Monthly Archives: March 2012

I once told a friend that nothing really ends, no-one can prove it

(BBBC Spoiler Warning: this post finally gets around to talking about the end of Mass Effect 3 but in broadly non-spoilery terms.)

Back at the start of the month I quoted David Mitchell on expectations, and to grab another piece from the same column:

“Our level of expectation is crucial to our enjoyment of food, wine, holidays, plays, films and TV shows. We flatter ourselves that we’re objective but our judgments are clouded by our hopes, by whether something was better or worse than we’d anticipated.”

Some people were particularly miffed about the end of Mass Effect 3 due to anticipation stoked by pre-release quotes from Bioware, but for me it was quite the reverse. The rumblings of discontent started with leaks, the storm broke with the US release, so even before the game was available in the UK the “Retake Mass Effect” initiative had kicked off and it was impossible to avoid the fact that a lot of people were Really Jolly Cross. Expectations duly set, as I started the final mission I was waiting for the game to format my hard drive while the screen flashed “HAW HAW THE REAPERS HAVE DELETED ALL YOUR DATA PUNY HUMAN”, or to cause the PC to eject the game disc with crushing force into my crotch. All through the mission I was anticipating some devastating blow; as we lined up for a final push, I was thinking “hmm, about to go ‘over the top’, a hint of Blackadder Goes Forth?”, and as everyone was cut down and the screen briefly faded to black I thought for a moment they really might have done it. Now that would’ve been brave.

The actual ending, though, was… all right. I’ve read a lot of cogent pieces articulating numerous problems with the ending(s), and some equally cogent counterarguments around certain aspects, a more nuanced and worthwhile debate than a blanket demand for a “better” ending when everyone has a slightly different idea of what “better” would mean. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone come out and praise it as the perfect conclusion to the series, it’s undoubtedly flawed, but it didn’t spoil the whole game for me, possibly in part because I was expecting it to be terrible thanks to the campaigns. Overall, though, Mass Effect 3 was a fantastic three-coarse meal, even if the dessert wasn’t quite up to scratch. Or if taking each course of the meal as a separate instalment of the series, most of the dessert was excellent (the high point of the meal, in fact), but the custard was a bit lumpy. OK, tell you what, if each of the three Mass Effect games is a separate three course meal, with Story, Combat and Progression represented by a different course, and Bioware are the chef, EA the waiter and the internet is the restaurant, then the mariachi band going around the tables (representing the 1981 NatWest Trophy winning Derbyshire cricket team) are playing the wrong song.

That analogy got away from me slightly, so I’ll borrow some words from author-type-person Joe Abercrombie instead:

“[The ending] was confusing, maguffin heavy, not really set up in this game let alone the earlier ones. As is so often the case, the villain’s plot, so mysterious and thrilling when unknown, seemed rather silly and baffling when explained. Plus heavy exposition from a glowing child is really, really never a good idea. On the other hand, I was so impressed with the sheer scale, bombast, and technical achievement of the action leading up to it I didn’t care.”

In pre-preparation for April 10th.

So April 10th is the big day we’ve all been waiting for. Yes indeed, on April 10th fans of KiaSA will finally be able to pre-purchase their pre-order for the post-purchase pre-order purchase of KiaSA: The MMO. Be aware that this pre-purchase of the post-purchase pre-order only gives you access to the beta test for the post-purchase pre-test pre-preview phase of the pre-post-purchase-order part of the KiaSA game. To be able to play KiaSA: The MMO upon release, you will need to return to the retailer from where you pre-purchased the post-order post-preview order for the pre-purchase early access post-beta pre-game access and present a valid proof of purchase, whereupon the retailer will give you a code which fully unlocks the pre-post-pending-past-participle-order for the early post-headstart pre-access for KiaSA: The MMO.

