Monthly Archives: February 2010

Events occur in real time

The TV series 24 was fresh, bold and different when it first aired; shown in (more or less) real time, there were more plot twists than you could shake a particularly twisty stick at, dramatic revelations all over the place and it wasn’t afraid to break genre conventions by killing off major characters. From the second series on, though, the unexpected twists and broken conventions started to become something of a convention themselves; if a seemingly trusted agent was actually a mole in the first series, next time around if a seemingly trusted agent was acting suspiciously and it looked like they might be a mole it would actually turn out they were a trusted agent working under particularly deep cover to infiltrate an enemy group. Fast forward another few series and a seemingly trusted agent acting suspiciously isn’t a mole they’re just in deep cover, only that in itself is a cover for the fact that they’re working for a second terrorist organisation, except really they’re in even deeper cover for a group of ex-government agents who’ve gone outside the law because highly placed members of the government are in on the conspiracy, except that’s really cover for the fact that they’re a member of a group of ex-ex-government agents who were disillusioned by their abandonment by different members of the government and are out for revenge, and then it turns out they’re not human at all but a robot sent from the future to stop other robots who’ve been sent back from a different future where they were built by the monkeys who took over the world except the monkeys are ghosts and they’re all clones and he’s his own brother.

When the eighth series started in UK recently I watched the first episode, but despite the requisite excitement, chases and exploding helicopters I couldn’t really get into it. I think that’s partly to do with the character of Jack Bauer, who started out as a believably magnificent bastard (within the bounds of “TV ex-Delta Force hero” believability), struggling with his wife and family life but able to saw somebody’s head off with a fish slice when push comes to shove. Since then over the course of seven really tough days he’s been kidnapped, captured, tortured, shot, imprisoned, released, fired, re-hired, disowned, put on trial, fired again, exiled, infected, irradiated, killed and resurrected more times than he’s had hot dinners (which isn’t terribly tricky as I don’t think he’s managed so much as a sandwich, let alone a full dinner, on screen). He’s ascended to the status of cut-n-paste replacement in Chuck Norris facts, and is slightly unreal as a character as a result.

That got me thinking about MMOGs updates and expansions. You get your character up to level 30/40/50 (in DIKU-land), and have progressed from being a rookie barely able to punch out a marmot into a fearsome hero able to take down the biggest monster/villain out there (or at least watch a YouTube video of a bunch of other people doing so), and then an update or expansion is released and it turns out there’s something even bigger out there, and you gain another five or ten levels, and an even bigger set of shoulder pads and sword to hit stuff with. How long can one game be extended that way and still make sense as a coherent world with the character you started out with (in as much as MMOGs ever make sense as coherent worlds)? With games like Everquest still going, and viewing figures of 24 holding up, I guess it’s not a universal worry by any means. In the meantime I’ve had a great idea for a 24/WoW crossover, in which Jack Bauer has to hunt down Arthas before he can assassinate the president, and Warcraft’s Cataclysm is caused by a nuclear device planted by a group of Forsaken militants who are really being controlled by a privately-funded corporation who are actually a front for a shadowy cabal of Alliance politicians…

One man’s wilderness is another man’s theme park.

Despite my unashamed love for Lord of the Rings Online it is still an MMO, and as such there are still wonderful incongruities that leap out suddenly and often unexpectedly, knocking me from the horse of immersion and into the cloying dreary mud of reality that lies beneath its feet.

One such curiosity, which I experienced recently, gave me cause to stop and ponder. I had just completed the run from the Ford of Bruinen in the Trollshaws to the entrance of Rivendell, and had made my way slowly down the winding path that leads towards the home of Elrond & Company (est. 1697). The path is lined with trees that cleverly block the view of the valley to all but the most persistent of observers until the player is close enough that, assuming you have a decent drawing distance set in your graphics options, your view of the valley becomes unobstructed by trees just as the bulk of Rivendell’s buildings ping into the back of your Z-buffer.

