Gaming Update

Well the bad news is things have been quiet around here for a few days while I had a few days off work for some much needed relaxation, but the good news is I played a crap ton of games in that time! So, here’s what I’ve been up to for the last few days.

The Walking Dead Season Two

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I finally got around to completing the last two episodes of Telltale’s latest misery simulator, and I thought it was pretty good. It definitely lacked the freshness of the first game, which I went into with no expectations and fell in love with, but you can see the seams of the game whilst playing through the second season. You become more and more aware of how the game functions, and how relatively meaningless your choices actually are to the outcome of the story.

That said, I feel that Telltale offer you enough say in influencing the tone of what happens that I feel invested enough in the story to feel engaged. In fact, I’d forgotten how intense these games can be, I paused more than once to pore over a decision. That said, the pacing felt a little off all season, with a couple of episodes really failing to establish characters sufficiently enough for me to give a crap when they inevitably die, but I did enjoy the story. Overall I still recommend this game, even if you might get the most from the experience if you wait until all the episodes are released, as 2-3 months after a 2 hour episode, you tend to be a little fuzzy on details.

Gone Home

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I picked this up in the latest Humble Indie Bundle and played it straight through in one sitting. It’s only about 3-4 hours long, but what a great little game. It tells a beautiful story with real charm, and does so in a setting thoroughly familiar in it’s domesticity.  Exploring the house is satisfying, and reading about all the intimate little details of peoples lives in order to form a picture of them, and track their separate stories, provides you with enough impetus to push on to the games conclusion.

Gone Home is one of those games that challenges the traditional meaning of the term video game, but what it offers is bringing something very unique and enjoyable to the medium. I enjoyed Dear Esther too, and what I’ve played of The Stanley Parable; there’s plenty of room for all these titles to coexist with more traditional shooty shooty video games, and I love the sheer proliferation of games that’s been happening since the explosion of the indie market.

Divinity: Original Sin

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I continue to explore the town of Cyseal. The sheer density of this games content continues to surprise me. There’s so much to do just in this first town, and exploring all of its little secrets and meeting its more interesting personalities has kept me going for hours. I’ve still only explored a little of the sandy beaches and caverns surrounding the town, but that has provided plenty of extremely challenging combat encounters and some interesting side stories. I can’t wait to play this game co-op sometime.

Bordlerlands 2

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For some reason I’ve never really played a long-term co-operative online game like Borderlands, or Left 4 Dead. I’d certainly like to play more of them, I just don’t have a lot of time to commit to long play sessions with these kind of titles, but I always enjoy them when I get that time.

My friend and I have been blasting through the opening areas of this title a few hours a week. It’s RPG mechanics and it’s sheer amount of content give it an almost MMO like feel in it’s longevity. It’s certainly a great game for loot lovers all over the land, because in this game expect to find a lot! The writing also keeps me chuckling along for the most part, and the intense combat encounters are engaging and challenging enough to make even short fights fun.

I kind of wish that the story was a little easier to follow as there’s a lot of NPC cross chatter, and when on voice comms with a friend it’s easy to miss big chunks of exposition central to understanding just what is actually going on. But, maybe it’s not all that important as most missions seem to amount to shooting stuff!

Easy/Normal/Hard?

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Difficulty in games is something that has always interested me as a subject. Different people have differing approaches and attitudes towards difficulty, both with difficulty settings, and difficult games to learn or master. Some always play on  hard, some on easy, and I imagine most, playing on normal. Personally, I always try and play games on normal unless I get so frustrated butting my head against a wall that I have to revert to the easier settings. I don’t do this out of any misplaced sense of snobbery about playing on easy mode, but rather because I believe that normal difficulty usually represents the challenge and experience that the designers intended to create, and in good games challenge and experience are linked.

Of course some games change completely with different difficulty levels, sometimes introducing new mechanics, and perhaps simplifying or expanding existing ones. Take Dragon Age: Origins for example. In that game, whilst playing on normal, spell effects are capable of inflicting friendly fire damage onto party members. This encourages a degree of caution before you use large area of effect spells, whilst the easy setting removes this mechanic, thus vastly simplifying the magic system. Other games such as The Witcher 2 offer a more straight forward approach by simply giving enemies less health and inferior AI, to the point where you can hack and slash your way through them on autopilot, which differs greatly from the fast, movement orientated combat of the normal setting.

