Monthly Archives: January 2011

MMO Question Time

David Notdimbleby: Our next question is from Kevin Randomaudiencemember from Slough. Kevin…

Kevin Randomaudiencemember: With the news that the government has spent £2,785,695 on an MMO to promote road safety, does the panel believe this represents value for money, or were there cheaper alternatives?

David Notdimbleby: A £2.8 million game about road safety, value for money Zoso?

Zoso: Of course not, it’s yet another example of flagrant government waste. For about half that amount, £1.5 million, K2 Networks bought APB, surely the perfect game with which to impress on 10-12 year olds the importance of road safety. With minor development work a third faction could be added alongside Criminals and Enforcers: the School Crossing Patrol, or Lollipop Massive as I believe they are known on the streets. Booyakasha. Players of this faction would receive a fluorescent high-visibility jacket to ensure they could easily be seen, a sign saying “Stop: Children” to hold up to allow roads to be crossed safely, and a selection of medium-calibre high velocity rifles and grenade launchers to ensure motorists comply with their instructions. They could teach Jon Pertwee’s classic SPLINK! method for easily remembering how to cross the road:
– Find a Safe place to stop
– Stand on the Pavement near the kerb.
Look all around for traffic, and listen.
If traffic is coming, then let it pass.
– When there is No traffic near, walk straight across the road.
Kill any reckless motorists with a headshot, mofo. Booyakasha.

Smattering of light applause from the audience

David Notdimbleby: APB, a viable alternative Melmoth?

Melmoth: Though my Right Honourable friend is quite correct about the ludicrous waste, there’s absolutely no need to spend even half the amount. Instead of the overcomplicated ‘splink’ foolishness, we should be looking at the most iconic of road safety characters: Green Cross Man. This would allow us to leverage features of existing hero-based MMOs, such as the Mission Architect in City of Heroes, to create a scenario in which the players control the Green Cross Man protecting NPC children who are trying to cross the road. The combat-centric nature of the game might require an extension of the key message, though, to ‘Keep looking and listening all the way across, and pummel anything that moves with ENERGY PUNCH BARRAGE!’

More polite applause

David Notdimbleby: Thank you. And our next question please. Yes.

Anne Otheraudiencemember: With the restructuring of the NHS expected to cost the taxpayer billions, do the panel feel that medical training could be replaced by an MMO that simulates advanced surgery by killing lots of boars?

I do not judge the universe

DC Universe Online seems to have had a fairly quiet launch, though it sounds quite fun and was popular enough to warrant new servers (a cynic might claim a supervillain-esque plot of deliberately launching with slightly low capacity to allow for a “look at all our players!” story, but we’d never stoop so low, not least because Deliberately Underestimating Server Capacity Man would struggle to even pose a challenge to the Legion of Substitute Heroes). As a slightly more concrete measure it did well enough to sneak into this week’s Top 10 Video Games Chart at number ten. The platform breakdown is interesting; 81% of sales were on PS3, 19% on PC, if those figures are similar world-wide I’d be surprised if more MMOGs didn’t try and get a slice of the console action. Maybe the canned XBox 360 versions of Age of Conan and Champions Online will get a dusting off…

As to my Title, I know not yet whether it will be honourable or dishonourable.

I finally got around to grabbing the Kingslayer title on my goblin Shaman last week.

It really didn’t seem all that difficult in the end: all this talk of ten and twenty five player groups being required; AddOns; raid leaders; wipes and repair bills; it seemed a little like overkill to me. I mean, m’colleague and I ran ourselves through the whole thing as a duo – with myself healing on my Shaman and he on his tank – in a few hours one lazy evening without any bother. Actually it all seemed rather dull and a bit of a letdown, nothing like the hardcore experience that other people have been talking about in the blogosphere over the past many months.

Slithy the KingslayerOf course, people never believe such statements, so I had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot of the little fellow with his new title as proof. It seems strange that I’ve finally achieved the current pinnacle of titles with barely any effort on my part; if this content is in fact being heavily nerfed, then perhaps doing so to the point of letting a couple of once-a-week casuals complete it as a duo is a touch overboard.

I’ve got two legs from my hips to the ground

I just picked up via Slashdot an interesting piece from Moving Pixels on irreversible consequences in games, which ties in with something I’d been meaning to write about in Pirates of the Burning Sea.

