Monthly Archives: July 2009

What we call the beginning is often the end

You know how I’m totally out of the MMO game? I was listening to the Van Hemlock Podcast, and in the Return of the Cheap Seats Jon was off to try Jumpgate (the non-Evolved one) for 14 days. I fancied some space combat after reminiscing about Wing Commander, it was only a 70Mb download, I thought I’d have a look around and see what’s what…

The tutorial sends you flying out from the space station to get a feel for flight, so I flew around for a while then docked back up. Next step, it suggests you try a mission. Right, here we go, alien blasting action! Well, no, why not start with something a bit simpler, like taking some cargo to another station? OK, get to grips with galactic navigation, fair enough, so I found my way to one of the titular jumpgates, flew through space a bit more, through another jumpgate, no sign of another living (or even NPC) soul, dozed off, woke back up, went through another jumpgate, dozed off again, woke up somewhere near the destination station, delivered the package. In the “gripping excitement” stakes, it narrowly beat out (on penalty kicks, after extra time) the Windows “Starfield” screen saver.

Looking at the next step of the tutorial it said something like “why not do a bunch more courier missions to earn enough money to buy some equipment so you can actually kill something more threatening than a housefly?”, and I said “errr, no”, and haven’t logged in since. Still on the MMO wagon…

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.

Oh my! Hello, I’m Melmoth Melmothson, you may remember me from such posts as “Sick Cows: Tauren who wear leather armour” and “Mummy, why do all my pick-up groups die of the plague? A guide to personal hygiene, your Ratonga and you”. Today and for the next few posts we’re going to be taking a look at Lord of the Rings Online, a game that is fortunately nothing to do with mastering gymnastic apparatus, becoming a boxing champion or a mogul of irritating tunes for mobile phones.

I’ve been exploring around the lands of Eriador a lot of late, my cunning plan to cut across Middle Earth ahead of Frodo and company to deliver an anti-social behaviour order to one Mr Geoff Sauron of 1 Barad-dûr Cresent, Mordor-on-Sea having been thwarted by the fact that Mordor-on-Sea seems to be one of those heavily protected gated communities. Gated content in MMOs really annoys me, it’s one of those annoying hangers-on to the whole school bully that is levelling. But where levelling has direct power over your character and what you can achieve with it, gated content is the small greasy weasely kid who hides behind levelling and leans around every now and again to sneer at you. It’s particularly galling in LotRO because the land is so beautiful and wondrous that the explorer in me is always wanting to see just what is over the next hill. Goblins, apparently. And all of them so vastly more powerful than your character that you can do nothing but run away and hide in that little cloak room on the second floor until recess is over. Sometimes though, one looks at the vista in front of them and thinks ‘I shall not be stopped from exploring this land. I will not be prevented from finding out what treasures are hidden by its folded blanket of hills and lofty canopy of forest. I am a hero of the third age, albeit a relatively unknown one, but then again I’ve never been one for self-promotion and thrusting myself into the lime-light, and I’m not bitter, no. Anyway, I am a hero! And I will adventure where I please, and any foes I shall face will be mighty ones, and if I fall to them it will be bec… oh shit!’. And then you’re running and running and running, and there’s this five mile train of wolves and badgers and lame ducks and asthmatic voles chasing you down the hill and into the village, and you find yourself locked in the cloak room on the second floor wondering what all those animals are going to be able to do with your dinner money anyway.

Look, if I fight wolves in the dwarf starter area, and I kill the requisite hundred and fifty thousand million of them for the Wolf-Slaughterer title, it’s fair to say that I’m pretty good at killing wolves, some might say that I am accomplished if not a little genocidal. Therefore, if I then go to another area, further afield than where one might find a new character normally, I should not find super wolves, ten times the power of a normal wolf, who have but to look at me in a slightly disapproving manner for all my armour to jettison from my body and my skeleton to explode out of my skin and bury itself five feet under the ground. I am a wolf slayer! Look! You gave me a bloody title to acknowledge the fact that I spent a lot of time killing wolves, why can I not kill these wolves? ‘Oh’, say the developers, ‘but these are different wolves’. Different how exactly? Were they privately educated? Have members of their number graduated from Sandhurst? Did they train at Hereford in the use of special tactics and weapons? Gated content is rubbish, and the way it is enforced in MMOs these days is even more rubbish, and it’s time that we moved on. There are a great many Bartle Explorers, that is to say people who have Explorer as their primary type from the Bartle test and not people trying to investigate the many nooks and crannies of Richard Bartle himself, and gating content only serves to reduce what can be an excellent additional game-play element into something one does at the level cap when they’re bored and they want an easy achievement. The art of exploration in an MMO is that the player still needs to meet challenges, it’s not some sort of woolly-hat brigade requirement that ‘People should be able to roam and ramble across the land wherever they choose (as long nobody does it across our own back garden, of course)’, it is about not preventing players from visiting a place due to a blatantly artificial barrier. And yes, some places should be out of bounds, I should certainly expect to be getting more anti-social behaviour than I can happily handle if I do happen to go directly to Mordor, do not pass Rivendell, do not collect the Glass of Aglaral. Of course dealing with the snivelling wretch that is gated content also means dealing with the larger more troublesome problem of the levelling bully, but that’s a blog post for another time…

I spoke earlier of titles, and this is something else that is both excellent and daft in LotRO. It’s excellent because it’s one of those achievement systems that you can partly accomplish simply through the expedience of playing the game. Yet there are other titles that take a little more persistence and daring-do, one can display these to anyone who cares to look, and thus demonstrate some bragging rights without having to force it into conversation in order to elicit a “Grats” which has evidently been forced through the keyboard equivalent of gritted teeth.

