Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ok, For Real This Time: What's So Great About The Secret World?

Late last night, I finally finished the Tyler Freeborn storyline from Issue 5. Good stuff.

I'm making it a policy here not to post any spoilers without a strong and highly visible warning beforehand so that those who don't want spoilers can easily avoid them. With a game like TSW, I believe it's only fair and respectful to those who choose to honor me with their readership.

That said, I think it's within those parameters to say that the Tyler Freeborn missions indicate to me that we can look forward to DLC content in this game that will be more than worth the asking price in terms of entertainment value. Combined with the huge amount of great content that comes with the game itself at no extra charge, I think TSW is likely to be one of the best MMO values of 2013. What remains to be seen, of course, is if other players like myself, those who bought TSW last spring, played for a while, left, and then came back when they lifted the subscription requirement, come back to the game in big enough numbers (along with the new players the buy-to-play move is hopefully generating) to keep the game afloat at the quality and consistency level it's maintained until now.

Unique games interest me. I loved Eve-Online so much I played for three years. Fallen Earth excited me as a concept and kept me interested for quite a while. Had GamersFirst not botched that game's free-to-play conversion as badly as they did, I might still be logging in regularly today instead of just once or twice a month.

When I first heard of The Secret World I was highly skeptical, in part because it's a Funcom game. I'd tried both Anarchy Online and Age of Conan, but neither game particularly impressed me, certainly not enough to spend actual money on. At the time, the information on TSW was just starting to hit the mainstream, the point when the gaming companies generally shift gears from occasional teases at conventions and online to actual serious marketing for an upcoming release.

At some point during this period I heard that Ragnar Tornquist was the creative lead on TSW and my interest level heightened immediately. I'd loved "The Longest Journey" and so anything created by the author of that game was something I wanted to check out. I did some research, liked what I was reading, and applied for the beta.

I also participated in a couple of the ARGs and even won a couple of in-game sweatshirts for my efforts.

By the time Funcom opened the doors on open beta I was more than ready, and I obviously wasn't the only one. The streets of Kingsmouth ran red (or maybe black) with zombie blood and there were points when it just wasn't worth logging in because there were so many players on that the split second any zombies appeared they were immediately set upon and instantly obliterated by dozens of players.

After the official launch, the game was still pretty busy, but nowhere near as overcrowded as it had been during those first few days of open beta. I hadn't really had a chance to explore the game as well as I'd have liked during beta, in part because certain zones were still closed off. Still, I was enjoying myself enough to scrape together enough to fund a three-month subscription, and set about developing my character.

The first thing I noticed was the in-game culture. By that I mean I was surprised to see players passing by a fight jumping in to help an overmatched player take down an enemy. Yet, at the same time, it also seemed like there was, and still is to a large extent, a lot of solo play going on, with players mainly only teaming for dungeons and PvP.

Personally, I currently have zero PvP and dungeon experience in TSW right now, but I'm hoping that's going to change very soon because I've just joined a great cabal, my first in this game.

As time went on and I played through more of the content, I also discovered something else: The deeper I got into the storyline, the more involved with the game I became. For me, the real reward for completing the missions in TSW is as much about the storyline answers you get when you beat them as the experience and loot drops. You don't just get spoonfed a general overall storyline that connects one battle or mission to the next and the next, you get real stories that you have to earn the endings to. Probably more than any other single factor, it's wanting those answers and those final chapters that keeps me logging into TSW again and again. The stories in this game are so well-done that you can't help but want to know how they turn out.

Now, having played TSW for about three and a half months altogether, having left and come back, and having picked up pretty much right where I left off but with plenty more content to play through than there was when I left the game originally, I'm pretty happy with TSW overall and I expect to be playing it for a long time to come, especially now that paying for a subscription no longer factors into whether or not I can play the game.

One thing that Funcom desperately needs to get its shit together on is the TSW cash shop. Personally, I believe that nothing short of a complete revamp is in order. They need vastly more clothing and style options available and more stuff that looks like what people actually wear in the real world. I mean, the only skirts they have for sale are those kilt-things? Seriously, how many women do you see wearing skirts like that in the real world? Someone needs to strap those clothing designers down and force them to read the Style sections of Cosmo and GQ for the last ten years. Hell, even the Sears catalog (if it still existed) would be an improvement.

