power may be, his own answer is staring him right in the face.

Friday, April 6, 2012

My MMmanifesto - Coherence

Coherence in a game world refers both to functionality and atmosphere. MMOs, more than other games, are susceptible to the 'customer's always right' syndrome. Instead of releasing a finished product, developers are constantly making changes, which is wonderful... in theory. In practice, rather than expanding content based on what would logically fit into the design of their product, developers try to cater to every whim of every single knuckle-dragging troglodyte who starts spamming their forums demanding such-and-such alteration or he'll cancel his subscription. Over time, this of course has a lowest-common-denominator trend, but the side effects are also interesting.
For one thing, it is impossible to fool all of the people all of the time. Players' demands are predictably self-serving. Swashbucklers will demand that their bucklers be overpowered and fireball fans will demand bigger explosions. This is not only a matter of balance, but of ruining the game's diversity. If any option is overpowered, it will be overplayed, and games become pointlessly monotonous when everyone is only using the flavor of the month class or template. The corollary here is an easy way to spot an imbalance in any pvp game: if anything is overplayed, it is likely overpowered.

Overall though, the two main issues are atmosphere and fragmenting the player base, and both are best illustrated by some wrong choices.

Lord of the Rings Online
This game's selling point is middle-earth. It contains, along with City of Heroes, one of the highest proportions of players who, if not for the appeal of comic books or LotR, would never have bothered playing online. One caveat is the limited variety of mobs, weapons and special effects. Tolkien, being no idiot, had a good feel for the necessity for contrast and maintained most aspects of middle-earth utterly mundane in order to offset the more magical parts of the story. For the designers of an MMO based mostly on farming endless hordes of trivial mobs, this is somewhat limiting, and at the start of the game there was at least one reviewer who characterized the gameplay as 'pigs gone wild' because of the sheer number of wild boars players had to slice through. In an attempt to cater to a wider audience, starting with the 'Mines of Moria' expansion, the game got more and more of the elements so popular with its competitors: glowing weapons, devils, a class that constantly shoots fireballs, and especially, flashier artwork. All of a sudden, it was not enough to fight orcs, they had to be flaming orcs with giant spikes growing out of their shoulders. It wasn't enough to have giant spiders, they had to get bigger and bigger until even mundane encounters can dwarf old Shelob.
If your game's selling point is giving players a chance to wander through middle-earth, you are shooting yourself in the foot by suddenly transporting them into a Saturday-morning cartoon. Pick one central aesthetic and build on that.

A Tale in the Desert
This game was based on the quaintness of building civilization from mud and flax, and its freeform... form. Some of the changes made to it over the years directly undermined this. There was no reason for a level system, and even less than no reason for players to 'level up' in a ridiculous "highlander" lightning strike. There was no reason to remove the stereotyped ancient Egypt player avatars and building aesthetics. Ignore whatever harebrained complaints you receive from some self-styled Egyptian anti-defamation league. Pleasing a few nutjobs is not worth gutting the game's personality.

EVE-Online
Its best feature was how well it integrated player activities into the in-game economy. It was a perfect example of the right way to handle divergent demands from players. Some were pacifists, some wanted to hunt for deals on the market, others wanted to hunt pacifists. In its original form, the game could handle this because all these disparate activities were interdependent and linked together through the crafting and market systems. Killing NPCs yielded money, miners provided raw materials for ship construction, PvPers acted as bodyguards. Player societies developed based on interdependence, and the second worst trend in the game (after multiple accounts) was refusing to capitalize on that pattern. It was a mistake to have NPCs drop more raw materials, or putting in more missions that players could run in perfect safety without worrying about pvp. It was a mistake to put in wormholes to allow players to mine rare minerals without worrying about being discovered by patrolling griefers. It was a mistake to put in more and more specialized types of ships that pigeonholed players into one particular role. Making soloing easier and more beneficial than grouping, making players self-sufficient is counterproductive to a multiplayer game. It doesn't matter how many people whined that they wanted more loot for mindlessly cycling through NPC targets or that they didn't want to have to depend on others for protection while they mined. Giving them the soloing they wanted removed them from the player community anyway, regardless of whether they kept their subscriptions active or not.

Planetside
I cannot fathom the thoughtless process that led to the 'Core Combat' expansion.The appeal of the game was its gigantic, continent-spanning battles full of multi-occupant vehicles, and some cretin decides the expansion should focus on separating players into caves where they chase each other down one by one on foot. The worst part is that of course, there were many players who did go for this, which removed many participants from main portion, the actual game itself, undermining those wonderful gigantic battles full of planes and tanks. Utterly idiotic.

