The Problem with STO Lockboxes

Star Trek Online has, in my admittedly biased opinion, gone downhill in several ways. The stories are wonderful, the characters and familiar voices induce geekgasms, and in many ways it’s a wonderful game; but there’s a lot that, in recent years, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The foremost has to be the way that Cryptic has set up lockboxes.

lockbox_blog_020712Lockboxes are currently randomly dropped from destroying enemies in STO’s missions, both space and ground. They often have wonderful prizes inside, from some simple consumables to weapons to even ships. The ships are often the most coveted, exclusive to that type of lockbox only, and hardest to get. Thing is, every time you open a lockbox, it’s random what you’ll get; you could open one or two and find that awesome super-rare ship you’ve been hunting for, or you could open a hundred and never get a ship at all. It’s all determined by an RNG. Some items, like the special Lobi crystals currency, are guaranteed to be in them, but how many crystals is random. The ships, though, and the higher rarity items, are not guaranteed to even drop at all from a lockbox.

This wouldn’t be so bad… If not for the fact that the only way to open a lockbox is with a special key, which costs 100 Zen in the cash shop or can sell for hundreds of millions of Energy Credits in the exchange. Sure, you can just buy zen for Dilithium, but the price for Zen in Dilithium fluctuates based on the player made market. And even when you have a few keys, the lockbox rewards are still determined by an RNG. So it doesn’t matter how much time, Dilithium, or Zen you spend.

lockboxThis, to me defeats the purpose of the dilithium exchange and the whole concept that Cryptic was pushing that players who want to get things through spending time playing instead of spending real money would get fairly rewarded. No one’s being rewarded fairly; it’s just an overglorified slot machine. I understand wanting to give players rewards in lockboxes, but lockboxes in their current incarnation basically make a lot of things in the game unbalanced and unfair.

b018ec67214c8de420ab42f945980eb31359050634A F2P player will have to spend weeks upon weeks of grinding for dilithium, for several hours per day, to farm enough dilithium to get enough keys to have a decent chance at getting the item they wanted in particular, with no guarantee of ever even getting it. A player spending money can buy keys relatively cheaply, but because it’s an RNG, there’s no guarantee fo how much he’ll need to spend to get that one ship he really wants.

The only “legitimate” way to bypass the whole lockbox system is with the Exchange that uses Energy Credits (EC) instead of both Dilithium and Zen. Buy a key from the C-Store, then sell it on the exchange for several million EC. Then use that EC to buy the ship you want from someone else who’s selling their duplicate on the Exchange. Personally, I consider this entire method a waste of time, because if the lockboxes were well balanced and worth using as they are, this bypass wouldn’t even exist.

Now, remember my mentioning Lobi Crystals? They’re a special currency only available in lockboxes, and which can only be spent at the Lobi Store on items that are also exclusive to the Lobi Store. All lockboxes will drop some, the only thing that’s random is the number of Lobi Crystals you’ll get. Personally, I think that having these rare ships only as completely random drops out of lockboxes isn’t working. It makes more sense to make them also as purchases in the Lobi Store; that way even if the ship you want does not drop from the lockbox, you aren’t totally SOL and can still work your way to the one you wanted. I’m okay with there being some randomness to getting these ships, but not when that randomness is all there is and it alone determines whether you get those ships or not.

I get the need to have a cash shop. I get the idea behind lockboxes. I think both can be fun and useful, if done right. But right now, the lockbox system is hugely unfair and  just an unbalanced mess.

STO – Improving Reputation(s)

Blog Post Screenshot 001Before anyone misunderstands, no this isn’t about STO’s reputation with players as a game or about trying to “save” the game. The game doesn’t need saving, it’s already an amazing and successful MMO. This is about their planned improvements/additions to the game’s Reputations system. STO is adding another Reputation to the game in the new expansion coming this May. Frankly, I consider this a good thing, and honestly feel that their moving many rewards into the reputation system is a smart move. That said, the reputation system is in desperate need of a lot more of these reputations.

I really feel that making the whole game based on these reputations is a much smarter idea than what they started with. I’d like to see them put in a Starfleet reputation for FED players, a Klingon reputation for KDF players, a Neutral Factions reputation, a Borg Invasion reputation (to separate it from the Omega Task Force reputation system), a Cardassian/Bajoran/DS9 reputation, a Mirror Universe reputation, a Breen reputation, a Deferi reputation, and I’d like to see the Events reputation evolve  to a Featured Series reputation and a Fleet Actions reputation (this could reward players with Fleet Marks and even Fleet Ship requisition items similar to those in the C-Store), among others. Or, alternatively, they could take their current Commendations XP tracks and change each of them into separate reputation branches, each with it’s own “projects” for rewards that were previously only rewarded as mission rewards, then just adjust all the current mission rewards to instead offer various different reputation marks for whatever of those CXP reputations most fits that mission. Most current mission rewards could be fairly easily swapped to special marks/commendations for these new/alternate reputations, and PvP rewards could also be swapped over to this system as well.

