Friday 8 May 2009

Proper names are poetry in the raw

As Champions Online approaches release lots of lovely information is emerging, mostly based on actual (albeit beta) gameplay, thus avoiding a volley of Melmoth’s semi-automated command to line of site anti-hype weaponry. Massively have a bunch o’ good stuff including a piece on character creation (quick summary: sounds like City of Heroes TURNED UP TO ELEVEN). I was literally salivating when reading it, though that might’ve been something to do with the bacon sandwich I was eating at the time.

One piece of really good news is that Champions is going to be “shardless”. I’ve previously posted about the annoyance of trying to get together with friends in MMOGs; I’m not sure if Champions will separate US and European players, hopefully not, but even if they do at least a “shardless” setup is one less barrier to getting together with people online.

Warhammer Online does, of course, have multiple servers. Guild Wars, and by the sounds of it Champions Online, rely on instancing, which is great for convenience, but not so good for the world cohesion an RvR-centric game like Warhammer needs. It’s not really a problem in PvE and small scale PvP skirmishes, but a bitter struggle over territory becomes slightly abstract if there are several different struggles going on over the same territory in parallel dimensions that you can move between. EVE manages the best of both worlds, a single cohesive, shardless world with meaningful territorial control, but as so often EVE is a pretty special case.

The nature of Warhammer Online means a server really needs a balanced population; both realms comparatively equal so neither gets steamrollered all the time in RvR, enough people for the thrilling ebb and flow of massed combat rather than the slightly less thrilling lengthy hunt just to find somebody to fight, but not so many that the server collapses in a heap when everyone piles into the same ruck (they initially needed some server splitting/cloning, and recently introduced the “Winds of Change” to remove people from RvR combat in certain circumstances on some busier servers). A couple of months back 43 US and 20 EU servers were closed down to consolidate the player base, and though my main server (Burlok) soldiered on, it’s been increasingly apparent that it wasn’t very viable. During the recent Nordenwatch weekend, when the usually Tier 1 Nordenwatch scenario was made available to everyone together with some tasks to e.g. participate in it 20 times, capture the fortress 10 times etc., my Warhammer diary went something like…
“Saturday: logged in. Played a couple of rounds of Nordenwatch over an hour or two. Got crushed, situation not helped by seeing one Order healer all evening. Logged out.
Sunday: logged in. Inevitable city under attack. Contemplated two hours of public quest drudgery. Logged out.
Monday: logged in. Nordenwatch eventually popped after half an hour or so. Joined match halfway through with Destruction a couple of hundred points ahead. At least managed one fortress capture before the inevitable loss. Logged out.”

It’s not a great surprise, then, to learn that Burlok is closing down and we’ll be able to transfer our characters to another server, which will almost certainly lead to at least one issue. I rolled up a couple of Destruction alts on another server after the first wave of closures, and it took a while to find a name; characters were automatically transferred to the remaining servers when the others closed down, exacerbating the usual difficult in coming up with something not in use on an established server. Wherever Zoso the Wizard ends up, it’s unlikely he’ll still be called Zoso, what with legions of imitators all over the place (or it might be my crushingly unoriginal name choice, you never know).

The more players sharing a playing space, the greater the difficulty in ensuring each character is uniquely identifiable (see also: duh!) A common solution in shardless games is for characters to have both a forename and surname (step forward Kenneth Titanmittens and Horatio Thunderpants of Free Realms), but Champions is taking a slightly different tack, allowing any number of characters to have the same name, with the account name of the player used as a unique modifier if necessary (a conventional surname wouldn’t quite fit the superhero setting… “Superman Smith, have you met Superman Jones?” Mind you, Desolation Jones is a great comic.) My gut reaction was “hurrah!”, an end to the frustration of coming up with an amazing character concept but finding the name (and hundreds of minor variants of it) had been taken; there’s also great potential for a super-team based around the philosophy department of the University of Woolloomooloo. On the flip side, though, being forced to come up with ever-more unusual names can be quite a creative driver, I’m rather pleased with “Terminal Hardware” that came from some random Wiki-surfing, the undead/robot theme of the character entirely coming from the name (don’t ask where the samurai armour or pirate hat fit in). There’s also the issue that anybody who happens across you can promptly create a character of the same name, and probably costume, either fairly innocently (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all) or with more nefarious intent (“Captain Hero in identity theft shocker!”), though I’m sure people will learn to pay pretty close attention to account names before too long. If Champions is as alt-friendly as City of Heroes and is hugely popular at launch, you could be looking at half a million subscribers averaging ten alts each, so I can’t think of a better solution offhand. Roll on Team Bruce! All together now, “Immanual Kant was a real pissant…”

No comments: