Thursday 31 December 2009

Predictions for 2010

These are predictions for 2010 that were definitely written in 2009 before they happened. Look at the datestamp of this entry! You can’t fake that by retrospectively editing fields in a control panel, definitely not. If it’s only just showing up in your feed reader about a year late that’s almost certainly a bug.

1) Star Trek Online will be released on February 2nd (February 5th in the EU). That’s not very far away from the end of 2009 when these predictions are definitely being written, so that date might already be known. I can’t really remember that far back. I mean, I don’t have access to that information just at the moment. It will be reasonably well received, with a metacritic score around 66, and the Extra Super Deluxe Limited Special Platinum Edition will be in particularly high demand due to its inclusion of a life-size anatomically correct action figure of a foxy blue-skinned alien who asks “Can you show me this earth-thing you humans call ‘kiss-ing’, Captain?”

2) About halfway through the year Blizzard will demand players use their real name on forum posts in order to tap into the power of true names through Old Magic (though the official explanation will be something about accountability). Massed protests will force them to backtrack, including every World of Warcraft player in Minnesota officially changing their name to “Damn You, Blizzard, Damn You To Heck”.

3) On August 5th, a cave-in will trap a number of miners somewhere in South America. They will all be successfully brought to the surface 69 days later, and massive international interest in the rescue operation will result in great success for an indie game currently in alpha called Mincraft, which news organisations will use to simulate tunnelling operations in great detail (though question marks will be raised over whether an exploding zombie really caused the initial cave-in).

4) Payment model of the year will be “Free to Play”. Established titles EverQuest II, Champions Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea will all go free-to-play in the second half of the year, and Turbine will build on the success of Dungeons and Dragons Online by removing the subscription requirement of Lord of the Rings Online in September in North America, though they’ll only remember that Codemasters exist and run the game in Europe around November.

5) NetDevil’s Lego Universe will be released towards the end of the year, but nobody will notice as they’re all in Minecraft.

6) APB: All Points Bulletin will finally launch at the end of June or beginning of July, and the extended development time will really pay off for Realtime Worlds. Early access for media representatives will result in a tidal wave of overwhelmingly positive reviews a couple of weeks before launch (certainly no ludicrous post-release embargo or anything) and an unprecedented metacritic score of 136 as magazines invent new scores like “seventeen out of ten” and “125%”. Every human on the planet will buy at least two copies as the game massively outsells the entire Call of Duty series and Rockstar’s whole catalogue combined on day one.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Hibernation Time

As snow blankets the country and relatives crowd the sofa, we’re curling up into a ball, reducing core temperatures and slowing our metabolism as well as blogging rate, though there may be an occasional figgy-pudding-fuelled post, possibly under the influence of sherry.   A very merry winter interval solstice celebration to one and all, and we leave you with an exclusive screenshot from The Old Republic…

Tunnelling Jedi rogue class not as stealthy as hoped

Tunnelling Jedi rogue class not as stealthy as hoped

Monday 21 December 2009

MMO Dad.

I was watching Dora the Explorer this morning with mini-Melmoth; she seems to like it. I watch because I’m a parent and it’s my job to know everything about my child’s favourite TV program, teddy, toy, colour, clothes, hairstyle – the list goes on. That’s my excuse, anyway.

This particular episode had Dora and the somewhat confusingly named Boots the monkey looking for the big piñata at the fairground. To get to it they needed to acquire ten yellow tickets by playing various fairground games, the first of which was a very simple stall which required you to shoot a water gun into the mouth of dolphins. It was easily done and over quickly and earned Dora and company two yellow tickets.

The next event was the Ferris wheel, which would (somewhat backwardly) earn them a number of tickets for riding on it. But – oh no! – the Ferris wheel was broken and Dora and Boots had to help the Spanish-speaking toucan repair the wheel first by replacing the long and short parts. This took some time because the toucan had kept his Ferris wheel in considerably poor repair and should probably have been reported to the authorities, but our naive adventurers ignored health and safety regulations and risked all for some more tickets by repairing it themselves. They got their ride, and were rewarded with two more yellow tickets.

“You know,” I said, turning to my daughter “they’d have been much better off grinding out that first dolphin game; they’d have completed it four more times in the time it took to get just two tickets from the Ferris wheel. Admittedly they had fun riding the Ferris wheel, but if they optimised their Reward vs Time Investment they’d already by getting phat loot from the big piñata”.

She looked at me uncomprehendingly, as eighteen month olds are wont to do, and made a couple of loud, possibly derogatory, sucks on her dummy.

“One day you’ll understand”, I said.

“But not too soon, I hope.”

Friday 18 December 2009

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Previously in Dragon Age: Zoso the Rogue had gathered together an army of Elves, Dwarves and Mages to defeat the Blight, but first there was the small matter of Teryn Loghain to deal with. All was going according to plan as the team headed to Denerhim with Arl Eamon…

(More spoiler-y Dragon Age spoilers follow,)

So as we headed for the capital everything seemed to be proceeding towards the requisite happy ending: overthrow the tyrant, smite some evil, home for tea and scones. Before actually calling the Landsmeet for the tyrant-overthrowing, Arl Eamon thought it would be a good idea to make sure we had the support of more Arls (and possibly Ukes, Aronets and Iscounts, I’m not sure of the exact structure of the Dragon Age nobility), so we sniffed around a bit for more evidence, clearing the Tevinter out of the Alienage and finding evidence linking Loghain with slave-trading.

