Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 28, 2013
In the U.S., it’s Thanksgiving Day.
I have a lot to be thankful for. Life is pretty good.
May you have an awesome day.
Filed Under: General - Comments: 3 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 27, 2013
Sometimes I feel like I could just spend half my blog posts simply announcing Kickstarter RPG projects. There are a lot. Long ago, after seeing the surprising failure rate for indie game projects, I made the decision not to discuss indie games in development unless they were likely to actually be released, which meant they either had to be pretty far along in development, or under development by a seasoned team with a history of completing projects.
Most Kickstarter proposals are neither.
Guido Henkel’s Deathfire: Ruins of Nethermore is solidly in the latter category. With only a little more than a week to go, and not yet at the halfway mark for the campaign, I’m a little bit concerned. I want to see this game get made.
At least this means that Matt Barton has had a chance to interview Mr. Henkel in his weekly Matt Chat, so we can hear a bit more about not only this project, but his past games as well – including many classic role-playing games. Here you go!
There are several more parts of this interview planned – which I look forward to. As always, you can support Matt Chat here. And the link up in that third paragraph will take you to the Kickstarter.
Filed Under: General - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 26, 2013
As a teenager one summer, I went whitewater rafting down the lower New River in West Virginia. Several class 4+ rapids, and tons of lower ranking rapids in about a 14 mile stretch. It remains one of the the coolest memories ever.
It was exhilarating and exhausting. There were times where the water felt like stone, and I couldn’t get my paddle to “bite” more than a couple of inches. There were times where we were we had to navigate three sets of rapids in a row – where very precise turns were absolutely necessary, yet our muscles were giving out. And there was the famous “swimmer’s hole” which I took the “hard way” – right down the middle, not realizing that the “dip” was actually a whirlpool that sucked me down several feet – life preserver and all (or “flushed” as the tour guides call it – with the obvious metaphor). There was absolutely nothing I could do to escape until it decided to let me go. It was only a few seconds – too quick for me to even get frightened – but it taught me a lesson about the power of nature.
My cousin was our tour guide. The following year, they had an accident, and one of the people on his tour died. Even with experienced guides, these rapids were not “safe.” You would do everything you could to be safe, but the danger was always there.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I highly recommend the experience. I’d just say – listen and obey the tour guide, and make sure you are in halfway decent shape, physically.
That same summer, we went to Hershey Park, Pennsylvania. It’s a big amusement park. By most measurable standards, it should have been far, far more extreme and exciting than the rafting trip. They certainly looked more exciting. But as much as I enjoyed the rides, in the back of my teenaged mind, I was comparing it to the rafting trip, and it came up wanting. I enjoyed myself, sure, but it wasn’t nearly as fun.
Why? It wasn’t just because it was “safe.” Failing to listen to the tour guide would have been like failing to obey the “do not stand up on the roller coaster” rule – stupid and possibly deadly.
Part of it came down to interactive vs. passive participation, and to unscripted vs. scripted experiences. At the amusement park, everything was designed to force me through a very safe, pre-defined, scripted experience. You are an audience, not a participant. The rafting, on the other hand… well, that river had been there for a long time before people ever thought of sticking inflatable rafts in it and going down it for a fun day-trip. The rafting was a real adventure. The rapids changed based on the water level. The tour guides did their best to keep us on a designated path, but every trip was a little different. Our success – and possibly even our survival – was dependent upon the combined effort of the few people in my raft. Sure, there were times you could sit back and just enjoy the scenery. But when you hit the class 3 or class 4 rapids, there was no such thing as “keeping your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.” There was no room for passive observers. You were fighting the water.
The amusement park was a fun little experience. But white water rafting was a legitimate adventure.
I think a lot of modern game designs look more to an amusement park (or, of course, movies) for inspiration that actual adventures like white water rafting. They are slick, polished, and graphically just ooze everything that an adventure should be. But in the end, they feel like very scripted experiences. Your path is linear. While you do need to participate to keep going, and there is often some leeway in how you do things (in what order you kill the attacking hordes, for example), things are still going to be very similar from player to player. They just need to follow along and aim correctly.
Because the player is not allowed to deviate more than a few feet from the correct path, the world is actually really small regardless of how large it may appear. This allows the artists to really pile on the lush details. Because of the limited interactivity, there isn’t a lot of room for bugs to hide. Everything can be polished to a fine sheen. It’s the ultimate amusement park.
But I find myself feeling the same way. There’s a huge difference in feeling and gameplay from something like ARMA 2 (which is still nothing like a “sandbox game”) to a Modern Warfare, even though both are dealing with… uh, modern warfare. It’s like the difference between white water rafting and an amusement park. Likewise, this is traditionally the difference between JRPGs and Western RPGs – although the lines have been blurred and crossed now on both sides to the point that I don’t see much difference anymore.
But again, that doesn’t mean a game has to go all-out “sandbox.” Just – not so linear and scripted. Not so tightly constrained. Yeah, that means that the player might be tying their shoe when the T-Rex appears in all his glory, but while that might make for a crappier “Let’s Play” video, it makes for a more involving game. Just make the player a more active participant, with real choices besides the order in which he takes out ambushers. While it’s fine to still act like a virtual tour guide giving the player assistance and direction where necessary, that’s not the same as holding the player’s hand and forcing them along a linear track.
If that’s the kind of game you want to play, then as a player or reviewer, you are going to need to be more tolerant of the compromises that must take place to make the world more open, and for the player to have more choice in his adventures. If the developers have to design an entire city block instead of the five rooms in two buildings that you are intended to go through, they are going to have to skimp on some details. It’s just how things work sometimes.
While I can play both styles of games (and the various shades in between), in general, I’d rather have the adventure.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 25, 2013
What does it take to make an indie game? How do you begin? How do you know your idea holds water and is on schedule?
Here’s a suggestion from Cedric Guillemet:
Now, obviously, there is no “one, true way” to making a game. But this is a good “average” case and warns of most major, common pitfalls in development, and of what one can expect as an indie developer.
Even for the exceptions to the rule (I’d be one), their experiences are probably not extremely far off from this. Some folks have gotten the process down to the point that they can crank out a game in six months. Some milk clones. Some are working in complex genres (like RPGs or strategy games) where a good part of the fun comes from all the systems interacting together. But even so… this feels pretty familiar.
Filed Under: Production - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 22, 2013
Wow. I’ve been doing these little Dungeon Creation notes for a long time! Now, we are finally at the end of my little list of dungeon creation rules and guidelines for Frayed Knights. These began life as part of a design document (design principles), both to keep myself oriented as I’m developing content, and for those who may be assisting me. I copy (most) of them here so that you can know more about where Frayed Knights is going, and also because these ideas might be useful to any others who are crazy enough to try and make a full-fledged RPG of their own.
And, as always, you can just read the entire category of Frayed Knights posts here.
These are my last three “rules” for making dungeons in Frayed Knights. These differ from my “principles” in that these are actually checklist items for making sure the dungeon designs are complete and offer the most enjoyable, Frayed Knights-flavored entertainment for the player. I may have more by the time we finish this sequel. By comparison to some of the others, these are pretty straightforward. You may notice that #12 is actually a direct effort to solve a problem found in the first game, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. Part of the problem was the load times in the first game, but I also don’t want to have needless backtracking. The point is to make resource management across multiple encounters a challenge, but not a chore.
