Monthly Archives: July 2011

“It’s not a house,” said Judas Priest “It’s not a house… it’s a home”

A while back I took a quick run-through the housing options in some MMOGs over the years, something I’ve been thinking about again as I’ve just bought three houses. Well, one rented room, a house and a moonbase, to be strictly accurate, in Fallout: New Vegas, Lord of the Rings Online and Champions Online respectively.

I finally cracked on the last day of the recent Steam summer camp and picked up New Vegas and its first two DLC packs. News of a hefty patch with many bug fixes and performance improvements at the start of the month sounded promising, and an example of the benefits of the three (or indeed nine) month rule, though I’ve still encountered one minor glitch in a side quest that needed a bit of frinking to sort out. I really enjoyed Fallout 3, up until the end felt a bit rushed, and New Vegas is pretty much more of that, which works for me. I’m not very far into the game, not even having made it to the titular New Vegas yet, but I’ve just secured a motel room in Novac and that means I can get on with with my primary objective: exploring random locations and grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down (and if it is nailed down finding a crowbar to pry it loose); weaponry, clothing, food, medicine, scrap metal, pilot lights, lunchboxes, paint guns, detergent, gecko hide, shoes, lightbulbs, zeppelins… Then loading myself and a companion up with as much as we can carry, taking it back to the motel room and storing it in a cupboard in case it’s useful sometime, where it almost inevitably stays ’til the end of the game. Still, if there’s a quest objective that needs two pieces of ant meat, a packet of irradiated breakfast cereal, a souvenir dinosaur and a frying pan, I’m ready!

Over in Middle Earth I’ve only just got around to buying a house in Lord of the Rings Online. Again it’s largely driven by my hoarding instincts that make it terribly difficult to throw anything away, so having filled up the maximum 120 slots of my main character’s vault storage I decided it would be quite handy to get an additional storage chest in a house, and also have somewhere to put some of the bound furnishings that I couldn’t pass to Bank Alt #7. Each of the four races has its own housing area with a distinctive style so I took a bit of a tour, and it became apparent that the housing brokers have adopted the Budget Airline Airport Naming Scheme (e.g. Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, a mere 120km from Frankfurt); to get to the Thorin’s Hall housing you go out the main doors, down the steps, past the stablemaster and round the corner (via a couple of miffed goblins), and as for the Elven area in Rivendell West (nr. Duillond)… I picked out a Dwarven house in the end, ran through a couple of quick introduction quests that resulted in some furniture rewards, and settled in.

The LotRO furnishing system is a bit more limited than that of EQ2; you can select a texture and a colour for walls and floor, then place items in designated areas (e.g. Large Wall, Small Floor, Medium Sized Outside Bit). Fulfilling my primary goal of “offloading any furnishings I’d happened to acquire” has resulted in a somewhat eclectic decoration scheme that would be a bit weird even for Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen; one room features a frame on the wall containing the dress of the Red Maid (maybe that was taking “stripping the corpse of loot” a bit far), a freaky undead banner thing in a corner, and a single chair. The other room has a mouse-hole in one wall (with a large block of cheese in front of it) and a dead bear on the floor. I’d be worried by what the neighbours would think, if it wasn’t for the fact that it only rates about 0.4 on the weird-shit-o-meter of what LotRO adventurers furnish their houses with; I got groped by a tentacle the last time I was in the kin house!

LotRO houses are in their own instances, with multiple copies of the instance available to facilitate everyone having their own house without paving over the entire Shire. Combined with being stuck out a way from the main towns it makes the areas feel a bit like suburbia, and together with a widespread and efficient public transport service you get something that doesn’t quite gel with the setting. Homes generally feature in fantasy tales as somewhere to tearfully leave at the beginning of an epic adventure, or a place to run away from when you discover the magical heritage from your true parents, or somewhere that gets burnt to the ground resulting in a sworn oath of revenge. Rather less frequently homes are somewhere the protagonist commutes from; “oh fiddlesticks, I’ll miss the 8:17 horse from Bree if I don’t get a move on darling. Important meeting in Garth Agarwen today, I should be back for six o’clock but you know that Ivar the Bloodhand, once he starts monologuing you just can’t shut him up, I’ll swing past the provisioner on the way home and pick us up some tasty rations for dinner, mwah, mwah, see you later.” That’s not to say establishing a home never works, I enjoy a bit of a Robinsonade like the Swiss Family Robinson, making a place for yourself in a hostile environment, and that’s something well catered for in Minecraft or, in a more multiplayer context, Wurm Online as per Gank’s adventures. A more traditional fantasy example would be running a keep in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakenings, but that’s be harder to translate into a massively multiplayer setting; perhaps the role of mayor in a Star Wars Galaxies town captures the essence of it, and demonstrates how much harder it is to deal with human players rather than NPCs.

It’s just a game/world compromise, really, like using the dungeon finder in WoW (sit in an inn in a city *PAF* dungeon dungeon world-threatening evil stab stab stab *PAF* back to the pub), but domesticity seems to emphasise it. I’m happier at the “game” end of the spectrum, though, so I’m more than prepared to forgive the lack of immersion for the added storage and the ability to quickly travel around.

