Wednesday 31 March 2010

We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.

And now we take you over to the already underway Easter service by the Reverend Melmoth Melmothson.

… and so this Easter weekend, let us all take time out of our busy gaming lives to remember the important things in life.

Such as that noisome git who mouthed off constantly in your PuG and then stole the drop you’d been trying to get for months, four years ago.

Lord, we give thanks for the holy trinity of Tanker, DPS and Holy Healer, and we ask you to watch over us and those with us, as we fight against tedium and repetitive strain injury in order to gather pixelated items of no spiritual or economical worth. Help us to forgive the, frankly, astonishing number of smacktards that we encounter on a day-to-day basis in our MMO of choice, and forgive us our trespasses against them, for they have been many; although entirely justifiable when you consider that the idiots just keep trying to steal our harvesting nodes while we’re fighting a mob. Holy Father, help us to remember, that you are with us in every time of perplexity to guide and to direct; that you are with us in every time of sorrow to comfort and console; that you are with us in every time of temptation to strengthen and to inspire; that you are with us in every time of loneliness to cheer and befriend; and help us to remember that when one considers how often all those things happen in an MMO, you must be really, really, bloody busy.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.


And now please stand as we sing hymn number four hundred and twenty two – Oh Lord Let This Boar Drop The Quest Item That I Need, Because Truly I Am Bored Of Grinding Now.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Nature hides her secrets because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse

I’m still hooked on the RUSE beta (or the R.U.S.E.™ beta to be technically correct, which may be more trademarkable but does cause problems with online retailers with pernickity search engines that don’t return any matches for just ‘RUSE’). I’ve played as all the factions bar the French (well, you have to draw the line somewhere) to a greater or lesser extent, and come to the conclusion that they’re all fairly balanced, though the British get the short end of the stick a bit; they don’t get much in the way of “super tanks”, with the Matilda II still their sole heavy tank in 1945 and a Prototype base needed even to get a Churchill (with the Germans getting the Maus and the US some strange T95 variant, throw us a freakin’ Centurion, or Black Prince or Tortoise or something). There’s no insane long range artillery (the Italians get a 210mmm unit from their standard base, the US and Germany get long range options from a Prototype bases), the infantry units are underpowered against armour, it doesn’t fit with my play style at all unfortunately. The RAF are quite splendid, but any opponent worth their salt screens units with stacked anti-air guns and/or fighters, rendering air assault futile is most cases.

With my fondness for artillery the US really come to the fore with self-propelled 155mm units, and the same base produces mobile AA units to screen them; an array of tanks up to the Pershing give them decent armour, and the air force is always an option if opponents fail to guard against it properly, the B-17 being available for heavy bombing. Germany are a close second, they don’t have a long range self-propelled unit (distinct lack of a Hummel) but can build a 21cm towed gun and Wirbelwind mobile AA unit, they get tanks up to the King Tiger and even Maus, the air force can upgrade to Me-262s and Ar-234s and generally unleash all sorts of devastation.

At least, they can in 1945. RUSE has three eras, 1939, 1942 and 1945, with units only available (more or less) according to their historical in-service dates, but every online game I’ve joined has been in the 1945 era, until last night. I’d selected Germany, and hadn’t noticed the game I joined was 1939-era until it started and I didn’t have the usual array of building options. Still, never mind, I started my usual fairly cautious approach, securing supplies and gradually expanding a well-defended base, fending off a couple of bombing runs with 88mm flak, but as artillery shells started falling on outlying units I knew I was in trouble; one of the enemy team was playing Russia, who had access to 152mm artillery in 1939 that my poor little 75mm guns couldn’t hope to reach. Time for a switch of tactics; the only available tank I had was the Panzer III, but that ought to be enough to take out the artillery, so churned out five or six and mounted a charge, which was promptly cut to pieces by the KV-1 heavy tanks sitting next to the guns. One of my team-mates had assembled a squadron of light bombers and sent them in, but massed AA guns and a few fighters knocked them out of the sky. It was brutal, there was nothing we could do; the massed attacks took out a few enemy units but at monstrous cost, leaving us only token defences. In hindsight I suppose a historically-correct Blitzkrieg would have been the only option, to sweep in and press the attack before the enemy had a chance to build up his more powerful units. The earlier era certainly puts a very different spin on the game, so I’m going to have a bit of a practise with a few factions in the earlier timeframes and perhaps specifically look out for 1939 or 1942 games for a change.

One slightly disappointing aspect of the game is the ruses themselves, which I’m not finding terribly useful; initial camouflage nets to prevent early air attack and the “blitz” ruse to increase unit speed to get bases and defences in place more quickly are handy, but as games develop and the action spreads out then things get trickier. Maps are divided into a number of sectors, ruses only affect a single sector, and by accident or deeply clever design a lot of fights happen on the border of two or three sectors, so if you’re trying to use a blitz to speed up units, or one of the psychological ruses to inspire your troops or demoralise the enemy, or a spy to uncover enemy units then you only affect a small corner of the fight. I think they’d be more useful if they could be deployed anywhere, affecting a certain radius around them, but perhaps they’ve been implemented the way they have for technical or tactical reasons. Still, it’s a splendid game, and I’ll be interested to see if many changes are made to it as a result of the beta.

There’s still the (potential) matter of DRM, though; being far more multiplayer-centric than something like Assassin’s Creed II then a strong online component of RUSE is entirely sensible, requiring a login to Ubisoft servers for matchmaking and lobby facilities wouldn’t be a problem, and obviously if you’re in a multiplayer game then you’ll need to stay online for it (it’d be nice to be able to reconnect to a game easily if your internet connection glitches, though). The full game sounds like it will include a fairly comprehensive single player campaign and battles as well, and if you need to be always online for that then I’ll have to stick to my guns and make my somewhat pitiful stand, which will make even less of an impression on industry DRM attitudes than my Panzer III rush on a bunch of KV-1s, but still.

Plus if I give it six months it’ll probably be in a Steam sale for a fiver.

Monday 29 March 2010

Good news. Bad news.

Remember how I wrote about those mobstacles in Lord of the Rings Online’s Moria?

Good news: I’m out Moria now, and into Mirkwood.

Bad news: I’ve found the precise point where Turbine thought “Hey, y’know what we haven’t done in a while? Made half of the mobstacles stealthed so that the players can’t even attempt to avoid them!”

Good news: It means that I won’t be wasting a lot of time trying to avoid mobs.

Bad news: My screen is split into two sparking, buckled halves, with a big fist-sized hole in the middle of it.

Good news: I personally gained another rank in Screen Punching and my Fist of Fury skill was upgraded to the Fist of Fractures skill.

Bad news: The doctor at the hospital says that the fractures will take some time to heal.

Good news: The nurse was hot.

Bad news: I failed my opposed Sneak-A-Peak roll against Mrs Melmoth.

Good news: I was already in a hospital.

Bad news: The doctor tells me that I’m mistaken in thinking that men can re-grow their testicles like a lizard re-grows a lost tail.

Good news: My anger has subsided dramatically ever since I was partially neutered.

Bad news: I have a sudden urge to play Hello Kitty Online.


<Sound of smashed TV screen>

<Sound of ambulance siren>

Friday 26 March 2010

Reviewlet: Anathem

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a hefty tome, and when the first few pages involve “speelycaptors” and “jeejahs” there’s a worry that the Fictional Rule of Thumb is going to hold true, as the alt-text suggests. The language is there for a reason, though, giving etymological clues and reminders of the similarities and differences between the world of Arbre in the book and our own, so an Arbran “Saunt” has obvious parallels to a Saint, but the derivation of the word is from “Savant”. It also lets Stephenson tackle ideas without getting too bogged down in footnotes he potentially frames as:

“If Person X had never thought up Idea Y and published it in Book Z, then I never could have written this; however, please bear in mind that (a) I have no formal credentials as a philosopher, mathematician, or scientist, and (b) this is a work of fiction, not a peer-reviewed monograph. Accordingly, the manner in which I have used Idea Y here might not stand up to rigorous scrutiny; Person X, if still alive, upon seeing his or her name mentioned in an academic-looking footnote in this context, would, therefore, probably issue a public disclaimer denying all connection with me and the book, and otherwise is rolling over in his or her grave. Dear reader, please know that this footnote serves only to acknowledge an intellectual debt and to give fair credit to Person X; if you really want to understand Idea Y, please buy and read Book Z.”

Reading Anathem is like starting with Google Earth on maximum magnification right on your own back garden (or maybe a nearby monastery, if you have one to hand), and slowly zooming out and out and out, to the town, county, country, continent, further and further still, out into the Google Sky, and finally into the still-in-even-more-beta-than-most-Google-stuff Google Many Earths, where you can navigate through photographs of different realities according to the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Excellent stuff; two thumbs up, in a box with a small flask of hydrocyanic acid and a radioactive substance.

Thursday 25 March 2010

The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.

