A Quick Peek at Guild Wars 2

There are a lot of MMORPGs out there.  Three new major ones are coming out this summer Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, and TERA.  They all claim to be very different from the MMORPGs that came before.  I cannot tell you if that is true of the latter two, but with Guild Wars 2, it is very true.

I’m a long time player of Guild Wars, and have written about it some on this blog.  I wasn’t sure what to expect with GW2. I heard it was radically different from Guild Wars and it is.  Except for the lore, the beautiful scenery, and the fact you are only limited to a few powers at a time,  GW1 and GW2 have very little in common.  There are too many differences to discuss, and other people have already.  So I’ll just focus on my own experience.

This beta weekend, they only had 3 of the 5 races to choose from.  Humans (which is the only playable race in GW1), Narns (which are just taller and more tattooed versions of Humans), and Charr.  Looking for something completely different, the first character I created was a Charr.  The character creator part seems to be broken for the Charr, but I rolled a female Engineer. After a brief introductory cut scene, I was handed a pistol and thrown out on a mission with dozens of other players fighting off dozens of bad guys.  No wandering around looking for NPCs to give you tutorials before you finally get to kill some lowly level one skale, like the first few minutes of GW1.  In GW2, you are handed a weapon then thrown into a battle.

The thing I least like about most MMORPGs is the repetitive button pushing:  Push button 1 then 2 then 3 then 4, then back to 1 then 2 then 3 then 5 because 4 is still recharging, then heal yourself by pushing button 6, then repeat.  GW1 has a lot less of that because once a bad guy is targeted, your character will continue to fire the weapon until the creature is dead, or until you stop it. You only push buttons for additional skills.  GW2 does the same thing, only you push the 1 button instead of the space bar to fire (the space bar is now the jump button, there was no jumping in GW1).  Not only that GW2 allows you to fight while moving.  No more just standing there and firing like in some 19th century battlefield, you get to use guerrilla tactics, if you can figure out how.

Also gone are the old “Go to NPC, get mission, run a long ways to mission, do it, run along ways back to NPC” time sinks.  The mission giving NPCs are right where the mission takes place, and you get credit and rewarded upon completion immediately.  But that is not all.  As you travel from place to place, there are “event” missions randomly starting up around you.  These have big rewards, involve a lot of players in the area, and are usually a lot of fun.  Even though GW2 is mostly played in an open environment, things like kill stealing and reward grabbing do not happen. Everyone who helps in a kill or a mission gets credit and is similarly rewarded.

The level at which you play at also varies by where you are.  I was doing a neglected low level mission, and noticed my hard earned 700 hit points were reduced to around 500.  Because I was playing a level 3 mission, my character was lowered temporarily to a level 3 player.  That might seem bad, but it means you play all missions at the level they were designed for and everyone in the area who is doing the same mission is on a level playing field.  No more taking your level 20 Krytan character to Ascalon to do The Northern Wall mission designed for level 5 and having it feel way too easy.

Underwater combat is fun, though this weekend did not have much of it.  When the full game comes out there is supposed to be a whole continents of underwater content.  When I discovered the underwater stuff, I was playing a ranger with a cat for a companion.  The cat was not very happy with the underwater swimming, but I found an amphibious drake to train.  When I’m above ground, I can use my trusty bow and cat companion.  Underwater I have a harpoon and drake companion, and a breather so I can stay down as long as I don’t take too much damage.

Probably the biggest change between GW1 and GW2 is character development.  Like GW1, there are multiple professions, each with their own unique talents.  In GW2, there are no secondary professions.  Instead, character variation is done by choice of weapons.  I always liked the longbow, which is a Ranger weapon.  In GW1, any character could wield a longbow by taking ranger as a second profession, but they usually weren’t very good at it.  In GW2, Warriors can use longbows natively, and they have a unique skill set when they do.  I’m not a fan of melee combat, but now that I can build a Warrior with strong armor and give the Warrior a longbow (or a Rifle) and have it do ranged combat, well that is just awesome.  A thief can act like an assassin with two daggers, or like Lara Croft with two pistols.  However you want to play.

