Monthly Archives: May 2010


As fans of the popular televisual entertainment “Wife Swap”, we thought it might be fun to try a similar concept with MMOGs. We couldn’t find anyone who’d swap their wife for a 1 month LotRO timecard, though, so had to settle for a couple of players swapping games instead. This week it’s Ian Jefferson, a committed EVE player, and Jeff Ianson, a long term World of Warcraft player.

Ian’s Diary:
“I’m a Covert Ops specialist in EVE, so I asked Jeff for some advice and he suggested I pilot a Rogue, as they have a cloaking device. Undocking from the Inn in Westfall, I warped to a safe point to start scanning the sector, which in WoW they call ‘looking around’ with your ‘eyes’. Little of consequence seemed to be happening, so I plotted a course across the zone and continued scanning, quickly finding a Gnoll-class ship. Activating my cloaking device I moved closer, but it was obvious the Gnoll was part of a larger fleet, and taking on superior numbers would have been foolish so I backed off.

Continuing to scan the zone I observed a Dwarf-class vessel hitting a rock with a pickaxe, thus suggesting it was a mining ship of some kind, easy pickings for my autocannon (or ‘bow’). As it hit the rock again I decided not to be mean and destroy it right away, instead opening com-channels to issue a ransom demand for a couple of million Isk. The enemy vessel replied “lol”, but this was obviously false bravado, as after hitting the rock one more time it warped away at high speed, clearly terrified. He’d obviously picked up on my lack of warp scramblers, a pity, but a significant triumph nonetheless.

Over the next few hours I scanned the rest of the zone, and finally determined a Defias-class Bandit had strayed a little further from his fleet than he should. Before he could rejoin them, I put on full afterburners and started circling the Bandit at optimal auto-bow-cannon range, getting in several good hits and taking down his shields. It closed in, presumably specced for closer range weapons, so I switched to what they called a ‘sword’ module, and managed to finish it off. I’m not sure where the pod went, I didn’t see it; perhaps it got caught in the explosion. As I started towards the wreck to salvage it, though, another Bandit appeared, so I quickly cloaked and moved away from the area, it had obviously been called in by its ambushed corp-mate. I’d obviously stirred up a right hornet’s nest, with Defias-class Bandits all over the place, and it took three adrenaline-fulled hours of stealthy manoeuvre to escape the area and return to the Inn. One confirmed kill and a miner driven off, though, a pretty successful start I thought.”

Jeff’s Diary:
“I asked Ian whether I was a tank-spaceship, dps-spaceship or healer-spaceship, and he said it didn’t quite work like that and depended on modules or something. LOL! Anyway, I flew around a bit, but I couldn’t see any spaceships with yellow exclamation marks hanging over them, lol, what’s up with that? Who’s supposed to tell you to go and kill ten spaceships or collect five spaceship tusks and that? I posted ‘DPS LF tank+healer’ loads of times on the trade channel but nobody even replied lol what a load of rubbish so I logged out.”

Join us next week as an Alganon player and an Allods player swap games, and don’t even notice!

Reviewlet: Flight of the Conchords

Flight of the Conchords wrap up their European tour at a sold-out Wembley Arena, a slightly surreal venue for the low-key duo. We didn’t catch the first support act, Lawrence Arabia, but got in for Arj Barker who did a great stand-up set, including what he’d learnt about history from games (like the respawning box of grenades in a barn near the D-Day beaches).

The Conchords themselves came out in cardboard box headgear for the stomping techno of Too Many Dicks (On The Dance Floor) and play for over two hours, interspersing songs with banter (“it’s like talking, but more professional… sometimes there might be two songs in a row, sometimes there might be two bits of talking in a row, though you probably won’t notice unless we draw attention to it”). With such a huge venue to fill they need a bit of help, which arrives after a couple of songs in the form of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (travelling section); he’s called Nigel. There are a couple of new songs, including a beautiful tale of wooing a lady in 1353, but most of the set is taken from the albums and TV series; my personal favourite Robots, The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room), Inner City Pressure, Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros (feat. Rhymnoceros and Hiphopopotamus), Demon Woman, We’re Both In Love With A Sexy Lady, Think About It, Hurt Feelings, Albi the Racist Dragon, Business Time, She’s So Hot (Boom), Bus Driver’s Song, Bowie. A request for Prince of Parties is initially rebuffed by Bret (“you should probably go home and listen to that one on CD… we tried it and couldn’t remember the chords”), but Jemaine launches into it, and sure enough stumbles in the chorus. The ramshackle performance is much of the charm of the Conchords, whether absolutely genuine, carefully rehearsed, or most likely a mix of the two like the magnificently ineffective singalong section of Epileptic Dogs. It’s also not best suited to the enormo-shed that is Wembley Arena, but when 12,000 tickets sell out in 20 minutes you can’t argue with demand; even halfway back they’re distant figures on stage, but a couple of big screens mean the subtle nuances of expression during Jenny aren’t completely lost.

