achtungexplosiv: (Default)
There's a few games and updates heading our way that have caught my attention, and so I've kept an eye on how things have been developing.

Big Game Roundup
Mass Effect 3 logo Guild Wars 2 logoThe Secret World logo

Aside from the fact Mass Effect 3 is launching on the 9th of March, which is all over the internets along with the GAME/Gamestation debacle, the hypemachine is on overdrive for Guild Wars 2 now that Star Wars: the Old Republic has lost its new and shiny edge, and FunCom's upcoming The Secret World is still generating a lot of interest.


A recent interview with the BioWare studio founders conducted by Penny Arcade mentioned that the possibility of a Mass Effect MMO is an interesting one. There's some mixed feelings about it, given the mixed reception SWTOR got, but back before SWTOR details were known there was a good deal of interest in an MMO set in the Mass Effect universe. I have to admit that now I'm not so sure either. A single-player focused MMOFPS isn't something I'm looking for in an MMO.

My last post looked at awful customer service in the game industry, and whilst I did eventually have my Star Trek Online character restored*, my experience was very bad. The news that Blizzard has just laid off over 10% of its workforce, primarily those in support roles as it turns out, is not an encouraging sign that the industry-wide situation will improve any time soon.


The buzz surrounding Borderlands 2 had been quiet for the last few months until a few days ago, a video coupled with an official release date annoucement brought peoples' attention back. September 18th, as it happens.

There's been plenty of new information about the game, from the overhaul of itemisation to what powers the new Siren (Maya) will have. Spoiler: it's called Phaselock and translates as support/crowd control with damage on that affects mobs rather than the Siren herself. The latest infodump relates to the new Assassin named Zer0, a cyborg ninja that displays numbers and emoticons on it's featureless helmet. Previous articles detail the Commando going by the name of Axton, Maya the adventuring Siren and the first character that whet folks' whistles: the gunzerking dwarf Salvador. IGN has plenty of articles that go into further detail.

Dark Horse

One game that has been overlooked is Otherland, based on the Tad Williams novel series of the same name set in a cyberpunk-genre future. It's likely to be a small, niche game and hard details about it are scarce but there is a video demonstrating themes, ideas, areas and combat. I'm definitely keeping an eye on this because that city looks fantastic and I'm a sucker for cyberpunk and Sci-Fi.

In some ways it's a game within a game: the game itself appears to show both the real world in the setting, and the various virtual Otherlands. I'm most interested in seeing how this will pan out in terms of gameplay. Speculation time: I wonder if it will combine large elements of both worlds rather than the real world existing as little more than a background affair, as it did in the old Matrix Online game?
It's pitched as being Free to Play, but there's no hard details about what is being sold for cash to fund it, be it vanity items only or power items. No surprise there, everyone's jumping on the Pay to Win bandwagon.

I'll continue to keep an eye on what's what, and might even find some interest in TSW again. FunCom has done a great deal as a company to turn me off their products and kill any enthusiasm I once had...

* After repeated support tickets and emails I eventually had an actual human email me back. He started off snarking at me and I pointed out in detail exactly why I was unable to do the things he suggested I ought to have done, such as use the ingame GM system when the whole problem was that the character could notg et in game... Eventually it was passed to a GM who took one look at the character, rolled it back to the last time it'd successfully logged in and voilá.
achtungexplosiv: (Default)
Following on from my last post regarding Star Trek Online, I've hit a snag with one of my characters being completely broken and unable to log into the game. I've attempted to contact customer support with PWE/Cryptic and the frustrating experience I'm currently going through have left me wondering why CS has to be so shockingly bad across the industry.

Poor Service

When something goes wrong for me in a game, I see if I can fix the problem myself first of all. Was I being daft? Was it a minor glitch or bug? Does zoning/relogging/unequipping and so on help? Does it randomly go away on its own* ? If that fails, I ask friends and check for solutions online. If it turns out that it's a problem I shouldn't be having ('shouldn't' defined as something rare or unusual as opposed to yet another well-known bug introduced with the latest patch) and there really is nothing I can do about it but it's putting a serious cramp in my style, then as a last resort I will turn to Support. For games I have fleeting dalliances with, it never usually gets to this point: either I haven't delved in deep enough to get hit by a bad issue, or else I'm not impressed enough with the game to bother.

My experiences with various game companies over time has run the gamut from fast, efficient problem resolution to outright being called a liar. Sadly, I've tended to find the whole spectrum within each game or game company. I can't honestly say that any one company has all-round great customer service.

It leads me to the question: how many customers are these companies losing because of awful CS experiences, rather than because the customer does not like the game itself? In other words, how much is a player going to put up with before they take their time and money elsewhere? I've been thinking about this for myself the last couple of days.

