Monthly Archives: August 2007

One for All or Alts for One?

The news about the Death Knight hero class coming in the next WoW expansion has resulted in a couple of interesting articles. In the red corner, Brandon Reinhart with “Figuring out the Death Knight Part 1: Horizon“, predicated on “I believe that systems that drive players to create alts are generally inferior to systems that enable players to constantly progress an identity”. In the blue corner, Scott Jennings, with “My New Levelling Technique Is Unstoppable“, from the perspective of an altaholic.

It’s interesting, as it echoes me and Melmoth; I tend to stick with a single character in games, he’s firmly in the altaholic camp, so we thought we’d have a bash at exploring the different motivations. *Reclines on the psychologists couch* I suppose it all started as a child, when my mother fed me a single flavour of baby food instead of a variety of flavours…

One problem I have with alts is a psychological inertia that I have to overcome to repeat content, as I posted about previously. MMOG alts almost always involve repeating content to a greater or lesser extent; the different starter areas for the races in WoW and LotRO, for example, cushion the blow for a while, but everyone, Horde or Alliance, winds up in Stranglethorn after a while.

Another problem with alts is that I tend to be something of a completist in games. Not quite a “must do everything it’s theoretically possible to do” completist, the wonders of the internet allow you to realise that even where you thought you were really into something you’re but a neophyte next to a small contingent of obsessives who’ve spent every waking moment of their existence utterly devoted to it, but I think I’m a little more dedicated than an average player, something of a Pareto completist; games often follow the 80-20 rule, very broadly. MMOG levelling slows down as you move through the levels such that it might take 20% of your time to get to 80% of the level cap. Guitar Hero, I managed to get through 27/30 songs of the “hard” career, 23/30 songs of the “expert” career, about 80% of the way through (or 83.333%, if you want to get particularly technical, and obviously ignoring the easy and medium careers just to prove the old truism of lies and damn lies), and I could easily see it taking four times as long to master those last few songs. The Grand Theft Auto III series make it nice and easy by actually having a screen showing everything you’ve done in the game, not just the main story missions but all the little side missions/challenges throughout the game, with a completion percentage, and I’d tend to be somewhere around 80% on those too; I’d do the main story (though saying that, I’m not sure I ever quite got around to the very last mission of San Andreas), find the hidden packages/horseshoes/whatever (getting some by myself, but resorting to a walkthrough for the full collection), do a fair number of side missions, but I couldn’t be bothered with totally completing everything.

I have strong Achiever tendencies in MMOs, as per Bartle, which I think derives from being a completist (although it also bleeds into the Explorer area, both in terms of “map” exploring, finding items in out-of-the-way places and secret rooms, and “mechanism” exploring, though those in turn are largely driven by the achievement or reward that can result). I link to think I have a pretty broad definition of “achievement”, though; in World of Warcraft, there’s gaining XP and levelling up obviously, up to the level cap. There’s the acquisition of “phat lewt”, there are crafting skills, there’s PvP reputation/honour points, faction reputation. There’s also helping friends and guildmates out with any of the above, though altruism has its limits… So, I’ll more than happily help a non-skinner out doing any of the Nagrand wildlife culls, it’s repeating content, but I’ll end up with a fair bit of leather from it so it’s achieved something. On a guild run through UBRS, getting someone attuned was one achievement, and Finkle’s Skinner and a bit of enchanting material were a bonus. At level 60, running a friend’s low-level alt through Gnomeregan was great for his quests and netted some decent loot, I got to see the whole place, interesting to my Explorer side (“proper” attempts had got a fair way through, but fatigue tended to set in after the 17th hour…), and I even got a whole lot of exercise on my dagger/mace/fist skills (as I wield swords the rest of the time). I’ll even count it as an achievement if I pick up some nifty-looking, if totally useless, bit of armour while out and about.

So it’s that achievement aspect that can give me a shove to overcome the issues of otherwise repeating content, some shiny thing dangled to make me feel like I’m getting something out of it, slowly nudging towards that notion of “completion”, although as the nature of MMOs is that there’s no such thing as “complete”, it’s a bit of a Sisyphean challenge.

