Magic Gathers in the MMO-sphere

Well, Cryptic/PWE kind of threw a curveball at me recently.  Not being an industry insider or anything like that, I didn’t have too much warning on this, but it looks like the next big thing for Cryptic MMOs is a game famed far and wide:  Magic the Gathering.

My first rare in my first Magic starter pack. Had a soft spot for this guy ever since.

For the folks who aren’t familiar with it:  MtG is a trading card game that’s been around for years and years now; I’d played it myself for number of years, roughly from the tail end of the Unlimited run to the last of the Invasion block.  Yeah, that probably requires a bit of explanation too:  Unlimited was pretty much the third edition of the main game, and they’ve cranked out revised editions regularly (including, if I recall right, one actually called Revised).  Additionally, the producers of the game-Wizards of the Coast-would release expansion card sets, and it didn’t take long for them to follow a pattern of releasing a big expansion, then two smaller expansions that followed on the same theme; these would be called “Blocks”.

I’m not getting into the mechanics of the rules-this is an MMO blog, so I’m going to instead talk a bit more about the setting.  And the setting is a little tricky, because it’s actually many settings-a multiverse of worlds, with their own societies and problems.  Some are more fantastical than others, but for the most part, all are fantasy settings, from Dominaria-which was the “primary” setting early on, to Phyrexia, which could best be described as “Borg Hell”.  Additionally, there are individuals who have a “spark” which gives them the ability to travel from plane to plane-from world to world, and they’d be called Planewalkers.  (Early on, they were the next best thing to gods, because they were intended to represent MtG players.  That changed somewhere along the line.)

Given the possibilities of this setting, with all the possible worlds it represents, it makes one wonder just how they’re going to put this together.  Will Cryptic be focusing on a single world?  Multiple worlds?  How will the players be represented-will they be Planewalkers, or something more traditional in class?  The fact that Cryptic is involved tends to make one dubious as to how they are going to distinguish characters, from a mechanics standpoint.  I feel pretty confident on the appearance customization, as that’s a Cryptic hallmark.  Races to choose from can span all kinds of possibilities, given the span of the card game.  Humans and elves are usually a safe bet.  I don’t recall heaps of dwarves in the setting-this could just be my memory getting involved, but back when I was active, there were always a lot more elves published than dwarves.  The setting shines with less traditional races, and even brand new ones; minotaurs and goblins are active in the setting, angels and demons, merfolk and vampires and even stranger beings:  slivers who became stronger when more of their species were around and gained the abilities of their fellows, plant-creatures that could breed more plant-creatures, lizard men and more.

Gearing should be no issue; the setting has heaps of artifacts which can easily be adapted to an MMO.  Magic…well, it’s in the name, right?  We can probably expect wizards to show up.  Priests are also around, although one doesn’t necessarily have to be one to use healing magic in the game.  I’d be shocked if the game didn’t include a roguish sort of character, somewhere-and fighters are always with us.  So I’d expect at least a core of wizards and warriors-and from there, all bets may be off.

There are web sites out there than can tell people more about the assorted settings of MtG; they’ve all got a story, and it’s been expressed via the cards for years.  I’ve not followed said stories for over fifteen years (yes, it really HAS been around a long time), and not actually played the game for almost that long-but I’ve still got fond memories of going to the local game shop and playing in games with friends, and took a lot of personal satisfaction in their reactions to my card decks (which were less “OMGHe’sGonnaKillUs” and more “WTFKindofDeckIsThat!?”  I built for personal entertainment as much as utility…).  I’m not sure how big a splash an MMO with MtG’s pedigree behind it will be; big properties do not necessarily translate into big MMOs.  We’ve seen example after example of that over the years.  If the developers for this MMO try to keep realistic expectations and don’t expect a flood of card players to suddenly translate their passion to an MMO based on their game, we could be looking at something interesting here.  I’ll be watching where things go.  There isn’t much information out there yet (they DID just announce it), but since this is Cryptic/PWE, there’s only one thing we can be dead certain of.

There will be lockboxes.  Lots of them.

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Aftermath

Last time around, I spoke of Cryptic/PWE screwups with Star Trek Online.  A bit has happened since then.

After presumed soul-searching, the devs investigated the claims made by some folks who said they lost specialization points that were honestly gained (as opposed to the ones who went grinding for exploits), and eventually made an interesting decision:  they would restore all the points taken, regardless of origin.  The dilithium part of the equation is still gone, and it should be-but the folks who got wronged from all this will have things made right, or at least, that’s what is being said.

But the rioting that went on in the aftermath of the mess before getting to this point seems to have gotten attention-and is causing action to be taken.

One of the major complaints was about the difficulty of the PvE queues, and how they’ve gone way up.  A dev has posted that adjustments are coming; these missions on Advanced and Elite difficulties should not be 100 percent success rates for people, but neither should they have as low a percentage of people succeeding, either.  On the same vein, that same dev has acknowledged the fact that the time taken to do these things are no longer worth the rewards given out; this is also going to be addressed.  Another dev has posted concerning the difficulty of the opposition these days (those massive sacks of health points, for example).  This is being adjusted, too.  (Of course, that one’s coming from a dev whose credibility is a tad suspect, but hell, let’s give him benefit of the doubt-for now.)  Finally, another dev is addressing something that I hadn’t honestly noticed-probably because I haven’t mucked with them-Starship Mastery tiers, which are available on Tier 6 or Tier 5U ships; apparently, the grind for those may be seeing a bit of a drop too.

