Monthly Archives: September 2009

Society drives people crazy with lust and calls it advertising

For the past ten years Bioware’s name has been a byword for high quality story-driven CRPGs with involving plots, memorable characters, interactions with your companions beyond a couple of fist bumps and shouting “bro!”, and moral choices. Granted the stories aren’t always wildly original, and some of the “moral dilemmas” err towards “Do you save the puppy or burn down the orphanage?” when they’re not randomly foisted on you, but that sort of stuff is picking fairly minor nits.

Most Bioware games also allow the player to become romantically involved with one, or occasionally more, of the other characters, starting off rather chaste in the earlier games and working up to the obscene filth of Mass Effect. With a couple of new games on the way, Dragon Age: Origins later this year and Mass Effect 2 early next year, it looks like Bioware were worried that traditional CRPGs might be perceived as old and fusty, and are building on the widespread coverage that Mass Effect got. To paraphrase Fry & Laurie, it seems like a recent marketing meeting went something like…

Stephen I am thinking, Leonard, that we must use today’s tools for today’s job.

Hugh I see. And what are today’s tool, in your opinion?

Stephen Oh there are so many tools around today. Look at advertising. Pop music. Films. Magazines. Everywhere images of sexuality and coolness.

Hugh And so we must make RPGs …

Stephen Cool.

Hugh Cool. And sexy. And where shall we find them, these young people?

Stephen Wherever blood and money and sexy talk flow freely, there will you find the young.

Hugh And what will we say? How will we persuade them to surrender their ice-skating and their jazz music and turn to RPGs?

Stephen You must say to the young people – Oh young people. You who are young and thrusting and urgent, there is a beat, a sound, a look that’s new, that’s you, that’s positively yes!

Hugh Hmm. Alright. Boys and girls, dig what I am about to say. RPGs are cool.

Stephen Good.

Hugh Throw away those transistor radios. Come on out from those steamy parlours where the coffee is cheap and the love is free. Join us in our playing of roles!

Stephen That’s it!  Now stick some Marilyn Manson over the top and release it on the internet.

So there’s some slightly mixed messages coming out from Bioware; on the one hand Dragon Age: Origins is a portentous saga in which the fate of humanity rests on a chosen few, and on the other it is, broadly speaking, in many ways “the new shit” with lots of stabbing and occasionally someone in their pants.  Mass Effect 2 promises mystery, intrigue and a frightfully cross young lady who forgot to put a shirt on. I think they need to pull them together, really:

“In a world of danger, the player faces tough moral challenges, and…”


“… forcing them to make difficult decisions over…”


“… with gritty, grown up dialogue…”


“Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2.  Coming soon.”


A Day in the Lifetime

For the first time in years, I’m subscription free.

I patched up City Heroes to see the Issue 16 changes, logged in, tinkered a bit with power colours, and couldn’t really muster up any enthusiasm for it so finally hit the unsubscribe button I’d been thinking about nine months ago. Monthly subscriptions nag at me when I’m not playing much, like just having a slice of toast from an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. They can be great value for a game you’re playing a lot, but don’t make so much sense for something you drift in and out of; I’ve had Grand Theft Auto IV for ten months now, playing a bit now and again. I don’t know exactly how much time I’ve put in, but there’s an achievement for completing the main story in less than 30 hours and I haven’t wrapped that up yet, though I’ve been doing a lot of the side missions and bits and pieces. With APB looking to have broadly comparable gameplay I can see myself dipping in and out of that, rather than spending several hours a night on it, so the lack of a monthly fee is distinct plus point there.

I’ve still got a couple of MMOGs on the go, though. Firstly Dungeons and Dragons Online, for which the “Unlimited” model seems to be working really well; I’m not sure how it’s looking for Turbine financially, but having the option there, if a few of us are kicking around and fancy a bit of a dungeon crawl, is great, and without even an initial fee there’s no barrier, apart from the initial download, to stop people taking a look around. Then there’s Champions Online; I’m cheating a bit with the “no subscription” thing here, ‘cos I went for the Lifetime option. Now I know full well that any attempt to discuss costs, subscription models and perceptions of value break down somewhat at this point, and a rational assessment is that a lifetime subscription is unlikely to represent better value than monthly payments unless you really, really get into a game, but whatever strange way my brain operates means I can forget the big initial payment and now file Champions as “free to play”; it’s there when I fancy swinging around and dispensing pistol based justice, if I go a couple of months without logging in, not to worry.

It’s spelt ‘Eon’, NCSoft.

