Monthly Archives: November 2008

Save Our Scenarios

Aren’t scenarios in Warhammer brilliant? Yes, I went there. I believe the correct response now is for you to say “oh you didn’t”, and then I say “don’t go getting all up in my face”, and then there’s a vague attempt at a fight involving some slapping and hair pulling, and then security get involved, so let’s just take that as given and presume we’ve moved on to the point of glowering at each other while being restrained by burly individuals.

Anyway. Yes. Scenarios. What with fake plastic rocking, rugby watching, comedy gigs and other more tiresome not-playing-WAR bits of Real Life going on, I haven’t had much time to be Bright Wizardly. In the odd half-hour here and there, though, I have been logging in, been *wanting* to log in, and why? If you said “scenarios”, well done, take a cookie. If you said “because of banjo-playing pigs in trees”, no cookie for you, honestly, the clue was in the first sentence. And post title.

They’re not perfect, of course. Individual scenarios can be awful depending on the respective team levels and compositions, and some of the maps and game types aren’t great (evenly matched teams frequently end up in a points-from-kills-only stalemate of a mass scrum). If scenarios were the only thing on offer in WAR it wouldn’t be much cop, just playing a few scenarios here and there is more akin to playing a few rounds of an online FPS (especially now so many FPSs have some persistent unlock type features), so if that’s all I was going to do, I might as well be playing an FPS. Nothing but scenarios, bad. However, UND THIS IST A BIG HOWEVER, I really don’t think heavily devaluing or removing scenarios, as suggested in many other places, would be good for WAR long term. The usual argument, grossly oversimplified, is that scenarios take people away from open world RvR, open world RvR is good, ergo scenarios are bad. My counter-argument is that open world RvR *can* certainly be very good, but can also be very bad, or very dull. As p0tsh0t points out (in an interesting post worthy of pondering more deeply sometime), there’s an imperial stackload of variables to deal with, and while we seem to be pretty lucky on our server in having a good number of players in Tier 4, roughly balanced between Order and Destruction, and fairly frequent RvR battles, there’s no guarantee that something will be happening at any given time, much less something I’ll be able to get to and actually participate in within half an hour (what is going on with zones like Dragonwake and Black Crag? Big zones, with irritating cliffs and plummeting drops such that if you’ve never been there before it’s a right faff just getting from a warcamp to a keep, so you fall off somewhere and die from the drop, and then come back at a camp, start running again from there, find a frikkin’ horde of level 39 mobs wandering around in the middle of the road that you can’t really avoid, and you can’t really kill ‘cos you’re level 32 which is fine for the RvR stuff once you’re bolstered but this is outside the lake, so you try and avoid them and the gitting things chase and kill you dumping you back at the camp and… anyway).

In half an hour, I can log in, hit the “queue all” button for scenarios, then have a crack at a quest or two, or sort out mail and the inventory, maybe do a spot of crafting, check out what’s on auction; a scenario pops up (usually Serpent’s bleedin’ Passage, but I gather they’re working that), play that, then repeat the process if I have more time, otherwise log out. This is a Good Thing. I’d love to be spending more time in game, doing a variety of activities, hooking up with the guild more (unfortunately I’m not getting the time for much past “Hello!” and “Goodbye!” in guild chat), tackling dungeons, taking keeps, but failing that at least scenarios give a quick hit of PvP, some XP and renown, even a bit of cash and loot, everything a growing Bright Wizard needs, and once I get some free time again I can get more involved in the rest of the game. Without scenarios I’d be far less inclined to fire up the client for those odd half hours, lose momentum, maybe be less inclined to log in at all.

I’m not trying to cause a b-big s-s-sensation.

Having just listened to the folks over at Channel Massive lamenting in their podcast #66 the fact that MMOs these days are being perverted and twisted away from their original concept of another world in which to adventure, socialise and immerse oneself, and have instead become all about gaming achievement, I am inclined to take a suppositionary meander down the quiet leafy byway that is MMO Evolution Lane.

