Friday 29 July 2011

"It's not a house," said Judas Priest "It's not a house... it's a home"

A while back I took a quick run-through the housing options in some MMOGs over the years, something I’ve been thinking about again as I’ve just bought three houses. Well, one rented room, a house and a moonbase, to be strictly accurate, in Fallout: New Vegas, Lord of the Rings Online and Champions Online respectively.

I finally cracked on the last day of the recent Steam summer camp and picked up New Vegas and its first two DLC packs. News of a hefty patch with many bug fixes and performance improvements at the start of the month sounded promising, and an example of the benefits of the three (or indeed nine) month rule, though I’ve still encountered one minor glitch in a side quest that needed a bit of frinking to sort out. I really enjoyed Fallout 3, up until the end felt a bit rushed, and New Vegas is pretty much more of that, which works for me. I’m not very far into the game, not even having made it to the titular New Vegas yet, but I’ve just secured a motel room in Novac and that means I can get on with with my primary objective: exploring random locations and grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down (and if it is nailed down finding a crowbar to pry it loose); weaponry, clothing, food, medicine, scrap metal, pilot lights, lunchboxes, paint guns, detergent, gecko hide, shoes, lightbulbs, zeppelins… Then loading myself and a companion up with as much as we can carry, taking it back to the motel room and storing it in a cupboard in case it’s useful sometime, where it almost inevitably stays ’til the end of the game. Still, if there’s a quest objective that needs two pieces of ant meat, a packet of irradiated breakfast cereal, a souvenir dinosaur and a frying pan, I’m ready!

Over in Middle Earth I’ve only just got around to buying a house in Lord of the Rings Online. Again it’s largely driven by my hoarding instincts that make it terribly difficult to throw anything away, so having filled up the maximum 120 slots of my main character’s vault storage I decided it would be quite handy to get an additional storage chest in a house, and also have somewhere to put some of the bound furnishings that I couldn’t pass to Bank Alt #7. Each of the four races has its own housing area with a distinctive style so I took a bit of a tour, and it became apparent that the housing brokers have adopted the Budget Airline Airport Naming Scheme (e.g. Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, a mere 120km from Frankfurt); to get to the Thorin’s Hall housing you go out the main doors, down the steps, past the stablemaster and round the corner (via a couple of miffed goblins), and as for the Elven area in Rivendell West (nr. Duillond)… I picked out a Dwarven house in the end, ran through a couple of quick introduction quests that resulted in some furniture rewards, and settled in.

The LotRO furnishing system is a bit more limited than that of EQ2; you can select a texture and a colour for walls and floor, then place items in designated areas (e.g. Large Wall, Small Floor, Medium Sized Outside Bit). Fulfilling my primary goal of “offloading any furnishings I’d happened to acquire” has resulted in a somewhat eclectic decoration scheme that would be a bit weird even for Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen; one room features a frame on the wall containing the dress of the Red Maid (maybe that was taking “stripping the corpse of loot” a bit far), a freaky undead banner thing in a corner, and a single chair. The other room has a mouse-hole in one wall (with a large block of cheese in front of it) and a dead bear on the floor. I’d be worried by what the neighbours would think, if it wasn’t for the fact that it only rates about 0.4 on the weird-shit-o-meter of what LotRO adventurers furnish their houses with; I got groped by a tentacle the last time I was in the kin house!

LotRO houses are in their own instances, with multiple copies of the instance available to facilitate everyone having their own house without paving over the entire Shire. Combined with being stuck out a way from the main towns it makes the areas feel a bit like suburbia, and together with a widespread and efficient public transport service you get something that doesn’t quite gel with the setting. Homes generally feature in fantasy tales as somewhere to tearfully leave at the beginning of an epic adventure, or a place to run away from when you discover the magical heritage from your true parents, or somewhere that gets burnt to the ground resulting in a sworn oath of revenge. Rather less frequently homes are somewhere the protagonist commutes from; “oh fiddlesticks, I’ll miss the 8:17 horse from Bree if I don’t get a move on darling. Important meeting in Garth Agarwen today, I should be back for six o’clock but you know that Ivar the Bloodhand, once he starts monologuing you just can’t shut him up, I’ll swing past the provisioner on the way home and pick us up some tasty rations for dinner, mwah, mwah, see you later.” That’s not to say establishing a home never works, I enjoy a bit of a Robinsonade like the Swiss Family Robinson, making a place for yourself in a hostile environment, and that’s something well catered for in Minecraft or, in a more multiplayer context, Wurm Online as per Gank’s adventures. A more traditional fantasy example would be running a keep in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakenings, but that’s be harder to translate into a massively multiplayer setting; perhaps the role of mayor in a Star Wars Galaxies town captures the essence of it, and demonstrates how much harder it is to deal with human players rather than NPCs.

It’s just a game/world compromise, really, like using the dungeon finder in WoW (sit in an inn in a city *PAF* dungeon dungeon world-threatening evil stab stab stab *PAF* back to the pub), but domesticity seems to emphasise it. I’m happier at the “game” end of the spectrum, though, so I’m more than prepared to forgive the lack of immersion for the added storage and the ability to quickly travel around.

A base of operations is a much more fundamental part of the superhero genre (the Batcave, Avengers Mansion etc.), so when Champions Online introduced hideouts it piqued my interest and I popped in to take a look. I’ve kept the game patched up with the transition to free-to-play, logged in occasionally, but I keep bouncing off it. As per usual I had a quick look at my existing array of characters (the highest at level 20, many more not even through the tutorial) and none of them grabbed me, so as on several previous occasions I headed into the character creator and was in the middle of the usual hour or two of eyebrow-angle adjustment and trouser fabric selection when it struck me, perhaps that was one of my problems. I’d never had a particularly strong character concept, latching on whatever costume items and powers happened to catch my eye during character creation, and I mentioned in the previous post that the world (or at least the bits I’d seen of it) seemed a bit “generic superhero”, so I hadn’t gained much of an attachment to the characters from their exploits. Flipping that around, though, the relatively blank canvas is necessary to offer players such a degree of freedom with their character looks, story and powers, perhaps I’d do better if I started with an idea and built a character around it rather than the other way around.

A tremendous amount of thought came up with the incredibly detailed character concept, backstory and nine-voulume biography of “a sort of Steampunk type chap”, not really an exploration of the sociopolitical elements of the Steampunk subculture, more from the time-traveling asshole school of gluing cogs to stuff. The costume options presented a bowler hat and monocle (though PWI have clearly missed a trick, the latter didn’t even cost $68) as well as a suitable moustache for an ex-Hussar, with initial sword and pistol powers to fit (although the cosmetic sword options seem to be missing a nice cavalry sabre). Gadgets cover the more speculative elements, like having swinging as a travel power (employing the Fortherington Patent Pneumatic Fluked Travel Projector) and regeneration (the result of a most efficacious medicinal compound), and I’ve rapidly worked through the tutorial and emerged into the main city, an improvement on the original incarnation of the game that sent you off to either a desert or Arctic wasteland that I never really enjoyed.

Perhaps I missed it, I couldn’t find a button to activate the hideout menu, but via the old school method of a slash command “/hideout” did the trick (quite interesting in contrast to the controller-friendly nature of the rest of the game, like pressing a button to start conversations/interact with objects as opposed to having to point and click). There’s currently a choice of four: Mom’s Basement doesn’t really sound like the dwelling of my time travelling and/or parallel universe hopping Victorian (unless he’s putting it all on like the Blue Raja), and he’s a man of Science and Reason so the Mystic Sanctum is out. An Industrial Cave could fit the bill, but it’s got to be the Moon Base, get a bit of a Space: 1889 vibe going.

Learning lessons from the highly detailed but unappreciated supergroup bases of City of Heroes, the hideout is personal. It’s early days, with threads on the forums suggesting possible future functionality and canvassing suggestions, at the moment HMMB (Her Majesty’s Moon Base) Queen Victoria features only a tailor (always important to look dashing) and a crime computer. Design-wise there’s limited customisation, with a choice of lighting colours and two or three predefined options for the main furnishing points, no hero-crafted furniture of your own to place. I was a little disappointed by the view until I found the controls to open the blast shield, revealing the GIANT LASER!!! I’d selected in preference to some landing strips or the plain surface of the moon. It’ll be interesting to see where they take the feature, but it’s a positive sign that the game is developing with the move to free-to-play and change of publishers. It took several years before I finally got into LotRO, after all, so the lifetime Champions subscription might work out yet!

Wednesday 27 July 2011

All in all it was all just bricks in the story

Brian “Psychochild” Green, MMO luminary, blogger, tap dancer and semi-professional llama wrangler (I might have made some of those up) has unveiled some details of the project he’s currently working on, Storybricks, and it sounds really rather interesting. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Some people say that rappers are invincible; we're vincible

World of Tanks has a number of achievements in the form of medals, much like good old Microprose flight sims. Some are based on career totals of kills, victories etc., others on performance in a single battle.