A base of operations is a much more fundamental part of the superhero genre (the Batcave, Avengers Mansion etc.), so when Champions Online introduced hideouts it piqued my interest and I popped in to take a look. I’ve kept the game patched up with the transition to free-to-play, logged in occasionally, but I keep bouncing off it. As per usual I had a quick look at my existing array of characters (the highest at level 20, many more not even through the tutorial) and none of them grabbed me, so as on several previous occasions I headed into the character creator and was in the middle of the usual hour or two of eyebrow-angle adjustment and trouser fabric selection when it struck me, perhaps that was one of my problems. I’d never had a particularly strong character concept, latching on whatever costume items and powers happened to catch my eye during character creation, and I mentioned in the previous post that the world (or at least the bits I’d seen of it) seemed a bit “generic superhero”, so I hadn’t gained much of an attachment to the characters from their exploits. Flipping that around, though, the relatively blank canvas is necessary to offer players such a degree of freedom with their character looks, story and powers, perhaps I’d do better if I started with an idea and built a character around it rather than the other way around.

A tremendous amount of thought came up with the incredibly detailed character concept, backstory and nine-voulume biography of “a sort of Steampunk type chap”, not really an exploration of the sociopolitical elements of the Steampunk subculture, more from the time-traveling asshole school of gluing cogs to stuff. The costume options presented a bowler hat and monocle (though PWI have clearly missed a trick, the latter didn’t even cost $68) as well as a suitable moustache for an ex-Hussar, with initial sword and pistol powers to fit (although the cosmetic sword options seem to be missing a nice cavalry sabre). Gadgets cover the more speculative elements, like having swinging as a travel power (employing the Fortherington Patent Pneumatic Fluked Travel Projector) and regeneration (the result of a most efficacious medicinal compound), and I’ve rapidly worked through the tutorial and emerged into the main city, an improvement on the original incarnation of the game that sent you off to either a desert or Arctic wasteland that I never really enjoyed.

Perhaps I missed it, I couldn’t find a button to activate the hideout menu, but via the old school method of a slash command “/hideout” did the trick (quite interesting in contrast to the controller-friendly nature of the rest of the game, like pressing a button to start conversations/interact with objects as opposed to having to point and click). There’s currently a choice of four: Mom’s Basement doesn’t really sound like the dwelling of my time travelling and/or parallel universe hopping Victorian (unless he’s putting it all on like the Blue Raja), and he’s a man of Science and Reason so the Mystic Sanctum is out. An Industrial Cave could fit the bill, but it’s got to be the Moon Base, get a bit of a Space: 1889 vibe going.

Learning lessons from the highly detailed but unappreciated supergroup bases of City of Heroes, the hideout is personal. It’s early days, with threads on the forums suggesting possible future functionality and canvassing suggestions, at the moment HMMB (Her Majesty’s Moon Base) Queen Victoria features only a tailor (always important to look dashing) and a crime computer. Design-wise there’s limited customisation, with a choice of lighting colours and two or three predefined options for the main furnishing points, no hero-crafted furniture of your own to place. I was a little disappointed by the view until I found the controls to open the blast shield, revealing the GIANT LASER!!! I’d selected in preference to some landing strips or the plain surface of the moon. It’ll be interesting to see where they take the feature, but it’s a positive sign that the game is developing with the move to free-to-play and change of publishers. It took several years before I finally got into LotRO, after all, so the lifetime Champions subscription might work out yet!

Some people say that rappers are invincible; we’re vincible

World of Tanks has a number of achievements in the form of medals, much like good old Microprose flight sims. Some are based on career totals of kills, victories etc., others on performance in a single battle.

Individual rewards or achievements can cause friction in team-based games. In World of Warcraft the School of Hard Knocks achievement can play havoc with the usual battleground dynamics; in the real world you might see similar results in a football match if you offered a hefty sum of cash (that couldn’t be shared with team-mates) to anyone who scored a goal (or try/touchdown/point/behind, depending on your local interpretation of football). Fortunately World of Tanks is pretty straightforward, you win a match by either killing all opponents or capturing their base, and you get rewarded with XP and credits for killing (or damaging, or locating) opponents and capturing their base, there isn’t really any conflict there, and medals just show up in your statistics rather than granting any sort of bonus. During the beta there was a myth that killing all 15 opponents netted some sort of bonus, so if you were in a decent position with only one or two enemy tanks left and someone started capturing their base then people would start shrieking “DON’T CAP” in chat and getting frightfully annoyed, to the point of actually shooting a team-mate in a couple of instances I saw, but thankfully that got straightened out and I’ve never seen it happen in the live game. Individual glory-hunting tends to get you killed in pretty short order, and with no respawns it’s a good incentive to at least try and work together. Course there are more than ample opportunities for fifteen random non-communicating strangers to employ wildly sub-optimal overall tactics, but at least they’re doing it of their own accord rather than being channelled that way by in-game achievements.

I’ve got a reasonable smattering of awards; a fair few Top Gun medals for killing six or more tanks (all right so half of them are from a BT-2, picking on poor little Tier I tanks), a decent number of Sniper medals for an 85% hit rate from 10 or more shots (though progressively fewer as gun calibre, and consequently reload time, has increased; I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to get ten shots off with a 152mm gun in one battle, let alone hit with nine of them), the odd Invader and Defender medal for capturing or preventing capture of a base respectively (I even managed once, by fluke, to get the Raider medal for capturing a base without ever being discovered, in a Tier I/II fight where the entire enemy team pelted off down one flank while I advanced alone up the other). I haven’t received a Confederate medal for a while, for damaging six or more tanks that others kill, I think I got all of mine in Tier I or II with a 20mm or 23mm cannon equipped (low damage but great rate of fire), but there are two Battle Hero medals that have completed eluded me so far. One is Scout, for detecting nine or more enemy tanks, not a great surprise with scouting not being my forte, the other is Steel Wall, for being hit at least 11 times during a battle and (the bit I’m having trouble with) surviving. Though theoretically possible to achieve with anything, obviously it’s easiest in a heavy tank matched up against mostly lower tier opposition, and I’m a bit of a late convert to heavies having only acquired the KV and KV-3 quite recently. There have been a couple of battles where I managed the requisite 11 hits, but there was always a 12th, or 18th, to finish me off, though I’m sure it’ll come along at some point now I’m focusing on the Russian heavy tree. In the meantime I keep forgetting that the gun isn’t the only way of causing damage, maybe time to try for the Kamikaze medal for destroying a higher tier tank by ramming. Banzai!

