Wednesday 29 June 2011

Thought for the day

From Massively, news that players should expect “around 200 hours of core gameplay per class” in SWTOR.

Say it’s 12 seconds on average to kill a rat, 5 RPM (rats per minute), times 60, times 200… I reckon SWTOR will have to ship with *at least* 60,000 rats.

Space rats, that is. With lightsabres and this and that and shit.

Value the acorn as much as the oak.

So I’ve spent the past few days in Lord of the Rings Online getting wood. Collecting wood, even. I haven’t been getting wood, I’ve been collecting wood. Collecting actual wood, well not actual wood, virtual wood, just not euphemistic wood (actual or virtual), because that would be weird and messy.

I’m not usually one for crafting, but I find myself of a completionist mindset with respect to my Warden, possessed of a sudden desire to fill in all the blanks, like one of those sticker books we used to have at school as kids, where we’d buy packets of stickers at the weekend and take any repeated ones in to school to swap with other kids for those stickers we still needed. There’d always be this intense frenzy of dealing in the school playground at lunchtime, like the floor of a stock exchange, as fifty miniature Gordon Gekkos desperately attempted to trade for the rare missing stickers they needed to complete their collection. Once you’d completed your sticker book you would, of course, bring it in to school and show it off for a day, before discarding it indolently to the bottom of a cupboard, never to be opened again. It was a curious craze which was never about the actual stickers or the book, but about the status of having reached The Completion Event. Often the books would have informative text that went beneath each sticker, telling you all about the footballer, or dinosaur, or doll on display, but many kids never read that text; most kids barely even registered the picture on the stickers, generally storing just enough information to instantly recognise it as one they still needed, so that they could quickly order a halt to the progress of the child standing opposite them, who was rifling through a deck of swaps with the alarming dexterity and speed of a Las Vegas croupier. This probably saved a lot of children from being mentally scarred for life back in my day when Garbage Pail Kids was one of the more popular brands, an album of images that my subconscious identifies as being part of the set of stickers I used to collect, but which my conscious mind looks on with bemused revulsion as I marvel at the grotesque carnival of imagery that I used to merrily deal with as a child.

Thank goodness we’ve all grown up and those crazy days are gone: of frantically accruing pointless and essentially worthless objects for no other reason than to impress our peers or to sate some genetically hard-wired hunter-gatherer instinct, all the while paying through the nose for the privilege.

Where was I? Ah yes, I was attempting to regale you with a tale of frantic accruement of non-euphemistic virtual wood in LotRO. Gathering is definitely one of those many tasks in an MMO where the reward and pleasure is found in The Completion Event rather than the task itself. It’s the danger many MMOs run with regard to content, where the players become focused only on the achievement of completing the task, rather than enjoyment of the task itself; sometimes this is because the task itself is dull, such as having to gather resources outside of the incidental collection that occurs as part of normal questing, and sometimes it’s because the players have optimised the enjoyment out of the task in order to maximise their reward, generally by minimising their time to the next completion event. That’s why, in part, the first ten levels of any MMO are so compelling and enjoyable even when the game itself isn’t new to the player, because completion events are fired in rapid succession into the pleasure centre of the player’s brain – it’s that hit of crack cocaine when the body has a well developed tolerance to the powder from years of abuse. Much like swapping stickers at school, there is still pleasure to be had in hunting the completion event, that lip-licking anticipation and dry-mouthed focus on the chase as the time spent grinding out the achievement draws to a close, but the actual task itself was never really designed with entertainment in mind.

Of course the most fun to be had with collecting stickers was buying the official packets from the shops, tearing them open and savouring the unforgettable smell of fresh print, forcing the token stick of gum into the only small recess in your bulging cheeks not already packed with sticky pink goo, then sorting through the new stickers, placing them in piles of ‘needs’ and ‘swaps’, before slapping the new stickers haphazardly into their numbered slots in your collection, and then totalling the empty slots and seeing how much closer you were to your goal. Swapping was often tedious, and involved interaction with characters whom you might otherwise try to avoid, but the only alternative was to pay money for more packets of stickers, where the odds would increasingly grow against you finding the stickers you needed as your collection grew in size. Some kids would attempt this –with parents obviously willing to fund such an approach– and you would see them walking around with stacks of unwanted stickers taller than they were, still searching, however, for those one or two cards that had eluded their purchasing power.

So I’m back to collecting wood, listening to podcasts and generally distracting myself and finding ways to entertain myself while I do it, the goal is worthwhile, but in-between listening to Mock the Week, The Now Show and The Infinite Monkey Cage, I can’t help but wonder if some of the elements of these games that we play could perhaps be designed to be more entertaining themselves, rather than a means to an end. Then again, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to go to the shop and buy another packet of stickers if swapping them was made fun in its own right.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Free to pay to play to win

I believe Oscar Wilde was talking about EVE when he said “Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching, ain’t about the ba-bling, ba-bling, wanna make the world dance, forget about the price tag”. Actually, on reflection I’m not sure Wilde would have tried to rhyme “dance” with “tag”, maybe it was Mark Twain, but the sentiment[1] seems quite popular amongst many EVE players at the moment thanks to what Spinks rather splendidly (and definitively) titles Monocalypse Now.

Though the high price cosmetic items are drawing the headlines, more of a worry for the unmonocled mutineers is that they represent the thin end of a macrotransaction wedge ($68 is hardly “micro”), not unreasonably in the face of a leaked internal memo/newsletter that says “high price cosmetic items are the thin end of a macrotransaction wedge!” (that’s paraphrased, but not a massive amount from extracts like “we want to provide a steady stream of digestible goods and services over a long period of time”). The possibility of more directly gameplay-affecting items going on sale in the future raises the dread spectre of “pay to win”, a phrase being bandied around a lot recently in connection with games moving to free to play models. How do you “win” a MMOG, though? By completing all the content? By making all numbers as big as possible? Getting the best virtual loot? Acquiring virtual currency? Wearing a monocle? Having a good time with friends? It’s a bit more obvious in direct PvP, of course, but between one or more of character skills, player skills, levels, gear, class balance and/or numbers on each side MMOGs are seldom level playing fields at the best of times. World of Tanks seems to be striking a decent balance at the moment, in pick-up battles at least where premium ammunition offers a marginal advantage for high cost (perhaps it’s a different story and becomes more mandatory in clan battles, though they sound pretty exclusive already).

EVE is particularly interesting as it’s featured Real Money Trading (RMT) for a few years in form of the Pilot Licence EXtension (PLEX). PLEX are bought for cash and can be exchanged for 30 days playing time, but they exist as items within the game that can be bought and sold for game currency (ISK). A wealthy industrialist, successful pirate or efficient NPC-hunter can earn enough ISK to buy the PLEX to play for free, a time-strapped cash-rich player can buy PLEX and sell them for ISK to fund in-game adventure. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention but I can’t remember massive outcry when they were first introduced, and I’ve never seen EVE classed as a free to play game though you could theoretically start with a free trial account, buy PLEX, and never need to pay cash to play (granted you’d need to scrape together the hundreds of millions of ISK for the PLEX during the trial, starting from scratch with no skill points, but hey, some people like a challenge.) Course it’s been commented on, but seems largely to have escaped the wrath of the anti-RMT lobby for the most part until the Monocalypse (that’s such a great word).

Perhaps that’s partly to do with immersion. Richard Cobbett puts it well: “… online stores and their ilk, regardless of whether they sell gold, buffs or items directly, simply don’t fit in most games. They’re out-of-context elements, and much like knowing a cheat code or hyper-effective strategy, far too hard to put out of sight or out of mind. It’s two worlds colliding. I don’t like in-game purchases, because the idea of sorting out problems by effectively nipping into a parallel universe for supplies always breaks the fiction for me.” One way conversion of cash to in-game currency fits well in EVE because PLEX fit well within the game. Apart from buying PLEX for cash you’re not taken out of the game world when dealing with them (even exchanging PLEX for game time can be seen in the in-game context of a Pilot’s License, though how that works for a dread pirate scourge of authority is another matter). Such a system really needs the in-game economy to be paramount, though.

