Part 1: The context
I've been an MMO player since the original Everquest was released. I love MMOs! I always found a lot of value with MMOs than most other purchased games, even when paying for subscriptions to play them. Considering I've played World of Warcraft, as one example, for somewhere in the 300 days /played category, I'd say I got my moneys worth overall.
Since World of Warcraft, I've played nearly every MMO that has come out since, and I've been consistently let down. Rather than list out every MMO I've played and my reasons for why I failed to fall in love with each one, I'd like to focus on a couple in particular.
Before I ever tried Blade & Soul, I was already poised to hate it. I already had a big, nasty taste in my mouth from Aion (a game I had hoped would be much better). Aion was arguably the first big name korean MMO to come to the American shores, or at least it had the best marketing campaign (sorry, Lineage 2). This was Korea's first big chance to make a giant splash in the western MMO market.
What went wrong with Aion?
- Horrible leveling experience.
- Running out of quests and needing to grind for several levels at a time in a post-WoW western MMO market? Huge mistake.
- Major combat & class issues:
- Ranger stabbing things with daggers and didn't even get a bow until level 16ish? Yikes.
- In PvP, if someone was even a couple levels over you, you were at a *huge* disadvantage with the way their resistance & damage reduction system worked.Your spells against them probably had a ~20% chance to do anything at all.
- The fact that critical strikes could often do less damage than a normal hit felt... stupid? I'm looking at you, stunning shot.
- The "flight" system felt really poorly done.
- You couldn't even fly in most areas of the game, and when you could, it was extremely limited.
- Very disappointing after being marketed as a huge part of the game.
- Often dropped 0 loot for *anyone* in the party. That's right, zero.
- If they did, they'd be placeholder loot (that no one wanted) from placeholder bosses). Very unrewarding!
- The very first instance you could do was around level 25 in the Abyss, and had an 8 hour cooldown.. Wait, what?
- By the time you could run it again (after getting no loot), you'd have out-leveled it by then, which leads me to...
- Instances had both minimum and maximum level requirements. You couldn't help your friends run them if you were too high (not that you'd want to anyway).
- Never-ending consumable farm
- You ended up needing to spend more time farming consumables to pvp, than pvping itself.
There were many, many more issues with it, but needless to say it was very horribly done *for players that were accustomed to WoW at this point*.
Fast forward awhile, and Tera came out. Tera was a really awesome game with combat that was *mostly* fun and certainly new for an MMO. However, it feels like that was the only part of the game that was focused on. Tera really lacked many other critical systems, such as:
- A proper end-game reward system
- Relying on just boss drops and leveling up some crafting skills are not going to be enough to keep people entertained end-game.
- The ability to progress through the story quests without absolutely requiring grouping and doing certain dungeon quests.
- An engaging story/lore. Wait, did Tera even have a story?
- Proper optimization
- This is still the #1 reason I don't play this game anymore
- There's no reason a player should be getting 15-25 fps on a high-end, custom-built pc with high graphics in a battleground, or even lower fps (~10) just standing around in town. This is 100% inexcusable.
- Touted as a very skill-based combat system, yet many of the abilities (stuns/etc) were highly RNG-based for the first year or two of the games life here in NA. I.e. you try to play correctly and stun a boss right before it does a huge move, but the boss rolls a dice, and just "resists" the stun and smashes you anyway..... Cool. At this point, we're not really much different from games were bosses are just flat out immune to stuns in the name of difficulty, are we?
- The animation-lock is a bit much for many players. Yes, this is exactly how fighting games work: i.e. You can't run around back and forth while shooting Hadoukens at people in Street Fighter. You are stuck in that animation until the fireball is thrown. However, I don't think many players expected it to be as restrictive as it was, especially for the basic attacks.
- Fun fact:
- I made a suggestion post on the /r/tera subreddit around 2 years ago, giving them a laundry list of things they should try doing to keep the game from dying, as they were bleeding subscriptions hard back then.
- Much to my surprise, they actually turned around and implemented most of them almost verbatim in the following spring. Either it was coincidence, or they agreed with me.
Part 2: First Impressions
December 2012 eventually rolled around, and I got my hands on a Blade & Soul account. One of my Korean coworkers at Blizzard let me play his account. I had heard it was doing very well in Korea, and wanted to try it out. He was also curious what my opinion would be, since at this point, I had become very jaded with basically all new MMOs.
I was ready to hate the game. My last NCSoft game was Aion, and I was so ready to be unimpressed.
Boy, was I wrong.
First thing I noticed was the character creation process.
