SOE Fan Faire 2008 Coverage of Day Two
Day two held even more eventful panels and some new information about the upcoming Free Realms teen/tween game. I also attended the Pirates of the Burning Sea, DC Universe Online, SOE Community Panel and and Everquest II expansion presentations. All that and I still went to the costume party, so it was indeed a full day. The second day of panels definitely started slower after the big blowout party the night before, but those of us with some early morning fortitude were rewarded.
Bruce Sharp and Drew Clowery of Flying Labs looking spry in the morning after the big party.
Let's start in chronological order with Pirates of the Burning Sea. Pirates is one of the games that made a big splash (pun intended) at launch and then coverage tapered off as Age of Conan launched and some of the typical post-launch blues that seem to set in during the 45-90 days past launch period for many MMOs. The game is coming back with a vengeance though and the crew (just assume my puns are always intended) of Flying Labs is reworking the starting area as well as polishing many facets of the game. The Flying Labs team discussed some of the challenges they have faced post launch and provided a rare behind-the-scenes look into decisions they have made about combat changes and player feedback. The information was accompanied by an excellent display of the art direction changes by Bruce Sharp. As with games using both vehicles and player avatars to interact in combat, the ship combat has always outweighed the avatar combat in the fun and intuitive categories and Flying Labs is looking to improve this aspect of the game. Gaining players through a trial period (this is called foreshadowing) and the new user experience could help promote this game to players who may have lost sight of it in the Age of Conan, Warhammer, and World of Warcaft dust devil.
Brenlo and his team take on the community, I mean work with the community.
The SOE Community Panel provided a glimpse into the world of SOE community managers. The interesting points centered on two facets of their jobs. Community Managers are not supposed to spend more than 10% of their time moderating forums (except on those big volume days of patches or other crazy events). This means that they aren't ignoring you (usually), they just have other parts of their jobs sucking up all of their time. Also, if all flaming forum posters met these people in person, the forums would be a much better place. The community team, led by Allan "Brenlo" Crosby, is full of passionate gamers who like people, now who would have thought that? The second facet of their job that interested me was their interaction with the development teams. One such example is community manager involvement to provide customers with contextual information. The idea of contextual messaging involves providing class specific or locational specific information that is relevant to the player. If you play a ninja, then any development blogs, or ninja information would show up on your character news page or in an email. Likewise, if one of the players on a friends list is questing in an area of your character, you would be notified via that page as an update. This will be an important test case in the Free Realms character page that resembles more of a My Yahoo/MySpace page than a character selection. These are all conceptual at this point but interesting none-the-less.
Free Realms is the current favored child of the SOE presentations as they garnered the lion's share of the Community Address and have more panels devoted to the game than others. The reason is simple, it is the closest to launch day and the buzz generation is in full swing. The demonstration of Free Realms during the Community Address showed an amazing amount of content, and according to one comment by a SOE employee, the amount shown isn't a fraction of the overall game experience. The content is divided into four spheres: Socialization, Adventuring, Simulation and Mini-games. Each of these content spheres is divided into many game play components. Players will level up in each category of each sphere individually. For example, Simulation includes housing and pets. The pets category is a complete game in and of itself owing many of its attributes to Nintendogs and Black & White. Player's dogs will growl at some other animals and that attribute will be different for every dog. For example, the dog in the demo was afraid of cows and would cower when near them. The dogs also do what dogs do when they see fire hydrants. They should just call this the "little boys mini game" because I know kids like my seven year old will just try to get their dogs to pee on everything and then laugh hysterically. And yes, the dogs also take care of their other business, but I noticed that in keeping the game more of a fantasy nobody has to clean it up.
In Free Realms players can be all classes. The classes are unlocked and then level independently of each other, so a player may be a level 5 ninja but a level 2 farmer. The classes are incredible varied, from mail delivery person to wizard and you don't have to worry about inventory management because loot is unlimited. The gear does get much better looking as you level so you will be able to tell at a glance whether another player is advanced. There are parental controls of varying degrees to protect younger players and the social aspects have been given a high priority. In addition to the robust friends list and character sheet, players can port to their friends location upon login, no need to spend time wandering all the way over to them. Coupled with the insta-port system, players can log into any server at any time, characters are not locked to a server.
Free Realms animator Floyd Bishop (right) signing autographs after creating a Robgoblin animation in 20 minutes.