Individual rewards or achievements can cause friction in team-based games. In World of Warcraft the School of Hard Knocks achievement can play havoc with the usual battleground dynamics; in the real world you might see similar results in a football match if you offered a hefty sum of cash (that couldn’t be shared with team-mates) to anyone who scored a goal (or try/touchdown/point/behind, depending on your local interpretation of football). Fortunately World of Tanks is pretty straightforward, you win a match by either killing all opponents or capturing their base, and you get rewarded with XP and credits for killing (or damaging, or locating) opponents and capturing their base, there isn’t really any conflict there, and medals just show up in your statistics rather than granting any sort of bonus. During the beta there was a myth that killing all 15 opponents netted some sort of bonus, so if you were in a decent position with only one or two enemy tanks left and someone started capturing their base then people would start shrieking “DON’T CAP” in chat and getting frightfully annoyed, to the point of actually shooting a team-mate in a couple of instances I saw, but thankfully that got straightened out and I’ve never seen it happen in the live game. Individual glory-hunting tends to get you killed in pretty short order, and with no respawns it’s a good incentive to at least try and work together. Course there are more than ample opportunities for fifteen random non-communicating strangers to employ wildly sub-optimal overall tactics, but at least they’re doing it of their own accord rather than being channelled that way by in-game achievements.

I’ve got a reasonable smattering of awards; a fair few Top Gun medals for killing six or more tanks (all right so half of them are from a BT-2, picking on poor little Tier I tanks), a decent number of Sniper medals for an 85% hit rate from 10 or more shots (though progressively fewer as gun calibre, and consequently reload time, has increased; I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to get ten shots off with a 152mm gun in one battle, let alone hit with nine of them), the odd Invader and Defender medal for capturing or preventing capture of a base respectively (I even managed once, by fluke, to get the Raider medal for capturing a base without ever being discovered, in a Tier I/II fight where the entire enemy team pelted off down one flank while I advanced alone up the other). I haven’t received a Confederate medal for a while, for damaging six or more tanks that others kill, I think I got all of mine in Tier I or II with a 20mm or 23mm cannon equipped (low damage but great rate of fire), but there are two Battle Hero medals that have completed eluded me so far. One is Scout, for detecting nine or more enemy tanks, not a great surprise with scouting not being my forte, the other is Steel Wall, for being hit at least 11 times during a battle and (the bit I’m having trouble with) surviving. Though theoretically possible to achieve with anything, obviously it’s easiest in a heavy tank matched up against mostly lower tier opposition, and I’m a bit of a late convert to heavies having only acquired the KV and KV-3 quite recently. There have been a couple of battles where I managed the requisite 11 hits, but there was always a 12th, or 18th, to finish me off, though I’m sure it’ll come along at some point now I’m focusing on the Russian heavy tree. In the meantime I keep forgetting that the gun isn’t the only way of causing damage, maybe time to try for the Kamikaze medal for destroying a higher tier tank by ramming. Banzai!

Friday 22 July 2011

Why I should stick my neck out for you is far beyond my capacity!

“Luke: Well, more wealth than you can imagine!
Han Solo: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.”

Deliberately inflammatory rhetoric aside, I do find myself somewhat aligned with the less than popular opinion that I’d rather wait for a while after Star Wars: The Old Republic’s release, before dropping out of hyperspace and diving flame-licked into the atmosphere of the virtual world that it represents.

The reasons are many and minor, but their cumulative effect is that of grains of sand, piled one upon the other until they dam rivers and ground ships; doubt upon uncertainty upon cynicism, until the flow of enthusiasm is strangled to a trickle. The enthusiasm is there, pooled, churning and thundering raw, a bear trapped in a collapsed tent, without focus or reason, and in danger of harming itself, or anyone who tries to guide it in the right direction; wisdom says that it’s best left alone to sort itself out, as it will inevitably do. Therefore I’ve avoided ordering a copy of the game straight away, and will watch from the sidelines as the vanguard of players takes to that infamous galactic stage far far away.

The pricing option has been debated elsewhere, and I imagine even the monocles of EVE players were in danger of popping out at the initial reveal of the collector’s edition price. Consider, though, that if you’d been in the right place at the right time, you could have gathered a couple of those ejected eyeglasses and bought yourself a TOR collector’s edition. If we call it ten Sparkle Ponies instead of $200, it would be a cynical marketing sleight of hand, but it certainly doesn’t seem quite so offensive when you balance the content of SW:TOR against ten translucent steeds, let alone the additional sundries that come with the Collector’s Edition. So it seems to have been aimed at the right level, too steep for some and a compulsory purchase for others, but for me it simply helped to reinforce my decision to wait until after release.

SW:TOR seems to all intents and purposes a traditional single player Bioware RPG but with the option to bring friends along. The voice acting will give a pace to questing that I believe will cause more friction in groups, especially PuGs, than we are already witness to. As such, the game appears to encourage a single player approach. Companion NPCs only seem to advance this theory. What I want to know, and what I can’t know until the game is released, is whether this bucking bronco of game design will throw most MMO riders, or whether the ropes, chaps and gloves of TOR’s various ancillary game systems will give players enough purchase to keep riding. I certainly can’t justify a monthly subscription for a single player RPG, even a Bioware one… especially a Bioware one, seeing as Dragon Age and Mass Effect cater perfectly well to that requirement.

In addition, I’ve come to equate, perhaps unfairly, the charge to get ahead during the early access of a game with that overarching madness in MMO society for rushing through content, getting afore the hoi polloi, and to pound out character levels as if in time with the sonorous rhythm of hammers in a village smithy. In some quarters there’s almost a January Sales mentality to it, where the crowds seems to beat at each other, striving not for bargains, but the boredom and bitter disillusion of end-game. Unfortunately I don’t look back with fondness on the many MMO head-starts of which I’ve partaken. I still remember World of Warcraft’s early days as being a time of server instability, incredible lag, and massively oversubscribed resources. I couldn’t get into Warhammer Online for days. I was in at the start of City of Heroes, and although it had a smooth release as far as the warped and battered platters of my memory can recall, I also don’t remember anything outstanding that occurred in those early days that made the unavoidable overcrowding worthwhile. I honestly can’t remember an MMO where getting in from the very beginning has made any difference to my experience; indeed, I became properly invested in LotRO only years after its release –and only then I suspect because I found a good group of friends to play with– and yet it is an MMO for which I will always have the fondest memories and no regrets, despite not being there from the very beginning.

There are other grains of concern I have for TOR, subjective ones such as the graphics, which don’t appeal to me to the point that I still harbour a secret hope that Bioware will surprise us all by dropping the faux Clone Wars style, and revealing that the game actually looks more like something birthed from the union of Force Unleashed and Mass Effect. Group issues again come to the fore with the game-play: videos of players standing statically around a boss mob and going through the Usual MMO Combat Routine[TM], do not entirely inspire a new hope. Rail-based starship combat didn’t take off in Clone Wars Adventures, so let’s do it again in this game! The list goes on. The grains of sand form a bank. The wash of enthusiasm is arrested.

So I’m not ordering Star Wars: The Old Republic, although I don’t think the price is the real issue here. It’s a personal thing: partly because, for better or worse, I’m over that stage of MMO fandom where I need to be involved in an MMO from the start; partly because there are other contenders which I feel offer me a better chance at finding my MMO mojo once again; and partly because I’m not convinced that SW:TOR is a game for which I want to pay a monthly subscription, something which other contenders –and a large part of the MMO market– have already moved away from.

Deep down I still hope that The Force is strong with this one, and if it is then I’ll probably visit that galaxy far far away, but for the time being… I still have a bad feeling about this.

Thursday 21 July 2011

You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quincunx

I’m Mr Average in World of Tanks. Or pretty close to it, at least; by win/loss record slightly ahead (52% wins), by kills per match slightly behind (around 0.93). Actually, hang on, matches never end with 30 total kills (unless there’s one person left on each team and they knock each other out at the same time; not completely impossible, especially with artillery, but highly unlikely) so 1.0 won’t be the average there… Anyway, I reckon I’m pretty near the centre of the bell curve. Though as kills per match has a lower bound of zero and a theoretical upper bound of 15 that probably won’t have a symmetric distribution around the average, is that still a bell curve? Or a bell-that’s-been-hit-on-one-side-with-a-hammer-a-few-times curve? I should’ve paid more attention in maths.

Normal distribution presents an interesting way of looking at the usual random World of Tanks match. There’s a device, the “bean machine” or Quincunx, that visually demonstrates normal distribution by bouncing marbles off pins, a bit like Peggle without the talking unicorns and score boosters. Think of your tank as a marble that rolls into the top of the machine at the start of a battle, with each pin a contributing factor to the outcome; the first pin you hit is the balance, their side has better specced tanks you bounce to the left, your side is better you bounce to the right. Next pin is tactics, if your team covers all the defensive avenues and mounts one concentrated assault then you bounce to the right, if 13 tanks bugger off down one flank of the map leaving you and a lonely SPG defending the centre and the other flank then you bounce to the left. Someone on your side quits or loses connection so that tank bursts into flames: bounce to the left, it happens to one of their team bounce: to the right. An enemy shell glances off your armour, bounce to the right, it knocks out your track, bounce to the left. Down you go, eventually landing up in one of the collection bins at the bottom.

Label those bins “Complete disaster, no kills, knocked out in one shot, team lose 2 – 15” at the far left, “Glorious triumph, 7 kills, team win 15-3” on the far right, various intermediary results on the way, and I reckon that’s a pretty decent representation of my experiences, with most balls falling somewhere in the middle (close win or loss, 0 or 1 kills). Obviously not everything is random, you have control over your own tank at least, so maybe Peggle is a good comparison after all where you choose where the ball starts, but that’s not a massive factor in the overall result. Also like Peggle it’s easy to attribute a good result to your incredible skill and a poor result to bad luck (or the rest of your team being morons).

