Monthly Archives: March 2007

Happiness can come suddenly

Well, I broke my “no blues since the Ramparts” duck after a run through Sethekk Halls. Not with the Shoulderpads of Assassination, unfortunately, but still.

The run got off to a slightly rough start; the party was a Druid plus the Warrior, Paladin, Druid and me who’d been running places like Scholomance as a team of 4 just before the expansion, but thanks to various holidays, illnesses and such we hadn’t played together for a while. It showed in the first couple of rooms, not least thanks to a few comedy attempted-sap pulls by yours truly, combined with assorted fears, bird knockbacks and other such fun. Still, we pulled ourselves together and proceeded to romp through the rest of the dungeon, wiping lightly on Darkweaver Syth (who dropped nothing useful), and again on Talon King Ikiss a couple of times before we worked out standing next to him while he exploded was a Bad Thing(TM). Still, down he went in the end, and… click to loot… see what Mail armour he’ll inevitably drop… but no! There’s Terokk’s Nightmace and a Ravenclaw Band. The mace is rather nice, with the same DPS as my Grand Marshal’s Slicer, and would be a fair upgrade on the green sword I have in my off-hand, but at 2.00 it’s a bit slower than would be ideal so better suited to the warrior. The ring, on the other hand is perfect for a combat rogue, so I calmly explained that, although doubtless useful to a warrior, it was perhaps better suited to one whose sole raison d’etre was to deal damage, vis-à-vis me. Or words to that effect, anyway (the precise phrase may have been closer to “don’t you dare roll on my sodding ring”; there’s a limit to extreme loot politeness y’know). So! Useful blue items for two of us, and some quest completion as well, not a bad afternoon’s work. But I still don’t like random loot tables…

The Flawed Prayer

As said by Melmoth before each game session:

Our developer, who meant to leaven,
Shallow be thy game.
Thy MMO come.
Thy quests be done,
for loot as well as experience.
Give us this day our daily grind.
And make us run long instances,
Which give loot that is of no use to us.
And leads us not into Eden;
But delivers us to Cokaygne:
For thine is the rep grind, the nerfbat, and the monthly fee,
For ever and ever (and ever and ever).

It’s so sweet of you to be so nice to me

Ran through the Mana Tombs for the first time last night with a group of level 70s, mostly for Consortium reputation. I’m Honored with, I think, all the other Outland factions just from general questing/instance running, but was only halfway through Friendly with the Consortium even after a bunch of repeated ogre bead/insignia turn-ins, and I’m keen to get their Fel Leather recipes.

A fairly unremarkable run, but the final boss dropped the Ethereal Warp-Bow. Obviously there’s no hunter in the party (goes without saying), and no disenchanter to turn it into a shard. Now, I think everyone’s experienced, or at least heard of, the loot ninja. We tend to have the opposite problem in our guild, Extreme Loot Politeness. Everyone passes on a BoP they can’t use (in fact I’m so used to passing on blue items I can’t use I passed on a blue pair of BoE boots, and everyone else positively insisted I /rolled, which I did, got higher than the highest Greed roll, and felt slightly guilty when the original winner handed them over… still, I suppose I can say I’ve got a blue drop from a dungeon after Hellfire Ramparts, not that it’ll forestall my whinging as I can’t actually use it, but I digress). Now, if a BoP drop is something nobody can even equip, a quick /roll and the winner heads off to the Antiques Roadshow for appraisal: “ah, now, yes, wonderful craftsmanship on these Beast Lord Shoulders, you can really tell the quality of them… excellent stat bonuses… I suppose you’re wondering about the value? Well, I’ve got some bad news I’m afraid. If they were Bind on Equip, you could expect to make between five and six hundred gold pieces at auction, possibly up to a thousand. As they’re soulbound, though… I’ll give you one gold seventeen silver, and you’ll be grateful.” Sometimes, though, you’ll get an item that one or two people in the group could sort of use, like a ranged weapon when there’s a warrior and rogue but no hunter, or a +healing/spell damage ring when the primary casters have something better but a feral druid could us it in one of their alternative gear sets. And that’s where the politeness kicks in…
“Well, I suppose if nobody else wants it, I could always…”
“It’s a slight improvement over my current…”
“Oh, no, you have it. It’s got good +Stamina for you as a tank”
“Well, yes, but the Critical Strike Rating would be better for you as a rogue”
“True… but then, if I have a bow equipped, I can’t use the Deadly Throw ability”
“Well you take it anyway, I’ve never used a bow before so my skill is zero”
“No, no, you can plink away with it to improve your skill, you have it”

