Best-selling PS2 Games

The GameFAQs poll for today asks “Of the top 10 best-selling PlayStation 2 games of all-time, which is your favorite?”  The answer is obviously Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but there were some titles on that list that were surprising to see (Tekken 5!?).  Since the poll options are listed alphabetically instead of by sales figures, pulling up the numbers led to some interesting finds.  With this data, people can see the effects of marketing, brand recognition and sequel fatigue.

Below are the poll options listed from highest sales to lowest…

  1. Grand Theft Auto:  San Andreas (27.5 million)
  2. Grand Theft Auto:  Vice City (17.5 million)
  3. Gran Turismo 3:  A-Spec (14.89 million)
  4. Grand Theft Auto III (14.5 million)
  5. Gran Turismo 4 (11.76 million)
  6. Metal Gear Solid 2:  Sons of Liberty (7 million)
  7. Final Fantasy X (6.6 million)
  8. Tekken 5 (6 million)
  9. Final Fantasy XII (5.2 million)
  10. Kingdom Hearts (4.78 million)

Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo absolutely dominate the top half of the list.  Thanks to a combination of marketing, notoriety, critical acclaim and brand recognition, each GTA sequel improved on its predecessor on every conceivable metric.  It’s also worth pointing out that San Andreas set the bar so high that the next GTA game (Grand Theft Auto IV) never surpassed it and the bar wasn’t cleared until GTA V.  Coincidentally, Grand Theft Auto V was also set in Los Santos, the first city players see in San Andreas.

While there’s not much of a drop-off between the two Gran Turismo games, there has to be some series fatigue going on there because all the other excuses don’t apply. Sales in the European market increased but decreased elsewhere between Gran Turismo 3 and 4.  While Gran Turismo 3 came out earlier in the PS2’s lifespan than Gran Turismo 4 did (2001 v. 2005), that didn’t stop San Andreas (2004) from reaching the top of the list.  The same reason could also apply to the slight dip between Final Fantasy X and XII.

It’s not surprising to see Metal Gear Solid 2 on the list, given the hype and anticipation that surrounded the game.  It was shocking to see the drop-off from Sons of Liberty to Snake Eater (3.7 million), though.  Sons of Liberty is rather infamous for its complex plot and movie-length cutscenes but seeing the effects of that divisiveness play out on a business scale is pretty staggering.  Sales for the next game dropped almost in half!  That’s pretty depressing, especially since Snake Eater is widely regarded among Metal Gear fans as the series’ best.

It’s amazing to see how certain continents propelled some games on the list.  Nearly 2/3 of Tekken 5’s sales (4 million) were in Europe and the continent also loves itself some Gran Turismo.  Grand Theft Auto is built primarily on American sales.  If we were looking at sales on a specific area vs. total sales, this list would look a lot different (if we looked at Japan only, for instance, Dragon Quest VIII would make the cut and Grand Theft Auto would tumble down).

One final note to takeaway from all this is that all of the listed games are either PS2-exclusive (Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy) or started out that way before getting ported (Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid 2).  Thanks to a strong relationship with publishers/developers and the success of the PS1 (which the PS2 was backwards-compatible with…), the PS2 ended up being the best-selling console of all-time.  Never underestimate console exclusivity.  It’s one of the main reasons Nintendo is still afloat, after all…

Majora’s Mask: The Best Zelda

The Zelda timeline splits after Ocarina of Time but in our series playthrough, our group decided to follow the game up with Majora’s Mask since the game stars the same Link.  Not only is the game impressive from a development standpoint (Ocarina came out in November 1998 and Majora’s Mask was released in Sept. 2000, meaning the game was developed in a little under 2 years), it’s one of the highest points in the series.  In fact, let’s be honest, it’s the best Zelda game despite not having a lot of the series’ core elements.  What it lacks in exploration, Majora’s Mask makes up for with characterization and ingenuity.

This isn’t to say Majora’s Mask is a perfect game.  To those who stress about such things, the 3 day time limit discourages exploration.  The game’s fairly linear with access to areas gated by items (the bow is needed to enter the mountains, powder kegs are required to get the horse which is necessary to get to the ocean, etc.).  While challenging, the dungeons are remembered more for their tedium or gimmicks than anything else.

