Monthly Archives: January 2007

The Dark Portal is…

… down for maintenance. We apologise for any inconvenience caused, and would like to reassure you that hordes of slavering demons will be sent forth at the first possible opportunity. The invasion of your lands and subjugation of its people into our demonic kingdom remains our highest priority. Thank you for your patience.

Actually, I’ve no idea on the status of the portal, or indeed the servers, at the moment. I was half tempted to stay up ’til midnight, but they don’t seem to like it at work when I doze off during meetings. Come to think of it, dozing off during meetings is an occupational hazard regardless of how much sleep I’ve had, but never mind.

My copy of The Burning Crusade turned up in the post yesterday, so I’ve at least got everything installed and ready, but if the servers are as stable as they were after the 2.00 patch I’m not really banking on getting much done in the next few days.

I’m rather hoping everyone who was taking part in a certain other stress test will be off to the Outlands, so I might get a little bit further than the server selection screen in that…


In a quick diversion from MMOGs, I’d just like to talk about telephones briefly. Well, not so briefly really, but never mind. As most of you probably saw, Apple just announced the iPhone

Now, I have one problem with this. It’s not a damn phone!

OK, so it is a phone. Otherwise iPhone would be a pretty silly name (even aside from the Cisco lawsuit). But it’s not just a phone.

For many years now, when out and about I’ll often be carrying (if I have enough pockets) a mobile phone, an MP3 player and a PDA. The devices have changed over time; the phone from some old Nokia years back to a Sony Ericsson T610, the MP3 player from a 64Mb flash based Diamond Rio to a 20Gb Creative Zen Jukebox to a 60Gb iPod, and the PDA from a Handspring Visor to a Sony Clie to a Tapwave Zodiac. With each iteration, there’s been more and more feature overlap; the original phone just made calls, the MP3 player played music and the PDA was more or less a diary (with a few games, eBooks, an offline web browser…) Now, all three devices have calendars and address books, all three have games, all three can play music and video (well, the phone can’t, it’s a few years old now, but plenty of current models can). “Convergence” is the big buzzword, but I still use three separate devices; for the calendar/address book, the interface on the phone is horrible, and the information can’t be updated directly on the iPod, hence the Zodiac still being most useful for those. Although the Zodiac can play music, it only has 128Mb internal memory and two SD slots (though at least the price of SD cards has come down a lot since I first got it) compared to the 60Gb of the iPod (which I’ve 2/3rds filled).

The iPhone looks like it might finally be convergence done properly, rather than just stuffing more and more features onto a phone with a tiny screen and the worst interface in the history of time (unless you’re dialling telephone numbers, in which case the digits 0 – 9 are pretty effective), it could well be The One Device which I can replace everything else with (so long as they up the storage so I can get my 40Gb of music on there). But there’s a catch…

I don’t really care about mobile phones. Yes, I have one, and yes, it’s very useful sometimes so I wouldn’t want to be without it entirely, but, being an unsociable person with no friends, I spend an average of 87p per month on calls, plus another 50p on data transfer if I’m going crazy (I sometimes download e-mail to the Zodiac via bluetooth and GPRS, but it’s only really necessary if I’m nowhere near an internet connected PC for webmail, which is less and less often now). This, for the mobile phone companies, puts me somewhere in the “leper” area of Customer Attractiveness, which is fair enough, I suppose I’m like someone who wanders into Starbucks and buys the cheapest coffee possible, then sits in the comfy chair drinking it for the next seven hours. I accept I’m in a minority. Mobile phones shift eighty squillion units every hour, whereas I’m the only person in Western Europe with a Tapwave Zodiac, hence the new device not being the “Newton II”, or the “iPod with extra stuff”, or the “iPDA“, but the iPhone.

And that’s the catch. It’s a phone (it says so in the name!), so, chances are, it’s going to be sold like a phone, in stupid bleedin‘ phone shops where the handset itself is a disposable irrelevance, it’s the lovely expensive monthly contract they want you to sign. True, there are “pay as you go” (no monthly fee) options, with more expensive phones (as they’re not subsidised by the contract), but the “top range” handsets (and unless something else amazing comes along by the end of the year, the iPhone is going to be slap bang at the top of the range) frequently aren’t even offered on those tariffs. And yes, you can get sim-free phones without the contract, but that’s much, much more unusual, so there’s nothing like the competition or economies of scale as for something like an iPod that’s sold everywhere.