Eventually, one person relents (usually when someone else shouts “SOMEONE TAKE THE DAMN THING BEFORE HIS CORPSE DESPAWNS!”), and then we all head back to Shattrath to fight over whose quests to work on next…
“No, really, let’s do that group quest you have”
“No, honestly, it can wait, let’s work on that chain of yours with the nice reward”

And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride

There’s a magnificent article by Caitlin Moran in The Times, “My life as a bearded dwarf”. Though there’s been a fair amount of media coverage of “online worlds”, it’s tended to be about Second Life, which is all well and good but misses what makes WoW more instantly addictive: I spent an hour tootling around a pretty snowy mountain running a few errands — delivering parcels, relaying messages, buying nicer boots, earning a bob or two; already the addictive side of WoW was becoming apparent — through a cunning combination of small, quick tasks and longer, more complex ones that can be chipped away at over time, there’s always something you could “pop in” and do, or just spend “ten minutes more” knocking off.

Ain’t complaining ’bout what I got

Actually, that post title might not be strictly accurate. Another Steamvaults run this weekend, final boss dropped: Beast Lord Shoulders. Again. Goes without saying there was no hunter in the group. Total number of blue drops now gained from instances since Hellfire Ramparts: zero. Obviously karmic vengeance from ending up with the Shadowrend Longblade, Garrote-String Necklace *and* Bracers of Finesse from the Ramparts. Course they’re now all long-replaced. Oh well. If WoW is a virtual operant conditioning chamber like EverQuest before it, how long do you keep pressing the lever when it doesn’t give a food pellet?

(Should I somehow get on a successful Black Morass run where Latro’s Shifting Sword drops *and I win it*, expect the next post to be “Random Loot, and why it’s the greatest reward system ever.”)

Anyway, I played a fair bit of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, and was most impressed by its loot system, which doesn’t consist of playing the same level over and over and over and over and over again until some bloke drops the Brilliant Assault Rifle Of Brilliantness. Sorry! Sorry. Last loot whine, promise. It’s not a bad game; reminds me of a post-apocalyptic Operation Flashpoint with some RPG elements (an inventory, NPCs with dialogue driving the story and providing “side quests”). In that, it’s also somewhat reminiscent of Deus Ex, but it doesn’t quite scale the same heights; then again, not much does. Still, it serves its prime purpose of being an assault rifle-blazing alternative to WoW.

Just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing

Phase 1 of my cutting down on WoW started yesterday as STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl turned up in the post. I haven’t played an FPS for a long time, and fancied a bit of blasting away with assorted ordnance, so got that installed, then thought I’d just check the auction house in WoW before heading off to The Zone. While checking auctions, a couple of friends were around, so I thought I might as well see if they fancied a quick instance or something… and somehow found myself leading an adventure-hungry group.

My leadership style is perhaps best described as “bold indecision” (only not really so bold).
“Where shall we go?”
“I don’t mind”
“Me neither”
(repeat for a while)
Eventually I figured, seeing as I could do with the first part of the Karazhan key (even if I’m unlikely to actually go there, it’d be nice to have the key just in case), we should try the Shadow Labyrinth, and nobody shouted “NOOOOOO!” so off we headed, a Mage, Priest, 2 Druids (one feral, one oomkin) and me the Rogue, to confront… whatever it is that hangs around in the Shadow Labyrinth. Shadowy Geoff and his cohorts, probably.

Once inside came the other burden of leadership: painting targets (using the raid target symbols to indicate who to attack, sheep, sap etc.) It’s not always necessary, especially if you have a particularly experienced or tight-knit group, but I find it really helps, especially in groups that haven’t played together before. It took me a little while, but I think I got the hang of it; the main thing I found was to not spend an age agonising over who should do what to whom (as it were), just make sure everyone knows what you mean by the symbols (say “sap sun, sheep diamond, kill skull”, or whatever), and slap ’em on. The first couple of encounters I’d be trying to weigh up the pros and cons of sheeping an Acolyte and sapping a Cultist versus sapping the Priest and sheeping the Cultist versus a heavy pamphletting campaign against the Zealot combined with sonically disorienting the Warlock by playing Weather Report at him, but it’s no good having perfectly designated targets if your party dozed off in the meantime, and your Well Fed buff expires after two fights. Generally, you’ll want to be controlling high armour/hitpoint tank-types while eliminating low armour/hitpoint caster/healer types, but so long as people aren’t hitting sheep/sapped targets, that’s the main thing.

