Monday 31 January 2011

Thought for the day.

Two-handed swords, axes and polearms nearly always look cool in MMOs, which is great for warriors and the like, but I play clerics who are very often restricted to wielding a two-handed mace or hammer; no idea why, I can’t really picture a bishop explaining it either:

“Ah, my son, we don’t cut and hack our fellow man, for that is a cruel and hateful thing. However, blunt force trauma to the head, well that’s a little bit like Jesus, isn’t it?”

This arbitrary restriction would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that every two-handed hammer I’ve encountered in an MMO looks like a small paperweight taped to an umbrella, and every mace like a baby porcupine with a curtain rod shoved up its bum.

A bargain is something you can't use at a price you can't resist.

The general unwritten rule of polite society in Lord of the Rings Online has been that if you are a high level character killing mobs in a low level zone in order to complete a deed, you should give way to characters who are at the correct level for the content if they happen upon the group of mobs you are grinding. It’s basic courtesy of course, although the more green-skinned among us might question the nature and personal gain of being polite or generous to another person, but the community in LotRO is one of the few places where I’ve often found the rule to be adhered to in the main, without even the need for peer enforcement.

Until the game went free to play.

In part I think this is because there are a great many more low level characters running around in this new freemium era. In addition, however, there now exists an item in the LotRO store that accelerates deeds, making each valid kill count twice and thus halving the number of kills required; when the item is activated it creates a temporary buff on the character that has a relatively short duration of around fifteen minutes and which, as far as I can tell, cannot be paused in any way once it has been started.

MMO players have a hard enough time being good to one another as it is, and now there is the potential for them to have an item – for which they paid – ticking down its relatively (in MMO terms) short duration and doing them no good if they happen to stand aside and let someone else go first. It’s a bit like those game-shows where a contestant has a set amount of time to run around a supermarket and fill their trolley with as many items as they can, and if they make it back before the clock runs down then they get to keep whatever is in their basket.

“Right, Lego Lass, you’ve made it to the final. How are you feeling? Excited? No need to be nervous, you know what you’ve got to do: you’ve got fifteen minutes to kill as many wolves as you can. Okay my dear, take yourself to the starting line. Can I have fifteen minutes on the Kill Deed Buff Timer please? Thank you. Ready? Then let’s play Shopping for Slaughter! Three! Two! One!”

[A claxon sounds and the audience begins to bellow encouragement]

[Lego Lass runs around one-shotting wolves and shoving them into a shopping trolley, occasionally shoulder-charging a low level player character into a stack of baked bean cans and grabbing the wolf they were about to kill]

To my mind Turbine have created an item that actively encourages the sort of selfish behaviour that a large part of the community had been resisting. Perhaps it’s more an indication that this is an item that one should steer clear of purchasing? Deeds are tiresome tasks, however, and although that shouldn’t really be an issue to any dedicated member of the MMO Player Party (motto: ‘Entertainment through repetition! Repetition through repetition!’), they do become an excessive drain for each successive alt you create, and as an avid altoholic I can certainly testify to the temptation that such an item presents.

I believe this is another one of those areas where a company engaging in cash shop dynamics needs to tread with care and consideration, because as with any change to the dynamics of a game’s fundamental design in a certain area (no matter how small and insignificant that change may seem), the chaos effect of such a change can have a much wider ranging impact on the game as a whole, with ramifications that are often surprising in their nature, but predictably deleterious in their effect. The difference is that the subscription of a standard MMO is constant: players know that no matter what they do, the cost per unit (in this case one month of play time) remains the same; in addition, the duration of one unit runs in the order of a month or months. Cash shop items, however, tend to have units of duration that run for at most days, more often hours, and possibly even in minutes, and yet everything in an MMO such as LotRO, which has converted to F2P, is generally set up to require activities based around the original subscription unit of months. The final issue is that having to make a purchase for an item from the store impresses on the player that they have spent their money on this item, and thus if that item is wasted because, say, the mobs they intended to grind away at have suddenly become inundated with other players doing the same, and the next nearest spawn is five minutes away, the player has a far more immediate perception of loss than if they had had to waste five minutes of their £15-a-month subscription travelling to another spawn.

Crafting accelerators, for example, seem like a good use of this mechanic: halving the materials and time required to grind out the various tiers of crafting professions, and which can only be spoilt if you have failed to gather the correct amount of raw materials beforehand; crafting accelerators will not bring you into direct competition with other players in an area where the game has not been designed for such competition, which stands in contrast to the kill deed accelerators.

In conclusion, with the urgency demanded by these short-term purchased buffs, I predict a rise in the number of shopping trolley related accidents in Lord of the Rings Online in the near future.

Friday 28 January 2011

Long distance information

Melmoth’s quest-ly pondering set me thinking about related subjects, like the supporting tracking and logging mechanism for quests.

Back in the Proper Good Old Days, the quest log was a piece of paper. You ran up to an NPC and asked if there was anything you could do for them (none of this glowing punctuation nonsense), and if you were very lucky they might drop some hint about something that might be relevant. Nothing so vulgar as “go kill Bandit Leader Geoff in the bandit camp on the outskirts of Swindon, two miles north east of here, I need his sword.” No, more “I hear there are some bandits in the area. Yes, they might well have a leader, people say his name is Geoff. Apparently Bandit Leader Geoff has a lovely sword. Yes, I would really like a sword very much like that. It would be terrible if something happened to Geoff, though, WINK WINK. No, I don’t know exactly where he is. Maybe over there somewhere *waves vaguely to the west*.” The game wouldn’t insult your intelligence by recording this or anything, you’d jot it down on a post-it note, and get confused when going around a supermarket later “bread, yup, milk, yup, Bandit Leader Geoff’s sword… huh, probably down the kitchenware aisle with the cutlery…”

I think it might have been plausible deniability, in case the NPC was investigated for Incitement To Murder or something, though it could go a bit wrong if you misinterpreted the hints, came back with Geoff’s sword (with Geoff’s bloody hand still clamped around the hilt) and the NPC shrieked “I just wanted you to go to a blacksmith and have him make something similar, you maniac!” Still, at least it was better than the proposed Mime Artist faction in an early alpha of EverQuest who would’ve given all their quests through the medium of charades:

“It’s a… quest! Three words. Right. First word… sounds like… eat? Swallow? Oh, what you’re eating… tablet? Pill? Pill, yes! Sounds like pill… bill, fill, kill… Kill! First word, kill. Second word… tenth word. Wait, I thought it was three words? Second word… oh, that is the second word, ten. Kill ten…”

Anyway, over the course of time the quest mechanisms evolved, quest givers became more obvious, add-ons or in-game features recorded objectives and your progress towards them and things generally improved (or “were dumbed down to the point of infantilisation, here I am, brain the size of a planet and you’re patronising me by recording all this information that I’m perfectly capable of writing a large spreadsheet to support, cross-referencing three years of accumulated research, oh all right I’ll go and kill those ten boars but I won’t enjoy it you know”, depending on your point of view). When Warhammer Online launched, its vaunted Tome of Knowledge was a splendid thing, recording where you’d been, who you’d spoken to, how many of them you’d killed, and what weird random things you’d clicked on in case they were an unlock. Warhammer’s quest log is also part of the Tome of Knowledge, where the splendidness is slightly tempered by being coupled to a straightforward “go to camp, talk to the punctuation, do quests, return to the punctuation” PvE quest-hub structure, and further shackled by a limited number of quests it could track, as m’colleague and I posted about at the time. I suspect “so near and yet so far” features like the Kill Collectors were great ideas that proved tricky to implement really well, and with RvR being the main post-launch focus it just hasn’t been worthwhile to go back and seriously revamp them.

