Thursday 30 December 2010

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings.

Much like most things at this time of year, my gaming is coming in fits and starts of gluttonous excess followed by periods of pale-faced abstention where the slightest mention of the thing is at best likely to cause me to curl up into a ball, suck my thumb and whimper, and where running up the street screaming while wearing nothing but underpants and a wild-eyed unshaven expression of hair-tearing horror is a distinct possibility. I imagine it’s as much to do with the weird cocktail of choices, much like my festive eating habits where breakfast can consist of Christmas pudding and cold turkey one morning with a nice glass of port to wash things down, and then be followed the next day by the far more sensible choice of porridge and ice cream, my gaming has been, shall we say, eclectic.

In recognition of this, I thought I’d jot down some quick-fire thoughts over the next few days on various games that have been bumping around inside my head (the thoughts that is, not the games) and threatening to form an impromptu raid group and kill important memories such as my PIN, or whether zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes.

World of Warcraft has been fun enough, but I can’t see myself getting back into it in a major way. The world has changed, there are new things to see and do, but all of it so much like that which has gone before; for me WoW is becoming too much of a parody of WoW, the in-jokes have gone so far that WoW is now creating self-referential in-jokes about other in-jokes, and it feels as though that is what the whole world of Azeroth has become. It’s all a bit South Park or Simpsons, which is fine, but only if you weren’t hoping for something a little more serious. The curious thing is that the use of phasing and cut-scenes seems to imply that Blizzard are also trying to do the ‘adult storytelling’ thing at the same time, and for me it seems to run counter to the more general cartoon-like comedic nature of the rest of the game. What I would hope for is something akin to an interactive fable, with far-fetched magical events being balanced against a sagacious moral lesson, but what we get is something more like a Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown trying to explain War and Peace using suggestive sock puppets and one too many poo jokes.

There are also the standard MMO restrictions that make a mockery of Blizzard’s attempts at serious storytelling, and so the game leaves you confused and unsure whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry, like a clown delivering a eulogy at the state funeral of a king. Towards the end of the Worgen starter area there is a moment where your character and the leader of the Worgen confront the opposing faction – the last remnants of uninfected humans. On seeing your inevitable victory, their leader (and your main detractor/antagonist throughout the starter area) vows never to follow a Worgen leader, and runs off and throws himself from a nearby cliff. Poignant. I must admit I was caught in the seriousness of the moment, I looked to my Worgen leader and to the remaining human leaders, wondering what they would say. Nothing was forthcoming in the end, so I decided it was probably time to think about moving on.

At which point the chap who had just thrown himself from the cliff respawned in his original position in the midst of everyone.

Me: “D… didn’t you just throw yourself from that cliff yonder? D.. didn’t he just throw himself from that cliff? How have you returned, what sorcery is this?”

Human Leader: “What? Oh, that. No, it’s a water flume. We’ve built a giant water slide down the side there. Lord Godfrey likes to go for a quick slide when he gets bad news. Here, Godfrey, these poor Worgen thought you’d jumped to your death!”

Lord Vincent Godfrey: “Jump to my death? Oh good grief, no! Just a quick go on the water slide to calm my nerves. You don’t remember the water slides? Hmmm. You see, men? Their transformation has robbed them of their memories of Gilneas yet! They forget the ancient and noble history of water flume creation that our society was founded upon!”

Human Leader: “Oh the humanity!”

Lord Vincent Godfrey: “Come, let us leave them to the horror of their existence. I’m having another go on that most excellent water slide, and then I might go and relax in the jacuzzi for a while. Who’s with me?!”

Human Leaders: “Aye!”

[They all throw themselves off the nearby cliff in unison]

Meanwhile, EverQuest II released the most pointless playable race for an MMO yet: Vampires.

“What are you supposed to be then?”

“I am a Vampire! I am one of the undead! The ever-living! You cannot kill me!”

“Have you played an MMO before?”

“I… ah…”

“Have you ever known anyone to actually die, like, permanently?”

“Well, no but…”

“So you cannot die in a world where nobody dies? Is that, like, double death immunity? Y’know, just in case one of your ‘impossibilities of death’ doesn’t work? Genius.”

“I am still undead! That’s got to mean something, though, right?”

“Well, it means our cleric can turn you, or make you spontaneously combust, at will.”

What is ‘turning’ anyway? “I am a cleric, I can turn undead! Yes, left, right; name your direction, and I can make an undead go that way!” So undead are essentially the radio controlled cars of the Cleric world? Do Clerics set-up tracks and race undead around and around? Perhaps that’s why you get different speed zombies! Some have been upgraded with better motors to run on the A-spec undead race tracks, while the slower ones are more B-spec types.

Hmm, I think I’m on to something; a little more Christmas cake with Stilton should help me to maintain this train of thought into the next post.

Saturday 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas.

From all here at KiaSA – Melmoth, Zoso, and the train of angry mobstacles that followed them back to the blog one day – we’d like to wish a Merry Christmas to all, and to all some fat loot.

