Tuesday 31 August 2010

Thought for the day.

I paused to think after a brief discussion with Spinks in the comments of her post, prompted by the fact that she is currently levelling one of her bank alts.

Spinks wrote:
“I feel as though the bank alt had been sadly watching the comings and going of the rich, famous adventurers from it’s humble little desk job in ((city of your choice)). And then one day it sneaked out to seek its fortune ….”

Which lead me to remember how terribly proud I was when of one of my ‘little’ bank alts made it to Outland, and yet they were no less powerful a character than any of my other alts. It must be the RPer in us, or some such thing.

I do wonder, however, what proportion of players treat their characters as a stable of well cherished pets as I tend to do; what proportion treat them as tools; and what proportion live a virtual life as their very character. Perhaps there are other categories too which I have not considered?

For me, characters are a stable of pets, with each character having a unique personality. This is why I try to clothe my characters in a way that asserts their personality, and is why I often find myself frustrated by the limitations of MMOs when it comes to character customisation. Zoso and I were discussing APB last night, and m’colleague pondered on the curiosity of creating such a detailed character customisation model when, in a fast-paced frantic shooter MMO, the strongest impression most players will get is what colour you dyed your hair, and whether you’ve found out how to ‘hilariously’ take all your clothes off. Do your players customise for themselves because they’re creating a character, or do they customise for others because their character is a tool through which they want to send a message? And how much will the pace of your MMO allow for those customisation options to be observed? It seems to me that armour and weapons are fine and obvious places where developers could let players have a lot of freedom in expressing themselves; earlobe length and orientation… not so much. Warhammer Online added costume customisation recently but it only applies to what the player and their realm mates see, the opposition will still see your Orc in a Choppa’s set of armour and not the cloth bathrobe that you find it amusing for him to wear. This has, perhaps unsurprisingly for MMO players, caused some consternation amongst said population. The developers clearly want each side to be able to easily identify the opposing classes and their respective power level, which they achieve through the distinctive armour sets that each class gets as they level. Whereas the players want freedom of choice and the extra potential to confuse the enemy by changing the appearance of their characters from the uniform norm. I think, at a fundamental level, players like to be different. They also like to wear the best, however, and this often takes precedence when it comes to choosing between stats and appearance, and means that most players end-up looking like everyone else, especially when it comes to the end game. LotRO (and EQ2 and others) has always supported this need for individuality with a wide range of cosmetic items available and custom cosmetic outfit panels alongside the standard character panel, and LotRO is going further still with the next content patch by allowing characters on the same account to share cosmetic items, such that low level alts will be able to have access to high level cosmetic items (with certain restrictions) as long as you have at least one character of a high enough level to obtain them.

Treating my characters as pets is also why I can, as a male, happily play female characters without any concern. When I play a character I am merely directing their adventure in the world, I am participating in their life, but I do not think that I am them. I invent a character for a story, and then I play out that story in the medium of an MMO; much as I when read a book, I picture what the protagonist sees, try to imagine how they feel, sense what they sense, but I don’t try to pretend that I am them. MMOs, for me, straddle a curious divide between reading a book and directing a movie: I am following a story, there is definitive structure and a narrative to it, and an eventual conclusion, but I am not an entirely passive entity, however, because at the very least I get to direct the action sequences.

Call me Corpse.

Corpse of Marsh-flyIt was while playing around in Lord of the Rings Online the other night with a low level alt that I came across a curious event. I had just killed a marsh-fly when the server decided to have a bit of a wibble (for want of better technical parlance) and when my screen unfroze I found myself being hit upon, which is to say being struck painfully as opposed to being asked down the Prancing Pony for a drink, by Corpse of Marsh-fly, pictured over yonder.

For starters, how cruel must his parents have been for them to call their son Corpse? It probably made for some vaguely comical moments in an otherwise drab and dreary life, sure. “Where’s that Corpse when you need him?”; “I caught that Corpse in some hanky panky with the butcher’s daughter the other day”; “I’m pleased to say Mrs Bride that your young Corpse is as healthy as can be”. Honestly though, it’s a name you might possibly expect to hear from a creature out of the pits of Mordor, but a young ruffian in Archet? Hardly seems fair.

Then comes the second part of his title ‘of Marsh-fly’. Now, my Elf is ‘of Mirkwood’ and my Dwarf is ‘of the Lonely Mountain’, but I’ve travelled around a fair bit and Marsh-fly ain’t no town I’ve ever heard of. They speak Sindarin in Marsh-fly? ‘Welcome to Marsh-fly’ states the sign as you enter the sedate little village, ‘twinned with Bullfrog-Upon-Sea. Population 10,000,000 – Flies, Humans – 6’. So you can see why you wouldn’t want to have a name such as Corpse in a town that ten million flies like to call home, but then perhaps we should pity his brother Dungpile more.

Alas, when I killed Corpse the server seemed to unwibble: I was looking forward to a screenshot capturing the lesser spotted Corpse of Corpse of Marsh-fly, but it wasn’t to be and so ended my encounter with perhaps one of the more interesting characters that I’ve met in LotRO in a while.

Monday 30 August 2010

Resisting the reduction of pyschological phenomena to a physical state

Having entirely failed to get into Everquest 2 last year when it was a fiver on Steam, I thought I might as well have a quick poke around the beta of the new subscription-less Extended version. Grabbed the client easily enough thanks to the streaming technology is uses to keep the initial size down, got it installed and fired up, picked Swashbuckler as a class (how could you not want to buckle some swashes?) and human as race, then proceeded to spend a while making him look as Errol Flynn-y as possible, helped by a suitable pencil moustache option named “The Rugged Warrior” (“rugged”, of course, being the first adjective a pencil moustache suggests). Hairstyles offered options like “The Scoundrel”, “The Mercenary” and “The Temple Wiseman”, though from the industrial quantities of styling product employed “The Male Model”, “The Hairdresser” and “The Indie Band Guitarist In Seventh Place On The NME’s Cool List” might be more appropriate. Trying to name my character “Errol” caused the client to spend several minutes in deep contemplation as to whether the name was valid, eventually coming back and saying no, there was already an Errol (probably a hamster). At the same time the Flynn-alike on screen mysteriously transformed into some randomized entirely un-Flynn-y creature, so I flipped back, re-Flynn-ed, tried “Zoso” as a name, many minutes later… no, can’t have Zoso either (probably another hamster). And the face once more transformed into something random. Sticking in a random selection of characters, the brave Swashbuckler “Qfnizxcawet” (either a hamster, or possibly an Aztec god) strode forth to adventure with yet another random appearance, this one involving some peculiar comb-over hairstyle I don’t even remember from the list (which should’ve been filed under “The Geography Teacher”). Still, who cares about character appearance in MMOGs, it’s not something any of us obsess over to a frankly worrying degree or anything, is it? Oh, wait…

Melmoth pointed out there’s an option to save appearance settings, so I fired the client up again, redesigned the character, saved it, then proceeded to try a bunch of names, most of them taken (popular beta, obviously), but without such a long pause for checking, and with the appearance remaining mercifully unchanged. Perhaps the fact that it was streaming more data the first time around had thrown it for a bit of a loop. The saved character appearance proved handy as well, when I suddenly remembered a better name a couple of seconds after hitting “Play” whipping up a replacement was very quick.

Thursday 26 August 2010

My hand and other parasitoid xenomorph second stages.