“So I was wondering if you had any iron ore to spare? I need some to finish this quest.”

“As a matter of fact I do! Hold on a second and I’ll just reach into my bag and tell you that I killed dragon.”

“Thank… uh, what?”

“I killed a dragon”

“Oh. Um, grats?”

“Thank you! I’m really very much better than you, aren’t I? Here you are asking for ore, and here I am having killed a dragon.”

“Yes, I… I guess so?”

“I mean, really you should be bowing down before me. Don’t you think?”

“You… want me… to bow down?”

“Well I have killed a dragon.”

“Look, I just wanted to trade for some iron ore, I’ll just go and see if…”

“I KILLED A DRAGON! Now, give me all of your money. And take off your clothes. And dance like a cat. Hee hEh HEe ha HA.”

Remember kids, this is what the world would be like without achievement titles.

On the daft side, however, the titles are generally things like Tail-cleaver and Feather-foe, hardly the stuff of legend.

FRODO: “Excuse me, that man in the corner, who is he?”

BUTTERBUR: “He’s one of them Rangers; they’re dangerous folk they are, wandering the wilds. What his right name is, I never heard, but round here he’s known as the Pie-Eating Champion.”

I managed to get the Undying title for my dwarf Champion, which is achieved by reaching level twenty without dying, and it’s one of the few titles that I actually like. However, I’ve even turned that one off because the irony of lying on the floor of a dungeon waiting for a rez and seeing Bjomolf the Undying floating above your corpse is so sharp it could wound.

So ends the first segment of this little diatribe of thoughts generated by my recent time in LotRO. Now don’t even think to be sneaking a peek at the next post before I’m ready for you to see it, and just to make sure you don’t I have surrounded it by a pack of rabid moths which I think you’ll find are a surprisingly impossible challenge for you to overcome at your current blog reading level.

It was twenty one years ago today

If you’ve been following the series of posts looking back at old PC magazines (now with handy added “retro” tag) you might have noticed a common theme: from PC Plus to PC Magazine to Computer Shopper, they only included a couple of pages dedicated to games, or even “leisure software” in general. Games were what I was really interested in, I couldn’t care less about a round-up of spreadsheets or networking hardware, so why was I buying these serious magazines? Cranking the time machine back another five years or so…

My formative computing experiences started with a ZX Spectrum around the age of eight or nine, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to go out and buy a computer magazine; reading material of choice from the newsagent was Battle! Picture Weekly, and computer games existed alongside Action Man, plastic soldiers, Star Wars stickers, Transformers, MASK and whatever other tat was being pushed by Saturday morning cartoons. Nine year olds seldom made informed decisions based upon independently researched data when judging whether a particular toy, sticker collection or Spectrum game was “ace!” or indeed “brill!”, prevailing playground opinion ruled. Elsewhere I imagine little gangs of Spectrum or Commodore owners would get together, swap games and tips, and hurl abuse and conkers at rival Commodore or Spectrum owners, but circumstances conspired to stump popular playground opinion on computer games at my school. I had the ZX Spectrum with Starquake and Saboteur; Alan had an Amstrad CPC464 with Beach Head and Knight Tyme; Will had a BBC Micro (his dad’s estate agency had computerised with BBCs, so they had one at home too) with Repton and Track N’ Field; Pete had… something with Commando on it, maybe a Commodore 64. Tim had an Atari of some kind, possibly a 600XL or 65XE, with a wargame set on the Eastern Front that sounded amazing (armies and tanks and planes and stuff!), but went way over our heads with its hex-based map and unit symbols. Darren had an MSX, apparently, I had no idea what an MSX was.

It seems unlikely that there’d been a town meeting where our parents had taken Wikipedia’s “List of 8-bit home computers available in 1984” and assigned a different one to each family, if for no other reason than Wikipedia didn’t exist at the time, but you have to wonder. My other pet theory is the school was part of a FAST experiment into combating piracy. “Piracy rate: 0%. Experiment: successful. Possible problems with implementing plan on national scale: would need to increase number of different, incompatible 8-bit computer formats from 6 to 974,232 to ensure nobody knows anyone they can copy games from.”

I think I was slightly too young to really appreciate that first home computing boom, and the fragmentation with all the different systems meant none of them developed a “scene” or community at school that might’ve got me more interested. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, on the other hand, could far more easily be swapped around, sweeping a bunch of us into Dungeons and Dragons and wargaming, so after the Battle! Action Force comic I moved on to White Dwarf rather than something like Your Sinclair or Crash, especially as the Spectrum was becoming increasingly temperamental when trying to load games via an old and creaky cassette player.

