Monthly Archives: May 2012

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.

The revelry for the Queen’s diamond jubilee is due to get under way here in the (not so) United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Nations (formally The Empire – cue The Imperial March) this coming weekend. I find myself unable to get excited about the event and, but for mini-Melmoth, would probably have hidden myself away until the whole sorry celebration had passed. I look back at previous jubilees and see people in carefree celebration of their love for Queen and Country, but now there seems to be the acrid fug of corporate sponsorship hanging over the whole affair, and in my darker moments I imagine later in my life watching films of the event, where children sit at long tables, wearing their Lloyds TSB t-shirts, eating little cakes with Hasbro logos on the top, and waving their Mastercard flags at the camera. More though, it seems to me as if a large section of society is keen to participate not with a mind to enjoying the rare pomp and circumstance that comes with a monarch’s long reign, but being able to brag at a later date of ‘having been there’ to those who weren’t. For me, it’s another small sample from the petri dish which cultures the sickness of modern society.

As m’colleague astutely pointed out: ‘Bit like MMO betas…’

Someone pulling the “Well, I was there in beta” seniority gambit is always a reliable indicator that the conversation is on a fast track to nowhere good. It’s been amusing to watch, with the openness of MMO betas in recent times, how this has now been amended to ‘closed beta’. Even better if you can lay claim to ‘in from alpha’ supremacy.

In alpha, am Alpha.

It seems to me that there will be difficulty in escalating this war of ultimate authority much further, without having to resort to claims of being a member of staff. Nevertheless, I’ll still not be surprised when I see someone yelling on a forum that they’re friends with someone who walks the dog of the partner of the hairdresser who once cut the hair of the community manager when they were in town for a convention.

And I frankly can’t wait for


which wins by a nose over

“I’m in a secret beta” (which I can’t tell you anything about. But I can tell you that I’m *in* the secret beta. And I must. Because then you’ll be fully aware that I am somewhat better than you.)

as the sort of strange statement which will make me Spock an eyebrow.

I think it’s a little sad that, for a large section of the community, these events have become nothing more than achievements themselves, titles perhaps, to be collected and displayed as little indicators of how they’re superior to all the other collectors of virtual tchotchke. And once the lording-it-over-others is complete, it’s swiftly on to the bitching-at-the-developers; primarily, it seems, because the beta wasn’t the immaculate gaming experience that the player had been fantasising over, as a substitute for that ruined copy of Penthouse under the bed.

So if you are in a beta for an MMO in the coming weeks because, oh I don’t know, you were lucky enough to be able to afford a ‘pre-purchase’, or lucky enough to win a competition for access, try to remember that it’s your chance to make the game a better place for others. By all means take the time to experiment with the game as you will, to blast through content and burn yourself out before the thing has even launched, if that’s your wont. But when you encounter a problem or frustration, as is the way of a beta, take a moment to report it in a calm, considered and constructive fashion. MMOs are big and complex beasts, and it is possible – however unlikely – that you may find a weakness which has not been found before.

Those are the achievements I’d like to see rewarded, and perhaps MMO developers should consider taking a more active part in this: handing out in-game perks and rewards for players having discovered bugs which were confirmed and fixed in beta. It could be a splendid way to get more players trading their glory for passion. Then again, maybe I’m wrong entirely, and MMO developers see beta as simply another source of fuel for the hype machine. But rare is the MMO beta which sees an overwhelmingly positive response from the online community, and indeed, it seems to me that it more often establishes a core community which is privileged and needy in spirit.

I believe a game’s community is grown, as though from seed. Thus, it would behove developers to consider well the current nature of beta tests, for this is the critical stage of sapling growth, where community can be both encouraged and guided, and then cultivated to a mature crop. Or it can be left to wither and sprawl, where it will eventually choke upon the suffocating rancour of its own thorny creepers. For, as much as I despair at the communities which tend to form around these MMO betas, you do, after all, reap what you sow.

The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration

Mass Effect 3 got a new multiplayer DLC pack yesterday, ‘Rebellion’, including two maps, three weapons and six new characters, much like April’s ‘Resurgence’ pack. I haven’t posted about ME3 since finishing the story in March, but I’ve been playing the multiplayer since then, hopping in for a quick 20 minute dash now and again, shouting “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!” a lot. You don’t *need* to shout “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!”, the guns in the game make actual sounds and everything, but I find it helps. Pro tip, though: don’t hold down the push-to-talk button while shouting “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA”, for some reason other players find it less helpful.

I played through most of the Mass Effect series as an Infiltrator, heavy on the sniper rifles, and started out similarly in multiplayer, but it’s a rather different prospect when waves of mobs are charging around the place, you don’t tend to have so much time to line up your shots (though Infiltrators seem to be the class of choice for the hardest difficulty levels, when tooled up with a Black Widow). I switched to Adepts, Sentinels and Engineers for a while, focused more on biotic- or tech-powers, but after unlocking a Krogan Soldier discovered the Joy of Melee. Running towards a bunch of Cannibals full-pelt, unleashing the heavy melee charge/headbutt/swipe and laughing (both in and out of game) is great fun, though since superseded by the Batarian from the Resurgence DLC pack who couples short-range high-damage Ballistic Blades with a magnificent SUPERPUNCH as a lethal one-two combo. It’s been most illuminating, trying out different races and classes and their play styles.