I’ve been hitting quest log limits in Lord of the Rings Online as well; where back at launch it seemed there was a bit of a barren patch in the 20s were you had to do every single quest you could get your hands on to eke out enough XP to level up without too much grinding, there are now a plethora of options; from assorted skirmishing, festivals, questing and crafting I’ve pretty much out-levelled the Barrow Downs without setting a foot in the place so I just cleared out a bunch of quests around there to make room for new ones in the Lone Lands. It’s not really a problem, the old quests were all obsolete so I wasn’t missing out on much (apart from scratching the nagging completionist itch), though a bit of an expansion in the quest log as a whole could be nice (for a mere 1,995 Turbine Points, perhaps). What’s slightly more irritating than the overall limit is the active tracker, that can only monitor five quests at a time. I frequently have to fire it up, deactivate all the quests it’s tracking, find the (possibly) relevant quests in the log and activate tracking for them, and then repeat the process whenever you go somewhere else.

Here’s hoping The Old Republic and other forthcoming games might solve some of these minor annoyances. If nothing else, the Star Wars universe surely allows for remote communication such that you don’t have to physically return to a questgiver every single time, something a little more difficult to plausibly work into fantasy settings without resorting to good old “magic”. Though maybe…

“Right, Mayor, here’s a tin can with some string through it. I’ll take this tin can on the other end of the string, and when I’ve killed ten thugs I’ll shout into it, and then you can shout back to tell me to kill the ten ever so slightly different thugs who stand really close to the first lot who’d completely slipped your mind when you originally handed out the quest.”

Thursday 27 January 2011

The Lord of the Rings Online Drinking Game: Free-to-Play Edition.


Two (2) Large Buckets
One (1) Mr Tiddles, your favourite teddy bear
Four (4) or more (>) Comfy Cushions
One (1) Pint of Bitter
One (1) Hundred (Ten (10) times Ten (10)) shots of spirit


Place the buckets within easy reach of your computer, scatter the cushions around the base of your chair such that they will soften the landing should you fall from it, and place Mr Tiddles within arm’s reach.

The Rules

Every time you see a Hunter, take a sip of your pint.

Every time you see more than three Hunters in an area together, drink a shot.

Every time a Hunter pulls a mob that you were blatantly about to engage in melee, take a sip of your pint.

Every time a Hunter pulls a mob that you were blatantly about to engage in melee when there were at least twenty seven other mobs of the same type within their range that they could have picked from instead, drink a shot.

Every time a Hunter runs past you, stops, turns around, and then starts following you everywhere you go, possibly in the hope that they can pull a mob you’re about to engage in melee, or perhaps nip in and steal a quest objective while you’re fighting the boss guarding it, or maybe they’re just lonely and want I DON’T BLOODY KNOW WHAT, JUST LEAVE ME ALONE WON’T YOU, drink two shots and wipe away your tears on the back of Mr Tiddles’ head while you rock back and forth cuddling him.

WARNING: It is a legal requirement that if you intend to spend more than five minutes in any zone in the level 1-30 range while playing KiaSA’s LotRO F2P Drinking Game you must phone advance notification through to your local Accident and Emergency department. Registering with the local organ donation centre is optional but advisable, and if you register now you can get a 7% discount on select organs by using this code: KIASAKILLEDMYLIVER.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Stepping off the conveyor belt.

Next time you’re reading quest text, try to do so in the voice of a terminally bored actor or tour guide delivering the lines in a rote fashion. I find that this helps to highlight the superficial nature of any dramatic event when an NPC is standing motionless in front of you and (in my mind) droning on in a monotone voice

“Oh no. Please help. The <Token Enemy> are invading. We must mobilise our forces. You must go and defeat <Arbitrary Number> of <Token Enemy Minion>. Saves us, [looks at script and rolls eyes] for we cannot save ourselves.”

Now picture all the NPCs standing around having a cigarette break after you leave, before quickly throwing their filters to the floor and putting them out with a twist of a foot, then resuming their usual positions, absent-mindedly flattening down their outfit, and delivering the exact same lines through a face flat of expression and dead of eyes, to the next hero who ventures along.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of MMO players skip quest text. World of Warcraft is trying to enhance its storytelling instead through the use of phasing and cut-scenes, a design which gets in the way of the natural flow of game-play and seemingly restricts the player from doing what MMO players most want to be able to do, namely: group with friends, kill monsters, and gain loot and XP.

I wonder if the public quests in Warhammer Online and Rift have not been taken far enough as a concept; perhaps we should move on from the industry standard NPC who hangs around street corners in a town with a big neon sign hanging above their head declaring them open for business like some sort of prostitute; not a sex worker, a quest worker perhaps? The technology is there: public quests in WAR and Rift, as I mentioned; Lord of the Rings Online has quests that are automatically added to your journal upon entering a dungeon; WAR has its open RvR areas, and WoW has PvP zones such as Wintergrasp; DDO has its exploration zones. Instead of a quest hub that a player runs into, grabs all the quests from (without reading any of the text), and then immediately opens their map to see which areas are marked with quest objectives, why not instead have the quests activated when the player enters the right area in the world, much like public quests.

Your character walks into a forest and a message pops up saying that you’ve noticed a sign pinned to a tree with a reward for killing wolves. A quest is added to your quest log to kill X wolves, and when you complete the requirement your character is rewarded with XP. Coin and loot comes from the mobs that you kill, and perhaps chests guarded by boss mobs. Better items can be bought in towns by trading what you have found in the wild; crafted items are valuable instead of being merely redundant due to better quest and dungeon rewards, either at the time or through mudflation.

But players would have to go out and wander the land looking for quests! They… they’d have to explore! It might take…t-t-time! I know, wonderful, isn’t it? A structured MMO, but one where you also have to explore and discover and adventure. An MMO where your group of friends can find an area with a quest and you all have it in your log instantly at the same stage, and you can work through it together. An MMO where the economy of the world is not built on the foundation of NPC characters with an infinite number of Unique Swords of Legendary Power to give out to any passing PC who is willing to kill ten rats for them.

I wonder if the quest hub isn’t a large part of the problem with MMOs, and whether the nature of having to speak to an NPC to get a quest, and then subsequently return to that NPC for a reward, is an outdated mode of a time before we had the technology for public quests, open instancing and phasing. I think there may be a better way to allow for quest-based structured MMOs to exist, without them being the drab uniform conveyor belt that drags players slowly and inexorably towards raid content, which most players have discovered can be quickly skipped if they decide to run along its length.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

No treaty is ever an impediment to a cheat

Towards the End of Days in APB, cheating was rife. Or possibly not. It can be hard to tell the difference between a freakishly good opponent and someone using third-party cheating software, especially in a game like APB with significant differences in character capability due to upgrades and a lack of location-based damage (if every shot hits you precisely two inches below the left nipple, that’s probably a reasonable indicator of someone cheating. Either that or they’re a dead-shot nipple fetishist who needs to slightly adjust their rifle sights.)

