Thursday 31 March 2011

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty

I just finished the second act of Dragon Age 2, and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say there was a big fight at the end of it. If you thought it might culminate in everyone sitting down and having a lovely cup of tea, sorry to have ruined the surprise. Being an honourable sort I found myself in single combat against a big man who certainly wasn’t in bad shape, but as a dagger-wielding Rogue I was pretty confident I could put out enough damage to take anything down. Seconds out, round 1, I activate Rush to knock him down as an opener, bounce off him with no discernible results (possibly some light damage to my own shoulder), he knocks me down, I get back up, he knocks me down, I get back up, he stamps a foot a couple of times, charges, knocks me down, I get back up, he impales me on his sword and waves me around like a Hawke Kebab. I’m not sure which was more impressive: that he only needed one hand to heft my writhing body while the other grabbed a pitta bread, some salad and a bottle of chilli sauce, or that he sportingly set me down, withdrew the sword, and I somehow was still fighting rather than scrabbling around on the floor in strangely inverted game of Operation trying to figure out whether a squidgy mess was a lung or a kidney, and which way it should fit back into the gaping cavity that used to be my chest. Still fighting for about ten seconds, at least, until he knocked me down again and finished me off.

Reloading, I took the fight seriously. Boxed clever, avoided his telegraphed knock-down attacks, got my shots in carefully, used my most damaging abilities, and maybe knocked off about 25% of his health. Meanwhile I had no stamina, my big attacks were on cooldown and he’d still catch me now and again for a substantial portion of my own health, so the fight entered the Benny Hill phase: me running away, quaffing health and stamina potions, occasionally running back in and hitting him, then running away again. Varric started playing Yakety Sax, Isabela put on a nurse’s hat (the rest of her outfit already being eminently suitable), the cinematographer started undercranking and a fine old time was had for what felt like about 6 months, during which I maybe knocked off another 25% of my opponents health. I switched to a bow, in case ranged kiting was a more effective technique, but being completely specialised in dual blades I lacked any special skills with it, and the regular attacks seemed to make no impression at all. I had no exotic grenades or poisons as there’d been no call for them on Normal difficulty, so I took the noble and heroic course of action, turned the difficulty down to Casual and slashed him one way, slashed him the other way, slashed him diagonally, much like Connect 4 in dagger terms. He went down, on with the story.

The fight crystallised something I’d been thinking about for a while. I don’t really want to constantly be facing a life-or-death struggle needing every scrap of my abilities to emerge victorious when partaking of a bit of escapism, I’d like to win, thanks. Not without any effort at all, of course, that would render it pointless, but if the deck is stacked pretty heavily in my favour, as in the majority of fights at Normal difficulty in Dragon Age 2, that’s not a problem. So long as the game isn’t too obvious about it, I do like to at least fool myself that my character wouldn’t be more effective still if a hamster started running around on the keyboard. In Madame Gaming’s Boudoir of Earthly Delights I know full well I’m just another punter pitching up with my $15 a month, but I’d prefer my companion for the evening to coo “oh my, such a big weapon you have, I’ve never seen one that size before” rather than looking bored and chewing gum while disinterestedly muttering “wow that’s incredible, really, you’re the best, what time is it? Have you not finished yet?”

Course that’s not for everyone; “no pain, no gain” and all that, some people prefer to pay their money to be brutally thrashed for a couple of hours. In MMOGs in particular there seems to be a bit of Calvinist element devoted to Hard Work above all, at the most extreme end holding any sort of “fun” or “enjoyment” in contempt, or more moderately pointing out that experience is about contrasts, if you don’t suffer the lows, how can you truly enjoy the highs? Hard to argue with the latter, but plenty of scope for debate over the ideal ratio of lows to highs and their respective depths/heights (to use a cinematic example, The Shawshank Redemption is uplifting, but as Kermode & Mayo would say “there’s a lot of Shawshank before you get to the Redemption”).

In single player games there’s often a difficulty slider to allow for this: demand a challenge, crank it up; not so bothered, drop it down. I’ve (just about) passed the point where I consider dropping down to an easier difficulty as some sort of sleight on my masculinity; I see it like reaching the stage where you realise you’re not really enjoying clubbing, you’re finding the music awfully loud, and it’s harder to keep going through the early hours of the morning, and really, what’s wrong with sitting in some nice comfy chairs where you can actually hear your friends and you can come away with some change from a twenty pound note if you order two lemonades and a pint? Least, I might see it like that if I ever enjoyed clubbing in the first place.

For PvE in MMOGs the content tends to be more fixed (though difficulty sliders aren’t completely unknown, City of Heroes features them), but the capability of the player or group can vary widely, and it’s not so simple as dragging a slider to adjust the number of people you bring, or their classes, levels or gear. If you listen to the Van Hemlock podcast you’ll have been following the tribulations of Hobbington Crescent: The Next Generation in Lord of the Rings Online attempting to find something suitable to do for a group of nine characters with far-from-ideal class balance; 12-man skirmishes are a bit brutal, and though the voice chat on Mumble can still make for a fun evening there isn’t much of an in-game sense of triumph when you notionally “win” a skirmish with 90% of the hobbits you were supposed to be protecting dead, and the final boss only defeated by throwing endless waves of respawning players at him until he gets so weary of the futility of it all that he allows himself to be crushed by a pile of your own corpses. Warhammer Online, on the other hand, with its wide range of public quests for different group sizes and levels, you can quite easily step up or down to find something more appropriate (though it blots its copybook on occasion when bugs prevent you from completing a stage). I really rather enjoy tackling a public quest a couple of levels below my character when the first stage is “Defeat 100 (somethings)”, and start humming the Katamari Damacy theme while rounding up mobs with my Chosen in a bid to meet the requirement in a single pull. It might not be a life-or-death struggle (so long as a friendly healer tops up the ol’ health bar now and again), but it’s tremendous fun.

PvP is naturally trickier still, as you haven’t even got one fixed side to try and work around; in open PvP you’re obviously at the mercy of whoever shows up, and even in an instanced battleground/scenario type of fight, no matter how hard the matchmaking tries I’ve found well matched battles comparatively rare. If there’s going to be a drubbing I’d prefer to be the drubber than the drubbee, but at least you can always take comfort in the knowledge that your victories are down to incredible skill, whereas any losses are obviously due to there being more of the enemy, at higher levels, wearing better gear, and playing clearly overpowered classes (go go Dunning-Kruger effect!) I think this is why I seldom enjoy ‘friendly’ PvP such as informal intra-guild battles, as getting balanced sides set up is just as difficult (if not more so, as Murphy’s Law dictates that the number of people who turn up is inevitably not divisible by the number of possible sides), but victories are pretty hollow when you’re sharing the chat channel with the people you beat, and it’s bad form to grouse about the obviously overpowered build of a comrade. A bit of a free-for-all knock-around can be fun now and again, so long as nobody takes it too seriously (I think it was the Gurubashi Arena in WoW that was the venue for some entertaining guild outings that featured a lot of sapping and sheeping), but generally give me a dehumanised foe to put the virtual boot into, and I’m much happier.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Resolve and thou art free.

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There’s a definite difference in the BUTTOCKS various MMO companies ARSE their free-to-play games. I wonder which method is actually better: the FECK in-your-face system that constantly reminds you that you could be paying NUNS for a better experience? The subtle method that SEMPRINIS you to get on with things, but cripples basic TARTLETS that the player may not even realise can be fixed by a purchase from the in-game FLANGE, perhaps? Some games, such as Pirates of the Burning Sea, seem to give away CLUNTING everything, whereas a game like Champions Online (which I popped back into the other BROTHEL) wouldn’t even let me out of the character FORNICATION without telling me that I had picked costume options which needed to be purchased.

The Champions system act ally p t me off the game somewhat. I mean, it’s a free game and I sho ldn’t complain, b t I fo nd that sort of salesmanship really tacky. I co ld well be mistaken, and will happily stand corrected, b t I didn’t notice anything that told me that those parts req ired a p rchase when I selected them, and it was also really rather diffic lt to work o t which ones I needed to remove for my character to be ‘born free’ and th s act ally allowed into the game. Altho gh players of Lord of the Rings Online find the ‘P rchase Now’ b ttons intr sive – and as someone coming from the s bscription game I wo ld have to add my tentative agreement – the demarcation is at least clear for all to see.

One does not simply walk into Mordor; not without being aware that one has to pay 1900 Turbine Points for the quest pack, at least.



Whether this is due to the fact that Turbine had strong IPs in well-established games which they subsequently converted to their vision of the free-to-play model, whether their version of the model is a good one, or whether the other companies have not quite struck the right balance between marketing the product and allowing players a healthy level of freedom to experience the game without cost, it’s hard to tell.