The first bump in the previously smooth road was Queen Anora. We got word that despite nominally still being in power she was being held prisoner by the rotten bounder who’d done in my parents; a damsel in distress, you say? Sorted! Off to the rescue. I was worried for a moment it might turn out the princess was in another castle, but nope, there she was, and we bundled her back to Eamon’s estate. Only instead of being all “Swoon, I’m so grateful for being rescued, but the excitement has got to me and I must lie down for a while”, she put herself forward in place of Alistair as the prime candidate to be ruler after we deposed Loghain. That set me thinking that I’d just been taking it as read that Loghain was a Bad Man and needed a kicking, but I wasn’t really sure what his motivation was for abandoning the King at Ostegar. Was he in league with the Darkspawn, deliberately allowing them to overrun the kingdom? Did he just spot an opportunity to grab power? Did just think the King was a bit of a dick (he had a point) who was letting the country go to the dogs? Was he really a patriot, determined to protect the Kingdom in the face of a threat he considered to be greater than the Blight? And now his daughter, the Queen, was selling him out, so what was *she* up to? A double agent come to spy on us, who’d cooked up the whole being captured business? A pragmatist who could see the way the wind was blowing and wanted to be on the winning side?

Until then, Alistair had reluctantly accepted prospective Kingship; he didn’t really want to rule (one of the prime qualifications for a position of power, in my book), and I was pretty sure I could trust him after all our adventures. The “optimal” approach looked to be to get Alistair to marry Anora; continue the royal bloodline, put a thoroughly decent chap on the throne, but with the experienced and steely Anora around to actually run things. Trouble was… I’d got quite fond of Alistair. Usually I’ll play characters as… well, as me, so even if playing a female character it feels strange to engage in a romance with a male NPC, but Alistair was pretty engaging in a Hugh-Grant-in-rom-com sort of way, if Hugh Grant spent less time running bookshops and attending weddings and more time stabbing ogres in the face and acquiring useful abilities for smiting enemy magic users. I think the player character being mute in Dragon Age has a slightly odd effect, it almost makes them seem like an external observer, despite being the centre of everything. It could be very immersion breaking if “you” have a voice that doesn’t seem appropriate or match your idea of the character, but the complete voicing of everyone else throws your muteness into sharper relief compared to previous games where conversations were more textual, and just seemed to put a bit of distance there such that getting together with Alistair didn’t seem weird. Or maybe I’m in denial about something. Anyway… I made a sort of half-hearted suggestion to Alistair about marrying Anora, he got a bit cross, and I dropped the subject. I didn’t trust Anora enough to fully support her, so I made some non-committal about being pleased she was on our side, but I wouldn’t be able to back her bid for leadership, and things were all a bit awkward around Eamon’s mansion like Christmas with a couple of sets of in-laws who don’t really get along.

Volunteering to take the dog for a walk to get away from the tense atmosphere, I wandered off and did a bit more evidence gathering, got revenge on the git who’d offed my parents, was banged up but planned an ingenious prison break (it involved a wooden vaulting horse and bag of soil down the trouser legs, only that took a bit too long so I went with the almost-as-ingenious Plan B of picking the door lock and punching all the guards to death), found the son of a noble who’d been imprisoned after he started asking awkward questions about Ostegar, found a spare Gray Warden who’d been lazing around in a dungeon while I was doing all the hard work (honestly, he hadn’t even constructed a wooden horse to vault over) and rescued another noble that Loghain had chucked into prison. I was pretty sure I’d gathered sufficient backing amongst the nobility to stand against the slave-trading king-abandoning noble-imprisoning Loghain, so off we toddled to the Landsmeet and I presented my case (“Loghain: what a bastard, support Alistair instead, he’s a bastard too, but the good kind”).

The nobles seemed to be going with it until Anora turned up and showed her gratitude for the earlier rescue by siding with her father, which I took as reasonable proof she was only in it for a nice tiara. Either that alone was sufficient to turn the tide back for Loghain, or I’d overlooked some other way of getting more support, as the Landsmeet couldn’t reach a decision on a new ruler and decided to settle things the old fashioned way instead, with a full-on ruck. Several stabbings and a couple of fireballs right in the rebuttals convinced the doubters that they hadn’t actually considered our thoroughly convincing arguments carefully enough, though Loghain himself insisted on a one-on-one duel (which seemed to be mandatory; I didn’t notice a “LOL NO WAI!” option to have him riddled with crossbow bolts). Obviously the Teryn hadn’t come across the old country saying “never propose a duel when your opponent has a massive stack of health poultices”, which didn’t give him much of a chance in the resultant fight, and he surrendered.

Mindful of International Humanitarian Law and the treatment of surrendered combatants, I was keen to see he was treated humanely and that no outrages were enacted upon his personal dignity. The others took those concerns on board, but instead proposed two alternative plans: either give him a nice cup of Darkspawn blood and turn him into a Gray Warden, or cut his head off. Flipping through the Geneva Convention I couldn’t find any references to Darkspawn blood, and decided that course of action might be OK if we told him it was Ribena. Loghain could’ve been a useful ally too, especially with Sarevok’s precedent as Ultimate Opponent Turned Handy Party Member, but Alistair, in flagrant breach of Article 3, was quite insistent on killing him to death. I tried to talk him out of it, but he rather hoist me by my own King-selecting petard by deciding he would take the crown after all and pointing out that, as King, he could do what he jolly well liked. There didn’t seem to be much of an alternative, so I let him get on with it. One beheading later, it rather put paid to any lingering ideas about an Anora/Alistair ruling combination, patricide being a notoriously bad choice for a first date (even worse than a romantic dinner for two at the local kebab shop), and we had to lock Anora up.

