Apparently “literally” literally doesn’t literally mean “literally” any more. To signify something is intended in a literal manner or sense, exactly, you now have to follow it with “and I’m not even joking”, and I’m not even joking.
I like xkcd. I was going to say I love xkcd, but that might be going a bit far, I haven’t gone geohashing or played chess on a rollercoaster; thinking about degrees-of-liking-stuff rang a vague bell about a quote, from back in the dim, distant past when I had a quotefile, a bit of Googling turned it up as Skif’s Internet Theorem:
“Every fleeting thought you’ve ever had in your life, no matter how bizarre, is someone’s lifelong obsession. And they have a website.”
It really needs an Ironic Addendum: “… except Skif’s Internet Theorem”, as the majority of Google hits appear to be from other people’s .sig quotes, the only real page I could find devoted to the theorem itself was in archive form. “You know people deeper down the rabbit hole than yourself, so you reassure yourself you must be the normal one” is a similar sentiment, expressed in one of a series of 28 dates on 28 different dating sites by a former WoW raider and dab hand at 40K that I stumbled across when random browsing and Related Articles links turned up a rather fun account of a Date in Day Z.
Anyway, xkcd; I read the strips when they pop up in the RSS reader (I’ve switched to Feedly, after the poor folks of The Old Reader got somewhat overwhelmed, with the added benefit of a nifty mobile app I can take advantage of on a shiny new Android phone), check the alt-text, smile (mostly) or look slightly puzzled, then wander off to the next article. I don’t particularly remember strip 1190, Time, I guess I filed it as one I didn’t really get, but a blagpost revealed something quite amazing: it’s a story that played out at one frame per hour over four months, 3099 drawings in total, and had developed a thread/wiki/subculture all of its own. I had no idea the rabbit hole was there, let alone how deep it went…
Player of a murdered game, owner of a murdered characer, I will have my vengeance, in this life or the nextcoh, games, waffle, zoso 2 Comments »
Van Hemlock tweets: “Good grief. “#AvengeCoH” hashtags… seriously? What is wrong with you people?” And of course it is a touch on the histrionic side, but then this is a comic book universe, so arch-enemies and pledges of vengeance aren’t entirely out of character. According to narrative imperative, a group of orphan players should now travel the world, ceaselessly training in MMOG-programming techniques in mountain-top monasteries (that nevertheless have excellent broadband internet infrastructure) before returning to civilisation in the guise of The Group Of People Seeking To Exact Satisfation For A Previous Event (note to editor: there must be a catchier name), unleashing a new superhero MMOG of hitherto unimagined quality, and attracting all existing NCSoft subscribers away from their previous games. There’ll be a climactic confrontation with the board of NCSoft, probably on the window ledge of a skyscraper in the middle of a thunderstorm (it’ll need to be quite a bg window ledge, perhaps with a conference table and lots of chairs), who will ultimately be vanquished, and good will have triumphed.
Until one of The Group Of People Seeking To Exact Satisfaction For A Previous Event turns out to be a robot from the future, and they all meet evil clones of themselves from a parallel universe, and their powers are drained and absorbed by an entity of pure energy from Dimension Z, and they get framed for crimes they didn’t commit and the public turn on them, and then they’re all killed, for a couple of weeks, until the deaths are retconned and then they get cancelled. Or something.
Amazon’s Black Friday Deals Week is pottering along, and there’ve been a few gaming bargains; I picked up Rocksmith as part of a plan to finally get around to learning the guitar, though some would suggest that actually buying a guitar is perhaps the more crucial element of that plan. Half the fun, though, is seeing what other weird and wonderful items come up for sale, some of which are prime targets for the cult of spoof reviews; the BIC For Her Medium Ballpoint Pen “designed specifically for women” (on offer at 1.29pm this afternoon!) is a case in point, though 511 reviews is overdoing it slightly. I suppose it’s just conforming to the general internet rule of humour: if a joke is worth making, it’s worth making again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again until every last vestige of humour that might possibly have been present has been wrung so thoroughly from the dessicated corpse of the joke that it’s nothing but hollow, echoing words, at which point it’s gone so far past being funny that it’s become funny again as a form of peculiar meta-anti-humour, and then more people jump on and keep making the same joke pushing it past so-not-funny-it’s-funny into so-not-funny-it-was-funny-but-now-isn’t-again. Or something.