You see, it was not too long ago that I foisted myself upon the innocent and upstanding folks of the Van Hemlock podcast in their episode recorded at the Eurogamer Expo, where, as well as repeating the phrase ‘War Twat’ far too often, I also posed the question (about 33:33 in, for the stalkers out there) as to whether MMOs will succeed on consoles.

The answer from the panellists was that MMOs would indeed succeed on the consoles, with a few tweaks to the games in order for them to translate well: “Get rid of the grind”, “Make it drop-in”, “Streamline the UI”, “Must be playing for fun”.

As such, and with the thought that MMOs are apparently being twisted by the player base into something different to what they were originally, my question changes to: will MMOs succeeding on the consoles destroy the MMO as we traditionally know it? Essentially, are MMOs coming to the consoles now purely because consoles have evolved enough to be able to handle an MMO, or are they coming to the consoles because they have (d)evolved to such an extent that they will now appeal to the drop-in, streamlined, Xbox Gamer Card achievement generation?

I have to wonder if we’re about to see the evolution of a genre, or the creation of a new genre at the expense of the old one.

I look at games like GTA IV, Saints Row 2 and Oblivion and I find a glimmer of hope in the future MMOs on the console. These are still sandbox games, adventurous in scope and nature, and they live equally well in the hearts of PC gamers and console gamers alike. The first two games do cater to the achievement crowd though; don’t get me wrong, however, achievements can be a good thing if done well, they can encourage players to attempt feats they may not normally have bothered with, to explore places they may not thought to have looked, but they can also be used to encourage behaviour which is the antithesis of what it means to devote oneself to an MMO.

Console MMOs will undoubtedly succeed, but I am a little concerned as to the nature of their success, and whether it will come at the cost of the genre that I have known and loved, that future MMOs will be little more than glorified clones of Pacman, with players gobbling down pellets of XP as fast as they can in order to achieve the high score.

Events tend to recur in cycles.

Having read posts in the MMO layer of the general blogosphere for some time, it is fairly clear that a cycle exists in the general posting consensus of the time, which goes a something like this:

1) Speculation on next great MMO based on imminence of release date.
2) Derivation/guesswork of game-play mechanics based on obscure developer forum posts.
3) Art style comparison with WoW.
4) Beta hype frenzy, including complaints about NDAs.
5) Positive reports on playing in the new MMO on day of release.
6) General raving about how great the MMO is. Someone mentions ‘WoW Killing’.
7) Initial grumblings about minor niggles with the game.
8) Major flaws highlighted, desperate backtracking over claims made in 6).
9) Unsubscribed from MMO; may return if the game improves in X number of ways.

Say we were at 9) about now, then the next thing that should happen is for us to return to 1).

On an unrelated note: another raft of bloggers seem to be quitting WAR for the time being, and has anyone else noticed the gradual increase in the number of blog posts talking about Chronicles of Spellborn?

Thought for the day.

Even if the picture doesn’t show a TV or that the person is holding a Wiimote, you can always tell if someone in a group photo is playing on a Wii, because they’re always posed in ‘that way’: standing up, arms limp at their sides, with a slightly lost and embarrassed look on their face as they stare blankly into space.

With the rest of the group all sat around, looking at the person standing up as though they’re the biggest cretin the world has ever seen.

In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.

I’m in a relatively small guild in World of Warcraft, it’s one of those guilds that was around at the birth of the server but has dwindled in numbers as people left for other guilds, or servers, or MMOs. I’ve stuck with the same server and the same faction since day one, and it’s fun to be a part of a guild that has always been there too.

