Tuesday 30 August 2011

What do you call an ad break for the Templars?

Templar ForeverA divine intervention.

Lots of talk on Twitter and elsewhere in the past few days regarding the first rumblings of the beta for The Secret World, which is finally (here’s some preliminary hype from two years ago) getting set to reveal itself to a select number of ‘testers’. Bonus irony points for how quickly the NDA is broken and a wiki with all the secrets of The Secret World is launched.

I’ll be interested to see if they’re honouring the automatic invites for those who were subscribed to Age of Conan way back when; I really should login to my Funcom account at some point and check.

However, a lot of discussion seems to be focussed primarily on deciding which faction to play. There are the Dragons, who look increasingly like the World of Warcraft Alliance of TSW, and the Illuminati, the only group whose name registers as an error with my computer’s spelling checker: a conspiracy I tell you! The Templars seem to be a less popular lot, so for those who may have forgotten, allow me to again perform the minor miracle of being someone who advertises their cause.

Templar exemplar.

Evolution is not a force but a process.

It was the point at which I’d decided upon name, class, race, face and hair style options for my character in Guild Wars 2 when it dawned on me, that despite my better judgement and efforts to the contrary, I’d succumbed and let ArenaNet’s hype seep surreptitiously into my subconscious, like a constrictor snake slowly sliding sub rosa around its prey –which slumbers beneath that thorny shelter in the false supposition of safety– before squeezing, and then devouring it wholly.

It’s a tempered excitement, however, when compared to the hair-tearing bipolar frenzies I exhibited in the lead up to World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online. My current enthusiasm is a mellow yellow, Guild Wars 2 being the electrical banana that I believe ‘is gonna be a sudden craze’. I think this more reserved enthusiasm is, in part, due to the fact that I know that it is baseless: I have no more proof of Guild Wars 2’s qualifications for sustained entertainment than I did with Warhammer Online, and I know that the curriculum vitae presented by the game could be a carefully exaggerated construction in order for it to get its foot in the door of my attentions – mission accomplished, by the way. These days I’m well aware that I need to interview candidates thoroughly before making any commitment, Warhammer Online taught me this lesson well.

Primarily then, the game has me excited because the facts presented thus far appeal to my taste in fantasy fashions. The races are attractive and varied, even though Asura seem set to take over the Irritating Midget crown from World of Warcraft’s Gnome race, what with their short stature, cute faces, afro hairstyle option, and a racial name that invokes materialistic power-seeking Hindu deities.

(QI aside: The Wikipedia entry claims that “[Asura] is also cognate with Old Norse “Æsir”, which implies a common Proto-Indo-European origin for the Asura and the Æsir.” Which leads to interesting potential connections, considering that the Norn in Guild Wars 2 are clearly built on a foundation of Old Norse mythology.)

There certainly seems to be a little something for everyone in the spread of races, with the Charr appealing to furries and the Sylvari catering to the elf/fae/naturalist(and possibly naturist) types.

It’s harder to get excited about the classes without actually having played them, but based on the evidence thus far, I’ve found a couple that I think will interest me. From a purely aesthetic point of view then, it will be the steampunk gunplay that makes or breaks the appeal of many of the classes for me. I don’t mind steampunk, but I’ve expressed before that it’s one of those genre elements that many games fail to treat with any reverence, instead using it as an excuse to attach cogs and watches to clothing, and foist guns and comically inappropriate technology into a fantasy setting. It’s not the technology itself, but the fact that most game worlds don’t reflect the impact of such technology; it seems that no consideration is given to the effect of the technology, and so the juxtaposition of a world where people have access to guns, but many still run around wielding swords, is a jarring one. The famous scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones waits patiently for a mercenary to finish his intricate attempt at an intimidating sword dance, before pulling out his revolver and shooting the mercenary dead, should serve as a basic reminder of the rapid change in natural order that such technology portends.

Then again, consideration rarely seems to be given to the evolution of these worlds in which magic exists either, where the only response to magicians pitching balls of fire seems to be for non-magic users to develop a lack of nerve endings and flame retardant hair, so that they can be set on fire with alarming regularity and continue fighting while also maintaining a perfectly styled coiffeur.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Fast food in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

I’m currently enjoying the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Like the Old Man Murray walkthrough for the original game, I’m finding plenty of potential for amusement outside of the main storyline.

Mrs Walters, an old dear who’s a bit forgetful, constantly asked for her meal throughout the entirety of our conversation together, somehow mistaking my heavy assault rifle and cyber-enhanced limbs for the Meals on Wheels man – a disguise which never seems to fool security personnel, more’s the pity. Conversation over, and having searched the apartment for ammunition and weapons which I could use (curiously she didn’t have either: I thought it was law that people had military hardware strewn throughout their homes), I was on my way out when I glanced towards her kitchen; seeing as I had super-strength from various body augmentations, I thought I’d try to help with her immediate meal concerns.

She didn’t seem to appreciate it.

Thursday 25 August 2011

What's big, hairy and sounds like a police car?

I was watching a walkthrough of the current state of character customisation in Guild Wars 2 and I couldn’t help but notice a striking similarity between one of the default male Norn faces and a certain Irish actor.
Liam NeesonA Norn

A hybrid of Liam Neeson and a Norn? I shall dub him ‘Nee-norn’, and you will know of his approaching wrath from the sound he makes:

Nee-norn, nee-norn, nee-norn!