May your PuGs be merry and bright, and may all your instances delight.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Thought for the day.

Dunegons & Dragons: Daggerdale looks most interesting. I wonder if this is the way for online adventure games to go: a new sub-genre of what are essentially traditional single player RPGs, but with online co-op play. It seems a much more sensible way to involve story in an online RPG, rather than trying to cram a fourth pillar into a ‘massively online’ model for RPGs that doesn’t need the extra support, as games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic are trying to do.

Having played in fixed static groups in several MMOs and found it to be one of the best ways to enjoy the game at a sensible pace, and at the same time having played co-operatively as part of a small group in various online console games, I really feel that the Small Party Online RPG genre is one that is worthy of consideration; persistent worlds, an engaging story that revolves around all of the players, and huge cinematic events – these things are not only possible but easier and considerably cheaper to produce in a game where the number of players is dramatically reduced and the balance of classes is more strictly controlled.

I believe there’s huge potential to tap in this market, and it will be interesting to see if games such as D&D:Daggerdale and LotR: War in the North will prove successful. It will only take one game with high production values and a staff that really understands the power they hold in the way their game differs from traditional MMOs, and we’ll see a whole new sub-genre, maybe even an entirely new genre, spring up; I don’t think that time is too far away, so get those pun-based blog names reserved, the next exciting movement in online RPGs may well be just around the corner.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

It was the best of grinds, it was the worst of grinds

Even as m’colleague’s Cataclysm box languishes in the depths of a snowdrift somewhere, I’ve cancelled my WoW subscription. Got through the very first Worgen area, it was all very nice, but I just haven’t logged in since with everything else going on. Any of war (and indeed hammering) in Warhammer, fleet adventures in Pirates of the Burning Sea or heavy metal thunder in World of Tanks can quite happily take up an evening, but I’ve really been pulled back into Lord of the Rings Online.

I gave up on LotRO just after launch somewhere around level 27, when I recall content was getting a little thin and starting to involve a lot of travelling. This time around I’ve just hit level 27 on my new main character, I’ve hardly been outside Bree-land since getting through the introductory areas, and I’ve still got a full log of mostly outlevelled quests that I’m loathe to abandon. There are general quests, the storyline book content, dungeons, crafting, skirmishes and most recently Yule festival quests.

There’s been debate over holiday or festival quests ever since someone decided that just handing out sweets wasn’t a proper celebration of Easter and a repeatable “Collect five chocolate eggs” quest would be much more fun; nice additions to in-game lore or immersion breaking intrusions, fun little fluffy diversions or pointless grind interfering with normal play, implementation and player response varies considerably. LotRO seems to have some pretty well established regular events, and with this year’s Yule Festival there’s also a whole new zone, Winter-home.

There’s some interesting stuff in Winter-home. Snowball fights are always good. The theatre, where random players get called up on the stage to take part in a short play by performing suitable emotes, is rather fun, and the audience get to show their appreciation of a fine performance with a shower of petals, or lob rotten fruit if the acting isn’t up to scratch. The general tone of the zone is slightly unusual too (very minor spoilers follow, if the story is of great concern): it’s a festival town, where the Mayor ensures guests enjoy fun and games and feasting to excess, but they do so at the expense of exploited workers. Some quests involve helping the downtrodden (handing out festival coins, that could be bartered for in-game rewards, to beggars left on the streets after they helped build the town up), others keep them suppressed (moving those same beggars on so they’re not cluttering up the streets for the nice guests). Eventually you can work your way up to a final quest in the zone and either threaten to expose the Mayor’s corruption to secure better conditions for the workers, or help the Mayor put down a possible revolt, keeping him in power.

I actually felt bad moving beggars off the street, especially as your heartstrings are tugged a bit more by the game telling you they stumble off, frozen, without having collected anything, mumbling “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb anyone”. The final quest is a real dilemma, though; obviously The Right Thing would be to help out the workers, but the rewards for doing so are some tatty old clothes. Help out the Mayor, he’ll give you a really spiffy costume, including a top hat. Yes, a top hat. Many RPGs reward you for being virtuous, a classic example would be ridding a village of some terrible monster threat, and the poor farmers offer you the few copper pieces they can scrape together to thank you, you say “No, honest tillers of the soil, you need that copper more than I, slaying the beast is reward enough for me”, and the game gives you bonus XP or some other sort of character improvement. As far as I can make out, though, the Winter-home quest gives you nothing apart from the tatty clothes and a sense of enormous well-being for helping out the poor, you really do get the good stuff from being a git. Brutally suppressing a revolt doesn’t make the Mayor have second thoughts, he doesn’t cry “What have I become?” and invite everybody in to share a goose, he just kicks the ringleaders out and carries on. It wouldn’t be so surprising somewhere like Warhammer where pretty much everyone’s a bastard anyway, but it’s a little more jarring in a setting like LotRO and could give you pause as the Mayor points out your hypocrisy in helping the workers when you’ve been enjoying the feasting and such as much as everyone else.