So, sometimes I think that by choosing to play on easy mode, you perhaps rob yourself of the games original vision, and in some cases, the complexities of the mechanics too. That’s not to denigrate those who choose to play this way. A few years ago I was living with a colleague when The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was new, and between us we must have racked up hundreds of hours in that wonderful game. We would take it in turns to play, whilst the other manned the laptop and searched the wiki for secrets, ways around the all to frequent bugs, and in the end, to hunt down the remaining quests we had yet to complete. I have a lot of fond memories of us playing this game together. However one thing always irked me – my friends insistence on playing with the difficulty slider all the way down to the easiest setting. In Oblivion this meant that a single enemy was actually unable to kill you whilst you used the basic restoration spells. This was a great way to level up a couple of skills at once, but playing the whole game like this seemed an anathema to me. Surely to rob yourself of all challenge was to rob yourself of one of the thing games are meant to be about.

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Then one day it dawned on me. We were both getting different things out of the game despite the apparently shared experience. Whereas she enjoyed the world, the setting and the questing aspects of the game, I enjoyed all those but only with the added threat of death and a failure state. I think this is usually the case for me, but I’ve begun to encounter games where perhaps narrative was a stronger draw for me than any challenge represented by the mechanics. I wrote recently on my inability to complete Mass Effect, due to a general feeling that minute to minute gameplay doesn’t come close to representing the quality of the storyline and the world presented. This is a good candidate for me to blaze through on easy mode, because I fundamentally don’t find the combat fun to begin with. In essence I’m seeking narrative from the experience, not challenge. Or not the kind of challenge combat represents anyway.

I’m at risk of sounding a little like the only kind of games are ones with combat, but the fact is most games lean heavily on the old ultraviolence as a means to control progression, and is usually one of the core things that difficulty levels affect that palpably alters the flow and progression of a game. Obviously I’d love there to be more games that were able to offer a more creative means of challenging the player than combat, but there are plenty of genres that do that, and I think we’re starting to see more and more of them as times goes on and the medium matures a little.

Some games of course have unusually hard difficulty, or are at least perceived as being difficult to learn or master. Dark Souls springs to mind immediately. It certainly is a tough game, but not only is that difficulty quite surmountable with a bit of practice or until the combat ‘clicks’, it actually represents an important part of the lore, story and mechanics of that game. This is one of the things that makes Dark Souls so unique, it melds these three elements perfectly, and the story is in large part told through the very nature of the mechanics. You play a cursed undead, unable to die, but each death draws the character closer to becoming ‘hollowed’; a mindless undead who has lost all humanity. This in a sense represents the players own struggles. Death has a draining effect on the character as written in the lore, and a draining effect on the player in reality. The souls you find lying amongst the corpses that are dotted throughout the world bear different names depending on how far into the game you have progressed, and thus the amount of souls awarded to the player for discovering them. At the very start of the game souls begin with titles such as “Soul of a Lost Undead” or “Soul of a Nameless Soldier”, whilst later ones read “Soul of a Proud Knight”, “Soul of a Brave Warrior” or “Soul of a Great Hero”. These items, and the corpses they are found on, can be said to represent players too, those who have gotten this far, and then given up. Frustrated by their journey they simply stopped playing, and thus their journey ended here.

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Also Dark Souls difficulty is mechanically unique, in that enemies are tough not because they do insane damage and have large health bars, because usually they don’t. There are occasions where that is the case, but for the most part the enemies are challenging because they are reasonably intelligent. Even the earliest foes are entirely capable of seizing on your mistimed attack, or an overly aggressive approach, and killing you very quickly indeed.  Yet it cannot be denied that difficulty is one of the biggest turn offs for people who read or hear about Dark Souls, which I feel is a great shame because what’s on offer is a truly unique experience, but unfortunately one that only really hits home around 30 hours in, so it is true that you have to break through the wall to enjoy it.