Let’s have one of those awkward moments. You know the ones: a group of you are at Tom’s house for the evening, you’ve all had a little bit to drink and people are in various states of repose. Colin is passed out with his head under the sofa and Samantha, in her inebriated state, is flirting outrageously with Hector, who, being the only sober one amongst you, lies patiently by the fire with a furrowed brow and a sad look in his eye, twitching his tail nervously every now and again. Then out of nowhere, you don’t know why but it might have something to do with the alcohol, you decide to admit “I just can’t eat mushrooms y’know, because I’ve always got this feeling, deep down, that they really are the homes of the Little Folk”. At which point Tom chokes on his wine and manages to get half a glass full up his nose. A thunk and muffled cry comes from the corner of the room as Colin’s corpse reanimates and his head rebounds with pace off the bottom of the sofa and back on to the floor, and Samantha stares at you unblinkingly with her mouth agape, which Hector takes as his cue to make a dash for it and slinks on his belly, tail wrapped underneath him, out of the door before anyone notices, which you take to be the posture of one who is deeply ashamed to have ever been associated with a person who thinks that mushrooms might house tiny people. “It’s just that you’re all such good friends,” you explain, “and we’re all so comfortable here. I feel that I can tell you these things without fear of mockery or rebuke.” Tom, Samantha and Colin (who is now sitting up with ruffled hair and red face, and glaring with malice at the sofa that assaulted him) turn and give you that pitying, understanding look that friends give to friends when they’re all drunk and one of you has said something that normal society would probably recommend a good psychiatrist for, a look that says “I understand that the bond of our friendship transcends such judgemental acts as having you sectioned under the Mental Health Act, we will just forget that you ever said such a thing, and let’s never talk of this again, except when we’re gossiping with others when you’re not around.” And you feel that these friends of yours are good people, that they understand you and forgive you, and that you could tell these people anything, even your deepest darkest quirks, without fear of reproach. So you do. And they all try to get out of the living room door at the same time, and hurt themselves.

I imagine that we all have our quirks and superstitions when playing games, and MMOs perhaps open themselves up to such imaginings more than other games because we play them for such a long time that the opportunity for nervous irrational beliefs is greatly increased, and because so much of the game’s content is based on the luck of a dice roll, it’s hard not to invoke The Fates when events take an unexpected turn. I was reminded of one of my own quirks last night when running through the Waterworks zone in Lord of the Rings Online, but the zone, or indeed MMO, does not matter, I have done the same thing in all of them at one time or another.

I believe mobs are out to get me.

Not much of a revelation at first glance I grant you, mobs in MMOs are undoubtedly out to get us as adventurers, otherwise combat would be quite dull, akin to hunters who might have travelled to Mauritius and employed all of their art to capture the Dodos that were found there, an art which generally would have involved opening a large hessian sack and waiting for the Dodos to run into it, head first, without complaint. Possibly basting themselves on the way through. No, mobs are out to get *me*, and I’ll be damned if I can avoid these confrontations. I’ll be running towards a destination – in as straight a line as possible whilst trying to avoid the mobstacles placed in the way – and I’ll see an aggressive goblin up ahead. So I veer off to the left such that I’ll pass behind him, outside of his radius of attention. At which point he turns around and starts to wander off to the left on a perfect intercept course with me. I’ll curse my luck under my breath and change course so that I head off to the right, again passing behind him and out of his sight, but because I had veered left previously, and because I want to stay at least partially on course for my intended destination, I don’t move as far to the right as I had done to the left. At which point I imagine the goblin thinks “Tsk, I’ve only gone and left my pipe back where I was, I’ll head back and get it now while there’s no excitement going on” and he turns around and heads back to where he was originally. I’m getting rather close now, and so a wild swerve to the left is required to get past him unnoticed, but I haven’t got much room to work with because I’ve been narrowing the degree to which I can move left and right each time; oh sure, I could stop running, turn a full ninety degrees with ease, and make my way in a wide loop around this mobstacle, but I’m a busy adventurer! I don’t have time for stopping, I must keep running at full pace at all times, forward progress must be made, otherwise I’m wasting valuable time! So I change direction to the left and I judge that if he keeps moving to the right as he is, and I keep moving to the left as I am, then we’ll just miss each other, like a mid-air collision avoided by the narrowest of margins. Of course it’s easier for aircraft, because it’s rare for one aircraft to come to a sudden and complete stop while the other one is trying avoid it. “Oh, you! Here’s the pipe right there in your pocket all the time you numpty” the goblin says, as he comes to a complete standstill in the middle of his return walk, shortly followed by “Oooof…” as an adventurer clatters into him at full tilt, knocking him onto his back before tripping over him themselves and landing with a crash in a heap beside him. “My best pipe! Broken!” he exclaims, and then the adventurer and the goblin have a heated sword-based debate with regards to pipe insurance and compensation claims.

Honestly, I swear they do it on purpose. I would be utterly unsurprised if there wasn’t a code library shared around by MMO companies which was full of tried and tested algorithms that made sure that mobstacles would conveniently patrol into the path of PCs, no matter how hard they tried to avoid it. I’ve even tried to psych them out before now (mad crash as half our readership tries to leave the blog at the same time, and hurt themselves) – I’ve seen the mob make their first move to intercept and I’ve made a motion to swerve wildly in the opposite direction only to cancel it after a few paces, and I swear that it works! They change direction again as I make to swerve and then they get confused because I didn’t go through with it, and their little library of algorithms doesn’t have the fLooksLikeAPsychOutToMe(return Boolean) function implemented, so they just keep going and I carry on my merry way, looking over my shoulder at them and mocking their ineffective ability to intercept me, at which point I run headlong into another mob who I hadn’t seen approaching me head on. So I do the mobstacle marathon, where I run around in a huge string of curving loops, doubling back on myself and such, trying to shake off my attacker without grabbing the attention of any other mobs in the area, and after twenty seconds or so I finally tire my pursuer out and they go back to whatever it was they were doing, and I congratulate myself on a job well done as I run pell-mell into the mob I was trying to avoid in the first place.

So there we have it, one of my little MMO quirks. Anyone else care to share? No? Well then, in that case let me tell you about how I think badgers got their stripes…

Wednesday 24 March 2010

RUSE Public Beta

I first found out about R.U.S.E. when looking at what games might be affected by Ubisoft’s new DRM scheme, and a couple of weeks ago Steam popped up a window announcing the availability of a public beta so I thought I might as well take a look.

Starting with the always-online DRMephant in the room, I flipped Steam into offline mode, went to start the beta up and it seemed fine. In the middle of a single player game I yanked out the network cable just to be sure and everything continued quite happily, so I guess the beta is DRM free, which isn’t terribly surprising. Though other Ubisoft games have disappeared from Steam in the UK for unknown reasons that might or might not involve DRM, the RUSE beta is going strong and it’s still available for pre-order, but I’ll be holding off to see what the DRM situation is at launch before committing.

The game itself, though; RUSE is a World War II RTS that allows you to take control of UK, US, French, Italian, German or Russian forces and trundle your infantry, tanks, artillery and aircraft around the place for great justice. Though you produce individually named units (e.g. Matilda, Panzer IV, T-34 or Sherman tanks) RUSE works on a more abstracted strategic level, so a grognard level of knowledge of the armour penetration characteristics of the 75mm M3/L40 gun isn’t needed to work out who’s going to win in a fight. This is reflected really nicely in your view of the battlefield; you can zoom right in to see half-tracks backing up, hooking on your anti-tank guns and driving off to take up position, but as you zoom right out for the widest possible view the map is revealed as a table in a war room, with oversize counters and tokens representing your troops and the best knowledge available of enemy deployments. All it’s missing is a few WAAFs with long sticks shunting the units around.

I started off with a couple of single player battles to get to grips with the controls and interface as there doesn’t seem to be much of an in-game tutorial (there is a link to an online video that promises to explain how to play, but that sounds dangerously like reading an instruction manual and thus clearly out of the question). The single player option of the beta is limited to playing 1v1 on a small map against an Easy AI opponent controlling US forces, who doesn’t offer the greatest of challenges; I hit upon an ingenious strategy of building several armoured units called “tanks” and moving them quite rapidly towards my opponent, in something of a “rush” you might say, and he didn’t have much of an answer to that (such an innovative technique surely deserves a catchy name; I think I might call it the “rapid movement of many armoured vehicles towards the enemy”). With such a direct approach paying dividends, the AI battles aren’t really the best showcase for the titular ruses that distinguish the game from other RTSs; options include disguising your own units, spying on the enemy to reveal his units or orders and deploying decoy bases, none of which are a massive amount of use as you’re bearing down on the enemy base with five Matildas, three A13s and a couple of scout cars, destroying anything in your path with a hail of two pound shells. I used the “decryption” ruse to find out what orders the enemy was giving his troops, and it turned out “explode and burn” was somewhere near the top.

Suitably emboldened by a few glorious triumphs, and to see if ruses played more of a part on a larger map, I thought I’d have a crack at an online battle. It’s been a while since I’ve thrown down a gauntlet to random internet strangers, longer still if discounting MMOG PvP of various levels of seriousness (from “not very” to “slightly”). I’ve certainly never tried an RTS online, for everyone knows cybernetic ninja pirates lie in wait for hapless n00bs, poised to spring into action with a cry of “KEKEKEKEKEKE” and a volley of millimetre-perfect clicks so fast their mouse sounds like a Geiger counter in the presence of H. R. Giger (or radiation, I always forget which one of those they actually detect). Still, with RUSE being in public beta, I figure there can’t be too many lurking 7th Dan Black Belts, and plenty of casually curious blunderers out there.

