Monthly Archives: March 2010

We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.

And now we take you over to the already underway Easter service by the Reverend Melmoth Melmothson.

… and so this Easter weekend, let us all take time out of our busy gaming lives to remember the important things in life.

Such as that noisome git who mouthed off constantly in your PuG and then stole the drop you’d been trying to get for months, four years ago.

Lord, we give thanks for the holy trinity of Tanker, DPS and Holy Healer, and we ask you to watch over us and those with us, as we fight against tedium and repetitive strain injury in order to gather pixelated items of no spiritual or economical worth. Help us to forgive the, frankly, astonishing number of smacktards that we encounter on a day-to-day basis in our MMO of choice, and forgive us our trespasses against them, for they have been many; although entirely justifiable when you consider that the idiots just keep trying to steal our harvesting nodes while we’re fighting a mob. Holy Father, help us to remember, that you are with us in every time of perplexity to guide and to direct; that you are with us in every time of sorrow to comfort and console; that you are with us in every time of temptation to strengthen and to inspire; that you are with us in every time of loneliness to cheer and befriend; and help us to remember that when one considers how often all those things happen in an MMO, you must be really, really, bloody busy.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.


And now please stand as we sing hymn number four hundred and twenty two – Oh Lord Let This Boar Drop The Quest Item That I Need, Because Truly I Am Bored Of Grinding Now.

Nature hides her secrets because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse

I’m still hooked on the RUSE beta (or the R.U.S.E.™ beta to be technically correct, which may be more trademarkable but does cause problems with online retailers with pernickity search engines that don’t return any matches for just ‘RUSE’). I’ve played as all the factions bar the French (well, you have to draw the line somewhere) to a greater or lesser extent, and come to the conclusion that they’re all fairly balanced, though the British get the short end of the stick a bit; they don’t get much in the way of “super tanks”, with the Matilda II still their sole heavy tank in 1945 and a Prototype base needed even to get a Churchill (with the Germans getting the Maus and the US some strange T95 variant, throw us a freakin’ Centurion, or Black Prince or Tortoise or something). There’s no insane long range artillery (the Italians get a 210mmm unit from their standard base, the US and Germany get long range options from a Prototype bases), the infantry units are underpowered against armour, it doesn’t fit with my play style at all unfortunately. The RAF are quite splendid, but any opponent worth their salt screens units with stacked anti-air guns and/or fighters, rendering air assault futile is most cases.

With my fondness for artillery the US really come to the fore with self-propelled 155mm units, and the same base produces mobile AA units to screen them; an array of tanks up to the Pershing give them decent armour, and the air force is always an option if opponents fail to guard against it properly, the B-17 being available for heavy bombing. Germany are a close second, they don’t have a long range self-propelled unit (distinct lack of a Hummel) but can build a 21cm towed gun and Wirbelwind mobile AA unit, they get tanks up to the King Tiger and even Maus, the air force can upgrade to Me-262s and Ar-234s and generally unleash all sorts of devastation.

At least, they can in 1945. RUSE has three eras, 1939, 1942 and 1945, with units only available (more or less) according to their historical in-service dates, but every online game I’ve joined has been in the 1945 era, until last night. I’d selected Germany, and hadn’t noticed the game I joined was 1939-era until it started and I didn’t have the usual array of building options. Still, never mind, I started my usual fairly cautious approach, securing supplies and gradually expanding a well-defended base, fending off a couple of bombing runs with 88mm flak, but as artillery shells started falling on outlying units I knew I was in trouble; one of the enemy team was playing Russia, who had access to 152mm artillery in 1939 that my poor little 75mm guns couldn’t hope to reach. Time for a switch of tactics; the only available tank I had was the Panzer III, but that ought to be enough to take out the artillery, so churned out five or six and mounted a charge, which was promptly cut to pieces by the KV-1 heavy tanks sitting next to the guns. One of my team-mates had assembled a squadron of light bombers and sent them in, but massed AA guns and a few fighters knocked them out of the sky. It was brutal, there was nothing we could do; the massed attacks took out a few enemy units but at monstrous cost, leaving us only token defences. In hindsight I suppose a historically-correct Blitzkrieg would have been the only option, to sweep in and press the attack before the enemy had a chance to build up his more powerful units. The earlier era certainly puts a very different spin on the game, so I’m going to have a bit of a practise with a few factions in the earlier timeframes and perhaps specifically look out for 1939 or 1942 games for a change.

One slightly disappointing aspect of the game is the ruses themselves, which I’m not finding terribly useful; initial camouflage nets to prevent early air attack and the “blitz” ruse to increase unit speed to get bases and defences in place more quickly are handy, but as games develop and the action spreads out then things get trickier. Maps are divided into a number of sectors, ruses only affect a single sector, and by accident or deeply clever design a lot of fights happen on the border of two or three sectors, so if you’re trying to use a blitz to speed up units, or one of the psychological ruses to inspire your troops or demoralise the enemy, or a spy to uncover enemy units then you only affect a small corner of the fight. I think they’d be more useful if they could be deployed anywhere, affecting a certain radius around them, but perhaps they’ve been implemented the way they have for technical or tactical reasons. Still, it’s a splendid game, and I’ll be interested to see if many changes are made to it as a result of the beta.

