The Merits of Shorter Play Sessions

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In the past, one of the things that I’d always look out for when purchasing a game was the amount of playtime I would get out of it. The thinking went that more play time is always better than less, just in value for money terms if nothing else. The older I have got though, the more I have begun to appreciate the value of shorter games. I mean sure, I love my 100 hour plus RPGs as much as the next person, but recently I’ve developed a real appreciation for the smaller, more self contained experiences that shorter games can offer.

Gone Home is a perfect example of this. The entire thing can be finished in around 2 to 4 hours, but because of that it can comfortably be played in one sittings, which I find adds to the overall experience. I’m able to drink in all the details and progress whilst all of it is still fresh in my mind. This helps me feel more immersed in the game, and thus more driven to seek the conclusion of the story. Knowing I can complete something on a Sunday afternoon is a nice feeling, and whilst longer games make up the bulk of my playtime, having these little stories to romp through in a few hours is a nice addition to my stable of games.

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I guess the same can be said of games which work well with short play sessions. Although I don’t play tons of them, this can be a plus point to a lot of rogue-like games like FTL or Rogue Legacy. Jumping on for a short, fifteen minutes to an hour session, can be really rewarding. I’d also extend this to MMOs to some extent. Whilst in The Secret World I generally prefer to play for longer spells, to really drink in the details, mood, and atmosphere, I do sometimes log in just to do a 20 minute mission. But, whilst these games can be played in short bursts, it’s not quite the same as a completely self contained narrative experience that begins and ends in one play session.

It’s not so much a matter of time constraints that makes me appreciate shorter games, it really is the appeal of a short but rounded experience that has begun to draw me to them. I still largely play games which demand a more significant time investment, because I think that often has to be the case for there to be a lot of depth to the game, but it’s nice to be getting a bit more variety in what I’m playing. Plus, it’s nice to actually finish some bloody games for once!

Did WoW Ruin MMOs?

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A couple a days ago Sig over at Crucible Gaming put forward an interesting proposition; that he believes that World of Warcraft ruined MMOs by fostering solo play as the primary means of playing them. I have to confess, I started playing MMOs shortly after WoW launched, and I cut my teeth on Guild Wars before eventually trying WoW. So, as such I can’t claim the same level of first hand historical understanding of the early MMO market that so many in the blogging community can. But I do think WoW ruined MMO gaming, just not in quite the same way that Sig is putting forward, although I’m certainly sympathetic to his message.

To my mind, one of the greatest problems that WoW has created is a potential miscalculation in the level of interest there actually is in the MMO genre. No game has ever come close to matching WoW’s subscriber numbers which are currently around the 8 million mark, down from its height of around 12 million . Even games with huge launch hype and unbelievable budgets like SWTOR crow about selling a million boxes at launch. One million boxes. And that’s just boxes, not actual long-term subscribers. As this pattern repeats itself over and over again I think the question we have to ask is, do people want to play MMOs or do they want to play World of Warcraft.? Over the years I’ve begun to lean more and more towards the latter.

Sure, there are tons of MMOs out there now, but I don’t think that if you added the player bases of all of them together it would equal WoW’s peak subscriber numbers. But, big budget MMOs continue to launch and continue to fail to garner enough players to rival WoW or even come close. But of course, that hasn’t stopped many studios from trying to. That leads me to conclude one of two things: either that WoW is the greatest MMO ever made and nothing else can rival it, or there simply aren’t enough players willing to play other games, or at least not put down roots there so to speak. Based on my experience I simply have to agree with the latter.

Now of course it’s also entirely possible that the problem is that we simply haven’t had enough variety in the genre for people to feel the need to diverge from WoW. It’s certainly true that creativity has stagnated somewhat, and we’re still, ten years on, in the midst of the “like WoW but different because x” formula of MMO development. I’m entirely willing to accept that I may be completely wrong about this, but I simply believe that WoW achieved the status of cultural monolith and nothing will ever come close to that again. But because of it’s success and the budgets and expectations of MMO studios, we’ve ended up with a “play it safely, give them what they seem to want” sort of marketplace. That is what I believe has ruined MMOs.

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Take  look at AAA gaming and you’ll see a lot of lowest common denominator let’s do what’s already popular sort of titles. This is in large part because the size of the investments required to make some of these game just do not allow for any risk taking. Another parallel can perhaps be drawn with the summer blockbuster movie market, which also offers extremely safe and rote output most of the times. Again, because the risk of failure is too great.

That is the position I believe the MMO market is in today, and that can only be improved by the proliferation of smaller independent titles as has happened in the wider games market in recent years, particularly on PC. I know I’ve argued this before, but that is what I believe the long term legacy of WoW has been; a stagnation of innovation in a genre that really needs some. I’m just not sure there will ever be enough players to create a WoW-like player base ever again, and maybe the people who continue to play WoW simply aren’t interested in playing any others, so let’s forget about them and move on.

TSW: Leaving Kingsmouth

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I’ve finally done it. For the first time in my 3 attempts to play The Secret World, I’ve actually finished Kingsmouth! I’ve never quite gelled with the game enough to get through this first zone before, but this time I’ve found myself quite immersed in the experience. I have been taking it very slowly, with only a few play sessions a week, which I guess is demonstrated by the face it’s taken me about six weeks to get this far.

