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Monday, December 8, 2014

Holidays, Farewells, Hope and the Future of Sci-Fi Online Gaming

It's the holiday season around the world whether it's about the solstice, ancient births, temple rededication or whatever. It's a time when we all get to do extra things, many of them revolving around the family. As I've got a family, I have plenty to do. But does that mean I'm going to take a break from blogging? The answer to that is yes... and no. It's probably more correct to state I am working under a different set of priorities for the next month. For example, this weekend I spent time helping my significant other help a neighbor move by removing a bedroom set from the neighbor's house to ours. We also acquiring a lovely Noble Fir and erected it in the living room. Next weekend I unfortunately  need to say farewell to Uncle Bob, aka the Rhinestone Logger (click the link!) ;-) ,who passed away last Monday. But it's not all bad news this holiday. Far from it! There is much for which to be thankful. My mother is still undergoing treatment, is not getting worse (though that is a relative term) and we are still hopeful. I even managed to play a couple of hours of Landmark and five hours of Kerbal Space Program this past weekend, but all the other things came first.

And so it will be with the blog I suspect. I'll still post throughout the holiday, but I'm not going to force myself to maintain a three post a week schedule as I normally do. If I've something to post, I'll post. And I know I'll have something to post. I just might not do it thrice weekly. Who knows, I may even sneak in extra posts. I really just don't know what my schedule will really be is all. It may be a lot more open than I foresee, or a lot less. Time will tell.

I should also cop to being in a bit of a gaming malaise at the moment. I expected this period of time to be filled with posts about how awesome Assassin's Creed: Unity for the PC is. But the bug ridden launch of the PC title really pulled me up short. In fact, I've a good bit of anger brewing over it. I feel like Ubisoft pushed a half-cooked bloody turkey in front of me and expected me to eat it. I find I really resent the company for what it did. I can't convince myself they didn't know how horribly broken the game was. The developers who poured their lives into that code, and I know they did, would have known it was not ready. I can't think of any programmer on the planet that would have felt it was ready to launch. This had to be a management decision, and management borked it. They published anyway. I have to think that, or believe the programmers really thought they had it right. If they really thought it was ready, they need to find a new profession. No, I am thoroughly convinced this was a management decision. Ubisoft had made commitments to companies like Nvidia and AMD to launch when they did, and management chose to honor those commitments rather than their commitment to the players of Assassin's Creed. That is why I have this simmering anger towards Ubisoft right now. I'm just glad I didn't drop $60 (or more) on the title as a pre-purchase.

That leaves $60 for a game I KNOW is ready and was created for the love of gaming, not corporate contracts. That game is Elite: Dangerous. It's almost here!!! Here's the really sad part in all this. I was willing to forego Elite: Dangerous in preference to Assassin's Creed: Unity. What was I thinking? I've been keeping tabs on Elite: Dangerous for a while even though I elected to put my money in another alpha support opportunity. I must say I'm very pleased with how Elite: Dangerous turned out. It really has retained the feel of the original Elite. But now it is damn gorgeous!

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Capital Ship Under Attack Capital Ship Under Attack[/caption]

When I first saw virtual stars graphically rendered just like the HELIOS pictures I've seen for years, I knew this was a game I had to play opening day. And that day is nearly upon us: December 16, 2014. But as I said, this isn't the game on which I spent my development support dollars.

The game I opted to support is Star Citizen. I saw it as the more ambitious project, with potential for some serious evolution in the Sci-Fi gaming genre. For all that Elite:Dangerous looks well done and captures the essence of the original Elite in spades, it is still a remake. It is not substantially different from Elite, only modernized. Star Citizen on the other hand is different, though not necessarily revolutionary. The difference that made me sit up and take notice is Star Citizen's concept of a crewed ship. In every Sci-Fi MMO I've played, the ship is treated as an object, not a destination. It's a game piece on a board. In EVE Online we had huge debates over whether the ships had only a capsuleer onboard or an entire crew of possibly thousands. People were quite passionate in their opinions on the matter, but that's all they had: opinions. I think the subject was mostly settled by comments from CCP and lore updates, but the fact there was even a debate shows a key shortcoming in the Sci-Fi genre. Ships are not like real ships. Games like Star Trek Online and now Star Wars the Old Republic try to address that issue, but they are not multi-player crewed. Even my long-lost favorite Star Wars Galaxies fell a little short though you could at least walk around in your yacht.

