Sunday 31 January 2010

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory

As predicted, the launch of Star Trek Online has been slightly overshadowed in KiaSAville by Mass Effect 2, which has both of us hooked at the moment. The ability to import your original Mass Effect character, once a staple of CRPGs (I remember taking a character from the slightly odd minigame collection Hillsfar into Curse of the Azure Bonds), is unusual these days, and really gave things an added hook at the start. I’d more-or-less forgotten the events of the first game, and didn’t think it would matter too much if I created a new character or imported an old one. I started a new character, as I’d heard that the game would let you make decisions on the key points of the previous game and was interested to see how that would work, but it seems that feature was removed before launch (RPS has a piece on it, including a link to a library of saves should you not be able to find yours, or want to bring in slightly different choices). After a quick run through the starting areas with the new character, I imported my previous character, and it was surprising how quickly it clicked as ‘me’, the character I’d got used to and all the decisions taken. Even early on I’ve bumped into a couple of people outside the main cast of characters who’ve recognised me, people involved in side quests from the original game who I’d forgotten until they wandered up for a chat.

There is something of the “inverse butterfly effect“, naturally; the differences in decisions you may have taken don’t change the major plot points. ‘My’ Shepherd had saved the council, the new one hadn’t, but that just meant a tweak in a line of dialogue from something like:
“After saving the council, they embraced humanity and gave us greater responsibilities”
“In the wave of the destruction of the council, humanity was able to play a greater part in their reformation.”
Even so, the imported character just felt more right than the default starting option.

Couple of other early impressions, I think I might have found my favourite party member from a line in combat when using his fire-based ability, something like: “Ah, flammable! Or, inflammable. Can’t remember which. Not important right now.” Also slightly disappointed that “bonus” suits of armour like the Blood Dragon and Collector’s armour can’t be customised in the same way as your main suit, which you can tweak the colours and pattern of. I was wearing the Blood Dragon armour for a while, and it looks pretty good (they’ve done a good job of making it fit into the setting), but when I sat down at the bar, ordered a drink, and promptly smashed the glass into the visor of the full helmet it did look slightly odd…

Anyway, time to play some more, there’s a galaxy to save!

Friday 29 January 2010

Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath.

The latest mini-expansion for Lord of the Rings Online is called Oath of the Rangers and we here at KiaSA were given a quick peek behind the scenes at some of the new dialogue from the latest epic Book content being introduced into the game.

Aragorn: “God damn it, Gimli, if you get your beard in my coney stew one more time, I swear, I’m going to stab you in the ear with the broken end of Narsil!”

Here we see that, when vexed, the Ranger can call upon a wrathful oath to ward off his enemies.

Aragorn: “L2P U Twats!”

Whereas other oaths can be short and to the point, whilst encouraging the Ranger’s companions on to greater feats.

Along with the new raid versions of various skirmishes, which, if balanced anything like the original group versions of the content, will be nigh-on impossible, we look forward to hearing these and many other sworn oaths in Lord of the Rings Online in the coming months.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Beware the fury of an impatient man

I’m quite cross. About DRM. Which makes me even crosser, because I don’t want to be some ranting demagogue who goes around giving 1 star to Spore on Amazon. I’ve briefly outlined my DRM agnosticism before, obviously no DRM scheme is totally effective, but maybe they put a few people off, so long as I can get on and play the game I’ll overlook a few hoops which is all that’s necessary for evil (and/or DRM) to triumph. Well finally I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.

Ubisoft have a new “Online Services Platform”. It’s an “added value platform“. And you’ll have to be permanently connected to the internet to play any game on it. Not just a bit of a check on startup:

What will happen if I lose my Internet connection when I play the game?
If you lose your Internet connection the game will pause while it tries to reconnect. If the Internet Connection is unable to resume you can continue the game from where you left off or from the last saved game.

Not to mention:

Can I resell my game?
Not at this time.

“Not at this time”? Being the system is only being rolled out in future titles, obviously you can’t resell them “at this time” because you can’t buy them in the first place. Also mysteriously absent from the Q&A list are more pertinent questions, like “You know it’s still going to get cracked in a couple of days, tops, right?” and “Are you fucking kidding?”

You might point out it’s not so different to a MMOG, you have to be connected to a server for those all the time, what’s the big deal? Two things: there’s a *good* reason you’re connecting to a server for a MMOG, like, all those other players, and if there’s a problem with an internet connection that’s the time I’d most like my other, single player games to be available. RPS links to a GameSpy piece that includes the line “While it’s hard to conceive of PC gamers being stranded without an Internet connection, those situations do come up, particularly when traveling.” Well it’s not *that* hard to conceive, is it, you managed an example right there. Tell you what, another example, just off the top of my head y’know, maybe your phone line goes down for a couple of weeks? Too crazy?

The only way this makes sense is if other companies have banded together and written Ubisoft a huge cheque to be sacrificial lambs, deliberate putting out the most blitheringly stupid DRM system they can think of on PC games they don’t give a stuff about so other companies suddenly don’t seem as bad. “Launch day DLC via in-box codes that can be redeemed once, so if you sell the game on the new owner has to shell out if they want that same content? Seems like a little bit of an underhanded way of making the second hand games market less attractive. Still, it’s no Ubisoft.” Any slight foibles Steam might have pale in comparison to a shade so light even Procol Harum are unable to suggest anything whiter, and that’s before it offers Psychonauts for £1.

If the Ubisoft Bloody Stupid Platform offers games for a quid, we can talk, until then I’m officially boycotting anything that includes it. That was going to be a bit of an ironic boycott, as a cursory glance at their upcoming games list didn’t reveal anything I’d been particularly planning to get anyway, but after clicking on a couple of titles to double check R.U.S.E. started actually looking quite interesting. It’d slipped under my radar ’til then, somewhat fittingly for a game about deception and concealment, so I now find myself in the slightly confusing situation of being interested in a game only because I’ve decided to boycott it (assuming it requires the permanent connection). Still, makes the stand vaguely meaningful, I suppose. Ooh, I feel like an activist now, someone get me a placard. “DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING!”

Sound trumpets! Let our bloody colours wave!

A mode of co-operative play that is becoming a standard feature in FPS games these days is one where your group have to fight off wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. Gears of War 2 has Horde mode, Halo ODST has Firefight.

LotRO’s Skirmishes have a similar sort of feature but it’s not quite what I’m after: it’s a fixed number of waves, and the waves of mobs don’t get progressively more difficult as such, they simply have a random chance to have a lieutenant spawn with each wave, with the final wave spawning a boss mob. I can’t think of a comparable example in any of the other MMOs that I play, let me know if there are any examples that you are aware of.

I think this could be quite a fun mode of play in MMOs. A party of up to five players spawn at a point which they have to defend; increasingly more difficult waves of mobs attack, with short breaks between each major wave allowing the players to regenerate some health and mana (standard potions and food wouldn’t work in this game mode, but there would be potion and food equivalent items placed at strategic locations around the map that players could gather, if they wish to risk leaving the safety of their defended position). A timer begins its count at the start of the game and the longer a group of players manages to stay alive the greater their reward; once all players are dead they are returned to the exit point where a chest with the loot they earned based upon their survival time awaits them.

Thinking in terms of World of Warcraft – in order to avoid the standard AoE-spam tank’n’spank that exists in the game at the moment for most five man dungeons, it might be that the non-elite mobs in a wave can be controlled with taunts and standard aggro generating techniques, but that lieutenants and above are immune to such, they can however, be restrained with various crowd control abilities (this is based upon an idea that tigerears mentioned recently when we were discussing tweaking the existing five-man dungeon content to remove some of the AoE spam, Rohan recently touched on the same idea too).

There are all sorts of other game elements that could be incorporated: turrets that can be used to thin out the waves of mobs as they approach the defended position, for example; objectives around the map that give powerful buffs and other effects, but which require a significant amount of risk and skill in getting to (and back from) them.

Do you have a non-dungeon-crawl mode of game-play that you’d like to see in an MMO?

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall

I tried Star Trek Online back before Christmas in closed beta and wasn’t too impressed; the space combat was quite fun, but the ground-based missions were really clunky. It was reminiscent of Auto Assault, where bombing around in be-weaponed cars was excellent but running around towns felt tacked-on and superfluous. When STO hit open beta and there was a certain amount of raving I thought I should take another look, so with broadband finally restored and two week’s bandwidth allowance going spare I grabbed the latest client.

I’m not sure if a strange inverse-nostalgia lowered my expectations to the point that not being physically poked in the eye was a plus, but the open beta seemed far better. Character creation was varied enough before, sticking mostly to the Star Trek “human with a bit of prosthetic work” alien option, and had been lightly buffed to a sheen with further options and a nice array of uniform elements. The only problem is it entirely ignores Star Trek canon and only allows your character to have two ears, and we all know that starship captains actually have three: a left ear, a right ear and a final front ear (sorry!) You get to enter a ship name along with a character name, though I’m not sure the more devoted Trekkie/er/ists would appreciate my Culture-inspired Lack of Gravitas.