For a few seconds.

For unfortunately the effect is slightly lost by the sheer MMOG-iness of it all. In a single player RPG the themes could really be developed, but MMOGs have to account for the Content Devourers. You imagine the developers slaving away creating the zone, adding the NPCs, carefully scripting the theatre events to take account of all conceivable player behaviour (fully aware there’ll be plenty of inconceivable player behaviour, but you do what you can), then they stick it up on the test server and Geoff starts a stop-watch to see how long it’ll take players to completely exhaust the content that took so many man-months to create.

“Thirty eight minutes and nine seconds” says Geoff, thirty eight minutes and nine seconds later, and that included typing up an exhaustive guide and taking screenshots. So they shove a couple of extra-blatant time-sink quests in (Winter-home’s best, or worst, example being Tidying Up, where you get to run around and click on 30 glowy bit of rubbish, waiting for a second or two each time) and make you repeat everything ten times if you want the final reward, with a once a day limit on most of the quests. Couple that with the fundamentally unchanging nature of MMO content, and instead of a microcosm of the class struggle with a festive theme you’re stuck in a bizarre pie-eating purgatory. You force the beggars to leave town, they shuffle off sadly, but are back within a minute. Instead of driving them off again you give them some coins and they’re thankful. Next day you give them more coins, then kick them out of town, while hundreds of other players do the same. The theatre puts on the same six-minute play ten times an hour, and if you’re desperate for all the deeds for chucking petals or fruit you sit through it again, and again, and again… Even the impact of the final quest, where you finally have to choose one side or the other, is somewhat undermined; to salve my conscience I helped the workers on my main character, but I couldn’t possibly miss out on a top hat (come on, top hat!), so I whipped an alt through the 30 quests, beat up some peasants, got the finery, and stuck it in the wardrobe so any other character on the account could use it.

Still, I’m hardly in much of a position to complain about repetitive grind. “Have you played an MMO before?” is the refrain of every static group on hitting similar issues, you know what you’re letting yourself in for with these things. It’s not like I was forced at gunpoint to run through all the quests. Repeatedly. Twice. It would be nice if there was a bit more cohesion between Story, World and Making Bars Go Up, but when it comes to the crunch you know there’s only one that really keeps people coming back. So maybe I’ll try another ten runs of the eating contest for a new title…

Monday 20 December 2010

Quick guide to festive raids.

The key to the Reindeer encounter is fairly simple: isolating one particular reindeer will quickly allow your group to overcome the rest of the mobs and allow you to loot the sleigh. The reindeer and sleigh move around the zone at high speed and can’t be caught under normal circumstances. However, at certain times, fog will descend on the area for a short period; this is when you need to strike. Have your ranged DPS target the one reindeer with a very shiny nose, it should be obvious because it practically glows. When the fog arrives, the ranged DPS should snare and focus-fire that reindeer as a priority. Without the bright nose to guide them, the rest of the reindeer will be forced to land, allowing the tank to pick them up and the rest of the DPS to burn them down, until they are history. Once all reindeer are defeated, Santa will leap from the sleigh and engage the party in a weakened state, and can be quickly dispatched as a standard tank’n’spank fight. If you fail to stop the sleigh at this stage, however, Santa will eventually land on the roof of your guild hall and proceed as in previous years (see our guide for information on Santa’s abilities in this case).

For the Manger encounter there are several stages. Lord Jesus will initially lay down his sweet head and sleep, and cannot be engaged by the party at this time. The first stage involves the stars in the bright sky above the party, which will fire beams of light as they look down on Lord Jesus. The group should watch for the pool of light forming on the ground and step outside of it before the beam lands; anyone caught in a beam of light will take heavy damage over time, which will kill most characters in two to three seconds. The second stage is announced by the sound of lowing cattle, at which point Lord Jesus awakes. Lord Jesus doesn’t make any announcement of his awakening, so players need to watch for him beginning to move shortly after the cattle start lowing. Once the second stage begins Lord Jesus will take up a position in the sky above the party where he will look down upon them. Use the manger to line-of-sight block his stare (signified by a glowing white light around the player and a chorus of singing angels). Failure to block the stare in time will result in a shadowy copy of Lord Jesus staying by the side of the player until the end of the encounter. Stage three begins with all those players who have a Lord Jesus copy close-by receiving the Tender Care debuff, at which point those players are instantly killed as they are taken up to heaven to live with Lord Jesus. After this point Lord Jesus will descend and the remaining party members have a standard tank’n’spank fight, which will vary in difficulty depending on how many players were taken, and whether the party has a tank and healer remaining on the ground.

