The Orrery, too pretty to blame

I wanted to comment Oblivion’s downloadable add-ons since when Raph give it some weight. This week even Lum added his opinion and I was going to back up those points.

I really don’t mind paying for content, especially for games I really like and wish would never end. Before Oblivion was out I was already anticipating these mini-addon they announced but I still didn’t know how superficial was the concept. I like the idea of “ongoing development” even applied to single player games, with mini-packs of content added regularly and aimed to continuously enhance the game.

I was waiting for new dungeons, factions to join, plots to discover, new scripted events, new zones to open up, new herbs to collect, new magic effects, weapons, armors, monsters. Extension to the game, content that could be worth a price.

Instead Bethesda’s idea of add-ons seems just taking the worst out of mmorpgs. Loot-driven instead of content-driven. As I often wrote this *genre* should be more than just “loot whoring”. When you offer something and ask for money, you should offer some kind of value. A “communicative pact”. In this case the message that Bethesda is sending is definitely wrong.

These mini-packs were an extremely interesting possibility that was ruined by an absurd mentality that, as Lum wrote, could be negative for the whole industry.

This is what I wrote on Q23 (in response to one of the devs):

ashileedo: Not to belabor the point, but I’ll say again — the Orrery itself took an artist a month to create – something we never did for Morrowind.

It’s not a problem of appearance, it’s a problem of substance.

You are basically selling loot, taking the worst from the RMT and mmorpgs. Instead we expect “content”. Something that has something to say. Some gameplay.

Role playing games. Not loot whores. The Orrery could be pretty, but it needs a role.

You have a team. The content you release should be the work of a mini-team as a mini exp pack. This means that in this team of devs you should have at least one member for each core duty, like a world builder, an artist, a scripter and so on.

Instead you are fragmenting too much. Leave that to the mod community. And instead take advantage from the fact that YOU CAN HAVE A TEAM.

And that’s the difference. Content-less plugins tweaking a couple of elements in the game are a type of content that the community can easily do. It’s that kind of superficial approach that everyone tries while poking things around with the toolset. You tweak here and there those few elements so that they fit better your taste.

From Bethesda I expect more than that. I expect at least small teams working together to add something to the game. I expect that kind of collaborative work that isn’t easy to find in the mod community where the great majority of the stuff is one-man work focusing in his area of expertise. I expect from Bethesda that special added value that is about working as a team, have different developers that are specialized in different areas and that can work on a project in its multiple aspects. Not just a new texture, a new model, a new bandit camp, a new script or a new monster. But all these “segments” of content brought together so that they build up a piece of the game with some cosistence. Complete in all its parts.

The Orrery is extremely deluding if you consider the gameplay. It drops a note directly in your backpack, enabling a waypoint where you have to go kill a bandit. This bandit will have a letter that will then mark four other locations where you have to kill more bandits and retrieve four dwemer mechanical parts (btw, it’s damn hard to find corpses rolling down hills and hiding in the grass). When you have these you go back to the mage guild and hand the parts to an NPC that will go work to repair the Orrery. You return one day later and finally the Orrery is open. It consists in a room and a button that you can press to get a daily power, the button will then give you different powers depending on the moon phases.

The gameplay sucks. It’s another random excuse and a button you press to get a special power adding nothing to the game. But I have to say that the Orrery itself is a true MASTERPIECE. And masterpieces have no price.

The value of this plug-in is truly unique. It is just a “room” but the work that the artist has put on it is something unparalleled. This is pure art. One wonderful steampunk machinery, completely animated that made my jaw drop. The detail in every little texture is impressive. This goes beyond a “game value”. It is pure visual awe toward a fancy artifact that leaves you speechless. And in this it captures perfectly the spirit of this object in the game.

