Thursday 30 September 2010

Not to be covetous, is money; not to be acquisitive, is revenue.

Last night, having passed through the tutorial turnstile at the entrance, I pushed my head through the heavy curtains draped across the doorway leading to Runes of Magic’s circus tent and peered around at the main show. Runes of Magic is definitely its own game, from the intriguing dual-class system to its pick’n’mix revenue model, there is enough here to make it stand out from the obvious point of comparison, the everyman’s point of comparison: World of Warcraft. Runes of Magic, and games like it, are always going to have a great deal of difficulty standing out against WoW, they are but small carnivals pitched on the borders of a vast amusement park, corporation concrete and polished chrome, whose rows of streamlined rides, safe but sterile, stretch all the way to the horizon.

As such, the smaller carnival games need to put on a grand display, to draw-in their customers, convince them to roll up, roll up and witness the wonders of their world, to see the bearded ladies and lizard men and midgets, to show them that lion tamers and trapeze artists can still hold sway and bring joy in this age of homogenous techno-marvels.

But it’s the danger that any entity risks when it becomes so large that it has difficulty defining its own boundaries: in presenting a clean, clinical, wart-free experience World of Warcraft risks losing any sense of character, with nothing to really challenge players the game becomes a processing facility, paying customers are injected at one end, and desensitised burnt-out husks are ejected at the other. I think Wrath of the Lich King came dangerously close to this with the relative trivialising of heroics and raiding; their error being, I believe, in confusing accessibility with difficulty. But Blizzard is in the process of renovating the amusement park, rejuvenating old rides to get people interested in them again as well attracting new customers, and at the same time they’re probably reviewing the layout of the park in a strange inverse reflection of the process that real life amusement parks go through. Disney World and the like are optimised to keep the flow of people moving between rides so that no one ride becomes overwhelmed, exits from rides will lead people to other rides or, more likely, shops where they can spend even more money with the park. World of Warcraft currently has this down to an art, and it turns out that it’s actually the wrong philosophy for a subscription-based MMO. What they need to be doing is keeping people on the same ride for as long as possible before sending them off to the next. As evidence, very few players come even close to getting the World Explorer achievement by the time they reach the end of the game because the streamlined system carries them on a rapid current that encourages them to not explore the banks of the river, but instead stay in the fast running waters, until the sudden and unexpected plunge over the waterfall of progress into the churning pool of raiding at its end.

For me the problem with Runes of Magic was that it tried so hard to pull me in that I found myself overwhelmed by the experience, and as a consequence it teetered on the edge of driving me away. I couldn’t help but compare my first levels in the game with those of WoW because the two games share similarities that have been pointed out by numerous other commentators already. Graphically and mechanically Runes of Magic is like looking at WoW through a hall of mirrors, everything is brighter, louder and more in your face, while being twisted into strange caricatures of the original. At best amusing, at worst confusing. It’s not that Runes of Magic is particularly difficult to get to grips with, it’s more like culture shock. Like a naive tourist from the West, comfortable with their cavernous shopping malls – those sanitised glass and tile cathedrals to the Gods of consumerism – visiting a heaving Arabian bazaar, totally unprepared for the personal, intimate, rustic, ritualistic orgy of acquisition. Neither shopping experience being right or wrong, you understand, just a matter of local culture or religion. Everything in Runes of Magic seemed to pull at me and attempt to barter for my attention. The system messages were perhaps the most stark, so long were they that they couldn’t simply be flashed up on your screen and then left in your chat log should you wish to review them again at your convenience, instead a scrolling stock-market-style ticker bar appears towards the top of the screen, and the full message is scrolled slowly along, thus giving the game time and space to present the hard sell for the item you ‘need’ to buy in the store to participate in the latest seasonal event.

In a way, what we are experiencing is The Cathedral and the Bazaar for MMO revenue streams, the Amusement Park and the Carnival, as it were.

The carnival is growing in popularity, and even the bigger developers such as Turbine are packing up their shows and taking them on the road, opening themselves up to a much wider audience that couldn’t otherwise have justified the expense of travelling to them. The show in the main tent is free to all, but doesn’t last long. You can go back as many times as you like, but it starts to get repetitive after a while. However you can experience the vast array of mad and magnificent side shows, for a price. The problem for the carnivals up until now is that they had to be brash, shout loudly, and flaunt young girls in their chainmail underwear, just to get the attention of the people taking their regular vacation to Warcraft World, and this can often be enough to put off those potential new customers, unaccustomed as they are to the in-your-face tactics of the ringmaster or bazaar shopkeeper. With Turbine moving into the arena things are perhaps set to change. They have an established name behind their travelling show, and they don’t need to be quite as brazen with their sales technique, it’s a more subtle sell than other games in the market, and although you should have no doubt that they are constantly trying to sell you things, a game like Lord of the Rings Online does not beat you around the head with it from the very moment you set foot in there. There’s a fine line to be trod when it comes to the pick’n’mix model of MMO revenue, convincing people to take in the main show and not driving them off is the first part of this, and it’s an area where I think games such as Runes of Magic struggle, but where established games that convert to this new revenue model can excel. The outcome of this is potentially a samurai-like double cut on Turbine’s part, where they introduce a large population of comfortable subscribers to the ideas of a pick’n’mix model, while at the same time introducing the pick’n’mixers to the idea that an accomplished top tier game can exist comfortably within their sphere of the MMO market, thus forcing other developers in the free to play market to raise their game.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Luck never gives; it only lends

How much randomness do you like in a game? Do you prefer the intellectual cut and thrust of Chess, a domain where Lady Luck holds no thrall, or do you like to test your favour with the gods through the medium of dice in Snakes and Ladders or Ludo (“Fucking Ludo”, to give it its full title)? Perhaps a mix of skill and chance works best, such as in Backgammon or Poker, or KiaSA Industries newest offering: Luda-Chess™. It’s just like normal chess, but you have to roll a 6 before you can move each pawn; all the wacky family fun of Chess with the deep strategy of Ludo!

Greg Costikyan gave a fantastic presentation at GDC Austin last year, “Randomness: Blight or Bane?”, reaching the conclusion “If randomness dictates outcomes, many players will find the game unsatisfying. But there are times when a degree of randomness plays an important, and useful, role in a design.” In MMOGs randomness is sometimes to the fore, typically in loot drops; perhaps pages from a book, or a lovely sword with a 5% chance of dropping from a boss (and a 99% chance of being rolled on by the rest of your party), and much as we might curse Lady Luck’s digitised cyber-counterpart Lady RNG when we miss out on that shiny trinket we still line up for another pull on the mob-lever of the slot machine dungeon. It’s an accepted form of randomness. In the combat that resulted in the loot-piñata-boss spraying forth his bejewelled intestines there was probably also plenty of randomness going on, in to-hit rolls and damage and crits, but enough rolls over enough time with little enough variance for that not to be the decisive factor in the combat. Maybe you get a bit lucky as a DPS character with a few extra critical rolls to nudge yourself up the damage meters slightly, maybe a tank gets unlucky and doesn’t block as many attacks as they’d normally expect, it keeps things interesting. What you don’t get is a boss who rolls a d6 every ten seconds, on a 6 instantly kills a player and on a 1 accidentally punches himself in the head for 1/6th of his total health; that would be Bad Random.

I’ve been thinking about randomness because I bought Blood Bowl on Steam the other week when it was on sale for less than a fiver. After a few games getting the hang of the rules I’m two games into a league campaign and I’ve decided it’s brilliant and rubbish, an excellent tactical sporting simulation and a foetid pile of badly thought out random goblin droppings. This might have something to do with my triumphant 3-1 victory over an Orc team in the opening game of the season being followed by brutalisation at the hands (and tentacles) of a bunch of Chaos Warriors, much of the difference seeming to come from dice rolls.