The majestic waterfalls around the Last Homely House sparkle in the soft sunlight that always seems to smile upon the elven city, and the delicate otherworldly architecture whispers hints of the secrets of many ages that it has known. The elegant haunting music of Rivendell begins to sigh its way to your ears on the gentle breeze, and all of nature seems bent on welcoming you with peace and love into Middle Earth’s last haven of calm and tranquillity.


Ok, so I’ve exaggerated the actual message, but you should expect that of me by now, after all I’ve been exaggerating things for nigh-on a million years now.

I think the phrase, uttered by an elf who stands forever immobile at the first junction on the path into Rivendell, is actually a simple “Welcome to Rivendell!” perhaps there’s an ‘adventurer’ tagged on the end, I forget, but it was enough to slap me out of my sense of awe and wonder and into a Mighty Boosh-like dream sequence. In it I pictured the welcoming elf as one of those people you see just inside the turnstiles of amusement parks, where they offer a hearty welcome, give you a map of the park along with some vouchers for tacky items in the souvenir shop that only require you to spend another fifty pounds there in order to qualify for the promotion, and perhaps shepherd you towards a pair of people dressed in giant costumes representing the theme park’s main characters, which can only have been designed by an individual who hates children and is bent on scarring them for life by creating eight foot tall versions of popular cartoon characters with gaping hungry maws and dilated crossed eyes fixed in a malignant insane stare that screams bloody murder. I pictured my character standing between a giant Elrond with a slightly lop-sided head three times too big for the body beneath it, and an equally engorged Galadriel with impossible breast dimensions packed into a dress that was too small to be considered anything other than slutty. Our elf greeter hurriedly snaps a photo and hands me a ticket to collect the picture in an hour from a booth outside of the Last Homely House, and I’m given pointers on my map to the main attractions around the zone, and told to get to the Last Homely House as quickly as possible because it’s the most popular ride and the queues get very long fairly soon after the park has opened.

I look around in a panicked fashion, expecting to see a herd of other adventurers all making their way down the path, balloons and candy floss in hand, shuffling past one another and parting, like rapid waters past a mid-stream boulder, around those adventurers who have stopped in the middle of the path to attend the mini adventurers sitting crying in their armoured prams. It’s just me, however, and a slightly bewildered elf; he cowers away from the angry red-haired lady on a horse, who points her sword at him and shouts “I DON’T WANT MY PHOTO TAKEN!” before snapping out of her trance, sheathing her weapon and trotting off slowly and slightly embarrassed towards the city of Rivendell waiting quietly below.

Looking on the bright side, the next time that elf decides to offer a vapid and hollow greeting to a passing adventurer, it might only be a subtle hand wave from his hiding place behind a nearby tree.

Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of Solitaire.

I often find that it’s the little details which capture my imagination the most in an MMO, I’m not really one for the ostentatious and meretricious things in these games – or in life, for the most part – which is one of the reasons that I appreciate having costume outfits in games such as Lord of the Rings Online, where I can create a look for my character which is slightly less King of Clowns than the average MMO adventuring ensemble. That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate the grand and the theatrical, surely there are always those elements which even the most obstinate curmudgeon can’t help but stand back in jaw ajar, misty eyed admiration. The vista of Rivendell when approached from the Trollshaws; the cavern within Blackrock Mountain with its ever-circling mobile of dragons; the wide expanse of magnificent rolling mounds that make up the buttocks of Atlas’s statue in Atlas Park; all of these things manage to inspire and impress without the need for flashing neon and riotous fanfare. Horrible thought for the day: the next tier of World of Warcraft epics will blast out a loud trumpeting fanfare as the player walks around Stormwind or Orgrimmar, a foghorn-like blarp, perhaps, that causes the monitor screens of anyone nearby to tremble in enforced awe. Hoom hrum, either that or it will have one of those announcements which are often used on heavy goods vehicles: *beep* this Epic Player is reversing *beep* please stand clear *beep* this Epic Player is reversing *beep* please stand clear. Let’s face it, with the size of the swords that characters have hanging beside their hips and jutting out behind them, it’s probably a feature that would prevent a lot of the more unpleasant impalings when the more epically geared players try to back their way carefully out of the auction house.

