I played The Chronicles of Spellborn for the first at the weekend and was left disappointed, as I frequently find myself to be these days when it comes to MMOs. TCoS is a game that has been on my radar since way back in early 2007, and I’ve been quietly following its progress ever since. I was initially excited by its potential for character customisation and its innovative take on the MMO skill bar combined with FPS-twitch-like combat, based as it is on the Unreal game engine. I was, therefore, interested to see how these concepts had been realised in the game, and so I downloaded the open beta client this past weekend and had a look around.

I had visions from the promotional videos which I’d seen that character customisation was aiming for City of Heroes levels of flexibility, and while admittedly it’s easy, with a little imagination, to create a unique looking character, this effect is really produced through the smoke and mirrors of combinatorics. Essentially there are only a few art assets that one can pick from, in two outfit layers: one clothing and one armour; the fact that one can specify individually each body location’s clothing and armour type (or indeed none at all), means that there are statistically a large number of overall outfits that can be created. Fundamentally though, there are a pool of five or six sets of matching armour available, and the same of clothing, and one can mix and match from each set to create a unique look. It’s certainly a more flexible system than the vast majority of MMOs offer, but City of Heroes set the standard for character customisation, and if you’re going to have it as one of your selling points you really should be aiming to at the least get close to that. It’s certainly not a subscription breaking issue, and there may in fact be more customisation options available as unlocks as you progress through the game, but it’s something that fell short of my expectation based upon their gaming hype. I have no problem if they’ve taken out ninety percent of the outfits and decided to sell them via micro-transactions, but they should be far more explicit that this is the case.

Am I at fault for setting my expectations against the output of their hype machine? I used to think that maybe I was; I’m under no illusion that the promotion of these games is almost entirely undiluted finger-waggling horseshitery, as an MMO developer tries to build a critical mass of community around its forthcoming product. I should take it all with a pinch of salt, but lately I’ve come to realise that the amount of money these companies spend on marketing could be spent on improving their game such that it’s not an embarrassing bug ridden piece of half-realised promises and pie-in-the-sky design ideals. I find that it’s much better, for me, if I take the marketing of these companies at face value, and if they don’t live up to the tenet of what they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of $monetaryunit preaching to the masses, then it’s a fairly safe bet that there won’t be any substance to the game in the long run either.

Disappointment set in fairly early on in my experience when the starter area mobs started bugging-out and returning to their spawn point with full health half way through a fight… Oh yes, the game is in open beta, and the second mob I attacked in the starter area got bored with my circle-strafing around it in the manner that one is positively encouraged to do by the twitch-like nature of the combat system, and decided to wander off and reset its health bar. But not its aggro. So once it had regained full health, it came charging back at me again. And then it did it again. Either its a really really ‘why the hell didn’t you catch this in closed beta or QA testing?’ bug, or TCoS has boars with self-healing properties that would make Wolverine cry ‘nerf!’. For the record it wasn’t actually a boar, it was a unique creature of the Spellborn universe, I think it was technically called a Notaboar Honestguv. Another joyful ‘feature’ which I discovered is that the combat system has range detection, such that if you’re not standing close enough to the mob you won’t hit it. Fair enough, same with any MMO, except with most standard MMOs your abilities won’t fire if you’re out of range, in fact they’ll tell you as much, whereas in TCoS you can happily swing away and be hitting nothing but air. Again, this isn’t a problem, I’ve already established the twitch combat heritage that TCoS has touted from the outset. What seems strange is that I can be swinging away like a mad thing at the Notaboars, after a short time notice that its health bar is not reducing, think ‘Ooops, I’m too far away’, and move in closer. However, all this time, my character’s health bar has been reducing. So apparently these self-healing Notaboars also have snouts with a melee reach greater than my character’s arm with a three foot sword attached to the end of it. Strangely formed creatures of the Spellborn universe or nonsensical bug? You decide!

Of course it’s just as I’m wondering whether it was these seemingly all powerful starter-area Notaboars that were the ancient formidable force that tore the world of Spellborn asunder and shattered it into the many shards of rock that now float around in the deadness of space, that I see a Mage class character, of the same level as my Rogue, soloing about five or six of them at once. So now I’m pondering as to whether there might be a little class disparity as well. It is, however, open beta, and therefore all of these issues are there to be fixed before release. Honestly though, I do find it increasingly disconcerting that MMO developers can so consistently get to open beta with issues as basic and easily identifiable as these.

I did enjoy the Skill Bar[TM] – now with rotating action! It’s a genuine stab at, if not outright innovation, then at least taking skill bars to the next level, as it were. I think the bar design works; it is an interesting concept; it adds a level of complexity to building a character that is akin to deck building in Magic: The Gathering, and is possibly what Blizzard was initially hoping to create with their talent point system. So a quick description of what the bar is and does. Take your standard MMO action bar – a row of slots where you can put character skills for ease of activation – and then stack a bunch more on top. If you take the net of this shape and fold it around, you can make an approximation of a cylinder, as you rotate the cylinder around you encounter the next action bar in the sequence. So what happens is this: you draw your weapon and your skill cylinder pops up at the bottom of the screen, you then initiate combat by activating one of the skills on this first row. As soon as you activate a skill, the skill cylinder rotates to the next row and you, potentially, have a new set of skills to pick from. Eventually you rotate all the way back around to the first row, and the sequence begins again. So player ability lies not only in twitch-combat skills, but in the thought process behind building your ‘deck’ of skills. Anything you put on the first row will not be available again until the skill cylinder has completed a full rotation. You can duplicate a skill on the next row if you so choose, but you then give up a space that might be used for a different and perhaps more useful skill. For example, you might have an opening skill that debuffs the target on your first skill row in the first column, the following rows have standard attack abilities, but when you come back to the first row you may still be in combat and not be able to use the opener skill, so you might also have added a standard attack in the second column, thus allowing you to activate an ability and thus have the skill cylinder continue on its rotational journey. In this way you can set up a sequence of attacks across multiple rows and columns based on the rotation of the cylinder after each attack, but you need to balance this against the fact that you might need a situational ability at any point in time, so provision for such emergency measures is also something you have to weigh up – whether it’s worth dedicating a slot on the skill bar to something that you may or may not need at the time it crops up in the attack cycle. Think of it as introductory programming for drum-memory computers.