Almost everything you do in Blood Bowl, apart from moving, needs a dice roll; attacking other players, moving through tackle zones, throwing and catching the ball, even picking the ball up from the ground. In the first game things went swimmingly, I knocked a couple of his players out of the game quite early, didn’t suffer any serious casualties, and pulled off a couple of lovely moves (if I say so myself) like tackling the opposing ball carrier a few squares out from my endzone, scooping up the loose ball, chucking it down the sideline with a pinpoint pass, and sprinting in to score myself the next turn. The second game I finished with five players on the field, the other six in various states of injury and death, and featured such glorious triumphs as failing to pick the ball up from a kickoff, and an attempt at recreating the sideline pass of great victory from the first game that resulted in the ball squirting out of the thrower’s hand, off the pitch, and coming straight back in the hands of an opposing player. By some miracle the game actually finished in a 1-1 draw, due to the AI opponent either just being rubbish, or more likely properly roleplaying a Chaos coach almost entirely unconcerned with minor points of the game like “the ball”, but with at most eight or nine players available for the next round of the competition, two of those with stat damage from injuries, the longer term prospect don’t look good.

You can buy re-rolls for your team, and certain player skills mitigate dangers by allowing you to re-try or ignore certain results, but at the start of a campaign with a raw team it seems like randomness is the main factor in dictating outcomes. Of course there are strategies and tactics, websites and forums full of them, but with decisions based on a d6 there’s always a significant risk of failure; even a simple action like an agile player picking the ball up with no opposing player anywhere near fails if you roll a one, leading to the best laid plans of Skaven and Men ganging aft agley. This might just be sour grapes after a particularly bad mauling, perhaps I just need to buck my tactics up, and (possibly) excessive dependance on dice rolls apart Blood Bowl is rather fun. I think it could be a different experience against another person, where you could at least gloat over their critical fumble, or curse at their flukey luck if they pull off an improbable long bomb, against a CPU opponent it’s just the random numbers laid bare and maybe a bit of canned commentary.

That rather chimes with something from Keiron Gillen’s Ludo “review”:

“At a core level, especially when played with friends, everything’s fun in multiplayer. Stating the obvious: the most important part of multiplayer is the multiple players. This is where a worrying amount of a multiplayer game’s merit comes from. Is this actually a good game, or are these just good players? By which I mean, not actually anything to do with the commonly accepted idea of whether someone is good at the game – but whether they’re actually good to play with. That’s the only sort of “good player” which ever really matters.”

Monday 27 September 2010

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Slashdot reports on Panasonic’s sixteen-finger hair-washing robot:

“Panasonic has developed a hair-washing robot that uses 16 electronically controlled fingers to give a perfect wash and rinse. The robot, images of which were distributed by Panasonic, appears to be about the size of a washing machine. Users sit in a reclining chair and lean back to place their head in the machine’s open top. Two robot arms guide the 16 fingers, which have the same dexterity as human fingers, the company claims.”

The rumour that when a keyboard was placed in the open top the unmodified machine put out 5.5k DPS in most World of Warcraft raid dungeons is unfounded at this time. Observers did admit that the rinse cycle meant that the keys were surprisingly free from the usual residual levels of Cheetos, Mountain Dew and omnifarious bodily fluids, however.

To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.

Age of Conan has a bonus levelling system where you earn levels while your account has an active subscription. This pool of levels can then be spent on any character over level thirty to increase their overall level. You accrue levels at a rate which is comparative to the amount of time you would have otherwise had to spend actually levelling the character, and, as mentioned, it can also only be applied to a character that has already reached level thirty, something which doesn’t take a huge amount of time but is a suitable barrier to people rolling up a level one character and then boosting it up to the end game without any experience of the class whatsoever.

I was indifferent to this scheme, where some bloggers and forumites had railed against it I couldn’t see the problem; other players using it wouldn’t affect my game in any way – by the time it was released there were already enough level-capped characters to mean that the PvP game would be unaffected – and if I chose to skip content and get to the end game it was exactly that: my choice.

Now I’m actually starting to see that it could be quite a good thing in a mature game where players have already reached the level cap, perhaps multiple times. I’m currently in the middle of an alt dilemma in LotRO, having three characters that I really want to play but finding myself having a hard time playing any one of them, knowing that if I play one of them then that is time that I’m not playing the other two. Playing alt roulette and investing small amounts of time in each character is not an option either as I will be constantly repeating the same content (since they’re all close in level) and thus the sense of character progress – one of the primary factors for playing MMOs in the first place – will be greatly diminished, to the point where it’s very easy to burn out.

I’m also seeing quite a few posts amongst World of Warcraft blogs concerning people taking the time to level alts in the pre-Cataclysm lull, but with their hearts not really being in it and a vast majority of them discussing whether the levelling game in WoW is really relevant any more, and even worse, pondering whether they want to bother with the levelling game in Cataclysm, something that I would imagine Blizzard is banking on players wanting to do in order to keep subscription numbers ticking over while they get on with implementing the level eighty five end-game properly (you’re not expecting a comprehensive end-game on release, are you? Really?).

Would a levelling pool such as the one Age of Conan has implemented benefit World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online veterans? If you could spend the first thirty levels getting the hang of the basics of a class, making sure it suits you, and then spend levels to skip to the end game, would you? For me, I like the journey as much as the end game, if not more, but sometimes I just want to skip to the end. If I had a limited pool of levels to use then the choice would need to be made with some consideration and not just on a wanton whim; tie those levels in to an active subscription as Age of Conan does and you have a rudimentary system of offline levelling akin (on a basic level) to EVE’s skill system which rewards veterans who have kept their subscription active. Would that be a bad thing? The system is much more finite than EVE’s incredibly expansive skill system, and so the idea of simply “playing offline” to level shouldn’t be a problem, after all, once you’ve hit the level cap you’ve not a lot of options other than to start playing or quit. It shouldn’t affect skill too much either: as many WoW raiders bemoan, most players reach the end game at the moment without having much group experience at all, and the end game in many of the current crop of MMOs seems to be where people start to actually learn their class with respect to team play. If nothing else it can be used as a method to smooth over the levelling run where it becomes too steep, allowing you to nudge your character through the pain barrier and give yourself a second wind before the lactic acid of the grind causes your MMO muscles to burn out; rather than driving players away, it could help keep players in the game where they otherwise might have burnt out and left. Certainly there will be that group of players who blow their entire pool of levels on boosting arbitrary abandoned alts to the level cap, still finding themselves bored and quitting, but I put it to you that these people would have quit anyway and would not represent the norm or majority.

The levelling game of mature MMOs is often seen as nothing more than a one or two month subscription extension before the real game starts for its loyal player base, many of whom already have characters at the level cap. Perhaps it’s worth rewarding those players by giving them a little freedom and choice in which characters they play and how.

Freedom and choice in an MMO? I must be new around here.

Friday 24 September 2010

Adopt, adapt, improve

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is proving to be quite a hit, flipping the usual RPG tropes by casting you as the owner of a shop selling items to bold adventurers, and of course successful games inspire others to tread in their footsteps (or, in the case of Zynga, mug them, steal their shoes, paint them a different colour and claim they’re their own), so you should soon be able to look forward to:

A Questgiver’s Tale: you play the role of an MMO quest giver, cast into the world with nothing but a giant punctuation mark to hold over your head. In Typing of the Dead style gameplay, you must type out some random hard luck story while adventurers stand in front of you, jump up and down and run in circles, and repeatedly click on you to try and make you talk faster before ignoring everything you said and looking up your name on a wiki to find the exact co-ordinates of the quest location. As you gain levels you acquire new abilities such as “Wander Around In A Random Pattern And Laugh When The Adventurer Goes Back To Where You Were But You’re Not There Any More” before finally getting the ultimate power, “Demand The Adventurer Keeps You Alive As You Inch Painfully Slowly From One Point To Another Aggroing Every Monster Within 6 Miles On The Way Not To Mention Spawning Nine Specific Ambushes Just As It Looked Like There Might Be A Chance To Recover Some Mana For Ten Seconds”.