A game like Lord of the Rings Online is at a disadvantage here. The in-game economy is something of a sideshow, as befits the setting; we’re trying to save Middle Earth, not find the next Apprentice by flogging tat to Nazguls. Trying to tinker with that could lead to players industrialising the Shire, doing Saruman’s job for him, so at least the clearly out-of-game-world LotRO Store is better than a half-arsed attempt to work RMT into the game, but it is a bit jarring, especially in LotRO where the carefully recreated setting was always one of its strong points. As someone who wouldn’t be playing at all if subscription was the only option I can’t rail too hard against the presence of the store, and I think in many ways the payment model works very well, but around the edges it’s perhaps a little pushy; Brian Green gives an interesting contrast between LotRO and Turbine’s other major offering, DDO. Critics of non-subscription models may say price tags, “BUY IT NOW!” buttons and gameplay that pushes players towards making cash-shop purchases are inevitable but I’m hopeful that a balance can be struck, especially in a marketplace with numerous options such that players can vote with their feet if they feel they’re being too blatantly exploited.

The conversion from subscription-only to the “hybrid” model seems to be generally working out for Dungeons and Dragons Online, EverQuest 2, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Champions Online and Lord of the Rings Online, amongst others, with Age of Conan and City of Heroes on the way, but with the business side of things proven as Richard Cobbett says “Now they need a champion to really hammer home how they should work as actual games”. Such a champion will probably need to be designed from the ground up to balance business and game; with the oceans of subscription dominated by the Mega Shark of World of Warcraft, to be challenged by the Giant Octopus of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the hybrid games have seen the opportunities of land and are moving that way in the awkward fish-with-legs phase of evolution, a vital step, but a bit clunky. Here’s hoping that the current free to play models are more of an evolutionary step than a Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event.

[1]Not the sentiment about making the world dance, I’m reasonably certain the desire for widespread terpsichoreanism comes a distant second to the utter destruction of all foes for 97.62% of the EVE player base, more the downplaying of cosmetic elements known colloquially as “bling” and the encouragement to abandon monetary labels

Monday 27 June 2011

May you game in interesting times.

Life in Middle Earth is fairly peaceful at the moment, a harbour of refuge from squallish MMO seas. What with EVE players being shocked with the news that their game of legitimised skulduggery and chicanery is run by a group of people who appear to hold similar values with respect to their player populace, Star Wars Galaxies being dropped into the great gaming Sarlacc pit, and City of Heroes going free to play in a spandex-laden showdown with Champions Online, it seems as though the best recourse is lying ahull and then seeing on what course our genre has been blown once this latest tempest ebbs.

Elsewhere, the Guild Wars 2 hype machine continues to hiss and fump and pshhhhk as it pumps out a steady stream of steam-powered press releases with respect to the messianic second coming of MMOs. In all honesty though, I find ArenaNet’s promotion of their game to be less nauseating than many, despite my reservations about some of their developer diary insights, they have been making various noises which indicate that they do understand some of the issues that gamers have with the current crop of MMOs.

I expect it also helps that these days I exist in a scorched wasteland of MMO promotion, a Cyberdyne Systems Series 800 crunching my way across the skeletal hopes and dreams of MMOs past, compressed beneath the weight of reality and broken promises. For me it seems to be the best way to approach the marketing for these MMOs: to analyse them impartially through retina-projected artificial crosshairs and digital readouts, while the armour of the hyperalloy combat chassis resists penetration by the worst of marketing’s self-propelled hypersonic hyperbole. As such I find myself generally pleased with the direction ArenaNet professes to be taking their game, without really believing any of it until Judgement Day when the game is finally released.

My feelings for Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, however, continue to flip-flop between avidity and ambivalence; their storytelling system, character classes, and cinematics, continue to impress and give a feeling that the Force is strong with this one, whereas the ‘stand next to one another and continuously shoot each other in the face with blasters’ combat along with the ‘summon a vehicle out of thin air with sparkly magical power’ ability, look very much like dropping the X-Wing of Immersive Escape back into the dank swamp of Depressing Design Decisions.

Considering that these are the Big Two releases for MMOs –where the whole genre potentially tilts on their success– neither company is massively hyping their game in the old style, instead generally sticking to releasing informative details of the respective games, at least, once they’d let off a head of steam from their hype machines: ArenaNet with their Manifesto, and Bioware with their Fourth Pillar. There are games still following the old style of hype, The Secret World having told us so much about the game without actually having told us anything, for example, and where TERA continues to tout its action orientated game-play and diplomacy system, while generally leaving players more informed about the various underwear styles and colour choices available in the beta build.

In the meantime I’m finding myself slowing down, reverting to the game that always seems to give me joy, and thus settling back in with my mature mistress. It’s the simple quiet life, living in the countryside away from the manic enthusiasm, hustle and bustle of the big city. The glow in my red eyes has dimmed to a mere flicker, as they stare with cold cynical evaluation at the future of the genre, but deep inside I’m still hoping for an MMO to come along that will capture my imagination in a way that past MMOs have done, such that it penetrates my cyborg defences and brings a spark of life into an otherwise pleasant but somewhat robotic existence in the MMO space.

Friday 24 June 2011

Thought for the day.

MMOs are games where you play combat primarily in the user interface rather than the game world.

I think this is best realised in the classic ‘standing in the fire’ error of new raiders: essentially people stand in the fire because it is an element of playing in the game world, where levelling-up has trained those players to instead play in the interface. Combat is in the cooldowns; you watch timers, health bars, debuff bars, and only when you get to raiding or the more ambitious small group dungeons do you need to start looking into the game world too, in order to step out of the fire, dodge the laser beam, jump over the furious shrew of ruin.

And what do players in WoW, LotRO and other such MMOs with LUA AddOn functionality do in response? They add UI elements that warn the player to step out of the fire. They add further UI elements to tell them who to heal, who has aggro, who to cleanse; when the boss will enrage, when the next wave of adds will come, when to run away from their team; what button to press, what direction to run, what lever to pull.

What to have for dinner.

Compare this to a game such as Super Mario where you play the game entirely within the world, and the only time you have to care about anything outside of that world is to glance briefly at your health bar. FPS games generally keep the UI to a minimum, with the player’s concentration focussed on the action in the game world, a glance at health or remaining ammo being all that’s needed, and where games such as Gears of War have experimented with removing the health bar altogether. Even RTS games –where heavy UI use is a genre feature– still have a healthy balance between using the UI and interacting with the game world, where units have to be selected and positioned within the world, and combat requires the player’s attention to be focussed on their virtual surroundings.

MMO combat, on the other hand, seems to generally draw the player out of the game world and force them into the UI, and since combat is still the genre’s de facto method for resolving all disputes and difficulties, this means that most players spend more time staring at the UI than the game world, so perhaps it’s little wonder that so many AddOns seem to add yet further UI elements for the player to focus on. I’m definitely interested to see how games such as TERA (despite it’s painfully immature sexualisation of, well just about everything really; I imagine even the boars will have up-skirt panty shots) try to use the action orientated combat to draw the player out of the UI and back into the game. Despite its many failings, Dungeons and Dragons Online did a fair job of this, and I believe it made for much more involving (albeit otherwise flawed) combat.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Evendim Flow

Back in KiaSAcast 12 I talked about how Lord of the Rings Online was slowing down in the early level 30s as I moved from the Lone-lands into the Trollshaws. LotRO has a series of epic quests that broadly follow the book, weaving the story of your character around that of the Fellowship as it leads you through the game. The starter area/tutorial forms the Prologue, in Book I you meet up with a chap called Strider in the Prancing Pony in Bree and help him out before he sets off for Rivendell with a bunch of hobbits, then in Book II Gandalf sends you down to the Lone-lands to find Radagast the Brown, who got the short straw when the Istari were getting assigned their colours (“Doesn’t matter what colour we are? Easy for you to say, Gandalf the Grey, you got a cool-sounding name. All right, look, if it’s no big deal to be The Brown, you wanna trade huh?”)

There’s plenty to do in the Lone-lands, starting around the Forsaken Inn in the west, progressing past Weathertop to the Eglain camp in the ruins of Ost Guruth, then finally to undead-infested swamps and passes and the dungeon of Garth Agarwen with no shortage of quests along the way. The Chapter quests of Book II tie it all together, including introducing in-game faction reputation with the Eglain, and there’s scarcely a lull between starting the zone, getting to Ost Guruth, tracking down Radegast, deciding his nickname should actually be “Radegast the Squirrel Fancier” (“Oi, Raddy, giant tree trying to beat us to death with its branches over here, d’you want to give us a hand at all or are you just going to chat to the wildlife?”), and wrapping up Book II. By then I’d outlevelled the remaining quests in my log, easy to do with a bit of extra-curricular skirmishing and questing in other zones, so I was ready to move on, and crossed the bridge out of the Lone-lands into the Trollshaws.