Why I should stick my neck out for you is far beyond my capacity!

“Luke: Well, more wealth than you can imagine!
Han Solo: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.”

Deliberately inflammatory rhetoric aside, I do find myself somewhat aligned with the less than popular opinion that I’d rather wait for a while after Star Wars: The Old Republic’s release, before dropping out of hyperspace and diving flame-licked into the atmosphere of the virtual world that it represents.

The reasons are many and minor, but their cumulative effect is that of grains of sand, piled one upon the other until they dam rivers and ground ships; doubt upon uncertainty upon cynicism, until the flow of enthusiasm is strangled to a trickle. The enthusiasm is there, pooled, churning and thundering raw, a bear trapped in a collapsed tent, without focus or reason, and in danger of harming itself, or anyone who tries to guide it in the right direction; wisdom says that it’s best left alone to sort itself out, as it will inevitably do. Therefore I’ve avoided ordering a copy of the game straight away, and will watch from the sidelines as the vanguard of players takes to that infamous galactic stage far far away.

The pricing option has been debated elsewhere, and I imagine even the monocles of EVE players were in danger of popping out at the initial reveal of the collector’s edition price. Consider, though, that if you’d been in the right place at the right time, you could have gathered a couple of those ejected eyeglasses and bought yourself a TOR collector’s edition. If we call it ten Sparkle Ponies instead of $200, it would be a cynical marketing sleight of hand, but it certainly doesn’t seem quite so offensive when you balance the content of SW:TOR against ten translucent steeds, let alone the additional sundries that come with the Collector’s Edition. So it seems to have been aimed at the right level, too steep for some and a compulsory purchase for others, but for me it simply helped to reinforce my decision to wait until after release.

SW:TOR seems to all intents and purposes a traditional single player Bioware RPG but with the option to bring friends along. The voice acting will give a pace to questing that I believe will cause more friction in groups, especially PuGs, than we are already witness to. As such, the game appears to encourage a single player approach. Companion NPCs only seem to advance this theory. What I want to know, and what I can’t know until the game is released, is whether this bucking bronco of game design will throw most MMO riders, or whether the ropes, chaps and gloves of TOR’s various ancillary game systems will give players enough purchase to keep riding. I certainly can’t justify a monthly subscription for a single player RPG, even a Bioware one… especially a Bioware one, seeing as Dragon Age and Mass Effect cater perfectly well to that requirement.

In addition, I’ve come to equate, perhaps unfairly, the charge to get ahead during the early access of a game with that overarching madness in MMO society for rushing through content, getting afore the hoi polloi, and to pound out character levels as if in time with the sonorous rhythm of hammers in a village smithy. In some quarters there’s almost a January Sales mentality to it, where the crowds seems to beat at each other, striving not for bargains, but the boredom and bitter disillusion of end-game. Unfortunately I don’t look back with fondness on the many MMO head-starts of which I’ve partaken. I still remember World of Warcraft’s early days as being a time of server instability, incredible lag, and massively oversubscribed resources. I couldn’t get into Warhammer Online for days. I was in at the start of City of Heroes, and although it had a smooth release as far as the warped and battered platters of my memory can recall, I also don’t remember anything outstanding that occurred in those early days that made the unavoidable overcrowding worthwhile. I honestly can’t remember an MMO where getting in from the very beginning has made any difference to my experience; indeed, I became properly invested in LotRO only years after its release –and only then I suspect because I found a good group of friends to play with– and yet it is an MMO for which I will always have the fondest memories and no regrets, despite not being there from the very beginning.

There are other grains of concern I have for TOR, subjective ones such as the graphics, which don’t appeal to me to the point that I still harbour a secret hope that Bioware will surprise us all by dropping the faux Clone Wars style, and revealing that the game actually looks more like something birthed from the union of Force Unleashed and Mass Effect. Group issues again come to the fore with the game-play: videos of players standing statically around a boss mob and going through the Usual MMO Combat Routine[TM], do not entirely inspire a new hope. Rail-based starship combat didn’t take off in Clone Wars Adventures, so let’s do it again in this game! The list goes on. The grains of sand form a bank. The wash of enthusiasm is arrested.

So I’m not ordering Star Wars: The Old Republic, although I don’t think the price is the real issue here. It’s a personal thing: partly because, for better or worse, I’m over that stage of MMO fandom where I need to be involved in an MMO from the start; partly because there are other contenders which I feel offer me a better chance at finding my MMO mojo once again; and partly because I’m not convinced that SW:TOR is a game for which I want to pay a monthly subscription, something which other contenders –and a large part of the MMO market– have already moved away from.

Deep down I still hope that The Force is strong with this one, and if it is then I’ll probably visit that galaxy far far away, but for the time being… I still have a bad feeling about this.