With most players being suspicious at the best of times (irregular shooter terminology: I possess great skill; you got a lucky shot; he/she/it is obviously cheating), it doesn’t take much to cause widespread paranoia. In the appropriately-named Operation Greif, German soldiers in American uniforms were sent behind enemy lines; the combat units themselves had limited success but the psychological effect was great, rumours and suspicion spreading throughout Allied troops. Many posters on the APB forums were adamant that everybody (except them) was cheating, posting links to sites proudly offering “undetectable” cheat software, and RealTime Worlds weren’t saying very much. The latest APB Reloaded blog sheds some light on why…

I imagine it’s a familiar enough story to anyone who’s been involved in large software projects; the PunkBuster anti-cheat software was integrated then turned off, deemed as non-essential, until near the end of the closed beta. When turned on it caused major problems, so faced with a choice of launching with major lag issues and players getting randomly kicked, or launching without PunkBuster, they went with the lesser of two evils. Obviously that’s not something you’re going to officially broadcast, but when the people using cheat software don’t get caught word spreads around the murky corners of the ‘net. You have to feel especially sorry for the author of the blog, Aphadon, who did get PunkBuster working with acceptable performance after launch, only for RealTime Worlds well-documented financial issues to mean they couldn’t get afford to get the details of the cheaters it detected. As circles go, it was pretty vicious.

News that the relaunched APB Reloaded will have PunkBuster, and a few other surprises, fully enabled is most welcome, even if my Super Cynical Powers instil a nagging doubt that it’s precisely the message you’d want to loudly broadcast if you didn’t have anti-cheat measures at all (“we’re so secure you shouldn’t even bother trying!”) That said, I think the APB folk would think that the cheat software authors would think they’d think that, and so wouldn’t say it unless it was true. Unless they think I’d think they’d think that…

Monday 24 January 2011

True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic.

The trouble with heroism is that it’s such a terribly fine scale on which to balance one’s character. In addition, heroic deeds are often weighed against the deeds of everyday life: if everyone in your neighbourhood charges into battle against overwhelming odds and wins through on a daily basis, what do you have to do to stand out as a hero? At the Battle of Thermopylae where the Spartans stood against the might of the Persian empire, we know of a few names of the mighty – Leonidas, Dilios, Artemis and Astinos – but there were three hundred men in all, surely each one a hero by some measure, and yet few are named. I imagine nobody has even heard of such characters as Geofficles, Normancrates and Colinstopholes, but they were there fighting to the bitter end too. Well okay, Colinstopholes wasn’t, but he had a note from his mum saying that he needed to be back home at the end of the second day for a dentist appointment.

Take my level sixty five Warden in Lord of the Rings Online, for example. If she travels to Mirkwood or Enedwaith she will find wildlife which, although no mortal threat, can keep her entertained in combat for far longer than you would think reasonable for a demihero (one assumes that the main cast are the true heroes) of Middle Earth. Take her back to Ered Luin where she first began her journey, however, and she can hit a wolf so hard that there’s a very good chance a Higgs boson particle would be detected in the subsequent imploding bloody-mist of lupine limbs. The problem as I see it is that MMOs suffer from a sort of relativity of simultaneity, and the issue stems from the fact that the player’s frame of reference for observation into the world differs from that of the player’s character. The illusion of progression from the player’s point of view is that their character gains in power through stat increases and levels. The frame of reference for the player’s character, however, is travelling with the content, and much like a person standing on a train, the player’s character is moving through one world (the overall progression of levels in the game) while their surroundings move with them (level-appropriate content appears no different to the level-appropriate content of ten levels ago).

Therefore, it’s terribly difficult to give characters a truly heroic feel in a world where the player character’s frame of reference moves with them at all times during the normal levelling progression, especially when this frame of reference is different to that of the player who observes it. It’s not that a player can’t feel heroic, but to do so they must step out of the natural flow of the game, and perform quests for NPCs in low-level zones for little to no gain on their own part. Van Hemlock reported on a recent podcast of returning to Forochel with his level sixty five Guardian and doing just that, and there was a feeling of heroism to it – single-handedly saving NPCs from invaders with little effort – but there is no recognition of it in the context of the world as a whole. One can’t help but feel, as with the wolf in Ered Luin, that it’s a bit like the thirty four year old me of today travelling back in time to punch-in the teeth of the ten year old school bullies who made so much of my life hell during those formative years: easy and deeply satisfying, yes, but it would hardly build me as a character, or give me a heroic reputation.

There are other examples in LotRO where your character is elevated to the level of so great a hero that you actually start to realise that, perhaps, being a hero of the sort sung about in the Old Songs is not really what you want either. I took my Warden through the whole of Book One of the epic storyline over the Christmas period. I hadn’t managed this on any character to date, so I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for a lot of staring at horses’ arses. The way in which Turbine allows players to solo through what was otherwise intended as group content is to provide an inspiration buff to a solo player who enters a dungeon instance, essentially it is Turbine’s ‘iddqd’. The thing is that this buff is designed to boost to heroic status those player characters who are at the correct level for the content, such that when you take a character who is twenty or thirty levels above the content already, you get something almost… monstrous. My Warden is reasonably well geared for a level capped character that has not stepped foot inside a raid instance, and as such she has six thousand five hundred hit points. A top-geared raid tank character would probably be reasonably expected to have somewhere in the region of eight thousand five hundred, perhaps higher. When I entered Helegrod, the final instance of Book Five aimed at characters of around level forty, the inspiration buff transformed my Warden into an entity with somewhere over thirty thousand hit points; I couldn’t tell you precisely, I lost count somewhere near what seemed like infinity.

Wardens are also a power hungry class, being that they need to build their gambit abilities quickly, they eschew the somewhat sluggish standard swing timer that frustrates me on so many other characters in LotRO, and are able to fire off their abilities as fast as the global cooldown will allow – which is very fast indeed. So the Warden can suck down power faster than Linda Lovelace on a nuclear fuel rod, and yet I couldn’t make a discernable dent in my blue bar for the entire time I was in the instance. It changed the experience from heroic epic to tragic comedy, where I just waltzed around looking for my quest objectives while half the instance followed me around, ineffectively shouting and shoving at me, as if I had just recently dropped my gourd. The absolute moment of realisation came when I was confronted by yet another nightmare of the undead world, which my character promptly one-shot in the nether regions sending it screaming back to the netherworld (so shouldn’t the netherworld be the place where genitals go to die?), and I noticed that it was called a Terrible Fell-spirit. “Nothing terribly terrible about that” I thought to myself, unless of course they didn’t mean in the sense of ‘exciting extreme alarm or intense fear’ and actually meant it in the sense of ‘extremely bad: as of very poor quality’. I can picture the spirit returning to the land of the dead, a spectre with a clipboard greeting its return:

Spectre: “Welcome back! How many heroes did you kill this time?”

Spirit: “Uh… none”

Spectre: “But you fought at least one hero, correct?”

Spirit: “Uhm, yes.”

Spectre: “And?”

Spirit: “She kicked me in the genitals so hard that I became destabilised from the plane of mortal existence.”