Expecting another bumper crop of quests, reputation to build up, perhaps a nice reward item or two, I found a couple of unenthusiastic quest-givers. “Yeah, go and kill… I dunno, wolves or something. Or bears. Or boars. Whatever. Find some wildlife, kill ten of them.” After a couple of rounds of that, they packed me off to another camp with another paltry selection of quests. It was all rather lacklustre.

Fortunately reader/listener darkeye came to the rescue in the comments suggesting moving over to Evendim, a zone that’s just been revamped. With a bit more game-time available recently I took that advice, and what a difference! Plentiful quests, a nifty class-specific armour set to collect, a faction with some nice items available as you increase your reputation with them. That sounds a bit mercenary, like I’m only interested in acquiring virtual loot, and that’s not true at all; I’m also very keen on carefully categorising virtual loot and assigning it to the correct colour-coded section of shared storage or the character’s vault as appropriate, hence being especially grateful for the presence of a vault-keeper in Tinnudir, the main settlement in Evendim (that was a minor annoyance in the Lone-lands, no vault-keeper in Ost Guruth; a victim of regional branch closures, perhaps).

As well as the sheer number of quests (over 100 being added in the revamp, apparently), there’s a bit of variety; of course “kill X things”, “collect Y things” and “click on Z sparkly things” are the staples, but some quests take you into instanced versions of areas that work a little like mini-skirmishes. There are also a couple of twists on delivery mechanics such as a journal item that updates quest objectives as you go to break up the pattern of “talk to NPC at quest hub – kill things – talk to NPC at quest hub – kill things”. Another minor quality of life issue while questing, a general improvement I believe rather than specific to the Evendim revamp, is that sparkly quest objectives don’t despawn when you click on them, they’re just completed for your character. I was roaming around the hills looking for some pouches that, inevitably, were guarded by tribesmen, had just engaged a mob when another player ran in and started hitting him with a sword. Fair enough, I didn’t really need any help, but I’d tagged it so it wasn’t like he was killstealing or anything, except then the player ran over to the pouch, and his character crouched down, obviously picking it up. I was ready to let fly a volley of abuse (or at least tut and give him a very stern look), but when he stood up the pouch was still there, sparkling away. Rather than the whole affair degenerating into a race for objective items and pointed non-assistance and schadenfraude from the other party if that resulted in an over-pull, we toddled around alternately tagging mobs, I’d chuck the odd heal over (not that it was especially necessary, but it seemed polite) and parted with a friendly /wave at the end of it. Back in the Trollshaws, meanwhile, on a Friday night group expedition (when the comparative sparseness of the zone isn’t nearly so much of an issue for a marauding party of hobbits on voice chat), four of us were all on the same quest to clear brambles and stones out of the path. It might not sound heroic, but it’s the sort of unglamorous behind-the-scenes infrastructure work that’s vital to an epic tale; do you remember the bit in the book “… then Frodo’s cloak got all tangled up in a bramble bush, and he had to spend ages sorting it out without ripping it but there were still a few holes that would need to be patched up and he got a couple of really nasty pricks (matron) from the thorns…”? No? Precisely. The only problem was that the sparkly bramble bushes despawned upon clicking, and only counted for the person who clicked them, so instead of many hands making light work it took four times as long.

Another part of Evendim’s revamp was the quest rewards. In “traditional” LotRO, as with many other MMOGs, a quest-giver would typically offer one or more of cash, XP, reputation gain or an item to try and tempt you to wander off and slaughter some wildlife, and as with many other MMOGs the items were seldom much use. “A choice of a bracelet with sub-optimal stat bonuses for my class or a shield I can’t even equip? Monsieur, with these quest rewards you’re really spoiling us! Which is worth more when I flog it to the bloke standing next to you?” Most Evendim quests now give bronze or silver token rewards, which can be traded in with the Wardens for a variety of rather more desirable class-specific items. LotRO has perhaps gone a little over-the-top with tokens, as pointed out in a fine piece on A Casual Stroll to Mordor, but I think they work quite well in this context to make all quests worthwhile, rather than nudging you towards reading up on an external site just to make sure you haven’t missed out on the first in a chain of several quests that culminates in the only half-decent reward appropriate to your class in the zone. From a world-perspective it might not feel ideal, like you get a Wardens of Annúminas Loyalty Card as you start the zone and each time you finish a quest the NPC stamps it a couple of times, with a free cup of coffee (and class-appropriate cloak) after 10 stamps, but I don’t think it’s terribly immersion-breaking.

With zone revamps such as the Lone-lands last year and now Evendim resulting in significant improvements, Turbine aren’t just tacking stuff on to the end of the game, a heartening sign for newer players. All in all, after the early level 30s felt like they were really dragging, I’ve sprung forward to being within spitting distance of level 41 in a week or so, almost ready to move on to another zone. Any suggestions for the best level 40+ area?

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

I made a bit of a Middle Earthian faux pas the other day while talking with m’colleague. I was burbling garrulously about my Warden’s adventures in Lord of the Rings Online’s most recently added zone, Eregion, and how it was a pleasant diversion while the Volume 3 content remained out of service due to the Rescue in Nûrz Gâshu skirmish needing repairs.

As a brief point of order, Rescue in Nûrz Gâshu was available for me last night, thus I was able to… ‘happily’ is possibly the wrong word… ‘doggedly’? I was able to doggedly continue with the Volume 3 content. Rescue in Nûrz Gâshu is definitely a skirmish that cries out for the player to increase the difficulty and then intensively farm the heck out of it. It could become a sort of ranch for skirmish mobs, where orcs and goblins are bred, corralled and slaughtered before their carcasses are shipped off in exchange for skirmish marks. There’s even the standard bonus reward the first time you run the skirmish each day, like some sort of agricultural subsidy from the governor of Middle Earth. But now I have an image of ranks of orcs all connected to milking machines in unseemly ways, and I won’t tell you what’s coming down the tubes, but suffice it to say that the thought of Weetabix coated in Crème de Menthe is even less appealing now than it was when I first conceived of it. So let’s move on.

More observant players of LotRO, having read my first paragraph, may have noticed the deliberate mistake contained therein. Some of those readers may have rushed off immediately to the Comment Cave, donned their spandex outfits, and begun drafting the latest in vigilante justice against the evil forces of Being Wrong on the Internet. Let’s wait for them to finish posting their comment, which probably starts ‘I think you’ll find…’ and should, as always, be delivered in the tone of someone wearing a cravat, stood on a hearth rug, and pointing reproachfully with the bowl of their pipe while looking down their nose at you.

So yes, the new zone is Enedwaith, not Eregion. I quickly corrected myself upon realising that I’d been blathering on about an entirely different zone:

“Sorry, I meant Enedwaith of course, Eregion is an entirely different place.

I mean, they both start with the letter ‘E’, of course.

And both have a quest flow progression that starts at the top and works its way slowly down the zone, branching off left and right for quest objectives as you go.

Stopping at new quest hubs along the way, each with its own horse point.

With many of the quest hubs called Echad SomethingOrOther.

And swift travel available between quest hubs after you’ve completed a certain number of quests in the zone.

The points between quest hubs being populated by angry wolves, humanoids, boars, and crebain.

With green flowing plains punctuated by improbable impassable landscape features.

Rivers splitting them in two, although admittedly Eregion’s has run dry.


Possibly it was an easier mistake to make than I had otherwise realised. The zones are even placed side by side, and I pictured the newer Enedwaith as the sort of neighbour who moves in next door and promptly steals all your design ideas and renovates their house so that it looks exactly the same as yours, only newer, and with more expensive furnishings. The people of Eregion must have been mightily annoyed when they woke up one morning and found an entirely new region next door that wasn’t there the day before, and which was eerily similar, except everything was new and shiny and unexplored. I suppose it explains all the bumper stickers that I’ve seen sprouting-up on horses in Eregion recently:

“From the home of the ORIGINAL legendary item drop.”

“Eregioner’s enter Moria from behind.”

“My zone’s been Ranger free since 1248.”

“Eregion: our goats won’t get your goat.”

“Honk if you’ve got an E-rection for E-region!”

“Remember: ‘Enedwaith’ rearranged, with a bunch of letters taken away and others added, spells ‘Rubbish’!”

I also imagine that, like rival college fraternities or sororities, the two regions are constantly performing pranks on one another; Enedwaith placing traffic cones down the length of Eregion and thus forcing the horse routes to ride adventurers off the cliff at the top of the Misty Mountains, or into the side of The School at Tham Mírdain; Eregion taking revenge by painting all of Enedwaith’s goats black then rubbing itching powder onto each goat’s genitals.

