Friday 29 October 2010

Cease to inquire what the future has in store.

We have also added a few bonus Talismans that are store exclusives.

‘Store exclusives’ the new term for ‘going to cost you’.

Turbine have been good in this respect, however: as far as I recall from DDO, it’s only fluff and cosmetic items that have ever been store exclusives, everything else can be earned from playing the game (albeit often at a great cost of personal time, as is to be expected).

It was just the wording of it that made me chuckle, as if it were some special kindness that they were adding bonus items for which you have to pay. Such is the world of marketing, I guess.

The Talismans do seem a nice change for Lore-masters however; making the customisation of their pets independent of a jewellery slot means that they can concentrate on getting the most out of the stats for that slot without having to sacrifice the desired appearance for their pets.

One does have to wonder whether the store-based Talismans make the pets translucent and sparkly though…

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Hypothetical recruitment script.

“So he’s the tank and..”

“Wait, I thought he was the Warrior?”

“Yes, he’s the Warrior but in a group he has to tank. Okay?”

“Okay… where is it then?”

“Where is what?”

“His tank…”

“N… no, he is the tank. It’s the name of his role.”

“Ah okay. Because he has lots of armour…”


“And he does huge amounts of damage with a massive gun…”

“Ye… no. Not… look, don’t worry about the tank part for the moment.”

“O… kay.”

“Look. This one here is the healer. She’s a Priest, but her role is the healer because she can heal the life of others, see?”

“Ah, I get it. Like the Shaman?”

“Ye… well, no, I mean, well… he can heal but in this instance he’s the damage dealer.”

“If you say so.”

“Right, now, look the Priest is buffing the Warrior.”

“Appearance is important.”


“Warriors always have pristine shiny armour in these games.”

“No, not that sort of buffing. The other sort of buffing.”

“Eww, that’s disgusting. Is it just because the Priest is female? Seems a bit sexist…”

“No, not that sort of buffing. A buff is a beneficial spell that does… good stuff.”

“If you say so.”

“It is!”


“Now, see, the Warrior is charging the mob.”



“There’s only one of them.”

“Only one of what?”

“The Warrior is only charging one ogre, that hardly constitutes a mob.”

“No, you see, mob… it means the ogre.”

“Well why not just say ‘the ogre’.”

“Because ‘mob’ means many things, any red-con NPC AI that you can…”





“Acronyms are meaningless to those unfamiliar with them.”

“Oh very clever.”


Anyway that’s the basics of it, it’s really not that complicated once you know all the terms and how to play. It won’t take much time to explain all the other terms. What do you think?”

“I think that in Peggle I can get into an enjoyable game instantly; I also only use three keys and some mouse clicks, but I don’t having to write a bunch of macros to make it that way; it requires tactics and luck in almost equivalent measure to your game; it seems to involve just as much time staring at nothing more than flashing lights and big glowing numbers; I can play it online with my friends while only needing to dedicate a few minutes to each session of play; and I don’t have to pay £14.99 a month while I’m learning the ropes.”

“So you’re not going to play an MMO with me?”

“Not even if you aggrod me, kited me to your computer, and CCd me there until I agreed to.”

“Fair enough.”

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Are you ready? Hey, are you ready for this?

Are you hanging on the edge of your seat?
And another one gone.
And another one gone.
Another sub. bites the dust
Hey, will we get WoW too?
Another sub. bites the dust.

Umbilicus Segmentata.

Long fingers of sunlight stretched through the canopy of leaves and gently stroked her face. She felt warmth then, the warmth of comfort, of a mother’s hug, a lover’s kiss, a father’s guiding hand. Father Sun, reaching down and caressing her softly. She grasped at the comfort, focussed on it, let it radiate through her. She felt no other warmth.

Eyes closed she followed Father Sun’s light touch down her cheek, drying the trail of stale tears that it crossed; she shivered as she felt warm fingers slide down the side of her neck, memories of cold nights naked in front of a warm fire with Djestin, the back of his half-cupped hand gently tracing the same path as he stared in wonder into her dark eyes, as though stars clustered brightly there. The blanket of memory drawn sharply from her mind as Djestin’s touch approached her breast and was halted by her armour. Why was she wearing armour with him? So cold. But armour wouldn’t stop the cold.

She coughed in her agitation, pain flaring out from the dark edges of her consciousness, flooding her mind and forcing its way forth through suddenly wide open eyes and dry gasping mouth. A glimpse of the forest roof, far above where she lay, tendrils of light in heavenly array. Eyes closed once more she searched for Father Sun’s touch, felt his hands join her own where they rested limply across her waist. She could barely feel him, his warmth diluted by the pooling blood between her fingers, her own traitorous warmth abandoning her as soon as the arrow had struck. It sat within her still, a perverse birth of agony, the same place that Pella had slept for nine months, some four years ago. New tears welled and drew wet lines down her cheeks while Father Sun struggled in vain to dry them away.

Sharp cries brought her back from memories of a small flower-laden child running, shouting and laughing across a meadow towards her, the smell of flowers and a babe’s hair as she gathered Pella up in her arms. Smell of happiness. She turned her head on its side and forced her eyes to focus out across the golden carpet of leaves. She could not find the source of the yell, instead her eyes rested on Vargus, the mage’s broken body stared lifelessly back. He stood little chance against the Kurvik once she had fallen to the arrow and could no longer protect him, their number was too great, and he wore no armour to deflect their savage blows.

Not that her armour had helped her.

And who would protect the others now, should any of them survive? How would they continue their task? Little Voric and Yoric, stout of heart, could not be expected to survive such an ordeal alone. Jastel was no warrior. And if they failed, the kingdom would surely falter and fall. Then who would protect Djestin, Pella… oh Pella!

A great cough wracked her body, she grasped weakly at the arrow that bit at her every move. The arrow that had pierced her defences and then her body. They had said she was the greatest warrior of her time; that her armour was a symbol… made her a symbol; that ten thousand sword strokes would never pass her stalwart shield and banshee blade. They were right.

But it only took one arrow.

Cold realisation: she no longer felt Father Sun’s touch. No warmth, no comfort any more. She saw his light dance behind the closed lids of her eyes; her mind showed her shadows of Pella dancing happily in the evening light. Now gone. Another light, brighter, growing. No warmth there either, but strangely… comfort.

She sighed once.

A sigh for release,
A sigh for sorrow.
A sigh for peace,
And for the loss of tomorrow.

Stupid plate mail bikinis.

Monday 25 October 2010

Chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction.

Floating foetus-like as I am in my current MMO limbo, I decided to revisit an old game that I have never managed to get on with, an MMO that broke many of the tropes of the genre at a time when World of Warcraft was still defining them, and can probably be considered one of the grey-bearded forefathers of the free-to-play model that is becoming popular today.

I was going to start by saying that I don’t know why I never got on with Guild Wars, but that isn’t true, I do know as to why, it would probably be fairer to say that I just don’t like the reason why. The failing is actually with me, and even though the game has its foibles I’m long past caring about such inconveniences as not being able to jump; I’ve come to terms with the fact that my character, hero of the ages, slayer of dragons and gods, cannot hop over the edge of a small hillock and must instead walk all the way down and around. Very fragile knees these heroes of the ages, clearly they have weak bone structure brought on by a lack of calcium in their diet. I mean, were my hero to jump even a few inches off the ground they would probably drive their shins up through the rest of their legs and then, as they toppled over and hit the ground, they would explode like a bone fragmentation grenade, killing the rest of their party, who couldn’t dive out of the way for fear of hitting the ground too hard and detonating themselves. True story.