So, after only just making a post about having trouble with the often vast number of keys attached to skills and abilities in MMOs, I thought I’d try to make life easier for myself. Where I use ‘easier’ quite wrongly.
G13 Gameboard
As such, while I was away over the past couple of days my G13 gameboard turned up at home. I plugged it in this evening and had a quick go in a couple of MMOs. So far, so ow my hand. It’s amazing how much one’s hand has moulded itself comfortably to the standard QWERTY-based WASD-type configuration. This evening I’ve found several tendons that I didn’t even realise I had, and they’ve made it be known that they are not amused at being exercised in such a manner. No sir, not one bit.

Still, I can definitely see the potential in it (once my hand stops cramping up in what I assume is an attempt at impersonating a facehugger from Aliens) with a great many keys at hand and available for binding to abilities, skills and other functions; and once I beat my brain into submission (I think it’s jealous of my hand and is trying to impersonate Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a form of one-upmanship) over using the thumb-stick to drive my character rather than the keys, I will free up even more space for extra abilities. Then there’s the multi-page function switching and even LUA scripting should I want to have a go at creating a sentient device that will play the game for me while I sit back and drink my favourite King’s Peg; although, considering the ‘success’ of our sentient Captcha system, that might not be considered the wisest of plans.

I’ll hopefully post a reviewlet in the coming weeks, as and when I get to grips with the thing. Speaking of grip, I need to go and find some Deep Heat to massage into my hand to see if I can shift it from this Hammer horror-esque claw configuration before I go to bed, otherwise I’m going to wake up in the night, see it sitting their beside me on the pillow, and try to beat it to death with a slipper before I realise what’s going on.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Thought for the day.

If you haven’t heard, Lord of the Rings Online is going to have a wardrobe system.

There, they’ve shown the industry how cosmetic outfits should be done, and done just about perfectly by the sounds of it. No excuses any more.

One cannot fly into flying.

I find it so hard to pick up old characters once I’ve abandoned them. I just can’t do it easily, or at all in many cases; I return again to the once familiar character selection screen and I look with gentle goofy-grinning fondness on the friend I once knew, admire their armour – carefully selected in order to minimise the usual clownful kaleidoscopic ensemble of the casual adventurer – and then launch into the game. Once my character has loaded I look at a hotbar full of abilities set out before me and… hmmm. Have you have seen the cockpit of a 747 airliner? Have you ever had one of those fantasies where you’re on a flight to some sunny destination and suddenly the pilot and co-pilot are taken terribly ill and nobody in the cabin crew has any idea how to fly? A flight attendant stutters over the comms, trying to hide the fear in their voice as they ask whether anyone familiar with how to pilot a 747 could please step to the front of the cabin. Of course nobody else steps forward, so you slowly walk up to the front. “I’m afraid I haven’t flown a 747 before” you quip to the adoring and hopeful-looking flight attendants, “but I did fly a few sorties of F-15 Strike Eagle on my friend’s Atari ST, so I think I should be able to help out with your little problem”. In your fantasy you step into the cockpit, settle yourself in the captain’s seat, calmly put on the headset and call the tower to let them know that you’re banking slowly back to the airfield and if they could just give you some pointers on what flap settings you’ll need to land, that’d be splendid. You land the plane without incident, of course, with the flight attendants saying that it’s the smoothest landing they’ve ever experienced, and how did you manage it, especially with that 160 knot crosswind and the other airliner cutting you off as it tried to jump the queue ahead of you? And you shrug and smile and take phone numbers from a couple of them as the other passengers sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, and as you leave the aircraft to the cheers coming from the throng of spectators and journalists waiting outside, the theme tune to 633 Squadron breaks out in the background, and you walk off into the sunset, arm in arm with a couple of rather attractive flight crew.

Of course what would actually happen when you sauntered up to the front of the cabin is that firstly you’d see this:

Welcome back to your high level MMO character

Followed shortly thereafter by you running to the nearest emergency exit and leaping out without bothering to check if there’s a parachute.

And that’s pretty much your standard reasonably high level character in an MMO after you’ve been away from them for any significant period of time. You start looking at all the buttons and, if you have any sense, run away screaming. If you don’t do that, then you’re possibly the sort who laughs merrily at all the power that your character must possess, because look: there are six finger-aching hotbars worth of buttons there! So you immediately run into a fight with three or four mobs of plus five levels, and as your character’s health starts to careen its way off the side of the screen you start maniacally pressing buttons in the order that you seem to vaguely remember from several months ago, and it all goes downhill from there. You find the button for ejecting your character’s armour, you find the button that sends up a flare in order to attract all the other mobs in the zone, the button that changes your hair colour, the one that launders your underwear (which you note down because it’s about to become quite useful), and you find the button which announces in General Chat that you’ve taken off all your armour and are currently flashing your whiter than whites at fifteen hundred angry orcs. And that’s when you remember that you were thinking of the buttons for another character, from a different game entirely; you watch your character vaporise into a cloud of bloody droplets, and all you can think is ‘well at least I know which button gets those stains out of my character’s underwear’.

I have real trouble picking up with characters again after having been away from them for a while. I recently re-rolled my Bear Shaman in AoC and my Warrior Priest in WAR because of this. Now I’d been away from them for half a year or more (and admittedly I have a terrible memory for these things), but how long does it take before that 747 cockpit feeling starts to take hold? Well, I haven’t played my Warden in LotRO for a week and a half due to the aforementioned re-rolling of priesty warriors and shamany bears, and already it had started to feel strange and uncomfortable when I returned the other night. It’s like having a favourite pair of comfortable shoes that feel odd on your feet because you’ve had to wear a different set of shoes recently. Even if it was your favourite shoes, the ones you’d never take off because they fit you like a glove. A shoe-shaped glove. That fits your feet. Hum. And even if you did take those favourite shoes off you vowed never to wear another pair of shoes ever. They were your best shoes, you would both go everywhere together; take photos of yourselves laughing and goofing around in picture booths; they’d sit on the bench of a rowboat looking coy as you sculled them up the Thames; when you got home after a long day out you’d place them carefully on the rug in front of the fire; and later you’d take them up to bed and have them cuddle up on the pillow beside you… I’ve said too much. But you know what I mean: you loved those shoes, platonically or otherwise, and suddenly because you’ve had to wear work shoes for a few weeks now you find that your favourite shoes are a bit uncomfortable around the heel. You start to get annoyed with your shoes, they don’t lace-up right and they have a bit of a reek, and your shoes are deeply offended by this and fill themselves with small stones at every opportunity. Eventually you both decide to take a break and see other shoes, and it’s never the same again.

Yeah, so anyway, it’s a bit like that with my MMO characters. Perhaps a bit less creepy. This is one of the reasons that I like MMO expansions with new races and classes because it gives me an excuse to start afresh with all the other players that are doing the same; World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm will be a blessing for me because I’m not sure I care to go back and remember what all the buttons do on my level eighty characters, especially as I often like to play the healer role. I can just picture myself being the gung-ho type I mentioned earlier and signing up for a dungeon run as soon as I get back into the game after almost a year away from it. I’ll still be desperately trying to get my AddOns to stop aligning my entire interface into a six pixel by six pixel square in the top left corner of my screen when I need to start with the healing. I picture myself looking at all the buttons and hovering over one, then another, then sucking my finger a bit before going back and pressing the first with the daintiest of tentative dabs while directing a hopeful pleading look of Please Don’t Let This Be Bad towards the screen. And afterwards I’m sure we’ll all sit around and laugh and laugh while I finish washing all the blood out of the group members’ underwear.

