Archive for May, 2008

Epic Fortunata fun

May 30, 2008 Comments off

For the past week since the release of Issue 12 I have spent a fair amount of time in City of Villains, mostly playing the new epic villain archetypes – widow and spider. Of those two I choose to focus on the widow path.
Everyone who has played City of Villains are familiar with the Arachnos troops and have fought them on numerous occasions. Choosing to play the epic villain archetypes will for many likely be a bit coloured by those experiences. The epic villain archetypes (VEATs) have a prerequisite that at least one of your villains has reached level 50 in the game before.

Life as a widow basically starts out as a blood widow, one of the earlier Arachnos troops encountered and somewhat nasty with their melee oriented attacks using claws. Being one of the regular Arachnos troops, how is that epic and in line with the other super-powered villainous types running around blasting things?

When you start out as “regular” supervillain Arachnos busts you out of prison because you are on their list of Destined Ones – special ones that are seen as very important evil-doers. As a regular trooper, what do you have to do? Cheat of course! You manage to put in a fake entry with your name on the Destined Ones list…

As a VEAT there are a number of contacts and story arcs that are only for those archetypes and which becomes available at various levels as one progress.

When one starts as a VEAT there is not a lot of choice in terms of powers or costumes – a few minor variations on the regular troop uniforms and a free colour choice. There is only one primary and secondary powerset to choose from initially and the origin is always Natural. As with the regular villains, one can pick up powers from the pool sets also later.

A significant change comes at level 24. At this point you are forced to respec your power choices and now have additional powersets to choose from, one primary and one secondary from each of the specialisation paths available. Both the original powersets and the 2 new powersets from the specialisation path are available, which means that one suddenly have a lot of different powers to choose from. For widows the specialisation choice is either Night Widow or Fortunata.

Night Widows are basically nastier melee-oriented widows; most people that have played villains to somewhat higher levels have encounted them and sometimes been killed by them – blinded and quickly slashed to death from an enemy you cannot see.
The Fortunatas use more psi-oriented ranged damage and crowd control capabilities, twisting the minds of their enemies. They appear in weak and stronger versions, although perhaps has not given players the same amount of frustration in encounters as the Night Widows.

It was not easy to choose path here, but in the end I choose the Fortunata path, since that has more crowd control and ranged damage options, which suits me better than the more melee-oriented path.

My current choice for the Fortunata has only a few attacks and is more focused on buffs and crowd control options – all the VEATs have some good team buffs, plus some personal buffs. I have pretty much all of them going.
The buffs provides some extra defense, tohit, accuracy and strength bonuses with provides an ok improvement compared to my normal squishy villains (e.g. the dominators). Where it really shines is in teams where other have similar team buffs going which stacks with each other. This has in particular been the case when many of those playing their VEATs team up together.

I have played a fair amount in large teams with a number of VEATs in them and those have been extraordinary in the ability to fight though the hordes of enemies encounted. This has also shown on the level progression. My fortunata is at level 32 now, which is after a bit more than a week calendar time and perhaps a bit more than a days playtime – which is far below time spent on any other character up to the low 30s.

I have had a lot of fun with the widow/Fortunata. There are definitely areas where I can see I can improve and change my power and enhancement slot selection, so there will be respec:s. Which I think is part of the fun – to try out, change and improve from own experience.

From seeing what other players have chosen it seems that the Crab Spider path is by far the most poplar VEAT choice, with the Night Widows a distant second. I don’t recall seeing any Bane Spider and I have only seen one other Fortunata when I have played.
And a large portion of the spider troops seem to have named their character “Operative “… I suppose that is a somewhat in-character choice of name.

Either way, the VEATs have been a lot of fun to play so far and I am glad that NCSoft finally put them in the game.