I’m not terribly sure as to why you spelt it Aion.

You know, as in “It takes an eon for the game to load, longer than my computer takes to boot” and “It takes an eon to get into the game, if you’re lucky, otherwise it’s sometime around the heat death of the universe”.

Aion Queue 1Aion Queue 2Aion Queue 3Aion Queue 4Aion Queue 5

So that’s the status for each of the five available EU English servers. And yes one of them is “only” half an hour; shame it’s not the one where my character is.

And to all those who have said that this is the smoothest launch they’ve ever seen, of course it bloody well is, nobody can get onto the servers to stress them. I could solve all of the public transport problems in England if I only let ten people on to each bus and then thanked everyone else for their patience while they stand around for two hours to get on to the next one.

To think that NCSoft had the temerity to want to install nProtect GameGuard with their game, as if it’s the players who are the cheap cheating bastards. Talking of cheap bastards, what the hell gives you the right to open a browser up after I close the game down in order to pimp your products?

Cheap and utterly lacking in etiquette.

You know what, at least Aventurine had the decency to not let you buy Darkfall at all in order to keep their numbers down, rather than make you sit around adding up how much of your money you’re spending in order to watch a queue progress very slowly. I could do that at Disneyland, and at least then I’d get the opportunity to punch Donald Duck in the face.

Never mind, give it a year before NCSoft close it all down for no good reason whatsoever, eh?

I might just have reached the point where I’m allowed to log in by then.

Thought for the day.

I’m curious as to why nobody has, to my knowledge, made a niche MMO that has nothing but raid content in it. No levelling, just raiding big monsters with 10/25/40 other people and getting better gear to raid bigger monsters. If niche PvP games can lure in enough subscribers to support themselves, I’m left wondering why there isn’t a niche game for raiders yet.

The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.

Folk cramming themselves into Aion like spawning salmon, they realise they’re floundering towards a huge faction-imbalanced end game, yes?

As I mentioned in the above quote from Twitter, I’ll be interested to see how the end game for Aion pans out. At the moment I see a lot of frustrated people wanting to roll Asmodians but being blocked by general server queues or the balancing mechanics that NCSoft have in place; therefore these people are rolling Elyos instead, just to get into the game, because, as we all know, joining up with a faction that you don’t really empathise or connect with is always a strong foundation for a long and distinguished PvP career. It works for mercenary groups because they are rewarded handsomely to do so, I’m not so sure that there’s such an incentive in Aion.

And I have to question, on a sanity level, whether it was a sound idea to aim an MMO with an end game focus of PvP at a Western audience when one side looks like the offspring of Disney’s Fairies and a candy floss machine, and the other side looks like the resultant spawn of a blood-bathed orgy between The Crow, Edward Scissor Hands, Marilyn Manson and a Balrog of Morgoth.

They’d have been better off calling the game Care Bears vs PvP Nutjobs Online.

What’s the collective noun for cataclysms?

As Melmoth was pondering whether, in the wake of World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm, Turbine might revisit the starter areas of Lord of the Rings Online to represent the scouring of the Shire, news has started to reach us that other games are planning on far-reaching changes to their worlds…

Age of Conan, following Warcraft’s lead, have announced that a dragon will rise and sunder the earth. Unlike WoW, though, the starter area will remain unaffected as the dragon rampages around, destroys the rest of the world, and leaves only Tortage (also known as “that bit at the start that’s quite good for the first twenty levels”).

EVE Online are taking advantage of the launch of DUST 514 to introduce the New New Player Experience, a more gentle tutorial for the complex and brutal universe of EVE. Early feedback is positive about the ability to connect a console gamepad to control your spaceship, but players are strongly critical of the blue shell, insisting that it should be nerfed to stop skilled players building up a good lead then being hit on the final corner and losing to Bowser.

Lineage II are planning the most radical in-game overhaul yet, removing the need for players to grind through 10,000 Turek Orcs to level up. Instead they’ll have to grind through 10,000 Kerut Orcs, who wear slightly different hats.

City of Heroes are launching an unprecedented comic-based game event, where Alien Space Bats travel through time and assassinate a politician, turning the world against heroes and forcing players in the present day to battle for their lives against giant robots while trying to find a way of travelling back to stop the Alien Space Bats. Nobody really notices amongst the other 73 parallel worlds, including The One Where The Axis Won World War II, The One Where The South Won The Civil War, and The One Where Tottenham Won The 1987 Cup Final.