A constant example of an addition that subtracts more than it adds to a game is seasonal content. It is a weak attempt to cover up the monotony of the actual game by tacking on something completely extraneous somewhere in there to distract players. "Ok, so they never did balance the classes, the new zone is still not ready, pvp is still pointless, but we can go fishing and yaaaaay, Santa Claus is in town!" I refer you to my earlier "Saturday-morning cartoon" comment.

PvP is a third and very touchy issue that ties into this topic, but since it warrants its own post, i will only say that slapping some sorry excuse for PvP on a game that was not designed for it only wastes development time and money. Actual PvPers will not be content with it and PvErs will make no use of it. Good examples of bad attempts here would be LOTRO and City of Heroes. Even worse are the ones that had a chance and made a pretty strong investment in it but stopped and fell back to appeasing all players instead of centering the game on PvP, like WoW, Warhammer Online or Rift.

edit: I almost forgot the most famous example, Ultima Online, because i never played it myself. Supposedly, at one point, the game was split into PvP and PvE servers. Gankers suddenly had nobody to supply them and farmers had no point to their farming. Both sides got bored and left.

Overall, the main point is to stick to the core principles of whatever world you're designing. In MMOs, this also means tying everything back into the multiplayer aspect. Every player activity should relate somehow to the development of the world at large. Don't give a player money for killing a deer. Give him meat that has to be cooked and bones that have to be sharpened into arrowheads. Don't let a miner carry fifty swords' worth of metal ore back to town himself. Make him depend on another player with a wheelbarrow. Don't give a single player both the ability to kill and the ability to get away simply because he wants to be the ultimate ganker. Make him depend on others to cover his retreat. Don't put a separate pvp area in one spot and a separate mining area in another and a separate mob-farming area in another.
Don't split your game world into mini-games.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My MMmanifesto - About Sandboxes

My ranting about a persistent virtual world matches to a great extent what some others might call a 'sandbox MMO'. This is opposed to a 'theme-park MMO'.
In this rather obscure terminology, a theme-park is a game in which you go on whatever rides are available, keeping your limbs inside at all times, stand in line with everyone else, etc. It describes part of the marketing scheme of WoW-clones, where at level 10 you do instance XYZ, then at level 20 you do instance ZYX. Every so often the developers release a new instance, and everyone stands in line to ride the new attraction. It's a game in which you do what you're ordered to.
A sandbox would be a game in which you can do whatever you want: build a castle, tear one down, steal the other kid's shovel. It does not altogether match what i mean by a virtual world because i think players have a tendency to take it to extremes. A persistent world game should be for the most part rid of goals but it does need rules. It may be an open-ended game but it still has to be a game. There have to be ways to get richer or poorer, activities other than social which can be failed or succeeded.
A good example of the disparity in these ideas would be Second Life, which i have never felt inclined to even try based on everything i've heard about it, because, while it truly is a sandbox allowing players the greatest freedom, it is not a game, and it lacks the conceptual coherence of a world.

My MMmanifesto - fundamentals

The first principle of creating an MMO is a focus on the game world. The logical selling point, the real potential of a persistent virtual world is that world itself. This is what it can offer when compared to any other type of entertainment. The conflict arises from customers' demand to be allowed to win, because they play whatever they do only if it makes them feel big. A good MMO would have a much smaller audience, based on those willing to take a personal loss and find their entertainment from something other than dick-measuring contests or winning mini-games with stacked odds.
A good MMO would make its customers feel small.

You can get some sense of it in EVE-Online. Mine asteroids for a week, build yourself a shiny new spaceship, take it for a spin, then zoom out... and out, and out, until your grand achievement is nothing but an insignificant speck lost among the stars, in the black. Load your week's worth of oxygen-rich ice into a cargo ship and lug it for half an hour to a trading hub, and find yourself lost among the endless swarm of players carrying their own goods. See your effort dwarfed by the scope of the game itself, but at the same time intersecting, affecting all around you.

Log into A Tale in the Desert. Spend an hour picking up blades of grass and planting onions to feed your couple of sheep. Then move outside your little yard and pass your neighbour's house, the one who traded you the bricks for your sheep-fold, and pass the monument built by the crazy architect down the street. Get lost in the changes, in the impact of every other player on your surroundings. So-and-so has a new beehive, whatsername is planting flax again and the-other-guy has a whole new wing on his house (it looks garish and tasteless). Walk for an hour out into the desert looking for spare clumps of vegetation where you might find rare herbs, and stumble onto a whole isolated compound of houses tucked away in some valley, then realize these are the people who sold you the mushrooms and camel-milk you ate yesterday. Walk into a new region and find all new people changing the world around them, and visitors from the other direction, travelers from just as far away as you, aliens you'll never meet again from up in the hills, to whom you can trade papyrus for copper.