Regardless, the free-to-play model has been proven as a successful revenue model under certain conditions. What will be interesting now is not seeing how many other companies follow this revenue model, but comparing how those that do follow that path go about trying to make it a success. I think there’s a very obvious method that these companies are missing, something which will grant them a significant increase in revenue whilst also allowing players an even greater level of freedom. Put simply, it seems clear that the next great step in the free-to-play market will be <Please Visit The KiaSA Store To Purchase The Extended Content Of This Post>

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Black Prophecy First Impressions

To little fanfare, Black Prophecy has been released (in Europe, at least; in the US I believe it’s just started closed beta testing, which may account for the lack of buzz). I’ve reminisced about space-sims a few times here, enjoyed the space combat in Star Wars: Galaxies, and (briefly) tried the original Jumpgate; with Black Prophecy being free-to-play I grabbed the install files over the weekend and had a bit of a look.

I’ve only managed an hour or two so these are early first impressions (insert hilarious reference to Eurogamer here, if you like your deceased equines lightly flagellated), but it seems to scratch that joystick-waggling itch, if you know what I mean. After a brief cinematic you get dropped straight into a gun turret blasting away at incoming attackers, a nicely action-packed introduction (though for the sake of the friendly fighters in the area maybe they should put up the hint that ‘T’ targets the nearest enemy *before* telling you which button fires the lasers). A little more exposition and you’re off in a ship of your own, picking missions, shooting waves of enemies and looting stuff from the wrecks of their ships.

Sente at A Ding World has a more detailed write-up (plus pictures), I still haven’t even got to the end of the prologue, but if you’ve been pining for some space-based combat since the days of Wing Commander, X-Wing and Freespace it’s well worth a look.

Monday 28 March 2011

I perceive these lords at this encounter do so much admire that they devour their reason and scarce think.

Stand at Amon Sûl is a skirmish in Lord of the Rings Online which I generally avoid. Amon Sûl isn’t a terribly lengthy skirmish, and it’s not any more difficult than the other skirmish options available to me; in fact fighting alongside the NPC Ranger Candaith makes the whole affair a walk in the park since he is – as NPCs generally are in MMOs – a hero of far greater power than my character could ever be. Probably a power of two or three greater. So now we know what N really stands for in NPC: PCPC. Thus NPC = PCPCPC or PC3.

Still, there are other NPCs in other skirmishes, and their relative power levels don’t cause me to shy away from heading in and helping them defeat the forces of Sauron on a daily basis; I only help them once per day though, because after that I don’t get the daily quest bonus. No XP, No Fighty-Fighty: the motto of MMO players the world over. In actual fact Candaith’s PC3 power does have something to do with it, but it is the combination of this with the feature mechanic of Amon Sûl that makes for a rather disheartening experience.

The skirmish follows one of the standard templates of events, in this case three stages consisting of multiple waves of enemies each, culminating in a fight with the Big Bad Boss at the end of the third stage. The events take place at the top of Weathertop (Weathertoptop? Weather(top2)?), where the forces of darkness are attacking your camp at the centre of the stone circle at the summit. The mechanic unique to this skirmish is a one hundred percent ‘darkness’ damage debuff to yourself and your allies (Candaith, skirmish soldier) when fighting on Weathertop. To counter this, Candaith has lit a large fire in the centre of the stone circle, and fighting near to this will grant you a fifty percent ‘light’ buff to your damage. In addition to this there is a circle of five smaller bonfires around the outside edge of the stone circle which can be lit by grabbing a torch from next to the central fire and running it over to them. However, the torch quickly runs out and the smaller bonfires are spaced far enough apart that it takes two runs to successfully light them all. The smaller bonfires themselves will eventually go out, and will need to be relit, which is required roughly twice per stage. These smaller bonfires each provide a twenty five percent ‘light’ buff to damage, and also a two and half percent boost to attacks and inductions.

I picture the player turning up to help Candaith defend Weathertop, and he explains that it would be best if the darkness was driven back using the bonfires and that someone needs to light them, and he gives you a significant look. You glance over your shoulder to see who he’s talking to, because clearly it can’t be you, hero of the ages that you are. Your skirmish soldier is the only person standing behind you, but they seem to be intently admiring some invisible piece of architecture above their head whilst whistling to themselves. Looking back to Candaith you point a finger at your chest and mouth ‘me’, making it a question through the exaggerated use of arched-in-astonishment eyebrows. He nods solemnly, and then brushes past you and clasps hands with your skirmish soldier, offers them a puff on his pipe (not a euphemism, although they are indeed terribly friendly), and I imagine one or the other of them directs a firm kick at your behind as you run past to grab a torch and start lighting fires.

And thus the fight goes. Essentially, at the entry level and with all the fires lit, Candaith and your skirmish soldier can happily defeat all the enemy waves without you and – with a bit of luck on critical hits and their choosing to focus on the Big Bad Boss first – the final fight too. The most important role you play in the entire skirmish is to play errand boy (or girl; thanks Stan). It’s a curiously demoralising effect the first time you realise this, as you run off to light fires and watch as a wave of enemies approaches and is summarily slaughtered by the two NPCs. They seem to be having fun, at least.

It’s not a big issue, of course, but one worth contemplating. Making players run mundane tasks is a given in MMOs; I mean, where would we be without the Delivery quest, the Click Ten Widgets quest, the Speak to Five NPCs quest or Harness Seven Critters quest?

Having fun exploring and adventuring like heroes I imagine, ah ha ha ha haaaa… sigh.

But it’s probably quite important that if you’re going to make players perform mundane chores in the name of Entertainment, then you probably shouldn’t have them do this while in the company of a crowd of NPCs who are having fun performing exciting adventurous feats of daring-do. Stand at Amon Sûl is just one minor example that tweaked my nipple of negativity recently, I’ve encountered many quests in many MMOs where I dash around like a subservient butler as an NPC smites the enemy; I fully expect one day to encounter a quest where my character’s job is to literally lick the NPC’s armour clean, then run out and collect rose petals so that they can be thrown at the NPC’s feet as they march into battle. Perhaps the next evolution would be a quest where your character has to crouch on all fours and act as a footstool for some NPC lounging on their throne, with a quest mechanic requiring you to press a key to hold your character’s breath when you see their hair begin to ruffle, otherwise they take the brunt of the NPC’s flatulence full on the nose and have to spend the next five minutes in a quest to clean all of their vomit from the throne room floor or be executed. With suitable improvements in voice recognition, it probably won’t be long before the PC is required to just lie on the floor and allow the NPCs to wipe their feet on them, whereupon it falls to the player to voice their gratitude in an obsequious enough tone that the NPC is appeased, and thus they allow the PC to progress to the next quest, where they attend the secondary ‘royal throne’, and get to wipe the NPC’s bum for XP, and possibly some gold in hand, depending on how thick the toilet paper is.

I think what makes me sad is that in all my adventuring, in all of my smiting of great evils, of all the vanquishings and sunderings and overcomings in the various MMOs I’ve played over the years, I have never had an NPC come up to me and say “Y’know what, you’re a bit of a hero in these lands, and you’ve saved us innumerable times from evil. How about I go out and rummage through that ox dung to find fifteen seeds to give to Farmer Bemybiatch? You put your feet up by the fire and have a rest. Here’s a pint and my eldest daughter, have fun. By golly you’ve earnt it”.

Good Ford! Perhaps we are the children of the Bokanovsky process in these brave new worlds which we inhabit; Alpha Plus developers and Alpha NPCs encourage the Epsilon players that ‘ending is better than mending’ with their infinite supply of experience, gold and goods. Levels and progression keep the players on a soma-like trip, a recursive inculcated belief that fun is to be found in the repetition of doing. It is the conditioning system where players are encouraged to avoid playing alone; where each class is a caste of perfectly uniform equality and led to believe it is more worthwhile than any other class; where the indoctrination teaches players that predictability, homogeneity, and consumption are this gaming generation’s greatest goals. What do those outside our society think as they stare in at us? Do they marvel in half-wonder half-horror when observing the mechanics of our low society, as we toil mundanely at the behest of the leaders of our worlds, our nobles, our heroes: the NPCs?

“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended —- there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.”

Friday 25 March 2011

When I look back to the Guildford of that time it seems far more exotic to me than Nagasaki

From Eurogamer via Rock, Paper, Shotgun, it seems the ever-neglected straight male gamer demographic is being ignored, yet again. Bastal is taking a stand on the Bioware forums, though! Apparently:

The romance options, Isabella and Merrill, were clearly designed with straight male gamers in mind. Unfortunately, these choices are what one would call “exotic” choices.

So I guess Bioware aren’t ignoring all straight male gamers, just straight male gamers who want to romance mundane female characters. Seriously, though, Isabela? Exotic? Sure, if you met a foxy dagger-wielding pirate captain down the pub that would at least warrant a raised eyebrow, but in Denerim or Kirkwall you can bump into six more exotic things before breakfast.

