Posts Tagged ‘STO’

Trek Tales

As much as I like Star Trek Online, I’m looking forward to finishing it and moving on.  I suspect it’s similar to how I’d approach Star Wars The Old Republic, inasmuch as I want to play the story and then move on to another one.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I’m not burned out on STO (and I still highly recommend it, flawed though it is at times, like any other game)… I just have a lot of other games I want to play, and I need to move on instead of getting stuck in a rut.  This also means I’m less likely to burn out on the game, since I’m not feeling obligated to play past the point where I’m having fun, whether because I’m in a raiding guild or paying a subscription I want to get good value out of.

It’s remarkably similar to how I approach novel reading, actually.  I liked the Harry Potter books when I read them, but I don’t feel much impetus to start over and reread them.  On occasion, I do pick up one of them and just start reading somewhere in the middle, just for fun.  Likewise, I’ll pick up I, Jedi once every few months and reread a random passage, just because that’s the era of Star Wars that I like the most.  It’s a lot like my bookmark system that I wrote about back in my Turning Back Time article, where I can just jump into the narrative wherever I feel like it.  I do similar things with DVDs when I’m working in the evenings; I’ll fire up a movie or TV show I’ve seen but maybe I’ll skip around to the parts that interest me at the moment as I paint or design.

We don’t see that much in games.  Between autosave systems like Batman Arkham Asylum/City and MMOs and their “always on” nature, the biggest games I’ve played lately aren’t all that amenable to replay unless I flat out start over.  Y’know, I don’t always want to do that.  Sometimes I just want to jump into the parts that I loved most the first time through and replay the fun bits, maybe with some tweaks to my approach.

Maybe World of Warcraft is tinkering a little bit with this, as Big Bear Butt suggests over thisaway, by letting players bypass the grind inherent in gearing up alts, but that’s not quite the same thing as replaying some of the narrative bits or trying something as a different class (I’ve argued before for full character respecs, all the way down to class, as I note over at BBBs’ place).  Sure, we can replay a dungeon here and there, but what about the stories out in the world at large?  I don’t think there’s any way to replay a world quest without firing up a new character, and that’s a time sink.

It might be fun, sure, but it’s like starting a novel all over again just to get to that cool part one third of the way in or watching a movie on videotape.  Sure, you can fast-forward a bit, but you can’t skip ahead like you could with a DVD.  We’re totally spoiled by DVDs and their instant access to varied scenes in a movie.  I have a hard time watching movies on VHS these days.  I’d like to see more of that sort of spoilage in gaming.

This is where STO really shines.  I’m convinced that the best writing in the game is in their Featured Episodes, each a handful of missions with some tight scripting and play.  No, there’s not a lot of player autonomy or choice for Bioware-flavored gaming fans, but sometimes that’s OK.  Yes, I’d love to see more simulationist MMO gaming and player choice, but just going along for the ride can still be good fun, especially in bite-sized chunks of time.  (Though I maintain that it’s a Very Bad Fit for subscription MMO gaming, I do love a good Final Fantasy or the like sometimes, just like I love Minecraft sometimes.  They can both be good fun, just different.)

Anyway, the Featured Episodes are replayable pretty much whenever you’d like, so long as you’ve done them once.  They autoscale to your level (and there are three selectable difficulty levels) both in challenge and in rewards (experience aside).  This is fantastic, as I can just go replay the missions I loved most without starting a new character.  It’s simpler in STO, thanks to the instanced nature of missions, but man, it’s a great core design decision.

It also might be worth noting that I could get all the fun I’m getting out of STO if it were a single player offline game.  Sure, I’d need to go online to catch up with Longasc or BlueKae or Tipa in-game (though I’m not so good at that anyway), but I’ve been playing the Featured Episode missions entirely solo since Longasc helped me through one of them some eight months or so ago.  STO is a good game solo, and it’s a good game with friends.