Still, justice had (more or less) prevailed, and with the nation (pretty much) united it was time to give the Archdemon a good kicking. At least that looked nice and straightforward. Until Alisatir popped his head round the door wanting a bit of a chat…

(To be continued. Again.)

Thursday 17 December 2009

Thought for the day.

Did Guild Wars and others get it right? Is it in part why WAR failed? Is the mainstream desire for MMOs actually based around instanced personal content, as opposed to the generic open world content that the genre began with?

World of Warcraft’s LFD tool has many people now levelling their way to the cap pretty much exclusively through instances; Lord of the Rings Online has a large chunk of its population now tucked away in Skirmishes as well as the instanced book, dungeon and raid content. Warhammer Online has many failings, but a major one seems to have been that many players preferred the instanced scenarios over the open world RvR; granted there were many reasons for this outside of the nature of the way the content was partitioned, but it can’t help but be noticed that the instanced game worked, and worked well, where the open one failed.

I wonder if Syncaine’s general lament that real MMOs are a niche market rings true, and that what we are currently experiencing is an evolution of a new branch of gaming which tends towards the instanced solo and small group content that has been available in WoW and other MMOs for some time, but like Guild Wars, is now becoming more prevalent and in many cases the focus of further development of these games at the sacrifice of an open world design.

I have to wonder if Blizzard’s Cataclysm expansion isn’t a massive blunder on their part, because it appears at first glance that a huge percentage of their player base is not interested in open world adventuring as anything other than a way to progress their character to the end game as quickly as possible; when given another viable alternative, as the new LFD tool now does, will there be enough critical mass in the open world zones to make them work for any considerable length of time after release, or will it be a lot of wasted effort on Blizzard’s part to provide new content to the apparently small subset of solo players in their community who are actually still interested in that sort of content?

Tuesday 15 December 2009

The Joy of Tech

I’ve been on a bit of a techno-rampage over the last couple of weeks; firstly T-Mobile were doing a big sale on PAYG handsets which brought the price of the Pulse, an Android phone, under £100 so I couldn’t resist that, especially as they actually offer sane data rates for people who don’t bother with any of this “talking” nonsense (£5 for a month, £20 for 6 months of “unlimited” internet access). The Pulse isn’t the fanciest of Android units, but it’s more than up to the job of keeping up with mail and the web while out and about, and with the camera, GPS etc. it can still do nifty tricks like scanning a barcode and finding the cheapest local price for the item.

I’ve also changed the home broadband connection to an ADSL2+ option, which has speeded things up somewhat, though at the cost of a bit of stability so far. Hopefully that’ll settle down, otherwise online gaming is going to be a pain. Good thing I had the Pulse around during the changeover as well, though I could’ve probably survived for an evening or two with no internet. Maybe.

Finally, as a bit of an early Christmas present, I picked up a new gaming PC. Scan’s 3XS systems got good write-ups online, and they’re happy to configure systems to your precise custom spec, so I sorted out a Core i7 build that arrived at the weekend. It’s really rather lovely, and I’ve been having fun with the obligatory “install all games and whack the graphics sliders all the way up”. I also figured it was finally time to move on from Windows XP, so the new system is on the 64 bit version of Windows 7, which so far I’m rather impressed by. No incompatibility issues yet; Dungeons and Dragons Online sulked a bit when I tried to just move the directory over from the old PC, but everything else seems happy. Only difficulty now is finding to the time to set up and play with everything, let alone write about it!

Friday 11 December 2009

We're obviously going to spend a lot in marketing because we think the product sells itself

Couple of interesting bits on marketing turned up in the blogroll over the past couple of days; first Scott Jennings linked a couple of tweets (and a picture) of America’s Previous Next Top Model, No, The One Before That, Not The Next Next Top Model, The First One, That’s Her playing World of Warcraft “butt naked and stoned”, which Tobold thought was a new viral marketing campaign. I’m not sure the reasoning entirely stands up (I understand it’s possible for people to take ‘M’ rated photographs without being part of advertising campaigns), but like a good conspiracy theory it can’t be disproved.

Laying bare the bones of marketing, on the other hand, a piece on Plastic Axe; after the fun and games over Kurt Cobain being a playable character in Guitar Hero 5, No Doubt were also a bit miffed about the way they were used in Band Hero and sued, only Activision are now reportedly counter-suing for No Doubt not meeting their marketing obligations. Plastic Axe links to one of the court documents involved, which is a goldmine of “popular beat combos, m’lud”, like:

“Answering Paragraph 22 of the Complaint, Activision admits
that Plaintiff purports to quote certain lyrics from the song “Honky Tonk Women,”
admits that Plaintiffs members avatars which had been approved by Plaintiff are in
“Band Hero” pursuant to a fully paid license agreement with Plaintiff, admits that
certain users of “Band Hero” are able to “unlock” its members’ in-game characters
and then can choose to play songs performed by other artists using “unlocked”
characters, admits that “Honky Tonk Women” is a song that is included in “Band
Hero,” states that it is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief
as to the truth of the allegations whether Plaintiffs member’s are “avid fans” of the
Rolling Stone”

Supporting the case, though, is a copy of the Professional Services and Character License Agreement which includes clauses such as:

3.4 Artist shall provide two (2) recorded video ‘shout-outs’ (e.g.,”Hi, this is No Doubt and we’re in the new Band Hero game”), subject to Artist’s scheduling demands and subject to Artist’s review and approval of the contents of such ‘shout outs’.