Probably the best incentive system for my Achiever side, is in City of Heroes. CoH has badges (the concept isn’t unique to CoH, LotRO deeds are very similar, but that’s where I know it best). Badges do almost nothing; a very small subset are Accolades, which actually give your character some tangible (though not earth-shattering) benefit, but the vast majority have no direct in-game benefit. Badges are awarded for… well, everything really. Almost anything you do in the game can get you badges; stand on a certain bit of the map, Exploration Badge. Kill 100 of a certain enemy, there’s a badge for that. Do a certain amount of damage, take a certain amount of damage, craft items, sell things on the auction house, sidekick another player, spend time in a PvP zone, balance three fish on your head while tapdancing and going “flaaaaarrrrrrr”, there’s badges for all that. The net result is, it’s incredibly hard to do something in CoH that isn’t, in some way, progressing you towards an achievement. It might be some insanely stupid achievement, like taking 500 points of damage on your way to the “Take Ten Ffrooglepoopillion Points of Damage” badge, but it’s enough that even in City of Heroes, the alt-iest game ever in the history of time (I think), I have one hero and one villain at the level cap (there is someone in the Supergroup who’s filled *all* *twelve* character slots with level 50s) that I’ll dust off each issue to go badge hunting with. Though I do have a few alts there, too…

You don’t learn to hold your own in the world by standing on guard.

It happens that I was in a troll temple the other day, killing the trolls there. Not in real life, of course. That would be silly. In real life I was leading a secret monastic sect of knights in a raid through the forgotten sewers of old London against the forces of darkness. As you do on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Anyway, I can’t remember if there was a reason for killing the trolls other than they seemed fair game at the time, what with me being an adventurer and they being monsters with hideous 80s-throwback hairstyles, enough reason for any man or mouse! So there I was killing indiscriminately when a patrol rounded the nearest corner. Now these fellows were pretty tough, and I had been carefully (read cowardly) picking my fights in order to maximise a one-on-one engagement of the non-matrimonial variety. “I’m fair rumbled”, I think to myself in some sort of bizarre Olde English that I only use when thinking to myself, but I’m determined to finish the fight before the inevitable trolling that will shortly be forthcoming. I dispatch the troll that I’m fighting and, thinking that running away like a four-year-old is the better part of valour, I head pell-mell to the nearest safe spot. I then watch in mild wonder as the patrol walks right up to the spot where I was just fighting, where the broken and mutilated corpse of what I can only assume was one of their temple co-workers is laying, have a bit of a look around, you know because they’re on the lookout for trouble here, and then turn right around and wander back the way they came.

One can only begin to envisage the scenario back at Temple HQ:

Chief Troll: “Right you two, you’re on patrol duty around the temple perimeter. Any sign of trouble and you raise the alarm, ok? Think you two knuckleheads can manage that?”

Timothy: “Sure thing, Chief”

Trevor: “Yeah Chief, no problem”

<Timothy and Trevor wander around the perimeter>

Timothy: “You’re a peon at work. Good. Good. And you’re another peon, well done. Ok”

Trevor: “You’re a guard, that’s fine. And here’s a priest, lovely. Lovely.”

Timothy: “And here we have the corpse of Tony, who appears to have been smashed to a pulp with a large blunt instrument of war. Ok, good, good.”

Trevor: “Well I think that’s everything, shall we head back to base, Tim?”

Timothy: “Sounds like a plan to me, I’m dying for a nice cuppa.”

<Back at base>

Chief Troll: “Back already? Well, report you two.”

Trevor: “Nothing untoward, chief, ten peons working, five guards on over-watch, four priests on duty and the horribly bloodied corpse of Tony from human resources.”

Chief Troll: “Tony is a corpse?!”

Timothy: “Well… yes. We thought it was ok though, there was nobody about so we thought it was probably nothing.”

Trevor: “Yeah, he probably tripped and fell on a stone tablet.”

Timothy: “Five or six times until his skull was… oh dear…”


<Trevor and Timothy make their way out again and return shortly thereafter>

Chief Troll: “Well?!”

Timothy: “It’s ok chief panic over, there’s nothing.”

Chief Troll: “Nothing to report? Well that’s a relie…”

Trevor: “No chief, there’s nothing out there. You know, they’ve all gone.”

Chief Troll: “Gone, whaddya mean gone? The peons aren’t working?”

Timothy: “Gone chief.”

Chief Troll: “The guards, where are they?”

Timothy: “The guards are gone chief.”

Trevor: “Well that’s not strictly true, Tim, Toby was there.”

Timothy: “Ah, that’s true.”

Chief Troll: “Well that’s something, get him in here so that we can find out what’s going on.”

Trevor: “Ah, well there might be a small problem, you see it was only his head.”

Chief Troll: “Only his… well where’s the rest of him?!”