Fair enough about Merrill, though, she is a strange, mystical creature from a far-off land where they have peculiar customs. Still, that’s the Welsh for you.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Hair News Now Today: Dragon Age 2 Edition.

New FlemethIntroducing a new branch of the News Now Today franchise, KiaSA presents Hair News Now Today, an in-depth feature reporting on the news, now, in gaming hairstyles, today.

For our maiden voyage into all things hair styled, we present Dragon Age 2’s coiffure queen: Flemeth; an entity who probably isn’t actually a maiden, might not even by human, and will probably annihilate us for objectifying her. But for an old bird she’s a bit of a fox; a foxbird perhaps then, or a birdfox. Either way, she’s rather hot, and we’re not just talking about the fire and flame leaking from her nostrils.

Our Flemeth has clearly grabbed some sponsorship from one or more hair care companies since we last met her! Marvelling first at the sudden improvement in glossy shine and flowing tresses in stark comparison to her former self Old Flemeth – Andraste knows how long it takes to wash all that, and how many bottles she has to take into the shower – we can also see that she’s gone in for a bit of hair dyeing, changing from her natural colour of Slightly Damp and Mouldy grey to a lustrous Slightly Divine and Minxy white.

But the question on everyone’s lips is: how much hair product does she need to get it to stay in that shape? We’re talking at least a seven or eight on the Hair News Now Today Spraycan-O-Meter. And in an exclusive reveal by KiaSA’s HNNT team, we’ve plotted data showing the times that Flemeth has washed and re-styled her hair along with the dates for each Blight since records began, and found that there is a direct correlation between Asha’bellanar (or Asha’BaByliss as her new corporate sponsors want her to be known in advertising campaigns) emptying half the world’s supply of hair aerosol into the atmosphere and the re-emergence of the Darkspawn.

Still, it’s nice to see that despite being the instigator of the scourging of the world on multiple occasions due to simple vanity, Flemeth continues to obey Health & Safety work regulations, attaching red warning tape to the sharp hair-horns that protrude a significant and perilous distance behind her head. We all know the dangers of working with a mad capricious shape-shifting dragon lady, but that’s really no excuse for not follow proper safety protocol and avoiding someone having their eye out on the end of one of those things, or being knocked unconscious when failing to duck under them in passing.

Reporting for Hair News Now Today, I’m Melmoth Melmothson.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

I'll cheer you up if you're depressed, if you get murdered I'll avenge your death

Back in school a few of us discovered roleplaying and tabletop games through the standard gateway drug of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and formed a bit of a gaming group. Thanks to geographical distribution and shifting school friendships, though, it was quite rare for three or four of us to get together with the requisite space, time and polyhedral dice for an adventure, and they’d often turn out to be slightly disappointing. You know how early teenage fumblings are; you spend weeks preparing, getting everything just right, imagining how it’s all going to play out so flawlessly, but then it’s all a bit awkward in person and you’re trying to nudge them along into a bit of delicate manipulation without being too domineering, but you know they really just want to grab your booty and get out of there. After fighting some orcs.

We still loved collecting and discussing RPGs, though, the settings, lore, art and mechanics. Creating characters was my thing; over the years we assembled a motley collection of systems including Dragon Warriors, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, FASA’s Doctor Who RPG, Paranoia, a couple of flavours of GURPS, the Marvel Super Hero RPG, Maelstrom, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Battletech, Warhammer 40,000, and probably a bunch of others I’ve forgotten. For each I had at least a couple of characters rolled up or an army planned out, stats calculated, feats selected, starting equipment purchased, progression through to level 20 mapped out, and a provisional rota system posted for the guards of the castle he’d buy as soon as he had the money. Only a fraction actually went adventuring; a couple might even have made it to level two…

Computer RPGs were a natural evolution; about the first I seriously played was Curse of the Azure Bonds, the second of SSI’s Gold Box series of AD&D games. You control a party of six characters in it; I can’t remember if there was option to use a default party if you didn’t want to create six characters yourself, I wouldn’t have cared, I was too busy repeatedly mashing the “roll” button to get a decent set of stats for my seventh tweak of the party composition (“all right, this time I’ll have a Paladin on the front line, and a Half-Elf Fighter/Thief instead of the pure Thief for more damage…”) Other games around the time, notably the Ultima series, might have had NPC companions you’d meet and recruit, but I was more than happy having complete control over a full party, more worried about spell lists and THAC0 than personality or dialogue.

The next landmark of my personal CRPG history was ten years on, Bioware’s seminal Baldur’s Gate, once again an AD&D game giving the player control of a party of six, but this time with a single player created character and the other five recruited the rest from a cast of thousands. Well, several, at any rate. This slightly irked me at first, still being more preoccupied by stats and classes than personalities; I mean look at that character’s Charisma score, complete waste, it could be a far more efficient build… With the writing, though, I did start to appreciate dialogue between my character and the party, and between other members of the party, mostly due to Greatest NPC In The History Of Time(tm), Minsc. I found a pretty good compromise, after reading on the ‘net that starting a Multiplayer game gave exactly the same experience as the single player game but you could bring in as many of your own characters as you liked, and rolled up two ruthlessly min/maxed characters of my own (some sort of ranger/wizard/kensai/thief cross-classed death machines), then rounded out the party on the criteria of (i) fulfilling other required roles in the team, and (ii) being Minsc.

Romance had never been something that had crossed my mind in RPGs. Well, maybe something vaguely related to romance when viewing the cover of Curse of the Azure Bonds and the Armour Of Complete Protection Whoops Apart From That Massive Hole In The Front depicted thereon, but in the games there were dragons to kill and worlds to save and really no time for soppy kissing with Slimey girlS. I recruited Viconia as a Cleric in Baldur’s Gate II on the basis of her vital statistics (phwoar, get a load of that Wisdom), and only after reading a couple of guides did I bother trying “romantic” dialogue options. I wasn’t really feeling a deep emotional connection with the character, though, it was mostly to get her alignment to change to Neutral to cause fewer arguments in the party. Oddly enough, while typing this very paragraph I read Jon’s critique of romance in Bioware games and the way saving the world can become secondary to carving a series of achievement-shaped notches on your virtual bedpost, and it is something that can be a bit crowbarred in (as the actress said to the bishop). Dragon Age 2 has some unsubtle moments, with a big heart next to a dialogue option that leads to a line like “Wow, you had lyrium inlaid in your skin in a ceremony of unspeakable agony, huh? It looks HOT, let’s KISS with TONGUES!” Syp was pondering it too, but there are cases where I think they’ve handled it quite nicely as a developing relationship rather than a shag and an unlock, such as Alistair and a female Warden in Dragon Age: Origins.

The Baldur’s Gate games established the Bioware tradition of NPCs where personalities were as important as stats; Neverwinter Nights had the restriction of a single NPC party member in the original single player campaign, which limited inter-party banter, but you could wheel each potential recruit out during each chapter, engage in a deep and personal conversation about their past, then shove ’em back in a cupboard until the next chapter while you actually adventured with the one with the most useful skills. Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins cemented the formula, fully voicing companions and having them react to your actions. They stripped the RPG back to a few classes, with most party compositions being viable, so in Dragon Age if you wanted a warrior in the team the main choice was down to whether you wanted a drunkard, a strangely impassive giant or a slightly sarcastic ex-Templar running around with you.

Dragon Age 2 has extended the individuality of each companion still further. They have their own outfits, rather than sharing common armour across a class, and some have signature weapons. Their talent trees are more locked down; there are some choices, but weapon choice is fixed, and each companion has one set of talents unique to them. I think they might have taken things a smidge far, though By narrowing abilities, and developing personalities, it’s almost as if Bioware have managed to get themselves into the same position as pre-WotLK WoW raiding: if you crank the difficulty up you’re forced to pick someone for the mechanical reason of what their class offers rather than because you like them as a (virtual) person. You can avoid the issue by turning the difficulty down; as Melmoth said of Casual difficulty “…there were perhaps only three fights which required me to drink a potion, let alone worry about tactics”, and on Normal I’ve scarcely had to pause to manually issue orders regardless of who’s in the team. If you relish difficult combat *and* the interaction with your companions, though, it’s almost like you need Bioware to have their own “bring the player, not the class” moment.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Thought for the day.

A search for “voice of merrill” using Google – because I couldn’t remember Eve Myles’ name – actually returned nothing to do with the Bioware RPG character until I amended my Google-fu by appending “dragon age” to the search string. What it does turn up is a British mystery B-movie called The Voice of Merrill. You learn something new every day, and now I’m going to have to search out that film and watch it.

Strange how we make discoveries sometimes, and strangely apt that Bioware’s RPGs are part of the subset of games where you can still make obscure discoveries through accidental action, be it a conversation option which had unintended consequences, or by searching for something specific in a quest and stumbling across another quest line entirely.

