Saturday, April 27, 2013

Darkfall Unholy Wars: The MMO that shouldn't be compared to other MMOs

Darkfall: Unholy Wars launched on Steam recently and I understand that a lot of the poster comments have been less than favorable.  Many of which say things like "don't buy it, this game takes MMOs backwards" or some such nonsense.

Unfortunately for AV, Darkfall Unholy Wars is suffering from the reputation of the original Darkfall.  The irony is that the thing that made DF1 so grindy was the progression system and that's actually part of what is making the game extremely fun in Unholy Wars.

Darkfall is NOT an MMO
OK, well it is an MMO. But my point is that if you are thinking of trying Darkfall, you shouldn't think of it as an MMO. I wrote this on Syncaine's blog tonight in the comments of his review:

If you like FPS games, if you like MMOs, if you like PvP, and if you like banding together with others — there isn’t a better game that combines all of these things that exists.

Darkfall is a misunderstood beast because people want to label it as just an MMO and then hold it up for comparison against other MMOs.

Honestly, that’s just a very small part of the appeal. Many of the people actually playing Darkfall come from more skill-based games like FPS shooters. That’s why bloggers like Tobold don’t “get” the Darkfall concept — they compare it to WoW and EvE when they should also be comparing it to entirely different games (like Tribes and WWII Online).

To be honest, Syncaine doesn’t really help the cause because he draws a lot of his own comparisons to other MMOs including EvE. This game has almost nothing in common with EvE — it’s so NOT EvE that I find the comparison ludicrous.

It’s a shame because you have a lot of DF haters posting on Steam because they are thinking of this game entirely in the context of an MMO. It’s that, for sure, but it’s also these other things. 
Adding on to what I wrote in his comments, there are things that exist (and work!) in a game like Darkfall that wouldn't work in other games because the game is designed around certain PvP concepts.  It's simply not accurate to say, "well, we can compare this feature to other MMOs and know it doesn't work" -- because it DOES work in Darkfall because the game is DESIGNED FOR IT TO WORK.

The best example of this is "full loot" PvP.  Scary stuff, right?  Nope.  The game is designed to be easy to lose and easy to gain.  I've farmed a few sets a gear, lost a few sets of gear, and battle looted a few sets of gear.  That's simply how the game is designed.  And it simply wouldn't work right if it wasn't designed that way.

Why Darkfall is the MMO that isn't like other MMOs
If you have read any of my blog postings over the years, you'll know that one of the things I despise is when people place labels on games to attempt to put them in a box.

Darkfall can't be placed in a single box.

WoW is it's own box.  EvE is it's own box.  Darkfall is neither -- it's something different and deserves it's own box.  Sure, it has some familiar MMO parts, but it also has parts from completely other genres.  It has just as much in common with skill-based first person shooters as it does with any other MMO.

Combat is far faster paced than a normal MMO and it's not easy.  But it's not always about the individual skill level, it's often about the skill level of the group.  It's a very dynamic game where the objectives and goals are more oriented at PvP.

A game built for PvP
If you don't enjoy the PvP experience, don't unfairly toss your opinions on a game whose entire design is built around making a fun PvP experience.  Shame on you for casting disparaging remarks about a game that's simply not meant for you.

That's really my point of this blog post.  Darkfall is for people who enjoy PvP, who enjoy MMOs, who enjoy fast and skill-based FPS combat, and who enjoy grouping with others to form a common cause.

In this way, the game is unique and as an MMO community we should be fostering the development of these types of games rather than trying to criticize a game that's not entirely in the MMO genre.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Darkfall Unholy Wars: Prowess & Character Progression

I am a big believer that RPGs are largely driven by character progression.  In MMOs, the dial gets turned up even further because the shared world experience breeds competition between players. This won't hold true for everyone, but I do believe it holds true for the vast majority.  In the PvP game, character progression also leads to an advantage in PvP and the "reward" for progressing your character is more tangible in that it allows you to vanquish your enemies more easily.

In other words, in a game like Darkfall, the motivation dial to make your character as powerful as quickly as possible is set to a very high setting.  The more effective you are at character development, the more viable you are at PvP.

