Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Posts Tagged ‘funcom’

A Timeline of Western MMO Development

Posted by Ben Zeigler on February 7, 2010

Update: I modified the chart below based on feedback from various emails and forum posts on QT3. Original is available here for comparison.

The recent layoffs at Red 5 Studios lead me to think about the often convoluted history of subscription-based MMO development studios in America and Europe. How many MMOs did EA release and then kill? How did other studios consisting of Ex-Blizzard developers fare? Where did BioWare Austin come from? What’s up with European MMO studios? Seeking to document the answers to those questions and others I started Googling press releases and booted up a copy of Dia. I then produced the possibly useful Timeline reproduced below.

Rectangles indicate company events such as formations and closures, while ellipsoids indicate game releases or closures. The position on the X axis indicates rough time ordering, corresponding to the years below. Solid connecting lines indicate official developer or publisher relationships, while dotted connecting lines indicate migration of key development personnel. For example, the dotted line from UO to Sony Austin basically represents Raph Koster.

I used the internet for sourcing everything, so I make no absolute judgments with regard to accuracy. The dotted line connections are mostly based on press releases that mention key developers being from another studio. If something sticks out as being incorrect, either leave me a comment or send me an email. I’d be happy to forward the Dia file along to anyone who asks for  it.

A Timeline of Western MMO Development

  1. EA has launched 5 MMOs and quickly killed 3 of them.
  2. Ex-Blizzard MMO studios appear to be batting about 1-in-4.
  3. Rich Vogel from BioWare Austin has extensive MMO experience on both SWG and UO.
  4. CCP and FunCom have historically been isolated from the rest of the western MMO development community.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Age of Conan: How to Not Run a Community

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 11, 2008

I’m not playing Age of Conan any more, but I’m still following it’s development. There are still a wide variety of technical problems, as evidenced by this Shacknews article with the hilarious headline: “Age of Conan Dev Addresses Gender Equality, Females to Be as Powerful as Males in 3-4 weeks”. In case you haven’t been following it, female characters attack with a slower animation but the same damage, and thus have significantly lower DPS than male characters. The cause of this bug is design experience (CoH had similar bugs at launch), but the fact that it’s taken them this long to acknowledge something that has been frequently mentioned on the boards since closed beta is indicative of very poor QA and community relations.

This isn’t the only recent example, either. A week or so ago, a set of fake patch notes got spread around the official forums. Go read them, they’re a good combination of speculation and wishlist items, correctly written in mmo-developer style. I knew it was fake when I read “Feat tooltips in general will now give much more specific details as to what the actual feat does.” because that’s such an important feature that I suspect AoC will never actually deliver. Anyway, the reason I have to link to the IGN boards is that instead of addressing the fake patch notes in some sort of reasonable way (an official note to say that they’re fake, but that they acknowledge the fans desires) they instead purged any threads that mentioned it. This just lead to everyone on the board thinking they were leaked instead of faked, and raised their expectations while simultaneously creating confusion.

So when they released the actual patch, the forum reaction ranged from mildly disappointed to indignant.  Also I’ve seen 3 different versions of the patch notes, and as far as I can tell the US forums never get an official mod-created patch notes thread, which is insane. They instead choose to sticky some random thread made by a user that links to the EU patch notes, which may not even be identical. Then you have to go look at the user-created undocumented patch notes, which go over the various nerfs and extra bugs added by the patch. In fact, the patch is probably a sum negative for player fun, which is not what you want in a patch that’s been hyped up. Players are waiting for a bug, game changing patch in the near future, and I doubt heavily it’s coming. You won’t be hearing any more subscription number announcements from Funcom, because I’m certain they’re losing a big chunk of their audience.

Posted in Game Development, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Age of Conan: Meh, I’m Done

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 8, 2008

As a follow up to my last two posts, here are my final impressions on Age of Conan. I hit level 46, and I’ve canceled my subscription. The immediate cause of me canceling is that I have run out of missions to do, and I hate mindless grinding. On top of that, there’s a bunch of problems with the game in general that keep me from being motivated to break through to the next group of quests. The game continues to gorgeous and the basic combat fun, but the other problems have piled up to the point that I’ve lost the will to go on. I may pick it up once some of the issues are fixed, but for now here is the list of Things That Suck About Age of Conan:

