Monthly Archives: February 2012

The game’s gotten old, the deck’s gone cold

There’s a spot of kerfuffle going on, with news that GAME won’t be stocking Mass Effect 3 (or other future EA titles). GAME Group plc, operators of the majority of game-specific high street shops in the UK, haven’t had a happy time of late, but I hadn’t been paying close attention when the stories involved financial restructuring or Ubisoft titles for the PS Vita. The ME3 news is a bit more pertinent, as I had a pre-order for it with them.

I’d been thinking about bricks and mortar anyway after I bought a PC game in an actual physical GAME shop a couple of weeks back. Alongside discount classics (like the original Mass Effect, ironically), driving test theory tutorials and Woodcutter Simulator (no, really) on the “3 for £10” racks they had a few boxes of Rift, which I figured was worth a speculative fiver in case the first 20 levels hooked me in. I spotted a box of World of Tanks as well that includes gold, credits, premium time and a PzKpfw 38H735(f) for less than they’d cost normally, so I picked that up too. Not a bad idea if you’re thinking of starting the game from scratch, you’ll be an instant powerhouse in the lower tiers with the 38H735, though I’d ignore the advice in the manual to spend all your gold and credits upgrading it, better to save them for later.

Thinking back, though, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought anything in there, apart from Guitar Hero World Tour with peripherals as the box wouldn’t fit through the letterbox and I didn’t want to faff around with courier deliveries on release day. I’m not even sure why I’d habitually drop in if walking past the shop, though “habitually” is probably the clue. There was always the fun of “see if the PC section has shrunk again”, the ever popular “spot the box for the MMOG that’s closed down” and “guess the number of Sims or Warcraft games in the PC Top 20” (double figures was usually a safe bet), but mail order was always cheaper for new releases, and Steam’s sales with crazy discounts undermined the hunt for a bargain.

Eurogamer have a weighty piece up on what the demise of GAME could mean for the industry, pros and cons. The PC is fairly insulated, with Steam, Origin and other digital distribution services well established already; World of Tanks has been online for almost a year, I imagine the physical boxes have given them a bit of a boost in revenue and users, but as a nice bonus rather than a core part of the business. You might remember I was quite fond of RUSE, and I’d seen a couple of articles about a Cold War game from the same developers, Wargame: European Escalation (I hope there’s a tie-in novel, Book: Techno-Thriller); hunting around the usual online retailers (GAME, Amazon, etc.) drew a blank, seems that download is the way to go. I doubt too many PC gamers would be greatly inconvenienced if GAME does go under, but it would be a shame. For all they might have thrown their weight around in the past, I (just about) remember a time when a shop selling nothing but games was a strange and wonderful idea.

The man in the coon-skin cap by the big pen wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten

Reading about the $870 worth of Mass Effect 3 DLC, I can’t help but think Bioware have missed a trick for Star Wars The Old Republic. Most of the ME3 cost comes from assorted toys, accessories and hardware peripherals that include DLC unlock codes – a mere £70 will get you a nylon bag with a code for an in-game assault rifle, a promotion much less controversial than an earlier plan to offer an AK-47 for £70 with a code that would unlock an in-game bag for additional inventory space (gamers were absolutely outraged that they’d have to clutter up their bedroom with piles of weaponry just to carry around more loot in the game).

For SWTOR there’s the Collector’s Edition with the high-quality action figurine character replica statuette (definitely not a doll), but I haven’t seen much other tie-in merchandise; I imagine this is due to the Star Wars IP, as George Lucas is notorious for his maniacal preservation of the artistic purity and integrity of his vision. Nevertheless there’s an opportunity for some classy, tasteful merchandise, not only from Bioware but all MMOG publishers, if they take a leaf from sports so that when a character reaches the in-game level cap the player has an opportunity to buy an actual physical cap. It could be embroidered with a classy, tasteful alphanumeric string that would unlock an in-game equivalent, so both player and character could sport the fetching headgear on the team bus back from the final mission, belting out a song over Ventrilo…

