Category Archives: war

In Memoriam Warhammer Online

So. Farewell then
Warhammer Online
They say that in the
of the far future there is only WAR
But it looks like
they were wrong
(unless Keith gets his server
emulation working and it
merges with Shodan or Skyguard or
that one out of Wargames
and wipes out humanity, maybe
that’s what they
were talking about)

E. J. Zoso, age 17½

News of the impending closure of Warhammer Online came as a surprise to some, in much the same way that people are surprised when they read the obituary of a celebrity they thought had died years ago. The last major patch had been game update 1.4.0 in 2010, other than the announcement of an arena-ish Play4Free spin-off, Wrath of Heroes, it had been pottering along quietly for the past few years, so it’s not really surprising it had dropped off the radar.

It was a different story before release, publicity for WAR was swirling around at the time Melmoth & I started this whole blogging business putting it quite firmly on the Anticipated Future MMOG Radar; my fourth ever blog post, from 2006, linked to a Slashdot WAR Q&A. The early buzz was good, but over time there were less positive signs; release date slipping to the right, content being cut from the initial release (four classes, four of the six capital cities), nothing particularly shocking for a game (or indeed most large IT projects) as The Crunch sets in, but not ideal, especially with a World of Warcraft expansion in the offing.

Casting back through the blog I’d forgotten the landscape WAR launched in; around 2005/6 the rising tide of World of Warcraft looked like it might lift all MMOG boats into the mainstream, an enticing prospect for Games Workshop and EA, but by 2008 it seemed fairly clear that wasn’t the case, nothing was getting near WoW, especially in the west. Except in rare cases (like EVE, pre-dating WoW) it didn’t seem possible to gradually build a player base, subscriber numbers for new games peaked at launch then rapidly fell away.

Personally, after drifting away from City of Heroes and WoW, I’d been pinging between newly launching MMOs like DDO, LotRO, Tabula Rasa, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Hellgate: London, Age of Conan, playing a month or two at most, and had a bit of a breakdown at the prospect of killing 10 more things. Warhammer Online hooked me in for a good old run, though, getting up to the level cap and doing a spot of end-game city raiding on the Order side. There was a lot to like; the visual style, public quests, poking around zones, the Tome of Knowledge, besieging and defending keeps and castles… Course there were rough edges too, some that got ironed out fairly quickly, others that are probably still kicking around in tier 4 public quests. Some elements didn’t quite work out, like those good old Kill Collectors; Barnett really nailed a frustration with a game mechanic (I hadn’t realised quite how much my History Repeating post echoes it until looking at the two together), but there were still plenty of bog standard “Kill 10 Things” quests in the game, available resources couldn’t quite support the ambition (see also: P. Molyneux). A long term PvP-centric endgame is also somewhat problematic for new/more casual players if characters keep getting more powerful with time and success.

Player numbers dropped (not least when Wrath of the Lich King was released shortly after), the inevitable server merges followed, I drifted off myself on another MMO-break. I drifted back a while later and rampaged around on the Destruction side of things with Van Hemlock’s Hipster Battalion, hitting the level cap again, pushing WAR up to second place on both my Total Subscribed Time List and Most Fondly Remembered MMO List after City of Heroes (*sniff*), so far those are the only two games where I’ve hit the level cap with multiple characters.

The 1.4.0 patch hinted at the possibility of a move to a free to play model, with “booster packs” available in the EA store; other major titles like Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online seemed to be doing well after conversion, but it never transpired, though it turns out the work had been done behind the scenes if EA, Bioware, Mythic, Games Workshop or some random combination of the four had wanted to go down that path. Perhaps closure was inevitable from that point; the end of the Games Workshop license deal is being cited as the reason the game is closing in December, with WAR not turning out to be a money-printing bonanza I guess neither side had much appetite to renegotiate the license for a different revenue model, especially as with lawyers involved the costs could easily spiral into the realms of “the price of a couple of Space Marine squads”.

All right, that’s just silly. One Space Marine squad.

Towards the end of last year SEGA and Creative Assembly announced a partnership with Games Workshop for a “multi-title licensing deal” … “to create videogames based in the Warhammer universe of fantasy battles” … “scheduled to launch from beyond 2013”, prompting some speculation over the future of Warhammer Online amongst those who remembered it. Not long after that key WAR figures either jumped or were pushed, including the lead developer and community manager, the Wrath of Heroes beta closed down, and the only news on the WAR homepage was the withdrawal of six month subscriptions. Some speculated that was because the game wouldn’t be around in six months, suspicions confirmed three months later.

So. Farewell then.

