Monthly Archives: June 2011

Thought for the day

From Massively, news that players should expect “around 200 hours of core gameplay per class” in SWTOR.

Say it’s 12 seconds on average to kill a rat, 5 RPM (rats per minute), times 60, times 200… I reckon SWTOR will have to ship with *at least* 60,000 rats.

Space rats, that is. With lightsabres and this and that and shit.

Value the acorn as much as the oak.

So I’ve spent the past few days in Lord of the Rings Online getting wood. Collecting wood, even. I haven’t been getting wood, I’ve been collecting wood. Collecting actual wood, well not actual wood, virtual wood, just not euphemistic wood (actual or virtual), because that would be weird and messy.

I’m not usually one for crafting, but I find myself of a completionist mindset with respect to my Warden, possessed of a sudden desire to fill in all the blanks, like one of those sticker books we used to have at school as kids, where we’d buy packets of stickers at the weekend and take any repeated ones in to school to swap with other kids for those stickers we still needed. There’d always be this intense frenzy of dealing in the school playground at lunchtime, like the floor of a stock exchange, as fifty miniature Gordon Gekkos desperately attempted to trade for the rare missing stickers they needed to complete their collection. Once you’d completed your sticker book you would, of course, bring it in to school and show it off for a day, before discarding it indolently to the bottom of a cupboard, never to be opened again. It was a curious craze which was never about the actual stickers or the book, but about the status of having reached The Completion Event. Often the books would have informative text that went beneath each sticker, telling you all about the footballer, or dinosaur, or doll on display, but many kids never read that text; most kids barely even registered the picture on the stickers, generally storing just enough information to instantly recognise it as one they still needed, so that they could quickly order a halt to the progress of the child standing opposite them, who was rifling through a deck of swaps with the alarming dexterity and speed of a Las Vegas croupier. This probably saved a lot of children from being mentally scarred for life back in my day when Garbage Pail Kids was one of the more popular brands, an album of images that my subconscious identifies as being part of the set of stickers I used to collect, but which my conscious mind looks on with bemused revulsion as I marvel at the grotesque carnival of imagery that I used to merrily deal with as a child.

Thank goodness we’ve all grown up and those crazy days are gone: of frantically accruing pointless and essentially worthless objects for no other reason than to impress our peers or to sate some genetically hard-wired hunter-gatherer instinct, all the while paying through the nose for the privilege.

Where was I? Ah yes, I was attempting to regale you with a tale of frantic accruement of non-euphemistic virtual wood in LotRO. Gathering is definitely one of those many tasks in an MMO where the reward and pleasure is found in The Completion Event rather than the task itself. It’s the danger many MMOs run with regard to content, where the players become focused only on the achievement of completing the task, rather than enjoyment of the task itself; sometimes this is because the task itself is dull, such as having to gather resources outside of the incidental collection that occurs as part of normal questing, and sometimes it’s because the players have optimised the enjoyment out of the task in order to maximise their reward, generally by minimising their time to the next completion event. That’s why, in part, the first ten levels of any MMO are so compelling and enjoyable even when the game itself isn’t new to the player, because completion events are fired in rapid succession into the pleasure centre of the player’s brain – it’s that hit of crack cocaine when the body has a well developed tolerance to the powder from years of abuse. Much like swapping stickers at school, there is still pleasure to be had in hunting the completion event, that lip-licking anticipation and dry-mouthed focus on the chase as the time spent grinding out the achievement draws to a close, but the actual task itself was never really designed with entertainment in mind.

Of course the most fun to be had with collecting stickers was buying the official packets from the shops, tearing them open and savouring the unforgettable smell of fresh print, forcing the token stick of gum into the only small recess in your bulging cheeks not already packed with sticky pink goo, then sorting through the new stickers, placing them in piles of ‘needs’ and ‘swaps’, before slapping the new stickers haphazardly into their numbered slots in your collection, and then totalling the empty slots and seeing how much closer you were to your goal. Swapping was often tedious, and involved interaction with characters whom you might otherwise try to avoid, but the only alternative was to pay money for more packets of stickers, where the odds would increasingly grow against you finding the stickers you needed as your collection grew in size. Some kids would attempt this –with parents obviously willing to fund such an approach– and you would see them walking around with stacks of unwanted stickers taller than they were, still searching, however, for those one or two cards that had eluded their purchasing power.

So I’m back to collecting wood, listening to podcasts and generally distracting myself and finding ways to entertain myself while I do it, the goal is worthwhile, but in-between listening to Mock the Week, The Now Show and The Infinite Monkey Cage, I can’t help but wonder if some of the elements of these games that we play could perhaps be designed to be more entertaining themselves, rather than a means to an end. Then again, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to go to the shop and buy another packet of stickers if swapping them was made fun in its own right.