All right, maybe not. Unfortunately there’s not much else for me to look forward to having hit level 50 in SWTOR. The main problem is the PvP warzones that I’ve been participating in nigh-daily; just as Moridir observed in a previous comment, up to level 49 the boosting algorithms seem to work quite well to give a fairly level playing field. Lower levels are at a disadvantage, not having their full range of skills, but apart from that can still effectively contribute. A fresh level 50 is chucked into a pool that includes people who’ve been grinding gear for two months, and the potential power differential is vast. Without getting back into the age-old “gear vs skill” debate there’s not much incentive to hop onto the upgrade treadmill, slogging through tier after tier of gear, with little to look forward to apart from finding someone in inferior gear to dish out a kicking to, even the momentary pleasure of unleashing pent-up frustration denied by the self-knowledge that you’re just perpetuating the cycle.

I popped down to Ilum, the open world PvP zone, joined up with an ops group, and spent half an hour edging slightly forwards, then edging slightly backwards; massed combat in SWTOR isn’t much different to massed combat in WoW or WAR, or most other MMOGs I imagine, packs of players shuffling around, AoE heals generally countering AoE damage, and occasional stragglers being picked off; stray too far forward and a “yoink” ability pulls you into the middle of the enemy pack for instant death, but hang around in the middle of the pack and you’re probably safe. With roughly balanced forces it’s a cagey stalemate, which is at least a marginal improvement over a massacre followed by one side giving up.

There’s still the story, of course. I haven’t wrapped that up yet and I’m quite intrigued to see how it all pans out, but it hasn’t hooked me so much that I’m desperate to finish it. Interspersing the story with general planetary missions, flashpoints, warzones and the like has made it feel very fragmentary, my own doing, but an inevitable consequence of developer-driven narrative within a MMOG. That’s not the only factor; single player games have a much better chance of digging their story hooks in and The Witcher 2 didn’t manage it either, it’s been kicking around my Steam library somewhere near the start of Act 2 for months and I’m not sure I’ll go back, but the story alone wouldn’t keep me in SWTOR. That there are seven more stories to experience is a temptation to play other characters, and I’ve dabbled with several, but I’ve never really been one for alts. I might well come back for another stint in the future, probably playing a Republic Trooper (tried a couple of Jedi for a few levels and they were insufferably smug, and it’d be nice to have a different play style from the Agent, plus the female Trooper is voiced by Jennifer Hale); pottering about having a look at the first Republic flashpoint and seeing warzones from the other side has been fun, but not that different.

If ever there was a box I wouldn’t tick in the “What are you most looking forward to about Game X?” section of a questionnaire, it would be the one labelled “Raiding”. Unless there was another one labelled “The complete absence of hats”. Or “The fascinating socio-political debates in /general”. Anyway, I’ve never been serious a raider, had no great desire to participate in eight man SWTOR operations like the Eternity Vault, but the afternoon after I hit 50 the guild had a run planned, I had a couple of spare hours, and it turned out to be rather fun. Plenty of clustering up and running away and hopping over stepping stones and pushing buttons, shepherded by our chilled raid leader with some assistance from a more hardcore raider we grabbed from general chat to round the team out (who was good enough to only point out how simple an encounter was after a couple of wipes; I like to think what we lacked in cohesion and gear we made up for with enthusiasm and charm, like excitable puppies at an obedience class just about getting the hang of “sit”, briefly). I was only personally responsible for one failed encounter (as far as I remember, losing a DPS race when we split into eight separate one-on-one encounters; slowly chipping down a tank-ier mob worked better) and got a couple of purple gear upgrades out of it, happy days.

It’s been a good run and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, but the time’s come to hang up SWTOR for a while, especially with Mass Effect 3 imminent. While the subscription ticks down I wouldn’t mind taking another look at Eternity Vault or Karagga’s Palace; I don’t think I’ll be becoming a regular raider, but it’s a lot more attractive than warzones at the moment.

To a valet no man is a hero.

In Rift my Bahmi has a racial ability: Mighty Leap.

It has little effect in PvE; mobs will still aggro if I try to leap over the top of them; I can sometimes use it to negotiate that damnable bane of all MMO heroes – the slight incline in terrain; but generally the ability does nothing.