If Funcom wants to run this game on the profits of their cash shop, then goddam it, people, give us some stuff worth buying! And for Goddess sake, remember that girls play this game too and generally speaking most of us don't dress like prostitutes and strippers. It may titillate the boys, but at least some of us want to look like ladies, not sluts.

Another thing that would help would be better convenience items in the cash shop. I immediately got myself a run speed boost to get to level IV, but that's a one-time purchase. I can craft my own potions by disassembling drops I don't need, but if you're on a particularly tough mission those can get used up pretty quickly. I'd suggest making pre-made potion bundles of 5 or 10 at available at every level for purchase in the cash shop. With the recent gear durability nerf, I'd expect those to be very popular.

One thing I hope Funcom doesn't do is to rely solely on the DLC sales to keep the game afloat. Surely those will be critical to the overall bottom line, but it's also an all-or-nothing proposition. If a player doesn't want or can't afford the DLC, they don't buy it, but they may be more interested in a less-expensive bundle or two of potions or other consumable convenience items.

Right now, we're on the cusp of what likely will either prove to be a big success or a big failure for Funcom with TSW.  I think a lot will depend on how they handle things going forward, particularly because TSW has shown itself to be very attractive to a certain niche market but not as much to overall MMO playerbase.

I suspect the end result will be that Funcom will find itself with another game much like its other two MMOs, one that boasts a loyal core following but just doesn't generate the kind of broad-based appeal of a WoW or GW. There's nothing wrong with this model, of course, I just wonder if TSW can survive it and still turn out high-quality monthly content updates. Time will tell, I suppose,

There's more to say, of course, but that's a conversation for next time.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

So, About The Game...

Obviously, The Secret World is my Game of the Moment. When you're an ADD gamer, however, you tend to have a lot of these. In the last few weeks my Game of the Moments have been Aion, Firefall beta, Need For Speed Most Wanted, and Max Payne 3. Thing is, in my case every now and then a Game of the Moment becomes My Game for a while...that is, I allow myself to become deeply involved with a game and invest a lot if not the majority of my gaming time in playing it. I played Eve-Online on and off (when I could afford it) for about three years, the longest I've ever played any single MMO.

After a while with Eve it really became more about the people than the game. Great folks who I loved gaming with. Even so, after a while even $15 a month can become a burden and when I'd finally progressed so far in the game that solo play was really no longer possible, I finally left Eve for good.

I have a fair amount of experience with MMOs. My first MMO (if you don't count ASCII dungeons on Prodigy) was the original Everquest, which I played for almost a year before I decided that the constant unfilterable stream of racist and homophobic smacktalk in the chat channels wasn't what I was looking for in my online entertainment. After that it was three years in Eve, where I had a great time and even co-founded a corporation (guild/cabal) until I decided that it was time to move on.

After Eve I got involved with Fallen Earth for a while, but since it went free-to-play I've basically lost interest in the game, even though I still have it installed. The main two reason are lack of new content after a certain point during the middle of leveling up in the game and perhaps most importantly, the cash shop set up for this game is terrible and really annoying. Frankly, as much as I once enjoyed this game and even blogged about it, it has unquestionably gone downhill in a major way since going free-to-play. There's just no other way to say it. I'll keep an eye on it to see how things are going, but I strongly suspect that my regular FE playing days may be over.

Then it was Star Trek Online, which I enjoyed enough to buy a lifetime subscription to, the only game I have ever done this for. The problem with STO is the glacial pace at which new content has been released. It's been addressed somewhat since the game was sold and taken free-to-play, but the truth is that for the most part STO just bores me now. As a lifer, I still hold out hope for the future and I won't give up on it completely but the reality is that with the game as it is right now, I'm much more likely to find myself starting up TSW or NeedForSpeed Most Wanted than STO when I'm looking for something to do.