This dwemer machine is a planetarium. It serves no game-y purpose and it is absolutely optional for the game. But it is optional even in the fictional Oblivion world as it would be in the reality. It won’t help the population to fight monsters or resist the invasion from the outer plane. It is like a museum. A museum that transfers its visual value from the game to the reality. Because this machine is impressive to see as you would go watch it in a museum if it was real. It’s like a blur between two realities and, in this, it becomes a true masterful work. There’s just no gap anymore in the suspension of disbelief.

It is definitely something new and unique. I’ve never seen something like this. Basically the artist has brought to life a dwemer artifact as if it was real. A veil rift. It is obvious that this work is an absolute exception. It just cannot be reviewed as a “game” product, since it is not. It is not a piece of loot with a price tag added. This is pure art form and a dedication from an artist that can be directly felt.

And in this it has no price.

(two critics:
– the animation of the walls is unbelievable the first time you activate it, sadly once active you cannot switch it off anymore. I wish there was a switch so that you could trigger the whole process at will
– I also wish the quests were more naturally blended into the game instead of just POP-UP screen messages the first time you reload)

There was an Orrery even in Morrowind.

(screens here)






























































































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The website is having issues

I don’t know why but it’s not because of me.

In the last couple of days there are moments when the website doesn’t respond. E-mail, ftp and shell oddly work. Only the webserver seems to take vacations.

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Why Auto Assault will fail

Auto Assault should have launched recently and noone cares.

At least I don’t. I played Jumpgate for six months after launch. There was ZERO support. Nothing if not superficial massive “events” that were all about massive grinds (think to Ahn Quiraj). It was pretty obvious that NetDevil shipped the game and then forget about it.

When you do this, you deserve to go back into irrelevancy and stay there.

But of course people are stupid and the worst companies always get more founding. So now we have “Auto Assault”. It seems they worked on this for more than four years. With a team of 50. While Jumpgate was going on with a team of one.

Here’s the reason why this game and this company will never go anywhere:

NetDevil’s only other game was another massively multiplayer game called Jumpgate. NetDevil still maintains the game, which was launched in 2001, even though only about 1,000 people still play it.

And Brown said he plans to expand the company beyond its two current games.

NetDevil is going to start another team and multiple games,” he said, adding that the company might also look at creating more traditional, non-MMO titles.

You cannot support ONE game and you already plan for multiple projects. What a fucking CLUELESS management.

For now, Brown and his crew will watch the gamers roll into Auto Assault and hope they stick around long enough to see what else they’ve been working on.

I hope they don’t.

This whole industry needs surgery to remove inflated egos.

There’s a thread on Q23 if you want to read more specifically about EverQuest on wheels.

In Interstate 76, you had to deal with the physics of your car, and what armor was on what quadrant. You had to use your front rear and side weapons very intelligently. If your left armor was gone, you had to constantly manuever to keep that side out of the line of fire.

In Autoduel, it was even more strategic. You had to do many of the things mentioned above, as well as deal with subsystems of the car going out. Like tires, engines, weapons getting destroyed after the armor was gone (Granted, Auto Assault has this as well, but with one health bar car placement strategy means nothing. Once your health bar is gone you have no control over protecting your precious interior).

In Auto Assault, you have one health bar. Your main weapon is on a turret, so it doesn’t matter where the enemy is. You can always shoot it. Also, how you manuever your car and it’s position relative to the enemy means very little. There are front and rear mounted weapons, so you have to keep the enemy in this front arc that is drawn in front of your car to use the front mounted weapons.

The problem lies in the fact that skill plays almost no role. For the turret, if an enemy is in range, every shot may or may not hit them dependent on a die roll. Same with the front weapons. You basically just drive around in circles keeping the enemy in the front arc and hope that the die roll rolls a hit. It’s a piss poor merging of standard MMO combat mixed in with a pseudo-skill based system.

The reason this exists is to give you weapons firings stats that slowly increase over time, to keep you playing. Unfortunately, it makes the combat so ridiculously dull because it doesn’t reward skill. The only reward is eventually getting your weapons skills high enough to auto-hit enemies.

