Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Star Trek Online - Mission Update Part 3

MMO's are dynamic.  As such there's always going to be some inconvenience as developers struggle to keep the content fresh and engaging.  Still, there are ways to minimize the pain that Star Trek Online doesn't seem to have discovered yet.

The Gray Area:

I don't know of any game released in the past 5 years that hasn't needed at least one major update.  It's usually a relatively painless process and if it comes from a source like Steam you may never have to worry about it.  Distribution channels like Steam and Origin usually roll the updates into their installation routines so that a fresh install doesn't have you spending half the night waiting for downloads to complete before you ever see the title screen.

I came to know Star Trek Online via Steam and installed the game using it's mechanisms.  Star Trek Online installation files compress into 4GB and expand to 10GB on installation.  Imagine my surprise when I restored the game from my installation backup only to find another 3.5GB of downloads waiting to be completed.  The process was automatic but unexpectedly ate up an hour of my weekly Lan party.
Speaking of updates, Star Trek Online seems to update itself every time I log in to the game.   That's good in the sense of keeping the game up to date with fresh content and bug fixes but it takes away from time in the game. 

Updates aren't limited to just starting the game either.  Most missions involve the download or update of mission content before the game will continue.  At least the load screens are interesting.  As large as the game installation is it appears that Cryptic does not provide the complete installation package but rather provides a basic structure then adds to it as needed.  Since distribution is via online, It's likely that including the complete package would overwhelm most broadband connections and unnecessarily burden update servers by uploading files to clients that were not  yet in use.

Since I've spent so much time on the start screen perhaps I should segue to the next minor annoyance, namely the login screen or rather getting to it. 

Star Trek Online is a property that has changed ownership three times and has had two different developers since the project began in 2004.  With that much turnover there's bound to be some bugs and they show up prominently in the confusing registration process.  In my experience I wasn't sure if I was registered with the developer, Cryptic or the Publisher, Perfect World Entertainment.   I still don't know which one I signed up with but at least I can get in the game.

This is a free to play MMO which means you don't have to invest anything but time and hard drive space to enjoy the game.  You can purchase a subscription and upgrade your experience or make a one-time purchase of individual upgrade packages.  The problem is that both the publisher and the developer offer upgrades both in-game and outside of the game.  Both use different currencies with a confusing exchange rate that rivals any Forex chart.  Here's  a suggestion; either standardize on an in-game currency or get rid of it entirely.  Such ambiguity just confuses potential customers and a confused customer is rarely a paying customer.

The End:

So there it is.  Everything I know about Star Trek Online.  With 55 hours into the game there's definitely something I like about it.  What I'm not sure of is whether its attributable to the game itself or just my desire to have a decent Star Trek title to play again.  The game has issues but patches are a daily occurrence and nothing I've citied above has caused me to completely give up on the game.  The partnership with Steam was an excellent distribution move as was the change from purely subscription based to Free to play.
In the end the game is free and thus far has given me a lot more enjoyment than some recent titles that I actually paid for.  If I continue to enjoy the game then at some point I'll likely purchase an upgrade package if for no other reason to show support for it. 

What's nice about this game is that the penalty for not putting skin into the game is little more than an inconvenience.  In many free to play games with paid options, players who purchase upgrades are often able to unfairly dominate other players.  Star Trek Online thus far doesn't seem to follow that model.  Purchasing a subscription may get you a better ship or help you advance your Starfleet career but it won't allow you to bully anyone because of it.

 It's an MMO with a focus on more personal experience.

Star Trek Online- Mission Update Part 2

Any project whose ultimate goal is to encompass the entirety of the Star Trek universe is bound to have issues.  In many respects it's almost an impossible undertaking making the fact that it works at all nothing short of a miracle.

That said, let's get on to the dirty job of cleaning out the plasma manifolds otherwise known as...
The Bad:

I enjoy a challenge, once.  I don't like having to do the same thing over again because of a game bug.  Case in point:  The mission entitled Old is New.