Now I think most of us have come to realise that (Insert Band Or Artist Name Here) might not actually avidly watch (Insert Name Of Popular Music Televisual Show Here) or always listen to (Insert Name Of Radio Station Here), but it’s interesting to see just how nailed down these things are. I think they could be a bit more specific, though, maybe something more like…

3.4 Artist shall provide two (2) recorded video ‘shout-outs’ (e.g.,”Hi, this is The Interrobang Cartel and we’re in the new Bassoon Hero game”), accompanied by enthusiastic gestures conveying the Artist’s great excitement such as (but not limited to) extending the tongue or raising a hand with index and little fingers extended such as to form what may appear to be a pair of horns. Artist shall whoop and/or, if agreed by Artist and Company, holler to further convey this excitement in aural form. All such gestures and hullabaloo must be entirely spontaneous, subject to review and approval by nominated parties.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Don't step on any butterflies. What do you have against butterflies?

Danger! Dragon Age spoilers follow, of a spoiler-y nature. Don’t read unless you want to be spoiled, or require reduced lift and increased traction.

The structure of Dragon Age, and indeed many CRPGs, invokes predestination; with finite time and resources (especially the voice acting, I imagine), the game obviously can’t represent every possible outcome of every decision and has to guide you through certain set pieces. It’s like an inverse butterfly effect, you’re going to go to the Circle of Magi, the Dwarves and the Elves, and there’s going to be a fight with the Archdemon at the end of it, no matter how many butterflies flap their wings. What’s interesting is how the game offers you decisions which simultaneously have an effect on the outcome, but can fit within that overall structure to minimise the amount of assets and testing required.

I was pretty happy with the way things were going up to the Landsmeet. I’d secured the requisite allies, with dollops of noble self-sacrifice: I’d cleared the demons out of the Circle, saving as many mages as I could; I’d freed the werewolves from their ancient curse (noble self-sacrifice: Zarathian, albeit he needed to be persuaded with a bit of stabbing); I’d destroyed the Anvil of the Void, on the grounds that Branka was more of a fruitloop than a loop constructed entirely of fruit (noble self-sacrifice: Caridin bungee jumping over a lava pit, but forgetting to attach the bungee). I slightly kicked myself at missing out on a noble self-sacrifice when releasing the Arl’s son from demonic possession, as I brought the Circle in rather than getting the mother involved in a blood magic ritual, but everyone seemed happy enough with the outcome.

Generally, the earlier in the game something happens the more fixed it is; the origin stories all end up with you at Ostegar and once there I’m sure you can’t decide that being a Gray Warden doesn’t really fit into your career plans after all, and you’d like to go into insurance instead, possibly via banking. It’s the storyline equivalent of the fallen tree or overturned table that present an insurmountable barrier to your character, the conversation options are there hinting at the wide open spaces of infinite possibility (“I’m not ready to become a Gray Warden!”), but you know where it’s going really (“Yes you are, now shut up and drink your darkspawn blood or you can’t have any pudding”). It might be a problem if you’re wanting an open world with (nigh) limitless choice, but it’s the price you pay for an involving story.

Though a particularly trenchant commenter previously insisted that the game was AWESOME because it forced you into tough decisions where sometimes there’s no right choice, for those main quests I’d suggest it’s actually the reverse: there’s no wrong choice. You have to come out of the quests with allies of some sort (interesting as it would be to have options that totally screw everything up, to destroy all mages then refuse the help of templars, to slaughter the elves but still release the werewolves from their curse, to leave the dwarves in the grip of isolationism, the Final Battle might be a bit shorter if it’s just four of you against the entire Blight), and from the options presented, and doing a bit of reading around, I think I could live with any of the alternative outcomes. Saving the mages presumes the survivors really are a nice bunch after all, as opposed to hideous demon-things just pretending to be nice until they eat your brain, so you can understand the reason for the Right of Annulment and it wouldn’t be too tricky to support it:
“I’m sorry, Warden, I have called for the Right of Annulment. It is my only option.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“Oh yes.”
“Are you sure?”
“Definitely. Can’t take any risks with these demons. Take off, nuke the place from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“You don’t want to plead with me at all? ‘Just give me an hour, if I don’t come back then cleanse the whole place, but I have to try’, something like that?”
“Crikey, no, you just told me there’s all sorts of nasty stuff on the loose in there, I don’t want my brain eaten.”
“Oh. Right. It could be terribly exciting, though? I was thinking we could have all the templars out here, maybe some siege weapons with flaming ammunition, very dramatic against the night sky, and I’d be all, like, ‘Prepare to fire!’ and have my arm raised, and then somebody would be all ‘Wait! What’s that?’, and these silhouettes would emerge from the tower, and as the light from the flames played across them we’d see it was you, supporting the bloodied but defiant First Enchanter, and we’d all cheer and stuff.”
“To be honest, if the timing is that tight then even if I do triumph against the forces of darkness it sounds like a better than evens chance of you levelling the place anyway, especially if I dawdle a bit when coming down the stairs, you’re not selling it y’know.”