As the author notes, in the majority of single player games there’s some sort of save or checkpoint mechanism such that a player’s first instinct on encountering in-game disaster is to reload and try again, much like many of us computer-y types are conditioned to hit Ctrl-Z for Undo when faced with possible calamity (“Aaaargh, I didn’t mean to delete that, I meant the bit below, Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z… wait, too far, Ctrl-Y Ctrl-Y[1]“) She also considers styles of game with more final consequences:

The first is the MMO, where the real-time environment should prevent the player from undermining causality. Not being an online gamer, this sounds viable to me in theory, but I’ve watched a little too much Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft over friends’ shoulders to believe that there is a great deal of consequence to those games that cannot be overcome with patience and diligence.

It’s certainly true for WoW, and to a greater or lesser extent for most MMOGs I can think of. You can’t reload if something goes wrong, or pause to go and make a cup of tea, the world moves on regardless. Probably in no small part because of this, though, very few actions have great consequence. You “die”, it’s a bit of setback while you wait to be resurrected or pop back up in some camp or graveyard; even back in the Good/Bad Old Days, when MMOGs were Proper And Not Dumbed Down /Even More Horrific Timesinks Than They Are Now, and you had to run back to your corpse, uphill both ways, naked, in the snow, *and* you lost XP (and were thankful!), it was mostly a question of how much time was needed to get back to your previous state. In some games, generally involving “impact” PvP, your opponents might get to destroy or take your weapons/armour/spaceship/hand towels, making defeat more painful (or victory sweeter), but it’s seldom of massive consequence in the grand scheme of things.

Players can add their own consequences; I don’t believe any major MMOG operates with an official permadeath rulset (i.e. if your character dies, that’s it, they really are bereft of life, resting in peace, have run down the curtain and joined the choir bleedin’ invisible etc.), but players can elect to do so themselves, deleting a character upon death. It certainly sounds like an interesting way of playing, and an antidote to the lackadaisical attitude that can set in when you know it doesn’t *really* matter what you do, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d like to do a lot of. You really have to trust the rest of your party when your life is in their hands (and vice versa)…

Course the sandboxiness-or-otherwise of virtual worlds, and the impact players can have upon them, is a well-worn theme, so it’s not much of a shock that in most MMOGs your character’s actions don’t have massive consequences for the world at large, but it’s perhaps more surprising that there are so few actions that have irreversible consequences for your character after you’ve picked your class, race, sex, name and appearance (and most MMOGs allow you to edit some or all of those later, for an in- or out-of-game cost). The Winter-home festival in Lord of the Rings Online is perhaps a good case study, there is a stage where you can choose to help either the rich or poor, and the game points out in no uncertain terms that you really, truly have to choose one, you won’t be able to return and do the other quest later, underlining how out of the ordinary it is, even though the only result is a different title and set of cosmetic clothing.

Pirates of the Burning Sea gave me an idea of how comparatively trivial consequences can have an impact when they’re irreversible, perhaps demonstrating why they’re so rare in MMOGs. When you buy a ship in PotBS it has a Durability rating, effectively “lives”, the number of times it can be sunk. You can also lose equipment and certain types of cargo each time you’re sunk, so there’s a more tangible risk to combat than in many games, albeit not right up there with something like EVE, you don’t take to a row-boat after your ship is sunk, at the tender mercy of your attackers. The other night a small group of us got a bit too adventurous, taking on a high level NPC in a PvP area, enabling a pair of level 50 Pirate players to sneak in and attack. We had no chance of defeating them and ran away with all speed, and thanks to a couple of heroic sacrifices I managed to get clean away and sail to a safe harbour. I felt a bit guilty until slightly later, when undocking to head back to a less perilous area it turned out they were still lurking and jumped me. I lost the ship, and it’s enhanced sails and guns.