The technology behind Free Realms provides a way for the server to stream the content to the client continuously and eliminate any traditional client-type download. As shown in the demos while a player logs in and selects a character to play, the game is downloading the content. It is the most current content, there is no patching required since there is no resident client to patch. This is the type of technology that gets me excited (I need to get out more). All fixes are considered hot fixes because there is no reset of the client, the server just streams the new data. At launch the game is only supported through Windows, but may open to other operating systems since the game is accessed via the web. Most major browsers are supported such as IE, Firefox, and Mozilla to name a few they listed. The anticipated pricing model for those wanting to subscribe is $4.99 per month or $9.99 for a family pack of 5 linked accounts. The beta will open soon so watch Free Realms for more information.
DCUO hands on with multiple character types using both gamepad and mouse/keyboard.
DC Universe Online (DCUO) was the only game in development with a playable demo. The demo is fun, the combat is easy to understand and throwing a bus down the street never gets old. The playable demo showed some important aspects such as the ability to switch between a PS3-type gamepad and keyboard/mouse on the fly. The game would sense when you grabbed the mouse and the controls change as well as the user interface. If you are using a gamepad, the attack icons show in the lower right hand corner of the screen with tool tips indicating which button to press (square, triangle, circle, etc.). When you throw the gamepad out the window (at least that is what happens to them at my house) and jump on the keyboard, the attack icons switch to the left side of the screen and the attacks show the corresponding number keys in the tool tips (i.e. 1-4).
In DCUO gear is important but not restrictive. Armor and gear will provide players with ample ways to outfit characters in a way that gives the best stats as well as the look desired. The way they handle this is that stats and look are independant. Once a character gets gear the character will always have access to that look, and then the player can determine which gear's stats to use without having to worry about losing those pink tights with fins on the back.
A few other quick hits from the DCUO panels: There is no death penalty, but encounters are all timed and you have a time delay if you are incapacitated, so you won't die, but you may not complete the objective. There will be factions which provide incentives for garnering reputation. While players can be heroes or villains, there will not be a traitor quest line to switch allegiances. The world will mostly be a shared environment but certain encounters will be instanced as well as PvP. The DCUO team is taking a different tact with regards to loot, yes the lucious phat lewt. The DCUO model is described as a "surplus loot table" instead of the scarcity loot tables used in most games. The surplus model provides for and encourages people to pile on to other players kills because they will all get something from the encounter. No more killstealing, the more the merrier. Last but not least, well maybe least in terms of information, the discussion danced around the idea of secret identities. Many times the question was raised about crafting and other non-super hero aspects of the game, and the answer from Chris Cao continued to be something along the lines of "wait and see, but on another topic I can't wait to tell you about secret identities..." Obviously Wes Yanagi, Jens Andersson and Chris have all learned a lot of lessons from other games (or should I say "game") in the genre and are planning accordingly.
Dinner, one thing the Empire and Rebels can agree upon.
Star Wars Galaxies continues to receive updates (in addition to the three since the start of 2008). This year will provide players a Galactic Moon Festival on or about the end of October-ish, if you can figure out with which holiday that may coincide. There has already been solid coverage about the trading card game almost ready for launch, but I can tell you that it looks stellar in person (get it?). The biggest gameplay news is the battle of Echo Base, yes players will attack/defend the Hoth rebel base, and vehicles are included. Snowpseeders, AT-STs are all in there. That is only part of the battle though, once the base siege brings the vehicles to the compound, the rebels will attempt to evacuate while the empire tries to bring them to justice.
Standing room only at the EQ2 expansion discussion, and the bards rejoiced.
Everquest II The Shadow Odyssey panel was well attended with standing room only. More information and screenshots of many of the new areas including Lower and Upper Guk were provided by the development team. Some additional information was provided to fill in behind the grand expansion announcement at the Community Address. First up, achievements are getting a major overhaul. With no new levels added to the level cap, the players will still have ways to trick out their mains in new ways using new achievement trees. While no specifics were shared, the bards in the crowd were most happy when an achievement was hinted at which would provide an in-combat group run buff. As discussed yesterday, there are twenty new instances and most will be level-scaled (similar to Splitpaw). The Moors of Ykesha is the new level 77+ overland zone and there will be four new raid zones. In addition to the new content, there will also be two new dieties, and one will be unlocked on a per server basis. One new way that the team is providing incentive to go back to instances completed is through the use of rotating and somewhat repeatable missions. While not truly repeatable missions, they will provide a reason to repeat instances. There will also be five new heritage quests as well as new tradeskill quest lines. All in all, the panel's information was well received by the crowd who can't wait to get their hands on the free-for-attendees expansion pack due in November.
That about wraps up the game panels, but there are some other items of interest from the Fan Faire. I'll be diving into the Station Launcher and Station Voice next.
-Jay "Medeor" Johnson
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