Thursday 28 April 2011

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

Dungeons & Dragons Online has a reincarnation system whereby once your character has reached maximum level you can start them again, carrying over some of the power that the character previously attained.

While reading Rohan’s post regarding public quests the following statement rang true with me:

I know that in RIFT, I’d close a rift, then ride by 10 minutes later and see a new rift in the same spot. Rather than wanting to participate again, my thoughts would be more along the lines of, “I’ve already done this, no need to do it again.”

What I wondered at that moment was how the game would play-out if that rift had stayed closed, if all the rifts remained closed once they had been sealed by the players. Essentially, the rifts would eventually be beaten back (or the world is overwhelmed) and then a server reset event takes place.

It would be along the lines of A Tale in the Desert’s tellings I expect, but mixed with DDO’s reincarnation, such that players didn’t lose everything upon a reset. The obvious way that this could have been tied-in with the current RIFT game would have been by using the soul system; perhaps instead of the immortal souls of almighty heroes having been handed out like candy based on a simple two minute quest, they could have been gathered as part of the reincarnation process. Thus players would feel even more inclined to hunt down rifts, because they would know that once the rift was closed it would remain so until the next reset event, thus making the land safer to adventure in (I would expect rifts in this version of the game to have a far greater impact than they currently do). At the same time players would be working as a whole towards the server reset in order to gain their next soul and any other benefits.

Understand, however, that I’m not suggesting that RIFT as it currently stands should change, I’m merely using it as an example of how such a system might work, and how it might change the dynamic of such a game. DDO and A Tale in the Desert both have end-level resets built into them, I wonder if a combination of the two could work. It should benefit public quests, since experienced players would be looping back through the content again rather than stagnating at the level cap, with all the dynamic content going to waste at the lower levels due to the inevitable player population tail-off that most MMOs suffer. Mixing it with DDO’s reincarnation would give players reward and reason for playing through the world again. A game like RIFT seems ripe for such a system, with souls tying in nicely with the theme of reincarnation, and the dynamic zone events allowing the developers to make each retelling a different experience for players outside of the basic rifts. Instead of adding content at the end game, it would then behove the developer to add new content throughout the game’s original levels, which benefits reincarnated players and new players alike.

MMO design seems very firmly set in its ways with regards to levelling to a limit and then adding new content on top of that. It’s the spawning salmon method, where the salmon swim upstream in a mass frenzied struggle, only to reach the spawning grounds where they then wither and die in stagnation; fresh water is added every now and again, but it’s not enough to support such a massed population. I think MMOs are missing an opportunity, it’s not for every game, but I think there’s a way for some of them to complete the cycle and have the salmon produce offspring, who then swim out to sea and begin the journey anew.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Whether you whine or grind

Lord of the Rings Online has reached its fourth anniversary; o frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! To the radiostereogramme! There must and shall be music! Sure enough, wheeling out the stepladder and donning a pair of fancy white gloves to rummage through the KiaSA archives from 2007 turns up Melmoth’s original ponderings on character selection. How time flies (unlike Alan the Chaffinch after an unsuccessful tanking attempt).

LotRO tends to do celebrations quite well, no doubt helped by the source material. The Fellowship of the Ring starts with a big old knees-up for Bilbo and Frodo so Middle Earth parties are well established for anyone who’s started reading the book, even (picking an entirely hypothetical example completely at random) an 11 year old who loved The Hobbit and enthusiastically picked up its weighty sequel but barely made it through Book I before chucking it in favour of Doctor Who novelisations where something actually happened without interminable singing and Tom bloody Bombadil. The seasonal festivals of LotRO offer all manner of fun for players like horse races, eating contests, shrew-stomping (sounds a bit deviant to me, but that’s Elves for you) and a maze; the recent Yule festival introduced Winter-home, an entire festival town zone. Completing events gets you tokens, and what do tokens make? Prizes, that’s right, including cosmetic clothing, special mounts, emotes and house decorations.

For the fourth anniversary, monsters around the world have a chance of dropping tokens that can be exchanged for surprise gift boxes, something I gather happened in previous years. New for this year are a special mount, some cosmetic outfits, and a number of house decorations that can only be obtained for new anniversary tokens, earned through contests. There are only three contests, though; the two traditional horse races that can be run once a day for a single anniversary or mount token, and the Battle for Glorious Beer. That sounds quite fun, and indeed it can be; everyone is handed a Dwarf Club of Unimaginable Power and stuck in an arena in a tavern where they have to smack other players around with said club (knocking them high into the air) and collect a glowing beer mug (not so easy with all the aforementioned smacking) in exchange for one token. With the mount costing three mount tokens plus 30 anniversary tokens, and the outfits and decorations costing 20 anniversary tokens each, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to work out that to get anywhere you need to repeat the Beer Fight. A lot. The gloss wears off pretty quickly, especially as you fail the quest if you’re completely knocked out of the arena before you can pick the beer up; the only saving grace is that the glowing beer mugs respawn so all participants get a chance, rather than the previous version of the event that only had a single winner. The fight runs every ten minutes or so, if you’re determinedly grinding it you have to wait for the announcement, speak to the questgiver, wait for the fight to start, bat people around, try and grab the beer, speak to the questgiver again if you succeed, then wait for the next round. The time between rounds is an irritating few minutes, not enough to go and do anything useful (you could probably just about reach the vault to do some sorting out, then have to turn around and head back) but more than sufficient to contemplate the futility of existence, if you’re that way inclined. Perhaps the intent is to encourage socialising, getting people together and forcing downtime, but if so it’s not really working. Apart from a few occasions of idiots taking the opportunity to constantly spam emotes, and one discussion of whether knocking people from the arena was griefing or the intent of the contest, all I’ve encountered is the grim silence of determined grinders racking up the tokens (me included), probably alt-tabbed off to a browser between rounds trying to find something just interesting enough to kill a couple of minutes without being so fascinating as to make you forget to alt-tab back for the start of the next round. Maybe I’m missing a prime roleplaying opportunity…

“Why, good fellows, are you all here to enjoy the famed Battle for Glorious Beer? I have travelled many leagues from Bree, eager to try my hand at this noble contest!”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“I say, what a stimulating tournament! Did you see the way yon Dwarf smote me so hard as to knock me clean across the room? Well played, sir, but next time I fancy I’ll catch you a blow first!”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“Ha, I evaded those boisterous roustabouts long enough to grasp the fabled beer, Master Gisli, I claim my prize of one Anniversary Token! Soon I shall bedeck myself in a fine new robe!”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“Another fine contest, my fellows, what larks, I greatly look forward to doing this eighteen more times…”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“Yeah, this is a bit repetitive isn’t it…”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“I’ll just alt-tab off and hit Random Article on Wikipedia then. Did you know the Raskamboni movement is a Somali paramilitary group?”

It’s churlish to complain about completely optional new content, especially as the developers are doubtless terribly busy on Update 3 at the moment, but the anniversary “event” feels half-arsed; where Winter-home posed some interesting situations that were ultimately slightly undone by the fundamental nature of MMOGs, a single repeatable event for tokens is pretty unvarnished grind, especially for an anniversary “celebration” where many other games award titles, badges or items merely for logging in. Goldenstar summarises things well at A Casual Stroll to Mordor, with a follow-up after Turbine confirmed the event is working as designed. It’s a bit of a shame, but a mere couple more hours of beer fighting should be enough to earn a robe, and I’m learning all sorts between rounds…

*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
There have been three ships named USS Mistletoe, an 1861 tug boat, an 1872 wooden tender and a 1939 buoy tender…

Monday 25 April 2011

Sometimes the grass really is greener.