#11 Drama Stars
Flag possible drama star awards in your dungeon. Anytime something significant happens, or any time there is a random component in a result (for something non-trivial), these are good candidates for a drama star award.
The general rule-of-thumb is 1 point for a minor decision, 2 points for a major event, and 3 points for a quest reward.
#12 Sleeping Areas
A large dungeon should contain at least one area where the party can sleep for full fatigue removal. This does not need to be unlimited – it may be an area that can only be used two or three times until it is discovered or otherwise no longer safe. This saves the player a boring trip back to town just for the sake of a full recovery, but it should be out of the way enough (past patrols and random encounter areas, etc.) that getting there and back again is a non-trivial chore and not something the player can do without thinking about it.
#13 – Role-Playing Encounters
Any dungeon of medium size or larger should have at least one encounter that involves dialog and some kind of choice on the part of the player. One choice option may end in combat (actually, all choices could end in combat). The dialog may not have to be with an NPC – it could simply be the party vocalizing the decision and options. The thing here is that it should not be a right / wrong decision, or a “lawful stupid vs. chaotic psychopath” type of choice. It should be a choice between legitimate options, an approach to solve a problem that is more of a case of the player deciding on a course of action. All options should be justified (or at least amusing). Even though it is a comedy (or maybe especially because it is a comedy), moral or ethical quandaries work well here, allowing the player to decide what is the greater of two goods, or the lesser of two evils. Or it can simply be a case of letting the player decide how subtle or direct they want the Frayed Knights to be.
Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 21, 2013
“Creating dungeons or levels is quite hard. In particular, it’s hard to know where to begin. What I do to get started is I try to hold to a certain constraint which is that map areas (including dungeons or levels) should exist geographically first. It should have an ostensible purpose outside the confines of the game.
“The design of an overworld or dungeon should tell a story about itself, indirectly, and not just be a
connected series of islands filled with challenges.
“This constraint can be at odds with building puzzles or other challenges, but I think it helps avoid areas that feel too contrived. If every room and every hallway only exists for a well-defined, game-mechanical purpose, then there is nothing there to fuel the imagination or cause a sense of mystery.”
— Calvin French (“The Real Texas“)
This one’s from Calvin French, taken from “Five Years In Happy: A Designer’s Notebook for The Real Texas.” I’m not sure where you find the design notebook other than at GOG.COM, but since it’s one of the four or so copies I own through various deals and bundles, I grabbed it and spent several minutes enjoying his recollection of his design and development of this action RPG.
I don’t know if I’ll manage to get a game design quote up every week, but I thought it would be a fun – from both a developer’s perspective, and a gamer’s perspective.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 20, 2013
All-in-all, it’s pretty remarkable that EverQuest is still running today. While it’s far removed from its heyday, the fact that it’s still around – running under a different monetization plan than originally envisioned, and in an era probably unimaginable by the original developers – is a testament of its legacy. It was a big hit for its day, and made a lasting impression.
The changes – and the fact that much of the world is a ghost town today – is simply an inevitable result of the design. It’s obvious, when you think about it. Character progress is in one direction (mostly) – up. If you hit the “fast forward” button on the world long enough, you’d always see this. Eventually, you have the entire world milling around at the level cap, looking for something to do. In the early days, they put off the inevitable by slowing progression down in ways that they have now streamlined away.
But the end result is that its now 99% elder game and unused, forgotten space. What do you do now?
The Progression Problem
Truth be told, I don’t know that there’s much they can do. But… if you were to redesign from the get-go, how could you fix this?
Now, this isn’t strictly a problem with all MMORPGs – just this particular style. EverQuest‘s predecessor was Ultima Online, wildly successful at its launch (and still going!), but subsequently dwarfed by EQ (just as EQ was later dwarfed by World of Warcraft). Ultima Online had a very different approach to capping progression – in fact, it kinda make progression a bit more fluid – so it didn’t have quite this problem. It had different problems.
But many games borrow from the whole EverQuest / DikuMUD / Dungeons & Dragons approach to role-playing, heavy on the classes and levels. I like the approach myself. But part of what makes that whole progression fun is that you do dramatically change, you can enjoy previously challenging obstacles become trivial, and previously insurmountable challenges become possible. To me, this aspect is pretty fundamental to the whole role-playing experience, regardless of whether it is implemented through classes and levels, skill increases, loot acquisition, or whatever.
But this has two problems:
#1 – Content is restricted to a certain “window” of character progression – it goes from being “locked” by being impossible to “just right” to uselessly trivial. Players WILL outgrow content. And since progress is in only one direction, they won’t come back for it later unless they start over (one way or another).
#2 – Likewise, players are restricted to a certain “window” of other players that they can participate with, for the same reasons. If content is too easy for you and too hard for your friend, what else are you going to do together?
Common (Partial) Solutions
There have been lots of approaches to dealing with this problem. Back in the original D&D days, the problem was slightly resolved (or at least assumed to be resolved) by having a “practical” level range that was really pretty small. It wasn’t really expected that players would ever get much beyond 8th level or so, and while a 1st level character would be well-advised to hang back in an 8th level adventuring group, they’d at least gain XP somewhat rapidly and get somewhere into the same “window.” Assuming they were lucky enough to survive that long. And while it was a bit more dramatic for a spellcaster, a “fighting man” of 7th level in that game wasn’t overwhelmingly more powerful than his or her 3rd level counterpart.
Of course, then you also had super high-level modules of that era (or the early “Advanced D&D” era) that still had players fighting the kinds of monsters they’d fought back at 2nd level, but in greater numbers and as “speed bumps” on their way to fighting demons and dragons. But that’s beside the point.
D&D Online took something of this approach when it released, making leveling a very slow, lengthy process, but adding alternate progression stages in-between levels. These were dramatic enough to feel significant, but also served to keep players from having quite such a gulf of power ranges between them. It effectively broadened the window, but doesn’t eliminate the underlying problem.
Many games have had a “remort” ability – where you can choose to restart your character from the beginning, but with a key power-level increase that makes you superior to a fresh level 1. Some even allow this to be repeated several times, each time carrying some additional power back with you. This partly solves the problem of progression only going in one direction, but it’s a difficult choice in that the player is once again locking himself out of content – and out of participation with friends – until he comes back to their appropriate level range again.
City of Heroes had a really cool sidekick / exemplar system where a party member could be artificially leveled-up or de-leveled to match the power level of their companion in a group. A sidekicked character would not have the full range of ability that they’d eventually have when they legitimately achieved that level, but they were at least capable of contributing.
One obvious approach to the problem of content getting outgrown is the one used in many single-player RPGs – scaling up the content to match the player level. That gets complicated in a shared world, however. Having Godzilla terrorize the newbie zone because some high-level characters have arrived is amusing maybe once. Many MMORPGs have gotten around this by instancing, which actually works pretty well… but then that really deflates the “massively” multiplayer aspect of the game. But hey, for games derived from a tabletop game intended for just a handful of people to play together, maybe that’s for the best.