For that matter, have I just had duff experiences? Are there game companies out there that provide better service?

Cool stories, Bro

Everyone's experiences will vary, and my own have been to the extremes of the curve. The best CS experiences I've had have been when a petition/ticket I've submitted is picked up quickly and a knowledgable representative has contacted me, having read the detail I've given and either being able to resolve it there and then in a few minutes or else works with me to find a solution. The worst have involved long waits, petitions vanishing or being closed without explanation, getting into arguments and being insulted.

I'm a fan of putting plenty of detail into the petition in the first place, laying out everything that's wrong and what I was doing etc. If it's a bug I've come across before or otherwise understand how it can be fixed, I'll include that as well. A good example of this is the old 'vanishing twinking pillows' bug that struck with depressing regularity in Anarchy Online. If you were trading an Explosif's Polychromatic Pillow to another character, it sometimes vanished in the trade. It's happened enough times to me that I've had GMs explain exactly the logging bug that causes it to glitch and to go invisibly into a forced extra inventory slot, and nothing can be done about it except for a GM to delete it and spawn a new one. There's more techspeak involved but when it happens to me I just blurb it all into the petition so that the first person who reads it (most likely a volunteer in the ARK program) knows to pass it up to a GM and that it'll only take a couple of minutes to fix.

On the other side of the coin, it gets to be rather depressing when the response one (eventually) receives to a detailed petition indicates that the CS rep hasn't actually read it. Maybe you're fobbed off with 'have you tried turning it off and on again?' or sometimes even find that your petition has been closed and marked off as Resolved without anything happening at all.

So far with PWE/Cryptic I'm on my third support ticket. The first one got me the standard automated reply to let me know I'll hear from them within 24 hours. The ticket promptly vanished from my account support page. After 2 days of nothing I sent another one referencing the first. The same automated response, the same vanishing act in my account page. The Support sections of the forums proved to be of no help, and today almost a week later I received another automated reply email asking in a long winded way if I'd turned it off and on again, and then marking the whole episode as Solved. I received an identical reponse to my second ticket. Clearly no one had looked at either of them and the stock responses were generated because the petitions had been classified as 'Technical Issue'. So, a third ticket referencing the first two has been sent. Considering I put the effort into acquiring an Odessy-class limited edition ship on the broken character in question, I'm not keen to just delete it and re-roll from scratch.

I've hit that point where whether I stay or go in STO comes down to how their Customer Service treats this support issue, and me. If they continue to ignore me until I go away, then I most certainly shall.

* You'd be surprised how often that works.
achtungexplosiv: (Default)
... and more clichéd Borg-related puns. The reason being that Star Trek Online has just celebrated it's 2 year anniversary with heavy promotion of it's newly released free-to-play side and anniversary content such as Borg invasion events and a special mission to acquire a limited edition ship.

Star Trek Online

STO had a troubled development history, having begun life as a project of now-bankrupt Perpetual Entertainment and getting shelved when it all went south. Luckily, Cryptic Studios picked it up and began developing it again, with much fanfare and hype and even getting on board Leonard Nimoy for voice acting and promotions. I followed it's development with interest because Star Trek was something I grew up around (I knew my Andorians from my Betazoid), and I even applied for the Beta. Needless to say, with my old rustbucket of a computer back then I didn't get a lookin.

However, what I heard coming out of the betas was disappointing. Spaceflight was primitive and like Freelancer but sluggish, ground combat was basic and never really got anywhere. Even though it looked good and there was a lot of effort on matching up lore and keeping star trek aesthetics, themes and sounds, my enthusiasm drained away and I barely gave it any thought. The game is set a while after the Voyager series finished: the Klingons are at war with the Federation, the denizens of the Gamma Quadrant are gearing up for an invasion, the Borg are ever-present, the Undine (species 8472) are plotting to wipe everyone out and the shattered remains of the Romulan Star Empire are causing trouble. Plenty of scope for activity but from all I heard it just never lived up to it's potential.

Fast forward a year and a half and while I investigate Champions Online, I end up hearing more about STO as its sister product at Cryptic. The item shop microtransaction model had kept me away, I had Eve Online for my spaceship pewpew needs and Anarchy Online for my ground based sci fi. It wasn't until this second anniversary celebration when a couple of friends jumped into the game that I decided I'd give it a go.

With Perfect World International's acquisition of Cryptic, there's been a big push to amalgamate accounts into a single PWI entity. I have reservations about this, particularly since I have a PWI account already because of the couple of days I faffed about with Forsaken World, but as yet it's still possible to use an existing Cryptic account to play STO/CO. The fun part about that is that a Cryptic account spans both games to the point where you can be logged in as one character on one account in one game and chat to yourself, in-game, to another character on the same account in the other game. Quite nifty for keeping track of friends I feel. It also meant I had accounts existing ready for STO so I could log in, roll up a Starfleet officer and get going with a minimum of fuss.

