Monthly Archives: March 2016

Trinium Wars Is a Glorious Mess

Recently I had the good fortune to obtain a free key for the Steam early access of the new sci-fi MMO Trinium Wars. The buzz around the game was not good, but the post-apocalyptic setting intrigued, so I resolved to give it a try with an open mind.

A landscape in the MMORPG Trinium Wars

What followed was one of the most bizarre experiences of my whole MMO career. Follow me down the rabbit hole, friends.

Chasing the rabbit:

The basic concept behind Trinium Wars is actually pretty interesting. After a nuclear holocaust during the third world war, Earth was devastated, and only a handful of humans managed to escape into the depths of space.

Centuries later, they returned, only to discover Earth had already been recolonized by an alien race with the rather unfortunate name of the Narc. Unlike humanity, the feline Narc seek to live in harmony with nature, so they’re instantly at odds with the humans. Both sides also fight over the precious resource of trinium, which is important for some reason.

Humans and Narc, obviously, are the playable factions, and once you’ve chosen one, that locks your entire account to that faction, which seems oddly punitive to me.

On top of that, a race of vicious mutants — descended from those humans who failed to escape the war — is hostile to both sides, making the ruined and altered Earth a vicious three way battleground.

As a backstory, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but on the whole it’s pretty intriguing. In fact, it strongly reminds me of the premise of Defiance, which I rather enjoyed (both the TV series and the MMO).

Combat in the MMORPG Trinium Wars

It didn’t take long for the problems to start cropping up, though. Character creation, for instance, was quite disappointing, even considering the low expectations for what is obviously a fairly low budget game.

There’s no body customization, for one thing. Body type is tied to class, of which there are three. I had wanted to be a ghost, a versatile stealth class, but I’ve never been a fan of the archetype of “tiny girl whose status in regards to puberty is at best unclear,” so that left warrior and esper as my remaining choices.

I’ve never been a warrior fan, so esper it was. If you can manage to parse the Google Translate-spewed world salad that is the class description, you’ll get the impression esper is some kind of ranged spell caster.

My remaining character customization choices boiled down to hairstyle, hair and eye color, and a random assortment of different facial features, so I cobbled together something decent and zoned into the game.

This was followed by a short cutscene establishing the Narc culture. Despite some shaky voice acting, it was actually pretty good, if somewhat generic, and had me fairly pumped up to actually play the game.

I was destined for more disappointment.

A very deep well:

Trinium Wars’ visuals don’t lend themselves to a strong first impression. The game looks at least a few years out of date, with blurry and muddy textures and a general lack of detail or realism. It’s not stylized; it’s just poorly executed.

Maybe I would have felt better about the graphics if I had been able to see more of the environment, but the developers saw fit to carpet every square inch of the landscape with quest spawns, to the point where all I saw was a sea of nametags.

A morass of quest spawns in Trinium Wars

At least you don’t have to worry about competition over quest spawns.

But hey, graphics don’t matter as long as the gameplay is good, right?

Yeah, about that.

By now we’re all familiar with the bland style of “kill ten rats” quests that dominates far too much of the MMO genre, but Trinium Wars boils it down to its most shallow and tedious essence.

Quest text is as brief and pointless as WildStar’s infamous Twitter quests, further enhanced by colossally bad translation into English that has clearly never known the touch of a quality assurance department.

As an aside, I’m always baffled when import games don’t spring for a proofreader who is a native English speaker. Having done some proofreading work myself, I can tell you for a fact it’s not terribly expensive.

Even if they had proofread the quest text, the storytelling quality is… sorry, I can’t use “storytelling” in relation to Trinium Wars with a straight face.

Near as I can tell something was going on with mutants attacking. I was a bit distracted by the fact that the supposedly nature-loving Narc had tasked me with the murder of baby parrots as one of my first duties.

I was also somewhat distracted by the NPCs. For some reason half the characters you meet are women dressed in as little as the developers could manage without jeopardizing their ESRB rating, who are performing stripper dances for no reason whatsoever.

