Monthly Archives: November 2007

It is safest to take the unpopular side in the first instance.

From the Cryptic Blog:

“Traditionally, there have been two dominant design motivations for instancing:
[…] Secondly, in the early days of MMORPGs one of the ongoing problems was
players camping valuable spawns or drops, effectively locking other
players out of content.”

And the devs of the various MMOs weren’t having players doing that!

Not when they could create raid instances and lock the majority of players out of the content themselves. Why should the gankers and campers have all the fun?

In one, numbers were burning

I started my MMOG life in City of Heroes, which shaped a few of my ideas about How Things Work. What constitutes a normal encounter, for example; true to CoH’s comic book roots, as well as dealing with the odd city/country/world/universe/multiverse-threatening creature of extreme power, you need a bunch of henchmen to wade through accompanied by suitable “BIFF!” and “PAF!” effects. Accordingly, opponents are graded as Minions, Lieutenants and Bosses (with the odd Elite Boss and Archvillain for team challenges). Very broadly, the idea is that one player hero should be challenged by 3 minions, or 1 lieutenant and 1 minion, or 1 boss (or maybe 2/3 of a boss, I start get a bit hazy at this point… possibly 1/2 a boss, 3/4 of a lieutenant and 14/17 of a minion. Something like that. Maybe it’s one boss, a squirrel and a weasel that are a challenge for one player hero, a stoat and a badger. Wait, that’s not fair, swap the stoat for the weasel, and give the boss a marmoset. And an elephant shrew for the hero. Anyway!) The important thing is that 3 minions are the basic spawn you’ll run into, even as a solo player, from the start of the game, and the more players, the more mobs you face, up to the point that a full team of eight will face… erm, hang on… carry the one… then four plus minus one plus ten is fourteen minus one ’cause addition is commutative, right… a full team of eight will face spawns of 243 minions, 12 lieutenants, 3 bosses and a duck-billed platypus. Hrm. I think I shifted a decimal point somewhere. Anyway, that’s in the current game; back in the Good Old Days you got the same spawn sizes, only they were such a trifling challenge you’d get your Tanker to go collect the *entire map* and bring them back for the Blaster to annihilate in a single blast, but we don’t talk about Those Times or it attracts people whose sense of a fair fight is still calibrated to 2004 settings, and regard anything less than instantaneous defeat of several hundred enemies at no risk to yourself as “UNACCEPTABLE SLAP IN TEH FAEC”, a frequent complaint being “I don’t feel Super any more” (which I s’pose is difficult to argue with if you’re taking Superman as your minimum-power benchmark, but it would be pretty tricky to have a game world with Supermen everywhere.) For any WoW players who haven’t experienced CoH… you know Zul’Farrak, when you rescue the prisoners? And you’re barrelling down the steps like a pram in Battleship Potemkin, and there’s trolls everywhere, and you’re AoEing for all you’re worth… CoH is like that, with more particle effects.

So! City of Heroes prepared me for three opponents as an absolute minimum, wholesale slaughter arresting as a matter of course, and saving the galaxy a couple of times before breakfast. World of Warcraft took a bit of getting used to after that, with its crazy idea that one mob is a challenge for one player. “I need some murloc eyeballs… and look! A flange[1] of murlocs! ATTACK INDISCRIMINATELY WITH DAMAGING POWERS fireball fireball fireb… oh…” It was at that point that another difference from City of Heroes became apparent, where after level 14 most characters can fly, teleport, leap tall building in a single stride etc. This makes legging it a slightly easier process (so long as you haven’t been knocked to the floor, rooted to the spot or otherwise mesmerised) than WoW, where your typical escape attempt consists of running away at almost exactly the same speed as your opponent, before bumping into another flange of murlocs ten feet away and getting killed by them.

[1] I’m not sure if that’s the right collective noun.

Neither approach is inherently better, it just takes a bit of time to adjust from one to the other, and I sometimes wonder what it’s like to come from the other direction.

In other random happenings, when an ambush last night caused a cry of “Dudes!”, I was reminded of Fargo’s fantastic Automated Online Role-Player, resulting in much saying of “Dude!” and “Lag”, and when flipping through feeds this morning I noticed there’s a new xkcd shirt based on a comic that’s strangely appropriate for the “how to fit blogging in to work” conversation…

MMOon on a stick.