Probably the most frequent gripe about World of Tanks, mine included, is getting shoved into matches against much more powerful tanks where they can destroy you with a single shell, but you need a lucky shot to even cause slight damage to them. It’s the equivalent of that bit in a cartoon where the Comedy Sidekick furiously attacks some giant fiend or invulnerable robot, who doesn’t even notice for about five seconds then glances around and swats the irritant away with a backhanded slap. Mental note: make suggestion to World of Tanks devs to add comedy “wah wah waaaaah” sound effect when you get knocked out by a +3 tier tank, and add a slowly spinning circle of stars and tweeting birds over your burned-out hulk.

Tobold raised the subject in his recent interview that focused on matchmaking, with the reply:

“We know it can be frustrating to get thrown into a battle where you’re the lowest tank by several tiers, so matchmaking improvements are high on our radar. But we also know that players don’t just want to be killed once for each enemy tank they destroy, they want to dominate the battlefield. For true balance, this means that every time a player gets 5 kills, they should end five battles wrecked without having eliminated any enemy vehicles.”

So it’s a deliberate decision (obviously enough, with the matchmaking system going through various iterations), and more importantly, from the perspective of my stats at least, one that works. I have got a few Top Gun awards from finishing a battle with 6 or more kills (granted about half with a BT-2 when bullying poor new Tier I tanks, but some with the SU-85 as well), and those battles do feel great; I still treasure the crowning glory of one fight on the Steppes where I fired six shots in total and got six kills. You still need to randomly bounce off a few pegs the right way, but I had a decent head start in that battle with most of the opposition a tier or two below me (and a heavy tank of the same tier that was damaged enough by the time I got to him that he also only needed a single shot). Would I sacrifice the triumphs (and, indeed, huge successes) for a few less frustrating encounters? After three impotent deaths in a row when ready to punch the screen I probably would, but over time I find the bad and mediocre tend to blur into forgetfulness, but that time that four tanks drove straight into your sights, one after another, with just the right gap between them for your gun to reload, that sticks around.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Thought for the day.

An MMO should not require its players to undertake an organisational challenge on a par with that of an air traffic controller at a major international airport in order to form a group from a random set of friends with characters of varying levels.

If the requirements for being able to form a group –from that set of friends who are currently online– creates a decision Venn diagram which starts to look like the one to the right, consider again the nature of ‘multiplayer’ in the context of your game.

City of Heroes, EverQuest II: they both demonstrate that it’s perfectly possible to implement a mentoring system in an MMO which does not break the nature of the game, so why do so many MMOs still present a ridiculous number of barriers to friends playing together?

It is a slightly surreal situation when we consider that the primary outcome of RPG features these days is to act as a block to the MM in MMORPGs. For every feature that you add to an MMO, if the first question should be ‘Is this going to be fun?’, the second question should be a most vehement ‘Will this prevent a person from playing in a meaningful way with anyone of their choosing?’.

Only when these have been considered and answered satisfactorily should you move onto the usual third and fourth questions of ‘Oh, am I not meant to be in this design review?’ and ‘In that case, before I get down from the table, did anyone see where I threw my underpants?’.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Stuck Inside of Annúminas with the Evendim Blues Again

The zone of Evendim in Lord of the Rings Online is a fantastic place to adventure between levels 30 and 40 with plenty of quests and some excellent rewards to be had. The natural flow of the zone takes you around the great lake in the centre (with boatmasters offering rapid transport between three points on the lake so you no longer have a lengthy swim to quest objectives, uphill, both ways) culminating in the ruins of the city of Annúminas.

Rather than being the cherry on top of the trifle of Evendim, Annúminas is more of a spiky death fruit lurking beneath the custard and sponge fingers. The rest of the zone is nice and open with mobs generally having the decency to be alone and reasonably spaced out; perfect for picking off one by one when solo, and not much of a hindrance when riding around. Some ruins attract a more dense population of goblins or tomb robbers, but there are few places where a bad pull can’t be mitigated with a hasty retreat (the MMOG equivalent of quick save/quick load; a cry of “run away, run away”, a bit of the Benny Hill theme as a couple of other nearby mobs join the chase, then everyone goes back to their original positions; “OK, places people, that wasn’t bad but this time let’s use the slow *before* melee range, right, from the top and… action!”). The narrow streets of Annúminas, though, lead to many of the frustrations Melmoth experiences in Moria. The outskirts aren’t so bad with scattering of tomb robbers, but wandering through an archway it turns out the Angmarim read an article in a travel supplement about Annúminas being the fashionable choice for a holiday this summer and promptly despatched a massive invasion force who are clogging up all the bars, reserving the sun loungers and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The Angmarim hang out in groups of two and three, respawn alarmingly quickly, and the narrow streets make them impossible to avoid.

The Wardens of Annúminas haven’t taken this invasion lying down, though, oh no. They’ve established a secure base from which to fight back, slap bang in the middle of the city. Completely surrounded by Angmarim. Taking a tactical lead from the German army’s “Stalingrad 1942” manual doesn’t seem like the best of ideas but heck, they’ve got quests to hand out so you might as well pop along. One way of reaching the Warden camp would be to carefully fight your way through the Angmarim mobstacles, killing tens if not hundreds on the way in, at which point the very first quest offered to you is “Kill 40 Angmarim”. To avoid nugatory genocide, then, it’s generally better to frantically ride through the surrounding hordes (half of whom have crossbows, just to make it even trickier). Once you’re inside the camp you unlock a travel point at a stablemaster; the “stable” part suggests the mechanism for travel is a horse, but being the route in and out is carpeted with mobs then either it’s an F117A Stealth Horse with added invisibility cloak, or my personal suspicion (especially as it’s fast travel), the Wardens actually load you onto a massive trebuchet pointed at Tinnudur and you have to hope you don’t bounce out of the net set up to catch you.

Recognising that the Angmarim-infested ruins aren’t the easiest of places to solo, for once in the history of MMOGs the quest-giver doesn’t stand there, nailed to the floor, while you go out and risk life and limb; you’re given a smoke signal and within the city it summons Orchalwe, an NPC who is a unique combination of Tank, Healer and Mobile Location-Sensitive Reward Dispenser. As Darkeye says, he’s the best quest-giver ever. With his help the packs of Angmarim aren’t as much of a problem, though it’s still slow going fighting your way around the place, and at various points around the city a ring appears over his head and he gives a short tour guide speech: “Coming up on your right a lovely set canals, and if you’d like to swim up and down them a bit and click on some glowies I’ll give you XP. Cha-ching!”

One of Orchalwe’s main quests is to hang flags off six key monuments that the evil invaders have set up around the city (presumably the flags say “Angmarim eunt domus”), and pottering into a courtyard containing one of these monuments I noticed the mass of Angmarim were a bit tougher, signature mobs with substantially more hitpoints, all in groups, with wandering signature ogre-type-troll-creature-beasts just to make life even more difficult. Even with Orchalwe’s help a single group was a tricky proposition, and a badly timed patrol or respawn would easily send you to the graveyard, incredibly inconveniently placed outside the city. After a couple of attempts I gave it up as a bad job solo, and popped back later with Melmoth; the two of us (plus a pair of Orchalwes, I guess he has an identical twin brother) managed to carefully pick our way through the courtyard to the monument itself, in front of which was a named boss along with the usual crowd of signature mobs. Setting up for the fight we opened up by pulling an isolated archer on one side, and there was a “bing!” as the aggro symbol flashed over the head of about seven billion mobs (well, at least seven, but a bunch of them summoned stuff as well), an absolutely horrific linked group around the boss, leading to the conclusion: “bugger that for a game of soldiers”.

It was a bit of a shame as the reward for that quest was the head piece of the rather nice Evendim armour set, and it slightly spoiled the end of the zone; rather than moving on to books 5 and 6 in the Misty Mountains and Angmar as The Heroic Liberator Of Annúminas (In As Much As Anyone Can Ever Be Said To Liberate Anything In A Never-Changing World) I mumbled something about a terribly urgent appointment elsewhere and slunk away.

I kept the quest in my log, though, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched, until last Friday. The weekly outing of Hobbington Crescent had wrapped up another few chapters of book questing, and as people drifted away for the night four of us were left, an awkward number for skirmishing or instances. About the right number for dishing out a beating to Angmarim invaders, though! Heading down to Annúminas we stormed through the city hanging up banners, seizing key control points and giving an 18,000hp boss a slap for good measure. Even four of us, in the mid level 40s, with a veritable platoon of summoned Orchalwes suffered a death or two (though our Loremaster wasn’t always given the opportunity to apply optimal crowd-control measures due to engagements generally starting with a shout of “CHARG!”); I think the classification of Monuments of Angmar as a level 38 solo quest is a bit optimistic…

Monday 18 July 2011

No pleasure endures unseasoned by variety.