A Trash Mob’s Tale: Dungeon Keeper let you play as an evil overlord sending minions to do your bidding, but what if you were one of those minions? In A Trash Mob’s Tale you get to fling yourself at adventurers you have absolutely no chance of defeating again and again and again and again and again, dispensing a couple of copper pieces or some lint when they inevitably smite you. The goal is to try and make the heroes discount you as a threat and try and just run past you, at which point you follow them, gathering similarly ineffectual allies along the way until either you get bored or the adventurer is delayed by something allowing you to mob them. Higher level abilities include the Heel Nip movement debuff, and the ever popular Stealth tree which culminates in the Bugged Invisible Mob uber-power.

A Class Trainer’s Tale: After mastering every aspect of your chosen class, you realise that the amount of money you can make battling dangerous foes pales in comparison to the rewards of training. Start by answering an advert on an obscure satellite channel: “Tired of your current job? Want to be your own boss and set your own hours? Why not become an Adventurer Instructor!” Perform a valuable service by offering observations such as “You know when you cast that Fireball 2 spell? Do that, but *more*. There. You know Fireball 3 now, that’ll be ten gold.” Eventually you can work your up to the ultra-lucrative Respec market, where you charge the adventurer for hitting them over the head with a hammer until they forget all their skills, then charge them again to teach them different skills! (Or almost exactly the same skills, but with one slightly different one because they clicked on the wrong thing that one time.)

Thursday 23 September 2010

Star Trekkin' across this Middle Earth.

Next time you look at the blanket of night sky draped over Middle Earth, remember that up there, somewhere, a few of those stars are actually starships looking down on you from their geosynchronous orbits.

At least, that’s my theory based on how quickly all those Dourhand dwarves appeared, and out of nowhere, while I was making my way through their fort to kill their leader. I mean, my Hunter isn’t exactly a sloth when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of the agents of Mordor, and yet I had barely made twenty yards of progress through their ranks before there was a gentle hum and tinkle-whine of transporter signatures, and four Dourhand dwarves appeared on the path from where I had come, leapt over the corpses of the dwarves I had only recently killed, and started attacking me.

Put on your handcrafted tin hats (journeyman Paranoia crafting level required, part of the Conspiracy Theorist profession set), because this strange teleporting business leads me to believe that Middle Earth is being infiltrated by various warring factions from outer space. They do, however, seem to be following some sort of directive instructing them to blend in with the natives, but they give themselves away from time to time when they use their advanced technology to cheat their way to victory. All I’m saying is to keep your eyes open, and your wits about you, and be suspicious of elves with bowl cuts who make strange V-shaped gestures with their hands, and uruk-hai with unusual bow-shaped battle blades shouting “Kplah!” as they charge into battle…

Wednesday 22 September 2010

KiaSAcast Episode 7

For those of you who are not monitoring our podcast RSS feed or stalking us on the Twitterverse, brace your main hats and hang on to your sails, because we’re pleased to announce that it’s time for KiaSAcast episode seven.

In this episode we talk about Minecraft. A lot.

This episode of the podcast includes:

– Introduction

– Minecraft, including::

     – Mining

     – Crafting

     – Miningcraft

     – Minecrafting

     – A treatise on the philosophy and spiritualism of Sri Aurobindo

     – We possibly mention Minecraft once or twice too…

Download KiaSAcast Episode Seven

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Don't Get Shafted: A Beginner's Guide to Minecraft

No idea what to do in Minecraft? Don’t punch a chicken with some sand, just fire up a new world and follow this handy guide to get yourself safe before your first nightfall, brought to you in glorious Pictovision[TM]:

The sun rises over a pristine new world. This is a good time to put Morning from Grieg's Peer Gynt on the stereo.

The first thing you want to do is find a tree. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, here’s How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away:

Number one: the larch

If you’ve ever seen a documentary about industrial-scale logging you’ll know what you need to do to harvest the wood: walk up to the tree (using the traditional W, A, S, D keys for movement) and punch it with the traditional left mouse click. To keep punching it you don’t need multiple clicks, just hold down the button, otherwise you’ll get through about four mice just in this tutorial.

I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK

Congratulations, you’ve punched a log out of the tree!

Is that your giant ham-like hand, or are you just pleased to have wood?

Walk over it to pick it up, then punch another log out of the tree. And another! Stand underneath the now-floating trunk and look up to harvest the rest, trying not to think about what force is holding it up.

I cut down trees, I wear high heels...

What to do with all these logs?  Press “I” to open your inventory:

I've got wood, as the bishop said to the actress

Drag the logs into any of the four squares labelled “Crafting”:

Planks for the memories

Wine? Fishes? Loaves? Ah, planks of wood. I think I'm starting to get the hang of it.

The box on the right, with the arrow pointing to it, contains the potential results of your crafting. Drag something out of here back into your inventory to actually make it; in this case one log becomes four planks, as you have several logs you can click in the results window several times to stack planks up rather than dragging four at a time.

Next up, advanced crafting. To produce an item in Minecraft, you lay raw materials out in the Crafting window in a shape representing the item you want. Let’s try a speedboat!

All right, maybe that doesn’t work in a 2×2 grid. But what if we put a plank in each square… Left click to pick the stack of planks up, then a single right click on each crafting square will drop one element of a stack in there:

Excite-table!

Drag the table down into your hotbar:

Congratulations on purchasing your Hellraiser puzzle box. Please solve to unleash hell.

To select items in your hotbar, either use the number keys “1” to “9”, or spin your mouse wheel up and down. Select the crafting table, so you’re waving it around in front of your face, find a suitable flat surface, and right click to place the table there.

Table for one, sir?

Right click on the table you’ve just put down, and instead of the paltry 2×2 crafting grid you get in your inventory you’re presented with a majestic 3×3 grid. That’s a whole… errr… several new possible ways to combine items!

Now we’re going to do some woodwork. Just imagine us as the woodwork teacher overseeing you, missing a couple of fingers from an obligatory power saw accident in the past. If you run short of raw materials at any point, just run off and punch another tree or two into logs. Pretend they looked at you funny.

Right then class, lesson one: sticks. What is it, Simpkins? Yes, we’ll get onto making a spice rack later, but we’re starting with sticks. Put two planks on top of each other:

What's brown and sticky?
Wine? Fishes? Loav... oh, I see!

Two planks give four sticks, rods, poles or batons. We’re not sure if there’s universal Minecraft nomenclature, but half the fun is making up the names yourself.

Now, what can we make with rods and planks? How about a couple of rods to form a handle, and then on top of those some planks, as a sort of blade or cutting edge…

Take your pick

Now we’re cooking with gas! Or digging with wood… One of the two. A wooden pickaxe! Some other recipes you can try at this point, see if you can figure out the layout for the materials:
Axe (makes cutting down trees much quicker): two rods, three planks
Shovel (make short work of sand and earth): two rods, one plank
Sword (for chopping vegetables, shaving, getting stones out of horses’ hooves etc.): one rod, two planks

Once you’re kitted out with some tools, it’s time to go exploring! You’ll want to bring your crafting table with you, so put your pickaxe on the hotbar, select it, and hit the crafting table with the pickaxe until it goes “pop” and transforms into an easily portable cube. Pro tip: the same technique works when packing a suitcase to go holiday, just keep hitting it with a pickaxe until it’s more easily portable.

Is that a pickaxe in your hand, or are you just... oh it is? Never mind.

Now it’s time to start systematically pillaging the world of all its natural resources. You can dig up sand or dirt with a shovel, or chop into stone with the pick. What would be really nice is some coal; if the random terrain generator is being kind there might be some nearby, or you might have to hike around for a while. It’s not absolutely essential, but what you’re looking for is grey blocks with black speckles:

Old King Coal

Hit the coal with your pick until a piece pops out into your inventory; there might be a whole vein you can dig out. As you’re digging, you’ll notice a green bar appear on your pick that slowly goes down, turning amber then red:

Workin' in a coal mine

Once the bar is gone, so is the pick; while you still have it try harvesting a few stone blocks, then when you need some new tools try the same crafting recipes as before, but using stone blocks instead of planks.