There’s still the (potential) matter of DRM, though; being far more multiplayer-centric than something like Assassin’s Creed II then a strong online component of RUSE is entirely sensible, requiring a login to Ubisoft servers for matchmaking and lobby facilities wouldn’t be a problem, and obviously if you’re in a multiplayer game then you’ll need to stay online for it (it’d be nice to be able to reconnect to a game easily if your internet connection glitches, though). The full game sounds like it will include a fairly comprehensive single player campaign and battles as well, and if you need to be always online for that then I’ll have to stick to my guns and make my somewhat pitiful stand, which will make even less of an impression on industry DRM attitudes than my Panzer III rush on a bunch of KV-1s, but still.

Plus if I give it six months it’ll probably be in a Steam sale for a fiver.

Good news. Bad news.

Remember how I wrote about those mobstacles in Lord of the Rings Online’s Moria?

Good news: I’m out Moria now, and into Mirkwood.

Bad news: I’ve found the precise point where Turbine thought “Hey, y’know what we haven’t done in a while? Made half of the mobstacles stealthed so that the players can’t even attempt to avoid them!”

Good news: It means that I won’t be wasting a lot of time trying to avoid mobs.

Bad news: My screen is split into two sparking, buckled halves, with a big fist-sized hole in the middle of it.

Good news: I personally gained another rank in Screen Punching and my Fist of Fury skill was upgraded to the Fist of Fractures skill.

Bad news: The doctor at the hospital says that the fractures will take some time to heal.

Good news: The nurse was hot.

Bad news: I failed my opposed Sneak-A-Peak roll against Mrs Melmoth.

Good news: I was already in a hospital.

Bad news: The doctor tells me that I’m mistaken in thinking that men can re-grow their testicles like a lizard re-grows a lost tail.

Good news: My anger has subsided dramatically ever since I was partially neutered.

Bad news: I have a sudden urge to play Hello Kitty Online.


<Sound of smashed TV screen>

<Sound of ambulance siren>

Reviewlet: Anathem

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a hefty tome, and when the first few pages involve “speelycaptors” and “jeejahs” there’s a worry that the Fictional Rule of Thumb is going to hold true, as the alt-text suggests. The language is there for a reason, though, giving etymological clues and reminders of the similarities and differences between the world of Arbre in the book and our own, so an Arbran “Saunt” has obvious parallels to a Saint, but the derivation of the word is from “Savant”. It also lets Stephenson tackle ideas without getting too bogged down in footnotes he potentially frames as:

“If Person X had never thought up Idea Y and published it in Book Z, then I never could have written this; however, please bear in mind that (a) I have no formal credentials as a philosopher, mathematician, or scientist, and (b) this is a work of fiction, not a peer-reviewed monograph. Accordingly, the manner in which I have used Idea Y here might not stand up to rigorous scrutiny; Person X, if still alive, upon seeing his or her name mentioned in an academic-looking footnote in this context, would, therefore, probably issue a public disclaimer denying all connection with me and the book, and otherwise is rolling over in his or her grave. Dear reader, please know that this footnote serves only to acknowledge an intellectual debt and to give fair credit to Person X; if you really want to understand Idea Y, please buy and read Book Z.”

Reading Anathem is like starting with Google Earth on maximum magnification right on your own back garden (or maybe a nearby monastery, if you have one to hand), and slowly zooming out and out and out, to the town, county, country, continent, further and further still, out into the Google Sky, and finally into the still-in-even-more-beta-than-most-Google-stuff Google Many Earths, where you can navigate through photographs of different realities according to the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Excellent stuff; two thumbs up, in a box with a small flask of hydrocyanic acid and a radioactive substance.

The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.

Let’s have one of those awkward moments. You know the ones: a group of you are at Tom’s house for the evening, you’ve all had a little bit to drink and people are in various states of repose. Colin is passed out with his head under the sofa and Samantha, in her inebriated state, is flirting outrageously with Hector, who, being the only sober one amongst you, lies patiently by the fire with a furrowed brow and a sad look in his eye, twitching his tail nervously every now and again. Then out of nowhere, you don’t know why but it might have something to do with the alcohol, you decide to admit “I just can’t eat mushrooms y’know, because I’ve always got this feeling, deep down, that they really are the homes of the Little Folk”. At which point Tom chokes on his wine and manages to get half a glass full up his nose. A thunk and muffled cry comes from the corner of the room as Colin’s corpse reanimates and his head rebounds with pace off the bottom of the sofa and back on to the floor, and Samantha stares at you unblinkingly with her mouth agape, which Hector takes as his cue to make a dash for it and slinks on his belly, tail wrapped underneath him, out of the door before anyone notices, which you take to be the posture of one who is deeply ashamed to have ever been associated with a person who thinks that mushrooms might house tiny people. “It’s just that you’re all such good friends,” you explain, “and we’re all so comfortable here. I feel that I can tell you these things without fear of mockery or rebuke.” Tom, Samantha and Colin (who is now sitting up with ruffled hair and red face, and glaring with malice at the sofa that assaulted him) turn and give you that pitying, understanding look that friends give to friends when they’re all drunk and one of you has said something that normal society would probably recommend a good psychiatrist for, a look that says “I understand that the bond of our friendship transcends such judgemental acts as having you sectioned under the Mental Health Act, we will just forget that you ever said such a thing, and let’s never talk of this again, except when we’re gossiping with others when you’re not around.” And you feel that these friends of yours are good people, that they understand you and forgive you, and that you could tell these people anything, even your deepest darkest quirks, without fear of reproach. So you do. And they all try to get out of the living room door at the same time, and hurt themselves.