The introductory mission was exactly the same tussle with the Borg as back in closed beta, bit of running around inside a starship, flying around shooting stuff, beaming down to a planet, but somehow left me wanting to keep playing instead of logging out after hitting the planet’s surface. Even though I’m not much of a Star Trek fan I could be tempted if there wasn’t much else on the go, but the SSV Normandy from Mass Effect 2 decloaking off the starboard bow I think I’m going to be a bit busy for a while…

Tuesday 26 January 2010

KiaSA Leaks.

Our industry insider has once again infiltrated the inner sanctum of an MMO developer and has sent us here at KiaSA Towers the lowdown on some top secret features that will probably never make it into production. This time its from the Cryptic Studios’ Star Trek Online design board:

Shatner’s Girdle: They just couldn’t find a graphics processor powerful enough to hold all those pixels in such a densely compacted space.

Malfunctioning inertial dampening: No matter how hard they tried to coax their physics engine to do it, it simply refused to throw the player characters in the opposite direction to each other and, more importantly, the ship.

Personal inventory: Have you ever seen a Star Trek officer with pockets?

Alternate (sic) dimensions: They couldn’t run the risk of you running into someone from another version of the game where players didn’t have to grind the same tedious missions over and over. Besides, they’d need to have space on the server to store an entire secondary set of your crew with pointy beards. And the female avatars looked really weird with beards.

Replicators: “One of every top tier epic equipment item in the game, please.”

Expanded range of phaser settings:Oven left on at home‘ setting proved to be overpowered.

Tailoring: an early beta included a crafting skill that allowed players to produce cloth items with a machine on ship, but a number of problems prevented it ever working properly resulting in a slew of bug reports demanding the developers “Make it sew!”

Holodeck: This feature was going to allow players to create their own game content that other players could access through their ship’s holodeck. It was all going well, with various mini-games based upon Westerns, Nazi occupied France and fencing, until someone created a mini-game where your ship’s captain played a gamer who was playing STO on his computer. Alas this ripped a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum here in the real world, and Cryptic had to send a rerouted tachyon pulse through the game’s central database server in order to close that timeline down and set us off on our current timeline. Alas, in this timeline it appears that Tabula Rasa and Vanguard were utter failures, and Richard Garriot and Brad McQuaid are not the happily married benevolent rulers of Earth that they were.

The Computer:

“Run an analysis on this game’s data and make me a good game based on that data that isn’t entirely reliant on fans of the IP.
*beedle* “Estimated time to completion, three minutes, forty two seconds.”
“Send the result to my PC.”

Voice commands: Unfortunately players would just pick the mouse up and start talking into it, before moving on to shouting ‘Hello!’ in various and progressively louder ways. Alas, it was later discovered that Cryptic’s system ONLY… managed… to … pick up on… STRANGELY… intonated SENtences with pauses… IN… all the… wrong places entirely.

Rock Climbing skill: Players complained when the Vulcan science officer kept using crafted rocket boots to beat them to the summit.

Q: The first raid boss of the game was removed after an exploit was found whereupon he could be easily defeated with a simple script if your starship captain was a small bald Yorkshireman pretending to be a Frenchman. Later, after a fix was issued, a trans-dimensional bug caused him to issue players with weird gadgets like a shoe containing a radio transmitter and a watch that turned into a hedgehog.

Boldly: This was removed from the game when testers found that, due to a bug in the language, no players were able to boldly.

Monday 25 January 2010

A fishing pole is a stick with a hook at one end and a fool on the other.

Take a large sample of generic Skinner Box mentality and place it into a one hundred centilitre beaker filled with a solution consisting of two parts OCD to one part stubbornness and one part high boredom threshold. Boil over a Bunsen flame until evaporation takes place. Distil the resultant condensate through a filter of monotony crystals and then gently reduce the liquid for what seems like an eternity until you slowly feel yourself losing the will to live. What you are left with is the pure undiluted essence of painfully tedious yet strangely compulsive game-play. Or fishing, as we call it in World of Warcraft.

Why I am I levelling fishing? It’s a question I am often found to ponder when I have the time, which is usually, somewhat ironically, while sitting on the Stormwind docks and fishing. Like no other activity in World of Warcraft, fishing is the absolute epitome of tedious, solitary grind for no tangible benefit other than seeing a small number ever so gradually increase to a slightly larger number. Oh it becomes a useful buff and money provider at the end-game, I grant you, but I can only tip my hat to those players who can maintain focus on that leagues-distant finishing line; all I can see is a bobber sitting in the water, not doing very much, as a cast bar counts down in seconds from twenty to some random number which seems to fall below ten seconds far more often than above. Actually the average amount of time it takes to count down from twenty seconds seems to fall somewhere in the six to seven minute range, but that might just be a side effect of time appearing to be dilated. If you’ve seen the film The Black Hole you’ll know the scene where they pass through the titular hole of blackness, and time and space goes, in technical terms, a bit bloody weird. If you haven’t seen that film, then think of the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey after Dr. David Bowman approaches the Jupiter monolith. And if you haven’t seen either of those two films, shame on you, but hopefully you’ll be able to think of the scene in Barbarella where Jane Fonda gets naked and does rude things to herself; it won’t help with this example of time dilation at all, but it’s Jane Fonda, naked, and doing rude things to herself. Mmmmmm.

Where was I? Oh yes, masturbation. No, wait! Fishing. The eyes dilate and you drop out of time and space as the bobber sits there not doing much, and the cast bar sits there counting down and, every so often, counting back up a little bit, or so it seems. And you sit there not doing much, and you think to yourself “my God, I’ve been here for an age of man, if I look outside the window what wonders will I see? I imagine flying cars will be passing up and down the street. No! It’s been longer than that; they’ll have advanced so far that they will have flying cars that move along the ground. And people will wear strange outfits, and they’ll look like curiosities to my eyes.” And you dare to sneak a look out of the window, and sure enough you see that it’s all true, the amazing flying ground cars, and the young people wearing stupid impractical clothes.

And then the bobber dips and makes a splash, and you miss it and don’t get the catch.

Somewhere in a distant neighbourhood a young person in stupid clothes pauses in terror in the middle of the street upon hearing what they imagine can only be the screams of a murder victim suffering death by cheese grater.

That’s the worst bit, isn’t it? It’s a battle of wills: you watch and watch and watch the bobber, and it sits there all puffed-up and stubborn in its self importance “Nope. No. Not going to dip. I won’t. I refuse. Sorry old boy, you might as well go and do something else, I’m quite adamant that I shalln’t be dipping under the water today. Come back again tomorrow won’t you?” And as you continue to watch it your eyes begin to dry out slightly, but you daren’t blink. You think “I will not be beaten by you, Bobber. I will not fall for your petty tricks of the mind. I am the player here, not thee. The line flows from me to you, not the other way around. Or does it? A line can go both ways. And none. Did I cast you into the water, or did you cast me out onto the land? Am I the bait that you use to catch others?” and as you rock slowly back and forth, your partner walks past the computer and asks if you’re ok, because you’re muttering to yourself again, and you turn and smile and answer in a slightly absent, lobotomised sort of voice that everything is fine, at which point the bobber dips and you miss it. And then you spend the rest of the evening trying to avoid lengthy and painful divorce proceedings by convincing your partner that your guttural screams weren’t directed at them. Well, not entirely at least.

And yet there is some truth in the madness that the bobber casts the player: sit in any populated area and start fishing and sure enough, every time, a player will run past you, stop, turn around, and then sidle up next to you and themselves start fishing – caught line and sinker by you, your bobber’s bait. They grin at you knowingly in a ‘look at us two, here, enjoying this ancient art; isn’t life grand?’ sort of way, and they radiate peace and happiness and well being. They never last, of course. They are not dedicated to defeating Bobber, the greatest boss mob that World of Warcraft has ever known. You see them all jolly and happy “well that fishing looks like a lark, I’ll try that too”, and they whip out their rod and cast away, but you see the change almost instantly: they stand still, holding their line, but the smile on their face is now drawn tight and the corner of their mouth starts to twitch slightly. By the second or third catch sweat has formed on their brow. By the fourth or fifth catch you can see them visibly wilting, the rod is held limply in their hands as if it lifted a terrible weight, as if it were trying to draw up the whole world on its hook. Then their eyes start to glance to the side to see how you’re doing; that’s when they see your crouched and haggard form, shoulders hunched forward and arms drawn in rigidly at your side, elbows locked in tight, a look of grim determination on your face, a maniacal smile showing through the gritted teeth of a locked jaw. Your bloodshot eyes flick towards them and in that instant they see through the portals of your soul into the very depths of Hell itself. Which is usually the point at which they look at their watch and slowly back away, with “Oh my look at the time”s and “I really must be somewhere… else”s. You look after them as they run away into the distance and you are bolstered by the fact that yet another passer-by has fallen lightly to Bobber, and you take delight in watching them dash hurriedly away, bumping into a passing merchant and crashing head over foot, like a ragdoll in a tumble dryer, around the next corner and out of sight. At which point your bobber quickly dips and you miss it.