“So yeah, here’s how it works. We burglars have this skill, right? The skill is on a reasonably long cool-down but it has a good chance to hit the enemy. Now *if* it hits the enemy it will stun them for six seconds, but there’s also a base twenty percent chance that it will trigger a damage over time debuff on that enemy. Now *if* my skill has hit and *if* the damage over time debuff has been triggered then I roll 1D6 and the value on the dice indicates the power of the debuff, with 1 being fairly pointless and 6 being powerful on any basic or signature level mob, but fairly unimpressive on elite level mobs and above. So as you can see, it makes for a really exciting ability, because essentially nothing happens most of the time, and then all of a sudden – BAM! – a moderate DoT debuff that wouldn’t worry an asthmatic vole! Neat huh? What about you, Runekeeper, what sort of abilities do you get?”

“Well… I have this one skill, on a three second cool-down, which calls forth a fiery apocalypse and delivers death and ruin to everything between the heavens and the land in a radius of fifty yards from the point of casting.”

“Oh. Oh nice. But what else does it do? I mean, is there a random chance that it will rain badgers? Some sort of unpredictable chance of it causing anything it hits to sing Barbra Streisand’s Woman In Love? Will it cause your nipples to spontaneously shrivel and turn green if you roll an even number on a 1D10?”

“No, no. Just the universal destruction of all living matter. It’s quite basic really, when you put it like that.”

“Sounds a little bit dull. I mean where’s the excitement? Where’s the gamble? Where’s the spark of surprise and the element of joy when something unexpected happens?!”

“Well, I suppose there’s the part where if it crits then it wipes out all life in a three hundred mile radius and I automatically win whatever dungeon I happen to be running at the time. I guess that’s kind of neat in a random sort of way.”

“Ye… bu… tha…ah Ah! But! What else do you bring to a group other than breathtaking, almost god-like, levels of damage?”

“Well not a great deal.”

“Ah then. Ah -dear sir- ha!”

“I mean, I suppose I have healing powers that would make Jesus rage-quit a group. I can’t do the fish and loaves thing though; I did try once, but I just ended up incinerating the waiting crowd when I crit my basic fire attack while trying to cook the loaves.”

“Yeah? Well I can turn invisible! Hah, there! Where am I now? Poof! Where did I go? Eh? I mean, okay, it’s utterly an pointless ability other than for skipping the odd roadblock of crap mobstacles, and it’s all but entirely useless in a group setting, but it does mean that I can flick V signs at overpowered classes without them knowing!”

“I can hear you, you know. And I, uh… I can still see you. Is that a V sign?”

“Oh, hah, right. I forgot that it only works on enemies. If they’re four levels below me. And looking the wrong way. And blind. Even then they still have a chance of spotting me, and usually do. But that’s the fun of the gamble though, right?!”

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Man is free at the moment he wishes to be

For almost a year the Hipster Battalion rampaged around Warhammer Online bringing chaos and destruction, in a well behaved and organised sort of way:
“Look, a shrine to Sigmar, let’s smash it up!”
“RAWR! SMASH! Oooh, tome unlock!”
“Oh, I didn’t get it. Must be an individual thing… I’ll wait for the shrine to mysteriously regenerate then smash is up again.”
“Right-o. Hey everyone, tome unlock over here! Line up now, form a queue, that’s right, no pushing in now…”
“RAWR, SM… oh, hang on, was it your turn to smash?”
“No, no, you go ahead”
“No, really, after you, please”
“No, no, I insist, remember I disembowelled that Elf first over in Caledor”
“Oh, so you did! Ah, the larks we had… But I corrupted that forest over in Cinderfall before you had the chance, so really, you smash that shrine”
“All right, tell you what, I’ll smash it now, and you can have the first go at setting fire to the village over there”
“Only if you’re first in the line to chase the farmers off and poison their crops”
“Deal. RAWR! SMASH!”

After a lengthy campaign of public quests, dungeons, keep sieges and occasional scenarios the battle-weary Hipsters finally staggered into sight of the level cap, Rank 40, a few weeks back; I made it with my Chosen, I believe a couple of the others actually hit 40, Hipster Lieutenant Colonel Van Hemlock came up just short, though he had made up much extra ground re-rolling as a healer halfway through when the much missed Shamanic Goblin Laser Squad hung up their healing staves. It was a good old run, and as the Battalion cancelled subscriptions and headed off to enjoy retirement in various liberated cafés I had a couple of weeks of game time left to run, and even managed to get up to Renown Rank 40; the open RvR seemed to bog down a bit in Tier 4 as the increase in player numbers made stalemates more likely, but scenarios were popping far more regularly and generally rather fun.

WAR was the only active MMOG subscription I had running, worth it (though slightly pricey) for one night a week plus a little extra-curricular RvR, but not really for anything much less than that. Course it’s all relative, a monthly WAR sub seems pretty good value compared to one visit to the cinema (for an off-peak non-3D film with no drink or popcorn) or a venti-soy-whipped-frappa-lardy-lattechino, but gaming is a tough market. MMOG-wise of course there’s a plethora of free-to-play options, I’ve been playing a fair bit of World of Tanks since it properly launched and Lord of the Rings Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea are both ticking over. In the latter two I’ve reached something of a mid-level hump that might push me to cancel a subscription, but being able to have a bit of a rest, pop back in from time to time for a couple of quests or a bit of crafting keeps the interest there, and there’s no psychological barrier to entry of having to type in a credit card number if I ever fancy picking them up more seriously again. Outside of MMOGs, I’d been resisting Steam sales for a while, but when Melmoth nudged me towards half-price Magicka, and for less than the cost of a couple of months of WAR I somehow ended up with that, the Claptrap DLC for Borderlands, 1… 2… 3… KICK IT! (Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby) and Just Cause 2. It’s a good job there are a bunch of bank holidays coming up in the UK, I might even manage to play some of them for more than half an hour…

Thought for the day.

We wondered if part of the issue with Dragon Age 2’s mixed review success was down to the unfulfilled expectations that the game’s title invoked. Reviews might have been more favourable and the Internet outrage less if, instead of Dragon Age 2, Bioware had instead named it ‘Dragon Age: Don’t take it personally, Hawke, it just ain’t your story’

Quote MarkAnd although the combat is fairly frequent and repetitive, it is thankfully quickly dispensed with, and therefore never really gets in the way of this most excellent dating simulator.


Tuesday 19 April 2011

Evolution or Intelligent Design?

Your character’s equipment has durability; it will lose durability when you use it. You can repair it through the appropriate crafting profession, but it will never be returned to the level of durability it had when it was new. When your equipment loses all durability it is destroyed.
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Your character’s equipment has durability; it will lose durability when you use it. You can repair it at a vendor, but the cost to do so is prohibitive. When your equipment loses all durability it is destroyed.
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Your character’s equipment has durability; it will lose durability when you use it. You can repair it at a vendor, but the cost to do so is prohibitive. When your equipment loses all durability it cannot be used until repaired.
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Your character’s equipment has durability; it will lose durability when you use it. You can repair it for a modest fee at a vendor. When your equipment loses all durability it cannot be used until repaired.
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Your character’s equipment has durability. Nobody really knows why. Any meaningful effect on the game has been designed out; it is now, essentially, an inconvenience, a DOH! check at the start of each dungeon run.