So here’s to the grand RPG tradition of the out-of-the-way quest; the mysterious object off the beaten path; the good deed repaid in kind at an unexpected time later on; the stumbled-upon puzzle; and other such deviations from the course considered tried and true. And here’s hoping that our theme park MMOs never forget these traditions as they attempt to optimise game-play for an ever-increasing audience seemingly uninterested in the delights of discovery, only in the projection of performance and prominence among peers.

Monday 21 March 2011

Things to Do in Denerim When You're Dead.

For those of you who were blissfully unaware, Friday was MMO Hard Disk Drive Destruction day. It seems that I’m one of the few people who celebrate this holiday, and it was with great excitement and anticipation that I got home from a long hard day at work, entertained my daughter for the evening and popped her to bed, before turning on my PC and finding that the HDD which was home to all of my MMO games had decided to retire from this life. Insert your own favourite line from Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch here. I don’t know why these things always happen on a Friday, but the fact that it is currently the one day of the week where I get together with a bunch of friendly others from the pool of Van Hemlock static group gamers and enjoy some hot MMO group action, probably has something to do with it. Thankfully I managed to recover the data from the expiring drive by using a little bit of trickery involving other operating systems less fussy than Windows, external cables, a Big Hammer, lots of swearing, and the customary blood sacrifice of a virgin – although I didn’t have one to hand, so I just used virgin olive oil instead; you can also use sesame seed oil if you prefer your sacrifice to have a more ritualistic smoky aroma. So I saved myself many gigabytes of downloads and many hours of painful UI customisation for my various characters across the multitude of MMOs that I play, but in the meantime I had some time on my hands, so I got around to finishing a few non-MMO projects.

Firstly, I finished reading The Wise Man’s Fear, the excellent follow-up to Patrick Rothfuss’ first book The Name of the Wind. It’s not hard to describe why I like the books so much, I think Rothfuss has a style of writing that is very easy to read, compelling without taking itself entirely too seriously, while maintaining a healthy balance between light and dark subjects. I put him very much in the same camp as Joe Abercrombie in this respect, although Rothfuss’ story tends towards the lighter side of fantasy, it serves only to make the dark moments that much more intense and emotionally fraught; Abercrombie’s tales, on the other hand, tend to run towards the dark side of human nature, while occasionally punctuating the darkness with bolts of light humour and joy. The character of Kvothe is pitched just the right side of brilliant and self-assured, without being obnoxious, and the world which he inhabits is fascinating, from the systems of magic, to the hand-talk of the Adem mercenaries, all the way down to the myths and legends, of which Kvothe himself is destined to become a part. If you haven’t tried Rothfuss’ books yet and you’re a fantasy aficionado, I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. And as evidenced by Rothfuss’ latest blog post, where he points out that The Wise Man’s Fear is currently number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list, it seems that many other people are in agreement. What’s more, towards the end of his post, Rothfuss describes how he feels that he needs to do something a ‘little bit rockstar’ in order to celebrate this success, and so what does he propose?

“Maybe I will also drink some rum while I play Dragon Age. Because… well… because I can. And because that makes it just a little bit rockstar. It doesn’t hurt to be just a little bit rockstar sometimes…”

Which brings me nicely on to the second thing I did in-between hitting a hard disk drive with a virgin while sacrificing a hammer to the gods (what can I say: it was late, I was a bit drunk, and I got the instructions upside down): I finished my first play-through of Dragon Age II. I enjoyed the game a great deal, but I’m very much a story person when it comes to Bioware games these days; I couldn’t really discuss the combat in much detail because I set the difficulty to casual, and as such there were perhaps only three fights which required me to drink a potion, let alone worry about tactics other than ‘Darkspawn? We attack! Huzzah!’. I found the companion characters to be interesting takes on standard fantasy tropes, and I enjoyed the voice acting on the whole; as I stated on Twitter, my favourite line in the game having to be Isabela’s “I like big boats and I cannot lie”. The city of Kirkwall is breathtaking (be sure to look up and take in the sights on occasion), and although the locations within it become familiar to the point of being mundane once you’re running through them for the eleventeenth time, I felt that the city never lost its sense of scale. Other than that, it’s a standard Bioware RPG, if you’re any sort of CRPG gamer then you know what that means, and you’ll also know whether it will appeal to you or not. If you want me to try to sway you, I’ll simply say: decent plate armour for female characters, woo! And I’ve included a screenshot of my Melantha Hawke in a favourite armour set from the game.

Contrast that with my High Elf warrior in Rift, who could be fighting off death invasions, or modelling for the cover of Heavy Metal Illustrated, hard to tell. I’m still not finding myself excited by Rift. I’m enjoying it as a dabbling diversion when other games aren’t drawing down my attention, but there’s something about the game that prevents me from being infatuated with it to the point of ignoring all other games, as I have done in the past with, for example, World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. Part of my issue is the global cool-down system for combat, which I don’t find to be the purported system which ‘allows me to carefully consider my options’, but instead something which restrains me and constantly calls me to heel. I imagine it’s the same sort of frustration felt by two dogs trying to have a loud and tooth-filled debate on who is the best at being a loud tooth-filled debater, while both are muzzled with their owners constantly yanking them away from one another by their leashes. It’s a shame, because the reactive abilities that the game includes – which are off the global cool-down and thus allow you to do something useful while waiting for your main abilities to come off their European Work and Time Directive mandated 1.5 second tea break – are an excellent way to break the system up, giving the player something to do in the meantime. Make the reactive abilities less powerful, maybe make them short duration buffs, say, and you could give players something to do during the global cool-down which would help during combat without unbalancing it. A two tier system, with the main abilities all on the global cool-down, but with a wealth of secondary abilities off the global cool-down, could create quite an interesting system, and one where I don’t feel frustrated at having to spend thirty seconds of a one minute fight chin-on-hand and staring at little glowing clocks counting down on my hotbars. There are reactive abilities in the game, but never enough to make the system as interesting and engaging as I feel it could otherwise be. My other issue at the moment is the fact that I decided to play a Guardian, mainly because being utterly agnostic in real life, I tend to veer towards heavily religious groups in my fantasy escapism, much as being utterly male in real life, I tend to veer towards heavily female characters (read into ‘heavily female’ whatever innuendo you so choose) in my games. The problem with the Guardians is that the first area in the game proper where they adventure is Silverwood: a big bright ancient fantasy forest, full of elves and goblins and ruins, straight out of the fantasy cliché text book. Not a problem, this is a fantasy MMO after all, but after you finish with Silverwood, the levelling conveyor belt passes through border control and takes you into Gloamwood… a big dark ancient fantasy forest, full of wolves and ghosts and ruins, or Silverwood II: The Gloomening, as I have come to call it. My character is level twenty four, and I’m really starting to struggle to carry on with the Kill Ten X quests interspersed with the occasional frantic frenzy of fighting a rift, which alas is nothing more than a zerg wrapped in the illusory cloak of cooperative game-play. Adventuring in Gloamwood feels like I’m still stuck in Silverwod after all this time, only someone has turned the gamma down, presumably to enhance the feeling of depression the player experiences as they’re told to go and find some bat wings because Random Quest Giver X needs them to create Token Artifact Y, in order to progress Arbitrary Plot Device Z.

Still, I’ve got plenty to be getting on with elsewhere, which is another reason why Rift is perhaps not capturing my imagination like I feel it should. I’m starting my second play through of Dragon Age II, this time as a mage, to see how the sissy-robe-wearing set like to live. I’m also still enjoying my time in Lord of the Rings Online, with the Burglar coming along nicely, albeit a bit slowly what with the abundant distractions provided by single player games, books and spontaneously exploding hard disk drives.

Friday 18 March 2011

The main thing in one's own private world is to try to laugh as much as you cry.

I awoke yesterday morning and made my way to the bathroom to begin my morning ablutions. With my face buried in a hot flannel I heard the bathroom door open then close, after which followed the distinct motions of someone adjusting the toilet seat and placing themselves upon it. Hands still pressed to my face, I turned my head slowly to the side while pulling the flannel fractionally down, peering over the top. I did not know the strange man who sat perched on the toilet seat next to the wash basin; I watched him in stunned silence for a moment, and he returned my gaze with a level look that indicated he felt perfectly at ease being there. He did not say anything to me, nor I to him, and we both carried on about our business, patently ignoring one another, apart from me passing him a new toilet roll when I saw he was going to run out. After flushing, he generously washed his hands in my bowl of clean water and dried them on my towel. He didn’t bother to close the bathroom door as he left.

