Thursday 27 May 2010


As fans of the popular televisual entertainment “Wife Swap”, we thought it might be fun to try a similar concept with MMOGs. We couldn’t find anyone who’d swap their wife for a 1 month LotRO timecard, though, so had to settle for a couple of players swapping games instead. This week it’s Ian Jefferson, a committed EVE player, and Jeff Ianson, a long term World of Warcraft player.

Ian’s Diary:
“I’m a Covert Ops specialist in EVE, so I asked Jeff for some advice and he suggested I pilot a Rogue, as they have a cloaking device. Undocking from the Inn in Westfall, I warped to a safe point to start scanning the sector, which in WoW they call ‘looking around’ with your ‘eyes’. Little of consequence seemed to be happening, so I plotted a course across the zone and continued scanning, quickly finding a Gnoll-class ship. Activating my cloaking device I moved closer, but it was obvious the Gnoll was part of a larger fleet, and taking on superior numbers would have been foolish so I backed off.

Continuing to scan the zone I observed a Dwarf-class vessel hitting a rock with a pickaxe, thus suggesting it was a mining ship of some kind, easy pickings for my autocannon (or ‘bow’). As it hit the rock again I decided not to be mean and destroy it right away, instead opening com-channels to issue a ransom demand for a couple of million Isk. The enemy vessel replied “lol”, but this was obviously false bravado, as after hitting the rock one more time it warped away at high speed, clearly terrified. He’d obviously picked up on my lack of warp scramblers, a pity, but a significant triumph nonetheless.

Over the next few hours I scanned the rest of the zone, and finally determined a Defias-class Bandit had strayed a little further from his fleet than he should. Before he could rejoin them, I put on full afterburners and started circling the Bandit at optimal auto-bow-cannon range, getting in several good hits and taking down his shields. It closed in, presumably specced for closer range weapons, so I switched to what they called a ‘sword’ module, and managed to finish it off. I’m not sure where the pod went, I didn’t see it; perhaps it got caught in the explosion. As I started towards the wreck to salvage it, though, another Bandit appeared, so I quickly cloaked and moved away from the area, it had obviously been called in by its ambushed corp-mate. I’d obviously stirred up a right hornet’s nest, with Defias-class Bandits all over the place, and it took three adrenaline-fulled hours of stealthy manoeuvre to escape the area and return to the Inn. One confirmed kill and a miner driven off, though, a pretty successful start I thought.”

Jeff’s Diary:
“I asked Ian whether I was a tank-spaceship, dps-spaceship or healer-spaceship, and he said it didn’t quite work like that and depended on modules or something. LOL! Anyway, I flew around a bit, but I couldn’t see any spaceships with yellow exclamation marks hanging over them, lol, what’s up with that? Who’s supposed to tell you to go and kill ten spaceships or collect five spaceship tusks and that? I posted ‘DPS LF tank+healer’ loads of times on the trade channel but nobody even replied lol what a load of rubbish so I logged out.”

Join us next week as an Alganon player and an Allods player swap games, and don’t even notice!

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Reviewlet: Flight of the Conchords

Flight of the Conchords wrap up their European tour at a sold-out Wembley Arena, a slightly surreal venue for the low-key duo. We didn’t catch the first support act, Lawrence Arabia, but got in for Arj Barker who did a great stand-up set, including what he’d learnt about history from games (like the respawning box of grenades in a barn near the D-Day beaches).

The Conchords themselves came out in cardboard box headgear for the stomping techno of Too Many Dicks (On The Dance Floor) and play for over two hours, interspersing songs with banter (“it’s like talking, but more professional… sometimes there might be two songs in a row, sometimes there might be two bits of talking in a row, though you probably won’t notice unless we draw attention to it”). With such a huge venue to fill they need a bit of help, which arrives after a couple of songs in the form of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (travelling section); he’s called Nigel. There are a couple of new songs, including a beautiful tale of wooing a lady in 1353, but most of the set is taken from the albums and TV series; my personal favourite Robots, The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room), Inner City Pressure, Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros (feat. Rhymnoceros and Hiphopopotamus), Demon Woman, We’re Both In Love With A Sexy Lady, Think About It, Hurt Feelings, Albi the Racist Dragon, Business Time, She’s So Hot (Boom), Bus Driver’s Song, Bowie. A request for Prince of Parties is initially rebuffed by Bret (“you should probably go home and listen to that one on CD… we tried it and couldn’t remember the chords”), but Jemaine launches into it, and sure enough stumbles in the chorus. The ramshackle performance is much of the charm of the Conchords, whether absolutely genuine, carefully rehearsed, or most likely a mix of the two like the magnificently ineffective singalong section of Epileptic Dogs. It’s also not best suited to the enormo-shed that is Wembley Arena, but when 12,000 tickets sell out in 20 minutes you can’t argue with demand; even halfway back they’re distant figures on stage, but a couple of big screens mean the subtle nuances of expression during Jenny aren’t completely lost.

The show finishes with an extended slowed down Sugalumps, Arj coming back to deliver his verse, security having to be called on an enthusiastic fan rushing the stage, and some lucky people in the front rows getting a particularly close view of Bret’s complimentary after dinner mints. Absolutely fantastic.

From the KiaSA Catalogue.

KiaSA Industries Ltd, in association with Pisher Frice, is pleased to present this season’s range of MMO-themed infant toys:

Hotbar Number Learner: An interactive keyboard with big friendly light-up keys. Teaches your child the numbers 1 through 9 by lighting up the keys and making them repeatedly press the same numbers over and over and over again.

Lil Questalot – Runabout Edition (Ages 3+): Consisting of two wireless Lil Questalot Interactive NPCs, place them at opposite ends of the house and watch your child enjoy hours of entertainment running back and forth at the behest of the NPCs for no discernable reason!

Lil Questalot – Kill Ten Rats Edition (Ages 2+): Consists of one Lil Questalot Interactive NPC and ten Lil Questalot Ratbots with Shoot’n’Loot action. Each Ratbot comes with its own RFID enabled body part that can be collected and returned to the Lil Questalot NPC. Will you be able to find enough of the right parts to complete the quest? Additional Lil Questalot Ratbot parts sold separately.

Baby’s First Crafting Centre: Turn the handle and craft a plasticine frobnob, then watch the craft-o-meter number increase by one! When you run out of plasticine, mash all your frobnobs back together and start again! Teaches your child the numbers 1 through 475, infinite patience, and the futility of life.

Twist & Turn Puzzle Bag: Try to fit all the pieces into the limited number of slots! Comes with initial set of twenty seven items – animal parts, trinkets, potions, weapons and armour – and one twenty slot Twist & Turn Puzzle Bag. Vendor Trash expansion coming soon!

Impractical Ivan Dress-up Doll: Dress up your Ivan doll with thirty two different kinds of improbably huge and gaudily coloured armour, none of which match! Milly Midriff female version available for girls in both Bikini Porn Star and Slutty Street Worker styles.

KiaSA Surprise Egg: Chocolate egg confectionary with a surprise inside! Have your child open the hollow chocolate egg to find a miniature loot chest inside which is guaranteed to contain a reward that is entirely useless to them – condoms, paracetemol, razor blades, rolling tobacco, and more!

My First Dismount: Plastic ride-on horse mount and interactive Lil Questalot Crapanimals. Place the Crapanimals around the garden and try to avoid them. Infrared sensors will cause My First Dismount to throw your child from its back should it detect a Crapanimal nearby. Hint – place Crapanimals near stairs and other sharp drops to sprain your child’s ankles or knees and simulate slowed movement debuffs!

My Little PvP Pets: Tommy Teabag, Gerty Ganker, Frankie Foulmouth, Amy Aimbot & many more!