Free to pay to play to win

I believe Oscar Wilde was talking about EVE when he said “Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching, ain’t about the ba-bling, ba-bling, wanna make the world dance, forget about the price tag”. Actually, on reflection I’m not sure Wilde would have tried to rhyme “dance” with “tag”, maybe it was Mark Twain, but the sentiment[1] seems quite popular amongst many EVE players at the moment thanks to what Spinks rather splendidly (and definitively) titles Monocalypse Now.

Though the high price cosmetic items are drawing the headlines, more of a worry for the unmonocled mutineers is that they represent the thin end of a macrotransaction wedge ($68 is hardly “micro”), not unreasonably in the face of a leaked internal memo/newsletter that says “high price cosmetic items are the thin end of a macrotransaction wedge!” (that’s paraphrased, but not a massive amount from extracts like “we want to provide a steady stream of digestible goods and services over a long period of time”). The possibility of more directly gameplay-affecting items going on sale in the future raises the dread spectre of “pay to win”, a phrase being bandied around a lot recently in connection with games moving to free to play models. How do you “win” a MMOG, though? By completing all the content? By making all numbers as big as possible? Getting the best virtual loot? Acquiring virtual currency? Wearing a monocle? Having a good time with friends? It’s a bit more obvious in direct PvP, of course, but between one or more of character skills, player skills, levels, gear, class balance and/or numbers on each side MMOGs are seldom level playing fields at the best of times. World of Tanks seems to be striking a decent balance at the moment, in pick-up battles at least where premium ammunition offers a marginal advantage for high cost (perhaps it’s a different story and becomes more mandatory in clan battles, though they sound pretty exclusive already).

EVE is particularly interesting as it’s featured Real Money Trading (RMT) for a few years in form of the Pilot Licence EXtension (PLEX). PLEX are bought for cash and can be exchanged for 30 days playing time, but they exist as items within the game that can be bought and sold for game currency (ISK). A wealthy industrialist, successful pirate or efficient NPC-hunter can earn enough ISK to buy the PLEX to play for free, a time-strapped cash-rich player can buy PLEX and sell them for ISK to fund in-game adventure. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention but I can’t remember massive outcry when they were first introduced, and I’ve never seen EVE classed as a free to play game though you could theoretically start with a free trial account, buy PLEX, and never need to pay cash to play (granted you’d need to scrape together the hundreds of millions of ISK for the PLEX during the trial, starting from scratch with no skill points, but hey, some people like a challenge.) Course it’s been commented on, but seems largely to have escaped the wrath of the anti-RMT lobby for the most part until the Monocalypse (that’s such a great word).

Perhaps that’s partly to do with immersion. Richard Cobbett puts it well: “… online stores and their ilk, regardless of whether they sell gold, buffs or items directly, simply don’t fit in most games. They’re out-of-context elements, and much like knowing a cheat code or hyper-effective strategy, far too hard to put out of sight or out of mind. It’s two worlds colliding. I don’t like in-game purchases, because the idea of sorting out problems by effectively nipping into a parallel universe for supplies always breaks the fiction for me.” One way conversion of cash to in-game currency fits well in EVE because PLEX fit well within the game. Apart from buying PLEX for cash you’re not taken out of the game world when dealing with them (even exchanging PLEX for game time can be seen in the in-game context of a Pilot’s License, though how that works for a dread pirate scourge of authority is another matter). Such a system really needs the in-game economy to be paramount, though.

A game like Lord of the Rings Online is at a disadvantage here. The in-game economy is something of a sideshow, as befits the setting; we’re trying to save Middle Earth, not find the next Apprentice by flogging tat to Nazguls. Trying to tinker with that could lead to players industrialising the Shire, doing Saruman’s job for him, so at least the clearly out-of-game-world LotRO Store is better than a half-arsed attempt to work RMT into the game, but it is a bit jarring, especially in LotRO where the carefully recreated setting was always one of its strong points. As someone who wouldn’t be playing at all if subscription was the only option I can’t rail too hard against the presence of the store, and I think in many ways the payment model works very well, but around the edges it’s perhaps a little pushy; Brian Green gives an interesting contrast between LotRO and Turbine’s other major offering, DDO. Critics of non-subscription models may say price tags, “BUY IT NOW!” buttons and gameplay that pushes players towards making cash-shop purchases are inevitable but I’m hopeful that a balance can be struck, especially in a marketplace with numerous options such that players can vote with their feet if they feel they’re being too blatantly exploited.