This pre-purchase of the post-purchase pre-order includes the following exclusive benefits:

  • access to the beta test for the post-purchase pre-test pre-preview phase of the pre-post-purchase-order part of the KiaSA game
  • access to the month of June from May 17th
  • an exclusive in-game cosmetic “I pre-purchased the post-purchase pre-order and all I got was this lousy tabard” tabard
  • an exclusive out-of-game make your own cosmetic tabard kit [*]
  • Exclusive forum post template, “You should have seen [class/item/ability] back in post-purchase pre-test pre-preview, that was really [overpowered/underpowered/wombling-free-powered]
  • an exclusive lifesize replica of YOU! [**]
  • KiaSA: The MMO – Pre-purchaser’s In-Game Store, where you can pre-purchase items for your character before they’re available for pre-order in the standard in-game store.

[*] kit consists of a felt tip pen and instructions on cutting a hole in the middle of a sheet then writing “I pre-purchased the post-purchase pre-order and all I got was this lousy tabard” with said felt tip.
[**] to access exclusive replica, look in a mirror.

Whatever you do, please make absolutely sure that you DO NOT enter the code for your pre-order post-purchase purchase before you’ve entered the pre-code for your pre-test post-access purchase order, which is the first four digits of the pre-purchase post-code in reverse order; failure to follow these instructions will result in your account being permanently locked and someone from the KiaSA team coming around to your house and pre-kicking your cat.

Thankfully, being an MMO, the launch of the KiaSA game should be smooth and seamless, and therefore the KiaSA team does not foresee any issue with this slightly expanded pre-release schedule for the post-game pre-order release.

Pre-thanks for your post-attention.

The KiaSA team.

Evolution of a Shepard.

I didn’t read many reviews of Mass Effect 3, didn’t need to, I knew I was going to buy it. What I haven’t seen much of –other than in passing comments– is how incredible the graphics are in this game; I mean, it’s more than a modest jump in improvement, it’s as though they shoved the graphics engine through a Mass Effect relay. That sort of jump.

As evidence, here are screen captures of my Shepard from the three episodes of the game. I remember watching some of the cutscene sequences in Mass Effect 3 and being profoundly impressed by the high fidelity and detail of the signal being sent to my retinas, but comparing these screenshots really slams home the magnitude of the improvement.

I really didn’t mind the ending of Mass Effect 3, but more on that in another post; regardless, I still can’t help but admire the improvements (not just the graphics) which BioWare keep bringing to their section of the genre, improvements which seem to have been generally overlooked or dismissed due to the unfortunate backlash which has occurred.

I hope BioWare continue to stick to their beliefs and make the RPGs that they want to make, because, my goodness, they seem to be getting exponentially better at it with each and every release.

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

“Shepard, where are we?”

“London… I think.”

“London? How did you work that out? Some sort of alien navigation fixing? Did EDI, our spaceship’s virtual intelligence, triangulate the location using the galaxy-spanning Mass Effect relays? Did you manage to patch your omni-tool’s computer microframe and sensor analysis pack into the Alliance spaceship fleet and get them to relay the output of your cybernetic tracking implant via subspace comms?”

“No, look, a red phone box.”

It’s comforting to know that, around two hundred years from now, we English folk will be firmly ignoring the flying cars, VIs, aliens, spaceships, Mass Effect relays, space stations and the like, and stalwartly sticking by the good old copper wire public payphone. ‘If it was good enough for my great-grandparents, it’s good enough for me. Now you kids get your hoverboards off my lawn!’

Did anyone else notice that each civilian corpse was wearing a bowler hat and clutching an umbrella?

Terry you slag you nicked the leg of time, give it back before you get a slap

This post for has been classified as Spoiler Free for Mass Effect 3 by the British Board of Blog Certification, but may include light spoiling of Mass Effect 1 or 2, early Star Wars: The Old Republic flashpoints, Dragon Age: Origins and the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (spoiler: he eats his shoe).

