Friday 29 June 2007

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?

(Part four of "teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff")

OK, so you've joined a guild. What now? Well... it depends!

Thank you, the end.

Hrm. That climactic grand finale was a bit of a let-down, really, but as Oscar Wilde once said: "There are more guilds than there are stars in the sky, and, as snowflakes, no two are alike in their infinite variety. Which is lucky, 'cos seriously if Whistler bumps me from the Kara team one more time I'm totally going to /gquit and find another one."

As I mentioned in the prologue, what really started this whole series was Will Wallace's piece, "Guilds as Retention Mechanisms". I was going to leave a comment there along the lines of "It depends!", which then grew into a musing on the nature of guilds, which mutated into a sprawling series of posts, and has now come back to "it depends", because as old Oscar (what a visionary) pointed out, guilds cover the gamut from a couple of people who wanted their own cool tabard to huge multi-game communities of hundreds of people, focused on any or all of PvPing, casual questing, crafting, raiding, roleplaying, and anything else you can do in a game. Coming back to the question I asked myself, did I stay in certain games longer because of the people, or did I forge closer ties with the people because I enjoyed the game and therefore played it more, my grand conclusion is: it's both. If you're enjoying a game, you've got more incentive and motivation to find groups or a guild, and they in turn (barring colossal clashes of personality and guild meltdowns) reinforce the enjoyment to keep you playing. If the game itself isn't really working out for you, it can carry over into groups/guilds, with minor annoyances that you'd otherwise overlook becoming extra reasons to quit. Which is still a bit of a disappointingly woolly ending really. Hrm. I know! Beckett said, "always leave them with a joke", so here's one of his:

A man walks into a fish and chip shop, and asks for cod and chips twice, and the other man says... I heard you the first time.

Thursday 28 June 2007

Lookin' for somethin' you ain't quite found yet

(Part three of "teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff")

(As a quick semantic diversion, I'm using "guild" in these posts as a shorthand for guild/supergroup/kinship/other game-specific term, and the general ideas carry over to other groupings too; players with common in-game chat channels, voice comms, message boards, instant messaging etc. There's possibly the nub of another deep social treatise in there, "What is a guild?" (or "When is a guild not a guild? When it's ajar" *badum tish*), but I'll spare you that for now.)

The conclusion of Part Two was that guilds are a Good Thing(TM), on somewhat nebulous philosophical grounds involving dilemmas and ethics, and wombats and hatstands were in there somewhere for no adequately explained reason. So! How to find one? One option, of course, is to start your own. This, frankly, involves such an awful lot of work it makes me feel faint just contemplating it. I just plugged "How to start a guild" into Google, on the off chance there was some pithy advice I could nick, I mean, er, be inspired by, and within the first couple of pages was "the Psychotherapists' Guild can help you find a therapist", which sounds about right to me. Good, successful guild leaders truly have my utmost respect (and a high burn-out rate).

Another option is to boldly adventure away, strike up conversations with those you meet on your travels, and band together with like-minded types. A while back in World of Warcraft, I was running around Westfall. I'd teamed up with someone for some quest, the Defias traitor probably, they were a decent player, we chatted a bit between ambushes, they asked if I wanted to join their guild. I figured "why not", what's the worst that could happen? (You can see where this is going, can't you?) So the next day, I log back in, I'm at the Sentinel Hill inn, and I see a message on guild chat, "NEED HELP 4 QEST", or something equally literate. Normally I'd run a mile from requests like that (or possibly run a mile towards them, to really build up momentum for a decent charge, but then you remember you can't actually hit them so it's all a bit of waste), but the guild log showed the chap was in Westfall, and I was in Westfall, we're similar levels, heck, why not show what a fine and helpful guildmate I was. "I'll help!" I pipe up, "pop me an invite". No invite is forthcoming. "NEED HELP 4 QEST", goes the guild chat. At this point, I see the chap running down the hill. I wander over, stick a buff on him, and send a whisper (in case he hadn't spotted guild chat) indicating my willingness to assist. Off he runs down the road. "NEED HELP 4 QEST", goes the guild chat. With a sigh, I set off after him, preparing to once again offer help when he stops, turns around (slowly) and yells "STOP FOLLOWING ME ZOSO" (I can't actually remember if that was a whisper, in guild chat, or maybe even shouted zone-wide. I might as well make it the latter, for comedy anecdote purposes.) Strangely enough, I didn't stick around in that guild...