That’s a lot of positive sounding changes-and a lot of posts with advance notice, too.  I can’t help but wonder if we’d have seen anything like this, though, if the forums hadn’t pretty much melted down in the interim.  It’s also somewhat disturbing to think that it took that riot to hammer it into their heads that players were finding the new expansion-and the stuff that came out of it-decidedly not fun, which is something that leads to people leaving games.

To their credit, none of the posts have said anything like “You’ll end up liking our changes, you’ll see!”  (Not like certain other devs who managed to kill their game and smear their own reps in a somewhat permanent manner.)  The STO devs aren’t sticking with a losing hand; they’re moving to the next hand, and working to improve it.  And that’s a fairly admirable thing to do.  Seeing a mistake and acting to correct it-that matters.

Now, the cynical part of me reminds me that for now, these are just words, and player interpretation of those words usually ends up somewhere north of where things will actually end up.  This may calm things down a bit on the forums, although they’ll never be completely satisfied-and some will still be unimpressed until they see the proof.  As for me, I’ve been more than happy to roast them over the fire for the bad they’ve done; so it seems fair to acknowledge when they’re doing something right.  Following through on this will definitely fit the latter case.

“Oops! We !#%$@ up!”

I debated even posting on the subject, since it’s quite possible that within 24 hours of the post, all might magically be made right.  (You laugh, but it wouldn’t be the first time…)  But I felt that there was enough here to post on it anyway.

It involves Star Trek Online, the Delta Rising expansion, and the concept of consequences.

I’ve remarked in my last post about the issue involving leveling from 50-60; specifically how the new content didn’t actually technically offer the skill points needed to advance a level, how you would have to grind other stuff to make up the difference.  I remarked that this wasn’t so different than how it used to be in the early days of the game, but was effectively displaced by the “1 episode/1 level” idea that seemed to creep into the design philosophy of the game-and how this return was a jarring one.

So, surprise, surprise, people were going to find a way around this.  The best way to experience the content smoothly, they felt, was to power-level.  This involved taking teams of ships on the Elite setting, finding the best xp per level of effort ratio, and grinding that mission repeatedly until they got to level 60, and then playing the content without interruption.  On the face of it, I don’t really have issues with that-and despite what some forum goers are saying, I don’t really believe Cryptic/PWE cared about that side of it.

But, there’s a bit more to the story.  You see, one of the things that the expansion introduced was “Captain Specializations”; you could unlock abilities every time you leveled (or something along those lines-I’m not 100 percent sure exactly how that works out).  There were more abilities to unlock than there were levels left, but you could still unlock them even at max level-skill points you would have gotten to advance a level got applied to the progress needed to unlock a new ability.  But eventually, after presumably a long, long time, you could unlock all the abilities.

And that’s where Cryptic/PWE made their mistake.  After you unlocked all the abilities, instead of getting a new ability point, you would get Dilithium.  The same Dilithium that is used to purchase/create the high-end gear…or exchange for Zen, the PWE cash-shop currency.

So it’s not hard to figure out why, a couple of days ago, the sector block where the mission was located (that effort/skill point ratio I mentioned earlier) mysteriously was locked up, without a word as to why.  People just couldn’t go into the sector block.  (God help the folks who were just trying to run missions as low level Romulans….)  That was when word of the exploit started spreading.  But nobody commented upon it until yesterday, after a patch went in which turned off the Dilithium gain mentioned above, and apparently also nerfing the skill point rewards at assorted difficulty levels.

The official post goes something like this.

The development team became aware of a potential leveling exploit on Wednesday morning, and after initial investigation decided to shut down access to the maps that were being used by the exploiters in order to perform a deeper investigation.

We uncovered some bugs in the game that were definitely not intentional and that could be used to level at a rate significantly faster than anywhere else in the game. Fixes to these bugs are going live today that should remove the exploit. Details of the changes can be found in the release notes.

While many players participated a little in the exploited maps, very few really took advantage of it to excessively level characters. We identified this small number of players, and we have removed the excess levels from these characters.

We apologize for the inconvenience of closed maps during the investigation and for the bugs that led to the scramble around those maps.

~LaughingTrendy

Now, it’s hard to have sympathy for the “small number of players” who ruthlessly took advantage.  It’s one thing to level up to the point where you can play the new content without having to stop and get interrupted by grinding.  But it’s another thing to max everything out and start cashing in the Dilithium-and potentially wrecking the Dilithium economy.  Particularly since Cryptic/PWE rely upon that sort of thing for their own profits.  There was no way they were going to let that go on for long.  They way they dealt with this was heavy handed, though-locking the entire sector block instead of shutting off missions.  Maybe that’s as granular as they could get-maybe that was the only way they could stop it.  Maybe.

Of course, things don’t end there.  It seems that a whole lot of people are now reporting having lost specialization points-significantly more than this “small number of players”.  It seems that if you were even in Tau Dewa at all, you were a suspect-and got stripped of points if you happened to be at level 60 and had an excess of those points.  I imagine that the intent was to slam the folks who had maxed everything out-but there was plenty of space for folks who had legitimately gotten a number of skill points beyond level 60.  And they got slammed too.