So I’m spitballing a little here. I’m not an MMORPG expert. To be honest, since EverQuest I have had to deliberately swear ‘em off a little bit. I actively avoided World of Warcraft during its heyday because I knew it would be a dangerous time-sink for me. I still play them – and still sometimes lose far too much time to them – but I do try and keep things very limited. It doesn’t stop me from thinking about them, though. I mean, ever since I read the short story Catacomb in the pages of Dragon Magazine in the 1980s, I’ve been enamored by shared virtual worlds, and the cool possibilities of playing role-playing games on a larger scale.
If lower-level characters could be at least partly insulated from higher-level challenges and events following players around regardless of zone, that eliminates another part of the Godzilla-in-the-newbie zone problem without having to overly depend on instancing.
In fact, lets think about the movie “The Avengers” for a minute. A little Joss Whedon pic that some of you may have heard about. The group is really divided into two “power levels” – or maybe three, but we’ll say two – a group of elite or somewhat souped-up normal humans (Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), and then a group of cosmically powerful individuals (Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man – who makes up for what he lacks in raw technological power with a wider array of options and mobility). While they all have their own little stories to some degree, and then they all work together in a coordinated fashion to some degree, you also have two separate but related events going on. The elite human team deals with the symptoms of the disaster – fighting the ground-war – while the cosmic team goes closer to the source, beating up armored flying leviathan troop-carrier creatures, beating up a god, and sealing up a giant interdimensional portal over New York.
Now, that’s not a good long-term solution for a gaming group or an MMO, because eventually you want to be the person with the cosmically important job, not just cleaning up the messes from that guy. But it offers some ideas of how low-power and high-power characters can still play together on a limited basis.
Alternate progression paths are of course regularly discussed and, on a limited basis, implemented. It’s quite common in action movies and stories to have specialist characters who are critical to the group’s success, but are useless as a front-line fighter. In some ways, this drifts us towards the Ultima Online approach, where you can’t be good at everything. Clever quest design might require the combat-gods may have to bring in some help specialized in other areas – including those of lesser power. Unfortunately, barriers requiring a specialist tend to be more of a frustration in general, and a gentle / subtle push in hat direction is often ignored.
In D&D 3.x, there was an experience point requirement for manufacturing magical items. While that sort of thing fuels alternate advancement options in many games (including EverQuest), there is something to the idea that experience points could be something that you can “spend” – possibly for the benefit of your party. This is again more of a “slowing down progression” solution than solving things.
But what about a character voluntarily choosing to temporarily become a lower-level character, with XP rewards for that level going into alternate uses (not to level up). Again, shades of City of Heroes. Perhaps that XP bonus could be used to “power up” item rewards gained through the lower-level content (such that they may be useful at the player’s real level). Suddenly, all that lower-level content is no longer useless and forgotten, and progress is no longer strictly one-way. And
1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons even had something of an alternate advancement mechanic, too, with the original Bard class (or really, the human race’s approach to multiclassing). You’d effectively remort as a new character class, level 1. In order to gain XP, you had to restrict yourself to acting just as this new character class – at least until you surpassed your previous level. In 1E, you eventually went back and did it again, but this time actually became a “super-class” – a Bard. Yeah, back then bards were badass.
Something like that might be an interesting alternative to a remort or an alternate character – you could actually have a character who might be leveling up as several different classes at a time. Given a few seconds’ notice, you could transform into the class most necessary for situation, complete with different gear, and perhaps even be able to blend the abilities of several at once.
There are a lot of weird ideas that could be explored. And probably a lot weirder ones already being done that I’m not aware of.
Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 6 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 19, 2013
So, as I promised in yesterday’s post, here are some thoughts on the changes that have been made to EverQuest over the years to keep it (at least minimally) viable while numerous competitors have come – and in competition has grown, and in some cases become nothing but a memory.
The trend, as things progress in pretty much every traditional MUD-style MMORPG I’ve played, is for things to pretty much top out and focus on high-end content. In EverQuest, this has been taken to a pretty amazing extreme over fourteen years. What used to takes weeks – months, even – of regular play can now be done in hours. Solo. Seriously. While the game doesn’t start you out at 50th or 60th level, it is now designed to get you there as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
Press Button to Go to Level 50
First of all, leveling is tremendously accelerated. I’m not sure what it is, but it feels like leveling is around 10x faster than it once was. The death penalty (Experience Point loss) has not been similarly magnified, so it’s not nearly as painful. Also, the need for a “corpse run” has been virtually eliminated. When you respawn, you have all of your equipment with you. In my mid-30s level-wise, the death penalty was something like 2 kills’ worth of experience, so it’s far more efficient to just “suck it up” and keep playing than to re-acquire your corpse (which can be done through NPC summoners now) and have a cleric resurrect it. At least until very high level (which I can’t talk about, as I’m not there yet).
Of course, a big part of leveling throughout the game was the acquisition of level-appropriate gear. This, too, has been accelerated. Plain ol’ trash mobs at the low-to-mid levels will drop equipment that simply blows away almost everything that we used to scour the virtual world for in the old days. This makes sense. If you are going to be going from level 30 to level 40 in the course of an afternoon, you can’t spend too much time hunting down those perfect level 35 armor pieces. The more powerful gear also means that you are able to take on higher-level enemies much more effectively (which means more, faster XP).
Questing for equipment is still an option, but it’s more to fill in “holes” in your gear. But if questing really is more your style (and it does slow the game progress down a bit if you do pursue the quest lines), mob spawns have been accelerated, too. I’ve seen “boss” mobs (mobile enemies) respawn before their corpse has disappeared.
Mana and health regeneration has been accelerated when you are not in combat. This means neither you nor your mercenary (more on that in a moment) nor your pet are the target of a hostile mob. After the last hostile has been dispatched, there’s a few second delay (noted by a timer) after which you will gain a boost in health and mana regeneration while you are sitting. So one of those other frustrating, boring delays that acted as speed bumps to leveling has been removed.
Also, you can pretty much go from level 1 to at least the mid 30′s all within the same two zones – Crescent Reach and the neighboring Blightfire Moors. If you do feel the need to travel the very rich variety of zones available in the game, just inside the second of the two zones, easily reachable, is the portal to the Plane of Knowledge, which is a nexus point for a couple dozen zones throughout the world. There’s a nice in-game tool to show you a more-or-less optimal path to any zone you want to go to, and about half the world is probably no more than 15 minutes from the Plane of Knowledge. The “Find” tool also helps you find NPCs and zone connections, which make getting around or finding that hidden quest NPC a lot easier.
In short, everything that was designed in the old days to deliberately slow down your progression from level 1 to the higher levels has been streamlined to an amazing degree. No more waiting, not really any more camping, no more standing in line, no more corpse runs, no more (noticeable) “hell levels” of extra long duration, no more long journeys between zones, rapid leveling, and constant progress.
This actually is pretty satisfying. That’s the addictive nature of RPGs – regular, noticeable advancement as a mechanic.
No Group Necessary
The other emphasis of EverQuest and most of the early MMORPGs was the standard D&D style concept of class interdependency. Or, more specifically, the need to group up with other people of complimentary classes. This is another problem in a world of diminished population. Finding people to group with at low to mid levels – especially outside the two “starting zones” – is challenging. There just aren’t that many people around of your level – and with people playing at different schedules, someone who might be at your level today probably won’t be tomorrow.