By now, the sun may be sinking lower in the sky. We don’t want to be stuck outside in the darkness, because They Come At Night… At this point you might like to indulge in a cocktail we like to call “A Big Hole Dug Out Of The Side Of A Hill”. For this you’ll need a hill, and some digging implements. Firstly, dig into the side of the hill:

Dig for victory!

Then, dig a bit more:

Room with a view - OF DOOM. No wait, I think that's just grass

We’ve dug out a square room, but don’t feel compelled to do the same shape. Let your imagination run wild! You could have a square, a rectangle, a rectangle with different dimensions, a sort of L shape…

Now it’s probably getting a bit murky, so if you were fortunate enough to find some coal earlier, pop it on the end of a rod in your crafting window to make a torch:

Coal Onna Stick

Pop a torch on the hotbar, select it, point at the wall and right click for illumination:

Let there be light!

If the sun has set and it’s dark, there might be some strange scritching sounds or moaning outside. And in the game, ah! Fortunately zombies and spiders and long legged beasties aren’t very good at tunnelling, so take some of the stone you’ve been digging out, pop it on the hotbar, select it, point at the open doorway and right click to wall yourself in:

Trapped in a box by a zombie nutjob

What are you going to do while stuck underground, waiting for the sun to come back up and drive the evil creatures away again? Well, you’ve got a crafting table, why not pop it in a corner, and see what sort of items you can come up with:

Is that a crafting table in the corner of your room, or are you just... this one doesn't work.

For example, six planks of wood like this…

When is a jar not ajar? Wait, I told it wrong...

Much easier than always having to dig through a wall to get out, and you can see when the sun comes up! Don’t worry, zombies can’t open doors.

Time to relax and whip out the ol' giant ham-fist, if you know what I mean.

So there we go, tools and shelter. It’s a bit pokey, though, why not expand a bit? Maybe get a bit of a multi-level effect going with a mezzanine, or dig deep down to try and find more minerals, or just wait until sunrise and go exploring again (just remember where you left everything, or take enough stuff with you so it doesn’t matter). It’s your world now! Well, this five foot square corner of it is, the rest belongs to the monsters. Better grab your pickaxe and get to work on that.

Thus it can be seen that mountains are full of riches

The first question I asked Melmoth about Minecraft was “Why am I punching a chicken with some sand?”

He’d extolled its virtues to me, see, so I’d figured “what the heck”, grabbed it, launched straight into a single player game knowing nothing about it. Tutorials are for the weak! I landed on the beach of a blocky world, jumped around a bit, found some trees and some roving livestock, clicked the mouse button causing my blocky hand to flail around a bit, picked up some sand, and attacked a chicken with it. Had no idea what was going on, so I asked Melmoth what I was supposed to be doing. And he explained.

I don’t know whether to praise it to the heavens, or warn you off in case you get hooked as well and never emerge.

Monday 20 September 2010

Of all mines of treasure, one's own is the last to be dug up.

What is Minecraft? I keep trying to answer the question rather than just bringing you a post droning on and on about my latest ‘adventures’ in the game, which would essentially boil down to things that were fun and exciting for me at the time but would probably sound painfully tedious to an outside observer. I could probably try to spice things up, weave a yarn of daring-do and madcap escapades, but at the end of the day I have to relent and simply admit to myself and to you that I spent a large part of my free gaming time over the weekend digging a sodding great big hole in the ground.

And yet… and yet that’s not what I was doing at all. For I was adventuring like I haven’t done in an MMO or RPG for a long while. Properly adventuring. I started off with nothing, in a strange new land, and all I knew was that At Night The Monsters Come. So it was that I started wandering about the land looking for shelter, and although there were defensible hills and caves, I was unarmed and unarmoured and knew I wouldn’t stand long against a concerted attack by monsters. I could see the sun slowly making its way across the sky. Time was already running out, and I’d only just entered the world. I was Robinson Crusoe against an army of darkness, what was I to do?

“I know you’re scared; we’re all scared, but that doesn’t mean were cowards. We can take these skeletons, we can take them, with science.

Time to get crafting. I’ve spent more time crafting in Minecraft in the six or so hours that I’ve played it than in any of the grind-bound craptacular churn-fests that are found in WoW, LotRO and others of that ilk. At a basic level this is how we build things the Minecraft way: you smash things to get raw materials, you put the raw materials in your 4×4 (9×9 if you’ve built a crafting table, which is one of the first things you should do) crafting panel, and depending on the pattern of the items and which items you use, you craft an item. Instantly. As in bing! Done. Whoomp there it is. Drag it in to your inventory and use it straight away. Stacked multiple amounts of raw materials in the crafting panel? Then you can just keep dragging copies of the crafted item out until you run out of the right balance of raw materials.

But how do you make things? What are the patterns? Ah, now you’re exploring again, now you’re both crafter and explorer in one. The subtle idea is that, in a general sense, items are formed by a pattern of raw materials that vaguely resemble the object to be crafted; once you get the hang of the first few objects that you’ll need – a crafting table, a pick-axe and a torch – you can make a secure shelter, and once you’ve done this, you can experiment at your leisure with various patterns. If you know how to make a pick-axe, for example, then it’s quite easy to see how you could change that pattern slightly to form the shape of an axe, and sure enough you will be rewarded for this intuition. The simple joy and exultation that was had when m’colleague cracked how to make a storage chest is hard to express; the same happened when I discovered how to make a door so that we no longer had to block up the entrance to our cave homes with stone each night and then dig ourselves out in the morning. Yet the patterns were very basic, and once you knew them it seemed hard to understand how you hadn’t worked it out for yourself, and sooner. The crafting in this game is simply brilliant, and I’ve barely even scratched the surface of it. Why not? Because I’ve been scratching deeply beneath other surfaces.

What do you do in a world where the only rule is that At Night the Monsters Come? At daybreak you run around the landscape, you explore, and you try not to get lost: there is no mini-map or map to start with, if you run off and lose your way, you may never get back home and will lose everything and have to start over; I may have done this. You chop up trees for lumber, you kill any wildlife you can find for its meat and hide and wool, and in all too short a time the sun begins to set and you run back to your home, block the entranceway (or close the door if you’re sophisticated) and you wait until morning. What is there to do in the meantime? Well, you can craft, which is brilliant but only gets you so far. What you can do is smash things. You can smash anything with the right tool. So you can hollow out this hillside hovel, and you make room for yourself and your rapidly expanding inventory of items. You learn how to make glass and you put windows in so that you can actually see when night has turned to day and it is safe to venture out. And as you are mining out your home you find iron ore and coal and other items, and you learn to make a forge, and you discover how to smelt things, and you realise that you can replace your wood and stone tools with metal ones that last longer and work faster; so you dig deeper.

The Dwarves dug too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dûm… shadow and flame.

In your digging you will discover underground caverns. I found one recently that had a waterfall cascading down the inside of it, and after marvelling at it for a while I realised that I couldn’t see to the bottom of it. So I dug stairs around it in a spiral and lit it with torches, and I dug deeper and deeper following this waterfall, eventually reaching the bottom. I found rich veins of valuable stone there, most of which I have no idea what to do with yet. That’s when I heard the low murmur of zombies, and the rattle of skeletons, and the cry of… something, I know not what. And so you learn to make a sword, and armour, and a bow and arrows. And you go back to where the monsters are, deep beneath the land, and…

What would you do? The choice is yours. You don’t have to kill them. With skill and a little luck you could wall them in, create a zombie petting zoo five hundred feet beneath your home. You could try to fight them, or you could build a trap using the fast flow of water from the waterfall. You could climb to the top of the hill your home is set in and dig down, channelling the sunlight deep down into the ground and burning them all to a crisp. You could avoid them altogether and dig somewhere else, perhaps go outside and divert the course of the nearby river so that it flows past your front door, just for the hell of it, or to irrigate your crops – if it interests you that’s all that matters. You know deep down though, in your dwarven heart, that deep in the ground, where there are monsters, there is also gold.