Dungeons and Dragons Online unleashed strange and powerful “Unlimited” magicks across Eberron, and though nothing had obviously changed in their wake, close inspection revealed little price labels attached to everything.

Auto Assault are planning to re-launch with an amazing world-changing event: as the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland of the original game didn’t work out so well, an alien terraforming pod lands on Earth, restoring it to a green and pleasant environment populated by pre-war survivors who emerged from cryogenic storage somewhere. Centuries after that event the players take control of their original bio-mechanical cyborgs or green-skinned mutants, emerging from cryogenic storage themselves to face tough new challenges in the reborn world such as commuting to work in their be-weaponed war cars without picking up a speeding ticket, and negotiating the drive-thru counter of their local burger joint.

Aion in a brave move decided to skip the initial revision of the game that was released in Asia and launched in the West with the world of Atreia intact and a sundering cataclysm of epic proportions built into their server system instead.

Club Penguin are getting in on the act with Penguinaclysm, which will see a giant electric Mecha-Penguin storming around The Plaza chucking snowballs everywhere. Players are expected to be generally (*_*) or (o.O) with a bit of (?_?)

Darkfall are also set to overhaul their starting area, finally introducing proper impact PvP. Unlike the original namby-pamby system put in to appease pathetic losers who can’t handle a real game, where death merely results in a bit of lost loot, Darkfall: Teh Ubahclysm introduces permadeath. Not some sort of rubbish pseudo-permadeath either; if you’re killed by another player then your character can’t be resurrected, your account is banned so you can’t create a new character, your credit cards are blacklisted so you can’t create a new account, and an Aventurine employee comes round your house and smashes your PC up with a baseball bat. Eurogamer’s re-review of the game awards it a score of 9/10.

Thought for the day.

The precedent has been set.

If Blizzard’s gamble pays off I wonder if Turbine will at some point scourge the Shire. It’s been mentioned that the new Skirmish mode of play to be introduced with the Mirkwood expansion will provide events that represent the beginnings of the scourge, but will it be possible for Turbine to go back and overhaul the starter areas to reflect the story? Would it even work as a concept? Granted it will be many a long year before the story of Lord of the Rings Online reaches that point, but already the hints are there that they intend to reflect the original story as accurately as they can, and perhaps it’s the case that Blizzard has helped them with this.

Or stolen their thunder.

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

Eregion is famous for being Middle Earth’s only Internet connected region and home to the inventor of Email.

Fine, look I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a bit here. You see, I played through some of the quests in Eregion over the weekend in an attempt to catch up to Van Hemlock and Company Ltd’s (Est. 1835) Monday night static group, to which I have been invited. The fools. Primarily I was pointed to Eregion because of the quest chain that allows you to make use of legendary weapons, but I stayed because the zone is just a joy to play in. And that is why I’m struggling, I need to say nice things about something in an MMO and… it hurts.

And this only shortly after I waxed lyrical about the Warden class. What is the world coming to? Tomorrow: a short article on why cats and dogs can be happy living together.

The first thing about Eregion is that there’s a vague similarity between its layout and that of World of Warcraft’s Stranglethorn Vale, although I should state that I’m not trying to read any deep meaning into the design. They both have a main trunk route running north to south through the centre of the map, although I should probably state that it’s more or less the centre, because this is the Internet and I can imagine the pedants are at this very moment whipping out their slide rules and pairs of compasses and plotting the actual central meridian on a detailed graph with lots of working out. Quests branch out to either side of the trunk route and take the player off into the wilds of the land, and if the player progresses through the quests in Eregion as they are presented to them, starting with those in the north at the ruined settlement of Gwingris, and then moving down through the various Echads – Echad Dunann, Echad Eregion, Echad Mirobel and Echad Echad Echad Echad F’tang F’tang Olé Biscuitbarrel – there’s a natural flow to the design, as you progress through the chain of quests at one quest hub the location of the objectives gradually moves down the map until they are starting to overlap with the objectives of the quests at the next hub.

It’s a tidal progression, if you will. The player washes down the zone, each time getting a little bit further before drawing back to the quest hub to hand in quests, sell and repair. Gradually their tidal progression is such that they’ve covered the upper part of the zone, so the tide comes in a little further and moves down the map, emanating from the next quest hub as it washes back and forth further down the land. As such the player runs the whole gamut of the landscape, and because they are travelling back and forth they have a greater chance of finding those little Easter Egg quests that are becoming a more common theme in MMOs. For example, it was on my second or third run through the north eastern area of Eregion that I found a small glowing object that gave me a quest to collect holly leaves. Once handed in I was rewarded with a Cup of Red Tea which gives a nice temporary boost to Vitality. It’s exciting to find these surprise quests, and it was something Warhammer Online did very well: they knew where to leave these little glowing items in out of the way places such that most players would still stumble across them on their general questing, rather than sticking the items close to the main path through the zone with a twenty foot tall flashing neon arrow pointing at them.