Speaking of sapped targets, these high level instances make me really glad I took the Improved Sap talent. I was always loathe to spend points in the Subtlety tree which could’ve otherwise gone on Poking People With Sharpened Implements talents, but with one sapped target and one polymorphed sheep wandering around going “baa”, groups of four were a breeze to deal with, and groups of five and six were manageable, rather than “AAAAAAAHHHH! I’M COVERED IN MOBS!” Not that everything went totally smoothly, of course, where’s the fun in that? The odd parried sap or eagle-eyed mob gave us a couple of good old “oops!” pulls, and some particularly annoying fear-inducing demons caused us to wipe at one point, but by and large we cleared the trash rather well.

The bosses were fun, and mostly offered slightly more interesting fights than standing in the same place for ten minutes spamming attacks (look away now if you don’t want to know anything about the place, though we’re hardly talking detailed walk-through…) The first, Ambassador Hellmaw, was pretty straightforward; keep away from the acid spray, and play the Benny Hill theme tune now and again when he Fears. The second, Blackheart the Inciter, you might have heard of for his particularly fun ability: mass mind control. Periodically, he’ll cast a spell causing the party to attack each other for 15 seconds. This is either a bit of a laugh, especially if on voice comms, or (according to the forums) an outrage that shouldn’t be allowed. When we got controlled, I’d end up in a fight with the tanking druid, which wasn’t too bad (our defences being reasonably matched to each others damage), and whatever the rest of the group ended up doing, it wasn’t serious enough to kill anyone (I’m not sure if that’s a damning indictment, that we couldn’t even manage to kill our own priest). For the third boss, Grandmaster Vorpil, voidwalkers periodically spawn around the room and head for Vorpil; if they reach him, they heal him, which is obviously a Bad Thing(tm). The spawn rate of the voidwalkers gets faster as the fight goes on, so it was a particularly inopportune time for my internet connection to start playing silly buggers, causing us to wipe. Ah well; once properly reconnected, we took him down without a problem. Finally, there’s Murmur (not Shadowy Geoff as I predicted, sadly). The most fun with Murmur was clearing the mobs around him; the tank was checking what to pull, and I initially suggested “Run into the middle of the room and shout ‘come on, I’ll take you all on!'”. The mage, who’d been there before, explained about the lines, mobs moving between lines, when to pull etc., and off we went… Nobody’s entirely sure what happened then, possibly a rogue Mage or Priest spell pulled a few more mobs than intended… and over the course of the chaotic fight, the Priest had to use fear a couple of times to stay alive, causing mobs to run back into the main room bringing yet more mobs out with them… somehow, though, we survived, and had indeed cleared all but one group of mobs, so I think my original strategy had some merit after all. Murmur himself was pretty nasty, causing another wipe when the Priest was hit with the Touch of Murmur at a particularly bad time and his Sonic Boom did for me (I’m *sure* I was outside the circle that it’s supposed to affect), but we got him down on the second attempt, I grabbed the first key fragment for Karazhan, and home for tea and biscuits.

So, all in all, a nice run, but (and you knew there was going to be a “but” coming, didn’t you)… the loot once again somewhat took the gloss off it. There were the usual few assorted greens, couple of blue gems in chests, but from the bosses… One druid got the Idol of the Emerald Queen then the Broach of Hightened Potential from the first two, so a good start. Then Grandmaster Vorpil… he can drop: the Blackout Truncheon (a lovely offhand weapon for me), the Jewel of Charismatic Mystique (a threat-reducing trinket, handy for DPS-types), the Wrathfire Hand-Cannon (a gun which would be slightly wasted on our group, but I could’ve used it at least) or the Hallowed Pauldrons, part of the priest’s Dungeon 3 set. Did he drop any of these? No. He dropped the Breastplate of Many Graces, a piece of plate armour totally useless to any of us, but absolutely perfect for the Paladin alt of the feral Druid. Then off to Murmur, and does *he* drop a nice Dungeon 3 piece one of us can use? Don’t be daft, it’s a Tidefury Kilt.