A good virtual world has no clear-cut goals. The goal, if you were to try thinking of one, is world domination, but the point of the game is playing your part in the conflicts or great works of the players around you. Bad MMOs give you orders.  They put shiny map markers everywhere to tell you where to go. They put flashing signs up above the heads of NPCs to tell you to talk to them so they can order you what to do. At every turn, every time you kill ten rats which will respawn again in thirty seconds, the game tells you you're a world-saving hero, thank you, thank you oh great one, and by the way your farts smell like roses. Bad MMOs limit the scope of your actions by locking you into instances and tasking you with farming for petty personal goals so that you never have to feel insignificant by being dwarfed by the world around you, and by doing so they make your actions even less significant. A good MMO would let you make your mark on the world, then show you how small a mark it is.

I've said in a previous post that the key missing element in virtual worlds is interaction, and this interaction is embodied by the game world itself. It is your ability to, say, chop down a tree and have it grow back only slowly, changing the landscape for any player who passes that spot. It's your ability to kill off the entire sheep population in an area to corner the market on wool, then lose your monopoly when some enterprising young sailor ships it over from the northern isles, or have your guild find a rich source of iron and build a shanty town to exploit it that gets torn down by a horde of looters who caught wind of your wealth.
And it will get torn down. In order to allow players to change the game world, an MMO also has to allow for others to undo those changes. This usually means PvP, though A Tale in the Desert makes a good case out of law enforcement as an alternative. It means that players should be allowed to kill each other, steal from each other, tear down each others' houses, capture or raze entire cities. Yes, this means that balance and arbitration become crucial. No group of players can ever be allowed to completely squeeze out all others. It means the game world must be carefully tailored or constantly re-sized to allow people to escape each others' influence for variable periods of time, and it implies a certain lawlessness that forces the players themselves to interact and organize for protection. It has been done, at least as proof-of-concept. Ultima Online, Asheron's Call and Shadowbane all supposedly had some decent attempts at it, and from my own experience, i can cite Planetside, A Tale in the Desert and especially EVE. For all its myriad failures, EVE did create vast areas of the game world that were completely lawless, profitable, and exploited by large, powerful groups of players. Their word was law within their territories, and even being caught trespassing was grounds for summary execution or being marked for death anywhere you go by a hundreds-strong alliance.

No game, however, has ever capitalized on this potential of virtual worlds. Every time, they have fallen back to giving players more clear-cut 'missions' or 'quests' to allow them to play without thinking. Every time, they have given players more safe areas where they can get rich without risking anything, and have thereby wrecked the in-game economy. Every time, they have started putting players into smaller and smaller instances that have no effect on anything else.

The concept of an MMO, of a persistent virtual world capable of housing thousands of players all interacting indirectly, has never succeeded or failed as far as i know, because it has never truly been attempted. All we've ever had on the market is an endless string of abortions.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A prelude to commenting on The Secret World and my demands from MMOs

(and also an unnecessarily long title)
(reminds me of those old-timey novel chapter subtitles: "Post 62, wherein our valiant hero, having set forth to right the wrongs of the world of virtual worlds, reminisces about his past adventures battling the hordes of the simpleminded")

For some years now, i've been going on and on about everything that's wrong with MMOs to anyone unlucky enough to pretend to listen, but i've never really put together a coherent list of demands. The closest i came was a few years ago on the forums of a game supposedly coming out this summer, The Secret World. This is one of a long series of games that have a chance to finally deliver the features which long-time players have been requesting for... well, a long time.

I posted this in a thread someone started about general feature requests for MMOs. Without further ado, i proudly present draft -1 of my MMO manifesto.

Let's describe a few ideal MMO conditions here. I'm pretending that someone at Funcom is actually reading this thread and noticing that there is a market for quality games, not just flashy ones.

1. No instancing. I'm paying you $15/month to play in a persistent world with thousands (or at least hundreds) of other players, not farm the same instance 50 times over in a 5-man group. If Sony could do it with Planetside, 5 years ago, you can do it now.

2. No treadmill. There's grinding and there's grinding. In WoW (the real Diablo 3), you farm instance after instance just to maintain the effectiveness of the gear you have. In EVE, you farm asteroids for a month, but when you're done, you've actually built a gigantic ship that opens up new tactical options. You're not just "keeping up with the Joneses." WoW=bad, EVE=good

3. "kill 10 rats in my basement" is not a "quest". "Find the golden fleece", or "Destroy the ring of power" now THAT's a Quest. Something which includes travel, information-gathering, cooperation with other players, and yes, the occasional rat-hunt.

4. Either build the game with PvP in mind or do not implement PvP. Even if you make it fully optional, it will still turn out to be a joke. See City of Heroes or even WoW in its current form. Some game concepts work better as purely cooperative playstyles. TSW, with its supposed slant towards puzzles, secrets, and meta-plot, definitely strikes me as one of them. Learn from "A Tale in the Desert", if you have anyone at Funcom who played it during its golden age. It had some very good ideas.