Man is free at the moment he wishes to be

For almost a year the Hipster Battalion rampaged around Warhammer Online bringing chaos and destruction, in a well behaved and organised sort of way:
“Look, a shrine to Sigmar, let’s smash it up!”
“RAWR! SMASH! Oooh, tome unlock!”
“Oh, I didn’t get it. Must be an individual thing… I’ll wait for the shrine to mysteriously regenerate then smash is up again.”
“Right-o. Hey everyone, tome unlock over here! Line up now, form a queue, that’s right, no pushing in now…”
“RAWR, SM… oh, hang on, was it your turn to smash?”
“No, no, you go ahead”
“No, really, after you, please”
“No, no, I insist, remember I disembowelled that Elf first over in Caledor”
“Oh, so you did! Ah, the larks we had… But I corrupted that forest over in Cinderfall before you had the chance, so really, you smash that shrine”
“All right, tell you what, I’ll smash it now, and you can have the first go at setting fire to the village over there”
“Only if you’re first in the line to chase the farmers off and poison their crops”
“Deal. RAWR! SMASH!”

After a lengthy campaign of public quests, dungeons, keep sieges and occasional scenarios the battle-weary Hipsters finally staggered into sight of the level cap, Rank 40, a few weeks back; I made it with my Chosen, I believe a couple of the others actually hit 40, Hipster Lieutenant Colonel Van Hemlock came up just short, though he had made up much extra ground re-rolling as a healer halfway through when the much missed Shamanic Goblin Laser Squad hung up their healing staves. It was a good old run, and as the Battalion cancelled subscriptions and headed off to enjoy retirement in various liberated cafés I had a couple of weeks of game time left to run, and even managed to get up to Renown Rank 40; the open RvR seemed to bog down a bit in Tier 4 as the increase in player numbers made stalemates more likely, but scenarios were popping far more regularly and generally rather fun.

WAR was the only active MMOG subscription I had running, worth it (though slightly pricey) for one night a week plus a little extra-curricular RvR, but not really for anything much less than that. Course it’s all relative, a monthly WAR sub seems pretty good value compared to one visit to the cinema (for an off-peak non-3D film with no drink or popcorn) or a venti-soy-whipped-frappa-lardy-lattechino, but gaming is a tough market. MMOG-wise of course there’s a plethora of free-to-play options, I’ve been playing a fair bit of World of Tanks since it properly launched and Lord of the Rings Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea are both ticking over. In the latter two I’ve reached something of a mid-level hump that might push me to cancel a subscription, but being able to have a bit of a rest, pop back in from time to time for a couple of quests or a bit of crafting keeps the interest there, and there’s no psychological barrier to entry of having to type in a credit card number if I ever fancy picking them up more seriously again. Outside of MMOGs, I’d been resisting Steam sales for a while, but when Melmoth nudged me towards half-price Magicka, and for less than the cost of a couple of months of WAR I somehow ended up with that, the Claptrap DLC for Borderlands, 1… 2… 3… KICK IT! (Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby) and Just Cause 2. It’s a good job there are a bunch of bank holidays coming up in the UK, I might even manage to play some of them for more than half an hour…

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the problem is I do not know which half

One of the first things I tend to do in a MMOG is shift general/shout chat channels off onto their own tab, labelled (depending on mood) something like “General”, “Chatter”, “Spam”, “Bozos” or “Why WoW Is Better And/Or Worse Than This Game” (or in the case of World of Warcraft itself, “Why WoW Was Better And/Or Worse Than WoW Is Now”). It’s not entirely being unsociable, I like to have the tab there in case I want to reach out and connect with humanity (or find out why WoW is better and/or worse than this game), but those channels can easily swamp slightly more important guild/party chat or game messages, especially if a nefarious gold spammer is hawking their bargain in-game currency every few seconds.

Every Monday night the Hipster Battalion sallies forth to liberate another café in Warhammer Online (see, or indeed hear, the “What We’re Playing” episodes of the Van Hemlock Podcast for the continuing adventures), a game for which “polish” isn’t necessarily the first word that springs to mind with the odd bug you encounter, such as whenever you man a piece of siege equipment, regardless of your chat window settings, the General channel starts showing up again. It’s made all the more obvious because every week, without fail, there’s a gold spammer there, glowing orange promises of fast delivery scrolling with distracting regularity as you swing a battering ram at a keep door or lob rocks at a besieging army.

I’m slightly baffled, as I can’t think who would being buying gold in WAR. So far I’ve mostly been wearing PvP armour sets, bought with medallions that drop when you kill enemy players, accessorised with the odd quest reward or item from a public quest loot bag, with any gaps being filled in by vendors in the capital city who sell cheap items so long as you meet the renown rank requirement. The vast majority of the tokens, medallions and bits of armour themselves are bound to the player, so there isn’t an awful lot that can be listed for sale on the auction house; I’ll have a bit of a browse now and again, but in the last few months all I’ve bought is a couple of shields and an axe that were cheap enough to make the slight upgrade worth it, and a small pile of the cheapest helmets I could find just to try on for cosmetic purposes. Nothing I’ve seen suggests the end game is much different, though I could be mistaken. Of all the MMOGs I’ve dabbled in, the only example of in-game currency being less important that springs to mind is the early days of City of Heroes, when just about ever high level character had piles of “influence” and nothing to spend it on, apart from costume changes (in which respect there are some similarities with WAR, you can spend far more on dyeing armour sets into this season’s colours than on the armour itself.)

