Monthly Archives: May 2009

With limited power comes limited applicability.

As its final release draws ever nearer m’colleague and I are allowing ourselves to become ever so slightly interested in Champions Online. Picture, if you will, Champions Online resting on the corner of the metaphorical office desk of our collective mind, with Zoso and myself seated on swivelling office chairs that represent our interest in the game. We would both now, perhaps, be twisted ever so slightly towards the game, with our hands still firmly on our computer keyboards and our faces directed straight at our monitors, but we are definitely now able to observe the vague form of the game’s packaging from out of the corner of our eye. One foot might be placed firmly to the side of the chair, poised and ready to launch us in a squeaky wobbly trajectory towards the game should its pull prove too much for us to resist.

As such we decided to engage the services of our industry mole to go behind the scenes at Cryptic Studios and dish the dirt. As moles are wont to do. He returned with a hastily snapped picture of a development board which listed many and varied powers. Some of the super variety, some less so. We present to you here the ones that were crossed out and therefore, we assume, will not make it into the final release of the game:

  • The power to undo really tight knots in shoelaces.
  • The supernatural ability to avoid damp sticky patches on the floor in the kitchen at night when barefoot.
  • The ability to lick your own elbow.
  • The travel power ‘Scooting backwards on an office chair propelled by one foot’.
  • The mutant ability: levitate birds.
  • The power to know immediately which is the right way round for a plain t-shirt with no label in the neck.
  • The ability to never ladder tights.
  • Supernatural resistance to semolina pudding.
  • The ability to summon fifty starfish at will.
  • The mutant ability: gigantic growth when in a confined space.
  • The inhuman ability to sneeze with your eyes open.
  • The power to cross one eye at a time
  • The travel power ‘Running behind a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel and then pushing yourself up on the handlebar and free wheeling until you crash sideways into a large display of baked bean tins’.
  • The power to toast bread at will.
  • The mutant ability: launch a destructive beam of red laser fire from your genitals when you expose them.
  • The ability to produce a really good paella out of thin air.
  • The power to transform any person into Beryl Reid.
  • The mutant ability: rapid fingernail regeneration.
  • The ability to see clearly at night during the daytime.
  • The uncanny talent to not smack your lips in disgust after licking a postage stamp or envelope.
  • The power to walk up the down escalator.
  • The mutant ability: spontaneously combust at will.
  • The power to be faster than a tall building and able to leap speeding bullets in a single bound.
  • The ability to breathe beer.
  • The mutant ability: super speed when on slippery surfaces.
  • The power to give everyone in a fifty foot radius the power to give everyone in a fifty foot radius the power to give everyone in a fifty foot radius etc.
  • The preternatural ability to predict when somebody is on the other side of a solid door so that you don’t reach to open it only to have them open it first and you grab your chest and go “bwah!”.
  • The mutant ability: indestructible body hair.
  • The ability to eat soup that’s slightly too hot.
  • The astonishing power to wear skin-tight latex with breasts smaller than watermelons.
  • The power to shout incredibly quietly.
  • Supernatural resistance to itchy underpants elastic.
  • The ability to quote the average county score of any Middlesex batsman from 1952 to 1986.
  • The mutant ability: prehensile penis.
  • The group travel power ‘Running around in a snaking line of people to the tune of Yakety Sax’.
  • The inhuman strength to open a really tight jar lid, but only if someone else has loosened it a bit first.

Reviewlet: Plants vs Zombies.

I suppose that since our default sub-heading for this sort of post contains the word ‘review’ I should have some sort of disclaimer here at the start to appease our Internet Overpersonages who think that you can’t review a game without having played every single inch of it TO THE DEATH. Twice. Additionally it’s probably not considered a real review until you’ve performed a Fagan inspection of the source code, checked the UML design for namespace completeness, and stalked the lead developer from a house across the street until you know what their favourite breakfast cereal is, what time they eat each day, and how long on average they spend on the toilet afterwards.