I’ve never played a character at the level cap of an MMO as much as I’ve played my Warden in recent months, and still I’m yet to set foot in a raiding instance. Dungeon instances in most MMOs just don’t interest me outside of the conditioned desire to gain better equipment for my character; Dungeons & Dragons Online is one of the few games I’ve played where dungeon running actually feels anything akin to the tentative exploratory delving that early pen and paper games often evoked, and only then if one was adventuring with a sympathetic party who were there for the experience (–noun: a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something) rather than the experience (–noun: abv. XP; reward for undergoing repetitive stress and tedium in a particular instance encounter).

I think this is, in part, due to the fact that LotRO has a fairly forgiving level of mudflation with each expansion, where in other MMOs a new expansion heralds the fact that characters who have defeated the greatest enemies of the land find that overnight they’ve become The Captains Average: Avengers of Mediocrity, while anyone who has not set foot in a raid instance is harshly reminded just how easy it is for the developer to negate all their efforts and reset their power to a Level 1 equivalent. That’s not to say that LotRO doesn’t have this, but it is far less extreme than in other MMOs that I’ve experienced. As such, I find that I am more willing to work on my character at the level cap, rather than reach the level cap and consider that to be the end of the game, not wanting to waste time grinding for gear that is never going to compare to that earned by raiders, and which will be entirely obsolete by the next expansion anyway.

As well as the slightly kinder mudflation, there’s also the numerous activities to undertake which will improve your character in a more permanent way than the grinding gears of gear grind tend to allow. I’ve taken to crafting, something with which I don’t normally bother, being as I am of the

1) Select gatherer profession
2) Sell everything on the Auction House
3) ???
4) Profit!

sort. I’m one who generally doesn’t find it terribly compelling game-play to stand around watching my character whittling three hundred spears, before flogging them all to an NPC vendor for a hundredth of the price of the raw materials. And playing with spreadsheets and applications to maximise profits on the Auction House is, in my mind, one of those activities which resides in a village a little too close to the ‘Is a Game’ / ‘Could be doing this in real life for real money’ border conflict.

In my case, Farming was a splendid example of this. My character’s vocation is Woodsman, where each vocation is made up of three professions, in this case Woodworking, Forestry and Farming. Woodworking and Forestry go together, gathering with the latter and crafting very useful items for my Warden with the former (once I’d got past all the pointless intermediary stages). Farming is the ugly stepchild of the vocation, the point where Turbine felt they’d try to force the interdependence crafting hand by giving most vocations a third profession which was generally dependant on a profession unavailable to that vocation. Farming provides items for the Cooking profession, and as such is fairly useless on its own; anyone who is a serious cook will have picked the Yeoman vocation, which includes both Cooking and Farming thus making themselves self-sufficient, such that trying to supply the cooks of Middle Earth with high quality ingredients is utterly pointless. I did notice, however, that I could produce pipe-weed with Farming, a cute cosmetic consumable which allows characters to blow smoke rings of various entertaining designs. Thus I began to level Farming, and I quickly found a way to do so with as little effort as possible, as MMO players are wont to do. Farming is one of the few professions where you can buy all of the ingredients from an NPC vendor, being as it is, technically, a gathering profession. Farming consists of two stages, sowing a field of seeds (using the ingredients you buy from the NPC vendor) and then harvesting that field once it is sown. What I quickly worked out was this:

  • Both stages give you points towards your crafting level.
  • The sowing gives you more points than the harvesting.
  • You still get the points for sowing if you don’t then harvest.
  • Ingredients are cheap enough that you can buy all that is required to get your entire crafting level.
  • You can queue up sowing for as much as your inventory of ingredients will allow.

Therefore, for each level of Farming, it was a simple case to calculate the ingredients required to complete each level, buy them at the NPC vendor, stand my character in a field and tell it to ‘Make All’, and then go and do something more interesting while I waited for the game to play itself. There was one caveat to this, which was what made the thing amusing to me: every now and again I needed to go and press the Shift key so that the game client didn’t log me out.

I pondered on that for a bit.

The game client was essentially saying “Well, you haven’t done anything significant in the past half an hour, I’ll save myself some resources and kill your connection”. It did this while I was actually ‘playing’ the game within the parameters of the design. You know you have quality game-play design on your hands when your players will be booted off your game because your own server thinks ‘Heck, he hasn’t done anything for ages, he’s either link-dead or actually dead, time to clear the ol’ connections’. There’s clearly a balance to be struck here: A Tale in the Desert is at one extreme of the scale, where you have to hammer your own armour out from a sheet of metal using individual hammer strokes and where most people probably walk around in armour which looks like a pineapple that’s been humped by a randy elephant. Lord of the Rings and its ilk are at the other end of the scale, where crafting is like government controlled manufacturing: phenomenal amounts of natural resources are poured into an inefficient process which churns and chugs away for time immemorial before one half-bent sword drops off the end of the production line and promptly shatters into a hundred pieces, while only a marginal increase in crafting expertise is achieved.

Crafting isn’t the only thing I’ve found to do to improve my character outside of dungeon instancing, however. There is my skirmish soldier to improve in order to make my skirmishing easier. Skirmishes are an area of content that can be run solo or in a group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see dungeons that allowed skirmish soldiers to tag along, allowing groups with fewer players than the Middle Earth Metric Standard of ‘six’

“None shall pass! Or six shall pass! No other amount shall pass, however!”

to undertake the content anyway. As far as I’m concerned there still aren’t nearly enough MMOs pinching ideas from Guild Wars. Except Guild Wars 2, those guys are totally ripping it off, if you ask me. There are also plenty of incidental improvements to the character to be had, most of which are just ‘quality of life’ items, but on the whole I find these to have far more lasting impact and worth than an incremental armour upgrade. There are various teleports to areas of the world which can be earnt through various deeds, for example. A lot of these are locked behind reputation requirements, but they are generally accompanied by other niceties such as cosmetic outfit items, mounts, and the like: items which will last and be used by your character long after that piece of teal armour has been vendored. It’s subjective of course, and one man’s idea of what’s worthwhile is always going to be different to another’s, but the nice thing about LotRO is that it offers so much to do for a player who isn’t interested in raiding, things which aren’t just restricted to doing daily quests for tokens to get the armour set that is slightly worse than the latest raiding version on display on top of your nearest major player hub mailbox. It’s a Make Your Own Sandbox kit: a wealth of options unrelated to raiding, which you can pick and choose your way through; craft today, skirmish tomorrow; go hunt reputation items, or complete deeds; finish the epic Volume content, or explore areas you have yet to visit – there’s always somewhere.

Raiding doesn’t have to be the only thing to do at the level cap, there are ways to provide variety and rewards outside of the gear grind, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking that I’d be deliriously happy with that sort of alternative end game in any MMO that chose to implement it.

Friday 15 July 2011

Stay on target.

M’colleague and I got to discussing ‘target marking’ in MMOs the other night on Mumble. It was one of those segments of our more general genially loquacious pratings which we realise, only after the event, we probably could have recorded as a podcast. This was rammed home the following morning when neither of us could recall that specific part of the conversation, and neither of us had thought to note it down. What followed was the best part of an hour spent in the finest Twelve Monkeys tradition, travelling back in time and grabbing at scraps from our fragmented memory of that evening’s conversation, and thence trying to piece together the events leading up to and following our recollection event horizon, like determining the shape of an ancient vase by piecing together the excavated remains of a broken mould.

We got there in the end.

It transpired that I had been relating to m’colleague how our illustrious fellowship leader in Lord of the Rings Online had discovered that he could ‘target mark’ his own fellowship members. Quite amusing in itself, but doubly so when it can be applied to anyone in the fellowship at any time, even if they are half way across the world; confused cries erupting from the four corners of Middle Earth at the time, as strange icons suddenly appeared over the heads of unsuspecting hobbits and elves. M’colleague and I bantered on the subject some more, before he hit upon the idea of mobs being able to ‘target mark’ players. We both laughed, but then wondered if there was perhaps slightly more to it, and so we hopped on the handcar of discourse and chased the train of thought as it puffed off down the track towards Conjectureville.

It’s not an original concept by any means, but having the mobs use target marking to show their intentions might enable them to use a greater degree of tactical ability than current MMO combat really allows. Certainly it could alleviate the need for aggro meters –allowing players to see that the mobs had decided to focus-fire the healer, for example– especially if coupled with a form of combat that didn’t rely on the standard Yo Mamma! aggro management. Removing UI elements and putting them into the game world is something I always like to think about: I still hold to the opinion that playing the game through the UI instead of through the game world is a standard design which makes the MMO genre poorer; having the players look into the game world to see which target markers were set over their companions heads might be a way to draw them away from the UI. Of course there are certainly issues with making mobs more intelligent while also keeping the game fun, but it seems that MMOs too often follow the ribbon dance formation of combat (where the party fights around the maypole of tank and mob, by as much as the ribbons of range and aggro will allow), and perhaps we should have moved on from that by now – games such as TERA and Guild Wars 2 are clearly making tentative attempts towards this.

Of course while drafting this post I quickly got to thinking about the usefulness of target markers in real life. Starting in early life, target markers would be an excellent aid to playground dynamics, where the Small Kid would be able to see that they’d been marked for taunting and thus make themselves scarce (or at least organise all the other small kids into a raiding party and try to take on the Big Kid). Naturally the Big Kid would be marked DO NOT AGGRO at all times, therefore saving many new kids from bruised cheeks and lost lunch money. The teacher’s pet could be marked with a Crowd Control marker, notifying the more ‘adventurous’ kids that they’d need to distract them with sweets or a fascinating maths problem before trying to climb The Forbidden Fence behind the bike sheds.

