A Few Things

First, I have to make a correction on the last post. As Uryxt pointed out, Cultures Online is available in English and a few other languages. If anyone is having trouble like I was, you have to set your language again after clicking on Play Now. Anyway, I’m slowly checking it out, and they are indeed decked out for Halloween.

Next, it seems the OSG Clone Machine is at it again. The latest example is Hukumdar Online, which reminds me a bit of Lords Online, in that they are exactly the same.

I really don’t understand the strategy here. What does either company hope to gain my cloning a game? Does Hukumdar Online think they can draw players that Lords Online missed just by changing the name? And wouldn’t it be a better gaming experience if the players weren’t spread out across separate games? There’s nothing worse than an OSG world that feels empty. The Ikrariam Eta server is still facing that problem, and you would think IGG and Gamersfirst would learn from that. Alas…

Finally, a huge congratulations to Syp over at Bio Break, who recently reached 1 million hits! Keep up the great work.

Cheers,
Oliver

Social Interaction in Online Strategy Games

The core principles of the OSG genre lay the foundation for some of the best in-game social interaction between players. More recently, casual games integrated with a social network such as Facebook or Myspace have hijacked the term “social game”, even though the in-game interaction between players are usually trivial. Now, several OSG’s including Evony, Kingory, and Lords Online have started integrating with social networks as well and are adding some of these meaningless mechanisms on top of the standard OSG principles already in place.

Recently, the first game to come to mind upon hearing the term “social game” is usually Zynga’s Farmville or any one of its clones. Although these games come with a players’ friends already in tow, they really offer very little in terms of in-game social interaction. This usually boils down to clicking a button to send all your friends some in-game item, or spamming all of their walls to inform them of the most recent level you’ve gained. None of these actions actually affect your own game though. In Evony Age II, a message pops up every 5 minutes or so saying that you’ve found some buried treasure, felled an excess of lumber, or some such nonsense and suggests you send some to your friends. In reality, you did not find any such treasure on your own, and sending it to your friends only adds one more to the ever growing list of tiny gifts that they must mindlessly click through to accept next time they log on.

To realize the rediculousness of this game mechanic, and perhaps all the wasted potential, imagine if all your Farmville friends, instead of connected online, were sitting around a table playing in real life. In a classic board-game such as Monopoly, there would be trading, debate, laughter, and if you are anything like my own friends, a lot of yelling. In these so-called “social games”, however, all of you friends are merely staring down at their own hand of cards, each one occationally exclaiming “hey, I gained a level” or perhaps giving everyone a small item for no reason at all. When it comes down to it, you aren’t playing the same game at all; rather, you are each playing your own copy of a single-player game, and merely updating each other as to your progress.

In the traditional OSG, the in-game social interactions are far more meaningful. If you send another player 2,000 of your own lumber supply, or send your army to attack him, that’s a meaningful in-game interaction. Players can help each others’ empires grow and flourish, can protect each other from enemies, or can become enemies themselves and battle to the death for months on end. There’s a rich system of trade and combat, of alliances and diplomacy. With such a foundation, it’s curious why any OSG would add such a trivial mechanic. In my experience with Evony it was just annoying, and in my experience with my Facebook friends, they would much rather I help defend their village against raiding hordes than spam them with my account updates every day.

Cheers,
Oliver

I Want To Be A Lord Online

A friend of mine has recently started playing Lords Online. He doesn’t have any experience with Travian or other OSG’s, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a look at the genre from a newcomer’s point of view. Without further ado:

I want to be a Lord Online
– by Jonah Alexander

It was an unseasonably cold Spring day in Southern California when my town was plundered by the kingdom of Sav. I finally had accumulated some troops, and I logged on to Lords Online expecting to find my resources replenished from the last time I was there, leveling up my buildings.