So if you can’t bear to read a review in which the reviewer hasn’t spent the entirety of their life up to this point investigating the genealogy of the game’s creative director in order to determine if they have the correct genetic makeup to produce a fun game, look away now. The rest of you can read on to discover my thoughts on Plants vs Zombies what with me having now played it for a bit[1].

Plants vs Zombies is PopCap Games’ latest offering in that market of games for which they have become famous: that being the electronic entertainment equivalent to viewing the Magic Roundabout whilst simultaneously flushing one’s eyeballs with a crack cocaine solution and eating Galaxy Minstrels. PopCap have distilled the idea of ‘gaming for the sake of simple enjoyment’ to its purest form and they continue this trend of producing unadulterated, beautifully presented and utterly addictive games with their current offering.

I’ve read and listened to a multitude of commentaries on the game and most of them describe PvZ as being a tower defence game. They then go on to explain the various dissimilarities between PvZ and a traditional tower defence game, until one is left wondering if PvZ is perhaps in fact not a tower defence game at all but a first person shooter. Or a small dog in a hat. It’s hard to entirely qualify what PvZ is; where Bejeweled sits distinctly in the puzzle genre, PvZ is part puzzle, part tower defence and part arcade game. Ostensibly though, PvZ is clearly of the family of tower defence games, but very much like Michael Jackson is a member of the family of Jacksons: you can see a few vague resemblances if you look hard enough and perhaps squint your eyes, but clearly a great deal of surgery has happened at some point in order to diminish those resemblances. In the case of PvZ, however, the surgery has been far more successful in giving the tower defence genre a bit of a facelift, rather than turning it into a crazed living representation of Jack Skellington from the Nightmare Before Christmas with a penchant for children.

PvZ does have a penchant for children though – but with entirely non-prosecutable intent – as well as that confusing and somewhat derogatory category of people known as “housewife gamers”, because this is not your traditional tower defence game, where various types of enemy run through a maze of gun towers which have been placed in increasingly bizarre and complex patterns by the player in order to maximise the amount of time that the poor dumb AI units spend jogging under a rain of weapon fire that would make the forests of Apocalypse Now blush. Gone, for example, are the health bars of the enemy units, removing the need to micromanage your towers to any major degree in order to min/max the slaughter potential of your killing field. In place of health bars are subtle visual hints as to how much damage a given zombie has taken, zombie armour (delightfully represented by traffic cones on the head, screen doors held like a shield and such) disintegrates and is destroyed, until the point at which the zombie is close to death whereupon their head falls off in the finest tradition of George A. Romero. Also removed is the freedom to create a complex maze of turrets on a large play map, instead the zombies approach your house in search of brains across a five row, nine column grid that is represented as a lawn to the player (replete with swimming pools and such at later levels to add extra terrain complexity). On this grid one can place a variety of friendly plants which have, over a rather short period of time, evolved an astonishing array of abilities that are perfectly adapted to stopping waves of rampaging zombies. Convenient! All of the character designs in the game, both plants and zombies (not forgetting Crazy Dave who pops up every now and again to lend some friendly, if utterly insane, advice) are typical PopCap: simple yet beautiful and fun. ‘Polished’ is a word we sometimes use to try to convey our feeling when presented with a game whose production values are clearly top notch, as though the game were a brass object placed in the centre of a room formed from the developers’ ideals and well-formed intentions, such that the more the game is polished the more it shines, the more it shines the more it reflects in its surface the room surrounding it, and therefore the more we can see of the now unobstructed intent of its developers; PopCap is synonymous with polished.