To adjust for this, you now have access to mercenaries of various kinds, who can act as your “partner” in your party. You can choose from different races and roles of mercenaries – tanks, healers, melee damage dealers, etc. They level up with you, cost an increasing (but relatively small) amount of money every 15 minutes or so in upkeep, can be deactivated at will, and you can keep a stable of them and choose whichever one is most appropriate for your particular situation. Kinda like Pokemon, I guess. In addition, certain equipment is usable my mercenaries – allowing you to provide them with custom upgrades. Plus, the higher-level alternate advancement paths do allow you to advance your mercenaries’ abilities. They also heal up as fast as any other monster and NPC, rather than as a player, which is nice. For outdoor “hunting,” a mercenary is really all you need. A mercenary and a pet? You’ve got a potent little team. If you do group up with other players, you can combine your mercenary efforts.
The aforementioned accelerated health and mana regen rates also reduce the need for other group members. Once upon a time, you needed some kind of healing (and often, an enchanter for mana regen) to achieve any amount of efficiency in an XP group (a group that is primarily hunting for experience points to gain levels, as opposed to hunting specific mobs for quests or loot). Now “downtime” has been reduced, which makes those roles less critical.
In addition, there are very easy, very repeatable quests at low level in the starting city (but not level-restricted to low level), which provide as a reward a supply of potions that can provide regeneration, increased mana regeneration, and other benefits that used to be a lot more expensive and rare outside of grouping with a character with those kinds of spells. There are items that can be purchased from vendors in the Plane of Knowledge with similar regeneration effects. Certain utility spells – like faster movement speed, recovering corpses (mentioned yesterday), or binding you to a city are emulated by easily obtainable magic items or non-player characters. In particular, I was surprised to find that a magic item that can provide a temporary movement speed boost was available as a reward during the tutorial. With the Plane of Knowledge and Nexus portals all over Norrath now (something that was already present before I left the game), begging druids or wizards for taxi service is no longer necessary.
Another thing that makes the game easier to play solo or with a small group of virtually any class is that it seems like the aggro radius of most monsters has been reduced. As was always the case in EverQuest, fighting more than one enemy at a time gets hairy, and that’s really where having a group becomes critical. This hasn’t changed. But a reduced aggro radius means this is less likely to happen. It’s still a problem in dungeons, especially with a runner, but it’s easier to manage and prevent.
Now, I haven’t gotten to the high-end content yet, and I imagine things change there. Maybe they don’t require the gigantic raid groups they once did, but I would imagine much of the cooler parts of the game still require players to work together. And dungeons, while easier, remain a challenge for soloing. But with a small group of players – two or three players – who can work together, those shouldn’t be much of a problem.
Rushing to Stasis
It’s been said many times that there is a fundamental difference in this style of MMORPG from the “core” game and the “elder” game, and that this is one of the core problems of the style. The game you play at the beginning is not the same game you are playing at the end. For me, one problem is that I tend to prefer the game at the beginning. There’s a lot of fun to be found in the elder game, too, but for me it was often filled with tedium. Maybe that’s not the case in many of the MMORPGs that I have skipped over the years, and I’m missing out.
But it’s interesting to me that the modern EverQuest effectively rushes you to the elder game, where things are in relative stasis. Or at least I assume they are – having not played enough of the new game to get there yet, and basing my opinion more on past experience.
I think for EverQuest it was probably necessary, without changing the fundamental nature of the game. You need to get the players up to the point where they are all able to play together. But it’s ironic that in so doing, they’ve created an even greater gulf between the early game and the elder game (which may now be more along the lines of “core.”). In addition, it effectively bypasses huge swaths of the game – including what was in the earlier years considered “high-level content.” There’s not much point in going to those zones anymore for any reason.
The relative stasis at high level doesn’t feel very RPG-like to me. There’s not much progression. Everyone’s at roughly the same power level. There’s not much point in going out and exploring the world, because there’s nothing to do in the easily accessible areas that’s of much value to you. There are “dailies” – renewable quests you can undertake for regular, slow advancement and stuff, and of course the big high-end raid-like activities, but it’s not the stage of the game that interests me.
If anybody has more experience with this than me in EverQuest or other MMORPGs, feel free to chime in.
Later (tomorrow?), I want to talk more about the design implications here, and how things might be fixed. Maybe they already have been – there are several orders of magnitude more MMORPGs I haven’t played than ones that I have.
Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 3 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 18, 2013
So a few weeks ago, I did the unthinkable. After nearly a decade, I reinstalled EverQuest. The original.
Well, “reinstalled” is perhaps the wrong term. My original discs were not used. As the game has gone “free to play,” I just installed the new client. I doubt that my old account is available anymore (any attempts to access it were met with failure), so I started over fresh. Brand new characters in an old, familiar world.
It was weird, man.
By way of backstory – I started playing EverQuest only a few days after it launched (although technically, one of the Sony producers had me goofing around in the beta days before it launched). I played it a lot. I eventually quit simply because I had just started “going indie” and realized that I couldn’t keep up with the necessity to do big raids on a nightly basis and make any productive effort towards my games. I’d played in MUDs before (years before), and I’ve played several MMOs since, but EverQuest will always be the MMO for me – as crude and painfully designed as it was.
After hearing that it’s a lot easier to solo, now, I figured I’d start up a character or two and play for a few hours and see how it panned out.
I’ll go into the mechanics of the changes in part 2. From a game design perspective, it’s been fascinating to see how the game has evolved – to going free-to-play, to intense competition from more modern MMOs, to dealing with having a really huge world and not a lot of players to fill it. Suffice to say that from a gameplay perspective, the absolutely “free” experience is in almost every way superior to the one I paid hundreds and hundreds of dollars for back in 1999-2004. The astonishing thing to me is that the game is still “live.” Whereas other, newer MMOs have come and gone, shutting off the servers for good, Norrath is still around.
It’s a little bit of a ghost town, but it’s still there. For now.
The new experience forces you into the city of Crescent Reach, and allows you to start in a tutorial zone. The tutorial is to help you learn the complicated controls of the game. In addition, the tutorial tends to finish you several levels higher and nicely outfitted with gear that much higher level characters would have fought over back in the early days of the game. When you choose to exit the tutorial zone, the game deposits you in the city of Crescent Reach – the new starting city for all races and classes.
This change of venue was what kept EverQuest from getting too heavy on the nostalgia for me, aside from the familiar sound effects. Another shocking change that I believe went into effect shortly after I left was an emphasis on actual quests – half of the game’s name. These changes were well under way when I left the game (shortly after the Froglocks became a playable character), but it was fun to see how much they now had top billing – at least in the new zones, with UI tools and far better logic for handling quest stages, and everything!
But a big part of my visit was for nostalgia’s sake. Is it possible to feel nostalgic or even homesick for an imaginary place? I dunno. Ask the Star Wars fanboys. Arguably, it’s that feeling that was the genesis of Dungeons & Dragons – an urge to revisit these old, beloved worlds in a new way, on one’s own terms. Once I finally found the portal to the Plane of Knowledge – a nexus with gates to all over the world of EverQuest – I was set. I’d also created a wizard at first, particularly for their ability to teleport all over. It was time to visit the old lands!
