Snap Judgment – Shroud of the Avatar (Free Trial)

I read on MassivelyOP that Shroud of the Avatar was having a free trial “test” (whatever that is) so I downloaded the game and tried it out last weekend. I’ve seen increasing buzz about the game and I was curious to see if there was anything to it.

I only played for about an hour, and while I can’t say I was dying to play more, I did find it interesting enough to leave it on my games to continue watching. It had a number of things you just don’t find in traditional MMORPGs.

The biggest problem (or perhaps feature) I saw was that the game felt a lot more like a single-player game than an MMORPG to me. I didn’t see any compelling reason to play it in the multiplayer environment. There is a single-player offline mode and a single-player online mode. And for those people who actually have gaming friends, there is also a friends-only online mode. I can’t imagine why anyone would play in any other mode. In this day and age, strangers rarely do much to enhance my online games.

Still, I played the multiplayer online just to see it. I saw a grand total of perhaps a dozen people in the game, most of whom were fellow visitors. Nobody tried to talk to me or emote at me or even look at me, as far as I could tell. Most everyone was interacting with an NPC.

The game’s conceit* is a bit of a cliche, if you ask me, but it’s at least worth mentioning: Your character finds the game world on the Internet, basically. That is, your character finds arcane texts and rituals and whatnot on the Internet, invokes them, and is pulled into the game world. I don’t think it’s ever been done before in an MMORPG (with the possible exception of The Secret World), but it certainly has been done a lot in fiction. (The Thomas Covenant series and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger books are two that immediately spring to mind.) I even wrote a short story once with that cliche myself.

After the cut scene that sets up how you found Britannia on the Internet, the game starts with an unusual character selection process. The “Oracle” asks you a series of questions to decide your class. I didn’t care for it, honestly. The game tells you that you should play an archer if you’re new, no matter what you picked. Regardless of what you pick, the mechanics appear to be skill-based, not class-based. I give them points for that, at least. I greatly prefer skill-based games. Now that I’m writing this, I wish I’d looked more closely into the character system.

NPC interaction is done through Morrowind-style hyperlinked text. I thought it was an interesting concept in Morrowind where you have all the time in the world to read NPC text and respond but I don’t see it working that well in a modern MMORPG scenario. I especially don’t like typing responses to NPCs. We as a species have evolved beyond Zork-style RPG interfaces, in my opinion. I suspect they got a lot of negative feedback about the typing because there are also selections you can click on so you don’t have to type anything.

After character selection you’re taken to a solo instance to teach you the basics of the game. You get to run around a burning village and rescue a kid (or not, if you want). There were a surprising number of things you could do in the little instance if you looked around.

Combat is very, very strange. The game tells you to point at targets and shoot them, but in fact you can point anywhere and still shoot your target. Somehow you “lock on” to a target and your arrows go there no matter what direction you’re pointing. I’m not sure I can explain it. It’s a weird hybrid of tab-targetting and action combat.

When you finish the burning village instance, you click on a boat and warp to the starter village, and at this point I started to wonder about the technical implementation of this game. It’s pretty clear that you’re always in an “instance” of some kind, and never in a big open seamless world like you’d expect in an MMORPG. (Though honestly, very few MMORPGs do seamless worlds any more.) The starter town is an instance with fixed boundaries. When you leave the starter town you enter an “overland map” instance where you move your tiny little avatar like a Monopoly game piece around. When you get to a place of interest you transition out of the overland map back into another instance. And so on and so on. It feels very much like a single-player game, like Dragon Age, for example.

I understand this game is built from the Unity engine, so it’s not that surprising to see it running into technical limitations with large seamless maps. As far as I know, nobody has ever implemented a full-blown MMORPG with Unity. (Not at the AAA level at least.)

Graphically, the game looks decent, if not great. It’s good enough that it wouldn’t stop me from playing it, and maybe even good enough to become immersed in the world. (I didn’t take a single screenshot while I was playing the trial though. The images in this post were grabbed from the video I recorded.) Character animations weren’t that great, though. The jumping animation made me laugh.

