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Wildstar, Factorio, and 2D Game Development Reassessed

Now playing: WildStar (open beta).

WildStar is in open beta from May 8th to 18th, and so I gave the game a bit of a spin.  As of now, my character is up to level 8, which is not great for judging the entirety of an MMORPG, but good enough for a general first impression about how the game looks and plays.
In a nutshell, WildStar is a well-made World of Warcraft clone, and for good reason: much of the original talent from World of Warcraft is working on it.  However, it definitely has improved on the original, mostly in the more action-based combat mechanic.

MMORPG action-based combat mechanics have undergone considerable evolution since the days of World of Warcraft, a game whose combat could be described as a highly streamlined version of EverQuest, and consequently not all that action-based.  Examples of how this mechanic have evolved include:
  • Champions Online tried to implement an action-based combat mechanic, but ended up with a slapdash implementation that dropped gameplay depth through the floor and made player involvement feel too disconnected.  
  • EverQuest II tried to retrofit its existing traditionalist hotbar-centric combat by virtually tripling the ability count and removing the activation cooldown time from many of them, thus encouraging players to just spam out attacks as fast as possible.  Again, it was a slapdash mess.
  • Games like The Secret World and TERA popularized MMORPG action mechanics as being a matter of dodging large attacks that enemies broadcast through the ground as big red polygons.  All things considered, this worked out pretty well, and it was considerably less sloppy than most preceding games, albeit some implementations were better than orders.
WildStar introduces an extremely tight implementation of this quasi-action-based mechanic popularized by TERA and such: the enemies will broadcast attacks, and you will either dodge them or end up that much closer to defeat.  Like The Secret World, players are allocated a limited number of dodges (activated by double-tapping a direction) which are handy to escape broadcast attacks, but now there is also a sprint meter that limits your capacity to move quickly.
Favir is a bit of a fanboy, but not completely without reason.

Wildstar innovates on two other important fronts of action-based combat mechanics.  First, most player character abilities are broadcast attacks, which make dodging them possible in PvP (though this is oddly ruined because players can just turn to redirect the broadcast in mid-attack).  Second, the environment itself will sometimes broadcast attacks, potentially hundreds of them (for example if stalactites start raining on the field) and it manages this with virtually no lag.

Aside from that, Wildstar is often a painful reminder of how ridiculously derivative World of Warcraft clones are.  It's just the same drill every time:
  • Roll up a character with a race and class.  Each class can be specialized in two of four directions now: tank, healer, DPS, and ranged DPS. 
  • Follow the exclamation points floating over non-player character heads to get quests that drive you from set piece to set piece in what is ultimately a directed tour of the theme park that is the game.
  • You can take up crafting if you want, which means you can make items.  Of course, these items will invariably be outclassed by all the epic loot in the end game...
  • When you get to the top level of the game, the reward for your hard work is to endlessly grind for end game gear doing the same old dungeons, raids, ect.  These are all placeholders intended to get you to run in place while you wait for the developers to tack on additions to the theme park.
  • You can get involved in Player Versus Player activities if you want.  Instanced battlegrounds are the best way to go for fair play, but there's still open world gankfests for you traditionalists out there.
This is a theme park MMORPG, and the developers who make these things have it down to a science.  A boring, derivative, financially accountable, tried-and-true study of herding cats.
Even though you will spend more time running around avoiding attacks, the simplified player character party model to defeating mobs works the same in WildStar as it did 15 years ago, in the original EverQuest.
Blech.  Why would I want to pay $50 plus a $15 monthly subscription for something we have seen time and time again for the past decade in everyone who went after World of Warcraft's throne?

To be fair, WildStar does do a few things differently... just not enough for my liking:
  • This time, the wallpaper is a sort of zany Sci-Fi fixture involving colorful alien characters and kitschy technology that reminds a lot of people of the Ratchet And Clank series, and that's a good thing.
  • In addition to class and race, you now also choose a "path," which corresponds to one of four kinds of open-world activities you become involved in.  These activities are interesting because that kind of dynamic content is what I'm excited about because they actually involve introducing changes to the world, but they completely fail because the theme park focus prevents any of these changes from having any real significance.
    • Explorers are all about going off the beaten path and finding new things... which is technically impossible to do in a theme park because there is no new land, it's all hand-crafted, and so anything you find was probably left by somebody playing Easter bunny.  
    • Scientists are all about analyzing various strange new things found about the planet... which would probably be a little more interesting if boiled down to anything more than activating specialized resource nodes.
    • Soldiers are all about starting up public quest combat events found out in the world... which, in a theme park setting, is allowing tourists to pretend to be event coordinators.
    • Settlers are about building helpful fixtures that the other players can use, such as kiosks that provide temporary buffs, access to mailboxes in the middle of nowhere, and so on... of course, all these improvements simply fade away after a few minutes so some other settler theme park visitor can set them up, which makes the whole activity seem rather pointless.
    They probably would have been better off allowing each character to do all four at once, because each activity is a fun little side diversion that could have been deeper as a unified whole, even though this does eliminate an important facet of maintaining unique player roles.
  • They tried to mix things up a bit by adding new kinds of PvE and PvP activities.  For example, "Shiphand Missions," which I guess are a kind of a dungeon that is randomized so you never know what kind of dungeon you are embarking upon before you get there (I think Star Trek Online did it first with their "Genesis System").  "Warplots" are basically 40vs40 PvP raids, not that new, but now you can actually customize your base (the titular "warplot") and bring it with you.
It's not that Wildstar is a bad World of Warcraft clone.  It might even be a bit better than the reigning king of the genre is, although Rift did more to progress the genre with the dynamic events.  But the sad thing is, why bother playing these games?  Chances are, you've played this before, and bored of it.  Even if Wildstar is a little better, many players are just going to go back to World of Warcraft because their characters are further along and World of Warcraft had many years to add additional content.