To be honest, the original lands that made up my most lasting memories of EverQuest were already becoming depopulated long before I left the game. In order to sell new expansions, I suppose, Sony had to make the newer content more interesting and lucrative than the old to encourage purchases. They succeeded, and players fled the boring old content for the new, more souped-up content.
At some point, they went back and cleaned up some of the old stuff. For example, Freeport, and the neighboring zones (Commonlands, the Desert of Ro) – where I’d spent most of my time in those early days – was completely made-over not long after I’d quit playing. I believe some storyline updates justified the change. It was both familiar and unfamiliar. Both were refreshing, after such a long absence from the game.
Qeynos, perhaps the signature city of the game (after all, it is “Sony EQ” spelled backwards), hasn’t changed much, at least. While it looks a little better in high-resolution, widescreen display, and has had some content updates over the years, its easy to walk in and party like it’s 1999.
As long as you ignore the fact that there are no real people anywhere.
On chat, you see them. Mostly, it seems, old-timers who have done like I did, jumped back in for old-times’ sake, and found that the game was still entertaining enough that with a bunch of other regulars to share the experience with, it’s worth their time. In the new starting areas on the Plane of Knowledge, things are bustling much as they always were. Newbies (who are, as often as not, old-time veterans) cleaning up the yard trash outside the main city. Dumb questions, dumb answers, snark.
But most of the zones – and after nearly 15 years of continuous operation (and constant expansions, the newest one released only a month ago), there are a lot of zones – are empty of players.
The other players were at once the high point and low point of my EverQuest experience. I remembered spending hours and hours in the Temple of Cazic Thule – when it was being farmed constantly for Rubicite Armor, the amazing plate mail wearable by some non-plate wearing classes with an astonishing +19 armor class, it also offered three whole points of regeneration per “turn” (about five seconds of real-time). The zone would lag, people would be nasty towards each other, but it was also a source of great experience points. Not to mention the chance of getting in a rubicite “camp.” Even if you couldn’t use the armor yourself, you could sell it to other players for a small mint. Unfortunately, back then, my primary was a rogue, which was perhaps the most singularly useless class in the game at the time, so getting an invite into one of these groups was unlikely.
Later, a patch turned changed the drops from Rubicite to “Ravenscale,” a rogue-only armor. Suddenly, getting into one of these farming groups as a rogue went from being difficult to impossible. Nobody wanted someone in their group who might have a legitimate claim on the treasure found. No, no rogues allowed at all to farm the rogue-only armor, but if you were in the zone, they’d be happy to sell you what they found for an exorbitant price.
Yeah, people sucked. But they were also a source of the fun, too. Future expansions and changes to the rules and world – not to mention a leveling out of the player base – made the game a little bit less competitive and cut-throat. I made some great friends online in the game, some of whom I got to meet in real life later. They were what kept me in the game far beyond the time I should have quit. I wasn’t so much playing a game as hanging out with friends inside a virtual world. Instead of playing cards, we were taking down dragons.
Going back to those early zones, though – they did bring up weird memories. They seem very different – empty, obviously – and purposeless, like an amusement park closed for winter. The NPCs still recite their canned pleas for assistance – the wolves of Halas still desperately need my help, fourteen years later. Nevermind that almost nobody ever comes to even hear their pleas anymore, let alone assist them. Their most desperate hour is frozen in time, as it was always intended to be, but it seems strange coming in at this time, so much later. It’s like a variation of Princess Leia’s recording in R2D2 repeating endlessly to an empty chamber, begging, “To whom it may concern: You’re my only hope!”
One of the more amusing surprises came as I made my way to Firiona Vie. That particular outpost – the landing-point for “good” races on the continent of Kunark – was filled with happy memories for me. It was the first expansion for EverQuest, and a badly needed injection of fresh, better-designed, better-balanced content for the game. It was around this time when rogues – besides getting some badly needed equipment options from the new expansion – received some tweaks and ability upgrades that finally made my preferred class a viable – and even desired – member of a group. And it was about this time that I met many of the friends I mentioned before.
There was new stuff everywhere, and it finally seemed like players were getting enough “elbow room” that they weren’t quite in such a hyper-competitive contest for camping the optimal spawns anymore. Plus, after a year of having every inch of Norrath explored in detail and practically recited by memory by all players (to the point where every item was referred to by initials – and everybody knew what it meant), it was thrilling to have some place new to explore. I’ve always been something of the explorer. While it didn’t last long before Kunark, too, was extremely well-traveled and documented, that feeling of excitement never left. I wanted to live in Firiona Vie. While the later “big” expansions to the frozen northlands of Velious, or even to the moon, Luclin, were similarly fresh and appealing, they never held quite the magic of a game reinvented for me.
I made my way through treacherous half-dark-elf, half-giant-spider drachnids and the armored, bipedal wolf-men drolvargs, but as I approached the outpost I was surprised to find there were no guards at the bridge. Worse, there were scary, powerful golems and dark elves. I carefully made my way into the city anyway, and discovered that sure enough, it was barren of anything but enemies. Something had happened in my absence. I have since discovered that the NPCs there had been relocated to some caves, but it was a little bit of a shock. What had been my favorite place in Norrath, for a time, now rendered desolate.
Back again to North Ro, just outside of Freeport. In the earliest days of EverQuest, there was a Sand Giant who roamed freely through that desert. He was unstoppable. At that time, few players were high enough level to defeat him, so he was simply a hazard. So many times, I would be fighting sand scarabs or giant tarantulas and I’d suddenly be confronted with the “loading… please wait” screen because that giant had wandered up next to me and slain me before I even realized I was under attack. I hated that guy. At higher levels, I’d kill Sand Giants just for pleasure, out of revenge. The one in North Ro, however, was a rare spawn who would almost always die as soon as he’d appear, because there was no longer a dearth of higher-level players capable of taking him on.
Nobody goes to North Ro anymore. Nobody bothers to take him out. Until now. Thanks to very rapid leveling, I found myself at the southern end of North Ro, and saw that Sand Giant wandering around. It’s been fourteen years, but I think that only sweetened my revenge as I burned him to the ground.
Filed Under: General - Comments: 5 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 15, 2013
City-building (they claim inspiration from Dwarf Fortress), Steampunk, and a dose of Lovecraft-style horror all mixed together in one game, by the makers of Dungeons of Dredmor?
Yeah, count me in. I’ve been hearing about this game for a while (like, since they first announced it), but I finally saw the trailer…
With so many indie games announced / Kickstarted / released / talked about these days, I often don’t look too far forward for games anymore. It’s nice to find an exception.
Filed Under: Game Announcements - Comments: 3 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 14, 2013
It’s kinda funny how Unity 3D has now made such an effort to support 2D gaming. But this week, 4.3 released, with a whole bunch of 2D tools in an ongoing effort to make the engine more universally useful to game developers – particularly the indies.
It’s a pretty beefy update. Besides the introduction of a ton of 2D tools, there’s an all-new version of the script editor (MonoDevelop), which fortunately isn’t taking me too much time to get used to. Plus new animation tools. And some pro-only features that I’m not messing with yet.