Except look exceptionally cool.

I can use it to leap past an unsuspecting mob (admittedly not hard, seeing as, outside of a five yard radius, they all have the observational skills of a mole in a blindfold ), and if I position myself just right, I can land with a thud in front of them, and follow it immediately by a second thud, delivered with force to their braincase using my two-handed hammer.

It’s Batman. It’s Hulk. It’s Neo. And it’s Goku. It’s Spiderman; Predator; Aang.

It’s V.

It’s glee.

It’s you. And me.

Isn’t that what a hero should be?

That was a party political broadcast on behalf of the Still Just A Goddamn MMO Valet Party.

Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more, than when we have nothing and want some.

Rift has me happily frustrated – the difference between having a hyperactive puppy and feral cat on the end of a leash. Where the puppy strains with loll-tongued enthusiasm against its master’s restraining pull, desperate to investigate all the new things in the world –which primarily involves chasing cats, ducks, rabbits, other dogs, flies, leaves, shadows, and various other adversaries which the puppy has clearly made the hell up– the feral cat is generally to be found being dragged along on its back, or face, or pretty much any part of its body that isn’t its feet, while it claws and chews and hisses and yowls at the leash, the holder of the leash, and more than likely itself at several points during the ordeal.

My overarching frustration is with the soul system; my happiness with it comes from the fact that it provides me with the fundamental urgency and drive to continue playing the game. The soul system provides a nice level of flexibility with respect to character builds, with the standard caveat that this only applies to non-raiders who aren’t interested in optimising the heck out of every soul point. I prefer entertainment over efficiency when it comes to games, where optimisation is, for me, a vampire which preys on entertainment, sucking the fun from it and leaving nought but the dry empty husk of complicit conformity. Working hard. Efficiency. Toeing the corporate line. This is what I do in the real world, and because of that, when I enter a virtual world I want to be able to hunt naked through a forest, dance wild and carefree with my swords beneath a curtain of rain, or wade aimlessly across the snowy back of a mountain at the top of the world. Skyrim managed to invoke that feeling of blithe liberty, of spontaneity and sovereignty in sublime union, and I will always admire it for that.

I have a build for my warrior in Rift, a fairly common combination of Reaver/Paladin/Warlord because I do love me some self-healing tank, but I’ve eschewed the deep thirty eight point investment in Reaver that is common amongst end-game builds, instead opting for a little more variety, flexibility and fun by delving deeper into the Paladin soul. The frustration comes from the fact that I now have a build which I think will be a lot of fun to play, but I’ll need to get close to level fifty (the current level cap) before it all comes together and realises its full potential. Thus the happy frustration, where every level I gain more points towards completing my character, but in the meantime the character feels somewhat disjointed – a fractured piece of a greater whole. Rift still manages to achieve that careful balancing act, however, where the levelling leash both holds me back and at the same time enlivens my enthusiasm for progress.

The most dangerous temptation, of course, is to play an alt. I switched to my low level cleric alt last night, and the hit of gratification from getting soul points so quickly in those early levels was the MMO equivalent of shooting up, “Ohhhhhhh yeah. Mmmmmm, three soul points in as many minutes. That hit the spot, that hit the spot gooooood.[gurgle][slump]”. Thankfully there’s always Mrs Melmoth to keep me grounded, who takes exception to watching me sit in the dark and dribble into my keyboard, the hugely dilated pupils in my ghost-lit face staring blankly into the computer’s window of neon aurora.

My other happy frustration comes from Rift’s combat system, but I’ll save that for another post, where my recent travails with respect to LotRO’s combat system will hopefully provide a suitable (and possibly lengthy) counterpoint to my experiences with Rift.

Thought for the day.

Mentoring systems –such as those seen in games like EQ2, CoH and STO– are still rarity in the genre, despite being an obvious enabler to allowing friends to play together. Yet most MMOs implement some form of PvP where players of varying levels are slammed together, with the level disparity ‘normalised’ by temporarily increasing the level of the lowest players.