The show finishes with an extended slowed down Sugalumps, Arj coming back to deliver his verse, security having to be called on an enthusiastic fan rushing the stage, and some lucky people in the front rows getting a particularly close view of Bret’s complimentary after dinner mints. Absolutely fantastic.

From the KiaSA Catalogue.

KiaSA Industries Ltd, in association with Pisher Frice, is pleased to present this season’s range of MMO-themed infant toys:

Hotbar Number Learner: An interactive keyboard with big friendly light-up keys. Teaches your child the numbers 1 through 9 by lighting up the keys and making them repeatedly press the same numbers over and over and over again.

Lil Questalot – Runabout Edition (Ages 3+): Consisting of two wireless Lil Questalot Interactive NPCs, place them at opposite ends of the house and watch your child enjoy hours of entertainment running back and forth at the behest of the NPCs for no discernable reason!

Lil Questalot – Kill Ten Rats Edition (Ages 2+): Consists of one Lil Questalot Interactive NPC and ten Lil Questalot Ratbots with Shoot’n’Loot action. Each Ratbot comes with its own RFID enabled body part that can be collected and returned to the Lil Questalot NPC. Will you be able to find enough of the right parts to complete the quest? Additional Lil Questalot Ratbot parts sold separately.

Baby’s First Crafting Centre: Turn the handle and craft a plasticine frobnob, then watch the craft-o-meter number increase by one! When you run out of plasticine, mash all your frobnobs back together and start again! Teaches your child the numbers 1 through 475, infinite patience, and the futility of life.

Twist & Turn Puzzle Bag: Try to fit all the pieces into the limited number of slots! Comes with initial set of twenty seven items – animal parts, trinkets, potions, weapons and armour – and one twenty slot Twist & Turn Puzzle Bag. Vendor Trash expansion coming soon!

Impractical Ivan Dress-up Doll: Dress up your Ivan doll with thirty two different kinds of improbably huge and gaudily coloured armour, none of which match! Milly Midriff female version available for girls in both Bikini Porn Star and Slutty Street Worker styles.

KiaSA Surprise Egg: Chocolate egg confectionary with a surprise inside! Have your child open the hollow chocolate egg to find a miniature loot chest inside which is guaranteed to contain a reward that is entirely useless to them – condoms, paracetemol, razor blades, rolling tobacco, and more!

My First Dismount: Plastic ride-on horse mount and interactive Lil Questalot Crapanimals. Place the Crapanimals around the garden and try to avoid them. Infrared sensors will cause My First Dismount to throw your child from its back should it detect a Crapanimal nearby. Hint – place Crapanimals near stairs and other sharp drops to sprain your child’s ankles or knees and simulate slowed movement debuffs!

My Little PvP Pets: Tommy Teabag, Gerty Ganker, Frankie Foulmouth, Amy Aimbot & many more!

My First MMO Transport: Play set includes track, station and motorised boat. Place the boat on the track and your character at the station and wait for the transport to arrive! (Average time to complete one circuit – four hours thirty seven minutes).

Angry Bear Kiting Kite: A large durable kite with Angry Bear image printed on both sides. Tie the string of your Angry Bear Kite to the kiting belt provided and attempt to run away! Turn around in amazement to see that the Angry Bear is still following you!

Little MMO Gold Farm play set: Features fully poseable gold farming bots, each with their own unique battle cry:
“Pleasing to mate us, we sell your face gold with a flatulent smile!”
“Sorry to be disturbing!”
“Excuse, you want buy my shiny metal assets?!”
And many more!