One danger of looking at random odd items is that it can make the personalised recommendations go a little strange, but, a bit like jokes, you just need to push things far enough, until the site says: “Inspired by your browsing history! Customers who viewed cricket spring return stumps, a slow cooker, a colour coded index chopping board set, solar garden spotlights, six water filters, a kayak, a food processor, a digital radio and radiator reflector panels also viewed… erm… god, I don’t know, a set of deck quoits? An ornamental hatstand in the shape of Reginald Maudling? I give up, I’m going to go and help this other customer over here who’s just bought a book by recommending every other book the author has written, I bet they won’t have thought of that…”
There are some pretty beefy multi-joystick controllers available for Mech games, and dedicated sim-pilots can construct impressive multi-screen home cockpits, but Suidobashi Heavy Industry have gone one better with Kuratas, a 4 metre 4.5 tonne BB-gatling-toting robo-monster. I wonder who’s going to be the first to turn up with one at an Airsoft fight…
“LFT for dungeon”
“LFT? What does that stand for?”
“Looking For Tank”
“I don’t think so, sunshine. This is a flexible game, a utopia of endless choice, free from the pigeonholing that bedevils other systems and their restrictive roles, we’ll have none of that nonsense.”
“Oh, all right. LFP (Looking For Player) for dungeon…”
“… who has selected skills and abilities such that they’re able to attract the attention of monster-type-beast things, and has further selected skills and abilities, complemented by an appropriate choice of armour and weaponry, that allow them to absorb or avoid much of the damage that would surely result from the aforementioned attention with damage output being of frankly secondary importance, except insofar as to achieve the first-specified goal of attention attracting. PST.”
It was a bit of a mixed weekend of gaming for me. I didn’t have much to do with the PC because it was mini-Melmoth’s birthday, and thus I spent most of my time building Lego models with her, and –along with Mrs Melmoth– playing various board and card games with her. I can heartily recommend Labyrinth as rather good fun, but would advise against Top Trumps if you too have a four year old who can evidently read minds or has x-ray vision; I lost more games of Top Trumps over the past weekend than my gamer fortitude can rightfully endure, and so I fully empathise with others when they express their torment in dealing with gaming losses.
Along with the birthday of the Infernal Queen of Top Trumps there was a double bonus super surprise fun holiday weekend here in the UK, so I had very little time to switch on the PC what with one family event or another to attend. I did get a spare moment or two on Sunday, and flipped into Tera to find that my box-included subscription time had expired, and I have to confess I was torn as to whether I should continue my subscription. I’ve flicked over to a couple of MMOs while I’ve been playing Tera, including the regular Friday night session of DDO, and none of them compare to the freedom I get from the combat in Tera. That’s not to say Tera’s combat is a revolution, there are still the same hotbar buttons to press, but the freedom of movement, nay the necessity of movement in order to stay alive, is something which I sorely miss when I return to the more traditional Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots style found in the MMO WoWpack. Tera also tweaks the traditional hotbar button mashing sequence with the addition of chained combo. attacks, which allows for a much more natural flow of attacks to be chained in quick succession; being knocked down and hitting the spacebar to trigger a leaping counter-strike, followed by another correctly timed spacebar press to immediately follow-up with an overhead slam, may sound simplistic, but it is the sort of addictive action-orientated style with which fans of beat ‘em up games would easily empathise.