Timothy: “Gone, chief.”


<Five minutes later Trevor comes back>

Chief Troll: “WHERE’S TIMOTHY?!”

Trevor: “Who? Oh! Well, he was here when I left, I just didn’t notice that he’d gone.”


<Four hours later and there’s no sign of Trevor or Timothy>

Chief Troll: “Marvellous. Just… marvellous. I suppose I should raise the alarm, and go and see what’s happened.”

Chief Troll: “Or I could just carry on standing in the same spot I always do, and wait to see if anyone turns up. After all, it’s probably nothing.”

Either there’s a severe shortage of recruits for the position of guard, or Tony in human resources drew up the most bizarre list of requirements for applicants:

‘Can’t see over fifteen feet in front of you? Total lack of spatial awareness and inability to hear anything quieter than a demi-culverin fired three inches away from your head? Unable to identify the sights and sounds of comrades being slaughtered nearby unless you’re within spitting distance? Join Her Majesty’s Royal Troll Guards today!’

Often you’ll find guards standing outside a gate, usually there’s two of them – one for each side of the gate, just in case anyone tries to sneak past! – and they’re standing about five feet from one another. Now, get yourself within fifteen feet of them and they both rush after you like rabid bees, all furious activity with the pointy hurty parts and intent on destroying their enemy. For about another fifteen feet in a straight line, then of course they get bored and go back to standing around. But if you pull one of them, and for those of you not familiar with MMOs, pulling is just an MMO term for fighting like a pussy:

“Théoden King! Helm’s Deep is breached and the hordes are through to the keep!”

“Ooooh dear. Well there’s quite a lot of them, I suggest we hide back here, and try to get the attention of one or two at a time. Perhaps throw rocks at them from a distance and make rude insinuations about their heritage.”

“My liege?”

“You know, we’ll just hide back here as a group, trick one or two into coming and we’ll slaughter them in a heroic and testosterone-laden manner. Then we’ll trick another couple into coming and do the same to them.”

“My king, there are ten thousand orcs at the gate, surely…”

“Ten thousand you say? Hoo! Well, we’d better get started, this could take forever. Pull!”

Anyway, pull one of them from a distance and as long as you’re more than fifteen feet away then many-a-time just the one guard will run off down the hill as the other one stays put. You then proceed to slaughter the guard, with up to five or six of you ganging-up and making the poor fellow literally explode in a crimson blossom of corpse petals along with all the associated death wails and blood-curdling, ear-ravaging battle cries (although the latter is usually just me on Skype, I tend to get a bit carried away when playing as a dwarf) whilst their colleague stands at the gate and doesn’t bat an eyelid. You can imagine them standing at the gate when their friend runs off down the hill, and they’re calling “Doug? Doug?! Where are you going? Fine, sod you then if you’re not going to tell me!”, and then when their colleague is screaming in agony and to all twelve gods of the Umbra to save them, the guard back on the gate is saying “No Doug, I’m not coming now. You had your chance, but you chose to run off and ignore me. I’m not interested now, whatever it is”. Of course, five seconds later the remaining guard does find out what it is. And that it hurts very much.

And when the band of adventurers approaches and gets within his mole-like eyesight range, does he raise the alarm for the rest of the camp like any sane guard would? Does he run like the wind and try to get help? No, he takes the party on single handed, and finally when he’s almost dead, with an axe buried up to the hilt in his skull with half of his body on fire and the other half frozen in ice, only then does he think:

“You know what, it probably isn’t nothing.”

Full of emptiness and wrath

World of Warcraft: The Next Ten Levels (or Wrath of the Lich King if you prefer) was announced on Friday, and burst over the blag-u-spore with a crashing wave of… meh. Or perhaps bleh, and a bit of blah, and a touch of hrrrm, a dash of hrng and 3/16 fl. oz. (that’s 0.2 teaspoons, or one microbucket) of other onomatopoeic expressions of not being particularly impressed.

It’s not hard to understand the level of apathy, it doesn’t look like there’s anything particularly earth-shatteringly original in there yet. Then again, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and nine million subscribers can’t be totally broken. The Death Knight could be interesting, the sketchy outline in the current wiki article sounds like runes might offer quite a flexible hybrid. Quite how they’ll crowbar an Alliance Death Knight into the lore I don’t know, but it’s already such a sprawl that a third undead faction who hate The Scourge and The Forsaken (but quite like the Alliance) wouldn’t be totally out of place. Inscriptions sound very much like Enhancements from City of Heroes, a bit of a tweak without changing anything too radically, not so different to slotting gems. An entire PvP zone, presumably including the siege weapons and destructible buildings mentioned, is the World PvP of TBC taken a bit further, and could suffer as badly as that does with faction imbalance. Customisable hair styles, though, woo!