The problem with original Darkfall Online (DF1)
Not to be confused with Darkfall Unholy Wars, DF1 is the original Darkfall that was launched back in 2009 and closed it's servers in 2012 in preparation for it's successor, Darkfall: Unholy Wars (DF:UW).

In the original, characters were progressed by "skilling up" an ability by actually using that ability. If you wanted to be better at melee combat, you needed to get out there and swing that sword. Pretty much everything could be skilled up -- even mundane things like Swimming and Sprinting.

In addition to skill gains, there were stat gains. Unlike other games, wearing armor only provided better protection, it didn't provide more stats.  In fact, without the stats for it -- you simply couldn't wear the armor.

You will hear other reasons why people may not have played DF1 but many of those reasons will be opinions about a style of gaming that player simply doesn't like to play.  Ultimately, the problem with DF1 came down to two major flaws:
  • It's exploitable through macros. Players quickly learned that if they just setup a script or macro to have themselves swim in a circle, it would yield them stat gains.  The more hardcore players would "blood wall" and set up macros where they attacked each other without delivering a killing blow.  Looped endlessly overnight, these macros would progress players without them doing any actual work.
  • Exacerbating the above problem, the grind was incredible. I am not a casual player and I played for 3 solid hardcore months and still barely progressed my character.  It simply wasn't worth the effort to continue playing particularly if the only way to "catch up" was to use macros.
The problems I am describing here are deeply rooted and linked to why players who otherwise enjoyed the game quit.  They simply didn't want to keep a computer logged in macro'ing for 8 hours a night in order to be competitive. 

The early beta solution in Darkfall Unholy Wars (DF:UW)
At the start of Unholy Wars beta in December, the above system still existed but the developers had taken some steps to mitigate the problem.  Aventurine had eliminated skill-ups for things like Swimming and Sprinting but it still existed for things like combat swings.  Since this was "on use" skill-ups, you absolutely could still "blood wall' with another player for easy gains.

Aventurine further mitigated the macro problem by reducing the grind.  Since the number of skills needed to max was reduced and the speed at which those skills level was increased -- such macro'ing was believed to only provide a short-term gain and casuals could eventually catch up with normal play.

They also introduced a new system called Prowess.  As you completed certain things, you gained Prowess.  This Prowess could be used to buy things like a "booster" which increased your stats for your class.  Maximizing your character progression in the early beta took a combination of Prowess and skill-ups.

Feedback was VERY positive on the Prowess system but continued to be very negative regarding the ability to continue to be able to macro and blood wall.  It was suggested in the beta forums that this Prowess system be the primary method of developing your character -- not the old skill-up "on use" system from DF1.

The new Prowess system in Darkfall Unholy Wars (DF:UW)
And Aventurine listened. Based on the beta feedback, they revised the whole system to be entirely based on Prowess rather than the old DF1 system of skill-ups based "on use" of that particular skill.  In that one act, they completely eliminated the macro'ing problem from DF1.  This was a big change and in fairness to AV, a big contributing factor to why the beta lasted as long as it did.  

Under the new system, you must "earn" Prowess by completing meaningful actions (harvesting, crafting, killing creatures, and completing feats).  These points, once earned, can be used to purchase your skill (or stat) gains.

Unlike Syncaine, I don't think it's a brand new idea. The feats, in particular, bear a striking resemblance to Achievements and even Quests.  You can argue how it's different until you are blue in the face but it doesn't change the fact that attempting to kill X creatures feels exactly the same.  Likewise, we have seen point allocation systems in other games.  I am reminded or the Renown Points in Warhammer Online and how they  are used to buy Renown Rewards to increase Strength and Weapon skill from the trainer.  

That said, I think what is perhaps unique about this progression system is the depth to which it is implemented throughout the game.  It's also a very tidy "sandboxy" solution to a significant problem.

My biggest criticism about the new system is that I felt the progression went, ironically, too quickly.  In turns out that some of my concern may have been related to circumstances that only existed in beta.  Specfically, for much of the beta, "resistances" were not in on the creatures so they effectively were wearing no armor.  Shortly before end of beta, all the resistances went back in -- and the difficulty level scaled up as a result.