Between that and the zoomed in conversation camera, half the time you’ll be getting your quests from a pair of tin-plated nipples or a gyrating buttocks.

Chatting with the local strippers(?) in Trinium Wars

This is an interesting way to receive a quest.

I was too busy laughing to even get around to being offended by the shameless sexism.

And the quests themselves are just boring. Enemies wander slowly in circles, waiting to be killed, and pose no threat whatsoever. Presumably combat gets better later on as you unlock more skills, but to start it’s mostly just watching your character auto-attack while waiting on the unnecessarily long cooldowns of your few abilities.

The one good thing I can say is that the combat animation and sound effects, even for auto-attacks, are quite powerful and intense, and far better than you see in the average tab target game.

There’s more to the game than questing, but I didn’t have the chance to sample such things. Dungeons, as I understand it, aren’t unlocked until much later on.

That leaves PvP. Trinium Wars offers mass open world conflict between “thousands” of players, but that, too, doesn’t come until much later. However, low level PvP fans can participate in some sort of MOBA-inspired mini-game that is sold as one of Trinium Wars’ most unique features.

Unfortunately, when I tried to queue for it, the game helpfully informed me that there were not enough players in the game for matchmaking to function.

Down, down, down:

I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the issues with Trinium Wars. The game is also ripe with quality of life flaws.

The cash shop window in the MMORPG Trinium Wars

For example, there’s not nearly enough customization potential in the UI or controls for my taste. I was particularly frustrated by my inability to disable click to move, resulting in my constantly sending my character careening off in the wrong direction as I tried to pan the camera.

The list goes on. Picking up gear is rather frustrating, as you then need to buy microscopes to identify it before you can use it, and the identify animation seems rather unnecessarily long to me.

One could also draw attention to the game’s business model. The cash shop is one of the more unpleasant I’ve seen, offering naught but XP boosts and various over-priced ways to circumvent the game’s many small annoyances. If I understand it right — and, to be fair, with how unreadable most of the game’s text is, there’s a good chance I don’t — you even need to buy a consumable to chat zone-wide.

Conversely there’s none of the cosmetics or other fun items that normally appeal to me in a cash shop.

After all this you might think I’m being unfair. After all, Trinium Wars is in early access. By the developers’ own admission, it’s not nearly done yet. It is true that a fair few of the issues I cite will likely be addressed as the game marches toward a proper launch.

But the fact is this is a game that is already fully monetized. It has a box price and a cash shop. I think that requires it be held to a certain degree of scrutiny. Some concessions can be made based on the early access tag, but only to a point.

And frankly I think the problems are so many and so severe that it’s hard to imagine Trinium Wars ever reaching a polished and fully playable state. I’ve played alphas and betas before, and they were all far better than this.

Conclusion:

A confusing load screen in the MMORPG Trinium Wars

Your guess is as good as mine.

At first, my thought was to warn everyone to stay far away from Trinium Wars, but after careful consideration, I’ve decided not to do so. In fact, I encourage all and sundry to give it a try.

You see, Trinium Wars isn’t just awful. It’s gloriously awful. Magnificently, brilliantly awful. It is by far and away the worst MMO I have ever played. It makes WildStar look serious and intellectual, Dragon’s Prophet look polished, Neverwinter look generous, and World of Warcraft look challenging. If you wanted to build a shrine to every kind of error an MMO can make, this would be it.

Trinium Wars is an unequalled masterpiece of bad design. It is as bad as it gets, with just enough faintly redeeming qualities to taunt you with the feeling there might  be some alternate universe where it’s actually fun. It’s charged past the border of terrible and into the realm of being so bad it’s good.

It’s the Plan 9 from Outer Space of MMOs.


The Case Against MMORPG Button Bloat

Like the “holy trinity” of group roles and tab targeting versus action combat, the issue of button bloat in MMORPGs remains a hot topic in the community, with strong opinions on both sides.