1988, and the arrival of our Amstrad PC1512, rekindled that interest in computing, and I trundled off down to the newsagents to find out more about this magical machine. The dedicated PC magazines looked a bit dull, but The Games Machine promised coverage of “Computer & Electronic Entertainment”, and as an added bonus had Operation Wolf on the cover, so I figured that’d do.

Issue 13 of The Games Machine, dated December 1988, cost £1.25 (DM 7.50, US $3.50, CAN $3.95) for its 154 pages. It opened with news of a “Console Fight” (illustrated slightly oddly with a photo of an M113 armoured personnel carrier): Nintendo and Sega were planning new 16 bit consoles, and “Console experts say only one or two machines can survive the fierce competition which will develop among five top models: Atari’s VCS2600, the Nintendo, the Sega, the PC Engine and the planned Konix Slipstream. Many tip the 16-bit Slipstream, which TGM exclusively revealed last month, as the winner when it’s launched next summer. Among the £130 Slipstream’s strong selling points will be digitised sound, RISC graphics chips, and an add-on hydraulic chair for less than £100 extra. Code Masters Operations Manager Bruce Everiss, whose software house is believed to have been planning a console last year, enthuses: ‘I think Konix has the potential to be another Amstrad. He [boss Wynn Holloway] has wreaked miracles.’ Even a spokesman for Micro Media, the sole UK outlet for the PC Engine, admits: ‘I’d expect the Slipstream to have an open road until 1990.'”

If you’re wondering why this wunder-console failed to destroy Nintendo and Sega, is a rather interesting read.

Back to the big players, Nintendo were suffering from slow software development and chip shortages with their “Nintendo II” (the SNES-to-be), while “Sega’s 16-bit Megadelve (sic) is expected to appear about this time next year with stereo sound, high resolution graphics and £49-50 games on two-inch discs”. The “Consoles: what they’ve sold” sidebar contained some rather interesting industry best-guesses of console sales of the time. Atari VCS2600: “claim of more than 3 million in UK since 1981 release. Interest slowed down mid-Eighties, now reviving.” Nintendo: “NESI claim 30 million worldwide but reliable reports say figure is closer to 20-25 million. Breakdown: 12 million in Japan (sales slowing down), 7 million in US (sales soaring – 10 to 12 million predicted by the New Year), 45,000 in UK, 25,000 in Scandinavia.” PC Engine: “Possibly up to 600,000 in Japan, certainly much less elsewhere.” Sega: “45,000 in UK”.

In the run-up to Christmas retailers were predicting Afterburner would be the big seasonal hit, with possible rivals including Operation Wolf, Thunder Blade, Double Dragon and R-Type, all coin-op conversions. On the hardware front Dixons and WH Smiths were going to be stocking the Atari ST, only Dixons were taking the Amiga, but Comet, Dixons and WH Smiths all offered the aged Atari VCS2600. The venerable Spectrum was beginning to fade, with Smiths dropping it to concentrate on the ST and VCS2600, but Comet, Dixons and Tandy were still planning to offer the +2 and +3 versions. Dixons were also the only place stocking the Commodore 64. TGM didn’t just cover games, the news also covered Sir Clive Sinclar launching a cheap satellite dish, the £149.95 Cambridge satellite receiver, going up against Amstrad for the first time since Sir Clive had sold the Spectrum computing brand to them.

In a preview piece, TGM visited Ere Informatique in Paris for a look at Purple Saturn Day, Billiard Simulator I, Teenage Queen (“… a strip-poker game, and if you don’t know how to play strip poker we suggest you ask your teacher”) and The Temple of Flying Saucers, which sounds frankly bonkers: “our hero, A von Spacekraft, is kidnapped by rebel electric toasters. And they want bread.” A couple of pages of assorted preview screenshots followed, lots of glossy ST and Amiga shots from games like F-16 Combat Pilot, Double Dragon, Thunder Blade and Motor Massacre, with a token Spectrum shot from AfterBurner to prove they weren’t entirely neglecting the 8-bits.

Again demonstrating its wider remit, Mel Croucher’s feature “Who Needs Reality Anyway?” was all about telecommuting, predicting “supermarkers will be hit by home teleshopping, as will high-street estate agents, travel agents, banks and all other businesses that will gradually be replaced by the interactive domestic screen.” Not bad, considering this pre-dates the World Wide Web by several years.

Arcades were still going great guns, a couple of pages covered news from the JAMMA/JAPEA Annual Amusement Machine Show in Japan of the hot games to come in 1989, Taito’s Chase HQ and Namco’s Splatter House being a couple I remember pumping 10p coins into.