As widely observed by, to pluck some random examples, Kieron Gillen, Penny Arcade, Melmoth of this parish and Vic Sandman in the comments, the narrative personalisation of the Mass Effect series is rather impressive. The decisions of each player affect their own observable universe, and each instance of the game forms a separate strand of a Mass Effect multiverse in which other characters may be alive or dead, friend or foe, comrade or lover. Every time Shepard dies you take a peek down a different leg of the trousers of time where you fail to save the galaxy before quickloading back onto the right track.

It’s something I posted about before in Dragon Age: Origins, the way that a fundamental story can be the same for everyone at a very broad level (go to planet/village A, planet/village B, defeat The Big Evil, save the galaxy/world), and yet completely different in details. It’s something Bioware do rather well in their single players games, especially the way Mass Effect choices continue to ripple through the sequels, but it slightly unravels when transferred to a massively multiplayer setting in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

During the first Imperial flashpoint in SWTOR, Black Talon, the Captain of the titular ship refuses an order, and your party can either give him a stern talking to (“Now look here, Captain old thing, I’m awfully sorry but we’re really going to have to insist”) or, if taking a more Sith-like approach, kill him (“The penalty for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for the rest of the crew for not killing the captain for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for not bringing me a nice cup of tea is also DEATH! Now I come to think of it, the official Sith ‘Book of Penalties’ is just one page with ‘DEATH’ written on it…”) In a single player game this might crop up again later; perhaps you’d bump in the Captain on another planet and he’d be grateful that you spared him, while down the other leg of the trousers of time another player would meet the First Officer who’d taken over after his Captain had been demoted in a mysterious lightsabre-based industrial accident. In the shared universe of a MMOG both things happened, Schrödinger’s Captain is both alive and dead depending on who you talk to. Chat with someone who’s done the flashpoint a few times and it’s even more confusing:
“Oh, you’ve done the Black Talon, did you spare the Captain or kill him?”
“The first time, we spared him. Second time, we killed him. Third time I wanted to spare him, but got outvoted. Fourth and fifth times we were after the loot from the Republic group that spawns in if you spare him, then sixth through ninth was speed runs for social points so we killed him.”

Much of the narrative is experienced through the class-specific story missions, and these at least aren’t repeatable so make events more definitive per player, but you’re still sharing the world with other players who may have made different choices. I don’t think any of your SWTOR companions can die; if they could, the emotional impact would be lessened by seeing other versions of them accompanying other players around the world. Things are even more confusing across factions, as Spinks mentioned, due to visiting planets at different points in their timelines (or possibly alternate versions of them), rendering it all a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.

The class stories of SWTOR do work, but it doesn’t feel like they naturally mesh with the multiplayer elements of the game, the flashpoints and warzones and operations. It’s almost like playing two different characters, in the same way that you don’t take your Shepard into the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3. I wrapped up my Imperial Agent’s story and it was interesting enough, albeit with a slightly anticlimactic final confrontation with my nemesis (perhaps it was unfair to have been kitted out with gear from a few operations and quite a bit of end game PvP), but it never felt as personal as Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Like I mentioned I actually got into a bit of raiding in SWTOR, something I’ve hardly done before, and that had less than nothing to do with story; there’s probably some deep backstory about how The Infernal One ended up in The Eternity Vault and why he’s a Bad Person, but the Imperial briefing might as well be “There are dudes. They have loot. GO!” It’s probably best not to try and construct a narrative imperative to explain why this needs to happen twice a week and again at the weekend, the attraction is the prospect of loot, and the cameraderie of the guild who are a great bunch. I’d been meaning to keep dabbling in both SWTOR and ME3 but I’ve hardly logged in to the former since the latter arrived; it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely lost touch with the SWTOR guild, though, with forums, Twitter and blogs, so hopefully they won’t be too put out if I return at some point.

So as Gillen also tweeted “The silver lining to the ME3 ending debate: it shows the “who plays games for story?” position to be complete bullshit.”, but I don’t think a developer-driven story will be a vital pillar of MMOGs until they’re running on quantum servers.