If you ask me, it’s just a smart direction to take Star Trek Online. It makes adding new rewards into the system easier, and allows for seasonal rewards to be slotted in and out of the system with ease. It also makes re-playing older missions more worthwhile for many players, because they’d be re-playing not for obsolete items, but more reputation marks towards the gear they want. From what I’ve seen and experienced, the new reputation system has made a lot of things more interesting to play and even replay, even more interesting than simply adding Dilithium to mission replay rewards. I’d much rather they swapped out all the old-style quest rewards with a reputation system, then took the old rewards and made them available through the reputation projects. It’s been rather successful so far, and most players keep wanting more reputation tracks and projects to be added to the game. I think that this system could even be applied to the games crafting system, using various anomalies instead of marks to put towards a crafting project. If they could implement a way to have specific or even custom weapon/item bonuses as more expensive crafting projects, I think a lot more people would both craft and would farm for anomalies in missions. Add that to being able to re-play older missions for CXP marks, and you’ve just turned 75% of the game into worthwhile replay for most players.

I have a sneaky suspicion that this is the direction STO’s dev team is probably going, and I think that others in the industry may go that rout as well. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see; if ‘m right, we probably won’t know for another year or two, at least. Until then, I’ve got some Omega marks, New Romulus marks, and soon event marks and Nukara Strikeforce marks to be earning. Quapla’!

Scarlet Blade – a giant leap backwards for video game sexism?

Scarlet Blade MMORPG

Yes, this image pretty much says it all.

Video Gaming has come a long way with regards to sexism in its games; the days where Duke Nukem was the embodiment of typical gamer attitudes are long behind us. Sure, we’re still juvenile, and the stereotype isn’t completely quashed; but for the most part, gamers in general are more mature when it comes to sexism in games.

Apparently, no one gave Aria Games that memo on sexism. Their latest delve into MMO games is Scarlet Blade. I’d heard a few concerning things about this game already. The premise as I understood it was that in the far future, earth was invaded, almost all the men were killed, and all that remained to re-claim the surface of the planet were bio-mechanically enhanced women warriors… that are constantly wearing very little. With very bouncy breasts. And all have the tight, fit bodies of anime super-heroines  This, in and of itself, seemed pretty sexist, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and try the beta. Sure enough, all 6 classes are scantily clad ladies. But that wasn’t the part that rustled my jimmies.

The dialog has to be, by far, the most sexist dialog I have ever seen in an MMO. It was downright insulting, to both male AND female gamers. The dialog has been written from the perspective that the player is not their character, but rather a human survivor counterpart in some kind of cybernetic symbiosis with the character that they control. Apparently, every female NPC you come across all assume all players are oggling their lady-bits and have the one-track mind of a prepubescent teenage boy. Even your own character that you control. Combine that with the ridiculously bland cookie-cutter gameplay and you have a F2P game that is nothing but sexist fan-service for hentai addicts.

I honestly don't know how I feel about this armor... Or anything else in this game...

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this armor… Or anything else in this game…

Now, I fully admit, I enjoy the female form as much as the next heterosexual guy. I do admit that I oggle female sprites in games from time to time. But I consider those icing on the game’s cake; if there’s no good story, solid gameplay, etc. then it’s not enough for me to call it a good game. This game blatantly accuses all it’s players of being perverts only interested in sex with disproportionately sexy anime-styled ladies.

But does it take that sexism so far that it flips around and becomes a farce? I have to admit, when I was reading a lot of the dialog, I could not decide whether to be insulted or laugh. The artwork for the game is colourful and vibrant, with a lot of creative details in a decidedly anime style. The gameplay is cookie-cutter simple, but I saw few to no gameplay bugs beyond some minor auto-pathfinding issues and some balance issues in mob location. For a F2P game, it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. The fact that it is drowning in sexism towards women AND towards male gamers is the biggest and only real point of contention I see coming out of it. The developers are shooting for an M rating on the ESRB, and I can definitely see them getting it.

This game actually brings to light the whole topic of sex, nudity, and adult content in MMO games. I really feel these guys were the prepubescent teen males that the dialog assumes all players are, and they just never grew up. But is there a place for adult content like sex and nudity in MMO games? There’s a place for blood and violence, as many games before have shown. But can sex and nudity be depicted in a tasteful manner?