My First MMO Transport: Play set includes track, station and motorised boat. Place the boat on the track and your character at the station and wait for the transport to arrive! (Average time to complete one circuit – four hours thirty seven minutes).

Angry Bear Kiting Kite: A large durable kite with Angry Bear image printed on both sides. Tie the string of your Angry Bear Kite to the kiting belt provided and attempt to run away! Turn around in amazement to see that the Angry Bear is still following you!

Little MMO Gold Farm play set: Features fully poseable gold farming bots, each with their own unique battle cry:
“Pleasing to mate us, we sell your face gold with a flatulent smile!”
“Sorry to be disturbing!”
“Excuse, you want buy my shiny metal assets?!”
And many more!

Sweet Dreams Tanking mobile: Send your child to sleep and teach them about tanking at the same time with this multi-part motorised rotating mobile consisting of mobs chasing after healers and DPS. Plays soothing lullabies as well as screams of “HELP MEH” and “U SUK TANK LOL” when your child waves their hands near the mobs as they circle past.

Monday 24 May 2010

Mighty Morphin MMO.

I was flicking through Saturday morning kids TV when I saw a show that I considered a contender for Tipa’s IPs that should be MMOs series, but despite Power Rangers being an incredibly popular show, I quickly realised that several problems would present themselves with an MMO conversion, for a start you’d have the age old problem of trying to form a group to attack the big man-in-a-rubber-suit boss mobs in the various dungeons:

“Looking for Right Leg of Battle Mode Dino Megazord, rest of body formed and ready to go, PST…”

And even if you did manage to find a balanced team with all the classes required to form yourself a Megazord, the standard MMO PuG problems would be amplified by the need to cooperate as one cohesive entity:

Left Arm: “We need to go this way to do my class quest.”

<Battle Mode Dino Megazord points into the distance>

Right Leg: “We’re not doing your quest, we’re doing the main boss only.”

<Battle Mode Dino Megazord’s Left Arm begins disconnect sequence>

Head: “As group leader I say we should help Left Arm to do their quest.”

Right Leg: “No way!”

<Battle Mode Dino Megazord kicks itself in the head>

An arrow for the heart like a sweet voice

After some pondering on voice and identity in games, this week’s Sunday Papers on Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a link to Media Molecule’s Kenny Young talking about voice, principally in Dragon Age: Origins, and a comment there points to a Guardian Gamesblog, also on voice. Both posts mention The Old Republic, including pointing out that starting a trailer with Alec Guinness is perhaps setting the bar a *smidge* high. Interesting stuff.

Sunday 23 May 2010

It's all about replicating a kind of stodgy form that already exists.

In one of the more curious instances of WTF? that I’ve come across in MMO design decisions, I’m currently playing a game where the character creator is absolutely spot on: a pause button to stop your character flailing all over the place while you’re trying to focus on them; an in-depth and varied set of options that actually let you create attractive characters, rather than something like EQ2’s fifty seven sliders to change the size of your ear lobes, but none to correct for the fact that you look like a boss-eyed waxwork from Madame Tussauds™ that has been accidentally left out in the sun; and further customisations once you’re in the game that allow you to create characters with a level of uniqueness that makes City of Heroes’ characters look like they were dressed by the Cub Scouts.

And then, when you get into the game proper, your character looks absolutely nothing like what you created because the game engine couldn’t possibly render such detail, but the translation from one to the other is not just a slightly blurred replication, as though it had been run through an ageing photocopier twenty or so times, no, it looks like someone took a mold of your perfect character and then used the mold itself to form them. The outside part.

It’s like looking at your character reflected in a puddle of jelly.

So what you’re left with is a character creator that is amazing, but has nothing to do with the character you will play in-game, which means that you have no real way of controlling how your character will look for ninety nine percent of the time that you’re interacting with them. It’s like buying a Rolls-Royce only to find out when you get it home that it’s actually a number of Rolls-Royce-shaped boxes, glued together and suspended across the back of an asthmatic cow.

It seems like MMO developers create their games themselves as though they were making a character in an MMO, as if they feel that there is a fixed set of points that one can spend on creating an MMO, and after that one has to stop. “Ah, now, we’ve spent lots of points in Good Ideas For Character Creation so we haven’t got any points left to spend on Making Sensible In-game Avatars, which is a shame”. Perhaps it is the ultimate point system – cold hard cash – which controls such things, but really, when we said we wanted an amazing character creation tool, we didn’t really mean ‘just an amazing character creation tool’, there was a sort of implied requirement that the output of said character creation was translated faithfully into the game world.

But what’s the point in having a fabulous character creator that doesn’t control how your character looks within the actual game?

Friday 21 May 2010

For the Sin.

The following excerpt is taken from For the Win by Cory Doctorow, published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. You can download the novel for yourself here.

Once, when he’d been working on his Masters, he’d participated in a study for a pal in the economics department. They’d locked twenty five grad students into a room and given each of them a poker chip. “You can do whatever you want with those chips,” the experimenter had said. “But you might want to hang onto them. Every hour, on the hour, I’m going to unlock this door and give you twenty dollars for each poker chip you’re holding. I’ll do this eight times, for the next eight hours. Then I’ll unlock the door for a final time and you can go home and your poker chips will be worthless — though you’ll be able to keep all the money you’ve acquired over the course of the experiment.”

He’d snorted and rolled his eyes at the other grad students, who were mostly doing the same. It was going to be a loooong eight hours. After all, everyone knew what the value of the poker chips were: $160 in the first hour, $140 in the next, $120 in the next and so on. What would be the point of trading a poker chip to anyone else for anything less than it was worth?

For the first hour, they all sat around and griped about how boring it all was. Then, the experimenter walked back into the room with a tray of sandwiches and 25 $20 bills. “Poker chips, please,” he said, and they dutifully held out their chips, and one by one, each received a crisp new $20 bill.

“One down, seven to go,” someone said, once the experimenter had left. The sandwiches were largely untouched. They waited. They flirted in a bored way, or made small talk. The hour ticked past.

Then, at 55 minutes past the hour, one guy, a real joker with red hair and mischievous freckles, got out of the beat-up old orange sofa turned to the prettiest girl in the room, a lovely Chinese girl with short hair and homemade clothes that reminded Connor of Jenny’s fashion, and said, “Rent me your poker chip for five minutes? I’ll pay you $20.”

That cracked the entire room up. It was the perfect demonstration of the absurdity of sitting around, waiting for the $20 hour. The Chinese girl laughed, too, and they solemnly traded. In came the grad student, five minutes later, with another wad of twenties and a cooler filled with smoothies in tetrapaks. “Poker chips, please,” he said, and the joker held up his two chips. They all grinned at one another, like they’d gotten one over on the student, and he grinned a little too and handed two twenties to the redhead. The Chinese girl held up her extra twenty, showing that she had the same as everyone else. Once he’d gone, Red gave her back her chip. She pocketed it and went back to sitting in one of the dusty old armchairs.

They drank their smoothies. There were murmured conversations, and it seemed like a lot of people were trading their chips back and forth. Connor laughed to see this, and he wasn’t the only one, but it was all in fun. Twenty dollars was the going rate for an hour’s rental, after all — the exactly and perfectly rational sum.

“Give me your poker-chip for 20 minutes for $5?” The asker was at the young end of the room, about 22, with a soft, cultured southern accent. She was also very pretty. He checked the clock on the wall: “It’s only half past,” he said. “What’s the point?”

She grinned at him. “You’ll see.”

A five dollar bill was produced and the poker-chip left his custody. The pretty southern girl talked with another girl, and after a moment, $10 traded hands, rather conspicuously. “Hey,” he began, but the southern girl tipped him a wink, and he fell silent.

