Dragon Age and Tolkien’s Orc Problem

4 11 2009

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So now that it’s up, I can tell you that one of the reasons blogging has been so light for the last week is that I have been hip deep in reviewing Dragon Age for G4. It’s brilliant and amazing and I spent close to 50 hours over the course of five days playing through it and I’ll probably do it again with a different character. If you’d like to read the rest of my take, check out the full article on the G4 Web site. This particular post isn’t about the quality of the game, which is beyond question for me. It’s about the problem that I had with the Darkspawn, the main threat to the world the player faces.

Here’s the problem. Like the Orcs or goblins in Tolkien’s world, the Darkspawn are an embodiment of absolute evil. They are like locusts, driven to destroy, unable to be negotiated with and seemingly incapable of any higher desire than to burn, crush and destroy and make more of their kind. In short, they’re a typical rampaging fantasy horde that exists merely to provide sword fodder for the player to hack through millions of them without the annoyance of feeling guilty. That bothers me. I don’t like unredeemable fantasy monsters. It was one of the awful influences of Tolkien that turned me off of fantasy for many years.

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Now, I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported wars in the real world knowing that real people on both sides would suffer horrible deaths and injuries because of it. Even as I did it though, I never bought into the simplistic propaganda that those on the other side were irredeemably evil or anything less than human. War is a serious matter, requiring serious deliberation with full appreciation of the consequences of legally sanctioning the killing of other sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve killed. (Yes, I know they’re not real and that “it’s just a game.” That’s hardly the point, is it Captain Metaphor?)

What makes the moral simplicity of the Darkspawn especially glaring in Dragon Age is the incredible level of characterization the other races and societies are given. Every character and race in the game has realistic, multi-layered set of motivations. They’re not purely good, nor are they purely evil. Even the “villain” the player faces throughout much of the game is given a believable, though twisted, sense of moral purpose for the actions he takes in defense of his homeland. In fact, at one point one of the character’s henchmen, when asked about the actions she takes, scoffs at the player. “It’s really easy to be an adventurer,” she says. “No one weeps for the death of an ogre. It’s much harder when you’re facing enemies who look just like you.”

She’s right and it’s to the game’s credit that despite the threat they pose, the Darkspawn are actually in the minority of the foes you’ll face. One of the toughest choices you’ll face in the game is deciding which side of a Dwarven royal succession struggle you’ll support — knowing that whichever way you choose, you’re going to have to kill a lot of dwarves whose only real crime is choosing to support the side the player didn’t pick.

No such grace is granted to the Darkspawn, though. They are sword fodder, there to be killed in order to rack up the experience points. Yet the darkspawn wear armor. They carry swords and medical supplies. Clearly they have a culture — someone must be forging this stuff — and value life, their own if no one else’s. Who are they? Are they sentient at all? If they’re nothing but locusts, then they’re not truly evil, are they? This was the reason why in Sufficiently Advanced Magic I chose to avoid having an “evil race” and made sure to explain the motivations for why two nations are at war. I have my sympathies and they come out in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to retire Tolkien’s orcs once and for all.





The Tipping Point? Nexon Reports 36% Growth in 3Q

17 10 2009

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Game Informer is reporting that Nexon’s America had a 36% jump in revenue in the third quarter. Between this and things like Dungeons & Dragons Online switching to free-2-play and the really fun League of Legends being offered for free I’m starting to think we may be reaching a tipping point where game developers are realizing that the traditional methods of revenue generation from gaming are being supplanted by a whole new method of monetizing products. What makes this especially interesting is that this is Nexon America, not Nexon as a whole which was already a successful Korean developer. Nexon America is a separate business entity designed to sell it’s products in the Western market. It’s apparently working.

The key of course is offering products designed with that kind of business model in mind and overcoming the impression of F2P being the catch-all for crap games not good enough to be sold at retail. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons Online, the game was always good. It was just saddled with the wrong business model. The design of DDO was always more suited to small groups of friends pushing their way through the content at a much slower pace than the ticking clock that a $15 a month subscription fee would allow. So what you had was people bulling their way through content over and over again in pick-up groups because they felt like they had to play to justify the expense. What people are finding now is that they can go through the game at their own pace and spend money or not as it suits their game style. From what I understand, the result is people spending a lot more money than they ever did as subscribers.