Ah well. I’ve never really been a bleeding edge adopter (and I think it’ll take a few generations to *really* nail the iPhone), so I guess it doesn’t make too much difference whether the first iPhones are sold through phone shops, consumer electronics shops, or shops staffed with crossbow-firing rabbits. Hopefully by the time I come to replace my current pocketfuls of gadgets, you’ll either be able to get one for a reasonable price with no restrictive contract, or there’ll be a “super iPod“, with a large touchscreen interface, which maybe happens to make phone calls too…

Oh, and eventually (if there isn’t one already), I’m sure someone will release an MMOG designed for a small touch-screen, like the iPhone, and you’ll be able to play anywhere by WiFi/3G/GPRS/whatever. There we go, MMOG link!

Farmer Geoff and the Rabbit Ballista

Thinking about the poor bloke with his house fall of Murloc eyes, and how quests could be part of a more dynamic world, I remembered a program that ran on the ZX Spectrum called “Rabbits and Foxes”. As I remember it, you typed in the number of starting rabbits, and the number of starting foxes, and the amazing computational power of the Spectrum would then simulate this vibrant and diverse ecosystem. With lots of rabbits and not many foxes, the foxes have plentiful food and multiply rapidly, but then they’re eating all the rabbits and the rabbit population dwindles, in turn meaning there isn’t enough food for the foxes so their population goes down, reducing the number of predators so the rabbits flourish, etc. This was pretty Deep Science at the time, and I was fascinated by the graphs this program produced… for about ten minutes, then I went back to playing Saboteur (hey, I was only eleven).

It turns out this was a demonstration of the LotkaVolterra predator-prey equations (see here for the complicated maths bit, with a nice graph for those of you like me who haven’t done calculus for a while), and I got to wondering if this could work in an MMOG: Farmer Geoff grows carrots and keeps chickens, so he doesn’t like rabbits or foxes, and sends mighty adventurers off to do battle with whichever is more prevalent at the time. You’re still running a “kill ten creatures” quest, but at least there’s some vague sense that your actions are having an impact on the world, that you’re a part of it, rather than just killing an arbitrary number of some endlessly respawning beast.

That’s a hopelessly simple example, I grant you, which has a plethora of problems. In order for the player to actually notice their actions affecting the world, either the predator-prey cycle has to be shortened to an absurd level such that five minutes after killing a load of foxes, there are rabbits everywhere, or you have to keep the player around Farmer Geoff’s farm for a few months as the ecosystem gradually adjusts. Also, killing fluffy bunnies who nibble a mean old farmer’s carrots is hardly the stuff of epic quest, the rabbits aren’t going to pose much of a challenge. Well, unless maybe five of them found a discarded crossbow, and two of them brace it while two others pull the string back and cock it, and then they maneuver it around like a rabbit-size ballista with the front two providing elevation, two more at the back adjusting the direction, and the final one shouting targeting orders and firing it. Or there is a precedent for a more threatening foe, but that would possibly disturb the predator/prey relations slightly. Finally, we’d still have to “cheat” pretty heavily with respawns and other MMOG conventions, otherwise the graph would show the fox population rapidly tend to zero as they were all butchered for XP, the rabbit population rapidly tend to zero as they’re butchered to increase weapon skill and gather scraps of hide for crafting, and the Farmer Geoff population rapidly tend to zero as the bored adventurers kill him just in case he’s got a 1% chance of dropping the Pitchfork of Uberstats.

Still, it’s got to be better than ten more Murloc eyeballs, hasn’t it?

What’s the story?

Today I’m going to look at the Meaning of Life. Don’t worry, I only mean in MMOGs, otherwise we’re into “What’s it all about? Seriously? When you get down to it?” territory, and then there’s nothing for it but drinking heavily or joining the Klatchian Foreign Legion.

Plot, and the part you play in it, is one of the central problems of a massively multiplayer game vs a single player game. In a single player game, you can be Luke Skywalker or Frodo; in an MMOG, you’re more like Third Stormtrooper From Left or Ragged Villager, and it’s not really so much fun when your quest is “stand around menacingly while Lord Vader gives a dramatic monologue” or “hang around in the background eating mud to provide suitable ambience“. So most MMOs cheat, and set you off on a quest to finally rid the village of the evil that has been plaguing it from the nearby dungeon. And if you want to finally purge the evil again next Tuesday and twice on Thursday, sure, go for it!