Anxiously, he watched the clock, waiting for the 20 minutes to tick past. “I need the chip back,” he said, to the southern girl.

She shrugged. “You need to talk to her,” she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, then she ostentatiously pulled a paperback novel — *The Fountainhead* — out of her backpack and buried her nose in it. He felt a complicated emotion: he wanted to laugh, and he wanted to shout at the girl. He chose laughter, conscious of all the people watching him, and approached the other girl, who was tall and solidly built, with a no-nonsense look that went perfectly with her no-nonsense clothes and haircut.

“Yes?” she said, when he approached her.

“You’ve got my chip,” he said.

“No,” she said. “I do not.”

“But the chip she sold you, I’d only rented it to her.”

“You need to take it up with her,” the girl who had his chip said.

“But it’s my chip,” he said. “It wasn’t hers to sell to you.” He didn’t want to say, *I’m also pretty intimidated by anyone who has the gall to pull a stunt like that.* Was it his imagination, or was the southern girl smiling to herself, a smug little smile?

“Not my problem, I’m afraid,” she said. “Too bad.”

Now *everyone* was watching very closely and he felt himself blushing, losing his cool. He swallowed and tried to put on a convincing smile. “Yeah, I guess I really should be more careful who I trust. Will you sell me my chip?”

“My chip,” she said, flipping it in the air. He was tempted to try and grab it out of the air, but that might have led to a wrestling match right here, in front of everyone. How embarrassing!

“Yeah,” he said. “Your chip.”

“OK,” she said. “$15.”

“Deal,” he said, thinking, *I’ve already earned $45 here, I can afford to let go of $15.*

“In seven minutes,*” she said. He looked at the clock: it was 11:54. In seven minutes, she’d have gotten his $20. Correction: *her* $20.

“That’s not fair,” he said.

She raised one eyebrow at him, hoisting it so high it seemed like it’d touch her hairline. “Oh really? I think that this chip is worth $120. $15 seems like a bargain to you.”

“I’ll give you $20,” the redhead said.

“$25,” said someone else, laughing.

“Fine, fine,” Connor said, hastily, now blushing so hard he actually felt light-headed. “$15.”

“Too late,” she said. “The price is now $25.”

He heard the room chuckle, felt it preparing to holler out a new price — $40? $60? — and he quickly snapped, “$25” and dug out his wallet.

The girl took his money — how did he know she would give him the chip? He felt like an idiot as soon as it had left his hand — and then the experimenter came in. “Lunch!” he called out, wheeling in a cart laden with boxed salads, vegetarian sushi, and a couple buckets of fried chicken. “Poker chips!” The twenties were handed around.

The girl with his money spent an inordinate amount of time picking out her lunch, then, finally, turned to him with a look of fake surprise, and said, “Oh right, here,” and handed him his chip. The guy with the red hair snickered.

Well, that was the beginning of the game, the thing that turned the next five hours into one of the most intense, emotional experiences he’d ever taken part in. Players formed buying factions, bought out other players, pooled their wealth. Someone changed the wall clock, sneakily, and then they all spent 30 minutes arguing about who’s watch or phone was more accurate, until the researcher came back in with a handful of twenties.

In the sixth hour of the experiment, Connor suddenly realized that he was in the minority, an outlier among two great factions: one of which controlled nearly all the poker chips, the other of which controlled nearly all the cash. And there was only two hours left, which meant that his single chip was worth $40.

And something began to gnaw at his belly. Fear. Envy. Panic. The certainty that, when the experiment ended, he’d be the only poor one, the only one without a huge wad of cash. The savvy traders around them had somehow worked themselves into positions of power and wealth, while he’d been made tentative by his bad early experience and had stood pat while everyone else created the market.

So he set out to buy more chips. Or to sell his chip. He didn’t care which — he just wanted to be rich.

He wasn’t the only one: after the seventh hour, the entire marketplace erupted in a fury of buying and selling, which made *no damned sense* because now, *now* the chips were all worth exactly $20 each, and in just a few minutes, they’d be absolutely worthless. He kept telling himself this, but he also found himself bidding, harder and harder, for chips. Luckily, he wasn’t the most frightened person in the room. That turned out to be the redhead, who went after chips like a crackhead chasing a rock, losing all the casual cool he’d started with and chasing chips with money, IOUs.

Here’s the thing, cash should have been *king*. The cash would still be worth something in an hour. The poker chips were like soap bubbles, about to pop. But those holding the chips were the kings and queens of the game, of the market. In seven short hours, they’d been conditioned to think of the chips as ATMs that spat out twenties, and even though their rational minds knew better, their hearts were all telling them to corner the chip.

At 4:53, seven minutes before his chip would have its final payout, he sold it to the Fountainhead lady for $35, smirking at her until she turned around and sold it to the redhead for $50. The researcher came into the room, handed out his twenties, thanked them for their time, and sent them on their way.

No one met anyone else’s eye as they departed. No one offered anyone else a phone number or email address or IM. It was as if they’d all just done something they were ashamed of, like they’d all taken part in a mob beating or a witch-burning, and now they just wanted to get away. Far away.

For years, Connor had puzzled over the mania that had seized that room full of otherwise sane people, that had found a home in his own heart, had driven him like an addiction. What had brought him to that shameful place?

Now, as he watched the value of his virtual assets climb and climb and climb, climb higher than his Equations predicted, higher than any sane person should be willing to spend on them, he *understood*.

The emotion that had driven them in that experimenter’s lab, that was driving the unseen bidders around the world: it wasn’t greed.

It was *envy*.

Greed was predictable: if one slice of pizza is good, it makes sense that your intuition will tell you that five or ten slices would be even better.

But envy wasn’t about what was good: it was about what someone else thought was good. It was the devil who whispered in your ear about your neighbor’s car, his salary, his clothes, his girlfriend — better than yours, more expensive than yours, more beautiful than yours. It was the dagger through your heart that could drive you from happiness to misery in a second without changing a single thing about your circumstances. It could turn your perfect life into a perfect mess, just by comparing it to someone who had more/better/prettier.

Envy is what drove that flurry of buying and selling in the lab. The redhead, writing IOUs and emptying his wallet: he’d been driven by the fear that he was missing out on what the rest of them were getting. Connor had sold his chip in the last hour because everyone else seemed to have gotten rich selling theirs. He could have kept his chip to himself for eight hours and walked out $160 richer, and used the time to study, or snooze, or do yoga in the back. But he’d felt that siren call: *Someone else is getting rich, why aren’t you?*

And now the markets were running and *everything* was shooting up in value: his collection of red oxtails (useful in the preparation of the Revelations spell in Endtimes) should have been selling at $4.21 each. He’d bought them for $2.10 each. They were presently priced at *$14.51 each*.

It was insane.

Blizzard have shown that an Envy Store is a viable cash generating mechanism.

It seems that Sony have decided to follow suit.

They were envious of Blizzard’s Envy Store, perhaps?

Thursday 20 May 2010

Thought for the day.

Q: “Why did the MMO prevent the player from encountering enjoyable content?”

A: “Because it had an experience bar.”

Hope warps judgment in council, but quickens energy in action.

News that CCP has promoted its Council of Stellar Management – a group of elected player representatives – to a department within the company that has as much influence on development projects as does Marketing, Accounting and Publicity, was followed shortly afterwards by an announcement that the development team had begun immediate work on a new project to re-skin all craft flown in Empire space into giant teddy bears with hearts painted on their chests.

Blizzard responded to the revolutionary development in EVE Online by creating its own player elected council for World of Warcraft. Reports so far indicate that the new department has had a positive boost on developer productivity, with developers doubling output under a barrage of “GO GO GO!”s and “COME ON HURRY UP”s, and the threat of being kicked out of the building should they not produce content fast enough.