The funny thing for me is how 2D appears at first blush to be a subset of 3D (after all, just draw everything flat, right?), but when you get down to it, there are a bunch of tools and special requirements 2D game developers need in order to make a good, modern 2D game. A lot of these have to do with how you optimize for modern hardware, and a lot is “just” for workflow. (I say that noting that workflow is often the #1 critical factor in getting a game built and out the door. Or, at least, it becomes the #1 thing impeding all that if it’s not working right.)
Anyway – I haven’t played with its new 2D abilities yet, so I’ll leave that to others to report on. I think they probably have a ways to go before they catch up to the likes of Game Maker. BUT… as I’m a guy who loves having 2D mixed with 3D, it would seem like Unity would be a super choice.
But then, back in the day, I thought the same thing of Torque 2D. Which, in the end, was still a pretty decent 2D gaming engine, IMO.
Filed Under: General - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 13, 2013
Sounds like some folks are predicting it over at GamesIndustry.biz.
I dunno. If I was a console manufacturer, I might be nervous. If I was primarily a publisher of high-end console games, I might be nervous. While I was too young to really understand the North American 1983 video game crash, I can probably draw parallels with the “Dot Com” crash circa 2001. Yeah, that one sucked.
But hey, I’m an indie, what do I care? This is just the triple-A publishers and studios and console-makers, right?
Oh. Maybe it’ll be indies too. IndieStatik has an article called “Everything Indie Is About to Burst: Indie Bubbles, Cliques, and the Future.” In part, it’s a response to Jeff Vogel’s article last week (much like my own response). Heck, even Vogel himself can’t help but respond to his own post.
Yeah. Okay. Back in the late 90s, I was able to see hundreds of gallons of business being poured into the 50-gallon drum that was the current state of online commerce at the time. Likewise, on the indie front, indie has exploded — and supply is exceeding demand. That leads to a collapse. But like I said last week – we’re not talking a total collapse here.
Look at the “Dot Com” collapse a half-dozen years ago. Lots of businesses folded, and lots of people lost their jobs. Me, too, and I wasn’t even in a “Dot Com” company. But they represented a chunk of my company’s clients. In the meantime, there’d been a ton of programmers – many with little 2-year associates degrees – rushing into the marketplace because that was where the money was. Suddenly, with the collapse of that bubble, there were a ton of unemployed programmers out there, and we all had to compete for a lot fewer jobs.
Obviously, that sucked. Those were tough times to weather.
And look at the fallout! Thanks to the dot-com collapse, there are no more online businesses. It was all just a fad. Amazon is gone, Google never made it out of infancy, nobody shops online anymore…
Yeah. Just like 1983 was hardly the death knell for the video game industry (although many experts claimed as much), the dot-com bubble bursting wasn’t even close to the end of the online commerce era. I don’t know the numbers, but it’s clearly far bigger and better today than it was in the heyday of the pre-collapse, circa 2000. Likewise, at its highest point at the “boom” of the video game era pre-crash, the entire video game industry was a fly spec compared to what we have today.
All it is, is a gold rush. Things go a little crazy for a bit, and the growth rate on the supply side goes into an unsustainably steep climb for a while. Eventually, gravity prevails, and things are brought back down to a more gradual growth cycle.
Do we have an indie bubble right now? I think so. Is it due for a popping? I hope so. The sooner, the better – there’s less damage that way. Because while an economic bubble popping clears out the riff-raff, it also damages (or destroys) some really good businesses, too. They just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, finally got their long-sought expansion plans in gear just before things hit the fan, or whatever. A lot of people will get discouraged and quit, and while the ratio of cool games to crap might even improve, the total quantity of both will shrink way, way down for a while.
Maybe then I’ll be able to actually finish some of these games before finding myself shelling out for yet another steeply discounted bundle that I “might” like.
I think the AAA, console market is already in mid-”crash.” Maybe a slow-mo crash. If the new consoles tank, it’ll turn into a crash. And we could get surprised. It could turn into yet another era of massive growth as Sony and Microsoft sell record numbers of consoles. It could happen.
I think the indies are already feeling the pains of a saturated market. Android and IOS are becoming extremely difficult to make money in, and getting on Steam is no longer the guaranteed money-maker it once was (not that there were ever guarantees).
There may be some new avenue of “easy money” (well, the illusion of such) that starts things or prolongs things all over again. But… for the most part… I think that we’re due for a little bit of a forest fire to clear things out. And then things will get back to some variant of new normal.
All that being said – are you an aspiring indie? A beginner? Does the threat of a looming crash scare you? It shouldn’t. Not if you are doing it for the right reasons. As a get-rich-quick scheme, making video games has always sucked. Always. Even back in 1981. But if you truly love it, l0ve what you are doing, love games, and aren’t afraid of getting your hands dirty with not only making a game, but all the marketing and business crap, even though it’s going to be a pain in the butt to get noticed in the least in today’s environment… then I’d recommend sticking with it. Maybe not quitting the day job to do it, but when the dust settles, people will still be playing games. They may as well be playing yours.
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 12, 2013
Time for another installment of the Frayed Knights dungeon creation “rules.” These began life as part of a design document (design principles), both to keep myself oriented as I’m developing content, and for those who may be assisting me. I copy (most) of them here so that you can know more about where Frayed Knights is going, and also because these ideas might be useful to any others who are crazy enough to try and make a full-fledged RPG of their own.
The difference between “principles” and “rules” is kind of the difference between what sort of feel / flavor / approach I’m looking for, versus specific, testable elements. Of course, every rule has exceptions, and there will be some of those in FK2 and FK3 (and FK1, since it was made before I wrote these down, has several). But hopefully this will give you another bit of flavor for where we’re going:
#7 – Secret Areas
Dungeons should have at least one optional “secret” area that may be discovered either through searching for the secret door, or triggering an entrance through a non-hidden puzzle.
Secret areas may hold special encounters, optional treasure, special gameplay features, or “bolt-holes” for resting. They should always hold SOMETHING cool. Medium dungeons should have at least one, and large dungeons should have at least two ‘secret’ areas. Small dungeons are not required to have secret areas, but it is encouraged.
#8 – Non-Secret Optional, hard-to-reach areas
In addition to the secret areas, medium and large dungeons should have at least one area that is clearly visible but difficult to reach / enter by normal means. For example, the prison / torture area in FK1’s Temple of Pokmor Xang requiring a swim in the meditation-room’s gross pool to discover the switch to open the portcullis. Don’t have a normal door incapable of being opened via lockpicking (a “plot-lock” ) – there should be a dang good reason why a door can’t be opened. Otherwise, make it some other kind of barrier – a large portcullis, a force field, an out-of-reach location, etc.
#9 – Quests
Keep quests and steps within a quest simple and goal-oriented (“Obtain the Dagon Sphere”) rather than task / process oriented (“Kill Mrs. Dagon and take her Dagon Sphere”). This invites multiple solutions both from you, the designer, and the player.