Another of the game-play elements to change is that of resources. In more traditional tower defence games the player earns resources by killing the enemy, these resources can then be used to purchase new towers with which to defend against tougher enemies and larger waves of enemies. The more impressive defence towers cost more resources, so the balance is between having many small weak towers or to save up for the more powerful towers at the risk of not having enough defence in the meantime to stop the current wave of enemies from reaching their destination. Essentially what this boils down to is a sort of debugging simulator, where the player compiles their defence and then runs the program and sits there watching how many holes it has in it. As such, many tower defence games include a fast forward option so that players don’t have to endure the less than fascinating game-play element known as ‘sitting on your hands and waiting to be able to play again’; PopCap, on the other hand, have applied their usual RSI-inducing methods to remove the tedium of sitting and waiting for your resources to build for the next round. Plants, being the photosynthesising little blighters that they are, generally require sunlight to power themselves, and the plants in PvZ are no exception. Sunlight is the resource in the game that enables you to grow more plants, and it initially comes in one of two ways: either falling from the sky at certain times or ejected by the eponymously named Sun Flower. The sunlight is represented as a small glowing ball of light which the player must click on to collect, so in between planting your defence you must also remember to click on the various sun resources dropping around the screen in order to be able to continue to plant. It makes for quite a frantic experience when facing some of the more populous waves of zombies, and yet it is not a laborious or tedious objective, instead serving to activate the oft dormant arcade gamer gene in us that once was fundamental to the genetic makeup of good gamers everywhere.

There are many variations of plant that the player can utilise, thus it still satisfies the more prominent tactician gamer gene that is prevalent these days. Unlike traditional tower defence games, however, you’re not only limited to what you can plant by whether you have the resources to fund it, but also by the limited number of slots for the packets of plant seeds that you can take into each round of the game; you have to choose carefully which combination of plants will best suit the setup of the lawn that you will have to fight on next. In addition to plant selection tactics the player also has to contend with the various classes of zombie that they can face. For example the pole vaulting zombie can leap over obstacles placed in its way, such as the punningly named Wall Nut which traditionally halts a zombie’s progress for a set amount of time. Variations of the standard game-play also exist, such as night time attacks where there is no naturally occurring sunlight and the player must therefore rely on their sunflowers to generate enough resources to power plant production, as well as making extensive use of the free-to-plant mushrooms. Free to Plant mushrooms are entirely free to plant but also have a subscription plan of £5.99 per month to access extra fungi features. Really.

No not really.

If this fundamental foundation of fun wasn’t enough for your money, PopCap continue their art of blending a genre of game with which they are not usually associated with elements of game-play that they are well versed in. As such there are mini-games spread throughout the standard level progression of the game, such as a bowling game where instead of your standard fixed slots of plant seeds you have a conveyor belt of walnuts that you can grab as they appear and launch down the five ‘lanes’ of your lawn at the wave of approaching zombies, knocking them over and, if you’re really good, getting their mates on the rebound as well.

In the end, though, there’s little a review of PvZ can tell you that you didn’t already know by looking at the name of the developer associated with the game. If you like PopCap Games’ past products then this one will not fail to live up to your expectations. Likewise if you can’t stand the light-hearted but relatively shallow repetitive fun that a PopCap game represents then this may not be the tower-defence-based game that you are looking for. Perhaps you should try a small dog in a hat instead?

On the off chance that you have yet to experience a PopCap Games’ production, then I know someone who does a very nice line in Class A narcotics that you may wish to consider first. You know, try something that is only mildly addictive before getting on to the really hard stuff.

Score: 2*Pi/180 out of Jam

[1] ‘A bit’ may be taken to mean nine hours, or two hours, or seven and a half minutes, or the time it takes a fish to blink on a particularly balmy Monday afternoon. Generally though, it means ‘long enough to determine whether I like the thing and would continue to play it given the spare time.’

Reviewlet: Tank Men by Robert Kershaw

When looking at military history it’s easy to view tanks in terms of statistics; on the strategic scale the numbers employed and distances covered, at an individual level armour thickness, gun calibre and velocity, engine power. Tank Men, as the name suggests, concentrates on the human element, the men (and, in some Soviet divisions, women) who crewed the tanks in World War I and II, an area sometimes overlooked not only by history but also early tank designers.