I’m glad I looked at it but I suppose I was left more puzzled than anything. It really feels like a single-player game that they’re trying to convince people is an MMORPG. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I feel like they would be more successful marketing it as a co-op RPG. I mean it feels like a game that was literally designed from the ground up to be a single-player RPG. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t try to sell it that way.

* I’m embarrassed that I used the word “conceit” in a sentence like that.

Looking At Unity 5 and Unreal 4

I totally stole this image from depaul.edu.
(I totally stole this image from depaul.edu.)

One weekend I got the idea that it would be simple for me to write a hit video game, make tons of money, and leave my day job*. I’ve dabbled at writing games now and then since I first learned programming back in the 80s, so this is nothing new (I have yet to actually complete a game, though). Anyway, I started reading up on popular 3D game engines. From what I can gather, there are basically two choices: Unity 5 or Unreal 4.

Unity 5

I started with Unity, looking at tutorial videos. I liked what I saw right away. The IDE looks nice and clean, the framework is well-organized and easy to understand, code is written in C# (which I use in my day job so that’s a big plus there), the tutorials are thorough. From a developer standpoint, I don’t see how a game engine could get much better.

My biggest worry, though, is that it won’t scale well. It seems perfect for small, simple games, but what about a large, complex, multi-tiered, multi-player game? What about a full-blown MMORPG with millions of players? What about a twitch game where maximum performance is vitally important? Will all that overhead that makes the engine so simple to use eventually slow down the game’s execution? Will the developer have to spend all of his time optimizing and tweaking and even replacing things to get around the limitations of the engine? Will all the abstraction layers keep the developer from truly optimizing the game? I don’t know the answers to those questions.

There is also a somewhat disturbing amount of designer-style editing that can be done in the IDE, at least in the tutorials. I equate it to ASP.NET development. There are a lot of nice visual web designers and drag-and-drop gizmos and data binding tools in Visual Studio but I sometimes (ie. almost always) find it faster and easier to write out code by hand for large-scale projects. Dragging-and-dropping something once or twice is okay, but dragging-and-dropping things a thousand times is a nightmare of maintenance issues. I hope there are code equivalents to all of the automatic stuff that happens when you drag-and-drop things around in the IDE.

Still, it’s a pretty popular engine. I looked over a list of games that use the Unity engine and found some fairly impressive results. The Forest is a beautiful game that runs pretty well, about which I once wrote: “Whatever engine this game is using should be used for all future MMORPGs, in my humble opinion.” Guns of Icarus also looks fantastic. Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a fine game. Besiege and Kerbal Space Program don’t focus on graphics but they are really fun. Shroud of the Avatar, which I haven’t yet seen in person, looks pretty nice in screenshots and videos.

And they are all indie games. I suppose now that I’ve looked into Unity I can see why smaller and/or newer teams would want to use it. It’s got a very low barrier to entry. I can easily see brand new programmers stepping out of college right into Unity.

Unreal 4

Next I looked at the Unreal engine. I gather that Unreal is the more “pro” option that big budget AAA studios use. I don’t know if that’s because it’s actually better or just that it’s been around longer and is more entrenched.

I ran into problems with the Unreal engine right away. The first problem is the tutorial videos. They aren’t good. They definitely assume you already have some knowledge about not just object-oriented game engines, but Unreal itself. They don’t walk you through a logical process of building a game from start to finish but rather skip around in somewhat puzzling directions. Most of them assume you have a huge library of 3D assets lying around waiting to be imported as well.

Then there is C++. That automatically gives it a much steeper learning curve than Unity. I’ve been around the programming block a few times so C++ doesn’t necessarily bother me, but it definitely gives me pause. I’m just one person, and writing C++ is time-consuming. Yes, it’s fast and efficient and exactly what you want to use to write games. But with so much of the computationally-intensive work done by the engine framework or the graphics card, it leaves mainly game logic for you to write, and there’s a lot of overhead to deal with in C++ just to write a bunch of if-then logic.

Conclusion

Since there is almost no chance of me actually completing a game, let alone getting it into a marketable state, I figure I should make things easy on myself and use the simple framework. That’s definitely Unity 5.

