Mea Culpa from Space

For months I have been telling everyone that SWTOR is going to be a bust. End-game is dubious, the graphics are cartoony, and themepark MMOs are so 2009. Plus, I’m not a huge Star Wars nerd. This game, I declared once, is not for me.

And I still could be entirely right about all those things, but what I didn’t account for is that it would also be a wagonload of fun. I’m not saying it’s the greatest MMO ever, or it’ll kill other games, or that it’ll be awesome still in three months. What I’m saying is that thus far on my level 13 Jedi Knight and level 12 Smugger, the game is a freaking blast to play and I can’t wait for it to go live.

Mea culpa, my friends. Mea culpa.

Disclosing SWTOR Beta Information!

I realize that I am in the middle of a three-part post series, and I do intend to get back to it, but something happened today that demands attention: Bioware has dropped the NDA for last weekend’s beta testers. I’m a might unprepared to talk about this, so let me just throw out a few quick points. (No story spoilers.)

I played the beta for about 8 hours over the weekend and levelled a Jedi Knight to 10, including picking my Advanced Class and running the first Flashpoint. Overall, I really enjoyed my beta experience. There was one particular moment when I was fighting evil robots on a space station with my lightsaber and my companion was doing their thing and the old classic music swelled up and I thought, “Fuck yes I’m a Jedi! Pow!”. If the game can deliver more of those experiences on the road to 50, then we’re all in for a treat.

Good

  • The sound is amazing. Combat noises and music are both sharp and are incredibly immersive. Seriously, the weapons sound great.
  • The combat animations are great. I played a Jedi Knight because I figured it was a class I had no interest in for launch, and while that’s still the case I did enjoy watching my character flip out and lightsaber people a lot more than anticipated.
  • Companions are pretty fun and easy to use. I was sort of worried that we’d end up with the “Mass Effect 1″-esque useless cannon fodder squad, but mine was handy and didn’t get in my way.
  • Adding a story and dialogue to the flashpoints (at least based on my experience in Esseles) is a nice addition to the standard MMO dungeon, and I enjoyed seeing each of our characters take control of the conversation at points. We made it up to (but not including) the final boss with four people (total pugs) who were at or slightly under-level, without a healer or a real tank. It’ll be interesting to see where they end up setting the difficulty scale.

Bad

  • The elevators irritated me. Instead of everyone going up and down a platform, as in WoW, each person has to click the elevator control and get ported to the new destination. I rarely use this phrase, but it really broke my world immersion.
  • Holy cow, the map is hard to read. Somehow they managed to include a quest tracker with the map functions that doesn’t really help you find anything! Locating trainers in particular is really confusing.
  • The immovable UI. It was adequate for the low levels, in my experience, but I am really worried what no resizing, no moving, and no advanced UI tricks are going to do to healers.
  • Targeting is terrible. Your party’s nameplates turn red when they enter combat, which means it’s really tough to figure out who is friend and who is foe in a group fight.

Unsure

  • The Jedi Knight story on the starter world was.. okay. I wasn’t super engaged by it, but I hear it gets a lot more interesting later.
  • As I said, I enjoyed playing through the story options in the first flashpoint. However, speaking on behalf of the impatient and attention-deprived, I started skipping the voice acting after a certain point. It will be interesting to see how repeated playthroughs work, practically.
  • Despite the voice acting, the great sound and animation, and the spontaneous “extra” quests, by the end of the starter world I was getting tired of killing 10 rats or flesh raiders or whatever. It IS a more fun levelling experience than other MMOs I’ve played, but at the end of the day you are still doing quests to gain XP to do more quests.
  • The first planet is REALLY all about questing on rails. Very much so. I am not sure if that improves as you level, though.
  • Everything, particularly the space fleet you move to after the starter world, feels kind of empty. There are huge (gorgeous) echoey metallic halls and barely anything in them. The ‘flavor’ NPCs that have been sprinkled around the city seem kind of inactive. This may be improved with more players, but .. Ironforge, for example, feels a LOT more lively with the NPCs and little nooks.