I dressed and made my way downstairs to the kitchen. Sitting down at the table with my two fresh slices of toast, I leaned over the day’s newspaper which lay to one side, while my arms remained over my plate, spreading butter and jam on a slice of toast, which I then proceeded to eat. I heard the approach of footsteps and continued to stare at the newspaper, studiously ignoring the woman who walked up to the table and took one of my slices of toast, and then sat down and began to spread butter on it. I continued regardless, leaning back over my plate to take bites of my toast, while my other hand remained stretched out to the side, leafing through the pages of the newspaper. We didn’t say anything to one another, apart from this stranger barking “Jam!” at me when I failed to pass the preserve, even though I had been intending to but was waiting for her to finish buttering her toast. She wolfed down the toast, took a swig from my tea, and then left. I put the dirty plates and cutlery in the dishwasher myself.

Halfway to work I stopped at some traffic lights, and while my car and I idled, four men got in and made themselves comfortable. They travelled with me for some distance in silence, gradually going their own way when it suited them, although the chap who abandoned the car while we were doing seventy along the motorway probably regretted not hanging on a little longer.

That night I paused in the process of snuggling down with my wife, threw off the bedcovers, left the bed, and hung a big ‘Private’ sign on the outside of the bedroom door. Alas, by the time I re-entered the bedroom I found that three men and a woman were in various states of undress and in my bed, helping themselves to my wife. I looked on agape, and then in anger, before leaning my head back out of the bedroom door in disbelief in order to check the sign I had just posted. I quickly took down the Free-For-All sign that I had mistakenly hung there, and made a mental note to store it somewhere safely with the Round Robin sign, as far away from the privacy sign as possible.

It’s a step forward from enforced grouping, but y’know, sometimes the default-to-open group system in Rift can seem a little bit impersonal and antisocial.

Thursday 17 March 2011

In Vegas I got into a long argument with the man at the roulette wheel over what I considered to be an odd number

Tobold the Astronomer views the galaxy of n-dimensional possibility space of MMOGs and sees the clustering; Keen the Traveller sees great distances as he moves between the points. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…

Reasoned debate establishing a common frame of reference to develop a series of prepositions supporting differing perspectives!

Nah, just kidding…


Wednesday 16 March 2011

Do not worry about holding high position; worry rather about playing your proper role.

I ran into a dilemma last night in Rift, the likes of which I had been hoping the game would avoid. But alas, itemisation has reared its ugly head Godzilla-like above the bow of the good ship Carefree Entertainment, and as I stare up in slack-jawed awe at the beast, with a cascade of sea water falling around me from off of its scaly hide, it ruptures the air with a soul-sheering bellow before thrashing once with its tail and obliterating my boat, dumping me into the spirit-sapping cold of the Sea of Grind.

I’d made it all the way to level twenty and out of the first playground, joining the group of slightly older kids who were now getting a bit too big to play nicely with the newcomers to Telara. That’s what it’s like, isn’t it? These neatly zoned areas of ‘exactly this level to exactly that level’ in MMOs, they’re like playgrounds at primary school, where the range of ages of the children is such that you can’t let the oldest kids play in the same area as the youngest kids because the disparity in size and strength is such that Painful Things were likely – unintentionally or otherwise – to happen to the smaller children. When you see a level-capped character come into the starter zone that you’re levelling through there’s just the briefest moment of awe as they one-shot most living things in their path, before you quickly realise that the things they’re one-shotting are the things you need to finish your quest – they’re stealing your lunch money – and you try to compensate by grabbing one of the mobs for yourself before the Big Kid AoEs the entire zone into bones and coin, at which point you over-pull, get six mobs on you, promptly die, and as the Big Kid runs past they give your corpse a wedgie, just to rub it in.

Regardless, I’d progressed up to the next playground, and in all this time itemisation hadn’t been a problem. The most I’d had to worry about as a Warrior was the fact that I needed to keep a one-handed sword and a shield in my bags in case I needed to tank, because my levelling role focussed on damage with a two-handed weapon. This wasn’t a problem in the main because most quests would reward one of a shield, a one-hander, or a two-hander, for a Warrior, while also offering a single item for each of the other three classes, Mage, Rogue and Cleric. Armour was never an issue, as each piece was generally an upgrade on a fairly predictable path of itemisation, incrementing the basic stats required by the class, while boosting armour level some more. However, some of the best gear outside of dungeons and the aforementioned basic questing ‘greens’ can be found on the Planar Rewards vendors, these folk offer various blue and purple weapons and armour in exchange for shards which are earnt as rewards from closing rifts. Upon entering Gloamwood for the first time last night, I made my way to the first quest hub and found the reward vendors in order to drool over the shiny gear that was on offer, as you do. Also I like to try the outfits on in advance in order to preview just how much cleavage will be on display in this season’s latest armour set, and whether my character needs to shave only her legs, or whether there will be so much flesh showing through her heavy plate armour that an all-over body wax is required. Actually I have a theory that fantasy female warriors have evolved as a sub-species separate from other members of their race, and are actually entirely hairless apart from the hair which they grow on their head, which is often a veritable mane, long and luxurious enough to make male lions weep and the TRESemmé marketing department drool; they’re like a sort of semi-hairless cat, only less wrinkly, and not so prone to licking their own genitals, despite the hopes and desires of many a randy male gamer, I’m sure.

And there on the vendor in Gloamwood were two pieces of armour for the warrior class, one which had all the right stats for my DPS role, and another which had all the right stats for my tanking role. And this simple thing suddenly makes the game a chore. The joy in Rift, the thing they absolutely nailed on the head, was the fact that players want to be able to pick the right role for the moment. I’m perfectly happy to bundle into a rift using my DPS spec and just spam damage attacks with the best of them, but I’m happier knowing that at the throwing of a switch – well, okay, it’s a button, but you have to picture it as one of those big ol’ circuit closing switches from many a mad scientist movie, otherwise you’re just not trying – I can turn into The Hairless Cat Tank, and admirably pull aggro and hold it in the finest of ‘Yo mamma’ taunting traditions. Of course World of Warcraft had this already with its dual talent specs, but itemisation was something that made it merely passably useful, and generally only to those who were happy to add yet another cog to the grind machine. In Rift, up until now, I hadn’t had to worry about switching all my armour and jewellery over as well, and this made the system dynamic. Fluid. Almost organic: my character could grow into the role that the moment demanded. You could say that one was able to ‘role’ with the situation. Ah ha ha! But then you’d probably get groaned at, or pinched on the arm.

I’m hoping this is just a blip and that itemisation between roles isn’t a concern in the later levels of the game, because otherwise it seems to me that Trion have included one of the most flexible and forgiving multi-role setups in an MMO to date, and at the same time included a time-honoured tedious MMO mechanic which entirely undermines the point of it.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Any clod can have the facts; having opinions is an art

Here at KiaSA towers we’re both in the grip of Dragon Age II. I’m only a few hours in, hardly enough for a full and complete appraisal, but I believe it’s sufficient to allow me to reassure you (in a spoiler free fashion) that no, it’s not the worst game ever released in the entire history of time.

I can see how you might be worried. Critic’s reviews are decent if not spectacular, currently averaging 81 on Metacritic, but we’ve all seen the stories of pressure on reviewers from publishers, reliance on advertising revenue from games companies, how can we trust them? Better to look for honest, unbiased scores and reviews from many contributors, get in on the crowdsourcing action.

At least it would be better, if half the contributors weren’t batshit mental. Even by usual internet standards, where ludicrous hyperbole is a second language (after lolspeak), the Dragon Age II ratings are a bit crazy. After I tweeted about starting to play it, mbp inquired if the terrible user reviews on Metacritic were justified so I had a quick peek and found a mass of 0/10 reviews (“Bad graphics, bad gameplay, bad story”, “This is the worst steaming pile of poop i have ever played”, “A horrible, wretched nightmare without end”; actual quotes, I didn’t even have to bother with comedic Angry Internet Man paraphrasing), with it limping to an overall 4.1 at the time of typing partially thanks to a few equally unhelpful 10/10s (“th1s game is so awsome!”, “I have to say Dragon Age 2 is 1000 times better than Dragon age origins”).

It’s like there’s a bunch of people dying to chip in who have a vague notion that this internet business runs on some sort of computer things, and these computer things use some weird binary stuff with only two states, and thus the only possible ratings available on these computer things on this internet business are “0/10 ZERO PERCENT NO STARS WORST GAME EVER it turned my weak lemon drink to blood and unleashed frogs and lice and gnats and locusts and a disease on my gerbil and unhealable boils and hail and thunder and darkness and it killed my frogspawn” or “FIVE STARS ONE HUNDRED PERCENT 10/10 BEST GAME EVER I was blind but now I can see and I only had a pilchard sandwich for lunch but that was enough to feed the whole school after I bought this game”. Then you get the Forces of Balance, incensed by all the 9s and 10s (or 0s and 1s) who feel compelled to weigh in at the opposite end of the scale to try and even things out. In some cases (via Scopique’s tweet) they might be the ones who made the game… (I doubt there’s a sinister corporate policy of astroturfing, just an overenthusiastic employee, but it doesn’t really help the whole situation)

Personally I’m rather enjoying it so far, but for a less positive piece that takes the unusual approach of using “words” to convey “meaning”, John Walker’s “Wot I Think” on the opening hours is well worth a read. I do think the start of the game feels disjointed, a bit like sitting down to watch a film with someone who says “yeah, yeah, the start’s a bit boring, there’s some running away or something, but there’s this great bit here!”, and they play a few minutes, then “oh, yeah, and then more boring stuff happens, fast forward, someone asks you to do something or whatever, fast forward, ooh, this bit’s good!” As Walker says, some of the side quests turn up and are completed almost randomly, more akin to the “follow the glowing punctuation” of a MMOG, and it has some slightly jarring quirks like only being able to talk to your companions in certain locations where they can express surprise at you being there, despite the fact that you just walked through the door accompanied by them (though at least that avoids the Camp Of Many Elite Warriors Just A Bit Further Down The Path Who Don’t Lift A Finger To Help from the first game).

