Monthly Archives: July 2007

What’s real and what is not

Picked up from Broken Toys, a list. Lum’s comments are pretty much my initial reactions (MMORPGs: SERIOUS BUSINESS. Also, “all skills, abilities, classes, and races must be completely balanced”? Next stop, World Peace: “all people should be cool and stuff and not fight”. Sorted!) Ole Bald Angus has a nice piece on it, though, succinctly summarised as “there are no sucky game mechanics, just sucky implementations of game mechanics”.

There are certainly bits of that list that could be fun, depending on implementation, or stupendously awful; number 5: you cut down trees (wear high heels, suspenders and… erm, yeah), quarry stone, process minerals etc., make yourself a lovely house. Number 30: then it gets hit by an earthquake and destroyed. Oh yeah, and you were in it at the time so you got crushed to death by those roof beams you spent so long getting in place. Number 17: death is permanent, so that’s it, game over, such is the capricious nature of fate, what do you mean you’re cancelling your subscription?

A strong theme of the list is realism; real-world physics, characters eating and sleeping, etc etc. And if that’s your thing that’s great, there’s obviously demand for Flight Simulator, Train Simulator, Ship Simulator, Advanced Hatstand Simulator (hang up to six hats simultaneously! Includes favourites like the bowler, homburg and panama, as well as the exotic fez and calotte! Look out for Hat Expansion Pack 1 soon with the fedora, beret and sombrero!), but it’s not for me. I didn’t play Call of Duty and think “well, that wasn’t bad as a World War II first person shooter, but it would have been better if you trudged your way across France for two weeks, only occasionally encountering enemy soldiers but coming under regular nerve-shredding mortar or artillery attack that you couldn’t do anything about.” If there’s a cool gameplay reason for something happening, great; during winter events, lakes in Paragon City have frozen allowing for skating fun in City of Heroes. If rivers freeze “realistically” in some game because that’s what rivers do in winter, and if you walk on them there’s a chance you’ll plummet through the ice (depending on thickness) to your permanent death, and instead of fun skating you fall on your arse if you try and move faster than a slow shuffle (because that’s realistic)… what’s the point?

Wii Will Rock You

I got some four-player Wii fun in on Friday when a bunch o’ people came over for a barbecue. I’ve been quite tempted by the Wii for a while, but other than playing Wii sports with friends I’m not sure how much I’d use one (and half my friends now have Wiis, so I can just mooch off them). Having a wireless browser connected to the television could be handy, especially when coupled with media streaming software like Orb, but it’s still not quite enough to tip me over the edge to buying one. It looks like it’ll have a killer app later this year, though…

There’ll be no more Guitar Heroism for me, to the relief of the rest of the household, as I returned the controller (or had it forcibly returned on my behalf, at least). I’d peaked at 27 songs of the hard career, 23 of the expert, and just couldn’t break those last few tracks which was getting to be a bit frustrating rather than fun. I’d started on the “bonus” songs (the main career features 30 covers of well known songs, then there’s another 17 songs you can unlock by lesser-known bands, many featuring members of the development team), and liked one of them so much that I went out and bought the rather splendid “Second and Eighteen” by Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives. Highly recommended if you like songs about Time Cubes and Tatooine.

So no more Guitar Herosim, at least until… Guitar Hero III. That Wii killer app I mentioned in the first paragraph? Unleash the wireless Les Paul of pure rock! I couldn’t justify the purchase of an XBox 360 or PS3 just for living room concerts, but I rather suspect it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back (where by “straw” I mean “guitar controller”, and by “the camel’s” I mean “my”, and by “back” I mean “last vestiges of resistance to purchasing a Nintendo Wii“. Just to be absolutely clear, no actual camel’s backs were harmed in the making of this post.)

It was during the Roman times

In a MMOG, you’re not special. You know the drill, in Generic Single Player Game you’re the son (or daughter, thank you Brother Stan) of a wizard/king/god/king of the gods/wizard king of the gods/a bloke called Geoff; in a MMOG, you’re one of the crowd, nothing special, even if your shoulder pads are wider than every door in town. Blah blah blah, we’ve done this before. But! While idly browsing around the Gods and Heroes site, the solution came to me.

Thousands of people, but you all want to play one iconic character? Well now you can, in Spartacus: The MMO! Yes, you’re Spartacus! And so are you! And you!