An overloaded action bar in World of Warcraft

Button bloat refers to the habit of certain MMOs — especially older and more traditional titles like World of Warcraft, Rift, and Star Wars: The Old Republic — to cover the action bars of every class and every character with dozens of different abilities, many of them niche utility skills that are rarely used, as opposed to the much smaller sets of abilities seen in games like Elder Scrolls Online, Neverwinter, or The Secret World.

Action bar bloat has its share of defenders, especially among more old school players, and it’s definitely not a black and white issue. There is a strong degree of personal taste here, and neither side is necessarily right or wrong.

But there are strong arguments that can be made against button bloat. It is a design paradigm with some significant underlying flaws.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand the appeal of smaller ability sets or if you just want to understand the debate a bit better, we now provide you with some of the strongest arguments to be made against MMORPG button bloat.

It frontloads complexity:

In gaming, the ideal design philosophy tends to be “easy to learn, difficult to master.” You want systems that are intuitive enough for newer or less skilled players to be able to quickly achieve a basic level of competence, but that also offer enough depth and complexity to challenge the best players and create a high skill ceiling.

Button bloat, on the other hand, is difficult to learn, but easy to master. Throwing dozens of abilities at new players is very overwhelming, and they can easily end up lost on what abilities to use when. It’s a huge amount of information to parse at once.

A raid boss encounter in World of Warcraft

On the other hand, MMORPGs with a huge number of keybinds tend to be relatively simple once you learn your toolkit. They tend to favor rigid rotations that are fairly simple to execute. While the learning curve for MMOs with button bloat tends to be very high for completely inexperienced players, those who are used to the system can simply Google the ideal rotation and achieve a decent degree of mastery in no time.

Such a system benefits no one. The top players aren’t challenged, and newer players have too steep a barrier to climb.

It distracts attention away from the game world:

I had a revelation recently while playing Star Wars: The Old Republic — a game that could be the poster child for unnecessary button bloat. While leveling a Jedi alt, I realized I was spending nearly all my time looking at my action bars.

Not the enemy mobs, or the environment. Just buttons on a bar. I had so many different abilities with different cooldowns and procs that it devoured all of my attention.

Of course, that’s leveling content, which requires very little situational awareness. Developing tunnel vision on your action bar can get you killed in high end raiding or PvP.

But thinking about it, even in more challenging content, I still put the majority of my attention on my bar in games with excessive button bloat. I just make sure to glance up at the battlefield frequently to make sure I’m not about to die to a ground-target AoE.

A Jedi consular character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

This seems backwards. MMORPGs are supposed to be about transporting us to virtual worlds, about immersing us in these wondrous imaginary realities. Spending all your attention baby-sitting a bunch of tiny icons seriously detracts from that experience.

Even if you have managed to memorize all your cooldowns, procs, and ability interactions well enough that you don’t need to look down at your bar often, the fact remains those sprawling action bars are taking up a lot of screen real estate. Add to that quest trackers, the mini-map, raid frames, and any add-ons you might be running (in games that allow them), and you can end up looking at the game through what amounts to a very narrow window.

It makes individual abilities feel less meaningful:

It is inevitable that the more abilities you have, the less important each one will be. The more developers spread out your toolkit, the more niche each skill becomes, and the less impact each ability in your rotation can have.

To use SW:TOR as an example again, I must confess that I do not know what several abilities on my main’s action bars actually do. I read their tooltips when I unlocked them, dutifully dragged them onto my bar, and promptly forgot about them. They’re simply too niche for me to have much use for them.

Now, I’m sure that if I was get into high-end raiding or competitive PvP, I would eventually find a use for these very specific skills, but the fact remains that I have been able to experience most of the game’s content while ignoring several elements of my toolkit, and it hasn’t significantly impacted my performance.

If you can safely ignore some skills for most of the game, is it even worth having them in the first place?