Into the main review section, the Lead Review was Powerdrome, a 3D polygon-based racing game for the Atari ST that scored 93% (looked a bit blocky to me, but the stills probably didn’t do the sense of speed justice). Rocket Ranger for the Amiga got 90% for “Excellent graphics, breathtaking sound effects and sampled speech”, and really looked the business. Pac-Mania, also for the Amiga, got 92% for its arcade-accurate take on the isometric 3D pill-muncher. Multi-format games got separate scores per platform, so Operation Wolf got 89% on the Amstrad CPC, 87% on the Spectrum and 79% on the Commodore 64 (suffering a slight loss in graphic definition, and requiring pixel-perfect use of the gun sight), with 16-bit versions to follow later. The reviews section also included version updates, shorter roundups of previously reviewed games that had been released on new platforms, so Revenge of the Mutant Camels II that scored 63% for the Atari ST in issue 8 got 49% for the Amiga version update in this issue, earning criticism for the superior capabilities of the machine being used to only marginally improve the graphics.

After the reviews, another article looked at the world of pirates (yarr, me hearty etc.), talking to members of groups like The Kent Team, PCB and Divisional Distribution. Showing how little has changed over twenty years except the amounts, Bob Hays, co-ordinator of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) estimated that piracy amounted to £7.5 million a year in illegal games, but the pirates dismissed such figures, pointing out they wouldn’t have bought the game anyway in most cases, and some were more attracted by the fun and challenge of breaking copy protection rather than the game itself.

A few pages of playing tips offered a variety of tactics and passwords for various games, including Double Dragon: “When in dual player mode if you go up to a Putz and grab him from behind the other player can hit the unfortunate victim as many times as he likes with the whip. He won’t die, your points go up like mad (200 at a time) and you can do this ad infinitum”. And in the game, ah!

Branching out again from games there was a book column, on something of a cyberpunk trip with a couple of Bruce Sterling novels (Islands in the Net and a reprint of Involution Ocean) and the Sterling-edited anthology Mirrorshades getting the thumbs up, but Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers received a more lukewarm response. Raymond E Feist’s Faerie Tale strained credibility, but was exciting enough to suspend disbelief. A roleplay column reviewed a couple of RuneQuest supplements, Gods of Glorantha (60 Religions for RuneQuest), and the Gloranthan Bestiary.

The letters page was mostly a fairly dull spat between Amiga and ST owners over who had the better machine, with some further fallout from an advert for “Psycho Pigs UXB” in a previous issue featuring a scantily clad model that presumably had attracted some complaints, this month featuring complains about the complaints (“just what is wrong with the human body?”).

Finally, the Back Bytes section included some handy reference material, including a guide to computer systems starting with the 32 bit Acorn Archimedes (£800+, with “over 200 releases for the Archimedes – but only 13 games at last count”), the 16-bit Atari ST (£300 for the 520STFM), Amiga (£400 for an A500 pack including software and TV modulator) and PC (£350 to “well over £4000”, with “… more games than you might expect, largely because of the many PC game-players in America. However, poor display and sound are problems and PC-compatiles are not recommended if you’re only into games, graphics or music”), the 8-bit Amstrad CPC (£299 for the CPC464 with colour monitor), Commodore C64/C128 (£150 for the C64 and ten games) and Sinclair ZX Spectrum (£139 for the +2), and finishing off with the Nintendo Entertainment System (£130), PC Engine (£175) and Sega Master System (£80, including light gun) consoles.

An excellent and laudable magazine, then, covering all facets of gaming with a few books and RPGs thrown in, everything an aspiring geek could want, right? What on earth possessed me to eschew it the following month for a copy of PC Plus with a picture of a networking kit on the cover? The basic problem was page 37, the index of reviews that listed them by system. Spectrum: 6 games; Amstrad CPC: 3 games; Commodore: 7 games; Atari ST: 13 games; Amiga: 13 games; PC: 4 games; Sega: 4 games. The 4 PC games were Bubble Ghost (79%), a dull looking platform-ish thing that had been out on the ST for a year, Captain Blood (68%), a couple of paragraphs pointing out it wasn’t as good the ST or Amiga versions from 6 months back, The Games: Summer Edition (76%), a slightly updated Daley Thompson-esque waggle-fest and the only brand new review as opposed to a version update, and Rasterscan (44%), a hasty 8-bit port. Meanwhile, the cover story of “Watch out, solider! Kill! Kill! Kill!” referred to Operation Wolf plus two distinctly influenced-by-(as in shamelessly-ripped-off) Operation Wolf games, POW for the Amiga and Veteran for the Atari ST. That was what I wanted, all-action mowing down hordes of enemy soldiers, not a ghost blowing a bubble. It felt like The Games Machine was actively taunting me, waving these shiny graphics and action packed games in my face while I was stuck with four shades of grey and the odd “beep”. Prominent in the middle of the magazine was a double page advert for the Atari ST, advertising the £399.99 “Super Pack” including £450 worth of software: Marble Madness, Test Drive, Beyond the Ice Palace, Buggy Boy, Eddie Edwards Super Ski, Ikari Warriors, Ranarama, Thundercats, Zynaps, Quadralien, Starquake, Chopper X, Roadwars, Xenon, Arkanoid II, Wizball, Black Lamp, Genesis, Thrust, Seconds Out, Summer Olympiad 88 and Organiser Business Software. What wouldn’t I have given for a pile of games like that; the magazine felt like 150 pages of Jim Bowen saying “here’s what you could have won…”

Looking back, it’s not quite that bad; many games promised a PC version to come, and there was even a foretaste of things to come with a review of the Amiga version of Ultima IV that had been out for the PC since 1986, but that was scant consolation. Nope, it was PC Plus for me after that, it came with a cover disk that had the odd game on it, and at least I’d only be bored by a spreadsheet face-off rather than driven mad with jealousy.