After a few false starts that jammed up at the “Connecting” phase (it seems pretty sensitive to anything else using your bandwidth, so I shut down iTunes and its podcast downloads for the duration), I wound up in a lobby, hit the “Set Ready” button, and waited… and waited a bit more… and backed out to the main menu and joined another lobby with five players waiting for a 3v3 game, a sixth joined… and quit, someone else joined… and quit, someone else joined… and quit. Eventually I wound up in a four player Free For All match that actually started off, and I did pretty well; possibly because one player dropped early on and the other two were fairly preoccupied with each other, giving me time to build up a mighty air force, establish air superiority with Spitfires, knock out enemy vehicles with Typhoons and finish off the enemy base with Lancaster bombing raids. Future attempts at an air-heavy strategy often foundered on strong anti-air defences, though, so I’ve been broadening my range and trying various nations and strategies. One of my current favourites is to play as Italy, who right off the bat get access to 210mm artillery with a ludicrously long range and 90mm dual AT/AA emplacements; in a 2v2 game my team-mate dropped almost as the game started and I thought I was in for a right tonking, but it turned out that I got control of his base, and more importantly his starting money, enabling me to rush out a bunch of artillery units screened by AA bunkers. The bunkers took care of an attempted paratroop rush, and as the artillery units sat in the middle of my base and bombarded an enemy airfield one opponent surrendered in disgust, rapidly followed by the other.

That battle was a better demonstration of the use of ruses (or lack thereof); if my opponent had used the “camouflage net” option to disguise his base I don’t think my artillery could have targeted it, or a decoy base could have drawn fire. It’s quite hard to really gauge their effect, and I’m not sure they’re a massive genre-defining feature, but at least it gives a bit of a twist to the formula. All in all, I’m rather enjoying it at the moment, though I suspect I won’t buy the full game for two reasons; firstly, on principle, if it’s got the full Ubisoft DRM, and secondly, I suspect that within a few months of launch the supply of casual blunderers will have dried up, replaced by the cybernetic ninja pirates. Until they get distracted by Starcraft II.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

The Big Question.

Melmoth: “Good evening, I’m your host Melmoth Melmothson. Tonight on The Big Question, we’re asking ‘The Sith, are they really all bad?‘. So let’s ask our panel of guests to discuss, The Big Question. Zoso Zerberus…”

Zoso: “Yes.”

Melmoth: “Zombie Clement Attlee?”

Zombie Clement Attlee: “Yeeeeeeeesss.”

Melmoth: “Mmm. Mmm. Drunk Hobo Who Hasn’t Heard of Star Wars?”

Drunk Hobo Who Hasn’t Heard of Star Wars: “Yesh.”

Melmoth: “Good point. George Lucas?”

George Lucas: “No.”

Melmoth: “Ah, interesting, we have at least one dissenter it seems. George Lucas, tell us why you think the Sith aren’t entirely the evil fascist world-destroying group of megalomaniacs that were portrayed in the films.”

George Lucas: “I never said they weren’t evil.”

Melmoth: “Yes you did. Just then.”

George Lucas: “No I didn’t, I’ve always maintained that they’re evil. I haven’t changed my mind. You can ask the pointless comedy CGI robot that’s just been added to the show.”

Melmoth: “Pointless Comedy CGI robot, do you corroborate George Lucas’ opinion?”

<Pointless Comedy CGI Robot’s head falls off and a giant spring wobbles about on top of its neck>

Melmoth: “I’m sorry, we seem to be having technical difficulties with Pointless Comedy CGI Robot. Darth Vader, what do you have to say to these allegations, are the Sith evil?”

Darth Vader: “Well, Mel, as a representative of the Sith Empire, I can only say this: I tried to kill my own children, I destroyed planets, killed millions with my bare force powers, and planned to dominate the galaxy all at the behest of a pervy old wrinkly guy in a bath robe.”

Melmoth: “Interesting, I suppose that’s a yes. Darth Malak?”

Darth Malak: “No question, Melmoth, we’re all evil. I mean, I have a tattooed bald head.”

Melmoth: “They don’t come much more evil than that. Darth Sidious?”

Darth Sidious: “My name evokes the word ‘insidious’, what do you think?”

Melmoth: “A yes from Sidious. Darth Maul?”

Darth Maul: “Uh, hello? Bald spiked head? Red and black outfit? Yellow contact lenses?”

Melmoth: “Fair enough so. Darth Dick Cheney?”

Darth Dick Cheney: “I was vice president to George W. Bush you know.”

Melmoth: “Ok, ok. No need to show off, a simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed. So there we have it folks, I think we’ve shown conclusively what everyone already knew anyway. Next week on The Big Question – The Samaritans: Are They Actually Evil Vainglorious Bastards, From A Certain Point Of View?”

Monday 22 March 2010

Nowhere to run to, baby.

I tend to make notes when something in a game strikes me as worth writing about here on the blog. I have a folder of files filled with one or two lines of hastily typed text, intended to remind my future self of the essence of frustration or amusement – for it is invariably one or the other that causes me to pause for thought – and to allow me to continue playing the game at hand with little interruption, because I imagine there could be little more annoying in an MMO than having one of your party pause every couple of minutes to rattle off a blog post like some sort of roving reporter in a war zone, getting under foot and getting other people killed as they try to report live back to the studio from their scrunched up hiding place behind a wall on the front line, sat amidst a hail of bullets in a puddle of their own fear.

If this were Hollywood there’d be a flashback to my time in Vietnam at this point.

Of course I never went to Vietnam, primarily because I hadn’t been born, so you’ll have to imagine a flashback to the Funtington Junior School bike sheds, where a small boy hid from Tom ‘Fat Head’ Holder the school bully, who apparently objected quite vehemently to the term ‘fat head’. Who knew?

I seem to have digressed slightly. ‘Slightly’ as Ranger 3 and its pilot Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers digressed ‘slightly’ from their registered flight plan.

To recap: I occasionally make notes while I play. I made a note on Saturday night whilst trying to adventure in the depths of Lord of the Rings Online’s Moria. Unfortunately I’m having trouble converting that note into a blog post, primarily because the note is written in a Caps Lock Engaged style with a variety of invented swear words that would have diachronic linguists scrabbling for their language trees. I’m pretty sure ‘wankuntery’ is a new word, at least.

I say ‘trying to adventure’ and that’s the truth of it, because you can’t adventure in Moria, for me it’s a shining beacon of player frustration and obstructive design that is typical of MMOs. It is the highly distilled essence of that fundamental MMO philosophy:

‘If we build it, they will come; so we should probably put as much aggressive random crap in the way as possible, to stop them doing so, or at least drag things out for an extra hour or so of their subscription time’.

Not exactly a concise and convivial motto – some might suggest that it is, in fact, drawn-out, inaccessible and padded with unnecessary content – which makes it all the more apt considering the genre of gaming to which it applies.

Moria is an adventurer’s dream, or should be: it is a multi-level maze of corridors and rooms built through the very foundations of a mountain. It is, as you would expect of LotRO, jaw-droppingly impressive in both scale and substance, where narrow bridges of crumbling stone arch like flamboyant gymnasts across chasms that quickly disappear into infinite blackness like the gaping maw of some unknowable stone beast; where the giant heads of dwarves spout rumbling falls of lava the size of rivers from their rock-hewn mouths; and where tiny cramped corridors open suddenly and unexpectedly into caverns that could yawn open their roofs, swallow Middle Earth whole, and not even feel slightly bloated from the meal. It is a place that you want to roam, where you want to look into every nook and cranny and find out all of the secrets that it hides, but what you end up doing is the least amount of travel possible in order to complete the quests with which you have been tasked.

Everywhere you go in Moria there are mobs. Outside of the dwarf camps you can barely take a step without encountering some aggressive monster, and in many cases literally right outside of the camp, within a few yards of the guards, who have yet to acclimatise to life underground it seems, and therefore have a prowess of observation and an alertness to danger which might struggle to rival that of a blind mole, but only if the mole were dead. Moria is a dangerous place, as it should be, the dwarves are working hard to take it back, but they have only reclaimed a few major outposts, therefore the further you progress through the dark halls towards the exit that leads to the lands of Lórien, the less the influence of the dwarves, and thus the greater the danger.

My frustration stems from a combination of three MMO tropes:

  • Mobs placed everywhere the player wants to go:

    There’s a corridor leading from the Twenty First Hall towards the Second Hall that basically has an orc of some sort every ten yards. They move a little bit around their general placement area, but it’s a narrow corridor so they can’t go too far, and as such you are guaranteed to aggro every single one of them as you travel down that corridor. It’s a perfect line of Pacman pellets, it is so uniform that it’s hard to take it any other way than the developer saying “speed your way through this, you ungrateful content devouring gits”, a feeling compounded by the fact that the only time that this perfect uniformly spaced line of mobs – which runs the length of the corridor – is broken is when an extra mob has been added because there’s a junction with another room and it needs to be filled with something aggressive in order to stop the player from heading that way unobstructed. The advantage is that you can never get lost in Moria because you just need to take some string on a reel, let it drag out behind you, and every ten yards tie it around the foot of an orc. As an added bonus the line of string is so perfectly straight that you can use it in the future to mark out the separate lanes of a complex highway system.

    I dub them mobstacles. Not all mobs are obstacles in this way, only the truly, obviously, frustratingly, tediously, blatantly placed ones, those mobs that can be there for no other reason than to obstruct and hinder the progress of players, are mobstacles.

    And of course most of the quests send you to areas just beyond that corridor. Admittedly once you have a travel point at Orc Watch you can then make use of the game’s goat-based taxi service to obtain convenient passage to another camp entirely unmolested, and then jump off half way along the route where you want to begin your adventure proper. They’re like Red Cross Ambulances in a war zone, for some strange reason both sides seem to agree that, even though war is a hideous all-encompassing nightmare, these particular vehicles are out of bounds to man and God.

    Until you can take a United Nations goat across Moria, though, you need to either fight your way along the corridor to get to the place that you want to be, or you have to risk a gauntlet-like aggro run and hope you can find a safe spot where you can drop aggro and reset before you run out of places to run. Which leads me onto trope the second.