Reading over this list, it sounds like there is a lot wrong with the game, but again let me emphasize that it’s very fun leveling experience. There are some polish issues that may or may not be taken care of before launch, and admittedly I am picking on those. Essentially, if you liked Dragon Age Origins or Mass Effect 2, you’ll like this game. If you enjoyed levelling in WoW, you’ll like this game. If you like the Star Wars universe, you’ll like this game. And that is good enough for me, for now.

Recruiting for SWTOR: creating your marketing message

It is almost exactly a month until the first people will be let in the pod bay doors for the launch of SWTOR. All my trepidation about level-capped content aside, the game is undeniably going to be incredibly popular. Storefront pre-order numbers are rapidly approaching one million, and while digital pre-orders are not publicly tallied one can safely assume that they’re equally enormous. Suffice to say that a whole lot of people are going to be playing this game in December.

It’s kind of a new frontier for guild/community promotion. To think of it in strict capitalist terms, a huge new “people market” is about to open up with experienced MMO players and fresh new RPG folks looking for a guild. If you’re planning on creating a SWTOR guild/chapter/community, it is, as they say, “go time”.

So how do you recruit people before there is even a game to play? Are there general Best Practices of guild recruitment? I can talk a lot about this, so my thoughts are going to appear in three pieces:

Part One (this part!): Creating your marketing message
Part Two: Using the official game resources
Part Three: Using your own site and third-party resources

Okay, on with the content! If you are creating a new guild or re-imagining an existing one in particular there are three things you need to do first.

research the community
Read, read, read. Read the official forums. Read the popular unofficial forums. You don’t have to spoil yourself on the game, although learning some of the jargon will help. You should get a sense of what the players are like, what their general expectations are, and where they are likely to congregate after launch.

You should now be armed with an overview of the game and a sense of its future community.

identify your recruitment requirements
Who do you want in your guild? No, the answer is not “whoever will join”! If you played together as a guild before SWTOR you probably have an established culture that can help you figure this out. If you are a new guild, think about who your ideal member would be. How often do they play, and when? What kind of language do they use? What is their favorite activity? Do they use voice chat a lot? Do they like to be involved in the guild outside of the game, and if so how? Don’t skimp on this part — the better vision you have of your ideal audience, the better you can tailor your promotional efforts.

Got that? Okay, the next step is…

identify your guild’s benefits
Why is Ms. Ideal Audience Member going to join your guild? Every guild that ever existed will say they are full of helpful mature people and have a bank and tabard. What else ya got? Anything that makes you stand out belongs on this list, from being an all female guild to simply rolling on an RP-PvP server. Has your guild been around a long time? Is there a certain characteristic of most of the guildies you can promote? (The Cats are almost entirely grammar nerds, for example.) And while I don’t want to crush your entrepreneurial spirit, if you can’t think of at least four reasons why someone would choose your guild over others perhaps consider why you are making one in the first place.

Okay, you understand the game, can identify your ideal audience, and know why they should choose your guild. Now put those things together into an Elevator Pitch, or a couple of sentences that will (hopefully!) grab interest and summarize all your musing thus far.

ScruffyLookinCatHerders are a Sith-side guild recruiting literate, sassy adults for questing and casualcore raiding on a PST schedule. As part of the Machiavellis Cat Gaming Community we also play a number of other games together and even, yes ew, have a Republic-side sister guild.”

Write this down and put it in a safe place. This is your core message. You will be looking at it again and again as you create recruitment materials and practices on the SWTOR.com site, your own guild site, and other places.

- End of Part One! -

Not Disclosing SWTOR Beta Information!

There was an SWTOR beta this past weekend, and I was in it.

That’s all we’re allowed to say according to EA/Bioware’s ongoing totally stupid Non-Disclosure Agreement. Seriously, Massively is currently giving away 75,000 beta keys in ADDITION to all the folks who signed up on the official SWTOR website for beta, and we’re still not supposed to talk about it? It’s almost a social experiment at this point to see how long we will all keep a “secret” that everyone already knows.