I must admit that I sometimes approach difficult games with a mentality of simply wanting to master it for the sheer sense of achievement at doing so. Eve is certainly one of them. When I began playing, I sort of made it my ambition to understand it, just because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do so. That may sound silly, but at some level I feel that if you can make it in Eve with regards to complexity, then you can make it in pretty much anything that the MMO genre can throw at you. I played that game for 18 months, and can honestly say I only gained a reasonably proficient knowledge of, at best, 15% of what that game has to offer. But one of the things you do learn after a while, is that learning all of the systems in Eve is most certainly not required. If I’m living in low sec PvPing, I probably don’t need to know too much about T2 manufacturing. If I’m mining in high sec, I probably don’t need to read up on bubble mechanics in null sec. And if I’m living in null sec and engaging in a war, I probably don’t need to know about the rewards for exploration in high sec. So, mastery of all knowledge is unlikely to add much to your experience unless you have an army of alts. Whilst it certainly is a complex game, it’s a lot more manageable once you begin to break it down to the bits that are relevant to your immediate gameplay experience, which when you’re a new player in particular is likely to be quite limited.

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But what cannot be denied about both Eve and Dark souls, is that as well as being mechanically difficult and complex, they both certainly obfuscate things more than is necessary. Dark Souls is almost deliberately obtuse at times. The tutorial does little more than teach you the controls, and explains none of the mechanics governing death, levelling up, becoming human, summoning players or being invaded. This is actually a design choice on the part of From Software, they obviously intended players to explore and discover, which is certainly mirrored in other parts of the game too. Also, an experience based on a sort of shared knowledge with both friends and other players online becomes a large part of the fun of unpicking the game.

The same can’t really be said for Eve however. Whilst Eve cannot avoid being complicated, such is the breadth of the game and the range of experiences on offer, but it could certainly be better at explaining how things work. Most of the knowledge players need to understand the game cannot be accessed from inside the actual game, with a lot of information stored on wikis or other websites. This is also what makes joining a corporation as a new player just as vital for learning how the game works through the shared experience of long term players, as well as it being an important anchor in the game and a gateway to much more fun experiences than the average high sec newbie engages in. Yet unlike From Software, I don’t believe this kind of obfuscation of mechanics was actually intended by CCP. It’s not a poetry of mechanics/lore/story and difficulty, it’s just a barrier to enjoying the game for a lot of people. I like overcoming difficulty because I believe it can often be a byword for depth in games, but also because I like figuring it all out. However, I can totally understand why it totally alienates people that you need to understand this, just to be able to truly know how firing your guns at a moving enemy works. And that knowledge has to be sought through means that the game client doesn’t offer. I guess on the spectrum of complexity for the sake of depth, and complexity for complexities sake, Eve is guilty of being a lot closer to the latter than the former.

I’m rambling a bit now, but as you can see, there’s lot’s to think about with regards to difficulty. I guess that I’d conclude that difficulty is a very important part of a games design, and that players approach it in ways that perhaps mirror what they want to gain from the experience over all.

Star Wars Galaxies Emu

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I recently downloaded Star Wars Galaxies Emu, the most complete Star Wars Galaxies emulator so far, and pottered about in it for a couple of hours. I have tried the it a couple of years ago, and it’s pretty clear that the emulator is still being very actively developed for. You can get hold of it pretty easily, and as long as you have the disks, it appears to be fairly above board, but note that some big features still aren’t in the game as of yet, most notably the Jump to Lightspeed content.

Important disclosure here that I never really played SWG, unless you count a trial period during the final six months of the games lifespan. What I saw at that time was a game which clearly had a lot of interesting core ideas, but getting to them was obtuse, ugly and not that fun. I’m actually ok with that in games if I feel the reward is worth it, but I didn’t get far enough in SWG to even appreciate what my options were. Having said that, I’ve always felt it was a gaping hole on my MMO résumé, so getting the opportunity just to have another look at it, especially now it’s gone, is something I really appreciate.

It’s always a slightly surreal experience playing not just an MMO that shut down years ago in order to accommodate SWTOR (ouch), but a version of the game that is pre CU and NGE, two patches which alienated large parts of the playerbase and from which it could be argued it never truly recovered from. This is sort of akin to wandering the halls of a museum, but with the freedom to prod and push at things. The game looks old obviously, but it also plays old, which again I’m sure you’d expect. There are some problems with it in its current state, most notably I think that the economy doesn’t function too well with a small playerbase which can have up to ten alts. This creates a situation where something like crafting doesn’t work as originally intended, because interdependency between various professions is almost non-existent when someone can just switch to an alt and provide everything they need for themselves. This leads to a feeling that crafting and the economy is a closed market if you’ll excuse the pun.

