Monthly Archives: June 2009

Reviewlet: 21

A few years back there was a wave of interest in card counting, specifically the antics of the MIT blackjack team, largely sparked by the book Bringing Down the House, later made into the film 21.

Though based on fact, Bringing Down the House and thus 21 employ a substantial amount of artistic license, so while the methods of card counting get an airing they’re really something of a MacGuffin for the Pygmalion-esque transformation of Jim Sturgess’ character from broke MIT geek to Vegas high roller. It’s a lightweight frothy romantic-comedy-thriller-heist-type film, the young leads are charismatic enough, especially with the more heavyweight backup of Kevin Spacey and Larry Fishburne; nobody really needs to get out of first gear with pretty one dimensional characters. There’s a bit of a twist to give our requisite happy ending, but it’s somewhat Ocean’s Eleven-Lite (when it’s not as if Ocean’s Eleven is that heavy in the first place).

Fun enough for a throwaway film, but if you have more of an interest in the mechanics of card counting then the Horizon documentary Making Millions the Easy Way is worth a look.

Thought for the day.

Blizzard will announce a new expansion for World of Warcraft some time in the foreseeable future, others have speculated on where this next expansion will take players. I, on the other hand, simply have a burning desire.

I want the next epic class to be the Pandaren Brewmaster, with all the pandary, kung fooey, brewery, awesomeness that that would entail.

You can’t defeat me! You… you’re just a big… fat… panda!

I’m not a big fat panda. I’m *the* big fat panda.

A public service announcement.

If you happen to be new to Lord of the Rings Online and have just completed the dwarf starter area quests and are now in the world proper, you will be told to go and see Guard-Captain Unnarr who is just inside in Thorin’s Hall. After running around for a few hours trying to find him, you may well be wondering if you’re cut out for this MMO lark, and that you’re not sure that an online version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is really what you were looking for. Luckily for you KiaSA is here to help. There was a recent revamp of starter areas in LotRO, and the developers have cheekily moved Unnarr to Frerin’s Court, the location of which you should know since it was the major quest hub in the tutorial; it’s at the bottom of the large stairway that leads to Thorin’s Hall.

For those of you who refuse to read quest text and instead followed the small unassuming quest location arrow on the mini-map which guides you in the correct direction, well done. It seems that it really does pay to ignore quest text in MMOs these days.

And for those of you, like me, who have completed the starter zones before and are now running around in circles trying to find the NPCs whose locations you once knew off by heart, my sympathies. Suffice it to say that it’s doubly interesting when the quest text lies to you as well.

Interestingly – and when I say ‘interestingly’ I mean ‘bloody frustratingly’ – the quest line The Wisdom of the Thrushes is utterly broken with regards to quest text. I raised a ticket because I couldn’t speak to Nos Grimsong when I was being told that I should. According to the GM one does indeed need to follow the automatic quest tracker (the little arrow on the mini-map) because that shows the right place to go. Once I’d visited the stable master in Frerin’s Court and Rothgar down in Nogland I was finally able to talk to ol’ Grimsong.

Notch one up for the customer service department, if nothing else.

This is curious because a) The automatic quest tracker might not necessarily be turned on for any given player, although I would hope that it is on by default for new players, and b) following that arrow across large distances can be a lesson in frustration, especially when you find yourself on the wrong side of a mountain range and have to run all the way back.

Curiously, the end stages of the quest line seemed to have the correct text, so it’s almost as though they’ve half updated the quest line and then got bored.


In a recent press release CCP announced the forthcoming announcement of their forthcoming MMO.

A CCP insider told our KiaSA reporter in an exclusively fabricated interview, that CCP had high hopes for the forthcoming announcement and that Hilmar Pètursson, Chief Executive Officer of CCP, would deliver a highly polished AAA speech.

In fact, it’s claims like this that make this one of the most significant announcements this week about a forthcoming announcement to announce a forthcoming MMO.

Rumours also have it that Blizzard are preparing an announcement to announce that they will soon be announcing an announcement revealing the date for their forthcoming announcement about an announcement detailing an all new announcement that will announce to players around the world just what announcements they can expect to see announced in the third quarter of 2009. World of Warcraft forums exploded with joy and speculation at just what the announced announcement would announce. Blizzard was unavailable for comment, but they did release an entirely fabricated press release to our KiaSA reporter which simply said “Got hype? Coming soon. 2009”.