The elves and the werewolves, well, I don’t think you could ask for a better illustration of why you might side with the Spirit of the Forest. I could even *just about* see my way to supporting Branka, on the grounds that golems are really, really awesome. “The end justifies the means”, after all; the main problem here is that “the means” are not only horrifically unpleasant on two counts (the way golems are created and Brankas efforts to secure the anvil), but the latter is also batshit insane:
“The Anvil is protected my many devious traps, Paragon.”
“Right, traps. Presumably for many centuries they’ve kept the Anvil safe from the Darkspawn hordes that infest these tunnels?”
“Yes, Paragon. The craftsmanship of the traps is amazing, it must have taken an amazingly skilled Dwarf to construct them.”
“Hmm. Something this cunning, it would take another exceptional engineer or smith to have any chance of getting through, right?”
“Definitely. Gibbering wretches like the Darkspawn have no chance, that’s why the Anvil has remained safe until now.”
“Right, I’ve got a plan! I’m going to create loads of Darkspawn.”
“Yes, we should bring the most skilled… wait, what?”
“Create loads of Darkspawn. Obviously in this tunnel system riddled with Darkspawn, where us Dwarves constantly fight to hold the Darkspawn back, the never-ending waves of Darkspawn who can never be totally eradicated, what’s been missing is Darkspawn. I’ll make a load of them.”
Still, in the dim mists of time there’s some sort of twisted logic to her motivation that you could just about rationalise to get hold of an army of golems to fight the Blight, though you’d want to shuffle Branka off to a nice padded room rather than involving her in any military planning…
“So that’s the situation, the Darkspawn are marching on Denerim. Does anybody have a plan? Anybody *apart* from Branka? No? All right, Paragon, what do you suggest?”
“The Darkspawn have a day on us, and are moving quickly. We have only one choice. We must teach a load of pigs to play the banjo. Ding ding ding ding ding oink oink ding ding ding ding ding oink ding.”
“How does that…”
“Wait! How could I be so foolish! There is another option: we could make a really big pancake. I mean, like, five metres across, or whatever the fantasy equivalent of a metre is in this setting, and then cover it in gravy.”

So I had my allies. Things were even going well sartorially; the massive armour sets get progressively more awesome, and all the warriors in the party looked fantastic, clanking around in their heavy metal. My rogue, meanwhile, had gone through a period of looking like a cut-price Roman re-enactor from an episode of Time Team, but settled on a Dalish armour set that looked pretty good (Dalish tailors clearly taking heavy inspiration from Louise Jameson as Leela in Doctor Who), even if the exposed midriff didn’t seem terribly practical. As I’d done the Warden’s Keep DLC very early on, though, the Warden Commander plate armour was only Tier 3, which meant my rogue met its strength requirements in the latter stages of the game, and that looked better still. The mages still got the short end of the stylish clothing stick, but we kept them at the back of any group photos behind Shale and Sten, and they made up for it by being ludicrously overpowered anyway.

So everything was proceeding according to plan, we called the Landsmeet, and that’s when things went slightly out of control…

(To be continued…)

Speed provides the one genuinely modern pleasure.

Skirmishes in Lord of the Rings Online: Speed Raiding for the solo generation.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve repeatedly run the various instances; I just keep going back for the fun and for the challenge, but mainly, if I’m honest, for the Skirmish Marks: my own personal catnip.

Similar to raiding there are a bunch of sub-bosses and then a Big Bad to defeat at the end. The advantage is that with many of the Skirmish instances the bosses come to you! All I need now is for them to commit suicide when they reach me, like the Judean People’s Front crack suicide squad in Life of Brian, and we’ll have the electronic entertainment equivalent of fishing on a quiet private lake.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

The world's a forest, in which all lose their way; though by a different path each goes astray.

Here be Dragon Age spoilers.

I had a memorable moment of mirth whilst playing Dragon Age this past weekend. My new venture – Grey Warden Adventure Tours of Thedas – was taking off, and having enlisted the help of the Circle of Magi to create the special effects and theme park rides for Grey Wardenland, I moved my attention to the Dalish elves of the Brecilian Forest with the hope that they could provide cleaning and catering services. The elves didn’t seem terribly keen about the idea, something about the centuries-long oppression of their race at the hands of tyrannical men. Or something, I wasn’t really listening to be honest because I was more interested in having my plate armour shined and my cuticles attended to. After the elves had finished my Brazilian wax and licked the party’s horses clean it was pointed out by the more stuffy members of my party that I should probably offer to do something to help the elves. I claimed that the various ticks and bugs that they had licked from the horses would nourish those two elves for at least a day, what more could I possibly be expected to do? And as is usually the way with these things, ‘saving their entire race from a hideous centuries-long curse’ was the answer.

I performed the standard RPG ritual: running around the camp to see if anyone had any other errands that they needed me to undertake; seeing as I was going into the Forest of Death and Blood anyway, I might as well go and collect old Uncle Frank’s long lost colostomy bag, or see if I could find little Timmy’s favourite teddy which he lost. And if I can find the undead corpse of little Timmy, enter the Fade, solve a series of complex puzzles, slay the demon controlling him and lay his soul to rest too, well, that’d be swell.