The gameplay might need slightly tweaking, as currently it consists of logging in, saying “I’m Spartacus!”, and getting crucified. Still, on the plus side, it’s a great segue into the sequel, Brian of Nazareth: The MMO.

The MMOhhhhh

At this point on our journey we’ll stop to take a brief look at the undercurrent of sexual tension in the MMO space by exposing the hidden meaning to several common MMO terms thus revealing their sordid alternatives.

Those who are of an easily offended nature may want to avoid delving this deep into the Inferno.

MMOhhhhh terms:

Meat Shield: Underwear.

Grind: What lovers do after they’ve removed their meat shields.

Two-boxing: See ménage à trois.

Ding: The result of a successful grind. Generally happens more quickly when two-boxing.

Spawn: The (sometimes unexpected) appearance of a new being when people have been grinding for a while.

Gold Farmer: Grinding where the sun don’t shine.

Buff: It is considered good form to give your partner a decent buff before you start grinding.

Solo: Buffing yourself because there’s nobody to grind with.

Bot: A device to allow females to solo more easily.

Bind on Equip: When improvised bots go wrong.

Instance: The female sexual organ.

Twink: The male sexual organ when it’s ready for grinding.

Nerf: The male sexual organ after grinding and a ding.

Instance run: The female sexual organ after grinding and a ding.

Rez: When a male is ready to grind again.

Gimped: Those people who like to grind whilst wearing full-body leather meatshields.

Lag: When one person fails to ding during a good grinding session.

Wipe: Something that is bound to occur if there’s been a lot of grinding and several dings.

DPS: Someone who’s a little too enthusiastic with their grinding technique.

Con: If it cons red, you’ve been grinding too much.

March me away to the station (again)

Following on from the previous post, the Station Access website itself didn’t turn out to be terribly helpful after all, being a flash page with all of one useful looking link on it, “FAQ”, which actually resulted in a nice line in server errors. Presuming the FAQ it was trying to point to was something along the lines of this one, it’s still not enormously helpful for non-US players apart from the comforting news that we get to shell out 17.5% VAT on top of the basic price. All the available games are listed as “(U.S version/SOE servers only)”, but the only reference I could find to other servers was that Station Access specifically excludes “EverQuest European Ubi Soft servers”, so I don’t know if the other games have regional servers and/or clients which might make life difficult if you bought a boxed game in the UK but wanted to play on US servers to take advantage of Station Access. I have to confess I didn’t look terribly hard though, as I got bored and went off to play Guitar Hero (21 songs through Expert, woo!) I’ll check it out properly when Pirates of the Burning Sea / The Agency come out.

I got to thinking a bit more about the general idea, though. I like the theory; you have a bunch of games available, you can jump in to whichever you fancy whenever you want, and you don’t need to worry you’re “wasting” a subscription if you’re not playing. In its current incarnation, though, I’m not sure Station Access makes a whole lot of sense. Not having played any of the games in question I could be doing them a colossal disservice, but I get the impression that, Planetside apart, they’re all pretty similar. “In the grand scheme of things” similar, that is; obviously they all have their own settings, and particular implementations of levels and crafting and skills and abilities and that malarkey, but they all seem like fairly conventional MMOGs. Though I know plenty of people who go from MMOG to MMOG, they do it in series, not parallel (well, “never say never” and all that… I had three subscriptions going myself not so long ago, but that tends to be a transitional thing). Part of that’s to do with the cost of subscription, but I think it’s more that most MMOGs aren’t really aimed at… um… I’m desperately trying not to use the words “casual” or “hardcore”, ‘cos we all know how *that* debate goes (rapid descent into semantics, flamewars and flamewars over semantics… actually, that’s every internet debate isn’t it?) *reaches for a thesaurus* It’s more that MMOGs aren’t really aimed at the more insouciant playstyle, a single game will quite happily soak up any available free time if you want to get into it that heavily. How many people play enough of more than one MMOG in a given month to make it worthwhile?

Hmm. Looks like everyone’s already done this one, back when the price was raised from $25 to $30 a month. Someone points out in the comments there that twenty quid a month is “peanuts” compared to dinner out, a visit to the cinema or whatever, but that’s a justification for an MMO subscription in the first place rather than Station Access over and above a single game sub; starting and stopping game subscriptions really isn’t that difficult (so long as you can remember your account name and password), even Captain Apathy here can manage to log in to an account and click a couple of buttons for the sake of a tenner a month.