You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quincunx

I’m Mr Average in World of Tanks. Or pretty close to it, at least; by win/loss record slightly ahead (52% wins), by kills per match slightly behind (around 0.93). Actually, hang on, matches never end with 30 total kills (unless there’s one person left on each team and they knock each other out at the same time; not completely impossible, especially with artillery, but highly unlikely) so 1.0 won’t be the average there… Anyway, I reckon I’m pretty near the centre of the bell curve. Though as kills per match has a lower bound of zero and a theoretical upper bound of 15 that probably won’t have a symmetric distribution around the average, is that still a bell curve? Or a bell-that’s-been-hit-on-one-side-with-a-hammer-a-few-times curve? I should’ve paid more attention in maths.

Normal distribution presents an interesting way of looking at the usual random World of Tanks match. There’s a device, the “bean machine” or Quincunx, that visually demonstrates normal distribution by bouncing marbles off pins, a bit like Peggle without the talking unicorns and score boosters. Think of your tank as a marble that rolls into the top of the machine at the start of a battle, with each pin a contributing factor to the outcome; the first pin you hit is the balance, their side has better specced tanks you bounce to the left, your side is better you bounce to the right. Next pin is tactics, if your team covers all the defensive avenues and mounts one concentrated assault then you bounce to the right, if 13 tanks bugger off down one flank of the map leaving you and a lonely SPG defending the centre and the other flank then you bounce to the left. Someone on your side quits or loses connection so that tank bursts into flames: bounce to the left, it happens to one of their team bounce: to the right. An enemy shell glances off your armour, bounce to the right, it knocks out your track, bounce to the left. Down you go, eventually landing up in one of the collection bins at the bottom.

Label those bins “Complete disaster, no kills, knocked out in one shot, team lose 2 – 15” at the far left, “Glorious triumph, 7 kills, team win 15-3” on the far right, various intermediary results on the way, and I reckon that’s a pretty decent representation of my experiences, with most balls falling somewhere in the middle (close win or loss, 0 or 1 kills). Obviously not everything is random, you have control over your own tank at least, so maybe Peggle is a good comparison after all where you choose where the ball starts, but that’s not a massive factor in the overall result. Also like Peggle it’s easy to attribute a good result to your incredible skill and a poor result to bad luck (or the rest of your team being morons).

Probably the most frequent gripe about World of Tanks, mine included, is getting shoved into matches against much more powerful tanks where they can destroy you with a single shell, but you need a lucky shot to even cause slight damage to them. It’s the equivalent of that bit in a cartoon where the Comedy Sidekick furiously attacks some giant fiend or invulnerable robot, who doesn’t even notice for about five seconds then glances around and swats the irritant away with a backhanded slap. Mental note: make suggestion to World of Tanks devs to add comedy “wah wah waaaaah” sound effect when you get knocked out by a +3 tier tank, and add a slowly spinning circle of stars and tweeting birds over your burned-out hulk.

Tobold raised the subject in his recent interview that focused on matchmaking, with the reply:

“We know it can be frustrating to get thrown into a battle where you’re the lowest tank by several tiers, so matchmaking improvements are high on our radar. But we also know that players don’t just want to be killed once for each enemy tank they destroy, they want to dominate the battlefield. For true balance, this means that every time a player gets 5 kills, they should end five battles wrecked without having eliminated any enemy vehicles.”

So it’s a deliberate decision (obviously enough, with the matchmaking system going through various iterations), and more importantly, from the perspective of my stats at least, one that works. I have got a few Top Gun awards from finishing a battle with 6 or more kills (granted about half with a BT-2 when bullying poor new Tier I tanks, but some with the SU-85 as well), and those battles do feel great; I still treasure the crowning glory of one fight on the Steppes where I fired six shots in total and got six kills. You still need to randomly bounce off a few pegs the right way, but I had a decent head start in that battle with most of the opposition a tier or two below me (and a heavy tank of the same tier that was damaged enough by the time I got to him that he also only needed a single shot). Would I sacrifice the triumphs (and, indeed, huge successes) for a few less frustrating encounters? After three impotent deaths in a row when ready to punch the screen I probably would, but over time I find the bad and mediocre tend to blur into forgetfulness, but that time that four tanks drove straight into your sights, one after another, with just the right gap between them for your gun to reload, that sticks around.

Thought for the day.

An MMO should not require its players to undertake an organisational challenge on a par with that of an air traffic controller at a major international airport in order to form a group from a random set of friends with characters of varying levels.

If the requirements for being able to form a group –from that set of friends who are currently online– creates a decision Venn diagram which starts to look like the one to the right, consider again the nature of ‘multiplayer’ in the context of your game.

City of Heroes, EverQuest II: they both demonstrate that it’s perfectly possible to implement a mentoring system in an MMO which does not break the nature of the game, so why do so many MMOs still present a ridiculous number of barriers to friends playing together?

It is a slightly surreal situation when we consider that the primary outcome of RPG features these days is to act as a block to the MM in MMORPGs. For every feature that you add to an MMO, if the first question should be ‘Is this going to be fun?’, the second question should be a most vehement ‘Will this prevent a person from playing in a meaningful way with anyone of their choosing?’.

Only when these have been considered and answered satisfactorily should you move onto the usual third and fourth questions of ‘Oh, am I not meant to be in this design review?’ and ‘In that case, before I get down from the table, did anyone see where I threw my underpants?’.

Stuck Inside of Annúminas with the Evendim Blues Again

The zone of Evendim in Lord of the Rings Online is a fantastic place to adventure between levels 30 and 40 with plenty of quests and some excellent rewards to be had. The natural flow of the zone takes you around the great lake in the centre (with boatmasters offering rapid transport between three points on the lake so you no longer have a lengthy swim to quest objectives, uphill, both ways) culminating in the ruins of the city of Annúminas.