The conversion from subscription-only to the “hybrid” model seems to be generally working out for Dungeons and Dragons Online, EverQuest 2, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Champions Online and Lord of the Rings Online, amongst others, with Age of Conan and City of Heroes on the way, but with the business side of things proven as Richard Cobbett says “Now they need a champion to really hammer home how they should work as actual games”. Such a champion will probably need to be designed from the ground up to balance business and game; with the oceans of subscription dominated by the Mega Shark of World of Warcraft, to be challenged by the Giant Octopus of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the hybrid games have seen the opportunities of land and are moving that way in the awkward fish-with-legs phase of evolution, a vital step, but a bit clunky. Here’s hoping that the current free to play models are more of an evolutionary step than a Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event.

[1]Not the sentiment about making the world dance, I’m reasonably certain the desire for widespread terpsichoreanism comes a distant second to the utter destruction of all foes for 97.62% of the EVE player base, more the downplaying of cosmetic elements known colloquially as “bling” and the encouragement to abandon monetary labels

May you game in interesting times.

Life in Middle Earth is fairly peaceful at the moment, a harbour of refuge from squallish MMO seas. What with EVE players being shocked with the news that their game of legitimised skulduggery and chicanery is run by a group of people who appear to hold similar values with respect to their player populace, Star Wars Galaxies being dropped into the great gaming Sarlacc pit, and City of Heroes going free to play in a spandex-laden showdown with Champions Online, it seems as though the best recourse is lying ahull and then seeing on what course our genre has been blown once this latest tempest ebbs.

Elsewhere, the Guild Wars 2 hype machine continues to hiss and fump and pshhhhk as it pumps out a steady stream of steam-powered press releases with respect to the messianic second coming of MMOs. In all honesty though, I find ArenaNet’s promotion of their game to be less nauseating than many, despite my reservations about some of their developer diary insights, they have been making various noises which indicate that they do understand some of the issues that gamers have with the current crop of MMOs.

I expect it also helps that these days I exist in a scorched wasteland of MMO promotion, a Cyberdyne Systems Series 800 crunching my way across the skeletal hopes and dreams of MMOs past, compressed beneath the weight of reality and broken promises. For me it seems to be the best way to approach the marketing for these MMOs: to analyse them impartially through retina-projected artificial crosshairs and digital readouts, while the armour of the hyperalloy combat chassis resists penetration by the worst of marketing’s self-propelled hypersonic hyperbole. As such I find myself generally pleased with the direction ArenaNet professes to be taking their game, without really believing any of it until Judgement Day when the game is finally released.

My feelings for Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, however, continue to flip-flop between avidity and ambivalence; their storytelling system, character classes, and cinematics, continue to impress and give a feeling that the Force is strong with this one, whereas the ‘stand next to one another and continuously shoot each other in the face with blasters’ combat along with the ‘summon a vehicle out of thin air with sparkly magical power’ ability, look very much like dropping the X-Wing of Immersive Escape back into the dank swamp of Depressing Design Decisions.

Considering that these are the Big Two releases for MMOs –where the whole genre potentially tilts on their success– neither company is massively hyping their game in the old style, instead generally sticking to releasing informative details of the respective games, at least, once they’d let off a head of steam from their hype machines: ArenaNet with their Manifesto, and Bioware with their Fourth Pillar. There are games still following the old style of hype, The Secret World having told us so much about the game without actually having told us anything, for example, and where TERA continues to tout its action orientated game-play and diplomacy system, while generally leaving players more informed about the various underwear styles and colour choices available in the beta build.

In the meantime I’m finding myself slowing down, reverting to the game that always seems to give me joy, and thus settling back in with my mature mistress. It’s the simple quiet life, living in the countryside away from the manic enthusiasm, hustle and bustle of the big city. The glow in my red eyes has dimmed to a mere flicker, as they stare with cold cynical evaluation at the future of the genre, but deep inside I’m still hoping for an MMO to come along that will capture my imagination in a way that past MMOs have done, such that it penetrates my cyborg defences and brings a spark of life into an otherwise pleasant but somewhat robotic existence in the MMO space.

Thought for the day.

MMOs are games where you play combat primarily in the user interface rather than the game world.

I think this is best realised in the classic ‘standing in the fire’ error of new raiders: essentially people stand in the fire because it is an element of playing in the game world, where levelling-up has trained those players to instead play in the interface. Combat is in the cooldowns; you watch timers, health bars, debuff bars, and only when you get to raiding or the more ambitious small group dungeons do you need to start looking into the game world too, in order to step out of the fire, dodge the laser beam, jump over the furious shrew of ruin.