All those low points are overshadowed by how amazing everything else is.  The game has the best characterization in the series, with people who actually have agendas and desires.  In most other Zelda games, NPCs stand in one spot during the day and another at night.  Regardless of what’s going in their lives or in the world, they’ll always be found at that spot.  This makes the characters static and the world less immersive and interesting.

With the clock and timer in Majora’s Mask, NPCs actually move about and will only be found at certain points during that time.  The actions they do and what the player does will affect their schedule.  Take the entertainment troupe leader, Gorman, for example.  He goes to a meeting with the mayor’s wife on the morning of the first day, finds out his show has been canceled and then goes to the bar and drinks himself into a stupor the next two days…unless the player has access to the Milk Bar and all the racial transformation masks, at which point they can snap him out of his funk.  If this is done on the first night, Gorman can be found playing cards with his employers and noting they’ll be leaving town to avoid the moon.

It’s worth noting that helping Gorman is completely optional.  He only gives a mask which isn’t needed to complete the game.  The sequence does show, however, that Majora’s Mask was years ahead of its contemporaries.  In an era where Telltale games and RPGs are built around player choice, Majora’s Mask was among the pioneers of that design decision.

The game’s also incredibly meme-tastic.

link_statue

Autopsy: Ocarina of Time

Continuing on to the next chronological 3D game in the series, the Zelda playthrough arrives at Ocarina of Time.  It’s a game that often tops (or nears the top) of a “greatest games ever made” list but the game was released in November 1998.  There’s some validity to the critique that the game hasn’t aged all that well, although not nearly to the point of Final Fantasy VII (where the non-battle sequence or FMV character models have had people clamoring for a remake for at least a decade).  While not my favorite Zelda game, Ocarina of Time can still be appreciated as a piece of game history.  While there’s some wrinkles to the game, it’s also quite playable.

For the record, our group’s playthrough was based on the Master Quest version on the GameCube.

Ocarina of Time successfully brought the Zelda franchise into 3D.  It was so successful, in fact, it set a template that was pretty well-established up through Skyward Sword.  That template was essentially give the player a safe tutorial area to get used to the game mechanics before unleashing them on a world that’s only gated by the items the player possesses.  The game also established the “collect 3 of ‘x’ (Ocarina‘s spiritual stones, Wind Waker‘s orbs, Twilight Princess‘ Fused Shadow) to open up the 2nd act of the game where you collect ‘y’ (medallions, Triforce pieces, Mirror of Twilight) so you can fight the final boss” plot.

It’s worth considering that even with Breath of the Wild opting for an open-world approach, it wouldn’t be too surprising if they kept some of the Ocarina formula.

Aside from the safe tutorial area, the above isn’t too similar from A Link to the Past.  The obvious separation between Ocarina and A Link to the Past is the series’ jump to 3D, where Ocarina laid the groundwork for future 3D action-adventure games.  Camera lock-on via Z-targeting allowed real time combat that was both challenging and feasible.  The scale and depth of the game was only rivaled by PS1 JRPGs.  While Metal Gear Solid was also released in 1998 and Ocarina’s plot isn’t nearly as complex, the game still tells a story that is epic and sensible.

Without Ocarina of Time, games like Shadow of the Colossus and Devil May Cry would have turned out very differently.

Autopsy: Skyward Sword

Beginning the Zelda series play-through with the first chronological game (complete with drinking game), Skyward Sword is definitely one of the more controversial entries.  There’s definitely some attempt to shake up the series formula and yet the game never truly shines with its originality because of how many references and call-backs there are.  The marketing to tie the game with Zelda’s 25th anniversary didn’t help.  Add in motion controls and the game is going to be a “love it or hate it” deal.  This autopsy of the game will show that Skyward Sword is easily the worst 3D Zelda and a contender for the franchise’s lowest point.

“Worst in the series” might seem like hyperbole until people realize Skyward Sword doubles down on things people hate about Zelda.  Case in point:  tedium.  Majora’s Mask has a section where the player has to go underneath the well and exchange bottled items (fish, milk, a blue potion, among others) and magic beans with mummies in order to progress through the well.  While the majority of those items can be found within the well itself, it’s rather tedious to send the player on various fetch quests to get these items.  Thankfully, it’s only a small part of Majora’s Mask and this whole sequence only needs to be done once.