Welcome to my new feature, MMOon on a Stick. Here I’ll just dump out random ideas that, riding on the back of cosmic rays, have struck my head and burrowed their way into my brain. They’ll be fanciful, bizarre, incomprehensible, impossible, and all other sorts of ibles. It’s just a quick dump of the contents of my brain when I think “Hey, what if?”

The first cranium crusader, and inspiration for this post, is as follows:

I was thinking about the hunter class in WoW, having been playing one for the first time recently. I’ve been enjoying the dynamic that exists between the hunter and their pet, with the pet as tank and moderate DPS and the hunter as DPS and moderate healer. It became clear that this worked well as a duo, but that once a hunter joins a group of adventurers their pet is often a mediocre tank compared to a warrior, and the hunter is not often the highest DPS compared to Rogues or Mages or Warlocks; I daren’t suggest that hunters are mediocre DPS lest I call down the firey brimstoning wrath of a hundred thousand million hunters. Hoo boy, there are a lot of hunters, don’t ever annoy them, they’ll rise up and devour the world.

Anyway! What I thought was this: once the hunter joined a team, what if they could turn off their pet and in exchange get a boost to their DPS or crowd control abilities, such that they could contribute that much better to a defined role in the group. Extrapolating this a little further, it seemed like a fun idea to have any class have abilities that helped them to solo, but which they could turn off when joining a group in exchange for becoming a more pure class of tank, DPS, crowd control, healer, burger vendor, accountant or what have you.

Taking the superimposed reduction of this extrapolation into its primary quanta and then running it backwards through an inverted induction field (what?), I landed at the following: have players with skills that are unlocked based on the composition of the party. For example: with no healer in the party all DPS/Tank characters would have their innate healing abilities unlocked, but at considerably reduced DPS due to certain combat powers becoming locked and unavailable to them; they will be able to achieve the same content as they would with a healer, but it will be more difficult for them as they will have to concentrate on healing themselves at the same time, and it will be a slower, tougher fight due to their reduction in DPS. If a healer were to join the party the self-healing skills of the DPS players would be locked, but their greater DPS skills would become available, meanwhile the healer class’s DPS skills would become locked but their more powerful healing skills would become available.

Changing the makeup of a character in this way seemed like not only an interesting additional dynamic to the game-play, but could also go somewhat towards alleviating the problems of solo play as a non-DPS class and group play when no healer is available. I use the healer example here, but it could work equally well for tanks and crowd control classes too.

So there you go, the self-induced public craniotomy that is Moon on a Stick.

Aspire rather to be a hero than merely appear one.

I was reading an interesting discussion on Zen of Design about how to address the public’s innate desire to play as Batman or Wolverine in the forthcoming Marvel and DC MMOs; I haven’t any contribution to make to that discussion other than the fact that if you think having some “Kekeke LOLZ” person playing as one of your nearest and dearest intellectual character properties is a good idea, you must have been snorting the Joker’s dandruff. I mean, just go on to an MMO server, any server, any game, and turn on general chat and listen for five minutes. Ok, that, that right there is going to be what it would sound like in Professor Xavier’s school for the ‘gifted’:

Cyclops: “Wolverine is FAG!”

Wolverine: “I am not! I kik ur ars in PvP. QQ more Siklops you == teh lose”

Cyclops: “Ur just got overpowered regen FoM character.”

Rogue: “Hey guys, can’t we all just get along.”

Wolverine: “Show us ur boobs Rouge!”

Cyclops: “LOLZ!”

Beast: “LOL!”

Rogue: “Oh please.”

Cyclops: “Jean Grey has the better boobs.”

Wolverine: “NO WAI!”

Beast: “Yuh uh!”

Jubilee: “Reported.”

Cyclops: “What who?”

Cyclops: “Who u reporting I not done anything.”

Jubilee: “I’m reporting you and Wolverine.”

Cyclops: “We didn’t do nothing.”

Wolverine: “Jubilee got no boobs.”

Cyclops: “LOLZ!”