Sweet Dreams Tanking mobile: Send your child to sleep and teach them about tanking at the same time with this multi-part motorised rotating mobile consisting of mobs chasing after healers and DPS. Plays soothing lullabies as well as screams of “HELP MEH” and “U SUK TANK LOL” when your child waves their hands near the mobs as they circle past.

Mighty Morphin MMO.

I was flicking through Saturday morning kids TV when I saw a show that I considered a contender for Tipa’s IPs that should be MMOs series, but despite Power Rangers being an incredibly popular show, I quickly realised that several problems would present themselves with an MMO conversion, for a start you’d have the age old problem of trying to form a group to attack the big man-in-a-rubber-suit boss mobs in the various dungeons:

“Looking for Right Leg of Battle Mode Dino Megazord, rest of body formed and ready to go, PST…”

And even if you did manage to find a balanced team with all the classes required to form yourself a Megazord, the standard MMO PuG problems would be amplified by the need to cooperate as one cohesive entity:

Left Arm: “We need to go this way to do my class quest.”

<Battle Mode Dino Megazord points into the distance>

Right Leg: “We’re not doing your quest, we’re doing the main boss only.”

<Battle Mode Dino Megazord’s Left Arm begins disconnect sequence>

Head: “As group leader I say we should help Left Arm to do their quest.”

Right Leg: “No way!”

<Battle Mode Dino Megazord kicks itself in the head>

An arrow for the heart like a sweet voice

After some pondering on voice and identity in games, this week’s Sunday Papers on Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a link to Media Molecule’s Kenny Young talking about voice, principally in Dragon Age: Origins, and a comment there points to a Guardian Gamesblog, also on voice. Both posts mention The Old Republic, including pointing out that starting a trailer with Alec Guinness is perhaps setting the bar a *smidge* high. Interesting stuff.

It’s all about replicating a kind of stodgy form that already exists.

In one of the more curious instances of WTF? that I’ve come across in MMO design decisions, I’m currently playing a game where the character creator is absolutely spot on: a pause button to stop your character flailing all over the place while you’re trying to focus on them; an in-depth and varied set of options that actually let you create attractive characters, rather than something like EQ2’s fifty seven sliders to change the size of your ear lobes, but none to correct for the fact that you look like a boss-eyed waxwork from Madame Tussauds™ that has been accidentally left out in the sun; and further customisations once you’re in the game that allow you to create characters with a level of uniqueness that makes City of Heroes’ characters look like they were dressed by the Cub Scouts.

And then, when you get into the game proper, your character looks absolutely nothing like what you created because the game engine couldn’t possibly render such detail, but the translation from one to the other is not just a slightly blurred replication, as though it had been run through an ageing photocopier twenty or so times, no, it looks like someone took a mold of your perfect character and then used the mold itself to form them. The outside part.

It’s like looking at your character reflected in a puddle of jelly.

So what you’re left with is a character creator that is amazing, but has nothing to do with the character you will play in-game, which means that you have no real way of controlling how your character will look for ninety nine percent of the time that you’re interacting with them. It’s like buying a Rolls-Royce only to find out when you get it home that it’s actually a number of Rolls-Royce-shaped boxes, glued together and suspended across the back of an asthmatic cow.

It seems like MMO developers create their games themselves as though they were making a character in an MMO, as if they feel that there is a fixed set of points that one can spend on creating an MMO, and after that one has to stop. “Ah, now, we’ve spent lots of points in Good Ideas For Character Creation so we haven’t got any points left to spend on Making Sensible In-game Avatars, which is a shame”. Perhaps it is the ultimate point system – cold hard cash – which controls such things, but really, when we said we wanted an amazing character creation tool, we didn’t really mean ‘just an amazing character creation tool’, there was a sort of implied requirement that the output of said character creation was translated faithfully into the game world.

But what’s the point in having a fabulous character creator that doesn’t control how your character looks within the actual game?

For the Sin.

The following excerpt is taken from For the Win by Cory Doctorow, published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. You can download the novel for yourself here.