The Merry Christmas encounter is unusual in that it has no real fight to it. The players will face a group of mobs who will initially be friendly to the party. At this point players will randomly gain the Good Tidings buff which either increases run speed or reduces cooking skill inductions. At some point the mobs will turn aggressive and demand figgy pudding at random, with a timer bar appearing above their head which counts down; note that some timers count down faster than others. Players with the Good Tidings run buff should now collect the ingredients for figgy pudding from the tables on the far west side of the encounter area, and run them over to the ovens on the east side. Players with the Good Tidings cooking buff should then use the ingredients to cook a figgy pudding and hand it back to a player with the Good Tidings run buff. Finally, the figgy puddings should be delivered to those aggressive mobs demanding figgy pudding, taking care to feed those with the lowest timers first. If the timer runs out on a mob demanding figgy pudding, it will immediately dash towards the ovens or ingredients tables and then explode, instantly killing all players nearby. Once a mob has been fed it will despawn, but it will not leave until it gets some. The encounter ends once all mobs have left or all players are dead.

It seems that the Three Kings encounter is currently bugged as there is no way to tell which of the kings has the gold. As it is, follow the star (tip: the star always heads west at the moment, so just run west once you start the encounter) until your party catches the group of three kings, and then engage one. Once one king is engaged, the other two will despawn, after which it’s a fairly standard tank’n’spank fight. Upon defeating the king it’s just a matter of hoping that you loot gold, rather than frankincense or myrrh, which are vendor trash.

Friday 17 December 2010

Never laugh at those who suffer; suffer sometimes those who laugh.

I’m in a bit of a funk with regards to gaming at the moment, nothing terribly disastrous but I’ve just had some bad luck with recent purchases.

I made the mistake of buying World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion from Amazon, which still hasn’t turned up as of today. Of course I’m not alone, but as is usual in this modern world of ours, a large corporation can break its promises and obligations and happily just ignore the issue, sweep it under the carpet, and carry on paying out nice fat bonuses to its executives. Of course I’d gotten into that vicious cycle of giving them the benefit of the doubt and thus waited too long for the thing to arrive, rather than just going out and buying it elsewhere a day or so after it was delayed, and then returning the copy from Amazon should it ever turn up. Still, I’ve resolved today to go and buy a copy from a retail outlet, at which point, of course, my copy from Amazon will arrive. Along with seven other copies I didn’t order.

And then Lord of the Rings Online managed to frustrate me yesterday. Having needed some points and deciding to splash out and buy the maximum amount the day before, it was yesterday that they then decided to offer their points at a massive discount, so I lost out on 1900 points for the want of waiting one more random day before spending money with them. It’s not the end of the world, but it seems backward that people who have purchased points are ‘punished’ for investing in the game as and when they needed the points, whereas people who hung around not paying anything get a potential bonus for not investing earlier. Of course it’s all just business, Turbine/Codemasters are just trying to give another incentive for people to spend money in the store, and they certainly don’t care about people who have already spent money with them, but the timing of it – one day meaning the difference of some £15 or so – was a bit galling for me. For my part it has probably lost them money in the long run, as had the offer been advertised I would have waited and bought two lots of points; now, as it stands, I’ll probably not buy any more points again. Why do so? Why risk giving them money only for them to put the points on offer the very next day.

My actual gaming is progressing rather splendidly, however. I have lots of games on the go, and although my writing here has slowed down this month, that’s mainly due to being excessively busy at work; not having much to say about these games that hasn’t already been said before; snow; and having a two-year-old who is just starting to understand and enjoy the wonders and delights of Christmas – it’s pretty much impossible not to want to be a part of that.

I’ve headed back into Warhammer Online and I think the recent changes Mythic have implemented to open RvR are much for the better, although it’s interesting to see how sections of the existing player-base are having trouble adapting away from the ‘Zerg Only Keep Doors For Great Victory’ mentality that was prevalent, nay, necessary, in the old system. Lord of the Rings Online is still very enjoyable despite my basement-nerd-fist-shaking outrage at having narrowly lost out on a great deal, and with a static group character to play, as well as my Warden working her way through the Volume 1 epic storyline, there’s plenty to keep me occupied. Other games on my play-list are Pirates of the Burning Sea, which recently went free-to-play, and looks to be a cracking little diversion if I can ever get my mind ‘holding the weather gage’ to the game’s many and various mechanics; and World of Warcraft, which I’ve been holding off on until my expansion box arrives (ha!) because I intend to play a new character and don’t want to burn out playing through the high level content before I’ve had a chance to roll my Worgen warrior.

So, plenty of games to keep me ticking over until the next Great Hyped Hope arrives; Rift is sounding more interesting by the day, and I can’t listen on Spotify to the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra’s rendition of the Guild Wars theme without experiencing a rather emotional desire to be wandering the lands and experiencing the world that Guild Wars 2 professes to offer. I’m increasingly unsure about Star Wars: The Old Republic however; I have a deep seated desire to play it, make no mistake, but it’s how I will play it that leaves me uncertain. At the moment, from the limited information available, it seems as though the game will be a solo affair – Mass Effect: Star Wars Edition, say – with the vague potential for online cooperative play should you so desire.