I imagine that we all have our quirks and superstitions when playing games, and MMOs perhaps open themselves up to such imaginings more than other games because we play them for such a long time that the opportunity for nervous irrational beliefs is greatly increased, and because so much of the game’s content is based on the luck of a dice roll, it’s hard not to invoke The Fates when events take an unexpected turn. I was reminded of one of my own quirks last night when running through the Waterworks zone in Lord of the Rings Online, but the zone, or indeed MMO, does not matter, I have done the same thing in all of them at one time or another.

I believe mobs are out to get me.

Not much of a revelation at first glance I grant you, mobs in MMOs are undoubtedly out to get us as adventurers, otherwise combat would be quite dull, akin to hunters who might have travelled to Mauritius and employed all of their art to capture the Dodos that were found there, an art which generally would have involved opening a large hessian sack and waiting for the Dodos to run into it, head first, without complaint. Possibly basting themselves on the way through. No, mobs are out to get *me*, and I’ll be damned if I can avoid these confrontations. I’ll be running towards a destination – in as straight a line as possible whilst trying to avoid the mobstacles placed in the way – and I’ll see an aggressive goblin up ahead. So I veer off to the left such that I’ll pass behind him, outside of his radius of attention. At which point he turns around and starts to wander off to the left on a perfect intercept course with me. I’ll curse my luck under my breath and change course so that I head off to the right, again passing behind him and out of his sight, but because I had veered left previously, and because I want to stay at least partially on course for my intended destination, I don’t move as far to the right as I had done to the left. At which point I imagine the goblin thinks “Tsk, I’ve only gone and left my pipe back where I was, I’ll head back and get it now while there’s no excitement going on” and he turns around and heads back to where he was originally. I’m getting rather close now, and so a wild swerve to the left is required to get past him unnoticed, but I haven’t got much room to work with because I’ve been narrowing the degree to which I can move left and right each time; oh sure, I could stop running, turn a full ninety degrees with ease, and make my way in a wide loop around this mobstacle, but I’m a busy adventurer! I don’t have time for stopping, I must keep running at full pace at all times, forward progress must be made, otherwise I’m wasting valuable time! So I change direction to the left and I judge that if he keeps moving to the right as he is, and I keep moving to the left as I am, then we’ll just miss each other, like a mid-air collision avoided by the narrowest of margins. Of course it’s easier for aircraft, because it’s rare for one aircraft to come to a sudden and complete stop while the other one is trying avoid it. “Oh, you! Here’s the pipe right there in your pocket all the time you numpty” the goblin says, as he comes to a complete standstill in the middle of his return walk, shortly followed by “Oooof…” as an adventurer clatters into him at full tilt, knocking him onto his back before tripping over him themselves and landing with a crash in a heap beside him. “My best pipe! Broken!” he exclaims, and then the adventurer and the goblin have a heated sword-based debate with regards to pipe insurance and compensation claims.

Honestly, I swear they do it on purpose. I would be utterly unsurprised if there wasn’t a code library shared around by MMO companies which was full of tried and tested algorithms that made sure that mobstacles would conveniently patrol into the path of PCs, no matter how hard they tried to avoid it. I’ve even tried to psych them out before now (mad crash as half our readership tries to leave the blog at the same time, and hurt themselves) – I’ve seen the mob make their first move to intercept and I’ve made a motion to swerve wildly in the opposite direction only to cancel it after a few paces, and I swear that it works! They change direction again as I make to swerve and then they get confused because I didn’t go through with it, and their little library of algorithms doesn’t have the fLooksLikeAPsychOutToMe(return Boolean) function implemented, so they just keep going and I carry on my merry way, looking over my shoulder at them and mocking their ineffective ability to intercept me, at which point I run headlong into another mob who I hadn’t seen approaching me head on. So I do the mobstacle marathon, where I run around in a huge string of curving loops, doubling back on myself and such, trying to shake off my attacker without grabbing the attention of any other mobs in the area, and after twenty seconds or so I finally tire my pursuer out and they go back to whatever it was they were doing, and I congratulate myself on a job well done as I run pell-mell into the mob I was trying to avoid in the first place.