March me away to the station

Another busy weekend meant little gaming (apart from a bit of the now-obligatory Guitar Hero). While out and about, I did manage to catch up with the most recent Virgin Worlds MMORPG News podcast, which covered Pirates of the Burning Sea being published by SOE. Not having bought any rootkit infested CDs, or been a Star Wars Galaxies player, I don’t have particularly strong feelings one way or the other towards Sony and hadn’t paid much attention to the original announcement, but Brent on Virgin Worlds mentioned the inclusion of PotBS and The Agency, a fun sounding (as much as all games sound fun long before they launch) espionage-type shooter, in Station Access.

Station Access, I’m vaguely aware, is some sort of package subscription deal for SOE games, but I didn’t know any specifics. Unfortunately the logical place to look, the Station Access site itself, is blocked at work for its games-related content, so I trundled off to my favourite not-blocked information source, Wikipedia. Some people get rather snippy about Wikipedia, pointing out that it covers something like Doctor Who in as much depth as the Spanish Civil War. That’s patently nonsense; obviously Doctor Who is covered in much greater depth than the Spanish Civil War, but even so there clearly isn’t enough emphasis on ephemera/”geek stuff” as I couldn’t find anything about Station Access there. I could wait a few hours, and investigate properly at home, but where’s the fun in that? From what I can divine, at the moment Station Access covers Everquest, Everquest II, Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, The Matrix Online and Vanguard, all titles that I’ve vaguely considered trying at one time or another. SWG, The Matrix and Vanguard haven’t exactly enjoyed the unqualified success that might tempt me to start now, though, and although the general EQ2 “vibe” is very positive, I’m not sure I really fancy another fairly traditional fantasy MMO at the moment. Adding Pirates of the Burning Sea to the list is good, but probably not enough to warrant full Station Access subscription over just PotBS. Chuck in The Agency too, though (if it turns out to be half decent) and that’s a really rather tempting package (presuming it’s available to UK subscribers, they don’t shove the price up again several times in a year, yada yada).

Combinatorial, my dear Watson.

Priest: “There’s the Ogre lord, attack in the name of the king! And his foxy daughter!”

Warrior: “Raaaaarghhh!”

Ogre Lord: “Puny fleshpods, me smish you!”

Warrior: <Holds up a finger> “Oh, hang on a second, I’m not sure if this is the right weapon to be fighting ogres with.”

Priest: “What?!”

Ogre Lord: “Guards! Hit oomans wit yer hurt makers!”

Warrior: <Rummages through backpack and pulls out an abacus> “No, that’s not the right one, that’s for orcs.” <Rummages some more, littering the floor with abacuses> “Ah ha, here’s the ogre one! Right, I just need to calculate my DPS average and then we can perform a reverse linear interpolation based on his percentage health to determine overall hit points!”

Priest: <Surrounded by four angry ogre guards> “Mother.”

Warrior: <Takes a swing at the ogre lord> “A hit. A most palpable hit! How are you feeling now? Would you say that you’re feeling ninety five percent healthy? Or perhaps it’s more like ninety two percent?”

Ogre Lord: “Ow, yoo make my not-left-arm bleed! Raaaagghh!”

Warrior: “Hmmm, right arm is bleeding and he’s pretty steaming angry, we’ll call that eighty nine percent.” <flicks some beads on the abacus> “Good news, I think we can defeat him in another ten rounds of combat!”

Ogre Lord: “Yoo never stop me, I are in der vincey ball!”

Priest: <Dodges another ogre guard attack> “Just kill him already!”

Warrior: “Your crown will be mine in a mere ten hits, and then the king’s daughter will be rewarding us tonight in ways that are illegal in four other virtual worlds!”

Ogre Lord: “Actually old chap, I fear you’ve made a slight miscalculation. You see, I’m actually a mountain ogre, whereas you’ve been using the spreadsheet, sorry abacus, for standard ogres. We’re an entirely different phylum, and quite unique in our general power and ability”.

Warrior: “Really?”

Priest: “For the love of all stereotypically, misogynistically portrayed horny king’s daughters, stab him and then help me!”

Ogre Lord: “Indubitably my dear boy. Look, here’s the correct abacus, just take a quick gander”.

Warrior: <whistles in admiration> “Impressive! Says here that you guys can hit for anywhere between one hundred and two hundred hit points!”