Raid-based fishing. That’s all I’m saying. Someone tanks the bobber, a bunch of others to try to distract it with a various assortment of confused and increasingly frantic crowd control and DPS strategies, and approximately seven hundred healers stand by in order to heal the resulting fatigue and wounds. After several nights of wipes, the tank’s fishing skill finally ticks over from 123 to 124 and Vent. explodes with cheers of rapture and joy.

And yet players will level fishing. I level fishing. I do it knowing full well that I probably won’t use it in anger at the end game, what with not being a raider and thus not really needing any of the benefits of buff that it provides. Sure you can earn some money from it, but I can earn money in other ways, ways that aren’t, you know — fishing. It’s an activity that is both tediously uninvolving and yet requires your absolute attention: try to start a conversation with a friend in guild chat and the moment you’re half way through a sentence the bobber will dip. Or you wait for the bobber to dip before responding, and your friend logs off assuming that you’ve gone line dead or that you’ve put them on ignore. You can listen to a podcast while you fish, but later when you try to remember anything that was said in the show, all you can think is that they talked an awful lot about fish, and how they wished that bobbers would bastard-well dip more often. Which is a bit strange for a podcast about beard husbandry. Which has to be pretty blarmed strange, considering it was a podcast about beard husbandry in the first instance.

Ok, that isn’t a real podcast. But admit it, you’re intrigued. Maybe I should start one. Beardcast: Making the most of your whiskers and fuzz. Why does that sound as though it would be rated as adult content on iTunes?


I think fishing is possibly the epitome of Bad Crafting in MMOs: it has token interaction, and yet that interaction requires you to be focussed primarily on the task at hand; other crafting options may be dull and pointless grinds, creating items that you sell to the nearest vendor for less than the cost of the materials harvested to make them, but at least you can set a batch of them running and go and do something else in the meantime. Other crafting skills are cooking by microwave – set your time, hit ‘start’, put your feet up in front of the telly and wait for the result, whereas fishing is cooking on the stove (“fishing is cooking on the stove”? You’ve hit a new low, Melmoth) – constant attention is needed, albeit in only short bursts, to stir something or add in a teaspoon of something else. Except that the results are inverted, because when cooking on the stove you are rewarded with a superior meal to the microwaved one for your efforts (unless you can’t cook, but let’s not shag this analogy up any more than it already is, eh?), whereas in fishing you are rewarded with a significantly inferior skill gain compared to the person who just fired-off their crafting run and forgot about it. Yes there is the gathering to consider for the other professions but, while levelling at least, this goes hand-in-hand with adventuring and doesn’t encroach prohibitively on the player’s time.

Yet if fishing is a pointless lesson in the frustrations of character building, why do my characters feel empty and incomplete unless they have this skill maxed-out?

While writing this post Melmoth missed the bobber an unprecedented twenty seven times.

Bobber went on to take a leading role in a very boring West End adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play.

Saturday 23 January 2010

KiaSA Top Tips

MMO players! With the sharp rise in Vitamin D deficiency, combat the risk of rickets by turning your monitor brightness up to a sufficient level to cause your body to synthesise Vitamin D.

Yours deficiently,

Mrs Vita Mindy

Thursday 21 January 2010

How big is massive?

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that size isn’t important, it’s what you do with it. That’s all well and good, but if you want to be called massive there has to be some size requirement, right? Currently looking to measure up are Star Trek Online and Global Agenda, and both have a fair number of detractors looking at their tape measures and shaking their heads.

In Global Agenda, individual fights of 10 vs 10 obviously aren’t particularly massive, any number of online shooters can support similar or greater numbers on one map, but Massively, true to name, suggest how it does live up to the tag. Star Trek, like Champions before it, features heavy instancing, so while the overall player base may be massive you share your bit of space (or starship bridge, or planet) with a much smaller number that some people don’t feel is particularly massive, especially when Eve whops its 54,446 on the table next to it. Jon “Not Van Hemlock” Shute points out that it’s not so far off the multiplayer experience that consoles have been offering since XBox Live really took off.

Though much of the debate is around the “massive” aspect being lacking, I wonder if perhaps the “G” of MMOG is as much, if not more, of an issue. To quote myself (bad form and all that) from a few years back:

“Very loosely, by “game”, I mean something with fixed rules and objectives, and by “world” an environment in which you’re free to do as you wish. They’re more vague labels on a spectrum than concrete concepts.”

“Game” and “world” might not be the best terms, having different meanings to different people; you might prefer “theme park” and “sandbox”, but it’s not as if they’re rigidly defined universal terms either, GTAIV or Saints Row 2 are widely referred to as part of a sandbox genre, but pull up the city map of Saints Row 2 and it’s studded with activities and diversions, effectively theme park rides. There’s always “emotive term designed to make my preferred setting seem the only valid choice” and “emotive term designed to make my non-preferred setting seem foolish and pointless”, but that probably wouldn’t help matters; I tried using “splong” and “thrunk” for a while, but got banned from a couple of forums when trying to explain that I loved the developer’s splong but they really needed to get thrunking to increase the player base, so “game” and “world” it is (you could always do a find and replace with something else if you’ve got a fundamental objection to the terms).

Both these things are vital components of an MMOG: with no “game” then we’re in Second Life/Virtual World territory, though of course there’s heavy overlap, blurring at the edges and whole other debates over exact classifications there. The “world” is, to me, what makes MMOGs massive, massive in scope as well as in total number of players. One tends to come at the expense of the other, though; if there’s a castle somewhere with an evil overlord, at the “game” end of the spectrum you might get specifically sent to kill him, and you’d get your own instance of the castle to do that in. Moving more towards a “world” there might only be one castle, with an overlord who spawns on an hourly basis after he’s killed; further still, adding persistent elements, you might just happen across the castle while exploring, nobody would send you there, and once you kill the overlord he stays dead, it’s your castle now (at least until someone, or something, comes to try and take it from you).

Many players seem to move towards “game”-type elements, particularly instancing, when given an alternative as Melmoth’s Thought for the day picked up with the popularity of WoW’s cross-server LFD tool and LotRO’s skirmishes. Just about every WoW blogger I read gives the thumbs up to the LFD tool, and with a bit of mischievous exaggeration (or blatantly trollish flamebaiting) it’s not too hard to picture WoW’s cities as a lobby where the players wait to head off on their small group adventures. As a slightly earlier example, City of Heroes featured Hazard Zones, large city areas designed (I believe) for teams with no particular goal or quest to roam through, defeating whatever mobs were around; very few did, though, compared to the number of players running instanced missions, so hazard zones as such generally faded away, were redesigned, and didn’t appear in City of Villains. I’m certainly at the “game”ish end of things, I do like the grand stage that you don’t get with a single player game, but I want to get on and be doing stuff. I really don’t mind the model of Champions and Star Trek; a seamless world would be great, but if things have to be split up then I prefer the many instances approach to having fixed, separate servers, as for one thing it makes it easier to get together with many groups of people (like real life friends, comrades from previous game guilds and people who find you via the blog, who sod’s law will dictate are all on different servers, factions or indeed continents if they can be). Randomessa from Casual Is As Casual Does is similarly untroubled, and has an interesting theory about MUDding origins; I never MUDded myself, but I did start with the instance-heavy City of Heroes instead of Ultimate Online or Everquest, so perhaps it does have something to do with formative gaming.

The further you go towards the “world” end of the spectrum, the harder I think it is to get right for both developer and players. Player numbers and density are vital when they’re driving the action, obviously you need a critical mass to get things going but communities can be difficult things to scale, and with hardware capability being finite then too many players in a small area cause issues as seen, for example, in EVE; even if the hardware can support it, if combat is of a scale where an individual’s contributions are hard to measure it can be much less satisfying and lead to much grousing about “zergs”. Players need their own motivation, and a greater time commitment as the player has to fit in with the world as opposed to a game that’s fitted to the player. There’s obviously an appetite out there, Saylah at Mystic Worlds has a great post that starts “When I think MMO, I think of an open minimally instanced virtual world where players co-exist with infinite opportunities to interact with each other while carrying out game objectives.” The cupboard isn’t completely bare; EVE Online is the poster child for worldly games, Darkfall has similar aims for the fantasy genre but started out a bit focused on the unrelenting combat side of things to be really rounded (according to an EVE economic newsletter 70% of players are located in hisec space; mind you, starting out with a lawless frontier and gradually adding commerce and security has a bit of an Old West feel to it and could work, as opposed to starting with traders and turning a Mongol horde on them), Wurm Online and A Tale In The Desert both sound interesting, if not quite my cup of tea. There’s not so much in the way of AAA titles, though.

Rather than taking games for what they are, though, some people (most frequently found in the comment sections of news sites) get fixated on numbers. “Massive” means whatever number they’ve got in their head (100, 500, 1000, ONE! MEEEEEELEON!, take your pick), and if you can’t see that many people on the screen then the developers are morons who should be prosecuted for obtaining money under false pretences for calling their game an MMOG. What does it matter if you’re sharing a bit of space with 50, 500 or 5000 if you’re not meaningfully engaged with them? Van Hemlock’s Pioneer’s Tale is a beautiful eulogy to Backwater, a home carved out on an unloved planet on a new Star Wars Galaxies server, with a population in its most utopian stage of around 25. Size isn’t everything…

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Thought for the day.

“Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” — Gilbert K. Chesterton – The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

If there’s one genre of gaming out there that requires us to look at things a thousand times or more during the course of play, it is the MMO genre.

Is it really any wonder that there are so many players writing about it, attempting to dissect it, and trying to convey to others what they’ve seen from behind the veil?

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Snow Diary

Day fourteen. The snow has finally been beaten back. Despite its seeming invulnerability in the face of the best efforts of humanity, it turned out to have a fatal weakness to common heat. Occasional heaped piles stage futile rear-guard efforts, but should be finished off soon.

The infrastructure left in tatters by the white death is not so quick to return, though, still no phone or internet. Apparently an engineer with a hoist is needed (I offered a variety of alternatives including stilts, several sets of garden jenga or a trampoline, but apparently none are suitable), and there’s a backlog of problems caused by the bastard sky ice.

I’d been hoping to take a look at the beta of Kung Foo!, but lack of broadband has driven me to a new diversion, utilising the eyes to gaze upon and interpret patterns printed upon cellulose pulp; I’m dubbing this “Singularly Individual Offline Printed Narrative Consumption” or SIOPNC (pronounced “see-oh-puh-nuck”), though some luddites seem to refer to it as “reading a book”. The single user instancing is absurd and clear evidence of lazy programming and backward thinking by these so-called authors who don’t even appear to be aware of the work of the earliest MUDs in terms of interactivity, though the graphics are similar. Still, it’ll have to do for now.

Luckily Christmas is a time of book-giving so I’ve got a few to hand; after finishing off the rather good Phoenix Squadron I’m now on Neal Stephenson’s latest, Anathem, which sounds a bit odd, but is incredible so far.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to primally scream into a hedge for a couple of hours.

Monday 18 January 2010

Skip to the end.

One of the earliest and most popular AddOns for World of Warcraft was a simple little LUA script that made the quest text appear instantaneously instead of scrawling its way line-by-line across the screen in an achingly slow fashion, as though being received in real time from a Morse code operator on the other side of the world and then translated behind your screen by an arthritic octogenarian who was two-finger tapping it into a teletype interface. This AddOn was simple enough on the face of it, but it instantly broke a part of World of Warcraft’s quest system; any pacing of content that the Blizzard team had planned based around the fact that players would have to wait for, and therefore probably read, the quest text was nullified as the majority of players voted with their AddOn folders and chose to be able to click ‘Accept’ before the NPC had even had the chance to inhale a breath in order to speak. The standard motto for MMO questing became ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever’. Later this evolved into ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. Stick the objectives in my tracker’, and later still — ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. Stick the objectives in my tracker and mark where I need to go on my map’.

One assumes that, given a few more years, it will eventually become ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. Why don’t you go and kill the ten rats and bring them back here to me, and then you can just give me the reward’. It seems to me that there’s a perverse trend in the evolution of the genre, where we’re slowly and inexorably taking on the role of the NPCs. Next we’ll be running around desperately trying to give quests to any NPC that we can find, watching them run off and come running back to us, whereupon we hand them a reward; even that will be too much like hard work though, so we’ll eventually get to the point where we simply log-in to our character who stands stationary and waits for an NPC to come running up and ask for a quest. Groups of players will gather together and form camps or villages or towns, and our game will simply consist of logging-in, standing around and doing nothing while NPCs speak to our characters to gather quests and collect the subsequent rewards. We’ll have optimised our game-play time into the absolute purest essence of effortlessness.

True story.

The thrusting point of all of this, if you could call it such, it’s more like being poked gently with the blunt end of a large marrow, is with regards to Bioware’s fully voiced MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. I imagine the point has hit home, probably because I’ve not so much poked its soft marrowy hide gently at you so much as clubbed you brutally around the head with it. Alas, marrows never were a subtle instrument of enforced learning.

To wit: Bioware is spending quite a lot of money and effort on voice acting talent, these are resources that could be spent on other things, say, for example, game-play content, and all evidence points to the fact that the majority of players in MMOs want to ‘skip to the adventure please’. Case in point: the reason for my thinking about this was due to my recent play through of Dragon Age: Origins; this is a game where all the dialogue has voice-over, but at the end of each segment of speech, when you inevitably have to respond with a dialogue choice, Bioware sensibly places on the screen a text version of the sentence the NPC has directed at you so that, should you miss the spoken question, you can read back over what was said and answer appropriately. I would assume that Bioware will do something similar for TOR, and of course what this means is that you have instantly created a way for players to ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever’ their way out of it. The problem with voice dialogue is that it is easily as ponderously slow as the tip-tapping octogenarian of Blizzard’s original quest text interface, because to provide any sort of immersion with voice acting you need to have dramatic pauses and drawn-out inflections and character defining twists and turns to the speech, otherwise you end up with a bunch of robotic NPCs all alike, as though every quest hub was a franchise of some quest awarding super-conglomerate, “Hi, welcome to Questbucks! What can I get you?”, “Thank you for buying from McQuestalds. Have a nice day!”.

I think the Esc key (oft used to skip dialogue in Bioware games) will become the most overused button in an MMO. Even in Dragon Age, where I don’t have the peer pressure of a party of several other players all waiting for me to get through the dialogue so that they can “GO GO GO!!1” and get on with their game, and where I want to immerse myself in the world that Dragon Age presents, I find myself yawning every now and again and, as Zoso said to me when we were discussing it last week, “sometimes I find myself thinking ‘Summarise, man, summarise!”. Don’t get me wrong, the voice acting in Bioware games is always most excellent, and fantastically immersive in most cases, but it is a thing that is utterly at odds with the direction that the general MMO play-style has developed. Perhaps Bioware’s game will be the next jump in that evolution, something so at odds with what is currently taken to be the norm that it takes the genre in an entirely new direction, or perhaps it will be a lot of wasted effort on the part of Bioware, effort that could have gone in to making a better and more expansive game. The pacing of voice-over in a game can sometimes appear ponderous even to a player invested in the world of a single player RPG, I just hope that Bioware have taken in to account the inbred impatience of the itinerant MMO player.

In summary: do you think that mice would evolve the ability to wear lederhosen if they were slapped on the thighs on a daily basis?[1]

1. Yes, I think they probably would. Shall I go and slap ten mice for you?
2. Are you mad? You can’t slap mice, it’s against the religion of the land!
3. Ah ha! I’m working for the Mouse King, and now your plan is revealed. Prepare to die!
4. I like cheese. Do you like cheese? Mmmmm, cheese.

[1] This is here just to freak out all those people who skipped the main post text to get to the dialogue question at the end.

Friday 15 January 2010

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.

I’m suffering from a bout of that irrepressible excitement one often feels with regards to creating a new character; this time however, it’s for Dragon Age: Origins and not another of my innumerable MMO alts. It’s something I haven’t felt in an MMO for quite some time and which I dearly miss, but I think that’s more likely down to my general quietus with respect to MMO hype at the moment, than anything that MMO developers are doing specifically wrong.

To clarify: it’s that feeling you get deep down when you are inspired with a character concept and want very badly to plan out that new character and, more desperately, to see how your new concept pans out within the game. It’s that frenzy of creation that gets your text editor all hot and sweaty, and where Imagination, Anticipation and Expectation throw caution to the wind, discard their clothing and have a frolicking good roll around together between the spreadsheets.

City of Heroes used to drive me to distraction like this when I was playing it; the sheer number of archetype, powerset and costume combinations meant that I could latch on to the smallest thing, be it a single costume item, a combination of a couple of powers, or something else, and build an entire concept around them. Then out would come the spreadsheet and the lists of powers and levels and slots and enhancements, and a build would be meticulously planned. What was worse, as that character was being built, another powerset combination would leap out at me and I’d put the current character plan on hold whilst I built up that concept in my mind; each new idea was like the innocent trickle of snow that is in fact the prelude to an avalanche, a small idea popping unceremoniously into your mind, and before you know it you are buried alive beneath a metres-thick carpet of densely compacted thoughts on costumes and names and builds and all of the overwhelming potentialities.

World of Warcraft did a similar thing but on a smaller scale, with every class appearing deeply appealing, as though they were all attuned to some fundamental primordial genetic trait that is inherent to MMO adherents. Talent specialisations initially served to expand the horizon to the good ship Customisation, offering tantalising hints at new lands that players might discover with their characters, but alas in this case the world turned out to be flat, and players who did not follow the tried and tested paths were doomed to fall off the edge of the world and be lost to the game forevermore.