Categories: City of Heroes

Tabula Rasa gets the silent treatment from NCSoft

May 25, 2008 2 comments

A bit over a week ago NCSoft released their earnings report for the first quarter of 2008.
This time I was curious as to how well Tabula Rasa had done after their first report, where numbers for the game was less than stellar.
There has been many updates and improvements to the game, so it was interesting to see how well it has been doing and if this was reflected in sales anything.

In previous earnings reports most of the MMOGs are reported separately, while the other games (casual games, Dungeon Runners etc) get lumped into the category “others”.

Fortunately in this case, Tabula Rasa had it separate entry for the sales of the game. Unfortunately, the numbers were not particularly good, roughly 1.8 million USD for the quarter, a whopping 2% of the total sales for the quarter.

When I looked at the “operating metrics” section, Tabula Rasa was not included at all. This section includes the other larger MMOG titles (Lineage, Lineage II, Guild Wards, City of Heroes/Villains), but no mention of Tabula Rasa. Other online games such as Exteel or Dungeon Runners are not mentioned here either. So neither of those are probably considered worth mentioning for investors.

In the part that talks about future development and sales during this quarter, Tabula Rasa is not mentioned at all, but all of the titles in the operating metrics section are mentioned.

So there are probably no new and big investments in the game in order to boost the game, more likely that the dev team got some resources to keep it running and do some updates and see if they can improve numbers, but not anything significant.

1.8 million USD is still a fair amount of money though, but they are hardly going to get the invested money back anytime soon with those amounts though.

So how many subscribers may the game have now? Looking at the sales numbers for Q1 2008, the Tabula Rasa numbers are about 1/3 of the City of Heroes/Villains sales numbers. In the opering metrics section for City of Heroes/Villains, they report close to 135000 in “monthly access”. That could translate into the same amount of subscribers, although some are probably trial accounts.
Using that as a base for calculations and assuming subscription fee, retail price and split between US and Europe is roughly the same that would mean Tabula Rasa subscribers/monthly access would be around 1/3, i.e. around 45000.

As I mentioned in my entry from the previous earnings report, NCSoft had forecasted around 15 million USD for 2008 for the game. 1.8 million is less than half of what would be needed for that forecast, if the earnings would be divided evenly throughout the year.

I feel sorry for the development team here, because I think the game deserves to have a larger player base. But the staying power is not good enough to keep a lot of people for a long time and likely not enough new blood coming in. If they would extend the trial to be a bit longer than the few days the current one has, they might get more people wanting to play if for a few months at least.

Categories: Tabula Rasa

New and shiny updates

May 22, 2008 2 comments

After being on vacation for about a week not looking at anything game-like and barely touching any computer, I found a couple of new things waiting to be explored:

  • Age of Conan was released (for pre-order at least)
  • Issue 12 for City of Heroes/Villains was released
  • Deployment 8.x for Tabula Rasa was released

Age of Conan was expected of course, but the other 2 I had not expected to happen already. Of these 3 the Tabula Rasa update is probably the least exciting of them. Not that is is a bad one, but in comparision to a whole new game or new epic archetypes, powersets, new and revamped zones and slots galore it cannot quite compete.

I did start to play a bit in Age of Conan, created two characters and played a little bit in Tortage here. Performance-wise the game has worked quite well, but I’ve seen a few graphic glitches and I have had two crashes of the game so far – once while zoning and the other when exiting the game. Apart form that I think the game has worked well though and its been fun. Most of what I have done so far is familar from when I played in the open beta though, so not really at anything that is completely new yet.

Most of the time though has been spent in City of Villains. One epic archetype character (Widow) has been created, which I been playing a fair amount now and I enjoy it very much.
Tatiana Sente
I also created another dominator, so that I again have dominators for all powersets available. The dominator has not received as much play time yet, but the earth control/electricity manipulation combination seems quite nice after the first few levels. There are many small details and improvements in the interfaces and in the game mechanics which makes the gameplay even nicer than before. Good work NCSoft!
Have not had any time yet to explore the new and revamped zones, so there is lots more to try out also.
All in all, plenty of new things to play around with for a while.