Spectre: “Ooof! Hang on… you’re a spirit, you don’t even have genitals!”

Spirit: “Yeah?! Try telling that to my poor aching genitals! If you can find them.”

Spectre: “You really are a terrible spirit, you realise that?”

Spirit: “Well duh, it even says so on my name tag.”

It didn’t make me feel heroic, however, it just made me feel sorry for them. The spirits of the instance weren’t to be feared, but pitied. I imagined a force of woolly-hatted protestors from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Apparitions) bumbling their way into the dungeon and trying to prevent me from killing more undead – the irony of which being totally lost on them – by linking arms in a circle around the poor cowering defenceless minions of the Dark Lord, and attacking my character with a particularly scathing leaflet campaign. I didn’t feel like a hero, I felt like a cheat, and as I absentmindedly punched a Nazgûl into unconsciousness while trying to avoid the more dangerous and threatening PETA protestors, I realised that being an epic hero isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

Friday 21 January 2011

I drink therefore I am

So we had health and mana potions; now comes an announcement of WoW-inspired health and mana bars. Presumably Lembas do bread, so that’s Lord of the Rings Online taken care of, and Warhammer Online could put out a range of ales to go with its steins, but there are still a couple of gaps in the market. I think I might pitch Pirates of the Burning Sea branded Hard Tack (with Extra Weevil!) to Flying Labs, and surely the Super Deluxe Extra Limited Edition of Star Wars: The Old Republic would be improved by the inclusion of a bottle of Midichlorian Packed Membrosia…

Thursday 20 January 2011

A hero is someone who rebels or seems to rebel against the facts of existence.

Being a hero is difficult enough. Being a hero in an MMO isn’t even well defined. It’s a testament to the ingrained Skinner box training imprinted on the player population of today that few people seem to take a step back from their desperate desire to improve their character’s power level to heroic proportions, be it through gear or levels, to consider the fact that no matter how powerful the character becomes, no matter how heroic their deeds, there will always exist a sounder of boars whose members can parry -PARRY- that character’s sword attack and return a significant amount of damage in kind, penetrating through plate armour and shields no less. I sometimes wonder if the increasingly ludicrous armour in World of Warcraft isn’t a response to this, a sort of escalating proliferation of armaments, an MMO-based ersatz for the Cold War. As the Red’s boars grow in strength, so the armour of World of Warcraft’s military grows in size; they create bigger and better boars, we create yet bigger and better shoulderpads.

It still baffles me when wildlife repeatedly parries my attacks in an MMO, to my mind it reinforces the image that this isn’t a virtual world to be inhabited and explored, it’s simply an intransigent arcade game with delusions of persistence. It’s the Matrix reveal, stripping away the last vestiges of reality presented by the virtual construct:

“Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?

Do you think that’s a boar you’re fighting now?”

Suddenly it’s not a boar, it’s LootObject1074. And as the walls of the Matrix fall down around me, I see LootObject1074’s stats as glowing green MMOglyphs tumbling across the outline of its polygonal mesh, and note with frustration that the architects of the world couldn’t even be bothered to set its parry chance to zero. What does the boar parry with? Its head? A foreleg? Because I hate to break it to people, but the fundamental idea behind a sword or axe is to go through unprotected legs and heads like a hot knife through a leg or head. It’s a pretty basic tenet of the design, Sword Design 101 if you will.

“So class, who can tell me the basic theory of sword design? Yes, Béchamel.”

“Ah, as an object to wave about as a substitute penis in front of strangers in order to prove what a Big One you have, sir?”

“No, that’s important, but a secondary consideration at best. Hollandaise?”

“Sir, primarily they’re designed to act as a portable cantilever on which one can balance hors d’oeuvre should an unlawful butlers’ strike be declared during a royal masquerade.”

“See me after class, Hollandaise. Anyone? No?”

Or maybe boars do have some special evolutionary design that allows their limbs to defend against powerfully swung cutting implements. It would make the butcher profession a bit of a dangerous daredevil affair though, would it?

“In local news: butcher injuries remain high with a further fifteen butchers suffering varying levels of cuts and abrasions today as their cleavers were deflected by boar carcasses as they attempted to carve them up. Three butchers were taken to hospital with serious wounds, but were reported by their doctors to be in a stable condition.”

Let’s face it, based upon the number of boars that are killed each day by adventurers in your average MMO, you would expect the species to be extinct roughly minus seventeen seconds after the servers were opened; the sheer tooth-snarled expectation of the players waiting for the MMO to release would be enough to wipe out most of the wildlife in the game, an intangible wave of power, like an electromagnetic pulse in an AIBO factory. The fact that boars continue to exist would seem to indicate that they have followed a path of extreme accelerated evolution to counter that porcine extinction event known as Player Characters. The ability to block and parry sword blows was the first stage, but the real breakthrough was when a seventeenth century boar philosopher released his meditations on the existence of the self, resulting in the famous paraphrased realisation “I oink, therefore I ham” and the invention of a form of reincarnation called Spontaneous Awareness of Why Not. The argument for SPAWN goes something like this:

A boar is killed by an adventurer.
“Oh bum” says the boar, “that really is rather inconvenient”.
“But hang on” it continues, “if I’m dead, then who is thinking these thoughts?”
After giving it some serious consideration the boar decides that it must be itself who is doing the thinking.
“But if I’m thinking these thoughts then I must exist,” the boar continues to muse, “and since I have always existed as a boar, then I should really be a boar. I mean, why not?”
At which point the fully formed boar promptly pops back into the world from out of thin air.

This rapid evolution of boars would normally be cause for concern among adventurers in MMOs. Being that boars have already developed martial prowess beyond what would be considered reasonable, or even probable, and that the boars have also evolved the ability to spontaneously reincarnate at will, and are thus immortal beings akin to demigods, one would assume that they are destined to rule all the lands upon which they roam. Thankfully boars are also blessed with a very short memory, leaving them unable to do anything much other than defend themselves against assailants and form short philosophical theories. This is why you always see groups of boars standing around in the middle of fields, apparently deep in thought and not doing an awful lot; it is also why, when chased by an angry boar, a player merely has to keep running in a straight line and wait for the boar to realise that it has forgotten whether it left the iron on before it left home, whereupon it turns around and dashes back to make sure its house isn’t on fire, only to reach where it was and realise that it had forgotten that it didn’t own an iron, or a house. It is generally aware that it has now forgotten something else that it was doing prior to looking for a non-existent iron, but it quickly forgets this too, at which point it is usually distracted by thoughts on phenomenological ontology.

Thought for the day.

“Hmm, I’ve heard of Quick Love, Rough Love, Hand Love, and Lip Love. But what is MMO Love?”

“£15.99 a month darling; for that you can grind away as much as you like, but just as you think you’re as purple as you can get and about to reach a climax, I shift position and offer up a whole new area to explore, and you have to start all over again.”

Wednesday 19 January 2011

MMO Question Time

David Notdimbleby: Our next question is from Kevin Randomaudiencemember from Slough. Kevin…

Kevin Randomaudiencemember: With the news that the government has spent £2,785,695 on an MMO to promote road safety, does the panel believe this represents value for money, or were there cheaper alternatives?

David Notdimbleby: A £2.8 million game about road safety, value for money Zoso?