Each of these three games tries to make their world, and the stories within that world, dynamic in a way that engages the player far more than we have experienced in MMOs up until now. It seems that this concept will serve as the foundation for the next generation of MMOs, but whether it will succeed is still anyone’s guess. My prediction is that there will be a tangible ‘something’ that attracts new players to these next generation MMOs, but that it will be Blizzard who – as World of Warcraft did with EverQuest – take the essence of that concept, fold it into Titan and make it accessible and mainstream, thus creating the next MMO behemoth.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Men are only as loyal as their options.

Despite having a number of MMOs on the go at the moment, including Warhammer Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online remains my go-to MMO.


There’s just something so compelling about the world that LotRO presents: environments in which it’s pleasant simply to exist. I’ve had to curb the time I spend on my static group character due to being in danger of rapidly out-levelling most of the rest of the group; let’s just say that daily skirmishes and rested XP are an unholy levelling alliance: a Wormtongue and Sharkey to scourge static group stability. Having maxed out crafting as far as I can without completing further crafting quests which are currently twice the level of my character, I’ve had to shelve my Guardian for the time being, but the land of Middle Earth continues to draw me in. I spent one evening chatting with kinshipmates (probably better as ‘kinmates’ but I’ve been spending a bit of time in Pirates of the Burning Sea as I mentioned above. Avast kinshipmates!) while I stood beside the fire in the Prancing Pony and played music to passing strangers, adjusting my .abc repertoire to include songs slightly more in keeping with the setting; Enya’s Caribbean Blue works quite well, Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, not so much. The music system is just one small (oft overlooked) example of why, when it comes to immersing oneself in a fantasy world, LotRO is a world apart. Still, the urge was strong to do something ‘productive’ with one of my characters, after all, I think it was Fargo who defined the MMO player’s mantra while devising an algorithm for his Automated Online Role-Player:

* If there is a status bar, make it grow bigger
* If there is a number, make it higher
* If it moves, either get a mission from it or kill it

I needed to do something, and in LotRO, as in the books it is based upon, there’s always a road leading to somewhere new and interesting.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

“Where many paths and errands meet”; it’s almost as if Tolkien was foreshadowing the coming of LotRO and its errand-based ‘epic’ book content, where heroic warriors of the land spend most of the Third Age of Man carrying messages from one bone-idle NPC to another. When it comes to LotRO’s book content, the road really does seem to go on and on and on. And on.

There and, of bloody course, back again.


Honestly, I sometimes wonder if Turbine’s developers took some of those famous phrases a little too literally.

However, having run multiple alts through the low level content while trying to decide which one to settle upon for the static group, I found myself not wanting to play another alt through the early content yet again, so it was upon my level-capped characters that I focussed. They’re pretty complete, or as complete as a non-raiding layabout like myself is ever likely to get them, but the one thing I’ve never managed to do on any of them is… Volume 1 of the epic book content. Thus it was that I grabbed my Warden – soloing machine and small fellowship compressed into a single set of tight leather armour – and began to pick away at the chapters of the book’s storyline that I had yet to complete. I hadn’t completed very much.

Returning to the book content in this way provides a strange juxtaposition of heroism. Turbine provides a buff that allows a solo player to complete the book content at the correct level but without the support of a fellowship; it’s a simple and effective solution to a common issue, namely that it can be quite tricky to find a full group of players all on the same specific step of the book content that you’re on. So Turbine provided a buff that only applies to solo players, if you happen to have a group then you can complete the book content as it was intended, but if you can’t find a group or simply want to go it alone, you have that option. If I were ever to be forced at gunpoint to describe Turbine and their philosophy to games in one word, an unlikely proposition I grant you…

“You! Into the alley, now!”

“Okay! Okay! Don’t shoot! What do you want?! Money? Here’s my wallet! Please, point the gun somewhere else! What? What do you want from me?”

“I want you to describe, in one word only, the general design philosophy behind the games and systems of Turbine, Inc, specifically in respect to their MMO Lord of the Rings Online, but also taking into consideration works such as Asheron’s Call 2.”

“Let me have a look at that gun again.”