How many Guild Wars characters does it take to change a light bulb? No idea, none of them are brave enough to climb up onto a chair because they wouldn’t be able to jump back down again.

It’s easy to pick fault with some of the more quirky decisions that have been made in the game, Guild Wars is quirky in so many respects. I use the term ‘quirky’ not with pejorative connotations in mind, however, but more in terms of innate individualistic idiosyncrasy; it’s clear that the creators set out to be different from the other offerings on the market at the time, and they achieved their goals so wholly that even today the game stands out distinctively among its peers. Let’s not forget that for a five year old game it features stunning graphical vistas and a slick responsive UI that you wouldn’t be ashamed to release in a current generation MMO.

So why do I struggle so much with Guild Wars? Simply put: pace. I would say that the combat in Guild Wars errs on the fast side, and as such it probably gives a closer approximation of the chaotic feeling of battle than most MMOs. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that Guild Wars was designed to be a PvP game, the clue possibly being in the title

“Well, we’ve formed a guild, now what?”

“I dunno. Invite the neighbours over, offer them a nice cup of tea?”

“Splendid idea! Ah look, here comes the Facestabbing Murderswine guild from number 42. Morning! We’ve just moved in, thought we might offer you a nihaaaarrgrgggggggghhhhuuurrrrrrrghhhhhh urk.”

“You killed Kenneth! Why? Why?! What? Guild Wars? Oh! Silly us, we thought it was Guild Make a Nice Home Settle Down Maybe Invite the Neighbours Over for a Cup of Tea. Tsk! Well, seeing as you’re here, can I offer you a nice cup ohhrrrrraaaaaaagrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhhh gak.”

The traditional MMO form of standing around a loot piñata and whacking on it with sticks until it bursts, like a troupe of vigilante Morris dancers, except with even sillier outfits, was not going to work in a game that had a strong PvP element. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but, in the general case, people are quite reluctant to stand around and let you smack them about the head with a large stick: they tend to run around screaming at the very least, but just as often they’ll pull out a very big stick of their own, and then try to get behind you so that they can smack you around the back of the head in return. What’s required, then, is acute situational awareness matched with instantaneous decision making in reaction to the field of play. Situational awareness, as we all know, is that quality that prevents players from ‘standing in the fire’, and transforms an adequate tank just about able to hold aggro into a tiny tanking god. In many MMOs situational awareness for most players boils down to a game of musical chairs, while the music is playing you spam your damage rotation or throw out your heals, and when the music stops you run around and find a safe spot to stop in, then the music starts once more and you’re standing still and executing the rotation again. In Guild Wars, situational awareness is musical chairs where the music never stops, and at some random interval they release a hungry tiger into the room.

Essentially I don’t get on with Guild Wars because every time I come to play it it teaches me just how bad I am outside of the basic piñata model of play. Every combat is so fast-paced and frantic that I finish it exhausted while not entirely sure what actually happened, other than I seem to somehow still be alive, which is the joy of having a healer henchman I suppose. In fact I picture the AI henchmen in my party silently mocking me for being an utter noob, and secretly all trying to vote-kick me out of the group so that they can continue on in peace without having to carry me.

It gets worse, however. I’ve often bemoaned the fact that you only have eight skill slots, one of which is usually taken up with some form of resurrection spell (greatly needed in any group that I am part of) and therefore you only get to take seven skills into a mission with you. Seven. You have two classes, a primary and a secondary, each of which has approximately seventy kajillion skills that you can learn and then pick from. Many of those skills will have effects that form a nice synergy with other skills, and indeed the system seems to me like a slightly cut down version of Magic: The Gathering, where you build your ‘deck’ of skills in such a way as to get a greater whole from the sum of the constituent parts. Seven skills, though. You can’t pick skills in the usual candy store way, grabbing everything off the shelf that you like the look of, because before you know it you’ve got ten skills vying for each available slot. What you need to do is pick one skill or theme, and then build a layer of supporting skills around it. Even this is difficult, however, and I find myself sullenly trooping off into a mission mumbling under my breath that I can handle more then seven skills, that it’s ridiculous that I can’t be entrusted with more skills at once, and pointing out that I have forty skill bar slots packed to the brim in World of Warcraft. And then I enter into combat.

Seven skills. Not a lot really. Combat should be child’s play.

Have you ever seen a kitten play with a piece of string being dangled in the air in front of it? It starts slowly, bats away nonchalantly with one paw, feigning only mild interest because this is clearly a fight that is beneath it. Then, as the encounter progresses, it switches to the other paw on occasion, slowly picking up the pace, its eyes growing wide, paws alternating strikes more rapidly. Then all of a sudden the kitten realises that the string is actually quite a persistent foe and that they might be outmatched, and it goes mental. Both paws start flailing in all directions, not just at the piece of string but at anything that remotely comes near it, the sofa, your legs – the carpet usually takes a sound thrashing. The paws are moving so quickly now that they’re both in use at the same time, the kitten stands up on its haunches, its face a mask of half-terror half-frenzy. Slowly the kitten’s neck begins to disappear as it pulls its wild-eyed face back and down and away from the relentless string, until finally its face can retreat no further and it falls over backwards and claws itself half to death in the confusion, before claw-crawling its way along the base of the sofa, flipping upright and dashing behind the cover of a chair in order to collect itself and catch a breath, tail swishing in irritation all the while.

Do you know how frustrating it is to finish every fight in Guild Wars hiding behind my chair? Not to mention the looks I get from Mrs Melmoth.

Honestly, it’s a mere seven skills, but every time I run into combat it’s the same: I finish the fight as a sweaty frantic wreck, having spent the entire time running around screaming and mashing keys with both hands at random, to the constant tune of the ‘Not Enough Energy for this Skill’ alert. I’m getting better with practise, of course, and I’m learning to accept death as part of the experience, which again is something which shouldn’t surprise me in a PvP-centric game. However, it all makes me realise just how few of the skills I actually use on those four packed hot bars in WoW, with many of them being highly situational abilities that barely ever get used, and others being buffs that are cast once every thirty minutes; when you read the rotations or priority systems outlined on sites such as Elitist Jerks, they often only really include four or five abilities, with perhaps four or so ‘boost’ abilities that are to be used every time they come off of their several minute long cool-downs.

I think this is something in which World of Warcraft succeeded, but where it isn’t necessarily a Good Thing: it created the illusion of complexity. A game such as Guild Wars, however, will happily point out that seven or eight abilities are all you can really manage in a truly dynamic combat. To compensate for this, though, it allows you to switch these abilities around as much as you like between missions, and provides a huge pool of complex and interesting abilities to choose from, as well as a compelling miniature deck-building sub game based on the interactions of those abilities. The problem a game such as Guild Wars has is in overcoming the illusion of choice to which players have become accustomed. Guild Wars 2 continues with a minimalist hot bar setup and evolves it, the small set of skill buttons now morph from one ability to another as the player activates a skill chain, and I believe one bar is dedicated to class defining abilities where the other concentrates more on flavour abilities determined by the customisation path the player has taken for their character. As such the UI is kept simple, which I believe to be a Good Thing, but I do feel it means that ArenaNet needs to find another way to present the illusion of choice, especially if they wish to convince players of the current generation of MMOs that there is depth to their game. I think it’s fair to say that Guild Wars has far deeper game-play than World of Warcraft with respect to skills and their mechanics, but because it restricts the player to a (sensible) number of skills at any one time, new players may well come away with the impression that the game lacks depth instead.