But target markers would continue to be useful into adult life too. Partners could place a DO NOT AGGRO marker on their menstruating other half, serving as a warning for both themselves and the rest of the world that it would be better to find a wounded tiger and crash a pair of cymbals next to its head than to aggravate She Who Is Hosting Communists in the Funhouse. Men who have a tendency to get embarrassingly drunk at the neighbours’ dinner parties could have a Crowd Control marker popped over their head, thus enlisting the help of others to distract them with talk of sport, or by waving shiny new technical gadgets under their nose, while their partner swaps their can of lager for something non-alcoholic. Shopping expeditions could be executed with greater precision:

“Right, Jess, you sap the little old lady with the basket who will try to block us by swerving indecisively back and forth across the aisle. Steve, you DPS the arrogant businessman’s trolley that is parked sideways across the entire aisle, bonus points if you can coordinate with Jess and get the little old lady to crash into it for you. Tom, I need you to kite the indecisive single man away from the TV dinners so I can get to the frozen vegetables. Targets are marked, everyone clear? Good. I’ve marked checkout six as our primary means of escape, good luck everyone.

And although there’d be no real intention to act upon it, some days it would just be satisfying to be able to put the big skull icon of Attack This Target over your boss’s head.

Naturally, in the current climate of world events, I moved on to various dilemmas, such as whether governments should be able to assume control of the target marking system in times of emergency. The case for such a provision is that, for example, rioting would become much more manageable and less dangerous for all involved, since the police would simply roll a really big artificial policeman into the midst of the rioters and then set it as primary attack target. The crowd would then all stand around fruitlessly punching the giant inflatable rozzer until they eventually got the whole thing out of their system. However, such a system would have its flaws, such as if an enterprising group of young hackers took control of the system and caused a school field trip of young mothers and their children to go on a rampage and attack the local vicarage.

Expanding the thought experiment into the animal realm didn’t work either. Dogs, for example, would simply mark every cat, squirrel, ball, stick, slipper and tail they saw as Primary Kill targets. Cats would naturally set a comprehensive and calculated set of target markers for one another, each expressing a diverse and eloquent set of uncommonly intelligent messages, and then ignore it all because curiosity got the better of them. Spiders would be constantly miffed at having to explain that their crowd control only works on flies and small insects, and that they couldn’t root a cow, no matter how ambitious the rest of the animal team were. And nobody would be able to make a wasp aggro the correct mob regardless of target markers; they are, and always will be, the bouncing hyperactive lolDPS of the animal kingdom.

Thursday 14 July 2011

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

The Google Books service includes archives of a number of magazines, a fascinating resource covering a variety of subjects. I’ve been rummaging through the back catalogue of Popular Science in particular, starting with the first issue from May 1872, ready to mock some dead scientists and their quaint ideas from the smug perspective of the internet generation, but the very first paragraph of the first page, from Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology, is:

“Over his pipe in the village ale-house, the laborer says very positively what Parliament should do about the “foot and mouth disease”. At the farmer’s market-table his master makes the glasses jingle as, with his fist, he emphasizes the assertion that he did not get half enough compensation for his slaughtered beasts during the cattle-plague.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, huh. About the only difference today would be the labourer having to enjoy his pipe outside the ale-house due to the smoking ban. In October 1872 one of the articles is “Has our climate changed?” (unfortunately missing the first page or two); I know history repeats itself, but not necessarily verbatim. There is some fun to be had, especially after 1915 when the name transferred to another publishing group and the content became aimed at a more general audience; page 857 of the June 1918 issue cautions “Don’t go parachuting unless you are equipped with the proper kind of breeches”:

“In order to check the constantly increasing number of fatal aeronautical accidents a humane inventor has patented a pair of parachute breeches. Will they prevent your being dashed to the ground? We don’t know. The fabric, cut and workmanship are matters of choice, and your tailor will be pleased to suit your particular form and taste.”

What really kicked this off was that I’d been Googling around some tank-related material; as Warsyde notes World of Tanks seems to be pretty historically accurate, from my amateur grognard perspective, generally aligning with records and testimony (at the individual tank level, that is; there were very few actual engagements where a mix of 15 Russian, German and US tanks took on 15 other Russian, German and US tanks in a two mile square area enclosed by mysterious force-fields). I’m familiar with most production armoured vehicles of WWII but World of Tanks expands its tech trees with experimental and prototype models, so with the recent introduction of US tank destroyers I was digging around for some more details, and Popular Science had a couple of contemporaneous articles. “Big Guns Stalk Their Targets” from July 1943 is all about self-propelled artillery, emphasising early American work on SPGs, but doesn’t have anything on the prototypes used as Tier 2, 3 and 4 vehicles in WoT. A few months earlier, in March 1943, another article proudly proclaimed “Why America’s Tanks Are The World’s Best” as the M4 Sherman rolled off the production lines in increasing numbers.

Now you expect a touch of patriotism, if not outright jingoism, during a war, and the article wasn’t exactly wrong in trumpeting the more powerful gun, heavier armour and faster speeds of the Sherman compared to the German Panzers it had faced in the North African desert; it’s reflected in World of Tanks, with the early Sherman being a Tier 5 medium tank, and the Africa Korps were mostly equipped with Panzer IIIs (Tier 4 medium) and early mark Panzer IVs (with short 75mm howitzers that aren’t represented in WoT; the Tier 5 Panzer IV in the game starts with the long-barrel 75mm gun of the Ausf. F2/G, very few of which made it to North Africa). As the article boldly notes:

“In building tanks with which to equip their panzer divisions the Nazis concentrated on quantity rather than quality. They won the early armored battles of the war not because they had better tanks than the British and French, but because they had many more of them at the important spots and because they handled them much better. The tanks they are using today were designed in 1936, and there have been almost no improvements in them since the beginning of the war.”

Slightly unfortunate timing of the article, really, for though the Panzer III and IV were indeed showing their age in 1943, Panzer divisions were starting to get kitted out with the Tiger I (Tier 7 WoT heavy) and Panther (Tier 8 medium), and though an up-gunned Sherman M4A3E8 was introduced in 1944 (bumping it up to Tier 6 in WoT), armoured battles in Western Europe after D-Day were frequently the mirror of the above, the Allies having the numbers (and artillery and air support) to counter individually superior German tanks.

The perceived supremacy of the Sherman resulted in a degree of complacency in the development of subsequent tanks such that only a handful of Pershing heavy tanks (a Tier 8 medium in WoT) entered US service in time to see action, with LIFE magazine of March 1945 highlighting the problems faced by late-war American tank crews in “The Battle of the Tanks” on page 41, comparing the Sherman to Russian and German heavy tanks. I’m sure most World of Tanks players know the depressing feeling of entering a battle in a Tier 5 or 6 medium tank and facing a Royal Tiger (Tiger II, German Tier 8 heavy) or Stalin (IS2, Russian Tier 8 heavy), though on the plus side the worst that can happen is not getting many experience points as opposed to dying horribly in a flaming metal coffin.

Not the most cheery of endings, that, so why not flip back to page 2 of that issue of LIFE and enjoy the advert for Munsingwear “stretchy-seat” underwear for men of action. The seat alone is worth the price of admission!

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Beast, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Beast, said he.

The Beastlord class has been announced for EverQuestII. I’ve been hooked by LotRO recently, and have decided to focus on that one game rather than flit from MMO to MMO as I have done in the past. Both forms of play have suited me, the flitting helps to avoid burnout on any one game, which itself often leads to a malaise with the genre as a whole; concentrating on one game allows me to gain a greater sense of achievement by exploring all there is to do in that one world and fleshing out a character to the best of my ability.

The description of the Beastlord has me intrigued, however. A melee DPS class of the Scout archetype, it is a Monk-like brawler which is also a pet class. As I never played EQ back in the day I haven’t experienced the class before, but as a concept I can only declare that SOE, your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to make a microtransaction payment in order to receive each Beastlord issue of your newsletter.

Decree for the day

In light of the general shift in MMOG payment models, the elders of the internet have decreed that the popular meme based on a Simpsons quote, “Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter”, shall heretoforth be updated to “Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to make a microtransaction payment in order to receive each issue of your newsletter”.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

The mind wears the colours of the soul, as a valet those of his master

While adventuring in Lord of the Rings Online I’ve occasionally found some loot that will be useful in a couple of levels time and popped it in the bank until I can actually equip it. Typically I’ll then forgot about it entirely, only finding it again when my bags, vault and shared storage are all stuffed full of the general detritus of questing and I’m destroying or selling all the stuff I’d been hanging on to “just in case” (low-level crafting materials, piles of potions, shoelaces, several keys that don’t seem to fit any locks but you never know, back issues of Middle Earth Monthly magazine, that sort of thing). If I’m lucky it’s still useful, if not it’s just another bit of junk to take to the Thorin’s Hall Oxfam shop.

What I really need is some sort of reminder system. There is a precedent in other fantasy literature, but I’m not sure that would fit so well in the setting of LotRO; what I’d really like to do is trade in my skirmish soldier, who’s excellent at taking a beating from waves of attackers but rubbish at reminders, in exchange for a valet.

