Monday, November 15, 2010

The Foggy Future

Last week a report came to light regarding Valve's digital distribution service, Steam, and how evil it was for some publishers to bundle Steamworks in their games (to manage the backend patching and matchmaking services), thereby giving Steam a foothold into consumers' desktops and encouraging them to buy games through Steam in the future.


Boo fucking hoo and go cry me a river, would be my measured and tempered response to this.

Let's examine how the PC has been treated as a gaming platform over say, the past five years, shall we?

The shelf space reserved for PC games at such retail establishments as GameStop, Wal-Mart and EBgames has gone from its already small size to near-microscopic (seriously, the next time you go into a good-sized GameStop check out where the PC section is, more likely than not it will be a single rack at the back of the store).

Microsoft's Games For Windows Live has been nothing other than a spectacular failure.  Launched in 2007 with the debut title Shadowrun (remember that?), GFWL is a clunky and user-unfriendly piece of software that was Microsoft's attempt at trying to convert X-Box Live to the PC market.  Microsoft, soon realising where they considered that their bread was really buttered, scaled back their support of GFWL, choosing instead to concentrate their resources on XBL.

Additionally, GFWL has come under criticism from some developers for making it too difficult to get patches out of the door (all updates have to pass Microsoft's "certification" first); the fact that GFWL's "offline" mode acts as essentially a completely different game account, so your saved games would become inaccessible if GFWL goes down anytime (and it does, frequently); and the icing on the cake is that full games only became purchasable through GFWL in December of 2009.  Previous to that you would need to head down to a bricks-and-mortar store to buy a game that uses Microsoft's digital distribution service.

Talk about counter-intuitive.


On the flip side, Valve's Steam (originally launched in 2003) has been steadily iterating, listening to its community and rolling out new features year in, year out.  While I remember back in the day Steam had its own fair share of outages, technical glitches, as well as a relatively small range of titles to purchase from their store (publishers were hesitant to let consumers be able to download games since this would piss retail stores off, and retail stores to date had been their breadwinner), today almost every major PC release is available on Steam on day 1.  Outages, other than planned maintenance which is always pre-announced, are essentially a thing of the past.

Let's be clear though, nobody helped Valve in 2003/4/5 when they were building the service from scratch.  They sank what must have been a monumental amount of money into something that could conceivably have fallen right on its arse.  I don't remember GameStop or Wal-Mart subsidising this cost though out of the goodness of their heart.  No, it was 100% of Valve's money going into building this service, and now that it's become a spectacular success they should be free to reap the rewards of what they have built, which is nothing less than the best PC (and perhaps simply the best, regardless of platform) digital distribution platform.


Valve give away Steamworks (for free!) to any developer who wishes to use it, freeing them of the burden of having to find some way to get patches and updates to their end-users.  There is no "Valve certification", the publisher has complete autonomy to do what they want over Valve's service.  In exchange, yes, Valve get to have Steam installed on that user's computer, potentially giving them a paying customer if that person chooses to buy games over Steam, but it's hardly a certainty.  It's like Coca-Cola being allowed to remove one page from your newspaper, and when you call up to find out what was on that missing page you are told "Oh, that was an ad for Pepsi that they didn't want you to see", if publishers actually caved in to these "demands" from high-street retailers.

It's said that Steam holds a near-monopoly on PC digital sales.  First off I'm not even convinced of that since there are several other digital platforms that are apparently doing quite well despite Steam.  These include: Stardock's Impulse, GoodOldGames (who have carved out their own niche of selling older but well-loved games to a new generation) and IGN's Direct2Drive.  Secondly, Steam is the leading digital distribution solution because they are ones doing it right.


Case in point, a couple of years ago I looked into buying Mass Effect when it (eventually) came out on the PC.  Before the days of EA putting their games on Steam, they had their own EA Store to download full titles from.  I went and looked around and was ready to buy it, before I noticed (in the small print, of course) that if I bought it from the EA Store then I only had a certain amount of time in which I could download it again (I think it was a year) and after that time my ability to re-download it would vanish into the ether like Obama's hopes of a second term.  Needless to say I did not give the EA Store any money, and I waited until it appeared on Steam about six months later to make my purchase, since on Steam I can download and play my games as many times as I like, without restriction.