So there we have it, one of my little MMO quirks. Anyone else care to share? No? Well then, in that case let me tell you about how I think badgers got their stripes…

RUSE Public Beta

I first found out about R.U.S.E. when looking at what games might be affected by Ubisoft’s new DRM scheme, and a couple of weeks ago Steam popped up a window announcing the availability of a public beta so I thought I might as well take a look.

Starting with the always-online DRMephant in the room, I flipped Steam into offline mode, went to start the beta up and it seemed fine. In the middle of a single player game I yanked out the network cable just to be sure and everything continued quite happily, so I guess the beta is DRM free, which isn’t terribly surprising. Though other Ubisoft games have disappeared from Steam in the UK for unknown reasons that might or might not involve DRM, the RUSE beta is going strong and it’s still available for pre-order, but I’ll be holding off to see what the DRM situation is at launch before committing.

The game itself, though; RUSE is a World War II RTS that allows you to take control of UK, US, French, Italian, German or Russian forces and trundle your infantry, tanks, artillery and aircraft around the place for great justice. Though you produce individually named units (e.g. Matilda, Panzer IV, T-34 or Sherman tanks) RUSE works on a more abstracted strategic level, so a grognard level of knowledge of the armour penetration characteristics of the 75mm M3/L40 gun isn’t needed to work out who’s going to win in a fight. This is reflected really nicely in your view of the battlefield; you can zoom right in to see half-tracks backing up, hooking on your anti-tank guns and driving off to take up position, but as you zoom right out for the widest possible view the map is revealed as a table in a war room, with oversize counters and tokens representing your troops and the best knowledge available of enemy deployments. All it’s missing is a few WAAFs with long sticks shunting the units around.

I started off with a couple of single player battles to get to grips with the controls and interface as there doesn’t seem to be much of an in-game tutorial (there is a link to an online video that promises to explain how to play, but that sounds dangerously like reading an instruction manual and thus clearly out of the question). The single player option of the beta is limited to playing 1v1 on a small map against an Easy AI opponent controlling US forces, who doesn’t offer the greatest of challenges; I hit upon an ingenious strategy of building several armoured units called “tanks” and moving them quite rapidly towards my opponent, in something of a “rush” you might say, and he didn’t have much of an answer to that (such an innovative technique surely deserves a catchy name; I think I might call it the “rapid movement of many armoured vehicles towards the enemy”). With such a direct approach paying dividends, the AI battles aren’t really the best showcase for the titular ruses that distinguish the game from other RTSs; options include disguising your own units, spying on the enemy to reveal his units or orders and deploying decoy bases, none of which are a massive amount of use as you’re bearing down on the enemy base with five Matildas, three A13s and a couple of scout cars, destroying anything in your path with a hail of two pound shells. I used the “decryption” ruse to find out what orders the enemy was giving his troops, and it turned out “explode and burn” was somewhere near the top.

Suitably emboldened by a few glorious triumphs, and to see if ruses played more of a part on a larger map, I thought I’d have a crack at an online battle. It’s been a while since I’ve thrown down a gauntlet to random internet strangers, longer still if discounting MMOG PvP of various levels of seriousness (from “not very” to “slightly”). I’ve certainly never tried an RTS online, for everyone knows cybernetic ninja pirates lie in wait for hapless n00bs, poised to spring into action with a cry of “KEKEKEKEKEKE” and a volley of millimetre-perfect clicks so fast their mouse sounds like a Geiger counter in the presence of H. R. Giger (or radiation, I always forget which one of those they actually detect). Still, with RUSE being in public beta, I figure there can’t be too many lurking 7th Dan Black Belts, and plenty of casually curious blunderers out there.

After a few false starts that jammed up at the “Connecting” phase (it seems pretty sensitive to anything else using your bandwidth, so I shut down iTunes and its podcast downloads for the duration), I wound up in a lobby, hit the “Set Ready” button, and waited… and waited a bit more… and backed out to the main menu and joined another lobby with five players waiting for a 3v3 game, a sixth joined… and quit, someone else joined… and quit, someone else joined… and quit. Eventually I wound up in a four player Free For All match that actually started off, and I did pretty well; possibly because one player dropped early on and the other two were fairly preoccupied with each other, giving me time to build up a mighty air force, establish air superiority with Spitfires, knock out enemy vehicles with Typhoons and finish off the enemy base with Lancaster bombing raids. Future attempts at an air-heavy strategy often foundered on strong anti-air defences, though, so I’ve been broadening my range and trying various nations and strategies. One of my current favourites is to play as Italy, who right off the bat get access to 210mm artillery with a ludicrously long range and 90mm dual AT/AA emplacements; in a 2v2 game my team-mate dropped almost as the game started and I thought I was in for a right tonking, but it turned out that I got control of his base, and more importantly his starting money, enabling me to rush out a bunch of artillery units screened by AA bunkers. The bunkers took care of an attempted paratroop rush, and as the artillery units sat in the middle of my base and bombarded an enemy airfield one opponent surrendered in disgust, rapidly followed by the other.