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The thing about Turbine is that they essentially lucked into an F2P game by virtue of having DDO. This isn’t something that would work with The Lord of the Rings Online because the game structure is completely different. Nexon, on the other hand, has games that explicitly built around this kind of mechanic. If you get the majority of your gaming news from hard-core gamer sites like IGN, GameSpy or GameSpot you may have never seen or heard of Maple Story or Mabinogi. If you’ve seen some ads for it you may have dismissed it as the cutesy free-2-play MMO that “real” gamers wouldn’t give the time of day. When I was PC editor for GameSpy I know I’d get calls constantly from PR reps throwing games like that at me that — blinkered as I was by the “real” games that were sitting on my desk — I’d just ignore and dismiss. To be fair, a lot of them are really bad knock-offs that aren’t worth your time. The beauty of being out on your own though is the opportunity to explore areas of gaming that you’ve missed (I’ve become a hard-core Mafia Wars fanatic). I’m beginning to realize now the kinds of experiences that I’ve missed out on.

Take Mabinogi. On the advice of a friend I downloaded it and started playing and I immediately couldn’t believe how good it was. Mabinogi is a classic example of a game that doesn’t push the envelope as much as origami it around into a new and pleasing experience. Everything you might expect from an MMO is there — questing, leveling, killing monsters, crafting. Rather than the more linear experience that suddenly levels out into lateral advancement after the level cap is reached though, Mabinogi is a broad-based experience from teh get-go. It’s a game that encourages you subtly through things like the “Part-time job” mechanic to really explore and do different sorts of things during the same play session. Rather than mindlessly grinding through monsters or quests, I found myself in Mabinogi really running around and dabbling in the many different things to do. It’s got a fun arcadey combat system and randomly generated dungeons that actually utilize items in your inventory to create them.

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More importantly, it’s got the kind of wide progression scheme that encourages you to get involved on your schedule rather than the game’s. Without those huge time-sucking raids or the kinds of tricks that encourage players to devote big chunks of time to make any sort of measurable progress. That’s the kinds of things you need to justify a monthly fee. If a player doesn’t feel like they need to be in the game in order to advance, they’ll begin wondering just what they’re paying all that money for. It’s also why people feel like they can only play one subscription-based MMO at a time. For most people that’s World of Warcraft, the king of that sort of vertical-based progression scheme.

In WoW you HAVE to devote time to raiding or PvP in order to advance once you reach the level cap and old content is abandoned once the majority of the player-base moves through it. Free to play games don’t need that and consequently they can devote less developer time to creating these huge content chunks. There’s certainly room in this world for both types of games but it seem like there are more people with limited time who would prefer the F2P model than the kind of “health club” mindset of the traditional subscription model that really only appeals to people with lots of disposable time. It’ll be interesting to see how Nexon does once its yearly numbers come out. If it does as well as it has over the last few quarters, I think more than a few big western game companies are going to sit up and take notice.

(and yes, I did put another picture of a sexy night elf in here.)





Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears

17 09 2009

My first piece for Gamasutra Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears just went up. As tough as it was to write, there’s nothing I like better than delving into the guts of the game industry and figuring out what makes this stuff tick. DDO is a classic example of a game hurt not so much by what was on the screen (I reviewed it over at GameSpy and while it was good then, it’s gotten much better) but by the decision about what business model to put on it. It’s amazing how sometimes the littlest thing can help or hurt a game — being in the right place at the right time, having a celebrity admit that they’re a fan, putting the wrong artwork on the box… The bottom line, as with the movies, is that nobody really knows anything before a title launches. It’s a lot of educated guesses and soothsaying. You can be smart and reduce the risk, but ultimately it’s still a roll of the dice. Are you listening, Mr. Kotick?
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In the mean time, I was once again impressed at the passion that goes into the people who work in the gaming industry. I’m not just talking about designers or producers like Fernando Paiz but also PR people like Adam Mersky and Atlus Online’s Jaime Ortiz (who’s a business operations guy). It struck me while talking to them that these are people who love what they do. It may be because this is still a relatively young and small industry where the first generation of pioneers is still around even as the third generation of money-men and MBA try to corporatize it, so enjoy it while it lasts. It’s not often you get to be present at the settling of a new frontier and this is a time in gaming that will never come again.

Hey! I just got an idea for tomorrow’s Angry Bear column!

Read Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears at Gamasutra.

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