You know, games are like buses. You wait all day, then it turns out that in a deregulated public transportation system the route you’re on is considered insufficiently profitable to keep running. And then three come along at once.
So a couple of months back there wasn’t really much going on games-wise, provoking an Attack of Opportunity Impulse Purchase, whereas now quite literally several games all clamour for attention. Mass Effect is just out on PC, which I’ve been looking forward to since everyone raved about the 360 version, but I haven’t even got around to buying that yet; there’s still Audiosurf, and Dawn of War, though after conquering 90% of the planet in the Dark Crusade campaign I’ve run out of steam slightly there. Issue 12 of City of Heroes has been out a few weeks, and I’ve rolled up a new Arachnos Soldier for some rather splendid villainy, though not nearly as much as I’d like, plus there’s a new zone I must get around to exploring with my trusty old hero. What I’ve mostly been playing, though, is Age of Conan. There are the glitches of a new MMOG, bugged quests and such, but that’s the price you pay for starting at launch instead of giving it six months (or a couple of years), and the patches are coming thick and fast. The problems are offset by the fact that it still has that New MMOG Smell; everything is fresh, there are new areas to explore, new levels to gain, new abilities to learn, new things to craft, wave after endless wave of new people/monsters/demons/wildlife to mercilessly slaughter.
Well, I say “new”…
Age of Conan isn’t exactly revolutionary. The combat system is a bit faster, and involves pressing a few more buttons, than other MMORPGs, some of the classes are quite interesting, there are tweaks and flourishes here and there, but at its heart there are stats and levels and XP and quests and mobs and loot, it’s an MMORPG (according to the standard definition, where ‘RP’ obviously stands for “stats and levels and XP and quests and mobs and loot”, ‘cos it sure doesn’t stand for Role Playing); if you didn’t have to kill ten rats to gain 20XP to get to level two it wouldn’t be an MMORPG, and if you didn’t want to do that you probably shouldn’t be playing an MMORPG in the first place but…
Now none of the following is at all new or original, most of it’s been going on since the dawn of (MMOG) time, I’ve blogged about similar things before, you’ve probably blogged about it, there are several libraries worth of blog posts and forum posts and web pages and magazines and books and pamphlets and flesh-consuming shadow swarms that cover the same ground, but sometimes Age of Conan is just so exasperatingly… MMORPG-y. It does try. Some quests do things a bit differently, and you have to feel for the designers who know that any attempt to be witty or innovative or different in the quest text will be lost on the 99% of players who click “next… next… next…”, then look at the quest log to see what the actual goal is, and that any attempt to mix things up, do much other than send you to a named person or to kill clearly specified mobs, will send half the players straight off to Google while the other half make thousands of forum posts and GM petitions and eternal loops in zone chat saying “ZOMGZ KWEST IS BUGGED WOT TO DO???” So I understand entirely why it happens, but sometimes…
You pitch up at a village, look for the people toting giant floating punctuation, have a quick chat, and find out there’s bandit trouble. “Perhaps I could seek the underlying causes of the conflict” you offer, “determining what unfortunate events drove the bandits to crime in the first place, and then offer an independent conciliation service bringing bandits and villagers together to forge a peaceful outcome beneficial to all parties”.
“Yesss…” replies Neville T. Arbitrary the Villager “… or you could just kill ten of them.” So you toddle off to dispense some rather presumptive sword-based justice, and find the bandits have most distinct social groups. There are Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Chartered Accountants and Bandit Certified Accountants and Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Constructivists and tucked away somewhere amidst them all is Geoff the Bandit Leader. Neville T. Arbitrary the Villager was most specific, though, and only wants you to kill ten Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Chartered Accountants. Who knows why, he’s Arbitrary like that. It’s 2am, and there’s nobody else about, just you and the bandits, so you make a start, picking off a lone Bandit Chartered Accountant scout. Moving closer to the main camp, there’s a Bandit Campanologist, only he’s standing next to a Bandit Philatelist. Oh well, bells, stamps, it’s all the same, in you wade, smiting them both down, though of course only the Campanologist counts towards your quest tally. Further and further into the bandit encampment you go, picking off the bandits in ones and twos as their fellows stand idly by; then you get a bit too near a group of three who all notice you and leap to the attack, and as you pop a health potion and back off to try and deal with them a pair on patrol decide that would be a really good time to wander past and join in the fun, and the five of them mash you into a pulp. Tum te tum, corpse run, back to the camp and resume the hunting of Bandit Campanologists and Chartered Accountants, who are still inconveniently hanging around with Philatelists and Neoclassicisits. After some gruelling combat, another death caused by respawns in the middle of a fight, and innumerable kills of all types of Bandit except Campanologists and Chartered Accountants, you finally kill precisely ten of the requisite mobs. And you’re now stuck in the middle of a bandit camp, with a host of rather cross bandits (all of whom, naturally, are Campanologists and Chartered Accountants now you don’t specifically need to hunt them down) between you and the village. So you decide you can’t be arsed to fight them all, again, and just start running as fast as you can, occasionally activating the /train emote as about three hundred bandits follow in hot pursuit, at least until the gates of the village where a couple of NPC guards nonchalantly swat aside the pursuing bandits, wiping them out with such ease you wonder exactly why the village is in such peril when the pair of them could take out every bandit within thirteen miles without breaking a sweat. But never mind.