Anyway, a feature that I noticed in Lord of the Rings Online recently, that I haven’t been able to stop playing with and smiling at, is such simple thing. It has to do with the player’s horse mount, and I don’t know whether it’s only recently been added, whether it applies only to horses where I’ve predominantly ridden ponies up until now having played a dwarf for most of my adventuring life in Middle Earth, or whether I just didn’t notice it because I’ve been too busy considering just how ugly horse bums are, having had ample opportunity to do nothing but sit and stare at them during my time in the game. Regardless, I’ve only just noticed it and now, like a child who has just discovered the noise that can be made by holding a ruler over the edge of a table and flicking its end, I can’t stop playing with it at every opportunity. It’s such a daftly innocuous thing: when you steer your character left and right by holding the right mouse button and dragging the mouse (and probably by using the left and right turn keys for all you keyboard turners out there), the character turns in that direction, as does the horse’s head, in a very realistic and delightfully true to life manner. And now that I’ve noticed it I can’t seem to stop turning in circles in order to make myself grin in that slightly gawpish way, like a child who has found for the first time that they can make rainbows magically appear on the wall or ceiling if they tilt their watch into the sunlight just so.

It makes adventuring difficult. Picture one of those Indiana Jones segues where a map appears and a little red arrow-headed line depicts the path of our hero’s long but uneventful journey from one location to the next; now imagine that the line starts out straight but very quickly begins to veer off to the left before completing a full circle and continuing on its original course, for a short while at least, before it veers off to the right, then back left, and thus slowly wriggles its snake-like path across the map, stopping every now and again to fight a bunch of crap creatures that have had the audacity to cross one of the red line’s wayward swerves off of the beaten path. As if I didn’t spend enough time riding from one location to the next, now I’m actively drawing out the process because of a bit of ‘simple’ model animation. Don’t even get me started on cresting hills.

Oh, cresting hills is so splendid! I don’t know why, but when you ride up a hill and then turn left or right as you crest it, it looks like one of those shots from a Western just before the hero pulls up sharply, the horse performing a pirouette on the spot as the rider flicks around in the saddle trying to maintain their fixed view of whatever it is in the distance that has given them cause to halt. There’s no horse pirouette emote in LotRO yet alas — Riders of Rohan expansion, you are my only hope — but the feeling and imagery is triggered nevertheless, and I will confess to more than once riding back down a sharp incline just so I could crest it again. To my, albeit minor, credit I haven’t yet tried to perform any skateboard tricks as I hack pell-mell up and down these slopes. So back to our map and the red line now also turns around whenever there are a bunch of closely packed contours, and then turns back again and continues on up the steep gradient a second time. Basically by this point our little travel map looks like the impassioned scribblings of the clinically insane, which is probably apt considering that it has been generated by yours truly.

Spinks, Tamarind and many others have been discussing immersion recently; for me immersion is, in part, down to the little details: the way a character swings a sword, the way a horse moves, the way a path wends its way up a mountainside. If the details of the game world that we can relate to are congruent with our own world, then it makes the suspension of disbelief with regards to the fantastical elements that much easier, thus priming the jaws of immersion, allowing them to snap shut and grab hold.

And now, post delivered into your expectant hand as you watch from the porch of your RSS Reader, I hold my hat up in the air as my steed rears up, and then charge rapidly off, ahead of a cloud of dust, into the sunset.

Swerving wildly left and right as I go.

Thought for the day.

Is there a Facebook game that uses your friends list to name mobs in the game?

Zoso was talking to me about his adventures in S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat, and explaining that there’s a character in the game with a very similar name to his own. This freaked him out for a few seconds, before he calmed himself down and realised that it was just a coincidence. And then shot himself in the face. The other himself, that is.