  • My class (Ranger) has multiple abilities that do absolutely nothing. I put some feat points into Pitch Pots, which from the description are interesting-sounding grenades. However, you activate the power and… nothing. From reading the boards, they don’t work for anyone. This is a common problem across all classes and levels.
  • The economy sucks. At level 40 you can first purchase your horse, for a price of 3 gold. At level 46, I had just gotten 1 gold. At this rate, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford a horse until 60, at which point the 30-gold horse is available.
  • The guild cities don’t work. Your guild can purchase various buildings (at a very high material and gold cost), but when you get them none of them are operational. You might thinking buying a trading post would let you use it, but no. It’s just there to get accidentally destroyed, which is pretty easy to do.
  • The death penalty is just kind of funny. The entirety of the death penalty is a very minor 30-minute debuff, unless you find your corpse or gain a chunk of xp. Because the death penalty is so minor, and you get to pick your respawn point at death, suicide is by far the fastest travel method in the game.
  • Crafting is really irritating. You can only start gathering materials at 20, and crafting at 40. There are a small number of material nodes that are SUPPOSED to be on your mini map (and are every 3rd time I log in), but they don’t replenish very fast and competition is tight for them. Then to level up crafting or collecting you have to craft/collect resources and then give them to the trainer to advance. I’ve spent multiple hours crafting and have ABSOLUTELY nothing to show for it, other than being halfway to higher levels of crafting. On top of that, the stuff you craft is worse than grey trash drops.
  • Quest mobs/objectives have horrible respawn times. There is one quest item that is needed by a central quest, and only respawns every 90 minutes. Think about that. Most of the players on the server need to do that quest, but only one person every 90 minutes actually can. Oh, and it doesn’t share if you’re on a team even. I’ve spent several hours camping out for other quest mobs to respawn, as well.
  • I’m not in love with the community. By making an “adult” game I was sort of hoping that it would get a more mature audience, but the community is probably a bit less mature than WoW, if that is even possible. As an example, here’s a 23-page thread on female character breast size.
  • Many of the interior maps are horribly broken. Map graphics are consistently missing, and sometimes the scale of the map is off enough that certain discovery quests are impossible to complete. I still am yet to Enter the Pyramid, despite having defeated everything inside it.
  • Some of the basic game mechanics are broken or extremely confusing. Here’s a 38 page thread on the broken character stat system. The summary is that it consists of a large number of players saying “Stats (strength, dexterity, etc) appear to do nothing. Funcom, please fix this system or at least explain it to us”. The official Funcom response can be summarized as “Working as intended. It is not our policy to discuss gameplay mechanics publicly. STFU noob”. The brokenness of the system, and the response of the developers, personally offends me as a player and developer.

Overall, I characterize Age of Conan as a game with an excellent engine (it rarely crashes) and art team, but with crappy game systems programming and design. The polish of the early levels hides the systemic problems, but the game really starts to break down as you get into the 40′s. The game is worth playing as a free trial (you could get through the fun parts during the trial period), but is not worth paying a monthly fee for in it’s current state.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Age of Conan Initial Impressions

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 21, 2008

I purchased and played Age of Conan for the first time last night. I didn’t participate in the beta, so these thoughts come from the perspective of a totally new player. Here are my impressions, from 5 levels in to the game:

Everything between wanting to purchase the game and creating my character sucked. First, there’s no digital download option, so I had to drive to Best Buy and pick it up. Then, the install size is so huge (30 gigs) I took the opportunity to purchase a 1TB disk drive. After going through that irritating process the game install was very long (do I really need the intro movie in 7 languages?). Every time you start the game it plays 7 intro movies that I couldn’t figure out how to automatically skip. The patcher kind of sucks. I got stuck at the server list for a few minutes trying to find the server I wanted. Oh, and the game was completely down this morning when I tried to play.

Character creation is fun. You’re on a slave ship, and you pick your appearance there. Picking your race/gender gives you a random appearance, and then you tweak it. Body and Face are split up with different sides of the interface and randomize buttons. So, you can randomize your face until you find a good one to match the body you worked on. The part scaling is really comprehensive, and felt like a version of Oblivion’s that actually worked right. Random always seemed to give me an appealing character to start with for tweaking, as opposed to the soulless husks of ugly that Oblivion always seemed to generate. I ended up making Stygian Ranger.

I really enjoyed levels 1-5. The game feels very much like a single player PC RPG, to the point that I kept looking for the quick save button. There are cutscenes, voice acting, full screen dialogue trees, the whole shebang. The dialogue trees are kind of funny because they are completely inconsequential. Threatening to kill who you’re talking to seems to have absolutely no effect on game play or plot, but it does help get you involved with your character’s identity. As far as ease of use, I had no issues. The tutorial area is a mix of guided and unguided play, and useful but easy-to-disable tutorial popups appear and help you play. I never felt intimidated or patronized, and I think they did a great job with the first 5 levels.

The interface is one of the things I liked the most. It has a VERY useful and attractive mini map. You can dynamically zoom from global scale down to local, and the map has tool tips for all mission objectives, shops, and important NPCs. I liked the quest list UI because it displays the quest reward ahead of time, which lets you make decisions about what to focus on. Everything is extensively tool tipped as far as stats go. The possibly best part is that when you hover over inventory items, they spin around in 3d which is significantly niftier than it should be. Overall, AoC likes to give you information that is useful for gameplay, and does so in a functional and attractive package.

Presentation-wise, the game excels. One big part of their environments is that basically everything in it is dynamic in some way. The grass sways slightly, the water looks great, the flags all billow, and the corpses hanging from city walls look particularly dynamic. They’re all simple tricks but go a long way to sell the environment as alive.  There’s some texture pop in and such, but it didn’t bother me. The lighting is pretty decent, and there’s an “Ambient Occlusion Quality” option that has a large effect. I’m not sure what they’re doing (are they actually doing real time occlusion?) but turning that on made the environments look way more natural and interesting. In addition to the solid graphics, the sound was univerally excellent. It has a good musical score, dynamic in-combat music, good sound effects, and even some solid voice acting. I have no complaints presentation-wise.

From what I’ve seen so far, Age of Conan is really promising. I’m not entirely sold on the combat mechanics, but my level 5 ranger is pretty fun to play. This has essentially no relationship to how the game will feel at level 80, so we’ll see when (okay, if) I get there. Age of Conan has the best, most polished early (but not pre-) game experience of any MMO yet made.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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