Warning! Contains cheese

Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits and Metallica are proving to be splendid fun; they both have a great selection of songs that build up to some insane final tier shred-fests that should keep all but the most trained-spider-fingered of fake plastic guitarists busy for a while. I’d say “… busy until Rock Band 2 comes out on the Wii”, but “… until death from old age” might be more accurate with the release date either back to September or just not being listed depending on retail site, not that I’m bitter or anything. So long as the Wii version of The Beatles: Rock Band is released at the same time as the other platforms I’ll let them off (gracious, huh?)

Anyway! While Guitar Hero: Metallica is perfect when you fancy a spot of moshing, it doesn’t feature much outside the broad spectrum of “quite metal” to “very metal”, so overall I’ve been playing a bit more of Greatest Hits which, for the most part, has an awesome set list. I say “for the most part”… The only drawback so far is that, with the new system of unlocking songs where you don’t have to complete every song of one tier before moving to the next one, I’d been skipping songs I didn’t really fancy playing; towards the end of the set list, though, you have to have completed all encores to unlock the final stage. And that meant I had to play all the songs I’d been skipping… basically, the godawful hair-metal cock-rock cheesy stuff that Metallica were railing against in their early years: Twisted Sister, Motley Crue, Ratt, Warrant… Ugh. The odd cheesy song can be fun, a bit of Kiss, Poison’s Nothin’ But A Good Time, but having to play through the lot of them in short order is like scraping a massive slab of unpleasant congealed processed cheese off a burger, eating the rest of the meal, then being forced to eat the cheese before you’re allowed dessert. If you don’t eat yer cheese, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer cheese?!

So my advice is to hold your nose, take a deep breath, play sodding Warrant as soon as you can to get it out the way, then enjoy the good stuff. Mind you, if you’re not some sort of completist nutter, you can always solve the problem by just avoiding the songs entirely…

What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.

So the circle of strife continues in the MMO blag-u-spore, subscribers come and go, players burn out and move on, other players return for another look at a game, tempted by emails promising untold game-play treasures and quickly rediscovering all the reasons that they left in the first place. M’colleague is clearly looking for that next MMO fix, busy with his campaigns in Total War (as opposed to all those Partial Wars, where two sides turn up but only one of them had the forethought to bring a flag), he seems to be toe-dipping in the seaside waters of washed-up MMOs, before deciding each time that it all looks a bit too choppy and rough to submerse himself in it fully. Champions Online and All Points Bulletin seem to be the next Great Hype Hope that many bloggers, us included, are pinning their hopes on; I have to say though, in the case of the former, having experienced it first-hand, my hopes can no longer be defined as ‘high’ but more ‘moderately elevated a couple of centimetres from the floor’; to say that Cryptic not releasing the game in June was sensible would be like saying that not wetting ones genitals and then sticking them in an electrical mains socket was sensible: that is to say, in all but the most masochistic quarters, these two things would be classed as a mandatory avoidance. APB continues to look gorgeous, but as a pretty face is no reliable indicator of the mind behind it giving intelligent and engaging conversation, a shiny character creator in an MMO is not a reliable indicator as to whether the game will have any substance to it. Choosing Paul Barnett and Suicide Girls to promote a game says to me that Realtime Worlds are appealing to the style over substance crowd, which is where my current reservations about the game stem from; perhaps APB will be the GAP of MMOs, an emphasis on style but with a more than satisfactory level of quality to the product too. However, for the moment I will remain just cautiously optimistic, and as the character Morveer in Abercrombie’s latest epic Best Served Cold says: “Caution first, always”.

Aion is a curious case: I’ve played the beta, I’ve ordered the Collector’s Edition, and yet I’m fairly certain that I won’t be playing it beyond the first month of non-subscription play. As to why? The ‘Go here, kill that, talk to him, here’s some coin now go and talk to the other guy again’ linear quest design is just not terribly interesting to me any more. I can manage it in a game where there are plenty of distractions to break the monotony, but otherwise I have a hard time bringing myself to play such a game these days. However, something about the game world in Aion captured my imagination – it’s so very well realised – and like a good book I appreciate MMOs when they paint a vivid picture of a world in which I would like to exist. Essentially I like to think that with the price of the box I’m buying in to the idea of the world they’ve created, but my lack of subscription will point to the fact that I won’t buy into the grinding Kill Ten Rats method of quest design. Some people would perhaps label this as “WoW Tourism”, I would say that it’s more along the lines of “I am intrigued by your ideas, and utterly resent your derivative game-play model”. The world of Aion is beautiful right from the start, the flora and fauna are delightful, the character design is fluid and refined, and it just feels right — like it should exist. It’s one of the things that I feel Blizzard got right with World of Warcraft, Azeroth exists somewhere out there in the Multiverse, surely it has to, because nothing so well conceived, so coherent and so magical could be spawned by the mind of man. That’s the feeling: when you read a good book, when you find yourself turning each page because you want to see what happens in that world, because for a moment your mind exists in that other dimension of space and time. Tolkien wasn’t the first, but could perhaps be considered the Grand Master of this realising of another world, for without Middle Earth what is the Ring Cycle but a lot of tedious journeying interspersed with a few battles and far too much protracted dreary singing and self-indulgent wearisome poetry?