Zoso: Of course not, it’s yet another example of flagrant government waste. For about half that amount, £1.5 million, K2 Networks bought APB, surely the perfect game with which to impress on 10-12 year olds the importance of road safety. With minor development work a third faction could be added alongside Criminals and Enforcers: the School Crossing Patrol, or Lollipop Massive as I believe they are known on the streets. Booyakasha. Players of this faction would receive a fluorescent high-visibility jacket to ensure they could easily be seen, a sign saying “Stop: Children” to hold up to allow roads to be crossed safely, and a selection of medium-calibre high velocity rifles and grenade launchers to ensure motorists comply with their instructions. They could teach Jon Pertwee’s classic SPLINK! method for easily remembering how to cross the road:
– Find a Safe place to stop
– Stand on the Pavement near the kerb.
Look all around for traffic, and listen.
If traffic is coming, then let it pass.
– When there is No traffic near, walk straight across the road.
Kill any reckless motorists with a headshot, mofo. Booyakasha.

Smattering of light applause from the audience

David Notdimbleby: APB, a viable alternative Melmoth?

Melmoth: Though my Right Honourable friend is quite correct about the ludicrous waste, there’s absolutely no need to spend even half the amount. Instead of the overcomplicated ‘splink’ foolishness, we should be looking at the most iconic of road safety characters: Green Cross Man. This would allow us to leverage features of existing hero-based MMOs, such as the Mission Architect in City of Heroes, to create a scenario in which the players control the Green Cross Man protecting NPC children who are trying to cross the road. The combat-centric nature of the game might require an extension of the key message, though, to ‘Keep looking and listening all the way across, and pummel anything that moves with ENERGY PUNCH BARRAGE!’

More polite applause

David Notdimbleby: Thank you. And our next question please. Yes.

Anne Otheraudiencemember: With the restructuring of the NHS expected to cost the taxpayer billions, do the panel feel that medical training could be replaced by an MMO that simulates advanced surgery by killing lots of boars?

I do not judge the universe

DC Universe Online seems to have had a fairly quiet launch, though it sounds quite fun and was popular enough to warrant new servers (a cynic might claim a supervillain-esque plot of deliberately launching with slightly low capacity to allow for a “look at all our players!” story, but we’d never stoop so low, not least because Deliberately Underestimating Server Capacity Man would struggle to even pose a challenge to the Legion of Substitute Heroes). As a slightly more concrete measure it did well enough to sneak into this week’s Top 10 Video Games Chart at number ten. The platform breakdown is interesting; 81% of sales were on PS3, 19% on PC, if those figures are similar world-wide I’d be surprised if more MMOGs didn’t try and get a slice of the console action. Maybe the canned XBox 360 versions of Age of Conan and Champions Online will get a dusting off…

Monday 17 January 2011

As to my Title, I know not yet whether it will be honourable or dishonourable.

I finally got around to grabbing the Kingslayer title on my goblin Shaman last week.

It really didn’t seem all that difficult in the end: all this talk of ten and twenty five player groups being required; AddOns; raid leaders; wipes and repair bills; it seemed a little like overkill to me. I mean, m’colleague and I ran ourselves through the whole thing as a duo – with myself healing on my Shaman and he on his tank – in a few hours one lazy evening without any bother. Actually it all seemed rather dull and a bit of a letdown, nothing like the hardcore experience that other people have been talking about in the blogosphere over the past many months.

Slithy the KingslayerOf course, people never believe such statements, so I had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot of the little fellow with his new title as proof. It seems strange that I’ve finally achieved the current pinnacle of titles with barely any effort on my part; if this content is in fact being heavily nerfed, then perhaps doing so to the point of letting a couple of once-a-week casuals complete it as a duo is a touch overboard.

Friday 14 January 2011

I've got two legs from my hips to the ground

I just picked up via Slashdot an interesting piece from Moving Pixels on irreversible consequences in games, which ties in with something I’d been meaning to write about in Pirates of the Burning Sea.

As the author notes, in the majority of single player games there’s some sort of save or checkpoint mechanism such that a player’s first instinct on encountering in-game disaster is to reload and try again, much like many of us computer-y types are conditioned to hit Ctrl-Z for Undo when faced with possible calamity (“Aaaargh, I didn’t mean to delete that, I meant the bit below, Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z Ctrl-Z… wait, too far, Ctrl-Y Ctrl-Y[1]“) She also considers styles of game with more final consequences:

The first is the MMO, where the real-time environment should prevent the player from undermining causality. Not being an online gamer, this sounds viable to me in theory, but I’ve watched a little too much Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft over friends’ shoulders to believe that there is a great deal of consequence to those games that cannot be overcome with patience and diligence.

It’s certainly true for WoW, and to a greater or lesser extent for most MMOGs I can think of. You can’t reload if something goes wrong, or pause to go and make a cup of tea, the world moves on regardless. Probably in no small part because of this, though, very few actions have great consequence. You “die”, it’s a bit of setback while you wait to be resurrected or pop back up in some camp or graveyard; even back in the Good/Bad Old Days, when MMOGs were Proper And Not Dumbed Down /Even More Horrific Timesinks Than They Are Now, and you had to run back to your corpse, uphill both ways, naked, in the snow, *and* you lost XP (and were thankful!), it was mostly a question of how much time was needed to get back to your previous state. In some games, generally involving “impact” PvP, your opponents might get to destroy or take your weapons/armour/spaceship/hand towels, making defeat more painful (or victory sweeter), but it’s seldom of massive consequence in the grand scheme of things.

Players can add their own consequences; I don’t believe any major MMOG operates with an official permadeath rulset (i.e. if your character dies, that’s it, they really are bereft of life, resting in peace, have run down the curtain and joined the choir bleedin’ invisible etc.), but players can elect to do so themselves, deleting a character upon death. It certainly sounds like an interesting way of playing, and an antidote to the lackadaisical attitude that can set in when you know it doesn’t *really* matter what you do, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d like to do a lot of. You really have to trust the rest of your party when your life is in their hands (and vice versa)…

Course the sandboxiness-or-otherwise of virtual worlds, and the impact players can have upon them, is a well-worn theme, so it’s not much of a shock that in most MMOGs your character’s actions don’t have massive consequences for the world at large, but it’s perhaps more surprising that there are so few actions that have irreversible consequences for your character after you’ve picked your class, race, sex, name and appearance (and most MMOGs allow you to edit some or all of those later, for an in- or out-of-game cost). The Winter-home festival in Lord of the Rings Online is perhaps a good case study, there is a stage where you can choose to help either the rich or poor, and the game points out in no uncertain terms that you really, truly have to choose one, you won’t be able to return and do the other quest later, underlining how out of the ordinary it is, even though the only result is a different title and set of cosmetic clothing.

Pirates of the Burning Sea gave me an idea of how comparatively trivial consequences can have an impact when they’re irreversible, perhaps demonstrating why they’re so rare in MMOGs. When you buy a ship in PotBS it has a Durability rating, effectively “lives”, the number of times it can be sunk. You can also lose equipment and certain types of cargo each time you’re sunk, so there’s a more tangible risk to combat than in many games, albeit not right up there with something like EVE, you don’t take to a row-boat after your ship is sunk, at the tender mercy of your attackers. The other night a small group of us got a bit too adventurous, taking on a high level NPC in a PvP area, enabling a pair of level 50 Pirate players to sneak in and attack. We had no chance of defeating them and ran away with all speed, and thanks to a couple of heroic sacrifices I managed to get clean away and sail to a safe harbour. I felt a bit guilty until slightly later, when undocking to head back to a less perilous area it turned out they were still lurking and jumped me. I lost the ship, and it’s enhanced sails and guns.