Monday 23 August 2010

Wot I'm Playing: Champions Online

Champions Online seems to tick so many boxes. There’s the character creator for a start, vast arrays of crazy options you can lose yourself for days in. Then there’s power selection, where you’re not locked into a fixed class but are free to select from a wide array of offensive, defensive and various utility powers, and combine those with stances to fulfil different roles; you’ve also got fantastic travel powers for getting around. The world seems to be a good size with areas like a metropolis teeming with villainy, an irradiated desert, a frozen wasteland, suitably superheroic settings. There’s loot and crafting, fast paced action, public quests, drop-in PvP, so much good stuff, and yet… somehow it seems to add up to less than the sum of its parts. Having a lifetime subscription is great for popping in now and again, and if nothing else is really gripping me I’ll bounce in and dispense a bit of justice, but it never really grabs me and keeps me in, a bit like Guild Wars in that respect, games I never really managed to stick at.

It’s hard to put a finger on why it doesn’t quite work for me; I think one aspect might be the genre. Since City of Heroes got me back into comics a while ago I enjoyed the first two volumes of the self-contained Ultimates series, but I couldn’t get into any of the more continuity-heavy mainstream superhero series I tried. I still pick up a few trade paperbacks here and there, but mostly standalone books like DMZ and The Walking Dead that don’t feature superheroes, so the hero genre doesn’t have an especially strong draw and the Champions lore and setting hasn’t particularly grabbed me. There are some nice little vignettes, like the town of Snake Gulch populated by robotic cowboys gone haywire (very Westworld), but overall it seems a bit generic. The forthcoming DC Universe Online at least features iconic characters like Superman and Batman in the rather spectacular recent trailer, and I understand there’s going to be an accompanying comic, though I’m not sure if, or how, they’re going to fit in hordes of player character heroes. Perhaps it might have that indefinable x-factor that Champions doesn’t quite seem to.

Friday 20 August 2010

All that we should see in the world is You and I.

I thought I’d expound a little on the thought experiment of moving UI elements into the game world, which as we know is not a new idea in gaming as Hirvox rightly points out in a comment, but is perhaps less common in MMOs. Zubon has already taken the health bar idea a step further, with consideration given to colour blind players, a concern that Tesh highlights in a comment as well.

The next logical step was to move the yin to the health bar’s yang: the mana bar. A few obvious ideas sprang immediately to mind: the wizard’s staff, for example, is a prime candidate for being turned into a mana gauge; a Steampunk world could have staves as a metal rod with pipes and wires, and valves hissing open and shut, and running the length of the rod would be a thin window that shows the level of fuel left, a bubbling agitated blue liquid that slowly drains away as the Vapourmancer performs their half-scientific half-mystical art. Sticking with the Dead Space inspired influences, another option could be a belt of phials strapped around the back of the magic user’s waist which slowly drain as they cast spells. We can improve on this further perhaps by having the avatar grab a phial and drink it down prior to casting a spell, this gives us several benefits: firstly it draws the player’s attention in to their character and thus the game world because that’s where they can observe their mana levels, a Good Thing in my opinion – I’ve always wondered at the reason for having tremendously pretty 3D worlds and then making the players spend a vast amount of time staring at 2D two colour bar charts (health, mana, rage, experience, aggro, etc.) and pie charts (cool-downs). Secondly, we can use the animation to eliminate another of the 2D bar charts, the cast bar. The avatar draws out a phial from their belt and takes a swig and puts it back and then throws their spell, the cast bar is now a visual animation in the world (drawing the player’s focus into the game again) rather than a gauge on an interface to a game. Finally, it’s just much more immersive, rather than constantly breaking out of the game world to check gauges, the player’s character has a (comparatively) more realistic way to show the same information.

Games have developed in leaps and bounds in recent years, in graphics and audio quality, in scope, and in the maturity of the content presented therein. One of the major items that really lags behind, however, is the UI. There are efforts being made in certain areas to make a breakthrough, games such as the aforementioned Dead Space, and others such as Gears of War and Heavy Rain, with varying levels of success. It’s not an un-researched topic, but in the MMO space it seems to be regarded in terms of COTS technology, that is ‘Slap some bar charts on the screen (make it a big red circle if you’re feeling innovative), put some buttons at the bottom of the screen and fill them with ticking pie charts and numbers for cool-downs, a mini map and have a text box with quest objectives in it’. If you’re feeling particularly generous add-in LUA scripting so that players can create HUDs so complex they’d make an aircraft HUD developer have a seizure.

One of the things I liked in one of the Guild Wars 2 game-play demonstrations was the way the world map was brought into view, it sort of faded in as the camera zoomed out from the player’s avatar, giving the player the sense of their place in the world in a geographical sense. The curious thing to me is that, although that is a lovely and slightly less jarring way to introduce the world map, I wonder why they didn’t have the avatar pull out a map and then zoom down over their shoulder and into the map that way, which to me would give the impression of reading a map, rather than calling up a geosynchronous LEO satellite image, which the zooming out impression gives, and again it would draw the player down and in to the game, rather than pulling them up and out.

It’s one of those curious tropes in MMOs, for me, that these beautiful worlds are crafted by fantastic minds and amazing artists, are always the first thing to be shown-off in promotional videos with dramatic fly-bys of prominent landmarks, and then the game itself is layered on top of this world in such a way that you are constantly being pulled out of it, or at the very least viewing it all through an immersion breaking HUD of varying levels of complexity. The most important thing when engineering the software for aircraft HUDs, and even more importantly now with the development of real-time tracked helmet HUDs, is to make the HUD invisibly visible to the pilot, which sounds a bit like marketing speak, but is the easiest way I can describe it. The pilot is never conscious that they’re looking at a HUD, they’re looking at the real world, always, because in many situations they’re travelling too fast to not be looking where they’re going, they look at the world and they know information about what they’re looking at without having to draw themselves out of the world they’re looking at. Now admittedly other tricks are used too, such as focussing the display at infinity so that the pilot doesn’t need to change their focus to read the display, but as much as possible the aim is to minimise the effort required on the pilot’s part to have to absorb that information, it becomes more like a sixth sense than an information panel.

The reason I raise this issue is that I see MMO developers creating more extravagant worlds with every new release, and yet often we see the same old UI pasted on top of it, and as long as you do that, as long as you continue to draw the player out of the world to look at a spreadsheets worth of information every fight, it seems like such a waste. As a final disclaimer, this is all context dependant of course, a game such as EVE which is set in a futuristic society of space-faring combatants is obviously ripe for tactical overlays and systems monitors and the like, and although the game has undeniably beautiful vistas in the void, they are far less important in the context of that game than the raw data.

Now I’m off to buy my lunch, just as soon as I’ve checked my mini-map for where the shop is, examined my bag inventory for space, made sure my stamina bar is full enough to make the journey, and have set the lunch objectives in my quest tracker.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Wot I'm Playing: Wings of Prey demo

Browsing the ever-shrinking PC games section of the local game shop, I found the box for Wings of Prey; I haven’t played a flight sim for years, and got all nostalgic for the days when they were a PC staple. Contributing to the decline of retail games outlets I put the box down, went home to check some reviews, and found a demo on Steam.

Things didn’t start terribly smoothly as it didn’t seem to pick up my joystick automatically (if you know what I mean), and selecting a built-in configuration caused my plane to rapidly plummet to certain doom so I had to set up the controls manually, but after that, in no time at all bally Jerry pranged his kite right in the how’s your father. Hairy blighter, dicky-birdied, feathered back on his Sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harper’s and caught his can in the Bertie.

