CoH: Where Do We Draw the Line on Selling Power?

I’m usually not a person that has issues with microtransactions and cash shops on a fundamental level. I’ll look carefully at the cash shop before I start playing a game, to make sure I’m comfortable with the stuff in it, and how the rationale for making the company a profit is derived, and if I’m okay with that, then I don’t mind playing the game.

But we’re seeing something dangerous happen in the cases of both Lord of the Rings Online and City of Heroes.

The gradual sneaky addition of items to the store to test player limits.

And I think what the devs are finding out is that if you introduce a distasteful substance in small amounts, people acclimatise to the taste and rationalize it off to the point that outsiders start raising an eyebrow at what they’re accepting.

Hell, I’m starting to feel a bit like a guinea pig here. It’s like the devs are saying, “LOL, let’s see how far some of these players will go, how much they are willing to pay for phenomenal cosmic power!”

Where exactly do we draw the line?

When is it the time to say “No, this is unacceptable, I won’t play this game as is” and walk away from the game, despite all the temptations of content and prior commitment to it?

From here on, I’ll be talking about City of Heroes as I have less in-depth experience with LOTRO’s store, and I’ll be talking about my personal reactions and feelings in an attempt to figure out where my personal line is. Your mileage may vary.

Things have reached a sort of crisis point in my head with the latest and sneakiest introduction to the Paragon Store, Power Amplifiers.

They come in three flavors: Offense Amplifier, Defense Amplifier and Survival Amplifier.

They last for 1, 4 or 8 hours depending on how much real world money you paid. I only looked at the cost for the 1 hour one, which is 80 paragon points, or $1 USD. I think you can extrapolate from there for the 4 or 8 hours, minus the odd buck or few cents for a discount.

They offer a decent, middling buff. I wouldn’t say it is outright breaking the game in terms of direct power given. But I wouldn’t say it is a negligible buff either.

The most controversial is possibly the defense amplifier, which also offers mag4 mez protection, the equivalent of mez resistance for squishy classes that can’t get it off a normal power toggle like the melee armored classes.

I’m trying to figure out why the introduction of these items to the store disturbs me so.

It doesn’t help that my line has been fogged up and disrupted by all the stuff like Super Packs, which I sorta kinda disapprove of on a moral basis, but confess to finding them addictively fun as long as taken non-seriously in moderation (which I -think- I am capable of budget limiting for myself, but I don’t really know. Isn’t that the slippery slope all gamblers go down?)

The common forums retort is, “Look, they’re optional. You don’t -have- to buy them. What do you care what other people do with their money? The presence of these items on the store shouldn’t affect the way you play, just don’t buy them, leave it as a choice for other people to give money to Paragon Studios so that they can continue development of this cool game we all enjoy.”

But somehow, the presence of the items on the store does affect the way I play.

I can understand EvilGeko’s point here about them cheapening the feeling of having “earnt” something in-game.

But that’s not exactly my beef with the items, it doesn’t quite resonate with me that way. It frankly disturbs me more that other players are so accepting of the items, that they think and feel that it won’t have any effect on the way they play whatsoever because they’re not in competition with other players.

Maybe it’ll help if I start with a story. My first ever encounter with “microtransactions” as it were. It was a MUD. Medievia MUD to be precise, back in the mists of time. I was bored with my regular MUD and had started a habit of MUD hopping (which is kinda like MMO juggling) to sample different innovative systems and maybe, just maybe, find a new MUD that I was interested in and could invest time in learning and playing.

Medievia MUD struck a lot of notes with me. It was big and in-depth. There were systems I had never encountered before, like trade running from place to place, dragon kills and eggs, even their questing system was all different and interesting. My trial alt was about waist-deep into the game and almost ready to commit, when I had the (mis)fortune? to talk frankly with a veteran on the ideal gear for each body location. He gave a lot of helpful suggestions and I was eagerly taking notes on stuff I had to collect, things I had to kill…

…Then matter-of-factly, he said. “Ok, for the two neck locations, the best are two ‘donation’ necklaces that you can buy by donating $50 to Medievia MUD.”

WHOA, friend. Hold your horses there.

I honestly forget if it was $25 for a necklace each and 50 bucks in total. Or if they were $50 each.

All I knew were two things. $50 to play a MUD was more money than I could ever conceive of spending on a MUD at the time – the huge chunk of investment was just inconceivable.

And I loathed with great emotion that the guy was so matter-of-fact about it. It was the standard. It was the baseline. If you want to be competitive, this here is what you’re going to have to do, what you’re going to have to pay.

The game exists. It was a payment model that was doing fine by them. But it wasn’t a game for me. At the time, I was not willing to pay that sum to merely to achieve baseline performance in order to explore the systems that MUD had. There were other free MUDs out there, and I would not be playing any “pay” MUDs.

So then and there (after thanking the veteran naturally and parting ways,) I logged out of the MUD and never came back.

In contrast, nowadays, I’m paying for two subscriptions to A Tale in the Desert. That’s $28 a month. I can afford it now. I’m paying that sum to achieve, how do I put it, “solo” baseline performance in order to explore the systems this MMO has.

You can get by with one character if you are sociable, join groups, are part of a guild, that sort of thing. I’m willing to pay a higher premium for the convenience of not having to wait on another person for a number of things.

They sell vanity cash items like cat pets with no substantial in-game effect or bonuses. I don’t begrudge if people buy them. It doesn’t change the overall baseline of player power, and it gives money to the devs to keep the niche game alive – which it is seriously struggling with these past few years, to be really honest.