A dungeon encounter in the fantasy MMORPG Rift

Even for abilities you do use regularly, it remains the case that the more you have, the less meaningful each will feel.

A common complaint that has existed over the years for enhancement shamans in World of Warcraft is that their core rotation contains so many abilities that none of them feel exciting or impactful to use. Their damage is spread too thin over too many buttons.

But when action bar bloat spreads out of control, this becomes true for everyone, to varying extents. Abilities lose their identity, their excitement. It’s just a nigh-endless procession of weak little hits until the enemy falls over.

That’s not going to be true of every single class in every game, but the worse your MMORPG’s button bloat becomes, the more widespread and severe the problem will be.

Contrast this with games with much fewer buttons. In The Secret World, for example, every ability I use feels memorable, exciting, and impactful, despite the fact that they’re not necessarily any more visually or mechanically interesting than their counterparts in more keybind-heavy MMOs.

It’s physically uncomfortable:

To be blunt, five fingers plus dozens of buttons to manage isn’t the best math for an enjoyable experience.

Battling a mini-boss in the horror MMORPG The Secret World

Personally I’m not fond of having to tie my fingers into knots juggling all the various shift modifiers, macros, and other tricks you need to have access to all your important skills in button-happy MMOs. It’s doable, but it’s not the most natural feeling thing in the world.

And I’m an adult man of roughly average height and weight. That is to say my hands are of a decent size and can reach a good chunk of the keyboard. I’ve talked to people with smaller hands — mostly women — who struggle a lot more to reach everything they need.

I shudder to think what it must be like for people with physical disabilities.

You can mitigate this a lot with specialized peripherals like gaming mice, but not everyone is willing or able to spend the extra money for such things.

It (sometimes) cuts down on character identity:

This isn’t universally true, and it’s an issue that games with fewer buttons can also suffer from, but one unfortunate side effect of button bloat in MMORPGs is that it can begin to detract from the identity of classes, specializations, and characters.

The more abilities you add, the harder it becomes to distinguish between different characters and builds. If everyone has a self-heal, mobility skills, some crowd control, damage over time abilities, and so forth, it gets very hard to define the specialties and identity of a class or specialization.

Similarly, if you can fit every spell your class has onto your bars, there’s less opportunity to distinguish yourself from other players of the same class. People don’t know you as Jill the ranger who specializes in long-range crowd control. You’re just Jill the ranger, same as every other ranger.

Battling a quest mob in the fantasy MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

This can sometimes be an issue for MMOs with small ability bars, too. Some developers use such a limited ability set as an excuse to strip every class and build down to a handful of abilities, and that’s that.

But for those who provide a wealth of abilities and make players choose a few to equip at any time — like The Secret World — it opens up a tremendous opportunities for strategic choice based on circumstances, as well as unusual and interesting builds that create very strong character identities.

* * *

The debate isn’t going to be resolved any time soon, but hopefully this can at least shed some light on why MMORPGs have been trending towards smaller ability sets and cleaner action bars.


Crafting Deserves Center Stage Attention

All too many MMORPGs are quick to list crafting and gathering as a key feature, when it’s really little more than an afterthought. Weaponsmithing, armorsmithing, alchemy, fletcher, engineering, cabinet making, pottery, flower picking, ant farming, whatever. These crafting (and gathering) skills are rarely used for more than a stopgap in equipment, some quirky fun items, or for a handful of actually useful consumables. They are secondary minigame for players to indulge in but can almost always be safely ignored. Even more rare is the MMORPG that allows crafting players to devote their entire character to the role. Ultimately, crafting vastly underwhelms players for a variety of reasons.