This mission was actually the third part of a larger mission that took the player back in time to combat an alien threat and in the process meet Doctor McCoy from the original Star Trek series.  To accomplish the mission and continue on with the main storyline the player had to collect scan data from two sick crewmen then use it to formulate a cure for the doctor to use. 

During this mission there were other unrelated but critical objectives that needed to be completed to succeed.  I somehow managed to complete one of these objectives before returning to the doctor with my "cure" which blocked my completion of his mission.  The only fix was to get out and then go back into the game thus losing all progress I made to that point.  The second time through I ensured that I wouldn't make the same error by focusing only on the doctor's mission even though it was not primary. 

I had a similar problem in another mission where I completed all the steps but could not complete it  because at some point I managed to go "off script".  The last task was to destroy a fleeing ship but the ship was nowhere to be found when I completed the other mission objectives.  Another pass at it allowed completion but I'm still not sure what I did wrong the first time since all my steps were duplicated.  That was a waste of 2 hours that brought me very near to abandoning the game. 

If there's a definitive order of operations that must be adhered to then there should be no opportunity for the player to irrecoverably violate the necessary sequence of events.  That's unforgivable for a game that measures achievement by completed missions.

However, It's not uncommon in a game that has a relatively open environment and Star Trek Online isn't alone as I've had similar issues with SkyRim.  The addition of a player controlled save point would help to correct this issue as currently there is no such option.  However, the very nature of an MMO may not allow for this.

I've mentioned how good the graphics are in the game and they are for the most part.  So long as you're on your ship, in space or on a space station they are something to be admired.  However when missions require an environment less stylized such as planet things can get a little dull.  I've been on at least a dozen missions where I and my "away team" had to traipse around the surface of some supposed strange and alien world that proved to be neither. 

The problem is that aside from the occasional dwelling or hill most of them look the same.  If you're looking for vast vistas worthy of a screen capture stick to Skyrim.  Planets are downright boring with most having the same flora and landscape details with only subtle changes.  I had three missions to investigate graves (very exciting, not) and 2 of them were identical down to the same dialog prompts and alien rubber trees.  And no, I didn't repeat a mission as they were in different parts of "deep space".
While we're talking about "away" missions I want to bring up another annoyance with this game, namely the combat model. 

As we learned in the Deep Space Nine television series and the new reboot of Star Trek courtesy of JJ Abrams all is not Kumbaya  in the Star Trek universe.  More often than not an away mission is going to degenerate into fisticuffs. 

The combat model is so bad that I almost wish there was a "talk it out" option.  The RPG combat is plagued with strange camera angles, vague character control and an awkward interface that almost ensures failure.  It's nearly impossible to aim a weapon with any accuracy yet it's required to subdue an opponent.  The game attempts to compensate by having NPC's rain ammunition down on the foe you happen to be firing at in hopes that sheer volume will do the job. 

Too bad if there's 8 more behind him.

That leads to another annoyance, spawn points during away missions.  For most maps spawn points will be relatively close to the last location you fell (due to the issue above BTW) but on some you will be forced to spend 5 minutes trying to get back to your last location.  Considering most away missions take at least 20 minutes spending an extra 35 running down the same corridors 5 times is excruciating.

In the final installment I'll go over aspects that fall into a "gray" area.  Which is to say items that by their nature are a necessary evil but still annoying.

Star Trek Online - Mission update

Ok, the title is a bit geeky and no I'm not dusting off my canon correct model of a constitution class starship and donning pointy ears.  However, I have been spending a lot of time with the game as of late.  55 hours have been diverted to my  virtual Federation career over just the past two weeks. 

That's more time than I've spent with Battlefield 3, Skyrim and Lord of Ultima combined in the same period. 
Star Trek online is an MMO just like World of Warcraft.  You adopt the persona of a character in this world and through it construct a history of your own making and completely under your control.  That's the attraction of an MMO.  If the developer provides enough of an immersive environment, a player can easily get lost in a world with far fewer limits than the mundane grayness of our reality.

I'm not much for the whole fantasy, dragon slaying, renaissance fair genre.  I've always been a fan of Star Trek and thus I am both enthused and critical of any gaming title that claims lineage to the franchise.
Now that I'm in up to my elbows and have managed to achieve the rank of Commander after numerous "missions" I have a better base to evaluate the games merits and deficiencies.