I think an important lessons for developers today is that it’s probably impossible to live up to all the expectations of players, and as such, developers need to find creative new ways to convince players that they’re getting the unrealistic expectations they demand, while actually delivering something that exists within the realms of technical and fiscal reality.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to explain these claw marks in the bottom of the sofa to Mrs Melmoth, especially difficult since we don’t have a kitten on whom I can place the blame.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Thought for the day.

I’ve just finished reading The Hobbit to mini-Melmoth. If there’s one thing in the book that I would like to see in a future Lord of the Rings Online expansion, it would have to be Beorn. Not the beardy man-bear himself, but the race of Beorn, as is mentioned towards the end of the book.

I’m a sucker for shape-shifters, and the lore is all right there, ripe for inclusion. Come on Turbine, playable Beorns in your next major expansion.

You know you want to.

Or you know I want you to, at least.

Friday 22 October 2010

Hoist up sail while gale doth last

The Commander was exultant. “We have him, sir. A slight turn to starboard and we’ll get the full broadside on him, we can’t miss at this range!”
The Admiral considered the smoke-billowing monstrosity. “Hard a port, number one.”
“Hoist the mainsail. Ramming speed.”

It had been a mighty game of Uncharted Seas; the Imperial Battlefleet of Killed in a Smiling Armoured Beard against the dark magics and steam power of the Van Hemlockian Shroud Mages. Patches of rigging and oil marked the watery graves of frigates, tattered hulks of cruisers were slipping under the waves, the only combatants lefts afloat were the flagships of the two fleets and a single Imperial frigate, blasting away impotently on the off chance it got an incredibly lucky shot in.

The two battleships had suffered similar light structural damage, but earlier in the engagement the Shroud Mage ship had rammed an Imperial cruiser, belching steam into its innards to boil the crew alive before the dark dwarf boarding party slaughtered any survivors. The Imperial Marines had put up a terrific fight, though, rolling a few sixes and killing more of the boarders than could have been hoped, so their comrades on the Imperial Battleship now had a significant edge in numbers.

The prow of the Imperial ship crunched into the iron flank of the Shroud Mage vessel ripping out a few cannon, but nothing that would seriously hinder it. The human marines poured over, and dice were rolled; the dwarves fought hard, and despite the weight of numbers on the human side they weren’t finished off in a single turn. It was merely prolonging the inevitable, though, for at the start of the next turn they had a single crew point left against the seven of the humans.

Each crew point allows an attack dice to be rolled; a 4 or 5 results in one point of crew damage to the enemy, 6 results in two points of damage plus you get to roll another attack dice. All we had to do was roll a 4, 5 or 6 on any of seven dice, and the dwarves were done. With a rattle and thud, the fate of the Shroud Mages was sealed.

Still, though, with combat being simultaneous, they got their single dice to wreak what vengeance they could. It came up… 6. That gave them another roll, which came up… 6. Four points of crew damage plus another roll, nasty, but still not enough unless they rolled another 6. Which they did. Six points of crew damage, and a final roll, coming up…. 4. One last hit, taking the seventh and final point of crew from the Imperial battleship. We decided the last few surviving Shroud Mages had been beaten back to their engine room, and as the whole Imperial crew followed in a haze of bloodlust the dwarf captain hammered off the safety valve from the immense boiler, wiping out every living thing on the vessel.

If it had been a computer game against an AI opponent, that 1 in 432 chance would have resulted in an exclamation of “piss off!”, and either loading a saved game from before the event or quitting in disgust. With a human rolling the dice, it was a Crowning Moment of Awesome for the game.

“It’s gone awfully quiet over there, sir.”
The captain of the Imperial frigate lowered his telescope. “Yes. I don’t think anyone’s going to be coming out of there. Prepare the ropes to tow our prizes, it’s going to be a bumper pay day for the men!”

Thursday 21 October 2010

Into a Limbo large and broad.

I’m once again floating in MMO limbo, burning with a desperate desire to enter the gates of MMO heaven but finding myself relegated to a seemingly eternal wait for the next great harrowing of hype to come and misappropriate my time. World of Warcraft remains on the back burner until The Shattering begins proper, an event which has been greatly lessened in the minds of us here at KiaSA Towers once we came to realise that it wasn’t, in fact, going to be The Shatnering; our visions of upheaval caused by a hail of be-bathrobed William Shatners raining down with indiscriminate girdle-sundering destructive force on the cities of Azeroth have themselves been shattered. You can’t deny that Deathwing the Destroyer’s monologue in the latest Cataclysm cinematic would have had added gravitas if… it had BEEN… spoken in strangely… PUNCtuated… sentences. Beam… mE Up… Sindy.

Lord of the Rings Online in the EU continues with its ‘will we, won’t we’ teasing of players, like that one drunk uncle at Christmas who taunts his nieces and nephews with their presents for too long, to the point of driving them beyond caring any more. Of course, when they finally come to open their presents after all the build-up, they find themselves holding up the hastily wrapped contents of their Uncle’s underwear draw, much to the delight of their uncle and the eye-rolling looks of lassitude from the other adults present. Even if Codemasters do finally effect a change to LotRO over here in the EU, I have to say that I’m bracing myself for the big stained-underpants-reveal that they’ll be delivering the new Endewaith content and nothing more, this being due to their contractual commitments not being conducive to the free-to-play model.

I’m not technically allowed to play Vindictus yet because I live within the shadows of Europe, and apparently if the EU is not screwed-over and made to wait longer than the US for a game release then Zombie George Washington will rise up from the grave and destroy Seattle. Or something; I think it must be in an appendix of The Constitution somewhere. Apparently Vindictus is “Coming real soon” to the EU though, but Nexon definitely should speak with Codemasters on how to really string it out and get players not caring any more.

Honestly, there must be some sort of conference for EU MMO releases where staff go and sit in great halls and recite together the mantras of marketing “Coming real soon now”; “We’re sorry for the delay”; “You’re all valued customers” (they’re all trained to stifle their laughs behind their hands for this one); “We’re pleased to announce that we’ll be releasing to you a fraction of the content available to the US, and on a one-to-one exchange rate price!” (they’re taught not to rub their hands together and cackle with glee for this one).

In actual fact there really is such a conference, but it was delayed and has been ‘coming real soon now’ for the past five years.