I don’t entirely agree with him, though; I found Hawke’s initial situation and family relationships to be clear enough, albeit somewhat cursory so early events lacked emotional impact, I think it’s a valid enough in media res beginning. The conversation choices tend to fall into the Mass Effect 2 trap of “The only sensible one to pick”, “Inappropriate attempt at humour” or “Needless antagonism”, but I’m finding my (female) Hawke likeable enough, and I seem to remember the options in Dragon Age: Origins would often be similarly restrictive; perhaps that’s just inverse nostalgia, or perhaps your character having a voice removes some of the nuances that you could read into text choices. I’m certainly finding the combat far more fun as a Rogue than the first game and mostly staying in control of Hawke, rather than kicking off a couple of Super Stabby abilities then taking control of someone else until the stamina bar filled up again.

With all the difficulties presented by a numeric scoring system we’ve decided to instead institute the KiaSA Second Wilson Cabinet Rating Mechanism, wherein games are assigned a member of the cabinet of Harold Wilson’s second prime ministership, so by this system I’m delighted to award the first few hours of Dragon Age II: The Lord Elwyn-Jones

Monday 14 March 2011

It's like déjà vu all over again.

The finest thing about Rift for me, so far, is the fact that I can get bored or frustrated with my character’s build and simply tuck it away and try a new role without having to start the character again from scratch. For an altoholic (I’ve decided to start a support group and call it Altoholics Unanimous) like myself it’s an invaluable aid to avoiding burnout in an MMO.

Dragon Age 2, which I’m also currently playing, has a piece of DLC called the Black Emporium which, amongst other things, allows you to completely change the appearance of your character, akin to the ‘barber shop’ functionality in World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. In combination with this are potions which can be bought very cheaply from many merchants, and which allow the player to reset their character’s ability points, essentially allowing them to change the way the character plays within the chosen class.

I like this increasing trend in RPG games at the moment: there seems to be an understanding on the part of developers that players get bored or frustrated with options in RPGs, that choices made in the early stages of a game can become weights which prevent a player from continuing, and that it’s better to give the player some freedom of choice in these things, rather than obstinately force them to continue for reasons that from a player’s perspective are hard to perceive as being reasonable.

It’s these simple things that have kept me playing two games that I might otherwise have given up on, having otherwise found myself burnt-out while trying to find a character with which I was comfortable playing for fifty hours or more.

Reinvent, not re-roll. Re-specialise, not rebuild.

Friday 11 March 2011

KiaSAcast Episode 11

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

This episode of the podcast includes:

– Introduction

– Radio KiaSA presents David Ragefury and Steve Wiseman

– Games which one of us is playing but the other one isn’t, including::

     – Pirates of the Burning Sea

     – Rift

Download KiaSAcast Episode Eleven

Thursday 10 March 2011

The greatness of a craft consists firstly in how it brings comradeship to men.

So ArenaNet blogged about their crafting system yesterday. Here’s a summary of some of the salient points, with my feelings on them:

I’m Andrew McLeod, one of the Game Designers responsible for creating an in-depth but accessible crafting system for Guild Wars 2.

Well hello, Andrew.

Characters can be proficient in up to two crafting disciplines at a time. We feel that this allows players to have a good variety in the items that they can craft, but still maintains player interaction and exchange. It also gives a stronger focus on the specifics of what you can craft- especially with the depth and size of each of our crafting professions.

Show me the depth and size of your crafting profession, baby.

Although a character can only have two disciplines at a time, they can change their crafting disciplines by visiting the master craftsmen NPC that can be found in all major cities. When you change back to a crafting discipline that you’ve previously learned, you regain your skill level and known recipes from that discipline, but the cost of changing disciplines increases with the skill level in that discipline.

Mmmm, yes.

Characters can gather all types of crafting materials, and gathering nodes in Guild Wars 2 are not exclusive, or used up after a player gathers materials from it.

Ohhhhh, yes.

If you’ve played other MMOs, you may have felt frustrated when trying to gather crafting materials; you’re running around zones trying to find nodes, only to have someone beat you to the node, or take the resources while you’re fighting an enemy that attacked you before you could gather them. In Guild Wars 2, each node can be gathered by every player, so when you see a rare node off in the distance, you don’t need to abandon what you’re doing to try and beat other players to it.

Nnnnn, yesssss!

We decided to make gathering available for all characters for a couple major reasons. First, we wanted gathering nodes to be sought after by every player, so that when players are grouped together they don’t need to feel guilty by making the group wait for them while they run off after an ore vein on the side of the road.

Oh God! Yes! Yesss!

Secondly, gathering professions are often used for economic gain, through selling materials to other players, and we didn’t want crafters to have to sacrifice their economic potential in order to be able to craft gear for themselves and friends.


If you haven’t previously crafted that item, you discover the recipe for that item, allowing you to easily view the correct combination to recreate the item. Some basic recipes are automatically learned by characters, but the recipes for most items must be discovered by the crafter. A few recipes can only be learned from a trainer or from drops in the world.

Ooo, ow. Not like that. That’s awkward, I don’t want it in the wiki, baby.

Leveling up your crafting skill uses an experience system—each item you craft is worth an amount of experience. There are 400 skill points in each discipline, though crafting items will often give multiple points worth of experience.

Mmm, that’s better!

Our intent is that you should never have to make something you consider worthless while leveling a crafting discipline.

Oh yeah, here we go. Here we go. Oh. OH! Yessssssss.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at crafting in Guild Wars 2. As you can see, the crafting system we’ve created really reflects our philosophy of cooperative, accessible gameplay.

Well, it was good for me.


Wednesday 9 March 2011

Vocational Guidance Counsellor

When starting out in Pirates of the Burning Sea I was drawn by the prospect of naval combat and sword fights, fearsome broadsides and boarding parties, chasing dastardly pirates around the Caribbean and consuming large quantities of rum. At the career selection screen the game presented three options:


A naval officer like the heroic Admiral Lord Nelson, working up to captaining a mighty ship of the line with devastating firepower ensuring the Britannia rules the waves! A noble calling!


A privateer like the dashing Francis Drake, commanding a nimble frigate, sweeping down upon treasure-laden galleons in the name of His Majesty in between games of bowls and wearing enormous ruffs! The scourge of other nations!


An Independent Trader like…. erm… Derek Trotter. Buying and selling stuff in the ship equivalent of a Transit van. The stuff of… sitcom.


Needless to say Freetrader didn’t sound like what I was after at all, I picked Naval Officer for the prospect of some Really Big Guns, and that seemed to suit the game. Pirates of the Burning Sea has plenty of missions on offer, and they generally involve either sailing around shooting other ships with guns, or running around stabbing people with swords, historically areas in which the Navy has tended to excel. There are variations, of course; sometimes you stab people with swords, then hop into your ship and shoot other ships with guns. Sometimes you have to shoot other ships until they stop, then board them and stab people with swords. Sometimes you just need to have a nice chat with a few people, although it often turns out a smidge of sword-based stabbing is needed just to really emphasise what you were saying. For about 25 levels, all was going swimmingly (or rather sailingly, with a bit of swimming here and there when overambitious naval encounters led to regrettable negative buoyancy situations). Then I got bitten by the shipbuilding bug, and it turns out Freetraders actually have quite a few advantages when it comes to trading and production. Who would’ve guessed?

This is a bit of a dilemma. My Naval Officer isn’t completely useless at production, and with a bit of assistance has set up a shipyard, but has some drawbacks compared to a Freetrader, notably not being able to globally search all auction houses to hunt down bargains and not having access to the really big hauling ships to shift large quantities of raw materials. On the other hand a Freetrader isn’t completely useless at fighting, but isn’t really up there with a Naval Officer, especially if specialising in the “travel quickly around the map avoiding taxes” skills rather than the “SHOOT PEOPLE IN THE FACE WITH CANNONS!” range.

It’s a shame PotBS has the three fixed classes from the start. The early levelling process seems to be very similar for everyone; there’s no difference at all in avatar combat as far as I understand, any class can pick any of the fighting styles. There are very few restrictions on early ships, Freetraders can quite happily captain the same brigs and light frigates as low level Naval Officers and Prvateers. The quests are the same, including the nifty main story quest, apart from class-specific quests every five levels that see Naval Officers climbing up the ranks (mostly by sinking the French), Freetraders brokering deals or engaging in industrial espionage etc.

For somebody new to the game there’s a fair bit to get to grips with without even considering the economy, and I suspect I’m not the only player to only take an interest in production after a couple of months of more combat-focused operations. With an EVE-like skill system you’d perhaps have the option of pausing with the combat development and switching to build up your production skills for a while, but less structured skill systems can be a pretty tricky proposition as per the big debate a couple of months back. A model that would seem to fit rather nicely would be the tiers of increased specialisation of Tabula Rasa, where everyone started out as a Recruit for five levels before selecting Soldier or Specialist, then from e.g. Solider to Commando or Ranger, Ranger to Sniper or Spy. In Pirates of the Burning Sea I don’t think it would do any harm for everyone to, say, start out in the Navy for ten or fifteen levels before deciding whether to continue that career, resign to focus on trade, or go freelance as a privateer. Something else Tabula Rasa had was a cloning system, so that before making one of the specialisation decision you could create a clone, and follow an alternate path without having to re-do the earlier levelling. Obviously cloning wouldn’t fit in so well with the 18th century (apart from that Doctor Who episode where it turned out Calico Jack was part of a Sontaran clone army out to seize a Spanish galleon carrying what the crew thought was an Aztec relic but was really the Great Key of Rassilon), but family members would make sense; if you’ve had enough of trading, return to a “New Family Member Introduction” point as the brother/sister/uncle/second cousin and select a different career.

In the absence of such mechanisms, in a bid for the best of both worlds I’ve settled for rolling a Freetrader alt on a second account to focus on production while the Naval Officer keeps shooting people (with guns). It works quite well, running two instances of the game in different windows, as when one character needs to make a long journey for a class mission or to pick up some exotic supplies you can indulge in a spot of what Van Hemlock has dubbed “Galleon Bowling”: point your ship at the destination on the other side of the map, accelerate to full speed, then alt-tab over to the other character (or a web browser, or go and make dinner or something). When you return you get 50 points if you can just click to dock at your destination port (with 10 bonus Danger Points if the journey took you through a red PvP circle and you blithely sailed AFK through pirate infested waters), 25 points if you’re bumping into the coast in the general area but out of clicking range, and 0 points if you forgot you were supposed to make a course adjustment halfway through and ended up in Newfoundland.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Thought for the day.

Tobold writes:

“But unlike the current raid endgame, a pure leveling game can tune that a lot better: A lack of performance would not mean that you get totally stuck like a guild that can’t get past a certain raid boss. In a pure leveling game your performance would directly be reflected in the speed of your progress. Thus somebody playing badly would still advance, because sometimes he gets lucky and kills a mob and gains xp. But somebody playing better would advance a lot faster.”

Personally I think the best sort of levelling game is one where you forget there’s an XP bar at all, and thus there is no concern for ‘progress performance’.

I’ve had those moments occasionally in MMOs, where I’ve enjoyed the game tremendously to the point where gaining a level was an incidental bonus to my entertainment. For me, that’s got to be the aim of it: make the game-play the reward for playing, the ‘role-play’ trappings should still be entertaining and involving, but perhaps no more than supplementary diversions.

I wonder if MMORPGs have perhaps maintained the fixation with the character sheet to the detriment of actually making things fun.

Put another way: has progress in the MMO genre been stifled by the fact that we’re all still obsessed with the idea of character progress?

Monday 7 March 2011

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.

Rift. A curiously apt name considering that the game has caused such a schism in my MMO playing personality: I really am having trouble knowing how I feel about it, which is a new sensation to me. It’s as though a rift from the Vacillation dimension has torn its way into the plane of my mind and started to spew forth all manner of invaders. These invaders form two separate warring factions however, and their internecine dispute makes it impossible for my mind to form an adequate defence against the destructive indecision which they both spread. Sometimes I’m in support of the group that thinks Rift is a brilliant breath of fresh air – as evidenced by the many hours I spent playing it over the weekend – but just as quickly my mind finds itself backing the rebel faction, who claim that at level twenty the game has already shown me all that it has to offer. Sure, I will continue to have fun up to the cap at level fifty, but after that I will, in all likelihood, rapidly run out of steam and return to my mature mistress.

“Yet always LotRO is there to welcome me back from my folly, she opens her arms wide and cradles me against her voluminous content, hushes my blubbered apologies, reminds me of the intimate little details that made me love her and make me love her still. She is the mature mistress, secure in the knowledge of her own worth, happy to welcome and entertain the experienced and inexperienced alike, and I remain there in her embrace, comfortable and content. Until I catch a glimpse of the next porcelain and lace doe peering out from behind the curtain of MMO news, fluttering her eyelids innocently, her shy yet coquettish demeanour promising a life of long term commitment and happiness, and delivering yet another sharp blow to the head and dent to the wallet.”

And if I’m going to inevitably return to her, then why not stay with her now and continue playing the rather enjoyable alt that I’ve recently gushed about? At which point the pro-Rift faction rallies its troops and gives a big push, dropping propaganda leaflets extolling the virtues of the flexible class system, the attractiveness of the game’s graphics, and the efficient (if impersonal) effectiveness of the public group system.

The game tears at me, and I can’t remember the last time that I experienced a game where I had a constant nagging feeling that I should be liking it more than I actually do. I do like the game, I honestly do, but at the same time I find it hard to get enthusiastic about it. It’s a game where, when I picture myself trying to explain to others why I enjoy it, I find myself struggling to give a convincing reason. It’s like trying to explain the flavour of saffron. Like trying to explain smaragdine without reference to other colours: every explanation I begin necessarily starts with “Well it’s like that mechanic in MMO X, but tidied up and streamlined”.

So it’s a game that is greater than the sum of its parts, but where those parts are all the refined result of familiar elements from other games. This is, perhaps, where the seemingly strange split in the game’s personality stems from.

Unless you live under a rock you will already have had the broad picture of Rift painted for you by other blogs, so in the next post I’ll simply try to add a few of my own highlights and lowlights, hopefully helping to add further definition to the general impression. I’m not sure if the picture can even be completed yet, however; the game needs time to bed and then blossom, and trying to paint a true picture of the game at this early a stage would be like trying to paint an accurate representation of a flowerbed in full bloom by observing during winter the soil in which the seeds were planted.

Friday 4 March 2011

Thought for the day

M’colleague has concerns over the rapid levelling in Rift, and whether there’s enough of an end game to sustain players who may be reaching it within the first month that comes with the box. Sounds like a sufficiently weighty issue on which to unleash the Sentient KiaSA Anti-Spam Captcha AI, so I uploaded plenty of subscriber numbers, levelling trends and forum posts from MMOGs of the past ten years and asked it for an optimal end game solution.

Its response:

+++ Melon melon melon ++++++ zerozerozerozerozerozeroone ++++++ Suggest: upon reaching level cap, display large banner: "CONGRATULATIONS!  Now bugger off back to WoW." ++++++ Divide By Cucumber Error. Please Reinstall Universe And Reboot +++

Thursday 3 March 2011

The age of automation is going to be the age of 'do it yourself'.

You are Defiant. Through the miracle of technology you have been brought back from the dead! Invested with the power of ancient heroes! Forged as one of the greatest warriors Telara has ever known! Sent back through a rip in the very fabric of time itself!

Now in the past, you must fight in order to save the future!

But first! Farmer Barleymow wants you to plant eight seeds, water them, then stand around a bit, tapping your foot and picking at your finger nails, while the plants grow.

Apparently technology doesn’t stretch to agricultural automation.

Beware a hobbit in a bowler hat bearing pies.

So I’m enjoying playing a Burglar in Lord of the Rings Online at the moment, but what is a Burglar if common misconceptions are to be avoided? As unwize mentions in a comment to that post, there is a possibility that Turbine themselves are a little unsure as to the real role of the Burglar class within the game’s group content, and being new to the class myself, I would have to hazard a guess that part of this exasperation on the part of experienced Burglar players stems from the class already having had at least one major revamp along with continuing tweaks to specific class mechanics since then.

So what is a Burglar not? They are not a primary DPS class, although this is perhaps an area that Turbine are struggling with. They are not crowd control specialists, but they do bring several powerful crowd control abilities to the table; I think it’s fair to say that Burglars are to crowd control as Captains are to healing – they are not the first choice in that area, but can perform admirably at the job given a lack of alternatives and when traited accordingly. And, perhaps most importantly, they are NOT Buglers. I do not like to ‘blow my horn’ in front of other people; patting me on the head does not ‘set’ me to play Reveille at first light; if I am a Hobbit my title is ‘of the Quick Post’ not the Last Post. My role in a group is not to signal the start of an orc hunt!