I doubt ongoing multiplayer numbers are going to be challenging Team Fortress 2 or Warcall of Halofare Dutyfield, but 1,800 years of time played in the first few weeks isn’t to be sniffed at. It’s testament to the combat mechanics of Mass Effect 3 that they stand up well enough on their own to make a decent game, comparable perhaps to something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fallout Tactics that took CRPG systems into a more combat-focused direction, or Wing Commander Academy (if anyone’s misty-eyed for the halcyon days of gaming past when publishers were benevolent charities, before the evils of “Day Zero DLC” and the like sullied the whole business with squalid money, bear in mind Wing Commander Academy was pretty much the Wing Commander 2 engine with no plot or missions, shoved in its own box as a standalone game).

If EA/Bioware are such bastards, you have to wonder as well why the two multiplayer DLC packs so far have been free. Fear of more bad publicity after the ME3 ending business? Seems unlikely, passage of time and the promise of “clarification” seems to have calmed things down, Retake ME3 on Twitter has been quiet since April, the Facebook page looks like it’s mostly just internal bickering now. Generosity of spirit? Would be nice, but also seems a touch unlikely. They make the money from players spending to unlock new equipment? Seems plausible; I enjoy the multiplayer well enough, but not to the point of shelling out real money on a couple of maps, whereas the prospect of some new characters and weapons is bound to be enough to get a few impatient people splashing out the Bioware points on equipment packs. The gambling aspect of the equipment packs still makes me a little uneasy, but if free DLC packs are part of the equation that sweetens the pill slightly.

Time to Windmill.

A quick update to my previous take on Old Man Murray’s deeply splendid Time to Crate review system for FPS games.

I happened to notice the windmill in the background of this screenshot from the post earlier today, and I was quickly reminded of the splendid windmills found near the start of the introductory area for the humans in Warhammer Online. Then I started to fancy that I saw a windmill somewhere in Guild Wars’ pre-searing Ascalon. And wasn’t there one or more in World of Warcraft’s Westfall? For certain I know there were windmills in Lord of the Rings Online.

A very quick search on Google shows windmills in Vanguard and Guild Wars 2 too.

So, Time to Windmill, then. Find out how quickly you can reach the first windmill in your MMO of choice from a starter area. Time it as a simple on-foot run by a high level character (who can then avoid most mobstacles, depending on where the nearest windmill is located). Use travel points only to cross between areas where travelling on foot is impossible. I think the method outlined is fairer than the time a new character takes to level their way to a windmill, as that would be too dependent on a player’s skill/knowledge in levelling.

My current theory is that every fantasy MMO has a windmill somewhere. See if you can find yours.

Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.

It’s not all bikinis and brassieres in Tera. Admittedly it is primarily bikinis and brassieres, but I thought I’d offer up a couple of screenshots of my main character as proof. At least you now know that there’s one character in Tera not wearing a bikini, and I think I saw one other male character wandering around at some point. Possibly. It was a little hard to tell because my view was blocked by a barricade of boobs.

First up, over to the right, we have one of my alts – Pusillus the popori. Who I think is really rather cute, as far as kittens with mohawks, warpaint and a battle axe go, at any rate.
Here’s my Aman Slayer, currently my main character, sporting a lovely straps and shoulders leather number, delightfully accessorised with an off-the-hip blue bath towel. Sassy! And yet practical too; washing the gore from hands and sword was never so easy. Introducing the all new Brigandine & Bath Robe armour from Kaiator International! Take two armour sets into the shower? Not me, I just slaughter and shower in one!
And those aren’t lamellar plates, ladies, that’s 100% prime Amani dragon beef. Hel-loooo scaly!

I have to say, as far as ‘not a lot of armour’ looks go, I really like the barbarian design they have for male characters in Tera. Despite my hand towel jests, the half-robe half-armour style is one which really tickles my fantasy fancy, much like my character’s plate’n’dress Templar armour in Dragon Age: Origins.

Later armour models for the Slayer include trousers and such, which will never do, but thankfully our old friend Ankia the Equipment Remodeller (with her equipment all hanging out) will let me keep the cosmetic look of my current armour set, should I so desire.

Speaking of cosmetic items, En Masse have recently had a community event where they posted a video to Facebook extolling the virtues of their action combat system, and at set levels of ‘shares’ of the video on Facebook they would post codes for cosmetic items in the game. The code grants one item, for use on one character only, which is a bit of shame if you’re an altoholic like me, but the cosmetics are nice: a pair of sassy spectacles, a pirate eye patch and a cat mask. The top level of Facebook ‘shares’ was reached in such a short space of time that En Masse released a special bonus level, set exceedingly high, which will unlock a pirate hat should the Tera community achieve the goal.