“I see sir has reached level 36, and would offer my most sincere contrafibularities on such an achievement. I’ve laid out out the Reinforced Elven Gloves of Fleetness that I believe sir to now be capable of donning, previously stored in the second bag of the inventory, and the next time we reach a town with a suitable banking facility I should recommend withdrawing the Shining Steel Sword stored therein, in the third chest of your main vault. Might I also suggest procuring a quantity of Pristine Leather in order to utilise your somewhat incongruous needlework skills to embroider a set of shoulderguards with superior statistical benefits to your current garments? I’ve also taken the liberty of dropping a note in the post to your colleague Melmoth, a jeweller of some note, to accept his most generous offer of letting him know if there might be some trinket that he might produce for you, with a request for a nice new bracelet, enclosing a number of uncut gemstones you liberated from a variety of goblinoids on your journey as a token of thanks.

Now I believe a Mr Fink-Nottle of the Evendim Fink-Nottles has a number of tasks that you now qualify to assist with; with your permission I shall secure the hire of equine transportation in order to convey us there promptly.”

Mind you, it wouldn’t take long to become a bit too dependant on such an assistant

Monday 11 July 2011

Don't worry about failure. Worry about the chances you miss when you don't even try.

I’ve slowly grown weary of ‘Falcon Hyperdrive’ abilities on my various MMO characters, to the point where I often can’t be bothered to use them at all. You know the sort of ability to which I refer, characterised by excessively long cooldowns and a power that has both the potential to change the course of a battle, as well as a chance to miss.

Healer: “The enrage timer is getting closer!”

Rogue: [with a gleam in his eye] “Oh yeah? Watch this.”

[Expectantly, they look towards the boss as Rogue runs up and flails around ineffectually in front of him. Rogue and Tank look at each other and are thrown into an acute state of concern.]

Tank: “Rwwwarrrggghhh!”

Healer: “Watch what?”

[Rogue tries another ability. Still nothing.]

Rogue: “I think we’re in trouble.”

Paladin: “Sir, the possibility of successfully triggering a long cooldown ability with a To Hit component when you need it most, is approximately 3720 to 1!”

Rogue: “Never tell me the odds!”

[The boss hits his enrage timer.]

Rogue: “We’re in trouble.”

[Later…]

Rogue: “Okay, let’s finish this fight. Ready for Blimey Charlie![TM] ability? One…two…three! Punch it!”

[Rogue fires-off his ability and… nothing happens. The boss punches Tank two inches into the ground.]

Rogue: [frantic] “It’s not fair!”

[Tank is very angry and starts to growl and bark at his companion. Again, Rogue desperately fires-off an ability.]

Rogue: “The ability triggered, it just didn’t hit. It’s not my fault!”

[Tanks puts his head in his hands, and lets out a whining growl. Healer looks derisively at Rogue.]

Rogue: “It’s not my fault!”

It’s gotten to the point now that I imagine the Whee Whee Bwoo Bwoo Bwooooooo sound of the Millennium Falcon failing to enter hyperspace every time one of my battle-winning abilities fails to make contact, and thus fails to have any effect whatsoever.

I can understand abilities that can only be used once per fight, even if they do present the player with that awkward dilemma of trying to balance whether the situation is dire enough that use of the ability is mandatory for the group’s survival, against the fact that an even more dire situation may occur at some point in the near future. It’s like a sort of game show –How Dire Is This?– where the contestants have to gamble and guess whether their current situation is the most dire it’s likely to get, or if they want to risk struggling through because they reckon an even more dire situation is just around the corner.

“Well it seems that our contestant has just about made it through the pit of flame-thrower-wielding scorpions. And with all three lifelines intact, no less!”

“That’s right Frank, the situation certainly looked pretty dire, but Geoff kept his nerve and now he faces the next challenge. A little scorched maybe, but with a full suite of special abilities. So let’s see how dire the next challenge is…”

“Well Alan, looks like the next challenge is located in Dire Maul.”

“That’s pretty dire right there, Frank.”

“Which has been populated entirely with dire rats.”

“Ouch!”

“Who are riding on dire bears”

“Ooof!”

“Who are piloting Dire Wolf mechs.”

“Well it doesn’t get much more dire than that!”

“While playing the Very Best of Dire Straits.”

“Well that’s not so bad…”

“On bagpipes.”

“Hoo boy! Well I don’t know about our contestant, but I’ve blown a few cooldowns myself, Frank.”

“I thought I could smell something.”

Perhaps it would help to alleviate the stress of the situation if these emergency ‘Blimey Charlie!’ abilities let off comedy sound effects when they were activated: lengthy high-pitched flatulence being a prime candidate.

So you’ve decided that the situation is pretty dire –those Dire Wolf mechs are firing dire boars from their cannons– and you wind-up your special ability. Like any good MMO player you announce your plan of action to the rest of the group, in part so that they can respond to the situation, and in part because you want them to know that you are saving their arses again. Or, if you’re like me, you sort of just half-gurgle into the microphone while you frantically try to find the ability’s icon, an icon which suddenly (and, I suspect, with deliberate malice) has decided to look like every other icon on your hotbar. Of course you use it so rarely that when you do come to need it you have to try to find it, buried as it is between the numerous pointless other abilities that you never use, like the one that drops your trousers in a comedy emote, or the one that summons an ice cream van, or the one that transforms you into Abe Vigoda.

There’s quite the fan faire by this point, people are lined up along the red carpet to watch your special ability arrive. You’ve deliberated over when to use it, you’ve spent time building up its arrival, and you’ve spent time actually finding it once you’ve decided to use it. Now the magic moment has arrived! The limousine pulls up to the kerb, the door opens, the flash and sparkle of cameras lights up the night like a swarm of fireflies going into meltdown, and your special ability springs forth from the dark confines of the smoked security glass cabin… and promptly trips over the carpet and falls flat on its face.

Yes, it seems especially cruel to have a To Hit check on an ability which is used so very rarely but is generally vital to the survival of your group when it’s eventually called upon. Not to forget that when it misses (and it’s amazing how often a 2% miss chance occurs, you’d have to guess that it happens at least 90% of the time) it’s the sort of deflatory flaccidity you would image a young man to suffer upon getting home and realising that, when asking for a DVD of *ahem* mature content, the comedian behind the counter has given him a documentary on the life and times of care homes for the elderly since 1946; you can almost hear the Whee Whee Bwoo Bwoo Bwooooooo of the Falcon’s failing hyperdrives as he looks down and observes his rapidly dwindling chance of reaching escape velocity, before pulling up his underpants, making a cup of tea, and settling down to an informative yet dreary program on the history of geriatric healthcare in post-war Britain.

Sunday 10 July 2011

The opportunity for doing mischief is found a hundred times a day, and of doing good once in a year

Arkenor made some interesting and rather damning posts about World of Lordcraft, a browser game that bore uncanny similarity to a certain MMOG (yes, Dungeons and Dragons Online) (wait, not that one, another one…) Blizzard seems to have sorted that out, leaving the team who our lawyers would like to emphasise may or may not allegedly have possibly been behind World of Lordcraft and maybe also but by no means certainly Evony as well, or not, at something of a loose end.

Well there’s going to be a bit of a gap in the market in the UK after today which would seem to offer a golden opportunity to combine two groups of similar ethical standards to produce World of the Newscraft. Hack their whispers, my lord!

Saturday 9 July 2011

Godgifu of the grind.

But this time I was ready for the grind. I headed over to pick up Mr Flapnoodle, this time leaving my clothes with the confused but otherwise relieved dwarf, and then headed into northern Angmar to hunt the hundreds upon hundreds of Angmarim I’d need to complete my reputation grind, nobly riding naked to battle but for my cape flapping restlessly in the wind behind me.”

You may have noticed the rather exceptional Victorian undergarments apparent on my character; yes, even when your character isn’t wearing any armour in Lord of the Rings Online they’re still more modestly covered than the heaviest-armour-wearing female warriors of other MMOs.

Alas there’s no evidence of Mr Flapnoodle in the screenshot, but I think he was busy steering the horse at the time.

Always remember, though, the best way to grind in an MMO is naked but for a cape and a small sock puppet.

Now to go and have a word with the elves of Mirkwood, I think there are some orcs there that I could go and eat food loudly while smacking my lips near, Mr Flapnoodle says they hate that.

Friday 8 July 2011

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition.

I recently undertook a reputation grind with my Warden in Lord of the Rings Online, another of those grouting duties that I usually avoid on my various characters, only ever achieving maximum status with the various factions in MMOs through the incidental advancement that occurs during the course of levelling a character. Being at the level cap and not being of a raiderly mindset, however, I find myself wanting to overpaint the canvas of my character in other ways. Of the three ‘c’s that advance a character in an MMO –Completion, Customisation and Cultivation– only Cultivation is restricted at the level cap to just two areas of advancement, funnelled as it is into the primary palettes of raiding and PvP. Of course, Completion and Customisation can both be advanced through raiding and PvP, but there are also other shades of game-play in which the two can be mixed.