And what do players in WoW, LotRO and other such MMOs with LUA AddOn functionality do in response? They add UI elements that warn the player to step out of the fire. They add further UI elements to tell them who to heal, who has aggro, who to cleanse; when the boss will enrage, when the next wave of adds will come, when to run away from their team; what button to press, what direction to run, what lever to pull.

What to have for dinner.

Compare this to a game such as Super Mario where you play the game entirely within the world, and the only time you have to care about anything outside of that world is to glance briefly at your health bar. FPS games generally keep the UI to a minimum, with the player’s concentration focussed on the action in the game world, a glance at health or remaining ammo being all that’s needed, and where games such as Gears of War have experimented with removing the health bar altogether. Even RTS games –where heavy UI use is a genre feature– still have a healthy balance between using the UI and interacting with the game world, where units have to be selected and positioned within the world, and combat requires the player’s attention to be focussed on their virtual surroundings.

MMO combat, on the other hand, seems to generally draw the player out of the game world and force them into the UI, and since combat is still the genre’s de facto method for resolving all disputes and difficulties, this means that most players spend more time staring at the UI than the game world, so perhaps it’s little wonder that so many AddOns seem to add yet further UI elements for the player to focus on. I’m definitely interested to see how games such as TERA (despite it’s painfully immature sexualisation of, well just about everything really; I imagine even the boars will have up-skirt panty shots) try to use the action orientated combat to draw the player out of the UI and back into the game. Despite its many failings, Dungeons and Dragons Online did a fair job of this, and I believe it made for much more involving (albeit otherwise flawed) combat.

Evendim Flow

Back in KiaSAcast 12 I talked about how Lord of the Rings Online was slowing down in the early level 30s as I moved from the Lone-lands into the Trollshaws. LotRO has a series of epic quests that broadly follow the book, weaving the story of your character around that of the Fellowship as it leads you through the game. The starter area/tutorial forms the Prologue, in Book I you meet up with a chap called Strider in the Prancing Pony in Bree and help him out before he sets off for Rivendell with a bunch of hobbits, then in Book II Gandalf sends you down to the Lone-lands to find Radagast the Brown, who got the short straw when the Istari were getting assigned their colours (“Doesn’t matter what colour we are? Easy for you to say, Gandalf the Grey, you got a cool-sounding name. All right, look, if it’s no big deal to be The Brown, you wanna trade huh?”)

There’s plenty to do in the Lone-lands, starting around the Forsaken Inn in the west, progressing past Weathertop to the Eglain camp in the ruins of Ost Guruth, then finally to undead-infested swamps and passes and the dungeon of Garth Agarwen with no shortage of quests along the way. The Chapter quests of Book II tie it all together, including introducing in-game faction reputation with the Eglain, and there’s scarcely a lull between starting the zone, getting to Ost Guruth, tracking down Radegast, deciding his nickname should actually be “Radegast the Squirrel Fancier” (“Oi, Raddy, giant tree trying to beat us to death with its branches over here, d’you want to give us a hand at all or are you just going to chat to the wildlife?”), and wrapping up Book II. By then I’d outlevelled the remaining quests in my log, easy to do with a bit of extra-curricular skirmishing and questing in other zones, so I was ready to move on, and crossed the bridge out of the Lone-lands into the Trollshaws.

Expecting another bumper crop of quests, reputation to build up, perhaps a nice reward item or two, I found a couple of unenthusiastic quest-givers. “Yeah, go and kill… I dunno, wolves or something. Or bears. Or boars. Whatever. Find some wildlife, kill ten of them.” After a couple of rounds of that, they packed me off to another camp with another paltry selection of quests. It was all rather lacklustre.

Fortunately reader/listener darkeye came to the rescue in the comments suggesting moving over to Evendim, a zone that’s just been revamped. With a bit more game-time available recently I took that advice, and what a difference! Plentiful quests, a nifty class-specific armour set to collect, a faction with some nice items available as you increase your reputation with them. That sounds a bit mercenary, like I’m only interested in acquiring virtual loot, and that’s not true at all; I’m also very keen on carefully categorising virtual loot and assigning it to the correct colour-coded section of shared storage or the character’s vault as appropriate, hence being especially grateful for the presence of a vault-keeper in Tinnudir, the main settlement in Evendim (that was a minor annoyance in the Lone-lands, no vault-keeper in Ost Guruth; a victim of regional branch closures, perhaps).