Beta weekend is all about trying stuff out and enjoying the beautiful scenery.  Knowing full well that any characters I create will just get erased after this weekend, I did not concentrate on building any up.  I’d play the early levels, then roll a new character, trying all the professions and races.  At the early levels, Ranger is the most fun, but I suspect that will change at the later levels.  Engineers are kind of boring until they get turret access, light armored professions are a bit squishy.

Death in GW2 still needs work.  You can try to revive yourself, but if you succeed, you are often one shot killed rather quickly.  Players can all revive each other, so if you do die where other players are, hopefully they will help you up.  If you don’t want to wait, you can teleport to any wayport you have been to before, but that costs in game gold.  Death penalty, like many other games, involves armor damage which costs game gold to repair (and if you don’t repair it, eventually your character will start running around in their underwear). In other words, dying will cost you.  The death penalty in GW1 was a reduction in max health and energy that went away at the next village you went to.  I kind of like the GW1 version better, but it will not work in GW2 because towns do not work the same way.

Beta bugs aside, Guild Wars 2 is an awesome new MMORPG that is perfect for the MMORPG fan who is tired of the same recycled D&D/WoW model of game play.  Looking forward to the full release.

Metaverse in Transition

I have not written anything in a couple of weeks because I have been busy working on the sequel.

Meanwhile…  There are many little things going on in metaverse land worth bringing up.

First, is the fast decline of Worlds of Warcraft. They are losing net subscribers at a rate of about 100,000 a month.  Currently they sit at 11.1 million and falling.  They are still the number one MMORPG out there by a long shot, but the declining numbers indicates a change in the market I figured would eventually come.

Let’s just say it: World of Warcraft is getting old.  It’s “look” is dated, and people are more attracted to the much better looking new releases like Rift and Aion.  Competition from the “free to play” games is getting tighter too.  At this point, adding new content will boost numbers some, but each “expansion” will be less and less effective.  Developing new content is expensive and time consuming, and at some point you just have to say,  “Time for a new game.”

Speaking of which, I’m getting excited for Guild Wars 2, which unfortunately still has a “sometime in 2011” release date.  November is packed for new game releases, and I hope it does not get lost in the mix.  GW2 and Skyrim are the two games I am most looking forward to.

And speaking of “dated”, There.com is now taking preregistration for their re-release.  Right now they are opening the ThereIM client “by invitation”, and you can reclaim your old account if you remember the login and password, you are over 18, and willing to pay $10 a month.  As nostalgic as I am about my There days, I am not feeling enough desire to go back in.  I wish them good luck in their re-release, but I think I’ll be watching from the outside.

Meanwhile in Second Life, the very long awaited release of mesh is getting close.  They released a “beta” viewer dubbed 3.0, which is the same as 2.0 but with mesh integrated in it.  Second Life has been growing a bit stale lately.  Many older great builds, stores, designer, etc. have been leaving.  I believe the “mesh” age will be a renaissance of sorts, and I am definitely looking forward to new builds and new stuff to see on the main grid when it finally goes live.  Be warned that only paying members will be allowed to upload mesh objects, and the prim cost of having mesh objects in world is higher than expected too, so those will be limiting factors.  I totally understand the first restriction as it is necessary to prevent a rash of copyrighted mesh objects from other games flooding Second Life.  The second restriction can change in the future.

Still, mesh has yet to reach the main grid.  Open Sim already has it, as long as you are using a mesh enabled viewer.  The sooner it gets to the main grid, the better.

Virtual World Philosophy: The Uncanny Valley

Most popular online worlds

So lately I have been having fun with Windlight, and focusing on how real Second Life is looking lately, but have not bothered to ask, “Is this a good thing?”