Based heavily on letters, diaries and personal testimonies, Tank Men looks at the whole experience of armoured warfare. The camaraderie of crews functioning together, crammed into tiny uncomfortable spaces, frequently roasting or freezing, always fatigued but having to maintain constant alertness. A recurring theme is dread of being trapped in a burning tank; crews would not only see the results, at extremely close quarters if recovering vehicles, but also sometimes hear trapped comrades over open radio nets. Some of the accounts are quite harrowing, and really bring home the horrific nature of war that’s all too easy to distance yourself from on the other side of a screen.

From the initial deployment of tanks in the battle of the Somme to VE Day, via the first tank versus tank engagement in 1918, Blitzkrieg, North Africa, Kursk and Normandy, Tank Men covers the key formative campaigns of the tank from the perspective of the men who fought in them. A thoroughly researched and gripping book, highly recommended.

I am not a geek.

Geeks now have a movement no less.

From Wikipedia:

The word geek is a slang term, noting individuals as “a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc.”

But I’ve seen the Geek Advancement video now, so let’s update it:

From Melmothpedia:

The word ‘geek’ is now used by a huge proportion of the Internet population who own a Macbook or an iPhone, are pretentious, and like to pretend that they’re actually doing something incredibly rare, misunderstood or difficult.

They are likely to be mainstream actors; music stars with a penchant for ludicrously large trousers and dancing like a crab on a conveyor belt; or perhaps in some form of journalism. In a large number of cases they will be an attractive woman wearing a top cut so low that you can see her bikini line, but it’s cool because she’s a geek so she’s actually rebelling against the system and most certainly wasn’t ever a cheerleader, very often. Ok, so that was primarily because she was too busy sorting out being Queen of the Prom, but still. They are rarely socially inept or peculiar unless it is affected for promotional videos where they are being condescending to everyone they think isn’t part of their elite club.

Geek is essentially a term that has been appropriated by the high school cheerleaders, jocks and cool kids to represent the fact that they now have netbooks and smartphones and therefore mock other people through Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Blogger rather than by passing messages in class.

You can tell someone who isn’t a traditional geek through a simple test:

Does the person in question constantly jabber on about the fact that they’re “such a geek” in a way as to sound like they’re an outsider while at the same time knowingly acknowledging that they’re part of a club of several hundred million people all of whom profess to be geeks too, as if in some sort of masonic ritual of fellowship? Do they like broadcasting this fact in incredibly public ways? Do they think they’re better than you because of it?

Yes? Then what you have there my friend is a Geek2.0. An iGeek. Geek2020.

A member of the Chic Geek Clique.

Saying that you’re a geek these days doesn’t mean what you think it means. It lost its meaning when people started using it as a badge of social aloofness, when the term became cool with marketing people in expensive suits who write on large whiteboards diagrams that look like Mr Messy trying to copulate with a Lego set, and when films started to be made that showed geeks saving the world and getting the girl and being Jake Fucking Gyllenhaal.

I’m a software engineer in the aerospace industry. I’m a techno-freak. A gadgeteer.

Some people even say I’m weird and socially inept.

But I’m definitely not a geek. At least I hope not.

Proper names are poetry in the raw

As Champions Online approaches release lots of lovely information is emerging, mostly based on actual (albeit beta) gameplay, thus avoiding a volley of Melmoth’s semi-automated command to line of site anti-hype weaponry. Massively have a bunch o’ good stuff including a piece on character creation (quick summary: sounds like City of Heroes TURNED UP TO ELEVEN). I was literally salivating when reading it, though that might’ve been something to do with the bacon sandwich I was eating at the time.

One piece of really good news is that Champions is going to be “shardless”. I’ve previously posted about the annoyance of trying to get together with friends in MMOGs; I’m not sure if Champions will separate US and European players, hopefully not, but even if they do at least a “shardless” setup is one less barrier to getting together with people online.

Warhammer Online does, of course, have multiple servers. Guild Wars, and by the sounds of it Champions Online, rely on instancing, which is great for convenience, but not so good for the world cohesion an RvR-centric game like Warhammer needs. It’s not really a problem in PvE and small scale PvP skirmishes, but a bitter struggle over territory becomes slightly abstract if there are several different struggles going on over the same territory in parallel dimensions that you can move between. EVE manages the best of both worlds, a single cohesive, shardless world with meaningful territorial control, but as so often EVE is a pretty special case.