Age of Conan – a question of millions

May 13, 2008 2 comments

Funcom put out an announcement with some numbers on beta and web site interest for Age of Conan – 1 million beta signups and 5 million unique visitors to the web site in 2008.

1 million signups does not mean there were that many in beta, just that 1 million applied for it. And 5 million visitors might not mean 5 million persons, only 5 million unique sources which is a bit different.

Still, the numbers do indicate that they have managed to get a lot of people intersted at some point and that they might have some good pre-order numbers in some regions at least.

I do hope it works out well for Funcom here, for three reasons:

* I do like to see more non-US developers succeed in the Western market, that should be good for diversity.
* While it is Yet Another Fantasy game, it is a different fantasy setting than most of the other MMORPGs in that area – again good for diversity and choice
* It has been fun to play, the little time I had to try it out

Remains to be seen at what state the performance and stability will be at launch and what other challenges may pop up.

Teaming: Why City of Heroes beats Tabula Rasa

May 11, 2008 2 comments

In the past 9 months there has been two MMOGs I have been playing regularly – City of Heroes/Villains and Tabula Rasa. The points I wanted to bring up here are applicable for other games also, but I have taken the two games I played much recently as the examples.

The short summary is that teaming in City of Heroes/Villains (CoH/CoV) makes a good job of avoiding obstacles to set up a team and have a bit of fun. Tabula Rasa (TR) has still some way to go here.

1. Team-oriented content:
In CoH/CoV everything and nothing is teamoriented. Almost all content can be played solo, but the same content is scaled up depending on team size and difficulty setting for the mission owner. More enemies and more difficult enemies is the result for larger teams. This is for instances only, but since almost all content is instance-based that could be said to be the general state.

In TR a lot of the content is on outdoor area, with some instances accesible through each outdoor area basically. The instances are designed for small teams primarily, but have some ability to scale, although this is more subtle than CoH/CoV. Also the control points in the outdoor areas are also places that benefits from having teams. Although it is stirctly not necessary to form teams, it generally requires multiple players – unless the player level is (sometimes substantially) higher than the enemies. If you get into the higher levels, the requirement to team even in the outdoor areas also becomes a bit more common.

Both have lots of content for teams, although CoH/CoV has the edge here with allowing everything to be team-oriented, while TR is almost forcing teams for some content.

2. Team requirements:
Both games are quite good in that they do generally not require a certain team set-up, e.g. “the holy trinity”. This makes it easier to find characters/players that fit and they are both better than many other MMOGs in that area.
Still, CoH/COV has the edge with the sidekick/exemplar functionality. While the actual level span that works for a team is quite small in the game the sidekick/exemplar functionality more than makes up for that limitation. This makes it possible to transform another players effective level to be quite close (same or 1 level below) to a player character they pair up with in the team.
Which means that almost anyone can be invited to a team. There is a split where heroes and villains cannot team together in most places of the game though.

In TR the usable level range is quite forgiving for team compared to some other games, so everyone does not have to be very close in level. However, without any sidekick/exemplar-like functionality there is still a shorter level span in practice for teaming.

3. Team content experience:
In CoH/CoV most instanced areas are built with with a few common building blocks and players become all too familiar with those. Some of the story content is quite good, but requires reading a number of text “clues”, which may be received at times when there is not much opportunity to read them.
In TR the instanced areas are much more varied and the environment itself a quite enjoyable experience and quite good-looking in comparision. The story is also more accessible and visible in TR. There are also text here to enhance the story experience, but this is generally associated with the missions taken.
Both games can take advantage of some scripted encounters and added allies in the missions.
In this are TR is the overall winner.