Nor do I mind the items sold by Realm of the Mad God in their store. Most of the stuff sold for real money are vanity items. Clothing colors. And you lose them if you die, so it is temporary. You can buy a permanent pet (as long as you store the item that gives you the pet in the vault) but the pet is just for looks. I have no issue with cosmetic stuff in stores.

They have keys that unlock dungeons, but at the cost they’re selling for, it’ll have to be someone with lots of spare cash and little patience buying them. Again, I have no issue with these, mostly because there is an alternate in-game way to get the keys, just kill things and hope for a random drop. In essence, though the keys unlock the possibility of killing a big bad boss for loot, they are a time convenience item to speed up the same thing you can already achieve in game.

They have items that give a temporary boost to stats. The closest to selling power, as it were. But they are seriously temporary. Like 30 seconds temporary or less. Which would make them only valuable on very rare occasions, like killing a big boss and trying to do enough damage to qualify for loot…

…Okay, I’m finding it hard to just say that I’m perfectly okay with these. Let’s put it this way. At my current baseline, I do not see the importance of buying these buffs for real money yet. As such, it is not affecting my gameplay or playstyle and I’m okay with continuing to play the game… up to the point where I discover they are a -necessary- part of the game. If, let’s say, I get all statted up and join some hardcore guild that does lots of dungeons per day, and they tell me, hey, all the pros buy these buffs so they can guarantee their loot dropping, it’s the normal thing to do. That’s probably the point where I will get really squicked out and log off and never come back.

So, here we are, back to City of Heroes, a little bit clearer on where my personal line is.

I think specifically, I have issues with two things. In-store exclusivity and player power baseline normalizing to store-bought items.

I think what disturbs me about other players being so accepting of store items is that it contributes to the normalizing of the baseline up to the level of store bought items.

(I played the Summer Blockbuster event the other day. It was quite fun and I might do a post about it soon. But I was a bit taken aback when we encountered a bug – the mission didn’t teleport us back as normal – and one of the players said, “Oh, it’s a bug. Just self-destruct, hospital and come back.” Totally matter of fact.

Except, self-destruct is a power that comes with the optional costume packs they were selling back in the day. And no doubt, it’s a cash shop power now. I don’t -HAVE- self-destruct, thank you. I didn’t see the need for the costumes or the power at the time, and I still don’t see the need now. But it raises my eyebrows when I see a player assuming that everyone has the same baseline he has.

Conveniently, I was in a part of the map where I could suicide to mobs. If not, I presume I would have to log out and back in and hope the twitchy buggy LFG turnstile system didn’t kick me out of game.)

Take Invention sets. Strictly speaking, it’s optional. You can play up to level 50 in SOs. But if you look around, especially at people doing Incarnate level content, chances are the baseline is that people are kitted out in IOs and the rare person in SOs is just that, a rarity, who isn’t numerically capable of contributing as much as someone in IOs and with set bonuses can. Even Samuel_Tow from the board forums has given in and started to figure out how to use Inventions, because the baseline of Incarnate content is set at a level that assumes you’re in them.

There’s technically optional, and there’s where the normal player baseline is. I think what I’m really not comfortable with, is the lack of choice or alternate option for achieving this baseline.

If the same amplifiers can be bought in-game with an in-game currency, or crafted out of rare items in-game, then the store option is just a time-saving shortcut for lazy people with money they don’t mind throwing away.

If the same amplifiers can be traded on the auction house, then economy takes over, and it is possible to either pay insane X amount of in-game currency or Y amount of real world currency to get them, I probably wouldn’t feel as worried. There would at least be a theoretical way to attain the amplifiers without money, even if most people are not willing to do so. I’m not 100% sure on this last point, I think I’ll have to qualify it by examining the level of buff the power awards before it meets my acceptability criteria.

As of right now though, I don’t think those Power Amplifiers meet any of my criteria.

Sadly, the game doesn’t think I’m running a subscription, I’ve just paid for a month of VIP each month from April to June, so I can’t fill out a subscription canceled survey form and explain the reasons why I’m stopping.

But the VIP access expires in the first week of July, and I’ll be stopping there for the time being.

I hope to be able to finish Night Ward and the other content I haven’t played before then.

I’m also still curious about the Battalion story and such things. Maybe I’ll renew for a month out of curiosity when content hits, despite the better part of my morals and sense.

But for now, a guy’s got to draw the line somewhere.

RotMG: Whaddya Mean I’m Not Done?

Mad God Update.

Steam Played Hours: 69

My archer actually maxed defence roughly a week ago, but I didn’t want to post a celebratory note and then proceed to jinx it with YASD.

Instead I was taking a much-needed wizard farming break and having the archer go out to play around. It’s been… different. Very much so.

1) Damage Pattern Ain’t The Same

I’m using a Golden Bow on the archer. It’s the only vaguely respectable bow I own. The firing pattern is a spread of three arrows.

On the one hand, the spread means good aim is less necessary. (And I don’t -have- great aim, so that’s nice.)

And on the other paw, it means my damage is spread out at long range, when only one arrow can hit. If I want to apply more damage, that means running in closer to mid-range where the god bullets are closer together. Which is more nerve-racking.

In the screenshot, the difference is really obvious. The necromancer behind me has nearly the same firing pattern as a wizard and he’s pew pew’ing the beholder at a much faster pace and with higher damage than my archer can.

If I was concentrating more (and not just out to take a screenshot for demo purposes,) I could hit both gods with my firing pattern, but overall dps per god would be lower since likely only one arrow would hit each.

Or I could move in closer on the ghost god and try to hit it with two or even three arrows and increase dps that way.

Assuming I didn’t eat a faceful of bullets.

2) High Stats is Noticeably Better

Then again, eating one or two bullets on the archer is not the “ow, argh, my face!” experience it is for the throwaway farming wizards.