I’m slightly surprised by the timing; it feels like The Burning Crusade is only just out. I’d expected, as the original end game was expanded with Zul’Gurub, Ahn’Qiraj and Naxxramas, that there might be some more raid content added to TBC before another expansion Then again, there’s no release date (or even vague suggestion of a release date that I could find), so WotLK might not be out until 2013. Or maybe it’ll be next week… It’s a bit of a dangerous game; as with TBC, it sounds like most existing loot will be outclassed fairly quickly, which removes one of the main incentives to keep repeating content at level 70. If you really like the sound of the Death Knight class, it removes the incentive to invest a lot of time and effort in existing characters. You don’t want to announce new versions too early, but then you also need to keep interest going, particularly with a number of new MMOGs coming soon. An early 2008 release is feasible, Wrath of the Lich King vs Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, anyone?

My initial reaction was, as per everyone else, “meh”. Then again, I’m feeling a bit “meh” towards MMOGs in general at the moment, either from a summer slump, or some deeper ennui. Thinking about it a bit more… I’ve rather enjoyed levelling up to the cap and running a few instances twice before, why not again? Maybe I will dust the old rogue off once more, if there’s nothing else grabbing my attention at the time.

Thought for the day.

I think people have simply not yet realised how the Lich King’s wrath has manifested itself:

“I will crush the lands of Azeroth beneath a mediocre expansion, and the mountain of gnomish Death Knights will be piled so high as to blot out the sun and turn all the world to winter! Mu ha ha ha haaaaaa!”

On the bright side, if ever there was an opportunity to recreate the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’…


Many of the saints, sinners and supplicants have named it ‘burnout’, ‘slump’ and other such terms, for me MMO life at the moment is fractured. There is no one game that dominates my time over all other games, and indeed MMO games are not dominating my leisure time at the moment either. I could probably go into seriously deranged depth about the psychological ‘hows’, ‘whys’ and ‘do you mind if I don’ts’ for this, but for me it’s quite simple: I’ve given three or four MMOs my undivided attention over the past years, and every time I crack open a new MMO, it’s like I’m playing some bastard hybrid child of one or more of the previous games.

No, this isn’t a post about innovation.

It’s simply a statement of fact. The reason that Lord of the Rings Online held my attention until the character’s mid-twenties and was then shelved is because I’m lazy. I’m lazy in the fact that, after I’ve burnt through the initial content (about twelve times as I roll new alts and soak up all the new classes, races and starter areas) I hit the Charon factor. The Charon factor is that feeling that you’re just repeating the same journey, in a slightly different way, and that you’re merely ferrying your current PC across the wide abyss, not because it’s enjoyable or an adventure, but because it’s plainly what has to be done. And so you ferry your character along, you don’t feel for the character, you don’t form any kind of bond with it, you don’t care for it, you can’t empathise with it, in fact you begin to hate it. You hate your character for making you sit down and trudge through the same old landscapes, killing the same old monsters the same number of times (that being far too many times) because that’s what it wants you to do.

No really, it’s not about innovation.

Disappearing, it would seem, are the days where many people would commit large parts of their lives to shepherding around a virtual character, because their sense of adventure has gone. Even people who have only played WoW will have begun to see the language of the matrix, will have begun to see behind the stage curtain and notice the rigging and crew used to convey the world they were believing in, and that it is in fact a carefully engineered façade. And once you begin to see the sets, costumes and props of your world you then become familiar with them, and very quickly do you notice them in the next MMO that you play, and the next one after that. And the more MMOs that are released the easier it is for Alice to see that in this looking glass world, she’s simply a pawn. You no longer see the lever as a means to obtain a pellet, you see it as a plain and simple lever, one that you’ve pulled a thousand times and which you know will provide the same result the next time you pull it, and the next, and that that result is no longer satisfying.

It’s about catharsis.