Skyward Sword, on the other hand, takes that sequence and turns it into the whole game.  “Sure, I could tell the player where Zelda went and send them towards the first temple…but first, they must find these three Kikwi!”  “The player could enter the second temple after climbing up a volcano but first, they must assemble the five pieces of the dungeon entrance since it was broken because plot!”  “The Water Dragon could teach Link the song of the hero but first, they must break the song into collectibles the player now has to go fetch!”

The whole sequence to find the Sandship is like this too.  First, collect a navigation map from the pirate’s house that is inexplicably located on top of a massive rock.  Next, go to the shipyard and ride around on a mine cart to realize the ship’s not here and is probably somewhere else.  Then go to the pirates’ hideout and realize it’s not there either.  With all those locations ruled out, the ship must be somewhere out in the sea but it’s invisible so have fun locating it!

Skyward Sword is the longest game in the series but longevity does not equal depth.  It’s also not necessarily “good” if a game’s length is needlessly padded out.

One other bit before moving on:  People complained about Twilight Princess having way too long of a prologue.  Skyward Sword‘s an even more egregious offender.  It can be argued that a more intensive tutorial is necessary since the game is so reliant on motion controls.  Well, Ocarina of Time had the series jump from 2D to 3D and that game’s tutorial is maybe 30 minutes (if that).

Combine the above complaint with the game’s motion controls and it’s easy to see why people dislike Skyward Sword so much.  To its credit, the swordplay can be incredibly immersive (when the motion controls aren’t so finicky) but there’s never a point where the Wiimote is preferable to a game pad.  Different types of sword attacks have been common in the series since Ocarina of Time so it’s not like none of the sword combat could be reproduced on a conventional controller.

If anything, the motion controls make the game harder than it should be.  There will be more than a few times the game won’t register the Wiimote’s commands because the sensor’s just not registering the player’s input.  Also, while it was mentioned earlier the swordplay can be immersive, this can backfire.  Most enemies have a tell on which way to swing the Wiimote but how fast it needs to be done is a process of trial and error.

Take the third fight with Ghirahim where the boss pulls out the giant sword and the player has to hit the blade in a certain manner to “chip away” at it.  If a player is immersed in the fight, they’ll try to hit the sword as fast as they can.  That’s a mistake since Ghirahim shifts the blade so the same sequence won’t work, so the player has to actually slow down.  This breaks the immersion since why would Ghirahim leave such an opening?

This isn’t to say Skyward Sword is completely terrible.  The soundtrack’s possibly the best in the series.  The characterization for the Skyloft citizens (particularly Groose) is well-done.  Despite complaining about how ridiculously drawn-out the Sandship sequence is, it’s one of the best parts of the game (everything from the Ancient Cistern to the Sandship is golden).  The scenery is gorgeous and the art direction outside of certain parts of characters (Link’s lips, Zelda’s nose) is outstanding.  The stamina gauge, sprinting and the adventurer pouches are all welcome additions to spice up the series.

These compliments are not enough to save the game, though.  Terrible game design and finicky controls are enough to keep this game from being one of the series’ best.  Add in perhaps the most boring overworld in a video game ever (it makes sense that the air around Skyloft is mostly monster-free but it’s definitely not fun to fly around with little to worry about except tornadoes) and obnoxious hand-holding from the worst NPC companion in the series and Skyward Sword‘s going to rank at the bottom of the Zelda tier.  At the very least, no way it’s better than the other 3D console titles.

Drinking Game: Skyward Sword

E3 was a few weeks ago and despite not technically attending the conference and showcasing only one game (primarily), Nintendo put on the best show.  Now, there was a fair amount of impressive games at E3 and arguments could be made for other companies that actually “won E3” but Nintendo was the most impressive.  The Legend of Zelda:  Breath of the Wild makes the NX (or whatever the new console ends up being called) a must-buy.  That’s a pretty impressive turn-around, especially for people like me who haven’t bought a Nintendo console in two generations…

But a detailing of Nintendo’s failures can wait for another day.  It’s a better idea to prepare for Breath of the Wild by playing through the 3D Zelda titles (at the very least), possibly even with friends.  Chronologically, Skyward Sword is the first title in the series (until Nintendo decides otherwise, like how Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time and The Minish Cap were all “first” at one point).  Skyward Sword is also dubious for being one of the worst games in the series, what with the over-reliance on motion controls and the amount of quest padding involved.

Terrible game?  With awful controls?  And questionable design choices?  The only way to tolerate a game with any of this crap is to play a drinking game!