As well as Zen-like quest progression, Eregion itself is just a pleasant place to be. After the frozen wastes of Forochel and the devastated barren wasteland of Angmar, it’s a stark contrast when you turn up to a zone that has lush vistas of the sort that would cause Constable to sprain his painting wrist. And sprain it again when he eventually came to paint the place. The zone also reflects in itself the fall of the Elves that inhabited it, the north of the zone is lush forests, the middle wide-open plains that become more savannah-like and then downright barren as the player progresses to the south.

Travel also runs counter to the LotRO norm, with stable masters in all four of the major quest hubs, making travel between the various areas a simple matter of cost rather than painful and tedious negotiation. And yet, curiously, as well as the abundant points of call for the Middle Earth Taxi Service, the main roads between the various quest hubs are also direct and surprisingly un-littered with mobs, making for straightforward painless travel under your own steam. It’s almost as if they wanted the travel not to be a chore! Wander away from the well beaten track and you will find yourself yet again in the Land of Stationary Mobs in the Middle of Nowhere That Just Happen To Be In The Way Of Where You Need To Go. However, because this is a tidal zone the content is spread far and wide as it slowly washes you back-and-forth down the zone in a relaxed manner, and so the mobs are not packed so tightly together that you can’t negotiate a way around them without trauma. Compare this to the more river-like areas such as Forochel which start you off in a small ‘filter pool’ zone before injecting you along the rapids of a narrower path at some speed, where everything suddenly feels more compressed and claustrophobic and calamitous, and as such there seems to be little room to move without attracting the unwanted attentions of angry aggressors.

The quests in Eregion are also refreshing in that they are abundant and, in the main, soloable. There’s plenty of debate to be had as to whether copious solo content is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, whether it marks an inevitable progression of MMOs into ‘playing alone with others’ or is a reflection of the realities of this thing called Real Life, and the restrictions of duty and opportunity that it presents when trying to commit to a virtual life in a virtual world. When all is said and done, however, it is nice to be able to sit down and adventure through the world of Middle Earth without having to stand around and suffer the trials and tribulations of forming a pick-up fellowship, the likes of which would make the Fellowship of the Ring blush with embarrassment for ever having thought that they had a hard time getting their group going. Not only are there plentiful quests and many soloable ones thereof, but many of the solo quests still present an engaging challenge for a player taking them on (when close to the appropriate level) since many of them require you to fight a signature mob, which although achievable by almost any player, can often be a close run thing requiring the strategic use of powerful abilities with lengthy cool-downs and potions. For those of us who aren’t running a twinked-out uber class, at least.

Last but most certainly not least is the quest line that takes you through the events leading to the reopening of the Hollin Gate, that infamous entrance to the mines of Moria. It’s a nice little instanced area that prepares the player for their forthcoming adventures in Moria, gives generous XP, some splendid quest rewards (including your first legendary weapon) and teaches you how various new aspects of the game work, all the while involving you in the story of the attempted retaking of Moria by the dwarves. Sending your character away with their legendary weapon to gain some experience with it before finally returning you to the instance to face an Ancient Foe[TM] is a nice touch, as is the use of the Session Play mechanic to send you into the past to witness the fall of Moria, something which is only made available to you if you complete all the side quests in the Hollin Gate instance, which are well worth the effort simply for the reward of that experience, let alone the fact that they give excellent XP and rewards in and of themselves.

All in all Eregion is a breath of fresh air; you can tell it was a zone added later in the development of the game. It’s encouraging to see that Turbine have learnt from the, albeit understandable, ‘mistakes’ made in the initial release of the game, and have produced some outstanding content which takes their game’s strengths and builds upon them. It also provides a much needed buffer and refuge between the ever increasing oppression of the first book of content and the continuing dive into the depths of depression as the players enter the unknowable darkness under the Misty Mountains. I hope Turbine take a similar stance when they come to release the recently announced Mirkwood content, and provide a soothing respite from the pain, toil, and privation that comes with the continuous battle against the forces of the Dark Lord of Mordor. It’s nice to have that light in the darkness, that small beacon of hope, a place where players can relax for a while and let the waves of happy content wash over them.