It’s a clever system and I like it lot, but the natural flow of the design is somewhat thrown out of the window by the use of an old MMO crutch mechanic which one would have hoped had been eliminated precisely due to the nature of the design of the rotating skill bar system, and that is the cooldown counter. The inclusion of cooldowns on skills potentially adds another layer of complexity for the spreadsheet wielding crowd who like to work out optimum skill rotation timings in World of Warcraft and the like, and I can see that the reason they were added is due to the fact that you can place a skill on each row of the rotating skill bar and thus, if it was a powerful skill, sit there spamming it to your heart’s content. However, it seems to me that the timed rotation of the skill bar lends itself perfectly naturally to being a built-in cooldown, all you would need to do is restrict the number of times you could place a skill on separate bars. Say it takes eight seconds to make a complete rotation through all skill bars, if you can only place a skill that it powerful enough to require an eight second cooldown on any one row, then you have your cooldown built in. You could split cooldowns further, every other row, every two rows etc. However, it may be that the deck building system of the skills may warrant having a skill with an eight second cooldown on more than one row, because you may use it at one point in your attack cycle, or choose to wait a while and use it in a different point in the attack cycle. If the system really is that deep, and can be fully utilised by players in a game where they need to be looking at the screen in order to maximise the twitch-based game-play, and yet still expected to watch cooldowns on a rotating skill bar, then I tip my hat to Spellborn International. For me though, the interface was becoming difficult to monitor whilst fighting when using only five or six skills in total, but you can potentially have a maximum of six rows with five skills in each. It’s a system that wants to be elegant, but I think its reliance on old MMO design elements has broken it in practise when combined with a first person targeting system.

I’ve experienced all of this through only the starter area, and people may decry my passing judgement based on such a small section of the game, but let me explain why starter areas are so important to me and why they are the simple Go or No Go flag by which an MMO earns my subscription or not. Starter areas are the filter through which all of your players will pass, like a prism filtering a beam of light, all players pass into the starter area and then refract out in a wide band to the various content that your game provides, be this quest regions restricted by level, game-play sections – PvE, PvP, Raiding – or various other segregations based upon your overarching design philosophy. How your starter area refracts your players will determine what paths they take, it colours their approach to your game, if you will. The starter area is important; where progression content and end-game content are what will ultimately keep players subscribing for years to come, the starter area will often determine whether you get those subscriptions at all. That is not to say that many players will be instantly turned off of your game by a poor starter area, but they will have been coloured by it, and the colour will be jade. Jaded as they are, many players will continue on, willing the game to prove them wrong and to provide them with the experience that they have been hoping for, but when they reach that inevitable level – 20 in many MMOs, 30 in others, but you know the level I mean – the grind will set in, the world begins to lose its lustre, and they will see it as the culmination of problems that they saw from the very beginning. They will feel that all the warning signs were there and that they can’t ignore them any longer, and they will leave. World of Warcraft had a horrible grind, lessened only somewhat in recent patches, in the mid-to-late forties; why did so many people stick with that game and ‘push’ through this hump and on to the end-game? I honestly believe it is because they have been filtered by the incredibly strong starter areas the game provides, and that the colour in this case is rose. Rose-tinted, they look back on the good times of their early levels and they give the game the benefit of the doubt that this is indeed only a hump, and that once they crest the brow of it they will be on the downward slope to enjoyable times once again. Go back to the starter areas in WoW and look around, observe the vast amount of content, the cities, the quest chains, the zones, the level of detail in everything, all of which mostly lies untouched these days. It seems like such a waste to have created this vast amount of content that was passed through only briefly, but that effort has been repaid through its contribution to retaining the huge subscriber base that the game now enjoys.

A thought: what if Blizzard had chosen to have only one starter area for the Horde, and one for the Alliance. What impact would it have had on the game? I think it would have a greater effect than many people would believe. WoW would still have been a success, the game is far more than just its starter areas. But the loyalty that it commands, the reason people just keep going back? That seed was sown in that first little village you ever entered, whose inhabits were having a problem with some critters that they needed you to kill ten of.

In summary, TCoS feels exactly like Tabula Rasa, Pirates of the Burning Sea and Auto Assault did when they were in open beta. A unique, visually impressive setting (which would be made that much better in this instance with the addition of a v-sync option so that I don’t have to look at two separate screen-torn versions of the world any time I pan faster than one degree per fortnight) wrapped around a game that is trying to do something different but which fails to convince me that it has at its core a substantial foundation of solid game-play to back up its ambitions. Like the aforementioned MMOs, it will most likely capture a small core enthusiast audience which is large enough to keep the game ticking over with a modest level of development and bug fixes.

For me, it’s another MMO for the ‘Non-starter, but hope I’m proven wrong’ pile, alas.

Posted by Melmoth at 4:44 pm