After that, Aion. To be completely honest, I really have no idea how the hell I ever got involved with this game. It's everything I'd staunchly avoided in my previous MMOs...high fantasy, medieval setting, classic profession types, all of it. I proudly tell friends and fellow gamers that I've never played WoW and yet there I was, getting involved with a game that many describe as WoW with wings. My problem with this game is that I'm reaching a point where I need to be stronger than I am to make progress fending off enemies (both PvE and PvP), and succeeding in this game seems to require a lot of time and money, money I'm not so sure I want to spend on it. The jury's really still out on this one, but generally speaking once a game has made it to My Game status other games get far less attention.

And then, there's The Secret World, but you're going to have to wait one more post to hear my thoughts on that. It's Saturday afternoon and I want to spent at least part of it playing instead of writing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Problem With Being An ADD Gamer Is...

...that sometimes interest in something you were very into doing just moments previously vanishes without a trace from your radar as something else draws your attention. I wrote the post below this February with all intentions of beginning to post regularly, but well...I got distracted. It happens.

One of the things that drew my attention for a lot of that time was a new MMO, The Secret World. I do read a lot of gaming news on the web, and I'd heard of this game, but hadn't really given it all that much attention until I saw a promotion on one of the major gaming news and review sites giving away beta keys for the game. The concept of the game looked interesting at first glace, so I grabbed one and decided to take a look. What happened next was...interesting.

Once I had The Secret World installed and my beta account established, I logged in and created my character. The game is set in the modern world and so the style choices your character has open to her reflect that. It was while creating my character that was when I first sensed that this was not going to be like any MMO experience I'd ever had before.

I'm one of those people for whom character creation is very important. I like to put myself into the games I play as much as possible. When there's a choice, I always play the female character. When there's choices beyond simply gender, she's going to be a green-eyed redhead with a hairstyle similar to mine (or at least, the way I'd like it to look). Maybe it's the transsexual thing, but any character that's going to represent me to others is going to be as much in line with the way I see myself as I can make her.

While the character creation process in The Secret World comes up a bit short in a few areas, one way in which it excels is in allowing a player to style their character according to their own personal sense of style in a way that games set in the past or future generally don't. In The Secret World, I was able to create a character who may not be my physical twin but shares my sense of style enough to feel like me...well, me but better looking and possessing bizarre metaphysical superpowers she gained as the result of swallowing a magic bee, but yeah, she feels like me.

So, after a long period of tweaking I had a character I was happy with, as close to my ideal look as I was able to get with the creation options available during beta. Good enough that if I actually enjoyed myself with this game I'd be comfortable looking at her for hours on end.

Watching the opening sequence for my Illuminati character, I saw my suspicions confirmed. The graphics were great, the voice acting was excellent. There was a real story here, one that would apparently unfold as I got deeper into the game. It wasn't long before I was fully hooked.

I preordered and got some nice perks as a result, but they didn't do very much once I progressed out of the earliest parts of the game. I got a three-month subscription at launch but I also knew that I probably wasn't going to be able to afford to renew it, at least not right away.

And so I played for several weeks, making my way through Kingsmouth, The Savage Coast, Egypt, and Transylvania. When time on my subscription started getting short, though, I started looking for another game to replace this one and started getting involved again with Aion, which had gone free-to-play earlier in the year. I'd left Aion for TSW and now I did the reverse, a few weeks before my subscription actually ran out and I'd have no choice but to stop playing anyway.

And then, a month later, Hanukkah came.

One of the things I got this year was a 2 terabyte hard drive to replace the old 250 gig drive that took a crap on me earlier this year. Moments after I hooked up this new drive I got a promotional email informing me that The Secret World no longer requires a subscription to play. subscription, huh? Sounds like perhaps a fresh Secret World install is the perfect way to christen my new drive.

I hop over to the official TSW website and log into my account to see that yes, it's all still there, all my perks, my character, my name reservation, everything. Well, ok then. I start the download and go do other things for a while.

A few hours later, I log into The Secret World for the first time in about six or seven weeks and find myself exactly where I was, stuck at a spot in one of the Carpathian Fangs missions that was particularly tough, if not impossible, to defeat as a solo player at my level. Knowing that there was a significant amount of new content that had been released during my absence, I decided to check out some of that and in the process build up my powers and skills some more before coming back to this mission. Once again, I'd started playing The Secret World and once again I was hooked. Now that I know there's no subscription to worry about covering to prevent my losing access I'm much more comfortable getting fully involved with the game.