  • Mobs pursue you for miles:

    In an overland setting having a mob give chase for a while is fair enough, an accepted convention, if a little tedious when you just want to go somewhere unmolested. I imagine it to be something akin to being an attractive female walking down a road full of scaffolded buildings with fat hairy men hanging over the side and shouting “Oi, luv, phoar! Eh? Phoar!” while their mates whistle suggestively in the background. So next time you’re being chased across a field by a bear or a wolf or a boar, just imagine them shouting “A’right darling, give us a kiss, eh? Wha-hey! Eh? Phoar!”, it doesn’t entirely solve the fact that you’re being chased by crap animals across a largely deserted field due to a terribly tedious game mechanic that should have been dropped the moment it was conceived, but I find that it helps. Preferably the person who first conceived it should have been dropped. On their head. From the top of tall building.

    So mobs give chase; in LotRO they are quite persistent (you must be a blonde with a short skirt), but there’s generally somewhere that you can run, limp, hobble and crawl your way to that will eventually enable you to be free of their attentions, thus allowing you to return to your normal adventuring schedule. Now transfer this annoying feature into a maze, a very big complicated maze with every path littered with mobs that loiter around doing nothing other than waiting for an adventurer to wander past, at which point they spring in to life and give chase, and you get the following question:

    Where do you run to for safety in a maze full of angry mobs?

    There are several answers, including finding Nirvana Points – those points where you lose the last of your current aggro just before you enter the aggro radius of the next mob on your path – which are rare but occasionally you get lucky, but more often than not you have to fight your way slowly and tediously through a bunch of static annoyances to get to the place where you want to explore or adventure. Which would be fine, if it wasn’t for trope the third.

  • Respawns:

    So you’re exploring a little area that you haven’t been to before, and you’ve fought your way carefully and painfully to a point where you find yourself at a dead end. It’s a common enough occurrence, especially in Moria where the dwarves seem to have built everything in the most convoluted and incomprehensibly inefficient way possible

    “Right, I’ll put a staircase in here then so we can get to the next level up on that ledge.”

    “Well you could do that, but I thought it might be nice if we ran a small zig-zag corridor back and forth along the face of the wall, say ten or twenty times.”

    “Right. Wouldn’t it just be a little more convenient to just, y’know, pop a staircase straight up there? Y’know. ‘Oh no, how do I get up to that next level? Ah! Stairs! One, two, three. Upsy daisy, there we go. Sorted.’ rather than, say, ‘Oh no, how do I get up to that next level? Ah! A winding corridor, twenty seven miles long, which takes me up all of fifteen feet, this shouldn’t take much more than ten minutes or so. Unless the corridor is filled with angry orcs, ha ha, hoo boy, then I could be here for hours!'”

    “I like corridors.”

    “Fair enough so.”

    but it’s not exactly a problem, there wouldn’t be much to exploring if you didn’t find yourself having to backtrack. So you quickly make your way back to the last junction you passed, and you try a different path in order to see what wonders that one holds, you never know, it might even have, rarity of rarities – a staircase.

    I’m kidding of course! What actually happens is that you reach the dead end, turn around to head back and come face-to-face with the mob that you killed all of thirty seconds ago, who starts to stab you with malicious intent. You then fight tooth and nail through all of the mobs that you already killed on the way to the dead end, and just as you see the junction in sight, a patrol that you forgot about having killed not a minute or so ago turns up in the middle of the fight and you have to make a run for it. But you can’t run out because everything ahead of you has respawned, so you run back towards the dead end, where the stuff that you just killed – after having previously killed it – is still dead. You reach the dead end, and see that you’ve shaken off all the aggro except for the patrol who is doggedly determined to cop a feel ‘C’mon luv, just one kiss, eh? Phoar!’, and you defeat him by the narrowest of margins. Then you stand there doubled over, with your hands on your knees, panting and sweat dripping from your brow, trying to recover. At which point you glance up and see the mob that you just killed on the way out of the dead end, after having killed it on the way in to the dead end, is now standing over you spoiling for a fight. Or a kiss. You never find out because you’re already respawning in the graveyard. Thirteen corridors of mobstacles away.

I quit the game in frustration to preserve that ounce of sanity which I still maintained.

It’s a painful experience at the best of times, but having been playing DDO recently – where everything that you kill in a dungeon stays dead, and where the combat is fast paced and frantic – the prospect of facing corridor after corridor of mobstacles in LotRO, with each fight, in comparison to DDO, being like two asthmatic overweight cats trying to secure their own territory by yowling a lot and taking ineffective lazy swipes at each other whenever they manage to build up the energy to move, was too much to contend with.

It’s annoying because, a bit like DRM, it deters the people who would otherwise make good use of the content, who would spend time just wandering the halls and soaking up the atmosphere of such a brilliantly realised underground city, while not hindering in the slightest those players who simply blast through and then complain that there isn’t enough content to keep them, uh… content.

Despite the frustrations, I determined that there’s little point in missing out on it, so after I wrote that little note to myself, I logged back in and resolved to adventure as best I could, I went back to some lower level areas that I had been frustrated away from by mobstacles in the past, and went exploring.

It really is a most beautiful world.

Shame about the mobstacles.

Now I just need to destroy that note before anyone else finds it and has me up before the Inquisition on charges of obscenity and contumeliously reproaching the holy name of the developers.

Friday 19 March 2010

Thought for the day

Now the increasingly punctuated Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening is out, if they release a DLC pack for it called “Opus” would that be abbreviated “DA: O – A; O”? And would it feature a new party member called Old MacDonald?

Thursday 18 March 2010

Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today

Bioshock 2 received it’s first downloadable content recently, and some gamers were a bit miffed to discover that all they were actually downloading was a small file that unlocks content already on the game disc. I don’t really see how this is different, except in timing, to “launch day DLC” which seems to be becoming more common, such as in recent Bioware titles; in both cases obviously there’s content that *could* have been part of the game itself, but has been split out as DLC to make a bit more money or reduce the appeal of second hand sales (or both). That the “content” itself is already on the main game disc does rub it in slightly, but it’s hardly news that games companies are out to make money. While flipping through old computer magazines I’d found a feature in PC Zone from 1993 looking at game expansions, data disks, and “deluxe versions”, the DLC of their day, which ranged from being worthwhile and involving extensions to rushed-out cash-ins.

Without getting too mired in a socio-economic debate on the nature of capitalism and the benefits of running a games company as an anarcho-syndicalist commune with a rotating executive officer whose decisions are ratified at a special biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of downloadable content but by a two-thirds majority in the case of expansions and sequels, I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that there’s an inherent tension between the desire of a games developer to offer the most magnificent, involving and splendid experience possible to humanity, and the desire of a publisher/executive to roll around in a swimming pool filled with dollar bills and five pound notes rubbing them all over those Special Places. Any time I think it might be slightly harsh to characterise CEOs as moustache-twiddling villains who’d put Mr Burns to shame, you can pretty much rely on that zany funster Bobby Kotick to come out with a line like “of course I want to make a new game peripheral that sucks the marrow out of your very bones and pipes it to a massive central vat from where we can sell it to a dog food company, muahahahahaha! Ha! Ho!”

(The KiaSA Legal Team wish to make it perfectly clear that this is a purely hypothetical statement which Mr Kotick has definitely not made.)


(We’re pretty sure he’s thinking it, though.)

As blockbuster games become more and more complex, requiring larger teams, it’s inevitable that the companies making them also grow, necessitating the business structures around them. The indie scene at least provides something of a counterpoint, with options like XBLA and Flash games offering avenues for smaller teams down to the archetypal “bedroom coder”. For MMOGs, though, the inherent need for infrastructure makes life a bit more difficult; World of Goo was largely created in San Francisco coffee shops on free WiFi, and I’m not sure MMOG players would be appreciative of a server downtime message like “Shop owner a bit cross about us taking up a table all day, the game will be unavailable until we order another couple of lattes and some muffins.”

An obvious example of the tension of profit vs player experience in MMOGs is “free to play” games with cash shops; the publisher wants to make lots of lovely money by selling stuff from the cash shop, so they tell the developer to encourage players to buy items. Make the player travel vast distances, with faster mounts or teleportation options available for cash; make it take forever to gain levels, with XP-boost potions available for cash; make the freely available armour look like a couple of dustbin lids strapped together with the entrails of a boar, with the nice looking stuff available for cash. For this reason, some gamers are vehemently opposed to MMOGs with cash shops, and I can certainly see their point, but as I blogged about with the whole Allods business I don’t think it’s a reason to dismiss all free to play games out of hand. If market forces are working, the pressure to screw every last penny from the player should be counteracted by what players are willing to pay, it’s not like MMOGs are a fundamental requirement for day-to-day life after all, and competitors seeing an opportunity to offer a superior or cheaper product.

What I find slightly puzzling is that some people who are dead-set opposed to free-to-play/cash shop games embrace and indeed champion a game with an initial box purchase and flat rate monthly subscription, as if somehow the Evil Money Grabbing Publisher of a F2P game becomes a benevolent altruist striving for nothing more than the absolute happiness of every player if you give ’em ten quid a month. To keep the money coming in you need to keep the player subscribed, and as per Nick Yee’s classic Virtual Skinner Box essay it’s not too hard to see that in terms of Operant Conditioning rather than Happy Experience Lovely Games For Everyone. With Fun Bobby Kotick in charge, I’m sure he’d fire a few people at Blizzard and introduce a cash shop in WoW if he thought it would make more money, but with a 50% operating margin there’s really no need. They’re still in it for the money, though it might not be quite so obvious in the design.