Beast: “Ha ha”

Iceman: “ROFL!”

Storm: “Hey what about my boobs?”

Letting players loose on your carefully crafted IP is just going to end in tears and far too many screenshots of Wolverine and Cyclops trying to gangbang Rogue or Magneto or each other. So what to do? I’d like to see the game building a story of your character as a hero in their own right. Starting off the game as a civilian could be an interesting ploy, it allows you to build the story right from scratch and work your way through one of the most interesting parts of any hero’s story, the act of transformation. Bruce Wayne’s struggle and eventual coming to terms with the bats in the cave beneath Wayne Manor for example, which represented more than a phobia of flying rodents, but a struggle with helplessness and fear. Peter Parker’s horror and confusion at his newfound power, followed by jubilation and freedom and then regret and the oppression of responsibility. It could be argued that these moments, above all things, make these characters what they are, to themselves and to their audience. The act of discovery is beautiful in its own right, so why deny your players the chance to experience this with their own characters, and perhaps provide a unique bond between that player and their virtual alter ego.

It would beat starting the game as a low powered hero.

Officer: “Help! Infernus! There are people stuck in the bank’s vault; they’re running low on air and it’s been frozen shut by the icy Dr. Blain!”

Infernus: “Sorry officer, I’m only a low powered hero. My powers are quite limited. I can reheat that cup of coffee for you though, if you’d like.”

Officer: “I, uh… sure.”

Infernus: “Ok! It’ll take me about twenty minutes or so, but then it should be nice and steaming again. Stand back now. Infernus calls forth the inferno of Hades to do his bidding!”

<A little puff of smoke and a tiny match-like flame spring forth from the palm of his hand>

<Infernus grins sheepishly at the unimpressed policemen>

Have your players start out as civilians and have them pick the route they want to go through to become the hero of their choosing. A player could run missions at the local military facility if they wanted their hero to be the result of scientific military experiments, or perhaps they will find a military battle-suit that they steal and use for the good of mankind. Once the basic concept of the hero has been decided through pre-hero quest choices the transformation mission would be undertaken. Lord of the Rings Online has shown that the instanced, scripted mini quest is very viable as a method of storytelling, and I imagine it could work well in the super hero genre as well.

But it shouldn’t stop with the drama of the transformation, the life of a super hero is defined not just by the villains that they fight and the wrongs that they right, it’s also about the struggle with anonymity and with being misunderstood, it’s about having to leave loved ones behind or neglected, and it’s about the crushing responsibility of power over the lives of others.

It’s about human nature when faced with the unnatural.

And this is the problem that Marvel and DC have with their games; in my view their heroes are compelling because of the story surrounding them, it’s not about the flashy powers (if you think about it, most of them have a very limited range of powers), it’s about the way that they use them and the stories that result from the use and misuse of these gifts, as a normal human being comes to terms with the extraordinary and the resulting moral decisions. The problem is that the MMOs of the past have never been the greatest medium for the telling of tales where the character is concerned, oh yes there are stories, stories abound, but they are not about the character, they are about the world the character lives in, or they are about the lives of the NPCs with which the character interacts. What I’d dearly love to see in these future super hero games is a new take on MMOs, where storytelling becomes an integral part of the player’s game, such that a player becomes so involved in the story of their character, where to live the decisions, victories and failures of the character becomes so integral to their idea of a super hero that they do not care to play as that meat-headed Wolverine, because their character’s story is more compelling to them.

The super hero genre unlike any other has the ability to break the boundaries of MMO convention just as their characters break the boundaries of human endeavour, but it may well take a super human effort on the part of the developers to make it a virtual reality.