I feel I haven’t played enough of Minecraft to do it justice yet, but I wanted to try to express my rapture – and I think that is the word I want to use – at just how much this game has captured everything I think is missing from MMOs at the moment. Adventure, exploration, invention, free will, exhilaration, joy, panic, horror, defeat; all these emotions and more, from a ‘simple’ game with basic graphics and no real rules or restrictions at the moment, other than At Night the Monsters Come.

Minecraft is currently in its alpha release stage and runs on Windows, OS X or Linux, being that it is Java based. As of yesterday evening the game was still free to download and play due to the Minecraft registration sever collapsing under the weight of people trying to order the game. Eventually the registration server will be fixed and you will be required to order the game in order to access the alpha. When I purchased the game it cost about $13, or £8, and gave you access to the alpha client, the final version of the game upon its release, plus any expansions and content released thereafter. Personally I’d pay that for the game as it stands, which is incredibly stable and relatively bug free considering it’s an alpha. Multiplayer is currently in development too, and various rule sets and game modes are also planned, so as far as I can see the game is only going to get better.

As a final small endorsement I would just say that Mrs Melmoth, someone who has resisted all attempts by me to get her to join in with my various MMO escapades for these many years, has been hooked on the game all weekend, and I’ll be purchasing a copy for her as soon as the registration server is back up. She is not a gamer and hates first-person controls with a passion, but she is getting used to them because she enjoys the game and wants to play it. She especially does not like trying to kill monsters, so she doesn’t; I don’t think she’s killed a single monster, and yet she has a house that has multiple levels, one of which has a room that has two walls entirely made of glass looking out upon an overflowing volcano which lights up the night sky. She took me up there and showed me last night, and I couldn’t work out whether I was mostly proud, overjoyed, or envious.

Simply put: Minecraft is a game that allows you to dig deep, as deep as your imagination will take you.

Friday 17 September 2010

If life gives you a bowl of lemons, go find an annoying guy with paper cuts.

Billy“Look children, who’s here? It’s Billy Bog-Crawler. Hello Billy!”

<Billy wiggles a greeting>

“Billy lives in a swamp in Mirkwood, where he does nothing all day long. Isn’t that right Billy?”

<Billy nods>

“In fact, Billy seems to be utterly pointless in all respects. His internal organs are not required for any quests in the area, he barely moves from the spot where spawns, and he drops no interesting loot whatsoever. You’re useless, aren’t you Billy?”

<Billy nods sadly>

“Billy isn’t alone, though. He has hundreds of friends just like him dotted all around his swamp. They especially like playing together in the shallow pools of water, where adventurers can’t see them hiding. Do you like paddling in the water Billy?”

<Billy perks up and nods enthusiastically>

“Billy and his friends mainly like to annoy the heck out of adventurers. It’s their favourite game of all. Do you like to make adventurers cry, Billy?”

<Billy nods furiously>

“Billy and his friends chase adventurers for no real reason. They get underfoot when the adventurer is trying to fight mobs that they need for a quest; they interrupt adventurers when they’re trying to pick up an object, making them start all over again; and generally they make a nuisance of themselves. Are you an utterly pointless nuisance Billy?”

<Billy nods sheepishly>

“Billy is very tough. Are you very tough Billy?”

<Billy flexes his head tentacle beard fringe… thing>

“It takes forever to kill Billy, for a small worm he has an astonishing resilience to swords, axes, spears… most weapons, in fact. Not only does he interrupt and annoy, but he can’t take a hint and just f’ing well die either, can you Billy?”

<Billy shakes his head – no>

“No sir. An adventurer might think it wise to just run away until Billy gets bored, but Billy has a very long attention span and will chase you for miles and miles. Isn’t that right Billy?”

<Billy pretends to have been distracted>

“Very funny Billy.”

<Billy rocks his head back and forth in feigned laughter>

Billy and Bernard“But running away from Billy is pointless because, as I’ve mentioned, Billy has many friends in the swamp. Here comes one of Billy’s friends now. Hello Bernard Bog-light!”

<Bernard bobs up and down>

“Bernard is one of Billy’s friends. Bernard and Billy like to play with the adventurers together, don’t you Bernard and Billy?”

<Billy and Bernard nod>

“Yes sir. Bernard lives in an area where there’s a wonderful debuff that slows adventurers run speed down dramatically and quickly drains all their power. Bernard is a bit of bastard, aren’t you Bernard?”

<Bernard puffs up proudly>

“Indeed. Together, Bernard and Billy play happily together, making the lives of adventurers even more utterly miserable, if that were at all possible. However, Bernard is at least required for a quest in the area, whereas Billy is just pointless. Are you more important than Billy, Bernard?”

<Bernard looks awkwardly around>
<Billy looks enviously at Bernard>

Billy, Barry and Benny“Oh look, some of Billy’s other friends have come to play now. Here are Barry and Benny, they are Bog-Crawlers too. Barry and Benny are Billy’s best friends, because they’re just as pointless as he is. They all live close to one another, just close enough that an adventurer can’t run past them without having to join in their wonderful games. Billy, Barry and Benny most like to play Let’s Annoy the Feck Out of Adventurers. The best part is when they make the adventurer scream obscenities or cry. Billy likes to watch adventurers cry.”

<Billy nods happily>

“Although they are tough (and pointless) Billy, Barry and Benny are also no threat whatsoever. They barely do any damage on their own, and so all they’re really good for is annoying adventures and getting underfoot in a tough fight or when the adventurer is trying to perform an action. Eventually one adventurer will be so infuriated that they will take the time to turn around and chop Billy and his friends into teeny tiny little bits, and then jump and down on their remains, before urinating on them, and possibly setting fire to the whole sorry mess.”

<Billy looks shocked>

“That’s right Billy, time to die. And although it will be a pointless death, because you are a pointless artificial cock-block of a creature placed by lazy level designers who simply seem to want to make their players regret every moment of their online time and having paid money for such a shoddy, miserable, blatantly obstructive tedious excuse for adventure, there will be a very brief moment of satisfaction for me before another ten of your friends turn up and ineffectively attack me while I try to loot your stupid skinny corpse.”

<Billy begins to back away nervously>

“That’s right: run. See Billy run. Run Billy run.”

<Billy begins to run>

“Run you little bugger. I’m coming for you Billy! I’m coming for you! See Billy? See Billy DIE! DIE BILLY DIE! DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE. AH HA HA HA HA HA…”

Some time later…

Die Billy Die“Look children, who’s here? It’s Billy, Barry and Benny. They are dead. Very dead. See them not being alive. Even in death Billy was annoying though, performing some sort of overly dramatic death throe rather than just curling up into a neat little ball like Barry and Benny. Drama queen to the last, weren’t you Billy?”

<Billy’s corpse rolls over slightly as it is kicked>

“Well, it’s time for Billy to go and sleep with the fishes, children. Join me next time when we’re going to go and meet Colin craban and his annoying friends. Until next time children, goodbye. Goodbye! Say goodbye, Billy.”

<Billy’s corpse despawns. Billy reappears.>

“Oh Billy you little rascal.”

<Fade away to the sounds of furious stabbing…>

Thursday 16 September 2010

Alas, poor APB!

I knew it, Horatio: a game of infinite customisation, of most excellent fancy: it hath borne me in its car a thousand times (and run me over in it now and again); and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it. Here hung those blaggers that I have shot I know not how oft. Where be your N-TECs now? Your Agrotech DMR-SDs? Your rington’d songs? Your flashes of inspiration, that were wont to set the Mumble on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my administrator’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.