Now, I'm not saying it *never* works, but it's bit of a lottery, depending on bumping into like-minded players. An alternative is to hit up the ol' game forums/fansites, and have a browse of recruitment threads. Weighing those up isn't always easy; pretty much every guild recruitment post says their aim is to "have fun". And I'd always thought, yeah, sounds good! Having fun, that's what I'm after as well, sign me up! But then, having fun means different things to different people, which seems pretty staggeringly obvious, but I only really twigged when someone pointed it out. I mean, nobody's going to start up a guild, and proclaim that their objective is to endure several months of grinding misery, detesting every moment, then quit the game, smash their PC up with a hammer and become a hermit. Least, I've never seen that guild advert... No, everyone's out to "have fun". But fun for Geoff is the achievement of getting a server-first kill of a certain boss, and the associated dedication that would require, whereas fun for Steve is logging on and having a good old natter in guild chat while killing a few goblins, and fun for Kev is taking all his clothes off (his character's clothes, that is. Well, maybe his clothes too, but until they integrate webcams with MMOs (or "The Doom Apocalypse Time Of Hideous Doom Imagery Of Doom" as it would be known in hindsight) we thankfully don't know) and /dancing on the bridge outside Ironforge bank. Geoff and Steve aren't going to have much fun unless the rest of their guild are of a broadly similar mindset (Kev doesn't care, he's busy /dancing); Geoff's too focused on damage, threat and healing to reminisce about 80s kid's TV shows with Steve, and Kev's vocabulary is pretty much limited to /saying "LOOOOOOLLL" anyway.

Still, so long as the recruitment post doesn't solely consist of "Join us and have the fun, oh yeah!", you should at least find a few potential matches to your play style that you can investigate in game, or on the guild's website (if they have one).

Course, there's plenty of other ways of finding guilds too; real life friends already in guilds (or starting new guilds with them), work colleagues, people who read the same web comic...

So, you found a guild and got an invite. What now? Find out next time on... teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff!

Tuesday 26 June 2007

Temptation's page flies out the door

(Part two of "teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff")

OK, so we saw an MMOG version of the prisoner's dilemma in the previous post, but just to bludgeon the point home, a couple of other examples.

An armoursmith, woodworker, weaponsmith and a cook go into the Great Barrows, and the landlord says "why the long face?", and the armoursmith, says "Arrrr! It's driving me nuts!" No, wait, sorry, took a wrong turn into random jokes there...

A armoursmith, woodworker, weaponsmith and a cook go into the Great Barrows. Amidst the chests brimming with gold and loot (well, a few bits of silver and nowhere near enough chalices for the like of some bloke in Bree who must have a *serious* drink problem, as he wants fifteen of them from *each* of you) are plans for a solid iron breastplate, a barbed wooden spear, a deadly bronze sword and a recipe for lobster thermidor aux crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and spam (obviously the undead value French cuisine as highly as implements of war). Optimal scenario: each crafter only rolls "need" for the item they can actually use, everyone ends up happy. Not so optimal scenario: everyone rolls "need" for everything, the good ol' dice determine who gets what. Least optimal scenario: half the group only roll "need" for what they can use, the other half rolls "need" for everything, the former end up with more stuff at the expense of the latter, everyone starts bickering about loot, the other three ask the cook what, exactly, he's doing rustling up tasty snacks while they're crafting useful weapons and armour, and while he's trying to explain the advantages of the buffs provided by various foodstuffs a bunch of Wights come along, kill everyone, and wander off nibbling on lobster claws.