With music in my ears

With an unusually free evening, I went on a bit of gaming rampage last night, kicking off with City of Heroes. After my careful and detailed planning of my blaster’s new build, I had a shopping list for invention enhancements to turn the mild-mannered distributor of moderate amounts of flaming peril (causing moderate singing, unless facing opponents whose interior décor favoured older soft furnishings not compliant with recent stringent non-flammability standards) into a powerhouse inferno of blazing destruction. The only snag in my plan is that somehow everybody else is after those same enhancements (it’s almost like they confer some benefit to the character, or something), so I’m left with a bunch of speculatively low bids on stuff in the hope that someone makes a typo when putting an item up for sale, and a few successfully purchased recipes that were doubtless as cheap as they were because they need particularly costly salvage (on which I have some speculatively low bids…)

While on the subject of CoH, I might as well make a brief mention of the news that NCSoft are acquiring Cryptic (plus some more links). You might have noticed I tend not to really bother with MMO News here, as there’s at least nine hundred and seventy three other sites covering that stuff, and very roughly 62.432% of them are updated more often than once every when-I-can-be-arsed, but seeing as I’m actually playing CoH at the moment I thought I might be able to offer something slightly more than copy n’ pasting a press release and adding such piercing analysis as “CoH is… a… game! And has… some… updates! So this news might affect that in some way.” Except I can’t, really; ever since it was announced that Cryptic was developing Marvel Universe Online something had to give. Splitting CoH off to NCSoft makes a lot of sense, the whole thing seems to be progressing very smoothly, the CoH team appear to be excited by the future yet slightly regretful at leaving, generally very little drama and thus not nearly as appealing to commentators as the whole Sony/Vanguard business. There’s talk of staffing up and vacancy postings, and I get the impression that the second expansion mooted after City of Villains might well be back on the table, though it’ll take a while for the dust to settle. Exciting times! The most immediate benefit is a few bonuses being chucked in either now, or shortly after Issue 11: free CoH or CoV access if you had one but not the other (City of Villains wasn’t, strictly speaking, an expansion, as you could own either of the games and only play Heroes/Villains if you really wanted, but I believe the majority of the player base have both), a debt wipe, and bonus prestige for supergroups. Nothing to complain about there, right? Course not, unless of course you’re one of the tiny, yet oh-so-vocal, minority who manage to display the unerring ability of grabbing the gift horse, prising its jaws open, sticking your head right inside to look at those teeth good n’ close then complaining it bit you.

Anyway, the whole “game where the second two words are ‘of heroes’ and the first one begins with ‘c'” business suddenly made me remember I still had Company of Heroes: Opposing Front on the go, I hadn’t played it since all the excitement of the Orange Box, so I fired that up for a couple more missions in the Allied Caen campaign. When I left off, I’d just been handed the defence of a key hill. I really though it would be a repeat of Hill 314 from the original game, where you got a handful of infantry and a few crew served weapons against a couple of panzer divisions. I was expecting 25 pounders desperately firing over open sights, heroic attempts to get PIAT attacks in from flanks etc. As it turned out, it ended up with me having an armoured company including several Fireflies, lead by a command tank, charging around the map to wherever a couple of Panzer IVs turned up while the commanders yelled “LOL TANKRUSHZERG KEKEKEKEKEKEKEKE!”, helped out by the fact that apparently a slit trench makes five blokes with a Bren gun utterly invulnerable to the attentions of a Panther, which was nice.

After all that calm, considered strategy (KEKEKEKEKE!), I felt the need for some hyperactive twitching, so fired up Team Fortress 2 for a couple of rounds. I haven’t really settled on a favourite class yet, I’m flipping around all of them if for nothing else than the achievement of playing a full round as each class. I quite like Medics, apart from the huge frustration of latching on to a Heavy to form a fearsome duo, only for them to wander off (very slowly) to a bizarrely pointless bit of the map to admire the scenery. As an Engineer, I frequently manage to set my sentry gun up somewhere that might, in other times, be strategically vital, but it turns out none of the enemy team come within range of during that round. As a Spy or Sniper, I’ll manage an occasional inspired round of dominance, then spend the next ten minutes getting killed without even seeing it coming. Still, it’s a bit of twitchy fun. While in Steam, I carried on with a few more rooms of Portal, which continues to nicely balance challenging puzzles, but not to the point that they become mouse-beatingly frustrating. I’m particularly liking the conservation of momentum through portals, flinging yourself from a great height through a portal to emerge in a totally different plane at high speed is brilliant.