That battle was a better demonstration of the use of ruses (or lack thereof); if my opponent had used the “camouflage net” option to disguise his base I don’t think my artillery could have targeted it, or a decoy base could have drawn fire. It’s quite hard to really gauge their effect, and I’m not sure they’re a massive genre-defining feature, but at least it gives a bit of a twist to the formula. All in all, I’m rather enjoying it at the moment, though I suspect I won’t buy the full game for two reasons; firstly, on principle, if it’s got the full Ubisoft DRM, and secondly, I suspect that within a few months of launch the supply of casual blunderers will have dried up, replaced by the cybernetic ninja pirates. Until they get distracted by Starcraft II.

The Big Question.

Melmoth: “Good evening, I’m your host Melmoth Melmothson. Tonight on The Big Question, we’re asking ‘The Sith, are they really all bad?‘. So let’s ask our panel of guests to discuss, The Big Question. Zoso Zerberus…”

Zoso: “Yes.”

Melmoth: “Zombie Clement Attlee?”

Zombie Clement Attlee: “Yeeeeeeeesss.”

Melmoth: “Mmm. Mmm. Drunk Hobo Who Hasn’t Heard of Star Wars?”

Drunk Hobo Who Hasn’t Heard of Star Wars: “Yesh.”

Melmoth: “Good point. George Lucas?”

George Lucas: “No.”

Melmoth: “Ah, interesting, we have at least one dissenter it seems. George Lucas, tell us why you think the Sith aren’t entirely the evil fascist world-destroying group of megalomaniacs that were portrayed in the films.”

George Lucas: “I never said they weren’t evil.”

Melmoth: “Yes you did. Just then.”

George Lucas: “No I didn’t, I’ve always maintained that they’re evil. I haven’t changed my mind. You can ask the pointless comedy CGI robot that’s just been added to the show.”

Melmoth: “Pointless Comedy CGI robot, do you corroborate George Lucas’ opinion?”

<Pointless Comedy CGI Robot’s head falls off and a giant spring wobbles about on top of its neck>

Melmoth: “I’m sorry, we seem to be having technical difficulties with Pointless Comedy CGI Robot. Darth Vader, what do you have to say to these allegations, are the Sith evil?”

Darth Vader: “Well, Mel, as a representative of the Sith Empire, I can only say this: I tried to kill my own children, I destroyed planets, killed millions with my bare force powers, and planned to dominate the galaxy all at the behest of a pervy old wrinkly guy in a bath robe.”

Melmoth: “Interesting, I suppose that’s a yes. Darth Malak?”

Darth Malak: “No question, Melmoth, we’re all evil. I mean, I have a tattooed bald head.”

Melmoth: “They don’t come much more evil than that. Darth Sidious?”

Darth Sidious: “My name evokes the word ‘insidious’, what do you think?”

Melmoth: “A yes from Sidious. Darth Maul?”

Darth Maul: “Uh, hello? Bald spiked head? Red and black outfit? Yellow contact lenses?”

Melmoth: “Fair enough so. Darth Dick Cheney?”

Darth Dick Cheney: “I was vice president to George W. Bush you know.”

Melmoth: “Ok, ok. No need to show off, a simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed. So there we have it folks, I think we’ve shown conclusively what everyone already knew anyway. Next week on The Big Question – The Samaritans: Are They Actually Evil Vainglorious Bastards, From A Certain Point Of View?”

Nowhere to run to, baby.

I tend to make notes when something in a game strikes me as worth writing about here on the blog. I have a folder of files filled with one or two lines of hastily typed text, intended to remind my future self of the essence of frustration or amusement – for it is invariably one or the other that causes me to pause for thought – and to allow me to continue playing the game at hand with little interruption, because I imagine there could be little more annoying in an MMO than having one of your party pause every couple of minutes to rattle off a blog post like some sort of roving reporter in a war zone, getting under foot and getting other people killed as they try to report live back to the studio from their scrunched up hiding place behind a wall on the front line, sat amidst a hail of bullets in a puddle of their own fear.

If this were Hollywood there’d be a flashback to my time in Vietnam at this point.

Of course I never went to Vietnam, primarily because I hadn’t been born, so you’ll have to imagine a flashback to the Funtington Junior School bike sheds, where a small boy hid from Tom ‘Fat Head’ Holder the school bully, who apparently objected quite vehemently to the term ‘fat head’. Who knew?

I seem to have digressed slightly. ‘Slightly’ as Ranger 3 and its pilot Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers digressed ‘slightly’ from their registered flight plan.