I had to think pretty hard about City of Heroes, as until about a month ago there was no loot in the game, and it features such heavy instancing that competition for wandering mobs is hardly a problem, but even there a comparable situation could arise. If you have a group of two level 25 heroes and one level 21 hero, you can easily fight level 25 mobs. The level 21 probably doesn't contribute too much to the fight, but they rake in the XP from the group defeating much higher level opponents. Now, CoH has an option that allows a higher level character to "sidekick" a lower level; one of the level 25s could sidekick the level 21 who would then effectively fight as a level 24 (one level below their mentor). More use in combat, so mobs should be defeated faster to the benefit of the group as a whole, but the sidekicked character doesn't gain so many XP because the opponents are only one level higher, rather than four. That's not technically a prisoner's dilemma, as the choice is only taken by one character; perhaps there's another name for it ("prisoner's semi-dilemma with one and a half twists and pike", maybe), but it's good enough for my basic point, which is:

There are situations in MMOGs where you can optimise your own gold/loot/XP/quest completion at the expense of others. I'm no game theorist, so I'll just flail around here for a bit and paste random words in from Wikipedia like dominant strategy, non-zero sum game, Nash Equilibrium and Pareto optimum to make myself look clever and hopefully back that up. There should probably be graphs or something. Anyway! There are ways of getting ahead, not in an evil "muahahahaha" full-on griefing way, just optimising your own reward, being a bit selfish, stuff that doesn't directly flout the rules of the game (but will spark many pages of message board discussions). And why not? Why give a damn about other members of a pick-up group, or random people you bump into while questing; on a populous server, you'll probably never meet them again, and they're probably thinking the same way, so it's just self defence.

Back to the question from part one, then: how to avoid bozos, and the propagation of bozo-ism? Well, if you arrange things so you're normally out and about with a smaller subset of the server population like, say, a "guild", there's a couple of effects. Firstly the one-off prisoner's dilemma is turned into an iterated version, you keep running the choices knowing the previous outcomes. In that situation, it's a better long term strategy to keep playing nice, even before you add further incentives (like possibly being kicked from a guild if you choose your own gain at their expense). Secondly, the matrix of results can look a bit different. A shiny piece of armour that you can't wear drops while you're in a pickup group; if you roll and win it, you could sell it. If someone else wins it, no benefit to you at all. If, on the other hand, you're in a guild group and a shiny piece of armour drops, if Geoff the tank wins it there *is* a benefit to you: Geoff can tank better, you can tag along with Geoff in harder dungeons and potentially win the shiny loot that might drop there. Win-win!

Bear in mind, this is still a gross oversimplification of... well, everything really. It is possible to find pick-up groups of kind, fun people who you never see again (not likely, I grant you, but *possible*); there are game mechanics that reward successful team play over selfishness. There's all sorts of situations with any number of motivations for players to act in any number of ways (there's some barely studied philosophy of "ethics", or something, which I don't think anybody's really written anything about over the past few thousand years... if you have a spare half hour, there's a rather interesting programme on altruism that's quite fun). Apart from anything else, I've conveniently ignored the fact that guilds do nothing to change my *original* prisoner's dilemma, of hunting the same hatstands as someone from the other faction on a PvE server, but it was such a nice example I had to lead with it anyway. (I'm afraid the best I can come up with there is trying to convey, through the medium of interpretive dance and other emotes, that you should co-operate in your hunt.) I'm rather hoping nobody will notice... look! Over there! A badger! Can you see? I think he's got a gun!

So. Guilds: good things for encouraging people not to be bozos. Everyone join one today! Simple.

Of course, it isn't quite that simple, is it? As we'll find out in the next exciting (for certain values of "exciting") episode of "teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff".

Monday 25 June 2007

Ah, my friends from the prison

(Part one of "teams, friends, guilds, other players and stuff")

I had one of those fun quests, "Kill 10 wombats, 10 badgers and 10 hatstands", where there's packs of roaming wombats and badgers everywhere, but only two hatstands in the entire zone (probably because wombats and badgers have little use for hats, and thus by extension hatstands, although for some strange reason each hatstand is totally surrounded by numerous wombats and badgers). So I'd racked up the 10 wombats and badgers in a couple of minutes, and was on 3/10 hatstands when I saw someone else, of the other faction. Someone else hunting hatstands. Oh dear. On a PvP server, it's nice and simple, you'd just kill them and get on with it. Or try and kill them, be ganked by the stealthy rogue hiding next to them, and get corpse camped for the next half hour, prompting you to send out a call for help, bringing a posse of guildmates to sort out the nasty old enemy and camp their corpses, just for a little while to teach them the error of their ways, prompting *them* to summon forth further guildmates and allies, and so on and so forth until the entire population of the server is locked in deadly conflict, digging series of trenches and fortifications opposite each other and contemplating amphibious operations in the Dardanelles in an attempt to break the deadlock, while the native badgers and wombats sit around their hatstands watching the whole affair with detached interest while eating popcorn. Like I said, nice and simple. On a PvE server, though, it's a dilemma. Specifically, the prisoner's dilemma. If you both co-operate, clear out surrounding badgers and wombats and take it in turns tagging hatstands, it'll take a while but you'll both get through it in the end. If you both go all out to try and tag hatstands as soon as possible, you'll wind up covered in too many wombats and badgers to handle, and die a lot. So why don't you co-operate? 'Cos obviously the optimal strategy for a single player is to let the other poor bozo engage the wombats and badgers, then you jump in and grab the hatstand at the end of it, and run off laughing. And you know that, they know that, you know that they know that, they know that you know that they know (etc.), so it ends up with the pair of you standing *just* outside aggro range of the wombats, hands poised over your weapons, while Alessandro Alessandroni whistles away in the background. Nine times out of ten, you're both perfectly reasonable people, but the possibility that the other person might be a bozo forces[1] you to pre-emptively behave in an indistinguishable-from-bozo-like fashion yourself.