Maybe there is a thriving market after all that makes it worthwhile for the spammers to keep going; maybe it’s Mythic themselves, not actually selling currency but pretending to do so to give players the chance to use the /ignore function to work up to The Exiler achievement for having 100 players on your ignore list. I prefer to think, though, that there’s a monolithic gold selling corporation that shut down their Warhammer Online gold harvesting and supply business a while ago, but thanks to an oversight or a typo in a database someone still gets on a train each day, arrives in Basingstoke (I know China is more traditional base for gold selling, but go with it) eleven minutes late, hangs up their bowler hat and umbrella, and settles down to it… “Good evening, Miss Jones, any word from CJ on a change in the overall strategy? No? Still targeting the WAR-market? Right you are, off we go… ‘FAST RELIABLE GOLD DELIVERY AT…'”

Long distance information

Melmoth’s quest-ly pondering set me thinking about related subjects, like the supporting tracking and logging mechanism for quests.

Back in the Proper Good Old Days, the quest log was a piece of paper. You ran up to an NPC and asked if there was anything you could do for them (none of this glowing punctuation nonsense), and if you were very lucky they might drop some hint about something that might be relevant. Nothing so vulgar as “go kill Bandit Leader Geoff in the bandit camp on the outskirts of Swindon, two miles north east of here, I need his sword.” No, more “I hear there are some bandits in the area. Yes, they might well have a leader, people say his name is Geoff. Apparently Bandit Leader Geoff has a lovely sword. Yes, I would really like a sword very much like that. It would be terrible if something happened to Geoff, though, WINK WINK. No, I don’t know exactly where he is. Maybe over there somewhere *waves vaguely to the west*.” The game wouldn’t insult your intelligence by recording this or anything, you’d jot it down on a post-it note, and get confused when going around a supermarket later “bread, yup, milk, yup, Bandit Leader Geoff’s sword… huh, probably down the kitchenware aisle with the cutlery…”

I think it might have been plausible deniability, in case the NPC was investigated for Incitement To Murder or something, though it could go a bit wrong if you misinterpreted the hints, came back with Geoff’s sword (with Geoff’s bloody hand still clamped around the hilt) and the NPC shrieked “I just wanted you to go to a blacksmith and have him make something similar, you maniac!” Still, at least it was better than the proposed Mime Artist faction in an early alpha of EverQuest who would’ve given all their quests through the medium of charades:

“It’s a… quest! Three words. Right. First word… sounds like… eat? Swallow? Oh, what you’re eating… tablet? Pill? Pill, yes! Sounds like pill… bill, fill, kill… Kill! First word, kill. Second word… tenth word. Wait, I thought it was three words? Second word… oh, that is the second word, ten. Kill ten…”

Anyway, over the course of time the quest mechanisms evolved, quest givers became more obvious, add-ons or in-game features recorded objectives and your progress towards them and things generally improved (or “were dumbed down to the point of infantilisation, here I am, brain the size of a planet and you’re patronising me by recording all this information that I’m perfectly capable of writing a large spreadsheet to support, cross-referencing three years of accumulated research, oh all right I’ll go and kill those ten boars but I won’t enjoy it you know”, depending on your point of view). When Warhammer Online launched, its vaunted Tome of Knowledge was a splendid thing, recording where you’d been, who you’d spoken to, how many of them you’d killed, and what weird random things you’d clicked on in case they were an unlock. Warhammer’s quest log is also part of the Tome of Knowledge, where the splendidness is slightly tempered by being coupled to a straightforward “go to camp, talk to the punctuation, do quests, return to the punctuation” PvE quest-hub structure, and further shackled by a limited number of quests it could track, as m’colleague and I posted about at the time. I suspect “so near and yet so far” features like the Kill Collectors were great ideas that proved tricky to implement really well, and with RvR being the main post-launch focus it just hasn’t been worthwhile to go back and seriously revamp them.