Once, when he’d been working on his Masters, he’d participated in a study for a pal in the economics department. They’d locked twenty five grad students into a room and given each of them a poker chip. “You can do whatever you want with those chips,” the experimenter had said. “But you might want to hang onto them. Every hour, on the hour, I’m going to unlock this door and give you twenty dollars for each poker chip you’re holding. I’ll do this eight times, for the next eight hours. Then I’ll unlock the door for a final time and you can go home and your poker chips will be worthless — though you’ll be able to keep all the money you’ve acquired over the course of the experiment.”

He’d snorted and rolled his eyes at the other grad students, who were mostly doing the same. It was going to be a loooong eight hours. After all, everyone knew what the value of the poker chips were: $160 in the first hour, $140 in the next, $120 in the next and so on. What would be the point of trading a poker chip to anyone else for anything less than it was worth?

For the first hour, they all sat around and griped about how boring it all was. Then, the experimenter walked back into the room with a tray of sandwiches and 25 $20 bills. “Poker chips, please,” he said, and they dutifully held out their chips, and one by one, each received a crisp new $20 bill.

“One down, seven to go,” someone said, once the experimenter had left. The sandwiches were largely untouched. They waited. They flirted in a bored way, or made small talk. The hour ticked past.

Then, at 55 minutes past the hour, one guy, a real joker with red hair and mischievous freckles, got out of the beat-up old orange sofa turned to the prettiest girl in the room, a lovely Chinese girl with short hair and homemade clothes that reminded Connor of Jenny’s fashion, and said, “Rent me your poker chip for five minutes? I’ll pay you $20.”

That cracked the entire room up. It was the perfect demonstration of the absurdity of sitting around, waiting for the $20 hour. The Chinese girl laughed, too, and they solemnly traded. In came the grad student, five minutes later, with another wad of twenties and a cooler filled with smoothies in tetrapaks. “Poker chips, please,” he said, and the joker held up his two chips. They all grinned at one another, like they’d gotten one over on the student, and he grinned a little too and handed two twenties to the redhead. The Chinese girl held up her extra twenty, showing that she had the same as everyone else. Once he’d gone, Red gave her back her chip. She pocketed it and went back to sitting in one of the dusty old armchairs.

They drank their smoothies. There were murmured conversations, and it seemed like a lot of people were trading their chips back and forth. Connor laughed to see this, and he wasn’t the only one, but it was all in fun. Twenty dollars was the going rate for an hour’s rental, after all — the exactly and perfectly rational sum.

“Give me your poker-chip for 20 minutes for $5?” The asker was at the young end of the room, about 22, with a soft, cultured southern accent. She was also very pretty. He checked the clock on the wall: “It’s only half past,” he said. “What’s the point?”

She grinned at him. “You’ll see.”

A five dollar bill was produced and the poker-chip left his custody. The pretty southern girl talked with another girl, and after a moment, $10 traded hands, rather conspicuously. “Hey,” he began, but the southern girl tipped him a wink, and he fell silent.

Anxiously, he watched the clock, waiting for the 20 minutes to tick past. “I need the chip back,” he said, to the southern girl.

She shrugged. “You need to talk to her,” she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, then she ostentatiously pulled a paperback novel — *The Fountainhead* — out of her backpack and buried her nose in it. He felt a complicated emotion: he wanted to laugh, and he wanted to shout at the girl. He chose laughter, conscious of all the people watching him, and approached the other girl, who was tall and solidly built, with a no-nonsense look that went perfectly with her no-nonsense clothes and haircut.

“Yes?” she said, when he approached her.

“You’ve got my chip,” he said.

“No,” she said. “I do not.”

“But the chip she sold you, I’d only rented it to her.”

“You need to take it up with her,” the girl who had his chip said.

“But it’s my chip,” he said. “It wasn’t hers to sell to you.” He didn’t want to say, *I’m also pretty intimidated by anyone who has the gall to pull a stunt like that.* Was it his imagination, or was the southern girl smiling to herself, a smug little smile?

“Not my problem, I’m afraid,” she said. “Too bad.”

Now *everyone* was watching very closely and he felt himself blushing, losing his cool. He swallowed and tried to put on a convincing smile. “Yeah, I guess I really should be more careful who I trust. Will you sell me my chip?”

“My chip,” she said, flipping it in the air. He was tempted to try and grab it out of the air, but that might have led to a wrestling match right here, in front of everyone. How embarrassing!