First impressions

Free to play means restrictions all round. My experience with CO meant I knew what sort of thing to expect with STO: limited character selection, limited costumes, missing out on customisation and so on. I wasn't expecting only ONE character on an account though, which is a bit stingy. Would it have hurt to allow 2? Still once technical hiccups had been resolved (running the first time defaulting to 800x600 fullscreen whilst at the same time the character creation auto-started in the middle of the client's Gamma test: hilarity ensued), I got mucking about creating a character. Science, Engineering or Tactical officer and then picking a species or creating your own custom alien. The usual suspects were available to play, such as Human, Vulcan, Andorian etc, as well as some less popular choices like the Pakled. No Klingons until you have a character at 25 (they're an entirely seperate faction) and therefore none at all to free players unless they buy more character slots.

In my usual style, I went with a custom alien Engineering Officer. A weird looking tall thin thing with bone plates and spikes, dreads, infra red vision and a thoughtful composure. Recognisable themes from the various series and films play during character creation and once you're done you jump right into the tutorial.

Having played through the CO tutorial plenty of times I was hoping for something similar: open world with much to explore, mobs to pewpew for XP and items, extra quests lurking around and achivements/perks (called Accolades in STO). Sadly, it's not like that at all. The experience is very linear, eases you in slowly with how to best use your phasers, movement controls, scanning for anomalies, explaining bridge officers and absolutely nothing of interest. You are a lowly ensign beamed aboard a ship under borg attack to help them fend off the invaders, who are acting very oddly. Upon your victory, you find that the Borg killed all the command crew of your own ship. In the ensuing spaceflight battles you prove yourself to be a worthy acting-captain and you rescue some personnel from various less lucky Federation ships before getting together with other ships (other tutorial newbies or NPCs) to kick some Borg butt. Then it's home in time for tea and medals and a promotion to Lieutenent. That is, level 1 and entrance into the main star trek galaxy playfields - a single server with instancing used for all locations. All in all it was more of a cinematic cut scene with little else, and absolutely no replay value.

Exploration and Boldly Going

Spaceflight and combat is very Freelancer, much more so than it is Eve Online, though it's using similar 'clearly defined up and down' space as opposed to true 3D space. That said your ships are big and slow so steering them is a tedious and fiddly prospect, especially given your weapons don't autofire so you end up having to mash the spacebar for your phasers and the number keys for your photon torpedos. I really wish I had the option to double-click in space move rather than hold down all mouse buttons and slowly drag the cursor, or WASD. Having only a distance to your object with no other spatial information in a pseudo-3D environment is a real pain as well, and overall it feels primitive. There's a lot of manual flying around 'sector space' which is basically warp space which you use to fly through sectors and quadrants, dropping out of to arrive in various systems. The autopilot can only fly you in a straight line. If a zone boundary appears within that line, you go into that zone regardless of whether that was where you'd plotted a course to or not. It then leaves you there, scratching your head and wondring what your navigation console was smoking.

You can scan for anomalies and those lead either to mission objectives or, more often than not, objects you can play a wave-matching minigame with to win loot that's used for crafting. This occurs in both space and on the ground. It's a bit fiddly at first but once you're familiar with the increment size of each click of the arrow when matching a wave, it gets to be rather easy and you win lots more loot.

Ground combat I actually found to be rather fun. I had a very nice sniper phaser that could 1-shot just about anything if I dropped into Aim mode, and early on found a hand phaser with an AoE setting to swap to once multiple hostiles were in range. The NPC-controlled security officers and bridge officers that comprised the rest of my away team were rather erratic and often rather stupid, not moving out of the radius of a photon grenade thrown at us, or just charging right into the middle and getting shot up. The movement animations looked bad though; my body hovers through the air with my erratic limb waving having no tangible effect on anything. I jump like an idiot. There's equipment like armour, kits for a special move/attack, 2 weapons you can switch between and 4 slots for consumables such as shield rechargers and medical stims *.

Customising your Bridge Crew is a nice touch. The specialisations, race and gender are fixed but you can alter any other aspect of their appearance, and it's up to you what equipment you want to give them. They each have one special Ground skill and one Ship skill. As an example the Andorian Female Tactical Officer everyone is issued with in the tutorial can use Photon Grenades on the ground, and can supercharge a double Photon Torpedo attack in space. As you do things in the game and gain officer ranks (levels), you gain points to spend in your own skills and points for your bridge crew.