Rather than being the cherry on top of the trifle of Evendim, Annúminas is more of a spiky death fruit lurking beneath the custard and sponge fingers. The rest of the zone is nice and open with mobs generally having the decency to be alone and reasonably spaced out; perfect for picking off one by one when solo, and not much of a hindrance when riding around. Some ruins attract a more dense population of goblins or tomb robbers, but there are few places where a bad pull can’t be mitigated with a hasty retreat (the MMOG equivalent of quick save/quick load; a cry of “run away, run away”, a bit of the Benny Hill theme as a couple of other nearby mobs join the chase, then everyone goes back to their original positions; “OK, places people, that wasn’t bad but this time let’s use the slow *before* melee range, right, from the top and… action!”). The narrow streets of Annúminas, though, lead to many of the frustrations Melmoth experiences in Moria. The outskirts aren’t so bad with scattering of tomb robbers, but wandering through an archway it turns out the Angmarim read an article in a travel supplement about Annúminas being the fashionable choice for a holiday this summer and promptly despatched a massive invasion force who are clogging up all the bars, reserving the sun loungers and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The Angmarim hang out in groups of two and three, respawn alarmingly quickly, and the narrow streets make them impossible to avoid.

The Wardens of Annúminas haven’t taken this invasion lying down, though, oh no. They’ve established a secure base from which to fight back, slap bang in the middle of the city. Completely surrounded by Angmarim. Taking a tactical lead from the German army’s “Stalingrad 1942” manual doesn’t seem like the best of ideas but heck, they’ve got quests to hand out so you might as well pop along. One way of reaching the Warden camp would be to carefully fight your way through the Angmarim mobstacles, killing tens if not hundreds on the way in, at which point the very first quest offered to you is “Kill 40 Angmarim”. To avoid nugatory genocide, then, it’s generally better to frantically ride through the surrounding hordes (half of whom have crossbows, just to make it even trickier). Once you’re inside the camp you unlock a travel point at a stablemaster; the “stable” part suggests the mechanism for travel is a horse, but being the route in and out is carpeted with mobs then either it’s an F117A Stealth Horse with added invisibility cloak, or my personal suspicion (especially as it’s fast travel), the Wardens actually load you onto a massive trebuchet pointed at Tinnudur and you have to hope you don’t bounce out of the net set up to catch you.

Recognising that the Angmarim-infested ruins aren’t the easiest of places to solo, for once in the history of MMOGs the quest-giver doesn’t stand there, nailed to the floor, while you go out and risk life and limb; you’re given a smoke signal and within the city it summons Orchalwe, an NPC who is a unique combination of Tank, Healer and Mobile Location-Sensitive Reward Dispenser. As Darkeye says, he’s the best quest-giver ever. With his help the packs of Angmarim aren’t as much of a problem, though it’s still slow going fighting your way around the place, and at various points around the city a ring appears over his head and he gives a short tour guide speech: “Coming up on your right a lovely set canals, and if you’d like to swim up and down them a bit and click on some glowies I’ll give you XP. Cha-ching!”

One of Orchalwe’s main quests is to hang flags off six key monuments that the evil invaders have set up around the city (presumably the flags say “Angmarim eunt domus”), and pottering into a courtyard containing one of these monuments I noticed the mass of Angmarim were a bit tougher, signature mobs with substantially more hitpoints, all in groups, with wandering signature ogre-type-troll-creature-beasts just to make life even more difficult. Even with Orchalwe’s help a single group was a tricky proposition, and a badly timed patrol or respawn would easily send you to the graveyard, incredibly inconveniently placed outside the city. After a couple of attempts I gave it up as a bad job solo, and popped back later with Melmoth; the two of us (plus a pair of Orchalwes, I guess he has an identical twin brother) managed to carefully pick our way through the courtyard to the monument itself, in front of which was a named boss along with the usual crowd of signature mobs. Setting up for the fight we opened up by pulling an isolated archer on one side, and there was a “bing!” as the aggro symbol flashed over the head of about seven billion mobs (well, at least seven, but a bunch of them summoned stuff as well), an absolutely horrific linked group around the boss, leading to the conclusion: “bugger that for a game of soldiers”.

It was a bit of a shame as the reward for that quest was the head piece of the rather nice Evendim armour set, and it slightly spoiled the end of the zone; rather than moving on to books 5 and 6 in the Misty Mountains and Angmar as The Heroic Liberator Of Annúminas (In As Much As Anyone Can Ever Be Said To Liberate Anything In A Never-Changing World) I mumbled something about a terribly urgent appointment elsewhere and slunk away.

I kept the quest in my log, though, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched, until last Friday. The weekly outing of Hobbington Crescent had wrapped up another few chapters of book questing, and as people drifted away for the night four of us were left, an awkward number for skirmishing or instances. About the right number for dishing out a beating to Angmarim invaders, though! Heading down to Annúminas we stormed through the city hanging up banners, seizing key control points and giving an 18,000hp boss a slap for good measure. Even four of us, in the mid level 40s, with a veritable platoon of summoned Orchalwes suffered a death or two (though our Loremaster wasn’t always given the opportunity to apply optimal crowd-control measures due to engagements generally starting with a shout of “CHARG!”); I think the classification of Monuments of Angmar as a level 38 solo quest is a bit optimistic…

No pleasure endures unseasoned by variety.