Personally, I find it difficult to get engaged with a story when you know thousands of other people have killed the same creatures you’re sent to hunt, and when you’re finished thousands more people will keep killing them as they keep appearing. Then everyone will hand their pile of assorted body parts in to the same NPC; just once, I want to see that NPC break down and scream “JUST STOP IT! I’VE GOT ENOUGH MURLOC EYEBALLS! My house is filled with Murloc eyeballs, my shed is filled with Murloc eyeballs, my neighbour went away for a couple of weeks so I filled his house with Murloc eyeballs too, Lord knows what he’ll say when he gets back from holiday, I DON’T WANT ANY MORE MURLOC EYEBALLS! But still you adventurers keep bringing them to me; yes, a couple of years back, I thought it would be a bit of a laugh, I was going to put them in Geoff’s beer one night down the pub, and then word got around that I was handing out XP and some silver for Murloc eyeballs, and ever since then, constantly, you adventurers are round here with Murloc eyeballs, looking so pleased when you bring them with your enthusiastic little faces, you think you’re making my day, “ooh, he’ll be so pleased with these Murloc eyeballs” you say as you come up to my house, and I didn’t have the heart to point out that I’ve got ENOUGH MURLOC EYEBALLS TO CARPET REDRIDGE, but that’s it! NO MORE! Next person who comes to this house is going to get BEATEN over the HEAD with a sack stuffed with BLOODY MURLOC EYEBALLS”

The problem becomes even more glaring with quest chains; often, they’re very nicely written, and in a single player game would be engaging stories. Factor in the massively multiplayer aspect, though, and…

Luke Skywalker: “I must destroy the second Death Star off Endor! I need cover, though, come on Red Two and Red Three!”
Red Two: “Well, I guess. Share the quest!”
Luke: “What?”
Red Three: “We’re not coming unless we’re on the quest, or we don’t get rewards”
Luke: “Oh. Err… it says you’re not eligible”
Red Two: “Damn, must be a pre-requisite.”
Luke: “Well… there was the shield generator, but they already…”
Red Three: “Right! The shield gen, and for that we need to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut”
Luke: “*Again*? Oh, all right, let’s…”
Red Two: “Nope, hang on, I’ve just Thotted it, there’s a step before rescuing Han”
Red Three: “So, this is where you bought the droids, and you get the quest from them to find Obi-Wan? Cool! Let’s go!”

In theory, I really like the idea of the Face of Mankind system, where the story is player driven. As I understand it, a high placed member of your faction sets an overall goal for the faction, which is broken down to sub-objectives, and so on, down to the point where a squad leader is designated to lead you and your team on a specific “rescue this person”-type mission. In practise, of course, this means you’re entrusting the course of the game to the people you see talking in the General channel of whatever MMO you’ve experienced…

I suppose I’m waiting for AI to advance to the point that it can be a over-reaching “dungeon master”, providing every player on the server with a unique, engaging experience. At which point it’ll doubtless become self aware, and either start a nuclear war, or at least refuse to open the pod bay doors.

Look to the Future Now

I thought I’d have a bit of a look to the games I’m looking forward to in the coming year, and come to the conclusion that there’s… not much, really.

In the next week or so, of course, there’s The Burning Crusade, so I should imagine that’ll occupy a couple of months fairly easier, but without a fundamental change in the end game it’ll be back to Raid or Nothing after a while (a choice only marginally more difficult than Cake or Death). I really enjoyed Unreal Tournament 2004, so I have high hopes for UT2007, and to round out the year, there’s Warhammer Online, if it makes its current estimated release of “Q4 2007”.

I’ll probably glance around Age of Conan, Vanguard, Lord of the Rings Online, via open betas if possible, but I can’t really summon up too much enthusiasm. The main reason for being more interested in Warhammer is, like most British gamers, I grew up with Games Workshop, so get to wander round waving my walking stick and shouting “I remember when this was all just fields, you know, and White Dwarf covered role playing games as well, it wasn’t just the Citadel catalogue, and have you seen the price of Space Marines these days?” Well, that and building on the well-regarded Realm vs Realm combat of Dark Age of Camelot. But mostly the walking stick waving.

If there’s anything else out there you reckon I should take a lot at, drop me a comment!

On Queue

Looks like it’s 2007, then. Happy New Year everyone!

I’m back to work again, so ending days of lie-ins, lazing around, and spending all day in battlegrounds.