Take a drink whenever…

  • Your character’s name is referenced in dialogue (to make things easier, name the character DRINK).
  • Ghiriahim licks something or teleports.
  • The Guardians catch you in the Silent Realm (finish your drink if you had collected all the Sacred Tears and then got caught).
  • You catch a reference to a previous Zelda game.
  • Fi calculates a probability.  If you wish to live dangerously, drink for every box of dialogue Fi has.
  • A fetch quest is added for reasons that equate to “you must prove your worth”.
  • You hear the “you solved the puzzle” jingle.
  • The Wiimote is out of alignment.

Warcraft

Alternate headlineWarcraft movie is so bad, David Bowie died after watching an advance cut!

Despite the jest, there are no strong feelings about the Warcraft film.  When reacting to the critics who are slamming the film, it’s important to keep the following in mind:  Most critics hate fantasy films, most video game movies are mediocre at best and there’s not any great expectations for Warcraft anyway.

It might seem a little ridiculous to say “critics hate fantasy films” in the age of a comic book movie.  All one has to do is look at the awards shows, though, and see that box office success does not translate to critical accolades.  The Dark Knight is one of the greatest movies of all time yet didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture (which went to Slumdog Millionaire).  Even after the number of nominations increased from 5 to 10 after that controversy, The Avengers didn’t warrant consideration in 2013.  This isn’t even a new phenomenon:  Annie Hall beat out the original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings only received the Best Picture honors in its last year when it should have won three consecutive awards.

So, yeah, critics aren’t going to like Warcraft or movies like it anyway.  Of course, video game movies have a pretty terrible track record.  What would be the best video game movie?  Resident Evil (which has inexplicably spawned a series of films)?  Tomb RaiderSilent HillMortal Kombat?  None of these are on the level of a Dark Knight or The Avengers, which comic book fans can proudly point to as great representatives of their medium.

Since critics aren’t going to like the movie and all since most video game movies are “eh” at best, the expectations for Warcraft should be very low.  It also faces some rather tough competition:  the star-studded Now You See Me 2, The Conjuring 2 (which will most likely be the popular alternative to the former) and for critical snobs there’s Genius.  Oh and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel will be in its second week, which while action blockbusters tend to be front-loaded in their box office take, there will be that someone who thinks it’s worth seeing again (or didn’t see the movie the week before) and goes to see TMNT than Warcraft.

Let’s also not discount Blizzard’s rather awful track record with Warcraft since its merger with Activision back in 2008:  Wrath of the Lich King?  Hit but shouldn’t count since development on it started well before Activision and Blizzard got in bed.  Cataclysm?  Awful.  Mists of Pandaria?  Meh.  Heartstone?  Hit.  Warlords of Draenor?  Critical miss!

Sure, Warcraft could rejuvenate the series and be a super awesome fantasy movie this summer…but it won’t.  Critics already hate it.  Video game movies struggle to be “decent” at best.  Unless there’s more hardcore Blizzard fans than thought, people are going to be more interested in something else than what looks to be “ye olde derivative fantasy movie.”  Maybe a December release date would have been better?  Sure, it could still flop like Eragon and Narnia did but it’d also have a better chance of succeeding than it does now; sandwiched between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Finding Dory.

The Future of Console Gaming

I used to have this magazine that was a holiday 2000 video game guide.  It detailed what sorts of games were worth getting, for what consoles and even speculated about the future.  This was around the time the PS2 launched in America and the Xbox and GameCube were only a year away.  SegaNet was also a thing, so there was an expansive piece on the future of online gaming and what it would mean.  I wish I still had the magazine itself but I remember it being very much a fluff-piece.  In essence, it argued “the future will be great!”  It’s interesting to think back on that magazine in a similar way that people get a kick out of seeing what the future would look like according to someone in the 1950’s.

It’s an article I thought back on when reading about the new Xbox console upgrade.  “In March, Xbox boss Phil Spencer dropped some hints about this new approach, telling journalists that he’d like to see consoles take a PC-like evolution.”  Well, hell, consoles have been on that trajectory since 2000 (at the very least)!  At this point, there’s no discernible difference between a console and a PC that’s relevant.  Some will argue hardware technicalities but as someone who values more important aspects like plot and functionality, arguing how graphically powerful a device is will fall on deaf ears here.