I’m new to the online-strategy games, and Lords is my first foray into the genre. My only previous experience with strategy games are real-time strategy games like StarCraft and Command & Conquer. Needless to say, I learned quickly that despite some similar aesthetics, browser-based OSGs are a beast of their own.

I initially was confused by the amount of leveling-up I had to do to the various structures and technology of my city. Am I playing the game right? I’m use to playing real-time-strategy games where the initial resource building is only 10 or 15 minutes and then a few tweaks once you get a steady line of income. What’s with this upgrading a couple of buildings and then waiting an hour before you can do it again?

After each subsequent return to Lords Online, however, where I would see the incremental improvements to my city, I began to find myself more and more addicted and invested to the game.

So far, I’m lucky to only have been attacked two or three times by different kingdoms, which usually just results in me getting frustrated that all my troops are dead. I expected, much like in a game like StarCraft, for an attack to leave my city in ruins — I can deal with just losing some of my resources.

I’ve attacked some other kingdoms myself even…though many of those near me have very small populations. I assume people started playing but never picked it back up or they switched servers. Why doesn’t the game have a way for these cities to be cleared from the map?

One of the things I particularly like about Lords Online is the nifty Quest feature. Clicking on the “Quest” button brings up a range of assignments to do to build up your city and the game rewards you with valuable resources after you comple the tasks. This feature not only helps to get the city started, but also helps to give players a little direction once they’ve gotten the basics down. Strategy buffs might scoff at this hand holding, but a new guy like me sure appreciated it.

Let’s face it, games with a many options, stats, and things to click on can be a little intimidating if you’re not use to it. I only wish that the game kept a log of the old quests. Some of the quests walk you through certain things, but since I was just clicking away when I started, I can’t figure out what I clicked on exactly.

In the end, I’m beginning to really dig the genre since 1) I tend to spend a lot of time on the computer and leveling can just be done in a separate tab; 2) many times, you can play the game in short 15-20 minute bursts, or even over the course of a couple of hours in the background of whatever else you might be doing; and 3) more relaxed gameplay equals less hand cramping.

Is this bad since you’re not giving the game the full attention it deserves? I don’t think so, since I doubt that the developers intend for you to sit and watch for the full hour and a half it takes to upgrade the barracks.

Now it’s only a matter of time before my empire flourishes and everyone knows the name of my kingdom…I named it Funktopia.

OSG Bang for your Buck

As you many know, most OSG’s employ the “free-to-play” strategy where the game itself is free, but players can spend money to gain advantages, usually in the form of more convenient features, increased production, etc. I was interested in which games offer the most for your money and did a little cross-game comparison. Be aware that this can’t necessarily be considered a 1:1 comparison due to the differences between games and the varying price of in-game-currency based on quantity.

Game
+25% Production
Plus Account
Travian $0.83 $0.41
Wild Guns $1.90 $1.25
Ikariam $4.50 $1.25
Freesky $4.80
Lord of Ultima $1.70
Lords Online $14.00
Evony $20.00

I arrived at these figures by assuming the player is spending $25.00 USD, then extrapolating the closest Real Money to In-Game-Currency ratio. From there I found the cost of a Plus Account for 7 days, and the cost of a 25% production of ALL resources for 7 days. Again, not all of the games make this comparison easy. For example, Freesky only offers a 20% production increase for 3 days, so I simply multiplied the cost by 2.9. Further, some games like Evony offer “bonus packages” with every purchase of in-game currency, so if you really did spend $25 you would also receive some items to speed up construction or whatnot.

Honestly I was expecting to see the games much closer together. I was surprised by how cheap Travian is, and was also surprised by how expensive Evony is. Now, it can certainly be argued that in some games resource production isn’t as useful as in others, but nevertheless, since it’s something all these games share, it’s an interesting note of comparison.

New OSG’s on the Horizon

Some of the biggest names in gaming are looming on the horizon of Online Strategy Games. Both EA and Ubisoft have games currently in closed beta that turn established IP’s into OSG’s.