Monday 18 April 2011

Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.

I really like adventuring through Moria, but as I make progress through the zone on my most recent alt in Lord of the Rings Online I find myself experiencing the usual frustrations. The place is claustrophobic, as it should be, but for the wrong reason.

A large part of Moria is comprised of tightly packed corridors which are littered through their entire length with conveniently spaced mobstacles. Moria’s feeling of claustrophobia comes from the fact that, unlike the overland zones, there’s nowhere to run to in order to avoid the aggro of these mobstacles. Nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide. I wonder if this is the reason why I’ve read several blogs recently which have talked about trying to avoid Moria altogether, instead levelling via regions such as Eregion and Angmar, the epic book content, and skirmishes, until they are high enough level to move straight to Lothlórien. Do not pass through Moria. Do not collect 200 rusted dwarf tools.

I think it’s a shame that people don’t enjoy Moria because I feel it is a stunning and ambitious zone: entirely underground, with imposing dwarven architecture towering over bridges that span chasms of unfathomable depth, it is a three-dimensional realm which has a level of internal consistency and integrity not often seen in MMO zone design. It is oppressive; the weight of the rock hanging above the player character’s head as they travel the hewn paths of stone is tangible. The relief that one feels when finally being released from the dark depths into the sunlight of Lórien is palpable, and it’s hard to resist the urge to squint your eyes into that bright daylight, even though in reality it is no more than a very minor ambient change in foot-lamberts emitted from one’s LCD window into that world.

Although the lack of sunlight and seasons makes Moria oppressive, the use of darkness is purely relative to the outside world. There are no dank unlit corridors where the player swings their torch about in an Indiana Jones fashion, using it with urgency to highlight features of their surroundings from moment to moment in order to relieve their claustrophobia one cobwebbed corner at a time. As I mentioned earlier, the claustrophobia in Moria comes from knowing that accidentally aggroing too many mobs will likely mean death because there are no safe spots to return to once you’re any distance away from the sparsely separated quest hubs. It is a form of danger, granted, but when it is the only one used it quickly devolves from terrorization to tedium.

The lack of true darkness in Moria caused me to think further on the use of claustrophobic elements in MMOs. For example, MMOs pride themselves on their weather effects, and yet I don’t remember experiencing fog to any great extent with respect to claustrophobic game-play. I’m talking a proper pea souper, rather than the sort that just gives your graphics card a breather by turning down the draw distance a bit. In external MMO zones fog could be an easy way to introduce claustrophobic fear as a player travels. Instead of slowing players down by placing a line of blatant mobstacles all along their path from here to the horizon, it wouldn’t hurt to be creative and try to introduce some atmosphere. Have a fog descend on the player as they travel, with the shadows of various creatures looming in and out of view (was that an ogre flanking around us, or were we simply passing a tree?) and the sounds of animals and monsters floating around the player, sometimes close, sometimes far away, with a random chance within the game engine of them turning into an actual encounter. I feel that this is an example of a claustrophobic mechanic which would be entertaining: it would be short lived, atmospheric, and hopefully get the heart pumping a little bit faster. Compare this to the pursed-mouth resignation one feels when looking at a long Moria corridor or a path through a forest in any MMO, each lined with a conveniently spaced row of Pacman pellet mobstacles, more akin to the challenge of a slalom course on a ski slope than high adventure through dangerous territory.

Friday 15 April 2011

Tanks, but no World of Tanks

I’ve been away for a bit, so missed the first few days of the official launch of World of Tanks. I’d been dithering over whether to go for one of the pre-order tank/gold packages, didn’t get around to it, and I’m slightly regretting it now as it was a pretty good deal. I’ll probably try playing for a while without buying any gold, see how it goes, though I fear it’ll be something of a grind; still, it’ll be fun to go back to the low tiers again.

While away, I wandered past a rather magnificent shop and was deeply tempted by one of the items they had in the window. Apparently, though, a stick of rock is a suitable souvenir to bring back from the seaside, an 88mm Tiger tank shell from this place isn’t…

Thursday 14 April 2011

Magicka? I 'ardly know 'er!

I’m late to the Magicka party, turning up in apologetic rain-soaked dishevelment as the final course of the meal is being cleared away and most of the enthusiastic discourse has already taken place, the room now peaceful as people move on to smoking cigars and sipping their port in comfortably quiet contemplation.

I popped on to Steam last night in order to check out the price of Bioshock 2 in the latest sale; is it just me or is Steam becoming like furniture stores here in the UK by existing in an almost permanent state of sale? Where ‘Sale must end Sunday!’ is translated through the cynical cortex of one’s mind and comes out as ‘Sale must end Sunday! Because the new sale starts Monday!’ Anyway, I managed to resist the sale price of Bioshock 2, with the Peer Pressure versus Price ratio still not quite tipping the balance onto the ‘Ah, go on then’ side of the scale. Unfortunately, instead of just running quickly out of the store with my hands blinkering my eyes, I made the mistake of taking a quick glance around to see what else was in store and on sale, and of course quite quickly found something that satisfied the ‘Ah, go on then’ criteria, and thus managed to spend my money anyway. The transaction-based endorphin high was short lived, and I was left with a copy of Magicka, the first DLC pack, a tiny vanity item expansion pack, and a post-purchase hope that the game was actually any good. One element the vanity pack grants you is the option of equipping your mage with a face-obscuring floppy hat, a tip of the hat (ahhhh!) to the iconic Black Mage from the early Final Fantasy series of games, and is thus possibly prime material for a Hat News Now Today: I Put On My Wizard Robe And Hat edition. Therefore the game justified its price before I even began to play.

I haven’t played much of the game as of yet, but so far it is very much a love and hate affair: I love the mechanics of the game, and I hate the fact that I’m not very good at it. Hopefully I will improve with practise. Mainly my poor performance stems from the fact that I have this preternatural ability which, when presented with the choice of two buttons, always picks the wrong button for what I intended to do. I say ‘preternatural’ however, and that’s because if I go into the ‘controls’ menu and rebind the buttons so that they are the opposite way around I will continue to press them incorrectly, consistently pressing the button which would have been correct originally but which I’ve rebound and is now therefore the wrong one. This issue is quite the problem in Magicka because you have one button to cast spells on an enemy and one button to cast spells on yourself, and it doesn’t matter whether that spell is Heal or Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire, you can still cast it on yourself and, in the case of the latter, barbeque yourself back to the beginning of the level faster than you can say ‘what the hell is wrong with my brain wiring?!’

I would recommend reading the Wikipedia article for a detailed explanation of how the mechanics work, but essentially it is similar in a fashion to Lord of the Rings Online’s Gambit mechanic as used by the Warden class. The very basic mechanic is thus: you have eight basic elements which you can ‘load’ in any order into five spell slots, the combination of which will create a spell which can then be cast either on yourself or on an enemy. It’s far more complex than that, however; there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of spell combinations to discover; certain opposite elements will cancel each other out, where others will combine into a new element (load Fire and Water into two consecutive slots and they’ll combine down into the single slot Steam element); you can combine the Shield element with the Earth element and when cast a huge rock formation will burst from the ground to form a protective wall, where Shield and Fire will create a wall of fire that will damage anything that walks through it; specific spells can be learnt which, when activated with the spacebar rather than the mouse buttons, will have an entirely different effect than the elements might suggest Lightning->Arcane->Fire will cast Haste when the spacebar is pressed, which gives the player a temporary buff to running speed; and there are many other intricacies.