Reports that the development team have started work on a giant gnomish mechanical flying penis mount that shoots a deadly shower of golden fire at anyone with a gear score below 6000 before alighting on them with its huge hairy balloon-like rear landing gear, are unfounded at this time.

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

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice

A few weeks back I picked up the complete Rockstar bundle from Steam; I’d had half an eye on Episodes From Liberty City anyway, and when they bundled in everything else ever for a few more quid I could hardly say no (“Zoso succumbs to Steam bundle sale shocker!”). With Europe conquered in Napoleon: Total War, I moved on to EFLC, starting chronologically with The Lost And Damned.

I’ve previously blogged about how the Grand Theft Auto games are “free-form but structured“; though they’re “open world”, allowing you to wander around the city nabbing nice looking cars, buying peanuts and poisoning pigeons in the park, there’s also the option of a generally linear plot moving you through the game. Within that plot you play a very fixed character; talking about story and narrative on the Van Hemlock podcast I mentioned that Bioware had discussed Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 in terms of first-person and third-person (in connection with the different romance options in the two games):

“Here’s how the games are different: Dragon Age is a first person narrative, where you’re taking on an origin and a role, and you are that character at a fundamental level. It’s fundamentally about defining your character, including those kinds of concepts. In Mass Effect it’s more a third-person narrative, where you have a pre-defined character who is who he is, or she is. But it’s not a wide-open choice matrix. It’s more choice on a tactical level with a pre-defined character. So they’re different types of narratives, and that’s intentional.”

As per that quote, the choices in Mass Effect 2 aren’t wide open, it often boils down to “Good Shepard” or “Bad Shepard” (or maybe “Ambivalent Shepard”, or in Jon’s case “Generally Good But If You Will Insist On Standing In Front Of That Plate Glass Window I’m Going To Have To Kick You Through It Because It’s Going To Look Awesome Shepard”), but they’re choices nonetheless, principally through dialogue trees. There was some fairly vigorous debate about whether Mass Effect 2 is an RPG at all, what with some elements being either “streamlined” or “dumbed down” depending on your point of view (“No inventory management? You can’t have an RPG without inventory management!”), for me the choices you can make are one of the key aspects of an RPG.

GTAIV doesn’t have dialogue trees. Sometimes you have a choice of different contacts to visit for different missions, very occasionally you can decide if someone lives or dies at the end of a mission (though I don’t think the result massively affect the overall plot either way), but the story is told through cutscenes where you watch “yourself” with no direct control. It simplifies the structure of the game greatly, essentially into a film script where the player takes over for the gunfights and car chases instead of having to plot a flowchart from Dimension Z covering all the possibilities. That’s a gross oversimplification, a film script being tricky enough, and ignoring the massive effort that goes into making Liberty City a living, breathing environment down to the jingles on the radio stations, but in purely story terms it’s fairly linear. In the original GTAIII “you” were a nameless mute, more of a cipher for the player, but subsequent instalments have named, voiced lead characters. When it works, it’s like a good film (or if not exactly a good film, at least a fun one). It’s important that you identify with, or at least care about, the lead character, though, what with it being “you” and all, and that’s where I’m struggling with The Lost And Damned. You play Johnny, Vice President of the titular Lost Motorcycle Club, and so far Johnny appears to be a charmless tossbag whose primary redeeming feature is that he’s not quite as much of a tossbag as the rest of the gang. Obviously none of the protagonists of the GTA series have been particularly nice, and if you’ve played through GTAIII, Vice City, San Andreas and GTAIV then as well as nicking cars by the container-ship load you’ll have killed more people than epidemic typhus, pulled bank and casino heists, run drugs and possibly (with the right melee weapon selection) beaten people to death with a large purple dildo. It’s not a moral thing, then, but somehow the previous games made me care for the lead characters, whereas the cutscenes in The Lost And Damned so far have mostly consisted of irritating bickering, so though the underlying gameplay is just as good, I’m not really feeling the urge to play through it. I think I might start The Ballad Of Gay Tony instead, reviews suggest it’s a bit more fun.

The difference between the primary way GTAIV and Mass Effect 2 tell stories, cutscenes vs player conversation choices, made me wonder how involving Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic will be compared to existing quest-based MMOGs. It’s quite possible to treat GTA’s cutscenes with the deference and respect typically shown to MMO quest text: someone double crossed someone, blah blah blah, whatever, hit space to skip, look at the HUD to find out what you’re supposed to be doing. By the same token it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine GTA-style cutscenes in place of a block of MMOG quest text (EQ2 already has voice for some (all?) questgivers, City of Villains actually introduced a few cutscenes, albeit in-mission rather than for the briefing); you run up to a mine foreman, he paces up and down explaining his kobold infestation problems, asks if you’ll help, your character nods (or shakes their head and performs the universal mime for “I’m sorry, but my quest log is full”). The Old Republic, with conversation choices, poses interesting issues in a MMOG context; logistically, as Melmoth pondered a while back, and in your identification with your character. I can’t think of a current MMOG where the NPCs really matter, you define yourself in terms of player interaction, whether in a roleplaying sense or just your function in a group, by accomplishments; maybe you’re a member of one in-game faction as opposed to another (Aldor or Scryer in WoW, Silver Flame or Emerald Claw in DDO) but except in very rare cases the primary deciding factor is who gives out the phattest lewts, not which most closely aligns to your beliefs. Age of Conan had a bit of a crack with the single player night time version of Tortage, but that was a fairly short linear segment with minor variations depending on your class. In The Old Republic it looks like you’ll be picking convesation options throughout, and with players as well as NPCs being voiced “you” will be saying the lines; if done with normal Bioware high quality it should make you feel like you’re more involved in the world than Random Player #572 pitching up in front of an NPC who gives the same old “kill ten kobolds” speech, but you’ll also be constrained to the lines that Bioware have written and recorded, which might not quite align with the way you see yourself.

Even if it does prove successful I’m not sure too many other studios have Bioware’s resources to write and record eighty kersquillion lines of dialogue, so I can’t foresee a rash of voice-heavy conversation-choice MMOGs, unless speech synthesis technology advances to the point that we can do away with these puny hu-mans for recording. Or maybe there’ll just be a rash of games set in The Year 2000

“Can’t we just talk to the humans? With a little understanding we could make things better. Can’t we just talk to the humans and work together now?”
“No. Because they are dead. Binary solo!

Monday 17 May 2010

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.

I wonder whether PvP MMO games such as All Points Bulletin should adopt a gear system which is inverted to the norm for most MMOs, such that players start with powerful gear that degrades to a constant level, rather than having to work up to the level of gear of the early adopters by struggling against those same – now seemingly overpowered – early adopters.

It’s like have an Olympic race where you’ve trained yourself to be an excellent athlete at the four hundred metres event with times towards the low end of the forty second bracket, but when you turn up you find out that all the runners who competed last year now have bionic leg replacements that mean they can run it in the low thirties. The problem is that the only way to get bionic legs yourself is to win against the guys who already have them. So your competitive goal actually turns in to trying to convince one of the bionic competitors to give you a piggy back, and the whole race turns into some sort of perverse bionic Grand National with unenhanced jockeys riding around on the backs of whichever bionic big boy they can convince to carry them.