[1] OK, obviously it doesn't *force* you to behave like that, it's only a silly computer game, what does it matter if they go around grabbing all the hatstands and it takes you a bit longer to finish the quest yourself? There's far worse things going on in the world, get some perspective![2]

[2] Yeah, right. Like there's anything more important than getting even with that kill-stealing jerk over there...

If the other hatstand hunter is in your faction, of course the optimal strategy of grouping up to hunt hatstands is far more attractive, but there's any number of further counter-reasons for not wanting to team up ('cos you get into loot issues, or maybe there's three of you, four of the other team so you can't form a single group, or the other player doesn't respond to tells or team invites, or you just don't feel like grouping 'cos you can't face the strained small talk and social awkwardness of extricating yourself afterwards...)

Anyway, that original stand-off was resolved as I was pretty bored of badgers and wombats by that point anyway, so I wandered off and did something else, returning for the hatstands later with some backup to make wombat-clearing easier. But the question is, how to avoid bozos, and the propagation of bozo-ism? Well that's where guilds can come in...

(Ooh, a cliffhanger, it's just like Doctor Who)

(Except for being exciting in any way, but never mind)

Seein' your world of people and things

I was cruising around the Blogipelago over the weekend and found some interesting stuff from Will Wallace, particularly Guilds as Retention Mechanisms, which set me thinking. The MMOGs I've played longest are the ones I've had closest ties to in-game friends/guildmates; is that why I played them longer, or did I play longer because I enjoyed the game, and as a result of that formed closer ties with people? Very chicken and egg. Ahhh! (Stop that! - Ed.)

Anyway, teams, friends, guilds, other players... plenty of food for thought there, enough for a series of blog posts, I think. Unless I get bored and wander off.

Thursday 21 June 2007

We sail through endless skies

So, my previous post might have seemed like a mere light hearted skit, spoof or humorous vignette, but actually it's a deep treatise that works on two levels. *At least* two levels. Probably three or four. Maybe ten. Ahh!

It's a parable, see, like the Vineyard Owner, only in this case illustrating that us bloggers may opine away and come up with all sorts of amazing ideas that we're convinced will transform the entire MMOG genre, but would actually be pretty tedious in practise. Ahh! OK, that's hardly a revelation, but still. Always worth bearing in mind.

The third level it works at ("Ahh!", "No, not 'ahh', stop saying 'ahh'") is that there *might* be the nub of a not-entirely-insane idea somewhere in there for some sort of player-based transportation system. EVE is the main inspiration ("inspiration" in the sense of "it already does exactly that so I'm just ripping the idea off them really"); unless I'm more vastly mistaken than a man who thinks Hillaire Belloc is still alive, it doesn't have a "mailbox". You're a miner, digging away, extracting ore from asteroids, and you want to take that ore to your corporation's manufacturing base so they can turn it into ships and guns and socks and sugar n' stuff... no popping it in the post, you have to physically take it there. Out in high security space that might be easy enough, set the autopilot and put your feet up for a while, but in the wild and lawless regions of 0.0, your big ol' freighter is a sitting duck. You'll want a convoy, with escorts, and there's wolfpacks out there... (Note: I'm extrapolating here from a brief dalliance with EVE's free trial and watching Das Boot and The Cruel Sea several times, it might be nothing like that). It's not a great leap to a fantasy setting; player characters getting hired to work as caravan guards is a good old staple of the genre. Course, you couldn't just tack transport of raw materials straight on to an existing game, or you'd just add extra tedium and difficulty in an area that already needs some improvement, but if you could somehow work it in to an overhaul of that...