…but it’s about time to move on.  I’ll finish the game, plunk it in my “good game” memory and move on.  Maybe I’ll come back just for fun one of these days (a huge strength of the nonsubscription model), but it will be because I enjoyed it and want to again.  Maintaining that positive mentality toward a game is a Good Thing, methinketh.  I’ll probably play through the new Feature Episodes on the 11th, and then go play Batman Arkham City or Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.  Tally ho!

Oh, and here are some of my favorite screenshots from my STO play.  I have a LOT more, but these are my favorites.

Obligatory mug shot

Obligatory ship shot

Obligatory away team shot

Obligatory Earth orbit shot

Obligatory DS9 shot

Obligatory Empok Nor shot

Obligatory Enterprise-F Odyssey model shot (only available during the 2nd anniversary shindig)

Obligatory Memory Alpha shot

Obligatory cool planet shot

Obligatory cool space shot

Obligatory space station raiding shot

Obligatory shipping crates shot

Obligatory planetary cityscape shot

Obligatory weird lava planet shot

Obligatory Tribbles shot

Obligatory Gorn shot (my son's character, Sss'anta)

Obligatory noob shot (my daughter's character standing in a fountain, petting a Tribble)

…and a few other random shots.

Romulans experimenting on Borg tech

Reman Base

Broken down

Fire Caves

Blowing stuff up

This illustrates my favorite ground combat trick: my Science Captain’s “endothermic field somethingorother”… basically a nice Area of Effect ground fire.  It’s a blast to use on stationary targets.  It’s also good to use on NPCs, since standing in the fire confuses them, and they don’t use special abilities or move out of the fire.  Then I turn the Cryogun on them for a little fire-and-ice action.  Yeah, I love AoE attacks on targets that just sit there.

Standing in the fire

150 or so over on the Google hivemind.  Resistance is futile.

(4200+ not shown.  Yeah, I take a lot of screenshots.)

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A couple of thoughts on subs and F2P business and MMOs, today guest starring Tobold, Spinks and Raph Koster.

Tobold’s I Would be Happier with Free2Play

Spinks’ WoW Thought for the Day

Raph Koster’s F2P vs. Subs

I’ve long been a proponent of making WoW F2P and even offline or in W/JRPG format simply because subscriptions never offer me enough value for me to bother with them.

…and yet, I have a 60-day time card that I’ve had for almost a year and a half and a handful of 30-day time codes from the WoW VISA card I use for big purchases and emergencies.  I have the time codes (and one unscratched card), ready to use, already paid for, but the flubbernuggin’ time-limited monetization scheme still doesn’t feel like good value to me.  I don’t want to use those codes since I have too much going on to devote sufficient time to playing to get good value out of them.  Similarly, I have a Steam code for 30 days each of FFXI and RIFT, but I haven’t activated either of them.  They are paid for, ready to go, but I hate the idea of locking myself into a monogamous game experience just so I can squeeze the most out of it as I can before the time stops ticking.

I hate gaming on the clock.

…and on the other hand, I’ll happily sink a little time into the newly F2P Star Trek Online every morning sending my Duty Officers off on missions and maybe run a story arc mission in the evening.  The cost of activation is really low, so I go play when I feel like it.  I’m considering spending $15 or so to get a new ship that I would then be able to use whenever I darn well please for as long as the servers are live.  That’s value I’ll pay for.  That’s how I approach Wizard 101, too; I bought Crowns to unlock areas that I’ll get to someday, and in the meantime, I’ll play when I feel like it.  I’ve spent money on Puzzle Pirates for the same reason; I bought a ship that I can sail around and pirate with, but I don’t have to keep paying just to play on the occasions when I make the time for it.  I’d readily pay for a single purchase SWTOR.

Would that translate to WoW?  In my case, absolutely.  I’d log in and do a few quests here and there, and toss them money to unlock a dungeon or the ability to make a Dwarf Druid or make my own guild comprised entirely of my own characters without the need to recruit other players or some sort of service that lets me bypass some of the extremely poorly paced crafting curve.  I’m definitely not averse to giving Blizzard money, I just want to pay for things that offer me good value.  WoW is still a fun game to play, even with all its warts and weirdness.  As it stands, though, I can’t exactly send them a financial message about the parts that I care about, which is one of the weaknesses of the subscription model.