More on this news story and others, as we make it up.

Reporting live for Oh MMO Emo News, I’m Melmoth Melmothson.

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host:This week, teams, news of an online money-laundering operation. According to The Guardian, a gang are “alleged to have made several songs which they gave to an online US company, which then uploaded them to be sold on iTunes and Amazon. Over five months they bought the songs thousands of times, spending around $750,000 (£468,750) on 1,500 stolen US and UK credit cards”, claiming the royalties as “clean” money

Zoso: Police are also investigating allegations that a gang known as ‘Blizzard’ set up a similar operation, with a rudimentary online game just realistic enough to fool a casual observer, but were quite surprised when millions of actual customers started subscribing in addition to other gang members.

Melmoth: A temporal rift was quickly closed by local enforcement agents after another criminal gang tried to commit fraud by selling game time using game time cards that had been purchased with in-game currency that had been purchased with stolen game time cards that had been purchased with ISK that had been stolen from an illegal duping operation.

Zoso: Police are also investigating allegations that a gang known as ‘Aventurine’ set up a similar operation, with a rudimentary online game just realistic enough to fool a casual observer, but were quite surprised when hundreds of actual customers started subscribing in addition to other gang members.

Melmoth: Didn’t you already do that gag with ‘Blizzard’?

Zoso: Just covering all the bases.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Reviewlet: Guitar Hero – Metallica

Guitar Hero – Metallica is… Metallica-y. This isn’t terribly surprising, what with it having “Metallica” in the title and everything; 28 of the 49 songs in the game are by Metallica, you play them as motion-captured Metallica, the rest of the tracks can be played as one of Metallica, on signature Metallica guitars, if you buy/unlock them as a character, and there are lashings of Metallica extras on the disc.

If you’re unsure whether you should get the game or not, here’s a detailed in-depth questionnaire to help you decide:

1) Do you like Guitar Hero?
a) Oh yes! It’s a work of plastic instrumental genius!
b) It’s OK I guess.
c) No, it’s a stupid waste of time, learn to play a real guitar.

2) Do you like Metallica?
a) Oh yes! Who doesn’t like the genre-defining multi-Grammy winning fourth highest-selling music artist since 1991?
b) They’re OK I guess.
c) No, I hate them and everything they stand for.

If you answered:
Mostly (a): buy the game right now
Mostly (b): maybe rent the game, see how you like it
Mostly (c): don’t buy the game

Hope that helped.

You may be experiencing a strange sense of deja vu around now, as Guitar Hero: Metallica is a very similar idea to Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, taking a core engine (Guitar Hero III for Aerosmith, World Tour for Metallica) and building a band-centric game around it.

I have most of Metallica’s albums and saw them live a while back, so the Metallica-y-ness a major selling point for me compared to Aerosmith, whose songs never really gripped me even after a few playthroughs of their game. The non-Metallica tracks are a slightly mixed bag, some strong stuff from bands like Slayer, Motorhead, Queen and the copper-bottomed Thin Lizzy classic The Boys Are Back In Town, but generally the Metallica tracks are the highlight, as it should be (my favourite tracks from GH: Aerosmith remain the Kinks and Mott The Hoople covers from the first couple of tiers). Being based on World Tour it’s also full plastic band game, which may or may not be a major factor depending on whether you stick resolutely to pretending to play the guitar, or are more of a living room skinsman.

By crikey, though, it’s a bit tricky. I (just about) managed all except the final tiers of Guitar Hero III and World Tour on Expert, but I’ve started running into difficulty about halfway through the Metallica setlist, mostly thanks to Kirk Hammett solos. If you’re not familiar with the oeuvre these contain, on average, seven hundred and sixty two notes every second, and are often long enough to outlast any star power you might have saved up to assist your desperate flailings. I haven’t made a serious attempt at drums, bass or vocals yet, but being the drums have the extra-bass-pedalling Expert Plus difficulty, I can’t imagine they’re going to be proverbial strolls in the fake plastic park. Still, that’s what multiple difficulty levels are for; I imagine I’ll switch down to Hard to try and complete the guitar career (hopefully I won’t have to resort to Medium), and it’s good to have something to aim towards. Overall, seven thumbs up out of two with an extra “OH YEAH!” and some toast.