“Press F to apply for Jobseekers Allowance.”– Ben Hall (Development QA)

Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.

The Department Wagon

Little did we know that the license plate on The Department’s wagon would turn out to be strangely prophetic.

Excellent analysis from m’colleague here, and a revealing insider’s view from Luke Halliwell here.

Reading Roundup

Being on internet-less holiday a few weeks back gave me a good chance to make inroads into a book backlog I’ve been steadily building up, so a few quick reviewlets:

Michael Palin – Halfway to Hollywood (Diaries 1980 – 1988) The second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries feel a little like Python’s Meaning of Life which falls within its purview; a jumble of stuff, some which works really well, but a bit directionless. There’s plenty of interest, though, with Palin writing, acting and presenting in various projects (including the tail end of Python, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Missionary and A Fish Called Wanda), and from my point of view as it hits the mid-80s it starts to overlap with events I remember first hand for added nostalgia value. As well as the international fame and stardom there’s a more prosaic stint as chairman of Transport 2000, and far more personal entries about his family, especially his sister who suffered from depression and committed suicide, though there are lighter moments such as taking his mother to New York for her 80th birthday and co-presenting Saturday Night Live with her. The book concludes as he’s about to head off Around the World in 80 Days, which promise an interesting third volume.

Eoin Colfer – And Another Thing… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, of course, the greatest combination of radio series, book, game and towel ever produced, though the books did tail off somewhat as they went on, particularly the fifth (Mostly Harmless). A sixth book, written by Eoin Colfer after the death of Douglas Adams, seemed a bit unnecessary; not outrageous corpse desecration (heck, I quite like the film, even if they ditched some of the best dialogue for no apparent reason), but not one for the “instant buy on publication” pile. After picking up a cheap copy, “a bit unnecessary” seems like a fair assessment; it’s not awful, there are some nice scenes here and there, but it felt hampered by picking up from Mostly Harmless and the resulting baggage, particularly bogging down when dealing with previous elements from the series (Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged was a fantastic throwaway gag, not so good as a main character). And there’s no Marvin. Give the game another go instead, unless you like your sanity.

Anthony Price – A Prospect of Vengeance. Anthony Price writes Cold War espionage thrillers in the vein of Len Deighton or John Le Carre; slow paced, lots of talking, not so many gunfights, multiple layers of intrigue (the British are usually engaged in assorted intra- and inter-departmental wranglings even before the rest of the world get involved). Price wrote 19 books in a series with a couple of common threads, the character of David Audley (though each book is written from a different point-of-view), and an element of military history. After finding one in a jumble sale I’d only managed to pick a few others up as they’re mostly out of print, but I recently discovered AbeBooks, a big old database/marketplace for secondhand books, and managed to complete the set at an average of 50p per book (though postage & packing racks the overall price up a bit). A Prospect of Vengeance, the penultimate book of the series, wasn’t my favourite of his, but still a very solid and enjoyable read; if you’re interested, I’d suggest starting with either The Labyrinth Makers or Other Paths to Glory.

Charles Stross – The Fuller Memorandum Charlie Stross’ Laundry series combine Unix-hacking BOFHism, a Dilbertian civil service, espionage and Lovecraftian horror in a potent geek cocktail. The first (The Atrocity Archives) was a pastiche of/tribute to Len Deighton, the second (The Jennifer Morgue) invoked Ian Fleming, which I didn’t get on with quite as well, though there’s a neat in-world explanation for the Bond behaviour and a nice twist. Hearing the inspiration behind The Fuller Memorandum was Anthony Price put it straight on my wishlist, though as the author says the series has acquired more of an identity of its own now. Lots of good stuff here including Concorde variants flown by 666 Squadron (the one formed after this one), a JesusPhone to combat unimaginable horror (there’s an app for that) and cultists aplenty. Thumb-shaped tentacles up.

Paul Cornell – British Summertime Another out of print find from AbeBooks, British Summertime combines Judas Iscariot, time travel, Bath, a Dan Dare inspired space force where disembodied heads pilot ships, a girl who can always find chip shops and angels. Inventive undoubtedly, but it didn’t entirely click for me, there was just a bit too much in the mix.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

KiaSA Top Tips.

World of Warcraft fanatics, prove that yours truly is the best game in the world ever, by bloody well staying there.

Yours ignoringly,

General Chatoff

It is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light, and certainly not desirable, as one's hat keeps blowing off.

Playing a Hunter in LotRO after having played a Captain and Warden to the level cap is to suddenly transform from Droopy into Taz. If Droopy had been heavily sedated and Taz was on a really bad acid trip. Ever since I rolled this latest character in my line of LotRO levelling projects I’ve been hanging on for dear life, hair flaming out wildly backwards from a face that is a buffeted dough of skin folds, teeth bared through a gaping fish-mouth, my eyes tiny watery moons resting in the deep dark space of ballooning black hole sockets. I claw desperately at the keyboard with tendon-ridged hands, my legs flapping uselessly out behind me, body freely oscillating in the air in a sinusoidal motion. I am become an aerial banner, towed not by a sedate biplane but by a fighter jet afterburning its way through the sound barrier.

I picture my character leaving trails of flame behind her as she screams through quest hubs; dwarf beards are torn whole from their owner’s shocked faces; aloof elven maidens are humbled and embarrassed, left clasping themselves in a cross-legged half crouch to protect their modesty as their clothes are ripped from their ivory-skinned bodies by the turbulent wake of my character’s passing, like a spontaneous burlesque on fast forward; wildlife in the area appears to simply implode into neat little rows of bags filled with hide and steak. I can see why such a class could garner a bad reputation amongst the general populace, because without taking care not to impinge on fellow adventurers in the area the Hunter becomes a force of unwanted and unwelcome destruction, like a young tornado picking up his date for the prom and accidentally levelling her parents’ house in the process.

It’s worrying to me that both dwarves and elves can be Hunters because, although they share the same starting region of Ered Luin, they start off in separate areas before coming together around Thrasi’s Lodge and Gondamon for the epic storyline and quests. ‘Coming together’ is absolutely right when high speed Hunters are involved, and as the elf and dwarf zones converge on that small central area it must be like the smashing of atoms in a high-energy particle collider. Indeed, Gondamon is ground zero for Ered Luin’s Large Hunter Collider. I would highly recommend sitting in Gondamon for a while in these early days of the free-to-play release (In the US only, not that I’m BITTER!) and enjoying the show as all the new inexperienced elf and dwarf hunters smash into one another at incredible speeds, elves flying off on chaotic arching trajectories with a zinging squeal, like unleashed Catherine wheels, before exploding against the heights of Gondoman’s great walls. The more stout Dwarves, in turn, having had their progress unexpectedly impeded and diverted, stumble and bop along on their bums like bouncing bombs, detonating against the base of the wall and showering nearby NPCs in a hail of armour fragments and beard chunks.

Level twenty has come around so quickly for my Hunter, having rolled her late Sunday evening and played a few short hours each night since, and I can’t see myself stopping for many levels to come. Even if I wanted to. Really. It’s like having a tiger with diagnosed poor impulse control on a leash and then trying to reign it in when it sees a group of delinquent buffalo off in the distance flipping it the bird. I’m just hanging on here for dear life, but in the brief respites where I am actually able to get her to pause – the air-cooled radiator fins protruding from her body glowing white-hot and beginning to steam from the lack of airflow passing over them – I’ll report back to you the progress that has been made. In the meantime just recall the image from the original Superman film of the Man of Steel reversing time by flying around the Earth at high speed.

Then picture me, clinging onto his boots by my finger tips, screaming.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Stephen Fry Live(ish)!