The nature of Warhammer Online means a server really needs a balanced population; both realms comparatively equal so neither gets steamrollered all the time in RvR, enough people for the thrilling ebb and flow of massed combat rather than the slightly less thrilling lengthy hunt just to find somebody to fight, but not so many that the server collapses in a heap when everyone piles into the same ruck (they initially needed some server splitting/cloning, and recently introduced the “Winds of Change” to remove people from RvR combat in certain circumstances on some busier servers). A couple of months back 43 US and 20 EU servers were closed down to consolidate the player base, and though my main server (Burlok) soldiered on, it’s been increasingly apparent that it wasn’t very viable. During the recent Nordenwatch weekend, when the usually Tier 1 Nordenwatch scenario was made available to everyone together with some tasks to e.g. participate in it 20 times, capture the fortress 10 times etc., my Warhammer diary went something like…
“Saturday: logged in. Played a couple of rounds of Nordenwatch over an hour or two. Got crushed, situation not helped by seeing one Order healer all evening. Logged out.
Sunday: logged in. Inevitable city under attack. Contemplated two hours of public quest drudgery. Logged out.
Monday: logged in. Nordenwatch eventually popped after half an hour or so. Joined match halfway through with Destruction a couple of hundred points ahead. At least managed one fortress capture before the inevitable loss. Logged out.”

It’s not a great surprise, then, to learn that Burlok is closing down and we’ll be able to transfer our characters to another server, which will almost certainly lead to at least one issue. I rolled up a couple of Destruction alts on another server after the first wave of closures, and it took a while to find a name; characters were automatically transferred to the remaining servers when the others closed down, exacerbating the usual difficult in coming up with something not in use on an established server. Wherever Zoso the Wizard ends up, it’s unlikely he’ll still be called Zoso, what with legions of imitators all over the place (or it might be my crushingly unoriginal name choice, you never know).

The more players sharing a playing space, the greater the difficulty in ensuring each character is uniquely identifiable (see also: duh!) A common solution in shardless games is for characters to have both a forename and surname (step forward Kenneth Titanmittens and Horatio Thunderpants of Free Realms), but Champions is taking a slightly different tack, allowing any number of characters to have the same name, with the account name of the player used as a unique modifier if necessary (a conventional surname wouldn’t quite fit the superhero setting… “Superman Smith, have you met Superman Jones?” Mind you, Desolation Jones is a great comic.) My gut reaction was “hurrah!”, an end to the frustration of coming up with an amazing character concept but finding the name (and hundreds of minor variants of it) had been taken; there’s also great potential for a super-team based around the philosophy department of the University of Woolloomooloo. On the flip side, though, being forced to come up with ever-more unusual names can be quite a creative driver, I’m rather pleased with “Terminal Hardware” that came from some random Wiki-surfing, the undead/robot theme of the character entirely coming from the name (don’t ask where the samurai armour or pirate hat fit in). There’s also the issue that anybody who happens across you can promptly create a character of the same name, and probably costume, either fairly innocently (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all) or with more nefarious intent (“Captain Hero in identity theft shocker!”), though I’m sure people will learn to pay pretty close attention to account names before too long. If Champions is as alt-friendly as City of Heroes and is hugely popular at launch, you could be looking at half a million subscribers averaging ten alts each, so I can’t think of a better solution offhand. Roll on Team Bruce! All together now, “Immanual Kant was a real pissant…”

Have I Got MMOnews For You.

Host: And the final round is “Continue the Headline”. This week, teams, it’s news that “Yesterday Eurogamer MMO published a review of Darkfall Online, scoring the game 2/10. Several hours later, after a bit of email discussion, Aventurine responded on its forum, claiming the review was factually inaccurate and the reviewer had played the game for only two hours.”