I think it’s well understood that community is what makes an MMO great, and it’s perhaps not surprising that we’re seeing MMO publishers looking to those established online communities, such as Facebook, in order to promote their game to as wide an audience as possible, through a series of incentives designed to appeal to their core fan base. It seems like a natural strategy to me, although there is perhaps an inherent danger in encouraging your more rabid fans into spamming others with promotional material for your game; the Tera community blitzed the early levels of the En Masse event, such that the initial three cosmetic items were unlocked before I was even aware that the event existed.

On the topic of community events, Tera’s first run of its political system is well under way. There are three regions to vote for, and multiple players running for Vanarch in each. In the screenshot you can see the current exit poll status for Northern Shara, and my vote marked against the Fairy Tail candidate (I think I can reveal my vote without spoiling the ballot), who was in second place as of last night when I took a grab of the screen. As long as your character is level twenty, an icon appears below the mini-map which opens a window showing you the candidates for each region; a little party political broadcast piece, written by the candidate, explaining what their policies will be; and a button allowing you to cast your vote. Not surprisingly, nearly every candidate is offering low taxes (Vanarchs can set taxes on NPC shops in their region), as well as additional amenities in the towns. A player can vote once for each region, and receives a useful health potion in the post as a reward for each vote, so there’s a minor incentive to vote, perhaps aimed at those players who aren’t simply intrigued by such a system; certainly a political sub-game to the main MMO grind has the potential to qualify for a Hemlockian Nifty![TM] award, so we’ll have to see how it plays out, and, importantly, whether it has any real impact on the game. I’m quite excited for it, playing as I am on an RP server, because it has the potential to support a complex political dynamic within the RP community, directly within the game’s system.

And finally, just because he’s such a handsome fellow, a screenshot of my current mount. Press the spacebar when stationary and he lets out the most almighty thundering roar, such that I keep expecting to see his lungs come flying out of his mouth, as if from a cannon. There are a fair few design traits which detract from Tera, but by golly there’s a fair bit to like too.

With a whole lot of nothing on your way to nowhere.

One cannot easily express the joy of discovering that specific class in an MMO which just clicks. After time spent slogging along with the class which you think you ‘ought’ to be playing, or which you think would ‘make a nice change’, you reach that moment of despondency where you consider giving up the game. On a whim, you roll a class that you’d been avoiding, because it’s the flavour of the month perhaps, or a certain type of player is generally associated with the class, and you worry that you’ll be an accessory to that sort of reputation. Regardless of reason, you grudgingly roll a new character of that class. Like conciliatory sex, you’re not quite sure how you got started, and you’re determined not to enjoy yourself, but within five seconds you’re wondering what all the fuss was about, and five seconds after that you’re blissfully unaware of anything at all, utterly enraptured as you are by the endorphins of the event.

In the case of the MMO, you’re transformed in an instant from the unnamed father on Cormac McCarthy’s road, into Julie Andrews cresting a sunlight-dappled hill, grass rippling beneath the breeze’s gentle stroke.

‘And the hills are aliiiiiiiive, with the sound of slaughterrrrrrrr!’

And your partner stares in horror at you from their place on the sofa, as, with arms raised, you unleash this shrill falsetto, which threatens to shatter their teeth and your PC’s monitor, and sets half the cats in the neighbourhood into a frenzy of angry confused copulation.

Such was my pleasure at trying the Slayer class in Tera, where before I’d been busy grinding away with the Lancer, which is the game’s tanking class and, shock of shocks, also in short supply for dungeon runs towards the end-game.

Here’s a tale, tell me if you’ve heard it before:

Tera has issues with players trying to form groups for dungeons; the primary block is the fact that the game’s de facto tanking class, the Lancer, is in short supply. Lancers queue for only a few minutes before they’re assigned to a dungeon group, whereas it’s reported that every other class will face a wait of forty to sixty minutes. Why the shortage of tanks? Well, it doesn’t help that the Lancer is the only classic tank at the moment, whereas the other tanking class, the Warrior, is an evasion tank which is both a lot harder to play and a lot harder to heal, outside of expert hands. This is due to change in a future patch, but for the time being, the Lancer is *the* tank. One class, out of a pool of eight.

I think it’s also fair to say that the levelling game in Tera is an unabashed grind, with fights getting progressively longer as the players rise in level; Darwin’s great theory is alive and well in Tera, as evidenced by natural selection favouring those mobs who evolve extra zeros on the end of their hit points. And in the fine tradition of MMOs, the Lancer is a complete slug when it comes to the inevitable solo levelling grind. No DPS stance is granted because, one assumes, it would be considered unfair on the poor DPS classes, who don’t have an alternative role to switch to. So the Lancer class has the rougher responsibility of trying to be a tank in dungeons, and the tougher time of trying to level as a tank outside of dungeons. I mean, it seems fair to me, that’s why we see so many tanks at the end ga… oh wait, I think I might see a problem. I think I’ve got it… I… no. Wait! Yes. Wait! No. No. Yes. No… Hang on. Ye… Mmm. Yes! Got it! Now I could be wrong, but I think this could be one of those issues that’s been reported –here and elsewhere around the blogosphere– on and off, for the past six or more years.