Thought for the day.

Eventually some bright spark in China will work out how to link their factory equipment controls to an MMO interface; then they’ll simply create quests such as ‘Craft 10000 Nike trainers for 30 XP’, and we’ll pay them a monthly fee to let us do it.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

The sevens sins of: 'Go and speak to...' quests.

Wrath: The standard sin response, instantly triggered once you’ve been on one too many of these quests. Starting with the traditional ‘No, you – you ask them! You two want to talk? Then walk ten paces down the arsing corridor and have a chat!’ moving on to more impotent outbursts of rage as you slowly realise you’re simply shouting at a computer monitor, and that your other half is starting to glance nervously at you from the other side of the room. For NPCs who are not standing ten paces apart but are in fact on the other side of the world, popular rants usually reference the magical instantaneous mailbox system that could be used to send a message and receive a reply in the time it takes your character to mount their horse, let alone ride halfway across the world.

Envy: Gods, it’s like a being back in a primary school classroom around here! You’re passing notes for Jenny Ansell to Matthew Foster again, because you fancy her and hope that she’ll see that you’re really the one for her, not Matthew Bloody Whiteteeth McPerfecthair. Of course she never does. One of these days we’ll start being intercepted by NPCs who grab us by the ear and take the note we’re carrying, and send us to the headmaster’s office. At which point we’ll fill Jenny Ansell’s school bag with earwigs for getting us into trouble for passing messages. Allegedly.

Pride: Envy is shortly followed by the pride response. I’m a bloody hero of the Seventh Age! I have defeated deities, for crying out loud! I’m not Postman Sodding Pat. Nor am I a heavily armoured babysitter, trying to get sulking teenagers to talk to one another by repeating their ‘Well, tell them I said…’ instructions while they’re stood staring into each other’s miserable pimply faces!

Greed: Of course that twinge of greed eventually arrives. That invidious Luke Skywalker voice in the back of your mind that whispers ‘She’s rich…’, whereupon the greed centre of your brain lets out a low mournful Wookie growl, and you hear yourself saying ‘Rich?’ as you raise raise your eyebrows and prick up your ears. The reward never turns out to be more wealth than you can imagine, however.

Sloth: With resignation to the task comes a general level of apathetic ‘Really? I mean, *really*?’ before you slope off on the errand, hands in pockets, dragging your feet and kicking at stones along the way. ‘Go and speak to’ in NPC quest text generally invokes the same response that the words ‘I need you to…’ did from your parents when you were a child, where you instinctively knew that the rest of the sentence would be of the form ‘…do something you’re going to hate because I think it will be character building for you’. And you don’t have any choice in either of these matters.

Gluttony: It’s usually at this point that you start eating (heavy drinking is also an option) as a comfort response to the fact that you’re fully aware that you just pulled the lever for a pellet. Again.

Lust: What can I say? Gaze fixedly at a horse’s bum for hours on end as you travel between destinations, and it begins to look quite attractive. I’ve painted a face on mine and have conversations with it while I wait to get to my next appointment with Geoff ‘Here’s one line of ASCII text, now travel all the way back to where you started’ von PlotExposition the NPC. I’ve booked a nice restaurant for the two of us this evening, in fact. Candles, fine wine, good food; just me and my horse’s bum. I call him Friday.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

The Haven.

Once upon a quest line dreary, while I wandered weak and weary,
Over many a mile and bland expanse of forgotten shore,
While I grinded, ardour shearing, suddenly there came a clearing,
And I stood there simply peering, peering at the fort before.
‘Tis some anterior,’ I muttered, sneering at the fort before,
‘Only this, and nothing more.’

But upon that bastion nearing, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no player ever dared to dream before;
`Surely,’ said I, `surely there is treasure in this lordly fortress;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore.
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore –
Alas! Some mobs and nothing more!’

Presently all hope declined; deflated soul at once resigned,
`Dev’ said I, `or designer, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my desire for more,
In that moment I believed you, that this fort I should explore.’
Yet mobs stood there, and nothing more.

Quite distinct the recollection, when hope defeated circumspection,
And fancy dared to conjure bounty in that citadel I saw.
Eagerly I wished for wonder; vainly forth I chose to blunder
On the wild preposterous belief – belief in something to explore.
Yet nought but mobs did I uncover and on this discovery I swore:
No exploring forevermore.

With considerable apologies to Mr Poe

Monday 22 August 2011

In the future, everyone will be on YouTube for fifteen minutes.

There must be an equivalent of YouTube in Middle Earth, that’s the only way I can explain it. Pray allow me to indulge in a little light exposition.

I’m working on improving my reputation with the various elf factions in Middle Earth. After vadering the goblins of Goblin Town, I quickly achieved kindred with the elves of Rivendell, Elrond transformed from a cold and aloof dignitary into my last homely homie, and where once I faced arrows and barked challenges, I now received fist-bumps and offers to share a spliff.

Next on the checklist of surprisingly hostile elves were the Galadhrim. Ensconced deep within the leafy boughs of Lothlórien, the Galadhrim are the last defenders of snooty, holier-than-thou, tree-hugging elfdom; they’re the sort of people who personally invite you to come and help them fight the forces of darkness, and then on your arrival threaten to pincushion you with arrows unless you prove your worth by running errands for them. It was a couple of these errands which caused me to settle on the YouTube theory stated at the beginning of the post, but although the quests were bizarre in nature, they were also a reliable source of generous (for elves) reputation, and as such I did what any self-respecting MMO player would do: put on a suitable podcast and zoned-out in an attempt to ignore the whole sorry business, even as I repeatedly performed it.