Still, at least Eregion is a nice zone in which to play, or so I found on my multiple runs through it, and so Enedwaith has been similarly pleasant so far, in a ‘dating a person who has an appealing personality but looks spookily like your ex’ sort of way. I do keep getting them confused, however, where I’ve found the best way to tell them apart is to look at the level of wolf that I’m fighting. Then again that’s a dangerous precedent to set, next we’ll be coding all zones by the level of wolves they contain, and we’ll have conversations like

“Yeah, we were in ‘Wolves 23 to 29’ last night, got a bit bored with running around ‘Wolves 15 to 22’, really. I suppose we could have gone to ‘Wolves 17 to 24’, but there’s not so much to do there.”

Not to mention the fact that they sound like section quotes from the Book of Wolf in some strange bible.

“And now a reading from Wolves 8:14

Be strong and of a good courage, fear not though thou be constantly spammed with stupid fear effects. Nor be afraid…for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee to stab a wolf in the nose; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. But he may let you limp for twenty to sixty seconds if he has run out of wound salves.”

Then again, classifying zones by the level of wolves found there would certainly be an easy way to standardise zone description across nearly all fantasy MMOs…

Tuesday 21 June 2011

All business success rests on something labeled a sale

Every now and again I reminisce about how great flight and space simulators were, from Sopwith (all right, not exactly a realistic simulator, but it’s still brilliant) through the likes of Elite, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Wing Commander and Gunship 2000 to the X-Wing series, and how it’s a pity there are so few coming out these days. If a survey had asked “How much would you like to play a space combat MMOG on a scale of one to five, where one is There is literally nothing I would like more, my every waking moment is devoted to fervently wishing such a thing could happen and even during slumber do I dream of the same, albeit having forgotten to put my trousers on and in the company of Diego Felipez de Guzmán 1st Marquis of Leganés, and five is I would rather fashion a rudimentary cudgel from whatever objects are closest to hand and do my very best to bludgeon myself senseless rather than do such a thing“, I would’ve answered 1.736.

I’m sure it’s been established that people don’t always know what they want, but if more proof were needed space combat MMOG Black Prophecy turned up a few months ago, I downloaded it, gave it a try, found it fun enough, and haven’t logged in since. If it’s any consolation to the poor, abandoned desktop icon I do mean to get back to it at some point, along with the full version of Wings of Prey I picked up in a Steam sale and any number of others, but just in case any company was planning a multi-million dollar game project based solely on a survey I filled out, you might want to do a bit more market research.

Anyway, what really sparked all this off was an e-mail from Good Old Games announcing 50% off Interplay games, meaning you can get one of the greatest space combat games of all time, Freespace 2, for three dollars. Less than two quid! Many games don’t stand the test of time too well if you drag them out of the gloomy cupboard of fond memories and dust them off in the harsh glare of current technology, but Freespace 2, with a bit of a spruce up from the Source Code Project, really does; as Kieron Gillen said last year “In short, there’s no reason not to play Freespace 2 now. It’s as good as ever.”

Also in the sale are the first two Fallout games (or three, if you count Fallout Tactics), generally very well regarded by RPG fans, but I don’t think time has been so kind to them; I tried Fallout 2 several years after its release and just couldn’t get on with it. That might just be me, though, if you’ve ever been tempted to give it a try then three dollars is surely worth an impulse buy.

Monday 20 June 2011

Decline to accept the end of it.

A sudden increase in real life activities has reduced the options in my schedule to touch base with my portfolio of virtual worlds, vis-à-vis reducing their year-on-year pig populations by leveraging a downward trend in numeric button height alignment to synergise skills with emerging b2b (boar to boar) stabbing opportunities. Coupled with a nasty cold which dramatically reduced my enthusiasm for anything other than possibly giving oral pleasure to those persons who invented balsam-infused tissues and Lemsip, I think it would probably suffice for me to say that gaming hasn’t been terribly high on my list of priorities this past week.

Strangely though, I’ve found ‘absence from blogging’ to be reflected in a more general malaise that seems to be taking hold in the part of the MMO blogging archipelago which I observe. There have been some long-standing names taking their leave of MMO reporting/punditry/enthusiastic babbling/satire recently; Ysh reports from her quantum mechanical blog –which is at the same time both finished and not finished– that Elder Game are moving on from general blog punditry into other areas of discussion. Not to mention the news of the Van Hemlock team hanging up their collective wide brimmed, face-shading podcast hats, possibly temporarily, possibly long term. For now, at least, they’re measuring ‘finished’ on the finished/not finished blog superposition state.

This latter announcement has been quite the blow to my blogging world view. It was m’colleague who truly started me out on the whole blogging affair, so I suppose you have him to blame; other friends were already blogging and offering encouragement, but it was m’colleague who pointed me at first to Tobold, and then Van Hemlock and others, before beginning his own musings while encouraging me to do the same. Tobold’s was probably the first MMO blog that I read regularly, and it was his blog that fuelled my enthusiasm for MMO blogging as a reader, but out of the big-name bloggers at the time, it was Van Hemlock who made me want to blog. I cannot tell you how many times I read and re-read the Ranterbury Tales, the title, theme and content of which appealed to me on many levels, and where the slightly irreverent tone in which the various tales were delivered revealed to me that blogging didn’t have to be all ‘Serieoues Bysinesse’, as Chaucer might have said before the cool kids came along and made the language all terribly confusing with their ‘srs bsns’s. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the MMO space is considerably poorer without the abundant richness of the posts of Tim ‘Van Hemlock’ Dale, and the subsequent evolutionary step into the excellently professional and seemingly effortless podcast banter between himself and the equally lucid Jon ‘Jon Shute’ Shute.

But we mustn’t forget that the blogosphere is a curious entity, entirely different from one person to the next. Since there are far more blogs out there than any one person could reasonably be expected to follow, drawing judgements and portents based on one’s own perspective of the MMO blogosphere is like trying to determine the shape of a pineapple from a pineapple ring. For what it’s worth, however, my own MMO blogosphere is noticeably quieter these days, where the overall level of enthusiasm seems to be the sort of mild head-drooped tail swishing excitement of an old arthritic dog at the prospect of a long walk, where the memories associated with it stir the centres of happiness, but the deep awareness of the inner self knows the truth of it: that it will be more pain and effort than it’s really worth. This stands in stark contrast to the boundless bouncing enthusiasm of the small yapping puppy which, in years past, the blogosphere appeared to me to be. Deep down I feel that I should urge games such as Guild Wars 2 and SW:TOR to not delay their releases too long, lest it be too late. Taking the time to ‘get it right’ is something that most bloggers have preached at one time or another, but I fear that in the time that developers have come to realise the truth of this (primarily through the industry’s own mistakes), the enthusiasm in the MMO space has entered a decline.

In the half year or more it takes for ArenaNet and Bioware to release their games, I wonder how many more bloggers will have left us. I’m not concerned from some foolish belief that the MMO blogosphere is important, that it influences the desires of the playing populace or developers. Instead I hold to the viewpoint that the MMO blogosphere is the mirror-surface on the pool of opinion which reflects the desires of the playing populace. If the people who are enthusiastic enough about a genre to take the time to write about it, for no tangible remuneration, are slowing down and slowly drifting away, then perhaps these are the ripples at the edge of the pool which reflect a deeper disturbance at its centre.

Then again, maybe I’m just miserable from having had a stinking cold for the past five days, and subconsciously I wanted everyone else to feel it too, in which case you can consider this the textual realisation of a runny nose and sore throat; take a couple of paracetamol and it’ll probably all be better in the morning.

Friday 17 June 2011

There seems to be something wrong with our bloody tanks today

World of Tanks, as with any PvP game, can be incredibly frustrating; after the third or fourth round of your tank exploding before you’ve even seen an opponent, or ineffectually bouncing a couple of shells off an opponent and then exploding, or having the track of your turretless vehicle shot off so that all you can do is wave your gun around as ineffectually as a Dalek with two plungers before exploding, the dignified course of action would be to make a wry observation to the rest of the team like “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody tanks today“. If human avatars are ever introduced, though, I suspect a more common reaction would be to grab a branch and give the useless lump of metal a damn good thrashing.