The age demanded that we dance, and jammed us into iron pants.

There is as much definitive information in this post with regard to Guild Wars 2’s RMT system, as there is information in this post about the underpants I’m wearing:

I am wearing underpants.

So until anyone can accurately tell me the style, colour and condition of my underpants (and whether I’m wearing them on my head or not), they probably can’t tell me how well Guild Wars 2’s complex RMT system is going to interact with an as yet undefined player population, in an unreleased and unknown game system, with an item store that has no items defined for it, for an in-game economy that has yet to be established.

But still it won’t stop people being angry on the Internet about my underpants. Or blindly praising them to the heavens, if they’re fans and believe my underpants will host the second coming… ah, now there’s an unfortunate turn of phrase, but do enjoy the image!

“What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!” —- Lazarus Long

The key to good eavesdropping is not getting caught.

This post for Mass Effect 3 has been certified SF (Spoiler Free) by the British Board of Blog Certification.

I’ve been playing a fair bit of Mass Effect 3 recently, and when I say ‘a fair bit’ I do mean those extensive sessions of intensely focussed play, where every time the player blinks they see the game’s UI as a soft orange glow against the dark backdrop of their eyelids, and upon finally crawling into bed their dreams coalesce from a fog of the evening’s play which enshrouds their mind.

Dreams being dreams, mine didn’t stay true to Bioware’s carefully crafted Mass Effect universe for long, and I quickly found myself as Commander Nipplard, trying to protect the Areola galactic sector from the suffocating constrictions of the Bra’rians. It all turned out well in the end, especially when chocolate Roman Polanski flew me to the local supermarket and I got a job as a badger in the swimming pool section. With the Bra’rians clapped in irons, the finale of my dream was quite uplifting (and separating), unlike the nature of the Mass Effect 3 ending, of which I have managed to learn little, other than the fact that there are people on the Internet who are unhappy about it. ‘Are people on the Internet angry about things?’ is one of those rhetorical questions that’s right up there with popes and woods, or bears and Catholicism.

What I’ve taken away from Mass Effect so far is that it really is an exemplary example of how to gently evolve a game’s systems without breaking the continuity of the player experience. The evolutionary jump from Dragon Age to Dragon Age 2 was a brutal mass extinction event where players either rapidly evolved to the new order, or soon found their enthusiasm suffocating beneath the sticky tar pit of the unfamiliar game system. Mass Effect’s evolutions have been kinder. For example, the quest system has evolved once again in this latest incarnation of the game. Bioware have moved away from the improbable ‘butting-in to everyone’s conversation’ system, which led to such classically surreal scenarios as Commander Shepard helping a couple of complete strangers in deciding whether to abort their unborn child, a sort of drive-by moralising more in line with a comedy super hero, who drops from the sky to smack the unsure about their head with the Holy Book of Morals. The moral decisions have been maintained in the game, but now exist in a quick-fire choice of supporting one side or the other in a public argument, with each argument being tailored towards the events of the galaxy-spanning genocide at hand, rather than a four hour winding conversation which eventually leads to the question ‘Should NPC A continue to kick kittens?’

The new side-quest system instead involves Shepard overhearing conversations, finding the object of that conversation while out fighting the good fight, and then returning it to the NPC whose conversation was overheard. It’s a slightly more organic system, and certainly doesn’t grate as much as running up to complete strangers and punching them squarely in the conversation with your fist of moral obligations, but it’s still just a bit silly in the context of the cinematic and elegantly dominoed chain of events which form the main story. And me, being me, can’t help but wonder how far Shepard will go to overhear these conversations: sweaty naked couples in the heat of passion rolling over to see Commander Shepard peering above the end of the bed. “I couldn’t help but overhear… you were desperately trying to find a rare artifact called the G-Spot? Well, I just happen to have found one while fighting the Reapers on the planet Sirotilc Prime in the Avluv sector. Enjoy!” Then Shepard’s head slowly descends below the bedline, but when ecstatic ululations are not forthcoming, the Commander’s head slowly rises to peer above the end of the bed again. The shocked couple, their actions frozen mid-coitus, stare in stunned disbelief.