The first quest had me collecting orc poo. That was the first thing they had me do. They did that just to show me what they COULD get me to do, and to instil in me a suitable level of apprehension. So I ran around and gathered five piles of steaming orc dung, brought it back in my inventory because they didn’t provide me with a suitable receptacle (I suspected this was on purpose), and emptied it on the floor at their feet. Degrading enough, I hope you would agree, for one who had battled the Witch King, and turned the orc bastion of The Grand Stair into a frolicking sight-seeing tour. But they weren’t finished yet. Oh no.

“Now we’d like you to take the poo and throw into a fire at one of the orc camps bordering our forest.”
“We think it will send them a suitable message.”

No (orc)shit, it will send them a message! It will send them the ‘message’ that we’re madder than a bag full of rabid badgers. I won’t do it! Of course they nonchalantly wafted a big fat roll of repuation in front of me, and off I ran, Captain of Gondor, hero of Eriador, with a bag full of faeces and a heart full of self-loathing. Over the course of my grind I performed this quest many times, and I could only begin to wonder what the conversation was like at the orc camp each time I turned up.

“Oh god, it’s the mad poo-flinging woman again.”
“Oh not again! Where? I don’t see…”
“No, don’t look! She’ll come over here. Just ignore her, Henry, maybe she’ll go away.”
“I’m sorry, it’s no good Kenneth, I’m going to have to say something. This is totally unacceptable. We’re civilised orcs, this is outrageous!”
“Oh no no no, don’t antagonise her, Henry! Please… don’t make a scene.”
“Oh *really* Kenneth, you are such wet blanket. I’m just going to go over there and have a calm conversation, that’s all. You’ll see, I’m sure she’ll listen to reason.”
“Fine, you trot over to her, but I’m staying here.”
“Excuse me! E–excuse me? Madam? I said ‘excuse me’. Look, if you’d just stop throwing the poo for a second! Thank you. Now, I just wanted to have a calm discussion abou-aaaHHHHhOWWWWWW! SHE STABBED ME KENNETH. HELP! OH OW ARRRGGGGGGGGHHHH!”
“I’M COMING HENRY! I’M-A COMING! Unhand my boyfriend at once, madam! Desist I say, you heathen!”

They always bring a friend when they aggro, don’t they? Still, yet again an MMO causes me to ponder whether the NPCs were, in fact, the good guys.

Next up was fetching arrows. Not such a terrible task, I think you’ll agree. Simply run around collecting five arrows from the corpses of orcs, and bring them back to the other half of the Evil Quest Twins: the two quests were handed out by a pair of NPCs who stood resolutely next to one another, and I couldn’t help but begin to view them as a sort of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, trying to come up with highly creative ways to bump me off, or at the very least publicly humiliate me.

“The Captain claims that our missions stink, Mr Wint.”
“I do believe it is the Captain that is most malodorous, Mr Kidd. Perhaps the Captain would like to collect some arrows instead?”
“A flight of fancy, Mr Wint?”
“Indubitably, Mr Kidd!”

Where was I? Oh yes, crying into my keyboard. No, wait! Collecting arrows. Right. Having collected the arrows I was then tasked with taking them to an encampment of elves a reasonable distance away. Fair enough: your standard bland MMO quest fare. I hadn’t taken into account the Mr Wint and Mr Kidd factor, however.

Mr Kidd: “Now I’d like you to take these arrows to the encampment far north of here. It is a long perilous journey I’m afraid, and will take you some time.”
Hero: “No problem, I’ll just grab the bundle and throw it over the back of my horse here.”
Mr Kidd: “Horse?”
Hero: “Yes, my horse – Hawthorn. He’s swift and can easily manage the arrows as well as myself.”
Mr Kidd: “Ah, no, you must carry the arrows on foot. You see, it’s an, uh, ancient elven ritual. *snort* Isn’t that right Mr Kidd?”
Mr Wint: “It is the noble nature of sacrifice that we demand, Mr Wint. *chortle*”
Hero: “Fine, I’ll do it.”
Mr Wint: “Y-you will?”
Hero: “Sure. As long as I get the rep, I’m on it like Gandalf riding a Balrog. I’m a hero, don’t you know? Mundane chores are *what we do*.”
Mr Kidd: “Okay, but…”
Hero: “But?”
Mr Kidd: “But… you must also, uhm… run! Yes, run. You need to get there quickly!”
Hero: “So I’m not allowed to use my horse, but it’s a matter of urgency?”
Mr Wint: “Yes, the arrows will melt in the sunlight if you take too long.”
Hero: “Riiiiiight. Are you guys taking the pis–“
Mr Kidd: “Yes. Yes we are.”
Mr Wint: “It’s what *we* do. Now off you go.”
Mr Kidd: “Actually, hold on.”
Hero: “What *now*?!”
Mr Kidd: “D’you mind if we ride alongside and film you? It’s just that we have a popular channel on EruTube.”
Mr Wint: “And Mr Kidd has posted this excellent video of some mad bint throwing orc poo into a fire, then screaming and stabbing some orcs.”
Mr Kidd: “It’s quite spectacular.”
Mr Wint: “Over two and a half a million hits.”
Mr Kidd: “And now, you see, we’re trying to top it.”
Mr Wint: “With something even more stupid.”