…I can, however, offer to sell my time codes.  Anyone?  Maybe trade for some titles on my Steam Wish List?  Oh, and I still have some coupons and COGS and World of Goo if anyone wants them.  Nobody took me up on the snowflake contest, so I’ll just throw them to the winds.  (Another interesting take on value, perhaps…)

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I work in the game industry as a technical artist.  I’m somewhere between a designer and a “real” artist, and my college degree (Bachelor’s of the Fine Arts) was in computer animation, where I specialized in animation and rigging.  I’m sort of a “left and right brain” artist, and I wind up doing a lot of different things in any given production.

In college, I used Autodesk’s Maya for 3D work.  It’s a solid, if expensive, program that is used professionally in the film and TV industries.  My first job in games used it, too… but now I work at a smaller studio that uses 3DS Max.  It’s also a solid, if expensive, program, but three years of using it, and I’m still running into mental and physical tics where I want to use Maya workflow or keyboard/mouse functions that have no parallel in Max or are handled differently.

One particularly egregious dysfunctional keyboard shortcut in Max is the almost omnipresent CTRL-S.  In almost every single Windows program that’s the shortcut for “Save”.  That’s even true in Max… unless you’re editing UV layouts, which is pretty common in my work.  Then, CTRL-S toggles the “Snap” setting.  This tripped me up more than once, as I thought I was saving a file, only to find that I was turning Snap on, which messed up what I was doing with the UVs.  I’ve also lost work when I thought I saved a file before walking away from my machine, only to have it crash while I was away.  My reflexive CTRL-S didn’t save the file, so I was out an hour or so of work.

I consider this to be Bad Design.  When user expectations are based on muscle memory and mental habits, there need to be extremely good reasons for going against that grain.  That’s not to say that changing things up is always a bad thing, just that it needs to be carefully done and actually make a user’s experience better, not worse.

We see this in game design, too, from the FPS glut to MMOs.  So many games look very similar and play very similarly that players come to expect that a new game that fits the mold will offer a similar user experience.  This can run as shallow as pressing the same button to advance dialogue trees (a problem between SNES and Playstation era RPGs, where “cancel” was “accept” on the other controller and vice versa) to camera control (games really should let users flip the X and Y axis controls) to actual moment-to-moment gameplay.

I have an XBox game called PURE, an offroad ATV racing/stunt game made for the SSX mentality.  It’s full of crazy stunts and absurd tracks, but it’s a lot of fun to play.  My wife and I play SSX3 on occasion on our PS2, and we love playing together.  PURE doesn’t offer a single-screen multiplayer game, which is a bit annoying, but much more annoying on a subconscious level is that the default controller setup asks the player to hold down the right trigger button to make the silly vehicle move.  This winds up making sense as the face buttons (A, B, X, Y) are used for stunts, but going from SSX3, which uses the shoulder button (more or less the same thing as the XBox trigger) for a turbo boost which must be used carefully to the trigger that is almost constantly held is a bit of a jarring transition.

This has nothing to do with how the game itself plays or looks, except inasmuch as those taint player expectations.  It’s not a game design issue, it’s a User Interface issue.  Yes, that’s part of the overarching “game production” pipeline, but it’s not a function of the core game design (the game mechanics).  Good UI design is crucial to making a good game playable, but it’s not something you can just toss a game designer or artist at and hope it works.  It requires a bit more thought and study.  That not to say that a designer or artist (or programmer) is incapable of good UI design, just that it’s a specialty in itself that needs attention.