Ogre Lord: “Most certainly, but you’re using that abacus with the armour bead over to the left which indicates a plate wearer such as your good self. If you move that bead over to the right…”

Warrior: <Flicks a few beads and calculates> “Good grief, it says that even a standard mountain ogre guard can hit a cloth wearer for anywhere up to one thousand hit points in a single shot!”

<Ogre guard hits Priest for nine hundred and ninety nine hit points of damage. Priest dies>

Ogre Lord: “You’ll also see that in the notes section there’s a calculation which shows that an ogre lord generally has a retinue of two ogre guards.”

Warrior: <Looks up from his abacus to see four angry ogre guards surrounding him> “Waiiiit, that’s not two guards!”

Ogre Lord: “My dear fellow, it is a fallacy to rely on the exactitude of numbers.”

Warrior: “…”

Ogre Lord: “Bash im in der noggin boyz!”

Numbers, numbers, numbers. Can we do without all the numbers? Would it be possible to remove the numbers from the fore of MMORPGs, and would it make for a better game?

In current MMORPGs, everything seems to come down to spreadsheet crunching: this weapon is better because it does 0.2 DPS more in an offhand which has a swing timer that is 1.5 times that of the main hand; this spec is better because it allows an extra 20 mana regen per second whilst achieving a mana efficiency rating of 35% return on investment over a period of ten years at an amortisation schedule of three monthly intervals (terms and conditions apply).

In combat you already have the con system. You have the enemy’s health bar. Why do you need to see how much damage you’re doing to the exact hit point? Sure, have flashy effects in the game for critical hits and the like, because these are exciting things that should feel powerful and meaningful, but don’t show every little numerical detail of how the combat is resolved.

If you break it down to the raw numbers, show the roots that feed the trunk of your game, you remove a large chance for immersion, magic and mystery.

There are a many examples of games where you aren’t presented with the raw numbers, yet the games are fun and involving. I was playing Resident Evil 4 on the Nintendo Wii again the other day, and you don’t even have enemy health bars in that game. You know what? It actually adds to the tension and enjoyment of combat: have I put enough shots into that guy to take him down? Is he going to get back up? Should I waste some ammo making sure? Do you think he’d mind if I took his jacket? At a basic level of abstraction, if you need to show that the ogre lord is really rather tough you can reflect it in the health bar, make the size of the bars relative such that a warrior facing off against an ogre that has twice as many hit points will see that the ogre’s health bar is twice as big as his, he’ll get an idea of how much effort it will take to defeat the enemy but it won’t be an exact science involving slide rules and logarithmic charts.

The developers will still have the numbers in order to balance things and, you know, be able to create a working computer game, but abstracting these things away from the players seems like a way to make the game more than just Logistical Spreadsheet Combat Simulator IV. A sword which gives +Str and +Stam, could instead simply ‘con’ green to a warrior, and red to a mage. You could further adapt the ‘con’ of an item based on what the character currently has equipped. If the sword mentioned earlier gave less benefit to a warrior over his currently equipped sword, it would con orange or red to him, indicating that it wasn’t an upgrade. Would the lack of focus on stats ruin it? Is it about making the power of an item tangible, evident to others so that you can show it off or work out exactly how many Pico seconds less it will take to kill a given mob? Could the fact that it’s the most powerful weapon you’ve discovered on your adventures so far be enough?

Numbers allow people to min/max which is a form of enjoyment to some, but they also allow people to discriminate against those who don’t min/max. Removing the numbers could be used as an attempt to remove a level of elitism from these games, when such elitism is so unwarranted.

Pen and paper games use dice rolls to simulate whether lady luck is smiling on the character, and stats are used to represent a characters abilities, because that is the way that seems to work best when you have to perform combat calculations yourself. But now we have these computers, and they can do all these complicated calculations of hit rolls and bonuses and skill point adjustments for us, so we should be able to sit back and enjoy a good game; except that the tradition of PnP was brought over wholesale, without perhaps considering the nature of the medium that they’re being brought to, and thus computer based RPGs are heavily reliant on presenting the player with numbers when they could be put to better use in obfuscating the numbers and presenting us with a game that does all the hard work of calculating if another +1 to Charisma is really going to make the pot-belly dwarf barbarian succeed in seducing The Countess Snootington.

For the curious the answer is no, the seduction still failed. It might have been something to do with the fact that he was twiddling his nipple piercing whilst attempting the seduction. Hey, it works in the local tavern, how was I to know that it was considered bad form at the royal court?