Those results are often caused by the matchmaking system deciding it’s really funny to stick you in matches with tanks two or even three tiers above you (if it helps, imagine the matchmaking is being done by SHODAN or GLaDOS; “Look at you, tanker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating in your tin can. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal Tier X Heavy?”) When you’re up against a heavy Tier V KV in your light Tier III tank the KV is an unstoppable iron monster, and it’s easy to become fixated on getting one yourself as quickly as possible so finally you can turn the tables and beat up bullies ’til they cry “Oh lah! Oh, crikey! Let go, you rotter! Don’t punish me!“. In the research tree of most tanks you can work on a range of upgrades to the engine, tracks, radio, gun and turret, or ignore everything except a mandatory upgrade or two and focus on building up the experience to unlock a tank in the next tier. If you do the latter, struggle through mismatch after mismatch until finally you unlock the KV and scrape together the credits to buy one, the matchmaking system will probably giggle and send Iosif Stalin to obliterate you (the Tier VII tank, not the bloke, this isn’t Stalin vs. Martians). To exacerbate the mismatch your KV is showroom fresh; on the plus side that means it has immaculate paintwork and that New Tank Smell(tm), on the minus side the starting gun is an adequate 75mm rather than the lethal 107mm or comedy 152mm you probably kept being killed by in the past, and the starting powerplant is a lawnmower engine. There’s always something bigger around the corner, at least until you get right up to the highest tiers.

Chopping and changing tanks isn’t a problem in the first few tiers, especially as you try out the different play styles, but around Tier IV and particularly Tier V investing time and in-game money is well worth it. With the money you earn in Tier V the 20,000 credits to instantly train a crewman up to 75% is much more affordable, and the number of battles you’ll need to play keeps crew experience increasing, improving the performance of most facets of the tank. Upgrading components can also make all the difference, as in Warsyde’s post.

I’ve been following the Soviet tank destroyer line, and on the SU-85 I was contemplating skipping the 107mm gun upgrade in order to get to the SU-100 more quickly. That would’ve been a terrible, terrible mistake; the 107mm gun is classified as Tier VII, with reasonable accuracy, decent penetration and great damage. It can take out lower tier tanks in a single shot, chew big chunks out of KV and T1 heavies, and at least cause damage to most higher tier tanks you’ll face (though something like an IS-3 still shrugs off frontal shots). It’s a bit fragile, but with a low profile you’ll normally get the first shot in so long as you’re careful. Apparently Tier V is the optimal point for earning money (before that you don’t earn so much, after that repair and ammunition costs really stack up), and once a tank is Elite status you can bank up a nice pool of experience, if you don’t mind spending a bit of real money for gold. That free experience pool can then really help out when you do want to step up a tier, allowing you to quickly upgrade some key components so you’re not completely useless. There are plenty of well-regarded tanks in Tier V, so if you’re not an aficionado already trundling around in a Tiger, I’d suggest picking a Tier V tank that suits your style and sticking with it, developing the crew up, and keeping it around as a nice money and experience earner.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host: This week, researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new method that can accurately predict the behavior of players in online role-playing games. The research team developed the data-driven predictive method by analyzing the behavior of 14,000 players in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft.

Melmoth: The method predicts that most MMO player behaviour will involve frothing with unbridled enthusiasm for a year or more before the game’s release, then playing for two weeks before unsubscribing. With the second week being optional.

Zoso: With a mere six months of algorithm development and three years of supercomputing processing power, the team determined that if a player kills nine rats there’s an 83.2379% chance that their next action will be to kill a rat.

Host: “We are able to predict what a player in a game will do based on his or her previous behavior, with up to 80 percent accuracy,” says Brent Harrison

Melmoth: “Our method shows that if a player is a player-killing smack-talking bigoted, terminal spacebar abuser, they will go on to lead a very successful Twighlight-based role-playing guild enacting heartbreaking eternally doomed love stories. Well, 20% of the time, at least.”

Host: The researchers are confident this work can help game designers. “This research can help researchers get it right, because if you have a good idea of what players like, you can make informed decisions about the kind of storylines and mechanics those players would like in the future.”

Melmoth: Having made use of this method, Blizzard reports that the next expansion for World of Warcraft will involve a big red button in the middle of the screen, which when pressed has the computer shout “OH MY GOD, YOU WIN, YOU’RE THE BEST!” in a sexy voice, and then showers the player’s character in epic armour and sparkly mounts.

Host: It’s not just games that stand to benefit. “This work could obviously be used for World of Warcraft or other MMORPGs,” says Roberts, “but it also applies to any setting where users are making a series of decisions. That could be other gaming formats, or even online retailing.”

Zoso: As a result of the study Amazon are trialling a shopping basket that forces you to buy ten pencils that you don’t need before you’re allowed to join four other customers in trying to buy the book you really want (so long as none of the others beats your “need” roll for it).

Host: The study could help players. “For example,” Roberts says, “you could develop a program to steer players to relevant content. Because it is a data-driven modeling approach, it could be done on a grand scale with minimum input from game designers.”

Melmoth: When asked whether their system simply put giant neon signs into the game at five yard intervals which read “KILL RATS THIS WAY”, the professor looked sheepish and refused to comment.

Host: The study is based on the order in which players earned achievements, and apparently an achievement dealing with a character’s prowess in unarmed combat is highly correlated to the achievement badge associated with world travel – even though there is no clear link between the two badges to the outside observer.

Zoso: Building on this work, a study of stamp collectors has revealed a high correlation between owning stamps with pictures of flowers on them and owning stamps with pictures of people on them – even though there is no clear link between flowers and people to the outside observer.

Host: According to the abstract, Our underlying assumption is that we can accurately predict what a player will do in a given situation if we examine enough data from former players that were in similar situations.

Melmoth: Let’s see what the KiaSA AI makes of it…

**** Reading previous player data ******* Data read ******* 14000 players killed rats for experience ******* 80% chance player will kill a rat for experience ****** 5% chance player will kill a wolf for experience ****** 5% chance player will kill a boar for experience ****** 5% chance player will kill a bear for experience ****** 3% chance player will kill a goat for experience ****** 1% chance player will realise the futility of attempting to win a skinner box based treadmill system designed to keep them playing for the longest amount of time possible whilst using minimal resources of the publishing company, quit, fund and recruit an elite team of soldiers of fortune to hunt down the publisher and all its subsidiary companies and rid the world of the these games once and for all, thus returning millions of man-hours into the world development resource pool, thus enabling the betterment of mankind and harbouring the Fourth Age where the human race colonises the stars. ****** 1% chance player will make a ham sandwich ***

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Freedom is an internal achievement

I’ve always had a strong (though not exclusive) achiever streak in computer games (by both Jon Radoff and Richard Bartle‘s classifications). Course many early games were all about racking up the points in a bid to ascend to the glory of the High Score Table (and the resulting dilemma of whether to enter your actual initials to proclaim your great skill to the world, or a hilarious three-letter profanity. BUM, tee hee!) and you didn’t have much of a choice over being a completionist. You had to shoot all the titular Space Invaders, gobble all the pills in Pac-Man and knock out every brick to get Thro’ The Wall to progress to the next level (of more Invaders, pills or bricks).

Wolfenstein 3D is one of the first examples that springs to mind of a game that gave an end-of-level report of percentage of enemies killed, treasure collected and secret doors discovered, and I’d really try and get 100% for each. The search for secret doors would start with likely looking nooks, tapestries or bits of walls with different textures, but if that didn’t work then there was always the inelegant but generally effective brute force approach of gliding sideways around an entire level, following the left wall and mashing the “open door” button every couple of steps (this was before I had access to the internet, so no GameFAQs). Secret doors often revealed bonus weapons, ammunition and health, which was a fairly strong incentive to seek them out, but it was matched by the satisfaction of getting those percentages ticking up… Kill Ratio: 100%, Secret Ratio: 100%, Treasure Ratio: 100%. Another avenue of achievement was speed, the end-of-level screen would show your time and the par for the level, but that never bothered me so much, especially as it was usually mutually exclusive with a careful search for secret doors.

Skipping on ten years or so, by the time of Grand Theft Auto 3 “100%” was on its way to being cemented as a verb (“You hundred percented that game? No way!”), and GTA3 presented a vast array of statistics and activities to the player. I never got obsessed enough to try and complete absolutely everything in any of the series, but I did collect all the hidden packages in each one, the weapon and item rewards probably being more of a factor than the achievement itself. I guess the hidden packages, tucked away all over the city as the name suggests, are quite a good way of telling the Explorer from the Achiever; the former stumbles across them while wandering around off the beaten track, the latter downloads a list and a map and crosses them off one by one. After finding a few in the general course of the game, it was off to GameFAQs for me.