The first step towards console-PC integration was the inclusion of an internal hard drive with the original Xbox.  The magazine touted this up as a great feature that would “reduce load times” and be a substantial improvement over memory cards/cartridges.  That prediction was true for a time.  There was more than enough hard drive space for games on the original Xbox and the first half of the Xbox 360’s life span.  Then the attitude changed where players had to directly install games on to the drive to avoid issues (of the stability or loading variety) with games.  The Xbox One and PS4 now mandate it as a prerequisite to playing.

Games have also ballooned in size too.  It was pretty notable when an installed game on the 360 took up a few gigabytes.  Now games on the Xbone take up at least 20 and it’s not surprising to see them surpass 40.  20-40 GB games eventually add up on a game console, even if someone’s not using it as a multimedia device for Netflix or whatever else.  Factor in the paltry hard drive space of 500 GB and it’s a complete mess!  Compare that number to the store-bought computer I have that’s 6 years old, which has 700 GBs on it!  I suppose it’s just a marketing gimmick to sell external hard drives…

The real damning bit is online connectivity.  The magazine thought online gaming would be great:  “Keep playing your favorite games as developers can update them after release via the Internet!”  “Play with random strangers across the globe!”  It didn’t mention overpriced DLC.  There’s no mention of developers releasing unfinished games and then patching them later, if at all (or, if they’re really cruel, pricing them behind a paywall).  There’s no consideration that online gaming would be a factor in the death of split-screen multiplayer.

But enough sounding like a grognard, the damage “a PC-like evolution” has really done to consoles is rob them of what made them unique.  Before this generation, it was possible to buy a console and have a reliable piece of hardware that would last 6 years minimum.  If I ever wanted to scratch an itch for a certain game, all that needed to be done was take care of the console and it would still work.  Compare this to the nightmare of playing older games on a PC, where a change in the operating system can cause more than enough headaches.

That wasn’t enough of a selling point for consoles, though.  Now, companies need to “update” their hardware so they can keep up with the latest technology.  Shit like this is why it was difficult to get into PC gaming:  Every time a new and interesting PC game was out, something like a graphics card had to be updated so the game could be played.  And Sony and Microsoft want to bring that hassle into the console market?  More power to them but I’m going to go find a new hobby to pour time into.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

True story:  I got into Halo because it was the first game I played that allowed local multiplayer with more than 4 people.  Sure, there were PC games that allowed LANs and the possibility of playing with up to 64 people…but I don’t particularly like playing with anonymous strangers and prefer to play with friends who are within punching distance.  So, when I got the original Xbox back in 2004 and had 7 people to enjoy a game of classic Halo, it was one of the best times ever.

Another true story:  When Ben, Steve and I were planning the Halo MCC LAN, we talked about possibly forgoing Xbones for regular 360’s.  After all, we already had the games and controllers for 360’s whereas an Xbone approach would require an investment in controllers.  Ultimately, we decided to go with the Xbones for the sake of convenience.  It was nice to have all the games and maps on a single console and not having to worry about switching discs or which 360 needed to be updated to the current version of the game or any of the other shit that makes gaming today a giant hassle.

At least, that was the theory.  What ended up happening was the party ended up starting nearly an hour late because Halo MCC does not support LAN-based multiplayer.  One of the draws of the original Halo was how easy it was to hook up two Xbox’s via System Link cable (or use a router to hook up more).  However, in this more modern civilized age where every fucking device has to connect to the Internet, we can’t have easy shit like that happen!  No, we needed to have Xbox Live gold accounts (we ended up using free trial codes).  It’s a very odd design choice to have a series of games that support LAN multiplayer in a collection that no longer supports it.

Once we got all that out of the way, we had a lot of fun.  The maps loaded quickly and the games went pretty well.  The game only crashed once on Steve’s console and we suspect it was because of a controller issue (something to do with console registering the left trigger input like an autofire button…in the menus, it would just make it impossible to scroll right but in game it must have registered as a million attempted grenade throws).  The only real issues with lag we noticed was when we tried playing the Halo 2 Anniversary maps.

Yeah, the party was fun once it got going but it does raise the question of whether it was worth it.  For instance, if we had just used 360’s and swapped discs between games, the downtime would have been actually been shorter than the 45 minutes we spent wrestling with trying to LAN when it was impossible.  We wouldn’t have been able to play on the Halo 1 PC maps or anything Halo 2 Anniversary-related but considering that we spent more time on classic material, those omissions might not have mattered.