Many other MMOs have offered the same: EQ2 almost drove me insane with the options and potential for my character. Maybe it did. I wouldn’t be entirely confident in denying the fact that I’m actually still sitting on the floor of my room, rocking back and forth while surrounded by a cityscape of sheets of paper, some crumpled into balls, others folded into obscure shapes, all of them covered in tiny blocks of illegible scrawl and connected by crisscrossing lines and arrows which, unknowable to anyone but me, attempts to plot my perfect character in the world of Norrath. I also expect that other MMOs would provide similar excitement if the game itself appealed to me, Fallen Earth’s expansive skill trees sound like a potential Petri dish of breeding material for the rapidly multiplying bacterial disease that is my desire to build new and interesting characters, for example.

I’m glad that I have, for now, found the bug again through my enjoyment of Dragon Age. I’ve just recently completed the game on its easiest setting whilst skipping many of the side quests, just in order to get to the end and experience the core of the game, something I am notoriously bad at achieving; I am not a game finisher, in the main. However, having finished and got an ending that was pretty much all that I had hoped it to be, I am left wanting more. Thankfully there is plenty more to be had: I have many side quests to complete, party character personal quests, and other such content to explore. I can also try the game now on a harder difficulty, knowing that it won’t put me off entirely if I have to replay a fight a few times and attempt to be more tactical about things rather than just charging blithely in and hoping that it will turn out for the best.

And of course I get to create a new character. I played a Warrior the first time around, a feisty noble lady who become a Templar and a Champion and swung a huge two-handed sword at her foes. Now I’m tempted by an Arcane Warrior, a mage who can get into the thick of melee and mix it up with the best of them. So there are spells to consider now where my Warrior had none, and which armour would be best, and what weapon. I won’t be able to wear my beloved Templar Armour this time around – the most gorgeous looking heavy armour outfit I think I’ve ever seen – both because it’s restricted to Templars only, and also because it is not the best armour in the game; I could afford to wear what looked best when playing the game on the easier setting, but the rules of the Maxminati come in to effect at greater difficulty levels, and so style has to be eschewed for stats, as is regrettably the way in so many RPGs, MMO or otherwise.

So here’s to you, Velkyria, Grey Warden and champion of the people of Ferelden. Enjoy your retirement travels with your dear Leliana, and I will see you again with the coming of the next DLC and Dragon Age 2.

VelkyriaVelkyria in Templar Armour

Until then, I have a spreadsheet and a few text editor windows burning a hole on my desktop.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Perfection would be a fatal flaw for evolution

Delving into the zeitgeist of the week, Brian Green’s got an excellent blog post up on The Innovation Paradox. Alongside Melmoth’s dictionary heroics I pondered the line “I think most thinking people agree that MMOs have evolved over time.” Obviously that’s “evolved” in the general “gradual change over time” sense, but I thought it might be fun to consider MMOGs in terms of evolutionary biology, an idea with only two flaws: firstly everything I know about evolution comes from flipping through Wikipedia for five minutes (this is how I know evolution is a quadruped with four legs, a heart and a beak for eating honey, which lives in large rivers such as the Amazon), and secondly any posting about evolutionary biology and innovation in MMOs tackles a ferociously controversial subject which almost nobody can agree on. And evolution (aaah, I confounded your expectations and from thence the humorous allelomorph arose).

Something that struck me from an Introduction to Evolution was:
“Evolution is not progress. Evolution is not “improvement”; it is simply change. These changes can be positive, negative, or neutral, depending on the situation. Evolution may seem progressive at times, because beneficial traits tend to out-compete less helpful traits under selection. However, evolution does not aspire toward any goal; there is no such thing as ‘backward evolution’ or ‘de-evolution’ because there is also no ‘forward evolution’ — evolution does not move in any particular direction.”

Change “the situation” to “the player’s perspective”, and that’s an interesting take on it. Obviously there’s an instant problem in that changes in MMOGs tend to be deliberate design decisions rather than random mutations (despite the theories of forum denizens about the number of monkeys and typewriters employed by dev teams), but as soon as you try and map that back to evolutionary biology then terms like “eugenics” and “intelligent design” start bubbling around and we have to deploy the emergency inflatable badger. Look everyone, a badger! Focus on the badger now! Look at the lovely badger!

Phew. Think we got away with that.

Another interesting snippet was about peacock tails. Evolution has resulted in big, flashy tails, despite the fact that they don’t instantly appear to help out in “survival of the fittest” stakes; they’re a hindrance if anything, but (and I paraphrase ever so slightly here, apologies for the highly technical terms) chicks dig the crazy feathers. I’m not sure if that works a parable for the importance of graphics in a game (people might say gameplay is king and flashy graphics aren’t everything, but… chicks dig the crazy feathers), but it’s kinda fun.

Then there’s role of environment; traits which are highly desirable in one set of circumstances prove catastrophic in another, typified by island birds that thrive with an abundant source of food and no predators but are virtually defenceless when predators do turn up. Has the landscape changed around the traditional MMOG as feral online consoles and browser games snap at its heels, and if so is it destined to become extinct like the Dodo, barely cling on thanks to conservation efforts like the Kakapo (hero of one of the greatest moments of the recent “Last Chance to See” with Mark Carwardine & Stephen Fry), or evolve a new defence mechanism?

Weaving in another strand, there was another excellent post on Vicarious Existence about the danger of nostalgia, which made me wonder if, in a hypothetical future where a very distant ancestor of the Kakapo had learned to fly to evade predators, you’d get a couple of them sitting on a branch reminiscing:
“Man, remember when we walked everywhere? That was brilliant wasn’t it, none of this knackering flapping business, why does nobody walk any more? Things were so much better in the old days, I can’t understand why it got much worse, let’s start walking again Geoff, come on!”

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Snow Diary

Day eight without a phone line and broadband. More snow today, just as things were clearing up, which will probably stop anyone getting out to try and fix the phone line. We lost Johnson on Sunday after he was watching a film, couldn’t quite place where he’d seen an actor before, and flung himself through the window when he realised he couldn’t look it up on IMDB. A small cult have formed in the spare bedroom worshipping a cache of printed web pages: recipes for butternut squash risotto and baked vanilla cheesecake, and a map showing the hidden packages in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I dusted off an old modem, plugged it in, and shouted “bleeeeeeeeeepFRIKangFRIKangFRIKang” in a bid to emulate a data signal, but to no avail. Am coping by playing single player games with a post-it note stuck to the screen reading:
“this game sucks wow is way better”
“lol no wai wow su><""this game sucks""chuck norris su><""your mom su>< chuck norris"

to simulate a general chat channel, but I don’t know how much longer I can last…

I’d just been getting back into Champions Online as well, hopping around for a quick blast now and again. A group of us were working through Left 4 Dead 2, the Friday night DDO group was going great guns… Star Trek Online was also in mid-download as the line went down, I’d had a quick tinker in the closed beta a while back (space combat was fun, running around starships was a bit standard MMO (textbook) and not so exciting, but I gather more stuff had been patched in around that), hopefully the phone line will be back in time to download the open beta client.

Oh well, better head off now. McMillan has heard that a house two streets away has working cable and a router, we’re forming a raiding party. I’m just going out; I may be some time.

Thought for the day.

Tanking is the only job in an MMO where you are required to perform the same role against both the mobs and the other members of your pick-up group.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

The man on top of the mountain did not fall there.

I’m wondering what Blizzard will release as a counter to Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic; it is still my belief that they aim to time their game releases around those of their major competitors in order to cause maximum disruption, and thus not allow said competition a free run at gaining a foothold on the subscriber mountain. Many companies have tried to climb that mountain, and always there has been Blizzard, a few feet above, putting the Boot of Marketing in their faces and firmly but relentlessly pushing until yet another pretender to the title of King of the Mountain falls. Some MMO companies are sensible enough to not climb too quickly and use safety ropes on the way up, and thus when they fall they remain swinging, albeit helplessly, at the lower levels. Many others have fallen to their doom.

With SW:TOR looking to be heading towards an ’11 release date, what wrench will Blizzard throw in to the machine? Will they reserve Cataclysm for the duty, announcing later this year a delay to the expansion in order to ‘further improve the content’? I think that’s entirely feasible given the much-vaunted scope of work that is being undertaken.

Or will they, towards the end of this year, drop the bombshell announcement of their new MMO to be put into beta next year?

I imagine it will be the former, but I do wonder just how seriously Blizzard are taking the competition from Bioware: should they choose to use Cataclysm as their wrench and find that SW:TOR crushes it effortlessly between the cogs and gears of its own intractable machine, Blizzard will have that much more difficult a time regaining a footing with their new MMO against the newly established King of the Mountain.

The recently rumoured details of Blizzard’s new MMO, be they truth or fiction, come to light now, after Blizzard have managed to keep things pretty much entirely under wraps up to this point. Could this be the very first trickles of water leaking through those gigantic bulging, straining walls that dam the potential flood of hype water sitting behind? Did Blizzard themselves make the hole; have they armed the charges at the base of the dam; do they stand poised, detonator in hand, ready to unleash hype hell?

I think 2010 will probably not be a great year for MMO releases, but as far as MMO hype is concerned it’s going to be biblical, and the company that has built the biggest ark will find itself perched on top of the subscriber mountain when the floods subside.