While pondering a further subscription to Tera, I patched Star Wars: The Old Republic and Rift, and did my customary login check to see if either was available to me, via a free weekend or such. To my surprise Rift did indeed allow me access, and a quick bit of investigation showed that I still had a week or so of my previous three-month subscription running. Maybe it was Tera’s action combat, or perhaps a general ennui with the genre as a whole, but I couldn’t find any spark of enthusiasm for Rift whatsoever. The wait-on-global-cool-down combat seemed ponderous, almost ridiculously so. The game was still as pretty as ever, but again, the incredible fidelity of a game such as Tera, whether you can stomach its design decisions or not, leaves other MMOs looking like so much aged tarnished brass. Rift’s soul system is, perhaps, the most frustrating part, a design which promises so much freedom, and yet delivers the same constrained-by-PvP ‘pick the useful abilities from the trash’ limited build potential that World of Warcraft’s talent trees always did. From the great potential that such a system promised, what was delivered was essentially a way to easily respec between traditional trinity roles, a step change over WoW’s dual spec. system to be sure, but still disappointingly bland – a soul system with no soul.
It’s so utterly frustrating because I really want to like Rift, I like the concepts which they have chosen to implement, but everything seems so formulaic and constrained. There’s no wild frontier, no trailblazing – they’ve followed the traditional paths through the design wilds, simply trimming back the undergrowth a little more, paving the way with stone blocks and posting road signs. It’s the same reason I probably won’t find myself subscribing to Tera or Star Wars: The Old Republic, for although there is trailblazing to be had, it is still just a few minor detours off into the wilds, before quickly re-joining the perfectly straight, perfectly smooth, perfectly monotonous routes which have been trodden for years, to the point that they are more Roman road than primitive path. I have no doubt that it is as much to do with my tiring of the tropes of the genre as anything, but it’s also born of the frustration that games such as EVE clearly demonstrate that this genre does indeed have the potential to encompass wildly different forms beneath the canopy of MMO, yet it’s still one of the few MMOs which forged a way into the wilds and never concerned itself with returning to the common path.
Of course deliberating over subscriptions is all moot at the moment, as my PC decided to trip the fuse fantastic last night and now refuses to even spin a fan. I’m hoping it’s just a power supply problem (and that it didn’t go Spartan and take the rest of the components with it), but for the time being I’m on an enforced MMO abstinence, and as such I’ll be catching up on my reading; as well as losing a ludicrous number of games of Top Trumps, I imagine.
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 low 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.
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…
Naming systems for uniquely identifying characters can be a tricky business in MMOGs, especially when server boundaries are broken down by features such as cross-realm zones in Mists of Pandaria or joining friends as a guest in Guild Wars 2. Maybe the games industry could look to areas with years of precedent; naming a racehorse, for instance, follows fairly similar criteria to character names in GW2: “Your name choice can be up to 18 characters, including spaces. All names are registered subject to approval by the British Horseracing Authority. There are approximately 250,000 names on the current register, therefore it is advisable to check availability prior to submitting your application.”
OK, so the jurisdiction of the British Horseracing Authority doesn’t quite stretch to GW2 yet, but apart from that… A quick glance at the runners of the 2012 Grand National isn’t terribly inspiring though, maybe a couple of potential guild names (“Midnight Haze”, “Smoking Aces”), but there aren’t many names you’d want for a character. Apart from “Shakalakaboomboom”, natch.
Pedigree dogs have to be registered with the Kennel Club, and the list of Best in Show winners of Crufts is much more like it: “Volkrijk of Vorden”, “Fenton of Kentwood” (Jesus Christ!), “Abraxas Audacity”, “Saxonsprings Hackensack” and, of course, “Araki Fabulous Willy” (who wouldn’t want a Fabulous Willy?) Maybe those six extra letters (dog names can be up to 24 characters) make all the difference.
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show offers even more tantalising examples, as per a quiz on Slate; I mean c’mon, what MMOG wouldn’t be improved by replacing “G4ndalf” and “KniefStabRouge” with “McMagic’s Candied Ham of Pebbles Run”?