To round things off and really wind down into a nice, relaxed state, I finished off with a bit of Rayman Raving Rabbids. My wife and I (several games work quite well co-operatively, with one person pointing/waving the Wiimote while the other furiously waggles the nunchuck (that’s not a euphemism, by the way)) completed the “Story Mode”, playing through the mini-games sequentially, so they’re all unlocked for “Score Mode” now (where the aim is, oddly enough, to get the highest possible score). I think my favourite of the lot is “Bunnies Have A Great Ear For Music”, where you’re presented with a choir of rabbids singing (in a manner of speaking) “Ode to Joy”. One of them, though, is playing up and shouting “blah blah blah blah blah”, so you have to point at a rabbid, press “A” on the Wiimote to zoom in, and if that’s the one mucking about, slap him with the nunchuck. Once you’ve found the culprit, another one starts misbehaving, so repeat the process until time’s up. To help out, if you zoom in on a tuneful bunny standing next to the miscreant, they’ll surreptitiously point in that direction to give you a clue. I’ve no idea *why* I like it so much, on any rational level it’s just bizarre, if any blogger had posted “I’ve got a brilliant idea for a game, it’s all about slapping out-of-tune rabbid-creatures in a choir!”, I’d’ve filed them away with the ones demanding a *realistic* magic system in a fantasy MMO, but somehow it works… La la la la laa la la la laaaa la la la laaaaaaa la la *slap*

Some of us’ll wind up to be lawyers and things

MMOG idea of the day: World of Lawcraft. In this exciting, roller-coaster ride you’re presented with an incomprehensible end user license agreement, and must work out what it actually means and whether it’s legally enforceable. If you accept the EULA in order to get on and play the game, you lose…

In the news.

NCSoft and Mythic decided to go their separate ways after attempts to merge their franchises City of Heroes and Dark Age of Camelot resulted in the disappointing and poorly received game of lycra-wearing female protagonists in a medieval setting: Dark City of Cameltoes.

Ward robe.

I got up this morning, washed and then hopped into my outfit for work:

I first put on my lycra cycling shorts since these provide the most comfort and flexibility while seated in a chair all day; the knee-length thermal socks were next, because it’s getting a bit chilly and they provide excellent frost resistance. I choose a pair of Birkenstocks for my feet as, although they only have moderate armour, they give a generous bonus to my comfort rating and provide sweat reduction. I wear a bra these days because, although it’s not really designed for my class, it gives huge bonuses to my support stats, so I popped one of those on. Next I shrugged myself into my fireman’s vest: great elemental protection and it also provides a small bonus to seduction checks! I decided to go for a bowler hat today instead of the deer stalker on my head slot; I prefer the deer stalker for general use, but today I was going to be grinding my London commuter rep, and you have to wear the bowler to be able to interact with them. London is a noisy place though, so I put on my ear defenders first, these provide a massive resistance to all forms of aural attack, although you do get a bit of a negative modifier to detect speeding taxis when you’re crossing the road. Luckily the bowler hat reminded me that I had a nice silk tie that also temporarily boosted my company rep, so I popped that on my neck slot. I wasn’t sure what to go for in the eye slot, so in the end I stuck with my stalwart ski goggles; you just can’t beat anti-glare and immunity to grit in the eye! A pair of shiny rubber marigold gloves next, pretty much standard fair for anyone having to touch the doors on public transport, plus their superb water resistance would stand me in good stead if I had to deal with any impromptu plumbing quests: the sink at work has been leaking for a while now. I strapped on my workman’s utility belt, which is excellent for providing extra slots to carry food and stationary and any other loot I pick up during the day. The cricketer’s box went on next – it’s so nice to be able to stack armour over your basic clothing – and these make one’s privates uncrushable against fellow commuters swinging their briefcases wildly around during the frantic morning rush hour. Finally I checked outside and it looked as though it was going to be a pretty cold zone that I was heading out in to, so I decided to grab my wife’s pink dressing gown and put that on my back slot, it has just about the best cold resistance that I know of and it boosts snuggle and cosiness stats as well.

And there you have it, probably the best London commuter outfit that you can get outside of the major raid instances such as Savile Row!