Unfortunately for the developers of Wildstar, that seems to be the prevailing sentiment among its perspective players.  I really expected to find a lot more traffic and hype about this game but, as I write this, Wildstar's hype-level is tied for fourth place of in-development games on MMORPG.COM, among other games with indefinite 2014 and 2015 release dates: that does not bode well for a game slated to be released next month!
Could Wildstar end up a game of lackluster commercial performance that puts the final nails in the coffin of creating World of Warcraft derivatives?  One can only hope... but, if such a thing would stop developers from adhering slavishly to the tried and true, than the struggles of The Old Republic would have done that already.  At least I can say that Wildstar is a much better game than The Elder Scrolls Online, which was a remarkably lackluster showing in the already tired theme park MMORPG genre.

Now Playing: Factorio (early access alpha).

I enjoyed Rimworld, and am still looking forward to updates on it, because I think the idea of the struggles on an alien planet have potential.  There's quite a few games doing this already, such as Starbound, Maia, and so on.  However, Factorio is is something different, a single-character focused game in which you mostly are occupied with factorization.

Played from an isometric 2D top-down perspective, you control a dude whose simple blue armor and motorcycle helmet appearance makes him look a bit like the protagonists from Narc, the 1988 video game, if they bothered to wear long sleeves.
The only part of Narc that has anything to do with Factorio is the protagonist's mode of dress.
What you're basically doing throughout Factorio is finding pockets of resources (currently coal, stone, iron, and copper), building extractors to pull those resources, piping them over to where they need to go with a series of conveyor belts and mechanical arms, smelting them into usable resources, and then burning them in the form of useful things such as ammunition, research test tubes, turrets, walls, and vehicles.
How Factorio actually looks and plays, courtesy of Sips.

There's something cathartic to be said about the simple pleasure of building a series of devices and watching them work for you in a gainful fashion, surely the drive of engineers everywhere, and Factorio is basically a game all about that right now.  However, Factorio is still fairly early in development, so there's still some important things missing.  Perhaps the lead of these things missing is an utter lack of reason why you're building these factories to begin with (aside from the aforementioned catharsis) - it's the Minecraft problem all over again.

Currently, there are hostile aliens, and sometimes they will show up and start wrecking your stuff and trying to kill your little blue dude.  Hence the need for turrets and walls.  In terms of meaningful purpose, it's not really enough, and the aliens are not significantly balanced to be all that challenging in "freeplay" mode.  However, there is a number of scenarios being developed into a lengthy campaign, and that should provide a bit more reason to the game.

Game Development Progress: Checking my options.

Unity is great, but its overkill for the kinds of projects I really am interested in making.  The main trouble I am having with it is that developing in 3D really adds a lot of bloat to the project and, even in 2D mode, Unity does not quite evade the development overhead of requiring an extensive knowledge of Blender to produce worthwhile assets for it.

GameMaker is far easier to use, but disappointed me because its script support is awkward and its overtures towards shoehorning user-friendliness into the GUI just gets in my way.  The straw that broke the camel's back is that its room editor did not have the means to cut and paste several elements at once, which makes creating content in it extremely slow-going. 

However, even before that, I was already encountering trouble with it because its limited ability to perform operations on rooms that are not currently in scope, which makes developing sandboxes (my favorite kind of game) rather difficult unless the whole thing takes place on a single, largely static, room.  This is the reason why Spelunky and Nuclear Throne have those klunky loading screens: the developers had to gate the player into a small part of the same room, off-screen, in order to actually generate the room.

As it turns out, GameMaker is not the only game in town when it comes to easy 2D game engines.  There was a competing product to be found in ClickTeam Fusion, and Construct is basically an attempt (or betrayal, depending on who you ask) to overcome Fusion's limitations.   Overall, I understand Construct has a less cumbersome GUI than GameMaker, but I believe it still has a bit more work to do before its scripting system has as much flexibility, and that could be a deal breaker considering the kinds of games I want to make should be unlike the many derivatives I've played in the past that both platform's default behaviors are there to emulate.

I am not sure if a better compromise exists, or if I just need to buckle down and get used to Unity.  At times, I have been tempted to return to BYOND, but I already found out that the limitation of 65535 mobs and objects, coupled with poor file I/O, was going to prevent me from making what I wanted to make. Maybe I'll give Construct a spin just to see if it's any more flexible than GameMaker, but from what I gather flexibility isn't its goal, so much as ease of use.  It's looking more and more like Unity is the best option outside of coding my own engine from scratch using something like C#... and that's a very time consuming path, indeed.

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