Steam also do several ridiculous sales promotions every year, often selling games at 50/60/75% off of their normal price for a limited time.  And we're not talking old, shitty games either.  I mean triple-A top-rated games that have in some cases only been out for a matter of weeks.  How terrible for the consumer, to have all these choices and great sales and different places to buy from, right?


I have zero sympathy for bricks-and-mortar stores crying a river over Steam being included in some of the games that they sell.  None of them lifted a finger earlier in the decade to reverse the decline of the PC and PC gaming sales.  I would not go so far as to say that Valve single-handedly "saved" PC gaming, but they did a hell of a lot more than everyone else did, and certainly put Microsoft's efforts to shame.  Put it another way, I would not like to see what would have happened should Steam have been a failure.  I think the PC as a serious gaming platform would be in a much more esoteric place, and that is not good for anyone.

The PC remains the one place where you can play a good RTS, for example.  There have been attempts to make a decent RTS game for consoles (the most recent that springs to mind is Halo Wars), but nobody who is serious about their RTS gaming will ever do it on anything other than a PC.  The same probably goes for MMOs.  My point is that the games industry needs the PC to be a viable and effective gaming platform, and Steam has helped to achieve that.

Games For Windows Live?  Maybe it should just die the quiet death that it has been promising for some time now, and let the people who know what they are doing manage the future of PC gaming.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rift - Should You Care About It?

Next on our MMO hitlist is the interesting Rift: Planes of Telara (formerly Heroes of Telara, renamed about a year ago).

This is not going to be a game that many of you have heard of, and it's an MMO that's flying a little under the radar (similar to Black Prophecy) since it comes from a developer that doesn't really have a track record when it comes to games like this (Realtime Worlds anyone?) but the game itself has some very original ideas.

"I'm charging my laser"

Who's making it?

The developer is Trion Worlds, a studio based in Redwood City, California, but with additional offices in Texas and San Diego.  Rift is not their only project, as they are also working on publishing End of Nations, an upcoming MMORTS being developed by Petroglyph, as well as developing an as yet untitled action MMO for the SyFy cable television channel, which will apparently launch simultaneously with a science-fiction show.

While the studio itself may not have launched anything itself yet, they apparently have hired experienced developers that have over 100 titles shipped, so they are not lacking in industry expertise.

Insert Cthulhu reference here

What's special about it?

At first glance it looks like your standard high fantasy-themed magic MMO, replete with extremely pretty visuals, a guild system, crafting, questing, etc.  If you dig a little deeper though, there are some things that make the game stand out from the pack.


Firstly there is the class system, or as Trion refer to it, the "ascended", since you are meant to play the resurrected soul of a mighty warrior.

There are four basic classes (or "callings", as they are referred to) which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a fantasy MMO or even any standard RPG. These classes further subdivide into sub-classes, presumably at a designated part of the game (Aion does this once you reach level 10, for example).

They are:

Warrior




A class that likes to hit things with large weapons, the warrior branches out into a Champion (two-handed weapon specialists who excel in close-quarters melee combat), Reaver (defensive tanks who work best at disabling and weakening opponents through dark magics), Paladin (a defensive warrior who can protect nearby teammates through holy magics but are weak against enemy spellcasters) and a Warlord (a buffing class that concentrates on augmenting and enhancing allied abilities, but are relatively weak one-on-one).

Cleric




Your standard healer class, they branch out into a Purifier (a healer that heals and cleanses with fire, they are relatively weak offensively), Inquisitor (casters who combine both offensive and defensive magic, but are less effective healers than a Purifier), Sentinel (defensive-minded casters who have less direct heals but concentrate on group aid) and a Justicar (a melee healer who is dependent on his fighting abilities to power his spells, this class sounds very reminiscent of a Warrior-Priest / Disciple of Khaine from Warhammer Online).