He’s badly built and he walks on stilts

Via a bunch o’ blogs, Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project has a nice piece on the MMO player life-cycle. It looks like a pretty good description of the path I’ve followed through City of Heroes (all the way through to “Recovery”) and World of Warcraft (once round the block, then back again for the expansion, currently sitting in “Burnout” for the second time; it wouldn’t take too much to shift to “Recovery” there, but one game sub’s enough really, especially with so many other games around at the moment). Assorted others (Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Auto Assault off the top of my head) never quite made it past “Practice”.

Though City of Heroes is pretty firmly in “Recovery”, I had a slight twinge of a “Mastery” flashback last night. I’d dusted off my original hero, a level 50 Blaster, for trick-or-treat badge gathering, and after filling the supergroup storage bins with large inspirations that dropped as treats, ran a few Rikti Warzone missions to make some use of them. After filling up with salvage and picking up a few recipes, well, you’ve got to hit the auction house, haven’t you? With the Halloween event over, I was just checking to see how my sales were going, and all of a sudden felt the need to re-slot my powers and create a bunch of invention enhancements…

I’ve barely touched my Blaster’s build in I don’t how long… the last time I respecced was probably a couple of years ago when Enhancement Diversification came in (or “When the sky was rent asunder, and the boards were filled with insane over-reactions not seen since… well, whatever the last change in any MMO was”). In fact I’ve hardly planned a character at all since then (other than my level 50 villain). When craftable inventions were introduced six months ago I made a few, but didn’t seriously investigate the options; firstly, there’s a frankly brane-bending array of choice. There are one hundred and eighty two thousand different types of invention enhancement sets, containing no less than six billion and twelve different individual enhancements, with eight frarglillion possible bonuses for your character (note: figures may have been seasonally adjusted). Also, the overnight introduction of an economy meant prices were fluctuating like crazy for a while, especially as heroes with three years worth of influence earnings went on spending sprees (I had a fair amount kicking around myself, but I’d also converted millions into supergroup prestige, back when there wasn’t anything to spend influence on after you’d kitted yourself out at level 50).

Now the market has (more or less) settled down, and it’s been niggling away at me that I ought to slot up some invention sets for nifty bonuses. What finally pushed me to doing something was picking up a Sting of the Manticore recipe, plus the bits of salvage needed to create it. The Sting of the Manticore set has some pretty spiffy bonuses, like a 7.5% recharge boost, but for that you need five enhancements from the set slotted in a single power, which meant I needed another four enhancements (to the auction house!), and another slot in my sniper power (to the respec-o-meter!). A respec would’ve been a bit of a waste just to shift one slot, so I did a bit more digging to find out other benefits that can be obtained from invention sets; powers like Health, that used to be a grudgingly taken pre-requisite for Stamina, now offer interesting slotting options for a character without other healing powers, and before I knew it I’d downloaded a post-Issue 9 hero planner and was trying to decide between six-slotting Combat Jumping for the full set of Red Fortune bonuses, or going for Scirocco’s Dervish in a PBAoE…

Then I snapped out of it, and switched back to my low level Corruptor, built around the principle of taking whatever power looked most fun at the time. Back to “Recovery” for me!


The bushido bladed Stormgaard did tag me earlier in the week with a self-wrought meme about five lessons that one has learned from playing MMOs. My post is somewhat delayed and I should apologise, but alas it is not really entirely my fault for I am somewhat cursed with a rather fickle muse. When my muse is around I can write for hours, draw moderately splendid pictures (if I do say so myself) and undertake other such creative outlets without batting an eyelid. However, they’re very rarely available and more often than not when I call on them for aid I get a rather abrupt and abusive answer-phone message which tells me in no uncertain terms where I can stuff my desire for creative stimulus. When they do finally show up they have a stinking hangover, the whiff of alcohol and cigarettes is about them and they sport a rather brutish six o’clock shadow of stubble, which is all the more frightening a proposition when you consider that my muse is female. For those of you who are aware of the more UK centric comedians, my muse could be likened to Jo Brand if she’d gone on a six day drinking binge with Mick and Ronnie of Rolling Stones fame. It’s not so much a gentle seductive inspiration in the creative arts than a big lady with a fag hanging from the corner of her mouth shouting “Get on and write something you lazy oik! I’m going for a cooked breakfast; there’d better be something on that paper when I get back or I’ll give you a thick ear”. Charming. I should probably delete the above before she gets back, otherwise I’ll be for it. I’ll do that in a bit, but first I will attend to the meme at hand, so without further ado here are five lessons that I’ve learned whilst playing MMOs:

1) In any MMORPG the NPCs are the heroes.