Well, I am in college learning to make video games, right? Maybe we’ll find out.

Star Trek Online – Refits complete, Captain

All systems are go, warp engines primed and ready. Time to come aboard, Captain.

It’s official – as of Tuesday, Jan. 17th, Star Trek Online is now a Free To Play (F2P) MMO game. Throngs of new players jumped in to play, several being previous subscribers who just found the game lacking enough content or substance. So far, pretty much everyone just jumping in now that it’s F2P, whether brand new to the game or returning after stepping away for some time, has been pleasantly surprised.

Taking place in the year 2409 (30 years after the events in Star Trek Nemesis), a lot has changed for the Federation. The Klingons have broken away and gone back to being on the offensive, absorbing several other races into their war machine. The True Way is rebuilding, the Mirror Universe is expanding into our timeline, the Romulans are embroyaled in a civil war over the remains of their empire after the destruction of their homeworlds due to the Hobus event, and the Borg have returned, more deadly and determined than ever.

One of the biggest new changes is the re-vamp of the currencies and replacing of marks, emblems, etc., with the new Dilithium currency and the Dilithium exchange. For anyone used to MMO games like World of Warcraft, I’m sure they understand the concept of having to repeatedly grind away at daily missions to earn marks or emblems that they collected to purchase special, high-level equipment. Well STO was far from an exception, but no longer. No more situations like having a surplus of seven thousand “Marks of Exploration Mk whatever-is-40-levels-below-you-and-useless-now” because you were grinding exploration missions to get the base-level crafting anomalies for that Aegis set.

All those marks and emblems have been replaced with Dilithium. Ships and some higher quality equipment of various levels are now purchased with Dilithium instead of Energy Credits (EC), and you can even purchase C-Points with Dilithium in a special new exchange panel. For many F2P players, this is an innovative idea; no longer are they forced to spend real money in micro-transactions for C-Store items, and people with extra disposable income and less time to play can sell their C-Store points for Dilithium to buy better equipment for their characters, rather than having to grind for drops for hours.

New Dilithium refinement means new systems.

Honestly, I say this is a total win/win for everyone, with Cryptic coming out on top the most with the extra revenue this will bring them. Right now I’m wandering the various missions on both my main character and a new character, exploring all the different ways there are to make Dilithium in the game. Another interesting thing they put in is the fact that most acquired Dilithium is in a raw, unrefined state. Only refined Dilithium can be used to purchase items and C-Points, and there’s limits to how much Dilithium can be refined by a player in a day. Subscribers are given a nice gift of having all their unrefined Dilithium automatically refined for them the moment they log into the game, and they also have a higher limit as to how much they can refine in a day.

They’ve also apparently put a cap on the amount of EC a player can accumulate, with a C-Store purchase that F2P players can make which increases this limit. I thoroughly approve of this. One of the big complaints a lot of people have had is that it’s too easy to earn EC and there’s just not been enough worth spending all of it on. Also, considering the cap is something like 10 million without the C-Store purchase, I really don’t see this being a huge issue.

"Captain, here's the Duty Assignments for today for your aprouval..."

The new Duty Officer (DOff) system has added a new layer of depth to the game, offering not only several new types of XP each with their own levels and awards, but an interesting way to level those various types of XP. I thoroughly enjoy assigning my DOffs to their various duties, then returning later to read their reports. Most, if not all, the missions also give at least a tiny amount of 5 Dilithium (some offering as much as a few hundred) which makes them even more worthwhile, especially if you’re a low-level player and want the extra Dilithium to get enough C-Points for a C-Store ship at your next tier.

I also like being able to assign specific Bridge Officers (BOffs) into assignments like “Chief Engineer” and “First officer.” These BOffs will then be able to give recommendations as to which DOffs would be best to assign to a particular mission, and i think there’s a bit more that assigning a BOff does, but I’ll look more into that as I explore the depth of the DOff system.

The new updates over the last few months are at their best right now. The new PvE and PvP cues really make it easy to get into the action from anywhere, as well as the new Mission Journal and Calendar system. The new daily events happening almost every hour is an excellent addition, so now there’s always something interesting and worthwhile to do at any hour of the day or night. The added bonus of being able to transwarp to any mission in the game from anywhere through the new Mission Journal for an EC cost instead of having to wait through sammich time… Sorry, I mean Sector Space (Chris of Jupiter Broadcasting & STOked fame used to joke that going through Sector Space was so tedious and long that it was the perfect amount of time to go make a sammich; that nickname for it has kind of stuck with me) is a hugely refreshing addition and a great economic sink that the game has been desperately needing.