“I saaiid: ‘en-joy‘”

The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed

Here’s a fun new quiz, is the following headline: (a) an April Fools’ joke, (b) an actual news story or (c) a plot element from a near-future sci-fi novel?

“The Pirate Bay plans low-orbit server drones to escape legal jurisdiction”

The correct answer is (b), apparently, but it sounds a lot like something from Brasyl, and may yet turn out to be a mis-timed post that was supposed to go out on April 1st.

I predict the next move will be the RIAA unveiling its own fleet of hunter/killer drones armed with copyright-seeking missiles, forcing The Pirate Bay to launch further defensive forces. At that point there would be a great opportunity to take something like the World of Warplanes engine, hook it into the flight control systems, and make some money out of the conflict by charging pilots $14.99 a month.

The really worrying prospect would be completely automated copyright enforcing drones as they’d surely herald the Rise of the Machines, and it would be slightly ironic if it turned out that Judgment Day was sparked off by an attempt to stop people watching Terminator 2 in ten minute chunks on YouTube.

There never were, since the creation of the world, two cases exactly parallel.

Discussing the barest minimum of Mass Effect 3 details with m’colleague, lest either of us introduce the other to a spoiler and spontaneously combust as a result, we realised that our games had diverged over the course of the trilogy, and that having a meaningful discussion without spoilers was precluded by the fact that the foundations of our ‘universes in peril’ had surprisingly little common ground, outside of the main plotline at least.

Of course it quickly brought to mind the old topic of ‘static versus dynamic worlds’ with respect to the multiplayer experience, such as in MMOs, where games such as Ultima Online and EVE Online took the fine decision to make their game a framework of tools, tools which enable the most dynamic of all possible content –the players– to be the content for one another.

NPCs in my game, whom I love and indeed have loved, are entirely absent from m’colleague’s parallel sphere of existence, a situation over which my Shepard would give his Shepard a stern rebuke, if only she could find a way to travel between parallel universes. Alas, it’s in yet another universe entirely that humanity has discovered how to travel between different universes. And anyway, as soon as you leave your universe, that universe ceases to exist because an intrinsic part of it has been removed, meaning it could never have existed in the first place. Of course when *that* happens, *you* cease to exist, because your originating universe never existed, and thus you could never have existed. Which of course means that your universe could exist, because you never existed to leave it, so it pops back into existence. Along with you. Whereupon you find yourself on the point of leaving the universe and… oh dear.

And so without dynamically generated content, it’s quite the conundrum as to how to let different players experience the same content, within the same world, without introducing a paradox, or at least people getting into terrible fights.

Player 1: “Have you met NPC Geoff? This is NPC Geoff, one of my most loyal followers.”
Player 2: “How can that be? NPC Geoff is DEAD, I sacrificed him in order to save NPC Foxabella”
Player 1: “NPC Geoff is NOT dead!”
Player 2: “Yes. He is.”
NPC Geoff: “I, uh, I’m not. Right here.”
Player 2: “Yes you ARE [stabs]”
NPC Geoff: “Okay, now I am. Urk…”
Player 1: “No you’re NOT [casts Resurrect]”
NPC Geoff: “Well fi…”
Player 2: “ARE! [stabs]”
NPC Geoff: “Ow…”
Player 1: “ARE NOT! [casts Resurrect]”

And as for the ‘which NPC slept with which PC and when’ situation… awkwarrrrd. I mean, giving another playing character an accidental rogering due to an entangled NPC paradox causing your two timelines to intersect momentarily (and my what an intersection!), is the stuff that really bad fan fiction is made of.