Didn’t bother me at all. Well, all right, there might have been brief cursing (like a sailor, you could say), but the ship still had three or four durability points, and the fittings were commonly sold on the auction house for a few hundred doubloons a time. If you sail into a warzone, you can’t always expect to come out. No, the most devastating thing that happened was in a PvE mission. (Warning: the following paragraphs contains spoilers for the mission “Falling to Pieces”)

A previous evening nobody else from the society was around, so I flipped through my mission journal and found something around the right level, with a little “solo” icon next to it. That suggested it might have a bit of a fun story associated with it, so I toddled along, and sure enough there was much adventure on the high seas chasing down an evil brigand who turned out to have loaded his ship down with gunpowder; flung clear of the blast, I ended up on an island, and had to gather components to construct a rudimentary raft to escape. Very derring-do. Rendezvousing my ship again, I collapsed on its deck, exhausted, sunburnt, wounded but ultimately victorious. Waking up, though, the barber-surgeon had some bad news. My leg had become infected. He’d had to lop it off. Sure enough, my character had a peg leg.

Opening up the character customisation screen, I checked the options. Feet: high top boots (with peg leg), folded boots (with peg leg), fine shoes (with peg leg)… I was stuck with it. I was outraged! It didn’t effect performance as far as I could tell, I was no less effective at sailing or fencing, but my lovely character that I’d taken so much care over the design of! Ruined! Spluttering, I put a long skirt on so at least it wasn’t so obvious, and headed straight for the wiki to see how this monstrous injustice could be righted. Sure enough a reward from the following mission is a wooden leg carved so finely nobody could tell it’s not real (i.e. you get the normal leg/feet options available in character customisation again), so it’s not really an irreversible change, more a way of unlocking additional customisation options, if you ever want to go back to the peg leg.

I’m sure there is more scope for deep consequences, but it’s a tricky balance when you might not like the results. And as the first Slashdot comment points out, “Look, if I wanted my actions to have consequences, I’d be living real life, not playing video games!”

[1] One text editor I used had Ctrl-Y for the possibly-more-traditional “delete line” instead of “redo”, which meant the above scenario went horribly wrong more than once…

I have drunk, and seen the spider.

“The Beleriand damage type is particularly strong against spiders, insects and ancient evil”

So says the tip on one of Lord of the Rings Online’s loading screens.

You have to wonder about the kind of people who invented that damage type.

“Ack! Ethel? Ethel!”

“Yes Agnes?!”

“Fetch me my slippers would you dearest? I’ve got a nasty little blighter running across the floor here that needs a whack.”

“Oh my, what is it?”

“A spider, dear.”

“Beleriand slippers, then?”

“Yes dear, of course my Beleriand slippers, what else am I going to use for a spider? And anyway, I’ll be needing them for the Dark World-eater I found behind the sofa too.”

Thought for the day.

I was amused to find this paragraph wedged in the midst of an article on the BBC website.

Local media suggest the “orcs” were a reference to the goblins in the literature of JRR Tolkien, while the “turantons” may refer to a figure out of World of Warcraft.

As m’colleague rightly pointed out, the local media might want to consider that the “orcs” were a reference to the… orcs, in the literature of Tolkien.

For me, I had to wonder if ‘turantons’ lost something in translation, because I can’t think of anything relevant in World of Warcraft with that name. They may, of course, have meant Tauntaun, but clearly that’s an affront to all nerdkind to mix up such mythical beasts and their origins.

I think the lesson here is that media outlets need to employ a Nerd Correspondent, although I have to say that the media’s current method of taking a guess and then blaming it on World of Warcraft doesn’t seem so terribly far off from the MMO blogging norm; maybe MMO bloggers are journalists after all.

Music (not) to play MMOs by.

If one were to believe my brief survey of fan-made videos posted to YouTube, the Venn diagram of music most often associated with MMOs is a bizarre subset consisting of Death Metal and J-pop; two categories which, if mixed together, would probably produce a soundtrack akin to something normally heard on some of the more imaginative of hentai films.

“Grunt grunt urrrrgh urrrgghh urrrghhh yarrrrrrrrrrrr YARR hurrrrk-n-hurrrrk rarrr”

“Aiii Aiii Aii! Naiii aii aii! Aii! Naii! Aii! Naii! AiieeeEEaiieeee!”

I tend not to listen to other music when playing MMOs, preferring to let the music specifically created for the game massage my immersion, but I will sometimes pop on a favourite appropriate podcast if I know I’m heading in for a bit of a grind session, listening to A Casual Stroll to Mordor‘s excellent easy-going show when I’m slogging my way through a deed or ‘epic’ book content in Lord of the Rings Online, for example.