There are two features which I love about this version of SWG, and I think they are good examples of the kind of features we are missing in MMOs today. Firstly, the entertainer class. The entertainer hangs around cantinas, and plays music or dances. Players who pay them a tip receive a pretty substantial buff, which seems like it was once a pretty integral part of tackling difficulty PvE combat situations. Can you imagine having to do that now? To actively seek out another player in a specific spot and pay them for a service. I think many would log off at the mere suggestion. This is pretty similar to my other favourite which is the medic class, who players must seek out after being defeated in combat to remove negative death effects. Remember those? Again, you must seek out a player at the hospital most likely, and pay them to treat you.

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What I enjoy about these systems is, apart from the social aspect they encourage, I think they are great examples of good sandbox design. With these features, places like cantinas become vibrant social hubs, but also vitally, such class progression offers serious non-combat options for people to progress their characters and feel as though they are providing an important service to the community too. I think we’ve lost that, and it’s a damn shame too.

I wonder why we’ve seen a move away from the non-combat class. I guess it comes down to the old game/world discussion. We have a lot of games right now but not a lot of worlds. What is sort of fascinating about early SWG is that in many ways it was far more about living a life in a virtual world than it was about being a galaxy saving superhero. Have we just got to the point where everyone has to be a spell slinging mage or a sword wielding warrior in order for MMOs to be fun? What changed and why?

I’m once again inclined to think that lowest common denominator design is somewhat at play. MMOs are capable of delivering living worlds better than any other genre of game, but for the last decade we’ve progressed so far down the game path that I can’t even see the world path anymore. Another part of the EQ and WoW legacy I guess. Personally I’m intrigued by The Repopulation, but that’s been in development for a long time, and I don’t quite fancy dropping $100 to try out the alpha weekends. I’m long past the point of putting all my hopes and dreams into an upcoming title, but The Repopulation is billing itself as a potential spiritual successor to SWG, and for that reason I’m certainly keeping one eye on it.

Divinity: Original Sin – Initial Impressions

One of the downsides of Blaugust was that it afforded me far less time than I’d like to actually play many videogames. By the time I get in from work, sit down and have some food, then write an article, it’s not too far off time for bed. As such I really haven’t played a great deal, especially in the last fortnight. Now that I can afford to post a bit less often than everyday, it feels liberating having so much more free time. In the last couple of days all of that free time has been taken up by one game, Divinity: Original Sin.

Divinity: Original Sin is part of the line of games descending from the abysmally named Divine Divinity, which was very much a Diablo style ARPG with a bit more of a narrative focus (I think anyway, I played it a bit 12 years ago). Divinity: Original Sin utilises the same isometric view as many of those titles, but in the opening 5 hours or so that I have played has so far demonstrated far more depth and character than many of its competitors.

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The game has a party system like many RPGs, but unusually you control two main characters. The customisation options for these characters are hugely extensive in terms of classes and skills. I lost an hour just considering my options, before choosing two pre-made classes because I’m a big wuss and I’m scared I’ll gimp myself be being an idiot or not understanding the systems correctly. Your characters are ‘Source Hunters’, it isn’t entirely clear what that means but I think it’s basically magic hunters. Think Templars in Dragon Age: Origins. Your purpose is to investigate a murder which has taken place in the town of Cyseal.

I’m far from deep enough into what is clearly a very dense game to comment on it overall, but thus far I’ve had a lot of challenge, intrigue and laughs out of the game and right now I’m still largely pottering about the town, with only the odd (punishing) foray along the orc infested coastline. There are so many NPCs to talk to, and they have so much to say too. And that isn’t a bad thing here. The writing is of a very high standard and I’ve appreciated many silly jokes already. One of my characters has the ‘pet pal’ trait, which allows them to converse with animals, which can lead to additional quests and flavour text. I adore how different animals have different manners of speaking which reflect their character somewhat. Cats are, unsurprisingly, somewhat cool and aloof, whilst the dog I met repeatedly referred to how awesome his master was in every sentence. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of reading to do in this game.