As well as the sheer number of quests (over 100 being added in the revamp, apparently), there’s a bit of variety; of course “kill X things”, “collect Y things” and “click on Z sparkly things” are the staples, but some quests take you into instanced versions of areas that work a little like mini-skirmishes. There are also a couple of twists on delivery mechanics such as a journal item that updates quest objectives as you go to break up the pattern of “talk to NPC at quest hub – kill things – talk to NPC at quest hub – kill things”. Another minor quality of life issue while questing, a general improvement I believe rather than specific to the Evendim revamp, is that sparkly quest objectives don’t despawn when you click on them, they’re just completed for your character. I was roaming around the hills looking for some pouches that, inevitably, were guarded by tribesmen, had just engaged a mob when another player ran in and started hitting him with a sword. Fair enough, I didn’t really need any help, but I’d tagged it so it wasn’t like he was killstealing or anything, except then the player ran over to the pouch, and his character crouched down, obviously picking it up. I was ready to let fly a volley of abuse (or at least tut and give him a very stern look), but when he stood up the pouch was still there, sparkling away. Rather than the whole affair degenerating into a race for objective items and pointed non-assistance and schadenfraude from the other party if that resulted in an over-pull, we toddled around alternately tagging mobs, I’d chuck the odd heal over (not that it was especially necessary, but it seemed polite) and parted with a friendly /wave at the end of it. Back in the Trollshaws, meanwhile, on a Friday night group expedition (when the comparative sparseness of the zone isn’t nearly so much of an issue for a marauding party of hobbits on voice chat), four of us were all on the same quest to clear brambles and stones out of the path. It might not sound heroic, but it’s the sort of unglamorous behind-the-scenes infrastructure work that’s vital to an epic tale; do you remember the bit in the book “… then Frodo’s cloak got all tangled up in a bramble bush, and he had to spend ages sorting it out without ripping it but there were still a few holes that would need to be patched up and he got a couple of really nasty pricks (matron) from the thorns…”? No? Precisely. The only problem was that the sparkly bramble bushes despawned upon clicking, and only counted for the person who clicked them, so instead of many hands making light work it took four times as long.

Another part of Evendim’s revamp was the quest rewards. In “traditional” LotRO, as with many other MMOGs, a quest-giver would typically offer one or more of cash, XP, reputation gain or an item to try and tempt you to wander off and slaughter some wildlife, and as with many other MMOGs the items were seldom much use. “A choice of a bracelet with sub-optimal stat bonuses for my class or a shield I can’t even equip? Monsieur, with these quest rewards you’re really spoiling us! Which is worth more when I flog it to the bloke standing next to you?” Most Evendim quests now give bronze or silver token rewards, which can be traded in with the Wardens for a variety of rather more desirable class-specific items. LotRO has perhaps gone a little over-the-top with tokens, as pointed out in a fine piece on A Casual Stroll to Mordor, but I think they work quite well in this context to make all quests worthwhile, rather than nudging you towards reading up on an external site just to make sure you haven’t missed out on the first in a chain of several quests that culminates in the only half-decent reward appropriate to your class in the zone. From a world-perspective it might not feel ideal, like you get a Wardens of Annúminas Loyalty Card as you start the zone and each time you finish a quest the NPC stamps it a couple of times, with a free cup of coffee (and class-appropriate cloak) after 10 stamps, but I don’t think it’s terribly immersion-breaking.

With zone revamps such as the Lone-lands last year and now Evendim resulting in significant improvements, Turbine aren’t just tacking stuff on to the end of the game, a heartening sign for newer players. All in all, after the early level 30s felt like they were really dragging, I’ve sprung forward to being within spitting distance of level 41 in a week or so, almost ready to move on to another zone. Any suggestions for the best level 40+ area?

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

I made a bit of a Middle Earthian faux pas the other day while talking with m’colleague. I was burbling garrulously about my Warden’s adventures in Lord of the Rings Online’s most recently added zone, Eregion, and how it was a pleasant diversion while the Volume 3 content remained out of service due to the Rescue in Nûrz Gâshu skirmish needing repairs.

As a brief point of order, Rescue in Nûrz Gâshu was available for me last night, thus I was able to… ‘happily’ is possibly the wrong word… ‘doggedly’? I was able to doggedly continue with the Volume 3 content. Rescue in Nûrz Gâshu is definitely a skirmish that cries out for the player to increase the difficulty and then intensively farm the heck out of it. It could become a sort of ranch for skirmish mobs, where orcs and goblins are bred, corralled and slaughtered before their carcasses are shipped off in exchange for skirmish marks. There’s even the standard bonus reward the first time you run the skirmish each day, like some sort of agricultural subsidy from the governor of Middle Earth. But now I have an image of ranks of orcs all connected to milking machines in unseemly ways, and I won’t tell you what’s coming down the tubes, but suffice it to say that the thought of Weetabix coated in Crème de Menthe is even less appealing now than it was when I first conceived of it. So let’s move on.