Zoso: “Eurogamer defended the two hours its reviewer had spent in the game by pointing out that, by Einstein’s theory of relativity, it had *seemed* like three months.”

Melmoth: “Several Darkfall subscribers have vowed to sit around for as long as it takes to macro their writing skills to the point where they are able to compose a really very stern letter indeed to the Eurogamer editors.”

Zoso: “Darkfall continues to expand its innovative play styles, the existing Player vs Player and Players vs Blog Author models now joined by Players vs Games Site.”

Melmoth: “A Eurogamer spokesperson was quick to point out the irony of a bunch of hardcore PvPers complaining about someone teabagging their game through a completely one-sided and blatantly unfair encounter.”

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

It Was Nineteen Years Ago Today

In the continuing look back at old PC magazines, twelve months on from the last piece we’re up to Issue 49 of PC Plus from October 1990. The £2.30 cover price was the same as in October 1989, but the page count was up from 170 to 234, a fair chunk of it in additional advertising from 189 companies, up from 112 the previous year. PCs were starting to take off in the UK with many more companies offering their own systems, mostly 286 and 386s with the odd 8086 or 8088 box at the low end (I still had my Amstrad 1512 at the time). £1000 would *almost* get you a colour VGA 16Mhz 386SX system with 1MB of RAM and 20MB hard disk (£1093, excluding VAT, from Dan Technology); the 33Mhz 386DX was the flagship of most ranges, with Mesh offering a 386-33 with 4MB of memory and a 150MB hard disk for £3595 (if you wanted to install every program in the world, you could even step up to a 766MB hard drive if you had £5475 kicking around.) For upgrading your existing system, a Soundblaster card (“Makes all Sierra games sound like epics!”) could be had for £199, while a 16 bit DFI VGA card with a massive 512K of RAM offered the frankly insane resolution of 1024×758 for £169. A Compact Disk ROM drive was available for £399, though needed a £129 SCSI interface kit if you didn’t already have one of those.

The main reviews were for a couple of new systems. Amstrad, having had major problems with their PC2000 range including having to recall the models with hard drives to replace them, were launching the PC3000 range aiming at more of a business market, with fairly standard components and expansion options and no bundled items (no mouse, no Windows). PC Plus were impressed, giving it 4/5. IBM, meanwhile, were heading in the other direction, trying to branch out into the home market with the PS/1, hoping everyone had forgotten the PC Junior of a few years previous. Though well packaged (“the whole system does come in a single box, and the first thing you see when you unpack it is a booklet already open at the page that says ‘start here’ (…) We had our test machine up and running within six minutes of cutting the parcel tape”) and including IBM DOS 4 on ROM and a copy of Microsoft Works, the PS/1 had negligible expansion capability (it required a whole extra system unit to add any expansion cards, and another system unit for a 5.25″ disk drive) and wasn’t a great performer, with a 10Mhz 286 processor and only 512K of memory in the single floppy versions. Illustrating the difference in take-up of online services, the UK version of the PS/1 came with an RS232 serial port instead of the modem built in to the US version. The PS/1 got 3/5 as an excellent package for the first-time user prepared to pay for the brand name and convenience, though power users and businesses would probably find it somewhat lacking. Though neither range would turn out to be a total disaster, they were never wildly successful. IBM never established itself in the UK home market, and as the PC3000 review pointed out: “the days when Amstrad could open up a huge price gap between itself and the rest of the field are long gone. The PC3000s are undoubtedly very keenly priced but they are not the cheapest on the market”. Extremely price sensitive consumers (like me!) would switch to smaller more agile box-builders, and Amstrad never really gained a significant foothold in businesses, the PC2000 débâcle doubtless not helping.