The good: 

The game does an exemplary job of capturing the feel of the Star Trek universe.  Details or more importantly the lack thereof can make or break an MMO.  Remember that this type of game is not meant to be played a few times and discarded.  Blizzard invests millions every year to keep World of Warcraft fresh with regular updates and new campaigns to keep players hooked. 

There's no lack of detail in Star Trek Online.  Players can tour the corridors of their own ship or vast star bases  all with their own individual character.  There's  ample opportunity to interact with NPC's and game environments as well as the ability to take part in social aspects of the game.  A player can have an experience that ranges from fleet missions with hundreds of other players to simple voice of text chat in game.  Small details like Leonard Nimoy (reprising his role as Spock) congratulating you on a new promotion help to fold the game into the canon universe.

Graphics detail is very good with ship modeling and interior environments both faithful to Star Trek canon and beautiful.  Character customization ensures that your online persona is unique ensuring that you never meet a clone of yourself. 

Gameplay is engrossing with just enough challenge to keep missions interesting but not so difficult as to risk losing the players interest on a seemingly impossible mission.  I've had difficult missions but I can usually accomplish them without frustration.  You may have to make a few attempts but the game doesn't punish the player.  For example, if your mission is to attack a fleet of 8 Klingon warships but you only manage to defeat 5 of them before being destroyed (and you will) you'll still only have 3 to deal with when you respawn so long as you don't abort the mission.

The game's storyline is probably the most important aspect to Star Trek Online.  With missions that span across the franchise, you can end up anywhere in the Star Trek Universe.   That includes adventures that can take you from Quark's bar on Deep Space Nine to 150 years in the past to meet the crew of James T. Kirk's Enterprise. 

There's enough that's been done right to capture my interest but  there are some annoyances that can detract from the experience.  In my next installment I'll uncover some issues that have surfaced during my continued involvement in the game.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dice gets serious about cheating

HTML Article first published as Dice gets serious about cheating on Technorati.

Dice, developer of the Battlefield series of games including Battlefield 3 and the new Frostbite game engine recently posted an opening on their site for an ANTI-Cheat Administrator. Found right alongside the open positions for IT technicians and Frostbite engineers the job description reads:

In our continued effort to keep our games free from cheating, we are now looking for an Internet savvy administrator.
The administrator will compose an absolutely vital function to secure the online experience our games represent by actively be a part of the community and keep up to date with the current cheat exposure. The administrator will also own the analytical work with our player behavior data to keep our leader boards and game play filled with fair play.

If nothing else this proves a point I made a year ago concerning cheating and the threat to the gaming revenue stream. If cheating didn't threaten the fortunes of developers like DICE and publishers like EA they obviously wouldn't bother creating a salaried position focused on it.

The position was posted at the end of January and remains active on their site.

As advanced as game engines have become and as vigilant as administrators are in policing their servers cheating is still prevalent in major titles like Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3. That guy with the funny player name who just took out your M1 Abrams tank with a 9mm pistol? Yeah, he's cheating.

Sure, it's only a game but these days games are as important an entertainment medium as movies or television. Add to that the countless hours invested in becoming proficient and the pastime quickly rises to the level of a hobby.

People don't NEED hobbies to survive and when their hobby becomes an annoyance due to someone gaming the game as it were, it can quickly be abandoned. That spells disaster for the EA's and Activision's of the world. Lest we forget the console makers and enthusiast PC hardware manufacturers whose fortunes are tied to software capable of leveraging their products.

The game industry can choose to ignore cheating only at their own peril. The reality is that nobody needs a $550 video card or $300 game console to play Bejeweled. It appears Dice, for one, has recognized this simple fact.

Multiplayer Gaming gone wrong...

Multiplayer gaming can be hell....

I've only recently embraced the great unwashed masses in Battlefield 3 and a bit of Modern Warfare 3.  That's because for the most part online multiplayer gaming has been a less than satisfying experience in the past few years.