Didn’t bother me at all. Well, all right, there might have been brief cursing (like a sailor, you could say), but the ship still had three or four durability points, and the fittings were commonly sold on the auction house for a few hundred doubloons a time. If you sail into a warzone, you can’t always expect to come out. No, the most devastating thing that happened was in a PvE mission. (Warning: the following paragraphs contains spoilers for the mission “Falling to Pieces”)

A previous evening nobody else from the society was around, so I flipped through my mission journal and found something around the right level, with a little “solo” icon next to it. That suggested it might have a bit of a fun story associated with it, so I toddled along, and sure enough there was much adventure on the high seas chasing down an evil brigand who turned out to have loaded his ship down with gunpowder; flung clear of the blast, I ended up on an island, and had to gather components to construct a rudimentary raft to escape. Very derring-do. Rendezvousing my ship again, I collapsed on its deck, exhausted, sunburnt, wounded but ultimately victorious. Waking up, though, the barber-surgeon had some bad news. My leg had become infected. He’d had to lop it off. Sure enough, my character had a peg leg.

Opening up the character customisation screen, I checked the options. Feet: high top boots (with peg leg), folded boots (with peg leg), fine shoes (with peg leg)… I was stuck with it. I was outraged! It didn’t effect performance as far as I could tell, I was no less effective at sailing or fencing, but my lovely character that I’d taken so much care over the design of! Ruined! Spluttering, I put a long skirt on so at least it wasn’t so obvious, and headed straight for the wiki to see how this monstrous injustice could be righted. Sure enough a reward from the following mission is a wooden leg carved so finely nobody could tell it’s not real (i.e. you get the normal leg/feet options available in character customisation again), so it’s not really an irreversible change, more a way of unlocking additional customisation options, if you ever want to go back to the peg leg.

I’m sure there is more scope for deep consequences, but it’s a tricky balance when you might not like the results. And as the first Slashdot comment points out, “Look, if I wanted my actions to have consequences, I’d be living real life, not playing video games!”

[1] One text editor I used had Ctrl-Y for the possibly-more-traditional “delete line” instead of “redo”, which meant the above scenario went horribly wrong more than once…

Thursday 13 January 2011

I have drunk, and seen the spider.

“The Beleriand damage type is particularly strong against spiders, insects and ancient evil”

So says the tip on one of Lord of the Rings Online’s loading screens.

You have to wonder about the kind of people who invented that damage type.

“Ack! Ethel? Ethel!”

“Yes Agnes?!”

“Fetch me my slippers would you dearest? I’ve got a nasty little blighter running across the floor here that needs a whack.”

“Oh my, what is it?”

“A spider, dear.”

“Beleriand slippers, then?”

“Yes dear, of course my Beleriand slippers, what else am I going to use for a spider? And anyway, I’ll be needing them for the Dark World-eater I found behind the sofa too.”

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Thought for the day.

I was amused to find this paragraph wedged in the midst of an article on the BBC website.

Local media suggest the “orcs” were a reference to the goblins in the literature of JRR Tolkien, while the “turantons” may refer to a figure out of World of Warcraft.

As m’colleague rightly pointed out, the local media might want to consider that the “orcs” were a reference to the… orcs, in the literature of Tolkien.

For me, I had to wonder if ‘turantons’ lost something in translation, because I can’t think of anything relevant in World of Warcraft with that name. They may, of course, have meant Tauntaun, but clearly that’s an affront to all nerdkind to mix up such mythical beasts and their origins.

I think the lesson here is that media outlets need to employ a Nerd Correspondent, although I have to say that the media’s current method of taking a guess and then blaming it on World of Warcraft doesn’t seem so terribly far off from the MMO blogging norm; maybe MMO bloggers are journalists after all.

Music (not) to play MMOs by.

If one were to believe my brief survey of fan-made videos posted to YouTube, the Venn diagram of music most often associated with MMOs is a bizarre subset consisting of Death Metal and J-pop; two categories which, if mixed together, would probably produce a soundtrack akin to something normally heard on some of the more imaginative of hentai films.

“Grunt grunt urrrrgh urrrgghh urrrghhh yarrrrrrrrrrrr YARR hurrrrk-n-hurrrrk rarrr”

“Aiii Aiii Aii! Naiii aii aii! Aii! Naii! Aii! Naii! AiieeeEEaiieeee!”

I tend not to listen to other music when playing MMOs, preferring to let the music specifically created for the game massage my immersion, but I will sometimes pop on a favourite appropriate podcast if I know I’m heading in for a bit of a grind session, listening to A Casual Stroll to Mordor‘s excellent easy-going show when I’m slogging my way through a deed or ‘epic’ book content in Lord of the Rings Online, for example.

I do sometimes forget to turn Spotify off however, the music possibly being ambient enough not to register with me for a while, and so I find myself playing away at an MMO only to eventually have something strange and jarring pop onto the random play-list and yank me out of the Immersion Zone – sounds a bit like something from the Outer Limits: “You are now entering… the Immersion Zone! Welcome to a strange reality, where time has no meaning and money mysteriously disappears from your bank account on a monthly basis”.

Last night this happened to me, and it was Christopher Cross’s Ride Like the Wind that struck, right while I was in the middle of a scenario in Warhammer Online; nothing like the soothing nasal crooning of Mr Cross to accompany me having my head caved in by an angry Warrior Priest. I left it running, in part because I didn’t have time to Alt-Tab out and stop the thing, but also because I was perversely enjoying the soothing soft-rock sound jarringly contrasted against the blood-thirsty battles being enacted on my screen. As the scenario continued to drag on, with Order’s long and drawn out victory through attrition crawling its way to an inevitable conclusion, the lyrics began to change in my mind, with “And I’ve got such a long way to go, To make it to the border of Mexico” becoming “And I’ve got such a long way to go, To make it to the end of this scenario”. It actually quite calmed my fraying nerves as I desperately tried to keep my random scenario group healed, a task very much akin to chasing any number of cats around a large house in order to give them all their worming tablets.

I thought back as to whether I’d had any other such moments, and the only one I could recall as striking me as a touch bizarre and having pulled me out of the game momentarily was a case of the Flash Gordon theme tune blasting out of my headphones while I was in the middle of improving my Guardian’s tailoring skill in Lord of the Rings Online. I can’t remember what I was making, gloves or hats or thongs I imagine, or something equally likely to be sold to the vendor at half the price of the materials that she sold me to make it in the first place; either way, there’s nothing like that initial thumping drum crescendo followed by “FLASH! AH! AHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” to get you really excited about darning socks, and at that moment in time those were possibly the most epic foot warmers I had ever knitted.