Stephen Fry was live at the Royal Festival Hall last night launching the latest volume of his autobiography. It looked like a fun event, but tickets sold out quite quickly, and schlepping into London on a Monday evening is a bit of a pain in the bum anyway. Conveniently, then, the event was also broadcast live to cinemas around the country, the local Vue being considerably easier to pop along to.

The broadcast worked really well; you still got the sense of being in an audience for a performance as a shared experience, with the laughter and reactions that you just don’t get watching on a television at home. Fry read a few excerpts from the book, chatted away rather splendidly, and did an uncanny impersonation of Hugh Laurie (even if only saying “hullo!”)

It definitely seems like it could be the way forward for acts who can sell out massive venues but aren’t really suited to them; Flight of the Conchords at Wembley Arena spring to mind, or most stand-ups in similar size venues where, for a good chunk of the audience, the performer is so far away they end up watching the big screens anyway.

Monday 13 September 2010

Thought for the day.

Allow players to make hero classes in World of Warcraft by combining any two level-capped classes they have into a new character which shares core features from each. I was quite intrigued by the idea of the Palalock; the Shamage (pronounced similar to Michael Jackson’s cha’mone) might be fun; I imagine the Hunterogue would be king of PvP; and Death Druids and Warrior Priests would probably be quite popular too.

Curiously enough this came from my Lord of the Rings Online play, where I’ve been avidly levelling a Hunter, and dreamed of merging my Hunter with my Warden to create a hero class with the ranged bow damage, traps and tricks of the Hunter, and the self-healing avoidance tanking of the Warden. I don’t want much, eh? Just a character class so overpowered that it forces bits across the network hard enough to bring down the server hardware.

Still, this MMO fanatic can but dream fanciful dreams.

Stride towards your fortune boldly on your way.

I cancelled my Warhammer Online subscription over the weekend, having logged on several times, stared at my Warrior Priest and my Slayer for a while and found myself unable to summon the enthusiasm to log in with either one, I decided that I already had enough MMO mash on my plate and I could afford to leave some of the over-steamed vegetables to one side. Or, more correctly, I couldn’t justify affording such an MMO any more. With a veritable wealth of MMOs going free-to-play at the moment, and the fact that I have a lifetime subscription to LotRO, I really don’t find myself wanting for subscriptionless adventuring options. I’ve started a couple of new character projects in LotRO, a group-orientated Minstrel for as and when I feel like being sociable, and a new solo project in the form of a Hunter for me to quietly plink away at when I’m possessed of a more solitary humour. LotRO has become my reliable gaming mistress, she who will keep me happily occupied until some young-faced damsel flashes an alluring winsome smile from behind a mask of demure innocence, teases and tempts in equal measure as I follow her, like some enchanted Anthony pursuing his Egypt, back to her residence. Whereupon she is suddenly released from her cleverly marketed appearance, and under the harsh light of a more intimate inspection is revealed to be a gap-toothed bug-ridden wreck. At which point her real lover steps forth from the shadows before I can make good my escape, clubs me over the head, and steals £14.99 monthly from my wallet until I regain my senses. Yet always LotRO is there to welcome me back from my folly, she opens her arms wide and cradles me against her voluminous content, hushes my blubbered apologies, reminds me of the intimate little details that made me love her and make me love her still. She is the mature mistress, secure in the knowledge of her own worth, happy to welcome and entertain the experienced and inexperienced alike, and I remain there in her embrace, comfortable and content. Until I catch a glimpse of the next porcelain and lace doe peering out from behind the curtain of MMO news, fluttering her eyelids innocently, her shy yet coquettish demeanour promising a life of long term commitment and happiness, and delivering yet another sharp blow to the head and dent to the wallet.

My reason for quitting WAR was quite simple in the end: you get experience points when playing in scenarios and open RvR. There are two levelling systems running in parallel in WAR, the standard experience points which work much as they do in any MMO RPG, and renown points which primarily work as a gate to the more powerful PvP gear, as well as a sub-system that allows you to purchase significant boosts to one or two primary stats, tactics which give you increased damage against certain races, and other PvP enhancing features. For me, the system doesn’t work. Ideally as a player you want to keep your character level and your renown level close to one another, this then means that as your character level reaches the upper boundary of the tier of content in which you’re currently participating, your renown level will allow access to the best PvP gear that can be purchased from the merchants in the war camps, thus giving you a fighting chance in yet another MMO which ‘balances’ PvP by boosting all characters to the same level while entirely ignoring the fact that the characters that are closest to the upper bound of the level cap will have access to gear which puts them far outside the reach of anyone at the lower end. Going into a scenario when you’re level one or two and trying to put even a dent into a level eleven character is an exercise in frustration and futility; I’ve seen a level eleven cloth-wearing priest happily tanking five low level axe-wielding fighters with consummate ease until the rest of their side arrived. There seems little point in having a free trial to a game when any genuinely new player is going to head into the much touted main area of content – RvR – and find themselves slaughtered constantly at the hands of twinked-out characters at the upper bounds of the tier. You might as well just have the trial be a couple of staff who go around and yank the nose hair of anyone trying to download the client. Trial by name, trial by nature.

What happens for me is that I get bored with constantly running scenarios and oRvR because there isn’t enough variety in the maps and objectives to hold my interest, while at the same time there isn’t enough flexibility in the system to let me find new ways to contribute to the war effort. So when the tedium sets in I go off to play the PvE game for a change of pace, which is pleasant enough but which also nets me experience points. As soon as you switch to the PvE game you start to increase the disparity between your character rank and your renown rank, because whereas in PvP you gain both experience and renown, in PvE you gain experience only. What this means is that when you reach the top level of a tier of content you may not actually be able to equip the PvP gear available because it is gated based on renown rank. There is supposedly comparable PvE gear, but I find that it often lacks the stats I really want, and relies far more on random chance; the PvE gold quality set of items is, as far as I can tell, obtained through gold loot sacks from public quests, which aren’t guaranteed to drop for each completion of the PQ, and even when they do you then need to win a roll against others to get it. The gold quality set of PvP gear, however, is bought from a vendor with tokens which are rewarded with far more regularity in the various PvP sub-games.

WAR simply never seems to have known what it wants to be. It is a Frankenstein creation, full of brilliant ideas and clever concepts, all stitched together into the semblance of a hybrid PvE-PvP MMO, but which has never really found general acceptance in the PvE or PvP communities. As such it skulks around in the background of the MMO scene, trying to prove that it is a proper MMO even though its appearance inspires the mainstream of players to, at best, cross over to the other side of the street. Thankfully for WAR it is not a creation of Dr NCSoft, who tends to throw his handiwork from his tower down to the pitchfork wielding, torch waving masses at the first sign of imperfection.

The reason I don’t get on with PvP in WAR is that, in the main, the motto of the game seems to be: he who zergs, wins. There’s no empowerment of the individual, no Knightrider Effect where one man (or woman, thanks Stan) can make a difference. If you look at games such as EVE, and online FPS games such as Counter Strike, what you see is team battles where individuals can manage to overcome greater opposition through careful play, using hit-and-run tactics, and guerrilla warfare, and thus turn the tide of a battle. From my experience that just doesn’t happen in WAR, even in the smaller scenarios, you are either part of the Zerg or you are assimilated, and unfortunately for me that is a style of play that I don’t find compelling.

I am Healbot of Zerg. I am 6 of 24. Resistance is futile (you should have gone for +Wounds instead).

Saturday 11 September 2010

Maybe tomorrow, I'll find what I call home.

We had a bit of trouble with our old web host, so KiaSA has moved over to a new one.

Everything seems to be up and running fine, but if you happened to make a comment in the last few hours then it may have got lost as the nameservers transferred. Hopefully this hasn’t happened, but apologies if something did get lost in the transfer.

Fingers crossed, we’ll have less downtime and database errors from now on.

Normal service (well, as normal as we get around here) should hopefully be resumed soon.

Cheers,

M.

Friday 10 September 2010

To the misled and lonely traveller?