#10 Journal Entries
When designing the dungeon, create journal entries that should appear when the player takes particular actions to help guide them along. Oftentimes, the journal entries will simply re-iterate information found in descriptions and dialog. One thing I’m doing new with FK2 is having all the journal entries written by one of the team members – with their initial at the end. So create journal entries in the voice of whoever happened to write it (and include their initial in case it’s not clear – cuz sometimes journal entries are just too simple to make it a big deal). When in doubt, have Arianna write the entry – she’s the most straightforward. When choosing who to write for, please consider Benjamin – he needs more presence in FK2 than in the last game.
Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 11, 2013
To be completely honest, I’m not sure how successful I’d be right now as a full-time indie. I still struggle with schedule. I struggle with my rhythm. I usually find an awesome (but exhausting) pace towards the end of a project, but it is a little too crazy to sustain it all the time. I couldn’t handle it.
But I have a tough time in lower gear. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes it doesn’t. And I worry – if I were to go full time (which I totally couldn’t afford right now, anyway, so it’s not a pressing concern), would I use my extra time efficiently enough? If I could work 45 or 60 hours a week on my game, could I actually get things done 2-4 times faster than my curremt, 15-20 hour weeks (or less, given the last couple of months)?
The trick is finding my rhythm, and I have trouble finding it. It’s not the same for everyone. Dave Toulouse recently wrote at Gamasutra about this very issue in “Part-Time Indie: Making the Most of the Time Available.” It’s a good read. I know Dave (hi, Dave!), and we frequently commiserate about the same challenges. Making a go at it as a part-time indie has its pros and cons. On the pro side – you don’t have to worry about your game dev habit not paying the rent. On the con side, it can be an enormous struggle to maintain motivation, especially when you realize that you’d make twice as much money for your time and effort flipping burgers as McDonald’s in your off hours.
Yeah, shockingly enough, most indie games do not make Minecraft-level sales. Or even Dustforce-level sales. A lot of the time, their sales are like this. Or this. Or this. So money’s not much of a motivation. It has to come from somewhere else. And that somewhere else may be pretty far away from the couch when you finally get home from an exhausting day on the job.
When you have a family (or have – or are trying to have – a social life), it gets trickier still, because you need to be flexible and arrange your schedule around other requirements. That makes establishing a habit more challenging. I’ve opted for the late-night thing, when I’m more likely to be undisturbed, but that’s got its own inherent problems. Namely, while I’m awake and alert enough to enjoy a good game or movie — sometimes — it’s tough to concentrate and focus that late. If I get into the “zone” I do great, but otherwise, it’s not efficient time.
Sometimes I find the rhythm – the “groove” – and other times I spend days and even weeks “puttering.” It’s hard. I applaud Dave for finding something that works for him. That might not work for everyone. One thing I would like to note here – something he does that I found works very well for me – is how well planning activities in advance really, REALLY helps. Taking the time to map out your efforts in advance does wonders to make your game dev time more efficient.
Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 5 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 8, 2013
Since we’ve talked about it, and I’m personally very excited about it:
I signed up within the first few minutes, actually. But that’s me. This is the kind of game I make (oooh, terrible, the competition!). It’s the kind of game I make because I make the kinds of games I want to play. Logic! To top it off, Guido Henkel is definitely a veteran of the industry, a veteran of RPG development, and his past games were of some influence on me. And he seems like a pretty stand-up guy. So, hey, how could I not support this?
But naturally, your mileage may vary.
Filed Under: Game Announcements - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 7, 2013
So after Monday’s little diatribe about how I do not do reviews here, here I go offering something of a non-review that smells suspiciously like a review for the new Rocksmith 2014. My bad. I can’t pretend it’s an exhaustive review, though - I’ve only been playing for a few days. It is just sort of my take on it after a few days of playing (and a lot of experience with its predecessor). While it’s technically a mainstream game, it’s also niche. It may also not entirely be a “game” in a classic sense.
It’s also nothing like the usual stuff I cover here, but hey – I don’t ONLY play indie games, and I certainly don’t restrict myself to RPGs, adventure games, and strategy titles.:) Since I have played all three of the “mainstream-esque” games out there (that I know of) that allow you to play using a real guitar, I thought I might have a useful perspective on the game.
Now – for me, as an American Male, I at some point in my youth picked up playing the guitar. I got to a certain point where I didn’t have to be super self-conscious about playing, and could more-or-less pick out a passable rendition “Stairway to Heaven.” Then the learning curve got hard, and I spent the next twenty-plus years not really progressing at all, just dusting off the guitar for a few weeks out of the year to get some calluses back and retain some subset of my previous skill. And that was it.
Rock Band 3 to the Rescue
I was a big fan of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band game series. I didn’t play them as obsessively as some, but they were certainly favorites in the Barnson household. One of the complaints leveled at these games towards the really obsessive players was, “If you practiced on a real guitar instead of playing that game, you could be a musician by now!” Harmonix responded with a “pro mode” in Rock Band 3 that required you to use a specially designed guitar. I was one of the guys that spent $300 on the full-fledged, stringed, real guitar (which sucks as an analog guitar and can’t hold its tune very well, I’m afraid.) But hey – I had a great time with it.
While it offered some lessons on how to play, RB3′s approach to teaching guitar is really rote memorization. It basically offered four increasingly difficult arrangements of each song for you to practice until you were good enough to play it in the concert venue. There were some decent tools to help you practice the song. Unfortunately, the guitar interface had technical limitations – it couldn’t detect string bends, for example. Its biggest advantages were that it could tell you where your fretting fingers really were without you striking the chord, and it was good at detecting what you hit with exact precision. It’s still a pretty decent “interactive songbook” to use in conjunction with real-world lessons.
Rocksmith - Your Old Dust-Gathering Guitar Becomes the Controller
The original Rocksmith was a tremendous advance in that it only requires you to buy a special new cable which allows you to plug in any guitar with a standard quarter-inch output jack into your console or PC. In theory, it was awesome. In practice – not so awesome, but decent. The input was often a little bit laggy (it was on my machine), which encouraged me to hit the notes about an eighth of a second early – not a good habit. But it could detect things like harmonics and string bends, which RB3 could not.
The interface, unfortunately, is baffling. And, coming from a design concept of being “Guitar Hero using a real guitar!”, sometimes the “game” really got in the way of it being used as a “training tool.” Bizarre design decisions abounded – like limiting you to only 30 attempts to practice a riff, or only allowing you to unlock equipment to use in the otherwise very cool “Amp Mode” (where you just use the game as a customizable pre-amp / amp / post-amp / mixer suite) – just didn’t make much sense.
Did they work as a training tool?
So did they work? Well, some frustrations abounded with both games… but I found myself drawn to playing Rocksmith much more regularly than Rock Band 3. I wasn’t super-active or consistent… but even with my inconsistent playing in fits and starts, and its little technical problems, I had fun playing it, and my skill definitely improved. Not dramatically – I wasn’t about to go out on stage and winning a battle of the bands or anything. But things that were previously hard became significantly less so. And once I really got into Rocksmith, I didn’t play Rock Band 3 so often. RB3 was a decent tool, but Rocksmith made the learning process more entertaining. That, and it was on my computer, which I could play in the basement when the rest of the family went to bed. Playing Rock Band upstairs when they were trying to sleep would not have gone over well.
Anyway – I would have to answer that as a training tool, Rocksmith was clearly superior, but both were useful. But I’m still making games and crane simulators here, not enjoying the life of a rock star, so they don’t work miracles. Duh.