I’ve been hitting quest log limits in Lord of the Rings Online as well; where back at launch it seemed there was a bit of a barren patch in the 20s were you had to do every single quest you could get your hands on to eke out enough XP to level up without too much grinding, there are now a plethora of options; from assorted skirmishing, festivals, questing and crafting I’ve pretty much out-levelled the Barrow Downs without setting a foot in the place so I just cleared out a bunch of quests around there to make room for new ones in the Lone Lands. It’s not really a problem, the old quests were all obsolete so I wasn’t missing out on much (apart from scratching the nagging completionist itch), though a bit of an expansion in the quest log as a whole could be nice (for a mere 1,995 Turbine Points, perhaps). What’s slightly more irritating than the overall limit is the active tracker, that can only monitor five quests at a time. I frequently have to fire it up, deactivate all the quests it’s tracking, find the (possibly) relevant quests in the log and activate tracking for them, and then repeat the process whenever you go somewhere else.

Here’s hoping The Old Republic and other forthcoming games might solve some of these minor annoyances. If nothing else, the Star Wars universe surely allows for remote communication such that you don’t have to physically return to a questgiver every single time, something a little more difficult to plausibly work into fantasy settings without resorting to good old “magic”. Though maybe…

“Right, Mayor, here’s a tin can with some string through it. I’ll take this tin can on the other end of the string, and when I’ve killed ten thugs I’ll shout into it, and then you can shout back to tell me to kill the ten ever so slightly different thugs who stand really close to the first lot who’d completely slipped your mind when you originally handed out the quest.”

Wars teach us not to love our enemies but to hate our allies

I haven’t really written about Warhammer Online since returning to it six months ago with Van Hemlock & company, partly because Tim has the escapades of the Hipster Battalion covered on the podcast, and partly because things hadn’t changed an awful lot since my first stint back when the game launched, playing on the Order side with a splendid bunch (“shout out”, as I believe the correct vernacular to be, to the Insult To Injury posse. Word. Noun.)

Digging around in the archives I found a post from a couple of years back that still holds true for the most part. WAR has a nice mix of content flexible enough to take account of varying sizes of group; solo you can run some pretty traditional “Kill 10 Foozle” quests, join scenarios, perhaps do a bit of crafting. Groups have got dungeons, public quests and the massed battles of Open Realm vs Realm to pitch into without having to worry in most cases about perfect party composition. The annoyance of the plethora of potential quests, of which you can only have a fraction in your ever-stuffed quest log, is still there to an extent, though at least mitigated slightly by an increased quest limit.

Course there have been tweaks and changes since then; there are the appearance options that now allow you to wear one piece of gear for its stats but with the visuals of a different item, something that’s always appreciated. Slightly ironically character visuals are something I’ve always felt WAR has done well with its strong tie to the Games Workshop source material (so long as you’re happy with the race/class your desired role is linked to), so appearance options aren’t nearly as vital as in some games (the prosecution presents Exhibit A, m’lud). Still, sometimes there’s a bit of set armour you just don’t really like the look of, and combined with the dye system gives plenty of tinkering options for those of us who like to look fabulous when slicing and maiming. It’s leagues ahead of World of Warcraft, but shaded by the wardrobe and extensive selection of cosmetic options of Lord of the Rings Online; LotRO could take heed of WAR’s inventory system, though, which now has multiple tabs for general stuff, currency (medals, tokens and such), crafting gear and quest items.

Another addition is the “Endless Free Trial”, quite a good way of keeping starter areas populated where in many established games they’re all but deserted (unless new race/class combinations have just been introduced and wave after wave of Dwarf Shaman suddenly pitch up in Ironforge). The RvR lake of the Empire & Chaos Tier 1 zones, where the free players of the two factions clash, tends to resemble one of those peculiar medieval mob football variants like Shrovetide football, two big groups of players smashing into each other and shunting back and forwards a bit without much in the way of overarching strategy, with the notable difference that committing murder or manslaughter is positively mandatory in WAR rather than prohibited.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the recent 1.4 patch has overhauled the ORvR zone control mechanics. As we haven’t got to Tier 4 yet this time around I haven’t seen how city sieges have changed over time, and we don’t get to play with Skaven, but ORvR before 1.4 mostly involved either seizing unprotected battlefield objectives or keep sieges, and the sieges were pretty repetitive (lots of standing around shooting doors). Sieges had their moments, if they didn’t bog down into complete attritional grindfests, especially Hipsterball (a sport where an attacking tank stands next to the keep door, waits for a defender to sally forth and take a few swipes at the battering ram, then a ranged DPS type shouts “Pull!” and the tank knocks the interloper in a graceful arc towards the waiting archers and spellcasters with a cry of “Fore!”) A successful keep defence for either side was something of a rarity in Tiers 2 and 3; with most players either in the free trial of Tier 1 or the endgame of Tier 4 there were seldom enough tanks for a really solid tank wall once the keep doors had been battered down, though the couple of times we managed it were truly splendid, standing shoulder to shoulder in the doorway bellowing “NONE SHALL PASS!”