Friday 19 August 2011

Mission Quite Possible.

Your task, should you choose to accept it… and why wouldn’t you? It’s quite easy really, it’s not like I’m asking you to take a ring into Mordor or anything, which we both know you wouldn’t do anyway. Or would you? Would you? You wouldn’t. Fine.

Anyway, your mission (which is quite possible) is to take a high level character and find a low level area in your MMO of choice, and then, while stomping around killing all the grey-con mobs, play the Imperial March (Vader’s Theme) loudly in the background. Look, I’ve even provided you with a link to it; this really is a quite possible mission.

Then, see how long you last before you begin to feel really rather evil. I was slaughtering goblins in Goblin Town earlier, and I started to feel sorry for the little green guys by the end of the song. I even helped them to put up a new fence after I’d kicked down their previous one.

As always, should you or any of your guild by killed trying such an easy mission, the KiaSA Captcha AI will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

This blog post won’t self-destruct in five seconds, that would be daft wouldn’t it? Don’t be so silly, you’re making me nervous about whether you can achieve this mission.

Good luck, readers.


Nah I’m just kidding, it really won’t self-destruct you know.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.

Channel KiaSA, in association with LotRO, now returns you to the continuing adventures of Captain Completionist in Grindland.

I recently completed levelling my Captain’s crafting profession by grinding materials while listening to various podcasts, with the aptly named How to Murder Time, as well as A Casual Stroll to Mordor, Massively Speaking and Claims of the Normal all helping to distract me away from the ‘game’ that I’m ‘enjoying’. In addition I’ve nearly finished the reputation grind with the crafting guild to become kindred with them, thus opening up a raft of high level recipes that can make some potentially useful items; all of which will become obsolete in the next month or so when the Rise of Isengard expansion arrives and new crafting tiers are introduced. I think I’m doing it wrong.

I also spent time grinding virtue deeds to get the last few that I need to the cap of ten, just before Isengard raises the cap to twelve. Oh dear. Anyway, the last virtue required the killing of two hundred and forty worms anywhere in the depths of Moria, and I was joined on the venture by OG of the Hobbington Cresent massive, Van Hemlock, who is also on a bit of a character completion bender at the moment. It started off simply enough, with the worms conning grey to our level-capped characters, such that my Captain with her dwarf archer herald in tow, and Van Hemlock’s overpowering Guardian, were able to tear through the mobs like cats in a box of catnip-laced tissue paper. I generally turn the ‘gore’ setting off in Bioware’s Dragon Age games because it never seems quite right to have my character sitting down for afternoon tea with the Countess de Snootyknickers, she dressed in immaculate white lace, my character dressed from head to toe in the blood of a hundred orcs, possibly with a piece of severed ogre flesh slowly peeling embarrassingly away from her top lip, eventually landing with a plop in the countess’s best china. Grinding virtues as we were at the time, however, I would have paid for a ‘persistent gore’ setting which I could switch on. There would have been mayhem! Any orcs chasing us would have been in danger of impaling themselves on their own weapons as they slipped and slid their way towards us across a field of gore and entrails, eventually having to invent a new type of skate for use on the blood rink we had created. Other adventurers, possibly looking to muscle in on our territory, would have stepped slowly away in horror as they were drenched in a torrent of blood, while clumps of flesh fell from the ceiling where they had been thrown by our frenetic efforts, slapping down upon the poor adventurers’ heads. It would have been glorious! As it was, the worms fell down dead in the best ham actor tradition, and we looted their perfectly clean and sterile corpses before moving on.

As such we came up with our own form of entertainment, seeing as MMOs remain so obstinate about not providing any themselves. Alternately we launched into tirades about all the well-trod issues with today’s MMOs as we encountered them on our ‘adventures’, like geriatrics complaining about the snow while stubbornly refusing to leave their rocking chairs on the front porch and go inside where it’s warm and hot cocoa awaits. I think it slowly progressed into a sort of grumpy old man’s pranking game, each of us trying to put the other off MMOs altogether by questioning the reasons why we were doing it, what productive ventures we could be otherwise undertaking, and so forth; you know, all those perfectly valid questions which are just not mentioned in polite MMO society, like bringing up third world debt at a banker’s bonus award ceremony.

My virtues complete, the epic quest content was the final major item on my checklist of 100 Things To Do Before The Expansion Comes Along And Makes Them All Obsolete. As such I’ve been staring at virtual horse bums once again, while occasionally performing errands that street urchins would take offence to, even if you offered them a shilling and a sharp clip around the ear. However, I did make good use of the time by performing drive-by buffings on unsuspecting lower level characters who were otherwise minding their own business in the area. I’d forgotten how good a drive-by buffing feels, and I’m not entirely sure why I haven’t done it in recent memory. I usually play buffing/support characters where I can find them (something which Telwyn points out is perhaps more difficult than it should be in these cooperative games of ours); I have fond memories of sitting on the entrance at Perez Park in City of Heroes and doing nothing for an hour but cast Speed Boost on the low level characters there, giving them a short duration run speed and attack speed buff, and transforming them into levelling machines; I like being able to give other players a taste of a more powerful character for a while, a glimpse into the future, if you will. So I’m not sure why I haven’t been doing my drive-by buffings, and I do worry that it’s because I’m letting myself be carried along by the decline in co-operation which the genre seems to be experiencing. Thus it may be that the epic content –which used to be for groups but that I’m now progressing through solo– has reminded me about some of the things that we used to do back in the days when we were young and MMOs were younger. A time when we weren’t quite as jaded as we have become, what with the slow decline in MMO society as huge numbers of people from diverse walks of Real Society ‘invaded’ our world.