If it was for me I’d have put all the weapons on fixed positions so that you have to steer the car. More like an x-wing simulator done with cars, which should be easily doable even in a mmorpg since the car movement is easily predictable for the netcode.

Then it would be all about ramming other cars with blades or tailchasing them with a machine gun. It seems Auto Assault fails already on these extremely basic expectations.

Oh, and if I would make a game about “cars” it is quite obvious that it would all pivot on “modding” them. That’s what the car geeks expect. No “ding, level up” shit.

At last we feet, mace to mace, you halfwit human!

I just got this morning Dragon Quest 8 on the PSX2 which is finally out in europe. I got the english version from because I hate the translations here (and my brother’s PSX2 isn’t modded) but I noticed the european version has already all the different languages bundled in.

I simply LOVE this game. At first the graphic was a turn off (too ‘clean’), then I started to slowly grow fond of it and now I’m in love with just EVERYTHING. The characters, the monsters, the environments, the battles, the animations, the musics. This is a true masterpiece. Pure old-school RPG BLISS! One rare example where the new technological tidbits don’t get in the way of the long tradition of the series.

The night/day cycles are impressive, I find myself always instinctively thinking about grabbing a screenshot of the places and the character (I even tried for a few minutes to try to get a panty shot at the bunny girl in the pub with no luck, hm…). This is also the first game where you hoard healing herbs that you’ll HAVE TO use. Before reaching the first big mob at the end of the waterfall cave I died two times, maybe this is a game where the fights aren’t so trivial.

It is filled with cutesy stuff. At the beginning I couldn’t conceive to attack mobs so absolutely cute. My god, this game has the best mobs EVER. It’s something that must be seen. The whole things is a design masterpiece. It’s all extremely exemplified to the essential but with a polish and care that are incomparable. The modernity isn’t represented by bloated features and appearance but is instead more polish and detail. It’s hard to nail down exactly but often game design (here I consider game design the whole thing, mechanics, story, characters, look atc…) becomes just more, more and more. Here instead it’s all about an handful of elements, but all “right”. It’s enlightening. A gaming epiphany.

I so love the optimistic, lighthearted mood and the story remains archetypical but still involving and with fun and humorous twists thanks to the characters and that special feel that only Enix games have. A game with no age.

I just played for a few hours. A RPG classic. They are so rare nowadays.

If I had to review it, it would score a “perfect”.

You can tell that crystal ball’s a real’ un. Glows better, like. Bet we’ll get a good fortune outta this one, eh?

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Time to backfire on CCP?

My mmorpg commentary is like biorhythms. Up and down with no apparent reasons. But there ARE reasons. I’ve praised CCP and Eve-Online for a long time. It looks like things could start to change.

To begin with, the biggest delusion I could hear from them: What is your position with CCP?

Kjartan Pierre Emilsson: I have been Lead Game Designer of EVE Online these last 5 years, overseeing general design of the game, but in the near future I am gearing up for upcoming projects within CCP, so I will pass that flag along to be able to concentrate on those. Upcoming projects?

Kjartan Pierre Emilsson: No comment.

Now don’t just go start the alarms. It seems that “LeKjart” is still with Eve, but moving out to follow and lead the launch of the game in China, where CCP has huge expectations (and even the fancy plan to bring the two worlds together):

(see still the dev blog feed)
Following the alpha, Serenity will go into closed beta running on the brand new hardware that Optic has invested in to run the game. If that goes smoothly, it will go into open beta just before the launch itself, scheduled for some time this summer.

All of this has obviously tied up some resources within CCP, but we have also nearly doubled our staff over this last year. This parallel development will actually be beneficial for all EVE players. The code base between Serenity and Tranquility will be strictly in synch, so that any new development will be distributed to everyone. The main new addition that we had to do for the China cluster is converting the whole of EVE to Unicode, as well as putting in place a whole new back-end system to enable localization of each and every aspect of the game’s content and UI. This means that TQ players can expect to be able to choose their native language like German, French or Russian for the UI in the near future. This will only help TQ grow more and more, and make it culturally more diverse.