I do sometimes forget to turn Spotify off however, the music possibly being ambient enough not to register with me for a while, and so I find myself playing away at an MMO only to eventually have something strange and jarring pop onto the random play-list and yank me out of the Immersion Zone – sounds a bit like something from the Outer Limits: “You are now entering… the Immersion Zone! Welcome to a strange reality, where time has no meaning and money mysteriously disappears from your bank account on a monthly basis”.

Last night this happened to me, and it was Christopher Cross’s Ride Like the Wind that struck, right while I was in the middle of a scenario in Warhammer Online; nothing like the soothing nasal crooning of Mr Cross to accompany me having my head caved in by an angry Warrior Priest. I left it running, in part because I didn’t have time to Alt-Tab out and stop the thing, but also because I was perversely enjoying the soothing soft-rock sound jarringly contrasted against the blood-thirsty battles being enacted on my screen. As the scenario continued to drag on, with Order’s long and drawn out victory through attrition crawling its way to an inevitable conclusion, the lyrics began to change in my mind, with “And I’ve got such a long way to go, To make it to the border of Mexico” becoming “And I’ve got such a long way to go, To make it to the end of this scenario”. It actually quite calmed my fraying nerves as I desperately tried to keep my random scenario group healed, a task very much akin to chasing any number of cats around a large house in order to give them all their worming tablets.

I thought back as to whether I’d had any other such moments, and the only one I could recall as striking me as a touch bizarre and having pulled me out of the game momentarily was a case of the Flash Gordon theme tune blasting out of my headphones while I was in the middle of improving my Guardian’s tailoring skill in Lord of the Rings Online. I can’t remember what I was making, gloves or hats or thongs I imagine, or something equally likely to be sold to the vendor at half the price of the materials that she sold me to make it in the first place; either way, there’s nothing like that initial thumping drum crescendo followed by “FLASH! AH! AHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” to get you really excited about darning socks, and at that moment in time those were possibly the most epic foot warmers I had ever knitted.

I’m half tempted to turn game music off in my MMOs now and see what wonders the random play-list can produce, a little bit of Skunk Anansie’s Weak while wandering the leafy paths of Rivendell in LotRO, perhaps? Barbra Streisand’s Woman in Love during a keep siege in Warhammer Online, maybe. Or Monty Python’s rendition of The Liberty Bell during the cutscene at the Battle of the Wrath Gate in WoW. The possibilities are as endless as they are curious.

But now this post is drawing to a close, so I’m off to make a cup of tea.



“AH! AHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

“He’s ma-king a cup of tea!”


Oh stop that.

The existence of the sea means the existence of pirates

Spinks has an excellent write-up of Pirates of the Burning Sea with the pertinent observation, in light of the furore over certain Rift coverage, that “Bloggers have claimed that you need to play an MMO intensively for several months to really get a good feel for it, and while there’s something in that, I also think that within 30 mins or so I should be able to get a sense of what a game is about.

I’ve been sailing around the Caribbean for a month or so since PotBS went free-to-play, though only popping in once or twice a week, which I believe means this piece falls under the “Slightly More Than First Impressions But Not A Full And Comprehensive Review” category, and is thus eligible for the terribly prestigious Pulitzer Prize For The Best Slightly More Than First Impression Of Something But Not Full And Comprehensive Review Of The Year. I’ve reached level 22 so far, just about out of the starting region. The attention to detail and general feeling of the world that Spinks talks about are carried nicely through the tutorials and out into the main world through a series of story quests involving a mysterious map, the Knights Templar, and of course plenty of swordfights and naval engagements on the high seas. These are solo quests, a little like the single player Tortage section at the start of Age of Conan, and rather nifty to potter about in if there’s nothing else much going on.