The payment model can influence elements of a game to a greater or lesser extent, at the end of the day it’s the game itself that matters, whether you like it enough to want to play and potentially pay. Is Grindfest Online a better game when you pay £10 per month to play and have to kill 10,000 Gribblings to level up, or where you can play for free, need to kill 100,000 Gribblings to level up, but you can pay £1 for a potion for a 10x XP boost that lasts for three days? As per my previous post, in defence of cash shops I call Dungeons & Dragons Online Unlimited, m’lud. This might be something of a special case, not having been designed as a free to play game from the beginning, but I’m still finding it really well pitched, having desirable but not essential items available in the shop to balance making Turbine enough money to be worthwhile, but costing me less than the $15/month it would be for a subscription as I dip in and out, generally playing once a week. Mixed price models, especially when including a subscription to effectively apply an upper limit to costs, can be a good thing. Rage against greed and bad design by all means, but only a lunatic would dismiss cash shops out of hand and demand to pay a greater subscription as the only way of getting a better game.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Thought for the day.

Having a Whiny Post Day among bloggers is like having a Fly Aircraft In The Sky Day among airline pilots.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

They see a troll with nothing else to recommend her but a pair of thighs and choice hunkers.

While war raged in the South and the Rangers of the North were absent, brigands and ruffians took an opportunity to steal control of Bree….

So says the Galadriel impersonating voice-over lady at the start of the skirmish Thievery & Mischief in Lord of the Rings Online. “Brigands and ruffians?” I thought, “Not a problem for a hero of the ages like myself!” and so off I charged from the marshalling point where I had gathered to prepare for battle, and headed toward the gates of Bree.

Whereupon this happened

A brigand. Or ruffian. Apparently.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hang on now, exactly what class of brigand or ruffian is that? I began to wonder what the conversations were like in the makeshift Brigand & Ruffian HQ inside the walls of Bree…

Brigand: “Holy Christ! Troll! TROLL! To arms men! Protect the women and children!”

Ruffian: “TROLL?! WHERE?”

Brigand: “Right THERE!”

Ruffian: “Where? Over by Kenneth?”

Brigand: “Who’s Kenneth?”

Ruffian: “Big green chap standing over by the gate.”

Brigand: “That’s a bloody troll you numbwit.”

Ruffian: “Nah, that’s not a troll, that’s Kenneth. Alright Ken!”


Ruffian: “Ha, ha, ha! Ok mate, whatever you say. He’s a kidder, eh?”

Brigand: “Kenneth? KENNETH?! Friend, I know a troll when I see one. And that huge green lump of muscle and teeth is a TROLL.”

Ruffian: “Shhhh, keep it down, you’ll hurt his feelings. Sure he’s no looker, but that’s just being mean.”

Brigand: “Keep it down?! KEEP IT DOW… look here mate, he’s just eaten one of our horses!”

Ruffian: “Hey look, so he’s a little eccentric…”

Brigand: “Eccentric?! HE ATE OUR LIVESTOCK!”

Ruffian: “No, no, no. I’m telling you: that’s Kenneth. I went to school with him for crying out loud. He played fly half for the Combe second XV when I was at full back. I dated his sister! Big girl, if you know what I mean.”

Brigand: “Uh, yeah, I can imagine.”

Kenneth: “Alright, Frank. Alright, Ted. Any sign of trouble from the Rangers today?”

Ruffian: “Alright Ken… wait… Ken, if you’re over here, who’s that over there?”


Kenneth: <peering towards the troll> “That’s Nigel isn’t it? Alright Nigel!”

Monday 15 March 2010

An interface is worth a thousand pictures.

The major observable difference between Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online is with the pace and flow of combat. That and the largely instanced world of Eberron versus the more traditional open world of Middle Earth. And, of course, one is free to play with a Store of Pixelated Delights (Will save DC 30 to resist), where the other is subscription based.

I’ll start again.

The major observable similarity between Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online is that they both have dwarves. And rubbish beard options.

I play a Monk in DDO, and the primary mechanic of the class is a combo system that is very similar to that of the Warden in LotRO, where the player has a number of abilities to choose from that will perform combat manoeuvres, and at the same time the order in which these abilities are performed will also activate a more powerful ‘finishing’ manoeuvre. The Monk has a limited set of finishing manoeuvres compared to the Warden, and where the Warden has numerous effects both personal and group wide, the majority of the Monk’s finishers consist of one minute duration group buffs or targeted debuffs. The interesting difference, however, is the pace at which combat takes place in each game, and I think that it’s because of this that the Warden works as a class where the Monk feels a lot more awkward and, to some extent, frustrating to play.

I use pace to describe the difference in the combat between the two games, but it’s not really the whole story, although DDO definitely feels faster, with mobs dropping quickly – sometimes going down in one almighty burst of a critical attack roll – the flow of the game is also more dynamic, with caster mobs dropping back out of melee range to cast, melee mobs running past the melee front line to get to the PC casters, the combat feels more… fluid.

I was stunned and somewhat frustrated in LotRO the first time I entered the Barrow Downs in a group, coming fresh faced and level capped from World of Warcraft I was used to the power of predictable and consistent aggro generation that the tanks in that MMO provided; compared to WoW, LotRO at that time was a different world entirely. WoW’s tanks were giant electromagnets, so powerful that they could draw mobs to them from half way across the dungeon and hold them there indefinitely, and as long as an enemy caster had a few buttons on their robe that were made out of metal, they too would be drawn inexorably in. So a WoW instance run generally consisted of a giant ball bristling with angry and somewhat compacted mobs, around which several melee PCs would stab periodically while the ranged types stood back and lobbed spells at it. After a minute or so of this regimented attack formation a tank would appear from out of the resultant debris, brush off a few extraneous bits of metal that were still stuck to their armour, then trundle their way into the next pack of mobs until they looked like a hamster in a rollerball made from orcs, before rolling back and bumping to a halt on the skirting board of melee DPS. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that tanking was easy in WoW but, given an accomplished player, the level of control afforded tanks in WoW was an order of magnitude greater than that of LotRO, where every care had to be taken by the DPS not to over-nuke and for the healer to carefully balance their healing output in order not to draw aggro. Even so, mobs in LotRO would run around a fair bit compared to WoW, and most fights were hectic; picture the resultant chaos from releasing a couple of agitated bats into your average teenage girls’ midnight slumber party and sealing the doors, and you have an idea of the high-pitched screaming flailing combat that occurred.

Now take that same scenario and replace the bats with a pack of terminally-rabid Fox Terriers, and you have combat in DDO.

As such you can’t rely on standing still for a moment in DDO and just punching the abilities on your hotbar, you need to be on the go all the time. There is also no auto-attack, you either have to constantly mash, or simply hold down, the left mouse button to attack, and this ‘basic’ attack in DDO constitutes the majority of damage for most classes. For those of us with only two hands, this makes hotbar activation a little trickier. Even with my key-binds set up to place the abilities I need within easy reach of my ESDF-movement hand, it’s somewhat tricky to be on the move almost non-stop and at the same time activate other abilities. I may have to look into making more use of my extra mouse buttons perhaps, but even so there’s also another limiting factor which causes a clash in combat, an area where I feel a lot of MMO developers fail to innovate when they have evolved some core part of the MMO design – the UI.

DDO sticks to the traditional ‘hotbars with cool downs’ UI design, where ability icons are greyed-out if they can’t be used, be it because they are on cool-down, the target is out of range for the ability, the PC doesn’t have enough spellpower/endurance/ki to activate the ability, or any number of other reasons. The problem I find is that, given that the combat in DDO has been changed from the traditional electromagnetic-hamster-rollerball of WoW to a more rabid-Fox-Terrier-in-a-room-full-of-hysterical-teenagers design, it seems that the traditional UI design of WoW, with its hotbars and party frames and various elements that require your concentration to be away from your character for split seconds at a time, should have been eschewed for a more Head-Up Display sort of design.

Being that my primary area of work is the software for Head-Up Displays of various types, I can quite happily relate to the need for information to be available at all times in an unobtrusive manner, so that split-second decisions can be made without having to rely on the human body’s ponderously slow response to changing focus between various display items. I’m not saying the timing requirements in DDO are nearly so stringent or critical as those we have to deal with in aviation, but at the same time it seems obvious that in a game where a mob can have moved out of attack range in the time it takes you to check to see if an ability is off of cool-down, the need for a change in the fundamental philosophy behind the UI and why it exists is evident. This problem is exacerbated when playing the Monk because they have numerous moves, all with independent cool-downs, the order of activation for which is important to get a valid combination to trigger a finishing move, and on top of which they have to have generated enough Ki to power each of these moves. That’s a lot of looking at hotbars and not looking at your character.

An instant solution to the problem would be to drag the hotbars up towards my character on the screen so that they are always within my field of view, but who wants to play a game through a viewport of hotbars and party frames? Well, some people it seems: just look at the many raid UIs in evidence on various WoW AddOn websites, where the actual game world is hidden beneath what essentially amounts to a dynamically updating Excel spreadsheet with heavy Visual Basic graph scripting. Yet on the same sites we can also find some of the neatest innovations in MMO UI design; indeed, there are even popular Head-Up Display-a-likes, with health bars, mana bars and other information presented around the character in a way that is designed to interfere as little as possible with the player’s view of the game world, after all, what’s the point in having these three dimensional DirectX 11 marvels of graphical splendour if all we’re going to do is cover them up with bar graphs and slide rules?