Similarly, the Star Trek Online that I’ve been playing lately plays a lot like World of Warcraft in some crucial ways.  Holding both left and right mouse buttons down makes a character jog in the direction you’re aiming the camera.  Right button dragging moves the camera, left clicking selects targets, right clicking tells your character to attack the target, combat abilities are in a clickable hotbar that can also be activated with the numerical keys on the keyboard.  At the same time, ALT-Z doesn’t turn off the UI visual elements that would allow a nice clean screenshot.  It’s just a stupid little keyboard shortcut, but I find it annoying every time I want to take a screenshot… and that’s pretty often.  STO is a pretty game.  Apparently, the UI is automatically turned off for screenshots… but what then if I *want* the UI in the shot?  There’s a command for it, but the default function is different from what I’m used to.  I’m also not given any sort of feedback to know if hitting the Print Screen button actually takes a screenshot like it does in WoW.  That’s not to say that WoW is perfect, just that there’s a difference.

That’s not a problem by any means, it’s just a little annoyance.  Those tend to add up, though, even if they are subconscious.  Players might find that they aren’t liking a game any more, not because the game itself isn’t good, but because they keep fighting their own reflexes and assumptions about how it’s supposed to work, and that tension is a constant low-level irritation.  Something like Star Wars The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2 might find itself in a bad position between wanting to innovate and being stuck with gamers in a mental rut.  (That rut may not even be a bad place, for that matter… even if it might hold back the potential of the genre.)

Another example is the vestigial jumping of Wizard 101, which has absolutely no function.  It’s purely cosmetic… but because players have come to expect that the space bar makes your character jump in a PC game, by gum, it makes your wizard jump in Wizard 101.  As I noted in my original article on it, I think that’s a smart business move, even if it doesn’t make sense within the game itself.

This can also run deeper and run into game design territory.  STO has a vague (thankfully not strict) combat trinity of tank/healer/damage dealer with a few tricks thrown in, like WoW or any of a dozen other MMOs.  That’s a little odd, but hey, it works for what players are used to, so it makes sense to use it.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the game itself, and almost certainly not for the Star Trek IP, but it makes sense to gamers who might be coming to the game, so it’s a smart move.  SWTOR will almost certainly be a “reskin” of WoW with many of the same core mechanics and UI.  That’s smart business, even if it isn’t actually anything innovative or even evolutionary.  Players don’t want to relearn how to play a game that they are expecting to play like their old favorite.

I’ve also done a bit of web design here and there, and I try to work within the W3 standards.  That’s all well and good for practice, but in reality, Firefox, Opera, Chrome and that idiotic Internet Explorer all handle HTML, CSS and even the supposedly-universal Javascript differently.  Standards are only useful if they are actually used, and it’s a mess when not only individuals ignore them but also the browsers.  Each browser has its strengths and weaknesses, and can be perfectly usable in itself, but when they don’t cooperate on basic usability, it causes users trouble.  Standards are incredibly important to communication in all sorts of venues.

By the way, Firefox, why in the world did you move the “home” button to the other side of the address bar?  It’s one thing for different programs to change UI, it’s more troubling when a given program changes things between versions.  Don’t get me started on Photoshop and its spawn, or the barely-incremental changes we see in other big software packages in an effort to sell a new box each year, not only adding to the cost (since previous versions no longer get sold or supported) but also decreasing usability.  That’s not really a good pairing.

But so what?  Why does any of this matter?

Well, if your audience is likely to have developed expectations, whether mental habits or actual muscle memory, you need to be aware of that and design your product accordingly.  Automobile designers don’t arbitrarily switch the accelerator and brake pedals in an effort to differentiate their cars from the other guys.  DVORAK keyboards still aren’t the dominant model.  Single-button mice are still a dumb idea for Mac users who may be using PCs during the day.  Americans still don’t use the metric system and we drive on the wrong side of the road.

Maybe the alternates are better for those who don’t have expectations, but how often is that truly the case?  Designers don’t always have to cater to expectations, but flaunting them in ignorance or spite is a bad way to do business.  And perhaps sadly, games are still business.  Big business.  We need to understand our customers.  We still might have the courage or bullheadedness to do things our way instead of the “standard” way, but we shouldn’t do it from a position of ignorance.

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