I’ve never played a character at the level cap of an MMO as much as I’ve played my Warden in recent months, and still I’m yet to set foot in a raiding instance. Dungeon instances in most MMOs just don’t interest me outside of the conditioned desire to gain better equipment for my character; Dungeons & Dragons Online is one of the few games I’ve played where dungeon running actually feels anything akin to the tentative exploratory delving that early pen and paper games often evoked, and only then if one was adventuring with a sympathetic party who were there for the experience (–noun: a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something) rather than the experience (–noun: abv. XP; reward for undergoing repetitive stress and tedium in a particular instance encounter).

I think this is, in part, due to the fact that LotRO has a fairly forgiving level of mudflation with each expansion, where in other MMOs a new expansion heralds the fact that characters who have defeated the greatest enemies of the land find that overnight they’ve become The Captains Average: Avengers of Mediocrity, while anyone who has not set foot in a raid instance is harshly reminded just how easy it is for the developer to negate all their efforts and reset their power to a Level 1 equivalent. That’s not to say that LotRO doesn’t have this, but it is far less extreme than in other MMOs that I’ve experienced. As such, I find that I am more willing to work on my character at the level cap, rather than reach the level cap and consider that to be the end of the game, not wanting to waste time grinding for gear that is never going to compare to that earned by raiders, and which will be entirely obsolete by the next expansion anyway.

As well as the slightly kinder mudflation, there’s also the numerous activities to undertake which will improve your character in a more permanent way than the grinding gears of gear grind tend to allow. I’ve taken to crafting, something with which I don’t normally bother, being as I am of the

1) Select gatherer profession
2) Sell everything on the Auction House
3) ???
4) Profit!

sort. I’m one who generally doesn’t find it terribly compelling game-play to stand around watching my character whittling three hundred spears, before flogging them all to an NPC vendor for a hundredth of the price of the raw materials. And playing with spreadsheets and applications to maximise profits on the Auction House is, in my mind, one of those activities which resides in a village a little too close to the ‘Is a Game’ / ‘Could be doing this in real life for real money’ border conflict.

In my case, Farming was a splendid example of this. My character’s vocation is Woodsman, where each vocation is made up of three professions, in this case Woodworking, Forestry and Farming. Woodworking and Forestry go together, gathering with the latter and crafting very useful items for my Warden with the former (once I’d got past all the pointless intermediary stages). Farming is the ugly stepchild of the vocation, the point where Turbine felt they’d try to force the interdependence crafting hand by giving most vocations a third profession which was generally dependant on a profession unavailable to that vocation. Farming provides items for the Cooking profession, and as such is fairly useless on its own; anyone who is a serious cook will have picked the Yeoman vocation, which includes both Cooking and Farming thus making themselves self-sufficient, such that trying to supply the cooks of Middle Earth with high quality ingredients is utterly pointless. I did notice, however, that I could produce pipe-weed with Farming, a cute cosmetic consumable which allows characters to blow smoke rings of various entertaining designs. Thus I began to level Farming, and I quickly found a way to do so with as little effort as possible, as MMO players are wont to do. Farming is one of the few professions where you can buy all of the ingredients from an NPC vendor, being as it is, technically, a gathering profession. Farming consists of two stages, sowing a field of seeds (using the ingredients you buy from the NPC vendor) and then harvesting that field once it is sown. What I quickly worked out was this:

  • Both stages give you points towards your crafting level.
  • The sowing gives you more points than the harvesting.
  • You still get the points for sowing if you don’t then harvest.
  • Ingredients are cheap enough that you can buy all that is required to get your entire crafting level.
  • You can queue up sowing for as much as your inventory of ingredients will allow.

Therefore, for each level of Farming, it was a simple case to calculate the ingredients required to complete each level, buy them at the NPC vendor, stand my character in a field and tell it to ‘Make All’, and then go and do something more interesting while I waited for the game to play itself. There was one caveat to this, which was what made the thing amusing to me: every now and again I needed to go and press the Shift key so that the game client didn’t log me out.

I pondered on that for a bit.

The game client was essentially saying “Well, you haven’t done anything significant in the past half an hour, I’ll save myself some resources and kill your connection”. It did this while I was actually ‘playing’ the game within the parameters of the design. You know you have quality game-play design on your hands when your players will be booted off your game because your own server thinks ‘Heck, he hasn’t done anything for ages, he’s either link-dead or actually dead, time to clear the ol’ connections’. There’s clearly a balance to be struck here: A Tale in the Desert is at one extreme of the scale, where you have to hammer your own armour out from a sheet of metal using individual hammer strokes and where most people probably walk around in armour which looks like a pineapple that’s been humped by a randy elephant. Lord of the Rings and its ilk are at the other end of the scale, where crafting is like government controlled manufacturing: phenomenal amounts of natural resources are poured into an inefficient process which churns and chugs away for time immemorial before one half-bent sword drops off the end of the production line and promptly shatters into a hundred pieces, while only a marginal increase in crafting expertise is achieved.

Crafting isn’t the only thing I’ve found to do to improve my character outside of dungeon instancing, however. There is my skirmish soldier to improve in order to make my skirmishing easier. Skirmishes are an area of content that can be run solo or in a group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see dungeons that allowed skirmish soldiers to tag along, allowing groups with fewer players than the Middle Earth Metric Standard of ‘six’

“None shall pass! Or six shall pass! No other amount shall pass, however!”

to undertake the content anyway. As far as I’m concerned there still aren’t nearly enough MMOs pinching ideas from Guild Wars. Except Guild Wars 2, those guys are totally ripping it off, if you ask me. There are also plenty of incidental improvements to the character to be had, most of which are just ‘quality of life’ items, but on the whole I find these to have far more lasting impact and worth than an incremental armour upgrade. There are various teleports to areas of the world which can be earnt through various deeds, for example. A lot of these are locked behind reputation requirements, but they are generally accompanied by other niceties such as cosmetic outfit items, mounts, and the like: items which will last and be used by your character long after that piece of teal armour has been vendored. It’s subjective of course, and one man’s idea of what’s worthwhile is always going to be different to another’s, but the nice thing about LotRO is that it offers so much to do for a player who isn’t interested in raiding, things which aren’t just restricted to doing daily quests for tokens to get the armour set that is slightly worse than the latest raiding version on display on top of your nearest major player hub mailbox. It’s a Make Your Own Sandbox kit: a wealth of options unrelated to raiding, which you can pick and choose your way through; craft today, skirmish tomorrow; go hunt reputation items, or complete deeds; finish the epic Volume content, or explore areas you have yet to visit – there’s always somewhere.