And if it's a really stupid idea, then obviously I don't mean it literally. It's a metaphor. Ahhhhhhhh!

Tuesday 19 June 2007

The post office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked

Melmoth's Standing Procedure, and Elf's comment on adding more realism to NPCs, got me thinking. Mailboxes are a bit small, aren't they? The ones dotted around Ironforge and Bree? Sure, you could fit a small package in there, with a ring or amulet in it, but a giant two-handed sword? No way. Unless perhaps the blade has some sort of ingenious telescoping mechanism. Or it's in kit form. Maybe with a magazine, you know, "NEW! Build Your Own Two Handed Sword Magazine! Free pommel and hilt with Issue 1! Each week you get fascinating two handed sword articles, like 'bits of your enemy you should try and poke with your two handed sword', 'celebrity two handed sword wielders' and 'other fun things to do with a two handed sword (part 1: roasting a lot of really big marshmallows)', and the included blade segments slot together to form a handsome Zweihänder with the complete collection. Order now!"

Anyway, clearly tiny mailboxes are an unrealistic way of sending and receiving large, bulky objects. What you need is a courier service. If only there was some sort of precedent... So I've come up with a new and revolutionary idea: when you sell a large item at auction, you receive a quest to deliver that item to the buyer. Imagine the larks! You could have a little cap and tabard, and the address you'd have would be the buyer's hearthstone inn, so you'd toddle along there, and they'd probably be out questing, so you'd have to write out one of those little "Sorry! We tried to deliver this parcel, but you weren't in" cards, and then the buyer would contact you and quote the reference number, and you'd arrange another delivery, only you wouldn't be able to specify morning or afternoon, and then you'd get lost on the way, or stuck in heavy raid-traffic...

If this idea took off, I reckon you could even expand it. After all, it would be a shame to only be able to perform such exciting tasks after selling certain items at auction, so certain NPCs could have objects too bulky, or perhaps too valuable, to send by mail, that they could ask you to deliver instead. It's a sure fire winner, the players are going to love it!

Monday 18 June 2007

The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin' in the wall

Yet another quiet weekend, gaming-wise. I'm beginning to spot a trend here... Friday, I finished off running my Guild Wars Assassin from the Factions campaign back to the beginning of the Prophecies campaign, so I'm ready for our posse to make a start on that. I can't actually pick up quests myself at the moment, but hopefully there won't be a problem tagging along with the others on theirs, giving them a chance to catch up with all the XP I unavoidably picked up on my wildlife-slaughtering journey.

Saturday and Sunday were Double XP Weekend in City of Heroes, but I didn't get too much of a chance to play. Made a few levels on the recently rolled Scrapper, but much time was taken up with quiz nights, cinema visits, and hooking up a DVD recorder (side note: I'd like to thank the genius who designed our TV cabinet for putting great big slabs of wood in randomly stupid places, so that in order to connect two things on adjacent shelves you have to run cables out one side, round somewhere else, over another bit, then back in the other side. Really appreciate that. I didn't swear at all in trying to get everything hooked up without going and buying three metre cables or drilling holes in something. Well, not much. Maybe once or twice. Every sentence. And they were quite short sentences.)

Friday 15 June 2007

Out of control

In my continued flitting from MMO to MMO like a magpie distracted by shiny objects, I dug out Guild Wars again this week. I picked it up a while back, sometime in 2005 between a first stint in WoW and City of Villains, but didn't play it too much back then. Apart from anything else, it had the worst capes *ever*. For the most part, the graphics were beautiful; the character models were great, not a huge range of customisation choices but some interesting armour, particularly the Mesmer's dandy highwayman (who you're too scared to mention) look. And then you hooked up with a guild, and got... a commemorative tea towel. Which the guildmaster sellotaped to your back, and wouldn't let you take off. You were stuck with this stupid tea towel; a realistically modelled, flapping-in-the-breeze tea towel (as opposed to the much-easier-to-model cloak-shaped bits of cardboard used in a lot of other games), but a tea towel nonetheless.