Wings of Prey has three modes, Arcade, Realistic and Simulation. Not wanting to worry too much about propeller pitch and fuel mixture I’ve only been trying it on Arcade setting, complete with infinite ammo for MOAR DAKKA, and had a rather excellent time tearing through formations of He-111s. Visually it’s absolutely stunning, the planes look fantastic, and take realistic damage as they go; note the holes in the wings and fuselage from the Heinkel gunners:

Heading home after a tough patrol

With plenty of games still to finish in the Steam library I’m not going to rush out and pick it up at full price, but if it comes up in a Steam sale I could well be tempted. Hectic!

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Thought for the day.

Instead of health bars in a UI element, have the colour drain out of a player’s avatar from head to foot as they lose health.

Does my belt look big in this?

I’ve been adventuring in Age of Conan again recently. Instead of picking up my high level Bear Shaman I decided to re-roll: it meant I could switch to an RP server for the generally more pleasant community atmosphere; make my way through Tortage to see what, if anything has changed; get to grips with the combat system again; and pop out of Tortage ready to run through the lands of Khitai, newly released with the Rise of the Godslayer expansion.

So far so good. I’m out of Tortage, with nothing of note to report: the experience is still smooth and enjoyable, although it didn’t wow me as much as the first time I played through, but that’s perhaps because I knew what to expect, and games have moved on a little in ambition since the time that the voiced MMO content and personal storyline ‘tutorial’ of Tortage was a Big Thing. Khitai is pleasant, with much better quest organisation and zone progression than the other areas I remember from my previous time in the game; quests are still the standard MMO fare, and the zone is still pebble-dashed with mobstacles, which is a particular shame in this instance because the lands of AoC, and Khitai in particular, are breathtaking and must surely call to the explorer in everyone.

However, it’s hard to explore in a game when it’s abundantly clear that every inch of land has aggressive enemies placed in just such a way that you can’t go anywhere significant without drawing the ire of a great many of them. I know combat is the be all and end all of MMOs, and I certainly shouldn’t complain about that in a game based on the world of Conan, but it does ruin a lot of the sense of adventure when you can see you’ll have to fight your way through wild cats, say, that just happen to be spaced in regimented fashion all the way up the side of the mountain you were thinking of climbing; it’s like posting a big sign at the bottom of any interesting geographical feature that says ‘You must grind this hard to explore here’. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me: is it the case that you’re trying to slow players down and make them play longer by making them grind to explore? If so, do you think that works? Do the majority of players look at the mountain and think “Well there’s probably nothing up there anyway, so I’ll definitely want to grind through a horde of crap animals to get there” or do they wander off, do only the quests that they need, and blast through your content and out into the next zone. Now if the way up that mountain was clear, and the player takes the time to explore, they’ve actually played for longer in the zone than they would have with the mobstacles in the way. Not only that, if they then find something of interest at the top of the mountain, part of a collectible set of items with a reward on completion, say, then they’ll be more inclined to explore other mountains. Not every mountain has to have a reward at the top, but a clever developer might put one at the top of the nearest and most obvious mountain at the start of the zone. And a clever developer certainly wouldn’t need any explanation of the nature of many MMO players when it comes to the OCDness of collecting things and getting a shiny reward at the end of it.

Age of Conan has interesting, some might say frantic, combat and I’m enjoying the Bear Shaman class again, and will probably expound on my likes and dislikes in a future post, hopefully in comparison to the other melee healers that I’m playing in my other two MMOs of the moment – the Warden and Captain in Lord of the Rings Online and the Warrior Priest in Warhammer Online. There’s plenty more to talk about in Age of Conan, including some of the amusing bugs and quirks that I’ve come across in my short travels so far in the lands of Hyboria. I thought I’d share this one here for now, a belt reward I got from one of the first quests I did in Khitai. As well being a stunning interpretation of Hyboria’s China, Khitai also has a very Asian feel to the culture, and as such the light and medium armour is all bulky padded layers compared to the more skin hugging leather of the other races. Once you have a full set of armour it looks quite imposing, but of course to get everything situated correctly the belt has to be rather large to compensate for all the bulky armour: fine if you’ve got a full set, but if you get just a belt… well, at least you’ll never hear anyone ask “does my bum looks big in this?”

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Thought for the day.

Can I play my original Guild Wars character in Guild Wars 2?

Guild Wars 2 is a whole new game with different professions and races, new technology, and expanded gameplay. It is not possible to directly use an original Guild Wars character.

However, your original Guild Wars character names will be reserved for your use in Guild Wars 2

Interested in Guild Wars 2? Got a copy of Guild Wars lying around and a favourite character name, perhaps something that nicely fits one of the new races you’re thinking of playing? Might be worth quickly poking your nose in to reserve a name, it’s not as if you have to pay a subscription fee to do so.

I think I have a decent Charr name worked out. Now I just need that tall considerable shadow on the far left of the professions page to be a shaman, and I imagine I’ll be all set.

Luck is believing you're lucky.

I had always pictured Lady Luck as a noble elfin soul, draped in layers of white lace, blindfold across her eyes, skin of silken touch and marble pure. Her face forever formed a smile, and be it a sympathetic compression of commiseration or a joyous beam of bounty, it was always kind. Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to go back and get the last pages to drop for the last of my Warden’s legendary book traits in Lord of the Rings Online, at which point I realised that the story of Lady Luck is more akin to the loathly lady.

Some of your character’s legendary traits, which are more powerful versions of the standard traits and oftentimes class defining, are obtained by collecting a number of book pages that drop randomly from certain groups of mobs in certain zones. The long and the short of it being that I had far out-levelled those specific zones and was still missing three pages, two for one book and one for the other. Being that this was the third character I was running through this particular gauntlet, I knew where I could find the various pages, and happily it turned out that all three pages were to be found in the same zone. So I headed off to Forochel where all the mobs were twenty or so levels below my character, and I began to slaughter them wholesale. Within a few minutes I had the two pages from one book, and so knowing that I must be in a good place I continued to grind away.

And grind away. And grind away. After an hour I decided that Lady Luck might have taken her leave and was perhaps soaking her delicate frame in a steamy scented bath while the melancholic cantata of O Fortuna piped through her headphones. Regardless, she was not hearing my calling, so I logged-off for the night.

I logged-on the next day and after half an hour of grinding I began to plead with the Lady of the Luck, hoping that she might rise up out of her bath and present to me the item I desired. After ten minutes of unsuccessful wheedling to an imaginary being, I did what any sane rational person would do – I squeezed my eyes tight every time I went to loot a corpse, tried to picture the message popping up saying I’d found my magical missing page, then popped my eyes open and looted at the same time.

And do you know what?! It didn’t work, obviously.

I then resorted to the best and most infallible method: I struck up a conversation with my wife and, whilst in the midst of a fascinating debate on the merits of various fitness plans, I ‘accidentally’ looted a pre-slaughtered corpse that I just happened to have my mouse cursor poised over. Having concluded our merry discourse on Yoga vs. Pilates, I turned back to my screen and feigned shock that I had somehow looted a body in the meantime – “I wonder what loot dropped, which I happened not to see” I said loud enough to cause my wife to wonder if we were still talking about Pilates, and whether I was being quite rude.

And do you know what dropped?! Nothing, obviously.