The new mechanism adds many elements to the mix; Van Hemlock has produced a most excellent guide to it (remember: B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S!) Having only taken part in a few battles under the new system it’s a bit early to reach a definitive conclusion, but it certainly seems to offer more scope for smaller organised groups; the other night a large Destruction force seemed to have the upper hand in Troll Country, grabbing all the objectives fairly quickly, but then the majority decided to stand outside the Order keep dicking around while groups of three to six Order players went out waylaying Destruction resource carriers, taking back objectives and escorting their own resources, allowing Order to upgrade their own keep and eventually take the zone. The keep sieges themselves tend not to drag out so long, and dropping bombs (or indeed yourself) from a manticore onto the enemy walls is most enjoyable. Roll on the Skaven!

Stride towards your fortune boldly on your way.

I cancelled my Warhammer Online subscription over the weekend, having logged on several times, stared at my Warrior Priest and my Slayer for a while and found myself unable to summon the enthusiasm to log in with either one, I decided that I already had enough MMO mash on my plate and I could afford to leave some of the over-steamed vegetables to one side. Or, more correctly, I couldn’t justify affording such an MMO any more. With a veritable wealth of MMOs going free-to-play at the moment, and the fact that I have a lifetime subscription to LotRO, I really don’t find myself wanting for subscriptionless adventuring options. I’ve started a couple of new character projects in LotRO, a group-orientated Minstrel for as and when I feel like being sociable, and a new solo project in the form of a Hunter for me to quietly plink away at when I’m possessed of a more solitary humour. LotRO has become my reliable gaming mistress, she who will keep me happily occupied until some young-faced damsel flashes an alluring winsome smile from behind a mask of demure innocence, teases and tempts in equal measure as I follow her, like some enchanted Anthony pursuing his Egypt, back to her residence. Whereupon she is suddenly released from her cleverly marketed appearance, and under the harsh light of a more intimate inspection is revealed to be a gap-toothed bug-ridden wreck. At which point her real lover steps forth from the shadows before I can make good my escape, clubs me over the head, and steals £14.99 monthly from my wallet until I regain my senses. Yet always LotRO is there to welcome me back from my folly, she opens her arms wide and cradles me against her voluminous content, hushes my blubbered apologies, reminds me of the intimate little details that made me love her and make me love her still. She is the mature mistress, secure in the knowledge of her own worth, happy to welcome and entertain the experienced and inexperienced alike, and I remain there in her embrace, comfortable and content. Until I catch a glimpse of the next porcelain and lace doe peering out from behind the curtain of MMO news, fluttering her eyelids innocently, her shy yet coquettish demeanour promising a life of long term commitment and happiness, and delivering yet another sharp blow to the head and dent to the wallet.

My reason for quitting WAR was quite simple in the end: you get experience points when playing in scenarios and open RvR. There are two levelling systems running in parallel in WAR, the standard experience points which work much as they do in any MMO RPG, and renown points which primarily work as a gate to the more powerful PvP gear, as well as a sub-system that allows you to purchase significant boosts to one or two primary stats, tactics which give you increased damage against certain races, and other PvP enhancing features. For me, the system doesn’t work. Ideally as a player you want to keep your character level and your renown level close to one another, this then means that as your character level reaches the upper boundary of the tier of content in which you’re currently participating, your renown level will allow access to the best PvP gear that can be purchased from the merchants in the war camps, thus giving you a fighting chance in yet another MMO which ‘balances’ PvP by boosting all characters to the same level while entirely ignoring the fact that the characters that are closest to the upper bound of the level cap will have access to gear which puts them far outside the reach of anyone at the lower end. Going into a scenario when you’re level one or two and trying to put even a dent into a level eleven character is an exercise in frustration and futility; I’ve seen a level eleven cloth-wearing priest happily tanking five low level axe-wielding fighters with consummate ease until the rest of their side arrived. There seems little point in having a free trial to a game when any genuinely new player is going to head into the much touted main area of content – RvR – and find themselves slaughtered constantly at the hands of twinked-out characters at the upper bounds of the tier. You might as well just have the trial be a couple of staff who go around and yank the nose hair of anyone trying to download the client. Trial by name, trial by nature.

What happens for me is that I get bored with constantly running scenarios and oRvR because there isn’t enough variety in the maps and objectives to hold my interest, while at the same time there isn’t enough flexibility in the system to let me find new ways to contribute to the war effort. So when the tedium sets in I go off to play the PvE game for a change of pace, which is pleasant enough but which also nets me experience points. As soon as you switch to the PvE game you start to increase the disparity between your character rank and your renown rank, because whereas in PvP you gain both experience and renown, in PvE you gain experience only. What this means is that when you reach the top level of a tier of content you may not actually be able to equip the PvP gear available because it is gated based on renown rank. There is supposedly comparable PvE gear, but I find that it often lacks the stats I really want, and relies far more on random chance; the PvE gold quality set of items is, as far as I can tell, obtained through gold loot sacks from public quests, which aren’t guaranteed to drop for each completion of the PQ, and even when they do you then need to win a roll against others to get it. The gold quality set of PvP gear, however, is bought from a vendor with tokens which are rewarded with far more regularity in the various PvP sub-games.