Resistance is far from futile... but this won't be an easy fight.

The new layout for the Special Task Forces (STF) and the addition of the Defera Invasion by the Borg are excellent; the Defera Invasion especially is well designed, offering lots of variety for people. I will mention that your first time through that it can be pretty confusing and chaotid. Follow your map, it will come in handy in knowing where you need to be for various missions that you’ll need to complete. Also, DON’T GO ALONE! There are missions for each area that will become progressively harder, and the final one will likely require a team of three players. I have only done the City missions so far, and I was unable to complete the final mission because my team was short one person.

I only have one complaint about the new STF format. The story originally progressed in a particular order. Now, each STF has been split into seperate Ground and Space missions that can be taken individually, and there’s no indicators designating which order all the STFs need to be done in now. In the new PvE cue menu, the missions are listed alphabetically, with “The Infection”  missions (which were originally the first part of the story) is listed after “The Cure” missions (which were originally the second part of the story. Also, ground missions are listed before their space mission counterparts, and to be honest, I’ve not run any STFs past “The infection” and that was back about a year ago, before all these changes were implemented. I really think that Cryptic needs to re-name them with “The Borg Invasion: Pt (*)” as the initial title, with each ground & space mission being numbered as a different part of the story, so people completely new to the missions will be able to know the proper order of the story.

New end-game gear will not be easy to acquire, but worth the effort.

If you’re new to STO, as far as I’ve been able to find out, I believe the proper STF order is:

  1. Infected (Space),
  2. Infected (Ground),
  3. The Cure (Space),
  4. The Cure (Ground),
  5. Khitomer Accord (Space),
  6. Khitomer Accord (Ground).

The new rewards associated with the Invasion and the new STF format have been making me geekgasm since they were first announced, and I’m definitely eager to work my way to earning some of it. It’s even encouraging me to level my KDF character, and now with so many new players, the likelihood of the KDF getting some new recruits soon are pretty high. These new suits of armor and weapons have some visual aesthetics I’ve been hoping they would add to STO for a long time now, and making them rewards for these STFs was a pretty smart move, especially when combined with the new PvE cues. I’ll save the details about them for another post when I can get more time actually trying them out.

There’s actually been a few other rewards that were release that, I admit, I actually missed the announcements on; several new ship consoles and equipment. I’ve been hearing mostly good things, but that’s yet another thing I’ll have to investigate more first-hand before posting a review of them.

The battle to make the game just right is ongoing, and not everyone can have it exactly how they want.

There are still some minor flaws that aren’t so much the game itself as just the way things ended up happening. The game is still very solo friendly for the majority of it, and there aren’t enough reasons to team with other people in anything but STFs, PvP, and the Borg Invasion events, but even those are getting more and more PUG friendly (Pick-Up Group). The Squad system works fairly well, but there are still some things that I consider flaws; when a high-level player squads with a low-level player and they match to play at the lower level, the high-level player still obliterates everything. It’s also still a hit-and-miss sometimes to team up and have one person join another that is already in a mission.

Technical issues aside, there is honestly just not enough reason to group together or do much in the way of actual socializing. Sure, the STFs are a good start, but that’s at the end-game. There’s very little reason at the lower levels right now. Sure, there’s lots of people who RP; Star Trek has always been a ripe ground for RP opportunity. But as it stands, there’s very little in-game mechanic reason for people to play together, when they can play solo just as easily, and the game being so instanced actually makes playing solo a bit easier. This has been an issue and a complaint by a lot of people for a long time now, and I understand Cryptic wanting to not put a system in unless they’re sure it won’t be seen as a penalization for people who prefer to play solo. I also understand if they’ve been so busy with so many other things that they haven’t been able to focus much time on this problem. They’ve been working overtime for almost 2 years now, trying to keep this great game running. This is a big issue, just the same and one that I hope they can start looking at soon.

Finding ways to work together

One plan that was mentioned was to remove the restriction on forming a fleet – currently, it takes 5 people, all subscribers, teamed up in-game to be able to form a fleet. With F2P now live, the number of premium subscribers likely wont be big when compared to the number of silver (free) players, so finding four others willing to form a fleet with you will be difficult, to say the least. Their plan was to remove that minimum so that a single subscriber can go and start a fleet. This was a good idea, to me, and I’d like very much to see this happen. Another option, I think, would be to allow people to purchase a single month of Premium subscription with C-Points, similar to EVE Online’s system. Then people could, worst case, grind Dilithium, buy C-Points with that Dilithium, then buy a month with the C-Points, just to try it out at least.