It was overwhelming at first. I took one look through all of the possible sliders and combinations, and felt it was too much. I thought that even if I did create a character that looked perfect, there'd be no way I'd be able to repeat the process. There are just too many options to screenshot and catalog for later use, as was necessary with games like Aion & Tera.
Much to my surprise, I found out that you can save character templates using the button at the bottom.
These get saved under your Windows user\pictures\bns\CharacterCustomize\ folder as a simple .jpg with embedded template metadata in the file. You can email these to a buddy, he can drop it in the same folder, open up the utility in-game and see your template right there. No need for dozens of slider screenshots. You can rename the .jpg template files to be whatever you want, for context later, too. It's simply brilliant.
Part 3 - The Intro
Ok, this is critically important. Games need to engage the player in the first few minutes of gameplay, or many of the will quickly lose interest and not bother. This is especially true for players that aren't coming in with a valued recommendation (such as from a friend). Industry research has shown that players are nearly 10x more likely to stick with the initial learning curve of an online multiplayer game if a friend is there to guide or help them along.
Blade & Soul starts off showing your character getting rescued out of the water by an unknown person who seems to recognize your clan symbol on your uniform. This is where the game first really hit me that it was something special. I was playing this in a foreign language that I do not read or speak, and could understand exactly what was happening. The animations and expressions alone sell the characters and the action. I also liked the credits being shown, blended into the background like an old kung fu flick. Very stylish.
The game then jumps the player through a few, very brief intro tasks to get them accustomed to talking to npcs, equipping gear, and completing quests. They also teach the player the basics of combat, how to pick yourself up after being defeated, and using health potions. After that, the game engages the player by thrusting them directly into the main plot within minutes of creating their character.
It turns out that one of your fellow disciples was a traitor, and led the main antagonist right to your doorstep to steal your clans power. Opening cut scenes like this for a new player are far more powerful than, say, an "isle of dawn" experience. It was immediately clear to me at this point that the production levels on this game were top-shelf.
Part 4: The Combat
Since killing stuff is what people do 80% of the time while playing MMOs, this is a very important topic and I'd like to spend some extra time on it.
You see, in games like WoW, Aion, and DAOC, the combat was essentially modeled after Everquest. Everquest, in turn, was just a graphical MUD (Multi-user dimension). In those games, things are given a swing timer (how often they can attack), and then there's a dice roll that determines hit or miss. Then, there are further dice rolls if a hit is landed to determine what kind of hit (crit, etc). To make the combat more interesting than that, abilties are added for players to use in between these "auto-attacks". The major downside of this system is, no matter how reactive you are, there's just no mitigating these attacks, since whether you get hit or not has traditionally been decided via dice rolls (and then modified through the gear your character wears).
A crude example would be two hunters in World of Warcraft fighting each other. Once they are in range of each other, it's more or less a race of who pushes their big, damaging abilities in order the fastest. Then, it's which of them get the best dice-roll modifiers for crits and other effects. It's like two warships pulling up next to each other in the ocean, and just unloading on each other until the other one sinks. There's a lot of damage buttons to push, but not really so much on avoiding damage.
This was a fair system when a large portion (or even a majority) of players were on a dial-up connection. Real-time combat was never a possibility in those days. By the time you saw someone take a swing at you, the dice roll had already happened and you already did or didn't take the damage. Strafing around a target to avoid its attacks was always a futile endeavor.
And then you have special abilities that are usually tied a universal cooldown, usually called the global cooldown, or "GCD" for short. This prevents a player from, resources allowing, spamming a single instant ability as fast as they can. It also prevents players from using multiple different abilities at the same time. Of course, there are often exceptions to this rule. These abilities are usually referred to as being "off the GCD".
Blade & Soul approaches combat very differently. The main reason for this is that the GCD is directly proportional to your ping to the server. That's right! The only bottleneck for how fast you use your abilities is how good you are at cycling through abilities that use or spend your resource, and your latency. The GCD still exists even in this diminished fashion to gate players from using multiple abilities at once, though.
Put another way: In Blade & Soul, your latency is your "haste" stat. If you have a 10 ping to the server, you will be able to use far more abilities - and thus deal far more damage - than someone with a 200 or higher ping.
Here's an example of how fast an Assassin can attack a target with a very low ping to the server.
Keep in mind this game was designed originally for Korean players, many of whom have the fastest connections in the world.
Part 4 Continued: What about targeting?
There are basically two types of abilities in the game. Some that do not require a target, and some that do. For the abilities that require targets, this game is *not* a tab-target game. Instead, it auto-targets the closest thing in front of your character's crosshairs.
Here's an example of the auto-targeting system:
This game plays like a fighting-game-mmo-hybrid, as the flow of combat is more reactive than rotational. Similar to Tera, the NPCs have animation-based "tells" intertwined with their attacks to give you visual cues on when to reactive.