I thought: it might be fun to have an MMO use your Outlook or Address Book to derive names for mobs within the game. It would give a whole new meaning to “raiding the boss tonight”, if the boss mob in question happened to be named after Mr Johnson from senior accounts. There’d also be some pleasing karma in a giant flatulent ogre in the game being named after the attractive but spiteful secretary from down the hall.

Hey, if the MMO did this without asking your permission, and your friends were all able to log-in and see everything, we could call the game Buzz Online.

Free is the magic number

There’s been Alliddle bit of a fuss over the cash shop in Allods, and mbp has a series of posts covering the initial furore and developing some interesting thoughts on the whole financial approach of the Free to Play model (which really needs a better name, like Pay Different Amounts Possibly Including Nothing to Play Various Aspects, but PDAPINTPVA isn’t really as catchy as F2P).

I’ve long held that MMOGs could do with pricing plans in addition to flat rate subscriptions; £10/month is great for one game you’re really dedicated to, not so good if you want to dip in and out of games here and there. I’ve lost count of the number of blog reports from open betas of MMOGs saying “it’s not bad, I had fun, but… I wouldn’t pay £10/month for it”. A more direct relationship between cost and time is an option, but possibly starts having a psychological effect on players; someone going AFK or otherwise slowing down your dungeon group isn’t just costing you time, but also money, and there’s the prospect of being taken to the small claims court because you stood in the fire, wiped a raid and cost your guild £42.50. It used to be a standard model though ($6/hour plus the phone call for Neverwinter Nights), it’d be interesting to see if it did still work.

Rather than taking the old “time is money” adage literally most Free to Play games have an item shop, making their money by selling in-game bits n’ pieces. There are any number of options here; potions or items to make your character more powerful temporarily or permanently, cosmetic fluff, access to certain in-game areas, additional races and classes, XP boosting items to speed your progress, etc etc. The structure of the game can dictate how essential or merely desirable these items are; a purchasable mount might be a nice-to-have in a game with a fairly small world, or all but mandatory if most quests involve around travelling a vast continent that would take hours on foot. I’m not familiar enough with Allods to get a handle on exactly what’s being charged for and how necessary any of it is (though I might grab it just out of curiosity; no publicity is bad publicity and all that), but some people are using it as a stick to beat all item shops. That’s daft, though, item shops aren’t bad per se, *bad* item shops are bad (Captain Tautology saves the day!) In the five months or so since Dungeons and Dragons Online went Unlimited I’ve dipped in and out, averaging about one night a week, mostly with Van Hemlock & similarly Irredeemable Waifs. I’ve spent something like £20 in that time on a few different things; unlocking the Drow race (entirely optional, but necessary for my totally unique character concept of a Drow who’s actually quite nice and wields two scimitars), several adventure packs and a couple of container items (most fundamentally the collectables bag to stop my main backpack overflowing with moss, documents, glittering dust, idols, primitive tools, cheese, sandwiches, socks, geese and tangled slinkies). I couldn’t really justify a £10/month subscription, but with sensibly priced items Turbine get a bit of cash and everyone’s happy.

Press Release: Squire Online.

Squire Online is an exciting next generation MMO from the creators of GrindFace and Ant Farm Online, where you take on the role of squire to a hero of the seventh age, armed only with your wits and a small sack barrow.

It’s the Grindeenth of Grindember, in the year of Our Lord 1337, and you start your adventuring life as a squire in the small town of Grindburg, in the kingdom of Dross. There are many heroes in the world, too many some might say, and they are each so powerful that they can destroy whole towns with nothing more than a baleful glare. Yet there is one problem: they cannot move. Due to the alarming and preposterous dimensions of their mighty armour, the heroes of the world are no longer mobile. Were it even possible for the immense joints of the cumbrous fragments of armour to move freely, our heroes would not have the physical strength to shift such weight, especially when attempting to wield a weapon that could double as the hull of an ironclad warship. Even those heroes wearing only cloth armour cannot get far: wrapped in so many ponderous layers they find themselves held rigid like a scarecrow in a clown suit, and can only totter short distances by hopping from one locked-straight leg to the other.