Here’s an idea I had to help encourage people to play together – why not increase the frequency rate at which items drop from mobs by 1% for the number of people you’re teamed up with? It doesn’t have to be an increase in the drop quality, just the drop frequency. And having a bonus of frequency of 2%-5% isn’t a lot, but still significant overall. heck, increasing by 2% for each team member other than yourself would give a frequency increase of 2%-8%; still small, but nothing to scoff at, and with more drops happening, that gives players more reason to either team up with people they know, or even use the “Open Group” feature. . Because it only affects the drop frequency a small amount, not the drop quality, the difficulty settings would not be affected drastically, and would retain their balance. Players who want to play solo would not be penalized, the base drop rate would remain the same.

The Squat System works fairly well, but could still use a little fine-tuning.

I’d also tweak the Squad system (which allows players of any level to team up and match the general level of the squad/team leader) so that when people of various levels join an Open Group, the system automatically sets the squad leader and play level level to the lowest team member’s rank or level band. That would allow more people of various levels to meet up in Open Team groups across the board, and still keep some balance.

Either of these wouldn’t be much of a change, should be fairly easy to add to the game code, and would encourage more people to team up together at all levels. Frankly, I want reasons to team up with other players more often. Right now, the game is very solo friendly, which makes sense, but it’s so solo-friendly that it makes teaming up and socializing almost feel like too much effort or a waste of time. That may be great for people who are against how harsh other MMO games are on solo-play, but it can also be detrimental to building a community. And isn’t building a community a big part of what Star Trek is about?

The only other major gripe I have is just little details not being explained as clearly as they could be in the tutorial. I really think that things like changing the auto-fire settings and the expose/exploit system should be explained in much clearer detail, though I think that these things need to be explained clearly through voice acting, and maybe even cut-scenes. To take a cue from other games , look at EQ2 or SWTOR – even if STO didn’t make every NPC interaction and dialogue a cut-scene and only did that for key tutorial information, I’d be very much ok with that.

Great idea - disappointing execution.

Let’s be honest – the STO tutorial voice overs by Zachary Quinto were far from his best work. Frankly, I think the guy only did it because he was obligated by his contract to CBS and it paid decent money, but I don’t think he really wanted to, and it was not really written that well. I’d like to see all his voice-acting replaced, and I’d like to see more Voice Acting added.

Especially to other NPC dialog boxes – imagine not only seeing the face and the text dialog when interacting with NPCs, but hearing their voices. They do that in the Romulan Featured Episode series. Yes, I understand it’d be a lot of work and I get why it’s not been done already; I’m just saying I hope they continue to add more, especially to the missions already there. When going to rescue the S.S. Azura, I’d really love to actually hear Captain Brott calling for help.

Despite the few things that lack and the improvements that still need to be made, Star Trek Online is an excellent game and the time has never been better to jump into the Captain’s seat.

Hellgate Global – First Impressions

The Hellgates are opening once again... This time the world is "open season."

Ok, I’ll admit up front, I’ve not actually played the original Hellgate London that this was built from. I’d seen the adds and talked to friends that did buy it, and there’s lots of articles all over the internet that explain why it died so violently. In essence, the payment model was shit for a shit game with shit graphics; it was just not worth the money they were demanding.The game has since been bought by T3FUN and recently re-released as a F2P MMORPG. Now THIS model fits the game.

I signed up on the website back when the F2P was just entering beta, and regretted wasting my time. It had nothing to do with the game itself; I never got into it. The beta client crashed every time I tried to start it, and that’s not counting the hassle I had just trying to download the damn thing.

It’s now been launched, and I’ve played a few minutes so far; it’s totally worth getting – DO NOT USE THEIR DOWNLOADER! Get the install files via the optional torrent download file; their install downloader is a piece of utter crap. You cannot minimize it, and it is stuck forced to the top above other windows. ALL other windows. It also chokes up your bandwidth and cannot be throttled down. Just get the torrent off their download page instead and ignore their downloader entirely. Oh, and once it’s installed, their updater has a little options button – DON”T TOUCH IT! It crashes the updater & client when it’s clicked.

“But is there any good news?” Damn right there is! The game itself runs beautifully, and I had no server connection issues. The tutorial needs a bit more work in making the explanations of the controls and interface clearer, but the main gameplay was smooth and simple. It wasn’t too hard to figure it out for the most part; anyone who’s played any of the Diablo-style games will recognize a lot of the inventory & skill tree interface controls. The biggest bug I found was the dialogue boxes seem to have been translated to English, and sometime  the translations were clearly not great. I am hopeful that this gets fixed in the coming months, however.

I’ll post more thoughts on it when I have more time to try it out; right now, I have an apartment to finish painting 😛