Thus the system is often applied to PvP, where lower level players are more likely to be put off playing again because they are dramatically behind the power curve of higher level players (due the significant differential in equipment, number of powers, etc), and are in direct competition with those players.

Yet the system is often not applied to PvE, where lower level players are more likely to be prevented from playing with friends if they are dramatically behind the power curve of friends who are at a higher level, and are thus unable to join them in a cooperative effort.

It seems to me, at first glance, like a curiously backwards convention of design.

I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized

Via the RPS Sunday Papers there’s a rather nice piece on Kotaku, “Gameplay and Story Are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s a neat analogy; without music, music isn’t music (said Captain Tautology), and without gameplay you haven’t got a game. Gameplay alone works just as well as music with no vocals, but story can be just as integral to a great game as lyrics can be to a great song. Just as most game stories don’t stand up particularly well on their own, lyrics don’t have to, so long as they work in the context of the music; separated from a song they can be trite or indeed gibberish, “tutti frutti, ah rooty” indeed. They don’t have to be particularly intelligible or meaningful to be a vital element, an instrumental version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wouldn’t be the same.

There was a recent Gamasutra post, “Putting story before gameplay ‘a waste of time’ says Jaffe”, and reframing it in music/lyrics terms is quite interesting. Writing 90 verses of fantastic lyrics for a song is indeed a waste of time if they’re accompanied by someone banging some railings with a stick. Likewise a game can have a fantastically involving story, but if experiencing it involves awful controls, wonky camera angles and generally terrible gameplay it’ll rightly get slated. That’s pretty obvious. What Jaffe is really railing against, though, is gameplay being sacrificed for story, which is more difficult to parallel in music; I’m struggling to think of lyrics actively making a song worse, apart from perhaps deliberately offensive lyrics. There’s Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long”: “we were trying different things, we were smoking funny things” sets my teeth on edge, but it’s not like the song was any good to start with; Geezer Butler has the same rhyming-a-word-with-itself problem in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (“generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses”), but it doesn’t spoil the song for me. I don’t think it would be misrepresenting the general position to frame it musically as: the music is the important thing, not the words. And by and large I’d agree, but there are exceptions. Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is musically simple (a few strummed chords and a bit of harmonica), but the lyrics propel it for seven and a half minutes. With a plethora of quotable lines, notably “money doesn’t talk, it swears”, it works. If it had no words, or seven minutes of “Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong”, it wouldn’t. The music/gameplay needs to be solid enough to support the base, but an RPG or adventure game can have straightforward gameplay (hit monster with sword get loot/use every item with every other item and bit of scenery in a desperate bid to work out what the hell the designer was thinking of), it’s the combination of that with a story that can elevate them.

Jaffe is fine with games like Skyrim where “the player by the very nature of playing the game … is the story”, but the analogy breaks down if you try and crowbar player-driven vs developer-driven narrative into it (Karaoke? People making up their own words to an instrumental? An otter singing along to the noise made by the machinery of an ice cream factory?) It’s clearly not perfect, but I think there’s one other area where a musical parallel may be appropriate, the idea that as technology has brought more cinematic elements to games, so developers can lose sight of gameplay in a bid to tell a story in a medium not designed for it: “If you’ve got something inside of you that’s so powerful … why the fuck … would you choose the medium that has historically been the worst medium to express philosophy and story?”

Now I’m not a big fan of musicals, ballet or opera, but I’m not going to try and shoot them down as sub-optimal mediums for telling a story; “Look, Mozart, this Figaro geezer getting married or whatever? Just leave it to a playwright and get on with writing a kick-arse symphony, yeah?” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a radio series, novel, TV show, film, adventure game, comic, several stage shows and commemorative towel without a definitive version (though the towel is probably closest), each brings out different facets that appeal more or less to different people. Games are a young medium, they might not have excelled at telling stories so far, but that’s no reason not to try.

KiaSA’s Guild Wars 2 beta press preview.

M: Alright Mr Z, we’ve been playing in a recent press beta event, so what do we think about this so called Guild Wars 2, if that even is its real name.

Z: It’s not really a name is it?