In some ways, rewards have come on in leaps and bounds in the Burning Crusade with many things available via token turn-in (to name a few: Halaa battle and research tokens for PvP/general killing in Nagrand; Spirit Shards from Auchindoun bosses (if your faction controls the zone); Badges of Justice from bosses in Heroic versions of instances; cross-class tokens for Tier 4 armour (with multiple sets available for some classes for different roles)). So why, *why* is the Dungeon 3 set still on the “11% drop from boss X” system that sends me into such paroxysms of furious rage? I was under the impression that the Dungeon sets of armour were aimed at the more casual player, in which case surely they should be prime candidates for one of the token systems? Are five-man dungeons not the absolute worst possible place for a boss to drop a piece of any of the nine sets, where (at best) there’s a 4 in 9 chance it won’t be any use to the party? At the very least, the Tier 4 token system would increase the chance that *someone* could take the token and make use of it (while increasing the chance of fights over who should get it, maybe, but such is life). Better still, non-heroic equivalents of the Badges of Justice in level 70 instances would, to my mind, be the perfect way of getting the Dungeon 3 set. I’m not saying I want a full Dungeon 3 set after a couple of hours strolling through one instance; say, have each boss drop one token, and have pieces of armour cost around five tokens, or (probably better to avoid first-boss-farming) just have the final boss drop a token, and have pieces of armour cost one or two tokens. That way everyone gets *something* for finishing an instance, and you can pick up a set of armour by running a load of different instances, rather than the same sodding one over and over and over and over and over again because that 11% drop just isn’t happening… Maybe that would be too easy for the current Dungeon 3 sets, but even if it’s a new “Dungeon 2.5” set, or a random selection of other items you could turn in the tokens for, or… just anything! Anything apart from getting to the end of another instance and seeing a piece of Dungeon 3 armour for a class not in the group drop.

See the cross-eyed pirates sitting perched in the sun

I think my second stint of World of Warcraft is starting to come to an end. The timing is about right; since starting City of Heroes in June 2004, I seem to have followed a rough cycle of being heavily into an MMO for about six months (CoH), then ‘fading out’ for a bit, playing a few single player games or trying other things (both the US and EU WoW betas, late 2004/early 2005), then getting into an MMO for another six months (WoW, from February 2005), ‘fading out’ and trying other things (back to CoH a bit, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas), back to an MMO for six months (City of Villains in October 2005), other things (Auto Assault and Dungeons and Dragons Online for a month or so each, 14 day trial of EVE, Oblivion, back to CoV for a new issue there), taking us up to the Return to WoW around October 2006, now reaching the six month point.

It’s not a sudden thing, the transition from Playing to Not Playing, I just find myself logging in less often, not devoting quite so much time at work to calculating an optimal character build, and browsing around to see what other games are out there, to which end reports from the recent Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) have thrown up a few interesting possibilities.

A while back, I was contemplating Vanguard quite seriously, but I’m ready for a move away from the fantasy genre, so neither that nor Lord of the Rings Online hold much appeal. Van Hemlock pointed out Stargate Worlds, which has a lot of good looking features. I haven’t particularly watched the series, but game-wise it sounds like it’s shaping up very nicely (then again, everything shapes up very nicely in pre-launch publicity…) Also in the Sci-Fi MMORPG-with-fast-paced-ranged-weapon-combat field, there’s Tabula Rasa, the gameplay videos of that on the Massively Online Gamer podcast look great, and it has some interesting sounding features like character “cloning”, so you don’t always have to totally re-start to try something different. In that same podcast, Fallen Earth gets a big thumbs up for the character customisation; even while formulating a previous rant, I hadn’t considered a “body hair” setting…

Most of those seem to be aiming for a late 2007/early 2008 release; a little sooner than that, June with luck, there’s Pirates of the Burning Sea. The Massively Online Gamer podcast has some nice footage of that; I particularly liked the “foot stamp” move while swordfighting, causing your opponent to hop in pain for a while. Digging around their developer logs, there’s also an account of a naval engagement (“12.01.06 Beta Update – 7v7 battle!”, about halfway down at the time of posting) which, as an expert on age of sail warfare (that is, I’ve read a couple of C S Forester and Patrick O’Brian books), sounds rather fun. I’ll certainly be keeping a weather eye on that one.

Weekend Warcrafting

Another quiet weekend of Warcraft, as I wasn’t around very much. Managed to work through a Netherstorm quest chain to get the X-52 Pilot’s Leggings, and popped into Alterac Valley a couple of times as it was bonus honour weekend there. Curiously, the Horde won both matches; back in December, when I last spent a fair amount of time in battlegrounds, Alterac Valley was an all but guaranteed Alliance victory, I think my results there were something like 38 wins and 1 loss. I think much of that was a self fulfilling prophecy; it was “known” that the Horde lose Alterac Valley, so some Horde players wouldn’t even bother trying particularly hard, so the rest of the Horde team in that battleground were at a further disadvantage, so they probably would lose, thus continuing the cycle. In fact, there’s only one key to Alterac Valley: zerg for your life! In both the weekend games, the Horde had this nailed, and when they’d captured a graveyard or two, half the Alliance tried to defend, which merely delays the inevitable.