However, the downside of being a part of such a guild is that most of the members are hardcore WoWnuts, with multiple alts, and who are always online no matter when I happen to get a spare moment to myself to log in. As such I find myself watching as a large portion of the regular guild members are tackling the content that is half way to the level cap whilst I languish behind, having barely scraped the surface of the starter areas. I watch as the freshly minted Death Knights of the guild blast past me faster than you can say “Unholy Undead Overpoweredness, Batman!”, and then find myself being lapped by the regular guild members as they take their alts into content I’ve yet to experience.

‘Find myself being lapped’. I often say that to myself, “Ooop, there goes so and so on their alt, lapping me again”, as if it’s some sort of race.

And I have to ask, what the hell is wrong with us? Where did this obsession begin, that every MMO release should be an excuse for a Tasmanian-Devil-like whirlwind devouring of content, in the most destructive and indiscriminate manner, in a mad desperate rush to get to the level cap and… and what? In the main: complain about the lack of content.

You may apply your palm to your face now, or wait until later. I shall apply mine now.

And so I find that I’m having to constantly tell myself to not get despondent when I appear to be behind the curve with respect to levels, not to be envious that other players have great gear and have experienced new zones ages before I ever will, just because I happen to be taking time to explore places and read the quest text and stop to admire the view; I have to tell myself that I’m not losing, being lapped or under performing, and that I don’t need to speed up my questing, hurry on to the next zone, grab the next bag of XP, get to the next level.

You see what I realised is that, essentially, for a few short days after the release of any MMO expansion, the raiders are among us. There really should be something printed on the expansion box “Warning: Upon entering the world, normal players may experience brief waves of turbulent raiders. This may cause bouts of inferiority complex, envy, disorientation and nausea, but will soon pass”. So yes, for a few brief days, one gets to live and learn what it is to exist in a raid cloud, where everything is about performance, being the best, and more importantly, being better than the next player. It’s all about loot linking, calling out each level ‘ding’, each half level ‘ding’, each single XP gain. It’s about mocking other players for a) Not knowing where Scourged Flamespitters are, and b) Still needing to do a quest that all the cool kids did five seconds after the WotLK authentication server was up.

Thankfully the speed at which the raid cloud levels is such that, given a few more days, they will all be bashing their heads against the latest perfunctory phat lewt dispenser disguised as game-play, and those of us left in their wake can spend time leveling slowly and quietly in peace, uprighting fences, helping NPCs up from the ground where they were trampled, and picking up the discarded burger wrappers, drinks cartons and other detritus from the carefully crafted landscape that was two years in the making and two days in the consuming.

Reviewlet: TMWRNJ Reunion

Last night I headed for the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith with PJ and the only other 548 people in the world who’d ever heard of This Morning With Richard Not Judy. Or 547, one person did shout out when Richard Herring asked if there was anyone who’d never seen the programme. Maybe 546, someone we overheard on the stairs during the interval didn’t seem very sure who Stewart Lee was, though it could’ve been the same person who shouted earlier. Anyway. It was a late 90s comedy series, and several of the participants were back together at one of Richard Herring’s comedy nights at the Lyric.

The evening started with Trevor Lock, he of Trevor and Natalie, they of being easy on the eye, who never spoke on the programme but fortunately didn’t reprise that role, instead delivering an odd set, a bit like a downbeat early-era Harry Hill, barely pausing, chucking weird images out and rapidly morphing them in even weirder directions. Few jokes as such, but a constant stream of quite-funny-ness.

Stewart Lee was up next, a total contrast in style, masterful, calculated pacing, timing and delivery even with a creeping flesh disease. An absolute great.

After the interval, host Richard Herring took the t-shirt slogan “Give Me Head ‘Til I’m Dead” to it’s logical conclusion, then a long way past, in luridly Herring-esque detail, before demonstrating his superpower (as he pointed out, easily enough to earn him a place in the third series of Heroes) of having small hands, and outlining how he’d use such a power for good. They are small hands too, you have to wonder if it hampers his Guitar Hero playing.