“Yeah,” he said. “Your chip.”

“OK,” she said. “$15.”

“Deal,” he said, thinking, *I’ve already earned $45 here, I can afford to let go of $15.*

“In seven minutes,*” she said. He looked at the clock: it was 11:54. In seven minutes, she’d have gotten his $20. Correction: *her* $20.

“That’s not fair,” he said.

She raised one eyebrow at him, hoisting it so high it seemed like it’d touch her hairline. “Oh really? I think that this chip is worth $120. $15 seems like a bargain to you.”

“I’ll give you $20,” the redhead said.

“$25,” said someone else, laughing.

“Fine, fine,” Connor said, hastily, now blushing so hard he actually felt light-headed. “$15.”

“Too late,” she said. “The price is now $25.”

He heard the room chuckle, felt it preparing to holler out a new price — $40? $60? — and he quickly snapped, “$25” and dug out his wallet.

The girl took his money — how did he know she would give him the chip? He felt like an idiot as soon as it had left his hand — and then the experimenter came in. “Lunch!” he called out, wheeling in a cart laden with boxed salads, vegetarian sushi, and a couple buckets of fried chicken. “Poker chips!” The twenties were handed around.

The girl with his money spent an inordinate amount of time picking out her lunch, then, finally, turned to him with a look of fake surprise, and said, “Oh right, here,” and handed him his chip. The guy with the red hair snickered.

Well, that was the beginning of the game, the thing that turned the next five hours into one of the most intense, emotional experiences he’d ever taken part in. Players formed buying factions, bought out other players, pooled their wealth. Someone changed the wall clock, sneakily, and then they all spent 30 minutes arguing about who’s watch or phone was more accurate, until the researcher came back in with a handful of twenties.

In the sixth hour of the experiment, Connor suddenly realized that he was in the minority, an outlier among two great factions: one of which controlled nearly all the poker chips, the other of which controlled nearly all the cash. And there was only two hours left, which meant that his single chip was worth $40.

And something began to gnaw at his belly. Fear. Envy. Panic. The certainty that, when the experiment ended, he’d be the only poor one, the only one without a huge wad of cash. The savvy traders around them had somehow worked themselves into positions of power and wealth, while he’d been made tentative by his bad early experience and had stood pat while everyone else created the market.

So he set out to buy more chips. Or to sell his chip. He didn’t care which — he just wanted to be rich.

He wasn’t the only one: after the seventh hour, the entire marketplace erupted in a fury of buying and selling, which made *no damned sense* because now, *now* the chips were all worth exactly $20 each, and in just a few minutes, they’d be absolutely worthless. He kept telling himself this, but he also found himself bidding, harder and harder, for chips. Luckily, he wasn’t the most frightened person in the room. That turned out to be the redhead, who went after chips like a crackhead chasing a rock, losing all the casual cool he’d started with and chasing chips with money, IOUs.

Here’s the thing, cash should have been *king*. The cash would still be worth something in an hour. The poker chips were like soap bubbles, about to pop. But those holding the chips were the kings and queens of the game, of the market. In seven short hours, they’d been conditioned to think of the chips as ATMs that spat out twenties, and even though their rational minds knew better, their hearts were all telling them to corner the chip.

At 4:53, seven minutes before his chip would have its final payout, he sold it to the Fountainhead lady for $35, smirking at her until she turned around and sold it to the redhead for $50. The researcher came into the room, handed out his twenties, thanked them for their time, and sent them on their way.

No one met anyone else’s eye as they departed. No one offered anyone else a phone number or email address or IM. It was as if they’d all just done something they were ashamed of, like they’d all taken part in a mob beating or a witch-burning, and now they just wanted to get away. Far away.

For years, Connor had puzzled over the mania that had seized that room full of otherwise sane people, that had found a home in his own heart, had driven him like an addiction. What had brought him to that shameful place?

Now, as he watched the value of his virtual assets climb and climb and climb, climb higher than his Equations predicted, higher than any sane person should be willing to spend on them, he *understood*.

The emotion that had driven them in that experimenter’s lab, that was driving the unseen bidders around the world: it wasn’t greed.

It was *envy*.

Greed was predictable: if one slice of pizza is good, it makes sense that your intuition will tell you that five or ten slices would be even better.