4. Mission re-play and co-play:
So bundling up a number of people to take on some team content missions, how does that work with what everyone in the team has done before or not?
In CoH/CoV everyone can participate in the mission content, regardless of whether they actually have the mission or not, or whether they have done it before or not. It is automatically shared with all in the team, including progess, objectives and rewards. Which means in practice that whether people have the same missions or are at the same step in a series of missions does not matter so much.
In TR, missions are more traditional. Most missions can only be played through once. If you join to play in an instance where you have already been, you do not get to participate in the story progress other than what you may see as an outside observer. This dimishes the experience unless you are all at the same page. Missions can be shared, but only if those mission could have been picked up directly anyway from the mission giver.
And what maybe is worse, many instances seem to get into “bug infestation mode” if your team has members that have partially completed the missions available while some others haven’t. The game logic seems to have trouble handling that, often resulting in some frustraing experiences trying to work around the limitations in some way.
Also, if people get disconnected from the game and have to log back in, the state if the instance and the mission may not be synchronized and they only way to be able to complete it is to reset the instance and start over again.
It requires everyone to be on the same page mission wise and also to potentially have some spare time and good relations between people if disconnects starts to happen. These are the most frustrating aspects of TR teaming in my opinion.

5. Looking for teams:
CoH/CoV has a pretty good search tool to find team members, which makes it easy to look for potential members and to “announce” if you are interested in teaming.
TR has an LFG chat channel, by default in a separat chat tab. There is a new LFG tool on its way in a future release, but right now CoH/CoV is simply much better in this area.

This past week has been a double XP week for teaming in Tabula Rasa – you get twice the normal XP in teams, which was already better than solo. Obviously this is to encourage people to team up more. Personally I do not care much for the exact amount of XP,but rather the other points mentioned here. Less obstacles and inconveniences will make for better and more enjoyable teaming, not more XP.

Age of Conan prices – rip-off or rebate?

May 9, 2008 3 comments

I recently read a blog entry by Tobold on the European price for Age of Conan and I am must say that I was a bit surprised by Tobold’s comment and by some of the commenters.

The European monthly fee for Age of Conan was 12.99 Euro if one paid one month at a time. This was basically called a rip-off because with the current exchange rate between Euro and US dollars, this is substantially less than the US monthly fee of $14.99.

This is just silly. The fees are basically the same as all major subscription-based MMOGs , be it in Europe or in North America. It is not a market where the companies compete with price, but at the same time it is a bit price sensitive – at least no company is willing to try to get a much higher fee than the rest, too much risk.

Since the fees actually pay for operations and continued development of the game, what becomes interesting is where do the companies have those costs?

In the case of Funcom – originally a Norwegian company, but at least on paper it is registered in Netherlands and has a headquarter in Switzerland. There are probably some tax reasons for this. They are listed on the Olso stock exchange. They also have offices in Norway, USA and China.

There is little doubt that the majority of the development work is done in Norway though. The main expense there is salaries; that is typical for a software-focused IT company. The salaries do nto change with exchange rates. So how many Norwegian crowns (the currency – NOK) would they get for a monthly fee today (May 9th 2008)? How would they have received a year ago (May 9th 2007)?

Today a North American subscriber gives them

$14.99 = 14.99 * 5.1307 NOK ~ 76.91 NOK

Today a European subscriber gives them

€12.99 = 12.99 *7.8815 NOk = 102.38 NOK

Looking back a year ago, the corresponding numbers are

$14.99 = 14.99 * 5.9893 NOK ~ 89.78 NOK

€12.99 = 12.99 * 8.1317 NOK ~ 105.63 NOK


Note: I did not include any taxes here . That will affect what a customer will pay in the end, but that is not money that is going to the game companies, that is picked up the the governments. So it is not relevant in terms of whether a game company would rip someone off or not, since they do not get that money.

In both cases Funcom are “loosing” compared to if the game would have been released a year ago. If the exchange rates change they might of course “gain” some later, or “loose” again.

Roughly, the fees from 3 Europeans pay for the same amount of work that 4 North Americans do. If the value of the US dollar drops more, then more North Americans are needed to pay for the same amount of work, since they keep the prices the same. The same is the case for those paying in EUro as well.