WAR simply never seems to have known what it wants to be. It is a Frankenstein creation, full of brilliant ideas and clever concepts, all stitched together into the semblance of a hybrid PvE-PvP MMO, but which has never really found general acceptance in the PvE or PvP communities. As such it skulks around in the background of the MMO scene, trying to prove that it is a proper MMO even though its appearance inspires the mainstream of players to, at best, cross over to the other side of the street. Thankfully for WAR it is not a creation of Dr NCSoft, who tends to throw his handiwork from his tower down to the pitchfork wielding, torch waving masses at the first sign of imperfection.

The reason I don’t get on with PvP in WAR is that, in the main, the motto of the game seems to be: he who zergs, wins. There’s no empowerment of the individual, no Knightrider Effect where one man (or woman, thanks Stan) can make a difference. If you look at games such as EVE, and online FPS games such as Counter Strike, what you see is team battles where individuals can manage to overcome greater opposition through careful play, using hit-and-run tactics, and guerrilla warfare, and thus turn the tide of a battle. From my experience that just doesn’t happen in WAR, even in the smaller scenarios, you are either part of the Zerg or you are assimilated, and unfortunately for me that is a style of play that I don’t find compelling.

I am Healbot of Zerg. I am 6 of 24. Resistance is futile (you should have gone for +Wounds instead).

Once I make up my mind, I’m full of indecision.

I should have known that I could never be free.

My altitus is usually a constant companion, a non-combat vanity pet for my real world self, always at my side, bouncing up at me with a steady metronomic rhythm whenever I play an MMO, as though it had fallen on to a trampoline and didn’t quite know how to get off, all the while yipping at a frequency and intensity perfectly evolved to prevent any form of consistent continuous cogitation; and yet I hadn’t heard so much as a peep from it since I started playing Warhammer Online with the Van Hemlock crew’s Monday night static group. I thought I’d escaped the attentions of my altitus: having settled on playing a Witch Elf I had spent several evenings getting a feel for the game again, and I knew I had found the class for me. I marvelled at the concept of the lithe elf wearing nothing but a thong and bra who dual-wields daggers and lurks in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the unwary healer or mage, stunning them momentarily as they process the fact that they seem to have drawn the attentions of an S&M dungeon mistress and then desperately try to recollect the safe word that had been agreed upon so they can make the pain go away. I was happy, I had a sassy female assassin, a sassassin if you will, and I was certain that I couldn’t be swayed from the path, not when the sassassin’s swaying curves glided along that path, soft and supple, in stark contrast to the hard, sharp curves of the blades held against them at the ready.

I paused and listened, and for the first time in an age the altitus was silent.

The guild got bigger. From the initial six members of the Lord of the Rings Online Monday night static group, the guild grew in size until we were able to field a full warband, and as the four groups were organised within that warband it was observed that we were a little short on healers.

I held my breath and waited.

I waited for the altitus to roar forth from its den of temporary hibernation, metamorphosed from small yappy annoyance into a raging frenzied monster of claws and teeth that would tear my gaming sanity to shreds and lay waste to any chance of me settling down and enjoying one class for the long run to the end game. But nothing came, not even a whimper. I pinched myself, looked in the mirror, stuck out my tongue, pulled my lower eyelids down, and tapped myself on the chest. I did a small shuffling dance of joy. Such was the allure of the sassassin that I, Sir Mr Alititus, Lord High Chancellor of Healing Alts, had not felt even the slightest twinge of desire, no pinpricks of heat on the back of my neck and beads of sweat on my brow that indicate the onset of alt fever, nothing. I knew that if I had resisted the urge to re-roll a healer then I must be cured: my favourite class of character, the group support role had always been my downfall, it’s the style of play I most enjoy and something I could never normally resist if there was a need for it within a group. M’colleague and several others, having found a renewed enthusiasm for the game, rolled alts to play outside of the Monday night group. I rolled a Disciple of Khaine in order to join them; I knew that rolling a melee healer (possibly my favourite class of character) was giving my altitus another chance to rear-up and take a swipe at me with giant paws, but I needed to know for certain.