As such, I won’t be grinding any content tonight; if you want to find me, look for the level sixty five Captain standing in some random starter area, dropping buffs on the new characters they find there. Behind that character will be sitting a smiling fool, reminiscing happily about friendlier times, trying to work out what he needs to do to return to them.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Thought for the day.

With the ostensible beginnings of a long resisted but inevitable decline, it’s interesting to see World of Warcraft finally forced to passe arrière. What’s more interesting is their counter-riposte: a patent feint hinting at an expansion involving one of their most beloved and untapped races, then a change of engagement with respect to the balance of responsibility within the Holy Trinity, and now a redoublement of emphasis on appealing to the casual/RP masses.

What next, I wonder. Mentoring? Housing?


However, what will be most fascinating to observe –with Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic just around the corner– is whether this is too little too late, is this the Hero of Haarlem trying to plug the Möhne dam with his finger?

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Concepts, like individuals, have their histories.

It’s been four years since the last review, so let’s have a look at a couple more MMO concepts that never made it into production:

Item Store Online – A curious conundrum of a game, clearly influenced by games such as Recettear, ISO was an MMO where players took on the role of an item store owner and attempted to make money by selling items in their store to NPCs and other PCs. The game itself had an item store, however, where players could purchase item store items to improve their item store in order to make more money, which could then be spent in the game’s item store or other player item stores. The first expansion was rumoured to allow players to sell the game’s item store items directly through their item store, but only if they bought a special item store item first. Once a player had bought the item store item that let them sell item store items in their item store, they could also sell the item that let players sell item store items in their item store in their item store.

Angle Grinder Online – Placing you in the role of an angle grinder, your job was to grind inanimate objects. Quests would require you to grind six objectives, with each objective requiring you to grind twenty objects. You’d grind reputation through grinding these grinding quests, which would eventually allow you to grind to the next level of grinding. Beta testers complained that, even though they were all hardened MMO veterans, the game simply contained far too much sex.

Porn World Online – Beta testers complained that there was far too much grinding.

Splungthrust: Tales of Flimbonia – Perhaps the greatest MMO of all time, it had everything that MMO players wanted. Huge sandbox elements seamlessly merged with theme park areas for the perfect questing experience. A genre-busting world design, which incorporated fantasy, sci-fi, horror, romance, and the wild west. An incredibly expansive player housing system. Intricate crafting that produced powerful customisable items. Twenty races. Fifty classes. Perfectly balanced meaningful PvP. Complex NPC AI that created exciting and challenging escort quests. Over seven years of unique content through three hundred character levels, with zero grind. A world which would permanently change based on the players’ actions. An active combat system that allowed for tactical or twitch game-play based on player preference. A detailed character customisation model allowing for intricate body specifications, such as left toe tendon length and eyebrow hair population density. In short, it was a utopia of MMO design. Unfortunately during beta testing the players complained that mailboxes were painted blue when clearly they should be red; the developers didn’t listen, and so nobody played the game upon its release.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Online – A game where players started out at level eighty and slowly worked their way down to level one. Players would work hard to worsen their characters, slowly trading out their starter epics for blues or, if they were lucky, greens. Once they reached level one, players would spend their time raiding training dummies until they’d earnt the right to wear nothing but their grey-con undergarments and wield a small twig with negative DPS, whereupon they would attempt to show-off their superiority by dancing on top of a mailbox in a major city, and promptly fall to their single optimised hit point deaths.

Crit Hit Online – In order to maximise the thrill of combat, every successful attack in CHO was a critical.

OCDOCDOCDO… – An MMO where each player took on the role of a counsellor helping NPCs with acute cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Players accomplished this by repeatedly checking on their NPC patients in order to be able to help them as soon as required. Daily quests that gained the player vital reputation with the medical board were also essential. Success was much more likely for those who hoarded various medicines and treatments in their inventory and vault space on the remote chance that one of them might be useful for curing an NPC of their OCD one day. Every five levels the players would face a medical board evaluation if they hadn’t managed to complete every daily quest since their last examination; five was also the number of times that players were required to run in and out of an instance swirly before being allowed into the instance. Most important of all was the bonus experience buff that was granted to players if they always left their character at a specific spot before logging out each night; if they checked their mailbox more than ten times a day; if their inventory items were sorted into rows by type or alphabetically; if they finished a session with an even amount of experience or reputation; if they spent more time aligning their UI than playing the game that session; if they had spent more time running in a circle than standing still; or if they crafted an equal number of trousers as they did shirts, despite the skill gains being the same and the items being sold to a vendor, simply because they didn’t want the trouser recipe to feel left out. Notably, at the last count before the game was cancelled, there were over fifteen million achievements to be earned.

Wisdom is knowing what to do next, skill is knowing how to do it, and virtue is doing it.