When every server you drop into gets you killed in 5 seconds (over and over again) it's not fun.  That still happens to me but not as often as it used to.  I'm not sure if it's just better server side controls than we had back in the Battlefield 1942 days or lengthening of my patience, either way it's better now.

At my age I think I've built up a bit more tolerance to a lot of the tom foolery that goes on in these games.  At times, though, I could really just throw something and have.

Take the other Lan party night, for instance.  I was on one of my favorite BF3 servers playing on the Kharg Island map on the US side.  This map can be challenging but it's usually an enjoyable map and I've picked up a few perks from playing it previously.

That wasn't the case last night.  While playing on the US side we were giving quite a thrashing to the opponents on the Russian side.  Up by more than 300 tickets for most of the game, we were doing well.  Then we discovered an interloper, a plant, an individual up to no good.

Team Fortress 2 has a player type called a spy that can infiltrate the opposing team by donning  a disguise allowing him to move freely  amongst the enemy till he strikes.  When he does the subterfuge is revealed and his round is over shortly thereafter.  Still, he's accomplished his goal.
We had one of those in our BF3 match.  Except there's no such role in BF3.  At least not one we could dispatch when we realized what he was doing.  This guy was legitimately on our team but it seemed he worked to make sure we lost.  I can't say for certain if that was his plan but the player's actions and attitude turned a certain win into a loss. 

An unskilled player is one thing and I understand everyone has to start somewhere.  This guy was playing a role, however.  He camped in a tank and never moved from the spawn point.  He tried to fire on his own team but luckily for us friendly fire was not enabled.  All on the team wished it was, however, to get rid of him.

Because he occupied one of only two tanks we were denied a critical resource.  When asked to make room he spewed obscenities and remained immobile while continuing  trying to kill his teammates.  Since he was untouchable he also denied other players a spot on the team who might have actually contributed something to our efforts.

 Soon other players with the same attitude as this bad actor joined  when they could get a spot and overtly tried to sabotage our team.  They didn't realize that their efforts had no effect other than being annoying and denying us needed manpower and resources.
Maybe that's a game strategy but it's a bad one if it doesn't fit the game mechanics.  It's gaming the game and that ruins the experience for everyone.  It's also pointless.  That player in my example gained no points, no accolades and made no progress in his profile since he contributed nothing.   His only accomplishment was to earn the hatred of the other players.

While game server admins can't respond to every complaint about another player's actions there should have been some mechanism to kick this player off the team at the least.  Perhaps the ability to call a team vote to kick this kind of joker off the server would work.
Of course that introduces its own set of problems.  How do you keep players from monopolizing a server to the exclusion of all others?  That's what happens on many FPS game servers when groups of players called clans come into a game.  Eventually they have to move to their own servers when public servers tire of the monopolizing of their resources.

Luckily many BF3 server admins are vigilant and will kick problem players if they see enough complaints in the chat window.  I've seen plenty of players kicked out for using cheats as well.  While this experience isn't cheating, per se' it has the same effect.
The Internet is still the wild west and gaming is no different.  We rely on the good conduct of others to keep it useful and friendly.  When a few decide to act inappropriately there's not much that can be done about it.   Moving on to another server is still the best advice. 

If players overwhelmingly act as I've described or use cheats to dominate a multiplayer game experience, however, the game will eventually die.  Publishers don't want that since the value of their game catalogs are largely dependent on Multiplayer in most games these days.  Some developers like DICE have gone as far to create a new executive position exclusively focused on anti-cheating.

So far I see more cheats than bad actors in multiplayer gaming.  Cheats are easy to deal with, bad behavior much less so.  For now, community pressure within the session may be the only fix.  It's still just a game but for many of us there's a commitment of time if nothing else.  It's not a job, it's not going to earn you any income or advance your career so why so serious? 

For the same reason that I don't want some slob with a huge belt buckle leaning on my collector car I don't want someone ruining my gaming experience during the limited time I have to devote to it..  It's an investment that nobody has a right to diminish especially when you've paid for the privilege.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Game On! TWIT's take on gaming

Article first published as Game On! TWIT's take on gaming on Technorati.