The other games that I’m interested in at the moment are a year or more away from release, and I’m long past getting my hopes hyped up for a game that has nothing more than a few classes and races announced, along with more landscape flybys than a BBC nature documentary. What is it with landscapes? I think it’s fairly well accepted in the MMOsphere that, unless you’re a complete charlatan, you’re going to have some attractive scenery because there are now umpteen billion tools out there with a ‘click here to produce impressive mountains’ button next to a ‘click here to spawn a spoooooky forest’ along with the traditional ‘click here to generate a massive lake with histrionic levels of refractive lighting and no water physics whatsoever’. These scenery sneak-peeks slowly develop as the hype increases, progressing to ‘here’s a forest with some orcs standing around picking their bums!’ and ‘here’s a town that you’ll visit once in over five hundred hours of play time to hand in a pointless quest that sent you half way around the world for a reward of five copper and a pair of old socks!’. Maybe it’s just me, but I simply don’t find myself loading up a video flyby of the Forest of Dark Deathly Doom Darkly Death and thinking “Oh thank fudge – it’s a forest! I wasn’t sure. We weren’t sure, but this confirms it. And look, it has trees! With leaves. It’s okay everyone, it’s okay, the forest has trees! What? Yes, the trees have leaves too. What? Yes, there are indeed orcs standing around for no apparent reason. What? Picking their what? Oh, ahm, hard to tell because they seem to be buried in the middle of some sort of orgy of wolves suffering from tonic immobility. Yeah, looks really exciting, especially the leaves! Leaves on the trees, hoo, I was worried for a while there.”

Which is not to say that I’m not looking forward to Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, but really it’s more of an eagerness to see whether they turn out to be great, rather than an expectation that they naturally will be great: it’s a shift in expectations that leaves one less disappointed when the majority of MMOs turn out not to be great. We’re long overdue some greatness in MMOs, however, so it’ll be good to finally get some hands-on with these games and see whether they can deliver it.

Several months after the US, of course.

Of course.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Thought for the day

Apparently “Creative Assembly are looking to reassure Total War fans that the AI problems seen in recent entries in the series won’t be a part of Shogun 2, saying that the game won’t ship until the AI is perfect.

So either Shogun 2 never ships, or they’re going to create Skynet…

Everything all of the time

Murphy’s Law of Unsubscription states that a payment will have left your account the day before you finally decide to actually quit the game.

(Zoso’s Corollary: The larger the subscription payment, the smaller the time between it having left your account and you unsubscribing.)

About a month ago (in fact precisely a month ago) I was having a bit of a glance through the information about Lord of the Rings Online going free-to-play, particularly the section detailing loyalty rewards in Turbine Points for long-term subscribers. The small print says the subscription has to be maintained from June 30th to the launch of free-to-play to qualify, but as I started the account back at launch (even if I’ve only actually played for a couple of months at most since then) I thought it might be worth a bit of a punt on having an active subscription during the transition to F2P, just in case it happened to qualify for a pile of points. At worst it would be quite fun to have a bit of a run around Middle Earth again.

There was already a bit of a delay at that point with the switch to free-to-play in Europe but Codemasters assured us they were working on it, and I figured whatever the problems were they couldn’t take more than a month to sort out. I mean even with just a short delay people were signing up for the free game in the US, they couldn’t possibly leave it too long could they, or their entire potential new player base would have buggered off, leaving only increasingly embittered European lifetime subscribers and players invested in long-term characters gazing longingly at the rejuvenated New World, of course that couldn’t happen, ha ha ha ha, certainly n…

… oh.

It was indeed fun roaming Middle Earth again, but after a couple of weeks the initial enthusiasm for reactivating old static groups or starting new parties had melted away into the void of lack of news (though a void would be cold; maybe the enthusiasm got frozen, but then it wouldn’t have melted into the void, unless it got to a strange supercooled state… anyway). After the drawn-out death of DDO EU (Eberron Unlimited) in the EU (European Union) (don’t get those two mixed up, the farming subsidies from Drow are rubbish) there was a suspicion that Codemasters were just stalling, had no intention of moving to the free-to-play model, and were grabbing what subscription money they could before shutdown and transfer to the US servers.

In a strange reversal of the law of unsubscription, the notice that my LotRO game time had expired (unusually Codemasters give an option to just pay for one month instead of requiring a recurring subscription) arrived at almost the same time as the announcement that free-to-play really is *definitely* on its way, honest. No really. Definitely coming. Really soon. For sure. They just can’t say exactly when. But it is on its way. Any minute now. That might be it there, in fact! Oh, no, it’s just next door’s car pulling into the drive.

So do I pay for another month? I mean they’re on the “home stretch”, that must mean within a month, musn’t it? Or must it? It couldn’t take longer than that. Could it? No, it couldn’t. Or could it? Maybe it could. Couldn’t it?

Tuesday 19 October 2010

I am a man of many talents. But I'm only allowed to use these ones.

So what purpose do talents serve in World of Warcraft these days? The recent patch preparing the game for the Cataclysm expansion has brought a revamped talent system that is simpler and more intuitive than ever, but at the same time, as darkeye pointed out in a comment, it drastically reduces the concept of choice and flexibility which talents were originally designed to provide. It seems now that talents have been boiled down to not much more than two choices: ‘Which sub-class do you wish to play?’ and ‘Do you intend to PvP or not?’.

For some classes there’s still some debate out there amongst bloggers as to which talents are definitely worth picking up; I’m certainly seeing varying opinions on protection warrior talents at the moment, but it’s mainly the difference between one or two talent points invested in one talent or another, nothing particularly class-defining, and most likely to be ironed into a perfectly flat raid t-shirt by the people at Elitist Jerks in short order, after which every protection tank will wear the same t-shirt, and woe betide you in a PuG if you have creases down the arms of your talent T.

So what do talents provide? Well, they still provide sub-class defining abilities: each talent tree, while locking you in for the first thirty one points and not letting you dabble in other trees at all until then (this is a local talent tree, for local people), will provide some major ability that once would have been a mid-to-top tier talent in the old system. More importantly they provide a levelling incentive. With talent points having been switched to every odd level, it now means that Blizzard can smooth out the number of abilities they have to dish out each level. With the heavy pollarding of the talent tree all the juicy abilities look that much closer now, even though the player is receiving talents at a slower rate than before and will therefore technically receive major talents in the same level range as before. The spell book is much the same, with all abilities your character will earn being listed in each of the sub-class pages along with which level they will be gained at. The whole thing is geared towards tempting the player on and giving them further impetus to grab that next level and get a new ability; pull the lever, get a pellet.

Essentially then, it seems that talents have been transformed into a mini-spell book, in which you pick one path to define your character and then you follow that for specific abilities to help you in your precisely defined role. Interestingly, however, it appears that glyphs might be fast becoming the customisation option that talents once were – as much as you ever get to customise your character to your liking in a game that has more analysis and stringent regulations on How You Shall Do Things than the Great Firewall of China. With the fundamental changes to glyphs – once you learn a glyph it is permanently available to you, and glyphs can be changed easily through the use of cheaply vendor purchasable vanishing powder – it’s easy to customise your character in fairly useful ways without much expense or hassle. This seems most unBlizzardlike, however, and I expect vanishing powder to be changed to a rare raid drop costing 4000 gold on the AH and requiring a twenty seven part quest chain to be completed before it can be used, by the time the expansion is released. Admittedly the range and usefulness of glyphs varies wildly from class to class at the moment, with some classes having a wealth of options and others being rather limited in what they can make use of, especially when you factor in the narrowing of specialisation that each sub-class presents – there’s probably no point in using tanking glyphs on a Fury warrior, for example. However, the important point is that the glyph system is far more open to expansion than the old talent tree system, so where additions to the talent trees only came with major patches and expansions, new glyphs can be added to the Inscription profession without having to majorly rework part of a class’s levelling mechanic. I think it’s this flexibility-in-expansion that might see glyphs become the customisation option that players have always been hankering for since the first paladin tried to create a hybrid melee healer talent build and was laughed out of their raid. It’s certainly easier for Blizzard to experiment with glyphs than with talents from a mechanics standpoint, at least.