The acquisition of skills is changing. […] A weapon’s skills are now learned by fighting with that weapon. Because weapon skills are tied to weapon use, there is no reason to visit a trainer and make choices about which ones to unlock. Instead, it makes more sense to learn how to use the weapon by, you know, actually using it.”

It will be interesting to learn more about this system, because if there was one thing that stood out as being excellent entertainment in World of Warcraft, it was getting a new shiny weapon of a sort that you hadn’t used in some time, and then having to wander off and beat endlessly on green-con mobs until your weapon skill levelled-up enough that you could actually hit normal-con mobs with it. Unlike the issues highlighted in Tiger’s posts of yore, there does at least seem to be a reason for ‘weapon skill’ levelling in Guild Wars 2.

It’s a tricky one to balance. Having a player’s character improve their skill with a weapon through the explicit use of that weapon is a romantic notion: you pick your favoured weapon and master it, becoming a Nameless, Broken Sword, Flying Snow or Sky. On the other hand we are talking about MMOs, and therefore if essential groups of skills are tied only to specific weapons, then this starts to sound like the typical MMO optimisation nightmare of needing to carry a weapon of every type, and then having to switch between them constantly in order to keep all your skills levelled up.

Here’s hoping that ArenaNet, with their alternative view of what an MMO should be, have some ideas on the subject outside of that usual mantra of the subscription-based MMOs: Grind More, Bitches! Then again, some say that current evidence may point to ArenaNet being wed to the grind.

Monday 15 August 2011

But a crop is a crop, and who's to say where the harvest shall stop?

The wait continues. Like wheat anticipating the harvest beneath a rich blue sky, as the sun makes its repeated arcing passes overhead, the field of MMO adherents stands still, in quiet anticipation of the next major releases the genre has to offer. Occasionally a gentle breeze of hype brushes the ears, making itself known through the ripples and swirls it leaves in the bending swaying stems of opinion. In the meantime, opportunistic smaller games –field mice and yellow wags– make comfortable nests within the vast golden sea of consumers, content to do so in the knowledge that when the harvest comes the verdured crop belongs to the Colossi of MMOdom, who will come with giant metal fingers and reap the reward of their careful cultivations. Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic between them will thresh the wallets of the multitude, where a bumper crop of revenue is all but guaranteed.

I’m almost to the point of anticipation with respect to the release of these two games, not through any great desire to play them but because I want to know the extent of their impact. Will they strike with a force that sends shockwaves across the landscape of MMOs, or will they fizzle and burn in the atmosphere and provide little more than brief brush strokes of brilliant light across the canvas of the sky? In this melancholic MMO climate, even a good game is not guaranteed to launch with a mass and velocity great enough to set the world on fire when it lands. I leave my excitement for the games themselves until I’ve had a chance to play them, whereupon I’ll see whether they have that ineffable spark that keeps me hooked beyond the initial marital bliss of the first twenty levels. For me, World of Warcraft had accessibility and scope, Lord of the Rings Online its source material and graphical splendour; I’ll have no idea if either GW2 or SW:TOR has a compelling hook until I play them, so for the time being I remain objectively pleased with the facts that have been presented so far (races and classes, for example) but I’ll leave any judgements until after the honeymoon is over.

Other games still ping softly at the edges of my radar, the blips for Funcom’s The Secret World and CCP’s World of Darkness still hover around at the periphery of the genre no matter what turns it takes. They remain small signatures for now but probably shouldn’t be ignored, lest they creep clandestinely into range before slowly surfacing and revealing the previously hidden extent of their behemoth nature. It might be considered that these games are destined for a niche status, but it’s always worth remembering in such analysis that upon taking World of Warcraft out of the MMO pool, the delineation of nicheness assumes a vastly different size and shape; World of Warcraft is a slow aging whale, and it will only take one lean efficient shark to take a successful bite before a feeding frenzy ensues.

Back in 2007 I wrote:

“So here we are in the tree of MMO life, where Everquest saw the graphical MMO genre explode out from its roots, and World of Warcraft brought it into the branches of mainstream popular culture as perhaps Half-Life did for FPS games. And now we begin to see the influx of MMOs released in the wake of this success, and the weight of all this extra growth that isn’t needed begins to damage the tree, it weighs it down and forces it to spend resources in keeping these branches alive which would be better spent in growing a few stronger and healthier branches. And if nobody comes along to prune it, eventually it will wither and fail, until it is a gnarled trunk unrecognisable from its former glory.”

I think we’re looking at that gnarled trunk. The question is: do Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic represent the last vestiges of new growth on that aged foundation, or do they represent saplings formed from that original tree’s seed, from which a whole new generation of flourishing growth will bloom?

I stand in the field beneath the rich blue sky, awaiting the harvest.

Friday 12 August 2011

Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic?

With all the shenannigans going on here in England, I’ve been glad for the opportunity to take respite from all the violence, destruction, and thick-skulled orcish types, and ensconce myself somewhere comparatively pleasant, such as the Valley of Death, Doom and Darkness deep within the fiery trenches of inner Mordor. There I sat down with Gandalf and discussed the situation over in Actual Earth as compared to that in the Middle one. Gandalf listened patiently, nodded sagely, and then asked whether we had a Rohirrim that might be used to charge the ne’er-do-wells, proffering his own successes with such a tactic as evidence for its merit. It certainly warranted further consideration. Then, conversation over, he asked me if I’d clear out an infestation of orcs in the basement of Moria.