Where does an avid gamer go for gaming news?  Traditional sources might give a new release a few sentences buried underneath the horoscopes and celebrity gossip.  Of course a game publisher might have an IPO that makes it to the business page.  If it doesn't have the World of Warcraft in its catalog, however, don't count on a lot of coverage.

Of course most gamers already know where to get the best information on games.  PC Gamer, Internet Gaming News and Electronic Gaming Monthly are probably the de facto sources.  Sites like HardOCP or PC Perspective have gaming reviews usually in concert with coverage of the latest enthusiast PC hardware.   The trouble is that the content can be a bit dry which may lead you to less authoritative but more entertaining sources.

Your path to gaming enlightenment continues to  a virtual avalanche of gaming podcasts and YouTube videos of purely subjective value.  Like every other aspect of the digital age a gamer is subjected to information overload.  That puts you right back where you started relying on flashy marketing and developer pedigree when you're eyeing your next 100 hour time sink.

If you've been paying attention to the current TWIT.tv lineup you may have another option on your list of gaming information.  One of the newer shows on TWIT, GAME ON! hosted by Brian Brushwood (scamschoolbrian) and Veronica Belmont (TekZilla) debuted January 15th.  After 5 episodes (not counting the November beta) the new show is shaping up to be an entertaining take on gaming. 

The show is partially scripted by Justin Robert Young (NSFW, Itricks.com) and takes a lighthearted but informative look at all things gaming.  The weekly show/podcast consists of gaming news, reviews, humorous skits and interviews with gaming movers and shakers like Rob Krekel, sound designer for Uncharted 3 and Curt Schilling (of baseball fame), chairman of 38 studios (Kingdoms of Amalur:Reckoning).

The overall feel of the show harkens back to the ZDTV/TECHTV gaming show Gamespot TV (now X-play on G4 network) except platform coverage isn't as limited.  Most gaming shows tend to focus on consoles almost exclusively.  Game On! covers consoles too but equal time is given to PC and mobile platforms as well. 

In support of the show a weekly televised LAN party, Shut Up and Play! hosted by Glenn Rubenstein (formerly of Gamespot and CNET)  has guests including Game On! hosts and production staff playing popular multiplayer games with viewers.   A recent development is the "grudge match" between Brushwood and Rubenstein for often humorous stakes.

Game On! follows the general TWIT formula of audience participation but relies less on the real-time nature of most TWIT programming.  Feedback comes from email and twitter posts at the end of the show rather than the live chat room.  This allows the hosts more control over the shows pacing and content.

Coupled with the scripted portions of the show there's a more polished feel that keeps the audience engaged but allows the end product to rise above the average gaming podcast.  As a cornerstone for TWIT's designs on being a major player in IPTV the show fulfills its role well.  It's likely that Game On! and TWIT's other more structured offerings such as their daily tech news program Tech News Today (TNT) or Triangulation will likely lead the TWIT IPTV lineup.

Game On! is available live on the TWIT network Sundays at 6PM Pacific with Shut UP and Play immediately following.  Game ON! is recorded as a weekly podcast and is usually available the following Monday.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Star Trek Online comes to Steam

Article first published as Star Trek Online comes to Steam and it's Free on Technorati.

To boldly go where... everyone has been for about 2 years now...
This week Steam added another Free to Play title to its roster.  Alongside such fan favorites as Team Fortress 2 and DC Universe we now have Star Trek Online (STO) from developer Cryptic and publisher Perfect World Entertainment.  The game has actually been available since  February 2010 but was not Free to Play on Steam until this week.

This latest installment of a game franchise that stretches back to the early 80's aims to capture the hearts and wallets of Star Trek fans by allowing them to explore a vast MMO world.  The game showed up on Steam on January 31st and requires 10GB of free space to download the installation files. 

For the uninitiated a Free to Play MMO title is basically a massively multiplayer game like World of Warcraft that allows you to play without purchasing anything.  Star Trek Online does offer "memberships" however that allow access to better in -game equipment and perks that free players cannot access.  There are also ample opportunities to purchase items a la' carte for use in the game.