I just don’t think PvP is compatible with the traditional gear system of MMOs because game knowledge and skill is already a massive obstacle for the new player to overcome, layering on an additional artificial ‘gear gap’ makes for a game that will be inordinately intimidating to all but the most dedicated of masochists. This is why I think Counter Strike was (perhaps still is) the darling of the FPS online world for so long, because it used gear to allow players to specialise into different roles based on their personal preference or what the map demanded, without creating any sort of gap between the new and veteran players; yet if you visit a Counter Strike server as a new player you will know who the veteran players are quickly enough, because they will be the ones who understand the map and use its terrain to their advantage, but if you play carefully and craftily, you have every much a chance at killing them as they do you. This is why I think that adding gear levels to FPS games in order to keep players grinding away at them is such a massive mistake by gaming companies, because yes, you may well keep the early adopters invested in your game for longer, but once your game has been established for a week or two you essentially close the doors to a huge proportion of the potential new player population.

When you take these things into consideration, it quickly becomes clear just how good EVE Online’s skill training and ‘ship role’ systems are for allowing players to have disparate levels of ‘gear’ and yet still participate in PvP in a meaningful way.

Today’s post was brought to you by the phrase ‘Oh look, I’ve been two-shot by a magnum having emptied my entire automatic rifle clip into them without any discernible effect’, and the command ‘/quit’.

Friday 14 May 2010

A civil guest will no more talk all, than eat all the feast

With everyone weighing in on the “Are Games Art?” debate sparked by Roger Ebert, Tim and Jon of the Van Hemlock Podcast (to which you obviously subscribe, but just in case you don’t, do) decided that to properly tackle the subject needed a widely recognised expert in both fields, able to effortlessly leap from the merits of different weapons in Call of Duty to Constable’s use of light in Dedham Vale, from the legacy of Henry Moore in contemporary sculpture to Mortal Kombat fatality combos. Unfortunately Brian Sewell was busy playing the Halo: Reach beta, so I had to fill in instead.

As is probably obvious, my thorough and in-depth art knowledge comes mainly from Wikipedia (which is how I know Vincent van Gogh was a quadruped with four legs, a heart and a beak for eating honey, who lived in large rivers such as the Amazon [citation needed]), but I had a rather splendid time burbling away about narrative, interactivity, a proposed taxonomy of games and saying “aaaaah” (bonus game if you’d like to play along at home: every time we say “aaaah”, shout “No, not ‘aaaah’!”, and take a drink).

Ven Hemlock Show 102

If you’re particularly interested in the history of Ebert vs Computer Games, it starts around the time of the Doom movie:

Ebert in “Answer Man” on Doom (October 30 2005): “As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.”

Strangely enough that prompted a little bit of feedback, the subject being touched on a couple more times in following weeks:

Resulting in lots of good reader feedback:

Christophe Gans, director of Silent Hill, was asked about Ebert’s stance in 2006, drawing another reply:

Clive Barker took up the cudgels in 2007:

And then there’s the most recent piece that kicked off the current round of the debate:

Thursday 13 May 2010

The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one's self a fool.

There’s an excellent puzzle in Dungeons and Dragons Online that made me chuckle quite a lot when I first encountered it. When I say the puzzle is excellent, I do of course mean that it isn’t. At all. And when I say puzzle, I do of course use the word in its loosest sense, more along the lines of ‘curious nuisance’ than anything else. It is an excellent puzzle, however, because it shows just how difficult it can be for an MMO developer to try to implement game mechanics such as puzzles, whilst catering to every combination of race, class, equipment and skill that a player, or indeed party of players, might bring to the adventuring table.

The puzzle in question, and I do want to emphasise again that I use puzzle in the same way that I would still call a two piece jigsaw puzzle a puzzle, is found in the depths of the Tangleroot Gorge quest line concerning the Splinterskull orcs, specifically starting with the quest Agent of the Darguul which is activated once you’ve obtained access to the inner stronghold of the Splinterskull fortress. Upon entering the inner sanctum and having killed a few orcs guarding the entrance, the player is presented with a raised drawbridge spanning a chasm which appears to be infinitely deep and is bounded, as only D&D chasms can be, by sheer walls of rock at either end. The immediate message is ‘the bridge is the only way across’. Now if this were a pen and paper game, say, then the players would be able to come up with all manner of crazy strategies to ruin the DM’s carefully planned puzzle, they would form a human ladder; one of the more engineering minded types would build a hang glider; the tomb raider types would lasso their way across; the mage would cast one of Levitate Party, Chasm-Spanning Phantasmal Bridge of Convenient Expedience, or Polycell’s Quick-Drying Chasm Filler; and the dwarf Barbarian would just move his character on to the next part of the map with an angry mutter about how he hadn’t munchkined this character into an orc threshing machine to spend his time dallying around with stupid bridges that had developed far too great a sense of their own self worth.

In DDO the characters are limited to one option, which is: what the developer intended. As such, a brief examination of the situation reveals a lever on the other side of the chasm that the players need to hit to lower the bridge. Well, it’s not so much a lever as a giant flat board with a target painted on it on top of a stick, the sort of thing you see at funfairs attached to a chair suspended above a pool of water which tips up and dunks some poor fellow when it’s hit with a projectile of some sort. To its credit the DDO version isn’t surrounded by flashing neon with a big arrow suspended from the ceiling pointing down at it, but it’s pretty obvious after the most cursory of inspections, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of place for it to have an orc in a top hat and cane standing beside it shouting “Roll up, roll up! Hit the lever, win a prize! How about you sir? You look handy with a projectile weapon, fancy trying to lower the draw bridge for your lady friend there? No sir, that’s not a euphemism! Roll up! Roll up!”

Of course the designer, being a conscientious type, was concerned that there was an outside chance of a player turning up without a projectile weapon of any sort. It could happen, especially if they were a purely melee class and running the dungeon solo, although nowadays I imagine most players are veteran enough to realise that even if you have -20 to all projectile weapon proficiency rolls it’s still worth taking some sort of ranged weapon with you, just in case you stumble upon the side of a barn that needs hitting from a distance, say. Or a big painted target on the other side of a chasm. It might take a few attempts, with the first few probably ending up with you embedding sharp projectiles into the buttocks of any fellow adventurers who didn’t have the common sense to leave the instance and wait for you to finish before coming back in, but eventually you’ll twang something across the chasm that bounces off three walls, catches an orc a glancing blow to the back of the head and then flops against the lever as it falls to the floor. So what was the solution to the problem of a player turning up without a projectile weapon to their name (other than perhaps that weapon which one doesn’t whip out in public and try to shoot across chasms as it’s considered bad form and rather unhygienic)? I think the designer might have got a little bored at this point, because directly opposite the lever, on your side of the chasm, is a modest looking crate. Inside which is a bow and a set of arrows.

I can imagine some of the party conversations that have taken place at that bridge:

“Damn, the bridge is up and there’s no other way across this conveniently inconvenient chasm!”

“There’s a lever on the other side!”

“Are you sure? It’s not a torch holder or weapon rack or something?”

“No, quite sure. There’s a big orc over there in a top hat shouting about it. And the neon sign saying ‘Hit here to lower bridge’ is a bit of a giveaway too.”

“Well that’s no use, I don’t have any projectile weapons with me. Do you?”

“No. Well, yes…”


“Argghhhh, put it away! I told you before! Remember? At the Queen’s ball…”


“Sorry. Ok… Ok! I have a plan! I could use my tumble skill to roll up to the edge of the bridge on this side of the chasm and then throw a loop of rope over to the pillar on the other part of the bridge. Now, the rope isn’t long enough to reach all the way, so I’ll use my jump skill to leap out to the rope and the momentum of my swing as I hit it should carry me most of the way to the other side. Then, when I reach the zenith of my swing I’ll let go, at which point you can cast Harold’s Handy Hand of Helping to give me a push which should allow me to reach the chasm wall on the other side. Then I’ll use my climbing skill and my +4 Claws of Chasm Climbing to scale the wall, leap over the top, kill the orc in the top hat, and then bypass the lever mechanism with my disable device skill!”

“Or we could just use the bow and arrows in this crate here.”