I will personally move to Shanghai for a while, to monitor the launch and the first critical months of Serenity, passing the torch of Lead Game Designer for EVE to TomB, who I am sure will wield it masterfully. Shanghai is a trend-setting city that leaves no one unmoved, and it’s futuristic Blade Runner-like atmosphere can only be inspirational for things to come in EVE. I certainly intend to soak in as much of its culture and atmosphere. In my opinion, this whole Chinese endeavor will influence CCP and EVE in multiple positive ways for everyone during the coming years.

This should reassure me that CCP isn’t following the stupidity of every other mmorpg companies working on sequels or clones, but they should still focusing and reinvesting exclusively on Eve. I hope this is true because mmorpgs life cycles aren’t about the “age” of a product, they are exclusively about the full support of their companies. A mmorpg always dies when devs move to new projects. Always.

Anyway. TomB is now the lead designer and I see this as a bad sign (putting my hands forward). I disliked him since early beta and my opinion never really changed. I’m not passing out judgements already, but I’m not really confident in what he can do. I’ll gladly change my opinion, though.

As you might have read in last week’s blog that Kjartan posted, we have had some changes in the design department of CCP. Since last year, my presence on the Ship & Module forum has diminished because of increased responsibility. Kjartan is now moving to our Shanghai based office for the EVE release in China and I have been promoted to EVE Lead Designer. Before, I have been known as the evil bas%#@d that ruins everything you love, but that’s not all there is to me. As a result, I thought it time to share some of the road that brought me to where I am now.

(full story + ‘badass’ claims still in the dev blog feed)

For me he’s always been the symbol of the hardcore mentality in Eve. Him taking the lead of the game could easily become the first nail in the coffin of a highly promising game that was just now starting to flourish.

Of course these are all early claims with no substance. Yet. But mmorpgs are long term projects and the shit that happens *today* is crucial for tomorrow. When everyone will have already forgot what happened and what brought the change of pace.

What you see as just mmorpg “gossip” is what really moves things in the background and determines if projects fail or succeed.

We’ll see.

I’ll just throw this idea in there: the worst game designers seem always to come from QA, have you noticed?

SirBruce is still alive

And he has somewhat updated his charts even if he still displays old data or really bad guesses that aren’t really that useful to interpret the situation.

Let’s see if I can review the “scores” better:

World of Warcraft is given at 4.5 millions when we know that it should be above six. At least till The9 doesn’t blow up in China.

Lineage I & II have obsolete or wrong data, I have the most recent numbers in my last report.

City of Heroes/Villain is also at 190k instead of the old 150k on the chart.

Final Fantasy XI doesn’t release numbers since early 05 (I’m waiting for the new census, hopefully/probably after ToA’s launch) but the game seems holding well in Japan, while not so well in the USA. My guess is that it has probably lost 100-150k and it should be currently at roughly 500k.
EDIT: we got a recent press-release with the launch of the game on the Xbox360:
“more than 500,000 players, and 1.7 million characters”

SOE’s numbers aren’t anymore reliable in any way after the mess they did with the Station pass. EQ Classic at 400k (still) is a myth that noone even remotely believes but SirBruce. EQ2‘s subscribers, even if maybe rising slightly in the last months, should be still less than 250k (but at least more stable than any other SOE’s title) and SWG is probably closer to 100k than it is to 200k.

Dark Age of Camelot doesn’t have updated numbers and I doubt Mythic will release something. But it should be surfing the 150k wave. With a not-so-encouraging trend, though.

Eve-Online is given below 80k. Old data. The last number I saw was roughly two weeks ago and it was 114k. It is possible they are losing some, but they should be able to retain the 100k at least till the next significant update (and a lot will depend on it).