More observant players of LotRO, having read my first paragraph, may have noticed the deliberate mistake contained therein. Some of those readers may have rushed off immediately to the Comment Cave, donned their spandex outfits, and begun drafting the latest in vigilante justice against the evil forces of Being Wrong on the Internet. Let’s wait for them to finish posting their comment, which probably starts ‘I think you’ll find…’ and should, as always, be delivered in the tone of someone wearing a cravat, stood on a hearth rug, and pointing reproachfully with the bowl of their pipe while looking down their nose at you.

So yes, the new zone is Enedwaith, not Eregion. I quickly corrected myself upon realising that I’d been blathering on about an entirely different zone:

“Sorry, I meant Enedwaith of course, Eregion is an entirely different place.

I mean, they both start with the letter ‘E’, of course.

And both have a quest flow progression that starts at the top and works its way slowly down the zone, branching off left and right for quest objectives as you go.

Stopping at new quest hubs along the way, each with its own horse point.

With many of the quest hubs called Echad SomethingOrOther.

And swift travel available between quest hubs after you’ve completed a certain number of quests in the zone.

The points between quest hubs being populated by angry wolves, humanoids, boars, and crebain.

With green flowing plains punctuated by improbable impassable landscape features.

Rivers splitting them in two, although admittedly Eregion’s has run dry.


Possibly it was an easier mistake to make than I had otherwise realised. The zones are even placed side by side, and I pictured the newer Enedwaith as the sort of neighbour who moves in next door and promptly steals all your design ideas and renovates their house so that it looks exactly the same as yours, only newer, and with more expensive furnishings. The people of Eregion must have been mightily annoyed when they woke up one morning and found an entirely new region next door that wasn’t there the day before, and which was eerily similar, except everything was new and shiny and unexplored. I suppose it explains all the bumper stickers that I’ve seen sprouting-up on horses in Eregion recently:

“From the home of the ORIGINAL legendary item drop.”

“Eregioner’s enter Moria from behind.”

“My zone’s been Ranger free since 1248.”

“Eregion: our goats won’t get your goat.”

“Honk if you’ve got an E-rection for E-region!”

“Remember: ‘Enedwaith’ rearranged, with a bunch of letters taken away and others added, spells ‘Rubbish’!”

I also imagine that, like rival college fraternities or sororities, the two regions are constantly performing pranks on one another; Enedwaith placing traffic cones down the length of Eregion and thus forcing the horse routes to ride adventurers off the cliff at the top of the Misty Mountains, or into the side of The School at Tham Mírdain; Eregion taking revenge by painting all of Enedwaith’s goats black then rubbing itching powder onto each goat’s genitals.

Still, at least Eregion is a nice zone in which to play, or so I found on my multiple runs through it, and so Enedwaith has been similarly pleasant so far, in a ‘dating a person who has an appealing personality but looks spookily like your ex’ sort of way. I do keep getting them confused, however, where I’ve found the best way to tell them apart is to look at the level of wolf that I’m fighting. Then again that’s a dangerous precedent to set, next we’ll be coding all zones by the level of wolves they contain, and we’ll have conversations like

“Yeah, we were in ‘Wolves 23 to 29’ last night, got a bit bored with running around ‘Wolves 15 to 22’, really. I suppose we could have gone to ‘Wolves 17 to 24’, but there’s not so much to do there.”

Not to mention the fact that they sound like section quotes from the Book of Wolf in some strange bible.

“And now a reading from Wolves 8:14

Be strong and of a good courage, fear not though thou be constantly spammed with stupid fear effects. Nor be afraid…for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee to stab a wolf in the nose; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. But he may let you limp for twenty to sixty seconds if he has run out of wound salves.”

Then again, classifying zones by the level of wolves found there would certainly be an easy way to standardise zone description across nearly all fantasy MMOs…

All business success rests on something labeled a sale

Every now and again I reminisce about how great flight and space simulators were, from Sopwith (all right, not exactly a realistic simulator, but it’s still brilliant) through the likes of Elite, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Wing Commander and Gunship 2000 to the X-Wing series, and how it’s a pity there are so few coming out these days. If a survey had asked “How much would you like to play a space combat MMOG on a scale of one to five, where one is There is literally nothing I would like more, my every waking moment is devoted to fervently wishing such a thing could happen and even during slumber do I dream of the same, albeit having forgotten to put my trousers on and in the company of Diego Felipez de Guzmán 1st Marquis of Leganés, and five is I would rather fashion a rudimentary cudgel from whatever objects are closest to hand and do my very best to bludgeon myself senseless rather than do such a thing“, I would’ve answered 1.736.