Kiasacast Episode 4

For those of you who are not monitoring our podcast RSS feed or stalking us on the Twitterverse, brace your main hats and hang on to your sails, because we’re pleased to announce that it’s time for Kiasacast episode 4: E3 special!

This episode of the podcast includes:

– An admission

– E3, including:

     – Beatles rock

     – Alan Wake plans

     – Project Natal hurts

     – Sony Wands massage

     – Molyneux hypes

     – Barnett entertains

     – APB impresses

     – The Old Republic juices

     – Jumpgate delays

– Search term of the period of time since the last podcast


     – Can you identify the music from the end of this episode’s show?
        Answers on an aldis lamp, and then email an MPEG of the lamp to us.

     – Last episode’s tune: Magic Pockets, intro from the Amiga version,
        outro Betty Boo – Doin’ the Do

Download Kiasacast Episode Four

We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bona fide companion.

Have you noticed a change in the people who you play MMOs with? It could be the close friends who you play with on a regular basis, or the random people with whom you group to complete that rare quest; rare in an MMO these days at least, because it isn’t soloable whilst your character is naked with one arm tied behind their back. And blindfolded. And unconscious.

It’s perhaps a subtle change at first, that one person of the group who is always late, you know the one, they always keep you waiting around outside an instance, and when they finally get there and are invited into the group they have to go and have their dinner and will ‘be back in 5 mins’. Which is actually code for ‘be back in about half an hour, or when at least two other members of the group have quit out of boredom and frustration, whichever comes first’. That person suddenly starts showing up on time, as soon as you form your party, bam, there they are, geared-up and ready to go. Next to change is the whiner, the person in the group who finds fault in every little thing, from the way the game plays to the way party members play the game. They don’t so much grind XP as grind down the good intentions and will to live of every other member of their party. All of a sudden though you’re noticing that they’re not whining much – at all, in fact – instead, they offer a chipper little greeting and then start merrily crawling their way through the dungeon with nary a grumble. You start to get a funny feeling that something is not quite right when the whiner starts making light banter with you, offering witty one-liners and quipping ‘take that’s and ‘have at you’s and generally seeming to enjoy the whole experience as much as anyone else. Enjoying it perhaps a little too much.

Gradually, slowly, inexorably, your fellow MMO players change, one by one. Generally for the better. They become less whiney, more helpful; less greedy, more cooperative; less emotional and more amenable. And then it hits you one day, as your party forms up on time, all geared-up and ready to go, with the correct skill sets for the dungeon you’re going to delve into, and all their equipment repaired and in tip-top condition; nobody needing anything from the bank: they’ve all got the key to the dungeon door; everyone has the same set of quests, all at the same point, all requiring the same dungeon that you are all now formed-up in front of, after having been online and in-game for all of forty five seconds or so. It’s perfect. The perfect MMO group experience. Too perfect, it feels… wrong somehow. Where are the laggards who always make the efficient people wait around outside the entrance to the dungeon for half an hour? The sort of delay that leads the waiting players to have some light banter while they wait, where they get to know each other a bit better; discuss how their days went outside of the game; maybe discuss the news for a bit; discover that sexy Selina the elf is really Alan the construction worker in real life. Where is the conflict resolution? The fights over loot where we discover that the Warrior likes to roll on every sword, even the ones clearly meant for a Rogue; the fights over strategy where we find that the Mage clearly thinks that they’re a better tank than the Warrior since they seem to constantly be buried under a pile of angry enemies. These are the real fights in an MMO, the ones that develop not the player character but the character of the player.

And that’s when the realisation comes crashing down on top of you. These aren’t other people that you’re playing with. Like some nerdy virtual online recreation of the Stepford Wives you find that all of your friends and fellows are gone, replaced with artificial constructs designed to mimic them in every way except one: these new companions are perfect. No flaws. No tardiness, no complaints, no huge hairy fifty year olds pretending to be jailbait prostitutes with pointy ears. No arguments, no ninja looting, no drama. But also, ironically, these companions also can’t offer the one thing that comes from dealing with real people, and the problems that come with real people: companionship.