Between the max defence, which cuts down on the damage per bullet, and the high (if not yet maxed) vitality, which determines hp regeneration rate, and the naturally higher health bar reservoir, the archer has much higher resiliency and survivability.

Even if I accidentally get too hurt, the high vitality helps to regen it back at a fast pace. Downtime is a couple of seconds, especially if I throw on a +7 vitality ring for an extra boost.

The wizard by contrast is noticeably squishier.

Come to think of it, after checking the wizard base stats average on the Mad God wiki, this incarnation #5 is possibly somewhat below average to average. Slightly higher dex, slightly lower speed and wisdom, about average on attack and vitality. Not sure on the hp and mp, I’m too lazy to log in to check right now.

I won’t be suiciding him to reroll better stats like some people do, though. No point hastening the inevitable. He’s been kinda lucky in that he’s survived this long, and gotten a T8 Staff of Horror (one tier better than my standard T7 Staff of Destructions for throwaway wizards) and a T4 Destruction Sphere spell. He’ll bite it one day on his own. Of that, I am sure.

The one thing I really miss on the wizard is speed.

I still enjoy the glass cannon crazy direct damage mobile turret thing he’s got over the archer. But the archer has 45 speed over his 24, and it feels SO much better. It’s more fluid and dodging is easier and more forgiving of slower reaction times. One can circle strafe gods and do other crazy risky things with higher speed.

I’m still working on getting the rest of the archer’s stats maxed, but once he maxes speed, I’ll be glad to start squandering some on the wizard. Probably not this one, since he’s starting out below average, but chances are good he’ll be dead by then.

(Poor fella, talking about him like that. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong? …Nah.)

Both classes are capable of doing sufficient damage for both soulbound drops and stat pots. That I tested. It’s naturally easier solo, rather than side by side competing with more buffed out wizard types.

The archer takes slightly longer to kill gods, but the tradeoff is he can hang around much longer as well. And some gods like the sprite god are much easier, the bullet spread lets me hit the god while dodging and circle strafing and the higher resiliency means being hit by a bullet or two is not as painful.

I suspect I’ll be alternating between the two to farm.

(Another worthwhile goal is to try and hit 400 fame with the archer as that’s a class quest that earns a star. But that one is long-term and all in good time, because the archer will have to die in order to reap the fame, and I really rather not have him die just yet.)

I just have to start playing more carefully with less ‘throwaway’ mentality from now on. (Which might help Wizard #5 to survive…

…I doubt it, somehow.)

TSW: Decision Made, See You in a Few

Days, that is, not months.

I have just pre-ordered The Secret World.

Reserved a name (though not the one I was using in the Beta and would have been thrilled to have – damn fast people!)

Presumably being this late, early access for me may be only 24 hours, but whatever, it’s not a biggie and I’m not a rush-to-endgame type.

So what got me off the see-saw?

I mean, there were quite a number of good reasons why I should delay getting the game.

There’s still plenty of bugs and some instability, which would benefit from more time and more fixes, yielding a more polished final experience for myself.

The graphics aren’t as great as they could be if I waited for myself to buy a new computer first. (I would be spoiling myself for maximum potential impact for the cutscenes, as that would only be achieved on beautiful ultra-settings AND being new and novel on a first playthrough.)

The game would likely get cheaper – all games are at their most expensive when hyped just before their launch – and maybe even go free to play at some point.

The game could be missing content in the higher leveled areas we haven’t seen – it’s obvious Funcom is rushing this launch (maybe thanks to their EA overlords.)

Or pull a bait-and-switch on us later in terms of story and quest quality (neither of which is new given the prior precedent set with “Failcom” in Age of Conan.)

The PVP is extremely dubious at present (and is likely to remain so for at least a while) in terms of team balance (Templar was dominating on one server and Illuminati on another…)

…and skill design (you can’t reset AP/SP for PvP, so in the early days at least, a PvE solo build is going to get owned by someone who prioritized a PvP build over PvE. And PvP/PvE skills are not unlinked – can you say inevitable nerf outcry?)

Whatever would possess me to think it is a good idea to go play TSW like… now? (Almost.)

Mostly I read Ragnar Tornquist’s AMA on Reddit (you can scroll down to narwal_bot’s summary of the questions he answered), and started thinking about some of the things he said.

If you read his answers, there is a general gist that he acknowledges that there’s still stuff missing in TSW at launch, and that they’ll like to be putting more in post-launch.

Here’s the stuff that made me think:

(Some extraneous comments trimmed for clarity, see the link if you want the jokes and the thanks and feedback)

Question (TBTakaTBT):

What is the biggest thing you don’t like about the game in its current state? What would you like to see done to make it better?

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

Not enough kilts BY FAR.

There are things we would have liked to do for launch — including an LFG tool and more character customisation options — that we’ve pushed to post-launch, but the great thing about making an MMO is that you actually get to go back and fix, add to, polish and expand upon the original game.

The Secret World isn’t done simply because we’re launching it. This is only the beginning. The beginning of a long– No, not doing that.

Question (batlib):

What’s your ideal post-release roadmap for TSW? Or does that fall under “saying things people will interpret as a promise and burn you at the stake for later”?

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

I enjoy a good burning at the stake.

My ideal post-release roadmap? New content and new features on a regular, ongoing basis. Which is what we’re aiming for. We’ll let you know very soon what that actually means.

Commence the burning!

Question (karmaleenash):

  1. I get no sliders, etc. for cc but new heads by launch?
  2. New skin tones to get away from the ethnically stereotyped tying of facial type to skin tone?
  3. New hairstyles and colors by launch?