Where was I? So the one word I’d use would be ‘options’. It’s another of the things that I enjoy so much about LotRO, that there are so many and varied options, for anyone not doggedly determined to level a character and to hell with any other form of game-play at least. There’s the cosmetic system, the music system, chicken play, monster play, exploration (via deeds or simply because the world is just so darned elegant and worth the appreciation), skirmishes, instances, crafting, housing, titles, and more. There are so many options outside of the standard quest hub shuffle, and now with the introduction of the LotRO Store there are options as to how you go about some of those activities. Let’s not kid ourselves, the LotRO Store is ultimately there to make Turbine money, but the fact that I have the choice to spend some of my money to avoid certain aspects of the game’s grind – aspects that have always been there and have not been introduced in order to force people into the store – can only be a Good Thing. I haven’t taken that option yet, I don’t think the current options are good value for me despite getting a large chunk of free points every month for having been a lifetime subscriber, but the fact that that option is available to me actually makes the grind less of an issue. I find that to be an interesting mindset, and it’s certainly one that works counter to Turbine’s intentions, but having the option to skip the grind makes the grind more palatable. The grind has become a matter of principle not of necessity, it becomes “I grind because the other option is less appealing”, rather than “I grind because I have no other choice”. Thus Turbine keeps me interested and playing their game, and although I’m not likely to spend points on skipping content at any point, a person playing the game is better than one who has burnt out on the grind because they saw no other option, because eventually a player will spend points in the store. Why? Options. The store caters to all tastes, be it stat tomes for the power gamers, cosmetics for the more fashion conscious amongst us, as well as the aforementioned items that allow you to skip various parts of the game’s grind. Eventually most players will find something that they want that’s available to them on the store. Even then there are still further options. Don’t like the thought of being nickel-and-dimed by the store? Then you have the option to subscribe and gain a large chunk of what’s available on the store as part of your subscription charge.

I’ve sidetracked ever so slightly, so I’ll come back to the curious juxtaposition of heroism another time.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host: Though still hampered by poor graphics, limited interactivity and extremely linear gameplay, the Singularly Offline Text Parsing Game genre (known as ‘books’, in the jargon) is finally being dragged into the 21st century as Kobo Reading Life adds achievements to reading.

Zoso: Amazon have reported a massive surge in sales of Janet and John books, a typical review being ‘Plot a bit rubbish, very short, but a really easy 1000 BookPoints’

Melmoth: Combining these achievements with Choose Your Own adventure books should allow players new to the genre to experience all the frustration, random chance, and tedious grind of MMOs without first having to buy an expensive piece of computer equipment.

Zoso: Worrying reports are already starting to emerge that elitist Book Clubs are demanding prospective members have a BookScore of at least 50,000 (including the “Reinstatement of Extra-Temporal Values of Time Regained” achievement for completing all seven volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu in less than two hours) before even allowing them to start discussing Harry Potter.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Friday 10 December 2010

Remarkable Foresight

If you roll a Worgen character in Cataclysm you start out as a human, but pretty early in the starter zone you get scratched and turn into a Worgen. I should possibly have put BIG SPOILER tags in there, but there are a couple of clues in the character creator, like the fact that you select “Worgen”, and get to tweak your fur colour and face-growliness.

You do start out human, though, an innocent defender of the town of Gilneas with no idea of what horrors are to come…

I say “no idea”, from the player names in the Worgen starter zone you’d think the NPCs might get ever so slightly suspicious. “Hello Blackfang, you completely normal human, help save us from these wolf-type-things! Lycanfury, greetings you entirely human townsperson, please come to our aid! Werewolf27? That’s an… unusual name for a human with no wolf-like tendencies at all, but the town needs all the defenders it can get! Yes, including you W0lfmannnBiteBiteGrrr, I presume that’s an old school nickname or something. Hello, TeamJacobOutOfTwilight, please help… hang on, no, we have some standards. GET OUT!”

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few Even If The Box Hasn't Been Delivered Yet

Never mind Metacritic, Game Rankings or other review aggregation sites, there’s only one source I ever use for judging the quality of games: the customer reviews at Where else can you find real truth and hyperbole-free revelations like Mass Effect 2 suffering from “…the kind of incompetence you expect from 3 people in a basement making an iPod game”?

I’m therefore in some sort of a quandary over Cataclysm. It seems there’s been a bit of a problem with the despatch or delivery (or both), leading to many Amazon customers still not having received their pre-ordered boxes, so I don’t know whether to believe the (to date) 46 one star reviews like “Very Poor Service”, “Pathetic amazon”, “Amazon can’t deliver squat” (mostly saying it would probably be a good game if it ever gets delivered), or the 36 five star reviews like “Shame on you Amazon”, “Never again Amazon”, “Amazon fail” (who are absolutely adamant that it is an excellent game, despite not actually having access to it thanks to the lack of delivery).

Fortunately m’colleague also ordered from Amazon, and is therefore in a position to deliver the definitive review: “7/10 Best game I haven’t played this year!”

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Three weeks.

Three weeks until Christmas!

Also, at most, three weeks until everyone has blasted through World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion content and are starting to blog about the tedium of heroic 5-man grinds and banging their heads against bugs in the latest raid content.

Coincidental timing?

Blizzard: “Boredom? Finished already? B-but this took us years to produce! You want more content? Uh… Look! Over there! Is that Christmas?!”
[runs off in a puff of dust]

I think with this expansion Blizzard are finally going to realise the monster they have created: a multitude of content devourers, who in a matter of weeks, and like some sort of Slaaneshian army of gluttons, will have stripped the meat from Cataclysm’s carcass and will be furiously gnawing at its bones while sniping at other players who invade their personal space, like a pack of keyboard-hunched hyenas.