Now if only there was an easy way to make 3D models.

* My goals are always very realistic.

On The Radar For 2015

Last time I did this.

Note that some games aren’t on the following list because I have either a) forgotten about them, or b) never heard of them.

MMORPGs I’m Looking Forward To

These are games that I’m still anxiously awaiting the opportunity to play, because I haven’t yet seen or heard anything to wreck my enthusiasm.

Black Desert. I keep seeing good things.

Skyforge. I keep hearing good things.

Otherland. I have enjoyed some Tad Williams books in the past, so surely a game based on some of his books I haven’t read would be good.

MMORPGs I’m Ambivalent About

I’m not excited about these games per se, but I’ll probably buy or try them because of hype and/or boredom and/or peer pressure.

GW2: Heart of Thorns. I’ll play it, but because it’s GW2 aka. The One RPG Without Meaningful Rewards I’m anticipating that I’ll get bored quickly.

Crowfall. To me, this isn’t even an MMORPG, and I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed by that after the hype wears off. My latest concern is that the ambitious class customization plans will result in PvP balance issues that will ruin the game. (Everyone will keep chasing that one overlooked combination that is bugged and overpowered, resulting in an endless cycle of nerfing disappointment and forum rage.)

EQNext. I’m not burdened by EQ nostalgia, plus I have no reason to think this game will be good. (Where is ACNext Turbine??)

Pathfinder Online*. I’ve never played the tabletop version, and the gameplay appears uninteresting (and the animations are terrible), and it’s open world PvP. When will they learn?

Camelot Unchained*. I hear a lot of buzz about this game but it doesn’t look that great to me. That YouTube video honestly makes it look like the most boring thing in the entire universe. Given the way the devs talk about it, I get the impression that this game is more about being a game engine technology demo than a game.

MMORPGs I’m Undecided About

These are games that are on my radar, but I don’t know enough yet to form an opinion about how much I’d be willing to spend on them.

Shroud of the Avatar*. Seems to be flying under the radar. I hear little or nothing about it, but the gameplay looks tolerable.

Gloria Victis*. I like the look of this game but, you know, it’s open world PvP so it will mostly be a game of staying in town or hiding from people.

Wander. Saw it on Steam. It looks cool. It’s not clear to me if this is a PC game or not though.

MMORPGs I’ve Lost Interest In

These would probably have to be free or sold at a deep discount for me to even try them, unless I start to see a lot more positive buzz.

Star Citizen*. Honestly I’m not sure what this game is right now, but anything targeted at EVE players probably isn’t for me, plus we all know this is vaporware, right? (Just kidding! Don’t freak out!) But seriously, I think the smart money is on this game self-destructing from too much ambition.

Life is Feudal*. I thought there might be something to this game, but so far it looks like a plain old survival building game, and the models and animation need serious work.

Das Tal* and Albion Online*. Overhead views plus open world PvP. Why, god, why?

Pantheon: Something of Something*. Seems unlikely this will ever see the light of day, but if it does, only those handful of people who backed it will delude themselves into thinking it’s fun to replicate late-1990s mechanics. Sorry but this game looks awful right now.

H1Z1*. I don’t even consider this an MMORPG.

Pre-Launch MMORPGs I’ve Already Bought

Trove*. (I think it’s still technically beta.) I like it. Good casual game.

Landmark*. Meh. Just meh. Do we really need a game that’s a thinly-disguised 3D modelling program with a 1980s-style UI font?

The Repopulation*. I haven’t played enough to know what to think of it. But I feel like it’s probably trying to do too much and it’ll never capture that SWG feeling.

Advice To Game Developers

Please perfect your basic artwork assets, models, and animations before releasing anything to the public. It’s a huge turn-off to see placeholder models and animations that make your game look like a high school project. It’s literally the first thing I evaluate to determine if your development effort is serious business or you’re just a bunch of kids messing around in somebody’s basement. Great results can and do come from people’s basements, but honestly not very often.

* These games can be bought and played now in some early access form or another. (I think. Don’t hold me to it.)