“Your idea was splendid. Really it was. We’ll do that next time, eh?”

“*sigh* I suppose so. Do you even know how to use that bow?”

“Oh yes, it’s quite simple really. You just slot the arrow here, like so. Then you pull back li…”


“Arrrgh! Oh God, my buttocks!”

“Oh my. Terribly sorry! Let’s try that again.”


“Owwww! Ah ha heee, ooooo, ow.”

“Oh dear. One more go…”

<Sixteen arrows later>

“A hit! A most palpable hit! And the bridge is down. Come on my friend, let us continue on… are… are you ok?”

“I’ll… be fine. Just… need… to run…. bent over. And… mustn’t sit down.”

“Y’know, with your diminutive halfling size, a little tin foil and some chunks of pineapple and cheese, we could hire you out as a delightful presentation piece at parties…”

“Am… hffff…. going to stab you with… hssss… an arrow. Just as soon… ahhhnggg… as I find a doctor with good strong grip and some… ooohoohooo…. pliers.”

Next week: World of Warcraft’s incredible grind to get the key for Karazhan when it was first released, and the curious question as to why no player ever found the spare key hidden under the mat outside the front door.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Between truth and the search for it, I choose the second

Flicking through the lists of search terms that lead poor, unsuspecting surfers to our strange shores I sometimes feel a bit guilty that we’re not a lot of use to people with problems like “D&D online adventure pack zoning into instance frozen progress bar”. Sometimes I’m curious as to why someone’s looking for “most obscure npc in wow”. Then there are the strange and depraved Rule 34 searches, which I won’t repeat verbatim for fear of causing a positive feedback loop of further hits, but suffice to say I believe there are Dragon Age mods that will partially fulfil your wishes towards the Lady of the Forest, but I’m really not sure about the radish. Or whether anyone’s created an in-game model of a paddling pool filled with custard.

In most instances it’s fairly obvious how the internal workings of a search engine decided KiaSA was a potential match, thanks to either MMOG keywords or our proclivity of culling post titles from quotations (it’s not Google’s fault that the relationship between the post title and the actual content tends to be tangential at best; sorry whoever was looking for “The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned”, you probably didn’t have the Ewok Festival of Love in mind). Sometimes, though, it’s a puzzle not only as to what the searcher thought they might find on the ‘net, but quite how they wound up here at all; step forward Search Term of the Month (And Quite Possibly Year): “does ed vaizey have a hairy chest”. Terribly sorry, we really don’t know, but we’ll be sure to ask if we bump into him.

Thought for the day.

You see those innocent level one neutral-con critters that every MMO has running around in the background acting as part of the scenery?

In my MMO, whenever a player killed one of those critters, a fifty tonne version would fall from the sky onto the player’s head, squashing them flat.

And then explode.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.

Knowledge boundaries are interesting in MMOs.

In crafting it is generally the character that gains the knowledge required to perform a task. Without the character knowing the required recipe, the item in question cannot be crafted.

Where to find that recipe is player knowledge, the player can often find out within the game, or instead meta-game and look up where to go and what to do on a website.

Are these boundaries arbitrary, or can certain knowledge only be restricted to the character, whereas other knowledge must be imparted to the player in order for them to be able to function within the game? Can we move more knowledge to the character, such that players spend less time reading what to do, where to go and who to speak to on websites, and more time in finding out for themselves in the game? Would we want to?

Who learns the information, character or player, and how this is expressed in an MMO is fascinating. For example: the more reliance there is on the player’s knowledge, the less relevant the character becomes until it is merely an avatar, a vehicle for the player within the world. Whether you want the players or their characters to be the inhabitants of your world should perhaps be an important consideration in the design philosophy of an MMO, and this can be determined, in part, by whichever of the two you choose to deliver knowledge of your game world to.

Monday 10 May 2010

When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.

If I were to give you one word to describe me when tanking in an MMO it would be arrrgrghhhohgodohgodohgodwhoiswhereiswhathelphelparrrgggggghplah, which is admittedly not a word that will be found in the OED any time soon, but is about as close as I can get to what I’m actually thinking at the time without embedding an audio recording of me alternating between sweaty-faced screaming, mumbling in face-clutching wide-eyed horror, and laughing maniacally while chewing off the ends of my fingers.

I am not a good tank.

It’s the same every time: I read around the class, find out which abilities cause the most threat; what a decent rotation of these abilities is; how best to start a pull; how to snap aggro back if a mob decides to wander off and have a nibble on the healer; how to smile internally when the over-eager DPS AoE-pulls an entire group and you simply let them die. I practise the techniques on mobs out in the wild, grabbing a few at a time and methodically working through all that I’ve learnt, and everything seems to be in order. And so, suitably geared, with my well-thumbed curly-paged Guide to Tanking tucked in my back pocket, I head into a dungeon with a group of other well meaning folk, approach the first group and – having made sure everyone is ready – pull.

How do I describe what happens next? Imagine trying to maintain the attention of a pack of wilful and disobedient dogs when a lorry from the nearby Cat, Anise and Bouncy Ball factory crashes through the fence of the training school and discharges its contents all over the lawn: it’s the same with me and maintaining the attention of mobs. At least that’s what happens initially. Then, as the healer spams away trying to keep everyone alive, the mobs generally begin to congregate around them, until they look like one of those beleaguered Tanface McPermhairs from some nondescript boy-band, trying to force their way out of an airport through a crowd of screaming teeth and spasming pigtails.

No matter what I do I always seem to have my tanking magnet set to the same polarity as the mobs, so that I charge into the midst of them and then watch, demoralised, as they fly away from me in a thousand different directions at once or, as is more often the case, in a tightly directed beam straight at the healer.

The reason this issue has come to mind is that I’ve been playing my Warden alt some more in LotRO recently. I set out to play them purely as a solo venture: what with their primary role being to tank, and me being the tanking equivalent of a turbofan in a feather factory, this seemed like a sensible idea. I really love the concept of the class though, and seeing as they are well suited to soloing, it made for a happy marriage of circumstance. I ended up tanking anyway to some extent, because it turns out that Turbine have added quite a nifty tanking simulator into their game where a player can go and practise some of the fundamentals of managing aggro in a group without ruining the evenings entertainment for a number of other players. Enter the well known Skirmish system in which it is quite possible to have a fair crack of the tanking whip without causing undue alarm and distress to unsuspecting players, because the numerous NPCs that one encounters, both in the form of the player’s own soldier and in the various skirmish specific NPCs that aid you during the encounter, make acceptable substitutes for real players. So I read the forums, picked a soldier class that I thought would be a suitable match to my Warden (some form of DPS is recommended, seeing as we Wardens are a little lacklustre in that department, but have self-heals and defences enough to keep us going through all but the toughest of fights) and headed into a skirmish.

I was not a good tank.

I’m getting better. At first it was frustrating to the point of almost giving up. After a while, however, I slowly began to get the hang of it. For example, I no longer become frozen to a mob, such that when I see another mob run off and attack someone else I persist in hitting the mob I’m currently targeting, but harder, in the hope that it will make the other one run back over to me. Switching targets is a no-brainer, I knew I had to do it, and yet I’d get stuck when in combat, scared that the instant I stopped thwacking my current mob it would laugh at me and run off and eat the healer. You have to overcome the irrational anthropomorphisation of mobs if you want to tank, you have to allow your logical mind to win through, such that you don’t see angry Orcs with a will of their own, but a number of spinning plates that you need to balance. When you spin a plate on the end of a stick (if you’re any good) you have a good amount of time before that plate will slow to the point that it falls, so you can go and spin-up another plate and another. Every now and again you come back to the already spinning plates and you give them another little nudge, but they need less work than when you first started on them. The difference with tanking is that you have a bunch of other people running around slowing your plates down, some slowing one plate down considerably while others are slowing all the plates down gradually. It’s a tricky and technically challenging balancing act.