Mage




An offensive spellcasting archetype, they further branch out into an Elementalist (a caster that has the ability to bind the raw elements to their will, they can create minions out of the very earth (and other elements)), Warlock (dark casters who power their spells via the forbidden teachings of death, their damage can be slow to take effect), Pyromancer (as the name would suggest, Pyromancers are the masters of fire, harnessing its force to channel destructive power at their enemies) and Stormcaller (the master of air and water, Stormcallers can control the weather in order to fuel their offensive capability).

Rogue




No class system would be complete without your sneak-in-the-shadows Rogue.  Their sub-classes are a Nightblade (short-range melee combat specialists, Nightblades can also call upon death and fire magic to assault their enemies), Ranger (a ranged damage dealer who excels with the bow, they can also use animal pets to harass and deal damage to foes), Assassin (you knew it was coming and here they are, Assassins strike from the shadows with deadly force, but can be relatively weak if they lose the element of surprise) and Blade Dancer (experts with short-range edged weapons, Blade Dancers also have a small range of defensive abilities to use to counter their opponents).


So all told there are 16 classes (at present at least, the website seems to indicate that there are more forthcoming) to choose from.  However, you can mix and match abilities from each class according to your needs, so for example you could maybe take some of the lifesteal abilities of a Reaver along with the healing of a Purifier and some fire spells of a Pyromancer.  Obviously the super-duper high-end abilities of a particular class will require a heavy investment into the respective talent tree otherwise everyone could run around with near-godlike powers one-shotting anything that moves, but it still seems to allow for a high degree of flexibility in your character customisation that you do not often see these days.

For example, my class which I will name the Gaff class (and I will sue the bejesus out of anyone who tries to copy my handiwork), might be able to use stonking big two-handed weapons, could lifesteal, self-heal a little and be able to run into the shadows when the shit hit the fan.  Sounds like a cool combination, right?  It's hard to judge without having actually played it, but on paper it could well be something that helps Rift stand out from the crowd, since the MMO market is looking towards several major releases over the next 12 months and there is always the elephant in the room that you have to deal with which is about to release its latest expansion.

Such a class system could well be a double-edged sword.  Trion will have to balance between making it a unique and varied system that gives players the ability to pick and choose skills useful to them, but not allow them to become so powerful that only a small handful of combinations are viable and become the de facto standard because they are so insanely strong.


Anything else?

Aside from your usual high fantasy fare, there will also be the titular rifts popping up in the game world which have to be dealt with.  Without going over the back story in detail, in the past there was a war which fractured the world, and now the elemental planes can sometimes break through into the world of Telara.  These planes are the Planes of Life, Death, Fire, Water, Earth and Air, and each manifest in a different way and have different enemies that must be defeated.

If, for example, a Plane of Fire spawns in an area and is not beaten back by players, in a few hours it may have grown larger and even threaten the safety of nearby towns and villages.  Presumably there is some kind of limit to how influential a rift can grow, or it might potentially threaten the entire world if for whatever reason players chose not to go in there to hand the rift its ass.  Either way, it's an interesting mechanic that really has not been done anywhere else, at least I can't think of any game off the top of my head that has tried to do dynamic content quite like this.

"I am not left handed"

There will be inevitable comparisons made with World of Warcraft simply because of how that game has near-singularly re-invented the fantasy-themed MMORPG genre, but Rift looks like it has some impressive new ideas of its own and is not content to simply be a run-of-the-mill WoW knockoff.

How much could I save on my car insurance?

As you can see from the tasteful screenshots I have interspersed throughout this post, Rift is a very pretty game.  I know we're in the days where everyone expects hyper-realistic photograph-quality graphics, but even judging from that frame of reference some of these screens are right up there on the visual scale.

You can also check out some videos on the site which again serve to highlight really how exceptional this game looks.

Rift: Planes of Telara is definitely one to watch, I think.

Trion Worlds have stated that they expect a release date of sometime in 2011.

Edit:

I apparently made a boo-boo when writing about the class system, in that you can only choose additional abilities from souls within your own calling.  So you can't mix and match abilities from a Warrior's calling and a Mage's calling, but can mix and match between an Assassin and a Ranger, for example, because they are both part of the Rogue calling.

My bad!