Daily Archives: June 27, 2007

Toon on blondes.

The next generation of MMO players are already in training in games such as Toontown, and your intrepid adventurers of all things massive and multiplayer ventured forth into this strange new world to find out what MMO means to younglings that may never have heard of Everquest or World of Warcraft.

After getting past the initial hurdle of the hideous installation process, which involves Internet Explorer (AND ONLY INTERNET EXPLORER. YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED), ActiveX controls, Flash installations and multiple webpage bizarreness, the game loads and you’re presented with the character creation screen. Character creation is a simplistic affair, although it still offers more customisation than certain popular MMOs that one could mention. Zing! Take that, Big Kid’s MMOs!

To start off with you choose the sex of your character and then Minnie or Mickey Mouse will lead you through the rest of the creation process depending on your choice. The girls go with Minnie, the boys with Mickey, in case there are any deviant ‘Minnie Mouse fanfic’ writers out there. Next you can choose what sort of toon you will play, such as a monkey, dog, cat or rabbit; height, body shape and head size can be altered, followed by body colour, which can vary from limb to limb as demonstrated by my lovely assistant Prof. Spiffy Frinkelzilla in the picture from yesterday’s post. Clothing options come next, which includes style and colour, although you scroll through the options one at a time and each colour choice is effectively a new item, so if you don’t like the Hawaiian shirt option you have to scroll through all the colour choices for that shirt style until you get to the next one. A minor niggle really, although for inveterate character customisers such as myself it got a bit frustrating when I had picked a shirt design and then found a pair of shorts I liked the look of but which didn’t match that shirt, thus forcing me to scroll back through many items to find a new style of shirt that I liked. Whether people will be focussing on that niggle, or on how much effort I put into creating a cartoon character for a three day trial of a game for seven year olds is open for debate. But Sir Monty was the coolest cat on the block by far, which considering he is in actual fact a rabbit, shows just how cool we’re talking here.

Finally name generation is required, and this is where the ‘this game is for kids’ aspect is highlighted for the first time. You can choose a name and type it in, as per normal MMOs, but it will be sent for approval before being allowed in the game, so no cartoon characters called Bugs Bunny69 or the Cockulator, which is a seriously good thing for a kids game but also not a bad idea for a Big Kid’s MMO either, in my opinion. The other option, if you don’t want to wait for approval, is to pick from a list of approved names which you build into a combination; there’s an optional title, a forename and an optional surname which is made of two separate words combined, ‘thunder’ and ‘nerd’ seemed appropriate for me, so I went with that. There are some awesomely bizarre names in the name selection menu, and you can therefore create some weird and wacky combinations without too much trouble. My wife, who was staring over my shoulder in mild bemusement at the antics of Zoso and I, was particularly tickled by a duck we saw named Fat Max Spacklefoot; kudos to you Fat Max, the ministry of silly names salutes you!

Once you’ve created your masterpiece of anthropomorphized slapstick, you’re popped into the game’s very brief tutorial which, as with most MMOs, introduces you to the basic controls and interface elements. The game uses the arrow keys to steer the character around and there’s no mouse look, which is excellent in the fact that you won’t see any characters spinning through three hundred and sixty degrees at improbable speeds, but it does force you into becoming a keyboard turner by default. Being used to slightly more flexible controls as we Big Kids are, this made the thing feel very clunky, but I imagine it would translate well to the various console platforms which is perhaps the main motivation behind the restrictions. Also, this is a game for kids so, you know, I probably shouldn’t be expecting a scriptable UI and multi-macro keybinds. Besides, you get used to the controls in short order as you progress through the introductory quests.

And quest you do. It really hits you quite quickly that Toontown is indeed a fully-fledged MMO training ground for kids, a staging ground for raising the next generation of virtual warriors and warriettes.

The basic concept of the game is thus: Cogs are invading Toontown and you need to help stop them. The Cogs are robots which manifest themselves in the manner of various ‘dull’ themes from the real world, such as bankers, lawyers, bureaucrats and Pop Idol. Ok, not the last one. Not that I discovered anyway; it’s probably an end of game boss, thinking about it. These semblances of seriousness are prone to self-destruct under the onslaught of a player character’s good ol’ cartoon tomfoolery, or Gags. Gags are the character abilities of the game; as you level up these abilities you can gain more powerful versions of them, and as you perform quests you earn the opportunity to learn new classes of gags. You start off with two basic attacks: throwing a pie at the mob, or squirting water at them. It was hard to progress far into the game, but we did get far enough to see the next class of gags, one of which was an AoE attack and the other was a group heal ability; as Zoso pointed out, if people have the opportunity to shout out “HEAL MEH!!1” it must be a proper MMO.

And a proper MMO it is.

It has the grind of a proper MMO, with the two new classes of gags requiring an inordinate number of quests to be performed before you qualify to go on the final ‘gag quest’ to earn the right to use that class of gags. You can only pick one of the two new gag classes at any one time, so assuming you wanted to learn the other class of gags, you’d have to grind out a whole load more quests. New gags within each class are earned by using the existing ones. To level up throwing gags, you throw pie at mobs and each time you do your progress is shown on a meter to let you know how far you’ve progressed. Throw enough pies and you get the chance to throw… bigger pies! For slightly more damage! It’s easy to mock, but when you think about it it’s exactly what you get in a lot of popular MMOs these days; many of the rewards for achieving the next level on your character are just the same abilities, but ever so slightly more powerful.