I’d tried the three most sensible, normal options that any MMO player would consider when confronted with such a dilemma, so now it was time to get shamanistic on the situation, I had to bite the bullet, do something daft, something crazy: I went and checked the Wiki entry. Sure enough I was in the right zone for the page I required, and I was in one of the best known spots for grinding. I was buoyed by this, but not entirely convinced either, I mean, squinting my eyes closed and hoping really hard hadn’t worked after all, and ‘accidental looting’ almost always worked; unlike those trusted MMO techniques, the Wiki entry was fallible and could be wrong. I spent another half an hour grinding. And then I went mad.

The problem with randomness such as this is that you’re waiting on just one item that drops after an undetermined interval, and as evidenced by my grind thus far, sometimes that random interval is really bloody unreasonably long, all things considered. The other problem is – and this is the kicker that drives one mad – MMOs have bugs. I know, shocking revelation, but sometimes items that seem to be taking a really very long time to drop are actually bugged and are not going to drop at all. Ever. The problem is this: how does one know? HOW DOES ONE KNOW? At which point the mind goes snap ping tinkle.

So over the period of a few days of one hour sessions I went and tried a different area in the same zone. I tried different types of mobs in that zone. I went to the other major zone where the other pages usually drop – which was a bloody long trip – and spent time grinding there, just in case. Question: how long do you give yourself in these new areas though, before you give up and try somewhere else? That’s when you really go mad. I’d go to leave an area and my mind would say “Don’t stop now. What if it’s going to be the next mob here? What if?” and I’d turn around and kill the nearest mob and not get the drop. My mind would say “Perhaps that wasn’t the right mob. Perhaps you have to kill the ones that are walking around” and I’d go and kill a walking one and wouldn’t get my drop, and then I’d kill a couple more before my mind could say anything, just to shut it the hell up. So I’d finally manage to leave, and I’d go and find another place that I thought might qualify and my mind would be sulking in the background saying “That last place was better, bet you don’t get the drop this time. There, see.” and it would carry on like that until I tried to leave again, and then it’d whisper to me that maybe I should kill just one more…

Eventually I ended-up back where I started originally, having seemingly killed my way through half the forces of evil in Middle Earth, and still I didn’t have my page. My mind, obviously having an absolute blast, decided to play a new game now: “The mobs that dropped those other pages… maybe you killed those mobs at night? Wasn’t your character wearing a yellow hat when you got those other pages to drop? And a blue cloak? At the time you got those other pages the number of stacks of trash loot in your character’s bags added to the number of remaining health potions was a member of the Fibonacci sequence, that can’t be a coincidence, surely?!

And that’s when it happens in an MMO, that’s the point where your conscious mind looks across at your subconscious mind and says “Even I hate you now. Sod this, I’m going out“, and you become a grind zombie – you give up trying to second guess Lady Luck, give up trying to plead with her, give up all hope and expectation. You just resign yourself to sitting there and killing mobs until they have to peel your desiccated corpse out of the chair, your hands still involuntarily twitching out the four or so keystrokes required to rapidly kill low level mobs over and over again.

I turned to Lady Luck and handed unconditional control over to her, I was broken; I was subservient to Lady Luck – beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love her and despair! She is the one rand() to rule them all. I relaxed, I vowed to let her decide, when she was ready, when I would get my reward. A peace settled over me.

Two kills later, my page dropped.

Monday 16 August 2010

MMO Curio.

Redundant Boots of RedundancyToday’s objet de curiosit√© was sent in by fellow virtual-world veteran and erstwhile Lord of the Rings Online adventurer Van Hemlock, a gentleman not entirely unfamiliar with the peculiar and puzzling nature of MMOs. This piece of curious clothing comes from Dungeons and Dragons Online, an MMO famous for its many and varied items with Adjective Noun of Verb/Adjective titles that leave little to the imagination as to what the item in question can do; should one stumble upon Invisible Pantaloons of Greater Immodesty, for example, it is immediately obvious to all but the bravest or most foolhardy of adventurers that this is not an item of apparel fit for wearing to the royal masquerade.

And so we come to the Feather Falling Boots of Feather Fall, dubbed by Mr Hemlock as the Redundant Boots of Redundancy. This footwear comes with a permanent Feather Fall enchantment, immensely useful in the world of Eberron where jumping off high places to your otherwise inevitable demise seems to be a regular occurrence, almost as if some greater force were contriving to place adventurers in situations where they would need to Feather Fall or die. But what else can these magnificent boots do? What other mystical powers do they hold over and above their ability to grant the Feather Fall effect at all times, permanently, with no chance of it ever being the case that the wearer of these boots cannot Feather Fall. Would you believe that the clue was in the name?! And would you believe me if I told you that these boots could, in addition to allowing the owner to Feather Fall at will, allow them to expend up to three charges per rest in order to cast the Feather Fall spell on themselves as well!

What crazy old mage decided to create a pair of magical boots that would permanently grant an ability and then give those same boots three charges per rest of the same ability?! I mean, I can imagine it comes as quite a relief to the adventurer who owns said boots as he flings himself off a mountaintop only to find that he doesn’t have any charges of Feather Fall left on them; imagine the panic running through his mind as he realises his mistake too late, and how his life flashes before his eyes, and then it flashes again, and again, and several more times as he very slowly and gently wafts his way down to ground level. It’s not as though Feather Fall is a multiplicative ability, you can imagine Armoured Armour of More Armour working out quite well for a fighter type, but Feather Fall is a binary ability, you are either falling like the proverbial feather or the proverbial stone, you can’t fall more feathery. But what if you could? Say you could cast those charges and slow yourself even more, by how much would you slow down? Feather Fall is a pretty dramatic slowing effect as it is, another dose of Feather Fall on top of that might stop you entirely, but then surely that would make them Not Falling At All Boots of Hovering? And you’ve got three charges, so what happens if you use another charge straight away? Then they become Flying Boots of Vertical Ascent Only. But those charges will eventually wear off, and then you’ll hover/fall depending on how many charges are active at any one moment. Of course with permanent Feather Fall you won’t fall to your death, so essentially you’ve got a set of boots that will let you travel up and down the side of a mountain and hover at various levels – thus Elevator Boots of Multi-story Manoeuvring. Pop a rest shrine at the base of the mountain to allow for convenient recharging of the boots, strap a pair of them onto a bellboy, hop on his back and state your desired floor “Mount Doom, third floor: haberdashery, carpets & rugs, ladies wear, and the forges within the Cracks of Doom”.

Next week we bring you the Water Breathing Ring of Water Breathing, also known in adventuring circles as the underwater oxygen bar.

Sunday 15 August 2010

It came from the spam bucket.

“Some time before, I really needed to buy a car for my firm but I did not have enough cash and couldn’t buy something. Thank goodness my sister proposed to get the home loans from banks. Thus, I acted so and was happy with my auto loan.”

The End. Always finish a great story with ‘The End’. Tolkien would have been proud though, well done.

“I bet you wish george bush was still president now”

Not… really, no.

Oh wait, is this flamebait? Sorry, we’re English, you probably should have questioned the utility of our corduroy elbow patches, that really gets on our nerves, we may even sigh really quite loudly if you’re rude enough.

“Wash knowledge of language foreign it is very good not to eat, help with transfer.”

I’m not going to pass Roy Hattersley an eiderdown. Back to Babelfish with you, sirrah!

“The economy is so bad, Hot Wheels and Matchbox stocks are trading higher than Chrysler and GM..!!”