As such I found a couple of quests. One was to unite a couple of estranged lovers in harmonious matrimony: she refusing his advances because he hadn’t completed the ritual of The Hunt, and therefore wasn’t a man. Which was obvious to me because he was clearly an elf, but there’s no telling some people. Essentially I think it was a cunningly veiled metaphor: she was concerned about his inexperience because he hadn’t been ‘out in the world’ and ‘shot his arrow’ into a ‘warm, throbbing, piece of meat’.

I thought her worrying overly that he was going to accidentally poke her in the bum hole on their wedding night was not really a valid reason to put off their eternal love and told her so, gave her some lube, and watched them join together in eternal blissful matrimony, ’till death us do part’ and all that. It turns out that that was a bit of ominous portending, and no mistake.

As well as reuniting the sexually inexperienced lovers, I also found a craftsman who told me that if I could bring him a piece of Ironbark he could make me a mysterious item from that material that I would probably find useful. “I can’t tell you what it is, but it will prove most handy in a battle” he winked at me. “Ooo, how mysterious!” I said, “Is it a bow?”. “What?” he yelped like a dog who’d just had his paw stood on by accident. “A bow. You know, wooden thing, bendy in the middle, shoots pointy sticks. Useful for cunningly veiled metaphors. Always carried around by elves, just like dwarves always favour axes, and humans their massive sense of self righteousness.” I explained. “I…uh… yes.” he said, looking like a dog that had just pooped in his own food bowl by mistake. “Right-o!” I said, and off I went into the Forest of Death and Blood.

So after much adventuring in the forest – read: wandering around fighting mob spawns until I found the entrance to a dungeon – I made my way into the heart of the werewolves’ lair and reached the final confrontation with their fearful leader. Who turned out to be an incredibly hot, mostly naked spirit called the Lady of the Forest. I was so glad that I’d had my forest tended to with a Brazilian wax by the elves before I left, I can tell you, because there was going to be some fire in the forest tonight if I had anything to do with it.

“Let me explain the curse of our kind” she spoke to me through bluish lips, moist like violets in the morning dew. “I must explain things that Zathrian, the leader of the elves who sent you here, has not told you. It was he who first…”

“D’you want me to kill him?”

“I… uh, pardon me?”

“Kill Zathrian, is that what you want? Because I’ll do it. I’ll kill them all if you want.”


“The elves. All of them. Everyone, anyone, just tell me and I’ll kill them. Just say you’ll be mine.”

“I… was going to tell you about the curse, how Zathrian came to curse the humans who lived here, and how he has maintained that hatred, beyond all reason, for centuries. How I have taught these noble savages to control their rage, and become more human again, even though they maintain their bestial form. I… I… was going to provide you with a morally grey choice, about whether to bring Zathrian here to negotiate, to slay me, or…”




“Or to kill him and… hello? Hello?! Where have they gone?”

Her werewolf companions could only point to the dust cloud in the doorway and shrug sheepishly as the sound of receding footsteps echoed from the corridor beyond.

And so back with the werewolves I went to confront Zathrian. He wasn’t too happy about it I can tell you, all sorts of curses and hatred poured forth, but none of it could stand against the beauty of the Lady of the Forest’s perfectly formed moist breasts. Lips! I meant lips.

And breasts.

So the stage was set and the battle joined; it was over almost as quickly as it started though, because ‘Cloth-wearing Noncey Elves versus Blood-raged Werewolves and Plate-wearing Grey Wardens’ gets a pretty high entry on the chart of top 100 one-sided battles. The fun was during the battle though: the first people I encountered were the newly married couple, who were true to their vow of death and the parting thereof thanks to my well timed two-handed sweeping arc attack that took them both out. More amusing still was Ser Ironbark the bow-maker, who came charging at me with his sword, all the while over his head shone the ‘Quest Completed’ arrow; I tried to hand the quest in, I really did, but he wasn’t having any of it. Whether this was due to the fact that I had brought about the slaughter of his entire people, or because he had six feet of my best steel sticking through his chest, I couldn’t tell you. Suffice it to say that I didn’t get my bow, which was most vexing. We had a contract and everything.

So the elves were slaughtered and I had myself an army of werewolves instead, which is by far the better option if you ask me. “Werewolves or effeminate tree-huggers? Hmmm. Hmmm. Now. Let. Me. Think.”

And of course most importantly I received the promise that the Lady of the Forest would turn up again to aid me in the final battle against the Darkspawn. Hmmm, I must remember to get a fresh Brazilian wax before that battle and wear my extra sexy lace undies. She can be the lady of my wood any day.

Thought for the day.

I wonder how big the team is at Blizzard that’s been tasked with implementing a copy of the Lord of the Rings Online skirmish system for their Cataclysm expansion.

Monday 7 December 2009

Please hammer, don't hurt 'em

I finished Dragon Age: Origins over the weekend; it didn’t quite go to plan, as the game chucked a couple of curveballs (or to use the correct vernacular: bowled a couple of googlies) in the final act, which made life quite interesting. More ruminations on that to follow at some point, but as a bit of a change of scenery I decided to make a start on the THQ pack from Steam’s earlier sale, and installed Red Faction: Guerilla.

Red Faction is certainly a change of pace from some of the dialogue-heavy stretches of Dragon Age. Though you can read a deeper message into it, such as your character being a ludic metaphor for the immortal nature of revolutionary ideals, and the game attempts to set up a bit of a story (“You’re on Mars, I’m your brother, OH NO I GOT SHOT, fight the power”), the scene is really set by the tutorial mission where you get given some explosives and a hammer and told to demolish an old building. That’s what the game is about: smashing stuff with a hammer then blowing it up, and it does it fantastically. The only way they could have improved the introduction would have been to ditch the attempt to give you a deeper motivation for smashing stuff with a hammer then blowing it up by replacing your brother in the game with MC Hammer, who could give you a hammer, tell you to smash stuff with it, then hang around in the background wearing enormous trousers and occasionally shouting “Stop! Hammer time!”