In terms of LotRO then, Cultivation is advancing the power level of your character through the usual MMO channel of ever-increasing item levels; Completion is all about fully fleshing out the character, achieving all that there is to achieve in the game: collecting all the deeds, reaching maximum reputation rank with all the various factions, exploring all the nooks and crannies the game has to offer; and Customisation is all about making the character you want, be it through cosmetic items, mounts, titles, housing, or character builds. Many areas of Cultivation will also offer ways to advance Completion or Customisation, but it’s very rare that, say, Completion will offer a way to advance Cultivation once you reach the end game. For example, completing the not insignificant achievement of ‘What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been’ in World of Warcraft grants the player a mount, something which may be cosmetically appealing (Customisation), a form of status recognition for your hard work (Completion), but which offers nothing in the way of advancing your character’s innate power level (Cultivation).

It’s fairly apparent as to why this situation exists in these MMOs: the fact that character power level is based primarily on item improvement, items which are made redundant with each expansion of the end-game, means that rewarding a chest piece for ‘What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been’ would be pointless as soon as the next expansion is released. Or would it? Blizzard have already introduced the concept of heirloom items, items which increase in power as your character does, could significant achievements such as ‘What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been’ reward items that increase in power with the character and maintain a power level equivalent to end-game raiding rewards?

Back to the reputation grind, though. The chain of events which led me to grind away for reputation was itself interesting. I’d decided to complete the Virtue traits on my character, getting them all to the current maximum of level ten. To do this I had to perform various deeds, which for the melee-based traits generally involves using sharp pointy bits of metal to convince mobs to shuffle off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. The trait I was working on at the time required me to kill three hundred orcs in Angmar, something which was time consuming but not a challenge since I had long out-levelled the area, so it was a suitable time to listen to a podcast or two while roaming around a camp of orcs and slaughtering them with wild unhindered abandon, the sort of one-sided fight equivalent to dropping a great white shark into a heavily populated hospital swimming therapy pool. Grinding a deed in this way is a bit like weight training for will power: you have a little counter in the top corner of your screen which counts up as you start to kill orcs, but three hundred seems like an impossible task, especially after you spend what seems like an eternity slaughtering away like the Tazmanian Devil in a bathtub of bunnies, only to look up and find that you’ve killed just ten orcs. So you start trying to trick your mind, ‘Right, we only have to do that twenty nine more times and we’re done. Twenty nine isn’t a very big number is it now? So, let’s do another ten. Can you give me another ten reps? Okay, here we go then: one, two, three… feel the burn… four, five, six… keep that sword arm nice and straight… seven, eight, nine annnnnnnd ten. Good! And relax. Shake it out, have a breather, and then we’ll do another ten’.

Such tricks only last so long however, and then you start to go mad: you start to move around as you fight such that the dead orcs make pretty patterns on the ground with their corpses, or spell out rude words that can be seen from the air by low-flying Nazgûl; you try to find interesting weapons in your inventory to kill the orcs with, bludgeoning a captain to death with a haddock, and then stabbing his second in command with a hat pin; then you progress to trying to find various unique ways to initiate combat: standing near the orc camp and talking loudly on a mobile phone, for example, or running around and altering all the heights of their office chairs, or standing uncomfortably close behind on orc and reading its copy of the Nazgûl News over its shoulder. By the end of the session you’re running around naked save for your cape, half an orc skull balanced on your head, and orc eyes pushed on to the end of your toes. Your right hand still holds your sword, but your left hand is now Mr Flapnoodle –formed from a pouch made of a warg ear with orc nipples for eyes– who tells you what to kill next by whispering in your ear; the orcs have learnt to fear the judgement of Mr Flapnoodle, and you obey because he’s hidden your teeth somewhere inside your face and you need them to become Queen of the Monkey Bees.

I don’t normally do reputation grinds, and now you know why.

Having finished killing the three hundred orcs, who weren’t nearly as big a challenge as the three hundred Spartans I’d killed the day before, I sold all the junk I’d collected and found myself with a bag still half full with reputation items. Seeing as they were effectively free from my earlier exertions while attempting to complete the Orc Genocide deed, it seemed silly to thrown them away, so I put my clothes back on, left Mr Flapnoodle in the care of a confused looking dwarf who seemed to be trying not to throw up, and made my way over to Esteldín to hand in the reputation items with the rangers there. The Rangers of Esteldín, an elite band of warriors who remain hidden from the enemy by carefully guarding the location of their secret base, never telling a soul, never letting on, never revealing in any way where they come from. Not even a hint. ‘Hello, we’re the Rangers of Esteldín! Where are we from? We can’t tell you that. Are we from Esteldín? Who told you that?! Gentleman, we have a spy in our midst! We, the Rangers of Esteldín, will not stop until… hang on…’ Anyway, having handed in all the reputation items I’d gathered to the newly named Rangers of SHHHHH IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE A SECRET DAMMIT I found that I had reached the maximum level of reputation with them, and as such I had a look at the rewards on offer. Of course there was nothing in the way of Cultivation, but they did offer a new mount, which obviously appealed to the Customiser in me. It was going to cost me five gold, an amount which my character can comfortably afford but which is nevertheless not an insignificant expense, so I did a little research in order to make sure it didn’t suffer from the Horse Eye of DOOM or any other such mind twisting deformity. Alas, although the horse is without strange features it is also a little plain, and I couldn’t bring myself to justify the expense for another mount that I would probably never use because I already had several handsome specimens. I did, however, notice the Prized Angmar’s Free People’s Steed while I did my research, which is possibly the best looking mount I’ve seen in the game. And that was it, my flame of desire was suddenly fully fanned, I had a goal, covetousness was upon me, game-play had emerged from a chain of unrelated events, and all that was required of me was to grind out Kindred reputation with the Council of the North.

But this time I was ready for the grind. I headed over to pick up Mr Flapnoodle, this time leaving my clothes with the confused but otherwise relieved dwarf, and then headed into northern Angmar to hunt the hundreds upon hundreds of Angmarim I’d need to complete my reputation grind, nobly riding naked to battle but for my cape flapping restlessly in the wind behind me.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Running out of Steam

Steam’s Summer Camp event has been going for almost a week, and despite being a sucker for a bargain (or possibly just a sucker), especially when it comes to Steam, I haven’t bought anything yet. Being fully hooked on LotRO and World of Tanks at the moment I don’t have the vulnerability to a shiny new game that MMOG burnout often causes, which could well be a major factor in that, but nothing has really jumped out as being an exceptional bargain so far.

Course previous Steam sales have slightly recalibrated what an “exceptional bargain” is to the point that I barely look at anything over £10 unless it’s the entire back catalogue of a publisher, and even a fiver seems a bit steep for a single game. The Witcher 2 sounds a fine game, but even with 33% off was a bit much; I’m interested in Fable 3, but lukewarm reviews made me think twice about it, even at £15. I’m really keen to pick up Total War: Shogun 2 at some point, but the Total War series need a decent amount of time to play, and I still haven’t finished my Peninsular campaign in Napoleon: Total War. Previous Steam sales have also packed my library with games I might’ve been tempted by like Tropico 3 and Just Cause 2, which reminds me I must get back to them at some point as well…

An interesting facet of the event is the ability to win tickets through various achievements, the tickets then entering you into a prize draw for games from your wishlist, but also acting as a currency that you can exchange for a variety of DLC-type prizes (Edit: PC Gamer conveniently just posted a list). The majority of achievements are within specific games, none of which I’ve had so far, but one a day is usually something connected to Steam itself (joining a group, leaving a comment, uploading a screenshot etc.) which I’ve been ticking off, so I’m now trying to decide if I want to cash the tickets in for snorkels on the robots in Portal 2 or an entire Alien Breed game…

It may all be an insidious plot to infiltrate Steam into everything you do, collate massive amounts of customer data and/or maintain a stranglehold on PC gaming, but in general I like the platform and what they’re doing with it even if they’re not offering a super-pack of every game of the last 10 years for 76p. Microsoft, meanwhile, are shuffling Games for Windows Live to XBox.com because… erm… they want to save the ten bucks on domain renewal?

Tuesday 5 July 2011

UK Governement heads calls for Cthulhu-based games

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, gave a speech last week to the Royal Society emphasising importance of mathematics, and unusually for a politician mentioned games in a positive context:

“Computer games developed by Marcus Du Sautoy are enabling children to engage with complex mathematical problems that would hitherto have been thought too advanced. When children need to solve equations in order to get more ammo to shoot the aliens, it is amazing how quickly they can learn. I am sure that this field of educational games has huge potential for maths and science teaching and I know that Marcus himself has been thinking about how he might be able to create games to introduce advanced concepts, such as non-Euclidean geometry, to children at a much earlier stage than normal in schools.”

Marcus du Sautoy is really engaging and pops up quite frequently in the media (like whenever In Our Time covers a mathematical subject), and the project Gove was referring to is Manga High. Not too sure about the name, but the resource, maths games for schools, is quite impressive. Never mind the kids, I had a crack at the trial version of a few of the games and was most disappointed when the trial of BIDMAS Blaster expired just as I’d upgraded the rubbish starter pistol to a laser rifle and was really mowing down robot hordes. The full thing is free for schools and offers individual logins coupled with statistics, targets, medals, achievements etc., seems like a fairly positive use of “gamification”.

Of course looking at du Sautoy’s aspirations, if there’s one setting that screams “non-Euclidean geometry” (albeit not quite as loudly as it screams “Aieeeee, the horror, the horror”) it’s the Cthulhu Mythos, which leads to the inescapable conclusion that Mr Gove is calling for games of brain-bending horror to be made compulsory in schools. Hurray!