I had to face my One Ring. I wanted to resist its temptation and pass the test. Whereupon I would diminish and go into the West. Or more likely, go into the kitchen and grab a celebratory bite to eat. I played the Disciple of Khaine for no more than a level or two before I grew tired of it and deleted the character. My heart just wasn’t in it: I watched the Disciple swing her swords, clumsy and random compared to the civilised daggers of the Witch Elf, as I wondered how she managed to move at all under all those layers of robes that ran from head to foot and back again. Sure she survived in combat far longer than the Witch Elf, but her victories seemed slow and tiresome in comparison – inevitable and thus predictable. The Witch Elf, in contrast, was exciting, unpredictable, dangerous. Messy. Putting yourself in a PvP scenario with a Witch Elf is like putting your hand in a box with a frightened and injured feral cat: at the very best you can expect to come away severely bloodied and covered in urine. She would appear naked out of nowhere, a sudden angry explosion, a flurry of feminine feline fury, the banshee howl of the air as her dagger blades cut through it, the cries of her victims, the ecstatic scream of the sassassin as she rent her foe’s skin and sanity in equal measure. The Witch Elf isn’t sexy, she is part of sex itself: she rides the steady back-and-forth back-and-forth rhythm of the battle, patiently building up to the point where she can be contained no longer, bursting forth in a paroxysm of soul-humming intensity for a few seconds before fading away again.

The altitus, had it even bothered to emerge, had surely slunk back to its den to sulk quietly and sullenly lick itself in self pity.

I was free. Had to be. The off-night alters continued to play their alternative characters and I came up with a droll concept name for an Orc Choppa based on a model of helicopter (or chopper) nicknamed the Jolly Green Giant, so I rolled it up one night and joined them.

Where the Witch Elf is patient, watching and waiting for the right moment to unleash her fury, the Orc Choppa is all fury all the time. To start off with, things were just mildly amusing, the initial set of abilities being a single target attack, a single target DoT, a single target snare, and a finishing move that does more damage the more fury the Choppa has built. He was more resilient than the Witch Elf, but at these low levels that didn’t mean much as most mobs went down quicker than a fanboy in a room full of developers.

And then I got my first AoE abilities and joined a PvP scenario.

The irony was not lost on me when altitus snuck out of the shadows and backstabbed me with a crit so big it would have made a Witch Elf give up there and then and join a convent.

There is no describing the feeling when you charge solo into the midst of a group of five or six enemy players and start wailing away with your AoE abilities and they begin to run away. There is no explanation for it either. They outnumber you, and although the AoE output of a Choppa is quite high, and the Choppa is quite resilient, it is never a combination that is likely to finish any of them off before they bring you down. The only thing I can think is that it’s simply the shock of it, especially in open RvR, where two groups tend to stand off from one another, making rude gestures from a safe distance as the ranged characters nip forward to plink away at the nearest enemy who is then easily healed by the massed ranks of healers tucked away behind them. So when a big angry Orc simply ignores all that protocol and etiquette and charges headlong into the midst of a group that moments ago assumed that it was immune to serious threat through careful observance of the rules of oRvR engagement, and when that big Orc starts doing enough damage to enough people that the more lightly armoured ones start to back away, it leaves the others exposed to not just the big green angry ball of muscle with a honking great axe grafted to it, but also his friends who have had their confidence bolstered and thus followed up with a charge of their own. Suddenly you have a rout, and although the Choppa inevitably perishes at some point in the initial skirmish, there is a brief moment when he is a green-skinned tusk-faced Poseidon, sweeping away all before him in a tidal wave of destructive force. It is a really curious phenomenon, the way players run away when they are under attack, invariably taking shots to the back all the time as they do so. Doubly so when you consider that it’s usually twenty seconds or less to run back to the fray should a player’s character die, and therefore death is nothing more than a minor inconvenience at worst, a convenient excuse for a drink or bio break otherwise. Clearly there is value in a tactical retreat when the enemy outnumber you, but when the enemy outnumber you and then *they* retreat when you press the attack there must surely be some other psychological effect at work, the observation of which is both fascinating and addictive. It’s not about winning or hurting others – I’m usually dead before more than one of the opposition is defeated – it’s the curious feeling of mania that it induces, that crazed frightening glee that comes over you, as though you’ve turned into the malevolent clown from children’s nightmares. It’s a feeling of primal power. Again though, the joy is focussed on the Choppa, not the enemy players it is intimidating. I realised that my pleasure came not directly from the reaction of the other players but from the way the Choppa worked to bring about such a reaction, when I remembered another MMO class that I played which also gave me the exact same feeling, but in a PvE setting: City of Villain’s Brute.

The Orc Choppa is a crude blunt-force instrument compared to the technical, precise scalpel of the Witch Elf, and although there’s appeal in both, with both having their part to play, it’s the Choppa’s ability to make a tangible psychological impact on the field of battle, in both my mind and the mind of other players, that makes it so incredibly appealing.

There’s a quote that comes to mind from William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic “If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude”.

Sometimes though, when they think you’re crude, it’s fun to show them that they’ve underestimated just how crude you are.

As my altitus decided to do for me, just the other day.