Guild Wars has offered companions for some time. You can play the game – outside of its PvP element (and possibly you can even play PvP with companions if the match is set to allow it) – entirely without dealing with another player. However, there is no pretence that this is anything but a mechanic to let you play the game when you can’t find enough people to form a full party. These aren’t simulacrums of real players, they are artificial constructs attempting to fill a defined and well recognised role in your party: tank, healer, dps, cc, etc. These aren’t companions so much as mindless slaves, drafted in to your party where they perform their role unquestioningly and, AI weirdness excepted, unerringly. Lord of the Rings Online has hinted that it will be adding a similar feature to its comprehensive list of ‘everything every other MMO can do, we can do too’ features, and these soldiers will be trainable and customisable, such that you could almost begin to treat them like slightly more than pixelated slaves, perhaps considering them more like a loyal guard dog or other faithful pet. It’s still far from the idea that these characters are companions and not just party fillers, much like those flying saucer sweets that parents used to pack by the fistful into the little plastic bags that kids take home from a birthday party, mainly because they were cheap and took up a lot of space while constituting ninety percent air.

Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic claim to offer a new take on companions, the next generation of companions if you will. TOR in particular, with their claims of compelling player character story and development, leads us to believe that companions in that game will offer us story hooks with chances to help companions or alienate them. To discuss your story with them and find out their background story. Fight alongside them. Fight with them. Love them?

Hey, it would be a fine way to make an alt, it being the offspring of your main character and some fox/hunk (delete as applicable, no foxy hunks allowed unless they’re Nathan Fillion). Although perhaps we’re veering slightly too much towards the Firefly definition of companion here.

The danger that I see here is that in trying to fulfil that oft lauded idea of character story in an MMO, of feeling a part of a world and of having an effect upon it, developers are potentially sacrificing the one thing that should always be the fundamental part of any MMO and which should never be sacrificed: other people. If TOR is playable without the intervention of other players, if the story of the game is interwoven tightly around companion characters that you meet on your adventures, and if you need not require anyone but these companions in order to make your way through the game, then what are you playing other than a single player game with a monthly subscription fee? I’m sure that there are people out there who don’t think that this would be a bad idea, who think that a version of Knights of the Old Republic where you can meet and chat with friends in the cantina on Bespin’s Cloud City before going on adventures with your perfectly formed group of perfectly formed companions, all perfectly on time, perfectly polite and perfectly functional, would be heaven compared to the hideous pain that is involved in actually playing alongside real people who are, by Nature’s design, flawed and imperfect. So with all your companions performing their roles correctly and without question – no Wookies chasing after enemy droids in order to pull their arms off, or Jedi trying to tank everything using only a blaster – the game is really all about you: failure or success is down to you. The twists and turns that the story takes are down to you. You are the hero of the game. Story and ‘being the hero’ then, if true, means they’ve got the two biggest desires for MMO players sorted out right there. Haven’t they? Not really, it is smoke and mirrors, they’re trying to convince you that what you’re playing is an MMO, when in actual fact you’re playing a single player RPG with some online connectivity. Sure you’ll be able to go off and team-up with your friends and run an instanced dungeon, but the bulk of the game will be about you and your companions, rather than you and your friends.

Developers need to be careful with where they take the MMO genre next. Enforced grouping as found in EQ and elsewhere is just as bad as the increasingly prevalent solo MMO as exemplified by World of Warcraft, where the levelling content is now nothing more than a quick solo slog in order to get to the group content. Yet the group content in WoW is just a perversion of the solo arcade games of yore, playing the same content over and over in order to progress slightly further and post your highest score. Gear upgrades from raid dungeons are the equivalent to level codes in arcade games, allowing you to skip the early content that you have comprehensively beaten and move on to the harder levels. The difference being that WoW raids require you to a) rely on other people – a Good Thing in my opinion, it’s part of the MMO experience, drama and all – and b) dedicate at least a couple of hours solidly in one sitting to make any progress. This is where it falls down: if I play an arcade game I can drop it at any moment, move off and do something else and come back to it, most of the time I can hit pause, come back to the game later and continue. I may have lost my ‘gaming groove’ by that point, but it’s very easy to do and there is no pressure, self inflicted or from peers, to carry on.

