The Eventual Death of MMO-Only Games

A long, long time ago, I played one of the very first Massively Multiplayer games.  It was actually a set of games, really – dubbed the ImagiNation Network and owned by Sierra, it had several different sub-sections including standard board and gambling games, a multiplayer Red Baron, and, most importantly, an RPG called Shadows of Yserbius (later, Fates of Twinion and Ruins of Cawdor would be added).

At the time, the MMO had to be a part of basically its own internet, since the World Wide Web wasn’t really much of a thing at that point, and so service was extremely expensive especially by today’s standards.  Unfortunately, it seems to have also been too expensive for the owners, since they ended up being shut down.  It’s fascinating that the decision to kill Yserbius and its cousins was made to avoid competition with (the MMO) Neverwinter Nights, as that’s another such game I have some memories of.

In any case, it’s possible to download a version of Shadows of Yserbius and play it on your own, but that only gets you maybe a quarter of the experience.  Yserbius was meant to be played online, and its balance for single-player is really pretty bad.  We’ll set aside whether it’s actually a good game.

(courtesy of wikipedia)

Where does this leave us?  Some hobbyists are trying to resurrect INN in some form, but haven’t really gotten much of anywhere.  If they did, it would be perhaps a fraction of the original subscribers — of which there weren’t all that many in the first place.  It couldn’t possibly be the same, only somewhat similar.  There is an experience here that is arguably irrevocably vanished, impossible to reproduce.  Maybe that’s okay — change is a part of life, and pining for interaction with others in the form of an RPG that’s kiddie-pool level compared to dozens of free-to-play games is sort of silly.

But when I thought about it in the context of current free-to-play games, like World of Tanks, Maplestory, and especially less popular games such as Uncharted Waters Online, there are some experiences that will, in turn, be lost forever in a sense.  This is one reason why I prefer games to have an offline mode of some kind, or a design that won’t make a single-player version of it totally pointless.  I’ve heard Guild Wars does this well, and presumably. when it finally kicks the bucket, Diablo 3 will handle it gracefully.

Another interesting facet is that there is an admittedly small sub-genre of RPG that mimics online games, most famously the .hack series.  I can “log onto” that and find a dozen or so “other players” to have a good time with — in fact, that service will stick around forever, effectively.  It’s not quite the same as interacting with real people, but it arguably solves real-people problems such as excessive public chat, dancing in the streets of Stormwind, totally stupid players, and so on.  While .hack doesn’t feel like an MMO, in another few years games could reach the uncanny valley where I’m not sure if I’m interacting with a player or a bot.

I wonder if eventually, the remedy for dead and dying MMOs could be a “single player mode” which contains dozens of AI-guided characters playing alongside you?  The thought is simultaneously fascinating and chilling — if it were possible to get the AIs to the point where they could interact with people well enough, it could have all the benefits of MMO and few of the downsides.

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Another trip to Japan – stuff I picked up edition

I returned from another trip to Japan about a week ago.  This was my third journey there, and I was lucky enough to share it with my significant other.  She was most enthusiastic about visiting as many places as possible each day, so I had a ton of really good experiences I hadn’t before.

What was interesting about this trip versus my second was that I actually did very few of the same things I did the first time.  The only repeats were:

  • Akihabara (which gets less game-y and more creepy as time progresses)
  • Golden Temple (which I could go to every week and not get bored)
  • Kenrokuen and Kanazawa Castle (see Golden Temple)
  • Briefly, Den Den Town in Osaka (much better than Akihabara)

Although I only went to a few stores by comparison, I still made it out with some pretty good game-related loot.  I got the following games (all for SFC/SNES):

  • LaPlace’s Demon (sort-of psych thriller set in early 20th century (link))
  • Metal Max Returns, open-world post-apocalyptic RPG remake. Earliest entry we got was Metal Saga (PS2).
  • Leading Company, a business simulator by Koei that didn’t make it over the Pacific
  • Elnard, 7th Saga in Japanese
  • Mystic Ark, Elnard’s semi-successor
  • Wozz, a bizarre parody JRPG that’s highly regarded

In addition, I picked up a pack of soundtracks I’d been looking for:

  • Wild Arms 2 and 3 (2 and 4 CDs respectively)
  • Suikoden II (both volumes, 4 CDs total)
  • Stella Deus (1 CD, apparently poorly regarded as it was $7)

Read the rest of this entry »

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Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate – mini-review

I may not have mentioned it here, but I played Monster Hunter Tri on Wii off and on for a little over 100 hours.  I’d been planning on buying a Wii U eventually in any case, since Monolith announced “X” and Xenoblade was among my favorite console games this generation.  When MH3 Ultimate was announced, I knew I was going to buy the console earlier than expected.