What’s left? Other mmorpgs are bread crumbs or odd models that it is not useful to compare. Not relevant to my eyes and to the number game.

FFXI: “Treasures of Aht Urhgan” patched in

The version update arrived along with the patch notes but the stuff specific to the expansion pack won’t be enabled for another couple of days (when the exp will hit the shops).

I’ve already loosely commented what is coming to the game and for the occasion I’ve reactivated my subscription (and my character was still there after these six months). As already noted not all the features are enabled right away (like the chocobo breeding and circuit) but will be added with the next updates as Enix always did with every expansion (the storyline progresses along the months with new missions, till the cycle is complete and the new exp pack arrives).

The patch notes have some interesting tidbits like NPCs taken as prisoners during the mobs raids and that you have to rescue if you want to have their services back (“Besieged” is the new gameplay mode that creates a conquest system between the characters and beastmen. If the beasmen become too strong they leave their zone and go to charge directly the city, and the players have the duty, all together, to defend it):

(from “Besieged” detailed description)
After Besieged is over, some NPCs in Al Zahbi are taken to the enemy base as prisoners. These NPCs are chosen randomly, and will disappear from town when they are captured. Depending on the NPCs captured, you may lose the ability to purchase goods at certain shops or use the auction house. You can free a captive by acquiring and using the key to their prison.

Plus some sort of communal “party room” that you can rent for obscure purposes:

A new feature called the “Kokba Hostel” has been added. You can reserve the facility for a certain amount of time to use for private functions. Players are provided with a variety of temporary party items and food upon entering the hostel. Attendants and a special hostel chat channel also come with the reservation.

Beside these there are also three fancy diagrams explaning changes to some sort of aggro code. Since I’ve digged the details I think I can somewhat explain what the fuss is about:

FFXI seems to have issues with claiming mobs. If you are fighting a mob noone around you can attack it if he is not in your party or if you don’t break the encounter and call for help. At the same time FFXI is fond of EverQuest and I think you can train the mobs and drag them around to grief noobs. If I remember correctly there was a patch around december to address this problem and this last change was made to address an exploit.

Before this change you could aggro a mob without claiming it (so without locking the encounter), for example with AOE spells. Another party could then claim that mob, locking it, but without aggroing it directly. This would lead to a situation where the guy who initially aggroed the mob couldn’t attack it anymore because the other party claimed/locked it but still without getting the aggro. So this guy would finish in a situation where he has a mob pounding on him without any possibility to defend himself since the encounter is locked to the other group.

With the new change this situation cannot happen anymore and the other party can lock/claim the encounter only if it does enough damage to also get aggroed. Basically: before you could lock an encounter without aggroing, now you the “aggro” and “claim/lock” happen together and cannot be separated.

Note for ALL game companies: you should always *explain* the design thoughts and reasons behind the changes, not just objectively *describe* the change.

By looking at the auto-translate new places names and the new region map already in the game for the expansion (which is separated from the standard one) I’m guessing the number of new zones added between 20 and 30 (and not “forty” as some previews claim), which is still rather good if you consider all the efforts in the storylines, cutscenes, (fantastic) soundtracks and brand new gameplay modes. When it comes to “content” and artistic dedication noone is on par with Squaresoft.

To reach the new region you have to take a boat. But to take this boat you need to finish some sort of quest:

A new ship route has been added from Mhaura to Al Zahbi. You must fulfill certain requirements before you can board the ship to Al Zahbi.

Along the same line the three new classes aren’t available right away, but they need to be unblocked through quests. Still no clue at which level they are doable and whether they are complicated or not:

The advanced jobs “blue mage,” “corsair,” and “puppetmaster” are now available. You must clear certain quests in order to acquire the new jobs.

As I can find more details about it, I’ll make a post. The total number of classes in the game is now 18.

On the footsteps of “we are all noobs” declarations I have to confess that I’ve been subscribed for a long time to FFXI. Now try to guess at which level is my character… Well… Level 10. I’m so utterly, hopelessly pathetic.