The Tuesday Console Club plays Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode on occasion. We’ve started off on the lowest difficulty and have to fend off wave after wave of enemies represented by fifty levels of content. When we’ve finished it on easy mode, we will up the difficulty by one notch. Why is this so much better than raiding in an MMO? For a start it takes all of thirty seconds from when everyone is online until we’re in and playing the game. We can select which level to play from, so we can carry on from where we left off. The characters do not develop, do not improve with gear or experience, only the players do. Anyone joining us in the middle of a game will be a bit out of their depth for a while, but they will be able to play a part from the very beginning: their character will be just as powerful as any other character in the game, the only difference in the effectiveness of that power will be how the player behind the character utilises it. So what makes this repeated content fun? The unpredictability of other players. I could play the game with bots, but it is a stale and mundane affair, like a drizzly overcast autumn morning, everything looks the same, no variety. When you play with other people there is a random element added to the game that no developer could encapsulate in code, there is no set of algorithms which can capture the camaraderie, that can encode the variation of experience. Never in a game would you share with a bot the exhilarated laughter from the launch a mortar down a street which wipes out an entire wave of oncoming enemies with a well placed yet knowingly fluky shot, and in the next instant share an embarrassed laugh as that same bot launches the next mortar accidentally from within the confines of a building, blowing themselves and all their teammates to kingdom come. And you can laugh, because restarting a level is as near to instantaneous as a game can get. A quick score table appears and then you are off again. Playing the game, having fun. Is repairing gear, recasting buffs, eating more food for buffs, running back into an instance, fun? Is it because it’s an MMO that grindy tedious monotony like that is expected and tolerated? It’s certainly what makes causing a raid to wipe a painful experience, something to be ashamed of for not performing well, for not being dedicated enough, for not executing your job perfectly. Because it is a job, it’s not game-play, not at that level. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If you cause a wipe in Gears of War 2, it’s a matter of hilarity, of light-hearted ribbing and joviality, and then you reset within seconds and are playing again. Mistakes forgotten, only camaraderie remains.

The balance in MMOs, therefore, comes from allowing structure and story in the game whilst at the same time maintaining that element of randomness which no computer generated content can provide. No mean feat. It takes a special kind of companion to enable that element of game-play, and it has taken nature millions of years to perfect it. To think that we can substitute for it with a few years worth of simplistic AI and procedurally generated content is a mistake. The focus needs to be not in replacing other players with unnatural copies that perform perfectly and to script, but to remove those elements of game-play which punish people for being… people. I look at raids in popular MMOs and see something strange, I see people reduced to robots, they have a defined role, a defined pattern of action, a defined place they need to stand. Then move over there. Then run over there. You know, I had a toy when I was a child called a Big Trak with which you could do essentially the same thing: program it to turn on the spot, shoot its laser cannon, run fowards a bit, turn, shoot, run backwards, dodge an obstacle. The curious thing now is that MMO developers do in fact seem to be trying to compensate for this trend, creating more compelling story and game-play by not reducing players to robots, but at the expense of replacing all their fellow players with robots instead.

I wonder if a balance can be struck between compelling story-based game-play and the fundamental basis of an MMO: that being massively multiplayer content. Developers perhaps need to concentrate less to start off with on how the game plays, and instead build the foundation of their game on how they will enable players to come together, play together and have fun together. Not only that but they need to take randomness and imperfection and make it a part of the enjoyment of the game. Developers of MMOs spend man-months trying to encapsulate and encode randomness into their games, and yet they neglectfully ignore, nay more often than not punish the greatest source of randomness the world has ever known: human nature.

It was seventeen years ago today

And so we move on to 1992. By this point I’d upgraded to a 16Mhz 386SX system with colour VGA display, so could finally run Wing Commander and the like, and after subscribing to PC Plus for a couple of years I was also branching out to other PC magazines, in this instance the “does exactly what it says on the masthead” PC Magazine.