To recap: I occasionally make notes while I play. I made a note on Saturday night whilst trying to adventure in the depths of Lord of the Rings Online’s Moria. Unfortunately I’m having trouble converting that note into a blog post, primarily because the note is written in a Caps Lock Engaged style with a variety of invented swear words that would have diachronic linguists scrabbling for their language trees. I’m pretty sure ‘wankuntery’ is a new word, at least.

I say ‘trying to adventure’ and that’s the truth of it, because you can’t adventure in Moria, for me it’s a shining beacon of player frustration and obstructive design that is typical of MMOs. It is the highly distilled essence of that fundamental MMO philosophy:

‘If we build it, they will come; so we should probably put as much aggressive random crap in the way as possible, to stop them doing so, or at least drag things out for an extra hour or so of their subscription time’.

Not exactly a concise and convivial motto – some might suggest that it is, in fact, drawn-out, inaccessible and padded with unnecessary content – which makes it all the more apt considering the genre of gaming to which it applies.

Moria is an adventurer’s dream, or should be: it is a multi-level maze of corridors and rooms built through the very foundations of a mountain. It is, as you would expect of LotRO, jaw-droppingly impressive in both scale and substance, where narrow bridges of crumbling stone arch like flamboyant gymnasts across chasms that quickly disappear into infinite blackness like the gaping maw of some unknowable stone beast; where the giant heads of dwarves spout rumbling falls of lava the size of rivers from their rock-hewn mouths; and where tiny cramped corridors open suddenly and unexpectedly into caverns that could yawn open their roofs, swallow Middle Earth whole, and not even feel slightly bloated from the meal. It is a place that you want to roam, where you want to look into every nook and cranny and find out all of the secrets that it hides, but what you end up doing is the least amount of travel possible in order to complete the quests with which you have been tasked.

Everywhere you go in Moria there are mobs. Outside of the dwarf camps you can barely take a step without encountering some aggressive monster, and in many cases literally right outside of the camp, within a few yards of the guards, who have yet to acclimatise to life underground it seems, and therefore have a prowess of observation and an alertness to danger which might struggle to rival that of a blind mole, but only if the mole were dead. Moria is a dangerous place, as it should be, the dwarves are working hard to take it back, but they have only reclaimed a few major outposts, therefore the further you progress through the dark halls towards the exit that leads to the lands of Lórien, the less the influence of the dwarves, and thus the greater the danger.

My frustration stems from a combination of three MMO tropes:

  • Mobs placed everywhere the player wants to go:

    There’s a corridor leading from the Twenty First Hall towards the Second Hall that basically has an orc of some sort every ten yards. They move a little bit around their general placement area, but it’s a narrow corridor so they can’t go too far, and as such you are guaranteed to aggro every single one of them as you travel down that corridor. It’s a perfect line of Pacman pellets, it is so uniform that it’s hard to take it any other way than the developer saying “speed your way through this, you ungrateful content devouring gits”, a feeling compounded by the fact that the only time that this perfect uniformly spaced line of mobs – which runs the length of the corridor – is broken is when an extra mob has been added because there’s a junction with another room and it needs to be filled with something aggressive in order to stop the player from heading that way unobstructed. The advantage is that you can never get lost in Moria because you just need to take some string on a reel, let it drag out behind you, and every ten yards tie it around the foot of an orc. As an added bonus the line of string is so perfectly straight that you can use it in the future to mark out the separate lanes of a complex highway system.

    I dub them mobstacles. Not all mobs are obstacles in this way, only the truly, obviously, frustratingly, tediously, blatantly placed ones, those mobs that can be there for no other reason than to obstruct and hinder the progress of players, are mobstacles.

    And of course most of the quests send you to areas just beyond that corridor. Admittedly once you have a travel point at Orc Watch you can then make use of the game’s goat-based taxi service to obtain convenient passage to another camp entirely unmolested, and then jump off half way along the route where you want to begin your adventure proper. They’re like Red Cross Ambulances in a war zone, for some strange reason both sides seem to agree that, even though war is a hideous all-encompassing nightmare, these particular vehicles are out of bounds to man and God.

    Until you can take a United Nations goat across Moria, though, you need to either fight your way along the corridor to get to the place that you want to be, or you have to risk a gauntlet-like aggro run and hope you can find a safe spot where you can drop aggro and reset before you run out of places to run. Which leads me onto trope the second.

  • Mobs pursue you for miles:

    In an overland setting having a mob give chase for a while is fair enough, an accepted convention, if a little tedious when you just want to go somewhere unmolested. I imagine it to be something akin to being an attractive female walking down a road full of scaffolded buildings with fat hairy men hanging over the side and shouting “Oi, luv, phoar! Eh? Phoar!” while their mates whistle suggestively in the background. So next time you’re being chased across a field by a bear or a wolf or a boar, just imagine them shouting “A’right darling, give us a kiss, eh? Wha-hey! Eh? Phoar!”, it doesn’t entirely solve the fact that you’re being chased by crap animals across a largely deserted field due to a terribly tedious game mechanic that should have been dropped the moment it was conceived, but I find that it helps. Preferably the person who first conceived it should have been dropped. On their head. From the top of tall building.