Now let me say this. I have a new goal in life. Before I’ll unsubscribe again my character must reach at least level 15. UBER I SAY! I have to try hard!

And I want one these sooooo much! I really want to see how they are animated in the game:

The windower is still broken.

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LFG systems

In the past I wrote that you can guess the quality of the design in a mmorpg from its LFG system and I still believe there is some truth in that claim. I always considered these tools as the real core of these games and I think they should be the starting point from where you design a new game. Not a feature that you consider later on, but the very first one around which the rest of the game is built.

One of the worst examples I remember is SWG and maybe it’s not a case. SWG had a very powerful searching tool so it wasn’t a feature missing, but it was absolutely useless. There was a complicated “match making” service with different parameters that you could set, you could even search for a specific blood type. But nothing that was functional to the game. Nothing that had a concrete use beside being a bloated feature designed out of context that became completely irrelevant and superfluous, leaving the game with a vacancy in the design. That system did everything *but* what was needed.

It was worst than WoW’s meeting stones, that at least had a nice implementation.

LFG systems have always been extremely important because they aren’t just UI features, but they are strictly connected with the fabric of the game, how you encourage grouping and community-building, how you plan the zones and the meeting places, how you segment the playerbase while not fragmenting it too much, how you draw in the new players and so on. Basically the LFG is a small, apparently secondary system that consequently leads everywhere and reaches the whole game. It’s like the tail of a ball of yarn. Pulling it you can easily undo the whole game. And, as it usually happens, the most important element is also systematically underestimated.

I mentioned the meeting stones in WoW, but it is wrong to consider the game as a bad example of a LFG system. The truth is that WoW has already a rather good implementation and overall design. The zones are planned to segment the playerbase into smaller “cozy worlds” (see my cue) and each of these zones has a public chat channel where all the players can easily socialize and organize something. The quest givers are always gathered in a friendly outpost that works as a mini-hub in the zone and from there you move out to different camp spots and POIs distributed around the zone. You can meet other players in the town/village, along the road or in one of those “camps” where other players and groups are already progressing in their quests. WoW, to this day, is the most social mmorpg out there.

Back when WoW was in beta I started to claim how WoW was the game where I grouped the most, with no effort and as the most natural thing. Other supposed “social-oriented” mmorpgs like UO or SWG were instead strongly problematic for me and I always had a very hard time to get involved. In SWG i NEVER grouped with anyone who wasn’t my friend out of the game, same in UO. And not because of a personal choice. To me this means just one thing, and it’s something I’ve repeated endlessly on this website: accessibility barriers.

WoW is considered as a game where you can easily solo. It is the most solo-friendly mmorpg I know. Before its release it was widely common to consider a solo-friendly mmorpg as one that wouldn’t last long. A proof of bad design. “Solo-friendly” meant that it would lack the community-building and without downtimes and mandatory grouping a game would have an awful subscription retention, so it was doomed to fail miserably. Today the “solo-friendly” is becoming one of the most important feature in a game. As you can see, things change. Paradigms shift.

Today we don’t say anymore that “socialization requires downtime”. Today we believe that the socialization is natural and you just need to design the game so that it can happen naturally. So that the game doesn’t get in the way, putting impassable barriers between the players. We learnt that the socialization isn’t something you enforce. The socialization is something you support.

Beside the zone-wide channels, WoW has also the capital cities and the linked LFG chat channels. In this case the functional role of these channels isn’t anymore about the “casual questing”, but it is more connected to the end-game, where you begin building a good group and, in a second moment, move out to a specific zone to enter a dungeon.

Generally speaking an LFG system and its efficiency depend on two qualities: reach and detail (personalization).