Granted:  there’s every possibility that a lot of the people protesting this are exaggerating.  I know-the idea that a forum goer may offer information with no proof that it actually happened?  Inconceivable!  But…even if they are protesting innocence too loudly, that’s still a larger volume than a “small number of players”.  And if that’s the case, the devs have gotten really heavy-handed with their hammer.

There is no way to know, of course, if something harsher hit those small number (like, say, bans), but I imagine we’ll never hear about it.  What is apparent is that Cryptic/PWE handled this very badly-especially if some of the claims on the forums are true that this exploit existed and was reported on the test server-and allowed to go live anyway.  And given their actions over recent months, the lack of player trust in their word has become more and more apparent-and incidents like this isn’t going to help.

Full disclosure:  this event didn’t impact me one bit.  I’d seen things in zone chat about groups going to the mission involved here, but hadn’t put it together as being power-leveling; I remember thinking that it was odd that there’d be a full team looking to do that one specific mission.  Makes sense in hindsight.  My path to filling in the blank spots in the leveling path doesn’t give me heaps of skill points-and I’ve never been so glad that I tend to take my time on these things.  It’s not hard for me to imagine being in the same boat as others hit with the hammer.

Delta is Change

Welp, last week the long-awaited/dreaded expansion for Star Trek Online hit in the form of “Delta Rising”.  I’ve had a bit to say on this leading up to release-most of which was bad-based on the information let out through their web site.  But now, it’s time to take a peek at just what we wound up getting.

The backstory is pretty straightforward; after the events of the “New Accord” which declared, if not peace, at least a cessation of hostilities between the Klingon Empire and the Federation, in addition to the very recently acquired access to the Delta Quadrant-an area of space most famous for having been the area in the galaxy where the U.S.S. Voyager was stranded, the new Alliance between the Empire, Federation, and the Romulan Republic have chosen to take a look around the Delta Quadrant vicinity-and not coincidentally give the players their first opportunities to interact with species and situations left over after the Voyager made it home.  In fact, leading this fleet of allied governments is Admiral Tuvok, in command of the ship that had made that journey home.

A Klingon at Ops; Harry Kim would be proud.

Without going too much into the details of the story thus far-I’ve only gotten to level 55 so far-I’d have to say it’s not bad.  There is a liberal sprinkling of appearances of members of the original Voyager crew; in fact, not only do we get the crew, but also voice-over work from the actors that portrayed them.  Not all are present, but we get some of the unique personalities-Seven, Neelix, Kim, and the Doctor-not to mention Tuvok himself.  The story itself is a little over the place to start with as your ship checks the area around their base of operations, but it soon starts looking like there’s something really big and bad in the area that is beating the tar out of the Borg-which, admittedly, would be more intimidating if the players weren’t beating the tar out of the Borg in the Alpha Quadrant.  Could it be Iconians?  Or could it be another species on the rise?  One such species seems to be reasserting itself strongly.

Like these guys. Don’t they look friendly?

I’ll undoubtedly do a follow up on this once I’ve completed the Delta Quadrant episodes.  But I’ve done enough to have a couple of other observations.

The first is the leveling path.  The first thing you see after you do your first Delta Quadrant mission is a popup message saying that yes, they know you didn’t level after finishing the mission, and that you shouldn’t expect to level after a single mission-that it’s more difficult to level than the standard path prior to level 50.  I, of course, was not impressed.  I remember when it wasn’t possible to level from a single episode-mission.  Back in the day, I needed to do patrol missions and/or some exploration missions to make up the difference (and actually, you usually had to do at least a couple episodes).  But that was before the development team decided to make episodes the end-all/be-all of the leveling path.  Now it looks like they’ve decided to go back to it with these new missions.  Of course, there isn’t any exploration anymore, but you do have access to the PvE queues instead.  And this is actually only really a problem for characters who have already done all the episodic content prior to Delta Rising.  If you happen to have a legion of alts, you probably didn’t do all the episodes-you probably just did enough to get them to 50.  Which means you can probably get a good boost before going into Delta.

Why is that important?  Because, as alluded to above, you wind up in situations where you complete the episodes and you see “you can’t do the next mission until you get a new level”.  So you sort of want to have those levels in your back pocket as early as possible before you hit the wall.  A number of players have found ways to deal with this, and I’m not going to go over them here.  Suffice it to say, there are several ways a player can get the skill points he needs to advance to the next level-and thus, open up the next section of content.

One of those ways-in the low 50s-is Kobali Prime.  It’s sort of like New Romulus and the Dyson Sphere’s battlezone rolled into one.  The natives are under attack, and your actions will help them survive the attack-but in the process, you learn things aren’t exactly black and white.  Moral dilemmas…now that’s Star Trek for you.

Looks like such a nice place, doesn’t it? I’m sure the shield generator is just there for decoration.