Group-wise a few of us from the Van Hemlock collective have sallied forth on several Tuesdays as a motley fleet of two to six ships with a wide range of levels, as levels aren’t so much about rigid stratification in PotBS, more like EVE’s skills as a mechanism of gradually making more powerful ships available. Though the smaller ships need to be a bit careful about concentrated enemy fire they still play a useful role in the fight. We’ve tackled a few instanced group missions, but mostly been out and about on the open seas helping the British war effort; not so much in direct PvP as that’s a bit scary, especially in an established game with grizzled veteran pirates on the lookout for prey (though our Flamboyant Admiral Svven seems to have developed a bit of a killer streak, taking on assorted buccaneers (and the French) with some success), but we can still make make a contribution towards destabilising enemy ports by hanging around them and sinking NPCs.

I’m not completely convinced by the swashbuckling, or avatar combat; when boarding an enemy ship it’s you and four of your crew versus the enemy captain and four of his crew (with both of you allowed a number of waves of reinforcements), and there may well be subtleties and nuances that I’m missing but it always seems to rapidly degenerate into a scrum of quite similarly clad figures that you vaguely point yourself towards and mash AoE attacks while shouting “GET ‘IM! Hit him with a bucket, ruffle his hair up, RUN, CHARLIE, RUN! Hit him with a broom, tip him over…” Some PvE missions also involve swashbuckling, which tend to be a series of smaller fights and thus slightly less chaotic; they’re not a bad way of breaking things up, and often quite fun or interesting in story development, but not something I’d want to be doing too much of.

Naval combat is really the heart of the game, and works much better. Unlike the more frenetic swashbuckling you’ve got time to consider your actions, what course to plot taking the wind into account, what sort of ammunition to use (whether to knock out enemy sails, take out the crew or just bash great big holes in the hull), whether to try and board enemy ships or just sink them. Cannon take a while to reload, and all but the very smallest enemy ships can withstand a battering, fights aren’t just a case of “wham, bam, I rather believe I’ve sunk your ship ma’am”. Though our close-formation sailing leaves a little to be desired (“No, *my* left!” *crunch*), a little co-ordination and concentration of fire has led to triumphs over larger fleets of higher level enemy (NPC) ships, including three of us under level 30 taking on a so-called “treasure convoy” of 8 level 50 ships, plundering a couple, and escaping (relatively) unscathed. Our bounty for such a triumph? Some fish. Maybe in hindsight we should’ve attacked them *after* they’d picked up a cargo of gold instead of before…

Another major aspect of the game is the economy, though I’ve only dipped a toe into it by completing the tutorials. There’s a guide to shipbuilding on the PotBS Wiki, and it seems like rather a lot of work quarrying and harvesting the raw materials, hauling them around the Caribbean and turning them into components for the ships. Plenty to get your teeth into if that’s your thing, and if not then you might be able to salvage and buy a few bits and pieces to kit yourself out without going into mass production. One of our Society gathered most of the requirements for a ship but was missing a couple of vital components, prompting a ferocious hunt for… Fine Cheese and Fine Wine. Nobody was entirely sure if they’re important structural elements of a frigate, or if holding a new ship launch party without suitably upmarket refreshments is a faux pas so grievous as to result in immediate expulsion from the Navy, but eventually the comestibles were located and the new ship duly completed.

Not having played the game prior to it becoming free-to-play I’m not sure quite how it’s changed, but I haven’t bought anything at all in the cash shop (or “Treasure Aisle”) yet, and it doesn’t really seem to be a problem so far. Perhaps it’ll be more of an issue towards the end-game; looking at the comparison of membership plans I can see additional dockyard slots perhaps being useful for a few different styles of ship, and more economy slots if that’s something I do start to dabble in, but I wonder if Flying Labs are a smidge too generous towards free players at the moment. Still, that’s hardly a damning indictment of them, and I think Pirates of the Burning Sea is another good example of the benefits of free-to-play. I suspect I’d burn out if focusing heavily on it, so it’s not something I’d be keen to subscribe to long term, but for a bit of a jaunt now and again it works very well and I’ll probably subscribe for a month for the “Premium” status or buy some cash for the in-game shop as a general signalling of approval for what they’re doing.

‘Tis the little rift within the lute.