And so the heroes of the world are stuck, fuming and straining with the sweaty, bulging-veined, squashed-dough face of one who is constipated with destructive power, like geriatric Super Saiyans.

Enter the squire and his sack barrow, able to wheel a hero from location to location, you are responsible for manoeuvring your hero into harms way and then, through a complicated series of levers and pulleys, operating your hero’s weapons.

Game features:

  • Start the MMO with a level 1000 Hero of Ultimate Heroism equipped entirely in epic equipment!
  • Level your squire and invest points to improve their skills:
    • Negotiation (Stairs).
    • Avoidance (Gravel Driveways).
    • Dodge (Bollards/Raised Curbs).
    • Curse (Low ceilings).
  • Gain unique and amazing powers!
    • One Wheel Cornering.
    • Super 180 Reverse.
    • Sack Barrow Charge.
    • Fallen Hero Scoop and Scoot.
    • Impersonal Sponge Bath.
  • Find new and exciting equipment for your squire!
    • Anti-hernia Girdle.
    • Head-mounted Periscope.
    • Buy increased capacity for your hero’s Port-A-Bucket[TM] in the Cash Shop, and save yourself the in-game downtime of having to clean poop from off of everything.
  • Upgrade your sack barrow with greater manoeuvrability and lifting capacity, and discover the ultimate upgrade, the Hero Shifter 3000 forklift!
    • Hydraulic and Pneumatic systems for animating your hero’s armour with increased power and response times.
    • Shopping Basket attachment.
    • Magic Tree Air Fresheners are available in the Cash Shop in a variety of scents. Neutralise the odour of your sweaty angry hero for bonuses to diplomacy with the various in-game factions.
    • Your hero comes with various mount points which you can use to personalise them and add further bonuses. Add freshly laundered underpants to their helmet spikes to gain extra righteous fury for use in combat, for example!

Squire Online will be wheeling its way onto your PC in Q4 2011.

Behind the News

In a recent interview with IGN Ray Muzyka of Bioware was asked about the lack of gay relationships for a male Shepard in Mass Effect 2, especially in comparison with Dragon Age: Origins. Muzyka responded by talking about Mass Effect as a third person narrative with a more pre-defined character, as opposed to Dragon Age being a first person narrative in which you define your own character at a much more fundamental level.

Here at Behind the News, though, we’ve fabricated exclusive documents that reveal the true reason a male Shepard can only be romantically involved with female team members: when word emerged of a third person cover-based shooter with strong homoerotic elements, Epic threatened to sue for blatantly copying Gears of War 2.

And now here’s Geoff with the weather…

KiaSA Appeal.

Imagine a world in which you can only see a foot and a half in front of your face. Imagine having to live a life where you are able to hear everything, but unable to pinpoint where each sound is coming from. Imagine that day after day you suffered beatings at the hands of malicious adventurers. This is the daily life of George and Colin, two Dourhand dwarf guards who have worked together for the past four years guarding the ruins of Ost Galumar with others of their kin.

“It’s not a bad life,” says George, talking to a nearby hedge that he’s mistaken for me “it’s just that we aren’t really particularly well qualified for the role of being a guard, what with us not being able to spot intruders.”

“Yes, it can be utterly frustrating to hear combat going on all around you, but not be able to tell which direction it is, or see where the fighting is until it’s too late” Colin explains to an empty space, with his back to the rest of us.

“We’ve taken to tying ourselves together with a bungee cord”, Colin says, tugging absently on the tail of a passing cat whilst trying to demonstrate the bungee cord in question. “So whenever one of us happens to get lucky and spot an enemy, the other one gets dragged along as well”.

“Of course, we’ve had our problems” George earnestly explains to a passing goat, “we once tied one end to a gate post by mistake, and when I ran off to attack some folks, Colin tried to follow but was yanked back and dashed his head quite badly.”

“We laugh about it now, of course” Colin admits “but it’s hard to maintain the guise of serious and intimidating guards when it’s pretty obvious that we’re blissfully unaware of most things going on around us” he goes on to explain, not realising that we left the area some time ago.