It’s pretty rare that MMOs integrate crafting so that in order to wear the best equipment, interaction with crafting in some manner is necessary. The problem is that people going out to instanced dungeons or questing expect top tier loot.  Even most crafting MMOs cater more towards the adventuring type than those who “stay at home” to build something. And it’s understandable that developers appeal to these types. We as MMO players want the instant gratification of improving our character’s equipment when we successfully dismantle a dungeon’s inhabitants. There’s a few solutions I can think of where crafting can take center stage without ruining the fun of rare and exotic drops. And it would be good for the community as well, something that’s become sorely lacking in recent MMORPG releases.

Here are some thoughts on what developers could do to change the typical MMO anti-crafting mold.

1. Instead of top tier gear as equipment, players receive top tier crafting materials. This gets us away from the bind on equip/pickup in MMORPGs. It encourages players to interact, through the auction house if nothing else. But for the most rare materials to craft the most rare weapons and armor, adventurers would seek out a crafter. That rare piece of adamantium requires a master blacksmith to fully utilize, and that blacksmith might be willing to lower his price to work with such a rare specimen.

Crafting types will also be free in this instance to play a pure crafting role. Adventurers can now provide crafters with rare materials to make their fancy equipment. The crafter buys the raw goods for a price, produces the improved equipment for the masses, and then sells it for some level of profit. It would simulate adventurers risking their lives for smiths and enchanters, who would be compensated fairly. A real economy then develops as players settle into their roles of supply and demand.

2. To maximize gear, crafters are needed to perform upgrades or customize equipment. This allows adventurers to still have their fun in finding fancy loot. They will need to seek out crafters directly rather than playing an auction house game, but I’m a fan of increased interaction in multiplayer games. Certain crafters could be skilled at different types of upgrades or customization. For example, perhaps one path for enhancing equipment is devoted to survivability. That player could add hit points or defense to weapons and armor that players discover. Perhaps the stats people look for is the ability for items to be customized in certain ways, rather than having the stats inherently. The big downside is it might be a pain to find someone to maximize an adventurer’s gear every time new loot drops.

I suppose one solution is that players could sell enhancement kits on the auction house. But where do the resources come from to create these? In that case, I think we end up back with how MMORPGs currently handle things. Crafting would become a secondary profession because there’s not enough of a focus on integrating crafting with the economy that it could stand alone.

3. Equipment degrades over time, but adventurers can find enhancements which can be swapped between equipment. This is sort of a twist on the above two ideas. First, equipment degrades meaning that crafters will also be needed to outfit players. Players could potentially repair weapons and armor, but the durability would still degrade over time. This means that equipment is less special. Otherwise people would get pretty testy over what would feel like “renting” items. That’s not to say that all crafted equipment will be created equally. Rare resources that adventurers could seek out for smiths could still play a part (such as in suggestion #1). However, enhancements that players find would fulfill the primary desire for “phat loot”.

These enhancements could be something like runes that can be swapped between weapons and armor at will. They would have no degradation and would comprise a large portion of the strength of equipment. With these runes, even more customization options are opened up as more than just the base weapon/armor must be taken into account. I think this is probably my favorite option as it builds a healthy dynamic economy where players must interact to optimize results. But while crafting becomes a central cog in the economic engine here, adventuring still has it’s place to reward dungeon delving.

More Than Gear

So far all of the examples I’ve listed deal with equipment – weapons and armor. I think that’s the biggest problem that needs to be fixed with crafting. However, consumables like scrolls and potions need their place too. This is a bit simpler though as I feel there’s no reason not to make them crafted only. Most MMORPGs sell potions or offer them as quest rewards. There’s little reason to interact with others in the case. In my opinion, alchemy and the like should be handled by players and not the game.

Crafting Matters

Crafting creates community, something that I feel is being stripped away from MMOs piece by piece. We keep moving towards a solo oriented world, and I find that not healthy. We need more interaction with people and creating a living, breathing economy is one means towards that end. Yes, this forces interaction between players. Yes, this makes us reliant on others. But symbiosis is a beautiful thing. It’s not something we should be afraid of. On the contrary, it’s something that we should embrace.

Crafting should take center stage instead of being the afterthought it currently is.