Oh and because we had those Xbox Live codes to try gold accounts for free, we attempted to play online.  We went into a big team battle match on Bloodline (the Halo 2 Anniversary Coagulation remake).  I was foolishly under the impression a lot of the match-making issues had been fixed…so, naturally, we were put into a 7v5 CTF game on the team of 5 (which immediately became a team of 4 because some dude was smart enough to know what was up).  If first impressions count, this was a really good way to show paying for Xbox Live is not a worthy investment (at least for Halo MCC).

It’s been half a year since Halo MCC launched and the only people worth recommending it to are people who have never played Halo before.  There’s enough single player content to justify a $60 price tag or as part of an Xbone bundle.  For the people looking at multiplayer to justify a purchase, look elsewhere.  The matchmaking is still terrible and the lack of LAN support is just inexplicable.

I’d love to have another party like this but with all the issues surrounding the game, it would be so much easier to have a Halo: Reach night instead…

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Here is a spoiler free review of Dragon Age:  Inquisition that also answers the question of how “Inquisition compares to Origins” in just about every conceivable way.  After playing Inquisition for 140 some hours (beating the game once and starting Act II on a second playthrough) and playing Origins for about 100 hours…I think I have the necessary credentials.

In terms of gameplay, Inquisition is more actively combative but it’s also more simplified. In Origins, you always had an auto attack and could set the game to play itself with how robust the companion tactics were. Inquisition requires a more active focus (I’m playing on the Xbone, so I have to hold the right trigger to attack constantly with whichever character is being controlled). The companion tactics are incredibly simplified to the point of the options being “spam this ability, do this ability if you can’t spam the former, don’t do this ever.”  While there could be some improvements with the tactical camera, overall the more active focus is an improvement over letting the game play itself.

Both games center around one person recruiting various people and factions in order to save the world from an ancient evil. Where the games contrast is that those people matter more in Inquisition. In Origins, the party camp was home only to party members, a merchant, enchanter, guy offering DLC and an emissary from each of the game’s main factions (Dalish Elves, Redcliffe soldiers, etc.).  Those emissaries don’t provide a good glimpse of the scale of the forces the player was recruiting.  Even in the end game assault on Denerim, it was completely possible to never use what allies you had.

Inquisition, on the other hand, makes players feel like they are the architect of an organization. The player’s main stronghold isn’t a makeshift camp but an actual village (and later, a fortress). In addition to merchants and party members, players can meet with the blacksmith forging weapons for the Inquisition’s army or the quartermaster.  Finding materials out in the open world allows the Inquisition to fulfill requisition orders and improve their force’s equipment. Various individual agents that can be recruited also appear. All these forces are visible to the player whenever they walk around camp and can be used to handle matters via the war table. Inquisition is a game where it feels like other people are getting off their ass to help make a difference in the world.

The choices in Inquisition are also a lot harder to make, something very important for a setting aiming to be “dark fantasy.” Outside of a few instances such as deciding the King of Orzammar, it was never in doubt what the right thing to do in Origins was. Why wouldn’t someone recruit the mages to save Connor from demon possession (especially if they were a mage Warden)? Why not convince Zathrian to let go of his vengeance and end the werewolf curse? Why would anyone outside of a complete asshole poison the Urn of Sacred Ashes? Without going into spoilers, Inquisition’s main choices are all difficult and it’s worth playing through the game multiple times to see how they all pan out.  Inquisition does an excellent job of merging dark fantasy with epic high fantasy, whereas Origins was only as dark as the player allowed it to be.

None of Inquisition’s party members are central to the plot like Alistair was in Origins but their interactions with each other make up for it. The scene where the entire party plays the Thedas equivalent of strip poker is one of the best Bioware scenes ever. It also makes sense for each of them to be with the Inquisition, as they have their own agendas to pursue and will try to convince the player to side with them. This differs from Origins where the main motivation for each party member was “you’re the best person to stop the Blight, so I’m going to stick with you.”

So that’s how Inquisition compares to Origins. The gameplay’s not as overly complex but it feels better for it. The Dragon Age setting feels more alive in Inquisition. Origins is still a really solid game and one of the best RPGs ever made, it’s just that Inquisition is better.  This is even more impressive when one considers BioWare’s previous track record.  After Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3’s ending controversy, most probably left BioWare for dead…and now they’ve released one of the best RPGs of all time.