Dickens on Public Quests

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” – Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield

“Public quest designed for nine players, number participating five, result misery. Public quest designed for three players, number participating nineteen, result a different kind of misery. Public quest designed for six, number participating six, result happiness. Until someone else wins the loot roll.” – Nanettenewman the Black Orc in WAR

Public (Quest) Convenience

With patch 1.2 in Warhammer Online tempting Melmoth back to try a Slayer, a few other people have also been returning to WAR. I rolled up a new character to hook up with them in the lower tiers; figuring the massed Slayer ranks would just about have DPS covered it was down to a tank or healer, and though I imagine a healer would be very popular on our side, I had a bad feeling it would be equally popular with hordes of healer-targeting Choppas, so I went with the tank and started a Knight of the Blazing Sun. I’m rather enjoying it so far, he definitely feels more robust than the ol’ Bright Wizard (“Armoured Knight in ‘more robust than bloke in a dress’ shocker”), able to round up and hold the aggro of a good 5-10 mobs, so long as they’re a level or two lower and I’ve got some backup to either keep my health topped up or nuke them down, and the damage isn’t too shabby either, especially wielding a two handed weapon.

When levelling up my Bright Wizard I spent much of my time in scenarios. Unfortunately the server has got a bit quieter since then and scenarios don’t pop quite so frequently any more, which is a bit of a shame as they were perfect ad-hoc small-group content. As per that post, the usual MMO collection of “Go. Hunt. Kill boars.” quests are great when solo, but can be a right pain to co-ordinate in groups. Group-wise, at least in WoW, LotRO, WAR and their ilk, you get group quests and instances (or group quests in instances); the trouble with these is they’re typically fixed for a certain size and composition of group. This sort of ties in with a Tweet this morning from one of the WAR players we’ve been grouping with: “MMO Questions: Why a group size limit of 6?”, which I started to reply to, but had only made it as far as “It is incumbent upon us to investigate the historical aspects of social, and utilitarian, grouping in a number of contexts to fully apprecia” before the 140 character limit kicked in.

In pencil and paper games it’s down to the Dungeon Master to tweak encounters to suit, and he can adjust things for the number of players in a party and any particular strengths or weaknesses they may have, so a party of six containing three barbarians who all managed to roll 18 for Str, Dex and Con don’t have to face the same two kobolds (one with a slight limp) that might be more appropriate if the players had decided to roleplay a small party of pacifist academics. MMOGs generally work the other way around, the encounters are fixed and you’re expected to bring a group of 1, 5, 6, 10, 24, 25 or whatever other lottery numbers seemed like a good idea at the time, with (in the aforementioned diku-style games) a suitable balance of yer Holy Trinity of tank, healer and DPS. I suspect they’re done that way as it’s easier for designers; not “easy”, but at least it’s one less variable when you’re trying to pitch content for players of different levels, classes, character builds and gear. It doesn’t have to be that way; City of Heroes, as I’m sure I’ve banged on about at tedious length before, scales encounters to suit parties of 1-8 by mixing the number, type and levels of the enemies you face, but then City of Heroes isn’t especially loot/achievement-centric and doesn’t tend to stand up terribly well to fierce mathematical min-max scrutiny. It’s great fun for jumping into with any number of friends (so long as it’s eight or less) and beating up a bunch of thugs while dressed spandex, though.

Scenarios in WAR were a really great way of easily grouping up with varying numbers of friends, and running bite-sized chunks o’ fun. Public quests were always fun in busy zones and easy to drop in and out of, but as players thinned out across later tiers (and scenarios, and open RvR) they got a lot quieter. A couple of tweaks since launch have made them a handy ad-hoc group alternative to scenarios: firstly they’ve added easy public quests, aimed at a group of two or three, so even if there’s just a couple of you there’s something to aim for. Secondly, you can fly to any zone; that wasn’t always the case, and if you and a friend were stuck in the middle of different flight-master-less zones and wanted to group up, it would take literally quite a long time just to travel. If you’re in a guild that has recall scrolls, you can now get to any zone for 30 copper and a couple of loading screens (although depending on the zone there may still be a sodding great RvR lake and enemy warcamp slap between you and a sensible destination, but still). If there’s a couple of you, you can head for an easy PQ and give it a lash. If it’s a bit too easy or hard, you move up or down a chapter; if another person or two joins in, you can move on to normal PQs. It’s been a really handy way of jumping on and playing for the odd hour here and there.

Plus ça change.

You know, Mythic, having come back to WAR to give it a second chance after the tempting lure of being able to play a Slayer, it’s hard for someone like me to stick around when, after all this time, your game STILL doesn’t remember the position of my chat windows, such that I have to move them every time I log in.

Minor things like this make your game look disproportionately shoddy and unprofessional, because they’re in the user’s face, and they’re there every time that user logs in.

I should be playing your game and not sitting here contemplating writing an AddOn to fix such a stupid thing.