One of the general themes buzzing around the topic of Rift at the moment is a general consensus that the game is well produced, but offers little over World of Warcraft. But familiarity isn’t necessarily bad in all contexts, and I think this is a mistake many MMO developers have made in the recent past. There hasn’t been a car manufacturer in recent years who has decided to mount the steering wheel on the roof of the car, or moved the steering column controls to the seat, to be operated by the driver’s buttocks. Maybe someone will come up with a revolutionary new way to control a car – most likely coinciding with some leap in technological capability – but in the meantime, incremental adjustments to the familiar is the way that industry moves forward, while style, design and build quality are what attracts customers. As far as I can see, Rift incrementally improves on the familiar, has an attractive style and design, and reports are that the general build quality is of a high standard.

Yes, intuitions, new principles, new ways of seeing this gaming genre are important. But they are not essential to creating an enjoyable new game. For me, Rift offers a new world in which to adventure, explore and exist; if I’m honest with myself, that’s why I got into MMOs in the first place.

I think, as Tipa, that there are two sides to this: there are those people like Tobold who are happiest with the familiar world of Azeroth, and there are people like myself who have tired of that world. For the second sort of person, a new world to explore might be just the ticket.

And although things may feel a little strange and uncomfortable to begin with, the expected structure and function is still satisfied, and the clinging cloying feeling from previous experiences will hopefully begin to subside, while at the same time a newfound enthusiasm and a feeling of fresh, airy, comfortable freedom takes hold. Much like changing the style of your underpants.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it

It’s that time of year, so let’s have a little look back at the predictions for 2010 to see how accurate they were.

1) Star Trek Online will be released on February 2nd (February 5th in the EU). That’s not very far away from the end of 2009 when these predictions are definitely being written, so that date might already be known. I can’t really remember that far back. I mean, I don’t have access to that information just at the moment. It will be reasonably well received, with a metacritic score around 66, and the Extra Super Deluxe Limited Special Platinum Edition will be in particularly high demand due to its inclusion of a life-size anatomically correct action figure of a foxy blue-skinned alien who asks “Can you show me this earth-thing you humans call ‘kiss-ing’, Captain?”

Off to a reasonable start there, the metacritic score prediction is surprisingly spot-on, though the Special Edition was scaled down a bit so it just included an in-game version of the old Enterprise or something. Enough for one point, I reckon.

2) About halfway through the year Blizzard will demand players use their real name on forum posts in order to tap into the power of true names through Old Magic (though the official explanation will be something about accountability). Massed protests will force them to backtrack, including every World of Warcraft player in Minnesota officially changing their name to “Damn You, Blizzard, Damn You To Heck”.

I don’t think anybody else predicted the RealID furore, that’s got to be worth a point, even if Minnesotans weren’t quite so militant.

3) On August 5th, a cave-in will trap a number of miners somewhere in South America. They will all be successfully brought to the surface 69 days later, and massive international interest in the rescue operation will result in great success for an indie game currently in alpha called Mincraft, which news organisations will use to simulate tunnelling operations in great detail (though question marks will be raised over whether an exploding zombie really caused the initial cave-in).

Has to be another point there for the uncanny date and duration, though you might have missed the Minecraft tie-in unless you were paying really close attention to Extremely Low Budget News on one of the obscure satellite TV channels.

4) Payment model of the year will be “Free to Play”. Established titles EverQuest II, Champions Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea will all go free-to-play in the second half of the year, and Turbine will build on the success of Dungeons and Dragons Online by removing the subscription requirement of Lord of the Rings Online in September in North America, though they’ll only remember that Codemasters exist and run the game in Europe around November.

Not the most outlandish of predictions there with the groundwork in place towards the end of 2009, but still worth a point I think.

5) NetDevil’s Lego Universe will be released towards the end of the year, but nobody will notice as they’re all in Minecraft.

Sorry, NetDevil. I’d be tempted to have a look at Lego Universe if there was no subscription, though. Another point makes it five from five so far, let’s see if the last prediction can keep up the 100% record…

6) APB: All Points Bulletin will finally launch at the end of June or beginning of July, and the extended development time will really pay off for Realtime Worlds. Early access for media representatives will result in a tidal wave of overwhelmingly positive reviews a couple of weeks before launch (certainly no ludicrous post-release embargo or anything) and an unprecedented metacritic score of 136 as magazines invent new scores like “seventeen out of ten” and “125%”. Every human on the planet will buy at least two copies as the game massively outsells the entire Call of Duty series and Rockstar’s whole catalogue combined on day one.

Hmm. Call it half a point for being close?