Raiding doesn’t have to be the only thing to do at the level cap, there are ways to provide variety and rewards outside of the gear grind, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking that I’d be deliriously happy with that sort of alternative end game in any MMO that chose to implement it.

Stay on target.

M’colleague and I got to discussing ‘target marking’ in MMOs the other night on Mumble. It was one of those segments of our more general genially loquacious pratings which we realise, only after the event, we probably could have recorded as a podcast. This was rammed home the following morning when neither of us could recall that specific part of the conversation, and neither of us had thought to note it down. What followed was the best part of an hour spent in the finest Twelve Monkeys tradition, travelling back in time and grabbing at scraps from our fragmented memory of that evening’s conversation, and thence trying to piece together the events leading up to and following our recollection event horizon, like determining the shape of an ancient vase by piecing together the excavated remains of a broken mould.

We got there in the end.

It transpired that I had been relating to m’colleague how our illustrious fellowship leader in Lord of the Rings Online had discovered that he could ‘target mark’ his own fellowship members. Quite amusing in itself, but doubly so when it can be applied to anyone in the fellowship at any time, even if they are half way across the world; confused cries erupting from the four corners of Middle Earth at the time, as strange icons suddenly appeared over the heads of unsuspecting hobbits and elves. M’colleague and I bantered on the subject some more, before he hit upon the idea of mobs being able to ‘target mark’ players. We both laughed, but then wondered if there was perhaps slightly more to it, and so we hopped on the handcar of discourse and chased the train of thought as it puffed off down the track towards Conjectureville.

It’s not an original concept by any means, but having the mobs use target marking to show their intentions might enable them to use a greater degree of tactical ability than current MMO combat really allows. Certainly it could alleviate the need for aggro meters –allowing players to see that the mobs had decided to focus-fire the healer, for example– especially if coupled with a form of combat that didn’t rely on the standard Yo Mamma! aggro management. Removing UI elements and putting them into the game world is something I always like to think about: I still hold to the opinion that playing the game through the UI instead of through the game world is a standard design which makes the MMO genre poorer; having the players look into the game world to see which target markers were set over their companions heads might be a way to draw them away from the UI. Of course there are certainly issues with making mobs more intelligent while also keeping the game fun, but it seems that MMOs too often follow the ribbon dance formation of combat (where the party fights around the maypole of tank and mob, by as much as the ribbons of range and aggro will allow), and perhaps we should have moved on from that by now – games such as TERA and Guild Wars 2 are clearly making tentative attempts towards this.

Of course while drafting this post I quickly got to thinking about the usefulness of target markers in real life. Starting in early life, target markers would be an excellent aid to playground dynamics, where the Small Kid would be able to see that they’d been marked for taunting and thus make themselves scarce (or at least organise all the other small kids into a raiding party and try to take on the Big Kid). Naturally the Big Kid would be marked DO NOT AGGRO at all times, therefore saving many new kids from bruised cheeks and lost lunch money. The teacher’s pet could be marked with a Crowd Control marker, notifying the more ‘adventurous’ kids that they’d need to distract them with sweets or a fascinating maths problem before trying to climb The Forbidden Fence behind the bike sheds.

But target markers would continue to be useful into adult life too. Partners could place a DO NOT AGGRO marker on their menstruating other half, serving as a warning for both themselves and the rest of the world that it would be better to find a wounded tiger and crash a pair of cymbals next to its head than to aggravate She Who Is Hosting Communists in the Funhouse. Men who have a tendency to get embarrassingly drunk at the neighbours’ dinner parties could have a Crowd Control marker popped over their head, thus enlisting the help of others to distract them with talk of sport, or by waving shiny new technical gadgets under their nose, while their partner swaps their can of lager for something non-alcoholic. Shopping expeditions could be executed with greater precision:

“Right, Jess, you sap the little old lady with the basket who will try to block us by swerving indecisively back and forth across the aisle. Steve, you DPS the arrogant businessman’s trolley that is parked sideways across the entire aisle, bonus points if you can coordinate with Jess and get the little old lady to crash into it for you. Tom, I need you to kite the indecisive single man away from the TV dinners so I can get to the frozen vegetables. Targets are marked, everyone clear? Good. I’ve marked checkout six as our primary means of escape, good luck everyone.

And although there’d be no real intention to act upon it, some days it would just be satisfying to be able to put the big skull icon of Attack This Target over your boss’s head.

Naturally, in the current climate of world events, I moved on to various dilemmas, such as whether governments should be able to assume control of the target marking system in times of emergency. The case for such a provision is that, for example, rioting would become much more manageable and less dangerous for all involved, since the police would simply roll a really big artificial policeman into the midst of the rioters and then set it as primary attack target. The crowd would then all stand around fruitlessly punching the giant inflatable rozzer until they eventually got the whole thing out of their system. However, such a system would have its flaws, such as if an enterprising group of young hackers took control of the system and caused a school field trip of young mothers and their children to go on a rampage and attack the local vicarage.