Now here's the kicker: I had such a good time playing The Secret World when I returned to the game that I invested some of my holiday cash in a 6-month subscription. The truth is that the perks are nice but I could get by without those. I'm really doing it because I want to support this game and its continued existence.

When I was a lot younger, I was a punk rocker. I didn't play but I went to the shows just about every weekend in New York City in the late 70's and early 80's. One of the ways you showed support for your favorite bands in those days was by buying the band's music at their shows so that all the money went directly to the band, without chunks taken out by the distributors and the record stores. Having come from that experience, I feel strongly that people should actively support what they like and vote with their wallets and purses.

When I returned to The Secret World, the first thing I realized was how much I'd missed it. One of the most curious effects of ADD is it enables me to make a pretty clean break with one interest and move on to another rather quickly. Once I've got it worked out in my head that there's an end, a finale to something, like a subscription I know I'm not going to be able to renew, my mind is immediately moving on to what might be fun and interesting to fill all those soon-to-be-empty gaming hours. If I get involved with something else during that time, as I did when I decided to re-download Aion, my attentions then immediately swivel to fully focus in that direction.

Here's the thing about The Secret World: It's a great game. Period. Full stop. If you're the right kind of MMO player, it'll keep you engaged and entertained for more hours that you can probably imagine right now. But here's another thing about The Secret World: It's the world you know, with a lot of influence drawn from the classic stories, myths, and legends we've all heard before. It's not taking place on two halves of a shattered planet in some far-off part of the universe or in some mythical medieval fantasy kingdom, the action is taking place right at home, on modern day Earth. If you're of a mind to, you can put yourself into this game like almost no other.

For me, though, another part of the fun is watching TSW develop and evolve over time. I'm glad they've dropped the subscription because now I know I'll be there to watch it happen. The new model gives me the flexibility to pay for premium perks when I can afford to and to continue playing without them when I can't. That allows me to get more deeply involved with TSW than I normally would with any game I'm not certain of my ongoing interest level in.

As a general rule (which I broke in the case of TSW because the concept of the game interested me enough to do so), I don't get involved with subscription MMOs anymore. I played Eve-Online for a few years and that was fun, but the reality was that when the US economy and jobs started tanking so did my prospects of staying gainfully employed. As tough as it is for the average American to find a job these days, when you're a transsexual woman you can generally multiply that by ten.

While at 50 I'm probably older than the median age for MMO gamers and probably for gamers in general,  I'm also a transsexual woman and so despite my age and experience it's as tough for me to find work as someone half my age...hell, my eighteen-year-old little sister has a job right now but I don't.

Not having a job means having a lot of free time. I tend to spend a good portion of that time gaming. If I let myself get deeply involved with a certain game, I'll find myself playing it for hours a day until I finally reach a point where either by intention or circumstance I don't log in for a couple of days or even longer.

I do this a lot. Right now I have no less than 17 different games installed on my computer so it's not like I'm ever at a loss for an alternative. Some like The Secret World and Aion I play often, others like most of the several betas I'm in it's a now and then affair, while still others like The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man I almost never play anymore.

In terms of my interest level in The Secret World, all of this proved to be some sort of perfect storm that drove me unerringly back into the game the moment it become possible for me to do so.When I manage to maintain an interest level in anything, a game or anything else for that matter, for as long as I have with The Secret World, when I'm forced to leave the game essentially for financial reasons and then return with the same interest level I had when I left, I know it's a keeper.

The funny part is thinking it over now I don't think I'd probably have returned to The Secret World without the incentive of no subscription, even though I ended up buying a 6-month membership anyway. TSW going buy-to-play got my attention, got me to log in and fall in love with the game all over again, and in doing so Funcom brought a lapsed customer back into the fold.

Alright, I think that's enough for now. Maybe in my next post (which will not involve another 11-month wait) I'll talk about The Secret know, the actual game.