Thankfully the singing is all but removed in Lord of the Rings Online, only the music remains. The poetry is confined to quest texts and role-playing groups in town centres, where in the latter case one can take it as a warning, like the sign that says ‘Beware of the Dog’ on a garden gate: you can take the risk if you want to trespass upon that ground, but you’re liable to suffer grave wounds. As Lazarus Long said:

“A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits.”

LotRO does suffer from tedious journeying, however. Indeed, tedious journeying is one of those malignant neoplasms of the MMO cell structure: where long journeys are an essential part of realising a fantasy world – helping to bring into focus the scope of that world and its size and structure – LotRO’s quests require soul-numbing back-and-forth journeys across vast landscapes and routes that are somehow miraculously unconnected, requiring the player’s constant attention in order to deal with the ever-inert engineering works on the main horse line:

“This is the 7:35 from West Bree, terminating at Trestlebridge. This is a connection only service; please change at Trestlebridge for Esteldin and Othrikar. Due to works on the line, there is no direct service to Tinnudir, please disembark at Esteldin where a small member of the Apodidae family will take you the rest of the way.”

One imagines that the ‘dismount’ option, initially planned to allow players to hop off half way between horse stops in order to provide a modicum of flexibility in their travel arrangements, is now used by players to dismount at the top of a steep mountain or halfway across a bridge, so that they can launch their character off into a deep ravine in protest at the amount of time they’ve spent staring at a poorly modelled horse’s arse. For a game that forces players to spend so much time riding around on horses, you would have thought that Turbine would have made more effort when they crafted the horse models, rather than gluing four stilts to a giant kidney bean and then plopping a strangely-necked horse head on top. One can only hope that they’re going to revamp the horse models for the much rumoured Rohan expansion, otherwise the Charge of the Rohirrim will be a very messy affair, mainly from the main cast of characters throwing up on themselves as they bear witness to the terrifying sight of LotRO’s recreation of the event, as though a thousand My Little Ponies crashed into a patch of Garbage Pail Kids.

Despite my complaints (and you’d know it wasn’t me if I wasn’t complaining), I’m still enjoying LotRO immensely. I’ll hopefully have a post soon which discusses some of the highlights, as well as some more niggling issues, and perhaps also a report on the further adventures of Bjomolf Byrnison the dwarf Champion. All sorts of exciting adventures have been had, friends made, achievements accomplished. I’ll give you a little sneak peek into what has happened recently though, something both momentous and painful. The stout and sturdy little fellow has just spent nearly all of his savings so far in one fell swoop. Guess what, that was the momentous part.

The painful part was that he used the money to buy a giant kidney bean on stilts…

Four for free

The sleeping robo-giant of BattleTech has awakened! Hot on the whirr-stomping heels of news that there’s a new Mechwarrior game being developed (maybe not quite the MMO Melmoth was hoping for, but it’s a start), to tide us over until then Mechwarrior 4 is being released for free. Quite how well it stands up these days, I’ll find out as soon as it’s available (or I could always just install it from the original disks in the meantime…)

If you don’t like their rules, whose would you use?

The strange case of Professor Myers and the Curious City may cause an observer unfamiliar with City of Heroes to initially exclaim, quite naturally, “Oh the horror, forcing people to PvP in a PvP zone! Whatever next?” Why did people get so cross with Twixt doing nothing more than playing the game properly?

PvP has always been problematic in City of Heroes. Though the developers doubtless had plans for eventually adding villains, and thus naturally PvP, City of Heroes launched in 2004 as a purely PvE game, with the mechanics very much geared in that direction. For the first year or so there was no PvP whatsoever until arenas were added in Issue 4, areas for hero vs hero PvP that you had to very specifically sign up for, and the problems became rather apparent.

You know how one of the most frustrating things for a close-combat character in PvP can be having to get into melee range, especially against opponents who can kite you with superior speed, or powers that slow and entangle you? Imagine how much more fun it is as a melee character when your opponent can *fly*, or leap tall buildings in a single stride, or teleport. Then there’s control; one archetype, the Controller, is largely based around… well, controlling, the clue’s in the name there. Their primary powersets are focused on freezing opponents in blocks of ice, or trapping them within burning rings of flame, or the very earth itself, or using the crushing force of massively increased gravity, or putting opponents to sleep; generally “mezzing” in MMO parlance. In PvP, if these powers work effectively there are howls of protest from the people who end up frozen in the block of ice totally unable to do anything, whereas if they don’t work effectively the Controller is equally frustrated that their primary powerset is rendered useless. Those were just two facets of the combat system, and thus began the Sisyphean task for the developers of trying to achieve “balance” (OK, so as with all MMOs the quest for balance had been going on from the beginning, but chucking PvP into the mix made the boulder a whole lot heavier). Combine MMO players love of change, where every minor tweak to any power is greeted with excitement and shrieks of joy, with the friendship and bonhomie that always exists between PvE and PvP focused players with their jocular cries of “griefer!” and “carebear!”, and you get a forum full of fun.