With achievements in games often boiling down to making a number go up, RPGs have always offered abundant opportunities, especially MMORPGs; levels, stats, skills, crafting progress, reputation, virtual currency, photocopiers per square metre, I do have a weakness for making bars get bigger. Not to the exclusion of all else such that I might as well be in Progress Quest, “Making Numbers Go Up should only be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet of game components”, but it’s a strong part of the appeal. That, and hats. A while back Syp wrote about how MMOs have ruined single-player games for him, a position I have some empathy with, though I’ve far from forsworn single player games. The persistence of a virtual world and population of other users can somehow imbue numbers in a MMOG with more significance than their equivalents in a single player offline game. I can’t exactly explain why, maybe a psychologist could produce a hefty paper on it, but I don’t think I’d bother going out of my way to kill 500 of a certain type of Darkspawn in Dragon Age even if there was an achievement for it, whereas I did countless laps of Perez Park in City of Heroes wiping out hordes of low level mobs just to get a badge to show I could Kill Skuls.

Persistence, or the perception of it, is a double-edged sword though. City of Heroes and Age of Conan reactivated accounts for a couple of weeks recently, and mooching back around Atlas Park and Tortage respectively was fun in a nostalgic way, but knowing the reactivations were limited and that I was unlikely to be resubscribing to either game made the experience somewhat transitory, a hotel room you’re crashing in for one night rather than a home you’re settling into, and it hardly seemed worth pursuing anything vaguely long term. The foundations of achievement-based appeal can be shaky, and once you call their bluff then the rest of the dominoes fall like a marble in KerPlunk. Checkmate.

Monday 13 June 2011

The want of logic annoys.

In City of Heroes there are a number of annoying mobs; one of the more memorable for me was the Tsoo sorcerer, a lieutenant class caster mob who would heal his cohorts and teleport himself halfway across the map to avoid being attacked, popping in to heal before buggering off again, like Florence Nightingale on a bungee cord. Sometimes there’d be two in a group, which would lead to annoying WWE style tag team healing, for which there was never a conveniently located folding chair or table available to break them up. There were a number of ways of dealing with them, however. If you were a crowd control class then you could lock down the sorcerer until the end of the fight. If you were a damage class then you could focus-fire the sorcerer at the start of the fight. If you were a tank class then you could swear a lot and go and find a group. The Tsoo sorcerer was very annoying, but there were numerous ways to counter them if you were careful and clever.

In Lord of the Rings Online there are numerous annoying mobs or, more accurately, numerous annoying abilities that several mobs share. The one that intensely annoys me is the stun, which lasts a variable number of seconds depending on the mob type and which, as far as I can tell, serves absolutely no purpose other than to annoy the pants off the player. The daily combat report, invariably presented by an attention-seeking bimbo in an outfit two sizes too small for her figure, would read:

Today will be mostly annoying, with a heavy outbreak of trolls and wargs coming in from the east. There will be a strong chance of pointless stuns and knock backs, leading to an area of low pleasure with gusty swearing and angrily scattered coffee cups later in the day.

In most cases there’s no way to prevent the stun, it doesn’t have an induction, and therefore at some point in the combat you simply stop what you’re doing for a number of seconds while the mob gnaws on you a bit.

The problem is that, unlike the Tsoo sorcerer, the stun in LotRO has no real bearing on the outcome of the combat; unless you’re very unlucky and very low on health when you’re stunned, the usual outcome is that you are forced to stop for a quick sip of coffee while you wait for the game to return control of your character to you, and then you carry on as normal. The Tsoo sorcerer is terribly annoying, but they’re also a menace, which thus requires players to think, plan, and often react on the spur of the moment to the ebb and flow of battle that the sorcerer effects.

The Tsoo sorcerer’s abilities require the player to concentrate harder on playing the game, thus drawing them further in to that world. The effect of the stun in LotRO is to throw the player forcefully out of the world, albeit momentarily, but it nevertheless gives them the ‘waking up from the Matrix’ moment where they are shown the reality of their situation, and are able to observe the machine that generates the world they were inhabiting moments ago. In addition it serves to remind them of the artificial nature of the system, and how easily it can be balanced in favour of the computer.

How did I beat you?
You… you’re too fast.
Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with fairness in this place? Do you think that’s fun you’re having now?

Mobs which are annoying are not intrinsically a Bad Thing, indeed, some of the mobs which are most engaging, and rewarding to defeat, are those mobs which cause the player to focus ever more intently on the game and its world. Loss of character control, however, is always a difficult mechanic to balance: to be successful a suitable level of peril should be employed such that the player is busy planning how they will survive when control returns to them, but not so much that the player feels the NPCs have an I WIN button which they can arbitrarily employ. If this is too difficult to balance in your game, then consider not having loss of character control at all, because having the game-play equivalent of ‘waiting for an elevator to arrive’ is never going to be compelling.

Friday 10 June 2011

Brian Blessed are the meek

Expanding thoughts on the practicality of the Wii U controller for MMOGs in the post comments, the presence of a microphone suggested the possibility of allowing voice commands, though as Melmoth pointed out shouting “bugger this!” in frustration at a boss fight might not quite have the intended result.

Mechanisms such as Rage for Warriors in World of Warcraft and Fury for Brutes in City of Heroes build up a bar as you attack or are attacked to power further abilities, but a bar on screen is a rather abstract representation of furious rage. How about if they were powered by the *actual* anger of the player, with your attacks doing more damage the louder you shouted, and taunts depending on the frequency and strength of swearing employed? Accelerometers offer further opportunities for capturing the force with which the controller is hurled aside at the peak of annoyance.

This would give the perfect difficulty scaling system. Rather than, as at present, repeated failures resulting in a downward spiral of anger, recrimination, impotent ranting on voice chat and less focus on the game precisely when most needed, the fury of the player will instead power up their character to unprecedented levels until they’re capable of one-shotting any boss.

Course it would need recalibrating for individual players, otherwise some people would be massively overpowered all the time…

Thursday 9 June 2011

There is no armour against fate, Death lays his icy hand on kings.

Although not necessarily the unique level of customisation that I love my characters to have, here are couple of screenshots of my Warden to show just a smidgen of the lovely cosmetic armour options available in Lord of the Rings Online. I say it’s not terribly unique because the black armour is a very popular level 50ish crafted set often used for the cosmetic look, and the red armour is one of the new purely cosmetic sets granted by ordering the Isengard expansion, so expect to see everyone, his wife and her lover, in that set of armour in the future. That’s not to say you can’t craft a unique look in LotRO, you could mix and match the two sets presented here to your heart’s content in order to create a new and more distinctive look, not to mention the fact that a simple cloak here, a different hood or helmet there, and you can take even the most standard of armour sets and make them your own.

What I like most, however, is that my character’s breasts don’t enter a room twenty seconds ahead of her; that you can’t tell what colour her underwear is; that despite still maintaining the archetypal svelte fantasy female form, I find it hard to picture her prostrate on a beach towel in the sunny Bahamas, or on a bed in an adult movie; and that despite all of this, the ever-pleasant womanly form is still subtly evident.

That’s what I like. Each to their own, of course, but I’m so glad there are games such as Lord of the Rings Online around that allow me play a character with some form of dignity.

And seeing as this seems to be a bit of a cosmetic screenshot post, here are the adventuring outfits for my Burglar, Guardian and Champion.

If you enjoy playing with outfits in LotRO, be sure to check out the Cosmetic LotRO blog for lots of splendidly creative options, where each post comes complete with an item list to help you hunt down the most dapper of jackets and fanciest of pants.

And finally, from the screenshot archive, the Hideous Horse Eye of DOOM.

It’s coming for YOU.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Thought for the day

Could Nintendo’s Wii U controller work with MMOGs? Buttons and analogue sticks for moving and attacks a la DCUO or Champions played with a PS3/360 controller, a touchscreen for more menu/icon driven areas like inventory, talent trees and grouping that can be a little clunky with a conventional controller, and microphone for voice chat (plus camera if you wanted to go further and pop up a video window, though unless it supported sticking a bunch of markers to your face to map your movements onto your character’s in-game model that wouldn’t be terribly immersive).

You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.