So -- progression will be slower as a result.  How slow?  That's hard to say and it may still be too fast.  But almost assuredly, players will speed past whatever expectations Aventurine has on the progression.  As I said at the top of the blog post, in a PvP centric game like Darkfall - the dial doesn't get any higher in the "race" for progression.  

Let the Prowess race begin.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Darkfall Unholy Wars: The myth behind the polarizing labels

If you have read my blog or comments on other blogs over the years, one of the things I despise is how often MMO pundits toss out "labels" on games.  I prefer to think the actual truth of a game lies within the features that comprise that game and not some "label" that is tossed out to force a game into some box.

Darkfall: Unholy Wars is a prime example of labels in action.  It will be described as both a "sandbox" game and as a "hardcore pvp" game.  As such, it will be compared to EvE ad nauseum and success or failure, you'll hear all about why people don't want a "hardcore pvp" game.

Bullshit. Darkfall is no more like EvE than it's like WoW.  

The similarity between EvE and Darkfall can be summed up in the following way - these are games without a story. That's it.

Even here, both games take a radically different approach. EvE is largely about empire building and actual PvP is very rare. In many ways, PvE and crafting is more central to the EvE universe and the game has more in-common with Minecraft than Darkfall.

In Darkfall, the game centers around the PvP. Crafting, as it exists, serves only to create a value of sorts for the zero-sum PvP.  Darkfall is not an empire building game any more than it's a PvE raiding game.  

Darkfall is a fast-paced shooter style MMO with a focus on controlling specific bind points through PvP.  In other words, it's a conquest game that has as much in common with a persistent world-wide version of Arathi Basin as it does with EvE's sandbox game.

In other words, start with elements of EvE (city building) and elements of the classic control-point scenario (like Arathi Basin).  Mix them all up and put them in a large persistent world.  Then throw in some first-person style arcade combat and zero-sum PvP.  That's Darkfall.

If DF:UW fails, the reasons will have nothing to do with so-called "hardcore PvP"

Wait, you say, EvE also has zero-sum PvP.  Umm, kinda.  

There is loss in EvE, for sure, but it's not zero-sum (which means winner-takes-all).  It's a winner-take-some scenario because some items are destroyed.  Also, it's relatively rare.  The loss is something to be feared and protected against.

In Darkfall, PvP truly is a zero-sum game. Often labeled as "hardcore PvP" what most people don't understand about such PvP is that because it's zero-sum, it's just as possible to GAIN as it is to LOSE.

Zero-sum, by definition, means that if one person loses 10 gold, then another person gains 10 gold.  The problem with the original Darkfall was not the zero-sum PvP, it was that there was such a vast gap between the veteran and the new player that the new player was always the one to lose the 10 gold.

This is an important distinction because it's not zero-sum PvP that poses the problem but the relative balance between players that leaves one player at a significant advantage.  A problem that has since been corrected in Unholy Wars.  New players can and will become viable in PvP very quickly.

The myths of zero-sum PvP

The biggest misconception about zero-sum PvP is that there is this monumental loss when you lose your items. In other games, gear progression is an important form of character progression and it's not uncommon to spend weeks and weeks to try and get that one key drop.

There are no make or break drops in Darkfall.  Ever single usable item can be crafted and farming for those items is no more of a time sink than harvesting some mats for your typical crafting profession.  In fact, most of the "time sink" comes from leveling the skill to craft the item and not the harvested mats.

Instead, you see a different dynamic that is based on people managing their own level of risk. You don't always go out in your best gear.  You save that for the special events.  And sometimes, you wear bad gear on purpose because you don't want to take the durability hit on higher cost items.

It's a game of easy come and easy go. Everyone loses gear and the game is designed in such a way that individual losses are not monumental.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

NDA Lifted: Beta Tester impressions of Darkfall Unholy Wars

AV lifted the NDA this morning on Darkfall: Unholy Wars and the release date is set for April 16th.  You
can expect me to be posting a lot more actively now that I can speak freely about the game I have been beta testing for 5 months.