Taking again the case of WoW the linked LFG channels offer both. The “reach” is rather good since the capital cities are popular hubs where you can go when you want to join a group or when you are looking for people to get something done. Who isn’t in the capital cities is probably already busy with something. Sooner or later everyone passes there, if two players share the same objective, the capital city is the place where they can easily meet. The “detail/personalization” is also good. You aren’t limited to a codified UI (but the players have built their own code through keywords such as LFG or LF2M) and you can personalize your message as you like. You can add more detail as needed and manipulate the system the way you like.

This just to explain that the common claim “WoW doesn’t even have a real lfg system” holds no value: it doesn’t need one because the feature is satisfied through other, better means. The design has gone past the superficial level.

Where WoW lack is in a more active system. The LFG channels allow you to communicate only with who is already searching and reading on the fly, but you cannot hunt directly the players and ask them in an “active” way. The search system could be improved, it is already powerful enough, but it could use a better UI that could allow you to interact without going through a command line. The players have also complained about the lack of a searchable “LFG” flag (that was removed in beta for no apparent reason).

One of the most important features of a LFG system that is frequently overlooked is the possibility to search for groups already existing that still aren’t full and could use more players. This is what made DAoC one of the games with the best (and most used, till they broke the game with the instances) LFG system. In fact the very first game where I started to play with english players instead of other italian friends. It’s not rare that the players don’t really want to start new groups from scratch, but would still gladly join a group already working. It is essential for a LFG system to let the players not only flag themselves for a group, but also search for groups already active that still have spots available. This is the best way to encourage grouping. In other games when someone leaves the party usually crumbles to pieces, in DAoC, instead, it was common for a group to survive a constant churn and even build its own “queue” with other players waiting for a spot to open up in a successful group.

In this case EQ2 shares the same stupidity of SWG in the LFG system. It lets you flag yourself and search for other LFG players, but it doesn’t give you the possibility to search for other groups in the zone and let you ask if they have a spot for you. This is a *crucial* feature missing. Again back in beta WoW not only let you flag LFG, but the search system also included a flag, letting you know if the player was currently grouped or not.

It is fundamental for a LFG system to let you search specifically for groups already formed and active (both full or LFM).

That said, one of the games with the best search features that is never taken into consideration is FFXI. At the beginning its search system seems quite complicated, but after you understand how it works it becomes one of the most powerful and detailed I’ve seen. The western players don’t seem to use its functions, while the system appears much more popular among the japanese players.

This image shows the search menus and the window with the results. It needs some time to get used to since it follows the same mindset of the rest of the UI of the game and that many players tend to criticize. Instead of presenting an unified UI panel where you can specify the details and then launch your search, this is all nestled into multiple menus. Basically you launch the first general search and then can start to apply different “filters” one by one, narrowing down the results till you are satisfied. The customization available is what you can see from the menu. You can search for:
Area – Name – Job – Country (your character affiliated nation) – Race – Level – Rank (related to your nation and linked to a mission system) – Friend (players on your friend list) – Linkshell (players in your “guild chat”) – Ballista (players involved or waiting in FFXI PvP battleground) and Comment (more on this later)

The window with the results is extremely well designed and offers a lot of informations. From left to the right:
An icon indicating various “states”, in this image there’s just one that indicates that the players is “anon”. As you can see this flag doesn’t remove the players from the search functions but it just hides the relevant details, an implementation of the feature that other games should take as an example. This icon can also show if the players is flagged LFG and other things that I don’t know exactly. Then you have the class and subclass with the corresponding level, the race, another icon representing the affiliated nation with the number representing the rank the players has achieved in that nation, the name of the character with a colored dot on the left (I’ll explain the dot later, instead I don’t know what the color of the name stands for), “J” – “E” or “JE” (not shown in the image and indicating the language, english, japanese or both) and finally the zone where the character currently is.