Also reviewed was Wingz from Informix, a brand new spreadsheet running under either Windows 3.0 or OS/2 Presentation Manager (impressive graphical capabilities, but as a result had heft hardware requirements), and Lotus Magellan 2.0, a file management program that allowed you to search a disk for both file names and strings within files, view several popular file formats without having to fire up seperate applications and backup, restore, undelete, zip and unzip files for £132 (no mouse support, though.) “On The Write Track” was the final instalment in a survey of optical storage technology covering erasable optical disks, not as common as CD ROMs or WORM (Write Once Read Many) drives, possibly because a drive cost £3885, with each 600Mb disc costing a further £285. In the book section, “Alan Sugar – The Amstrad Story” could probably do with an update now to reflect that he’s better known for his role in The Apprentice than cheap consumer electronics.

News announcements included Lotus being sued for patent infringement over sorting sequence routines, WordPerfect introducing LetterPerfect, a cut down word processor that would run on only 330K of memory from a single 720K floppy, and Microsoft releasing version 1.1 of Word for Windows. It was a mixed month for Microsoft. On the plus side, celebrating its 15th anniversary, following the launch of Windows 3 in May they’d already shipped more than 500,000 copies, and reported revenues of $1.18 billion, making them the very first PC software supplier to achieve annual sales of more than £1 billion. It wasn’t all good news, though; C J Gaskell of Preston vowed to never buy any of their products again on the letters page after having great difficulty obtaining disk 8 of Microsoft’s Basic Compiler Verison 7.

The games section is a bit of a disappointment with reviews of Global Dilemma, Breach 2 and King’s Quest IV, none of which I recall playing, though a growing interest in PC games was possibly reflected in several shiny full page colour adverts for Team Yankee (the definitive action simulation of modern tank warfare), Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (“Cowabunga!! The heroes in a half shell (TM) are coming”) and Kick Off 2.

A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight.

Take a look at one of the new weapons that you can obtain from World of Warcraft’s Ulduar raid dungeon.

And here’s a quote that I made on my old blog back in 2007:

It’s not just size, though. You might get some of the more outstanding weapons glow with a ghostly light, or have flames springing from the blade as if the weapon itself was trying to manifest its inherent ability to cause pain and injury as a warning to others. As if a twenty two foot long serrated blade wasn’t convincing enough. The problem lies with where the developer goes next, flaming swords become passé and ‘so last season dahrlink’, and so bigger and more enviable effects are applied, until eventually you have a bunch of people running around with weapons that have miniature galaxies orbiting the hilt and the ePeen brigade are comparing whose weapon has the most advanced civilisation living on it.

Hat tip to Spinks for the ePeen tweet alert.

Such men are apt to think of the true male feminists as utterly chauvinistic.

There’s been some discussion in the blogosphere recently about MMOs being targeted primarily at a male audience. People seem to be under the crazy impression that MMOs are targeted at the more testosterone-laden members of society. This is heresy deserving of a poking with the softest of pillows whilst being seated in the most appallingly comfy chair! Why only today I was directed to the free to play online multiplayer RPG Nodiatis via a banner advert, and here’s what greeted me when the site eventually loaded:

Don't get many of those to the pound.

Now to conform fully to standard scientific rigour it should be noted that the woman in the screenshot was panting somewhat, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a vaguely hypnotic rhythm. Or so I was told by my team of highly trained laboratory technicians.

It seems immediately and abundantly clear that what this introductory screen is saying is thus:

“Women of Planet Earth welcome to our game and take heart! For in this otherworldly place of fantasy that we gift to you, we give you evidence that all the bimbos have been rounded up and chained to rocks with their arms above their heads until they either suffocate under the weight of their improbably large breasts or choke to death on the bleach fumes coming from their hair.”

I honestly don’t see what the problem is.

Character develops itself in the stream of life.

I was deliberating and cogitating over whether to change my character’s appearance in WAR the other day. Aesthetically pleasing character appearance is one of the many tributaries that feed into the main river of my altitus, made all the more painful by the fact that I can never seem to get it right the first time, despite having all the time in the world to play around with the character creation options. For example, it’s what I spend most of my time investigating in any MMO beta that I participate in: trying all the character options, seeing which hairstyles work, which ones make you look like Shaft on a bad hair day, and which ones clip so badly that it makes it seem as though the natural order of your character’s skull has been reversed such that the hair grows on the inside, making its way into the daylight by way of incredibly overactive neck follicles. If I’m in your beta, you will have the most rigourously tested hairstyle options in the MMO industry.