As you may notice from some of these shots, I have indeed followed up on my promise to eschew Starfleet for my first run through this content and have sided with the Klingons; when Cryptic/PWE remembers that Star Trek is about exploration, then we’ll consider Starfleet my primary character, but until then, I’ll stick with conquest.  This additionally allowed me to see that the devs have a somewhat…inconsistent view of the Klingons.  In these missions, there were choices in dialogue that made me feel exactly like a Klingon would-and there were times when I couldn’t believe the saccharine garbage coming out of the character’s mouth.  Things that sound natural from a graduate of Starfleet Academy sound completely out of character for a member of the Klingon Empire-even if the character is one of the KDF allied species.  It seems to me that some of the writing could use a second pass-through.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark on some of the considerable controversies rolling around at the moment.  The tier-6/tier-5 upgrade mess continues to fuel flames, particularly now that the price points are out.  3000 Zen for a tier-6 ship, or 700 Zen for a tier-5 upgrade token.  Note that the tier 5 ships generally sell at 2500 Zen, and that the upgrade tokens don’t let the upgraded ship be quite as good as a tier-6, and you can see why there’s a bit of anger going on.  (And you can also see why the devs did it that way, too-because players will always take the path of least resistance.)  Then you have the difficulty settings.  Prior the the release, players knew that the difficulty settings were going to be threefold now for the various queues:  Normal, Advanced, and Elite, where the old Elite would be Advanced now, and the Elite would be the toughest of the tough (and Normal unchanged).  Well, what happened was that all levels were increased in difficulty, and the rewards were nerfed, which seems to have…irritated a fair chunk of forum-goers who play queues a lot.  As someone who doesn’t do a lot of the queued content, I haven’t had a chance to really determine how much of this is accurate and how much of it is perception, but the fact that crypticgeko (yeah, that one; I’ve mentioned him a number of times before in less-than-flattering terms) put up a forum post and…well, let’s let the man speak for himself.

New Difficulty – Star Trek Online
Delta Rising was a massive addition, and we anticipate that we will need to make adjustments. So over the next few weeks expect changes in the baseline difficulty, advanced difficulty, and elite difficulty – and also expect rewards to change as we gather more metrics on play-times and success rates.

Our goal was to make basic difficulty and the story content something everyone can play – even with a standard T5 ship. Levels 1-50 are generally pretty easy at basic difficulty, so we felt 51-60 should step things up a bit. Although we expect 51-60 accessible everyone, those in T5 ships and non-upgraded gear should to start to feel a definite challenge as they approach level 60. We expect Advanced to be for more skilled players and those who have invested in the game (ships and gear). And we expect Elite to be for the best of the best. We don’t expect most players to succeed on elite difficulty.

If I were to guess, I would expect basic to get some minor tuning, Advanced to get a little easier and Elite to get a lot harder – and rewards, like dilithium rewards, could potentially go up across queues once we are sure we are hitting the right mark. But this is just my guess at this time.

From the sounds of it, they didn’t quite get it right, did they?  Of course, I wouldn’t depend on his guesses; but that’s my personal issues with the man, so I could be an unreliable narrator on that one.

Despite my issues, I’ve enjoyed the expansion so far.  I like what they’ve done with the actors from Voyager, and the episodes have been pretty fun-even if some of the starships seem like a big fat bag of health.

That said:  there area  few bugs that occasionally show up in the game that could probably use some looking at.

Klingon transwarp technology could probably use a bit more polishing.

No Longer Boldly Going….

There are two things you can rely on from the devs on Star Trek Online.

One:  their feature episodes are awesome.

Two:  their decision making stinks.

Given how rare feature episodes are, it’s not hard to figure that option two is the one that tends to get noticed more often.  And that’s what I’m going to address today.

Recently, the executive producer of STO announced season 9.5 (ah, those halfway publishes; I never understood why they bothered with that sort of thing.  Call it season 10 and be honest about it.  I’ve had this issue with other games, too.) which would contain a revamp to crafting.

This makes, what, the third time?  The fourth?

A part of this process includes closing the planet Memory Alpha, which means it’ll effectively no longer be in the game.  Yes, clearly it wasn’t enough for the devs to remove entire missions from the game (State of Q, anyone?); now they’re going to remove Memory Alpha entirely.  (Caveat:  it’s possible that things have changed since I last checked, but the last patch notes I saw for the test server sure said they were closing it.)  Memory Alpha, for those not in the know, was the crafting hub for Starfleet in the game, at least at one point.  With a crafting revamp, one could argue-and it seems this is the devs’ argument-that it no longer serves a purpose-so out it goes.

Closing Indefinitely

If THAT is their argument, might as well scrap Andoria, too-I mean, nothing happens THERE, either.  (Crap, I hope they aren’t reading this-they don’t need any more ideas.)

I’ve not seen much on the actual crafting process-I’ve never been big on crafting in STO, and I’d maxed out a character on that during the FIRST iteration of the crafting process.  I’ve not heard how the devs will treat folks who have done that-but I imagine it’ll be the “sucks to be you” sort of thing.  From what I’m reading from people who have been on the test server, though, there are a number of changes that are somewhat unimpressive-like a revamp of the duty officer interface, which didn’t really need revamping.  The unreplicatable materials are going away, as I hear it; folks who have burned Dilithium (remember, that’s the trade-in for Zen on the market, giving it actual cash value) to create those materials better use ’em to craft stuff quick-I’ve heard of no compensation or refunds for those announced.  I’m not sure if Dilithium will be involved in the crafting process, but I’ll be shocked if it isn’t-Perfect World Entertainment is hardly one to pass up a chance to make a buck.  And the materials used in the old crafting system?  They’ll be able to be converted (probably at a loss) to the newer materials, although at the moment the procedure is tedious if you have a large volume of the stuff.  I’ll give the devs this much credit-they are supposedly looking to make that easier.