Next up: Why do players solo in MMOs (when they can’t get a group as a DPS class, and tanking is a thankless tedious grind for ninety percent of the player’s time)? Gee, we’ll have to get our greatest experts of expertness on that one right away, Bob.

To my mind the MMO genre as a whole isn’t dying, but it does seem as though it has been floundering for some time. Pundits keep coming up with reasons as to why: ‘Games cost too much to develop’; ‘MMOs are too complicated’; ‘Players are fickle’; ‘The subscription model is outdated’; ‘The subscription model is the One True way to pay for an MMO and F2P is destroying everything’. And on and on. For me it’s this: for whatever reason, a staggering number of MMOs simply refuse to unlearn old falsehoods.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal

Syp asks “Progress?”, comparing character screens of Fallout 2 to Mass Effect 3. Spoiler: the answer is “yes”. Particularly as, in the comments on Wilhelm’s piece on talent trees, Syp clarifies: “I’m not huge on talent trees either. What I want are clear, meaningful choices for my character — and lots of them.”

I like a nice bit of character creation far, far more than the next man, unless the next man also has a vast army of pencil and paper characters not dead, but sleeping in dusty folders of photocopied character sheets. Computer RPGs aren’t great at options and choices, though, every possibility has to be considered by the developers and implemented within the constraints of the game, an increasing burden as time moves on from 2D sprites and a bit of typing to complex 3D graphics, voice acting and the like. From another older post:

The journey from pencil and paper RPG to computer RPG to MMO has generally been one of convergence. There’s an Encampment of Generic Monstrous Humanoids threatening the local Village of Friendly Villagers, Neville the Mayor wants you to take care of it. In a pencil and paper RPG, your actions are limited only by your imagination (and that of the gamesmaster, and possibly the rulebook). You could kill ‘em all, or sneak in and assassinate the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and hope that panics the rest of them, or try and reason with the Chief, or threaten him, or you could poison the river they use for fresh water, or pose as a manifestation of their deity and command them to leave, or embark on a far-reaching campaign to psychologically unbalance the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and convince him there are elements within the encampment working against him, causing a bitter and divisive civil war which you and the villagers can easily mop up after.

In a computer RPG, you’re limited by the imagination of the designers and the capability of the game engine. Maybe you’re down to about three of the options, Reason With The Chief (charisma check), Sneak In And Assassinate (stealth check), Kill ‘Em All (god will know his own, check).

In a typical MMO… well, it’s going to be Kill ‘Em All, isn’t it? Or Kill Ten Of ‘Em (then ten slightly different ones, then ten other different ones, then the named one), or possibly Kill ‘Em All, Wait For ‘Em To Respawn, Then Kill ‘Em All Again ‘Cos The Boss Didn’t Drop The Right Loot Last Time.

So particularly in MMOs, skills, choices, talents etc. tend to be related to combat, either your main role within it (tank, healer, crowd control etc.), or more subtle choices in how you fulfil that role (avoiding or absorbing damage, single target or AoE damage/heals etc.), which (very broadly, massive generalisation etc.) makes many choices a problem of maths/logic; “If two rogues take three minutes to kill seven goblins, how long does it take nine rogues to kill twelve goblins? If a wizard sets off at 9.03am in a fight casting instant-damage magic missiles against a boss with 1200hp, and another wizard sets off in the opposite direction casting damage-over-time acid arrows, does a 5% mana reduction in the cost of a magic missile benefit the first more than a 2% increase in damage over time for the second? For extra credit write a 12,000 word forum post explaining to the developers why this is RIDDICKYEWLESS, and mathematically proving you have been slapped in the face.” Some people love that sort of stuff; I quite enjoy a maths teaser myself now and again, especially if presented by Dara O’Briain, but I’m not desperate to break out a spreadsheet every time I level up in a game.

There’s a clear line from Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate series that (broadly) use AD&D 2e rules through the Knights of the Old Republic games using D&D d20 rules run through the fantasy-to-sci-fi-o-tron (replace “sword” with “lightsabre”) on to the Mass Effect series; in the original Mass Effect you can just about see the vestige of the rogue/scoundrel type class in the form of the Decryption skill, required to open certain doors and containers. Was it a meaningful choice, to be able to open a few extra crates or be a bit better in a fight? To once again quote Stephen Fry:

I remember Hugh and I wrote a sketch in which I played a waiter who recognised a diner in my restaurant as a Tory broadcasting minister. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him how much I admired his policies of choice, consumer choice, freedom of choice. I then was horrified to notice that he had only a silver knife and fork for cutlery at his table. ‘No, no, they’re fine,’ said the puzzled politician. But my character the waiter raced off and soon returned with an enormous bin liner which I emptied over his table. It contained thousands and thousands of those white plastic coffee-stirrers. ‘There you are,’ I screamed dementedly at him, virtually rubbing his face in the heap of white plastic, ‘now you’ve got choice. Look at all that choice. They may all be shit, but look at the choice!’