However, tells are only as useful as the tools you're given to deal with them, and this is where the game's combat truly shines. Each class has *multiple* ways to deal with or mitigate incoming damage, but I'll focus on just one class for now.
The Blademaster class has a "block" move that mitigates *nearly* any frontal attack in the game.
When you block, you take 0 damage from the attack, and it makes one of your big attacks instant so you can retaliate swiftly. The block only lasts a few seconds after pushing it, so to keep blocking, you have to keep pushing the button. In this regard, it's similar to the block mechanic in Tera (Lancer, Warrior, Zerker). However, it doesn't stop there.
If you spend some skill points (more on this later) into block because you find yourself tanking a lot, you can actually change the way the block works. For example: Speccing into block one way makes it so that if you time your blocks perfectly (within 0.5 seconds of being hit), then you will parry and stun the attacker instead. You will also hear a different sound effect for a parry, reinforcing the fact that you've made a skillful block timing.
Here's what that looks and sounds like:
In addition to blocks, there are other abilities that grant temporary invulnerability. Backdashing (pressing the "S" key twice in rapid succession for you WASD users), side-dodging and other abilities that are too many to list here fall into this category.
Or you can choose to go on the offensive, and CC the monster instead. I know what you're thinking: "But that doesn't work on bosses, right?" Wrong! Here's how you can get away with CCing bosses.
Part 4 Continued: Keeping class kits meaningful
Traditionally, MMOs usually end up making bosses immune to CC to keep the encounter "difficult". Unfortunately, removing this type of damage mitigation only serves to reinforce the "holy trinity" style of gameplay, where you need dedicated tanks and healers. Thankfully, Blade & Soul gets away from this paradigm, and allow class kits to still be fully utilized in any encounter.
Here's the jist of it: Bosses can be CC'd if they're hit by two CCs of the same type within a 2-second window. When the first CC is used, all other players near it get an audio and visual cue to clue them in, just in case coordination wasn't being used before hand. If another CC of the same type lands while these cues are active, the boss gets CC'd. Here's an example of two players working together to knock down a boss:
This actually becomes a critical strategy when tackling difficult encounters, as CC'd bosses can then be carried by certain classes to allow the party to deal damage without retaliation for several seconds.
Classes sometimes can spec into have two different CCs of the same type, allowing them to CC bosses themselves without needing to coordinate it with party members. Destroyers and Blade Dancers fill this role very well, both of which can hold up the target for several seconds there after, further CCing the boss. It's a refreshing twist to simply seeing "IMMUNE" when trying to stun bosses after several years.
Part 4 Continued: The Skill System
I'll try to keep this brief. The skill system is awesome. The closest thing I can compare it to is a combination of Diablo 3's skill rune system, along with WoW's skill glyphs.
Essentially, every ability you get in the game has an individual skill tree, and you get to modify their behavior, sometimes radically. In Diablo 3, the limitation was that you could only pick skill rune (and thus only 1 modification) per skill. In this game, you can pick multiple modifications for the same skill, though some are mutually exclusive.
With this system, there's no need for "specs" like in World of Warcraft. You simply keep presets of skill point combinations to tailor to your current play-style. This also has the great advantage of letting the game designers balance different versions of the same skill to be better in PvE or PvP. This way, you don't end up with two similar skills on your hot bars that do similar yet different things. Players are given the power to tailor how their skills behave and work together based on their own likings.
- Players are allowed to change their skill points out of combat as often as they want at no cost.
- If players aren't sure how to spend their points, the game has "recommended" builds to steer them in the right direction for each class. One for dungeons, one for leveling, and one for pvp.
- Players can purchase additional preset combinations from the store, allowing them to have up to 5 (i think?) preset combinations of skill points that they can switch between out of combat. Very, very handy.
Here's an example of the skill tree for one of the Blade Master's abilities: Spin Slash
On the left, is the base ability, and on the right, I've chosen to put points into some points on one of the paths.
Part 4 Continued: Putting it all together!
Here's an example of what it all looks like when it comes together:
At this point, there are many, many more systems I could touch on that show the same incredible level of polish. I hate to leave this as a minor footnote, but I found the leveling experience to be insanely fun. The vistas are gorgeous, the story engaging, and I was very pleasantly surprised that I could level my way to max level in an NCSoft game without being required to group for *anything*. This, after Aion, was perhaps the most surprising.
If this blog entry generates enough interest (or enough questions), I will gladly continue this series.
Until then, I'll leave you with some of my favorite screenshots from the game, as well as another video from Steparu showing off some awesome gameplay of the Destroyer.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far!