Middle-Earth Online: A Proposal

Massively’s Justin Olivetti asked what a hypothetical Lord of the Rings Online 2 would look like.  Such a scenario has little to no possibility of happening, what with Turbine having the license for a few more years and no catalyst for a new game existing (unless Hollywood makes The Silmarillion or The New Shadow)…but we’ll still engage in this “what-if” exercise.  I’m in the camp of “wanting a new approach to the franchise entirely” and while my answers will not please everyone, they will be explained in such a way to justify them (hopefully).

What business model would it have that would be the most attractive to the community and most profitable?

In addition to a subscription model, we’ll consider payment models listed here.  Each choice (free-to-play, freemium, buy-to-play, hybrid, subscription) has its advantages and disadvantages…but the buy-to-play box model would be the most attractive and, if there’s a steady release of expansions, it could be the most profitable as well.  The Guild Wars 1 model is what we’re striving for here.  Paying $60 up front for a box and not having to worry about anything else would be the most alluring feature here.  In an ideal scenario, we’d stay away from cash shops but reality might force our hands.

Free-to-play and freemium would have the lowest entry barriers (i.e. easiest access to lots of players) but I don’t see them being profitable in the long run.  I’d also like to avoid the allegedly free game trope.  As someone who played Old Republic and felt like getting to level 30 was like getting teeth pulled, that’s exactly the sort of situation I’d want to avoid.  With a freemium game, we’d have to worry about dividing players into “premium” and “free” camps.  Those camps would eternally be at war with each other.  We want to keep our players on the same page as much as possible.

Would it be a sandbox, a themepark, or a sandpark MMO?

Sandpark, if only because I like elements from both themeparks and sandboxes while also disliking some of their components.

The sandbox’s biggest appeal can also be its biggest turnoff:  All that freedom available to the player can end up paralyzing them as they struggle to figure out what they want to do.  While sandboxes can have a lot of staying power in the MMO market (EVE Online is over 10 years old and Ultima Online’s been around since 1997), they lack the mainstream access a theme park variant will get.  Think of it this way:  A theme park will attract a lot of attention with its attractions but ultimately fall into disrepair or get supplanted by other theme parks, whereas a sandbox will last a lot longer but require a bit more upkeep (make your own fun vs. indulge in the fun the theme park supplies).

The main negative of a sandbox MMO is the kind of player-base it inevitably attracts.  I’d rather not see Middle-earth devolve into a mass griefing session.  Admittedly, such a scenario would have been appropriate giving the age the game I envision was going to be set in (see below).  One of the themes of The New Shadow (and, indeed, in all of Tolkien’s works) is that the race of Men have a quick satiety for good.  While a sandbox could be justified, people should be encouraged to play the game to have fun and not to get their time wasted by a griefer.

As for a theme park MMO, the very word “theme park” brings to mind a lot of negative associations.  For instance, to say this game would be the theme park version of Tolkien’s Legendarium would be akin to saying it’s been dumbed down.  The depth and complexity of the Middle-earth setting shouldn’t be simplified, it should be the main attraction.

While we’ll try to avoid the word “theme park”, there are several design elements I like from that brand of MMO.  The focus of combat against NPCs as opposed to other players should give the game a more friendly atmosphere.  I don’t mind the class-based system they provide nor the linearity of the quests.  A level-based landscape can serve as a handy guideline as to where players should (or shouldn’t) be and provide a nice sense of accomplishment when they return later and kick the shit out of whatever terrorized them at lower levels.

I’m not terribly attached to one model or the other, so we’ll combine them and hope this Frankstein’s monster MMO combination attracts enough people to play it.  If we really want to play up The New Shadow, a sandbox-style game could work.  Otherwise, we want a hybrid-model.

In which age or era would the game take place?

Fourth Age.  Specifically, the year 173.  172 is the last official date given in the books, the year when Findegil completes a copy of the Red Book of Westmarch.  I like to think of Tolkien’s Legendarium as a history of the world that’s been lost to time and using this site to date when the ages began/ended.  If we use that site’s date for the Great Flood, we have about 730+ years to play around with.

How faithful to the IP would it be? Would you sacrifice integrity to the source material for the sake of coolness, more options, or a different style?