5. No classes. Yes, i know they've already been implemented. It's a mistake. The nuker/tank/healer triad has been done to death. Try something new. For god's sake, even Counterstrike was more flexible than that.

6. No levels. Another mistake. What you're doing is basically wasting content. Half your game will go largely unused because max-level characters do not go into newbie zones. Again, take your cue from EVE or Planetside. They allowed for character development while still letting new players jump right in with the big boys and fight in the same areas. They also made the starting areas useful to even the most advanced players, as trading hubs or staging areas for invasions.

7. The in-game economy should be player-driven. That means crafting-driven, and that means resource gathering, both from static and non-static sources. (Nodes and mobs). No fully-functional item drops from monsters. This also means that the results of low-level crafting should be useful, possibly as modular pieces of higher-level crafting recipes. No pointless "skilling up" of crafting abilities. There is only one MMO that i know of that almost got all this right, and that's EVE.

8. Non-static game world. Players should be able to build in the main game world, with whatever limits are necessary to prevent clutter. Mobs should not respawn every 20 seconds, or in the same spot. Player actions should affect the landscape, the availability of resources ('pollution' prevents farming, etc.) and the respawn locations and frequency of mobs. This means that if you wiped out the entire population of rats in your basement, they will not simply respawn there in an hour from thin air. Yes, game developers, spontaneous generation has indeed been disproven some time ago. Saga of Ryzom was probably the most daring on this point.

9. Aesthetics.
No cheap theatrical tricks. I have great respect for Tornquist's choice in one chapter of "The Longest Journey". The heroine was magically catapulted to another world in the middle of the night, meaning in her underwear. The important part is that it was NOT a g-string. If i want pornography, i'll watch pornography. If i choose to play a female character, i don't want to be playing the kind of bimbo whose first thought would be "does this life-saving body armor show off my boobs? 'cause i wanna look good for Cthulhu".
In this category is also the male version of the archetype: Conan. Please, i don't want every single character option and NPC to be some square-jawed, muscle-bound bad boy or crusader for justice. You made a Conan game, move on.
No elves and goblins. No insta-morphing werewolves and godlike vampires. Don't get me wrong, i loved Lord of the Rings and Interview with the Vampire, but there are other sources of inspiration. Funcom seems to have gotten this right, so let's hope they stay on track.
And if you want to introduce emotion, try stepping back a bit. In Homeworld, a strategy game, the great tragic moment included no tear-jerker images of mothers clutching their babies, no bloodied corpses. It was just the methodical movements of ships in space, salvaging what was left of a civilisation, with the planet burning far in the background, fleet-command's barely emotional voice announcing 'Kharak is burning' and good old adagio for strings playing in the background.
Let the player weigh the emotional content during gameplay, don't just give a sob-story or horror story as a text interlude and then back to the old hack'n'slash.
Also, take a cue from Half-Life 1. Positional audio is one of the greatest tools for creating suspense. Localized sources of sound within the game world can do wonders for its atmosphere without overloading graphics cards. And pay a good composer for your game's music. I played Diablo 2 with the music on. I played WoW with the music off. Same company, different quality.

And the most important piece here: you don't need the latest graphics effects to create aesthetic effect. You gambled on that with AoC (succesfully, i'll grant), and i'm one of the few who seemed to foresee that it would sacrifice gameplay for graphics. Try hiring a few talented visual artists, musicians and writers instead of a few dozen programmers. You'll save money too, and expand your playerbase to include those who don't buy new computers every 6 months.

10. Balance is an unattainable ideal, but should always be sought. Game developers have to keep that nerf-bat handy to knock down those flavor-of-the-month templates that always crop up. Keep in touch with what's happening in the game world and act accordingly. Most people who played WoW from the start remember Blizzard continually insisting that the shaman class was not overpowered, but "working as intended". One hilarious moment for me was when the public datamining started and it turned out that shamans were winning 85% ? of their pvp fights. Learn from those mistakes.

11. GMs are not simply there to move a character when it gets stuck behind a rock. Have those bums organize player events, have them spawn as monsters and terrorize the countryside. It beats getting quests from NPCs or fighting the same old monster AI.

Yes, i know that there is not a single major company which has not heard all this before. Yes, i know that none of this will be implemented, because the addictive, dumbed-down, oversimplified slot-machine approach to MMOs used by EQ, WoW, LOTRO and all the others simply sells, it has mass appeal. What i'm trying to show is not that i'm teaching game developers anything, but that there are plenty of players out there who also know these things. There is a market for quality, albeit small, and you can make a good profit on a smaller investment by catering to those of us who are crazy enough to ask for better products. Look at threads like this, Funcom, we're already here. Sell us something worth buying.

Make a niche game, not a WoW clone.

End quote.