It took a while for me to learn this one, and with each new game came the watery wide eyed, hand clasped, bottom lip biting look of hope that accompanies the prayer that this time I would be able to adventure with my character through strange and wonderous lands, and that with these exploits would come fame, fortune and perhaps a little bit of what I believe the hip young crowd call ‘looking like a bad-ass’. What actually transpired each time was that I would adventure through oddly familiar and generic lands, and with those adventures would come the realisation that I was a mouse on a treadmill of ever increasing RPM that I would eventually no longer be able to keep up with, at which point I would be flung off and into the cage bars of reality, and as my blurred vision from the impact began to clear the reality that slowly came into focus showed me that I really was quite inconsequential in this world, that I was a mere pawn in the affairs of NPCs. Those damnable NPCs, with their matching sets of clothes and armour who, whether going shopping or standing in a field in the middle of nowhere, look ten times more awesome than I ever will. NPCs who have an arm missing but still fight better than I can with two, who wear blindfolds and yet have powers so awesome that they can lay waste to an army of opponents when I have barely etched a noughts and crosses board on the armour of one of them. NPCs, and mobs too, have incredible powers that players are just begging their trainers to instruct them in; huge damaging spells for next to no mana, heals that could top-up the health of entire continents of players in one go, debilitating powers that could lay waste to those same continents. It wouldn’t be so bad, but here is my character, with many years of time spent adventuring the lands, and all he has to show for it is a slightly limp mace and a shield which I found out the other day is really just a large chocolate Christmas tree decoration in disguise; really, the shield does look like one of those chocolate Christmas tree decorations, I imagine my dwarf hiding behind it as the enemy swings some magnificent, deadly and glorious battle axe which strikes through the tin foil wrapping and gets stuck in the 20% cocoa base, at which point my dwarf peers out over the top of the shield with a huge cheesy grin and perhaps takes a little bucktoothed nibble of chocolate as the orc desperately tries to pull his gummed-up weapon away.

Could instanced worlds help alleviate this annoyance and give players a greater standing in these virtual lands in which they spend so much time inhabiting? I envisage a lobby for players to login to and tweak around with their characters, trade items and meet people but then they enter an instanced world limited to a very small number of people, perhaps a guild per instanced realm; recruitment would also take place in the lobby and there would be a default realm for the unguilded. In this way the uniqueness and involvement of a player would by multiplied by a huge factor, and the players could perhaps be more powerful in this world compared to NPCs because they come from a limited band of heroes rather than a horde of maniacal adventurers that would challenge the crowds at the January sales for sheer loot grabbing ferocity. There’s often a fairly high registration on the outrage-o-meter when ‘instanced’ anything is suggested to players, but Guild Wars has shown that this can work successfully on an instance per group ideology, what I’m suggesting is that the actual realm would remain intact between sessions, such that when you return to the realm, rather than having a fresh world where everything has reset, you would be known in the land, if you’d helped the village of Gankton from being set upon by all the other local villages (serves them right for moving into a place called Gankton, to be honest) then the villagers there would remember your deeds, and perhaps the other villages would also remember…

Anyway, that was an ever so slightly tangential ramble, and suffice it to say that I don’t believe that it would be entirely viable to create such a thing in the near future, so until then I will just have to remember the lesson that my shields will always be made of chocolate, my character will always look like a patchwork lunatic and NPCs will always be the coolest kids on the block.

2) MMOs are really social simulators for the government.

You’ve been fed a lie all of your MMO life, you’re not playing games, you are in fact playing thinly disguised advanced social simulators run by government funded agencies. Never before have governments had the opportunity to study such social behaviours as mob mentality, crime, love, betrayal, cliques, in fact the whole Lord of the Flies shebang, without having to be accountable for the resulting harm that comes to their electorate. Reward vs Punishment, how group learning works vs singular attempts. How do the ‘top’ guilds form? Why do they form? What factors cause them to splinter and fracture, and what is the effect of the resulting fallout. There is so much information that can be gathered, and probably is, as to how social networks perform under various situations, it’s a gold mine of data to anyone who wants to know how to make friends, influence people and take over the world.