I think Heavy Rain has recently shown the way that UI design can be taken. It’s a splendid example of thought and attention to the user interface experience because it does the basic thing right and doesn’t get in the way, and it may be that many players will hardly even notice the clever nuanced feedback that it provides to them as they play, which is as it should be. The very best user interfaces are like the steady and dependable butler from Jeeves and Wooster: never fully appreciated by the user, they’re the ones that don’t frustrate or confuse or obstruct, while at the same time providing more information than the user might have otherwise expected to receive. They’re also the ones most likely to slip under the radar of others, because nobody notices the silent stalwart butler subtly guiding his master to victory from out of the shadows of servitude.

Despite the frustration, however, I’m not going to stop playing DDO any time soon, there’s something compelling about running around a room, leaping on to furniture and heaving ineffectually at locked windows along with a bunch of other screaming teenagers in their pyjamas, while small frothing yappy-type dogs with blood-shot eyes try to bite your ankles off.

Friday 12 March 2010

What a senseless waste of human life

While Dungeons and Dragons Online continues most splendidly, one mildly irritating feature is the collection of weapons I’ve accumulated which are brutally effective in quite specific circumstances, leading to pauses in combat while rooting through the inventory to try and find the most appropriate implement for the current fight…

The Scene: a dungeon which carries the sign ‘Ye Olde Tombe of Peril’. MOUSEBENDER, an adventurer, enters and confronts an AXIOMATIC HORROR.

    Good morning, foul spirit.
    Good morning, sir. Welcome to the Tomb of Peril. What can I do for you?
    Well, I was rather hoping to purge the dungeon of the foul spirits that infest it, and perhaps perform a spot of light ransacking for a little financial renumeration in the process.
    Oh, I see. I suppose you’ll be wanting to kill me to death, then?
    I’m afraid so. Nothing personal!

MOUSEBENDER stabs the abomination with a rapier.

    I’m afraid you won’t get very far with that, sir, I have damage reduction from piercing weapons.
    Oh never mind, how about a +2 mace?
    I’m afraid it’ll need more than +2, sir.
    Tish tish. No matter. Well, fiendish creature, I have an acidic greatsword here!
    Ah. Acid immunity, sir.
    It’s not my lucky day, is it? Er, Gwylan’s Blade with sonic damage?
    Sorry, sir.
    +1 Light Hammer of Pure Good?
    Normally, sir, yes. Today I’ve got a special resistance.
    Ah. Giant Stalker’s Knife?
    Weapons of Kobold Bane, Muck Bane, Goblinoid Bane, Elf Bane?

MOUSEBENDER throws another four useless swords from his backpack to the growing pile on the floor

    +1 Ghost Touch short sword, per chance?
    You can be harmed, can’t you?
    Of course, sir. If you …
    No, no, don’t tell me. No spoilers, I haven’t looked this up on the wiki.
    Fair enough.
    Er, something Axiomatic?
    Ah, splendid, good job I found this in an earlier chest!

MOUSEBENDER sets about the abomination with a +1 Axiomatic Bastard Sword of Backstabbing, despite lacking the weapon proficiency.

    Oh, I thought you were talking to me, sir. I’m an Axiomatic Horror, that’s my name, and if you’d succeeded in doing any damage up to this point that would have healed me.


    +2 Metalline scimitar?
    Ah, not as such.
    Er, Flametouched cudgel?
    That figures. Predictable really, I suppose. It was an act of purest optimism to have tried the weapon in the first place. Tell me:
    Yes, sir?
    Have you in fact got any weakness at all?
    Yes, sir.
    Now I’m going to ask you that question once more, and if you say ‘no’ I’m going to shoot you through the head. Now, do you have any weakness all?
    (shoots him through the head)
    You’ll need to use Holy Bolts for that to work, sir.
    (logs out)

Thursday 11 March 2010

How much nun would a nunchuck chuck if a nunchuck could chuck nun?

So Sony have unveiled their “Move” motion controller. A cynic might say “It took them four years to paint a Wiimote black? Even Nintendo managed that last year.” That would, of course, be quite, quite wrong. Just look at the crucial differences:
1) The Move, like a Wizard’s Staff, has a knob on the end. This offers far greater ribald song opportunity than the Wiimote.
2) The Move has “a sub-controller (basically a nunchuck)”. Unless the pictures are terribly misleading, though, there’s no wired connection between the two Move controllers, so it’s actually a set of wireless nunchucks. Or “two sticks” as they’re sometimes known.
3) The Move released “Flowers in the Rain” in 1967, the first record played on Radio 1. Or maybe that was The Move.

Let’s hope the launch titles continue to show this same innovation; I’m hoping for “PlayStation Move Sports” including Skittles, Badminton, Wiffleball, Karate (But With Punching Only, No Kicking) and Something That’s Really Similar To Golf Except I Can’t Think Of A Good Example Just At The Moment (With A Knob On The End).

Wednesday 10 March 2010

US Gamers Spend $3.8 Billion Per Year On MMOs.

Reports so far indicate that they are all delighted with their two extra inventory slots in Allods Online.

In a statement for Oh MMO Emo News, the US gaming community expressed its continued commitment to extra storage capacity within the Russian developed MMO, and as such their target for next year is to get extra slots for everyone, rather than having to share those two slots among the entire US population.

Reporting live for Oh MMO Emo News, I’m Melmoth Melmothson.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.

I really like the fact that DDO includes various puzzle games as part of the dungeon running experience. The primary puzzle that I’ve encountered is a tile-based test where each tile has one of a number of pipe shapes drawn upon it and where you rotate the tiles in place to align the various pipe shapes, thus forming a path between two objectives and allowing a glowing blue power source to light said path. It’s basically the strange love child of Pipemania and a slide puzzle, but it works well enough within the Eberron setting at representing the game’s equivalent of a magical lock.

Turbine doesn’t abuse the device either because although I’ve run quite a few dungeons in DDO now, I would say that I’ve encountered the tile puzzle in less than a quarter of them. It’s certainly ripe for abuse however, one could see it surreptitiously slipping its way into daily life, where poor adventurers are forced, in cross-legged desperation, to rotate ceramic floor tiles between themselves and the toilet in order to unlock the lid and be able to relieve themselves, and where many a divorce proceeding in Stormreach was begun after a toilet seat was discovered locked in the up position.

I wonder why we don’t see more of these sorts of puzzles in MMOs, is it simply a case that they’re too cumbersome and time consuming to implement with respect to the amount of content that they provide, or is it more the fact that the generic MMO player is not really interested in such distractions and would prefer to just get on with grinding away at various NPCs, unimpeded by the need for any real cognitive exercise beyond that which muscle memory alone can quite happily provide? Judging from the general reaction to the mini-games present in Mass Effect 2, which I thought were harmless entertainment where many others seemed to perceive them as the fiery soiled undergarments of Satan, these basic mini-games are seen by a great many players as being vapid at best. I can’t help but feel that there’s something to them though, that perhaps more puzzles can be incorporated into MMO games in order to tax the player in more ways than the, admittedly tried and tested, option of pressing hot bar keys in response to various external triggers during combat; in fact I feel that MMOs, with their ponderous and often drawn-out style of play, lend themselves quite well to the incorporation of such diversions.

I expect part of the problem is the fact that the puzzles need to be kept simple so that the maximum number of players will stand a chance of being able to complete them, but perhaps a shift in how the puzzles are used to ‘block’ content could be undertaken such that more complex and advanced puzzles could be used without unduly punishing those players who don’t care for them. For example, a locked door to an optional treasure room could be pickable by a Rogue, but the same door could also be opened by solving a complex puzzle game. A basic example, of course, but it also opens up some interesting lines of thought, such as the fact that the player’s presence in the game would then be represented not only by a set of numbers that define various abilities, but also by the abilities of the player, where a player’s character within the game would then be an amalgam of both their in-game skills and those of their real-world self. There’s also the fact that puzzles are often used in team building exercises because they are a good way to foster communication and cooperation between strangers, so having group based puzzles within an MMO might be one way in which to encourage people to play as a team, rather than the more usual social phenomenon found in MMOs where they play together as individuals.

Anyway, I’ll have to leave you with those thoughts as I’m rather desperate for a wee and there’s a bugger of a Pipemania puzzle to complete before I can get into the men’s restroom; I’d claim that they’re taking the piss, but more accurately they’re diverting it through a network of interconnected rotatable tiles.

Monday 8 March 2010

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

I’ve been pondering World of Warcraft’s quest hub design, in which many NPCs are clumped together in a location such that a player can roll around and gather a huge katamari of quests, undertake the quests in the local area, before handing them all in for that rush of experience, the digital equivalent of juicing your pituitary gland in a blender with milk and ice and then injecting the resultant smoothie directly into the head for a buzz and a brain freeze all in one. It’s the perception of progress that interests me, where a player may be earning no more experience per hour than if they had to perform quests in a singular manner whilst running around all over the landscape, but the fact that the experience bar noticeably jumps in a very short period of time when handing in a bunch of quests often results in a greater feeling of progress and satisfaction than a gradual unobserved progression. That’s not to say that there’s no pleasure to be had from noticing that you’re only a smidgen away from the next level without having realised you were even close, there’s definitely satisfaction to be had from simply playing the game as its own reward and with the experience gained being an added bonus, but I think there’s a heightened rush when it comes to seeing that experience bar fill faster than a mercury thermometer in a boiling kettle.