Undoubtedly the “RPG” elements of the Mass Effect series have been either dumbed-down or streamlined, depending on your outlook, over the three games, if using the “stats and skills and inventory management” definition of “RPG”; Rock, Paper, Shotgun suggested “guns and conversation” might be a better genre description. If you want meaningful choices, though, I submit there are few better examples. On one level, everyone is doing pretty much the same things, visiting pretty much the same planets, battling the same threat. On another level, though, everything is completely different, in Mass Effect 3 different characters are alive or dead, friend or foe, lover or ex-lover-in-really-awkward-demonstration-of-the-problems-with-workplace-romances. The class you choose, and the skill points you assign, affect how you fight (and do make a major difference in combat), but you don’t need to have put points into Charisma before a companion will talk to you, nobody is imprisoned in a cell and can only be freed if you happen to have picked a class that can space-lockpick, options in conversations depend on your general reputation and previous decisions rather than rolling dice against your Persuasion skill. I’d say that’s progress.

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.

I’ve been trying to work out an interesting way I could support the New Blogger Initiative, taking into consideration that there are more sponsor blogs of Syp’s project than KiaSA has regular readers. Invariably any of our readers will read one or more of those bigger blogs, so what to do to show solidarity, other than post “YEAH! ME TOO!”, which seemed redundantly redundant.

I but briefly considered writing advice to new bloggers. There is, however, the inexorable fact that I am a terrible blogger as far as blogging goes, with infrequent updates, long unwieldy posts, and, as statistics clearly demonstrate, massively deficient marketing skills. Not to mention the fact that others have already written deeply splendid and detailed pieces, which I’d only be reiterating in part.

I did recall having once written something about blogging, however. After much protest and several kick starts, my two-stroke mind eventually clattered and thrummed into life, with a belch of smoke and just the one obstreperous backfiring. Back in the murky depths of time, in the year they later came to call ‘2009’, I wrote an interview piece for Randolph Carter’s Grinding to Valhalla where, amongst other topics, I discussed some thoughts about blogging. My one genuine piece of blogging advice can be found there, and is still true today.

One thought struck me, however, as I read ‘[in blogging] new members arrive, others leave’: I considered that it would be a shame if that blog and my interview disappeared, such that I was unable to view my piece of writing again in another three or more years, and see if it was still as applicable then as I find it to be today, three years after I wrote it.

So I’ve popped a copy here on the blog, and being that it has some modicum of advice about blogging, it gives me a good reason to tip my hat to the NBI, for whatever that’s worth. And if any of the few of you who read this have yet to hear of the initiative, do say so in the comments, and after I have regained consciousness, I’ll try to write up some sort of tutorial on how to use KiaSA’s blogroll.

Anyway: On with the show! As they’d say if this were a theatre, and not a blog.

Please take a minute and describe what your blog and podcast are about.

Killed in a Smiling Accident is a blog that myself and m’colleague Zoso decided to create because our own personal blogs were very MMO-centric and we weren’t sure we were going to be invested in MMOs for very much longer, but we were fairly sure we wanted to continue blogging. I’m also a terrible blogger with regards to frequency of updates and I feel the pressure of not providing content for the readers, so it’s very reassuring to have a reliable writer there to keep people coming back. I’d say my blogging style was akin to PvP: a huge burst of front-loaded effort, then nothing for ages because I’m all out of energy. The accusation that my posts are often deliberately verbose and lengthy in order to stun-lock the audience into not going anywhere are unfounded, however.

As you may gather from the title of the blog, we set out with a philosophy that we would try to inject humour into whatever we write, where possible, because there are plenty of serious pundits out there already. We favour the slightly surreal and peculiarly British styles of Fry and Laurie, Eddie Izzard and Monty Python, however, which is not to everyone’s taste but suits us just fine.

KiaSAcast is the pair of us generally being very silly and also discussing various topics mainly to do with gaming, a large part of which is dedicated to MMOs.

What was your first MMO and what was that experience like?

My first MMO was Dark Age of Camelot. I’d been eyeing-up Everquest for some time but wasn’t sure I wanted to make a financial commitment to these relatively new-fangled MMO things. When I saw the blurb for Dark Age of Camelot and saw the variety of races and classes on offer, I caved-in and subscribed. As to the experience? Looking back I probably didn’t get half of what I should have from the game. I certainly discovered my alt-a-holism pretty much straight away as I bounced around from class to class, race to race and faction to faction; I think my problem was that I wanted to experience everything at once, I suppose I was akin to the proverbial child in a sweetshop. I still have very fond feelings for that game, it treated me well, gave me some wonderful adventures and definitely fuelled my enthusiasm for MMOs.