Thursday 3 December 2009

Fifteen men on the dead man's armoire

I need to get something off my chest. It’s a mace. And a shortbow. And a pair of chainmail gauntlets.

Yes, time for another Dragon Age post as everyone enjoys them so much. Just to be abundantly clear: it’s a really good game and it’s precisely because it does so many things so very well that certain little things stick out all the more. Things like having a camp full of incredibly dangerous people, and offering no explanation of why you only ever bother taking three of them out and about with you; of course there are myriad excellent reasons, technical limitations, replayability, yada yada, but I’d just like some nod towards it in-game. Maybe in a dream at the start:

Archdemon: “LOL u r such a nub u have to zerg me”
You: “NO WAI i r totally leet i cud pwn u solo”
Archdemon: “OK lets both fix party size at 4 thats fair”
You: “yeah OK”
*first fight is your party vs 23 Darkspawn*
You: “WTF HAX!”

All right, so that serves as an illustration of how attempting to explain meta-mechanics within the plot often ends up being far worse than just saying “it’s a bloody game, get over it you nitpicking git”. Still, today’s quibble is chests, and not Morrigan’s unnaturally sticky-back-plastic-dependant top (if alchemists can come up with a flaming weapon coating or health restoring poultice, I’m sure a suitable adhesive is easy enough).

Treasure chests, loot-containing barrels, crates, weapon racks, suitcases, vases, piles of stones, wardrobes, armoires and cupboards are staples of CRPGs in much the same way that staples are staples of stapling. That’s fine, there’s nothing I like more than a good rummage in a chest (and I don’t mean… oh, just take all the hilarious chest innuendo as read from here). If a dungeon doesn’t come with the requisite stock of loot-stuffed containers I’m highly miffed. Dragon Age, though, like Baldur’s Gate and many other games before it, sprinkles loot-containing objects all over the place. Wandering around a town, there’s a sparkly barrel, stroll up to it and… hey, here’s a longsword! And a bow in a crate over there. Slightly incongruous, but not utterly ludicrous. But then you go into a house or an inn, open a door, see a couple of people in the room, barge in, open the wardrobe in the corner, rifle through it, take the dagger that was sitting at the bottom, click to talk with one of the occupants and they say… “Good morrow, Grey Warden”. Not “Guards! Guards!” or “Who the hell are you?” or “Get out of my wardrobe!” or “Please don’t hurt me, you terrifying blood-spattered armed maniac who’s just broken in to my room and stolen my dagger”. There are a couple of instances where attempting to interact with an object actually provokes a response, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Yes, it’s a very small thing, but picking at that thread of the Pullover of RPG leads on to wondering why you’re in the house in the first place, and indeed why the instinctive reaction upon arriving in any town is to thoroughly explore every single location, talking to everybody (unless they have a generic title like “Peasant” or “Noble”) asking if they have any menial tasks they’d like done while you happen to be in the area like it’s bob-a-job week, stuff you were taking entirely for granted, and before you know it the pullover’s unravelled you’ve ended up with the Crop-top of Absurdism, and then… Oh, wait, we’re back to Morrigan’s top again.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

It is your destiny.

My primary problem with Dragon Age:Origins is the same as it has always been with Bioware RPGs, and it is currently my primary concern for their Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. Dragon Age comprises a world which is ruled by old and powerful Gods who control the fate of all existence, which they bend to their will and whim.

We call these Gods developers.

And they are fickle.

A small spoiler now follows for Dragon Age, you have been warned.

One of the early objectives of the game is to enlist the help of the Arl of Redcliffe. When you reach Redcliffe village you find it under attack from the undead, and after defending it from attack you make your way into Redcliffe Keep to find the source of the evil and rescue the Arl. The source of the evil turns out to be the Arl’s child who has been possessed by a demon. When you confront the boy and his mother she pleads for you not to harm him and to find another way to defeat the demon, with the more immediate option being the death of the child by your hand. At this point you are presented with a choice: kill the boy and thus the demon, or travel to the Tower of the Circle of Magi and try to get the help of someone there to exorcise the boy. My offer to go and get Jane Fonda and exercise the boy was met with quiet contempt.

Now I already knew that the Tower of the Circle of Magi was in some sort of trouble, so getting there and back was going to be tricky and possibly involve epic quests. For a change. Since the boy was possessed by a demon that was bent on slaughtering all the local population (which had been reinforced by my having to defend the village first before entering the keep) I took what I thought was the hard decision to kill the boy, sacrificing one innocent life for the many. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that his mother was an annoying whining bint who had caused the whole problem in the first place, honest. Of course the game let me know through various lengthy patronising conversations what a monster I was for doing such a deed, and yet I imagined the situation if I had gone to the Magi to have been worse: coming back to find everyone who lived in Redcliffe to have been slaughtered in the intervening period. Zoso happened to choose that route, and so happily informed me that, no, you can take as long as you want to go and get the help; the demon seems to be distracted from its previous plans to destroy all life in Redcliffe for the entire time you are away. Perhaps a really good episode of MacGyver was on Fade TV, who knows?