The “Area” option in the search menu opens a submenu that I added in the image. You can search for the current zone, region or the whole server, then, at the bottom, you have the nearby regions listed (the number indicates the zones in that region) and by selecting them you can go to choose a specific zone within. The rest of the fields are rather self-explanatory, while the most interesting one is the “comment”. Even this one leads you to another sub-menu, which is the one I’ve added in the image. As you can see to each option corresponds a “colored dot” that is the same that you find next to the players names, if a name has a dot it means that the players has a custom comment associated with that “topic” and by selecting that name you’ll be able to read the full comment in your chat window.

These comments add the “customization” to the “reach” but also complete the feature by organizing the informations appropriately:

When you select/flag for a comment like “mission” or “quest” you don’t get just the standard list plus the comments, but this list also gets organized in different tabs (seek party/find members) so that you can see if the “LFG” player is alone or already grouped, fulfilling that important requirement that I pointed out above.

As you can see this is one of the most powerful and well designed search systems, unfortunately FFXI has other accessibility issues in other parts of the game that I’m not going to comment here.

My conclusion is that it is important to design carefully both parts. One is the overall structure of the game, where you try to segment the players and let them naturally come to play together, without imposing them the “socialization” as a requirement (and possibly loosening up the barriers like levels, classes, group composition, zone/server travel and so on). The other is offering powerful search functions with a wide reach and customization (and usability) that can help the players to search specifically for what they need and actively “disturbing” other players to propose them to do something together

Now I’ve already wrote a lot but there are other important topics I’ve still left out. One is the importance of “sharing objectives” so that the players can naturally help each other, socialize and feel part of something without suffering impositions that ultimately work as a “selection” of the players (those who have the support of their friends “can”, while the casual players are excluded with little hope of being helped. Aka: the barrier is impermeable or too hard to pass). The other is an idea that has been my pet peeve from a long time and that Loral somewhat evocated recently on Mobhunter (with which I sympathize, but that won’t possibly happen):

A cross-server grouping feature would help Everquest capitalize on the vast number of players across all servers. Players could go to a set location in Norrath, such as a new tavern in the rebuilt Plane of Knowledge, and find players seeking groups on other servers. Groups would be transported to a mission, monster mission, or even a small 18 to 24 person raid instance. By disabling player to player trading, economies would remain unaffected. Players would go from a few dozen LFG players to a few hundred.

Server travel so that the “pool” of players could be dynamically adapted between peak times and off peaks and the expansions and contractions of the overall playerbase. Without suffering a chain reaction (this is more significant than how it appears).

We are getting there. Albeit slowly.

Brian Koontz

From a discussion on Q23 about the “rubberbanding AI” in Oblivion (aka levelled lists of mobs):

Gordon Cameroon:
How cool would it be if you stride into a dungeon and all the rats flee from your path like a sinking ship?

Here’s the thing though: the game is built around hack ‘n slash. Fleeing, while a realistic and impressive action for intelligent mobs to take in the presence of a hostile enemy, goes against the policy of making it easy for the player to kill shit. So now its “make it easy for the player to chase after shit?”

And since the mobs respawn (or get replaced by better monsters through no action of their own), should it even matter to the mob if he’s killed? Regardless of what happens to Mud Crab #324, Mud Crab #325 will be there again soon enough. They must be ecstatic you came along to allow them the one pleasure in their life: attempted killing. I mean, a 30 foot perpetual walking patrol only brings so much delight. For most mobs, you’re the only thing they’ll ever fight, and besides walking, standing, and making a simple sound, trying to kill you is the only thing they’ll ever DO in the game. I guess fleeing from you with the possibility of trying to kill you later is a step up, though. But attacking you *nearly guarantees* either the glory of causing you to reload or the unique event (relatively speaking) of their own death… fleeing is not as impressive and if they flee from you they may never see you again.

Mud Crab #646 at Location #49043: “Wow, of all places in the world he could be the hero is here, right HERE! My one shot at glory! Haha… maybe he’ll be AFK!… SKEEEET! (Mud Crab battle cry)

*Plunk* (ok, maybe not AFK).

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