M: ‘Guild Wars 2’ ?

Z: Indeed, it somewhat fails to convey the majesty and beauty of the game which lies hidden beneath that veil of ponderous nomenclature.

M: So we propose a different name?

Z: Absolutely so, and so absolutely. Something which does not belie the noble spirit and thrilling adventure which is found in this gamiest of games.

M: Such as?

Z: Neville.

M: Guild Wars: Neville?

Z: No, just Neville. I think that is a name which covers all the necessary bases required by an MMO of this magnitude.

M: Very well, so what do we think of it? I, for one, thought there were a few too many radishes.

Z: It was quite radishy, was it not?

M: I mean, there were radish people, radish houses, a giant minefield of explosive radishes. Three out of the five skills on my warrior’s hotbar were radish based…

Z: Ah, but were you not wielding a radish in your main hand at the time?

M: Well, yes of course, what other weapon could there be for the savage combatant?

Z: I myself prefer a radish in the off-hand, matron, thus leaving my main hand free to wield the more versatile glaive-glaive-glaive-guisarme-gooseberry

M: Well, each to their own. At least Neville 2…

Z: No, no; just ‘Neville’.

M: At least ‘Neville’ allows for a wide range of weapons within a class, although locking certain class play-styles to certain weapons may prove awkward in the long run.

Z: Speaking of ear plugs, what did we think about the World vs World vs World combat?

M: I thought they did rather well to find an arena that could hold three worlds, and frankly it was exactly the spectacle one would imagine it to be. When that one world took the folding table and smashed it over the back of that other world, while the third world leapt from the top rope and did a powerbomb on the world with the folding table? That was pretty neat.

Z: I’m just not sure about those leotards.

M: I suppose the various worlds did look a bit silly in all that figure-hugging lycra…

Z: No, ‘leotard’. Not sure about it. It should sound like leopard, but it has delusions of grandeur and affects a ridiculous pronunciation. I bet it drives a Range Rover Sport and lives in Wilmslow. Stupid leotards.

M: Right you are. But let’s talk more about Neville.

Z: Lovely fish and chips.

M: Hmm?

Z: Neville. Owns the restaurant at the end of the road. Does a mean cod in batter.

M: Ah, no, the other Neville, the one you stayed up all night playing with over the weekend.

Z: I never! This Neville sounds like a lascivious slattern!

M: I’m talking about Guild Wars 2.

Z: You mean Neville?

M: Yes.

Z: Well why didn’t you say so? All this talk of midnight philandering with strangers…

M: I wasn’t quite sure about the starship combat – didn’t really seem to fit in with the general magi-punk setting outlined in all the preview videos.

Z: It certainly was a curious addition, although perhaps they’re trying to capture some of the Star Wars: The Old Republic market. The fact that you can customise your spaceship is a positive, however.

M: Absolutely. But basing all the starship designs around the 1948 Bristol 400, albeit in an incredibly painterly style, is somewhat odd. I gave mine a fur-lined steering wheel though – fallalish.

Z: Another feature I enjoyed was that of the dynamic rifts which appear across the land.

M: Oh yes, most interesting. Did you notice that they happened to be in the form of Arthas Menethil’s spread buttocks.

Z: Really? That’s genius, I hadn’t ev…

Zoso: Hoy!

M: Busted!

Melmoth: I say, what the dickens?!

Z: Leg it!

Zoso: Who the blarmed blazes was that?

Melmoth: I’ve really no idea. I mean, they looked almost exactly like us, except for the evil-looking twirly moustache and black eyeliner.

Zoso: I quite like my twirly moustache, it’s not that evil is it?

Melmoth: No more than my black eyeliner. D’you get into the Guild Wars 2 press beta?

Zoso: Nah, I think it’s meant for, y’know, press and fan sites.

Melmoth: And we’re not a fan site?

Zoso: You wrote an entire post satirising their artistic justifications for skimpy armour design.

Melmoth: I just think they have something against twirly moustaches and black eyeliner, which is rich coming from a company that called their game Guild Wars 2.