There’s far more depth to the game than I’m presenting here, but the basic idea of the game is one that I wanted to expand on slightly with respect to MMOs. Magicka has a four player co-op mode, and what struck me about this when playing yesterday is that it has all the class structure of an MMO built into one character. Essentially all four mages in co-op will be identical, and yet each one can be played in an entirely different role depending on the spell combinations the player chooses. For example, one mage could choose to focus on healing and personal shielding spells, while another mage focuses on crowd control by setting up defensive walls (be they the blocking Earth walls or the damaging Fire walls mentioned earlier) around the mages’ position and using the Ice element to slow enemies, while another mage could be focussing on damage, and yet another mage could set themselves up as a sort of tank, using shield buffs and PBAoE spells while putting their secondary weapon (each mage carries a staff as a primary weapon and a secondary weapon such as a sword) to good use. The greatness comes from that fact that the group can change their dynamic in any way they choose in reaction to their situation, all it requires is quick thinking and tactical play on the part of the players. The healer can switch to a damage dealing role simply by switching to casting damage spells instead of healing spells, or the damage dealer could stop attacking and cast a few defensive walls if it looked as though their position was about to be overrun. It’s as simple as that, like changing tack in a boat race: a quick judgement call, an adjustment, and suddenly everything is heading in a different and, hopefully, more positive direction.

Trion have taken a brave step with their Soul system; by allowing a single class to perform multiple roles at the flick of a switch, they’ve removed a large part of the need for players to roll alt characters, something which I’m sure some MMOs have relied upon as a way to retain a portion of their player base. Turbine also took a brave step in creating the Warden class and its Gambit mechanic, and although I’m not sure whether it has been a success in terms of the number of players actively playing the class, I still find it to be the best MMO class mechanic I’ve yet encountered. Having played Magicka a little I feel that there is an exciting step yet to take, a combination of Trion’s Soul system and Turbine’s Gambit mechanic where players are free to switch roles on the fly, removing the need to form a group from a perfect balance of the right roles before a fight, and being able to switch those roles within a fight in reaction to the situation as it unfolds. It would perhaps be a positive step in the direction of Blizzard’s ideal of ‘bring the player, not the class’.

In the meantime, for anyone interested in exciting and engaging game mechanics who hasn’t tried Magicka yet: it’s very reasonably priced even outside of a Steam sale, has an excellent sense of humour, is easy to pick-up but has great depth, and is altogether to be thoroughly recommended. So, despite only having played it briefly so far, on the KiaSA Second Wilson Cabinet Rating Mechanism, I think Magicka already scores a well deserved Baroness Williams of Crosby.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Like Assyrian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, noses, or neatly detached nostrils through the mail.

Consider the humble mailbox. A curious entity, ignored daily by most MMO players outside of bank alts and, of course, habitual mailers. You know the sort:

Dear Gren the Ungrenable,

Please find attached to this letter a complete set of plate armour too small for you; seventeen swords of various shapes and sizes, mostly broken; every random plant it was possible to pick on my way to the mailbox; a small critter of some kind (it’s either a badger or an angry halfling, hard to tell when it’s crammed into a single inventory slot); fourteen random unbindable pages from the Book of Where the Hell’s My Bagspace Gone; a raclette; a stack of offal (unwrapped); a zoomoozophone; five stacks of Potions Nobody Ever Uses But They Keep In The Bank Just In Case; twenty four cosmetic thongs of varying shades of brown; a quest item that nobody has ever found the quest for but can’t bring themselves to throw away; and three mounts: one sabretooth tiger, one partially digested goat with sabreteeth marks in it, and an angry Krogus, Giant Lord of Mammoths, who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome.

Your friend,

Geoff Awkshunhowser

P.S. Sorry about Krogus, he gets irritable when travelling by mail, is scared of zoomoozophones, and stacking him next to the sabretooth tiger probably didn’t help; I’m sure you can dig the rest of this mail out of the steaming contents of his… displeasure.

I can just picture them trying to staple Krogus, Giant Lord of Mammoths to the letter. “[plink] [clip] [clunk] There, that ought to be okay. Hrm, maybe I should use a paperclip too?”

But what of the mailbox itself? Humble. Elementary. Serviceable. Unobtrusive.

Defies all laws of time and space.

Has systematically spread to all known corners of the world.


They just need small plungers sticking out horizontally from their tops and to shout “YOU HAVE MAIL” in an angry electronic voice and they would probably pass for a Doctor Who villain.

“The mailboxes are coming!”

“No, they’re already here!”

“Damn it! Get me the President of this MMO!”

“But sir, to do that we’d need to use…”

“DAMN! Cle-verrrrr. Cle-ver mailboxes…”

They’re not just here, but also there… and everywhere. Each one believing that love never dies. Watching her eyes and hoping… sorry, it all went a bit Beatles there for a second.

Where were we? Right. MMO Mailboxes are evil! I fully expect to get to Mordor in Lord of the Rings Online and find a mailbox outside the Black Gate. “Oh thank goodness! Because I’ve really wanted to write home to mother [licks nib of pen and looks thoughtful]

Dear Mother,

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh [breath]
ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh [breath]
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrggggggggggggggg [breath]

Orcs, mum! ORCS! They’re everywhere! Oh god! Oh god! Oh god!

Love and kisses,


Then we’d fight our way through the orcs and uruk-hai and goblins and ogres and racially-slurred riders, and finally reach the throne room of the Dark Lord himself. In the gloom at the end of the cavernous chamber would be a black leather swivel chair lit by a shaft of light from a high-up window, and as we ran panting and clattering in to the hall the chair would spin round and a mailbox would be sat there looking smug, and after a pause for dramatic effect, would say “Well Mr Bond, this *is* an unexpected pleasure”.

Just consider the power that mailboxes have: you can post a mammoth into the tiny bowels of a diminutive mailbox, and have that same mammoth turn-up almost instantaneously on the other side of the world! A little irritated perhaps, I grant you, but otherwise unharmed.

And mailboxes are in the starter areas of all places! Who would possibly have mail when they’ve just spawned into the world out of thin air, fully grown, but with nothing to their name but a bunch of ragged clothes and a sharpened stick, and being hated for no apparent reason by every NPC group that exists?

“Welcome! You are a dark lord of the kindred, awoken from your centuries-long death by the power of the bloodline! You must avenge your fallen kin, fight until everything is dead or undead, destroy the world in fire and fear, and restore our clan to its rightful place on the throne of ULTIMATE POWER! Mu ha ha ha ha haaaaaaa!

Oh, and uh, check that mailbox over there, I think you have mail.”

I’m considering a system based upon Old Man Murray’s Time to Crate review system; mine will be a Time to Mailbox system, however, where the time it takes to find a mailbox from the starting point of a level one character will demonstrate how far the mailboxes have infiltrated the game, and thus determine how evil that MMO is (or has become, since the mailbox domination spreads over the life of the game, in case you hadn’t noticed).

Now people might suggest that mailboxes in the starter areas are just there to help people with alts who want to mail twink gear to their characters, but that’s just crazy talk! No, the truth of it is that mailboxes are evil sentient beings from another dimension sent to enslave us all. And anyway, as a habitual alt-roller myself, I can tell you that we altists need a more professional level of help than a mere starter area mailbox could provide.