Playing as a Warden in a skirmish is somewhat of an extreme way of being introduced to tanking, a bit like someone deciding to learn to surf in shark infested waters while giving themselves paper cuts. For one, the Warden is a curious tanking class in that they have very little snap aggro and instead rely on aggro-over-time abilities, which means that once they’ve had a chance to build aggro you’re never getting anything off of them, but at the same time the critical phase of the initial pull needs that much more co-operation from the other members of the group while the Warden builds that aggro. For another, skirmish NPCs are perhaps the biggest bunch of over-aggroing dunderheads that you’re likely to encounter outside of the Charge of the Light Brigade. On the positive side, you’ll never hear an NPC scream “U SUK TANK LOL” when they die for the second time in a run.

It makes for a forceful, if frustrating, learning experience, but without the soul-crushing demoralisation of a baptism by anonymous peers.

Friday 7 May 2010

Thought for the day

The Liberal Democrats seem to be following the ol’ MMOG Hype Cycle; a blaze of publicity and hope offering people a fresh alternative to the tired old system they’re all sick of, then strong initial performance building up confidence that they really can be a player, but when it comes to the crunch and actually plunking your money(/vote) down it turns out people aren’t that keen on a change after all and go back to the more traditional options.

(I knew that rank in Perform: Biting Political Satire would come in handy)

Thursday 6 May 2010

Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life

Having sorted out Italy in Napoleon: Total War I moved on to the Egyptian campaign, which proved slightly trickier on the motivation front as I faced the British for the first time. To get into character and see the appearance of a Union Jack as a threat rather than reason to stand up and salute I wore a beret, spoke with an outrageous accent and ate lots of croissants to steel myself to send the Rosbifs packing. Turned out not to matter too much; after devoting maximum resources to building up a navy (it took five turns to get one small corvette) I sent it out to scout the Mediterranean a bit, show the flag, discourage the landing of any troops on my lightly defended shores, and it ran into the British fleet. Which consisted of about twelve ships of the line, four frigates and a couple of sloops. There might’ve been an aircraft carrier in there as well, possibly a couple of nucelar attack submarines, it was hard to tell at the speed I was retreating, so my naval policy was modified to staying in port and shouting “zut alors!” from time to time. The land forces made up for it, though, storming through Egypt and capturing swathes of the Ottoman Empire to triumph in that campaign, but it’s going to be more difficult still for the final campaign, Europe from 1805. I’m rather hoping the British will go along with a plan to carve up Europe between us in a 100-years-early Entente cordiale, but that doesn’t seem terribly likely. Courage, mes amies!

Anyway. Much of the attraction of the Total War series is the way it combines two genres: the strategic turn-based campaign, where you build and govern your empire, and the tactical real-time battles that result when you send your armies into combat and trample the enemy with elephants. (If you’re playing as the Carthaginians in Rome: Total War, at least. Not so many elephant-based units in 19th century Europe. Unless the next Total War game covers the 1870 siege of Paris and you get to take the zoo animals into battle rather than just eating them.) You can skip either aspect if you really want, though; the games come with selections of historical battles and skirmish modes to leap straight into the real-time battles side of things, or if you’re more of a political leader and don’t want to get your hands dirty on the campaign map you can leave it to your AI generals and have the computer automatically resolve fights.

Over in Dungeons & Dragons Online I’ve gained a couple of ranks and therefore have some Action Points to spend, and poring over the range of enhancements available it struck me that, as with Total War, there are two quite distinct parts to the game: planning and building your character, and adventuring with them. Most MMOGs have the two elements, but the dichotomy in Dungeons & Dragons Online is particularly pronounced.

Combat in DDO is, for an MMOG, fast paced; when attacking you hit what’s in the cross-hairs in the middle of the screen, not necessarily a target selected by clicking or hitting Tab (there’s no friendly fire, thankfully, or 97.4% of adventures would end in bitter acrimony after the first encounter. Or possibly before, if somebody went to buff another player but forgot that left clicking triggers an attack rather than selecting a target.) Magic users will probably have a hotbar or seven filled up with different spells to cast, but melee characters tend not to have many abilities to activate in a fight compared to other games; my regular in-combat clickable abilities (as opposed to buffs, toggles etc.) are outnumbered by the sack full of different weapon sets I cart around for various encounters.

Where DDO’s combat is streamlined, the character planning side of things has many strange knobbly bits sticking out and causing turbulence. DDO’s rules are derived from a pencil and paper game: the Generic Universal RolePlaying System. No, wait, not that one, Dungeons and Dragons. The clue was in the title, in hindsight. With MMOGs being more combat focused than pencil and paper games the rules are quite heavily modified, but creating a character is still a rather involved business. In WoW, WAR or LotRO after picking a race and a class your toughest decisions generally involve beard style and colouring, in DDO you’ve got stats, skills and feats to worry about. As you ascend ranks and levels the choices open up further still, as DDO allows you to combine classes. I think this is almost, if not entirely, unique for a class-based MMOG, and as the saying goes “you haven’t seen hybrids until you’ve seen a Wizard/Rogue/Cleric and Paladin/Sorcerer/Bard duo in DDO”. It can be a bit daunting trying to choose from a list of 50 feats when you have a nodding acquaintance with the pencil and paper rules, let alone if you’re coming to it fresh.

Like Total War, though, you can, to a greater or lesser extent, skip either facet of the game if you really want. Recognising the complexity of character building, Turbine added Paths that your character can follow, so you just need to decide whether your fighter wants to focus on dealing damage, tanking or whatever, and the game sorts out the rest for you. It won’t give you the most ludicrously optimised min-maxing munchkin build possible, but at least you won’t end up with totally inappropriate stats. If it’s the character planning side of things that’s more interesting to you, there isn’t exactly an option to build an adventurer and hit an “Automatically Resolve” button instead of battling through a dungeon to gain loot and XP, but there is an out-of-game ecosystems of forums, spreadsheets and standalone character planning tools to tinker about with theoretical builds. Again like Total War, I think the game is at its best when you at least dabble in both sides, so time to check when the next rank of Tempest opens up and make sure I’m meeting the pre-requisites for it.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

It is not down in any map; true places never are.

Maps are lying swine and never to be trusted. So was my experience in Lord of the Rings Online over the weekend, and so has it been in many an MMO before then. The problem is that maps are devious; your stock and standard openly vindictive sort is not to be found among maps. No indeed, a map will pretend to be your best friend, it will helpfully show you where you are and where you need to be, it may even subtly suggest where sir or madam might like to go next, which it does in an obsequious subservient fashion while bending over to touch the floor repeatedly as it backs out of the door, and then as soon as your attention is elsewhere it attacks like an origami katana.

Sometimes it goes like this:

You stand inside the entrance to the dungeon and are full of enthusiasm for the thing, Tom has the map open and is pointing to the location of the bric-a-brac that you’ve been sent to find, which is helpfully highlighted on the nasty little thing. “Don’t worry chaps”, says Tom, “our goal lies just at the end of this corridor here” and he looks at the rest of you with a smile that says he feels he’s doing you all a tremendous favour by guiding you to such a simple objective, and you all set off, light of step and good in spirit, towards your goal.

Of course, you have to fight group after group of angry orcs on the way there. Of course you do. And of course the map doesn’t show you any of these inconveniences. Or the pit trap.

So after you’ve heaved Tom out of the hole, then lowered him back down again so that he can retrieve the map that has flung itself from him in a bid for freedom (or maybe just to spite you) and after you’ve fought a few more groups of orcs, you finally reach the end of the corridor.