I’m sure that’s worth more than two exclamation marks. That’s, like, a five exclamation marker at the very least.
I mean really, holding Hot Wheels up on the same level as Matchbox is utter sacrilege. Next you’ll be insulting our elbow patches.

sigh

Saturday 14 August 2010

How now, hype?

Good hype is announcing player classes and races, world details, lore and specific game mechanics as they are actually implemented in the game.

Bad hype is making claims and then having to qualify your rhetoric and reel in player’s reasonable expectations based on what you specifically told them.

I’m just using Guild Wars 2 as an example because it’s of the moment. I’m genuinely excited about the game for other reasons, and for me Guild Wars 2 will always have a get-out clause in the fact that they aren’t intending to charge a subscription in the traditional sense, which lends a certain weight to their argument that they’re going about things differently.

Personally I have to balance that excitement against the Mythic example though, where a company with a previously excellent game with a healthy fan-base made big claims about taking MMOs to the next level, about creating a game for the players, with videos and blog posts – from developers and designers understandably passionate about the field of MMOs and their game – that talked about game mechanics and design revolutions that just never saw the light of day or, when they were actually implemented, were illuminated under a very different light to that which the hype had painted them.

It sounds like a familiar story now, and although I think Guild Wars 2 is going to be a good game, I do wonder whether it can live up to the expectations that are being set within the gaming community by ArenaNet’s manifesto. If they can live up to everything they have claimed, Guild Wars 2 will be a great game, but if they don’t, and it turns out merely to be a good game, I worry that the damage done by the negative backlash will be worse for them than if they had simply promoted the game through good hype. Good hype is the less dramatic, less flashy way to promote a game, for certain, but it develops no less a loyalty in the fan-base and general community, and most importantly, is more likely to develop sympathy and support for your game when it runs into the inevitable MMO launch issues, instead of the implosion of vitriol that is often reserved for games that claim greatness and fail to even approach the simple standard of competence that was set so many years ago by World of Warcraft. WoW isn’t greatness, it is simply the standard, the benchmark of entry, if you claim greatness for yourself.

Why do I rail against the bad hype? Because it destroys games and companies. It is bad for me as a player and fan of the genre, it is bad for the genre itself, it is bad for these companies and the people who have poured their heart and soul into their game. I hate it because it is marketing-driven rhetoric of the worst kind, it is the essence of the developer/designer passion filtered through the disingenuous half-truths of advertising, by committees in boardrooms who wouldn’t know an MMO if it was force-fed to them one experience point at a time. Bad hype is trying to generate current World of Warcraft levels of subscriptions at the launch of the game. Not even World of Warcraft did that.

It is big business come to the small rural town, paving over the fields, driving out all the shop owners and pasting up twenty foot tall billboards telling you that your boobs aren’t big enough, your car isn’t fast enough and that your sofa could be doing so much for you than being a comfortable place to sit, and that big business has a solution to all these problems you never knew you had until they arrived.

I’ll tell you why, however, that despite the ghosts in their hype machine I still have hope that Guild Wars 2 will be the great game that the designers and developers are telling us about. Ignore all the marketing pizazz and watch the part where Ree Soesbee delivers the following line

“The most important thing in any game should be the player. We have built a game for them.”

and watch her face. Either she deserves an Oscar for her acting performance, or that is the face of a game designer who believes passionately in what she says as she is saying it, no rhetoric, no grand analogies or sophisms, just a plain statement delivered in a manner that, to me, says “and I vow we will prove this to you”.

I hope so, because the good hype – races, classes, world design – that they’ve delivered so far has me fantastically excited about their game. The bad hype makes me equally as nervous and cynical, however.

Thursday 12 August 2010

It's not a trap! (Is it?)

Perhaps you remember from the start of the year my industry-shaking boycott of games including Ubisoft’s “Online Services Platform”? It’s been hard work I can tell you, getting up early each morning to man the barricades, exercising massive willpower to not be tempted into buying any oh-so-lovely looking games… All right, that might be a very slight exaggeration, there are only a few games that include it: The Settlers 7 (I loved the first Settlers game, way back whenever it was, but haven’t really got the time to sink into building a Kingdom), Silent Hunter V (I dabbled a bit with submarine simulators like 688 Attack Sub and Silent Service, but never really had the patience for all that creeping around and carefully deriving firing solutions as opposed to grabbing a plane in a flight sim and shouting “DAKKADAKKADAKKA!” a lot) and Assassin’s Creed II (currently filed under “maybe pick up if it’s in a Steam sale in a year or so for a fiver”).

The one Ubisoft game I’ve really been interested in is RUSE, a WWII RTS which has been delayed a couple of times, postponing the reckoning when my brave moral stand might actually be tested, and this morning news filtered through from Rock, Paper, Shotgun that it won’t be an issue after all. Apparently:

When R.U.S.E. is released in September, it will benefit from Valve’s Steamworks API to offer the best community experience to players. Consequently, a Steam account and Internet connection will be required to activate the game, as per Steam policy. For this reason, R.U.S.E. will not use the Ubisoft protection. Single player can be played offline.

Well huzzah! (So long as this isn’t just a cunning ruse.) Clearly this was entirely down to my threatened boycott; I’d better turn my powers to good, so listen up, like, banks and governments and stuff: I’m totally boycotting you until world poverty is ended, yeah! Back in the real world, though…

Some people [citation needed] might suggest that Steam is another form of DRM and not so different to Ubisoft’s Online Services Platform, and back in 2004 when I first encountered it as a mandatory component for authenticating Half Life 2 I was sceptical, but it’s turned into a really great platform. It keeps everything up to date by toddling off and grabbing patches in the background, the Steam store offers some fantastic deals during sales, and the community features tie in beautifully allowing you to see if friends are online and what they’re playing, invite them to games or jump in and join them (where the game supports it) and chat via text or voice. I haven’t had any problems with connectivity either, my ADSL line dropped out for an evening the other day, but switching Steam into Offline mode it was perfectly happy to fire up Borderlands. It’s not perfect, you still need to connect for initial authentication, there’s the possibility of problems with Steam affecting your games, if you get locked out of your account you’re pretty much screwed, but there’s clear added value; by using Steam RUSE avoids the hassle of having to create yet another account for some service and dig through it to try and find your friends there. Services like Good Old Games may be superior in offering DRM-free titles, but I can live with Steam’s compromise between restrictions and features. Especially when compared with Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live.

Games for Windows Live offers many of the same features as Steam such as digital distribution, patching and a community. In most cases, it does them very badly; patching is probably the best example. If you’re running Steam in the background and there’s no other internet activity, Steam slips off like a well trained valet, checks for updates to your games, downloads them, installs, and pops up a discrete notification: “*ahem* I took the liberty of updating Borderlands to Version 1.31, sir. I’ve also put the brown suit out for luncheon, I believe Lady Malvern is expecting you at half past.” I’m pretty sure it will quite happily load up a game that hasn’t been patched to the latest version as well, I can’t remember it ever being an issue. G4WL, on the other hand, is like a stroppy bouncer. “Oi, v1.2 only, sling yer ‘ook!” it’ll bellow if you fire up a game you haven’t played for a while; it’s sometimes possible to ignore it, log out of G4WL and play the game anyway, but some games then sulk and won’t let you access any of your saves, so it’s best to sigh and click the “update” button. At that point it just sits there, with an incomprehensible lack-of-progress bar that doesn’t really do anything; you can’t carry on and play, can’t go back to Windows and do anything else, you just have to leave it there and hope it actually is downloading a patch (if you’re very, very lucky), though more often than not it just gets confused by something and falls over in a heap after half an hour with an incomprehensible error message. Several times I’ve had to go off and track down patches for a game elsewhere, download them from a browser (during which time I can still use said browser to look at other sites) and manually install them; if that’s the update model I haven’t got a problem with it, but don’t include a “feature” in your distribution system that’s worse in almost every way! It’s all the more baffling as Microsoft could be in such a good position; the system ties in to the massively popular XBox Live (which, by all accounts, works very well on the console), but you can’t do much on the PC apart from send messages to XBox users as cross-platform play seemed to begin and end with the abortive Shadowrun. Steam had an advantage of being a component of massively popular games like Half Life 2 and Counterstrike, giving Valve wide initial distribution; with G4WL being mandatory for PC titles like Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV, Microsoft had a chance of starting to build up similar membership, but don’t seem to have done anything with it, leaving Games for Windows Live as a stunted half-arsed port of XBox Live that barely acknowledges the existence of arcane technology like a ‘mouse’. Which still makes it more useful than Ubisoft’s Online Services Platform.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Wot I'm Playing: Fluxx