And I present the contents of this post as evidence for that.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Ceci n'est pas une review.

In Final Fantasy XIV’s character creator, changing the face option on a female Hyur also changes her breast size.

Playing about in mild bemusement with this feature for a minute or so was possibly the most enjoyable part of my first two hours in the game.

Conclusions regarding the game or my state of mind are left as an exercise for the reader.

Monday 11 April 2011

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

Deeps: “Oi! Tankman! Have you finished my homework, Tankman?”

Tankman: “Ow, ow! Leggo my ear!”

Deeps: “Well? Have you done it.”

Tankman: “Y–ow! Yes! Deeps, ow, here. It was fairly easy, you just need to sap the caster, then take the centurion down first because he can…”

Deeps: “Whatever, Tankman. If I wanted to know how to do this stuff I wouldn’t be asking you, would I? Here…”

Tankman: “What’s this?”

Deeps: “What does is look like, dork? It’s the homework for Mr Deepholm’s class. I want it done for tomorrow, and you’d better not make any mistakes or you’ll get a right good vote-kicking.”

Tankman: “Oh come on! I’ve got to do my own work you know. And I’ve got two other groups who want me to do their dungeon work for them. And I’ve got to mark a bunch of other stuff for Roflson…”

Deeps: “Just do the work, Tankman. Or else.”

Tankman: [sigh]

Phacerol: “Hey, Tankman!”

Tankman: “Oh crud.”

Deeps: “Eh, heh, heh. Popular boy, eh?”

Phacerol: “Hey! C’mere, you. I got a B- on my Uldum coursework. So now that I have to stay behind and redo that lesson, I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

Tankman: “Ow! Look! It’s not my fault that Mr Halls sprung a surprise test on us, is it? I can’t be expected to do everythi… owwww!”

Phacerol: “The only time I want your opinion is when you’re doing my homework for me. Otherwise, Tankman, I expect you to stay quiet and do my homework. Understood?”

Tankman: “That… that doesn’t even make any sens… ow! Alright. Alright. [sigh]”

Yes, second only to announcing that Sylvanas Windrunner is a hermaphrodite and thus ruining the adolescent fantasies of half the world’s male population, Blizzard recently announced the Call to Arms feature of the 4.1 patch, their best attempt yet at causing their forums to implode from outrage.

For less frothing vitriol and more reasonable debate I would recommend visiting all the many and varied sources of excellence and elucidation to find out more about why bribery will or won’t work.

But why the lack of tanks in the first place? Speaking from a personal point of view, it’s because the tank has to know not only how to play their class well, but are also expected to have intimate knowledge of the dungeon too. It’s this primal need in the player base to know the encounters beforehand that has broken the theoretically even trinity of tank, healer and damage dealer, into a far more unbalanced affair, where the tank is both aggro-magnet and dungeon guide, and the healer is personally accountable for all deaths within the group.

I think the fundamental dungeon design philosophy in World of Warcraft is what causes a lack of tanks. Dungeons are fixed problems with known solutions, and players being the gear-chasing optimisation monkeys that they are, want to know how to perform a fight before entering into that fight. Raiding is just the grown-up version of this, where I’ve equated it in the past to Internet line dancing. There are videos demonstrating every move, when to make it, who needs to be where and when. The whole theory behind WoW’s dungeons is precision of execution, what it lacks (as a norm) is any use of adaptation, innovation, or response to unexpected events.

That’s not strictly true of course, because healers spend their entire time responding to unexpected events: damage dealers standing in the fire being the customary example. Combine this with the fact that healers are generally considered accountable for all deaths within the average pick-up group, and we can begin to see why healing is almost as unpopular a vocation as tanking.

As such, the dungeon philosophy seems to be that a clean run is one where classes don’t have to react to unexpected situations. The tank takes damage and keeps all enemies focussed on themselves, the healer heals the tank and any incidental damage the damage dealers pick up, and the damage dealers focus-fire specific targets in the precise order that makes things easiest while avoiding Token Possibility of a Wipe Mechanic X. Anything outside of this is often a wipe, or involves blowing cool-downs which won’t be available for when it occurs again in the very next fight. In other words, dungeons demand the perfect execution of a routine, and not the player’s ability to react to a situation.

It’s less of a game, more of an exercise. It’s the difference between rote learning for an exam, and actually understanding how the theories you’re studying work.

Thus (beyond the basic level of new players and the incompetent) it’s not that players don’t know how to play their class, but that they don’t know how to react to situations outside of what they’ve been trained to do, and by the time they react they’re dead. That ‘interrupt’ button sits unused on the DPS player’s hotbar for ninety five percent of their gaming life, so it’s hardly a wonder that they don’t know where to find it when a situation occurs that requires them to interrupt; and so, in response to this, players learn the encounters off by heart, so that they will know – before the fight even begins – whether they will need to interrupt or not. In addition, there’s no need to learn by mistakes because most of the time those situations don’t occur (tank controls aggro, people correctly jump through the right hoops, and nobody dies), so on the occasions where players are suddenly forced to react to something unexpected (because the routine has broken down) and promptly fail, the result is often recrimination and blame, rather than analysis and understanding. And unfortunately, in the average pick-up group found in the LFD tool, the person responsible for making sure that everyone knows how the exercise works is the tank. Why it has fallen to the tanks to be relied upon for the ‘a posteriori’ knowledge of a dungeon, I’m not sure; perhaps it is the fact that they are traditionally the class that stands at the front, and as such are expected to lead from the front; perhaps tanks have shot themselves in the foot somewhat by encouraging the belief in some sections of MMO society that they are Tiny Tanking Gods who use mythical powers to defeat dungeons on behalf of the mortals who follow in their wake; or perhaps the tank generally has to know an encounter to be able to do their job properly, and therefore everyone assumes they know it and are thus best placed to relay that information to the rest of the group. Perhaps it’s a little of all of these.

The problem isn’t even necessarily with the dungeon design in WoW encouraging learning encounters beforehand, thus reducing the game to a simple Simon game of memory and repetition; the problem with the lack of tanks is that the game provides no way for tanks to learn and practise outside of the dungeons themselves. Reading a guide and watching a video is all well and good, but to be able to perform the role and at the same time instruct others on their roles, takes some level of hands-on experience. Also, because a tank generally controls the size and nature of the pull, and thus controls the speed of a dungeon run, any tank who is learning the dungeon is necessarily slower than one who has learned it by rote; and if there’s one thing LFD pick-up groups are renowned for throughout the world it’s their high levels of patience and understanding. The fact that tanks have to perform this learning exercise as part of a group which, if not filled with understanding friends, will result in them suffering a virtual stoning that would make the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian look like a documentary, means that many tanks are driven away from the role after their first experience at the hands of the Deeps and Phacerolers of the great Blizzard school of dungeoneering.

Therefore I don’t think Blizzard can easily fix the lack of tanks in the pick-up group game because it warrants a complete change to the theory and design of how dungeons should work. Until then, until we have dungeons with randomised encounters which require players to adapt and learn and, dare I say it, play the game, tanks will need to know both their class and the dungeon, and thus take responsibility for teaching others while expecting to take an equal share with the healer of the recriminations that follow a group wipe, regardless of whether it is blamed on poor instruction or poor execution. Is it any wonder that most tanks, new or experienced, quickly tire of the desire to put themselves on the front line for others?