I became a bit fed-up at this point because I was being made to feel like I had done the wrong thing, when in fact I felt that I had taken the harder choice with every good intent in mind; but my good intent was negated by the fact that the developers had decided that the seemingly obvious thing that would happen if you went away – demon enjoys its temporary reprise by slaughtering everything with a pulse and then raising them as an army of undead slaves in an attempt at world domination – doesn’t happen at all, instead the demon suddenly has a pang of existential crisis long enough for you to conveniently fetch help. There are villains in the 60’s TV series of Batman that feel less contrived. I couldn’t help but feel that the developers were laughing behind their hands “Oh ho ho, you thought *that*? Ha, surprise!”.

I’d put this all down to my unreasoning belief that all game developers are out to get me, but I have another brief example from a different Bioware RPG.

You’ll have to excuse any inaccuracies because I’m recalling this from old, worn sections of my brain. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic you encounter, at some point, a beggar in the street asking for credits. When you ask them how much they want you can choose to give them nothing, the amount they ask for, or more than they ask for. Being a noble Jedi Knight of the Shining Order of Smug Superiority I gave them more than they asked for, since I could spare it, it felt like the right thing for a Jedi to do, and because you never know – help someone out now and you may run across them later on and gain something in return. Now altruism like that, as opposed to genuine generosity, is possibly a learned perversity that these games encourage, but regardless of the fact, I thought I was doing a Good Thing. You do indeed meet the chap again later on, dead in an alley, mugged because of all the credits he had on him. Credits that you gave to him.

“Oh ho ho, you thought *that*? Ha, surprise!” say the developers in my mind.

And that’s what annoys me about these dialogue choices in Bioware RPGs, and why I really worry for Star Wars: The Old Republic at the moment. The result of your actions is based on the fickle whim of the developer writing the story, and it is entirely too easy for them to set things up in a way that appear very obviously to suggest one thing, whilst actually delivering something entirely the opposite. This, when used very carefully can make for an excellent plot twist and following dramatic dénouement, but Bioware seem to use the trick far too often in their games for no better reason than to keep players second guessing what the actual outcome may be.

It’s a tricky problem to solve because the opposite end of the scale is a game like Mass Effect where there were generally always three options, one piously good, one tediously neutral and one blatantly moustache-twiddlingly villainous, and whichever option you chose, you got the reaction and plot progression that you’d expect. It allowed you to build the kind of character you wanted but at the expense of any real surprises.

I still feel that Bioware are trying to experiment with telling an interactive story in their RPGs; they have a strong foundation for telling a good tale, but it seems that how the player interacts with and affects the plot is still very much being explored and trialled with each new game. I don’t know which route Star Wars: The Old Republic will follow with respect to story choice, or perhaps it will beat a new path all of its own, but the problem comes from it being an MMO. Without the chance to save and reload as you would get in a single player RPG, you will have to be very careful of any choices that you make because they may affect your character for the rest of its career. In fact, I plan to setup ChottBot right after I finish posting this, it will be an Internet database filled with every conversation choice you can make in the game and thus allow players to pick whichever options will build the ultimate munchkin character, or open all the contacts with the best loot rewards; plot, motivation or immersion be damned, because frankly the outcome of your choices are a lottery anyway.

My concern is that where conversation options in Star Wars: The Old Republic are concerned, ‘It’s a trap!’ may become a fitting mantra.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host: This week, teams, science news from Slashdot who point out a research paper from Dr Johnson on “Human group formation in online guilds and offline gangs driven by a common team dynamic”, which suggests “a common team-based model can accurately reproduce the quantitative features” of both “potentially dangerous street gangs populated mostly by disaffected male youths” and “the massive global guilds in online role-playing games”

Zoso: We put this to the leader of the popular guild Knights of the New Phoenix Dawn, who replied “Clearly this so-called paper is a nonsense, and at best the mathematical model in question must be so generalised as to apply to almost any grouping of individuals, suggesting the online guild component is simply a ruse to justify claiming an MMORPG subscription as an expense. The Knights of the New Phoenix Dawn bear no resemblance in any way, shape or form to a street gang, and I’ll pop a cap in the ass of anyone who says otherwise. Word. Noun. Adverb.”

Melmoth: Mr Juan “Cougar Hob-nobba” Perez, leader of the Whipped Gat Slingas gang of Harlem, Manhattan, speaking between gunshots from behind his sofa had this to say on the research “What the dilly yo, noobs? I told you to purge the disease on those bitch skank hoes before letting them aggro more adds, now the boss is enraged and we ain’t got enough benjamins for the repairs. You shiznits hate playing, huh? You playa hatas? Day-amn.”

PJ: As the initial list of quantitative features included fickle loyalties based on short-term goals, artificially poor language skills to create to a specialist vocabulary, and an attraction to new objects with a constant discarding of the old, the first draft of the research paper was quickly withdrawn when it was realised the model also applied to LOLCATS.

Zoso: Dr Johnson, pressed for a quote, said “’tis a most obvious thing that URCHINS and NE’ERDOWELLS change not in nature whether ‘pon street-corner or MAGICK BOX of MISTER BABBAGE”, though it was later pointed out the author of the paper was Dr Neil Johnson, not Samuel.

Melmoth: Reports that World of Warcraft’s next expansion will be titled ‘Hatin’ of da Bling King.‘ are currently unfounded.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.