Still, I expect it’ll get the WoW blogging presses back into full swing, and thus should provide plenty of material to read out – like bad cracker jokes – to the family when we’re all gathered cheek-puffed and stomach-aching around Christmas dinner.

“I say, I say, I say. According to most bloggers, what do you call WoW’s latest expansion released only three weeks ago?


[numerous groans]

“You can take your joke and shove it! You think it’s funny that we’ve got to wait another seven years for the next expansion and we’ve finished this one already? And you told that same bloody joke last expansion too, it wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now. Arse. You think I can wait another seven shitting years for the next expansion? Do you?!

“Sorry grandma.”

Monday 6 December 2010


Interesting contrast over at TechRadar between a couple of game launches. In the red corner: World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm. In the blue corner: the biggest PC game launch of the year! WoW may have Mr T, but Bejeweled 3 has tea *and* cake! And the secretary of the Clapham WI.

I’m just hoping for an Android version, I played Bejeweled 2 so much on PalmOS devices that I etched the grid of jewel swapping locations into the screen protector with the stylus…

Thursday 2 December 2010

Games For Windows - Dead

Things are busy on the gaming front with regular groups in Warhammer Online and Lord of the Rings Online, an imminent Cataclysm in the Shattered World of Warcraft, and an occasional spot of heavy metal action in the ongoing World of Tanks beta. And an occasional spot of heavy metal action in Rock Band 3. With Pirates of the Burning Sea hoving into view, free-to-play pennants fluttering tantalisingly, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any shortage of gaming options, even as particularly early snow here threatens transport chaos. I mean obviously we’re all desperately hoping that workplaces stay open and nobody is forced to stay in a lovely, cosy house, with no choice but to play lots of games, that would be terrible, but we’re prepared for the worst. (Though if the phone lines are affected, I might go slightly mental again.)

With a plentiful supply of games to hand, I almost resisted an entire Steam sale. Almost. Batman: Arkham Asylum for £5 was just too good to pass up. After getting it downloaded and installed I went to fire it up for a quick look, but the game refused to load. Slightly annoying. Some cursory Googling suggested good old Games For Windows Live might have been getting in a huff, so I thought I’d double check the GFWL client, and found that at some point since the last time I’d fired it up (probably for Episodes From Liberty City) it had morphed into Games For Windows Live Marketplace with a new client. And it refused to start up. And any other GFWL game I tried refused to start up.

Annoyinger and annoyinger. Yet more Googling suggested getting Windows Live Essentials updated. I use the Windows Live Mail client (I know, I know; I’ve tried to switch to other clients a few times, but after using Outlook Express for years it’s just been more convenient to keep going with the Microsoft offerings), and a couple of months back Windows had suggested upgrading to Windows Live Essentials 2011. So I did. And Windows Live Mail refused to load, with an unhelpful error message, so after much swearing I ripped out the 2011 stuff and managed to reinstall the previous version, miraculously retaining all the archived mail and account settings. Still, maybe something had been tweaked since then… Installed Live Essentials 2011, mail wouldn’t load. Games For Windows Live Marketplace wouldn’t load. Games wouldn’t load. Live Messenger wouldn’t load. Error messages varied from the unhelpful (“*Thing* has stopped working”) to the non-existent.

So uninstalled Live Essentials. Rebooted. Uninstalled Games For Windows Live Marketplace. Rebooted. Uninstalled any .NET frameworks I could find. Rebooted. Reinstalled .NET frameworks. Rebooted. Reinstalled Games For Windows. Rebooted. Anything look like it was in the slightest danger of working? Course not. Yanked bits out of the registry, deleted random folders, plugged everything into different USB ports, adjusted the legs on the keyboard to change the angle of it, moved both monitors three inches to the left, uninstalled and reinstalled everything a couple more times just for fun, not a chance. Got Windows Live Mail back, at least, with the previous version again, and found a previous version of the Games for Windows installer, which started looking hopeful; it remembered my GamerTag and everything, I logged in and… it automatically updated itself. And stopped working. Of course. That pretty much took up an evening during which BBFC guidelines accompanying the troubleshooting warned of “frequent repeated and extremely sustained use of very strong language”.

Day two saw a half-hearted reprise of the main install/uninstall theme with some slight variations, on the off chance that the alignment of the planets had shifted sufficiently to cause software to start working miraculously. It hadn’t. Was always a bit of a long shot, really. As a last resort I thought I might as well post in the tech support section of so hit the “Sign In” button, put in my details, went to post and… apparently I needed to set up a gamer tag. Which I’m sure I had. Clicked the link, it takes you off to the XBox Live site, logged in, checked profile, added information to all the fields in there in case that was why it was in a huff, went back… there was a login/password box. In which neither the GFWL e-mail or gamer tag worked. Genius. A log-in problem when trying to post on a forum to get help with log-in problems. Just the sort of thing that could tip a man over the edge into an insane rampage, but without easy access to a stockpile of automatic weapons I just said “bother”, and had a nice cup of tea.