My Warden’s adventures through Tolkienland have been prematurely halted, like an angry dog chasing a cat through the back yard, only to be yanked to a yelping standstill by its collar chained to a post next to its kennel. My Warden has been busy chasing members of the Grey Company around the countryside of Middle Earth with the frenzied haste of a hyperactive Border Collie trying to round up sheep on a bouncy castle. Flinging herself with tongue-lolling grinning enthusiasm from one corner of Middle Earth to the other, and then back again, as she seeks out the rangers who have sworn to protect the heirs of Isildur. It turns out that one of those rangers, Golodir, has got himself into some trouble (spending too much time drinking in the company of the dwarves of Moria, no doubt) and Corunir wants some help to rescue him from somewhere in the depths of Nûrz Ghâshu. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the entrance, I found the Nûrz Ghâshu theme park to be closed with chains wrapped around the gates, the painted words ‘Coming Soon’ dribbling down a sign which dangled at a lop-sided angle from where it had been hastily hung. After all my running around, antics and adventures, trials and tribulations, I had finally been halted by an ‘out of order’ notice. Had I not been warned in the comments by foolsage, and again by splendidly informative sites such as A Casual Stroll to Mordor, I would have been Clark Griswold standing dazed and confused in the deserted parking lot of Wally World. As it was, I just shrugged my shoulders and decided to work on something else in the meantime, while awaiting Turbine’s fix for the issue with Nûrz Ghâshu World; apparently you’d get stuck on one of the rides and be unable to get off, and even now they are still helping heroes of Middle Earth off the whirligig, who then stagger around green-faced and groaning, before bending over with their hands on their knees, and hurling their leftover food buffs into waiting plastic buckets. There’s no real schedule for when Turbine will fix the skirmish, which is utterly outrageous, I mean it’s not as though they’ve been ever so slightly busy over the past few weeks or anything.

Congratulations to Turbine and Codemasters on a pretty painless transfer and resumption of service, which seemed to take less time than had been advertised – a miracle in the MMO space, outside of that hallowed alternative dimension which houses Trion’s Rift. I’m not sure whether Turbine’s gathering of all its pretties and preciousess was an amicable arrangement, but nothing untoward occurred, and my concern that Codemasters might rename every character to Traitorous Pooface and change the characters’ heads into pairs of crusty orc buttocks before they left the Codemasters servers, was thankfully unfounded. I also had slightly more realistic concerns that increased latency would occur and thence cause havoc with the careful timing of the Warden’s gambit-building attacks, but so far –on the anecdotal evidence of playing for a few evenings– everything appears to be pretty much as it was when under Codemaster’s rule.

And so, with progress halted on Volume 3 I switched the solo spotlight over to deeds and skirmishes. Having enjoyed the refreshment of the new (to me) skirmishes unlocked as part of Volume 2, I decided to take a look at the two relatively new (to everyone) skirmishes released as part of LotRO’s Update 3. I was pleasantly surprised at the level of challenge they provided, and although I didn’t suffer a loss in either, I came within a hundred hit points of defeat while fending off a particularly numerous company of angry Gauradan in Icy Crevasse, and I nearly failed the final boss fight in Attack at Dawn. Perhaps the feeling of being challenged will diminish as I run these skirmishes again, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was the sort of challenge that I enjoy in an MMO; the trouble is that I find it hard to identify what makes this sort of challenge enjoyable over the challenges presented by, for example, raid dungeons.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the challenge: it’s not terribly difficult to work out what needs to be done, and there isn’t a great deal to remember, but correctly executing the strategy required to defeat the fight still takes a certain level of concentration and competence, which makes the fight more involving than the usual ‘two drunk people standing opposite each other and taking turns to slap each other in the face until one of them passes out’ found in most soloable MMO content; these fights were tense, fraught with endangerment, and somewhat manic. Importantly, although the general strategy was known, execution of the fight required that strategy to be modified on the fly as the fight progressed in response to events.

The fights also feel less gimmicky than many of the staged fights in MMOs, and therefore perhaps it was the fact that it felt less of a game that I, as the player, was thus able to relate to the situation in the context of the characters. Certainly the final fight of Attack at Dawn, where you must stop goblin messengers trying to escape with the location of Esteldín, while also dealing with the boss, felt more compelling and less like the usual LotRO-skinned Sonic the Hedgehog boss fights that I’ve experienced in many of the dungeons. Hmmm, Sonic was always chasing after gold rings, had a name beginning with ‘s’, and spiky armour. Lift-up Sauron’s robe and I bet he’s wearing bright red sneakers with white stripes under there.

There’s also the fact that when solo I can change my tactics in an instant, something which is generally removed from group game-play by design. I think this, ultimately, is where raiding breaks down for me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing with others –the most enjoyable times I’ve had in MMOs have been as part of a group– but the challenge of raiding leaves no room for individual expression within a group, it seems to boil down to fixing everyone’s role to the Nth degree, and then having people perform those roles as perfectly as possible. In part this is down to the way players always want to optimise encounters. And yes, in part it’s down to the fact that we’re not a flock of birds and don’t have a genetic predisposition to rapidly change course as a group without smacking into one another. Mainly, however, it’s down to the fact that in most MMOs you defeat a boss before the fight: if your strategy is sound, then you have defeated the boss, as long as you follow that strategy. There is generally no “That’s not working, let’s try this” during a fight, it’s a case of “That didn’t work, let’s try this” after a fight, and for me there is a world of difference in the experience between those two forms of strategy. The former is for planners and managers, the second is for those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. Neither is wrong, raiding in its current standard form is absolutely fine, but it doesn’t interest me as a form of entertainment.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

WPE 2011: Swine Offline Entertainment Conference, Liveblogging.

09:49 [Melmoth] Hello folks, welcome to KiaSA’s not live Liveblogging coverage of Swine Offline Entertainment’s conference for the 2011 Work Pork Expo here in San Francisco. Or Bay Con, as we like to call it. Just a little pork joke there for our regular readers. We’re looking forward to this, after the dismal offerings by Porcrosoft and Apple Sauce, we’re really hoping to see something special here.

09:50: [Melmoth] First of all, an apology for their ham-fisted handling of the recent security debacle.

09:51: [Melmoth] Well they’ve kept us waiting for a while now, seeing as this was supposed to start at 09:30, but here we go. Let’s see what Swine’s CEO will trot out this year.

09:54: [Melmoth] Interesting look at the latest pig-based peripherals, including a new motion control device they’re dubbing the pork pointer, or ‘porker’ for short.

09:55: [Melmoth] Not entirely convinced that the porker will have broad appeal: give me the feel of a good old-fashioned stick for controlling my pigs any day.

09:55: [Melmoth] They keep going for this interactive control concept, but I reckon they’re trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

10:04: [Melmoth] The big news for Swine seems to be their latest addition to the portable pork range.

10:04: [Melmoth] Just seems to be the same bacon sandwich from previous years, only this time with some extra mayonnaise. CEO says it will have an extra layer of bread, making it a more three dimensional affair.

10:05: [Melmoth] Not sure it’ll be worth the extra expense. Dubious as to whether people will get it, or just ignore that third layer and just stick with the two they’re used to. Looks like they’re trying to hog the whole portable market.

10:15: [Melmoth] CEO just said that they hope to sew up the whole pork market in the next five to ten months, don’t think I’ve ever heard a rasher statement.

10:15: [Melmoth] Bit of a pot-belly laugh for the audience, that one.

10:17: [Melmoth] Announcement that they’ve come up with a new airborne porcine platform for inter-continental corporate types; audience finding that one hard to believe.

10:20: [Melmoth] New version of their most popular pig package, codename Reen, is due Q4 2011.

10:21: [Melmoth] It will include their controversial root kit to prevent attempted crackling of the system. Seems a truffle overzealous if you ask me.

10:21: [Melmoth] So the question now is: t’Reen, or not t’Reen?

10:25: [Melmoth] They’ve updated the pricing on their bacon/pork sausage bundle.

10:25: [Melmoth] Also renaming it from Pigs in Blankets to Sus Domesticus in Duvets, to appeal to the young professional market they’re aiming to capture.

10:30: [Melmoth] Lot of corporate marketing waffle at this point, most of it involving porky pies.

10:35: [Melmoth] Well that’s it folks. Have to say that Swine’s conference just flu past. Not much to squeal about really, a lot of chop without any real gravy, as usual.

Expo Coverage

It can’t have escaped your attention that there’s a massive Expo going on over in the US, and we’re just as swept up in all the exciting announcements as everyone else. Though we were sadly unable to blag free first-class flights for press coverage in person we’ll be scouring the ‘net for all the latest news to bring to you. We’re particularly looking forward to “Training Camp: Preparing Pigs for Optimal Performance”, “Slaughter evaluations of pigs immunized against PCV2 and Mhp vaccinations”, “Breeding the Super-Boar: ensuring wildlife remains a threat to even god-slaying level-capped adventurers” and of course we’ll be live-Tweeting “Got Manure? Want Energy? Explore Anaerobic Digestion!”