    So mobs give chase; in LotRO they are quite persistent (you must be a blonde with a short skirt), but there’s generally somewhere that you can run, limp, hobble and crawl your way to that will eventually enable you to be free of their attentions, thus allowing you to return to your normal adventuring schedule. Now transfer this annoying feature into a maze, a very big complicated maze with every path littered with mobs that loiter around doing nothing other than waiting for an adventurer to wander past, at which point they spring in to life and give chase, and you get the following question:

    Where do you run to for safety in a maze full of angry mobs?

    There are several answers, including finding Nirvana Points – those points where you lose the last of your current aggro just before you enter the aggro radius of the next mob on your path – which are rare but occasionally you get lucky, but more often than not you have to fight your way slowly and tediously through a bunch of static annoyances to get to the place where you want to explore or adventure. Which would be fine, if it wasn’t for trope the third.

  • Respawns:

    So you’re exploring a little area that you haven’t been to before, and you’ve fought your way carefully and painfully to a point where you find yourself at a dead end. It’s a common enough occurrence, especially in Moria where the dwarves seem to have built everything in the most convoluted and incomprehensibly inefficient way possible

    “Right, I’ll put a staircase in here then so we can get to the next level up on that ledge.”

    “Well you could do that, but I thought it might be nice if we ran a small zig-zag corridor back and forth along the face of the wall, say ten or twenty times.”

    “Right. Wouldn’t it just be a little more convenient to just, y’know, pop a staircase straight up there? Y’know. ‘Oh no, how do I get up to that next level? Ah! Stairs! One, two, three. Upsy daisy, there we go. Sorted.’ rather than, say, ‘Oh no, how do I get up to that next level? Ah! A winding corridor, twenty seven miles long, which takes me up all of fifteen feet, this shouldn’t take much more than ten minutes or so. Unless the corridor is filled with angry orcs, ha ha, hoo boy, then I could be here for hours!'”

    “I like corridors.”

    “Fair enough so.”

    but it’s not exactly a problem, there wouldn’t be much to exploring if you didn’t find yourself having to backtrack. So you quickly make your way back to the last junction you passed, and you try a different path in order to see what wonders that one holds, you never know, it might even have, rarity of rarities – a staircase.

    I’m kidding of course! What actually happens is that you reach the dead end, turn around to head back and come face-to-face with the mob that you killed all of thirty seconds ago, who starts to stab you with malicious intent. You then fight tooth and nail through all of the mobs that you already killed on the way to the dead end, and just as you see the junction in sight, a patrol that you forgot about having killed not a minute or so ago turns up in the middle of the fight and you have to make a run for it. But you can’t run out because everything ahead of you has respawned, so you run back towards the dead end, where the stuff that you just killed – after having previously killed it – is still dead. You reach the dead end, and see that you’ve shaken off all the aggro except for the patrol who is doggedly determined to cop a feel ‘C’mon luv, just one kiss, eh? Phoar!’, and you defeat him by the narrowest of margins. Then you stand there doubled over, with your hands on your knees, panting and sweat dripping from your brow, trying to recover. At which point you glance up and see the mob that you just killed on the way out of the dead end, after having killed it on the way in to the dead end, is now standing over you spoiling for a fight. Or a kiss. You never find out because you’re already respawning in the graveyard. Thirteen corridors of mobstacles away.

I quit the game in frustration to preserve that ounce of sanity which I still maintained.

It’s a painful experience at the best of times, but having been playing DDO recently – where everything that you kill in a dungeon stays dead, and where the combat is fast paced and frantic – the prospect of facing corridor after corridor of mobstacles in LotRO, with each fight, in comparison to DDO, being like two asthmatic overweight cats trying to secure their own territory by yowling a lot and taking ineffective lazy swipes at each other whenever they manage to build up the energy to move, was too much to contend with.

It’s annoying because, a bit like DRM, it deters the people who would otherwise make good use of the content, who would spend time just wandering the halls and soaking up the atmosphere of such a brilliantly realised underground city, while not hindering in the slightest those players who simply blast through and then complain that there isn’t enough content to keep them, uh… content.

Despite the frustrations, I determined that there’s little point in missing out on it, so after I wrote that little note to myself, I logged back in and resolved to adventure as best I could, I went back to some lower level areas that I had been frustrated away from by mobstacles in the past, and went exploring.

It really is a most beautiful world.

Shame about the mobstacles.

Now I just need to destroy that note before anyone else finds it and has me up before the Inquisition on charges of obscenity and contumeliously reproaching the holy name of the developers.

Thought for the day

Now the increasingly punctuated Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening is out, if they release a DLC pack for it called “Opus” would that be abbreviated “DA: O – A; O”? And would it feature a new party member called Old MacDonald?

Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today

Bioshock 2 received it’s first downloadable content recently, and some gamers were a bit miffed to discover that all they were actually downloading was a small file that unlocks content already on the game disc. I don’t really see how this is different, except in timing, to “launch day DLC” which seems to be becoming more common, such as in recent Bioware titles; in both cases obviously there’s content that *could* have been part of the game itself, but has been split out as DLC to make a bit more money or reduce the appeal of second hand sales (or both). That the “content” itself is already on the main game disc does rub it in slightly, but it’s hardly news that games companies are out to make money. While flipping through old computer magazines I’d found a feature in PC Zone from 1993 looking at game expansions, data disks, and “deluxe versions”, the DLC of their day, which ranged from being worthwhile and involving extensions to rushed-out cash-ins.

Without getting too mired in a socio-economic debate on the nature of capitalism and the benefits of running a games company as an anarcho-syndicalist commune with a rotating executive officer whose decisions are ratified at a special biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of downloadable content but by a two-thirds majority in the case of expansions and sequels, I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that there’s an inherent tension between the desire of a games developer to offer the most magnificent, involving and splendid experience possible to humanity, and the desire of a publisher/executive to roll around in a swimming pool filled with dollar bills and five pound notes rubbing them all over those Special Places. Any time I think it might be slightly harsh to characterise CEOs as moustache-twiddling villains who’d put Mr Burns to shame, you can pretty much rely on that zany funster Bobby Kotick to come out with a line like “of course I want to make a new game peripheral that sucks the marrow out of your very bones and pipes it to a massive central vat from where we can sell it to a dog food company, muahahahahaha! Ha! Ho!”

(The KiaSA Legal Team wish to make it perfectly clear that this is a purely hypothetical statement which Mr Kotick has definitely not made.)


(We’re pretty sure he’s thinking it, though.)

As blockbuster games become more and more complex, requiring larger teams, it’s inevitable that the companies making them also grow, necessitating the business structures around them. The indie scene at least provides something of a counterpoint, with options like XBLA and Flash games offering avenues for smaller teams down to the archetypal “bedroom coder”. For MMOGs, though, the inherent need for infrastructure makes life a bit more difficult; World of Goo was largely created in San Francisco coffee shops on free WiFi, and I’m not sure MMOG players would be appreciative of a server downtime message like “Shop owner a bit cross about us taking up a table all day, the game will be unavailable until we order another couple of lattes and some muffins.”

An obvious example of the tension of profit vs player experience in MMOGs is “free to play” games with cash shops; the publisher wants to make lots of lovely money by selling stuff from the cash shop, so they tell the developer to encourage players to buy items. Make the player travel vast distances, with faster mounts or teleportation options available for cash; make it take forever to gain levels, with XP-boost potions available for cash; make the freely available armour look like a couple of dustbin lids strapped together with the entrails of a boar, with the nice looking stuff available for cash. For this reason, some gamers are vehemently opposed to MMOGs with cash shops, and I can certainly see their point, but as I blogged about with the whole Allods business I don’t think it’s a reason to dismiss all free to play games out of hand. If market forces are working, the pressure to screw every last penny from the player should be counteracted by what players are willing to pay, it’s not like MMOGs are a fundamental requirement for day-to-day life after all, and competitors seeing an opportunity to offer a superior or cheaper product.

What I find slightly puzzling is that some people who are dead-set opposed to free-to-play/cash shop games embrace and indeed champion a game with an initial box purchase and flat rate monthly subscription, as if somehow the Evil Money Grabbing Publisher of a F2P game becomes a benevolent altruist striving for nothing more than the absolute happiness of every player if you give ’em ten quid a month. To keep the money coming in you need to keep the player subscribed, and as per Nick Yee’s classic Virtual Skinner Box essay it’s not too hard to see that in terms of Operant Conditioning rather than Happy Experience Lovely Games For Everyone. With Fun Bobby Kotick in charge, I’m sure he’d fire a few people at Blizzard and introduce a cash shop in WoW if he thought it would make more money, but with a 50% operating margin there’s really no need. They’re still in it for the money, though it might not be quite so obvious in the design.

The payment model can influence elements of a game to a greater or lesser extent, at the end of the day it’s the game itself that matters, whether you like it enough to want to play and potentially pay. Is Grindfest Online a better game when you pay £10 per month to play and have to kill 10,000 Gribblings to level up, or where you can play for free, need to kill 100,000 Gribblings to level up, but you can pay £1 for a potion for a 10x XP boost that lasts for three days? As per my previous post, in defence of cash shops I call Dungeons & Dragons Online Unlimited, m’lud. This might be something of a special case, not having been designed as a free to play game from the beginning, but I’m still finding it really well pitched, having desirable but not essential items available in the shop to balance making Turbine enough money to be worthwhile, but costing me less than the $15/month it would be for a subscription as I dip in and out, generally playing once a week. Mixed price models, especially when including a subscription to effectively apply an upper limit to costs, can be a good thing. Rage against greed and bad design by all means, but only a lunatic would dismiss cash shops out of hand and demand to pay a greater subscription as the only way of getting a better game.