I would say that it’s a fun time at the moment to experiment with builds, Spinks has posted her protection warrior build of the moment, and although it differs from other builds that I’ve read about (and those builds differ from yet others) none of them are drastically changed from one another, it’s mostly personal opinion on one or two borderline talents, which may or may not be useful depending on your play style and situation. However, as Tam recently related, it’s not necessarily all fun and games trying to get people to understand how your new talents and abilities work in this brave new world, especially when that world doesn’t seem entirely sure what it wants you to do either. Eventually I imagine things will even out, the raiding scene will settle in to their usual work ethic, and talent specs will once again assume their traditional cookie-cutter form, but I hope that glyphs (with further tweaks and additions on Blizzard’s part) might still allow for some expression of individuality in an otherwise generic end-game of Tier <unsigned int> geared, cookie-cutter talented, Stepford Wipes. Wives, even.

Monday 18 October 2010

The other night I tripped a nice continental drift divide.

Podcast evidence to the contrary, it didn’t actually take too much deliberation for me to subscribe to World of Warcraft again. I came to the opinion that if one has ever been invested in WoW at any point in time it would be a shame to miss out on the forthcoming cataclysm. The release of patch 4.0.1 was the catalyst for my return, and I was resolved to revisit my account and use my credit card to awaken it from its catatonic state. The next great WoW expansion is not due for another couple of months, but the forthcoming catastrophic world events are already being felt across the lands of Azeroth: the world trembling at its very foundation from time to time.

Two months may seem like a long time to have to wait before the actual release of the expansion, but when you consider that I need to apply numerous AddOn cataplasms to my UI before I am able to play happily, it seems like no time at all. I am a fool for UI twiddling, and with the expansiveness of WoW’s aftermarket AddOns being legendary, it is ripe for abuse by someone such as myself, a feedback catabolic: one who breaks down complex UI elements into simpler systems, and thus releases the energy otherwise used in fixed concentration to be diverted to more important areas, such as hat selection and the timing of fart emotes during boss fights. A catalogue of my AddOns would rival the indexes of the Ancient Library of Alexandria in scope, and as such I won’t bore you with them here.

In fact, that’s pretty much the extent of my return thus far, a small part of the inevitable migration of catadromous players who, having been living a quiet life in the fresh waters of other MMOs, now return to WoW’s oceanic population for a fresh orgy of spawning, with new life being breathed once more into Azeroth as players are catapulted into a world which is both familiar and unfamiliar. Thus far the changes have been pleasing in the main, with numerous systems in place to hold the hand of those who merely want to dabble in the game: the talent interface requires you to press a button to learn the talents you have selected, and gently reminds you that you have untrained talents if you close the window without doing so; the level-up experience is streamlined, with a message across the display telling you your new level and then announcing any new abilities or talent points you have earned, although a trip to the trainer is still required to gain them, something that Everquest II still does better, in my opinion.

That really was the extent of my experience so far. Having spent several days downloading patches overnight, then the odd hour here and there over another couple of days devoted to downloading AddOns and configuring them to my liking, and then further time setting up keyboard and gameboard key-binds, I’ve done little other than wander around on a couple of low level characters, trying to get a feel for what class I’d like to play when I roll my Worgen. I’m thinking of taking a step outside of my comfort zone, thanks in part to great experiences with my Warden in Lord of the Rings Online, and picking up a class that I don’t usually consider playing. In the meantime it’s a matter of picking an existing level eighty character and familiarising myself with the class so that I can enjoy the events leading up to the impending cataclysm.

There’s not that long to prepare; the earthquakes have already begun.

If the Prophets of Rem are to be believed, next it will be birds and snakes.

Followed by an aeroplane.

Then it’s the end of the world as we know it.

Thursday 14 October 2010

I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it

Here at KiaSA, we’re big fans of giant stompy robots. In games, that is; real, actual, the-future-as-per-Terminator style killing machines hunting down and exterminating the last traces of humanity wouldn’t be on our Christmas card list even if they did exist. In-game giant stompy robots, though, two mechanical thumbs up.

I’m not particularly familiar with the Front Mission series of games due to their Japanese console origin, but the latest, Front Mission Evolved, is out on the PC, and I was somewhat tempted by the prospect of giant robot action until I read the Rock, Paper, Shotgun review, which says stuff like:

“You never feel like the wanzer is huge, just that everything else is small. You are a robot on a day out at the model village, with lots of pyrotechnics to make things exciting.”

On the plus side it’s given me an idea for a brilliant trip to Babbacombe Model Village if I can get hold of a Transformers fancy dress outfit and some fireworks. On the minus side it doesn’t sound like a particularly great game, though I might still keep half an eye out in case it’s in a bargain Steam sale or something. That paragraph also hints at perhaps a more fundamental flaw with the series.

The word “wanzer”.

Giant stompy robots have received various names in games; Battletech’s ‘Mechs may be the best known western example, there are the Hounds in Chromehounds, Earthsiege gets the “most tortured acronym” award for its “Humaniform-Emulation Roboticized Combat Unit with Leg-Articulated Navigation”, or HERCs. Apparently wanzer is a term for mecha derived from the German “Wanderpanzer”, or “walking tank”, and it’s just rubbish. Maybe it’s just a British thing, in the same way that solemn lines like “I could tell at once that you were a bender” cause outbreaks of giggling over here, but to me “wanzer” sounds like a combination of “wanker” and “wazzock”, not really the image you want for your giant armoured machine of death. I’m not sure how they managed to stuff up a faux-German derivation so badly, with German being a language eminently suited for intimidating militaristic terminology; Fliegerabwehrkanone (aircraft defence cannon), Sturzkampfflugzeug (diving fighting aircraft) and of course Panzerkampfwagen (armoured fighting carriage), for example, abbreviate to the equally dangerous sounding Flak, Stuka and Panzer. I’m not sure “Wanderpanzer” is even technically accurate, though my German stalled around GCSE level when asking whether someone would like a Bratwurst with or without mustard, before the syllabus got to to the correct designations for military robots. I suspect something like “Panzerkampfwandernfahrzeug” might be closer to the mark, but would invite any readers with a more detailed knowledge of either (i) German or (ii) giant stompy robots (ideally both) to leave a comment…

Wednesday 13 October 2010

KiaSAcast Episode 8

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 eight.

In this episode we talk about what we’re not playing.

This episode of the podcast includes:

– Introduction

– What we’re not playing, including::

     – World of Warcraft

     – APB

     – Dungeons and Dragons Online

     – EverQuest II Extended

     – Lord of the Rings Online

     – City of Heroes

     – World of Tanks

     – And others…

Download KiaSAcast Episode Eight

KiaSA Top Tips

BRITISH PEOPLE: if applying for an open beta only available to US and Canadian residents, make sure you say “Hot Dang” and “y’all” a lot while filling out the application form to convince the web browser of your North American credentials.

Yours transatlantically,

Mrs Connie Vincingaccent

Genesis of an addiction.

In the beginning God created a new map.

And the earth was without form, and void; and so God punched a tree to get some wood. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters looking for a coal deposit.

And God placed the coal on a stick and said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness by digging a hole in a cliff and crafting a door.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’

And God placed blocks of soil, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it looked quite cool.

And God called the firmament his house. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the home be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear’: and he frantically placed blocks of stone in order to stop the water filling up his house.