With more limited time in the evenings, battlegrounds are getting a bit irksome again, mostly due to queues. The basic problem is queue lengths, a minimum of 20 minutes for the Alliance in our battlegroup. If you have all day, this isn’t so bad. In fact, it can be a benefit, giving a chance to get a snack, blog, tidy the place up a bit, and generally not spend nine straight hours glued to a screen. With only a spare hour or two, it’s very annoying.

It wouldn’t be so bad if you knew you’d get a decent game at the end of the queue, but you don’t; firstly, you might get crushed in short order by a well equipped and organised opponent. Fine; that’s life as a pickup, if Blizzard can get some sort of “matching” system working, to ensure more balance between the gear of the two sides, all well and good, but it’s an occupational hazard when you go into a battleground. What I really can’t stand, what rankles more than anything, is spending 20 minutes in a queue, getting the message that you’re eligible for a battleground, being all pumped up to wage a one-man(/Elf/Dwarf/Gnome) campaign of havoc and destruction upon the unsuspecting Horde, and joining Arathi Basin with the Horde at 1950 resource points and holding four nodes. Or joining Warsong Gulch 2-0 down as the Alliance flag is borne away amidst a ravening pack of purple-geared fiends. Brilliant, 20 minutes in a queue for ten seconds in the battleground, no honour points, and a token to chuck in the pile. I’m not entirely sure how this could be fixed; merely limiting a battleground to the first ten or fifteen players who joined would be pretty galling if you had a great game going, and a couple of your team lost connection for some reason putting you at a disadvantage. Maybe some relatively simple criteria, like once Arathi reaches a point that one side can’t win even if they took and held four resource nodes for the rest of the game, or in Warsong if one side is 2-0 down within a few minutes, then don’t send any more players from the queue to that side.

Part of the problem is the multi-queue system, where you can queue for all three battlegrounds at the same time. In some ways, this is an excellent idea; I doubt many people would bother with an hour and a half queue for Alterac Valley if they couldn’t run some other battlegrounds while waiting (in turn lengthening the Alterac Valley queue further…) The drawback is that it makes it more likely you’ll join a lost cause. I’m as guilty of causing the problem as anyone; say the queue for Warsong and Arathi is 20 minutes, and 1 hour 30 for Alterac. I’ll join the Warsong and Alterac queues, and after 10 minutes, the Arathi queue. After another 10 minutes, I should be in Warsong Gulch, hopefully at the start of a round. I’ve then got ten minutes to see how it goes before I’m eligible for Arathi; if we’re losing Warsong badly, I’ll switch to Arathi instead, leaving a space in Warsong, which some other poor Alliance sucker will get sent into, causing them to post an irate comment in their blog about getting sent into lost cause battlegrounds… Once Warsong/Arathi finishes, back in the queues to repeat the process, except at some point Alterac Valley will pop up, and I’ll almost certainly head there, even if we’re winning Arathi/Warsong, as Alterac is generally worth so much more honour.

The final problem with the multi-queue system, with a two minute window of opportunity to enter a battleground once you reach the head of the queue, is it tends to put the more populous side at an instant disadvantage. A new instance of Warsong Gulch opens; the top ten people on the less populous side, with short queues, jump in and are ready. The top ten people on the more populous side have been in their queues for 20 minutes; maybe five see the alert, and leap in, ready to do battle! Of the other five, one has dozed off in a puddle of drool while waiting, another one alt-tabbed off to read Tobold’s blog for five minutes and is so engrossed they forgot the queue completely and will miss the alert, another had queued up Warsong just in case but the Arathi instance they’re in is going pretty well so they’re not going to switch (but they just hide the alert rather than leaving the queue), another wandered into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee at just the wrong moment, and the last one received an e-mail saying they’d WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS! in the Nonexistent Lottery of a Fictional Country they hadn’t even bought a ticket for (subject to some minor fees, of course), and has gone down the pub to celebrate. The two minutes pass, the battleground starts, one side is instantly outnumbered 2-1, and meanwhile the next five people in the queue get their alerts (of whom a couple have dozed off, etc.) Obviously that’s a bit of an extreme example, and in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t make much of a difference to the vast majority of results, but it’s one more little annoyance just to stack up with the others.

Anyway, with all the above, I doubt I’ll do too many battlegrounds now, except during bonus honour weekends. Last night was a particularly bad case, quick defeat by a premade in Warsong, then joined Arathi to *instantly* receive the “Horde Wins!” message, and then finally into Warsong again just in time for the third flag capture by the enemy. I had more fun playing Bookworm Adventures while sitting in the queues, so in the end I just shut WoW down and carried on with that instead…