Not asking for the moon, here. Love the game. The creepy, eerie, lovely world deserves some better characters. To me, that cc is the weakest link in a game that has more potential than any I have played in years.

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

  1. No new heads for launch, but that’s definitely something we want to do in the not-too-distant future.
  2. I don’t think we’ve gone for anything stereotypically ethnical — we’ve simply tried to find skin tones that match the heads. But we will take all of your feedback under consideration.
  3. Nothing that isn’t in the public Beta right now. Again, we will be expanding on our character customisation options going forward.

Question (mflash):

Are there plans for a continued storyline after the game is released?

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

YES! Definitely yes. We have a pretty massive storyline planned, and our writers are working on fleshing that out as we speak. Well, not literally, it’s Saturday and they’re done with their work for launch, so they’re taking a rare weekend off, but you know what I mean.

Question (CrazyStreetBum):

I vaguely remember from the old days of the Internets, back when Anarchy Online was still in beta, that you had planned a four-year storyline for the game.

How much of that storyline actually happened? I know that at least part of Shadowlands was foreshadowed back in Prophet Without Honour (assuming that the Vanya in the books is the Unredeemed of the same name), but the part about Omni-Tek having ties to the Omega (among other story hooks) seems to have largely vanished.

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

Plans and stories change as new people start working on it — and that’s how it should be. When I left Anarchy Online (in very capable hands, mind you) the writers and designers, together with the community of players, decided to take things in a different direction. And I’m totally fine with that. They made something even greater…although a tiny part of my brain keeps nagging me to go back and tell the story that I’d planned out.

With The Secret World, however, we have built such a deep, solid and complex storyline into the very fabric of the game — every little detail MEANS SOMETHING — so whoever takes the reins in some distant, post-apocalyptic future (where I’ve become a grizzled, leather-clad warlord and am no longer working on the game) will have to follow through on our SEVEN YEARS OF STORY CONTENT (TM) plans. Otherwise it all falls to pieces. Jigsaw pieces. Being part of this enormous jigsaw puzzle of a story. As it were.

Question (buemba):

Any plans to expand the TLJ/Dreamfall universe with comics, short stories or anything else that doesn’t demand as much development time as games?

As for Secret World, what’s the game like post level cap? Raids?

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

No concrete plans, but that’s certainly something I’ve been wanting to do. I’ll think about it again after my body and brain becomes capable of thinking about anything besides TSW.

There are no levels in The Secret World, but you can keep training new abilities and learning new skills, you can participate in PvP, explore the world in search of lore and achievements, replay missions, visit our lairs and fight our world bosses — and get to grips with all the post-launch content we’ve got planned.

You won’t run out of things to do.

Question (Warskull):

So… Age of Conan was very buggy and unfinished. In fact at least 6 months in a number of huge bugs were still around (stats literally did nothing ffs.) Anarchy Online was also famous for having an incredibly buggy, unfinished launch. Why should anyone expect The Secret World to be finished? What has changed at Funcom?

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

Both of those games came out a long time ago, and were made by different teams. Will there be bugs in The Secret World at launch? Oh, for sure. It’s impossible for us to catch and fix absolutely everything. We’ll keep patching and fixing the game on an ongoing basis. But there won’t be any bugs that will detract from the fun of playing, and it will be the most polished game Funcom has ever released.

[Me interjecting: Oh that’s for sure. Not that Anarchy Online or Age of Conan are the best comparative examples, but definitely TSW is better than those.]

Question (VideoGameMusic):

Can you give some insight if possible on how Funcom manages their franchises? I was a huge fan of Bloodline Champions but that game’s player base died out pretty fast once they stopped advertising for it. Will The Secret World end up only being alive past the two or three year mark?

Also, will TSW have a freemium system like most Funcom games?

Thanks in advance for any answers.

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

Anarchy Online is still going strong, eleven years and counting. Age of Conan is on its fourth year. So yeah, I’d say it’s a safe bet we’ll be alive and well past the three year mark. We take care of our franchises.

[Me interjecting: With a small playerbase, but yes, they don’t close up shop as quickly as some other companies might.]

Question (whyufail1):

I completely agree, but the contradiction I see here is that there is a MASSIVE cash shop planned as well. I honestly prefer subscriptions to pay for continuous development, but the cash shop placed on top of that just seems like double dipping (paying a sub to develop content that is then being sold back to me…). You can say “well that content is being developed outside of the subscription budget” but without transparency, you could really say that about anything. It’s the biggest thing keeping me from trying this game at the moment.

(I am actually bringing this up for a reason. If there is a convincing enough explanation as to why I shouldn’t feel like the community is getting ripped off, I would be buying into the game immediately as I approve of nearly everything but the payment model. I’m honestly not just trying to be difficult.)

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

Our item store sells cosmetic (vanity) items only, in addition to services like extra character slots and dimension transfers. The production of those cosmetic items is, in fact, supported by the revenue from the store — it does cost a bunch of money to make things like clothing outfits and pets. Good thing is: you don’t have to spend a dime in the item store if you don’t want to. There will be plenty of clothing added to the game post-launch, so unless you’re really keen on that cowboy outfit (yeeha!) you can safely leave the store alone.

Question (Zhaosen):

Hi, hello. First thing, i am 50/50 on the game atm. My biggest influence is how character customization will be handled. You answered it earlier i believe about how you plan to add more character customization in the future and i just want to focus on that.

1.Can you elaborate/give an idea to how the future character customizations will be? (ie: more sliders, presets, hair, etc…weight/height?)

2.Will there EVER be a dye option? because frankly…i dont really want to end up looking like someone else =/…and ive already seen about 4 of me running around in the beta (which is not bad all things considered but still).