Das Ich und das Dress (Part the first).

As MMO players we all take on the role of a character, to a certain extent, within the online world we’ve chosen as our virtual home from home, but what does that character represent to us, and what does it say about us? Concentrating on the more generic idea of an MMO – a game with various races, classes and professions – and ignoring for now those virtual worlds where your character is simply an avatar, presenting an interface to enable you to interact with others and nothing more (not withstanding the fact that it’s fairly easy to draw conclusions about a person when their avatar is a ten foot tall dragon-scaled penis called Cecil), what, if anything, can we tell about the person behind the character when we examine the character itself?

Potentially the first thing we notice when first presented with another character is their sex, and immediately we enter in to interesting territory when trying to establish anything about the player behind the character based on this information. Although a lot of MMOs are RPG based, the role-playing aspect of this is often no more than ‘I am playing the role of this class or profession’, any need to relate to the character is often limited to the fact that if the character does well the player gets to explore more of the world, and if the character dies the player is set back in achieving this goal. It seems that it is rare for players to relate to their characters as an entity that is alive within the world that they are exploring, to play the role not just of the class they have chosen but of the character as a whole. Thus many male players will pick female characters; since the need to relate any more than superficially to the character is dismissed, the deciding factor often comes down to ‘if I have to stare at the back of my character for hours on end, which arse is going to be most easy on the eye’. Female players seem to pick male characters less often, and this could be because women tend to relate emotionally to people and objects much more naturally than men do, and therefore playing a female character comes more easily as they can relate to it on a deeper level, in such a way as female to female friendships are often closer than their male to male counterpart.

If we know the sex of the player behind the character – we will try to avoid knowledge of the player when initially examining an area of character choice – does the choice of playing a character of the opposite sex indicate anything to us about the player? There have been many and varied studies on such behaviour, but the general conclusion would probably have to be ‘not really’ (I’m sure Freud would disagree). Most male players who pick a female character do so for ‘aesthetic’ reasons, and female players who pick a male character often do so because they wish to be assumed to be male, to avoid the still sadly prevalent and unfair (although, again, drastically improving for the better) image of female gamers as being less capable than their male counterparts. The more disconcerting trend is the opposite of the last example, where a male player plays a female character in order to aid their attempt to convince other players – specifically male players – that they are female player; often such meta-gaming is a harmless attempt to gain an advantage, usually gifts of items and help, from those members of the player community who are more susceptible to the scantily clad female form…

Another very interesting and contrasting area, but one that I couldn’t speculate on, is that of gay players. Do the general trends with the gay player population follow the trends that seem apparent in the straight community, or do they differ? Polar opposite? A mix? Too varied to even attempt a generalisation? It would be interesting to know.

So it would seem that it’s hard to establish much from the sex of the character alone; with female gamers still being proportionally in the minority compared to male gamers, even though their numbers are growing in leaps and bounds, the chances of a male character being played by anything other than a male are slim, whereas it might be suggested that a female character could equally likely be played by a male or female, if not still favouring the player being male. When you meet a new player for the first time, do you draw any inference from their character’s sex? Does it affect your view of that player in any way? Consider it next time you meet a new player, it would be interesting to hear people’s opinions and experiences.

Ok, so a character’s sex isn’t necessarily a great indicator of the player behind the veil, what about character race?

Things start to get a little more interesting with the introduction of character race into the equation. There are several things that can affect the choice of race in an MMO, and some of these choices may allow us to begin to develop the picture of the player behind the character, such that it becomes a little less blurred. It seems prudent to discuss the various factors that combine into the creation of a character separately and to then discuss them in combination with one another, but in discussing the choice of race of a character it is hard to entirely ignore the effect class distribution has on this area.

It would seem fair to say that in general most players will determine their character first and foremost on class, then race and then sex. In discussing them in the reverse order, we try to demonstrate how the least important choice seems also to give us the least information about the player, but that in combination with the other choices it will develop into a more important indicator than it was when considered in isolation.

Many MMO games try to encourage racial diversity by restricting the selection of some classes to only a few of the available races, and thus a large part of race selection boils down to whether your chosen class is available to that race. However, there are other factors that will affect the choice of race, some being more telling about the player than others. Racial-specific abilities in most MMOs tend not to divulge much about the player’s decision in choosing that race, they are often minor niceties which are often overlooked by most players for the more important reason for racial choice: appearance. The appearance (and associated background, if any) of a race is probably the big deciding factor for a player facing the choice of what to play, and it can probably give us some insight into that player and the general player population in general.

Still to come: conclusion of racial choice; class choice; class development; names and affiliations…