Monday 4 July 2011

Mr Bigger, whatever are you doing down there?

I hopped in to Age of Conan: Unchained over the weekend, the now free-to-play version of Funcom’s fantasy frolic through Robert E. Howard’s world of brawn, beasts and breasts. With the release of this edition of their game, Funcom have decided to make it unrated, which thus allowed them to fully expand on the latter of that troika of fantasy staples. And when I say ‘fully expand’ I am being literal:

Apart from the fact that either some enterprising soul in Aquilonia has invented both silicon and a way to implant it into female breasts, or a Stygian teenager found an interesting new use for the Dark Arts while furiously practising with his magic wand in his bedroom, there’s also the splendidly ridiculous innuendo-laden increase to a male character’s ‘size’, where one assumes that it actually changes height, and not length or girth as the text might lead one to believe.

Age of Conan? Carry On Conan more like. Hopefully they’ll add a Kenneth Williams-esque ‘Ooooo, matron’ emote, which would, admittedly, be a strong contender to take the crown from our long term favourite.

Funcom are also taking the prestige cosmetic MMO mount to new levels:

Yes, yours for only 1100 Funcom points, or about $10, is a virtual prostitute! A cosmetic pet in every sense of the phrase. There’s also a priestess for 2100 points, but I’d watch out for those high class ones because they expect you to take them to the opera and buy them dinner in an expensive restaurant as a bare minimum before they give you their bear minimum, and where are you going to find a staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Age of Conan anyway?

Still, Sparkle Pony hasn’t got anything on Slapper Priestess.

Of course Anarchy Online has had a perfectly normal Funcom-Points-powered store for a good long while now, so Age of Conan’s slightly (im)mature cash shop is not necessarily a sign of things to come. Regardless though, I couldn’t help but wonder how they intend to monetize their forthcoming supernatural MMO The Secret World, and whether it too would offer options via an in-game store:

The Secret World. Let me tell you the great secret of the world, honey. The secret is… [waves you in closer] the secret is… in my underpants. I’ve got your secrets right here, baby. Yes, find out all the secrets of my underpants, unlock my deep dark treasure, for just 2500 Funcom Points!

Of course it would obviously help if that was delivered by a buxom young lady in tight leather, rather than the craggy bearded geriatric old man in a crusty pee-stained bathrobe that I was picturing.

Sunday 3 July 2011

SOE reveal plans for closure of Star Wars: Galaxies, announce new game

GUNBARREL, CO – Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game Star Wars Galaxies is to close in December this year. In an interview with Massively, Sony Online Entertainment President John Smedly said that the contract with LucasArts would be running out in 2012, and SOE and LucasArts had reached a mutual business decision to shut down the game.

In a more upbeat press conference afterwards, SOE were delighted to announce the launch of a brand new game. “We’ve brought all our experience to this new game to give players a rich, deep experience in a world with a brand new IP, War Stars” said spokesman Smohn Jedly.

Jedly detailed some elements of the new universe, in which An Alliance That Is Rebellious led by the heroic Skuke Lywalker and roguish San Holo battle an oppressive Empire That Rules On A Galactic Scale spearheaded by the fearsome Varth Dader and his Storperial Imptroopers. The team even have plans for the first expansion, Lump to Jightspeed, in which players can blast into space to take part in dogfights with W-Xings and FIE Tighters.

“We’ve got a really great team behind the game” said Jedly “and we’re especially glad to have Kaph Roster on board.” Dismissing suggestions that the new game sounded a bit familiar, he told the press “You can play a hairdresser in this game. Does that sound like something based on a popular science fiction franchise?”

Jedly closed the conference with a cryptic hint that SOE’s next MMO could centre around a faerie detective living in Oxford: “Morse the Fey be with you”

Friday 1 July 2011

Silence is the most powerful scream.

I’ve been playing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on those rare occasions when the delight has temporarily faded from hunting wolves, shaving angry badgers, or run-by punching crows from their perches in a shocked puff of feathers in order to appease some random MMO NPC who will never speak to me again once I’ve completed the task for them. I mean, I’m not asking for much, but once I’ve performed whatever task the NPC demanded of me –run halfway around the world on an errand, or saved their children from orc raiders, or unblocked their toilet– half the time they’ll just outright not speak to me at all, and the other half of the time… well, I get the vague impression that they might be trying to avoid me

“Hello again Norman NPC!”

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“It’s me, the guy who rescued you last week from being crushed by the butcher’s wife when she fell on you from the top of that haystack. Remember? I heard the screaming, and came running, like the hero I am. Surely you remember: the impact was so great that it had blasted fully half the clothes from the pair of you, and she was still in the residual stages of bouncing up and down when I rounded the corner and tackled her to the ground before she crushed you further!”

“Oh, right. Yeah, look, this is a bad time, I’m kind of busy. Sorry.”

“Are you sure? You seem to be just standing around aimlessly. I can tell because I’m standing right next to you… [waves amiably] Hel-lo.”

“Dam… hi, sorry, thought we were on the telephone; forgot we hadn’t invented it yet.”

“The telephone?! My word, we haven’t even discovered gunpowder yet, and here you are dashing off and pre-inventing the telephone already! I mean, we’ll have to imagine inventing electricity first!”

“Yeah, anyway, I really am very busy. I really appreciate what you did for me, and taking it upon yourself to further help out and artificially inseminate my herd of yaks, which was no mean task.”

“You’re most welco…”

“Since they’re all males.”

“Ah.”

“But I’m afraid I don’t have time to talk right now.”

“Oh. Well, okay. Fair enough.”

“Okay.”

“Okay then.”

“Uh huh.”

[I look hopefully at the NPC]

“[sigh] Yes?”

“You really don’t seem terribly busy…”

“I’m, uh, meditating.”

“Meditating?”

“Yes, I’m trying to find inner peace, harmony, and an unconditional selfless love for my fellow man.”

“Oh.”

“Now piss off.”

Maybe I shouldn’t expect so much. After all, they did give me a knackered old pair of boots two sizes too small for my character to wear as reward for saving their entire village from being captured by orcs and sent to work as green coats at the orc equivalent of Butlins. But these NPCs, they’re all “Save us! Save us!” and they’re your best friend and won’t stop talking to you “Do this. Go there. Take that. Rub my feet”, until you’ve performed their tasks for them, and suddenly you find that they’ve unfriended you on Facebook, and stopped following you on Twitter. I mean, really.

I’ve stalled slightly on The Witcher 2 however, not getting all that terribly far through the game, and thus there shouldn’t be any spoilers in this post, because if there are then it’ll probably spoil it for me too, at which point I promise I’ll turn to myself and punch me off my chair.

I’ve reached Chapter 2, where the most memorable part of Chapter 1 was the huge forest in which you spend most of your adventuring ‘me time’, wandering around just stabbing stuff for stabbing stuffs sake. Witcher 2 is a beautiful game, graphically and atmospherically, and the needle on the immersion-o-meter was definitely lolling (but definitely not loling) towards the redline on the display whenever I took the time to wander through CD Projekt’s carefully crafted abyssal chthonic resonator. Chapter 2, however, is where I came a little unstuck. As a veteran of many an RPG campaign, the ‘install yourself in a city, follow a main quest line, and collect every meaningless side quest you can find along the way in the hope of finding a weapon upgrade or two’ style of play has begun to wear a little thin. Especially when you consider the nature of our protagonist, from the Wikipedia entry:

“[…] witchers are monster-hunters who receive special training and have their bodies modified at an early age to provide them with supernatural abilities so they can battle extremely dangerous monsters and survive.”

Which means it’s always hard to be searching on hands and knees through an ancient ruin for Dwane the dwarf’s mithril ring, a long lost family heirloom which he lost while adventuring, when you could otherwise be hunting fearsome monsters. More so when you eventually return to town holding the ring far out in front of you, pinching it lightly between two fingers, a pose which you assumed the moment you realised that this ring was never designed to go on a finger. Dwane defensively proclaims to your back that eroticism is a valid form of adventuring as you walk away with your newly acquired pair of old boots two sizes too small for you.

It’s the usual RPG feeling, that wonderment as to how NPCs ever manage to get on in their lives when the Witcher, or generic hero type X, is not around to help them with their every single measly chore

“Witcher! Trolls are attacking the orphanage!”
“Witcher! There are giant rats in my cellar!”
“Witcher! I can’t get the lid off this jar!”
“Witcher! This garden gate squeaks when it opens!”
“Witcher! There’s an itch on my back I can’t reach!”
“Witcher! The lawn needs mowing!”
“Witcher! My prostate needs checking!”
“Witcher! I need to consolidate my debts into one easy manageable loan!”
“Witcher! I have something in my eye!”
“Witcher! We’re going to my mother’s, put the child seat in the cart!”

I mean, the immersion-o-meter is still reading quite high in Chapter 2, but only because I switched it over to measure the SI unit of Henpecking.

I’m slowly making my way through the game anyway, because I feel I owe it that much from the unadulterated joy it gave me in Chapter 1, but the further I progress the more eerie the town I’m residing in becomes; the more I rub backs, peel potatoes, wax bikini lines, and trim hedgerows, the more residents there are who seem to have suddenly and wholly taken to the philosophy of silent self contemplation.