Monday 11 January 2010

Innovation in World of Warcraft.

heroic [hi-roh-ik]

  1. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a hero or heroine.
  2. suitable to the character of a hero in size or concept; daring; noble: a heroic ambition.
  3. having or displaying the character or attributes of a hero.
  4. having or involving recourse to boldness, daring, or extreme measures.
  5. dealing with or describing the deeds, attributes, etc, of heroes, as in literature.
  6. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of the heroes of antiquity: heroic mythology.
  7. used in heroic poetry. Compare heroic verse.
  8. resembling heroic poetry in language or style; grandiloquent.
  9. (of style or language) lofty; extravagant; grand.
  10. larger than life-size: a statue of heroic proportions.
  11. (in World of Warcraft) quotidian; apathetic; perfunctory; mundane, e.g. heroic dungeon.

Why it’s the very dictionary definition of dictionary definition innovation.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Saints Theft Auto: Guerilla

Snow is blanketing Britain at the moment, at least 20cm here, bringing everything to a grinding halt. The perfect time to be wrapped up cosy inside and gaming away like a mad thing, except the snow’s taken out the phone line, and thus broadband connection, and the engineer can’t get his van up the road to sort it out. Still, having a 3G connection on the T-Mobile Pulse at least provides a tenuous connection to sanity (or Twitter and Google Reader, as the case may be), and at least Steam works in offline mode.

With a shiny new PC capable of moving the Grand Theft Auto IV graphics sliders off the bare minimum settings I’ve picked that back up (now slightly over a year since first installing it), and the complete THQ pack I bought in a Steam sale at the end of November includes Red Faction: Guerilla and Saints Row 2. All three are very similar games; GTAIV and Saints Row obviously so, RF:G taking that template to Mars. You run around, grab vehicles to drive, shoot stuff and perform various missions/tasks/activities. Each has an over-arching story, but lets you freestyle around between chapters.

The strengths of Grand Theft Auto IV are the characters, atmosphere and setting. It looks absolutely fantastic, even on the lowest detail settings, there’s the usual Rockstar attention to detail like the adverts, trailers and news on radio stations, and though I wasn’t really sure when I first heard about the protagonist, Niko Bellic is a sympathetic character and I really empathised with his struggles.

What really stands out when firing up Saints Row 2 is the character creation, especially coming from the fixed character in GTA. More akin to City of Heroes or Champions, you get sliders aplenty to control just about every aspect of the character’s appearance, a selection of voices, even different walking styles. The results are great, apart from facial expressions where anything apart from the default makes you look like you’ve escaped from some sort of institution. That diversity continues in the variety of activities available to you in game, from fairly conventional racing, stealing certain cars or acting as a hitman to more unusual offerings like deliberately getting hit by traffic, and spraying slurry over everything.

Red Faction: Guerilla excels in destructableness, which definitely is a word no matter how much the computer underlines it in red. Though the other two games let you smash a few windows, knock over a couple of lampposts and blow up any number of cars, buildings prove more resistant even to rocket propelled grenades. In RF:G, as a demolition engineer and with “salvage” as a form of currency, demolishing buildings is not just allowed but encouraged, and setting about structures with a hammer, demolition charges, rockets or convenient vehicle is immensely satisfying.

I was looking forward to completing Grand Theft Auto; it turned out I was only a couple of missions away from the end, but unfortunately it concentrates many of its worst aspects in the final mission. Firstly the story that was such a strong feature to begin with really tails off, especially once the mafia get involved. “Eh, it’s a turf war, badda bing, they don’t show us no respect”; the game really crowbars a relationship to try and give you a big motive for the last mission, not particularly successfully from my point of view, it all feels a bit well-trodden. Then there’s the traditional problem of the general GTA structure: drive to mission; start mission; drive somewhere; do some shooting; do some more driving; die at any point, back to the start. For the most part I don’t mind it too much, if you’re able to quicksave every couple of seconds it can render challenges far less meaningful, and in the mid-part of the game you’ve usually got plenty of options, if a mission is particularly frustrating you can wander off and try something else for a while and come back to it. The last mission, though, you’re automatically kicked on to, so there’s nothing else to do; the first part is a particularly dull car chase where you’re not even tearing around in sports cars, you’re in some wallowing luxury car following a Range Rover. GTAIV has more realistic car behaviour than Saints Row 2, in which you can spin around tight corners with ease; I didn’t mind for much of the game, as most of the time you can nick something with decent handling (usually one of the cars based on a European or Japanese make where the concept of “turning” isn’t utterly alien), but you’re forced to use this terrible car for the last mission, and haul yourself off to some warehouse. Fine.

Once at the warehouse, it’s a big old shootout. Not a problem, apart from the first time when I didn’t realise the game had left the character crouched behind a car rather than “in cover”, the difference being when you fire a rocket propelled grenade from the latter you automatically pop out for a clear shot, but in the former with pinpoint precision you hit the bonnet of the car you’re crouched behind, and destroy both it and yourself in a huge fireball. GTAIV does shooting really well with mouse and keyboard control, the horde of mooks with assault rifles you face are a decent challenge but not too tricky, but it takes a while to work through them all without exposing yourself to undue risk, so eventually you confront the bloke you came to kill and… he naffs off in a speedboat. You hop onto a bike to follow him, and after a while have to hit a certain jump with enough speed to throw yourself into a helicopter (as you do). Not expecting it at all the first time I gently toppled off the side of the ramp, so… back to the start. A couple more attempts and I got the ramp right, threw myself off the motorbike onto the skids of the helicopter, and was told to tap the space bar to pull myself up. Not the toughest challenge on the face of it, but somehow I didn’t manage it. Mission failed, back to the start, shoot, shoot, ride, jump, tap space… This time I was ready for it and tapped space like the very fury, giving a space-tapping performance such as has never been seen before. Nothing. A quick Google revealed a few others had had the same issue, and one of them had fired up Fraps to record proof, only when recording he’d climbed in successfully. I tried it, and sure enough that did the trick, possibly something to do with the way the framerate dropped from 60 to 30 when recording started. So there I was, flying the helicopter, except I couldn’t remember the flying controls and plummeted into the river, and the prospect of repeating all the earlier sections, again, doesn’t really appeal, so I haven’t been back to it since.

Over in Saints Row 2, things are slightly more comic book, both in appearance (though not to an extreme extent, it still looks good) and plot, when you start off by breaking out of a prison by stabbing someone and climbing around a bit. Getting hold of a pistol didn’t really make a great impression, the weapon sounds are distinctly underwhelming and I hardly realised I was firing (or being fired at) half the time. Having made it out of jail, though, and not being overly impressed, one of the first things the game does is pack you off to a clothes shop. GTAIV had a disappointing lack of clothing options, a step back even from GTA3: San Andreas; there are a few coats and trousers and two different hats at the first Russian shop, then a bunch of suits, jackets and slacks at the “smart-casual” and “smart” shops, and that’s it. It also had a horribly clunky wardrobe interface when changing clothes that took a couple of seconds to load each item up so it’s a faff just to browse through the options. GTAIV tends to go for a minimalist interface, which does help with immersion in the world; to save a car you park it in a particular space, when shopping you walk up to the item you want on display, a nice pair or shoes or an assault rifle, and it handles a lot of in-game options as menu choices on a mobile phone. Saints Row 2 doesn’t really care so much for realism and uses conventional text menus, which work far better for the array of choices. Where GTAIV had a few sets of clothes, Saints Row 2 has undershirts, overshirts, wombling free shirts, coats, underwear, jewellery, tattoos, shoes, socks… Things really picked up fast after the not-so-impressive start as you’ve just got so much to do. Cars can also be heavily customised and stored in a garage that actually remembers what’s in there, to the point that if you take one out and leave it somewhere in the city, it’s available back at the garage when you return. It does lose out slightly in the immersive world stakes, and suffers from an issue the GTA3 series had whereby things don’t exist unless you observe them; look down the road and see a car coming up, turn and look the other way, when you turn back there’s nothing there. It might be a commentary on solipsism, or perhaps the measurement problem of quantum physics; it’s a bit annoying on an insurance fraud activity where you’re trying to get hit by traffic and the damn stuff keeps vanishing, but it’s not generally too much of an issue. The overarching story is also fairly lightweight, pretty typical gang feuding, but it keeps things moving. Despite the massive (slightly cartoony) violence, it’s a hugely fun, light, frothy sort of game, not something to really sink your teeth into, but where GTAIV got progressively more stodgy towards the end Saints Row 2 never let up.