And God called the dry land ‘thank fuck for that’; and the gathering together of the waters called ‘stupid leaks’: and God saw that it was good, but could probably do with some lava.

And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth’: but it was a multiplayer server, and this was alpha, so none of that was implemented yet.

And the evening and the morning were the third day.

And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: but he wasn’t fooling anyone with a couple of burning blocks of wood.

And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven, so that I may chop them up for eggs and feathers.’

And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.’ But he forgot to put up a fence and they all disappeared by the morning.

And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind’: and it was so. And the creeping things came in the night and exploded, destroying half the side of his house. And God was pissed.

And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. He chopped them all up for resources, and ate bacon while putting the final stitches in his leather armour.

And God said, ‘Behold, I have gathered every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; for me it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have chopped it up and made something useful with it, or had a good meal.

And the evening and the morning were the sixth day, and his wife shouted down the stairs to stop playing goddamn Minecraft and come to bed.

And he muttered that she shouldn’t blaspheme his name. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

And reluctantly he logged off.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Reviewlet: Halo: Reach - Single Player

Halo: Reach is the game that turned me into a Halo fanboy. I wouldn’t say I’m a true frothing, forum-bashing, smack-talking, willy-waving, Ha-lolife, but I’ve definitely gained a great respect for the series having played through Bungie’s swan song contribution to the franchise. I was brought into the FPS fold by Unreal, a friend’s demonstration of the Nali Castle flyby on his Voodoo-powered PC convincing me that gaming had arrived full-bore on the platform. I thus skipped the entire Xbox generation: having made a large investment in a gaming PC I didn’t see the need for a console, especially when I had the likes of Unreal, Half-Life and its accompanying fragfests: Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike with which to occupy myself, followed later by the time-devastating march of the MMOs.

Thus, when I did finally take the plunge and buy an Xbox 360 I steered clear of FPS games; having been raised on the immediacy and accuracy of a mouse I always had trouble becoming comfortable with, and proficient at, aiming using a thumb stick. It was Gears of War 2 that eventually converted me, or trained me that aiming ‘well enough’ on a console would get you through most games at normal difficulty, and that I could still join other consoling types and pull my weight, or at least camouflage my inaccuracy enough not to be laughed out of the game. I still wasn’t sure about Halo though, and having played the odd demo I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about and didn’t buy Halo 3 when its blockbusting release arrived and busted a fair few blocks. I grabbed Halo:ODST on the prospect of more cooperative online play with friends due to its Firefight mode sounding very similar to Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, but although I tried the single player game I couldn’t get into it, it was all too strange and seemed to rely too much on the player having prior knowledge of the game series to be able to get anywhere.

And so Halo: Reach arrived to much punditry aplomb, and with it came many comments on the lack of “circuitous, difficult to follow plots” that past Halo titles had ‘suffered’; in essence the game came without Master Chief and the baggage with which almost ten years of franchise development had lumbered him. It was time to revisit the Halo universe.

The musical score had an immediate impact upon me. The very instant the game starts its brief introductory synopsis you are presented with the sombre thumping military-like drum beat which evokes (for a non-Halo player like me) fond memories of Mass Effect, Aliens and the recent Battlestar Galatica TV series — quality sci-fi. The score is wonderful, atmospheric, brooding, ominous, and is pitched perfectly for the sci-fi story that the game is designed to present: the doom of the planet Reach.

I noted as I began the game that the introduction into the world is similar to that of ODST. As a silent no-name rookie you are introduced to a well established squad made up of strong characters whose personalities rub against one another to cause an awkward heated tension from the friction. Yet where ODST felt trite and generic, Reach’s characters were more believable and appealing and their personality traits, although obvious, were less in your face, perhaps an indication of progress in Bungie’s presentation of the generic hardcore combat unit, an understanding that players are by now, in the main, familiar with the tirelessly mediating and effectuating captain, the gentle giant of destruction, the brooding nut-job, the reserved assassin and the token female eye-candy.

The game breaks you in more gently than ODST too, it’s as though lessons were learned with ODST and that an understanding was reached that a break with Halo tradition also required a break with the assumption that the player was a hardcore Halo fanatic. Game mechanics are introduced slowly and sensibly, and although there is still a level of assumed familiarity — that, for example, you know how to operate the most bizarre game-based vehicle handling system known to man or Covenant — you are not thrown in at the deep end, but introduced to the enemy under controlled conditions that let you get to grips with the controls before more serious combat ensues. It’s a smooth, subtle tutorial that has you playing the game while learning it, rather than giving one of those stark immersion breaking tutorials of traditional FPS games, where the fully qualified combat recruit is forced to run through an exercise where they, as a first step, learn how to walk.

After that the game is of the standard FPS fare, but the story that is being told keeps the missions interesting and the player invested in the game. There are some nice highlights, such as the space combat mini-game which has a very Battlestar Galactica feel to it, and the cut-scene leading up to it had me whooping and bouncing in my seat, and was probably the point at which I started to get an idea of what Halo was all about. The weapons are generally satisfying; all the standard options are there from the assault rifle, to the sniper rifle, up to the grenade and missile launchers. If I were to be slightly critical it’s that the Covenant weapons feel far more powerful, but that is perhaps deliberate due to the fact that the Covenant are meant to be technologically superior. It’s a shame, however, that using the Covenant weapons is generally the preferred option — not only due to their power but due to the relative scarcity of ammunition for the UNSC weapons — because I preferred the more visceral and familiar feel of the assault rifle and its company. The reusable armour abilities are a nice touch, a semi-permanent power-up that offers an advantage for a short while before needing to slowly recharge itself for use once again. Only one of these abilities can be carried at a time, and although they are placed sensibly throughout the various levels, not all are offered at any one station, so a tactical decision is sometimes required. Or, like me, you just pick the faffing-great invulnerability shield generator whenever it becomes available, and stick with that.

The story of the combat squad itself is one that has been told numerous times and is a tale of inevitability; there are few surprises in the overall outcome, although the inevitable is delivered on occasion from out of the blue, and I think it does achieve its aim to shock you out of your familiarity zone, which again helps to keep things from feeling rather stale and regurgitated, which would otherwise be a danger even for someone unfamiliar with the franchise.

The ending, however, is what sold me on the game. It is the perfect every-tale of bravery and honour and sacrifice in the face of an overwhelming and superior force; you already know how the game is going to end because you are shown your future in the very opening scene, and yet you still want to believe that it will end differently — it doesn’t, but that just makes it all the better for it. Bungie has told the final chapter of their story developing Halo, which itself is the first chapter of the Halo story, and it sets the tone for what is to come after, both in terms of the existing games to which it serves as a prequel, and also those games which will be produced by the next developer to take up the Halo mantle. In the meantime there is plenty for Halo virgins such as myself to enjoy, because where a game such as Red Dead Redemption left me feeling glad that the ordeal was finally over, Halo:Reach left me wanting more, and so I plan to revisit the Halo games that I’ve missed in the past, while keeping an eye firmly on Bungie’s future developments.

Monday 11 October 2010

I nauseate walking; 'tis a country diversion.