The arenas were a precursor, a way for the developers to try and get their PvP house in order for the main event: the late 2005 release of City of Villains that brought with it the villain “faction”, and several PvP zones for less structured fighting between heroes and villains. I think it’s pretty clear the developers wanted to get faction-based PvP going, but, from my perspective at least, it never really got traction (no faction action traction), for several reasons.

Despite tweaks since the introduction of the arena, tweaks that would go on for several years (and are probably still ongoing), PvP was never very balanced; some archetypes, powersets and builds worked very well, others really didn’t, and though a significant minority of players dedicated themselves to PvP and got incredibly good at it, that just exacerbated the problem when random casual players bounced into them and got annihilated.

Knowing that PvP zones wouldn’t be much good without players in them, and that many players are reward driven, City of Villains brought incentives to go into the PvP zones. Temporary powers could be acquired in them, and missions in the zones offered an XP bonus; players tended to hop into the zones, grab the missions or powers, and hop out again, offering at best fleeting targets of opportunity for actual PvPers. Then there were badges to be had in the PvP zones.

Badges are City of Heroes achievements, awarded for defeating 50 enemies of a certain type, visiting a certain location, completing a certain mission, that sort of thing, and CoH has many dedicated badge hunters, set on collecting as many as possible (especially as it’s one of the few things to do at the level cap). Some badge hunters are keen PvPers, but it’s a pretty small intersection on the Venn diagram, and many’s the forum thread started after somebody goes into a PvP zone, announces in broadcast chat “hey, I’m just after the badges, don’t attack me please!”, and utterly unpredictable events follow, like someone attacking them. Badge hunters condemn “griefers” who prevent them getting badges, PvPers condemn “griefers” who prevent, or don’t participate in, PvP in a zone designed for it, hilarity ensues.

PvP also works best when players consider themselves part of a “team”, and there’s a clear enemy to fight. City of Heroes never had much in the way of a specific “end game”, especially in its original incarnation; no PvP, no raiding (Hamidon excepted, a deliberately absurdly powerful blob-monster-thing for players to throw themselves against), no gear grind. After hitting the level cap people would often roll alts; indeed people would often roll alts well before the level cap. Even players like me, who in other MMOs tend to focus on developing a single character, would have a bunch of alts, and alt-o-holics like Melmoth could fill all the available character slots on a server in the blink of an eye, then re-roll the lot of them with new powersets and costumes before breakfast. If, at launch, players had the option of rolling a hero or villain there might have been more of a sense of two opposing sides, but with the release of CoV the overwhelming majority of supergroups (CoH guilds) just pitched up a villain version of the group on the other side of the game. The primary sense of identification remained with server, supergroup or player, rather than faction, with villains simply being another set of alts for a player. That’s not to say that nobody played either heroes or villains exclusively, for a variety of reasons, but it wasn’t a situation like Horde vs Alliance in WoW or Order vs Destruction in WAR. A few groups tried to make a real go of it; I recall one guild in particular who turned up on the Victory server after City of Villains with a “proper” PvP approach. They played villains and villains only, no hero alts on pain of being kicked, and they were out to win. They issued proclamations and challenges, all heroes would fear their name! They got bored, and faded away, the most brutal encounters as far as I could make out being restricted to the forums; when the most terrifying fate you can inflict on the other side is that they might not be able to get a temporary ability quite so easily if you happen to be in the same zone, it’s not a very heady sense of absolute power. Of course factions don’t have to be defined by the developers, they could be formed by players if the mechanics are there to support it, and there was the possibility of supergroup vs supergroup conflict. A group could build themselves a base, and with a sufficiently powerful base mount a PvE raid to claim an Item of Power. Any group with an Item of Power could then be raided by another supergroup, but though the system was tested, and even (I believe) went live for a short time, it proved too troublesome. Bases remain, but no items of power, and raiding can only be done for fun by mutual agreement. There’s rampant forum speculation as to just why that might be, but the lack of appetite for serious PvP must play a part.

Without a strong sense of antipathy between the sides, with such an entrenched PvE playerbase, PvP has remained a sideshow, underlined by the further development of the game. A single additional PvP zone was added after the release of City of Villains (and that was really only because the Villain level cap was raised from 40 to 50, in line with Heroes, at the same time), while further issues actually introduced co-operative content that allowed Heroes and Villains to work together in PvE against alien invaders or ancient Romans.

Thus where Twixt’s issues (being denounced for a “win at all costs” attitude and dedication to fighting the enemy faction that seems to be in line with the developers intentions) have echoes in similar debates in any number of other games (compare, for example, with players who’d insist on actually fighting the enemy in Alterac Valley when the vogue was to rush straight for the enemy general, and the opprobrium they’d draw), his almost universal vilification isn’t quite so surprising considering the heavily PvE focused nature of the majority of the player base and lack of faction identification, in spite of any developer attempts to nudge them towards hero vs villain PvP.