I’m half tempted to turn game music off in my MMOs now and see what wonders the random play-list can produce, a little bit of Skunk Anansie’s Weak while wandering the leafy paths of Rivendell in LotRO, perhaps? Barbra Streisand’s Woman in Love during a keep siege in Warhammer Online, maybe. Or Monty Python’s rendition of The Liberty Bell during the cutscene at the Battle of the Wrath Gate in WoW. The possibilities are as endless as they are curious.

But now this post is drawing to a close, so I’m off to make a cup of tea.



“AH! AHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

“He’s ma-king a cup of tea!”


Oh stop that.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

The existence of the sea means the existence of pirates

Spinks has an excellent write-up of Pirates of the Burning Sea with the pertinent observation, in light of the furore over certain Rift coverage, that “Bloggers have claimed that you need to play an MMO intensively for several months to really get a good feel for it, and while there’s something in that, I also think that within 30 mins or so I should be able to get a sense of what a game is about.

I’ve been sailing around the Caribbean for a month or so since PotBS went free-to-play, though only popping in once or twice a week, which I believe means this piece falls under the “Slightly More Than First Impressions But Not A Full And Comprehensive Review” category, and is thus eligible for the terribly prestigious Pulitzer Prize For The Best Slightly More Than First Impression Of Something But Not Full And Comprehensive Review Of The Year. I’ve reached level 22 so far, just about out of the starting region. The attention to detail and general feeling of the world that Spinks talks about are carried nicely through the tutorials and out into the main world through a series of story quests involving a mysterious map, the Knights Templar, and of course plenty of swordfights and naval engagements on the high seas. These are solo quests, a little like the single player Tortage section at the start of Age of Conan, and rather nifty to potter about in if there’s nothing else much going on.

Group-wise a few of us from the Van Hemlock collective have sallied forth on several Tuesdays as a motley fleet of two to six ships with a wide range of levels, as levels aren’t so much about rigid stratification in PotBS, more like EVE’s skills as a mechanism of gradually making more powerful ships available. Though the smaller ships need to be a bit careful about concentrated enemy fire they still play a useful role in the fight. We’ve tackled a few instanced group missions, but mostly been out and about on the open seas helping the British war effort; not so much in direct PvP as that’s a bit scary, especially in an established game with grizzled veteran pirates on the lookout for prey (though our Flamboyant Admiral Svven seems to have developed a bit of a killer streak, taking on assorted buccaneers (and the French) with some success), but we can still make make a contribution towards destabilising enemy ports by hanging around them and sinking NPCs.

I’m not completely convinced by the swashbuckling, or avatar combat; when boarding an enemy ship it’s you and four of your crew versus the enemy captain and four of his crew (with both of you allowed a number of waves of reinforcements), and there may well be subtleties and nuances that I’m missing but it always seems to rapidly degenerate into a scrum of quite similarly clad figures that you vaguely point yourself towards and mash AoE attacks while shouting “GET ‘IM! Hit him with a bucket, ruffle his hair up, RUN, CHARLIE, RUN! Hit him with a broom, tip him over…” Some PvE missions also involve swashbuckling, which tend to be a series of smaller fights and thus slightly less chaotic; they’re not a bad way of breaking things up, and often quite fun or interesting in story development, but not something I’d want to be doing too much of.

Naval combat is really the heart of the game, and works much better. Unlike the more frenetic swashbuckling you’ve got time to consider your actions, what course to plot taking the wind into account, what sort of ammunition to use (whether to knock out enemy sails, take out the crew or just bash great big holes in the hull), whether to try and board enemy ships or just sink them. Cannon take a while to reload, and all but the very smallest enemy ships can withstand a battering, fights aren’t just a case of “wham, bam, I rather believe I’ve sunk your ship ma’am”. Though our close-formation sailing leaves a little to be desired (“No, *my* left!” *crunch*), a little co-ordination and concentration of fire has led to triumphs over larger fleets of higher level enemy (NPC) ships, including three of us under level 30 taking on a so-called “treasure convoy” of 8 level 50 ships, plundering a couple, and escaping (relatively) unscathed. Our bounty for such a triumph? Some fish. Maybe in hindsight we should’ve attacked them *after* they’d picked up a cargo of gold instead of before…

Another major aspect of the game is the economy, though I’ve only dipped a toe into it by completing the tutorials. There’s a guide to shipbuilding on the PotBS Wiki, and it seems like rather a lot of work quarrying and harvesting the raw materials, hauling them around the Caribbean and turning them into components for the ships. Plenty to get your teeth into if that’s your thing, and if not then you might be able to salvage and buy a few bits and pieces to kit yourself out without going into mass production. One of our Society gathered most of the requirements for a ship but was missing a couple of vital components, prompting a ferocious hunt for… Fine Cheese and Fine Wine. Nobody was entirely sure if they’re important structural elements of a frigate, or if holding a new ship launch party without suitably upmarket refreshments is a faux pas so grievous as to result in immediate expulsion from the Navy, but eventually the comestibles were located and the new ship duly completed.

Not having played the game prior to it becoming free-to-play I’m not sure quite how it’s changed, but I haven’t bought anything at all in the cash shop (or “Treasure Aisle”) yet, and it doesn’t really seem to be a problem so far. Perhaps it’ll be more of an issue towards the end-game; looking at the comparison of membership plans I can see additional dockyard slots perhaps being useful for a few different styles of ship, and more economy slots if that’s something I do start to dabble in, but I wonder if Flying Labs are a smidge too generous towards free players at the moment. Still, that’s hardly a damning indictment of them, and I think Pirates of the Burning Sea is another good example of the benefits of free-to-play. I suspect I’d burn out if focusing heavily on it, so it’s not something I’d be keen to subscribe to long term, but for a bit of a jaunt now and again it works very well and I’ll probably subscribe for a month for the “Premium” status or buy some cash for the in-game shop as a general signalling of approval for what they’re doing.

Friday 7 January 2011

'Tis the little rift within the lute.

One of the general themes buzzing around the topic of Rift at the moment is a general consensus that the game is well produced, but offers little over World of Warcraft. But familiarity isn’t necessarily bad in all contexts, and I think this is a mistake many MMO developers have made in the recent past. There hasn’t been a car manufacturer in recent years who has decided to mount the steering wheel on the roof of the car, or moved the steering column controls to the seat, to be operated by the driver’s buttocks. Maybe someone will come up with a revolutionary new way to control a car – most likely coinciding with some leap in technological capability – but in the meantime, incremental adjustments to the familiar is the way that industry moves forward, while style, design and build quality are what attracts customers. As far as I can see, Rift incrementally improves on the familiar, has an attractive style and design, and reports are that the general build quality is of a high standard.

Yes, intuitions, new principles, new ways of seeing this gaming genre are important. But they are not essential to creating an enjoyable new game. For me, Rift offers a new world in which to adventure, explore and exist; if I’m honest with myself, that’s why I got into MMOs in the first place.

I think, as Tipa, that there are two sides to this: there are those people like Tobold who are happiest with the familiar world of Azeroth, and there are people like myself who have tired of that world. For the second sort of person, a new world to explore might be just the ticket.

And although things may feel a little strange and uncomfortable to begin with, the expected structure and function is still satisfied, and the clinging cloying feeling from previous experiences will hopefully begin to subside, while at the same time a newfound enthusiasm and a feeling of fresh, airy, comfortable freedom takes hold. Much like changing the style of your underpants.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

The best way to predict the future is to invent it

It’s that time of year, so let’s have a little look back at the predictions for 2010 to see how accurate they were.