That all being said, I’m not exactly anxious to lose my account and preorder so let’s try to keep this legal.

Last night at about 1am I was reading some SWTOR information and I thought to myself, “Ooh, self, you should boot up the game and see how that character sounds” and then I remembered that beta was over and I couldn’t play, and then I was sad. That certainly says something about how much I was enjoying myself while playing! There was a SWTOR beta, and it was fun.

Going in to the beta I had already given a lot of thought here and other places as to how the MMORPG community would receive the game, but once I was able to read the tester forums I realized that there was a huge group of players that I had not even considered: the Bioware RPG fans. They are legion, and they have their own demands that may or may not overlap those of the regular MMO players.

Their mere existence actually bolstered my hopes for the future of the game. I think part of the reason WoW was such a success was that it brought in so many people who had never played an MMO before, and Bioware is able to do something similar with their usual fanbase. Based on a variety of sources, I believe these players and any folks with similar taste in games will be very happy.

I would not, however, cancel my WoW or RIFT or LOTRO or EvE (or whatever!) account just yet. I really hope there is evidence soon that this is not the case because I really want to fall in love with an MMO again, but hey, it’s the journey, right? RIGHT?

Managing Expectations for SWTOR, part two

As we get closer to the launch date, I get more and more nervous about SWTOR. I suppose I would be less worried if the game wasn’t already being lauded by many as the savior of MMOs, one game to rule us all. Don’t like the current popular MMOs? That’s okay — SWTOR is coming! Think that the concept of community in a game is dying? Wait until you see SWTOR! The overly devoted fans are working nonstop to explain away any concern, even in the face of a complete lack of official information. SWTOR will save us!

Only, I don’t think it will. I’ve talked in the past about some reasons why the game makes me nervous, and I have a couple of new concerns today. They’re a little nebulous and conspiracy-ish, but I think there’s something to it.

First: Bioware’s community interaction has been atrocious thus far. Like.. so bad I am continually impressed by Stephen Reid‘s ability to remain employed. At PAX in early September Reid announced sweeping ongoing weekend beta tests as a Public Relations move intended to generate hype. They lasted.. exactly one weekend. Well.

Then there is the ongoing beta tester NDA. It was briefly lifted a couple of weeks ago for certain professional game publications, but here we are seven weeks from launch and beta players are still not allowed to talk about their experiences. In fact, they’re not allowed to talk about it so much that Stephen Reid has taken to badgering people on Twitter who seem even somewhat likely to do so.

I appreciate not wanting all the big surprises to be given away before players can even get their hands on the game, but at what point do the consumers get to hear some legitimate reviews? WoW lifted their original Vanilla NDA six months before launch. RIFT lifted theirs 3 months before launch. LotRO lifted theirs 2 months beforehand. At this point it is starting to seem to more than a few people that Bioware is trying to hide something.

Despite the veil of secrecy, a few brave or stupid folks have still persisted in reporting on their beta experiences, and in fact this clandestine information has fueled interest in the game over the past few months. There was one extremely thorough and glowing review I read recently that bordered on hyperbolic about most aspects of the game, including the gameplay, storyline, and even crafting. Then he got to the section on social interaction and grouping:

There is literally nothing social about the game at this time other than the chat channels. There is very, very little reason to interact with other players unless grouping or asking questions. The cantina’s are ghost towns, the central hubs are run-throughs – nobody stops to do anything. [...] Grouping in the game thus far has been a sub-par experience. There need to be “more” reasons to group up with other players, and for longer periods of time.

Well shit. Welcome to solo world in space, I guess. I had actually heard from another reviewer that questing and leveling in a group is much more difficult than questing and leveling alone due to the conflicting character arcs. I don’t always want to level with others, but I certainly enjoy at least having the option to do so without actively making my game experience more unpleasant.