For me the experience of my first MMO is very much like the experience of my first girlfriend; except that it wasn’t called Lisa, and it never confused the hell out of me by trying to touch tongues together while kissing when we were only seven years old.

Can you recall that first MMO “Wow!” moment?

Yes, that was in City of Heroes. If I can cheat a little, there were actually two ‘wow!’ moments in pretty quick succession. The first was the character creator, I was frankly astonished by the flexibility and scope for creating your hero. The second was a slightly strange thing: being able to jump above average height from the ground. I’m not talking about the Super Jump travel power here (that was more ‘giggle like a school kid in a whoopee cushion factory’ than ‘wow!’), I’m talking about the basic jump any character can perform as soon as you enter the game. I was so used to MMOs where jumping was either not allowed or was very restricted, yet here I was able to leap huge fences in a single bound, land in the middle of a bunch of street thugs and start pummelling them. It felt so comic-booky. I think that with City of Heroes Cryptic perfectly realised the idea of what it is to be heroic; I think I’ve spent more time grinning from ear-to-ear in that game than any other MMO.

At your peak, how much time per week would you say you spent gaming? How about now?

Let’s see, at my very peak possibly five hours a night each week night, and then ten hours over the weekend. I think in mathematical terms that is generally referred to as ‘a fair bit’. These days it’s slightly more modest, probably a couple of hours each week night and maybe five hours over the weekend, if I’m really into a game.

Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other PC, console, or tabletop games?

I used to play pen and paper RPGs a great deal but have lost contact with my regular groups of yore. I play console games when I can, especially most Tuesdays when I get together with some fellow bloggers and online ne’er-do-wells to have fun in various co-operative games. I tend to buy PC and console games with every intention of playing them, and then go back to an MMO shortly afterwards. I blame the Internet, credit cards, and the fact that I didn’t take the Impulse Purchase Immunity feat at third level.

When did you first start blogging? How about podcasting? Please take us up to present with all of your projects.

My first blog post was in January 2007, on my old blog Melmoth’s Inferno. My first post on KiaSA was in March 2008. So if you link the two I’ve been blogging pretty consistently for about two and a half years. The first podcast was January 2009. So far those are my only projects, I’m always looking to expand my horizons but in all honesty I have enough trouble keeping up with just those two.

Did you find it difficult to go from blogging into podcasting?

Only in the fact that I’m quite a nervous person in real life, and it’s much easier to hide such traits behind text than audio. I’ve certainly enjoyed learning about how to put a podcast together, however, and we’re getting more adventurous with what we do with each successive show.

Do you have a schedule or some sort of routine you try and follow?

I understand that conventional wisdom states that a regular posting schedule is the only way to blog, otherwise you’re a terrible person akin to someone who waves a bag of sweets in front of small children and then eats them all yourself, but I’ve never been particularly fond of conventional wisdom, sitting there in the corner of the room, puffing on a pipe and looking all smug in its velvet smoking jacket. I couldn’t stick to a schedule even if I wanted to, however, because life is always getting under foot, tripping me up and making me spill my plans all over the kitchen floor such that they’re ruined, and the only thing to do is mop them up and throw them in the bin.

I do very much believe that I have a muse; when I write some of my posts I have no idea where they came from and so I attribute them to her, but she is very temperamental. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when they were giving out careers advice they got her mixed up with someone else, and in fact she should have been one of those gremlins that stops your TV remote control from working for no apparent reason, until you get off the sofa and walk up to the TV, at which point it starts working again even back where you were originally trying to use it, without you having touched a thing.

Would you say there is some grind involved in the process? If so, what is it and how do you cope with it?

I used to find it a bit of a grind when I was trying to post on a regular basis, because if inspiration hadn’t struck by the time I was due to post I felt I had to churn something out, and that made the whole thing unpleasant. Believe it or not, but I’m not one to talk for the sake of talking. If I don’t have something to say that I feel passionately about, or that I think is funny, then I really don’t enjoy the writing process. On the other hand, when I find something that inspires me I’m like Isaac Mendez from the TV show Heroes. Dead. No, hang on, before the dead bit – I just zone out for an hour or two, and when I come back to reality there’s a post ready and waiting for me that just needs checking for spelling, grammar and untoward predictions of the future.

By contrast, what do you find pleasurable about blogging and/or podcasting?

Hmm, that’s a tricky one. I’m not sure whether it’s the money or the incredibly attractive members of both sexes throwing their underwear at me. Ah wait, you see what I’ve done there is to confuse blogging with being a member of Take That. There are lots of pleasures to be had from blogging, it’s always a delight when someone leaves a comment saying that they enjoyed a post, and yet there’s also pleasure when someone rails against what you wrote, because then you know that you’ve touched a nerve, and written something that made people think, and that perhaps you stirred a little passion in them. Not the underwear throwing passion though, more’s the pity. Also I’ve met some genuinely fantastic people through blogging, and there are many others who I would like to meet one day.