Now, everything is of course not handled in NOK most likely. US servers and operations are likely handled in the US and with US costs. European servers and oprerations are likely handled here in Europe, perhaps in Norway or Switzerland.

The costs there would very likely be in the local currencies and differences in exchange rate would not matter that much.

Now, if there were any “rip-offs” that would more be from the companies with have the bulk of their development in the US, e.g. Blizzard, SOE, Turbine, NCSoft (for Western games).

Or aren’t all Westerns getting ripped off, since prices in China is likely even lower for any games that are available there? Let’s encourage all these companies to relocate and put all of their development work and all of their servers and operations in China instead. That would surely cut the costs and they can lower the fees for us all and not rip us off.

Is polish fun? Is innovation fun? The curse of meaningful play

May 6, 2008 Comments off

Polish. Innovation. Two quite overused words when it comes to MMORPG discussions and which seem to become some general blunt weaponry to smack around with either to defend or attack some game in the genre.

Polish entered the stage with World of Warcraft and while at that point seemed to describe games whose properties were few annoying bugs and a number of game mechanics which did not completely suck and worked fairly well together. Which was a bit rare at that point, at least at the release of an MMORPG.

Now it seems to generally be used for the initial use, but with some added mesarement on how good the user of the word thinks a game is. E.g. World of Warcraft is more polished than insert-any-game-here.

How do you measure polish? What are the units? Is this polish measurement all that matters? If game a has 10 polish and game B has 12 polish, will players pick game B then? How much more polish matters?

If the game from a technical perspective works generally well and game mechanics are mostly positive experiences, then the game is “polished” enough to me. There is no “more polished” and even if there were, it does not really matter. Lack of “polish” can get int he way of the fun of the game, but more “polish” does not make the game more fun or better.

And innovation – people must have listened too much to Bill Gates and his crew who used the innovate word for way too many things in my opinion. And it is used as it is the only way to salvation for the MMORPG games. And when people are talking about innovation they are asking for things they think is more fun than what they are currently used to, once they see it and like it. Which is a quite different thing.

It seems every time a new game is released in the past few years a discussion with “Innovation” (or lack thereof), “clone” and similar words pop up. Age of Conan gets a bit of that now, Tabula Rasa and Pirates of the Burning Sea had that a few months ago and Warhammer Online and Chronicles of Spellborn will surely have that as well.

People are talking about “WoW clones” or “WoW killers”, perhaps saying that it is too much of the first and too little of the latter. Which is a bit #2 from the cow’s husband. What some people here, in particular many WoW players, are looking for is a “better WoW than WoW” referring to them as “WoW killers”, projecting some lack of complete satifaction with their game of choice, but without wanting to give up that unless it feels meaningful to do so. And it becomes meaningful if “everyone else” would jump on this killer game and it it would feel like a better WoW than WoW.

This is not just for WoW of course, but due to its market size there are more people in that situation and it may also accentuate the feeling of playing the “winner”, which also makes it more meaningful than other games for some.

While I think these are quite understandable and human reactions I think it may hurt the game market – they do not only have to be fun and functionally working properly (for the most part), but also have to fight a legacy with gaming hours spent in a meaningful way.

Is this the Age of Funcom? Conan open beta impressions

May 3, 2008 Comments off

As many others I picked up a key from Fileplanet for the open beta. I had not planned to play anything here until perhaps after the game was released. But some friends mentioned they were going to play the game, so I decided to take a brief look at it.

First of all, I am not a Conan aficionado. I have read a comic book once I think and I have seen one of the movies with Arnold, all many years ago. I have not followed the game other than seeing some blurbs and news that are hard to avoid. So I have not really any idea of how it is “supposed” to be.

It seems pretty much apparent to me that this Fileplanet open beta event is very much separate from their regular beta, which is still closed. The servers are separate, installer indicates that this is the “IGN Open beta event” and there is a separate login before the actual login to get patches, welcome message is specific for the IGN beta etc.