In a mildly ironic turn of events I’m playing more games, especially MMOGs, than I have for a while, but finding less to write about. To steal the splendid imagery m’colleague uses, I’m sailing through the doldrums in a tarnished soup tureen (or perhaps on a raft consisting of several soup tureens lashed together, all that could be salvaged after the yacht Giddy Excitement foundered upon the rocks of Harsh Reality, though you have to wonder what all those tureens were doing on board in the first place; the crew must have really been into their soup, super tasty soup.) It’s not really with listlessness or a great sense of dissatisfaction, just a lack of the burning rage or excitement that usually fires the engines of bloggery. It’s also coming up to holiday season and the resultant drop-off in blogging, so to keep things ticking over I thought I’d borrow the idea of the Van Hemlock Podcast’s “What We’re Playing” segment, with an ingenious tweak of the title to cover the theft (though the criminal masterplan may have been slightly undermined by drawing attention to it just then).

To kick things off, a card game. I’ve generally missed out on the whole “German-style” board game movement, but we recently hit upon the cunning idea of relocating irregular pub gatherings to somebody’s house, allowing the hard drinking to be combined with game playing. Before delving right into Carcossonne or a 19-hour Talisman marathon, we beta-tested the concept with Rock Band and Zombie Fluxx, provided by Andy (purveyor of general splendidness including some rather excellent Warhammer miniature photos at Power Armoured Beard, where he’s also got a Fluxx reviewlet.) The basic rules are simple so a bunch of novices to be playing within minutes, but the point of Fluxx is that the basic rules don’t stay basic for very long as players put down cards that extend or replace previous rules and goals. A single game isn’t really enough to draw firm conclusions from, but the mutable rules are certainly interesting (something Tobold touches on from a MMOG perspective as he plays A Tale in the Desert). The changing goals make long-term strategy difficult, as cards that are essential to meet the conditions of one goal can become obstacles to meeting another, and even if the goal does stay the same for a while the action cards swiftly cause best laid schemes to gang aft agley. Playing with eight players as opposed to the suggested maximum of six probably ratcheted that chaos up a couple of notches too, even in the first turn we were drawing and playing various numbers of cards, Larry the zombie was shuffling around the table in different directions, everyone’s items got redistributed, and the goal had changed numerous times. It was rather chaotic, slightly confusing and heaps of fun, a great warm-up game. I’m rather tempted by Monty Python Fluxx now, especially as you can shuffle decks together to seek the Holy Grail during a Zombie Apocalypse.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

For now I am in a holiday humour.

Hello! I’m not dead, last time I checked at least. Possibly verging on undead, but that’s what fresh air and exercise does to an avid MMO player don’t you know.

Yes I’m on holiday at the moment, and although I have plenty of spare time it’s being spent doing things other than playing MMOs, or thinking about writing about MMOs. Or thinking about writing about playing MMOs. Except for this post, which is currently in the midst of thinking about thinking about writing about thinking about playing MMOs.

Not to mention the fact that the MMO-verse at the moment is duller than a heavily tarnished soup tureen reading Pinter in the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android on the dark side of the moon.

But there’s the hype of course, which sparkles so bright and hard it makes a Twilight vampire look like damp clay mashed onto a rusting clothes dummy. As is generally the way in the MMO industry, only the hype is truly extraordinary, everything else is a paler shade of meh. Even better, the current massive wave of hype that is building is still out in the middle of the ocean – the coast isn’t even in site – so this wave isn’t set to break for months, or even years.

So what should we expect when this wave eventually reaches the beaches of release? We’ll see the developers hunched over their tiny sandcastles of software, then standing proud as they reach up to place the flag-like finishing touches to the topmost towers. We’ll see them look up from their work, hands-on-hips proud, see them turn, and we’ll watch their necks begin to arch impossibly backwards as they witness the tsunami of hope and expectation that has been built by the overeager publishers and marketeers in the meantime. We’ll watch their faces droop in cartoon horror as the surfeit of surf, deep leviathan of deeper lies, reaches its arching arm far over them in mock embrace, carrying, as it does, hordes of expectant players on its arched back. And when the hype wave finally extends too far, such that it shades the developer’s work in a portentous blanket of darkness, it will inevitably break, the sea-wall of hope shatters, and the whirling wash of trust, wish and desire will flip and somersault, twist and loop and spin in the riptide of reality. Churned into a singular murky mess the whole will be sucked out to sea by the powerful pull of vacuum born by the hype’s sudden death. Those few players who are left will huddle around the single comical clam shell of content that remains on the otherwise barren beach, and while they consider what they can do to make the most of this last remnant, relic of a breached covenant, the publisher will come along, snap the shell shut and throw it fitfully out to sea.

Oh what? Look, I’m on holiday and it’s currently raining outside, so I thought you should suffer water-based misery too.

See you anon.

Friday 6 August 2010

Only your friends steal your books

Amazon have announced that they’re going to be selling Kindles properly in the UK (as opposed to the half-arsed “International” version), and at £109 for WiFi-only and £149 for a 3G version I’m quite tempted. My Android phone generally takes care of internet on the move, but for an extra £40 and no monthly fee a Kindle could be handy backup for very basic mail/blog checking on its stripped-down browser, the longer battery life being particularly useful as the phone really needs charging every day. (iPads are very shiny, but at least £400 more plus data charges…)

Course there’s reading books as well, that being the main purpose and all, and as I’m getting ready for a holiday and contemplating cutting down on spare pants to squeeze a few more books into a suitcase, the ability to have a library in a pocket is rather attractive (especially for everyone else I’m going on holiday with). One of the problems is starting a collection from scratch; there are clear parallels in books and music, with ebook readers for MP3 players, but where you could rip your existing CD collection to MP3s (not strictly legally, though most people do it anyway) there’s no equivalent for books that I’m aware of apart from chopping one into individual pages and shoving it through a scanner with a sheet feeder and oh-so-reliable OCR software (“It was the beset of Timmeys, it was the war St. of T1 mess, it was the age O twistom, it was the a Geoff goulash”). There’s always Project Gutenberg for stacks of free classics, and a few more recent works available under Creative Commons and similar licenses, but it would be nifty if dead tree editions of books contained a code that could be used to also get an electronic version.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

All will come out in the washing.

“Hi honey, I’m at a bit of a loose end, anything I can do to help?”