Hello, I’m Melmoth Melmothson. I’m here to talk to you today about a charity that has been set up specifically to deal with the plight of NPC guards in MMOs. You encounter NPC guards on a daily basis during your adventures as a hero, but have you ever stopped to consider the unfortunate circumstances under which they are forced to live? Cursed with incredibly short sight and mono-directional hearing, these poor people are expected to stand guard and defend their homes against able bodied adventurers whose only handicap is perhaps a slight propensity for impatience and carelessness. It’s hard enough for guards to have to stand still and wait for an adventurer to introduce themselves before the guard can try to apprehend them, but consider the poor souls who have to patrol around, unable to see their own feet in front of them, let alone a party of twelve adventurers ‘sneaking’ past, armour clanking and weapons clinking, a mere metre or so away. Guide Bots for Guards is a registered charity that aims to bring help to the NPC guards of MMOs everywhere; for just five gold per month, you can provide an NPC guard with a bot of their own. Our bots are trained from early on in their lifecycle to develop AI routines which help NPC guards to see and hear, and also provide sensible pathing information. We also provide training for NPC guards in how to use their bot effectively, and together they form a partnership which benefits both parties. As an added bonus our guide bots are hellishly cute, and thus also serve to attract unwitting PC adventurers into the clutches of their NPC masters.

“It has changed my life” George tells us, while tickling the tummy of his bot, “I’m alerted to adventurers coming from miles away, and I’ve been able to set up ambushes, sneak up behind them, all the sorts of things that I just couldn’t manage before.”

Colin agrees: “Before adventurers would just sneak past me, or fight all of the other guards first, one at a time. Now we work together as a group. If Norbert here hears fighting off in the distance, he alerts me straight away and I can prepare an ambush or rush off and join the fight. We’ve caught so many adventurers, we actually feel as though we’re a defensive force now, and not a bunch of skittles to be mindlessly knocked down as an adventurer passes through”.

George and Colin have had their lives transformed; for just five gold a month you too could be providing a much needed new lease of life to an NPC guard at a ruined castle or dungeon in Azeroth, Middle-earth and many other deprived worlds. Please donate today. Thank you.

Today’s appeal was read by Melmoth Melmothson on behalf of the charity Guide Bots for Guards.

Levelling the playing field.

Could Blizzard compress the ‘levelling’ component of World of Warcraft into the first ten levels?

Let’s face it, the levelling game these days is just a very long-winded way to introduce a set of abilities and talents to a player without swamping them with information. Could a character be given all of their abilities, graduate if you will, in the first ten levels and the player still be expected to play that class with some level of competence?

If so, would it then be possible to have three paths of ‘end game’ content: raiding, PvP and adventuring. Level ten and higher zones could be revamped to present quest and exploration content of varying difficulty for graduated characters and also provide rewards that are equivalent in power to those found in raiding and PvP. Trying a new class would be trivial, as would finding other players to group with for quest content, since you’d all be the same level.

Raiding follows the generic arcade game design: a static playing piece that moves from game level to game level, repeating that level until perfected and then moving on. PvP arenas and battlegrounds follow the generic board game design: static playing pieces and a static board, with random chance and the players’ decisions making each play through unique. Currently WoW’s adventuring game is a legacy of the generic RPG design, where a character gains levels slowly, out-levelling one set of content (some of which may not even have been played through) whilst levelling into range of another set, and subsequently gaining new abilities slowly over a long period of time; this slow bloom is pronounced in WoW, where many classes really only gain some of their more powerful signature abilities in later levels, often feeling underpowered or lifeless before that time.

I think the introduction of the Death Knight class shows us the way, and games like Guild Wars show us that a relatively short levelling component to a game does not preclude players from going out and enjoying general PvE content, doubly impressive when the game’s main focus is PvP. So it is possible to have a much shorter curve of character graduation and still provide PvE content that keeps players interested and adventuring within an MMO, but alas I imagine that it would take an event of cataclysmic proportions for Blizzard to repurpose their game in this way.