So – enter the new game. Taking all the criticisms to heart, the new game was pretty much re-engineered and redesigned from the ground up as a brand new product. From what I can tell, they stripped all of the “Guitar Hero Wannabe” elements from the product, treating it completely as a training tool using games to help teach, rather than a game that doubles as a training tool. The last one was really into the whole “gamification” thing, I guess, but at a certain point that was more of a hindrance than a help.
Interfacing the Music
The new interface is lean, mean, and fast.
That may not mean too much to you unless you played the original. The interface – in a word – sucked. It was a chore to navigate. Loading was slow. Everything was on a separate menu and had to be scrolled through. Some tools were withheld until you hit certain achievements.
That’s all been stripped out and streamlined. The new one is light-years ahead of its predecessor. It’s a lot less flashy, but a lot more functional, and much faster. It shows right up at the top of the main menu with the most important part of the game: “Learn a Song.”
Learning a Song
The “learn a song” thing is a pretty solid example of how everything has changed. There’s no longer a Rock Band-style difference between learning or practicing a song, and performing it. For those who are unfamiliar with Rocksmith, the game tries to teach you a song as you play. It starts out with a simplified version of the song, based upon its estimation of your skill as a player. First-time players will find that it’s all single-note stuff played on only one or two strings. As you get comfortable, the game throws more notes at you, pushing you. If you really have trouble keeping up, it will scale back the difficulty. Eventually, as you master the song, it throws a full-fledged, right-off-the-record arrangement at you. New for 2014, as you nail the complete song, the game gradually starts fading out notes and sections of the song, requiring you to play from memory. This can be toggled in the options, but the point is – at the end – you can grab any guitar anywhere and play the song.
This is awesome stuff, and speaks to the focus of the game.
There are no longer separate paths between practicing / performing a whole song, and practicing pieces of it. The game offers suggestions for goals and lessons right there at the “Learn a Song” menu, so you can have help right there with anything that you might be struggling with. At any point while playing the song, you can go into the “Riff Repeater” and practice just a section. Alternately, if you are an experienced player and you find the game is starting the song out too easy for you, you can jump into the Riff Repeater and manually increase the difficulty and completeness of a section.
The Riff Repeater deserves extra mention. In the previous game, there were three variants that awkwardly helped you learn a particular section. In Rocksmith 2014, those have all been replaced by a single menu that lets you do a little bit of everything – slow down the riff, set it’s difficulty, enable dynamic adjustment of the difficulty and speed, set how “forgiving” it is of mistakes, and more. This has now become a very powerful, customizable training tool.
Just as importantly, the game can also show you where you made previous mistakes, and can give you hints if you are currently screwing up (like playing on the wrong fret or string), and suggestions for when to change chords and how to finger them. Delightfully, the program is far more responsive (and seems less laggy) now, and seems a good deal more accurate in determining what you are really doing. The note highway system has more visible information on how to play the song, and demands a bit more accuracy now, too. You cannot get away with sloppy mutes, bends, and slides anymore.
Some other things deserve mention.
As in the previous game, there’s a “Guitarcade,” with training exercises disguised as arcade games. At least to me, these seem vastly improved over the last game, where they didn’t seem to offer much beyond what you’d gain from practicing songs. For example, there’s a game called “Star Chords,” which places you in a first-person perspective space fighter in a “rails shooter.” You shoot the enemy ships by strumming the right chord. Take too long, and they shoot you. The trick is that the HUD first tells you the name of the chord, and then slowly reveals the fingering. If you recognize and can form the chord quickly from just the name, you’ll blow up the enemy ships without damage. Each progressive level offers more complex chords, and more of them to memorize. It’s a very fun way to learn! Other games have you practicing slides, scales, harmonics, and so forth.
The “Lesson” section is far more extensive than before. They cover a lot more territory, are much more detailed, and can allow you to complete them with a percentage rating based on your mastery of the lesson material. What I was impressed with is not only do the lessons go into more complex territory, but they also cover more basics – like learning how to hold your pick.
There is also more interactivity to the lessons, and more help available should you run into trouble. While videos and interactive practices may not be a fully adequate substitute for a skilled personal teacher, it seems quite good.
A brand new aspect of the game is the “Sessions” mode. In a Session, you basically create a virtual band and just jam. This is pretty customizable as well. This can be as simple as simply having a metronome setting the beat for you as you practice strums and scales, or it can be as close to an AI jam session as technology can provide, with your virtual band partners changing key on you (or you changing key on them), keeping up and grooving along. I haven’t played with it enough to get a full feel for its strengths and weaknesses, but after a little bit of goofing around with it I see it as indispensable for a game that claims to be a full-fledged teaching system.
Also, the game is always in “Amp Mode” (from the original). You can set up your tone from scratch, or load an “authentic” tone from a particular song, or use an authentic tone as a foundation and customize from there. But from anywhere in the game, it acts as a virtual amp, with full effects. The game is always there as a practice amp if you want it.
The game uses a subtle set of “mission recommendations” to encourage you what to do next, rather than trying to lock you into a fixed progression path. You are free to ignore it if you want, but especially in the beginning it can help direct you to a lot of the key features of the game, and ways to obtain help. This is far, far better than a tutorial.
The game comes with a nice cross-section of available songs – something like 50, ranging from classic hits to unknown indie songs. This is a matter of personal taste, but I like the new tracklist better than the original. There are already some pretty decent new songs coming out as DLC, too.
However, my favorite part is that Rocksmith 2014 is 100% compatible with all of the DLC songs from the original game. This is a big deal for me, as I’d invested a bit into my Rocksmith music library. The only small bit of sadness there is that the original tracklist from the first game is not automatically imported. I imagine this is due to licensing issues. However, for $10, you can get a tool that will import the original Rocksmith library, if you really liked it and don’t want to go back to the older game.
I can’t blame you if you do. I really liked Rocksmith, warts and all, but the new release really blows the old one away. It’d be tough going back just to play House of the Rising Sun or Take Me Out.
Will It Work?
So ultimately, how much can a game like this help you? I’ve known some people who have really obtained great results from RB3 and the original Rocksmith. Again, for me – even playing inconsistently and sometimes not for weeks at a time, Rocksmith more than RB3 really helped me transition from “perma-noob” to somewhere on the low end of intermediate. I made more progress in playing the guitar than I had since I was eighteen years old. That’s something. But I still often felt like I ran into some walls in Rocksmith where it was very difficult to move further, and I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to get over that particular obstacle.
I’ve only been playing Rocksmith 2014 for a few days, but it has already helped me clear a few of those obstacles. I’ve no doubt part of that is simply my effort and discipline in putting in the time to push through it with a shiny new game to help keep my interest up. But some of it was also because of the vastly improved tools available in the game to help me learn.
So yeah. It’s cool. I’m impressed, and having a lot of fun with it. More importantly, I feel that it’s helping.
And as a side note – David Carlton has played a LOT more of both RB3 Pro Mode and the original RS than I have, and he has written up his own impressions on the changes in Rocksmith 2014 compared to the original. If you aren’t familiar with the first game, it might not be very meaningful, but if you are still on the fence about the upgrade, it may be of value.
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