There's been much debate over whether such a model gives an unfair advantage to players that choose to pay for a subscription but in my own testing the subscription model is little more than an inconvenience for someone who chooses to keep a free to play game free.  As it is with most Free to Play titles players who choose not to purchase generally face a penalty of slower advancement timeframes, inability to access special items or reduced functionality.  

Set in the Star Trek Universe 30 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis in the early 25th Century, Star Trek Online is an MMO role playing game.  Your first task upon starting a new character is to customize them to your liking and begin your first tutorial mission where you begin to learn how to navigate the user interface.  The tutorial missions introduce a new player to the different gameplay modes with the first being a third person mission where you interact with npc's and the ships controls.  This mission is  followed by a space combat mission and finally ends up in a multiplayer MMO lobby cleverly disguised as a starbase.  It's an interesting epiphany when you realize that most of the people running around the starbase are not NPC's but other online players just like you.

While at the starbase you have opportunity to outfit your character and ship as well as collect new missions.  You can also purchase items and upgrades at the starbase using refined dylithium which can be obtained in-game or purchased using cryptic points.  Cryptic points are akin to diamonds in Lord of Ultima and Godfather: Five Families but are not directly usable in game.  There is a conversion rate between the two that can vary.  Conversion value is dependent on the conversion offers available in the marketplace while at a starbase.  Outside of the game Cryptic points can be used to directly purchase upgrade packages and game items without the need for conversion.

Playing the game it's evident that the developer has put a great deal of effort into creating an immersive experience designed to encourage you to purchase a membership and/or upgrades. From detailed interior environments to faithfully represented ship designs, care has been taken to intrigue the most diehard Trekker. 
In my time with the game I've found three basic mission types.  Space combat, away (ground ) missions and exploration.  Other reviews have noted that most missions lack depth with objectives relatively simple and rarely varying from a formula.  I've experienced some of that but I've also noted a number of social features such as in-game voice chat and the opportunity to join user created fleets or play community generated missions.  There is some in-game advertising such as the periodic commercial for the voice chat service provider while docked at a starbase but it hasn't been intrusive. 

The game itself seems to combine elements from World of Warcraft for the socialization features, Star Trek: Legacy for the space based missions and Star Trek DS9: The Fallen for away missions.  All good models for a Star Trek MMO but in some cases the worst aspects of them have been replicated.  Annoyances such as vague ship control in space combat missions and an overall unintuitive control interface impose a relatively steep learning curve. 

New players will likely fumble through these deficiencies for the first few sessions but can eventually adapt to master basic functionality in the game.  There are tutorials but the control interface is too complex to master by  relying on them exclusively.  It's not a trait exclusive to Star Trek Online, however, as most newer games have limited documentation and rely on this same sink or swim model.  For a game hoping to secure a steady flow of revenue through subscriptions and upgrade packages this may not be a good trend to follow.

The game has been in development for 8 years and in that time has had its ownership changed 3 times with its initial launch by Atari on February 2, 2010.  Since 2008 Cryptic studios has continued to exclusively develop the game.  The game was first developed by Perpetual Entertainment from 2004 until they went bankrupt in 2008.  Cryptic obtained all the artwork and a license to develop the game but did not receive the game engine which actually works in its favor.  When games move from one studio to another they generally benefit from a clean slate.  Adjusting to another developer's design rarely results in a cohesive product.

I'm still exploring the universe Cryptic has provided and the game seems to be continually undergoing updates and patches which may address some of the deficiencies I've outlined.  It's interesting enough for me to investigate further but the jury is out on whether I'll still be playing it 18 months from now as I've done with Lord of Ultima.  

The problem with free to play games is that they can become a bit dull without investing in the upgrades being pushed by the publisher.  It's tempting to shell out a few bucks to speed along an upgrade that would otherwise take weeks or get an item otherwise unavailable.   I've invested in these types of perks before and always had buyer's remorse.  Still there's a lush environment to explore in STO that does a good job of capturing the Star Trek universe which might be enough to keep at least a casual interest.