This is the social order that Blizzard has cultivated with its dungeon design; pouring fertilizer on the part which is being starved and strangled by the demands of the more rampant sections, won’t solve a single thing.

Friday 8 April 2011

A study of economics usually reveals that the best time to buy anything is last year

The nice people at thought you fine folks might be interested in their article on making money in virtual worlds. Seems slightly unlikely, it’s not really aimed at keen players; there’s no guide on how to make gold (or plat, or ISK, or unpleasant secretions, or other in-game currency of choice), more a brief introduction for someone unfamiliar with these MMOG things.

Rather more interesting, Scott Jennings recently linked to The Financial Life (And Death) of an East European Gold Farm. The author of the post, Prof. Richard Heeks, also linked to a working paper of his from a couple of years back, Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on “Gold Farming”: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games. It’s a weighty paper, touching on the parallels between the growth of gold farming and real-world agriculture (introducing some splendid terms such as “gold horticulturalism” and “gold market gardening”) and, as the title suggests, the viability of gold farming as full- or part-time employment in developing economies.

Heeks perhaps slightly downplays the links between gold selling and more nefarious activities such as fraud and account hacking, but then as he points out there is almost no serious research on gold farming to be able to definitively quote numbers to either support or disprove such links. Another difficulty is the pace of change in MMOGs; at the time of writing in 2008 regarding the free-to-play model: “though relatively little known in Western online gaming, Asian gaming has made significant use of the free-play, item-pay model in which gamers pay little or nothing to join the online game, but then pay real-money (typically deducted from pre-paid cards) to buy items in-game” . Of course it’s now much more common in the West, but companies are still getting to grips with various implementations without even factoring in third-party RMT. It certainly seems like an area in which more research would be useful, and if someone would just like to send over a truck full of money we’d be delighted to put it to good use…

Update: In a curious case of synchronicity, Tobold points out an Ars Technica piece on an infoDev study from yesterday, Converting the Virtual Economy into Development Potential: Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy. Wider in scope than Heeks’ paper, looking at other online activities as well as gold farming, it’s interesting how the lines blur between legitimate “crowdsourcing”-type activities such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and shadier “cherry blossoming”, artificially bought “astroturf”-style publicity such as Facebook “likes” or Twitter followers. Likewise RMT in MMOGs, from developers selling cash/items themselves through gold farmers actually playing the game to bots and hacked accounts; from the study: “One industry expert suggests that manual farms produce 30 percent of the virtual currency sold by retailers, bot farms produce 50 percent, and hacker groups “produce” 20 percent by stealing it from other players.” I couldn’t find the source of the quote from a very quick search, the paper suffers from the same problem as before of lack of hard information and reliance on estimates and surveys, with small sample sizes in some cases, but if the estimated $3.0 billion per year value of the gaming service industry (mostly gold sales) is anywhere near accurate, then it’s approaching the $5.5 billion received by countries that produce coffee beans, and gold farming needs to be viewed as a sizeable global industry rather than a couple of randomly named characters spamming adverts in Ironforge.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all.

I still enjoy my time in Lord of the Rings Online, like an old baggy bathrobe it has become a comfortable fit, something I turn to when I’m in the sort of mood which in other people requires snuggling down in front of the television with a box of chocolates, a glass of wine and apparel which makes no demands – it is simply happy to cover your modesty and keep you warm. Still, I continue to look for a new game which is a more daring outfit, the sort that perhaps pinches in painful places, exposes me in ways that make me feel somewhat uncomfortable, and causes old women to cluck and mutter under their breath as I walk past. Sometimes you want something which takes some effort to enjoy, a little bit of hardship even, just so that in the end you can feel fabulous about yourself; it’s not the sort of thing you do all the time, but it’s the time that you look forward to most in an otherwise weary week.

As such, my desktop is slowly filling up with icons for free-to-play MMOs as I rummage around the offerings of various game companies while, if I’m honest to myself and with you, I wait for Guild Wars 2 and, to a lesser extent, Star Wars: The Old Republic. I have Dungeons & Dragons Online and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings Online as permanent fixtures on the desktop now, bastions of good gaming grind; there is less excitement to be had from them than in times past, but they are reliable and spacious, and unlikely to split embarrassingly at the crotch if I move too quickly in them.

Ryzom was one of the first of the experimental diversions, a game which, in outfit metaphors, was at first difficult for me to even to put on (hint: temporarily turn off any anti-virus software you have running while you install it), but now that I’m wearing it I’m not sure what to think. It is the tight-fitting, calf length frock coat and bulging cravat of a Victorian era gentleman, an old school outfit with little compromise towards comfort or convenience. Yet there is something romantic about it, something strangely compelling about the way it shows so little yet suggests so much about the character it coats. I was not able to walk far before I felt stifled by the restrictiveness of this strange older way of doing things, and I had to take it off. Yet. And yet, I look longingly at the icon sitting on my desktop, and I see other people who wear Ryzom with ease and I marvel at the romantic figures they describe, which leaves me yearning to wear it again and be like them. So I return to it every now and again, when the mood takes me, and each time I find that I’m able to wear it for a little longer; it doesn’t feel comfortable yet, but the familiarity is increasing and thus the discomfort is decreasing in kind.

Black Prophecy has yet to be worn for some reason which I can’t explain. I’ve tried Spiral Knights just the once so far, and my initial thought is that it will be like wearing a giant comedy nappy, either seen as silly or a fetish for someone of my age, depending on your position. I imagine that it will probably be comical, an enjoyable guilty pleasure, fitting snugly around the important bits, but probably not being quite as absorbent as one would expect.

Last night I installed Forsaken World. I haven’t got terribly far as of yet, possibly because I was struggling with the shell-shock of the thing. I forgot to dress this morningGawking at my character’s level two outfit (as seen to the right) is probably partly responsible for this. And like the character, this game is a Dr. Frank-N-Furter outfit for me: familiar but uncomfortably so, it breaks things down to the essentials, but perhaps goes a little too far and exposes one a little too much. The finest example of this so far being the auto-route system. The text of each quest objective in your quest log is highlighted in green, and if you click on this green text the game will ‘auto-route’ you to that objective. It will walk you from where you are, right to the quest objective. Hands-free questing. So it’s the outfit equivalent of a hairy gentleman such as myself dressing-up in a bra, knickers and suspenders: there’s a level of freedom to it and it’s invigorating, but somehow it still feels naughty and wrong to bypass the natural order of things and expose everything for such easy examination under a harsh light. Perhaps the auto-routing is just available in the tutorial, I don’t know, but I have to wonder what meeting of minds went on to determine that players would either be so thick, or the design of the world was so confusing, that it would be in the best interest of everyone if the game took over and just did most of the work.

It seems a crazy emergence that game design in MMOs is constantly trying to find new and awkward ways to prevent players from progressing too fast, so that they don’t consume the levelling content too quickly, when all the while the genre adds features such as precise coordinates to quest objectives, which evolve into actual map markers, which themselves evolve waypoint appendages, all of which has now ascended and floats around our world like the foetus in 2001, in the form of auto-routing.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Changes are not predictable; but to deny them is to be an accomplice to one's own unnecessary vegetation.