3.Clothing options, will you only add stuff as microtransactions or will you also be updating the ingame buyable ones as well?

I’m honestly on the fence about preordering or just waiting for a month after.

Answer (RagnarTornquist):

We actually had this discussion over lunch yesterday, so, informally:

  1. More sliders, more presets, more hair — yes, for sure.
  2. That’s something we’re going to look into, long-term. Clothes-crafting would be awesome. That might even get ME to start crafting, and that’s saying a lot.
  3. We are DEFINITELY going to be updating our in-game vendors on a regular basis. We’ll be making at least as many clothes for the vendors (purchasable with PAX) as we will for the item store — although the latter does support the cost of producing new clothing. It ain’t cheap.

Honestly, the more people buy and play the game at launch, and let us know what they/you want, the more we can deliver. If everyone waits with playing, we won’t be able to produce nearly as much as we’d like to — and we’ll always listen to our players first and foremost.

Bolded emphasis mine. And that’s the phrase that slid me down the see-saw.

Let’s face it. We don’t know how much of what Ragnar says is just pretty words and smoke and mirrors like Paul Barnett’s “Bears bears bears.” He might just decide six years of slaving away on TSW is more than enough conspiracy crap for one individual and run off to make the Longest Journey 3 or something else. (Which would make some people happy, but not me, sorry, I’m a heathen, I haven’t been able to get back to that game since I encountered one of -those- “forgot to take an important item at the start” gamebreaking adventure game bugs.)

But I do know what I like. And I like The Secret World’s modern day occult underground setting. The immersiveness. The voice-acting. The characters. The stories. (More so than the vapid cartoony mainstream pap that is SW: TOR.)

Missions that treat the player as being smart and intelligent. Missions that involve stealth and research and clues and puzzles. A combat system that involves both movement and active reaction, as well as build planning for synergies and the flexibility to change and adapt builds and tactics on the fly.

It makes me excited to hope that maybe, just maybe, some of that seven years of planned story content will actually come to pass. Maybe there will be more ARGs. Maybe there will finally be an MMO that does world-changing story arcs right.

Most of me is a pragmatic realist and a cynic beyond that eternal optimist core though. It probably won’t happen. The odds are against The Secret World beating the odds.

But if enough people don’t support it, now, at launch, it has no chance at all.

( I have made no secret of the fact that I appreciate an MMO that innovates and does things differently than being a typical WoW clone. I will put my money where my mouth is. Even if all I get is thirty days of the existing storyline experience, it’s at least worth the box price to support the devs having worked for years to give us that look at the secret world.)

TSW: First Impressions of Final Beta Weekend #4

Dark foggy days are coming.

Mixed bag. Mixed signals. I’m torn.

That’s the TL:DR summary, you can go away now if you don’t want my wall-of-text detailed analysis.

Before We Begin

You’ll note I took the trouble to specify these impressions are only for this weekend, since their client has this qualifier scrawled across their notes screen:

“Please keep in mind that the version of The Secret World you will be playing this Beta Weekend is not the final version of the game. Many issues and elements are constantly being improved upon before launch.”

Riiight. Call me cynical, but I translate that as “We will promise we will be continually working to improve this game, but we have run out of time and have to launch this.” In other words, you will be playing and paying for a work in progress for quite a while yet.

On the bright side, I do believe they are fixing stuff as fast as they can. In between yesterday and today, I’ve had to download quite a few patches to be able to log in, and active dodging in combat was reactivated (to name a really obvious change) so there’s fixes coming in.

It’s not like they’ve given up and wiped their hands of the MMO and are just going to launch it to grab what money they can like some other companies I could think of. I think it fits Funcom’s pattern to keep working away at their games and keeping the doors unshuttered for the long term, though they may never have enough resources to polish their MMOs to full potential.

On the pragmatic side, this sure is a hell of a lot of -known- bugs and issues for an MMO that is due to launch like…now.

They probably suspect that this is the best window. Before Guild Wars 2 launches. Within 2012, because their story alludes to it being the year 2012.

Personally, I put up with Age of Conan’s bugginess and unfinished nature for about 3 months while marking time for Warhammer’s launch (which also lasted about 3 months, but that’s another story) and I’m having trouble convincing myself that paying for lack of polish is okay, especially when there are more polished and/or free (just less new) options available on the market.

On First Logging In

The program jittered and stuttered on the movies that played the logos but they played, and I got all the way to the log-in screen. Then I tried to pick a server, and found out I couldn’t create a character on a single one. Kept throwing me back and saying the slots were all full. WTF? I don’t have a single character made, there’s three slots sitting right there, how can they be full?

Quit, did some forums searching, turns out that behavior occurs if there’s been a patch/update in between that you missed. (Well, I was downloading a huge 20+ gb client for over 24 hours, so it’s no wonder that I must have missed a patch.)

Want a good laugh? This was the client downloader midway through. I looked at that progress bar poking out onto my desktop and said, “Lol, this calls for a screenshot.”

On the bright side, it did stop before it hit 25 gb, and it later expanded itself into a 30gb folder on my hard disk. (I shoved Aion onto a spare external hard disk to make room. Copy it back later when I feel like trying out the game again, assuming the NCsoft launcher doesn’t have issues with me doing that. But that’s another story.)

Started the game for the second time after downloading the necessary missing patch, and promptly crashed because I was trying to click away or bang on Esc to skip the corporate logo movies. Hrm. (For the record, subsequent times have allowed me to skip them just fine by pressing Esc once. I have no idea why it was being so temperamental just then. But I’m pointing out the my exact first impressions flow of events, good and bad alike.)

