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(Late) Breaking News

Cliffhanger - (Late) Breaking News
Written By: Lemming

Hello all,

I hope everyone's been having a good week. For this article, I thought I'd take a break from my MMORPG design modification train of thought, and examine some of the news highlights from last month.

The first comes from the announcement that SOE will be publishing the upcoming Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. I'm probably going to be the last kid on the block to mention that only good things can come of this deal. I know that someone, somewhere, will gleefully recount the tales of when SOE acquired Verant (the developer of the original Everquest), or their somewhat more recent acquisition of The Matrix Online. Those fears should be quickly banished, however, as some subtle differences make this a completely different situation.

For one thing, Sigil Games Online is maintaining its independence from SOE, and is in fact co-publishing the game with SOE. SOE will help with things like the distribution and marketing of Vanguard, but Sigil will keep its freedom to adhere to its original vision for the game. And, as we all know, CEO and Executive Producer Brad McQuaid is nothing if not a man of vision.

In other news, get your kicks while you can with MMORPG Shadowbane, because as of May 15, Ubisoft closed down its developer, Wolfpack Studios. As far as I know, no announcements have been officially made as to when the game will be taken offline, but at this time Ubisoft is offering the game for free download and sans monthly fees.

Those of you who haven't been following Shadowbane might wonder what the big deal is - after all, it's not like it would be the first MMORPG to have been taken offline. It never had as large a following as, say, Dark Age of Camelot or Everquest, and I can't say I've even played it much myself. When it first came out, though, the hype surrounding it was boiling over the lid of the pot.

Shadowbane started out with a lot of original ideas. Not only could you take part in large-scale player-vs.-player battles like in DAoC, your guild could (and was encouraged to!) build its own cities in the game world and fight or ally with other guilds, featuring city sieges with deliciously destructive siege equipment. Levelling up was practically secondary in importance to the game of diplomacy and political intrigue that (theoretically) emerges around the upper-level content. Add to this an active group of GMs that craft story-based content for guilds to either face united or fight over, and you have the recipe for a very compelling online game!

Unfortunately, such an ambitious design seems to have put some clear limitations onto the actual gameplay. The combat and levelling system were simplistic in comparison to other MMORPGs, and certain selectable character traits (such as Rat Catcher, which gave bonuses in sewer combat) relied on features that were never implemented. The worst problem that I have observed is that in order to get anywhere in the game, you're forced to fight a constant battle against an absolutely abysmal interface which can at times even make moving around in the game world a chore in itself. As of the writing of this article, I haven't been able to get even nearly close to the city vs. city content - perhaps someone who has put more hours into the game will be willing to comment on that.

Of course, none of the above-mentioned shortcomings were evident from the standpoint of an eagerly waiting fan during the closed beta test. Wolfpack Studios built hype in what is quite possibly the cleverest beta testing strategy I've seen to date. While their steadily increasing group of beta testers played through the game's content, Wolfpack had a group of players known as Heralds follow important guild leaders around and track their progress in written journals. Week after week, fans were entertained with stories of alliances forming, guild betrayals, and turning point battles in epic wars. One leader in particular, the cunning Bonedancer, achieved a reputation almost along the lines of Erwin Rommel by rallying the evil guilds and repeatedly thwarting the forces of good on the battlefield. As the beta test continued, I know that I was seduced by the Heralds' stories, and simply could not wait to get my hands on the game. It was only when the NDA was lifted and reports of game breaking lag, unbalanced gameplay, and other such troubles came filtering in that I decided to shift my attention to a new game.

Does all this mean that Shadowbane was a failure as an MMORPG? Should prospective MMORPG designers eschew free-form designs and player generated cities and conflicts in favour of tightly scripted (but ultimately repetitive) experiences? Despite Shadowbane's limitations, I still find myself a fan of its design and I'm crossing my fingers that a new developer will come along someday soon and implement it properly. The more time passes, the higher the standards for MMORPGs become. Shadowbane was released at a time when laggy, bug-ridden releases were still for the most part the norm; but in the days of World of Warcraft and Everquest 2, we as players know better what to expect from our games.

Now lets just do something new with all our clean interfaces and fancy tech, shall we?

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