Which means that this may have taken some time and effort to set up and coordinate and thus likely also an older build of the game. My guess is that marketing at Funcom are not entirely happy with the situation, but likely some business decision a long time ago that they could not change at this stage.

Why do I say that? Well, there have been some technical issues. Not a lot of them and the game has not crashed on me entirely – the only crashes for me have been when exiting the game actually. Other comments I have seen from people in the real beta indicates that it is in a better stage there. And some issues are things they likely want to try out and test with a large scale beta run such as this. So let’s not dwell on that – whatever I say here may or may not be valid at release, so better wait with that until it is actually released.

The game has a pretty neat intro for the character creation where it zooms in on a slave on a ship – you. From there a couple of origins (all human) can be picked and there are 12 different classes to pick from, from 4 major groups (soldier, priest, rogue and mage). Not all origins can pick all classes, as the background information indicates.

There is not a whole lot to customize on the character in terms of looks – but given that the character is a slave the outfit options should probably not be that high. And thankfully none of these slider things to detail the face and body, but rather a few select choices which all seem to look ok.

After that one is washed ashore on a beach and a story arc starts. The very first task is to rescue a fair lady captured by some bad guys (yay, no kill 10 rats as a first quest) and escort her to the nearby town/village (Tortage) – after applying some vengeance on the bad guys of course.

From there a number of quests can be obtained to do various deeds in the neighbourhood evolving around the dire situation for Tortage, being in the hand of a less friendly group called the Red Hand (which seemed to have a Red Head as their marker… Perhaps it sounded similar in the local langauge)

The combat interface seems to be pretty similar to many other MMORPGs, press a button to do something. Thankfully no auto-attack, instead 3 keys (1,2,3) are used to strike at the enemies from various angles, at least assuming it is a melee fight. There is also an option to parry and have shields in different positions to protect from corresponding blows at you.

I have not tried any shields yet (my character can’t use them), but the the rest of the combat mechnics are simple enough to work well. At first it was a bit of just mashing the buttons, but felt better after a while. And then I also discovered that there was “combo moves” and that you should press some of the directional buttons after activating it to make best use of the move.

It seems to work fairly well, so I’ll give that a thumbs up. Although I think it will need more pratice to make better use of, which is good – easy enough to work reasonably well at start, but with option to improve on it later.

The game interface do need a bit improvement I think, hopefully that will be there for release. The ingame minimap is a bit confusing and seems to show quests that are both eligeble and those that may be elieble later int he same way. I did not see any icons for system options and settings, exiting the game etc, only through key commands – which I could only find when I logged back in later and saw a hint on how to get the options view.

The story and setting is pretty nice and the environment looks nice, even on a medium setting – but perhaps not spectacular. Some of the quests are played in single player mode, advancing the major story arc (Destiny quests I think it was called) for the area.
There is one story that does not seem to be covered or dealt with though, which is the inbreeding in Tortage. When talking to the various NPCs with the dialog view that pops this is an apparent problem. But probably too sensitive to talk about for the local populace.

For one that has been generally a bit tired of fantasy MMORPG titles, Age of Conan feels different enough that it may be worth getting back into fantasy a bit – there are no elves, orcs or dwarves with beards or anyone called Legolass running around. Hopefully it stays that way later also.

It has a bit of down-to-earth-with-darkness-looming feeling, although some quests are still pretty standard type fight-X-of-this, collect-Y-of-that.

Over the sessions I played with the games so far my opinions have varied from Great! to This Sucks! and seems to end up at some opinion equilibrium somewhere in the middle.

It has made a good enough impression that I will probably end up buying it to try it out more properly, hoping that some technical issues are less of a concern at release.

Hopefully it will also be a game that does not require a lot of time investment, since I will still be blasting aliens in Tabula Rasa and putting on my spandex suits in City of Villains/Heroes.

Categories: Age of Conan