MH3 Ultimate is a sort of a reboot / remake of MH Tri.  The early-game has been groomed and reworked so that it is much easier to get going, with many redundant or silly quests removed and some starting equipment provided at the start.  “High-rank” quests, or quests with variants of monsters and more difficult move-sets, have been added to single-player.  Further, there are now two companions that can join you in SP (rather than just one in the original).  Some armor stats have been shuffled around to mix things up for veteran Tri players.

The appeal of Monster Hunter is more about the learning process and player execution than about pure action.  Mistakes can be made, or random elements can cause substantial pain to a hunter, but at no point is the pure reflex of, say, Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden required.  Preparedness is key, and in multiplayer it is essential to cooperate to some degree with your compatriots – while all four hunters could use a hammer, and it might even be appropriate for some battles, it’s much better to have a variety of equipment and to have each hunter focus on something separate, while all keep an eye out for certain situations anyone can handle.

To touch on the depth of the game slightly – the third large monster you fight is called the Quropeco.  It’s a giant bird-thing with flints on its wings that it can use to set fire to you.  It can heal itself and call other monsters using its horn/beak — including a Rathian, which is a major threat to any hunter at that point in the game.  There are several things to keep in mind when fighting a Quropeco:

  1. When it is about to use its horn, its pouch will fill up and it will dance around.  If you hit its pouch or throw a sonic bomb, it will fail and stumble for several seconds.
  2. Its wings are more durable than other parts of its body.  Depending on your weapon, it is most likely best to hit its face or rear.
  3. If you can hit its wings, you can break the Quropeco’s flints.  This yields additional quest rewards.
  4. With sufficient focus, you can also break its beak.
  5. When Quropeco gets tired, it will often fly to a nest at the peak of the area and go to sleep.  With a charging weapon, it’s easy to give it a rude awakening.
  6. If Quropeco calls another monster, you can use a dung bomb to convince it to leave.  If it calls a brown drake, dung bomb and get out.
  7. If it changes up the rhythm with which it knocks its flints together, that means it’s about to hit three times instead of two.
  8. While it’s flying, you can hit it for a bunch of damage or blind it using a flash bomb to bring it back down to the ground.

This might sound intimidating, but there are many patterns between monsters that make things easier, and much of the game early on will be learning small tricks – how to use bombs, how to trap monsters, what moves are most effective when hitting certain body parts, and so on.  Once that is learned, you can at least be a productive member of a team online, and the online community for MH3 Ultimate has been pretty good in my brief experience.

Just as important as the learning process is the payoff.  The best way I can put it is that playing Monster Hunter online in a well-oiled team is the closest thing to having a great team for a sport or a project at work.  MH3 may well be the best multi-player game I’ve played simply because it encourages and rewards the proper kinds of coordination – breaking off parts of a monster, using a flash bomb or a trap at exactly the right moment, dung-bombing a monster that has another player pinned, and so on are reminiscent of games like Left 4 Dead, but don’t feel quite as contrived.  At the same time, it feels almost like a personal sort of growth takes place as well.  You as a player are consistently improving for at least the first 40+ hours, whether it’s in terms of game mechanics or in terms of game statistics.  Much like Dark Souls, half of the ‘leveling’ is done by the player and subsequent play-throughs are much quicker and done with more confidence.

While I can’t recommend this game for some, as they don’t have the kind of time to sink into this game (the first 5+ hours aren’t especially rewarding), if you do have that time I would recommend giving it a try for sure.  MH3U is also on 3DS, although on that system it only has local multi-player which makes the experience considerably less engaging.

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Current Projects: Feb 2013

I figured I’d update this site with a few of my latest projects (writing, translation, etc).

I’ve posted a couple of new articles at videolamer in a vain attempt to resuscitate a website where I was happy to both read and write.  A third is on the drafting table and nearly complete, but I’m not sure it will ever get posted given the lack of feedback and effort on the part of both readers and writers.

A project which I thought would never get going finally did late last year: scanlation for the manga written to accompany (I assume) The PS1 version of Baroque.  The PS2/Wii remake of Baroque was released in the US and is a game I recommendTwo chapters of Volume 2 are complete, and a couple more have been submitted for editing and finalization.  I’m doing the translation work and the manga group Friendship Scanlation is doing everything else.  Independent of the game I’m not sure the manga is anything special, but I enjoy its art style and it adds some story content that was difficult to find in-game.  For those who played the game and thought the story was overly vague, the manga has much better pacing and of course less dungeon-crawling.

Game translation projects are on standby for the time being.  The only item really in consideration is the sequel to Jesus.