But envy wasn’t about what was good: it was about what someone else thought was good. It was the devil who whispered in your ear about your neighbor’s car, his salary, his clothes, his girlfriend — better than yours, more expensive than yours, more beautiful than yours. It was the dagger through your heart that could drive you from happiness to misery in a second without changing a single thing about your circumstances. It could turn your perfect life into a perfect mess, just by comparing it to someone who had more/better/prettier.

Envy is what drove that flurry of buying and selling in the lab. The redhead, writing IOUs and emptying his wallet: he’d been driven by the fear that he was missing out on what the rest of them were getting. Connor had sold his chip in the last hour because everyone else seemed to have gotten rich selling theirs. He could have kept his chip to himself for eight hours and walked out $160 richer, and used the time to study, or snooze, or do yoga in the back. But he’d felt that siren call: *Someone else is getting rich, why aren’t you?*

And now the markets were running and *everything* was shooting up in value: his collection of red oxtails (useful in the preparation of the Revelations spell in Endtimes) should have been selling at $4.21 each. He’d bought them for $2.10 each. They were presently priced at *$14.51 each*.

It was insane.

Blizzard have shown that an Envy Store is a viable cash generating mechanism.

It seems that Sony have decided to follow suit.

They were envious of Blizzard’s Envy Store, perhaps?

Hope warps judgment in council, but quickens energy in action.

News that CCP has promoted its Council of Stellar Management – a group of elected player representatives – to a department within the company that has as much influence on development projects as does Marketing, Accounting and Publicity, was followed shortly afterwards by an announcement that the development team had begun immediate work on a new project to re-skin all craft flown in Empire space into giant teddy bears with hearts painted on their chests.

Blizzard responded to the revolutionary development in EVE Online by creating its own player elected council for World of Warcraft. Reports so far indicate that the new department has had a positive boost on developer productivity, with developers doubling output under a barrage of “GO GO GO!”s and “COME ON HURRY UP”s, and the threat of being kicked out of the building should they not produce content fast enough.

Reports that the development team have started work on a giant gnomish mechanical flying penis mount that shoots a deadly shower of golden fire at anyone with a gear score below 6000 before alighting on them with its huge hairy balloon-like rear landing gear, are unfounded at this time.

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

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice

A few weeks back I picked up the complete Rockstar bundle from Steam; I’d had half an eye on Episodes From Liberty City anyway, and when they bundled in everything else ever for a few more quid I could hardly say no (“Zoso succumbs to Steam bundle sale shocker!”). With Europe conquered in Napoleon: Total War, I moved on to EFLC, starting chronologically with The Lost And Damned.

I’ve previously blogged about how the Grand Theft Auto games are “free-form but structured“; though they’re “open world”, allowing you to wander around the city nabbing nice looking cars, buying peanuts and poisoning pigeons in the park, there’s also the option of a generally linear plot moving you through the game. Within that plot you play a very fixed character; talking about story and narrative on the Van Hemlock podcast I mentioned that Bioware had discussed Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 in terms of first-person and third-person (in connection with the different romance options in the two games):

“Here’s how the games are different: Dragon Age is a first person narrative, where you’re taking on an origin and a role, and you are that character at a fundamental level. It’s fundamentally about defining your character, including those kinds of concepts. In Mass Effect it’s more a third-person narrative, where you have a pre-defined character who is who he is, or she is. But it’s not a wide-open choice matrix. It’s more choice on a tactical level with a pre-defined character. So they’re different types of narratives, and that’s intentional.”

As per that quote, the choices in Mass Effect 2 aren’t wide open, it often boils down to “Good Shepard” or “Bad Shepard” (or maybe “Ambivalent Shepard”, or in Jon’s case “Generally Good But If You Will Insist On Standing In Front Of That Plate Glass Window I’m Going To Have To Kick You Through It Because It’s Going To Look Awesome Shepard”), but they’re choices nonetheless, principally through dialogue trees. There was some fairly vigorous debate about whether Mass Effect 2 is an RPG at all, what with some elements being either “streamlined” or “dumbed down” depending on your point of view (“No inventory management? You can’t have an RPG without inventory management!”), for me the choices you can make are one of the key aspects of an RPG.