Yes, a 5 month beta.  Normally in these types of posts you get "first impressions" of a game.  My first impressions were gone many many months ago.  To put this in perspective, I played the original DF1 for 3 months so my "beta" experience with Unholy Wars is already 2 months longer than the original game.

It was a long beta and Tasos had one ask as he lifted the NDA: to comment on the game as it exists today and not on issues that were addressed earlier in beta.  I think that's a very fair request.

The first month will be incredible.
The second month may start to stall.  And by the third month, they better have something new or anyone without a strong vision for the game is going to lose interest.

In other words, par for the course with every other MMO that has launched in the last billion years.  That said, I'll make a caveat -- that first month will be worth the price of the game.  If you like PvP, it's going to be fun times and worthwhile.

Also, it's worth pointing out that interest isn't going to start waning immediately and mileage will vary depending on how actively you play.  Also, there are pieces expected at launch (dungeons, in particular) that could be introduced to keep players interested longer than I'm anticipating.

Not enough sand in the sandbox...
The problem, in a nutshell, has nothing to do with the "hardcore" nature of this game. I'll speak to this in a future post but this is mostly a red herring thrown out there by people who would never truly enjoy a game like Darkfall.

The problem lies in that progression is very fast for "characters" and mind-numblingly slow for everything else. This is incredibly ironic if you were at all familiar with the original Darkfall, but the net of the problem is this..

In these types of conquest games, players need things to do when they aren't out conquesting. Right now, the potential problem is that there simply isn't enough interesting things "to do" when not sieging to keep people logged in.

This isn't inherently obvious to someone who hasn't spent a lot of time in the latest beta round that introduced the new "prowess" system for character advancement. All due respects to Syncaine and his opinions, but I'm fairly confident that I have logged 4-5 times the hours he has in this latest beta (having played it full-time).

For many players, the biggest "thing to do" draw is improvement to become more viable at PvP.  Early game, the new prowess system is going to be a big draw and feel very rewarding.  It's also going to create a lot of competition for important mob spawns. This is going to make for some fantastic PvP and a real sense of accomplishment during the first month.

And then that will end.  Around 100k prowess, there will be an effective prowess cap for your role that means you'll gain very little benefit for further character improvement.   In other words, you will still have choices but the level of effort required will likely not be worth the gain.  [EDIT: To be clear, I'm not implying this is "grindy" -- I'm saying you are effectively almost "maxxed" within that role for the purposes of PvP.]

There are still other choices, of course, what gear to wear, what to siege, and so forth but the main motivating force that keeps people logged in will be minimized.  That's a problem.  Because in order for you to have PvP, you need to have people.

A game of conquest!
The counter-argument you will hear is that Darkfall is about conquest, sieges and crafting.  Crafting, in it's current state, lacks the "bones" in which to build a strong economy.  That's the backbone of EvE, but it's not the backbone of Unholy Wars and needs considerable work if that's the intent.

On sieges, I absolutely agree and these are extremely fun.  That's not the issue.  The issue is -- players will log on for a siege -- then log off once it's over.  Any "spontaneous" PvP will be virtually non-existant and largely consist of 15 bored guys rolling into a city that has 2-3 semi-AFK harvesters.

And to be clear, PvP is the goal.  The content that needs to be added should drive PvP and come in the form of "hotspots" that bring people together for a fight.  My criticism here is something needs to be added that is rewarding in such a way that people will congregate in areas that will allow PvP to flourish.

On Aventurine...
I want to comment briefly on AV.  It's obvious this isn't a big budget company and I admire what they are able to accomplish with limited resources.  It requires a different approach, one that is more iterative in that pieces of the puzzle are slowly added into the mix.

You do need to be comfortable with the idea that the game will always be a work-in-progress. That's true of all MMOs but particularly true here where the budgets are small.  This approach does work and I do think it results in a better game but it requires patience from players which is often in short supply.

Fortunately, I do have patience and do believe in the vision.  It's a fun game and I do plan to continue playing many months after launch.  But I'm also not most people..

And thus, my prediction that unless something new is introduced (which is possible) players are going to hit the same "lack of content" wall that they hit with every other game.