All that’s minor, though, in comparison with what I view as a bigger sin in a Star Trek game.  They’re also removing the Star Clusters from the game-the one portion of the game that had a stain of exploration to it.  If a Star Trek game without exploration sounds okay to you, it’s time to re-evaluate what Star Trek is actually about.

Here’s what one of the devs had to say about it.

I can answer this succinctly without touching on the rest of the thread yet – The Star Cluster missions were really out of date and a generally awful game experience for any new players who stumbled upon them. While those of us who are veterans of the game were able to accept them as their own thing and do them only when we wanted to, new players would (with moderate frequency) enter a star cluster mission, get lost or get blocked on an unclear objective, and then quit and never return.

Additionally, the Star Cluster missions took up a sizable portion of the game’s install size. This also negatively impacts new players, as the longer it takes to download and install the game, the less likely they are to actually complete the process and give it a shot. So the very existence of Star Cluster missions was essentially dinging our player retention at least twice for each new player.

We recognize that removing them has removed a feeling of exploration from the game, and we know that the feeling of exploration is important to the Star Trek vision and feel – we’ll want to rectify that. However, the presence of the Star Cluster missions in the game just provided so many negatives that they outweighed the positive of holding on to that feel of exploration.

We’re looking in to modifying the Exploration Accolades so that they’re still obtainable.

I should probably look at this paragraph by paragraph.

I can concede easily that the exploration clusters are out of date and boring and repetitive-and worse still, sometimes they made no sense whatsoever.  Ask someone about the Borg Dynasties, for example, just for a laugh.  People quitting missions happens all the time; it’s nothing new.  How they get lost is beyond me; people were doing the missions just fine before they made them easier by including the ability to scan for objectives.  Some objectives got blocked solely because of problems with map geometry, where sometimes enemies and boffs would literally fall through the ground and continue the fight out of sight.  Those missions became more rare as devs fixed those.  The only way that I can see people “becoming lost” would be if they didn’t know how to scan for stuff; and gosh!  Wouldn’t that be a smart thing to have included in a TUTORIAL?!  So I view paragraph one above as garbage.

Install size?  Seriously?  They’re saying folks decide not to do the game because of install size?  In this day and age?  Seriously?  Paragraph two is even more garbage.

Bringing us to paragraph three.  At least he acknowledges that Star Trek is about exploration at its base-although again, most of the negatives he pointed out is garbage.  Worse still is the implication that they haven’t even started to work out what to put in its place.  They’re removing the one exploration-related bit of gameplay from the game and leaving nothing in its place.  I won’t say it’s unforgivable…but it’s pretty damned stupid.  Now, maybe the big expansion will bring on an entirely new and better exploration system-but of course, since nobody will say anything about that expansion, that just leaves it a mystery-and in the meantime, the very core of what Star Trek is about is cut away.

I don’t know what it is with these devs, sometimes; I have no problem with them trying to improve systems and the like; they may be failing in some cases, but they are trying.  But when they just cut out parts of a game for no good reasons….

It’s not hard to see why I spend less and less time in STO.

Won’t be seeing you anymore….

In Accordance

I usually try to avoid it, but no way around it.  There may be mild spoilers ahead concerning Star Trek Online following.  You’ve been warned.

I sometimes think I’m bipolar when it comes to Star Trek Online, but really, there’s two sides to how I think of it.  On one hand is the business side, where I think they do some truly stupid business decisions (or maybe it’s more accurate to say they do some truly anti-consumer business decisions).  And the other hand is the game development side, which is usually pretty impressive.  A lot of my posts tend to rant on something stupid that Cryptic/Perfect World Entertainment has done, but I’m trying to avoid higher blood pressure, so we’ll go in the other direction today.

Last week, we hit a milestone in Star Trek Online:  the publish of Season Nine turned the page on the year 2409, and brought us the first big event of 2410.  We’ll ignore the fact that this means everything up to now took place in one year-where you  assisted the birth of the Romulan Republic, fought in skirmishes in the Klingon/Federation War, stopped a lost Dominion fleet from trashing Deep Space Nine and reigniting THAT war, and heaps of other stuff, PLUS managed to get from the humble rank of Lieutenant all the way to Vice Admiral.  (Clearly, this is the sort of thing that causes RPers headaches.  This is why I have my titles on my characters set to “Captain” and leave ’em there….)  What matters now is the future.

The Season is titled “A New Accord”, and it should be pretty blatantly obvious as to what it’s referring to (at least to Trek fans).  The War is over, and while they may not be friends again, the Klingons and the Federation are at least not shooting at each other where anyone else can see it.

In 2409, the next frame would've involved a bisected Admiral.

In 2409, the next frame would’ve involved a bisected Admiral.

A large part of this involves activity with the new Feature Episode, where hatchets are buried-mostly in the Undine, who decide that subterfuge is nice, but blowing stuff up is more fun.  (Hm, the Undine are MMO players, I guess!)  Also known as Species 8472, the Undine have been one of the big bads in the game, although their importance kind of slipped as the game meandered into building the Romulan Republic up, or going into Iconian Gateways.  But it’s all been leading up to this:  the big team-up where the Undine have finally made the mistake that unites the power of Starfleet, the KDF, and the Romulan…I guess their fleet doesn’t HAVE a name yet.