Third time lucky. Started the program again, logged in, selected a server and made it to the character creation screen. Yay, I can actually make a character now!

On the Character Screen and TSW’s Graphics

It’s about this point that I first started running into an issue that sits like a big plague-monkey on my back. At certain points, like in the character screen and certain cutscenes, my graphics lag and typically take 15-60 seconds to load in, coming in layers, low resolution textures at first and then smoothing to higher resolution stuff. Not all the time, but enough to be annoying.

It’s most obvious on the character load screen. This is what it looks like for me right on starting up (after having made my first Illuminati character, that is.)

That’s just not normal. Most other MMOs will show you your character, right?

Turns out, so does The Secret World. If I wait for a good minute or so, then this eventually fills in around the brown-grey spaces.

Now I’ll quantify right off that I’m not playing The Secret World at the ideal recommended uber-graphics card 64-bit Windows 7 DirectX11 settings. I am completely well aware of the fact that I’ll never get as awesomely gorgeous lighting and shadows and beautiful textures as the media screenshots on their website.

Considering the negative rumor mill and me running a 32-bit Windows XP DirectX9 machine with an ATI 4870 card (ATI cards being somewhat notorious for having issues where Nvidia doesn’t, now and then), I was already pleasantly surprised to find that the game loaded at all. The starting resolution and graphics quality was extremely low on the default setting, and I was able to crank it up to somewhere between medium-high on a 1680 x 1050 full screen – the client automatically restricts the draw distance and other advanced settings due to memory limitations on 32-bit Windows.

Decently pretty.

However, I’m always aware of and made to feel slightly like a second class citizen because of this graphics lag issue. Even the graphics setting never misses a beat to tell me this.

The impression I get is that you don’t care about me as a potential audience. That you can’t really be bothered to optimize for lower performing systems. That accessibility of your game is not a factor. Whereas games like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic go for stylized graphics precisely because they want the game to work well on lower-end systems, while Guild Wars 2 tests the look of their game on antiquated graphics cards that can’t even be bought off the shelves anymore because they want the game to still look good for the average gamer.

It’s weird because I do think you -are- working on optimizing for lower end systems too, as and when you can. My load times have been speeding up over this last beta weekend. And the game -is- playable, on the whole, for me.

Monitoring FPS, I get anywhere from a playable 25-40 FPS most times, going up to 45 FPS in solo instances and dropping to 5-20 FPS for a couple seconds in the rare crowded locales before going up again. It’s better performance than I got with Age of Conan, where I could hit 1-5 FPS in the cities. (Ironically, it was AoC which made me feel like I needed to upgrade my graphics card about 4-5 years ago. I did, and it improved somewhat, but not by much.)

So then the final impression I get is that of bugginess and lack of polish and optimization. Bits work here, and parts don’t work there. For 90% of the cutscenes, they play perfectly fine and look pretty okay, if not spectacular because my system isn’t high-end…

…and then I get this view of a van that dashes in for 1-2 seconds, which is too fast for my computer to apply a good high-res texture to.

And it kinda shatters the immersion that is being built up.

(Unless, hmm, maybe I can pretend that I’m playing in a big Matrix-computer-style set up, so there are occasions where the quality of the graphics becomes digitized as the world fails to render properly!)

On Character Creation

It’s not terrible. I’ll say that much. There’s a decent range of options and colors and head, hair, clothing types. Enough to create fairly unique and distinct characters that don’t all look like clones on first entering the game.

That is, if you could actually see your character.

It’s that graphics bugaboo I mentioned earlier. I don’t get it. For practically any other MMO I play, it doesn’t take 3-5 seconds to pause and first load the background in bits and pieces, then slowly load and display the character. In The Secret World’s character creation screen, it does.

When it does finally load in, it isn’t half bad at all.

At least, if the sliders worked properly. For some reason, they’re acting clunky in character creation. I can’t click on the knob and drag. The pixel location is off, or something.

At first, I was wondering if it was a lag issue from having to load in the different styles and textures, but my computer doesn’t grind or in any way act like it’s trying to load anything.

What I have to do is somehow click away at each slider, up and around and down until it suddenly registers as active, and my mouse wheel can suddenly work to scroll up and down through the selections with nary a pause at all. If I get really lucky and pick the perfect pixel location, then I can drag the knobs left and right as you’d expect.

And then I go through the same thing per bar I select. And if I need to backtrack on an option, same problem with the knobs. It’s really weird because the color selection has no issues. Click and everything changes with nary a pause. The drop down box has no issues. The knobs make me want to tear out my hair.

My only possible conclusion? Buggy.

On Names

Here’s one thing about the Secret World that I do like. Quite a bit.

You have to fill in three names. First name, nickname, and a last name. So everyone goes around being identified as John/Jane “Moniker” Doe and it adds a bit to the immersive aspect of the setting. The naming policy encourages most people to use pretty immersive names too, pretty much the worst I’ve seen are those that run around in all lowercase. Even those that just have a few numbers tacked on the end of their nickname kind of resemble Internet monikers.

What’s less nice, that I found out on my second character made, is that the nickname has to be unique. And no spaces are allowed.

It’s a bit of a shame, considering that if you used all three names in combination, we might get more flexibility and freedom in naming, similar to City of Heroes or Guild Wars 1. Now instead what we’re going to end up with is people warring for the best sexy superhero or hacker-style nickname and lots of good options being taken up very very soon. It’s already a pain on City of Heroes to get good names, and we get the option of spaces there. Here, all we get are hyphens and a shorter character limit, which does not bode well for the future.

I also foresee that people are going to be hard pressed to tell the difference between Nightshadow and Night-shadow (both names are naturally taken by this time.) Hopefully they don’t end up playing or talking together at the same time.