GTAIV doesn’t have dialogue trees. Sometimes you have a choice of different contacts to visit for different missions, very occasionally you can decide if someone lives or dies at the end of a mission (though I don’t think the result massively affect the overall plot either way), but the story is told through cutscenes where you watch “yourself” with no direct control. It simplifies the structure of the game greatly, essentially into a film script where the player takes over for the gunfights and car chases instead of having to plot a flowchart from Dimension Z covering all the possibilities. That’s a gross oversimplification, a film script being tricky enough, and ignoring the massive effort that goes into making Liberty City a living, breathing environment down to the jingles on the radio stations, but in purely story terms it’s fairly linear. In the original GTAIII “you” were a nameless mute, more of a cipher for the player, but subsequent instalments have named, voiced lead characters. When it works, it’s like a good film (or if not exactly a good film, at least a fun one). It’s important that you identify with, or at least care about, the lead character, though, what with it being “you” and all, and that’s where I’m struggling with The Lost And Damned. You play Johnny, Vice President of the titular Lost Motorcycle Club, and so far Johnny appears to be a charmless tossbag whose primary redeeming feature is that he’s not quite as much of a tossbag as the rest of the gang. Obviously none of the protagonists of the GTA series have been particularly nice, and if you’ve played through GTAIII, Vice City, San Andreas and GTAIV then as well as nicking cars by the container-ship load you’ll have killed more people than epidemic typhus, pulled bank and casino heists, run drugs and possibly (with the right melee weapon selection) beaten people to death with a large purple dildo. It’s not a moral thing, then, but somehow the previous games made me care for the lead characters, whereas the cutscenes in The Lost And Damned so far have mostly consisted of irritating bickering, so though the underlying gameplay is just as good, I’m not really feeling the urge to play through it. I think I might start The Ballad Of Gay Tony instead, reviews suggest it’s a bit more fun.

The difference between the primary way GTAIV and Mass Effect 2 tell stories, cutscenes vs player conversation choices, made me wonder how involving Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic will be compared to existing quest-based MMOGs. It’s quite possible to treat GTA’s cutscenes with the deference and respect typically shown to MMO quest text: someone double crossed someone, blah blah blah, whatever, hit space to skip, look at the HUD to find out what you’re supposed to be doing. By the same token it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine GTA-style cutscenes in place of a block of MMOG quest text (EQ2 already has voice for some (all?) questgivers, City of Villains actually introduced a few cutscenes, albeit in-mission rather than for the briefing); you run up to a mine foreman, he paces up and down explaining his kobold infestation problems, asks if you’ll help, your character nods (or shakes their head and performs the universal mime for “I’m sorry, but my quest log is full”). The Old Republic, with conversation choices, poses interesting issues in a MMOG context; logistically, as Melmoth pondered a while back, and in your identification with your character. I can’t think of a current MMOG where the NPCs really matter, you define yourself in terms of player interaction, whether in a roleplaying sense or just your function in a group, by accomplishments; maybe you’re a member of one in-game faction as opposed to another (Aldor or Scryer in WoW, Silver Flame or Emerald Claw in DDO) but except in very rare cases the primary deciding factor is who gives out the phattest lewts, not which most closely aligns to your beliefs. Age of Conan had a bit of a crack with the single player night time version of Tortage, but that was a fairly short linear segment with minor variations depending on your class. In The Old Republic it looks like you’ll be picking convesation options throughout, and with players as well as NPCs being voiced “you” will be saying the lines; if done with normal Bioware high quality it should make you feel like you’re more involved in the world than Random Player #572 pitching up in front of an NPC who gives the same old “kill ten kobolds” speech, but you’ll also be constrained to the lines that Bioware have written and recorded, which might not quite align with the way you see yourself.

Even if it does prove successful I’m not sure too many other studios have Bioware’s resources to write and record eighty kersquillion lines of dialogue, so I can’t foresee a rash of voice-heavy conversation-choice MMOGs, unless speech synthesis technology advances to the point that we can do away with these puny hu-mans for recording. Or maybe there’ll just be a rash of games set in The Year 2000

“Can’t we just talk to the humans? With a little understanding we could make things better. Can’t we just talk to the humans and work together now?”
“No. Because they are dead. Binary solo!