As with CO, once you're at the main earth space station after you finish the tutorial, there's a bunch of runaround missions to talk to people and get the hang of things like the tailor, shipyard, medical bay and so on, then you're sent off on some story related basic missions (escort a Vulcan ambassador, add a dash of Klingons and leave to simmer with an Undine - it gets messy). Eventually you're given the obligatory runaround in how to craft and a lesson why getting involved in Ferengi money-making schemes behind the Federation's back is ultimately a headache. Then you're given free reign on what you want to do next. At this point I found the game to get slow in terms of progression.

Odessy Class Ship

Q gives freebies?!

The spangly Odessy-class ship mission for the anniversary celebration can only begin at Lieutenant (5) (which is only level 5, sounds easy enough). It's simple enough to do: chat to Q on the earth station and after sitting through his attempts at humour and exasperation at human's obsession with phat loots, he tells you to get your arse to Mars where you can test fly this new super-secret uber class ship on some deactivated Borg. A Klingon shows up in an uber battleship pursued by other Federation vessels, you blow it the hell up and then it's home in time for more tea and more medals.

The trouble was that I found it surprisingly long and awkward to make up the levels to go and do the mission. So much so that I ran out of time trying to get it on another character. Grinding the Delta Voranis anomaly missions was what the game strongly suggested I do by giving me lots of repeatable missions there and all it really did was build up a big pile of crafting materials I didn't have the currency to make use of. The main currency is Energy Credits and at lower levels at least, it's hard to come by. But I persevered and the ship was big, majestic, powerful and slow as molasses. Sadly you can only actually pilot the thing for real at max level, which I didn't realise at the start.

All in all

I spent much of the weekend playing STO and it was overall a fun blast. It's shared programming and game design roots with CO are very obvious all over the game, though I wonder why they made ground movement so different when CO's works well and STO's doesn't...
I'm not sure if I'll play it any more than maybe a random hour here and there as whilst character creation is fun (Female Ferengi Tactical Officer you say? That'll get all the RPers knickers in a twist if I go RP with it...) and they've captured the feel of Star Trek nicely, I can see ground combat getting samey and space combat isn't all that entertaining. Still, it's free so chances are I'll give it a look back now and then. It's not engaged me particularly and I see much of it's wasted potential, but I don't hate it and haven't uninstalled it so it's doing better than many other MMOs...

* The best ones I found were Tribbles. They had monosyllable names, if you idled your away team would take them out and stroke them complete with tribble sound effects, and when you got shot you could eat them to regain HP...
achtungexplosiv: (Default)
Some months ago, Atari announced it was getting rid of it's Cryptic Studios subsidiary, the company currently responsible for Champions Online and Star Trek Online, and the upcoming D&D Neverwinter game.
Naturally there were concerns throughout both playerbases about what the future would hold for the two games. As a part-time Champions Online player, I too was keeping an eye on these developments. At the end of May it was announced that Perfect World Entertainment would be purchasing Cryptic Studios as a wholly-owned subsidiary. PWE has many other MMOs; predominantly produced and operated by it's Beijing and Shanghai arms such as Forsaken World and Perfect World International. It's also the company behind the Torchlight series. The deal was completed mid-august and information is now starting to filter through about how this will affect their products.
Whilst the company itself began in America, its growth and rise to a position of major player in the asian MMO markets has been thanks to its Chinese operations and the tailoring the PWE's products to its primary audience this is reflected heavily within the MMOs themselves. As an example, within Forsaken World the english translations are hit and miss and quite often the text in english fits very poorly within an UI that was clearly developed around Chinese or Korean scripts. All of this has, of course, brought speculation on whether the CO and STO games will have their development and progression influenced by the models used by the existing PWE games. They are, for the most part, your standard free-to-play, pay-to-win model that dominates the asian MMO scene.

My experience with STO is limited but I do know that like CO, it already has a cash shop and there has been controversy over core parts of the promised game play during development being held back and then released in said cash shop only if you pay extra even as a subscriber. Given that such things are the reason for PWE's financial success, there is something of a consensus through the various playerbases that more of the same is incoming.

CO would be somewhat buffered by virtue of the fact it already operates a dual subscription system with a choice of paying a fee and getting most things thrown in with it, or else playing a basic version for free with that you can then pay to gain access to the restricted content. Even so, a shortcut to power items with $$$ is not too popular particularly among its paying customers. There is better news, however. The FAQs about the deal have indicated that the development teams aren't going to be changed or reduced in size and at present it looks as though Cryptic still has control over those two products. Cryptic are finishing off the switch over from Atari-branded logos, items and cash shop, and it looks as if there's minimal disruption for players for the foreseeable future (yes, lifetime accounts are being upheld).

Ultimately, only time will tell if the directions of the two games will be influenced by the asian MMO position of their new parent company and it is something I shall be observing with interest.


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May 2012

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