On Group and Combat Mechanics

Speaking of playing together, I’m a little disappointed. Just a bit.

Bear in mind the last beta I was just playing was Guild Wars 2, so when I first started the game and got to Kingsmouth, I saw people fighting zombies in a setting that looks like it was cut out from Left 4 Dead… what’s the first thing I’m going to do? Run in and help blow zombies up, of course!

Then I noticed that:

a) I generally wasn’t getting any xp from helping kill mobs other players were already fighting (or just a smidgen, normally from untagged mobs)


b) when some other well-meaning player helped me on my zombies, the amount of experience I got was dramatically decreased


I guess we’re back to traditional MMO mechanics where you have to officially form a group first. I better stop “helping” before someone shouts at me for killstealing them. Sad panda.

From then on, I stopped caring about other players and treated them as essentially a big faceless crowd of moving distractions that are all following the same story path.

It’s especially sad because the tutorial mission has you helping out three NPCs with a shotgun, fighting multiple mobs, fer goodness sake’s. In action combat. Where running and dodging and firing as you ran was important. It felt so modern and enlightened. Yet we still have a reminder of old MMO roots simply because the reward scheme still feels oldfashioned.

Combat on the whole reminds me of a good mix between Guild Wars 2, Guild Wars 1 and City of Heroes. That’s a good thing. A really really good thing.

It has active moving combat pretty similar to GW2, especially when active dodge is operational. I am especially pleased by the clarity of the enemy’s attacks and AoE effects (I’ve complained before about some other games) but TSW is as good as Rift in that respect.

You see the clarity of that circle? That’s cool. It’s clear and it is fair and it gives you time to move the hell away.

You’re a split second too late to see the spinning backflip I did to get out of the way of his AoE attack. But trust me, it was cool.

Double tapping W, A, S, D works well to dodge about. An active dodge bar appears as a countdown timer to indicate that you can’t do another dodge until it expires.

Here’s another nice one. This cone gradually shrinks in size, acting as a timer to indicate that he’s going to do a cone attack in the vicinity. Get outta the way now. Very nice.

It’s similar to Guild Wars 1 in the sense that you have to pick skills from a potentially large pool, and the choices of that selection indicate your combat options and role in battle. TSW gives you 7 active skills and 7 passive skills at any time, and the trick is to find stuff that synergizes well together and add on other utility skills as desired.

And it’s similar to GW and City of Heroes in that you’re generally a profession/profession. TSW has three melee weapons, fists, blade and hammer. Three ranged weapons, assault rifle, pistols and shotgun. And three magic weapons, chaos, blood and elemental. When you’re just starting out with limited AP and SP to buy skills and abilities, it’s generally a good idea to focus on a two weapon combat synergy style at first, before branching out later.

These two weapon synergy styles have suggested ‘decks,’ sort of a characteristic class of certain factions, which provide some nice structured guidance for people coming in cold and new to the entire system. No doubt some people will find that certain combinations are more uber than others as time goes on, but a nice balancing point is that everyone should be able to eventually pick up everything they want in a leveless, classless system. I just don’t know how much grind that would involve, though.

The holy trinity also still seems to be in operation in this game. Perhaps a little looser as there is quite a lot of option for hybrids and there’s flexibility to switch roles, but time will tell.

I actually think grouping might be quite fun in this game, if there is leeway for synergies to naturally develop, but I fear that if the dungeon difficulties are too high and too challenging, then we’ll see people being forced into very cookie cutter ‘expected’ heal/tank/dps roles for simplicity’s sake. I suspect the latter will happen, though I much prefer the former.

On Loadscreens

They’re there. On my computer, they take anywhere from 1-3 minutes to load, sooner for small cutscenes. People who dislike loading screens for immersion disruption reasons will not be happy.

Me, I don’t mind them. And I put up with worse loadscreens in Age of Conan, that literally took 5 minutes or more to struggle to load a very small zone. In TSW, the zone of Kingsmouth looks fairly big and open by comparison, so if I have to put up with short loadscreens to get the zone to a playable unlaggy state, that’s fine by me. It’s nice art and a helpful tip on those screens anyway.

On Missions and Quest Flow

On the whole, I approve. Investigation missions were turned off in this beta, which make me very curious about them because I think I will like them.

Regardless, the missions I played had a smooth flow, some involved a bit of thinking and looking around (much to some people’s exasperation as that provides a constant flow of repeated dumb questions and spoilers flying about on General chat – me, I stopped reading it in order not to spoil myself), and had a good mix of combat and story.

I like the designed difference in mission flow. TSW Search explains it here in a comprehensive guide, I’ll just paste the relevant explanation in a picture here for completeness:

Turns out it is actually designed in such a way that as one of your quests ends, you should be able to find another mission to pick up within 50m or so. Some interesting item should be obvious.

I like it. It’s a nice blend of exploration and achievement. While on the mission, you have clarity of direction and intent. But you can follow the thread to its end, then pick up another and another and be wandering all over the place without feeling obliged to report back in to quest hub central.

They’ve also taken the idea of cell phones from City of Heroes and taken it one step further. Mission reports can be sent in from your location once you finish the quest, and you get the rewards beamed to you instantly and painlessly. (Being part of an ancient occult technomagical faction has its perks, I guess.)

On Cutscenes

The voice acting is very good. The quality of writing in the stories is top notch. Granted, you have to like the setting and the rambling high-falutin’ prose that comes with that sort of urban fantastic occulto-technomagic ‘everything is a secret conspiracy’ genre. There are a lot of interesting characters and stories that I want to know more about.

The animation quality is only so-so. A bit disappointing and uncanny valley at times, but generally acceptable.