I was questing in the Lone Lands on my Hunter the other night and ran into another one of those curious issues I have with the current crop of MMOs. I’ve not much enthusiasm to play Lord of the Rings Online at the moment despite having a lifetime subscription, my faith in the game is slowly being sapped by the continued inability of Codemasters to translate Turbine’s free-to-play vision onto the European servers, a mirroring of the debacle that occurred with Dungeons and Dragons Online, and where the most likely outcome for LotRO now is for Codemasters to announce that they won’t be going free-to-play after all, followed shortly by everyone without a lifetime subscription jumping over to the good ship US Turbine, and eventually all accounts being migrated over to Turbine anyway.

It’s certainly hard to summon enthusiasm to play a game that other people can play for free but with more features and also all of the latest content.

I decided to pick at the few remaining quests I have in the Lone Lands before moving on to the North Downs proper, and the one quest I had left was to kill trolls in Harloeg. Off I run, dodging through wave after wave of mobstacles, ignoring their attempts to stop me. Honestly, it’s like walking down the high street of your local town while trying to dodge all the people wanting to scrounge money, solicit your opinion on washing powder, or get you to sign a petition to prevent cruelty to strawberries. You have orcs running after you “Excuse me sir? Sir? Do you believe in Eru? Can I interest you in the Church of Saurontology?”; crows flap around your head, cawing about time share apartments in Mordor; wargs chase at your heels trying to get you to stop and answer a survey for the Meat Marketing Board; Wights try to pin you down and sign you up to Support A Spirit – ‘A donation of just fifty silver a month could enable a ghoul or ghost to help themselves to haunt again’.

Regardless, I reach the trolls without having stopped for a single survey, kill the requisite number in short order, and head back. It was while dodging a particularly persistent sickle-fly who was, I think, trying to sell me on the merits of a comprehensive double glazing installation, that I ran into a dead end. It’s a curious design of Harloeg – and many places in MMOs – that the natural route in and out is actually a sheer cliff or some insurmountable obstacle, with the actual escape route being out of the way paths tucked off in far flung corners of the map. Each path is, of course, narrow and laden with mobstacles.

This annoys me. It’s not the fact that I have to go out of my way so much as the pretence at exploration that’s offered, using the landscape to force me to spend more time trudging around and fighting off unwanted solicitations from crap animals as if this was adventure. If there was something to actually explore as I ran off in a five mile detour around the outskirts of the map to find the way out… if there was a mob that ambushed me who dropped an item that started a quest, or was at the very least an interesting fight, it wouldn’t rankle quite so much. There’s nothing of the sort however, and there never is. It wouldn’t destroy the aesthetic of Harleog to have a path running down that cliff face, it wouldn’t cost the developer more than a minute or two of a player’s time to allow them to just wander back in a more direct route, and they could still put a bunch of mobstacles in the player’s way to dismount them at every step and slow them down to a combat crawl, if they really felt it necessary to rely on such base and derivative tactics. Harloeg is a particularly fine example because there’s actually a piece of land – right where most players would run back – which starts to ramp up towards the top of that cliff, and then stops short, and where perspective won’t let you see this until you’re all the way to the top. Seriously, they might as well have a sign at the top that says “Haw, haw! Run back down! Run back and then run all the way around! Off you go! Run little player, run! And know that all the while you’re running and not getting to play the game or have any sort of entertainment, you are paying us money! Ha ha ha he he ha ha he ho!”. It would be a big sign, admittedly, and I suppose it might give the game away a little early.

I’ve ‘wasted’ hours in Minecraft in my exploration; I say wasted because invariably I did nothing terribly productive with respect to the game world or my character, but I did find fascinating geological features, discovered new places that sparked my imagination as to how I could turn them into a productive home, and I had so much fun that those hours passed like minutes. Trying to get anything done in MMOs such as LotRO makes minutes feel like hours. If you’re going to be a lazy developer and have quest hubs that load me up with quests, send me running halfway across the map to kill a specific type of boar because the ones right outside just won’t do, and the fifteen hundred I’ve killed up until now just don’t count, you really shouldn’t then get all creative when it comes to making obnoxious geographical hoops for me to jump through in a blatant attempt to artificially hike the amount of time I have to spend slogging around trying to get anything done, dodging pointless mobstacles all the while. Talk about rubbing it in.

MMOs also need to break out of the mindset that says placing static spawns of tedious uninteresting mobs between quest hubs and quest locations is anything akin to adventure, excitement or fun. It really isn’t. But perhaps more on that another time.

Friday 8 October 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

I posted about Fluxx a while back, and I think it’s fair to say the comments had a mixed view on the merits of this card game of changing rules. It’s definitely not something to play as a serious competition as there’s a massive amount of randomness and almost no possible strategy, a computer simulation of Fluxx would be a terrible game. Playing for laughs with other people, though, is rather fun; my personal favourite rule card from Zombie Fluxx is the one where players have to groan like a zombie at the beginning of their turn, and if they refuse/forget anyone else can pass over a zombie Creeper.

In a massively surprising turn of events, Monty Python Fluxx turns out to ramp up the silliness even more. It’s mostly based on the Holy Grail, with Goals like “Grail Shaped Beacon” (you win if you have Sir Galahad and somebody else has The Holy Grail) and the “One, Two, Five! (Three, Sir!)” rule (treat any “3” on a card as “5”), with a sprinkling of the TV series (a Nude Organist keeper, actions including My Hovercraft Is Full Of Eels). A meta-game developed around two particular rules: one where you get to draw an extra card if you sing a few bars of a Python song at the start of your turn (and a second card if it hasn’t been sung before), and another where you get to draw an extra card if you speak with an outraaaaageous fake accent during your turn (you seely Eeeeengleesh kerrrrrrn-igggets), plus a second if you’ve kept the accent up since your previous turn. If there are two things I don’t need any encouragement for at the best of times it’s breaking in to Python songs and speaking with an outrageous fake accent, so I was trying to get those rules into play, and everyone else desperately tried to play cards to get rid of them as soon as possible (though not before a few creditable verses of the Spam song and Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life). All my singing was in vain in the end, as Jon triumphed by finding The Holy Grail, but I think it might have become my favourite card game ever. It’s just a shame nobody else will ever want to play it again…

Thursday 7 October 2010

The MMOnomyth

After Melmoth’s contemplation of Campbell’s monomyth, I wondered if the 17 stages could be adapted to be slightly more relevant to MMOGs…

  • Departure
    • The Call to Adventure
      • “Ooh, that bloke’s got shiny punctuation over his head”
    • Refusal of the Call
      • “Bugger off am I killing 50 wolves”
    • Supernatural Aid
      • “There’s a +1 Supernatural Sword if I do? Oh, all right.”
    • The Crossing of the First Threshold
      • “I’ve unlocked the Wolfslayer I achievement trait badge, score!”
    • Belly of The Whale
      • “WTF? Seriously, nerf the whale’s swallow attack!” (Note: that’s where the whale swallows the player, rather than the whale having small pet birds as weapons)
  • Initiation
    • The Road of Trials
      • “How much further have I got to run down this Road of Crap De-mounting Mobstacles?”
    • The Meeting With the Goddess
    • Woman as Temptress
      • “I don’t care if you are dancing in your underwear on the mailbox, I’m not giving you gold”
    • Atonement with the Father
      • “Sorry dad, I was too busy on this heroic adventure to tidy my room, but I’ll mow the lawn tomorrow”
    • Apotheosis
      • “Ding level 80!”
    • The Ultimate Boon
      • “Could it be that I hold in my very hand… The Sword of a Thousand Truths? It is so! No more powerful weapon exists in any earthly dominion! Huh. No point raiding ’til the next expansion now…”
  • Return
    • Refusal of the Return
      • “FFS, the questgiver is three maps away, I can’t be arsed to go back to him”
    • The Magic Flight
      • “Oh, wait, found a flight point!”
    • Rescue from Without
      • “Who called a dungeon boss Without anyway?”
    • The Crossing of the Return Threshold
      • “It’s 3am? Probably ought to log…”
    • Master of Two Worlds
      • “I have defeated Without *and* mown the lawn!”
    • Freedom to Live
      • “Your subscription has been cancelled as requested”

Wednesday 6 October 2010

What do you call a female moth on a unicycle?