As faithful as possible would be the stock answer anyone gives to this question.  We’ll see how faithful when addressing the next question…

How would you get around lore issues (such as the declining population of Elves, the subtlety of magic, and the rarity of Hobbits going past the boundaries of the Shire) that Turbine’s already addressed?

Let’s tackle these one by one.  The problem of the Elves can be solved by only making Silvan (W0od) Elves playable.  The Noldor eventually grow weary of Middle-earth and depart to Valinor via the Grey Havens.  The Sindar feel a similar inclination upon seeing the sea for the first time but not as strong (Legolas sees the sea for the first time in Return of the King and feels a desire to sail west to Valinor…but holds such a desire in for 120+ years).  The Silvan have no such baggage and they even have a colony in Ithilien.  While their starting areas would be limited, I see no issue with allowing Wood Elves to be playable.

Magic in Middle-earth may be subtle but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent.  I’d use the E6 variant of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition as a guideline for flashy magic.  This would eliminate the flashy, not-so-subtle magic (i.e. no teleports, polymorphing into dragons, conjuring permanent walls of stone or force).  Under this variant, a fireball would still be possible but not so available that it could be spammed repeatedly.

The rarity of Hobbits can be addressed via the colonization of the Tower Hills and the popularity of Bilbo’s book.  The former expands the borders of The Shire and seeing the white towers could have awakened the adventuring lust Hobbits with Took blood have.  Bilbo’s book would have also exposed many Hobbits to Smeagol, who was once a halfling from east of the Misty Mountains before the Ring corrupted him into Gollum.  There’s enough justification here to allow players to be a Hobbit, if they really want to.

Would everyone be a member of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, or will the Enemy’s faction be represented as well?

Lord of the Rings Online already handles this pretty well.  Everyone’s on the same side in a PvE environment.  For PvP, everyone goes into a consensual PvP arena and either plays as their good character or as a monster.  One of the main themes throughout Tolkien’s work is that evil doesn’t create things, it just perverts them (Trolls are basically evil’s failed attempt to mimic Ents, etc.).  Allowing players to create their own orc seems a little counter-intuitive to that theme.  Ideally, players would be kept on the same side but if we’re in a sandbox, the opportunity should be allowed for people to create evil men.

How would this game offer enough of a new experience or better perspective than already exists in LotRO?

This game would offer a new experience and better perspective by not being limited to the War of the Ring!  Making a Lord of the Rings game based around the War of the Ring is the equivalent of making a World War II shooter.  Both are examples of games set in significant events that have been thoroughly explored and played with.  Let’s go somewhere where the player can be free of the shackles of canon and perhaps leave their own stamp on Middle-earth.

Would you want the game to hew more to the books or the movies?

Books.  The movies aren’t a terrible idea but they made Middle-earth look more like medieval Europe than it should have.

How would the game address the passage of time?

Time would be addressed over the course of expansions that would center around world-changing events.  I’d borrow Old Republic’s legacy system and expand it a bit.  Like, have the legacy actually be a genetic legacy.  If the expansion is set, say, 20 years after the base game…every player character would have the option of keeping the same guy but aging him a bit.  If they opt to remain young, he could keep the same look but be the son of the character generated from the first game.  Then, the middle-aged father could appear in the housing instance.

Is there an existing studio that you’d trust with this game, or would it need to be a completely new team?

I’d like to see what a new team could do with the IP.  If an existing team handles it, chances are we know what they’re capable of.

How could this game be successfully marketed to MMO players and the mainstream in such a way as to gather a healthy population?

The original Guild Wars is the blueprint we’d want to follow.  At its core, Guild Wars 1 was less of an MMO and more single-player game that you could play with friends.  It went on to sell 6.5 million copies and since no one really plagiarized it the way so many others followed World of Warcraft’s examples, there’s still quite a bit of material to draw from that creative well.  This is not to say we make Guild Wars:  Middle-earth but look at what made the original work and fix what didn’t.

What art style would be best? Realistic, stylized, or something else entirely?

Stylized.  Shooting for photo-realism will tax graphic cards and end up damaging the game later on as people cry for visual updates.  A stylized look similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us is what we want.  We’d want an art style that allows designers to play around with animations without falling into uncanny valley territory…but not manga-style art where the eyes are crazy huge (like Zelda:  Wind Waker).

Dwarf women?

LotRO’s current way of handling this is my favorite.  Every race has a male/female option at character creation…except the dwarf.