What’s extremely fucking weird is that your character doesn’t ever speak at all, and has the strangest robot face in most of the cutscenes.

Okay, I know the pro-argument for this. It’s extremely immersion-breaking if your character acts in ways that contradict your character concept. It’s sometimes better if the character just shuts up and lets your imagination write in the gaps.

But let me assure you it is also JUST as immersion-breaking if your character stands there silently for the entire cutscene, watching the NPC monologue, nicely voice acted out though it is. Especially if the NPC reacts like you said something, and you evidently didn’t.

Guild Wars 1 and 2 has dialogue. Your character says some generic hero stuff, but they say something. City of Heroes sometimes puts words in your character’s mouth when replying back to the mission text, and yes, they get it horribly wrong at times, but they do say something and imply some sort of motive or personality. I believe SWTOR also has your characters say something and react to the NPCs, though it may be generic Jedi or Bounty Hunter or Insert Class Here sort of reaction.

TSW is very very weird because in some cutscenes, they do assume some sort of reaction from your character (example, the NPC monloguing changes topic or subject because you presumably said or asked something) and then in this Dragon intro, you’re practically having a sexual encounter from the get go (I wasn’t expecting lesbian sex when I chose the female character option and that faction, but hey, bonus):

There’s -some- reaction animated on your character’s face – probably because it’s impossible not to. But your character remains MUTE throughout it all. It’s really a bit freaky.

It’s as if the best immersive option is to assume that your character is a mute telepath that can project their questions directly into the NPC’s minds. Perhaps the bug you ate that gave you magical superpowers also took away your powers of speech, along with bestowing fantastic combat ability and the link to a faction.

Viewed in that conspiracy theorist light, it all makes perfect sense.

On My See-Saw Conclusion

Despite the bugs and weird freakiness and general instability (on the plus side, I didn’t crash up to the training dojang even while print-screening and alt-tabbing out to paste screenshots – because the ingame screenshot key acts a little weird now and then – on the minus side, I was constantly crashing right after that when alt-tabbed), I am quite intrigued by the game.

I’m extremely fond of the setting TSW is set in. I’ve always wanted to experience the kind of Mage: The Ascension (or the newer, Awakening) or Unknown Armies occult underground conspiracy theory sort of world.

I approve of the combat system, the idea of a leveless and classless skill-based system, and the missions look quite playable and tell a good story. If you look at the gameplay features on The Secret World’s website, they deliver all of that. (Along with bugs.)

I would essentially be playing TSW as a singleplayer game in an MMO world to let the writers tell me their stories, and… this is where the doubt comes in, I’m not sure if I want to pay a box price, plus a sub fee, plus whatever else they decide to throw in their cash shop, for that.

The graphics are a key deciding factor for me. To be frank, if I was on a Windows 7 high powered graphics card kind of system that displays The Secret World well and in all its glory, I would be happy to put down for it right now and just play 3 months or so until I exhausted the content.

At the moment, my real world budget and priorities prohibit that. (My present computer is so put together AND old that I’ve decided instead of upgrading piecemeal, I will get a complete new system – new OS, new card, new hard disk, new power supply, new monitors, new everything, and bonus, I’ll have two machines to dual box with eventually. But budgetary and economic concerns indicate that’s not likely to come until Christmas or next year.)

So I’m stuck with pretty, but not awesomely spectacular graphics if I decide to play The Secret World within these six months. (And the bugs, and the second class citizenship thing.)

On one hand, if I wait until next year, it should look and feel really great. Funcom will no doubt have fixed more bugs by then, maybe even have an expansion in the works. The price will no doubt be cheaper.

Or there may not even be a Secret World next year, especially in the wake of Guild Wars 2, which I plan on playing fanatically. And all the spoilers would be out on all the storylines. And it would be quite impossible to find PUGs for dungeons then – whereas if I play with the starting crowd of any MMO, there’s always more group-ish excitement.

Then again, do I want group-ish excitement in this MMO, because it still has some ugly oldschool roots? I pay a lot more attention to players and supporting them in Guild Wars 2 because the mechanics support me doing so. In TSW, that’s not going to happen until they install some kind of public grouping button because I refuse to make and lead old style groups anymore, they’re just not my thing and other MMOs have demonstrated much easier ways for players to casually interact.

I dunno. It ultimately comes down to how much I feel the positive aspects are worth the box price (which is expensive at 50 euros with the exchange rate the way it is), while also taking the negative aspects into account.

And I’m still on a see-saw about that.

For what it’s worth, I’m a lot more interested in considering The Secret World -after- my beta weekend #4 experience than before.

So hey, that’s something.

TSW: The 0th Impression

Found a The Secret World weekend beta invite key in my mailbox yesterday.

Either signing up for that ARG thing finally paid off (except I don’t remember if the email I used was the same), or having an Age of Conan account once upon a time has its perks.

It’s the super public last beta weekend #4 before launch, so I don’t feel special or anything. But hey, if you give me a free trial, I will most likely look at it, if only so I can comment intelligently about it later.

My hard disk space is currently suffering from a surfeit of too much Steam, so it was quite a job to delete enough away to leave 15 gb free – which is what the mail or the website told me to have on hand.

The client downloader has been running for over 24 hours now. Suffice to say, it’s not making a great impression at the moment.

~8 hours ago:


~30 mins ago:

I just cleared 5 more gigabytes for it.

At last update before this blog post, it is happily on 16.4gb.

I will probably give up at 25 gb.

(And I’m running 32-bit Win XP, so I’m prepared for the Mayan Apocalypse even if I get the client up and running. Stay tuned this weekend to see if first impressions are ever forthcoming.)