Anyway! You can turn off cape display these days, so that's the most important thing sorted out. OK, maybe not quite the *most* important, but you know me and my character customisation obsession. I decided to roll up a new character, and after deciding support classes aren't for me, thought I'd get back to my DPS-ways. The Assassin class introduced in the Factions campaign, looked rather fun, so a swift visit to the online store added that to my account (I'm a sucker for the instant gratification of direct download online purchases). I'm planning to head back as soon as possible to meet up with a couple of friends in post-Searing Ascalon and play through the original Prophecies campaign, which might be a disastrously foolish plan. I'm turning down all side-quests to get to the point that I can sail back over to Tyria as soon as possible, which I think is leaving me rather under-levelled for the unavoidable story missions on the way there but still higher level than a post-Searing Prophecies character, but hey, we'll see how it goes.

Combat in Guild Wars is a pretty frenetic business, especially with your posse of AI henchmen. In World of Warcraft or City of Heroes, I'm totally in control, I know exactly what I'm doing, who I'm targeting, what powers I'm using (well, mostly. I mean there's the whole "which button is sap again?" business that makes the whole party roar with laughter, second only to my other party piece of sneaking around forgetting the minor point that I'm not in stealth... and then there's jumping into the middle of a pile of mobs, hitting the button for a devastating PBAoE inferno, and only then realising it hasn't recharged... but y'know, apart from that). Guild Wars so far is more... "AAAAHHH! MOBS! Press buttons! Activate powers! What did I just do? Shadow what? With a what? No target? Oh, he's dead... but... where's the other one? No, that's my henchman... Him! Hit him! Hit him with a stick! Hit him with a bucket! Ruffle his hair up, they hate that. AAAAAHHH!"

I'm not quite sure if it's me, or the game (or a bit of both). I've played WoW and CoH far more than anything else, and was probably randomly mashing buttons just as much in those when I started out. Like fighting games; you're flailing around mushing whatever buttons come to hand, and someone says "look, you just block the punch like that, and then counter like this, and then left-left-down-kick-jump-punch activates Super Robert Smith Punch", and you go "huh?" and try and push every button on the controller at the same time using the palm of one hand while frantically rotating the analogue stick at high speed with the other. After a while, though, things fall into place; I could probably still pull off most of the scrap and destruction attacks of a Jaguar from One Must Fall: 2097 (Up up down down punch! Best PC fighting game ever... Well, the only PC fighting game, really. At least, the only one that wasn't rubbish, and was shareware back when I couldn't afford that many games...) If I can stick with Guild Wars for more than ten minutes without getting distracted by a beta for another game, or Pirates of the Burning Seas, or a gleaming bottle top or bit of silver foil, I'm sure things will click there. I sincerely hope so, at least, for my prospective comrades' sakes, otherwise it could be a long campaign... "Run, Charlie, run! Hit him with a broom, Kev, hit him with a broom!"

Monday 11 June 2007

Base! How low can you go?

I've been tinkering around with bases in City of Heroes this weekend. Bases are supergroup (CoH guild) "houses"; if you're of sufficient rank within a supergroup, you can wander up to an NPC and say "I'd like a base, please!", then Base Portals, placed in all the main city zones, will teleport you into a little 4x4 entrance lobby with an exit teleporter and not much else. From there, with the Edit Base option, you get to play architect and/or makeover show host, adding new rooms to your base and furnishing them.

Bases have been in City of Heroes since the release of City of Villains in 2005, but never really worked out quite as the designers intended. The basic problem was that bases were incredibly expensive. You needed a large amount of Prestige to build even a basic functional base (Prestige is a supergroup currency; when playing, you have to choose between earning Influence, personal currency for improving your character, or Presitge, supergroup currency for improving the group base), then you have to pay monthly rent on it, which means you really needed to be in a big supergroup. Being in a big supergroup, though, meant either base layout anarchy, or a few people as base architects with the appropriate permissions to edit a base.