At the end of the day, blogging is like being part of a huge family: new members arrive, others leave, there’s a strong bond between members and also the occasional bust-up, but generally it’s a good family. Of course there’re always a few strange cousins who live out in the countryside and are perhaps slightly too friendly with each other and their livestock but we try to ignore them as best we can.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable moment from your blogging days?

No one particular thing comes to mind, just lots of little moments. Those comments and posts where people have had kind things to say about my efforts are always a high point, of course.

Are you pleased with where your blog is in the blogosphere?

I’m slightly disappointed if I’m honest, because according to the schedule that we set out when we started the blog we should be ‘kings of the world’ by now, but perhaps that was slightly ambitious. Next year, maybe.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

I’d start blogging earlier in my life. Certainly with respect to MMOs I feel that I missed the golden age of blogging. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the way things are. Apart from not being king of the world, of course.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to try their hand at blogging and podcasting?

What’s the worst that could happen?

Well ok, you could be so intensely in to your blogging that you forget you left a pan of chip oil on the stove, which subsequently catches fire and burns down your apartment building, killing fifty seven people including five children. At your trial you find out that because the fire department was busy putting out your blazing building and its neighbours, they couldn’t spare the resources to put out the fire at the local puppy, kitten and baby dolphin sanctuary. Due to the death of these cute creatures, animal rights protestors call for the death penalty to be applied to your sentence. The government cracks down heavily on the civil unrest, but the general populace, fraught and angry from the current pressures of the global economic climate, rise up and eventually attempt a coup. With the country weakened due to the government utilising all available military personnel to instate martial law, the enemies of the state take the opportunity to exploit the situation and launch thermonuclear strikes against the nation’s major cities. Scared that the fall of the country would inevitably lead to an attack on they themselves, various allied nations retaliate with nuclear strikes of their own, beginning the Third Great War and shepherding in the apocalypse of mankind.

But really, that’s probably the worst that could happen, so I shouldn’t worry too much, just give it a try.

Can you picture a future where you will hang up your keyboard and microphone and no longer blog or podcast?

Possibly the one where I cause the end of mankind due to letting a chip pan catch fire whilst I was busy blogging.

I’m certain there will come a time where I won’t be blogging any more, for any number of reasons. The one I’m most excited about is where I won’t need to blog anymore because technology will have advanced to such a state that there will be much more interesting ways to communicate with the global hive mind. Dream blogging perhaps, or Drogging as we’ll know it, which I’m now off to patent and trademark.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing an MMO. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. Please describe the kind of game you would make.

I imagine I would make a really cheap 2.5D grindfest with graphics ripped-off from various other games, all the meanwhile siphoning off the majority of the company’s cash reserves into offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.

Well, it serves them right for putting someone like me in charge of a company with unlimited funds.

So there you have it. I get to keep my interview post for posterity, and you get to receive the one tiny and infinitely pointless piece of wisdom I have to dispense with respect to blogging.

Just remember: blogging isn’t so terribly bad, and worse things happen at sea. So don’t update your blog while you’re on a boat, and I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

Theory without experience is mere intellectual play

In Our Time is a fantastic programme on Radio 4 covering ideas of culture, history, philosophy, religion and science, with a full archive available if you have a few hundred spare hours. In a recent episode Melvyn and the gang (The Right Honourable The Lord Bragg and three professors) discussed game theory, a bit of a whistle-stop tour as In Our Time has to be, but plenty of food for thought.

One of the most interesting things they discussed was the ultimatum game. In the ultimatum game there’s a sum of money (say 100 gold coins) and two players (let’s call them Geoff and Jeff, to avoid confusion). Geoff proposes a division of the money between the two of them, Jeff can then either accept the proposal and take what was offered, or reject it in which case neither player gets anything.

On a purely rational basis Geoff could offer Jeff one gold coin while keeping 99 himself, as faced with a choice of one coin or nothing Jeff should take the money and be grateful. Would you, in Jeff’s position, accept that offer? Or would you tell Geoff in irrational but highly anatomically detailed terms precisely where he could shove his single coin? If the ‘gold’ coins were chocolate money, would your answer be different than if they were 24 carat doubloons? The game has spawned a lot of research, experimentation and variations, and a bit of idle wiki-link-following led to a rather fun Puzzle for Pirates based on a broadly similar premise:

There are 5 rational pirates, A, B, C, D and E. They find 100 gold coins. They must decide how to distribute them.

The pirates have a strict order of seniority: A is superior to B, who is superior to C, who is superior to D, who is superior to E.

The pirate world’s rules of distribution are thus: that the most senior pirate should propose a distribution of coins. The pirates, including the proposer, then vote on whether to accept this distribution. If the proposed allocation is approved by a majority or a tie vote, it happens. If not, the proposer is thrown overboard from the pirate ship and dies, and the next most senior pirate makes a new proposal to begin the system again.