Neville T. Arbitrary is so delighted by your martial prowess that he gives you a handful of loose change he found down the back of the sofa, and a piece of armour carefully selected to be utterly useless to your class, if you’re even allowed to wear it at all. And then another bit of punctuation appears over his head. “What now?” you ask.
“I was wondering if you’d mind awfully killing 10 Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists”, he says; “ten minutes ago I was firmly convinced that only Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Chartered Accountants posed any sort of threat to our village, but no, I realise now that they’re irrelevant when compared to Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists.”
“Oh” you say. “Well, luckily for you, in the process of killing those Campanologists, I happened to mow through a bunch of Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists as well.”
“Oh, no, they don’t count at all” explains Neville. “You were killing them *then*. This quest is to kill them *now*.”
You sigh. “What about Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants?” you enquire.
“Oh, no, I don’t care about them at all” replies Neville.
“You’re *absolutely sure* about that? It’s just that once I’ve killed these Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists, I have this funny feeling you might want me to kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants, and really, it would save us all so much time if I just killed them all at the same time.”
“That wouldn’t be very Arbitrary, would it now?” says Neville in a shining example of nominative determinism.
You turn to the farmer standing next to him, Neville S. Arbitrary. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any more sensible quests?”
“Well… you could kill some wolves, I suppose, they’re causing havoc with my livestock”
“Wolves, right. That doesn’t sound too bad. Hang on a minute… is it just Slightly Elderly But Not Infirm Wolves With A Bit Of A Limp And A White Stripe Down The Nose that you want killing?”
“Not Youthful Wolves, or Adult Wolves, or Wolves With No Stripes Down The Nose, just the Slightly Elderly But Not Infirm Wolves With A Bit Of A Limp And A White Stripe Down The Nose?”
“What are you drivelling about? No, any wolves. Any wolves at all. So long as my flock is safe.”
“Oh. Right. That sounds quite sensible.”
“Only when they’re in my fields, mind.”
“You can only kill the wolves when they’re within the boundary of my fields, or they don’t count.”
“What is this, restrictive rules of engagement in an attempt to prevent the wolf/human conflict escalating? Is there a demilitarised zone surrounding your fields? What about if I attack a wolf outside your field, but in the process of the fight end up inside your fields and kill him there? Or what about if I’ve got a bow, and stand inside the field shooting wolves outside? Or stand outside the field shooting wolves inside?”
“Look, I don’t make the rules. No, wait a minute, that’s not true at all, I do make the rules. Hey, that’s why they call me Neville Spatial Arbitrary.”
“Ohhh. That explain a lot… And the bloke next to you is…”
“…Neville Temporal Arbitrary, yes.”
Unable to face the Arbitrary brothers, you log out. Next day, you log back in at 8pm, determined to hunt down those Constructivists for Neville T. At peak evening time, the camp looks a bit different. There are players everywhere, and not a hostile to be seen. Every now and then a bandit materialises from thin air and looks a bit surprised as he instantly vanishes in a hail of arrows, swords, flames, bolts, ice shards, maces, stuffed marmots, socks, geese, inflatable hammers, lightbulbs, zeppelins etc. With a sigh, you start doing laps around the area, very occasionally having the good fortune of a bandit respawning right in front of your face enabling you to get the first hit in before it’s annihilated, though it’s impossible to be choosy about exactly what you’re attacking as if you paused to check exactly which sub-type of bandit it was, it would be far too late. On one lap, you happen to land a blow on Geoff the Bandit Leader, who’s faring no better than his men, and eventually, after an awfully long time and an awful lot of killstealing, you manage to tag ten Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists. You head back to Arbitrary Neville.
“Well done”, says he, favouring you with a bit more loose change and a dagger that you instantly throw away, spearing a passing chicken. “Now go and…”
“I should warn you” you interject “that if you say ‘kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants’, I’m going to flip out, like a ninja”
“Oh no” says Neville “wouldn’t dream of it. I was going to tell you to go and kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accou…”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
“…. AND! And! Also Geoff the Bandit Leader.”
“Geoff the Bandit Leader?”
“Geoff the Bandit Leader”
“Look. I’ve already killed Geoff the Bandit Leader. That bloke over there has killed Geoff the Bandit Leader. Those three over there, where two of them are 10 levels higher than everyone else, they killed Geoff the Bandit Leader 73 times to try and get their low level friend a certain sword that he drops, only it turns out that got changed in the latest patch so he no longer drops it and they’re writing a stern forum post even as we speak. There is currently a line of people, and when you join it an automated voice says “you are number 113 in the queue to kill Geoff the Bandit Leader. We greatly value your bandit killing, please enjoy this music as you hold to kill Geoff the Bandit Leader”. I’ve seen Geoff the Bandit Leader die so many times he makes the killer at the end of a film who everyone thinks is dead but suddenly pops up going “GRAAAGH” look like a rank amateur in the not-actually-dying stakes. I could just about suspend my disbelief at the constant stream of random Bandit underlings with peculiar hobbies popping out of thin air with some unconvincing theory about constant reinforcements emerging from underground tunnels or something, but unless Geoff the Bandit leader has SIX! BILLION! identical clone brothers this is frankly silly.”
“I’ll give you this rare ring”
“Oh, all right then”