That didn't bother me too much; I had a play around on the test server (where new supergroups were automatically given a vast stack of Prestige to test bases), built a functional base to see how the base editor worked, and left it at that. The base editor is as flexible as my beloved costume editor, you can place all sorts of furniture, gadgets and gizmos (both functional and [purely decorative), tweak the lighting, raise and lower floors and ceilings, generally make everything from a gleaming-walled hi-tech lab to an office with conference table, whiteboards and desks to a dank stone-walled crypt with arcane symbols everywhere. The test server being the test server, though, I didn't put too much effort into personalising the place as I wouldn't be spending any time there, the most striking feature I added being what I called "the room of photocopiers", a room filled with (you'll never guess...) photocopiers. I like to think of it as an art installation. Actually, with a spare empty gallery, a sackful of cash from the Arts Council and an office supplies store, I reckon I could do it in First Life and have a decent shot at the Turner Prize. But I digress...

Over on the live servers, our Supergroup built up nice hero and villain bases, with teleporters to various parts of the city, storage areas and similar, and prepared for the Item of Power trial. The Item of Power trial was to be the first supergroup raid in CoH; up to 24 members of the group would head off to an epic battle with Rularuu, and if you win, your group receives an Item of Power in the base, granting a small supergroup-wide buff. The Item of Power was also intended to introduce more PvP; owning one would open your base up to being raided by other groups, who'd steal the Item of Power if they overcame your defences. Unfortunately, Items of Power have never gone live. They've tried the system a few times on the test server, we've had a few practise base invasions over there (which are pretty fun), but for some reason it's never quite worked out, which is a shame. Maybe next issue, for the 2 year anniversary of City of Villains...

As Jack "Statesman" Emmert said in a Serious Games Summit Keynote: We spent more time developing [bases] than any other feature in City of Heroes or City of Villains," he says. Although bases are built by a team, Emmert and his team viewed them as being "incredibly, incredibly individual" because each piece of the base is designed and added by individuals.

"What happened was players hated it. It’s the most underused facet of the game. It received almost no coverage in the press. And there’s nothing like it in any other MMP." Emmert’s hypothesis is that "people don’t like contributing money to a group to express individuality. ... At its heart, these MMPs are individual game experiences in front of a computer terminal."

I think "hated" is a bit of a strong term, it was more ambivalence, really. The base was just... there, a handy shortcut sometimes, a bit of storage space, and not very much else.

Coming back to CoH in the last couple of weeks, there've been considerable improvements in bases for small groups while I was away. Where originally you needed a (very expensive) power room and control room, and expensive generators and computers to put in those rooms to power and control the rest of the base, and that was before you could even think about adding workshops or teleport chambers or other useful bits, they've introduced smaller, and much more affordable rooms such that a two-person supergroup can actually get a functional base up and running, so that's what I've done. That's given me much more of an incentive to actually tinker with design; with a large, temporary base and virtually infinite prestige on the test server, decoration was a case of rapidly scanning through the myriad available options, and slapping the largest and strangest looking items around the place at random (plus, of course, filling a room with photocopiers). Having a few rooms and a limited amount of prestige focuses my attention, in a good way. We'll still need a photocopier, though...

Thursday 7 June 2007

We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it

After a bit of Lord of the Rings Online over the last few days, I'm not sure I'll spend much more time in Middle Earth. It's fun enough and all, but really just more of the same old MMOness. Van Hemlock has a great post, with a quote about Tabula Rasa: '...but Garriott emphasizes that the traditional trading of blows while keeping a sharp eye on your health, shortcut bars, and not much else is just "not great gaming."' That echoes what I posted myself last week about graphics, 'the "oooh, pretty landscape!" effect wears off the 17th time you're running from Bree to the North Downs, and combat involves more squinting at health bars and cooldown timers than admiring flecks of realistically rendered spittle from the Warg trying to bite your legs'.

I think part of the problem is the class I picked, a Captain. I specifically didn't choose a DPS class to break out of my comfort zone, and have come to the frankly shocking conclusion that I'm more comfortable *in* my comfort zone. Captains, being a sort-of-support class with a few heals and buffs, are particularly prone to the combat-as-staring-at-health-bars problem, but I don't think it's only the class that's the problem. I was on a run through the Great Barrows, and it was just a bit... meh. Not much variation in encounters, no great excitement, couple of bosses, this one spawns waves of non-elite beasties, hey ho. Boss encounters in particular can be really dragged out affairs, due to power problems; you can either go in all-abilities-blazing, be out of power in the first 30 seconds and spend the next couple of minutes auto-attacking every three seconds, or carefully husband your power, which involves... auto-attacking every three seconds, to maintain enough power for an infrequent heal/special attack/buff application. There's nothing really frustratingly terrible about the game, but then there's nothing spectacularly good, and different, enough to really keep me there. Still, a change is as good as a rest, and has convinced me my forte lies with classes that don't need you to pay any attention to anyone else's health bars.