And breathe. And relax.


And breeeeaaaaathe.

So what does a Burglar do? Like the best and arguably most enjoyable of utility classes, it seems that they do a little bit of everything.

The Burglar has a number of short term debuffs called Tricks which can be spread liberally, one per mob, and help to reduce the attack potential of a group of mobs. Personally I like to picture my stealthy little hobbit running around tweaking nipples, yanking wedgies, pulling hats down over eyes, and tying shoelaces together in order to distract and demoralise his foes. Of course this breaks down a little bit when it’s a pack of wargs you’re fighting, but a true Burglar is a master of stealth, and is therefore quite able to sneak some shoes onto a warg’s paws before initiating combat, thus allowing them to tie the warg’s shoe laces together during the fight. And now you know why they call such shoes sneakers.

The second part to Tricks is that they enable a number of other Burglar skills to operate. These skills are generally more powerful abilities on longer cooldowns which require a Trick to be active on the target before they can be used, and which will remove the Trick when they are used. So the Burglar generally spreads Tricks around amongst the mobs, and then juggles adding Tricks to the main target while removing them with their Trick-powered skills. Think of it as a sort of Charlie Chaplin routine, where Charlie kicks the villain in the pants and, when the villain spins around, rolls between his legs and head-butts the villain in the groin as Charlie sits up from the roll looking confused; as the villain doubles over, Charlie then tweaks the villain’s nose, rolls through his legs, hops up, turns around and kicks the bent-over villain in the bum such that he falls into a puddle of mud, whence the villain looks up dazedly into the camera with his mud-covered face, in a light-hearted comical fashion. Then, while the villain is still prone, Charlie leaps onto his back, pulls his head back and slits his throat with a dagger, before severing his spine at the base of the neck, just to be sure.

C’mon, admit it, Charlie Chaplin would have been even cooler if he’d done that last bit. Anyway, that’s the primary role of the Burglar as I see it: it’s a Charlie Chaplin meets Sweeney Todd sort of affair.

The Trick mechanic in itself is quite fun (especially if you have a slightly wild imagination), but the Burglar has so much more going for them. Like the Captain, the Burglar also has a set of skills on a ‘response chain’, skills that are unusable until a certain event occurs, which in the Burglar’s case is whenever they score a critical hit (and later also whenever they evade, if they choose to slot the Stick and Move legendary trait). In Charlie Chaplin terms it’s the moment where he’s suitably rendered his foe inoperative but can’t resist giving him one final kick in the pants while the fellow is down. These skills generally lead to more damage for the Burglar, but there are also some useful utility abilities, such as the chance to start a fellowship manoeuvre.

Starting fellowship manoeuvres is not unique to the Burglar, but they are the only class that can reliably start one at will. Other classes will trigger a fellowship manoeuvre on certain events, such as when a Guardian is stunned during combat, but the Burglar has specific skills that will start a manoeuvre if they successfully hit the target. Fellowship manoeuvres are powerful events which can easily turn the tide of a battle when performed in a well coordinated group, so you would think that this would make the Burglar an absolute ‘must have’ in any group, but the skills which trigger it are on such a large cooldown that they are once-per-fight emergency buttons, more akin to a Captain’s Last Stand than a really class-defining mechanic. The ability to start a fellowship manoeuvre at will is clearly very useful from a tactical point of view, but when you have a number of other classes in a group with chances to start manoeuvres, what seems as though it should be the defining power of a Burglar becomes somewhat diluted in the sea of unpredictable but reasonably regular occurrences of the fellowship manoeuvre event.

Really I’ve only scratched the surface of the Burglar here, the class has all manner of other utility skills, not least of which is the ability to enter stealth, from where the Burglar can strike at targets for extra damage – after picking the pockets of eligible targets, naturally. Burglars have a very nice fire-and-forget debuff which increases damage to a specific target, and remains active until combat ends, the Burglar deactivates it, or the mob manages to resist it. There’s the Hide in Plain Sight skill, the equivalent of Charlie hopping inside a conveniently placed barrel as his pursuers stand around looking all about themselves wondering where he could possibly have vanished to; of course, in the Sweeney Chaplin/Charlie Todd version this enables him to then pounce out and fillet the confounded villains with a devastating critical strike, should he so choose. There’s the signature Riddle, a suitably Bilbo-esque ability, allowing the Burglar to keep a humanoid opponent stunned for up to thirty seconds as long as the target takes no damage and which, when traited for, can be used to pretty much permanently keep one enemy out of the fight for as long as the Burglar chooses. And although I haven’t gained the skill yet – my Burglar only being in his early thirties at the moment – the Provoke skill will cause the threat generated by it to apply to the mob’s target instead of the Burglar, thus allowing the Burglar to aid, say, an off-tank with holding aggro on a mob.

The final mechanic I want to talk about, and one which sounds rather fun but is probably actually quite frustrating in the normal run of play, is the gamble. My character is not really high enough in level to have experienced this properly yet, but at the basic level he gets a skill on a fairly lengthy cooldown which when activated will randomly pick one of four effects similar to those found in a fellowship manoeuvre, but understandably of lesser magnitude and which only apply to the Burglar. What makes this mechanic potentially both fun and frustrating is that one of the Burglar’s class trait lines allows them to increase the number of abilities that will have a chance of applying a specific type of gamble under specific conditions, and thus it adds a level of ‘tactical unpredictability’ to the Burglar’s combat performance; a lucky run could see the Burglar perform in such a way as to put most other classes in the shade, where an unlucky run will yield no additional benefit – not a huge problem in itself, but I imagine it’s problematic for raiders who require a more consistent performance and could otherwise be heavily invested in one of the other two trait lines for a solid, albeit slightly more mundane, boost to abilities. Still, there’s a reason why the trait line is called The Gambler, and I’m resolved to trying it and seeing what it adds to the class.

Who knows, with random and unpredictable boosts to his abilities, I’m already starting to picture Charlie Todd transforming into the Hulk on occasion, just to really mess with the genre.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

The levelling rift.

I’ve had the last three days off of work, and astute readers may notice that this neatly coincided with the beginning of the head-start event for Rift. However, I did in fact go away on holiday with my family.

‘Head-start: you are performing it quite incorrectly’, as I believe those cool Internet kids would say. Overlaid on a picture of a cat or a cheeseburger or something, whatever is required to make the lol-manipulation rules Meme complete[1].

What I’ve noticed upon my return is that the people I had hoped to play alongside are now fast approaching level twenty five – half way to the level cap. I’ve no intention of racing to catch up, so I find myself looking at the prospect of a solo adventure in Rift, taking as much pick-up group action as I can stomach along the way. There really is something to be said for the static group that plays once or twice a week: a harsh regimen to follow when undertaking it in an MMO for which a monthly subscription is required, but a great way to reduce burnout and to make sure that you always have friends to play alongside.

My concern is that there is one other faction for people to play and, should they wish to keep things fresh, a choice of the three remaining classes that they haven’t already played to the level cap, with no alternative levelling path within their current faction of choice. Does Trion have enough going on at the end-game to keep players invested (in several senses of the word) in their game? I have no idea, talk of content aimed at retaining players has been sparse.

And have MMO developers given up on the idea that a levelling curve can have a logarithmic shape, such that the early levels are gained quickly but the later levels come ever more slowly? For example, I remember World of Warcraft’s initial run from one to sixty, and although I was less experienced at blitzing through MMO content than I am now, my colleagues and I had tremendous fun playing the same characters nearly every night for many months before we even began to approach the level cap. Are developers now fearful of making players work for their levels, unsure of their content and whether the players of today have the conviction to stick with a game when levels aren’t handed out on an hourly basis? Again, I remember playing for a week in City of Heroes and not gaining enough XP for a level, yet I was still having tremendous fun. I wonder what it was about WoW, CoH, LotRO and others that kept a healthy number of players playing without the need for a constant stream of levels. Of course even WoW now hands out levels as though they were going out of fashion, and LotRO’s levelling curve has been smoothed and rounded until it represents more of a gentle slope.

It appears to me that the Skinner box has moved: where previously the player would pull the lever and get a reward of XP – and that reward (in combination with loot) was enough to keep them coming back and pulling the lever again and again – now players aren’t satisfied unless they pull the lever and gain a whole level. It concerns me that levels seem to have become the de facto reward over experience points, and I feel that this has dramatically reduced the amount of room that developers have to manoeuvre when it comes to keeping players happy on the levelling treadmill for any serious length of time.

[1] In Internet theory, a collection of lol-manipulation rules (a funny message spelt incorrectly, picture, or combination of both) is said to be Meme complete if and only if such a system can simulate any single-celled organism mashing a keyboard with its proto-fists.