The mission feels epic.  It takes characters of two factions into places where it would’ve been sooner-than-instant-death to set foot in; it has multiple encounters with the Undine, both in space and face-to-face.  It has the big signature characters (as I think of them):  Captain Shon of the Enterprise-F, Captain Koren of the Bortas’qu, and Commander Jarok of the Lleiset, flagship commanders all.  And each of them play important roles, along with one other very important captain:  the player character.  It also has Admiral Tuvok, making a return appearance after keeping a hot war from breaking out among Romulans, Klingons, AND Starfleet at the Jenolan Dyson Sphere.  His role’s pretty important too.  The folks who suffered most from the episode is your bridge crew, who are once again relegated to the sidelines (even though this is the exact sort of thing you could REALLY use their help on); I swear it seems like the developers don’t know how to write missions that include your crew anymore, and I know that’s not right.

If I have any complaints about the mission (aside from the above, which applies to a lot of recent missions), it’s the fact that your character seems overshadowed a bit by the work of the Big Names.  Your character IS responsible for the way things turn out, but it felt to me that things that your character would’ve done in previous missions have been co-opted by Shon, Tuvok, and so forth.  I get that they’re important roles (especially Tuvok, since his original actor from Voyager is reprising the role), but…maybe it’s just me.  After all, your character does get a pair of truly great moments-one where the character officially takes command of a situation (and that put a grin on my face, since at that point ALL the major actors were onhand), and one that…well, let’s just say the grand finale of the mission may look like you’re assisting another character, but it’s your ship that’s going into the teeth of the opposition.

The mission does have an additional concern for me, but that’s nothing to do with the plot.  It has to do with the passage of time.  One of the major segments works because of the revamp of the Earth Spacedock.  The events of the mission are a good way to transition from the old appearance to the new one for the dock’s interior, but it isn’t going to be too long where a new player will come into the new Spacedock, run all those missions that lead up to this one, and then…bam!  Old Spacedock.  I think it’ll date this mission badly, unless there’s a plan in place to deal with that.  It works now because Old Spacedock is fresh in the minds of the players; the vets will easily remember what it was before, and appreciate the change and how it was done.  But people who join the game today (it could happen!) may find it jarring.  Or maybe not; it’s a crazy world.

There’s a new Reputation in the game dedicated to the Undine.  It goes along with a lot of other changes which I’ll save for another post, because it’s sort of a big deal for Reputation.  There are, unsurprisingly, a few new PvE queue events, most of which I haven’t tried out yet but expect to fairly soon-again, Undine related.  And there is a new space Battlezone at the Solonae Sphere, where the Voth are finding that the Undine are just as nasty as they are; if you’re familiar with the ground Battlezone there, then you can probably guess how the space one is-although it’s not nearly as obnoxious with the “candy icons” that are in the ground zone.  The new zone is pretty fun to play, but it’s going to rely hard on people continuing to play it.  It’s find now that it’s the latest and greatest, but we’ll see what happens when the locusts move on.

The new Season has upped the game a bit for STO, and it’s a safe bet that this is a big step toward the previously announced expansion on the horizon.  We’ve finally made official what has been implied hard over the Feature Episodes and newer content-the Klingons and the Federation are on the same side again (which, given the Borg STFs, the Dominion Feature, the Romulan Republic arcs, and basically the heaps of co-op content that’s come our way, was inevitable), and the three great powers of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants are ready to deal with the true enemy.

...Who doesn't look a thing like this.  Really.  Honest.  Would I lie to you?

…Who doesn’t look a thing like this. Really. Honest. Would I lie to you?

The Zen of Stipends

  I’ve held off on writing this, because it was something that had been affecting me, and I wanted to see if things would go as I had predicted, or if things would go as I feared.

The Way of the Stipend

  Here’s the backstory.  Back in April, Star Trek Online and Champions Online had run into a minor problem with their monthly stipends; the folks in charge of delivering those 500 Zen stipends mucked up something, and in their attempt to fix it, a bunch of people ended up getting not only that month’s allotment, but also the next two-or even three-months allotment.  I was one of those affected.  Because I had-shall we put it kindly?-an extreme distrust of the accounting of such things, since Perfect World Entertainment didn’t show the allotment of stipends on any “My Account” screens, I had taken the precautions within a month of going Freemium by having a spreadsheet tracking my allotments, and when I received them.  Ironically, I had originally done this to track my purchases on the C-Store so that if someone screwed something up in the game, I would know for certain that I had purchased something.

  So in a roundabout way, folks like CaptainGeko can be thanked for my noticing that my allotment in April was 1000 Zen more than I should have had.  Breeding paranoia can do wonders.

  Now, the forums have always had people complaining for one reason or another that their stipend had never been received-but this was probably the first time Cryptic/PWE ‘fessed up to screwing up.  (A more unkind soul would point out that it was probably the first time the complaint was justified.)  In trying to fix one problem, they created a bigger one.  So they told everyone that the people who had received extra wouldn’t receive a stipend until things had caught up; in other words, in my case, I would miss two months of stipends, because they were effectively awarded early.  My calculations pointed to July as to the time when I would receive my stipends again as normal.