Red Faction: Guerilla is a funny sort of beast that falls between the two; set on Mars, obviously “realism” isn’t an issue, but it tries to give a bit of weight to things. The story is more or less Total Recall without the interesting ponderings on identity, Mars is controlled by Horrible Big Corporation/Nasty Imperialist Earth Types (EDF), you’re recruited into the Good Guy Resistance Freedom Fighters (the titular Red Faction) opposing them when your Heroic Noble Brother is killed by the EDF about two minutes into the tutorial and there’s a deep, involving storyline about a nano-something or other. Oh, wait, no, it’s even less convincing that Saints Row 2 in story stakes, but that doesn’t matter ‘cos you can knock down buildings. You progressively liberate sectors of the planet by reducing EDF control in a zone through your choice of various activities (destroying key installations, defending Red Faction areas, even “racing” when you pick up certain vehicles that have to be returned to a rebel safehouse in a certain, very tight, time limit), then play a couple of story missions to finally drive the EDF out. A lot of the gameplay is functionally equivalent to GTA or Saints Row, but with a twist to emphasise you’re a Good Guy Resistance Freedom Fighter and not just blowing a load of stuff up for giggles; you can “carjack” civilian vehicles as per the other games, only instead of throwing the driver out and nicking his car you wave at them, they carefully park up and hop out of the car shouting “yes, take my vehicle to help liberate our planet!” There are “mayhem”-type missions where you’re given a tank or (if really lucky) an exoseleton-type walker thing which is *brilliant* and told to destroy a certain number of EDF vehicles or troops, but you’re not doing it for a laugh, oh no, you’re causing a diversion so other Red Faction forces nearby can ferry orphan kittens to safety. Course none of that really matters at all, the main thing is: you get to blow stuff up. The first thing I’d look at in a new zone would be the key EDF structures, headquarters, garages, guard posts etc., and set about demolishing them with anything to hand. Pitched battles on foot are quite tricky, the EDF respond to threats mob-handed, and you’re fairly limited in the number of weapons you can carry and the ammo that each has, but vehicular destruction is rather splendid, either with liberated military armoured personnel carriers, or when you can get hold of them the exoskeleton-type walkers. The military variant with rocket launchers is the more powerful but the “civilian” version is most fun, you can flail away independently with the two arms, or smash both of them down, or use a sort of flinging motion to launch vehicles into the air. Red Faction feels a bit smaller than the other games; though you can choose different objectives it doesn’t have the sheer range of Saints Row or the depth of world of GTA, but it’s still fun.

So, three splendid games, though the end of GTAIV is a bit of a let-down, RF:G and Saints Row were great value in the complete THQ pack (from which I think Dawn of War II is going to be my next game). If forced to just choose one, I think it’d have to be Saints Row 2, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for Saints Row 3 news from E3.

Friday 8 January 2010

Little things.

When items go into your bag in World of Warcraft they make different sounds depending on what they consist of. You can tell if something substantial has landed in your bag without even having to look away from what you’re doing.

I’m sure it’s a subconscious thing for many players in WoW, like a sixth sense; I know it is for me, because I can play a game like LotRO and have no idea what I have looted until I go to sell everything at the vendor. I rarely spend time reading over the loot window, and in WoW I don’t need to. I imagine there are many features like this, the little things that often go unnoticed, but when implemented well can make for a smoother experience in general, and a massive difference in experience to a new player.

Is it really any wonder that WoW attracted so many players from without the genre?

Thursday 7 January 2010

That sinking feeling.

Burn baby, burn.
Take one warlock on fiery, flame-footed mount. Add one wooden boat. Leave to bake until the boat is a smouldering wreck at the bottom of the harbour.

Yes, that’s my Vulzerda in the background, slowly backing her way off the boat.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Of cheese and cake.

After reading Tobold’s post I was riding a train of thought with regards to innovation in MMOs when it hit an analogy on the track and the whole thing was catastrophically derailed. Here, for your morbid delectation, is the sensationalist news report from the site of the wreckage.

MMOs are like cheesecake.

Like cheesecake, MMOs are built upon a bland but generally acceptable base. There are a few people that enjoy the base alone for what it is, but I think it’s fair to say that most people expect their cheesecake to have a thick layer of sickly soft-cheese goodness piled on top of it; as long the base exists and is not offensive or overly complex in itself while supporting the topping, most people are happy.

The problem with innovation these days is that people seem to want to evolve the base of MMOs. Changing the base is difficult: it currently works, it’s proven to work, and generally there’s not a lot you can do with biscuit or sponge that will make it a lot more exciting. So what we will end up with is MMO cheesecakes with bases made of ham, crayon, or tinsel. And because it takes so much effort to change the base, as well as the base ending up as unpalatable, there will then only be a very thin layer of topping because there wasn’t any time for anything more, which only serves to make the odd base all the more stark in contrast.

What MMOs need to succeed is a good topping; lots and lots of topping, and it is with the topping that you can innovate most easily and successfully. You can layer your topping with different flavours that complement each other; you can go for a generic vanilla flavour that appeals to most people, or specialise in more exotic flavours that will draw in a smaller subset who will stay loyal to you for as long as you provide that specific flavour.

World of Warcraft is an incredibly thick vanilla cheesecake with a choice of different toppings, the most popular being a sort of chewy toffee that requires a disproportionate amount of jaw action to get through compared to the soft-cheese below.

Warhammer Online, on the other hand, managed to create a half-biscuit half-baked-bean base, with a desperately thin layer of prawn flavoured soft-cheese mixed with prunes and topped with pine needles.

Some companies have experimented with the base a little with success – CCP for example – but the base is still fundamentally that bland reliable entity that it has always been: it’s the topping that makes the game what it is. Realistically there’s only so much you can do with the base before you are no longer creating a cheesecake and are instead creating a trifle which, as we all know, is perfectly analogous to RTS games. Or maybe it was CCGs? I forget.

If you want to attract MMO players, you have to make a good cheesecake.

(Cheesecake-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a cheesecake, I get the satisfaction of having made you fatter. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on cheesecake, your opinion would probably be improved with a big chunky slice of baked golden biscuit base, topped with layers of thick creamy soft-cheese, sprinkled with chocolate flakes, and served with a generous helping of double cream.)

No safety or surprise, the end

Danger! Here be Dragon Age Spoilers! Previously on the show: allies had been gathered fairly easily, but things hadn’t quite gone according to plan in the Landsmeet. The situation looks nice and simple as we head for the final act, though: Evil Archdemon to be killed, world to be saved, tea and biscuits for everybody, sorted.

The night before the final battle, Alastair popped his head around the door for a quick chat. He was besotted with me, we were ecstatically happy together, I’d just made him King, I figured he’d probably want to show me his gratitude. And by “gratitude” I mean “hammer“.
“Hi” he began, “you know how like we’re all in love and that? Well, I’m going to have to go and shag a bunch of other birds.”

All right, his reasoning was slightly more complex, involving the need for an heir (look at the mess we were currently in due to lack of succession planning) and the fact that Gray Wardens inevitably went bonkers in the nut, meaning a child of one Gray Warden parent was risky enough let alone two, but it was still a kick in the teeth. I went back to Leilana and tried to persuade her that when she’d given the ultimatum and made me pick either her or Alistair she must’ve misheard me, I didn’t say “well regretfully I’ll have to choose Alistair” at all, it was actually “sod Alistair, he’s just going to go off and ‘ensure the Royal succession’ with some strumpet, it’s you I want” but she wasn’t having any of it. That just left Zevran as a possible romantic interest, but he was a bit too close to Captain Bertorelli from ‘Allo ‘Allo to be a serious option (whatta mistake-a to make-a!)

Still, never mind, once I’d heroically killed the Archdemon I’d be fighting ’em off with a stick, right? “Oh yeah, about that…” chirped up Riordan, the conveniently liberated Warden, “I should probably just mention that whoever kills the Archdemon dies themselves. Y’know, it’s a bit like when you’ve got a nuclear hand grenade with a blast radius bigger than your throwing range. Only not like that, and with more magical essence and stuff. But don’t worry! I’ll do my utmost to strike the final blow.”
“Uh huh. The geezer that’s just turned up is our ultimate saviour? Seems a bit unlikely, doesn’t it? Lacks a bit of emotional impact compared to having to choose between me or Alistair. Though if the silly git had let Loghain join up, it would’ve been a perfect Evil Henchman Has Change Of Heart And Achieves Redemption By Killing More Evil Boss But Dying In The Process (there must be a snappier title for that on TV Tropes).”
“Well, narrative imperative does rather suggest that doesn’t it, but we’ll sort it out at the time I’m sure. Hope I haven’t dampened the mood at the pre-battle party too much!”

I didn’t really fancy the vol-au-vents after that and slunk off to bed, but got buttonholed by Morrigan on the way. “Don’t worry, my liege, I overheard that stuff about a Warden having to die, and I have a cunning plan!”
I sighed. “If it’s putting a pair of underpants on my head, a pencil up each nostril and saying ‘wibble’, I don’t think it’s going to help”
“Better than that! I sleep with Alistair, then the evil-demon-essence-thing will latch onto me instead of the Warden who delivers the killing blow, and result in me being pregnant with a demon-Alistair-god-magic-baby-thing.”
“That’s the worst chat-up line I’ve ever heard. Still, it might work…”

Dilemma time: having gone to all the trouble of making Alistair King, if he struck the final blow to the Archdemon and popped his clogs we’d be back to square one with the other main ruling candidate locked up. On the other hand if I struck the final blow, being dead would put a serious crimp in my plans for the weekend, as well as making a direct sequel a bit difficult (Dragon Age 2: I Got Better!) If Riordan struck the final blow then nobody would give a stuff, hence being a somewhat unlikely eventuality. Or! I could unleash a demon-Alistair-god-magic-baby-thing on the world. Hrm. As the old saying goes, “better to face the possibility of a demon-Alistair-god-magic-baby-thing in the future than your own imminent death in the present”, so I told Morrigan to go for it. As long as I could watch. “That’s the worst chat-up line I’ve ever heard” said Alistair, but he went along with the plan. The strumpet.