The cause for my thinking upon this was the fact that Lord of the Rings Online now seems to have two independent systems of experience gain that run in parallel, one that gives this burst of experience, with the other giving the more traditional steady and reserved progress, where playing the game is more the focus of things. LotRO’s skirmishes give really quite generous experience the first time you run them each day due to their having an automatic daily quest associated with them that boosts experience and token gains; running the four skirmishes open to my character at the moment can net the best part of half a level for little more than an hour’s play, something that is much harder to do with standard questing due to the travelling involved in getting from the quest givers to their objectives and back again. The fact that I can get this boost of experience from the skirmishes means that when it comes to the standard questing I don’t feel as though I’m stuck in some sort of Travelling Salesman Problem, where I need to optimise routes such that I don’t waste precious time retreading old ground, I can sit back and relax and enjoy the questing and exploration of the land knowing that I’ve made a significant amount of progress in getting to the next level already.

World of Warcraft provides this sense of progress by creating islands of experience, those small self contained areas of questing, never more obvious than in the Burning Crusade expansion where each experience island slams jarringly into the next with little feeling of worldliness about the place, as though each zone were a floor of a department store; and just as you could have the department store’s elevator doors close on a view of cheese counters and meat selections, only to open on the jarringly contrasting sight of women’s lace underwear and silk nightgowns, the zones of the Outlands similarly contrasted with one another in a curious and unworldly manner. It’s possible that it’s this partitioning of progress into pockets with such obvious delineations that caused the theme park feeling, which in turn caused people to ignore any pretence that there was a story or adventure to be had, and realise that the whole questing game was really just paddling through waves of highs and lows in order to be able to catch the ultimate endorphin rush and ride the raiding wave back to shore.

Lord of the Rings Online has always attempted to focus on story, it being based on an IP that constantly lurks in the background angrily waving a placard with “Keep Including Story, Stupid!”. The various ‘book’ content that progresses the player character’s own tale in LotRO is intertwined with the main LoTR story and offers strong plot-based game-play which is entirely independent and optional to the progress-based levelling content. As such the levelling content was still a harried hurtle of heedlessly running around trying to make progress quickly, a goal often obstructed by zones such as the North Downs and the Lone Lands (prior to its recent revamp) which required the player to run back and forth across the zones for little experience gain, thus causing a noticeable trough in the progress curve of a character and resulting in more than one player quitting the game in despondent frustration. Now LotRO has an alternative option, a player can turn to skirmishes to satiate their desire for progress, which is often left unfulfilled by the lengthy roaming nature of questing within the game. This also means, however, that players can now relax and enjoy the many meandering paths that they must follow while questing, and can thus take the time to revel in the incredible atmosphere of the beautiful world that Turbine has created.

I think that variety, in addition to quality, is a path that developers could definitely take further in MMOs in order to smooth out the frightening pace at which players consume the current design of MMO content. Offering alternative paths to quick but daily-capped experience gain within the context of the game, such as LotRO’s skirmishes, is a good way to keep players invested in the levelling system without feeling the need to blitzkrieg their way through the quest-based game-play that makes up the majority of the content.

Friday 5 March 2010

Next World of Warcraft instance to be Wards of Infinity.

Rumour has it that World of Warcraft’s next raid encounter is going to be with Kobby Botick, a monstrous tyrannical boss mob who, at the start of the encounter, summons a couple of adds that will teleport the tank and healer out of the instance before KB beats the rest of the raid into weeping, hand-wringing submission.

On top of that, the remaining players will be forced to remain in the raid dungeon with KB for two years before getting a chance of any loot dropping.

Sounds like another example of nightmarish raid design, thank goodness real life isn’t anything at all like that.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Ia ia Ctharsis fhtagn!

I posted a while back about a particular quest series that drove me away from DDO not long after launch (about four years ago, Happy Birthday DDO!) I’d blotted out the precise details, just remembered it was in one of the Houses off the marketplace, and that it involved running through an outdoor area to get to a dungeon, then going in and out of that dungeon six or seven times, delving slightly further in with each iteration.

In the now-Unlimited DDO I’ve been keeping an eye on “Today’s Deals” in the DDO store, and bought several discounted adventure packs of roughly the right level when they popped up. One of these was Tangleroot Gorge, which experienced DDOists will instantly recognise as the aforementioned hokey-cokey-esque in-and-out dungeon, but it hadn’t sounded any alarm bells when I bought it, so when Melmoth and I were looking for a bit of an adventure I casually said “oh, I’ve got this pack called Tangleroot Gorge I haven’t tried yet…” Turned out he’d run it a few times but was game for another, so we trotted along, got out of the Inn into the jungle, and…

… when I came back around I was lying in the hotel room, hands bleeding, the mirror was smashed, I could just remember something about napalm and “The End” by The Doors playing. Serious flashback, man. I almost hit the “unsubscribe” button as a reflex action, though not being subscribed in the first place made that a bit tricky. I needn’t have worried, though, the Return to Tangleroot Gorge was a textbook example of several areas of DDO’s improvements over the years.

It wasn’t *just* repeated runs through Tangleroot that made me give up back at launch, that was just the final frying pan that made the plastic donkey buck. A more significant problem was the need for a group to do anything, with the attendant overhead of forming or finding a group, then constructing an elaborate single transferable voting system with weighted alternatives to decide what to do. With variable difficulty levels in the dungeons now and hirelings to pad out your party it’s now far more flexible; being DPS types, Melmoth and I packed a couple of Cleric contracts for mobile Cure Serious Wounds dispensers and set out.

The first part of the adventure is a fairly large (for DDO) open jungle zone, big enough that a couple of wrong turns could land a laggard in a big enough pile of hobgoblins to cause trouble, and with sufficient canyons and ravines for people to poke their noses over the edge exclaiming “I wonder what’s down thaaaaaaAAAAARGH”. On the plus side, an excellent opportunity to exclaim “He’s fallen in the water!” in the river below, but a trifle annoying, especially if you land on a pointy rock at the bottom without the benefit of feather fall. So far as I can make out this bit hasn’t changed at all, but having a guide with uncanny navigational memory (to the point of being able to talk a guildmate through entirely by memory on voice chat: “you should be seeing a ruined temple coming up on the right, you’ll want to hang a left just before reaching it or the hobgoblins will get cross; if you get to the petrol station on the roundabout you’ve gone too far”) saved a good half hour or more of blundering that dragged things out the first time around, especially on top of the half hour of forming a group up.

At one point inside the dungeon itself, my Spot Sense tingled, indicating a nearby trap, and I got another flashback. The traps around launch seemed to be geared towards a pure rogue of the level of the adventure (if not higher) who hadn’t skimped on Int, put all available skill points into Spot, Search and Disable Traps, taken feats and enhancements to further boost those skills, was wearing Goggles Of Searching and Gloves Of Trap Disabling, had drunk a potion of trap detecting, and never rolled less than 15 on a 20 sided dice. The first run through the place back around launch was carnage, blades flying everywhere, flames shooting down corridors, an occasional cry in party chat of…
“Wait! I sense a…”
*CLICK* *fwooooooosh* STABSTABBURN
“… trap”

One of the advantages of revisiting the same dungeon seven times in a row was that the traps were in the same place each time. You would’ve thought that would make things easier for the rogue, as everyone halted, remembering previous spiky death, expectantly waiting for the trap to be disarmed. I’d boldly stride up to take my place in the spotlight, put on a deerstalker, pull out a magnifying glass and begin the elaborate pantomime triggered by activating the Search skill, to discover… nothing. Strange. Maybe there wasn’t a trap there on this iteration after…
*CLICK* *fwooooooosh* STABSTABBURN
… all. Or maybe I’d just missed it. Oops. Take three, and after the initial search didn’t turn anything up, I activated my limited use Skill Boost ability to perform a more thorough search, and eureka! I managed to find the control panel for the trap! Out with the thieves tools, I’d soon have this thing disarmed and made…
*CLICK* Critical disarm failure *fwoooooosh* STABSTABBURN
… safe. Oh dear.

I swear I only managed to disarm about one trap per twenty attempts, the others resulting in a fairly even mix of plain old failure and pointy-death critical failure. I’ve only got a couple of levels of Rogue this time around (though I’ve been dutifully keeping up Spot, Search, Open Lock and Disable Traps on the Ranger levels as well), and Turbine seem to have ratcheted things back to a rather more sensible level so there’s a very occasional critical failure, but by and large I’ve been able to detect and remove traps without divine intervention.

Anyway; over the course of a couple of nights, with various Waifs coming and going (quite easily, thanks to the flexibility of party composition and guest passes) we looped through Tangleroot Gorge two or three times, and rather than the hideous slog of years back it was a crazy romp. A couple of more experienced players have been bringing a dangerous hint of competency to the Friday night group; most of us can now hold the blunt wooden end of a weapon and stab the enemy with the pointy metal end with only gentle reminders, and we wound up clearing the entire chain on Elite.

Ctharsis: it’s like catharsis, but with more tentacles. (c) Melmoth

Thought for the day.

So it turns out that the answer was yes.

Expect the ‘press’ to carry on writing lengthy, circular arguments about it on slow news days for years to come, though.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Chernobyl Fallout

Early in STALKER: Call of Pripyat I’d taken on a job to provide some extra muscle for a squad of stalkers who were breaking up a weapons deal. Creeping up to the rendezvous in the twilight I switched off my torch and scanned the place with binoculars; the deal was in an old industrial building, I could see the weapons broker in the doorway talking to his bandit customer, a couple of mercenary bodyguards and other bandits were patrolling the area, there were bound to be more inside.

Creeping closer to join the squad I was supporting, I had to position myself carefully. A solidly constructed outbuilding offered good cover, with windows overlooking the warehouse for an excellent firing position. My flimsy body armour was barely up to stopping pistol shots, so staying out of a hail of assault rifle fire seemed like a pretty good idea. My battered AKM wasn’t exactly a precision weapon, but I could snap off a few shots in the general direction of the bandits, stay pretty safe, let the rest of the squad do the hard work and report back for the payment.