EA has Lord of Ultima

and Ubisoft is working on Heroes Kingdoms, which brings the popular Might and Magic series into the genre.

A lot of newer OSG’s (specifically Lord’s Online and Heroes of Gaia) seem to draw heavily from the Might and Magic series, so it will be interesting to see how the introduction of the game affects the OSG landscape. Compared to Travian Games (Travian) and Gameforge (Ikariam), EA and Ubisoft are huge companies, so it will be very interesting to see if these games will steal some of the core OSG players, or if the use of established intellectual properties will bring a whole new set of players to the genre.

Cheers,
Oliver

Scamville

There’s an interesting article over at Tech Crunch talking about the Free-To-Play model and how some of the methods they use to make money from users are rather unethical. The author, Michael Arrington, specifically mentions a couple of scams from Offerpal, one of the services Ikariam has.

There’s also a quote from the Cofounder of IGG (who brought us Lords Online and Freesky) recommending developers “get users in the door to play free, then monetize the hell out of them once they’re hooked”.

It’s a pretty interestiong article if you’re interested in the industry or just want a heads up on some potential scams.

Cheers,
Oliver

Task / Quest System

A game mechanic that seems to be cropping into most new OSG’s is the task / quest system. This is something I first noticed in Evony, but probably originated from the “in-game tutorial”.

Strategy games are generally quite complicated and each one has its own terms and icons, so a tutorial is essential for helping new players get in the to the swing of the game. One of the best in-game tutorials is in Travian. As soon as you start the game the tutorial pops up, explains what resources are, why they’re important, and tells you to upgrade one Woodcutter. There are 20 more sequential tasks that guide you through the different aspects of the game, and once you join an alliance the tutorial is over and you will never see it again. A player who completes the tutorial has essentially graduated; he knows how to play and should be fine on his own.

The quest / task system, however, is a persistant pressence in the game. Usually there are a number of simultaneous quests in different categories that continue throughout the game. For example, there might be a category for production with the following tasks: Upgrade a Cropland to lvl 2, Upgrade a Cropland to lvl 3, Upgrade a Cropland to lvl 4, so on and so forth. At the same time there is a category for Military: Build a Barrakcs, Train a Soldier, Upgrad Barracks to lvl 2, Upgrade Barracks to lvl 3, build a new Soldier, etc.

I would argue that this system detracts from the game.

First, it doesn’t teach anything, which is the point of the tutorial. If you throw 10 different quests at the player at the same time, he will not know which one to do first, and would be able to build a Barracks by just clicking around just as fast as by sorting through all the different quests.

The quest system also removes part of the strategy from the game. By significantly rewarding players for completing the tasks, the game basically ensures that all players are going to be performing the exact same set of actions. The game is eliminating choice.

Instead of reaping the rewards that are inherent in a level 2 Barracks, the player is rewarded by the task system. It’s almost like being paid to exercise. Instead of learning about the health benifits and thinking “I do feel better after I work out, i think I’ll keep doing it,” the player is far more focused on “I’m going to keep upgrading my barracks, because every time I do I get 2,000 resources.” The player could go through the entire game not truly understanding how to play, merely following all the tasks.

Finally, the task sytstem adds another thing to consider in an already complex game. In Ikariam, every time I play I have to go through each of my towns, check that they have enough Wine, start construction on my next building if I have enough resources, send special resources to wherever they need to go, and sift through all my reports and messages. All to say, an OSG player is very busy for a “casual gamer”. Now if I have to check for completed tasks as well, it’s just unnecessary busy-work. Some OSG’s like Heroes of Gaia, make it even worse by requiriung you “Accept” a task before completing it, or else you won’t get the reward. I’m already running an empire here, no need to make things more complicated.

All to say, I find the task / quest system to be part of a disturbing trend where new games rely on immitation and budget more than smart gameplay. Of course, that’s just my two pennies worth. What do YOU think?

Cheers,
Oliver