There’s doubtless some weird and frinky combination of hardware, software and/or settings somewhere in the bowels of Windows causing problems with the full range of Live stuff, which will probably only be solved by a full reinstall sometime (though I might try and find an early restore point, just on the off chance). I don’t think I can be bothered for Arkham Asylum, but I was rather looking forward to the PC release of Fable III, which of course demands the hellspawned Games for arsemongering Windows. It wouldn’t be quite so galling if it wasn’t for the fact the GFWL adds slightly less than bugger all to the overall experience of any game, it’s almost enough to drive a man to a console. Almost. I hear that XBox Live service is very good…

((December 3rd Update: Managed to fix it in the end. I boot off a small SSD C: drive, with a big ol’ D: drive where most things are installed. To keep the C: drive clear, I’ve pointed as much as possible at the D: drive. Which everything was perfectly happy with for a year or so, but obviously revised MS policy is for everything to have to be in the default C: installation, otherwise it’ll throw a fit with no useful error.))

Wednesday 1 December 2010

My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It's in the apartment somewhere.

I do wonder how much trouble they have in the meeting rooms at Turbine HQ when trying to come up with things to put into the Lord of the Rings Online’s item shop. It’s a game where, despite the frothing rantings of the most rabid of Tolkien’s self-appointed hardcore guards of lore, Turbine have tried to stick to the spirit of the books as much as possible within a game world where boars reproduce by asexual spontaneous self-parturition, and enough of them have by now been killed that you could carpet the whole of Middle Earth with their hides. Three layers deep.

Mini-pets are one class of item that springs to mind. World of Warcraft has an abundance of them, and many players will, for example, go out of their way to spend some of their £15-a-month subscription to play a pared down version of a £5 Popcap game in order to obtain an, admittedly very cute, singing sunflower pet. Warhammer Online has also started to expand its mini-pet lines, and both games offer mini-pets for sale in their minimal digital shop fronts. Turbine doesn’t offer mini-pets, but it has got around to offering its own version of WoW’s sparkle pony; the Steed of Night is expensive and no better than the reputation-based mounts available in the game. However, requiring no time but ‘merely’ money to acquire, the new time-limited-offer mount provides an option for those who wish to shortcut reputation grinds or simply want to show off a bit.

Turbine’s marketing is really starting to push forward their promotion of the store too, understandable since it is the foundation of funding for further development of the game, but it’s a fine line they have to tread, keeping the LotRO store at the fore of player’s thoughts without it coming to dominate the game, break all immersion, and thus drive those same players away. Generally the item prices on the store have been well considered, with the prices tending to hover around the neighbourhood boundaries of Impulse Purchase and Teeth Sucking Indecision. The items themselves are also sensitive to the legacy of the game, with the new cosmetic items on the whole being exciting and yet in keeping with the general tone of the world, although the turtle-shell backpack, which makes the more compact hobbit form look akin to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, is perhaps rapidly approaching the border guard of acceptability, armed with nothing more than a set of false papers, a fake moustache, and a rudimentary grasp of the native language.

Of course the Lore-master class is already able to collect non-combat mini-pets, with Radagast the Brown providing ample precedent with which to fend off the hardlore players, but it must be quite difficult for the developers to resist expanding that functionality to all players and then popping a small petting zoo of animals on the store for five or six hundred Turbine Points apiece. I can only surmise that either the pointy-haired bosses don’t have the level of control over game content in LotRO as they do in other games, or the ground-level developers simply haven’t told them about the possibility and are hoping that nobody notices Blizzard selling mini-pets on their store for £5-£10 a pop. Or perhaps the developers all sit around the table and invent reasons why it can’t be done:

Dev1: “Ah, no, can’t do mini-pets because we, uh, don’t have enough uh…”

Dev2: “… fur… texels? In the, um… badgerenderer pipeline…”

Dev1: “Yes, we’d totally overflow the, ah, yipyap wrapping… map…”

Dev2: “And then we wouldn’t be able to give the dogs a bone.”

Dev1: [rolls his eyes at Dev2]

Dev2: [shrugs ‘What?!’]

Mounts are another option where Turbine could go wild and yet have restrained themselves admirably thus far. The Steed of Night is an extravagance, sure, but it doesn’t sparkle, it doesn’t fly, it doesn’t breath fire or carry NPC passengers in convenient compartments on its back.

It’s not a sod-buggering faux-steampunk motorcycle and sidecar.

It’s a tricky balancing act that Turbine has to perform, and although I am quite fond of my mini-pets in other games, I’m also quite glad that they haven’t become an all pervasive item store status symbol within LotRO as of yet. It only takes one to see a Lore-master running down the street trailed by a train of various pets, mini-pets and mobstacles, looking like some sort of harangued medieval Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, to realise the detrimental effect that releasing mini-pets on Middle Earth would probably have.