Zoso: Well quite; I think it’s clearly a Leslie, or maybe even a Clifford Prodger.

Melmoth: I certainly think it’s trying to live up to being a Clifford Prodger, let’s hope that all the genuine gushing beta preview reports are true.

Zoso: And that we do indeed have a most magnificent Clifford Prodger on our hands.

Melmoth: I wouldn’t mind having a Clifford Prodger on my hands, that’s for sure.

Zoso: Yes, I’ve heard the rumours.

Thought for the day.


In Skyrim I see a mountain and think ‘I’ve found a source of adventure.’

In a fantasy MMO I see a mountain and think ‘I’ve found another wall of the sheep pen.’


“Level 21 tank LFG dung”

If you end up in a shitty PuG, at least you’ll know why.


If a player decides it’s better to jump from the top of the castle tower and die, then rez, rather than fight their way back down again, is the death penalty too low, the content too tiresome, or the player too jaded?

If honour be your clothing, the suit will last a lifetime.

In any case, despite my frustrations, it seems that a decent set of cosmetic female armour is indeed obtainable in Rift, with a little bit of dedicated searching and saving.

I’m most pleased with the ensemble, and there’s even a nice winged helmet to go with it too, part of the ‘one month veteran’ reward set; I can certainly see myself getting the three month veteran rewards if the game continues to hook me the way it has thus far.

The truth is, hardly any of us have ethical energy enough for more than one really inflexible point of honor.

It is probably from a terribly male perspective that I agreed with Katy Perry when she sang that “girls are so magical, soft skin, red lips, so kissable”, but it also frames the reason why I often play female characters in MMOs: not because I want to look at a cute bottom, but because I enjoy the juxtaposition of taking such an incarnation of loveliness, wrapping her in a hulking suit of armour, and having her kick the ten living arse bells out of a muscleheap of ogres.

I find it strange, therefore, that this is one of the few areas where MMOs (and many other games) still seem to skirt around the issue; skirt being the operative word here, because finding a female suit of armour without a skirt component –more often one which barely offers protection for the pubic bone, let alone any major skeletal structures below it– is still uncommonly difficult.

It’s not an objection to the more sexualised style of armour, you understand – each to their own. It is the almost wanton lack of alternatives which serves as the basis for my confoundedness. It seems strange to have a general level of acceptance for, say, the curious dichotomy of orcs being mages and warlocks, with them wearing frilly robes and carrying little wands (which you’d imagine the stereotypical green brute would be more likely to use for picking its nose, or spontaneously shoving up the bum of a fellow orc for comedic effect), while still having such resistance to allowing the option of presenting the female form in a non-sexual manner.

Of course it’s not all bad: Lord of the Rings Online offers a splendid variety of armour items, and, as far as I’m concerned, is still the best fantasy MMO by far for allowing players the freedom to create precisely the character they wish to present to other players and the game world.

My recent experiences in Rift prompted this latest post on the subject. Rift has, in its Borg-like development process, assimilated the wardrobe function of other MMOs into its own MMO-mechanical systems, but upon searching through the cosmetic armour options for my female warrior, I found the armour designs to predominantly consist of bikinis, skirts and exposed midriffs. And this perhaps serves as a reflection of how I perceive Rift in general: it does its best to include those features which players often laud in other MMOs, but it does this in the aforementioned Borg-like fashion – indiscriminate. Thus I’m left with a general impression (which may be entirely unfair) that these features are included without understanding why the players want them, with the eponymous rifts being the feature of exception, which Trion not only absorbed, but really managed to improve upon.

As I mentioned, Rift prompted this post, but I’ve talked about the issue many times before. I’m also well aware that it’s one of those topics which endlessly haunts ships on the blogging sea, but shouldn’t that then reinforce the point that this might be a genuine issue for a modest section of the player base? It’s clearly not a big enough issue to drive the majority of players away, but I can’t help but feel that as long as an issue such as this persists, it maintains a perfect example of the MMO genre’s fabled stagnation and rigid inflexibility, an adamantine resistance to the penetration of consensus, which no steel skirt or bronze bra could ever hope to emulate against arrow or sword.