So many people are excited for SWTOR, and I think it’s going to have that “critical mass” of players that RIFT seems to lack, at least in the first few months. But oh man, people need to stop telling me that SWTOR is the answer to all my MMO problems. It’s out in seven weeks but there’s still an information blackout, there are many signs pointing (again) to it being essentially a single player game. No one has seen an Operation (raid), so there’s no sign of what level-capped group content will be like. (It doesn’t have to be raids, but in that case I am all the more interested in seeing some indication of what they have planned.)

At this juncture the ONLY reason I’m playing SWTOR is because everyone else I know is planning on playing. That’s it. It’s sort of ironic that last week the general consensus here about RIFT was that it was a superior game hampered by a lack of players, and now I plan to ditch it in favor of a game that I don’t think will be even half as well developed but will have a large playerbase. When it comes to MMOs audience participation counts as much as gameplay, I suppose, even if the game itself lacks any sense of community. Sigh.

Mo’ Games, Mo’ Problems
Sep28

Mo’ Games, Mo’ Problems

Just a few quick notes today as both work and play are kicking my butt this week.

  • tyrande 165x300 Mo Games, Mo ProblemsTyrande Whisperwind finally got a makeover! I think most if not all of the other female major lore figures in WoW have been freshened up before now, and Tyrande and her Mooncloth Robe were certainly overdue. Blizzard is typically pretty bad at powerful armor for women, and this is no exception. (Seriously, check out Azshara’s pasties.) One of my friends said that Tyrande is rockin’ the “Victorian Stripper” look, and that seems about right. Her skirt was caught in a lawnmower — perhaps the same one that ate her left sleeve. She has one shoulder pad and .. greaves with 3″ heels? Did she raid Beyonce’s closet? “Just call me Tyrande Fierce!”

  • Glitch launched yesterday! What happens when some of the brains behind Flickr and GameNeverending and the creator of Katamari Damacy get together and make a browser-based MMO? Whimsical fun, that’s what. Glitch has no combat and no gear. There is “just” exploring, crafting, building, and changing your world. You can also pet trees. I’m going to do a more thorough write-up in a couple of weeks, but my initial impression is that this game is soothing and delightful. Support the indie developers and folks with unique ideas, and go give it a shot!

  • t13head Mo Games, Mo ProblemsNew hats! In better-than-Tyrande Blizzard armor design news, T13 for priests was finally released and even though I don’t play WoW anymore I gotta say: that’s a great hat.

  • RIFT’s patch 1.5 is released today! This is a huge patch even by Trion’s standards, with a total rogue class overhaul, a new warfront, planar advancement points, 1-2 person skirmishes, and of course an impending new event. This video implies there is a giant spider mount somewhere and as an arachnaphobe I am a little displeased about that. I’m still figuring out all the rogue DPS changes, although according to this chart my preferred build is played by someone who lives in their parents’ basement and lost most of their fingers in a lawnmower accident. Seriously.


  • Some little game announced its release date over the weekend! Who has two thumbs and already booked the week between Christmas and New Years off? Aw yeah, this bounty hunter. While I’m still not sure how good SWTOR is actually going to be in the long run, I do feel absolutely confident that it will be fun as hell in the short term and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it. I love the first few weeks of an MMO: everyone is happy, everything is a surprise, and there is a real sense of server-wide camaraderie. So: will you be there when SWTOR opens?

  • Finishing up The Wonderful End of the World on Sunday made me realize how many little indie games I’ve bought for Steam, and how few of them I’ve finished. It inspired me to make a serious effort to clear out my backlog, made all the easier thanks to Backloggery and this tool to import your Steam list into Backloggery. (Requires LUA for Windows, then run steam2backloggery.lua.) Last night I finally knocked out the last few points for Atom Zombie Smasher, which if you like tower defense games is an absolute must-buy.
    sig Mo Games, Mo Problems

So many games, so little time.. and it’s only going to get worse between now and the new year!

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