  As a side note, I did a check not long after this, and determined that yes, my CO Zen quantity had also been affected, and in the same way.  So no stipend until July for that, either.  Of course, this was all predicated on the theory that it wouldn’t be screwed up when July arrived.

  Needless to say, the forums had threads popping up regularly now that had people saying they had not received their stipends, and swore up and down that they hadn’t received any bonus Zen from the screwup.  I had no way of knowing if that was actually true-the forums aren’t exactly full of reliable people in that regard.  Still, as July came closer, I began to fret a bit.  I held off on any purchases with my Zen for this period of time, because I didn’t want to taint the pool; I wanted to make sure that if something messed up, I didn’t have to include purchases of Zen or subtractions from getting stuff from the store.  I even held off picking up the Scimitar 3-pack right away (I tend to hoard Zen), because I had a nice, neat number to work with.

  The CO stipend was scheduled to come first; and while it was a few days late, the stipend appeared.  (Full disclosure:  the devs did say that it might be some days late when it resumed.)  But at this point, I’m just waiting for the sub to run out for CO.  It was the STO stipend that was more of a concern for me.  Last weekend, it hit my account, some days after it should’ve, but within the “several days” range predicted by the devs.

  So, we have a success story.  But…was all of this drama really necessary?

  It seems painfully obvious that the questioning and the stress and the general screaming on the forums could have been avoided by having a log of transactions available to the players.  Star Wars: The Old Republic does it; it tracks not only the purchase of Cartel Coins, but also expenditures and stipend awards.  Revolutionary?  Shouldn’t be, but there it is.

  But PWE seems determined to hide your use of Zen as much as possible.  To buy Zen, you have to purchase it through their site, where it becomes available to your PWE account; then you have to transfer it to the game of your choice.  Stipends aren’t tracked anywhere; expenditures in their games aren’t tracked anywhere.  Hell, even the C-Store on the web for STO has vanished, with a weak excuse that “it wasn’t right”.  I noticed that the CO version is handling just fine.  A more cynical person might mention that it was probably in preparation to “convince” players to try their new “Arc Launcher” to play PWE games; I understand you can do the C-Store thing from that.  Hm, I guess I did just mention it….

  It’s been a couple of months of insanity with stipends that could’ve been avoided if there wasn’t such a mania to hide a customer’s use of Zen, and to hide their own commitments to awarding Zen.  Even a history just going back twenty entries could’ve been enough.  Maybe not even that much.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so it’s not like I think they’ve got something to hide; but I’m at a loss to understand why they can’t give the players a tool to prove that things are working-unless they aren’t.  It’s not like it’s extra data to track in their database-they claim they are already doing that.

  So why not?

Week of Updates

  The last seven days has shown a LOT going on in the MMOs I play.

As if traffic in Millennium City didn’t have enough problems.

  Last Friday, Champions Online released their “Reloaded” update.  The two major things in the update were the “official” introduction of vehicles and a new Alert-which is basically an instanced PvE area for multiple characters.  This seems to have been met with lukewarm feelings, though.  I haven’t read much reaction on the instance yet-although it sounds cool, featuring airship carriers and a major villain’s attack on them-mainly because most of the reaction seems to be centered on the vehicles.

  Not sure what’s up there, honestly; there’s mixed opinions on folks who say they wanted them and folks who said they never asked for them.  What started burning people up is that this major update to the game is basically “buy the vehicles from the store”.  Basically, there are three avenues of getting a vehicle right now; Drifter Salvage, which comes from grab bags that are sold in the C-Store; you can buy a vehicle directly from the C-Store; or you can get a lockbox opened with keys from-you guessed it-the C-Store.  So you could make a good case that half the new content is actually “pay for it”.  Then add to the fact that technically, this is the second wave of vehicles; prior to this, there were vehicles sold that were “prototype” jets, and their superior speed was a big selling factor at the time.  Guess what got nerfed?  Sure, they can be modified now with the stuff you can get with the new vehicle system, but it seems that this is a poor compensation for early adopters.

A new frontier for the Romulans and Remans

  Since I’m on the subject of transaction stores and Cryptic, let’s look at the release on Tuesday in Star Trek Online:  Season Seven.  The good news there is that there is a lot of good stuff there; there’s a new space zone, and this is a legitimate zone, as opposed to the Undine Space zone; in fact, it’s even more packed than the Deferi space area.  Most of the planets there have a patrol mission attached, which counts for the new Reputation system, and the ones that aren’t are likely closed off until you get to a certain rep level.  A new ground zone exists for New Romulus, and you can actually beam down with one of your bridge officers, and interact with…well, every other player captain with their preferred boff.  In comparison with the release for Champions, STO blows it out of the water.

  But…this is Cryptic we’re talking about.  Or possibly Perfect World Entertainment; I’m never sure exactly who makes the calls on these, so I tend to paint them with the same brush.  The Executive Producer of STO, Daniel Stahl, put up a blog on what is one of the most controversial stunts with this release:  the beating upon the dilithium economy.  Dilithium is the ingame representation of real money transactions, similar to PLEX in EVE Online, except it’s usable for heaps of stuff-like buying equipment, and contributing to starbase improvement (and now embassy improvement-and the Reputation system).  There’s an awful lot of stuff that requires dilithium.  Even Stahl admitted that players aren’t getting enough dilithium “refined” (you have to actually refine the ore before you can use it-and you’re limited to 8000 units, maybe 1000 more if you have a certain vet reward).  This would indicate to most rational people that maybe what is needed is to improve the dilithium volume.  Nope:  instead, the devs nerfed the hell out of the dilithium producing missions, AND added dilithium costs to stuff that didn’t previously.  Yeah, that makes sense.