One of the problems I find with a game that has a very imaginative creative team behind it is that I often read articles — such as this one from ArenaNet — detailing one of the NPC races and find myself wanting to be able to play as a member of that race instead of the ones on offer. Don’t get me wrong, I really rather like the choices provided by Guild Wars 2, nothing revolutionary, but compelling nevertheless. The nature of the skritt really sparked my imagination however:

“No one really knows how the skritt hive-like intelligence works. The most likely theory is that the skritt simply communicate so rapidly that, when together, they can vet their ideas and choose the best one within seconds, rather than going with whatever plan each individual first conceived. Certainly, the skritt have exceptionally sharp auditory skills. They can communicate with one another almost instantly if they are within earshot. If you meet one skritt alone, he might not appear particularly intelligent, but if you meet several, they can discuss their surroundings in amazingly swift, almost ultrasonic chirrups and chitters, and are able to process information and make more intelligent decisions. Therefore, the skritt seem less intelligent in small groups and more intelligent when they gather in larger ones”

I read something like that and I can’t help but begin to think of ways of turning this into a playable race. If you’ve seen the gibberlings from Astrum Nival’s Allods Online, it’s easy to picture how much fun such a race could be. Instead of a single character, the player would take control of a pack of creatures, not individually controlled, but moving in unison as a cohesive unit via the standard controls of the MMO. Move forwards and the whole jumbling ramble of skritt would heave, writhe and clamber its way across the landscape, like the proverbial plague of rats.

I think we’ve reached a point in the power of PC technology where developers can start to get a bit more creative with the nature of their games, that the standard rule where ‘you have this single entity that you control, they will have these armour slots, and hold this weapon in this hand’ can be stretched and broken, thus creating new and exciting possibilities in how a player is represented in the game world.

For example, take the quote above about the skritt’s ability to gain in intelligence the greater their number. A fun mechanic in itself, and it could also be a rather fun mechanic if turned around and given to the player. Instead of Allod’s purely cosmetic gibberlings, imagine the player with their ‘swarm of skritt’ character: it’s a powerful entity at the start of the fight, but as the fight continues the player’s character doesn’t lose health, it loses skritt. As the player’s character loses skritt the collective intelligence of the PC begins to decline; my thought for the mechanical representation of this was that certain abilities would become greyed-out on the hotbar as the number of skritt declined. There are plenty of examples of a class starting combat weakly and then building in power as the fight continues, but this would be the inverse, where the skritt swarm would start the fight strongly but gradually decline in power the more damage they took. We could look at it as a DPS role where ‘staying out of the fire’ is an imperative because the DPS class itself would be punished for standing there, they would start to lose their power, rather than the all too usual MMO routine of them continuing regardless and then blaming the healer for not keeping them alive. It’s an example of game-play which encourages the player to play well, rather than use other classes as a crutch.

I suppose this idea of a ‘playable skritt’ is really a race and a class in one, but I can’t see that necessarily being a problem for players, and it would certainly make itemisation (both graphical and numerical) a lot less of a burden on the developer. The abilities of the skritt would include the usual self-heals that ArenaNet have explained are core to the game-play of Guild Wars 2; I picture the self-heal being a calling of reinforcements, where X number of little skritt dig their way up out of the ground and join the swarm, and thus possibly reactivating abilities based on the total number of skritt now in play. Then there all the opportunities for fun: a skritt cannon where the player sacrifices some of their power to launch a powerful ranged offensive at an enemy by packing skritt into a cannon and launching them across the battlefield (which was inspired in no small part by getting a great deal of amusement out of the Mogg Cannon card in a Magic: The Gathering game this past weekend at m’colleague’s house). Other more complicated, and thus less feasible, ideas could include the ability to split your skritt swarm into two smaller and less powerful groups that could, nevertheless, take on multiple objectives at the same time, but at greater risk due to their reduced power level. A skritt player could perhaps take on the ‘buffer’ role, assigning their skritt to other players to boost their abilities, picture two jabbering skritt sitting on the shoulders of an exasperated charr while firing their guns at the enemy (think Chewbacca and the ewoks in the cockpit of the AT-ST at the battle of Endor).

In trying to find new features of game-play with which to entertain players, developers shouldn’t ignore the fact that the player’s race and class are also valid areas to innovate, LotRO’s Warden class being an excellent example. I think my primary disappointment with Rift’s soul system was that although it was brilliantly flexible, it didn’t provide the level of variety that I’d hoped for. When you create a warrior, say, you can choose the soul that lets you tank in the standard fashion, with the standard reactives, or you can pick the soul that lets you DPS in the standard fashion, with the standard finishers. And that probably isn’t an issue with Rift at all, it is probably the fact that I’m slowly tiring of the standard way that MMOs do things; my skritt example above is one example of how I believe things could be mixed up a bit and made fresh. If World of Warcraft’s druid population has shown us anything, it’s that players are quite happy to play as a bear or a cat, often to the exclusion of playing as a biped where possible; so what about a tribe of armoured bears as a playable race? Allow the bipedal races to ride on the back of the armoured bear, and have a symbiotic relationship where, if the two players cooperate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; I’ve played plenty of FPS games where someone is happy to drive the vehicle while the other person sits in the turret and shoots, so perhaps it would be a case of making the ‘driving’ more entertaining and challenging within the context of MMOs. It’s one example of a way to encourage the teamwork and camaraderie that we seem so desperate for in our MMOs and yet, if general reports are anything to go by, we rarely achieve outside of static groups and guilds. Instead of making players work together because they have no alternative, invent reasons that players would want to work together, one such example being the provision of interactions between unique and unusual classes which are not only entertaining but often entirely unpredictable.

I think that’s the lesson here. Predictability. Predictability is currently embedded in the nature of MMOs. Players are encouraged to want to know the numbers, the stats, and the details. They provide a framework which is so familiar that players don’t have to discover anything to know most of what the game has to offer, only with a slightly different cosmetic skin to it. Then the players load the spreadsheets, run the simulators, and iron out every peak of individuality, every statistical anomaly, every unexpected occurrence, and every spontaneity.

There’s no joy in predictability, no fantasy in numbers, no enduring epic in certainty; just as there’s no magic or mystery in accounting.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Ask the attendees of a Counter-Strike party

Gevlon recently took time out from his busy raiding schedule to tackle relationship advice given out in Cosmopoliton and similar women’s magazines, illustrating the problem with a heart-warming tale of taking a female friend to a Counter-Strike party to give her a true perspective on these columns. Now far be it for us at KiaSA to suggest in any way that geeks may not be in an ideal position to offer relationship advice (after all, we’re both married) (and not to each other) (though we can’t exactly explain how) (how we’re married, that is, not how we’re not married to each other) (look, each of us is married, to a woman) (not the same woman, two different women) (one woman each, not two different women each, that would be illegal) (what was the question again?), but a Counter-Strike party didn’t seem like the first place you’d go for help on dating. Still, as it was so obviously successful, perhaps there’s a market for a new advice column: “Ask the attendees of a Counter-Strike party”:

Dear attendees of a Counter-Strike party,

There’s a guy at work I really like, and the other day he asked me if I’d like to have a drink after work; of course I said ‘yes’, but now I’m not sure if he just meant the two of us, or if he’s invited others from the office. Should I get dressed up and risk embarrassment if everyone is there, or just go straight from work and look like I’m not making an effort if it’s just him?

– Confused of West Bromich

Hello Confused, it really depends on where he invited you; if it’s a cafe or wine bar on a plaza with some decent vantage points, you’ll want want to get there nice and early with a SIG SG-550 and a couple of smoke grenades for cover if you need to change position. If it’s a busy pub with lots of nooks and crannies, though, you’re better off with an FN P90 and some flashbangs.