Star Citizen aims to make what you do inside a ship matter. If you don't man the dorsal turret, those guns won't fire. If there is no one to fly the onboard fighter, it'll stay right where it is. If you choose to fly it, you better have a damn good autopilot. The idea of multi-player taken to that level is worth supporting. There is a part of me that loves the thought it will take a crew to effectively fight the largest spaceships in Star Citizen, and multiboxing is not an option. Multiboxing took a lot of joy out of EVE Online for me (and others) and CCP has finally realized that fact. But that doesn't mean people won't still try to run entire gank fleets by themselves, or that CCP's initiative will do what they think it will. But having a ship requiring other real players to help fight with it might just be the salve for that pustule. There are lots of other people who evidently feel the same way. But to be certain, Star Citizen is a long ways from realizing the goal of multi-player ships. Doubt still exists on the Interweb whether they can actually pull it off. I've already made my bet on that score. ;-)

But Elite:Dangerous and Star Citizen have something more to bring to the Sci-Fi gaming genre and social gaming in general. Both Elite:Dangerous and Star Citizen are persistent universes, not traditional MMOs like EVE Online. It will be possible to play both alone or with others, and to cross that line and return. At least that is what both developers have said. There will be one universe for everyone, and even if you play alone you will have an effect on that universe. That is intriguing. In days gone by, in the early days of MMOs, it was PvP for everyone all the time. That lead to some distinctly anti-social behavior, and as MMOs are supposed to be a SOCIAL gaming experience, it left a bad taste in a lot of people's virtual mouths. So the PvP opt out was invented. You could elect not to participate in PvP, but there was a catch. You had to go to a completely different server and only play with like-minded people. The two worlds were separate and distinct, yet supposedly mirror copies of each other. That created a certain level of us and them mentality in gaming which has bred terms like carebear and acronyms like HTFU. But the separation of play styles was more a reality of computer power as it was an intent to divide the gaming community. Back then, MMOs had to use multiple servers, called shards, to distribute the load and present everyone an acceptable level of game play. It was only logical to make some shards PvP enabled and others not. It was an easy, and cheap, solution.

However, computer power has come a long way in the intervening decade and a half. Sharding is no longer necessary from a technical perspective, though it has been maintained as an easy separation of the two playing styles. But that's an artificiality that's always grated on me. One of the things that makes EVE Online stand out, HTFU and all, is it is a shardless universe where player actions matter. CCP's latest round of advertising stridently pushes this fact. And judging from the video hits on YouTube, which is at 1.5 million after only two weeks - twice as many as any other EVE Online promotion save a couple that sing very similar messages and have had years to amass hits - this tack is getting traction. And as I mentioned on someone else's blog who didn't play EVE Online, the video is a true enough representation of EVE Online play, though it is only one side of a complex situation.

So the question is, can you have both? Can you have an EVE Online experience of a single universe where player actions matter, but also have a standalone game experience if that's your preference? Can everyone contribute to a socially interconnected virtual universe regardless of play style preference? Could you be an explorer, salvager or builder contending only with mobs one day, and then decide to become a full on PvP pirate the next? Let me be clear that neither Frontier nor Roberts Space Industry have said this play-style switching of a single character will ultimately be part of their games - at least not from what I've read. There is a good deal of conjecture on my part here. But if there is a persistent universe where play style was irrelevant, what would prevent a player from playing PvE or PvP as the mood struck them? If you don't have the time or the patience or the mental endurance to face the setbacks PvP sometimes brings, could you slip into a more relaxed gameplay style if just for a night, while still contributing to the virtual universe to which you belong? To me that is the promise of the persistent universe MMO. It's a shift in the paradigm so to speak. The point where Massively Multiplayer Online comes to mean massively all players online. That would be a good place to play I'm thinking.

3 comments:

  1. This reminds me of the sheer number of ways in which Star Trek Online blew it.

    You can visit the interior of your ship! And there are your crew members, bent over their consoles in a way that would horrify any ergonomist, and non-interactable unless a mission specifically calls for you to interact with them. You can pick up assignments from various crew, but only through an interface in your command center; if you talk to them in person, you get different (and fewer) options.

    Until a very recent patch, you would leave tactical (ship in space) view and *beam* onto the bridge, then *beam* out into tactical view, which is just staggeringly lazy. Now you just appear on the bridge, but not in your captain's chair. Similarly, you can now go back to tactical view if you're near your captain's chair... but not if you're sitting in it, only if you're standing in front of it. You can invite people to your bridge! But it's not significantly different than if you don't, because the only thing different from not inviting them is that you see chat bubbles over people's heads when they text.

    If you're en route to a destination and you switch from tactical view to ship interior, the ship stops. The game can't even manage to have your first officer tell you that you're clear to warp to a new sector from her perch 10 feet away on the bridge, apparently.

    It's like they implemented about 1/3 of the game, kicked it out the door, and called it good. Oh, and the Mac client crashes all the time. I will never complain about EVE's Mac client again (in fact, it's quite good now). It could be so immersive, and it just... isn't.

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  2. I heard about AC:U launch bugs and now you comment on the state of the game.
    Yet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassin's_Creed_Unity#Reception says the game received 'mixed to positive' reviews. Just confirms my bias that reviews = advertorial

    And by the way the fact that a game requires a release day patch to be playable at all means it never should have been released in the first place.

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  3. From what I can tell, the console versions of AC:U do not suffer from the same level of bugginess as the PC version. I surmise this is from where the more positive reviews come, though I've no doubt there is always a certain level of advertorial. And there are some people who seem to have no issues with the PC version, though it is rare. Regardless, it's not something I'm willing to drop full price on, so I will wait for the 50% off sale during Steam's Summer Sale, or whenever.

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