There's always something to keep me in City of Heroes, though; the costume creator, if nothing else. I've been there three years now; I can tell, 'cos you get Veteran Rewards every three months, and I've just got the "Addicted" badge for 36 months subscription. It's just so pick-up-and-play-able... log in, select mission, beat up wrongdoers. I'll probably mix that up with some single player gaming for a bit, while keeping an eye out for new stuff to play.

Monday 4 June 2007

Get sick, get well, hang around a ink well

Another weekend without much to report, this time from being wiped out by a cold/flu-type-thing, which with typically marvellous timing has worn off just in time to get back to work again.

I did get as far as signing up for the Warhammer: Age of Reckoning beta on Friday, prompted in no small part by Paul Barnett's evangelising as typified by the latest video podcast linked by Melmoth. I'm still weighing up my "to be(ta), or not to be(ta)" policy, and although, rationally, I tried to argue with myself that it's better to give a game a while to mature rather than charge in to the almost-finished version, I put forward what I considered to be quite a strong counter-point, that with two very distinct factions it should be possible to play one during beta without "spoiling" the other for launch. This approach worked fairly well for WoW, as the guild I was in were going to be Alliance, so I played various Horde characters in the two open betas. Then again, I'd definitely decided to play a Hunter in release, and was therefore playing a Rogue for a change during beta, and that didn't quite turn out as planned (as Victor Kiam might have said, if he'd played WoW a lot rather than buying Remington, "I liked it so much, I carried on playing a Rogue after release!")

Friday 1 June 2007

You looked for work and money and you walked a rugged mile

I haven't had much free time for proper adventuring in Lord of the Rings, but I have been doing a bit of housekeeping; selling off old quest rewards I'd been keeping around "just in case", auctioning assorted bits of dropped loot, storing some potentially useful things in the vault, and spending some time in the craft hall turning bagfuls of ore and hides into assorted armour pieces.

This seems to involve an awful lot of running around. As far as MMOG towns go, Bree seems pretty similar, size-wise, to Stormwind or Ironforge, but the Lord of the Rings town planners could learn much from their Warcraft equivalents. (If there are any town planners. I don't think I've encountered them as NPCs, I'd probably remember quests like "Go and tell the bloke at number 37 he didn't get planning permission for those fortifications so he'll have to take them down", or "Compulsorily purchase these three properties so they can be knocked down to make room for a bypass"). In Stormwind, the hearthstone point, bank, auction house and gryphon point are pretty close to each other. In Bree, everything is miles apart, it's like the place was designed by some evil PE teacher. "I'll just do a spot of crafting!" *run to the crafting hall* "Ah, I need a Deranged Wombat's Nose for this item, I've got one in the vault. I'll just go and fetch it!" *run halfway across town to the vault* "Oh. No. It's a Morose Wallaby Nose I have here, my mistake. Hmm... maybe I could get the right nose at auction..." *run three quarters of the way across town to the auction hall* "Nope, no Deranged Wombats here. Oh well. I'd better go hunt them in the North Downs. At least I can ride there... from the stable right slap bang diagonally over in the other corner of town!" (Though at least in that last case, you can ride from one corner of town to the other for a mere 1 silver).

In the process of making bits of armour, I progressed from Journeyman to Expert in both Tailoring and Metalsmithing. One quick tip here: as you get near the next "tier" of a crafting profession, it might be worth having a quick look at the quest you'll be sent on to get to the next level (there's a splendid guide which seems pretty good for listing them). The Metalsmith's Expert quest, for example, "Will of the Iron, Part II" involves making a Feather Weight Shield, which needs an iron chain, steel braces and an iron band; had you known that *before* you got sent on the quest, you could have made those components in order to gain the skill necessary to be given the quest in the first place. If you see what I mean. It's a bit Catch-22. Not that it's a disaster if you haven't made the items already, but as you can't develop the crafting skill any further until you finish the quest, any potential skill gains are wasted, which is a little annoying.