“Just on other side of this wall” pants Tom, and the rest of you wait patiently while he looks left, then right, then left again in order to find the passage that will allow you to get around to the other side, which doesn’t exist. “Well there’s no way through here” he states, you note, somewhat obviously. At which point Harry grabs the map with a “give that here will you you dummy” and looks at it with the sort of studious but disappointed look you imagine God would have worn as he pondered where to place the Galapagos Islands after realising that he hadn’t left any room for them in the Mediterranean. “Ah, I see where you went wrong, Tom” he says “you assumed that this bit here was connected, and it does look like it on the map, but clearly you’re meant to go down this corridor over here to the west, and then loop around and come at it from the north”. And it all seems so obvious when Harry explains it like that, so the rest of you pick yourselves up from where you were slumped on the floor and trudge off with Harry boldly leading the way.

And of course there are more groups of orcs to fight on the way.

Of course.

So you head back to the east and then north west, then due south, and then back on yourselves a bit so that the front of the party runs into the back of the party as they cross each other’s path, and you fight groups of orcs all along the way and have to go back at one point when you realise that you’ve lost Roger and that one of the orcs has taken his place on a dare from his mates to see how far he could get before anyone noticed. You follow the map and at every junction there is a huge discussion as to which way the map says you all should go, then the discussion becomes an argument and harsh words are spoken and someone gets a bloody nose, at which point a vote is taken and the tally of results show no votes for the right path, one for the left path, and five votes to go home and sod the whole silly business.

You get there in the end however, exhausted and sick of the sight of stone walls and moss and orcs and each other, you content yourselves with the fact that at least the map now shows that you are standing in the same spot as your objective, but as you look around the empty chamber you realise that you have been betrayed. Alan grabs the map from a bewildered looking Harry, and twists it and turns it in the vain hope that he can convince the map that it’s wrong, but the map never lies. It just chooses only to show you part of the truth. As Alan scrunches and unscrunches the map and turns both it and his head in wildly opposing directions he, at one point, holds it up to the light in order to get a better look, the light from the candelabra hanging three floors up.

Three floors up.

Roger wonders out loud if it would be possible to find something to break through the wall to the side near the entrance, where you were all standing what seems like a lifetime ago, but after several sharp suggestions about the appropriateness of his head for such a task giving its relative density, he lets it drop.

People get angry and start shouting at each other. Someone in the back starts to cry. Harry exclaims through a red face that it wasn’t his fault that the map didn’t show multiple levels to the place, and everyone else wonders out loud who they should blame then. They wonder if they should perhaps blame the map, but they do so in that tone of voice that implies that they blame Harry, with especial blame reserved for his parents for being careless enough to have given birth to him in the first place. The map lies quietly and innocently on the floor where it was thrown, though if anyone were to look closely they would see that its edges were curved in what looked suspiciously like a smile.

Then everyone goes mad. People fetch out their own maps and then run off in different directions. They decide not to worry about fighting the orcs anymore, instead they just run past and ignore them. The orcs give chase but tire of it pretty quickly and return to their camp only to see the same adventurer they were just chasing coming back down the corridor at them and followed by another adventurer who wasn’t there a moment ago. Both adventurers dash past the orcs before shooting off at right angles to one another down opposite corridors like some sort of formation aerial display team. The orcs give up at this point and decide to have a nice cup of green tea and ignore the whole silly situation until it goes away, at which point an adventurer with his face buried in a map clatters into them at speed and tumbles them all onto their backs. “Hoi, Roger, stop cavorting with those orcs will you and get to looking with the rest of us” shouts Harry as he runs past for the sixth time, “or at least ask them for directions won’t you?” But Roger is unable to offer a reply from his place on the floor, what with six orcs jumping up and down on his chest.

After ten minutes of fruitless searching and painful wounds at the hands of the orcs, Tom slumps down in defeat with his back to a chest in the corner of a room and decides to have a nap. When the others find him they wake him with a loving kick to his head so that he jumps up with a start, knocking over the chest and spilling its contents over the floor. And there in the middle of it all is the object they’ve been searching for. “Well here it is all along. Seems Tom has been having us for fools, letting us run around like that when he knew where it was all along” says someone. “Can’t believe he blamed it on his map” says another. And they all show their appreciation for what they think is a cruel joke on Tom’s part by hitting him lovingly around the chest and head with their rolled up maps.

The item of their quest found and packed carefully away in a backpack, the group beam on one another; they love one another again, they love the dungeon with its dank walls, and they love the orcs, even Roger, whose chest was never quite the same again. They look quietly around with a silent satisfaction and fatherly love for all things, and a feeling that all was right in the world.

At which point Tom asks if anyone can remember the way out.

Sometimes it goes like this:

You’re riding towards the final goal of your quest; you can see the objective on your map and it’s a clear straight line from where you are now to where you need to be. As it rapidly approaches you settle back in the saddle and enjoy the sights and sounds of the rolling forested hills as they blur past and your mind drifts to thoughts of your reward.

After a little time you begin to realise that you should have reached your destination, and when your eyes focus from out of your blissful daydream you see that your horse is scrambling against the side of a modest incline, at the top of which stands the person with whom you need to speak. It’s only a very modest slope, no more than a few feet high, but no matter how much you urge your mount on, it just cannot seem to make any headway up it. Perhaps the slope is covered in a particularly greasy moss, or perhaps you should have fitted those chunky off-road horse shoes instead of slicks, either way the message seems to be that you’re not getting up this slope. This modest gentle slope. A slope so shallow, that if you tripped and fell while half way down, you’d be equally likely to roll back up to the top as continue on down to the bottom.

You check left and right and see that the slope runs to the horizon in both directions and that it will take some time to ride around it. You check the map again and see no sign of such an obstruction. Then, given such a gentle slope, you do what any reasonable person would do in such a situation. You calmly look left and right again, assessing the situation, making sure nobody is looking. And then you go mad. You fling yourself at the slope every which way you can imagine. You take a run up, even though your horse only ever goes one speed, even from a standing start. You try jumping the horse up the slope. First one long jump with a run up, then lots of tiny little jumps as the horse hoof-spins against the base of the slope; with the little jumps you start to make some progress up the slope, but because they are erratic in nature and because the horse is hoof-spinning all the while, you slowly start to drift off to the left or right, and you windscreen wipe your way along the slope in this way for a good mile or so before your horse blows a cylinder and smoke starts to come out of its bum. You resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have to run all the way around and you curse your map for not giving you any indication of this time wasting obstruction; your map chuckles quietly itself, holds out its hand behind its back and makes a beckoning motion, and the developer quietly drops half your subscription fee for the month in its upturned palm.

Eventually you make it all the way around and back to the top of the slope, only a few feet up from where you were struggling earlier, but nevertheless you are at the top now. The quest rewarder is standing only a few yards off, and you sit with straight back and look down on the slope that was once the master of you. With pride swelling in your chest you stand up in the stirrups and shout your triumphant victory to the audience of mountains that curve around your field of view, and in doing so surprise your horse, who takes a few startled steps forward and on to the slope, which is only too happy to expedite your three foot descent to the floor below.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

There are many ways to be free

It’s taken a little while since the original announcement, but Mechwarrior 4 is now available for free from the splendid fellows at MekTek. Seems to have been a bit popular as MekTek’s servers promptly melted, but they’ve rebuilt them (presumably stripping a few PPCs, going with more autocannons, upping the heatsinks and standing in a lake) and put out a new version of the MTK software that downloads, installs and patches the game. Unfortunately MTK is slightly temperamental and I’m having a bit of a wrestle with it to try and get the game patched up to the free version, but not to look a gift horse in the mouth, should be fun to get stomping around in big robots again!