Expanding the thought experiment into the animal realm didn’t work either. Dogs, for example, would simply mark every cat, squirrel, ball, stick, slipper and tail they saw as Primary Kill targets. Cats would naturally set a comprehensive and calculated set of target markers for one another, each expressing a diverse and eloquent set of uncommonly intelligent messages, and then ignore it all because curiosity got the better of them. Spiders would be constantly miffed at having to explain that their crowd control only works on flies and small insects, and that they couldn’t root a cow, no matter how ambitious the rest of the animal team were. And nobody would be able to make a wasp aggro the correct mob regardless of target markers; they are, and always will be, the bouncing hyperactive lolDPS of the animal kingdom.

It was the best of tanks, it was the worst of tanks

The Google Books service includes archives of a number of magazines, a fascinating resource covering a variety of subjects. I’ve been rummaging through the back catalogue of Popular Science in particular, starting with the first issue from May 1872, ready to mock some dead scientists and their quaint ideas from the smug perspective of the internet generation, but the very first paragraph of the first page, from Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology, is:

“Over his pipe in the village ale-house, the laborer says very positively what Parliament should do about the “foot and mouth disease”. At the farmer’s market-table his master makes the glasses jingle as, with his fist, he emphasizes the assertion that he did not get half enough compensation for his slaughtered beasts during the cattle-plague.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, huh. About the only difference today would be the labourer having to enjoy his pipe outside the ale-house due to the smoking ban. In October 1872 one of the articles is “Has our climate changed?” (unfortunately missing the first page or two); I know history repeats itself, but not necessarily verbatim. There is some fun to be had, especially after 1915 when the name transferred to another publishing group and the content became aimed at a more general audience; page 857 of the June 1918 issue cautions “Don’t go parachuting unless you are equipped with the proper kind of breeches”:

“In order to check the constantly increasing number of fatal aeronautical accidents a humane inventor has patented a pair of parachute breeches. Will they prevent your being dashed to the ground? We don’t know. The fabric, cut and workmanship are matters of choice, and your tailor will be pleased to suit your particular form and taste.”

What really kicked this off was that I’d been Googling around some tank-related material; as Warsyde notes World of Tanks seems to be pretty historically accurate, from my amateur grognard perspective, generally aligning with records and testimony (at the individual tank level, that is; there were very few actual engagements where a mix of 15 Russian, German and US tanks took on 15 other Russian, German and US tanks in a two mile square area enclosed by mysterious force-fields). I’m familiar with most production armoured vehicles of WWII but World of Tanks expands its tech trees with experimental and prototype models, so with the recent introduction of US tank destroyers I was digging around for some more details, and Popular Science had a couple of contemporaneous articles. “Big Guns Stalk Their Targets” from July 1943 is all about self-propelled artillery, emphasising early American work on SPGs, but doesn’t have anything on the prototypes used as Tier 2, 3 and 4 vehicles in WoT. A few months earlier, in March 1943, another article proudly proclaimed “Why America’s Tanks Are The World’s Best” as the M4 Sherman rolled off the production lines in increasing numbers.

Now you expect a touch of patriotism, if not outright jingoism, during a war, and the article wasn’t exactly wrong in trumpeting the more powerful gun, heavier armour and faster speeds of the Sherman compared to the German Panzers it had faced in the North African desert; it’s reflected in World of Tanks, with the early Sherman being a Tier 5 medium tank, and the Africa Korps were mostly equipped with Panzer IIIs (Tier 4 medium) and early mark Panzer IVs (with short 75mm howitzers that aren’t represented in WoT; the Tier 5 Panzer IV in the game starts with the long-barrel 75mm gun of the Ausf. F2/G, very few of which made it to North Africa). As the article boldly notes:

“In building tanks with which to equip their panzer divisions the Nazis concentrated on quantity rather than quality. They won the early armored battles of the war not because they had better tanks than the British and French, but because they had many more of them at the important spots and because they handled them much better. The tanks they are using today were designed in 1936, and there have been almost no improvements in them since the beginning of the war.”

Slightly unfortunate timing of the article, really, for though the Panzer III and IV were indeed showing their age in 1943, Panzer divisions were starting to get kitted out with the Tiger I (Tier 7 WoT heavy) and Panther (Tier 8 medium), and though an up-gunned Sherman M4A3E8 was introduced in 1944 (bumping it up to Tier 6 in WoT), armoured battles in Western Europe after D-Day were frequently the mirror of the above, the Allies having the numbers (and artillery and air support) to counter individually superior German tanks.

The perceived supremacy of the Sherman resulted in a degree of complacency in the development of subsequent tanks such that only a handful of Pershing heavy tanks (a Tier 8 medium in WoT) entered US service in time to see action, with LIFE magazine of March 1945 highlighting the problems faced by late-war American tank crews in “The Battle of the Tanks” on page 41, comparing the Sherman to Russian and German heavy tanks. I’m sure most World of Tanks players know the depressing feeling of entering a battle in a Tier 5 or 6 medium tank and facing a Royal Tiger (Tiger II, German Tier 8 heavy) or Stalin (IS2, Russian Tier 8 heavy), though on the plus side the worst that can happen is not getting many experience points as opposed to dying horribly in a flaming metal coffin.

Not the most cheery of endings, that, so why not flip back to page 2 of that issue of LIFE and enjoy the advert for Munsingwear “stretchy-seat” underwear for men of action. The seat alone is worth the price of admission!