Speaking of guitars, following Herring was TV’s Emma Kennedy with her band, performing funked-up kids TV themes with dance accompaniment from a red-lycra clad gimp/ninja, concluding with a contractually obliged spot-on rendition of the TMWRNJ theme tune leading into what much of the audience had been waiting for, a brief Lee and Herring reunion.

Maybe it was driven by a wave of misplaced nostalgia, but even after seeing the original routines, and the Tedstock versions on YouTube, the two of them are brilliant together, and just as things seemed to have reached a moon on a stick-based peak, Paul Putner’s Curious Orange emerged, resplendent in full Davros regalia, for a truly magnificent finish.

The only minor disappointment was the lack of The Actor Kevin Eldon, he of Simon Quinlank, Rod Hull and Pause for Thought for the Day, and it would’ve been lovely to see everyone on stage together, maybe doing Sunday Heroes (ahhh!), but that’s being terribly churlish, it was always made clear everyone would be doing their own material. A fantastic night, roll on the next ten years, apart from the inevitable and massively depressing ageing it brings…

(Addendum: Richard Herring’s write-up is, weirdly, much better, almost like it was written by someone who was actually involved.)

Reviewlet: Guitar Hero World Tour

Since picking this up yesterday, I’ve made a start on all four careers (guitar, bass, drums and vocals). The new guitar peripheral feels really good, I’ve dived straight into the Expert career (after making it to the final Expert tier of Guitar Hero 3 by beating Cult of Personality the day before picking up World Tour); I haven’t used the slide panel on the neck very much, but it gives quite a fun wah-wah effect on held notes, as well as being used for specific segments. Bass is pretty straightforward too, once you get used to the new open notes.

Song selection’s been a real mixed bag; World Tour moves away from the very linear tiers into slightly more free-form venues with (to start with) two or three songs before an encore, with some great stuff mixed in with songs I haven’t come across before, nothing awful so far, I’m sure the newer songs will grow on me. Starting out on the Easy setting on the drums, I’m slowly getting to grips with the new gameplay, generally doing fairly well, though odd rhythms in unfamiliar songs are tricky, I think working up the difficulty levels will offer the most challenge. Finally, I’ve even tried vocals on Easy, though only when nobody else is around to inflict my singing attempts on. The first two songs, About A Girl and The One I Love went pretty well (mostly due to very wide tolerances, I presume), but then the encore of You’re Gonna Say Yeah! came along, and while I’ve done fine sight reading guitar and drum parts, vocals really don’t work so well; I did pass, somehow, but I think I’m going to work through the set list on the other instruments to at least get vaguely familiar with the new songs before tackling the vocals again.

There’s a few niggles, like a lot of the text being quite small and hard to read even on a 37″ screen, but overall it’s a worthy full-band follow-up to GH3. Just downloading a couple of the free songs to test how downloadable content works out, so if you’ll excuse me, I have some rocking to do…

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host: And the final round is “Continue the Headline”. This week, teams, it’s from Aunty: “Scott Hamshere, from Bromley, should have been the first person in the UK with a copy of the game. He had started queuing at 6am and was the first in line. However, as the barriers were lifted, it was all too much, and he collapsed from exhaustion…”

Zoso: “…When interviewed, Mr Hamshere said “Wizard needs food badly!”.”

Melmoth: “…Mr Hamshere lay in the street for half an hour before the other queuers realised that he wasn’t in fact a Hunter feigning death.”

Zoso: “…The thirty nine people behind him were grateful for him taking Arthas’ alpha strike.”

Melmoth: “…Paramedics attributed the exhaustion to the fact that Mr Hamshere had been bouncing up and down on the spot and spinning around through three hundred and sixty degrees for four hours straight whilst shouting “LOOOOOL”.”

Zoso: “…Initial fears of a real world outbreak of the Corrupted Blood plague proved unfounded, and fortunately vital NPCs such as the HMV vendors and taxi masters were unaffected.”