There is no paid character customisation in WAR, which comes as a complete surprise to me because it’s not as though Mythic have anything else to be getting on with. I can only imagine that they’re all sat on a tropical beach somewhere, drinking their lolitas and watching all the young margaritas walk by with their sun umbrellas and a slice of lime on… their… shoulder. Ahm.

Anyway, a lack of paid character customisation meant that I would be paying with TIME: Currency of the Universe [TM], via the complex technique of deleting said character and re-rolling it with face option 3b instead of 3a, and a hairstyle that didn’t poke through the top of every hat I wore, as though it had turned traitor to my cause and was desperately trying to flag down an enemy player, notifying them of my whereabouts.

This re-rolling is often not a huge problem at the low levels when I usually decide that the lavender eye colour would go better with the nostril hair style that I’d picked; I like playing the lower levels of MMOs because it’s where the game is actually fun, where the designers hadn’t thought “Oh bugger this, let’s… just…”scribble scribble scribble“There. That’ll do. Well, it’s Skinner Box enough to keep them paying a subscription for another couple of months at least. C’mon Nigel, let’s go back to the flat, I’ve got some lolitas chilling in the fridge”. What any MMO developer should really do is create the first twenty levels of their game, then stop. Then create an entirely new game, based around the same premise, and when they’ve done the first twenty levels of that, stop, and tack those twenty levels on to the end of the first game. Continue like this until you’ve got a game that is continuously fun, rather than following the Escaped Balloon development strategy, which mimics a balloon that has been accidentally released whilst being inflated: it shoots off with a load of noise and energy, flying all over the place with phenomenally farted enthusiasm, but very quickly runs out of air with a last gasping high-pitched toot, and then arcs across the room and hits the floor with a disappointingly limp flollop. And then all the children in the room burst into tears and are inconsolable at the failure of the balloon to perform at their party. Psychologically scarred by the events of that day, they grow up to follow a life of crime either as prostitute or politician, and when the police eventually catch up with them and raid their flats they find nothing but a barren room, the bare light bulb swaying gently from the force of their entry, ancient peeling wallpaper hidden beneath the nailed-up decaying remains of a thousand balloon animals.

Or, y’know, not.

It then followed that I was curious as to whether the majority of people actually ever cared that much about how their character looked, or whether most people just pick something that looks good at the time and then forget about it forevermore. This, in turn, lead me on to wondering how, without projects like Daedalus, we would know the answer to such things.

Well clearly Blizzard will have a good idea as to the answer. They will be able to see how many people use the barber on a regular basis; they will have figures on the initial rush after it was released; how often the barber is used in general; what level characters use it most. Not only that, but they also have all the data relating to their paid character customisation: how great the uptake was and which things people changed (I’m guessing the character’s sex, with male to female being the greatest migration, for fifty bonus “well, duh” points). The interesting thing is, I think it’s safe to say, the majority of people probably weren’t desperately clamouring for this sort of customisation content, indeed I think the greatest desire was for something frivolous and pointless, such as additional end-game content.

Therefore I finally came to wonder: is Blizzard adding this sort of feature for research purposes more than anything else? Are they gathering data on things such as ‘interest in character customisation’ for their next MMO? It will certainly save them a whole lot of development effort if they can determine that the uptake of the barber in WoW, say, was very limited and that clearly people aren’t all that bothered about tweaking a character’s features. Are they testing the RMT waters by seeing just what sort of ‘fluff’ players are willing to pay for and for how much with their paid character customisation and name changes? Or is it in fact the case that character customisation is high on the wish list of the average MMO player? Perhaps there’s a happy middle ground, and Blizzard are trying to find where that lies.

I decided not to re-roll my character in the end. After all, one goblin looks pretty much like another when being trampled under the feet of two opposing armies on the field of battle.