That’s often the lot of adventurers in Lord of the Rings Online: generally considered by most NPCs to be executors of extreme pest control. You can imagine NPCs putting their feet up at night in front of the television

This week on Extreme Pest Control…

Geoff the Lore-master clears a termite infestation from this front porch using the flame of Anor [Cut to bloke in a dress running away from a house and diving over a hedgerow as the entire front of the house explodes outwards in a fireball]

Frank demonstrates his technique for clearing moles [Cut to mole. Cut to mole’s point of view which sees a maniacially grinning dwarf swinging a huge two-handed hammer overhand towards the camera. Cut to horrified old lady standing next to a cratered lawn]

And Colin the Runekeeper shows us how to remove a wasp infestation from your loft [An elf fires lightning from his hands up into the loft. There’s a short pause, whereupon thousands of wasps tumble out of the loft hatch, along with several bats, a large charred bird and a singed and smoking cat. A child cries ‘Mr Tiddles!’ at which point the elf makes a run for it]

Middle Earth gets all the best television shows.

Sometimes though I do have to wonder whether this isn’t all some sort of Walter Mitty fantasy on the part of my character, and they are in fact an everyday pest controller who likes to pass the time by imagining they’re an adventuring hero.

[A lady in modern attire stands at the door to a basement in a city apartment. Suddenly a fully armoured knight pops his head up from the basement with a look of sympathy on his face]

It’s orcs I’m afraid. Big ol’ nest down there; I’ll need to gather a band of stalwart adventurers, then spend a year and a day slaughtering the invading forces using weapons forged in the Heart of Fire.

I… see. And when you say ‘orcs’ you mean…


Rats. Good. And when you say ‘I’ll need to gather a band of stalwart adventurers’…

I’ll need to go and grab Kev from the van.

Hmmm. And ‘spend a year and a day slaughtering the invading forces using weapons forged in the Heart of Fire’..?

Put some traps down with a bit of cheese, and come back in a week.

Okay then.

I will need to collect their entrails, eyes and the like, and store them in my bank vault in case a random stranger wants them in exchange for gold.

And by that you mean?

That I will need to collect their entrails, eyes and the like, and store them in my bank vault in case a random stranger wants them in exchange for gold.

Get out of my house.

There’s no doubt that the pests of Middle Earth are relentless, and this is no more blatant to a player than when running around grinding deeds in low level areas, where no sooner have you cleared out an infestation than you turn around and find they’re back again, scratching at the walls and chewing on the mithril power lines. Perhaps Middle Earth just needs better sanitation, a theory which is only strengthened by the fact that so many of these pests transmit disease on contact with claw or fang.

And why can’t we have an infestation of koalas or sloths for once?

It all seems a bit Ghostbusters in MMOs these days, with your merry band of heroes trying to hide –behind flashy gear and winning smiles– the fact that it’s not much more than a supernatural-pest control unit. Only with less of the ‘girlfriends turning into dogs’ thing.

Meanwhile I’m back to work on the Captain; having got the Warden as far as I felt necessary, I suddenly found myself with the completionist urge on my original level sixty five. Seeing as the Captain is the character I’ve played in the Monday night static group for the past two or more years, you’d think she’d be pretty complete already, but alas the Warden has always had my favour outside of our once-per-week group gatherings. So there’s much to do, but most of it is a grind, and this reminded me why I usually end up creating a new character rather than slogging away at incremental upgrades at the level cap. Still, because there’s so much to do, I can at least work on different things each night and keep it slightly fresher than it might otherwise be. Setting small goals rather than focussing on the large final achievement gives the equivalent of that trickled sense of progress that so appeals to me when levelling a character. Primarily though, much to my shame, the main reason I found new enjoyment in playing my Captain was that I created a new outfit for her. Having seen someone wearing the Robe of Leisure I was reminded of my beloved Warrior Priest in Warhammer Online. The Captain is analogous to the Warrior Priest, both being melee-based hybrid healer sorts, and so I switched to my Jasper Conran spec. and created an ensemble that tips the hat of fashion towards my old Warhammer Online character. The first stage involved purchasing a Robe of Leisure and having my Warden craft a splendid Second Age two-handed hammer. Everything after that was simply detailing. It’s nice to have goals again, and with Isengard around the corner, LotRO looks set to remain the game I turn to when all else quiet for some time to come.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile

Spinks was pondering NPCs in a rather fine post, and I’ve been quite firmly hooked by Fallout: New Vegas, a game with an awful lot of NPCs by necessity, being single player. I think it uses a combination of approaches that Spinks outlines; for the most part, for computational sanity, NPCs only exist when you’re around, a slightly solipsistic approach, though not quite as extreme as something like Saints Row 2 where things can stop existing if you stop looking at them. Some NPCs do persist, though, such as trading caravans that you’ll sometimes find at a particular outpost, or sometimes you bump into in the wilderness as they’re on the move.

The life of most Fallout NPCs isn’t wildly exciting, they generally wake up at a certain time, make their way to their shop/office/patrol area, sit at a desk or wander in circles for a bit, then go back to bed at the end of the shift. Fallout can get away with this as a single player game for a couple of reasons: you always have an option to wait for up to 24 hours, if you need to rapidly skip to a particular time of day, and NPCs are incredibly tolerant. Stroll up to a sleeping questgiver or shopkeeper, vigorously poke them until they wake up and you’d expect them to blearily peer at a clock and scream “What the hell are you doing in my house at three in the morning?”, or at least mumble “blargle glargle NO, ROY HATTERSLEY, GET AWAY FROM ME WITH THAT TIN OF KUMQUATS”, but they just stand up, nice and calm, and present exactly the same dialogue options as if you’d walked into their shop, a game/world compromise I can more than live with.