Observing an MMO distilled into its most basic essence so that it is accessible to children makes you realise just how much smoke and mirror schemes are employed to give the sense of achievement and purpose that is the foundation of the grown-up games.

Mmmmm, deep. Ok, it was about as deep as a paddling pool. Speaking of paddling pools: combat! Nice link, eh? Smooth. Seamless. I should be on the radio. Speaking of radios: combat! Combat in the game is a matter of running up to a mob until you make contact with them, which will then initiate combat mode. As MMO training for kids, this can only be forging a new generation of Leeroy Jenkins and tanking cloth wearers who think that the only way to pull is to throw yourself bodily at the enemy, but it keeps things simple and obviously that’s the name of this particular game. Actually the name of the game is Toontown, if it was called Simpletown I don’t think it would go down so well, less so if they shortened it to Simpleton. Anyway! Once in combat your available abilities pop up on the screen, you pick one, and if you’re fighting several mobs you pick which one to aim at. You don’t group in the game, instead anyone can join a battle in progress up to a maximum of four players. This is quite a refreshing way of doing things, as it doesn’t matter if the mob is nearly dead or at full health, if there’s a space and you join before the mob dies then you get credit for helping defeat it. It’s open to abuse, obviously, but this is a game for kids so I’m not sure that AFK Whore and XP Leech is likely to be a part of their vocabulary. The combat is turn based, where the toon group takes a go, then the Cog gets to return fire. The group gets twenty seconds or so to take their turn, so if you’re used to Guild Wars pace you’re probably going to think the world has stopped turning, but for anyone being introduced to the genre for the first time it provides enough of a sense of urgency to be entertaining, especially if you’re seven years old.

To further it’s classification to proper MMO status, mobs wander the streets and will add to the combat if they come close enough to your group while you are fighting, where everyone is locked stationary in position until all engaged enemies are defeated. The respawn rate was pretty crazy in some areas, and for such a ‘basic’ game it actually got pretty hairy on several occasions as additional mobs joined the fight just before we finished the current batch. At one point we had so many adds that defeat was inevitable and it prompted Zoso to jokingly exclaim “I donut leik this game. It’s too hard. I’m going back to something easy for seven year olds. Like WoW“. To which I could only cry “Forsooth!”. They’ve got eight million customers, but you can be sure that Blizzard still feels the burn of biting social commentary from a couple of obscure MMO bloggers. Oh yes.

Once you’ve completed your quests (and quests can take an age to complete, because just like in ‘real’ MMOs, mobs of the type that you need for your quest are never to be found until after you no longer need them, then you can’t move for that type of mob but can’t find the new ones you’re looking for) you can warp back to town, where warping is represented by you pulling a comedy hole out of your pocket, popping it onto the floor and jumping into it. Nice! This same animation is used for a lot of the cool travel warping abilities; a really cool one is the ability to warp to the location of anyone in your friends list. Genius! Absolute joyous revelation! Alas, anyone trained on Toontown is going to hit serious shellshock once they delve into one of the world-spanning, FedEx delivering, ever-running MMOs that the big kids play.

You have a limited number of gags to use before they run out, but never fear for they are easily recharged by hopping on the magic tram and visiting one of a number of mini-game areas. As with combat, anyone can jump on the tram while it’s waiting at the station, and then whoever is aboard when it leaves joins together in a quick one minute mini-game which is selected at random. There are various games, the ones I played either involved cooperating as a team and getting a group bonus if you all achieved the goals (such as a perfect round on swimming through a bunch of rings), or they involved competing and trying to outperform the other players in the game to get the biggest reward. Even in a game for seven year olds, PvP is a brutal gladiatorial struggle to the death! Well, not ‘to the death’ so much as ‘for greater quantities of jelly beans’, where jelly beans are the currency that you use to replenish your stock of gags. Again, good training for the hostility of future MMOs, and some players were probably a little too desperate to win the Apple Catching tournament, or Minnie Mouse’s dancing competition. I caught myself at one point in a game desperately shoving other player characters out of the way in order to get the best position to catch the juicy red appley rewards dropping from the sky, suddenly I realised the full horror of the barbaric PvP training camps that were churning out the next wave of gankers. Then I slapped myself and realised that seven year olds running around and enthusiastically nudging each other out the way is all part and parcel of playing at that age, and I was perhaps being a little too fatalistic in the face of cartoon animals chasing after fruit. It was late and I’d had a lot of coffee. Coffee makes me weirder than usual. On the scale of weirdness, that’s very weird, to non-experts.

And that’s about the gist of it for the short time period we played. Disappointingly for an MMO demo. a whole raft of functionality was disabled to the trial player, so I couldn’t, for example, try the go-kart racing or the chat functionality; for chatting in the trial you’re limited to selecting phrases from a menu, but it’s very well implemented, with a huge range of phrases sensibly and tidily organized in menus, allowing you to spam ‘Rock and Roll’ over and over, or explain exactly what quest you’re on and how many mobs you need to complete it. Rock and Roll! One final feature that I’ll mention that was available in the trial, although I didn’t play with it much, was player housing in an Animal Crossing stylee, allowing you to furnish the place with rewards and vendor-bought items!

I know! Player housing. From the outset. These seven years olds are spoilt I tell you! Why, back in the day there wasn’t any housing to speak of, you just covered yourself with a sheet if you were lucky enough to have received such a rare drop, otherwise you hid under a tree! And that’s only if your coal-powered graphics engine supported trees…