I’ve also started a new project – in collaboration with Jay, I have begun development on a game using the XNA engine (appropriate for Windows/XBLA development).  It is a pirate-themed strategy game with a wildly branching plot.  It’s been fun, and I hope it sees the light of day.  In case anyone who happens to read this might be willing to do artwork or music composition, we are still looking for assistance.

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Review – Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean

Baten Kaitos is one of the few RPGs exclusive to the Gamecube, and it has a sort of middling reputation.  I hear practically nothing about it, aside from the occasional “What under-appreciated RPG would you recommend” thread on this or that forum.  For that matter, I didn’t even know that there were two Baten Kaitos games (Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, as well as Origins) until fairly recently.  Origins was made second and is rarer (generally considered “better” as well).

Throughout this review, I refer to BK: EWatLO as “Baten Kaitos” for simplicity.  I have not yet played Origins.

Baten Kaitos was made by Monolithsoft and Tri-Ace working together.  When you look at each pedigree, you might understand why many find it interesting:

  • Monolithsoft: (largely consists of developers who worked on): Xenogears, Xenosaga, went on to make Xenoblade
  • Tri-Ace: Star Ocean series, Valkyrie Profile, Tales series

So you have Monolithsoft to build an over-arching world with an impressive history as well as the tortured history of the protagonist, and Tri-Ace to make all other standard RPG stuff interesting.

Tri-Ace’s focus was clearly the Magnus system.  You accumulate cards which represent weaponry, spells, items, and so on.  Each character has their own deck (which grows as the game progresses) into which you put the cards you find.  During battle, each character is dealt their initial hand of cards with which to take actions – for example, you might get a hand including a couple of weapons with numbers in sequence.  If one is played after the other, bonus damage is dealt.  As far as mechanics go, Baten Kaitos is perfect at introducing the system to the player.  Initially only two cards can be played in sequence, and each card has only one number to pay attention to.  As the game progresses, you find cards with multiple numbers, your deck size increases, and you have to start paying attention to the element of the cards that you include to avoid inadvertently cancelling out your damage.  Some exotic (and honestly sort of pointless) static effects make keeping track of the numbers harder.

Artistically, Baten Kaitos impresses as well – showing Monolithsoft’s talents.  The world consists of a half-dozen (ish) floating islands, with the denizens of these islands eking out a living in a different way on each.  The overarching back-story tells of an ancient war with an evil god, and how he was sealed away at the cost of “the Ocean”.  It should come as no surprise that by the end of the game you discover the meaning behind the back-story in the course of visiting all the islands.

What is most impressive about the artwork in Baten Kaitos is the design for each of the towns.  Many of them are fairly bland (especially early on), but some of the towns have a unique look to them that no other game has quite captured.  Each is beautifully drawn, often with some kind of movement in the background as well.  The town themes are likewise the best music the game has to offer (in a score that is otherwise somewhat bland and repetitive).

As someone who looks for new and interesting worlds to explore in my games, this is where Baten Kaitos shines the most.  It is unfortunate that many of the towns are much smaller than they should be, and that the game focuses so heavily on combat, leveling mechanics, and collecting random items for side-quests.

Other than the two features – mechanics and atmosphere – I cannot really recommend Baten Kaitos.  The voice acting is so-so, with a few good characters (mostly Gibari) rounding out the somewhat bland performances put on by the rest.  All voices, without exception, sound like they were recorded inside a deep well, which I have heard blamed on the compression of the voice work.  Outside of combat, the mechanics are often confusing and pointless – with your Magnus changing over time (e.g green bananas turn into yellow bananas, then into rotten bananas and finally into a generic and useless “rotten fruit”).  Many recovery items are food that gradually rots over the course of game-play, and even some weapons change and become less useful as time goes on.  Much of the battle system requires the player to depend upon random chance – since every deck should have defensive and recovery items, there’s a nonzero chance your hand will be full of items that are largely useless -  simply because that character isn’t being targeted.  Finally, although atmosphere is good, the story suffers from its adherence to JRPG traditions – sudden “reveals” that involve flashbacks, each of which “changes everything” but is not nearly important enough for you to have figured it out much ahead of time.

There is one exception to the “reveals” being generally not that interesting – there is one that depends upon a certain aspect of the story that seems silly and odd at first.  This one twist about 2/3 through the game is interesting and unusual – but certainly not worth playing the game if it sounds otherwise uninteresting.

It may be sub-par in more ways than it’s interesting, but Baten Kaitos is another JRPG that a fan of the genre probably shouldn’t miss.  Those who don’t follow JRPGs religiously or have fallen behind should hold off on this one, though – many games in the genre are more engaging than Baten Kaitos.

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