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Something I’m already in love with is the freedom and options given to the player which allows them to roleplay their characters. For example, during character creation you can select the AI of your two characters. This defines the, for want of a better term, alignment of the characters. Or, you can do as I did, and choose no AI, allowing you to choose your characters dialogue responses yourself. Let me give you an example of how this works in practice. Whilst standing in the town market I noticed a man stealing some fish, which prompted me to question the man. This led to a discussion between my two characters about whether the man should be arrested, or whether punishing a starving man who simply wanted to eat was the morally proper thing to do. So, as I picked no AI, I got to choose the answers of both of my characters. At the end of the discussion they both disagreed, and the conflict is then resolved by a game of rock paper scissors. This may sound a little gimmicky, but in practice I feel it gives me a lot of room to define the characters myself, which I really appreciate.

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Combat is a turn based affair, and can be very challenging. The elemental system in the game promises much experimentation. For example, I have a mage who can make rain appear in an area, and as such everybody in that area becomes wet. Being wet decreases resistance to cold attacks, but increases resistance to fire attacks. So if I then use a chill spell on a wet enemy, instead of just slowing his movement speed it will freeze him outright for a period of time. Shooting fire at water creates steam which reduces chance to hit, shooting electric at the steam creates static which then has its own set of effects. These are only a handful of examples I have discovered so far, but there’s a lot to play with.

Much of the environment is also interactive and sometimes destructible in a manner which feels pretty refreshing for this sort of game. Some items can be picked up and moved around by clicking and dragging them to solve puzzles, uncover items or clear paths, whilst doors and chests may be destroyed at the expense of weapon durability. This is one of the systems I haven’t had too much time to play around with yet though, so I’ve yet to see how meaningful this will all be.

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I’ve often wanted to get really in to many of the great CRPGs of the 90s and early 00s that I missed out on. Planescape: Torment, Baldurs Gate, Neverwinter Nights and so on. I own them all in some for or another. However, whenever I sit down to play them I always find them a bit slow to get going, or sometimes to have punishingly hard combat that makes progress very slow. I’d like to sit down with them one day and make a good go of it, particularly with Baldur’s Gate 2 which many still consider to be the best RPG of all time. Perhaps what I really needed was a game like Divinity: Original Sin, which captures the essence of many of those old school RPGs, but brings with it a sense of modernity; a reimagining of many of the features in those games which makes them immediately more palatable and expands upon them. And, much like Neverwinter Nights, Divinity appears to aspire to recreate that pen and paper style experience with friends too, offering co-op mode and Steam Workshop functionality for player made adventures.

There’s a lot of game here, and I’m glad I picked it up. I’ve been eyeing it up for months, and if any of this sounds interesting to you I’d advise you to check out a few reviews, which have been glowing. I think this one is going to take a while to get through, so expect me to report back again when I’m a bit further along on my adventure.

Blaugust Roundup and Podcast News

Well we finally got there. Blaugust is now officially over. It’s been a really interesting experience for me, and as a brand new blogger, something of a baptism of fire. I’ve reflected previously on how Blaugust perhaps forced me to confront some realities quicker than I otherwise might have done. For example, I wrote an article about free to play just the other day. Before I got started with this, I’d planned to write a lot more of that kind of post. However I quickly realised, that you simply can’t do that everyday. You need smaller posts to keep you going, not big state of the industry type posts

Formalising the process for writing has been really helpful for me too. Setting aside a regular period of time, putting in place a set pattern for how I go about writing an article, posting the links etc., has been greatly helped by regular posting too. Another thing that I’ve loved about Blaugust is that I’ve met a lot of new people. People who have been kind enough to come to the site and post comments, and chat with me on Twitter, not to mention that I’ve discovered so many awesome blogs. This has been the most positive aspect of the whole event from my point of view.

Once again I can only express my gratitude to Belghast for coming up with the event. It’s been very informative, and I’ve had a great time, even if it has been tough going on some daw. I realise I’m actually posting my Aug 31st article on Sep 1st but I was delayed last night, and had to give it up. I hope that’s ok!