PC Magazine was pretty new in the UK, only being up to its fifth issue in August 1992. It was a rather heavyweight tome, both in number of pages (426) and the depth of its articles. The cover story of this issue was Windows vs OS/2, obviously something of a foregone conclusion in hindsight, but while Windows 3 had sold incredibly well for Microsoft and they’d recently brought out the improved Windows 3.1, OS/2 was technically superior, breaking away from the DOS infrastructure that Windows still sat on.

PC Magazine had in depth analysis of many aspects of the two systems over 22 pages, concluding that “OS/2 2.0 is just too big, too slow, too clumsy, too buggy and too incompatible – despite its superior multitasking and technical advancement”, and awarding Windows 3.1 the Editors’ choice. It wasn’t an unreserved recommendation, though: “Not that Windows 3.1 is perfect. To say that a major new software release crashes less often than the previous version is like saying that strychnine is less poisonous than arsenic.”

Alan Holland, author of the letter of the month, didn’t hold with these fancy GUIs, though, he was perfectly happy with DOS and hoping PC Magazine wouldn’t entirely devote itself to Windows. Peter Lloyd went one better; not only did he “hate the Windows environment”, but he had “yet to find a programmer who doesn’t hate DOS”, and generally was disgusted with the whole world of PCs. Alan Norman of Siemens Nixdorf also sounded slightly miffed that a previous issue had performed a “drop test” of their notebook without telling them, and returned it broken.

In the editorial columns Steve Malone highlighted the prospect of a worldwide 3.5″ disk shortage as programs got bigger and bigger, Windows taking up seven disks and many of its application a similar number, but forward thinking suppliers were already starting to move to CD-ROMs for distribution. Then, as now, the economy was in recession, and another piece offered some warning signs to watch out for when buying kit to avoid companies on the brink of collapse.

In reviews, Autodesk had brought out version 2 of 3D Studio, an “excellent upgrade” for £1,950. ATI’s 8514 Ultra graphics card brought “instant relief from sluggish Windows” for £499 for the 1Mb model with an unusual design with an ISA connector on one side and MCA on the other. Intel hadn’t yet released the Pentium, but the DECpc 400ST from Digital Research incorporated Intel’s Xpress architecture, designed to fully support the “P5 (586) family of processors”, at a bargain £6,337 for a 33MHz 486. Intel were being challenged on the processor front by AMD and Cyrix, the big group review of the issue being 28 AMD powered 386s, the Editors’ choices coming from Western Systems and Dan. Elsewhere in the magazine, the 8086 and 286 were all but extinct. £999 would get you a 25Mhz colour SVGA 386SX with 4MB RAM and a 100MB hard disk from Viglen, or for a bit more power MJN offered a 50Mhz 486 with a 325MB SCSI hard drive for £2945, pre-loaded with MS-DOS 5, Windows 3.1, Excel 3.0 and Word for Windows 3.0

PC Magazine wasn’t really a bundle of laughs, though; a Windows section on calling DLLs got four pages, the “After Hours” section got three. Of those three pages, one was devoted to the crazy knockabout fun of “The Perfect CV” and the training program “Professor Windows”. A second covered an electronic version of The Qur’an and the Gravis Mousestick, a joystick that could impersonate a mouse (in function, not form), an idea only hampered slightly by the fact that “it’s more cumbersome and less precise than using an ordinary mouse”, cost £90, and needed its own expansion card. There was a game review, though! Yes, in one slim sidebar, SimCity for Windows got a positive write-up, a be-Windowed update of the DOS version, yours for £44.95. The final item of After Hours was quite interesting, though: “The Logitech Fotoman aims to be the Box Brownie of the digitised picture. It’s a portable, easy-to-use unit that takes simple, monochrome snapshots which transfer to the PC with as little fuss as possible.” It took 376×284 pixel images with 256 shades of grey that transferred over RS232 in about a minute; seems almost unthinkable in this age of multimegapixel ubiquity, but it was quite remarkable at the time, though the review suggested the “£559 price tag is way too high with fully-featured colour cameras with better transfer rates coming onto the market”.


Protagonist names that make good game titles:

  • Duke Nukem
  • Brian Bloodaxe
  • Max Payne

Protagonist names that make your game sound like a local councillor or former keyboard player from a 70s progressive rock band:

  • Alan Wake