In Jersey anything’s legal, as long as you don’t get caught

So Slashdot picked up a piece from about “the most hated outcast in City of Heroes”, pretty well summarised as “Researcher Trolls MMO, Surprised When Players Hate Him”. Course it’s a bit more complex than that, Massively have a good bunch o’ links to launch off across various forums, blogs etc.

From the good prof’s paper, there is the conclusion:

Remaining likable – socially connected — within the CoH/V community meant playing the game according to values other than those made explicit by the game design and the game designers. Players could only learn these values – much like those affecting social activities in the real world — by becoming (or already being) a member of the game’s entrenched social order.

Is that a bit of a “Pope in ‘not protestant’ shocker” for anyone who’s played an MMO for more than a couple of days? Pick an MMO of choice (except EVE, yada yada, exception that proves rule and all that, and probably Darkfall and its ilk too), can you come up with behaviour that, to use a technical term, would be “acting like a dick” but not explicitly “illegal”/disallowed to the point you’d get a warning/ban? As a starter for ten: in a game with Need/Greed loot rolling, persistently rolling “Need” on absolutely everything tends to be a good way of losing friends and not influencing people. Bonus example: The Ancient Gaming Noob’s mysterious scenario and reveal, with accompanying rather interesting debate. Any others?

Wild? I was livid!

From, news that “computer games can be just as good for children as any traditional classroom activity or form of educational media”. According to the report: “Despite their reputation as promoters of violence and mayhem, digital games have in fact been shown to help children gain content and vital foundational and 21st-century skills”

I understand one of the subjects of the study now works as a butcher on a sanglier farm in France where, on a daily basis, they’re required to slaughter anything between nine and eleven boars, and they learnt everything they know from playing MMOGs…

Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah dare hope to survive.

The stampede across the gaming news savannah by the raucous rampaging herd of wildebloggers was dramatically split yesterday by the sudden and unexpected appearance of the Blizzard Speculation Lion, which leaped into the midst of the unsuspecting herd, sending groups off in wildly tangential directions, their eyes rolling around in their heads as they simultaneously tried to avoid being trampled by their fellow wildebloggers and to also stay ahead of the Speculation Lion itself. As such there has been a fair bit of discussion as to what Blizzard’s trademarking of the word ‘Cataclysm’ might mean.

Now if I was a Blizzard marketing monkey the first thing I’d do is take note of this manic phenomenon that occurs whenever their company so much as twitches its majestic mane, and then I’d go off and start trademarking random words from the dictionary, just to mess with the heads of everyone. I’d probably reserve the word ‘pogonophobia’ to start with, and then go from there.

Others have speculated, even before this latest fuelling of Blizzard’s perpetual hype machine, as to what might happen in the next World of Warcraft expansion:

“For the next expansion, the whole of old Azeroth gets a phasing makeover, we become servants of the scourge in a very dark setting.” — Spinks

Now just as a casual observation – because we don’t want to invoke the wrath of the rightfully snarkful – if such an expansion as that described above were to happen it would be quite the cataclysmic event wouldn’t you say? Also, were it to happen, it would solve the ‘nobody cares about the 1-60 game anymore’ problem for World of Warcraft, with Old Azeroth simply being made to go away, it being replaced with a freshly scourged Azeroth.

In the house of the Old Gods:

“Hi honey, I’m home! MMmmm, something smells nice!”

“Be down in a minute! Oh, and there’s some freshly scourged Azeroth cooling on the window sill.”

“Oooooo! Can I have a slice now?”

“Ok, but mind you don’t burn yourself on the Kalmidor, it’ll still be piping hot.”

And finally, if such an expansion did happen to be on the cards, I would casually observe that a really rather funky way to introduce it would be to do ‘flash-forwards’. Use that oh-so-clever phasing technology to have sections of the scourged Azeroth appear for shortish periods of time at random; have it last an hour or so, in order for those players who aren’t online to have a chance to be notified by friends and get themselves in to the game to witness it. Then revert back to the original Azeroth again, but perhaps leaving a little of the portent remaining: a few charred corpses in the streets, say. The added bonus is that because this would only affect the original 1-60 content of Azeroth, those elements of gaming society who don’t like to have their game time interrupted with inconveniences such as story telling and world changing dramatic events – as mused upon elsewhere recently – will not be effected.

As an aside, while speaking of using phasing for fun and profit: I’m really intrigued as to whether pjharvey’s mind-fondling idea of what I’d dub ‘socially networked phasing’ would work in its attempt to remove server boundaries between player populations.

Anyway, there’s no evidence as to what, if anything, the trademark of ‘Cataclysm’ might mean to Blizzard. It could simply be the marketing department deciding to have a bit of fun with the community after having returned from a particularly lengthy liquid lunch, but I found it fun to let the idea-ball roll around the roulette wheel of my inner mind, and when it finally came to rest, ‘cataclysmic scourging of Azeroth with portentous flash-forwards’ was the slot that it landed in. As such, I’ve reported the result here to you in order to see if it’s a winner.