Contains Moderate Peril Podcast

Unfortunately one of Contains Moderate Peril’s podcast hosts, Brian, is taking some time off with some health problems. Roger needed someone else to help out with the show in the meantime, and was kind enough to think of me. I’ve been on the show a few times before, and always have a great time so I was very happy to help out. The latest episode should be out today or in the next couple of days so check it out!

My Blog Name

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During this tail end of Blaugust, Rowan Blaze has kindly thrown all of us weary bloggers a bone. Rowan wrote an interesting post about his choice of blog name, and how he feels about that name some years down the road. He then throws this out to the community:

“So my second challenge for you, Dear Reader, in these few days of Blaugust: Why did you title your blog what you did? Do you think the name still fits?”

Well, truth be told, I can’t say that I put a tremendous amount of thought into the title ‘Gaming Conjecture’. I think this is evident by the fact that I later realised that ‘Gaming Conjecture’ is about 60% the same as Braxwolf’s ‘Gaming Conversations’. It’s possible that as he suggested, perhaps he had some positive subliminal influence on me. I’m inclined to think that we just followed a similar process for creating a name. That’s to say, we both wanted to make it clear the blog was about gaming, and then needed something that sounded good to go with that.

I’m very lazy at times though, so my thought process went something like this: “Hmm, need a blog name. Something about games. Something about talking about games or thinking about games. Ah that’ll do.” I’m not totally wild about the name, and perhaps wish I’d come up with something a bit more interesting or pithy, but ultimately I don’t think the name is that important. Unless it’s called something so obnoxious or corny or bland that peoples eyes just pass over it, I’m sure it’s the content that people are coming for not the name.

I feel that the name is generic enough that it fits pretty much anything about gaming, and I can live with it. But of course, I haven’t been at this very long. So who knows, maybe I’ll absolutely hate this name one day. Thanks to Rowan for the challenge. Yum yum, free blog posts!

Wildstar’s Update Schedule

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In the last week Carbine Studios, the creators of Wildstar, made an announcement that the game was effectively moving away from the monthly update schedule that they had committed to prior to the games launch. Well quelle surprise. I don’t mean to sound cynical about this…oh what the hell of course I do, but nobody should be shocked by this.

It seems that the vast majority of MMOs have followed this pattern for years. The game launches, there are promises of rigorous update schedules, adding significant content to the game on a regular basis in order to keep players playing, and usually, subscribing. One or two patches follow, and then either delays, or as in this case, an explicit change of policy. There has been the odd exception to this rule. RIFT, as I’ve written about before, used to have an amazing update schedule and the pace at which it pumps out new content is still not to be sniffed at. Guild Wars 2 of course has been running temporary content patches very frequently for a while now, although the significance of these updates is debatable and many still argue that they would prefer something more permanent than the rather transitory living story updates.

What bothers me though, is why do MMO developers keep making claims about their update schedule before launch, only to renege on it later? It could be simply that they underestimate the amount of time required in order to develop these patches. Maybe they feel that they can add more significant content and systems to the game with a slower update schedule, but one which adds bigger updates to the game. Perhaps it is simply the financial reality that many MMOs face an uncertain future post-launch. It could be that committing a lot of resources to updates when player numbers are spiralling downwards and haven’t yet levelled off feels like a big gamble. It would seem more likely to me that updates are a good thing for keeping players invested, but I could understand some reluctance to commit resources.

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The cynic in me feels that perhaps they make promises it was always going to be unlikely that they could keep in order to attract players to the game in the first place. I guess it’s hard to know for certain, but what is clear is that beyond the first big patch or two of stuff that was no doubt almost ready to go into the game prior to launch, many games go from a monthly schedule, to a six week schedule, to two months, or sometimes even more.

I think it’s pretty important for a game in Wildstar’s position, that is, as a newly launched game whose player numbers are probably on the decline post-launch, to try and keep the players that they do have. And for me personally, I find a regular update schedule to be an extremely attractive proposition when I’m on the look out for a new game to play. It’s one of the things that’s always made me wish I loved RIFT a little more than I do. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who finds solid content additions to be a major selling point for a game, so it seems a shame that we have to go through this rigmarole every time a new MMO launches.