Campbell’s idea of the monomyth is well understood, and was summarised by Campbell as:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Although academic consensus on Campbell’s theory seems to err in the general case on the side of ‘STFU Noob’, there are well documented cases of it being used in successful modern ventures, George Lucas’s Star Wars perhaps being chief among them.

It looks like a theory that would match well to fantasy MMOs, and yet when reviewing the seventeen stages outlined by Campbell (while attempting to ignore its stereotypical male chauvinist and populist elements which are probably more a symptom of the era in which the thinking was undertaken), we see how little of the Hero’s Journey is reflected in the journeys of the heroes we make.

In The Departure we find the first step, The Call to Adventure:

“The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.”

In World of Warcraft my dwarf’s first task was to kill some wolves; in LotRO last night my freshly minted Lore-master was called on to head five feet over to the left and kill some gnats. The journey stumbles on the first step because you never make the transition from the mundane to the heroic, you start out as a low-powered hero, and you gradually scale the ranks of greater heroism by killing wolves and boars and gnats with ever greater levels of hit points.

Melmoth’s Heroism Test: what’s the highest level boar that your level-capped character can go back and kill unarmoured and with a level 1 sword? Surely any hero with a sword should be able to kill a pig…

Corollary: Why are you so much less of a hero with that sword than any other? If your answer is that your level 100 sword is magical, then I would suggest that your character is not a hero, just a major power in a magical weapon proliferation race.

The nature of the theme park MMO is that heroism is simply a statistical bar to certain rides, and it’s hard to weave an epic tale when the journey being made is simply the short step from one sanitised ride to the next.

Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic are both trying to bring story back into MMOs, hopefully they have taken into consideration the concept of the journey that needs to be made; being a hero in a story is not just about killing fiery demons, it’s about overcoming one’s own demons, just as discovery in a hero epic is not just about uncovering new lands, but about the hero unearthing their own true nature.

Making the Hero’s Journey work is not a guarantee of success, however. A recent resurgence of reminiscence over Planscape: Torment after it was on offer on the recently resurrected Good Old Games, reminds us that a game can have an epic story that really attempts to get to the heart of the meaning of what it is to be a hero, and yet, as with all great things, not be accepted for its greatness until well after its time has passed.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled

RUSE is a great game, a solid RTS with enough of a twist to keep things interesting. Getting a multiplayer game going can be slightly frustrating; I prefer larger team games to the pressure of a one-on-one match, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 4 vs 4 match launch successfully, and 3 vs 3 can take a little while to assemble six people in one lobby with half decent connections and a vague pretence at team balance (joining a game to see one side comprising three level 50+ players with the same clan tag: thanks, but no thanks). Once a game gets going, though, I’ve had plenty of interesting fights, from instant paratroop rushes to grinding artillery duels.

Working through the single player campaign offers different challenges. Missions typically start with you in control of two blokes with one rifle between them facing several divisions of German infantry and a couple of Panzer battalions who are frightfully sporting about not rushing your starting point, allowing a more measured pace of control and expansion for those not keen on the freneticism of online play. It starts off very slowly, with the first few battles especially a bit of a slog if you’re used to the basics of unit movement and camera controls from the beta or demo, but once you actually get a base to start building units things pick up. Different battles focus on different unit types so you don’t just keep re-using the same tactics; in the Arnhem campaign for example you only have paratroops and reconnaissance planes to start with, only later getting access to the tanks of XXX Corps.

(Reminiscing digression: Close Combat II: A Bridge Too Far from the late 90s was an absolutely fantastic game of Operation Market Garden. The same way Deus Ex needed a new approach to the FPS after you found out you couldn’t just run around and shoot everything, Close Combat was a rude awakening after Dune II, Warcraft and similar RTS games where attacks mostly consisted of piling on with as many units as you could click. A frontal assault in Close Combat got your infantry shredded by emplaced machine guns and your tanks ambushed by concealed bazookas; you had to use cover, advance slowly, put down suppressing fire to get anywhere. A spot of Googling reveals it’s just been given a lick of new paint and re-released as Close Combat – Last Stand Arnhem, I could well be tempted to pick that up sometime. After finishing a bunch of other games including the Peninsular campaign for Napoleon: Total War I grabbed when it was half price the other day. Anyway.)

If RUSE does have a weakness, a shot trap in its otherwise impressive armour, it’s the cut-scenes. They’re every bit as terrible as the demo promised, casting you as Major (soon to be General) Sheridan (not that one) in a “Who Can Be The Biggest Git” competition with an equally fictional General Weatherby, crowbarred in to significant battles from Kasserine through Italy to Normandy, Arnhem and Bastogne, all the while hunting down a German spy. Well, I say “hunting down”, a typical cut-scene goes “The Germans knew exactly what we were doing! I am convinced there is a spy. Anyway, on to France, here’s a perfunctory yet dull overview of the next campaign. Don’t tell the Germans, especially you, person who is quite obviously a German spy. Let’s have a drink.” Still, they’re over quickly enough, letting you get back to the action.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Realm Of The God With Underpants On His Head And Two Pencils Up His Nose

When I can drag myself away from a giant ankh building project (inevitable after seeing a tweet including the words “Minecraft” and “Populous”), I’ve been digging through a few other indie games, primarily through TIGSource. There was a rather interesting competition there a while back, Assemblee, in two parts. Firstly artists and musicians produced assets, then coders used those assets to make games.

Seeing “massively multiplayer fantasy” in the list of winners lead to Realm of the Mad God, a rather fun little Gauntlet-ish romp that makes splendid use of the winner of the first stage, a nifty set of 8×8 fantasy tiles and sprites. I haven’t found the titular Mad God yet, though, so can’t confirm if he says “wibble“.

Friday 1 October 2010

Thought for the day.

Everything that’s coming out of ArenaNet at the moment says to me that they ‘get it’.

The only reservation I have is to whether they can deliver it.

Warhammer Online’s release showed that developers can ‘get it’ and yet not get it right.

Will ArenaNet release the game they claim?

TERAble teenage troubles.

TERA has unveiled some new class game-play videos as reported on Massively. The new classes, the Sexeror and the Rangewhore, carry on the grand tradition of the TERA marketing team in generally ignoring the wide range of compelling races in the game to concentrate on presenting females with improbable body dimensions who are dressed in what readers of Sex Workers Monthly voted as among the top ten outfits that are too slutty to work in.

Is that it then, are action MMOs just for the horny teenage male population ages 15-18, or are they simply being made by them?

Look forward to future TERA videos including the Tentaclons and their wandering tentacle hand… things; random gusts of wind that blow skirts up with hilarious consequences; and the dreaded Lycran, monsters with the enviable power to control bra and knicker elastic at will.