“Ooo yes, if you don’t mind, could you pop these socks in the wash for me? That’d be a huge help.”

“Sure thing.”

———————–

“I popped those socks in the wash like you asked.”

“Thank you! Here, you can choose between this lipstick and this biscuit as a reward for you efforts.”

“I, uh, don’t really wear lipstick. The biscuit?”

“There you go!”

“Um, thanks. *cronch* *cronch* Anything else I can help with?”

“Actually yes, could you pop this t-shirt in the wash for me?”

“In the… but I was just… socks… you just… didn’t you just? Fine, I’ll pop it in the wash.”

———————–

“Right, I managed to get the t-shirt in the wash with the socks, but mind yourself when you go out to the laundry room as there’s a fair bit of water on the floor now.”

“Aww, you’re a sweetie. Would you like another biscuit, these eyelash curlers or this bra?”

“Well I can’t use the bra, not sure I’d really use the eyelash curlers, guess I’ll have another biscuit. Thanks.”

“Great! Seeing as I’ve got you here, I need a favour.”

“Of course, no problem.”

“Could you go to the washing machine and put this large jumper in the wash? You’ll need to be careful though, the jumper will be much more difficult to wash than the socks or the t-shirt, here take this fabric softener to help you.”

“Oh come on… I mean…. Right. Fine. Look, before I go, is there anything else that needs to go in the wash?”

“No, that’s it for now. Thanks!”

“Fair enough.”

———————–

“Ok, I got the jumper in the wash. The socks and t-shirt fell out on the floor when I opened the washing machine door and got dirty though, so I had to put those in the wash again.”

“You’re a star, thanks ever so much! Here’s a copy of Sex in the City on DVD for taking the time to help.”

“I can’t stand that film. Here, can I give it back to you in exchange for another biscuit?”

“Sure! Oh, while you’re standing there, would you mind doing me a favour?”

“I’m not going to the washing machine…”

“Hah hah, no no, don’t be silly. Could you take this pin and pop it in my sewing box upstairs?”

“*sigh* Whereabouts upstairs?”

“I don’t know exactly, but here’s a structural plan of the house and I’ve circled the room where it was last seen. And I need you to do it in the next two minutes!”

———————–

“Still here? Something up?”

“You have a box of one hundred and fifty pins on the worktop behind you.”

“One hundred and forty nine, now, actually. So?”

“Are you sure you just want me to take this one pin all the way upstairs? Just this one?”

“Yes. Just the one. Why?”

“It’s just that I notice you have a box of a hundred and fifty biscuits on the worktop counter too.”

“Ooo, better hurry up, time’s almost up, and then you won’t get your bis…secret reward!”

Thought for the day.

Reading Ysh’s thoughts on the social considerations of soloing, duoing and grouping in MMOs, and having recently had cause to muse about such a situation myself, I pondered on the subject some more, and during that time the question I had the most fun and difficulty answering was this:

Could I happily duo with myself in an MMO?

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

I went to see Inception recently; reviews were almost universally positive (including, most crucially, from Mark Kermode), there were many glowing tweets about it, but I came out feeling a bit dissatisfied. It was definitely a good film with visually stunning sequences, combining pacey action with a lot more depth than the average summer blockbuster, but didn’t quite have that extra something that would have elevated it to the point where the only way of encapsulating a response to it in a textual format would be “ZOMGZ!!!1!1!!!”

It might not help that for the first ten minutes of the film I thought Leonardo DiCaprio had a weirdly Oedipal thing going on, calling his wife “ma”, but it turned out her name was Mal. Mostly, though, I think it was just that after such a big build-up, very little could live up to those expectations. By way of contrast a new series, Sherlock, started on the BBC, and knowing nothing more about it than it was a modern updating of Sherlock Holmes I really enjoyed the first episode. Course it’s hard to tell how much is the film or programme itself and how much is the associated expectations, but I’m fairly sure had I gone to see Inception totally cold there wouldn’t be that niggling hint of dissatisfaction. It’s a bit like how if somebody gave you £10 you’d be totally happy (if slightly puzzled as to why someone’s just handing out money), but if it was a coin toss and they said “heads I give you £10, tails I give you £50” and it came down heads, the pleasure at getting £10 would be offset slightly by a feeling that you’ve somehow missed out (plus even more puzzlement at why someone is handing out money in a weirdly random fashion).

From a marketing perspective, though, you have to at least get people aware your film exists, and then interested enough to see it in a crowded market, and on the balance sheet one sale with a slight sense of disappointment is preferable to no sale because your film sounded a bit rubbish, hence quotes on posters like “Hilarious! The funniest comedy of all time ever! I ruptured my spleen in nine places from laughing so much!” as opposed to “Y’know, it’s all right, if you haven’t got anything better to do give it a go, it’s moderately amusing in a couple of places.”

That’s why I’m not eagerly devouring every scrap of information about Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic or other forthcoming MMOGs. I’m not going out of my way to avoid news, I’ll skim headlines as they crop up in Google Reader (I was pleased to see an announcement about space combat in The Old Republic, that was my favourite bit of Star Wars Galaxies for the few weeks I tried it), but with the fluid nature of game development, where features can be added, removed or changed at almost any point, there’s no sense in getting too excited months or years before vague release dates which have a habit of getting delayed anyway. I generally find that applying a light dusting of cynicism to pre-release hype and being pleasantly surprised by a game to be more satisfying than buying into THE MOST ASTOUNDING GAMING EVENT IN HISTORY and finding it’s a Yet Another Diku-esque Grind.

Plus you get to say “I told you so” a lot more…

Monday 2 August 2010

MMO Curio.

From Warhammer Online I present to you the Average Frock of Volition. One of the seven Ancient Artifacts of Mediocrity, the Average Frock of Volition is conspicuous by its unremarkable appearance, an appearance so incredibly unremarkable as to be quite remarkable.

As can be seen from the stats of the item, the Average Frock of Volition is also known by its less common name: the Rubbish Frock of Volition; being that volition means ‘the act of willing, choosing, or resolving; exercise of willing; the power of willing; will’, the careful observer will note that the Frock of Liar Liar Pants on Fire has no Willpower stat on it at all, but instead has a considerable boost to Toughness. Now call me Susan if you must, but I don’t remember many Jane Austen characters who wore frocks that boosted their physical damage resistance; they had frocks that boosted Charisma, certainly, and frocks that bestowed dual air bags and emergency floatation devices, but there was very little in the way of frockage designed to arrest axe attacks.

There is, however, one theory on why an Average Frock of Volition would exist:

“Sigmar save us, it’s Deathspasm Spineflenser the Fleshmoulinex and Souleater, Great Champion of Khorne!”

“That’s bad right? That sounds like it could be bad.”

“It’s worse than bad!”

“That’s pretty bad.”

“And he’s wearing an Average Frock of Volition!”

“Bu.. but, that frock has no Willpower boost on it at all. I mean, the name implies that it should at least…”

“It’s the power of Chaos! Don’t let it break your mind!”

“T-Toughness? It has Toughness as a stat? But it’s a mediocre frock! It has passable lace cuffs, and is made from run of the mill taffeta! IT HAS VERY UNREMARKABLE RUFFLES AND RUCHING! Arrggghh my miiiiiiiiiinnnnnd!”

Such is the power of the Average Frock of Volition.

Next week on MMO Curio we examine a pair of Ok I Suppose Pantaloons of Vivification, which as the name suggests quite wrongly, provide a minor boost to the wearer’s Ballistic skill.