The Invasion of the Cheapseats

I managed to tear myself away from Guitar Hero (up to 21 tracks of the hard career *extends index and little finger and lightly moshes*) for a couple of hours last night. Van Hemlock’s Operation Cheapseats had come to Paragon City, and with City of Heroes being my first MMO (and you never forget (and in my case so far, unsubscribe from) your first time) I thought I’d pop along and say “‘ullo“.

I normally play on the US servers, having started back in 2004 before there were any EU servers; there was an option to transfer when the game was officially launched in Europe, but the rest of my supergroup were sticking around so I stayed with them. Plus the exchange rate works out pretty well at the moment for a subscription in dollars! Having signed up for a 14 day EU trial, I had a bad feeling there might be some unpleasantness involved in trying to run two versions of the client, but it turned out to be simplicity itself thanks to a handy post on the boards. All it needed was to download the EU version of the launcher, stick that in the folder of the existing client, then fire up the appropriate version of the launcher to connect to your desired continent’s servers.

The customary hours of soul searching over that perfect hero identity and powerset eventually resulted in Slush Puppeh, an ice/electric blaster who got her powers in a particularly bizarre incident involving an iced beverage machine, and much splendid crimefighting followed with Van Hemlock’s ice tank, another ice blaster, and Melmoth’s thankfully non-icy kinetic/sonic defender providing invaluable healing and damage boosts (as well as shouting at stuff). Clockwork robots were stopped from… doing whatever they were doing, a bunch of suspiciously well-armed art thieves were frozen, electrocuted and shouted at, I nicked several PvP gags, and there was ;dancing in the streets of Paragon. Huzzah!

You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict

I’m still firmly ensconced in Guitar Hero. I completed the medium campaign last night, and started on the hard version. Surprisingly enough, it’s… hard! It’s almost like the textual description of the difficulty level conveys some meaning…

However! Fear not, faithful reader, for I have been racking my brains as to how the worlds of MMOGs could benefit from the world of pressing buttons in time with music and pretending it’s in some way related to actually playing a guitar, and I’ve come up with something. This is true innovation, mind, not the half-arsed rehashes of existing ideas some people try and pass off as original stuff, oh no.

Right, so, in some games, you have classes who use musical instruments. Bards in DDO, Minstrels in LotRO, those types, and you press buttons on a keyboard to activate their music-based abilities. Now hold on tight, because this is where the pure rush of innovation comes at you like a Prussian kickboxer: what if, instead of pushing buttons on a keyboard to activate their music-based abilities, you pushed buttons on a chunk of plastic shaped like a guitar to activate their music-based abilities!

But that’s not all, oh no. Others would probably be exhausted after coming up with one idea that revolutionary, which certainly isn’t staggeringly obvious to everyone who’s played both LotRO and Guitar Hero (or seen them being played… or been told about them by a passing acquaintance), but what about melee? You’ve strummed away with the guitar based abilities, but your foe has nevertheless engaged you in close combat. At this point, your standard MMOG bard drops the lute, and begins fighting with a sword or something. Very inefficient. What he should use is… a lute bayonet! I know, sheer genius already, but it gets better. How, as a player, to employ this devastating weapon? It would be totally immersion breaking to have to switch to a keyboard, so the answer is: motion sensing technology. More pure innovation straight from my brane, not inspired by playing with a Wii over the weekend, certainly not. As the mob closes, you stab and slash at it with your controller, all the while continuing the hard-rocking assault upon its senses. For a particularly devastating special attack, you unstrap the guitar, grip it by the neck and spin it around and around and around until you get a bit dizzy and your foot gets caught in the cable and you fall onto the sofa crushing the packet of Frazzles you left there.

So far so good, but it’s all a bit single player isn’t it? Not very massive. Rock Band is in the works, for up to four players (guitar, bass, drums, vocals), so we just scale that up! Imagine, a 40 player rock-raid! If Lynyrd Skynyrd’s triple lead guitar approach was good, 10 lead guitars would be better still! A choir of vocalists! They could bring out hurdy gurdy controllers, and sackbuts, dulcimers, giant truck-mounted pipe organs launching projectiles from the bass tubes…

y’know, I think I might’ve been consuming too many sugary beverages while playing Guitar Hero, I might just have a quick lie down. After one more crack at Ziggy Stardust on hard level…

Thought for the day.

“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart throughout the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the stock exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.” — Carl Jung

“Or he could spend five minutes in an MMO.” — Melmoth