1) Star Trek Online will be released on February 2nd (February 5th in the EU). That’s not very far away from the end of 2009 when these predictions are definitely being written, so that date might already be known. I can’t really remember that far back. I mean, I don’t have access to that information just at the moment. It will be reasonably well received, with a metacritic score around 66, and the Extra Super Deluxe Limited Special Platinum Edition will be in particularly high demand due to its inclusion of a life-size anatomically correct action figure of a foxy blue-skinned alien who asks “Can you show me this earth-thing you humans call ‘kiss-ing’, Captain?”

Off to a reasonable start there, the metacritic score prediction is surprisingly spot-on, though the Special Edition was scaled down a bit so it just included an in-game version of the old Enterprise or something. Enough for one point, I reckon.

2) About halfway through the year Blizzard will demand players use their real name on forum posts in order to tap into the power of true names through Old Magic (though the official explanation will be something about accountability). Massed protests will force them to backtrack, including every World of Warcraft player in Minnesota officially changing their name to “Damn You, Blizzard, Damn You To Heck”.

I don’t think anybody else predicted the RealID furore, that’s got to be worth a point, even if Minnesotans weren’t quite so militant.

3) On August 5th, a cave-in will trap a number of miners somewhere in South America. They will all be successfully brought to the surface 69 days later, and massive international interest in the rescue operation will result in great success for an indie game currently in alpha called Mincraft, which news organisations will use to simulate tunnelling operations in great detail (though question marks will be raised over whether an exploding zombie really caused the initial cave-in).

Has to be another point there for the uncanny date and duration, though you might have missed the Minecraft tie-in unless you were paying really close attention to Extremely Low Budget News on one of the obscure satellite TV channels.

4) Payment model of the year will be “Free to Play”. Established titles EverQuest II, Champions Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea will all go free-to-play in the second half of the year, and Turbine will build on the success of Dungeons and Dragons Online by removing the subscription requirement of Lord of the Rings Online in September in North America, though they’ll only remember that Codemasters exist and run the game in Europe around November.

Not the most outlandish of predictions there with the groundwork in place towards the end of 2009, but still worth a point I think.

5) NetDevil’s Lego Universe will be released towards the end of the year, but nobody will notice as they’re all in Minecraft.

Sorry, NetDevil. I’d be tempted to have a look at Lego Universe if there was no subscription, though. Another point makes it five from five so far, let’s see if the last prediction can keep up the 100% record…

6) APB: All Points Bulletin will finally launch at the end of June or beginning of July, and the extended development time will really pay off for Realtime Worlds. Early access for media representatives will result in a tidal wave of overwhelmingly positive reviews a couple of weeks before launch (certainly no ludicrous post-release embargo or anything) and an unprecedented metacritic score of 136 as magazines invent new scores like “seventeen out of ten” and “125%”. Every human on the planet will buy at least two copies as the game massively outsells the entire Call of Duty series and Rockstar’s whole catalogue combined on day one.

Hmm. Call it half a point for being close?

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Stormwind shell shock.

I think it was probably the point where a werewolf wearing a top hat and plate armour, and riding a ‘hilarious’ two-seat rickety rocket, had pulled up and hovered alongside my character on the entranceway to Stormwind that I realised that Azeroth was no longer for me. I had been standing there marvelling at the giant Christmas wreaths on the walls of Stormwind, which it has to be said, stood in stark contrast to the fractured ramparts which still glowed from the recent molten assault of the great dragon; the wreaths were so impossibly large that I wondered whether they were a by-product of the giant dragon itself, that perhaps it had simultaneously destroyed half of the human capital while decking other parts of it in festive decorations, as though I were witnessing the aftermath of some sort of screwed-up Azrothian edition of Pimp My Capital City. I pictured the dragon with fluttering eyelashes, hands clasped together and held against one cheek, as it admired its handiwork – elemental destruction set off beautifully against red bows and be-baubled Christmas trees.

New Wave Cataclysm, dharlink, ver’ popular in New York zis season.

Later, I stood in the midst of the fractured city – it having only recently avoided total annihilation by the narrowest of margins – and I watched the NPC winter revellers standing around in their hot pants and boob tubes; saw the line of gargantuan drake and dragon mounts blocking the doorway to the bank; observed the attempts at serious role-play by people who were constantly being blocked from one another’s sight as flying carpets, mammoths and naff-punk trikes were parked inconsiderately on top of them; gawked as characters with weapons large enough to cleave a moon in twain ran around in their underpants as they barked borderline racist /yells; and witnessed a female werewolf in a festive bikini performing the dance moves to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face on top of a nearby mailbox.

At which point my mind snapped. Okay, snapped more. Than usual.

It’s understandable, I suppose: the past year or more of my MMO time has been spent predominantly in Lord of the Rings Online, a quiet and considerate game with, on the whole, a quiet considerate community that stays respectful to the setting of Tolkien’s world, and where the most outlandish thing to happen is if someone in the Prancing Pony breaks out their lute and plays a particularly daring version of Muse’s Exogenesis Part Three. Some particularly salacious sort might even tap their foot to the rhythm. Heaven forefend if one of the female elven characters should flash an ankle at a passing dwarf, the whole server would be a-whisper with the scandal of it for weeks after. Of course it’s not that prudish in reality, but when you visit somewhere such as Azeroth, where the average armour outfit of a female character would be enough to make a veteran porn star blush and consider retiring from modern life to a convent, LotRO seems so terribly reserved. I suppose it’s the contrast that is so dramatic, like a lifelong member of the Amish being bundled into the back of a van and dumped in the middle of a Las Vegas casino (KiaSA lawyers are ready to speak to any TV executives interested in the rights to this new reality TV show, working title: Amishion Impossible); I’m sure spending any length of time in Azeroth would once again slowly desensitise me to the sheer ludicrous mania going on around every corner, but having unceremoniously dumped myself out the back of a van into the middle of Las Azeroth, I found myself forcibly repelled from the game.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with Azeroth, you understand, just like there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with Club 18-30 holidays, or college frat parties, it’s just that once you’ve lived a quieter more reserved life of gentle evenings with a nice glass of red and a good book in front of an open fireplace, it’s hard to go back to whipped cream and beer bongs and some strange man’s penis being repeatedly beaten against your forehead while someone screams in your ear to eat the green jelly out of the lady’s underpants faster. World of Warcraft seems to me to be the College Humour of the MMO world; whether it has always been this way, whether it has slowly developed into this parody of its former self, or whether my world view has changed over the years of playing MMOs and writing about them here, I’m not entirely sure. Did World of Warcraft create its community, or did the community twist World of Warcraft into the bizarre carnival of lunacy that it seems to have become? Perhaps one feeds upon the other, a curious Ouroboros of culture, unable to break away from the self-feeding spiral of one-upmanship in outrageousness.

All I know is that it seems that I have tired of eating green jelly with curly hairs in it, and these days much prefer my MMOs akin to quiet evenings spent with a good book.

Saturday 1 January 2011

When MMO Players review.

2011 sucks already; it’s just like 2010 only with less content.

When are they going to release 2012?