Remember: if it’s about pork production, you’ll find it at NPPC’s World Pork Expo.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reload

I did have a soft spot for APB and was keeping half an eye on the APB Reloaded relaunch, but it was only seeing this video in Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Sunday Papers that really inspired me to go and grab the open beta. There’s a transfer process for getting your old characters from the original launch (only the customisation, not the progress) that seemed to work fine, and the game seems pretty much as I remember, running, jumping, standing still, all that stuff.

Mind you, when I clicked on a window in the launcher promising a method to “earn free G1 credits”, I did have to wonder slightly at exactly what target audience they’re going for now…

Saturday 4 June 2011


In perhaps the tank-iest news of the week, World of Tanks is going to be at the Bovington Tank Museum Tankfest later this month. The Tank Museum is always a fantastic day out for military history buffs with a superb collection of vehicles, and Tankfest is even tank-ier with displays and armour on the move. This year the unique Tortoise is running for the first time in 60 years, hopefully the World of Tanks developers will be gathering plenty of material for including it as a late-tier tank destroyer when the British tech tree is added to the game.

If anyone fancies a day trip as part of a couple or family where perhaps not everyone would be completely enthralled by tanks, tanks and then a few more tanks, the museum is pretty much next to Monkey World for those who prefer primates to panzers. I still think they could combine the two in a “Monkeys in Tanks” exhibition of some kind…

I went to Tankfest quite a few years back, WoT players will be pretty familiar with some of the vehicles they had running:

Matilda II

Panzer III


And as a particular treat, although it was thought that no examples of the experimental Leichttraktor survived, we can see here a fine preserved specimin of that iconic Tier I tank having a bit of trouble fording a river:

stock image
Image by – gratuit

Friday 3 June 2011

He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.

Everything debuffs my character in Lord of the Rings Online or so it seems; I can’t so much as take afternoon tea without wounding myself when picking up a teacup, or poisoning myself on an egg and cress sandwich, and the less said about how one gets a disease from a length of Battenberg the better.

Of the various categories of debuff, however, ‘fear’ is the one that I find most curious. For a start it seems to be the most popular debuff among minions of the dark power, an understandable concept until you consider the fact that after my character has killed their three thousandth warg without loss of their own life, are they really, honestly, going to be intimidated by wargs any longer? Consider a circus lion tamer entering the cage every morning and yelling “HOLY CRAP, A LION! HELP! LIONNNNN! Ahhhhhhhhhhhohhhh wait… ah ha ha, ohhh I’m feeling foolish now”. I suppose it could be the case that my character isn’t afraid of the wargs per se, perhaps the wargs just have a really good propaganda department feeding them slogans to shout during a fight

Hero: “Have at you, wargs!”

Warg 1: “[Growls] Did you know that fluctuating aggregate demand is destabilising the economy?”

Warg 2: “[Barks] Food prices are set to rise exponentially!”

Warg 1: “[Tweets] Interest rates on Rivendell properties will double in the next financial quarter.”

Hero: “Tweets?”

Warg 1: “[Barks] Yeah, I’m broadcasting some of these to my warg friends on the Internet.”

Hero: “Ah.”

Warg 2: “[Howls] Unemployment among Middle Earth heroes is at 4.5%, its highest rate for two ages of man!”

Hero: “Noooooo!” [Bites fingernails]

I checked the fear debuff the other day and it said that my character was ‘unsettled’, which sounds less like a fear of the unknown and more the morning-after result of a dodgy takeaway. I suppose it could be trying to reflect the sudden panicked realisation that if you do suffer a catastrophic takeaway-induced toilet emergency, you’re securely strapped into a highly restrictive human-shaped tin can. Unless you’re a female warrior in plate armour of course, then you just need to drop your knickers, if you’re even allowed to wear knickers. Of course we all know they do wear knickers really, because the first time anyone puts on one of those full-plate schoolgirl skirt things that pass for female armour in an MMO, they always do the ‘are there really knickers up there?’ check. [Cough] I’d better just check the camera is working. Scroll in. Scroll in. Scroll down. Scroll down. Tilt my head a bit to the side… wait that won’t work. Scroll in some more. Ooop, too far, I’ve gone into first person view. Scroll out. Scroll down. Annnnnnnnnnd, I think those are knickers. Are they? It’s a bit dark. [Cough] I’d better test the gamma controls, just to make sure they’re working too…’

In my MMO, any time the player’s camera viewing angle intersected with the Up Skirt plane, an elite monster would jump out from up there and attack. Bonus experience, however, if it jumps out from your character’s skirt and attacks the person ‘innocently’ standing next to them.

Everything seems to debuff, as I mentioned earlier before I went slightly off track; ‘slightly’ as a rollercoaster would be slightly off track if it had left the theme park and was comfortably overtaking traffic in the outside lane of a nearby motorway. While soloing my way through Volume 2 I had stacked debuffs from a variety of mobs to the extent that my character had reduced Might and Agility, drastically reduced Armour and Morale, and close to zero Fate or Willpower. Sometimes I wonder if there wasn’t a miscommunication between development departments:

“What the hell is wrong with the Warden in this instance, it has half the effective power that it normally should have, how the heck is that heroic?!”

“Hey look, we did just what you asked, you said you wanted to see it tank like a pansy so…”



“I wanted it to tank… like a Panzer. As in the tank. Rugged. Robust. Powerful. Death dealing.”

“Ah. Not limp, yellow, slightly fragrant, but ultimately fragile, then?”

“Who on earth would want to play a game where their character spends most of the time like that?!”

“Well we did wonder.”

Debuffs are, of course, also linked to the exciting ‘Did you remember to buy potions?’ mini-game, where you venture fifty yards into an instance and then have a debuff of every colour instantly slapped on your character, at which point you realise that you forgot to stock up on potions; even better when you did stock up on potions but find you’re facing mobs of a slightly higher level than usual, for which you need slightly higher level potions. This leads on to the slightly more morally ambiguous ‘Oh, look, we happen to have potions on the LotRO Store’ mini-game, where the player balances the value of traipsing all the way back to a quest hub to buy potions against the real world cost of summoning a stack immediately and conveniently from out of the microtransactional aether.

Of course even if you win the ‘Did you remember to buy potions?’ mini-game, there’s often little point in using one during a fight:

“I fear you!”
“Hah! I use a potion!”
“Okay. I fear you again!”
“I… can’t use a potion because it’s on cooldown. Bugger.”
“I fear you again!”
“Alright, alright, no need to rub it in.”
“Sorry. [whispers] I fear you again.
“I heard that!”

Even if they don’t restack debuffs, most MMO sessions consist of fighting a succession of similar mobs, thus waiting for the fight to end and clearing the debuff does nothing, because the very next mob will pop it straight back onto your character again. So really the potions are only useful for the feariest of fear debuffs, where your character is in real danger of death, rather than the more minor risk of being intensely irritated at having to auto-attack everything to death: because one of the more annoying fear debuffs (for characters without a dedicated power regeneration ability) reduces Will and Fate –responsible for your character’s power regeneration in and out of combat– meaning that in any lengthy fight your character spends most of their time gasping for power, even when chugging power and fear potions as soon as they’re off cooldown. In addition, it induces downtime by forcing the character to wait while they regenerate power between fights. Papua New Guinea has a more reliable power supply than most of my characters.

Of course there’s a counter to this: the various food items in the game which can be crafted and will grant your character a boost to power regeneration great enough to overcome the worst of these anti-power fear debuffs. Of course I predict that this will simply lead to an arms race where mobs cast more powerful fear effects, and player characters counter this by cooking up richer foods and eating them in greater quantities. Daytime TV shows in Middle Earth will introduce regular cooking segments where Aragorn extols the virtues of cheese pudding and chips in combating a fear of wargs, and Gandalf shows us a cheeky little soufflé which can cancel the unwanted attentions of the undead. Soon we’ll have these comically giant roly poly heroes waddling around the countryside with their mouths full of toad in the hole and jacket spuds. New players, upon encountering a high level player, will suffer an immediate fear debuff as their minds try to comprehend these gargantuan amorphous near-spherical blobs who wave their swords wildly around from their little stump appendages, while biscuit crumbs spill down their fronts as they try to communicate in ‘munmph’s through a mouthful of custard creams. In response to the fact that the players now naturally cause fear and confusion in each other, the minions of The Enemy will be forced to drop their now redundant and petty debuff tactic, and instead focus on other ways to debilitate the players, such as building large flights of stairs and narrow doorways. Thus, in a curious twist of fate, the forces of evil create some of the most beautiful feats of architectural engineering that Middle Earth has ever seen.

Of course ‘stair lift’ tokens will be available on the LotRO Store shortly thereafter.