My Warden hit level sixty five in Lord of the Rings Online last night, my second character to the level cap, with a third, my Champion, sitting beardy (well, dwarves can’t sit pretty, can they) at level sixty three. Lummy though, it has to be one of the sadder and more despondent experiences of a ding I’ve had yet. There’s something slightly masturbatory about soloing in an MMO: you busy yourself with getting to the next ding, and it’s all pleasant and enjoyable enough, you’re happy to be ‘hunting for the boar in the undergrowth’. Bashing the bog-crawler. Exploring the depths of Moria. Skinning the cave-worm. Killing ten rats… no, that one doesn’t work. Then finally you reach that pinnacle of achievement and effort, an explosion of light and sound, an ecstasy of elation, and there’s nobody there to share it with.

“Masturbation is cheap, clean, convenient, and free of any possibility of wrongdoing — and you don’t have to go home in the cold. But it’s lonely.” — Lazarus Long

You look to an empty or perhaps non-existent guild channel and all you want to do is type ‘Yes! Yes! Oh my Diety! Yessssssss! Ah ha ha hum na hum na hum na mmmmmmmmmm ahhhhhhhhhh’.

Or ‘Ding’ — y’know, whichever way your guild celebrates a level-up.

There’s nothing quite like the gaping maw of silence to bring one’s exaltation of joy to an abrupt and premature end as it is gobbled up by the nothingness of the noiseless infinite. This isn’t the reason for my sadness though; I’m quite used to, and happy with, soloing my way through adventures, and although I think adventuring in the quiet company of people with whom you are comfortable is definitely the richer experience, there are those of us who are very happy with their own company too, and there’s still the, albeit quieter, internal glow of satisfaction when you reach the levelling plateau. As the saying goes: an introvert is never alone.

The sadness didn’t come from my own quiet solitary celebration, but the fact that the server was not in the midst of celebration and revelry itself. As a player on the European servers for Lord of the Rings Online and an inhabitant of the world wide MMO blogosphere, I am all too aware of the vacuum of excitement and revelry there is compared to our North American server cousins who have launched into a new adventure across distant lands in the free-to-play age, whereas our expedition has been unexpectedly waylaid by Saruman before it even got started. My solitary ding without fanfare resonated with the quiet of the server – a scourged Shire where a celebration around the Party Tree should have been – and amplified the frequency of melancholy until it distorted into a gloomy disquiet. I couldn’t help but pause to reflect on the debacle over Codemasters handling of Dungeons and Dragons Online, persisting for whatever reason to adhere to a subscription model in the face of overwhelming evidence that Turbine’s free-to-play experiment on the North American servers was a resounding success – evidence provided, in part, by the comparatively eerie ghost town that the European DDO servers have since become. Codemasters have promised that free-to-play is coming to their LotRO servers soon, but I’m not so sure. Even if they do intend to exhale the breath of free-to-play life into the servers, the current wealth of excitement already rippling through MMO blog sites will probably mean that the mass exodus to the North American servers has already begun. MMO gamers are impatient souls in the main, they wait for a thing as the flooding river waits for the dam: they are constantly searching for a way around the obstacle, frothing and building in a bubbling frenzy until the banks are burst and nothing but the destruction of developers’ dreams are left in their wake.

I did have an amusing moment in LotRO as I finished my final ascent of the levelling crag, however. I was running back to the ticket stall of Mithecad in Mirkwood, where the vendors dole out little ring-shaped bands to allow you to go on the various rides in that part of the park, and I was doing the standard player impersonation of a steam locomotive pulling a very long train of orc carriages, possibly with a warg caboose but I couldn’t really say: it was a very long train. I barrelled into the middle of the NPC-filled fort with an utterance of “Elven Guard of Mirkwood, I choo-choo choose you!” and imagined a dishevelled and somewhat distraught armoured elf being forcefully ejected from his Poké Ball home into the midst of what had now developed into a veritable horde of angry orcs. However, from past experience I knew that the guard was an excellent tank with a particularly well articulated “Yo Momma!” taunt that always grabbed the attention of anything that was following me. Having only ever had one or two orcs following me on previous occasions I therefore had no reason to suspect that the taunt only works on one or two mobs. So the valiant guard on the side of the fort from where I had entered, promptly grabbed the attention of two orcs, as was his duty. And the fifteen other angry orcs followed me on in to the fort. The fort filled with armed NPCs. Who apparently were on a tea break, or perhaps were having union problems, and who entirely ignored the Warden being beaten to a pulp in front of their very eyes. The Warden who had been running errands for them, helping them, healing them, and protecting them. With a rapidly dwindling health bar I ignored the room of Iscariots for the moment and ran out the other side of the fort where the other guard leapt from his casual slouch against the wall dropping his cigarette, straightened his helmet, and did his best to grab the attention of another couple of orcs. At this point I’d lost a few more orcs to the curious but thankfully prevalent epidemic of attention deficit disorder that plagues the mobs of Middle Earth, and I headed back in to the safety of the fort, rather than keep running and risk grabbing the attention of yet more orcs. Being the heroic figure of lore that my character is, and also a member of the incredibly overpowered Warden class (please don’t tell Turbine), I whittled down the remaining orcs using my tried and trusted Hedgehog of Attrition manoeuvre (patent pending) as the other NPCs watched blithely on.

I tried to picture what was going on in the minds of the NPCs, battling the forces of Sauron by proxy: happy to send adventurers off to fight the good fight, but entirely unwilling to lift a finger if the fight comes to them, and all I could come up with was the following:

“Gerald. Geeeerrrrrald! There are ruffians in our camp.”

“Just don’t pay them any mind, Marjorie, and they’ll go away eventually.”

“Do something, Gerald, they’re making a ruckus and disturbing the whole neighbourhood.”

“I tell you, it’s best to pay them no heed they… no, don’t look their way. Oh, now look, they’re coming over this way.”

“You got a problem Elfy?”

“Yes you young hoodl…”

“No! No Marjorie, we don’t. No problem.”

“Hur, hur. This your sword is it Mr Elf?”

“Now you give that back young man, this instant.”

“‘ere lads, look I’m an Elf. Lar dee, lar dee, dar. Oooo, me underpants are too tight and me hair is all girly.”

< Hur, hur, hur, hur, hur>

“Now look here, you give… th… that… hng… give it… ng… BACK! Oh. Oh my. I’m… sorry. So terribly sorry! I didn’t mean to…”

“You iz a dead man now.”

“Well technically I’m an elf so I can’t be a dead man but…”

“Get em boyz!”

“My wardrobe of fine dresses! Oh my beautiful hair brushes! Oh no, no, not my collection of hand creams! Ruined! This is all your fault Marjorie!”

“My fault?! If you actually knew how to use that sword rather than just waving it imperiously at any passing adventurer who happened to walk past.”

“Oh! Oh! So that’s it is it? You were quite happy for me to boss them around when they were fetching orc manure for your flower borders.”

“I can’t dirty my hands with manure! I’m an elf and an NPC, and a lady, Gerald, if you would only bother to remember this from time to time…”

“Oh not now Marjorie! Look, the adventurer is coming back. Quick! Stand still and pretend you haven’t noticed the ruffians looting the place – maybe she’ll fight them off.”

“Fine. Fine Gerald. But when the orcs are all gone, you get your sword… you get your sword and you command an adventurer to get me some shampoo and conditioner, I’ve developed quite the hedge of split ends over this whole dastardly affair.”

“<sigh>Yes dear. Oh not my collection of fine china dolls, you great green gits! That’s just mean!”

Finally, here are a couple of pictures of Madgala, Hedgehog of Mirkwood, resting-up amongst the golden leafy boughs of Caras Galadhon in preparation for taking the fight in to Enedwaith. The question remains as to whether she will have to do it alone.

Frodo: I cannot do this alone.
Galadriel: You are a European, Frodo. To play on a Codemaster’s server is to be alone.