The unusually dense manner in which content is dispersed has also contributed. There’s a surprising amount to do in the first area, and it really isn’t all that big in landmass terms either. You can traverse the whole zone in a few minutes, but you will be spending a lot of time running back and forth through the same areas, which I have to say makes it somewhat inexplicable that enemies continue to aggro even when you’re considerably more powerful than them. It leaves me with the impression that it’s a design decision to slow players down a bit and throttle their progression through the storyline. But some missions like the investigation ones, and even a few from the main storyline, have an indeterminate completion time, simply because they rely on smarts not numbers to progress. The time taken to decipher a biblical quotation may vary! Some investigation missions have taken me hours to finish, but I never find them a slog and I usually don’t look up any walkthroughs unless I’m totally stumped and even then I just try and find a clue. So, some people may blast through Kingsmouth, but for me and the way I approach the game, it’s taken a while!

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When I started playing The Secret World again my plan was to think of it as a single player game. This has helped my ability to not feel bad about only jumping in every now and again, and to feel like I can enjoy the game at a slow pace, hearing every line of dialogue, trying to complete every mission, and see every sight. I think this has been a big part of why I’ve had such a lot of fun with the game, but I can’t help but feel the draw of group content. I’m becoming more and more inclined towards finding a group of players I can join, but I don’t feel like I want to commit a lot of free time to scheduled grouping times. I’m keen to see the dungeon content though, just because I don’t want to miss out on any of the games storylines, so maybe I’ll just try some PUGs in the lower ‘level’ dungeons for now.

I’m really excited to really start digging into The Savage Coast, the games next zone. It looks very dark and moody, even more so than Kingsmouth, and the variety of enemies is a nice change after killing all the zombies all the time! The few characters I’ve met so far seem interesting, and it already looks as though the density of content in Kingsmouth is going to be mirrored in all of the other zones too. I’m also just starting to reach a point where I have more skills unlocked to start making better builds. I’m currently working on an affliction/penetration blood magic and blade build. It’s early days as I don’t have a lot of the skills I’ll need yet, but I’m pretty close to some build defining ones.

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Overall, I’m still really enjoying the game, and a casual approach has helped greatly I feel. I may get around to giving some of the group content a try soon, but it depends if I get the opportunity. I’m still glad I’ve subscribed as the knowledge that I’m building up store currency to buy more content whenever I’m ready for it is nice, and the benefits are ok as well. An hour long XP booster you can use every sixteen hours, a 10% store discount, and a some free items and bonus points to spend on limited store items.

Feel free to add me, my character name is “Lucks” and I play on Arcadia, Templar side. And I still have so many zones and all the DLC to go!

The Secret World and Technical Problems

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I haven’t written much about The Secret World lately, for the very good reason that frankly I haven’t played it very much at all. However during the last few days I’ve been getting back to things there, and I’m having an absolutely great time with it at the moment, and I’ve played it quite a lot this week. I’m still subscribing to the game and I’m just letting my store credits build up, before I decide which DLC to buy first. Although I do understand there’s some sort of cap on those store credits so I have to be a bit mindful of that.

I think it really helped to draw me back into the game that the first mission I completed after my return was actually the first faction mission, in my case for The Templars, and it was very enjoyable with some neat lighting mechanics being used to add to the oppressively dark atmosphere. This immediately pulled me back into the game and got me excited about all the great missions to come. One thing I really do like about TSW is that you often find yourself doing things I’ve never done in an MMO before. Take for example the mission I just mentioned, where you have to equip a miners lamp headlight which deactivates periodically. It’s not just using the lamp that’s different, but also that they took the time to make doing so a worthwhile experience.

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That said, I’m still finding that general performance issues I have with the game are putting me off somewhat. It’s hard to appreciate an area such as London, and all the lengths Funcom have gone to to make it an interesting place packed with funny little details, when it takes 60 seconds for NPCs to load in a lot of the time. I also get the odd crash which I can live with, but this combined with longer than average loading times is quite irritating. Yesterday the launcher was installing a patch, but was downloading at a peek of around 28kb/s. Which meant it took about twenty minutes to download a 58mb patch. That actually ate into my window for playing the game significantly, so I was able to do much less than I’d have liked to.

My biggest problem so far though, has to be the inconsistency of animations in the game. I regularly get frozen animations, animations that don’t trigger, or that glitch out in some fashion. So I can hit active dodge, and it’s basically 50/50 whether my character will actually visibly do anything on the screen. Sometimes if I dodge whilst running, my character will be completely motionless as if standing still whilst still propelling forwards at sprint speed, which certainly looks a bit funny but can be a bit of an immersion breaker. I’ve even had both my character and enemies fail to use any attack animations for most of a fight, so the only feedback that anything at all is happening is numbers springing out of their heads. None of this is a deal breaker, but it’s proving to be a bit of an obstacle to fully enjoying the game.

I’m well aware that my PC is on its way out, so it’s possible that some of these problems are on my end. Yet, I’d be surprised if something like those animations glitches I described weren’t a client side problem. I searched around online about poor framerate even on low settings, and it was recommended in a few places to switch down to DX9 instead of 11, as what you lose by doing so is minimal anyway and apparently it fixes a lot of problems and is a known issue with Age of Conan too. Doing this did help with framerate issues, and allow me to run the game on much higher setting before taking a performance hit, which certainly makes the game look a lot better than it did before, but these other little niggles are all that’s holding me back from getting fully engaged in the game.

So am I alone in this, or have any of you guys experienced a lot of problems with The Secret World?

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.