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

All roads, howsoe’er they diverge, lead to Rome

A few years back there was a flurry of “cross-code debate” on rugby forums, mostly fuelled by Rugby League players switching to Rugby Union (to the casual observer, both Union and League may look like a bunch of people running around and chucking a funny shaped ball, but they’re different sports with different rules. To suggest they’re pretty much the same thing to an aficionado would be like suggesting World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online are pretty much the same thing, i.e. generally true in a fairly broad sense, and a sure-fire way of starting a massive flamewar.) Being debates on web forums, a tiny fraction of the posts were genuinely interested in the similarities and differences between the two codes and how players adapted from one to the other, and the other 99.7% were “my sport’s better than your sport, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” endlessly paraphrased. One particular participant was awfully fond of “convergent and divergent thinking”; either he was a cognitive psychologist, or that’s what the “random” option of Wikipedia had thrown up that morning. Very broadly, it seems convergent thinking is narrowing down a range of options to find the single best solution, whereas divergent thinking produces many different ideas from a stimulus. (In the unlikely event that anyone cares, the rugby conclusion was that Rugby League requires divergent thinking, Union promotes convergent thinking. Also just the opposite. And sports involving divergent decision making are better to watch. And also worse. And my dad could beat your dad in a fight.)

On to games, though, before everyone gets bored. If it isn’t too late already. The journey from pencil and paper RPG to computer RPG to MMO has generally been one of convergence. There’s an Encampment of Generic Monstrous Humanoids threatening the local Village of Friendly Villagers, Neville the Mayor wants you to take care of it. In a pencil and paper RPG, your actions are limited only by your imagination (and that of the gamesmaster, and possibly the rulebook). You could kill ’em all, or sneak in and assassinate the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and hope that panics the rest of them, or try and reason with the Chief, or threaten him, or you could poison the river they use for fresh water, or pose as a manifestation of their deity and command them to leave, or embark on a far-reaching campaign to psychologically unbalance the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and convince him there are elements within the encampment working against him, causing a bitter and divisive civil war which you and the villagers can easily mop up after.

In a computer RPG, you’re limited by the imagination of the designers and the capability of the game engine. Maybe you’re down to about three of the options, Reason With The Chief (charisma check), Sneak In And Assassinate (stealth check), Kill ‘Em All (god will know his own, check).

In a typical MMO… well, it’s going to be Kill ‘Em All, isn’t it? Or Kill Ten Of ‘Em (then ten slightly different ones, then ten other different ones, then the named one), or possibly Kill ‘Em All, Wait For ‘Em To Respawn, Then Kill ‘Em All Again ‘Cos The Boss Didn’t Drop The Right Loot Last Time.

That’s just the absurdly generalised version, obviously, and no reflection on relative merits; teaming up with chums to battle a legion of Generic Monstrous Humanoids can be far more fun that arguing with a GM over whether putting a sheet over your head makes you a convincing representation of Neville, Generic Deity of Generic Monstrous Humanoids. It may seem obvious that the pencil and paper approach is the best with a wealth of choice, because choice is good, right? Well, it depends on the choices; from Stephen Fry’s talk on The Future of Public Service Broadcasting:

I remember Hugh and I wrote a sketch in which I played a waiter who recognised a diner in my restaurant as a Tory broadcasting minister. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him how much I admired his policies of choice, consumer choice, freedom of choice. I then was horrified to notice that he had only a silver knife and fork for cutlery at his table. ‘No, no, they’re fine,’ said the puzzled politician. But my character the waiter raced off and soon returned with an enormous bin liner which I emptied over his table. It contained thousands and thousands of those white plastic coffee-stirrers. ‘There you are,’ I screamed dementedly at him, virtually rubbing his face in the heap of white plastic, ‘now you’ve got choice. Look at all that choice. They may all be shit, but look at the choice!’

That set me thinking about other choices in MMOs; choices between character classes, choices in talent or power selection, choice in which spells you cast in combat, but that’s another post for another time…