Finally we plunged in to the actual final battle, and that was nicely done. For a start it actually made sense of a fixed party size! “A small party of you, say, hrm, oh, I don’t know, picking a number at random, four should go and confront the Archdemon while the rest of the group stay and defend the gate!” The allies you’d gathered in the earlier part of the game were available to call on as reinforcements as you hacked your way through the city (ever-so-slightly undoing the good work of explaining why you have a fixed party of four by giving you a massive pool of troops to call on, only instead of rushing the Darkspawn with a massive human(/dwarf/elf) wave assault you sportingly only unleash five or ten of them at a time; even then it’s an impressively large scale battle that caused the framerate on the old PC to drop off when the fireballs started flying, so it’s obvious why full army RTS-type battles are impractical). Riordan, surprisingly enough, didn’t manage to take out the Archdemon on his own, but the heroic overpoweredness of Morrigan, Wynne and a giant stack of mana potions did the trick. Archdemon stabbed, magical essence diverted to Morrigan instead of killing me as promised, all that was left was the coronation, victory parade and biscuits. And the “what happened to…” montage; apparently Alistair wasn’t the most natural King and kept buggering off on various quests, but fortunately he left the Kingdom in the incredibly capable hands of… me. So that was OK.

I’m quite interested in all the other possible endings, though not interested enough to play all the possible origins through all the combinations of decisions; it’s where the story can really open up, as there are no more fixed points it has to manoeuvre your character to. Spinks posted an interesting link to the forums where people discuss their own endings, and I might try another playthrough sometime, steering towards ending up with Leilana and getting Loghain to strike the final blow on the Archdemon.

What’s also interesting is the announcement of an expansion, Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening (expanding not only the game but the variety of punctuation in the title), with the option to import your character, so perhaps another fixed point to be manoeuvred to after all; I wonder if it’ll take account of all possible endings of the original game, or assume a single “canonical” version?

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Symptoms of an MMO.

Ho, what’s this?

A letter in the mail?

Urgent help required!

From Lady Galadriel! Hmm, she wants me to join her army in the fight against the forces of darkness.

Well she could have phoned…

Nevertheless! It seems that Middle Earth is in need of my proven skills as a stout warrior of no mean accomplishment. Time is pressing: the tide of darkness encroaches ever forth, so I shall away to Lothlórien to aid them in their time of need immediately!

“Come to our lands” she calls, and I willingly answer the call!

Prove you ain't no scrub, yo.

Right after I’ve pandered to a bunch of her border guards, because apparently she’s too lazy to send them a mail to inform them that I’m on my way. I mean, how much would it take?

“Yo guys,

I’ve asked this dwarf homie over to hang out an’ kill stuff an’ shit, so don’t go killing him on sight or nuttin, yo. Chill, yeah?


Lady G”

Word to the allegedly wise: if you formally invite me into your lands to offer up my life to you in battle, you don’t then expect me to first be the errand-bitch of some hippy elf with an itchy bow finger on the border of your lands.

And why? Bringing some daft old bugger the missing half to their favourite socks which was lost in the nearby forest several ages of men ago, that will prove that I’m not an agent of the enemy will it? Killing some enlarged water voles and picking mushrooms will remove the centuries-long enmity of our peoples, will it?

I always knew elves were arrogant arses, but really.

So remember folks: when hosting a dinner party, always make your invited guests clear the front lawn of cat shit and weed the borders when they arrive, before letting them into the warmth of your home.

And if they don’t, set your dog on them. It’s the MMO way.

Monday 4 January 2010

KiaSA Top Tips.

MMO players, enhance the faithfulness of your STO experience!

Delay playing Star Trek Online for six months, then use a trial account to pretend you’re visiting from an alternative dimension where they’ve never heard of these strange inevitabilities that you Earth creatures call ‘insurmountable lag’, ‘sever instability’ and ‘hideous balancing issues’. Then try to sleep with the captain of the first starship you encounter before disappearing after fourteen days, never to return.

Yours inverse-particly,

Mrs Unas Tayble-Wurmholl.

Sunday 3 January 2010

I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.

“Morning dear! Tea or coffee with your breakfast?”

“Good morning, uh, tea please. Anything interesting in the Moria Mail this morning?”

“No, nothing really. Another Watcher turned up in the Vile Maw, but what’s new about that?”

“Slow news day it seems. I expect Neville’s team will have dealt with that one already.”

“And what are you up to today? Anything interesting, or the same old same old?”

“Oh, same old, I expect. Probably have to clear some more morroval nests out. Mmmm, lovely cuppa, thanks.”

“Oh dear, really? Can’t they get someone more junior to do that now? You’ve been with the company for so long, and done so well for them, they really don’t make best use of you you know.”

“Yeah well, maybe.”

“No ‘maybe’ about it, you always underestimate yourself. You’re ever so good with an axe: always clearing out goblin infestations for friends and family, and none of us understand these new-fangled legendary weapons like you do.”

“Oh, it’s not so complicated, I just spent a lot of time locked away in my room tinkering with them when I was younger, that’s all. I’m not that good, really. I guess I am quite handy at hewing the ol’ greenskins, but there are lots of people younger than me coming out of Rivendell and Thorin’s Hall with all their fancy deeds and titles in orc slaying; I’m a bit old for it all now.”

“Yes, but they don’t have the in-the-field experience that you do; that counts for a lot, doesn’t it?”

“Well you’d think so, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Anyway, it’s not so bad, I enjoy the work. Ok the pay is a bit rubbish where I am now, and the inventory management is a nightmare, but it’s an easy life. Sure, I could commute to Mirkwood and find a high paying job there, but the travel each day would be a nightmare and the jobs are all so stressful.”

“Well, as long as you’re ok, then we’re ok.”

“Excellent. Well, I suppose I should be getting off; I expect Norris has already started his shift and he’s probably knee deep in more grodbogs than he can handle, as always; it’ll take us hours to de-bug everything he’s done.”

“Have a good day. Oh, and could you pop into Dolven-view on the way home and pick up some bread?”

“Yup, no problem. See you later.”

“Don’t forget your axe, dear.”

“Guh, I’d forget my own beard if it wasn’t welded to my face! See you tonight.”

Human software engineer. Dwarf Champion. Sometimes my various lives seem eerily similar.

Saturday 2 January 2010

2010 Predictions

Now that Melmoth’s got his comedy prediction out of the way (MMOs are a stagnant genre, atrophying away as the rest of the world moves on, ha ha ha, oh, god, wait, he might be right) I’ll do the serious stuff. Needless to say, 2009 panned out precisely as I predicted, so as a bit of an added challenge for 2010 I’ll be slightly more specific in timing:

  • February 19th, 3.47 – 3.54pm: Aventurine’s exciting “flamebait for cash” programme proves so successful that they further focus on their core audience and replace Darkfall’s combat system with Monkey Island style insult fights. For starter mobs, shouting “lol failgoblin is fail” a couple of times is enough to win the engagement, but large scale PvP battles require more thorough personal attacks and references to the weight of your opponent’s mother.
  • March 6th, 10.11am – 10.18am: using the massive profits from earning gold in WoW, Gevlon constructs an underwater city where he and his fellows can live without being dragged down by morons and slackers. Things don’t turn out too well after the plasmid market takes off…
  • June 14th, 7.22 – 7.29am: Bioware and Cryptic suddenly realise there’s been a terrible mix-up in the IPs they’ve actually got licensed. After everything goes very quiet for a couple of weeks, there are grand announcements of revised games: Star Wars Online features players commanding a Rebel starship, and beaming down to planets where they frequently encounter Imperial agents with funny shaped foreheads, and Star Trek: The Old Republic is set 50,000 years before the TV series, allowing bold Federation officers waving glowing swords to take on evil Klingons who can shoot lightning and choke people from a distance.
  • August 28th, 10.30 – 10.37pm: in a bid to stand out from the crowd of free-to-play games, Sony relaunch Free Realms under a new “be-paid-to-play” model. All players receive $3.95 every month they play, for a mere $4.95 subscription.
  • October 2nd, 4.09 – 4.18am: Turbine decide to emulate Blizzard’s advertising strategy by using an 80s icon. The addition of David Hasselhoff’s “Hasselbazooka” as an in-game item in Lord of the Rings Online is criticised by some players for not fitting in with lore, as it transforms the clothing of whoever it hits into a pair of red swimming trunks, and causes minstrels to start playing a random melody from the Night Rocker album.