Pirates base their decisions on three factors. First of all, each pirate wants to survive. Second, given survival, each pirate wants to maximize the number of gold coins he receives. Third, each pirate would prefer to throw another overboard, if all other results would otherwise be equal. The pirates do not trust each other, and will neither make nor honor any promises between pirates apart from the main proposal.

A sensible option at first glance would be for Pirate A to offer most of the money to the others, lest he get chucked overboard and sent to Davy Jones Locker, me hearty, arrrrr etc. He doesn’t need to do that at all; with the tweaked rules it’s a neat logical brainteaser with a solution, click through to Wikipedia if you’d like the details and explanation. Well worth bearing in mind, I’d say, if you’re in a group of five exploring a dungeon and you need to propose a way of splitting up a pile of cash at the end…

Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate.

I used to be in the habit of turning off General Chat upon first entering an MMO, or at the very least flinging it into a separate tab of the chat window marked ‘DANGER – MINDFIELD!’ to caution me against the volatile minds buried within. I performed the same operation upon first entering Tera, and thankfully the game remembers these settings between alts – because recently I’ve rolled a lot of alts. With limited time to play in past weeks, I’ve primarily taken to rolling a new race and class each time I login, and then blasting through as much of the starter area of the Island of Dawn as time will allow. This enables me to experience some of the flavour of each class, and at the same time inject a few delirious hits of Ding to keep my MMO cravings in check and leave me languorous, before I invariably have to dash off to take care of real life responsibilities.

In the early days of the game the global chat was an unending stream of drivel, as is often the way in MMOs, and it inexorably built up to the usual thundering churning deluge of froth and furore, as torrents of abuse dashed themselves on the unchangeable rocks of personal opinion, forming whirlpools of circular arguments that spun in upon themselves, drawing down to the suffocating depths of their unreason anything foolish enough to drift too close to the topic at its centre.

I diverted the river of global chat into a remote reservoir, which this time I labelled ‘Barrens’, and forgot about it for a good long while.

Nevertheless a lot of an MMO’s community is in its text chat, so I would occasionally flick back to Barrens to see if anything had changed. About a week or so later things started to calm down, and the global chat channel changed from frustrating to fascinating – now a fast but freely flowing expanse of diverse topics. I had rolled on an RP server, as I usually do, with the hope that a slightly more sensible subset of players would migrate there; I was quite surprised, however, at the dramatic change in the channel, and indeed one of the topics under discussion was that very fact. It transpires that the river of drivel had struck a tributary, and the LFG channel was where the rapids of rage now ran. So I left Barrens open by default, and flicked my attention to it every now and again while I repeatedly adventured across the Island of Dawn.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn. It was at the same time amusing and saddening to see nearly all of the discussions follow disturbingly similar paths to those we’ve seen repeated amongst blogs over the years.

That the river of global chat drivel should break its banks and flood the fields of normality is no real surprise; it’s the fact that, upon receding, it left behind such a fertile field of rich discourse. I was tempted to turn the thing into an experiment – to start seeding topics into that fruitful soil, and harvest the bounteous crop of conclusions which grew there. And then I wondered –seeing as no idea in blogging is ever original– whether others had already done the same. Whether developers had already done the same.

An interesting topic perhaps, but whether I could raise the topic of ‘raising topics as an experiment in fast-forward blogging’ as an experiment in fast-forward blogging, without causing a segfault in the universe, I’m as yet undecided.

Have I Got MMONews For You

Host: This week, teams, news of trials of a device that uses an Xbox Kinect camera to sense body position to assist surgeons.

Melmoth: Never one to miss out on a commercial opportunity, EA were quick to announce Arthroplasty Arthroplasty Revolution, where players perform complex surgical moves to the beat of Weird Al Yankovic’s Like a Surgeon. Due in 2013.

Zoso: The trial is going well, but the social media functionality of the Xbox had to be disabled after surgeons kept interrupting procedures to update their status. ‘Kinect: update Facebook, doing surgery lol.’ ‘Kinect: send tweet, BP dropping rapidly, sad face.’

Melmoth: Surgeons have expressed delight at the intuitive controls, but were quick to point out that five reboots to update the Xbox dashboard during a coronary artery bypass can be somewhat frustrating.

Zoso: Bloggers were swift to criticise the system for its restrictive group composition. ‘If you’re not a healer, you just don’t get an invite’ said a disgruntled tank.

Melmoth: Senior consultants have advised against the use of the term ‘red ring of death’ during any surgery where the patient is required to remain conscious.

Zoso: The voice recognition component still needs a bit of work, with a surgeon’s command of ‘Kinect: show x-rays of pectoral area’ resulting in the Xbox playing MP3s of XRay Spex.

Melmoth: Rumours that the system also incorporates achievements and a ranking system, where surgeons can try to beat their colleagues’ best times for removing a kidney, are entirely unfounded according to a senior health official.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.