I’m sure it’s been established that people don’t always know what they want, but if more proof were needed space combat MMOG Black Prophecy turned up a few months ago, I downloaded it, gave it a try, found it fun enough, and haven’t logged in since. If it’s any consolation to the poor, abandoned desktop icon I do mean to get back to it at some point, along with the full version of Wings of Prey I picked up in a Steam sale and any number of others, but just in case any company was planning a multi-million dollar game project based solely on a survey I filled out, you might want to do a bit more market research.

Anyway, what really sparked all this off was an e-mail from Good Old Games announcing 50% off Interplay games, meaning you can get one of the greatest space combat games of all time, Freespace 2, for three dollars. Less than two quid! Many games don’t stand the test of time too well if you drag them out of the gloomy cupboard of fond memories and dust them off in the harsh glare of current technology, but Freespace 2, with a bit of a spruce up from the Source Code Project, really does; as Kieron Gillen said last year “In short, there’s no reason not to play Freespace 2 now. It’s as good as ever.”

Also in the sale are the first two Fallout games (or three, if you count Fallout Tactics), generally very well regarded by RPG fans, but I don’t think time has been so kind to them; I tried Fallout 2 several years after its release and just couldn’t get on with it. That might just be me, though, if you’ve ever been tempted to give it a try then three dollars is surely worth an impulse buy.

Decline to accept the end of it.

A sudden increase in real life activities has reduced the options in my schedule to touch base with my portfolio of virtual worlds, vis-à-vis reducing their year-on-year pig populations by leveraging a downward trend in numeric button height alignment to synergise skills with emerging b2b (boar to boar) stabbing opportunities. Coupled with a nasty cold which dramatically reduced my enthusiasm for anything other than possibly giving oral pleasure to those persons who invented balsam-infused tissues and Lemsip, I think it would probably suffice for me to say that gaming hasn’t been terribly high on my list of priorities this past week.

Strangely though, I’ve found ‘absence from blogging’ to be reflected in a more general malaise that seems to be taking hold in the part of the MMO blogging archipelago which I observe. There have been some long-standing names taking their leave of MMO reporting/punditry/enthusiastic babbling/satire recently; Ysh reports from her quantum mechanical blog –which is at the same time both finished and not finished– that Elder Game are moving on from general blog punditry into other areas of discussion. Not to mention the news of the Van Hemlock team hanging up their collective wide brimmed, face-shading podcast hats, possibly temporarily, possibly long term. For now, at least, they’re measuring ‘finished’ on the finished/not finished blog superposition state.

This latter announcement has been quite the blow to my blogging world view. It was m’colleague who truly started me out on the whole blogging affair, so I suppose you have him to blame; other friends were already blogging and offering encouragement, but it was m’colleague who pointed me at first to Tobold, and then Van Hemlock and others, before beginning his own musings while encouraging me to do the same. Tobold’s was probably the first MMO blog that I read regularly, and it was his blog that fuelled my enthusiasm for MMO blogging as a reader, but out of the big-name bloggers at the time, it was Van Hemlock who made me want to blog. I cannot tell you how many times I read and re-read the Ranterbury Tales, the title, theme and content of which appealed to me on many levels, and where the slightly irreverent tone in which the various tales were delivered revealed to me that blogging didn’t have to be all ‘Serieoues Bysinesse’, as Chaucer might have said before the cool kids came along and made the language all terribly confusing with their ‘srs bsns’s. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the MMO space is considerably poorer without the abundant richness of the posts of Tim ‘Van Hemlock’ Dale, and the subsequent evolutionary step into the excellently professional and seemingly effortless podcast banter between himself and the equally lucid Jon ‘Jon Shute’ Shute.

But we mustn’t forget that the blogosphere is a curious entity, entirely different from one person to the next. Since there are far more blogs out there than any one person could reasonably be expected to follow, drawing judgements and portents based on one’s own perspective of the MMO blogosphere is like trying to determine the shape of a pineapple from a pineapple ring. For what it’s worth, however, my own MMO blogosphere is noticeably quieter these days, where the overall level of enthusiasm seems to be the sort of mild head-drooped tail swishing excitement of an old arthritic dog at the prospect of a long walk, where the memories associated with it stir the centres of happiness, but the deep awareness of the inner self knows the truth of it: that it will be more pain and effort than it’s really worth. This stands in stark contrast to the boundless bouncing enthusiasm of the small yapping puppy which, in years past, the blogosphere appeared to me to be. Deep down I feel that I should urge games such as Guild Wars 2 and SW:TOR to not delay their releases too long, lest it be too late. Taking the time to ‘get it right’ is something that most bloggers have preached at one time or another, but I fear that in the time that developers have come to realise the truth of this (primarily through the industry’s own mistakes), the enthusiasm in the MMO space has entered a decline.