  Well, actually, it does-if you look at it in the point of view of wanting the player to spend more real money on buying dilithium.  Needless to say…the forum posters were not amused.  And they’ve got a good point, too.  Looking at Stahl’s post and looking at what the devs have done makes it hard for me to believe that there was anything in mind here beyond “get the players to spend more real money”.  If I were a subscriber, I’d be furious as hell.  As a lifetimer who’s paid off a long time back, I can just shrug and say, “hey, you want any of my money?  Earn it.”  They haven’t since going Freemium.  All this said:  the explosions on the forums apparently caused a change of heart, and some of the dilithium changes are going to be reversed.  Granted, this came from the same guy who has been telling the KDF that Klingons would be getting more content for a 1-50 level experience any day now…for almost three years….  But a patch today is going up, and the original blog post has been updated with the new information.

He’s waiting for you….

  And since we’re on the subject of going Freemium:  today, Star Wars: The Old Republic goes “free to play”.  The patch is going up even as I type-but hey, this just means I get a chance to post more about it in its own post sometime in the near future!  We’ll see just how well Bioware gets this rolling-it’s hard to believe that they’d do worse than PWE.  But then, there are segments of gamers who consider Electronic Arts the next best thing to Digital Satan.  Who is right?  It is worth noting, incidentally, that November 15 is the anniversary of a major change to another Star Wars property; the New Game Enhancements were enacted for Star Wars Galaxies on this date.  Let’s hope that’s not an omen, eh?

  Certainly a busy week for the games I involve myself with.  I can’t recall the last time so many of these games have updated in major ways in such a short span of time.  Must be something about November.

STO Goes Deeper Into the Dark Side

  Well, what do you know?  I managed to go through a month without taking shots at Cryptic/Perfect World Entertainment.  But all good things end, you know.

  It seems that Perfect World is asserting its power over Cryptic more thoroughly these days.  The Star Trek Online forums went down at the beginning of the week for some maintenance-or so we thought.  They returned…but not as we knew them.  It seems that PWE is pushing to eliminate all vestiges of Cryptic starting here.  How?

  Simply put:  you can’t post on the forum unless you link your Cryptic account with a new or existing PWE account.  Their FAQ makes clear that the endpoint will be the elimination of the Cryptic accounts into PWE accounts.

You can soon erase the “Cryptic” from this screen.

  Being who they are, PWE has offered a bit of cheese for the mice to encourage them to do it sooner than later.  5,000 Dilithium ore (unrefined, so it counts to your 8,000 per day limit); a 2,500 XP granting consumable (max level characters could use it for BOFF points instead); a rare or very rare weapon scaled to the level of the character; and a couple packs of consumables.  Needless to say, these can only be claimed on one character of an account.  Honestly?  It’s sort of pathetic.  Leveling is painfully simple in this game, BOFF points are worthless at max level, an effective “weapon drop” for free is laughable, the consumables are unimpressive, and the ore is a joke given how simple it is to get that much ore in a day.  It’s really hard for me to mock things given away for free, but as compensation for having to go through the labyrinth of dealing with PWE’s account system?

  The forum, at least, looks decent.  Of course, everyone has now lost their post counts, their signature files, their avatars, and in many cases their very names.  And then there’s the “Zen” advertisements cropping up all over the site now, urging you to buy Zen to convert to Cryptic Points (that’s part of the mess I mentioned a moment ago).

  I’m grateful at this point that I have a lifetime sub.  It matured well before STO went freemium, which means I was playing free before the game actually went that way.  I actually GOT my money’s worth.  I certainly wouldn’t be paying money for the game now; and with the changes being stuffed down the players’ throats, it makes me real happy that the only way I’ll be getting Cryptic Points (watch for that to change at some point; bet on it) will be through the Dilithium Exchange (the lesser amount) and my monthly stipend (the greater amount).  Because with each passing update to the game they make, it seems to take me further and further away from feeling like they deserve any money at all.

  PWE/Cryptic has successfully managed to enter into the same category as SOE as far as I’m concerned.

  Don’t worry, players of Champions Online.  Ten to one, you’re next.  My sympathies in advance.

And Cryptic Continues to Fail

I wasn’t gonna post my latest rant on Cryptic/Perfect World concerning the Tier-3 versions of Excelsior/Nebula-and I’m still not.  Because this is funnier.

This morning, I noticed the image for “Unleashed” was not linking right-so I went to see if they had changed the name, or removed the image.  To my great amusement, this is what I found.

Looks like someone screwed up-again!

Yes, they seem to have forgotten that their rights to the domain expired.  A twisted person out there could probably jump on this now, although I expect it wouldn’t last.  Still, it’s hilarious.  I’m sure that it’ll be resolved fairly quickly, but this put a great smile on my face at a time when I’m extremely disenchanted with the company.