Dear attendees of a Counter-Strike party,

I’m rather shy and have been trying to get the attention of a boy I like in my class. I’ve tried to share some of his interests, but I don’t really like the music he always listens to, and apart from that he mostly leers over bikini-clad women in magazines. How can I get him to notice me?

– Shy of Weston-super-Mare

Hi Shy, it’s easy to see what’s going wrong here, you’ve left an open goblin plant on B. Try putting your short player closer to A with nade+smoke+flash boosted on the short stairs and smoking lower dark, then pushing up the catwalk.

Dear attendees of a Counter-Strike party,

Last night I was guarding Long A on de_dust2 and racked up a 2-bomb, but my boyfriend said I was just being an AWP whore who probably got most of the kills from interp’ing. I kicked him in the nuts and told him to take it back, but he didn’t. Is he right?

– Sn1p3rFoxxx of East Grinstead

Well, Sn1p3rFoxxx, it sounds like there are deeper issues in this relationship than the rifle. You need to talk to your boyfriend and explain that you’re very proud of your performance, and that you appreciate his views on the AWP, but you really need his support. If he can’t respect your choice of weapon, then perhaps he can’t accept you for who you are. Relationship counselling may help you both to discuss the issues in a less confrontational manner, but if he’s looking for something else from a relationship then trying to change just to please him will hurt both of you in the long run. Or you could just kick him in the nuts again and call him a bunny hopping Deag lamer.

Monday 4 April 2011

Skip to the end.

The Esc key has a magical meaning in Dragon Age II on the PC; it holds the same transcendent power that the fast-forward button on VCRs used to hold for dry-mouthed pimply youths, jumping and glancing nervously around at every noise – wondering if Mum or Dad had returned home – while they desperately skipped the tedious and seemingly pointless introductory discourse between the impossibly buxom and underdressed housewife and the plumber, so as to get to the bit where an entirely different set of plumbing gets a good seeing to. T’ch, I don’t know, kids these days with their ‘internets’, and ‘digital players’ which can skip straight to the action: there’s just no adventure and peril in perusing porn in the modern era.

At least, that’s what it felt like on my second play through. Having played my perennial RPG favourite of the heavily armoured do-gooding warrior woman the first time through, and having enjoyed the game to such an extent that the nature of the ending had left me wanting more, I decided to have another go on the Kirkwall carousel but this time as a mage. My choice was made primarily because I found the mage class in the game to be really quite groovy, with them having rather a flair for the dramatic when casting spells by whipping their staff around in a curious amalgam of Bruce Lee and Gandalf, and the fact that they didn’t necessarily have to be dressed entirely in bath robes (as evidenced by my post from last week), as though they were about to open the door to a rather burley plumber with a dangerously-bristled horseshoe moustache. In addition, what with mages being generally reviled and untrusted in the world of Dragon Age, it seemed a prime opportunity to test the age-old proverb ‘before denouncing a mage you should walk a hundred miles in their shoes’. Possibly because then, as the punchline goes, I’d be a hundred miles away from them, out of fireball range, with a nice pair of mage’s shoes.

I think the issue came from my immediately launching into the second play-through with the first still being fresh in my mind. As such, and despite my generally accepted poor memory, I could remember the nature of most of the conversations in the game. Therefore, although I genuinely did enjoy the talking more than the fighting the first time through, the second time around I found myself reaching for the Esc key and desperately trying to get the conversation over with so that I could be paid or otherwise rewarded – I was skipping to the money shot, if you will. I went with the sarcastic/humorous option in most instances, and was pleased to find that my character’s uncontrolled scripted responses also gradually changed to a more sarcastic tone compared to the blandly diplomatic responses that my angelic warrior delivered in the same situation, but at the same time I was disappointed to find out that it didn’t really make much more than a cosmetic difference in the vast majority of situations.

I’m caused to wonder again what impact these sorts of issues will have on Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO which as we all know is trying to introduce the ‘fourth pillar’ of entertainment, story, into the genre. In part, they intend to do this through the use of the conversation tree system for which they have become well known (famously or infamously depending on your view of such things) in games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Even there, some players just want to skip to the money shot; other players are happy to allow the conversation to develop, perhaps feeling that the anticipation and delay helps build to a better climax when the conversation’s conclusion is reached; and yet other players really do enjoy the game for its immersive story, and truly appreciate the effort that goes into scripting and voicing multiple classes, sexes and ‘moods’ for the player character. The problem with the MMO, as it is with many of the genre’s technical and game-play issues, is what happens when you bring these disparate desires into contact with one another in an attempt to provide a shared experience.

Not only could the shared conversation experience be akin to trying to watch porn with friends and strangers, all of whom want to get the same thing out of it but at different levels of urgency, it’ll also have the obvious shared awkwardness factor that you’re a bunch of people trying to do something together which is usually performed solo, as a general rule. It’s a strangely compelling analogy, because in The Old Republic you’ll still be doing something that is inherently thought of as a solo activity, and you’ll still be doing it solo, it’s just that there will be other people in the room at the same time, all doing their own solo thing too; some will be trying to finish things off as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there, others will be trying to take their time and enjoy the experience, and yet others with no sense of decorum will be doing their best to ruin the experience for others by jumping up and down and waving their unfailing unimpressive epic purple equipment in the faces of those who are trying to concentrate on their own activities. Then there’s the fact that other people will be able to see how you do things: you’ll make a conversation option and then catch someone giving you a look, and you’ll be all ‘What?!’ in a defensive tone, and they’ll be all ‘Oh. Nothing’, and you’ll arch your neck and peer over to look at their conversation option out of the corner of your eye, see that they’re doing it a totally different way, and wonder whether you’ve been picking the wrong conversation options all this time. The next time you’ll try to hide your conversation away from the others, which just makes them all the more curious as to what you’re trying to hide, until you become so paranoid that you find you’re having trouble finishing your conversations, and eventually you can’t even manage to start a conversation with other people present.

Bioware have invested a huge amount of time and effort into the voiced conversations in The Old Republic, and I have to wonder just how wise that was as an entry into the MMO market, a genre whose fans are well known, trained almost, to skip to the money shot, while ignoring the story. The sad thing is that this may be what the majority of MMO players actually want now because they have become accustomed to the fact that the story is superfluous to the action, and as such it is quite often of a quality that is laughable at best. Just as there is a market for adult entertainment with a real story and quality acting, there is also a market for MMOs of the same sort, but it is a comparatively small market compared to the mainstream way of doing things. At the end of the day it’s quite possible that the vast majority people really are there for the action alone, and any pretence at story is just a compulsory framing device which is to be skipped past with all haste in order to reach the action before Mum or Dad gets home and finds you hunched red-faced over your computer screen with your keyboard in a sock.

Friday 1 April 2011

Genre confusion.

So, my Mage in Dragon Age 2 has better armour than most of my MMO Warriors.

Next up, tree-hugging dwarves and drunk elves with biceps like boulders, I imagine.

Still, at least Bards will always be cannon fodder.

Cannon! Which is like canon! As in canonical! It’s fantasy canon! Do you see? They’re always… Do yo… oh never mind, I’ll just have some more wine.

Wine! Like whine! Do you see? Because I’m whini… oh. Right. Yeah. Sorry.

Soap For Ill.

In case anyone new to the blog was wondering, we like to put our feet up on April 1st and let the rest of the world post madcap rambling nonsense and jests for a change.

Normal blather to be resumed next week.