A tad extreme, but you never know! Which is why you should always do things to confuse their data collection. I suggest acts of sabotage such as randomly stopping in populated server areas and spinning on the spot for two minutes, buying all the cheese in a shop and giving it to passing PCs, running backwards into all dungeons that start with the letter ‘d’, forming huge groups of fellow players and then travelling across the land while other players pretend to be herding you like cattle, and standing naked on a mailbox while dancing for the general population. Wait, scrub that last one.

3) It’s just a game.

So simple to state; so difficult to master.

4) Give a chance to all things.

Games, guilds, players, they all deserve a chance before they are dismissed to the pits of mediocrity, melodrama and moronisity. Case in point: I probably wouldn’t have played CoH at all if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of others, I had already written it off as being from a developer that I’d heard little about, and a game of which there had been little buzz within the pages of those gaming journals that I read at the time. Another example: I left my WoW guild prematurely, it turns out, because it looked to me as though a clique was forming and that the guild was going to consist of a few people running instances and using the rest of us to fill the holes in their dungeon running schedule when they were missing a member of the cool kids; shortly after I left the guild a huge wave of new people joined and it looks as though the guild was probably pretty good for all involved in the end. Lesson learned.

It’s worth trying games whenever you can; betas are useful in this fashion, it’s nice to be able to determine that a game is not for you, and not having to buy the box to find this out is a boon, but it’s worth remembering that it’s also a good way to find those pieces of gold that are hidden in amongst the silt that is the general gaming market.

Give players a chance. Some people are truly wonderful but have the unfortunate knack of coming across as being obnoxious when their speech is distorted in the refractive index of a textual medium. Before taking offence to something someone has said in game, try to take a look at it from another perspective, see if there’s any way to interpret it in a more favourable light. Sometimes this will work, and you might realise that the other player wasn’t insulting the honour of your pet hamster, but was merely trying to convey a joke that doesn’t work without the complexities of vocal inflection and facial expressiveness. Sometimes the element of confusion has been introduced by your own prejudices, and is not in fact the fault of the other player in the slightest. Sometimes a simple typo can change the entire meaning of sentence.

And sometimes people are just arsing cockbags.

Just as a quick aside: out of curiosity I checked what my spellchecker thought cockbags should really be, it suggested cockboats which is apparently the unfortunate name for a small ferry boat and not, as I surmised, a supplementary vessel for astonishingly well endowed men who couldn’t fit it onto a yacht for fear of getting it caught in the rigging.

5) I am uniquely not suited to MMOs.

But I play them anyway. I forever seem to be out of a guild and I am often playing solo more than I’m playing in groups. This is the fault of nobody else, it is purely a failing of my own through my uncanny ability to project my real world social ineptness even unto virtual worlds where nobody knows my name and where nobody can readily determine my painful shyness and incompetence in casual conversation. Still I let it affect me, and thus it often spoils what could otherwise be a great experience.

In MMOs nobody can hear you scream in anguish at your inability to socialise. Unless you miss the mute button on the microphone, I suppose, and even then it’s just a strange gurgling sound as you try to string vowels and consonants together.

Sometimes though, just very occasionally, you get a group where things go fantastically well, where the conversation flows like honey on hot toast, where the adventures are epic and where time’s very flow is halted, you feel as if you’re momentarily caught by Matrix bullet time as the camera pans around your frozen form and then everything accelerates again, so quickly in fact that before you know it you find the dawn is stretching its luminous fingers underneath your door and around the edges of your curtains.

In the end it is those moments that keep me playing, because the sheer unadulterated joy of bonding with others and creating mutual enjoyment through the medium of gaming is worth all the solo pain and social aggravation that shrouds it for the rest of the time.

And there you have it, five things that I’ve learned, and now I shall have to depart with haste, dear reader, because my muse is back and she seems to be carrying a really rather shockingly big stick which I fully believe she intends to swing with some venom towards my cockboat.