Above is a montage of screenshots from some of the most popular online communities on the web. World of Warcraft = 10 million subscribers, IMVU = 20 million accounts, HabboHotel = 90 Million accounts, 8 million monthly active users, WeeWorld = 21 million accounts, Runescape = 5 million monthly active users, Club Penguin = 17 Million Accounts, 4 million monthly active users (sources GigaOM, KZero).

What do they all have in common? None are designed to look “real”. They all purposely have a cartoon look to them. According to a recent NWN blog, this is a significant fact:

There’s little evidence of mass demand for an intensely immersive 3D virtual world; instead, indications suggest the market shrinks in inverse proportion to increasing immersiveness.

There’s several worthwhile observations you can make. First, none of them feature next gen, top-of-the-line 3D graphics. (WoW is 3D, but developed with graphics that run fairly well on older computers; also, the visuals are not realistic.) Besides Warcraft, however, none of these top MMOs are 3D at all; rather, they’re 2.5D. And while one hopes that 2.5D-based MMOs will whet the market’s interest in a more immersive, graphically rich virtual world, the exact opposite seems to be the case. (The still-popular Habbo Hotel was launched in 2000, and the cartoonish graphics are basically the same.)

Only after you drop down several million users do you start to see MMOs and virtual worlds incorporating next gen graphics that require high-end 3D cards for optimal viewing– Lord of the Rings Online at about one million subscribers, Age of Conan at about 750,000 subscribers… and Second Life at some 550,000 monthly active users.

Why is this happening? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but it seems that most people experience sensory overload with too much immersion; instead of being drawn into the intensity of the simulation, they’re repelled by it.

Before going into some of my objections to this idea, let me point out some other evidence to support it. Take for example the world of 3D animated films which I have written about. The most realistic looking 3D animated films have been Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, Advent Children, and Beowulf. Not one of these have managed any real success at the box office, at least compared to the more cartoonish fare such as The Incredibles, the Shrek films, or Ratatouille. The more realistic films have an unfortunate creepiness to them that makes them seem weird and turns people off.

There is a theory in robotics about this effect called “The Uncanny Valley“. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

One then has to wonder if it is possible for there to be a natural detraction to video games whose graphics are too real looking, and is this why Second Life may never reach Habbo Hotel like numbers?

I believe it is possible for games to become too real, but I am definitely not convinced Second Life comes close to that mark. I am also not convinced it is the reason it is less popular than the above named games.

Maybe some Playstation 3 games are getting too real looking. Maybe that is why the Wii is more popular? No, lets face it the real reason Wii is more popular is the innovative controllers.

World of Warcraft is cartoonish compared to more realistic Guild Wars, but it is more popular due to better marketing, the Blizzard name, and WoW has more immersive gameplay. There is more cartoonish compared to Second Life, and yet Second Life is the bigger of the two, for similar reasons.

The most popular online games are not popular because they are less realistic, they are popular because they have been around longer, or are marketed to kids (a huge market for the 2D worlds), or they are free or very inexpensive to play.

Take a look at the best selling stuff in There, IMVU, and SL: the more realistic stuff consistently sells better, because it looks better. QED

The ultimate point is this: Realism is not an important goal in a sucessful virtual world, or any computer game for that matter. Players appreciate realism up to a point, but if the realism comes at the expense of some players with older or less powerful computers, its not worth it.

Winter Solstice in the Metaverse

Twas the Day of Solstice and all through the net

Snow Colored Pixels on MMOGs they did set

Old Ascalon Covered in Wintry Delight

Inspired many to engage in a snowball fight

Then skating in SL at the Winterfest Inn

An axel, a flip, and even a spin

Then on to the ski lift, a ride to the top

For Heroes and Villains ski down the big drop

Lets do it again! Once is never enough!

But this time we’ll skinny ski in the buff

Laguna Beach winter looks more like Australia

But Christmas in There, hey what can I tell ya?

For Winter Solstice comes a visit from Santa

Who warms me up with a Flaming Banana

The daytime is short and so is this verse

Happy Holidays to all in the 3D Metaverse!