I find myself these days playing MMOs a lot less than I used to, and I don’t focus on one MMO but tend to flit between them, paying for a month here and a month there. I also find that I am less excited about upcoming MMOs than I used to be, I know the names of the ones that are coming, and I know what Amazing Unique Revolutionary Features [TM] that they employ (most of which revolve around you killing ten rats in New! and Exciting! ways), but I just can’t believe the hype any more. Because I know how they will actually turn out. We all do. For me it means that I’ll probably try them, get past the initial ten or twenty levels where classes and locations are fresh and the rats die in new and interesting ways, and then I’ll catch a glimpse of the stage in a certain light, and I’ll recognise the set and crew from the last MMO production I was watching, it’s just that the set has had a fresh lick of paint and the crew are wearing different overalls.

And you know, I’ve been through this before.

FPS games were my absolute joy back in the day. From Wolfenstein 3D I was hooked, and I devoted many hours to playing various FPS incarnations, getting all psyched-up about the upcoming releases of Quake, Half-Life and Unreal and its tournament brethren. But at some point in time the genre really took off, before that point you’d only had a few games and they were executed well and brought something genuinely unique to the table, Quake was perhaps the king of the land at the time, and suddenly developers were churning out thousands of FPS games, all very much alike even though each one touted New! and Exciting! features. There were still the big releases, games which my friends and I spent plenty of time enjoying, but eventually the FPS genre seemed to lose its way, to strangle itself in its own desire to entangle every idea and theme and wrap it in the latest and greatest FPS imagery. I’m still amazed that we never saw a My Little Pony FPS.

So here we are in the tree of MMO life, where Everquest saw the graphical MMO genre explode out from its roots, and World of Warcraft brought it into the branches of mainstream popular culture as perhaps Half-Life did for FPS games. And now we begin to see the influx of MMOs released in the wake of this success, and the weight of all this extra growth that isn’t needed begins to damage the tree, it weighs it down and forces it to spend resources in keeping these branches alive which would be better spent in growing a few stronger and healthier branches. And if nobody comes along to prune it, eventually it will wither and fail, until it is a gnarled trunk unrecognisable from its former glory.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

This is the way the genre ends
This is the way the genre ends
This is the way the genre ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

— Bastardised from The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot

Revolution in the air

Until last weekend, I’d never owned a games console. My first computer was a ZX Spectrum, mumble-something years ago, after that it was a PC (8Mhz processor, CGA graphics, 5.25″ discs, dot matrix printer and all), and it’s been PCs ever since. Friends had Amstrad CPCs, BBC Micros or Spectrums in the 8-bit days, then PCs, Amigas or Atari STs when they came in. I think most of us played the classic trump card of computers being educational rather than merely game-playing devices (“it’ll be really useful for school!”), then proceeded to spend the majority of time playing games on them anyway. Course, they turned out to be pretty educational anyway, even if only as a by-product of games. Learning BASIC to code games (or get a few lines into doing so before realising it was actually a bit tricky) and type in listings from magazines (lavishly illustrated with square-jawed heroes and lethal robots along with an amazing bomb-defusing back story that explained exactly why you were trying to guess a number between 1 and 10, with startling true-to-life graphics responding to your guess with “Higher!” or “Lower!”), making databases of D&D characters, fitting extra memory (when games got so advanced that 512k just didn’t cut it any more and you needed that full 640k), getting to grips with networking (for multiplayer Doom). But I digress. By the mid-90s, when the PlayStation arrived to shift consoles from being more child-oriented to the “lifestyle” demographic, I was firmly ensconced in PC gaming and never really saw the need for a console over and above that, especially as the line between PC and console gaming became progressively more blurred with further generations of consoles, culminating in the XBox 360 and PS3 being (very broadly) comparable in both cost and capability to a PC.

Course, there’s another current generation console, and the more astute reader may already have, through Holmes-ian powers of deduction, worked out what’s coming based on the first sentence of this post, this post, some threads of hair on my jacket that could only have come from a certain breed of rabbit and my guilty start (that I thought I’d ingeniously concealed as a coughing fit) at the mention of the word “Zapata”. Yes, I now have a Wii. After deciding I’d get one for Guitar Hero 3, it was a pretty short leap to figuring that prices are unlikely to drop much in the next three months or so until its release, so why not pick up the console itself now (after all, there may be a terribly shortage of Wiis then, caused by… I dunno, giant Wii-eating badgers maybe. You never know.) The Wii really is a revolution (Nintendo’s original name for the console; when the new name was announced I, like an awful lot of other people, thought Revolution would’ve been a great name and “Wii” was the product of a deranged mind, but in hindsight, it works. Apart from anything else, it’s much easier to Google for…) It’s almost infectious in the way it spreads, everyone who plays on one seems to end up getting one, and it turns out I’m not immune either.