That wouldn’t do at all, though. The exit of the outbuilding faced away from the warehouse, it would take too long to get out and cross the ground once the squad went in. I couldn’t just hide out of the way, I had to stick with the rest of the guys, so I formed up and waited for the squad leader to give the signal. At a wave of his hand the stalkers opened up: a mercenary fell straight away, the rest dived for cover and wildly returned fire. Our squad pressed forward, someone chucked a grenade to clear a couple of bandits from behind a pile of pipes, I saw my opportunity and sprinted forward to do what I was really here for: stripping the corpses of weapons and other useful stuff before the other stalkers could get to it.

I’ve really been enjoying Call of Pripyat. I played the first of the STALKER series, Shadow of Chernobyl, rough edges and not-compatible-with-save-game-patch and all, but never quite got around to the second, Clear Sky. A couple of weeks back Steam popped up a “loyalty offer” of a fiver off Call of Pripyat if you owned either of the previous games on Steam, and though I’d originally bought the box of the first game it was also part of the complete THQ pack, and that was all the incentive I needed to hit “Buy Now”.

Like the original, life is harsh when you’re first chucked into the Zone. If you’re not being savaged by the mutated wildlife you’re stumbling into radioactive or chemical hazards, or being chucked around by gravitational anomalies. The first time I started the game I looked around a bit, got up to make a cup of coffee or something without pausing it, and when I got back to the PC there were frantic radio messages telling me to seek shelter as there was a radioactive emission on the way, and even as I started sprinting for cover the screen flashed white and my first foray came to an ignominious end.

Though you’ve got an over-arching mission to track down five military helicopters that crashed in the Zone, you need to spend a while building up your resources to be able to find them all (and survive for more than a couple of seconds in their vicinity), and that early part of the game really shone for me, where you’re scavenging every old weapon and bit of ammo you can, to either use or (if in decent enough nick) sell. NPC AI isn’t exactly going to cause worries about Skynet taking over, but it’s realistic enough that stalkers and bandits wander about, pick up decent guns if they’re lying around, engage in firefights with each other or hostile wildlife and generally make the place seem lived-in. You get missions like the one I opened with, where you’re definitely fully committed to stamping out the bandits/mercenaries/rogue wildlife, but the bloke you’ve been sent out with has quite a nice weapon, and… well, obviously it would be unsporting if you shot him yourself, but if he happened to come a cropper, and you happened to snatch up the gun from his not-yet-cold dead fingers… it’s what he would have wanted.

Call of Pripyat has quite a strong Oblivion/Morrowind vibe; Fallout 3 is a natural comparison, only instead of a slightly kitsch 50s-America-in-the-future providing the background to the apocalypse it’s grim ex-Soviet concrete tower blocks. In both games I could happily spend a while looting an area, ferrying as much as my carrying capacity would allow into temporary caches, then back to the rough tin box that counted as home (though that probably says more about me than the games), slowly building up and upgrading an arsenal of weapons, ammunition and armour. Call of Pripyat doesn’t exactly sparkle in the text dialogue (I’m not sure if it’s a slightly weird sense of humour or gap in translation that makes you sign off half your conversations with “fugedaboudit”) or almost-trademark rough voice acting, but it’s efficient enough to send you off to do various bits and pieces around the Zone, and there are some nice set pieces here and there.

The last third of the game was a bit of a disappointment; once tooled up with an upgraded assault rifle and suit of armour you don’t really need to scavenge any more, and the missions in Pripyat were a bit linear, though there were a few neat shoot-outs and a spooky underground lab to explore. The very final mission was a real anticlimax, I was expecting a brutal fight for survival but it was a comparative walk in the irradiated park. Still, it didn’t take too much of the gloss off the rest of the game, and I’ll definitely have a search to see what mods are out there and give it another go sometime. Two slightly radioactive thumbs up!

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known.

I sometimes catch myself wondering whether MMOs aren’t just some huge and complex experiment to determine a new universal constant scale based upon the amount of aggravation a person will accept before they leave an activity that is supposed to be considered entertainment.

I imagine it to be called the Shit to Quit ratio.

People in white lab coats set up various experiments where the subjects are tested over and over again against nonsensical, repetitive, frustrating or downright broken game mechanics until the breaking point is found and they quit the game in a torrent of rage and exasperation.

I think I’ve found my sweet spot on the scale with LotRO: there are several mechanics in that game that drive me almost to unsubscribe – a primary contender being random stuns that wrest control of my character away from me for any length of time – and yet I keep playing because those things are few and far enough between that they don’t quite drive me over the edge.

But only just.

Think of the benefits to society that we MMO players will provide if a Shit to Quit scale can be determined and a person’s place on it can be pinpointed accurately! Jobs could be matched to those people who will take crap from the boss without walking out the door; theme parks could be designed to make use of the absolute extremes of acceptable queue length without people leaving altogether; and movies could be made as short and repetitive as possible without audiences abandoning the cinema.

So remember, the next time you are feared uncontrollably into a pack of patrolling mobs during a dungeon run, or can’t run up the gentle incline of a slope, or have to fight your way through a bunch of pointless low XP, high HP mobs to get to a destination, you are doubtless secretly serving towards the advancement of humanity!

Monday 1 March 2010

It's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.

Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online had a bonus XP event this weekend past in celebration of the fact that Turbine failed to close the game down after less than stellar subscription numbers, and where NCSoft would have flipped the kill switch on the servers a few days after release, Turbine decided to experiment with the solid game and intellectual property which they had in their possession, and now DDO is marching steadily ever forward on the MMO battlefield under the banner of the Earl of Free To Play.

See that NCSoft? That there is what you do with a solid game that hasn’t quite had the fortune to capture the hearts and minds of gamers yet. Let’s all take a small moment to mourn the fact that we don’t have a free-to-play Tabula Rasa, shall we?

So yes, it’s DDO’s birthday, and the weekends of the 26th – 28th of February and 5th – 7th of March have been dubbed an MMORPGasmic XPalooza by… um, me, and as such it was a prime time to roll a new character and get a few levels under their +2 Belt of Grinding.

And of course no such adventure would be complete if I didn’t spend money in the DDO Store. Happy Birthday DDO! Here, I bought you an adventure pack! Well ok, technically I bought me an adventure pack, but it’s the thought that counts. You got some money, I got hours of entertainment, which is very much like the time that I gave my brother some money for his birthday and then I got hours of entertainment watching him get yelled at by our parents when he blew the cat’s litter tray to smithereens with the bangers that he’d bought with said money. Thankfully the cat wasn’t in (on?) the litter tray at the time, but only because my brother got the fuse length wrong; still, if ever there is a right place for a cat to be when it is surprised by a modest incendiary device being detonated from underneath it, the litter tray is probably that place.

I happened to have Veteran Status on my account, which I purchased a while ago (Happy pre-Birthday DDO!), and so I was able to create a level four character and skip a chunk of content that I had already run several times on other alts, thus allowing me to play through some new content straight away, with the secondary aim of getting as close to level seven as possible with a mind to joining m’colleague, Van Hemlock and the Tuesday Noob Club That Now Also Gathers On A Friday Club for further hot lathered DDO action.

So levelling was my aim, possibly extreme levelling, the sort of levelling that has a capital ‘X’ in the middle of the word extreme, and has its own station on satellite TV where the men are all bronzed beefcakes who say things like ‘dude’ and ‘whoa’ through a fringe of hair so long that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re looking at them from the front or the rear, made all the more difficult because they seem to wear half of their baggy shapeless clothing backwards. If you want to learn to be extreme, you have to be willing to brave the dangers of the field in which you’re trying to do so: surfers eventually have to face that bloody big breaker, snowboarders have to make that off-piste jump into nothingness, BASE jumpers have to throw themselves off of that building, and MMO players have to visit the game’s forums. I wasn’t ready to be quite that eXtreme, though, so I made good use of the Google safety wheels and just searched around until I found a link to a thread on the DDO forums where someone posted a brief unapologetic list of the adventures that they found to be best for XP; having run the first few adventures in the list already, and having known them to be good sources of XP, I found the next item on the list was Tangleroot Gorge, an adventure area that I hadn’t played before. Good XP and new content? Sign me up!

Right after I pay you some money. Happy Birthday DDO!

So yes, I had to buy Tangleroot Gorge, which is probably why I hadn’t played it before, but I was deep into the spirit of celebration. And I’d just been paid for the month; my credit card was once again a shiny golden passport to possibility, rather than a singularity of infinite financial density within my wallet that threatens to suck me and my whole life into its black oblivion. A matter not helped by the fact that I keep spending indiscriminate amounts of money on impulse purchases, I might add.

So with my impulse purchase adventure pack unwrapped and installed into the game, I was ready to begin my levelling run. Right after I purchased a potion that I noticed in the store which gave an additional hefty boost to XP gain and which, a brief search revealed, stacked with the existing XP boost that Turbine were giving players over the weekend.

Oh dear.

My credit card started to pulse and thrum a little at that point, and it was fairly easy to see that time and space were beginning to be warped by the debt horizon that was building, so I popped it into my wallet, encased the wallet in lead and concrete, threw it into the nearby river, and got on with actually playing the game. My twice XP boosted game. I could feel my fringe growing rapidly, but there was going to be much work needed on the beefcake look; so, while I waited for the game to load, I put my trousers on backwards and pulled a beanie hat on to my head instead.

Next time: Tangleroot Gorge, and the joys of motile armoured organisms that can heal.