In the half year or more it takes for ArenaNet and Bioware to release their games, I wonder how many more bloggers will have left us. I’m not concerned from some foolish belief that the MMO blogosphere is important, that it influences the desires of the playing populace or developers. Instead I hold to the viewpoint that the MMO blogosphere is the mirror-surface on the pool of opinion which reflects the desires of the playing populace. If the people who are enthusiastic enough about a genre to take the time to write about it, for no tangible remuneration, are slowing down and slowly drifting away, then perhaps these are the ripples at the edge of the pool which reflect a deeper disturbance at its centre.

Then again, maybe I’m just miserable from having had a stinking cold for the past five days, and subconsciously I wanted everyone else to feel it too, in which case you can consider this the textual realisation of a runny nose and sore throat; take a couple of paracetamol and it’ll probably all be better in the morning.

There seems to be something wrong with our bloody tanks today

World of Tanks, as with any PvP game, can be incredibly frustrating; after the third or fourth round of your tank exploding before you’ve even seen an opponent, or ineffectually bouncing a couple of shells off an opponent and then exploding, or having the track of your turretless vehicle shot off so that all you can do is wave your gun around as ineffectually as a Dalek with two plungers before exploding, the dignified course of action would be to make a wry observation to the rest of the team like “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody tanks today“. If human avatars are ever introduced, though, I suspect a more common reaction would be to grab a branch and give the useless lump of metal a damn good thrashing.

Those results are often caused by the matchmaking system deciding it’s really funny to stick you in matches with tanks two or even three tiers above you (if it helps, imagine the matchmaking is being done by SHODAN or GLaDOS; “Look at you, tanker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating in your tin can. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal Tier X Heavy?”) When you’re up against a heavy Tier V KV in your light Tier III tank the KV is an unstoppable iron monster, and it’s easy to become fixated on getting one yourself as quickly as possible so finally you can turn the tables and beat up bullies ’til they cry “Oh lah! Oh, crikey! Let go, you rotter! Don’t punish me!“. In the research tree of most tanks you can work on a range of upgrades to the engine, tracks, radio, gun and turret, or ignore everything except a mandatory upgrade or two and focus on building up the experience to unlock a tank in the next tier. If you do the latter, struggle through mismatch after mismatch until finally you unlock the KV and scrape together the credits to buy one, the matchmaking system will probably giggle and send Iosif Stalin to obliterate you (the Tier VII tank, not the bloke, this isn’t Stalin vs. Martians). To exacerbate the mismatch your KV is showroom fresh; on the plus side that means it has immaculate paintwork and that New Tank Smell(tm), on the minus side the starting gun is an adequate 75mm rather than the lethal 107mm or comedy 152mm you probably kept being killed by in the past, and the starting powerplant is a lawnmower engine. There’s always something bigger around the corner, at least until you get right up to the highest tiers.

Chopping and changing tanks isn’t a problem in the first few tiers, especially as you try out the different play styles, but around Tier IV and particularly Tier V investing time and in-game money is well worth it. With the money you earn in Tier V the 20,000 credits to instantly train a crewman up to 75% is much more affordable, and the number of battles you’ll need to play keeps crew experience increasing, improving the performance of most facets of the tank. Upgrading components can also make all the difference, as in Warsyde’s post.

I’ve been following the Soviet tank destroyer line, and on the SU-85 I was contemplating skipping the 107mm gun upgrade in order to get to the SU-100 more quickly. That would’ve been a terrible, terrible mistake; the 107mm gun is classified as Tier VII, with reasonable accuracy, decent penetration and great damage. It can take out lower tier tanks in a single shot, chew big chunks out of KV and T1 heavies, and at least cause damage to most higher tier tanks you’ll face (though something like an IS-3 still shrugs off frontal shots). It’s a bit fragile, but with a low profile you’ll normally get the first shot in so long as you’re careful. Apparently Tier V is the optimal point for earning money (before that you don’t earn so much, after that repair and ammunition costs really stack up), and once a tank is Elite status you can bank up a nice pool of experience, if you don’t mind spending a bit of real money for gold. That free experience pool can then really help out when you do want to step up a tier, allowing you to quickly upgrade some key components so you’re not completely useless. There are plenty of well-regarded tanks in Tier V, so if you’re not an aficionado already trundling around in a Tiger, I’d suggest picking a Tier V tank that suits your style and sticking with it, developing the crew up, and keeping it around as a nice money and experience earner.