Even a few straightforward rules make the game world seem more like something that exists in itself rather than being an amusement laid on entirely for your benefit; a caravan of a trader with a couple of mercenary bodyguards follows a preset path, some bandits wander around a certain area, if the two bump into each other they fight. If you’re close enough you hear the gunshots, and you can either steer clear or go and investigate, help one side or the other, and most importantly sprint over to any corpse before it’s cold and strip it of weapons and armour. As the number of elements and interactions increase so you start to get hints of emergence; this can be a positive and interesting thing, like the Dwarf-eating carp of Dwarf Fortress, but when the game isn’t entirely glitch-free to start with it can exacerbate problems.

Near the start of the game I got on the wrong side of one of the big factions, and not long after I was wandering through the wilderness when four friendly (or at least neutral) markers appeared on the HUD compass heading right for me. It turned out to be a group of assassins, but terribly sporting assassins. I guess “being mown down in a hail of high-velocity rifle bullets fired by assassins half a mile away you had no chance of detecting” scored badly in focus group questionnaires, so instead the group approach and have a little chat; “Good morning sir, my name’s Geoff Assassin; assassin by name, assassin by nature as I always like to say, don’t I lads, ha ha ha. Now, our leader is a little bit miffed, so I’m afraid we’re going to have to assassinate you. Sorry about that. En garde!” I wouldn’t be surprised if I found a card when I returned to my rented room: “Sorry we missed you! A representative called around to assassinate you, but you weren’t in. We’ll try again tomorrow, or if you’d like to be assassinated earlier please call in to our depot between 9am and 5pm.” After the initial pleasantries they’re annoyingly hard to kill, but a couple of frag grenades proved most helpful and I resumed my wandering. They’re persistent blighters, though, and every few (in-game) days another group appear making a beeline for your character. I say “making a beeline”; they can interact with (i.e. shoot) things like hostile wildlife, traders or patrols from other factions if they encounter them on the way, and they’re a lot easier to deal with if you can shoot them in the back of the head while they’re distracted by something else. Sometimes, though, the rules go a little wrong; I’m not sure if they get stuck in a combat state with something else, or have pathing issues, or just forget exactly what they were supposed to be doing, but occasionally I’ll find a group of confused assassins milling around a small rock formation, completely ignoring me as I wander past.

Perhaps, though, that just makes the NPCs a little more human after all. I mean, were it an MMO, such actions wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for player characters; “The behaviour of the Legionary Assassin Squad in the field was erratic at best…

Wednesday 10 August 2011

What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.

My first thought on seeing ArenaNet’s reveal of the Sylvari 2.0 – Now with 50% more foliage!, was that they certainly passed the international standard cosplay checklist:

  • Opportunity to paint skin weird colours? Check.
  • Liberal use of liquid latex a must? Check.
  • Option to expose varying levels of said latexed/painted flesh, up to and including ‘disturbing’? Check.
  • Costume design that has ‘we’re going to need a bigger sewing machine’ written all over it? Check.
  • Compulsory requirement to stick foam shapes and bits of Plasticine to one’s head? Check.
  • Is it a hat or is it hair? Check.
  • Tattoos? Check.
  • Crazy luminous tattoos that someone is going to use as an excuse to make their nipples glow in the dark? Check.
  • Contact lenses considered mandatory? Check.
  • Potential for hormone colliding crossplay? Check.
  • Eschews traditional human-style gender roles? Check.

So yes, it’s all looking good on the cosplay front. And back. But mainly the front. Must be those bioluminescent nipple tattoos.

Reading a bit of background to the Sylvari, it seems that ArenaNet are trying to present a race which is a little bit alien, a little bit fae, a foundation usually filled by elves in traditional fantasy RPGs. Sadly few designers have managed to portray elves as anything more than an aloof sect of infinitely skilled disdainful know-it-alls. An elf race should give the opportunity to really explore that gulf which experience provides, that juxtaposition of a human-like being with the alien nature of one who has witnessed countless centuries, but it rarely seems to be expressed in games other than through that cunning narrative device of an arched eyebrow and a slightly condescending tone of voice. ArenaNet have branched off from this approach, taking the alien nature and layering it on to a budding young race, one that is inexperienced, although not naive. The Sylvari connection to The Dream will surely resonate with anyone who has enjoyed White Wolf’s Changeling: The Dreaming, and the second Sylvari design keystone of ‘curiosity’ can only help play to this fae feeling. Again though, as with the comparison to elves, the Sylvari differ from the fae in that they are a young race, and therefore there isn’t the unwieldy baggage of a millennia of complex history to weigh the players down as they travel through the world. There’s certainly plenty to like about this race, and more than enough to differentiate it substantially from the other races the game provides; much as I felt about the Undead in World of Warcraft, there’s something about the Sylvari that seems to set them apart from the other warring races. Although the other races in World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 all have a look and feel that differentiates them from one another, they still feel as though they come from the same basic stock, whereas the Undead and Sylvari have that slightly unknowable quality to them.

As for the physical design of the race, well we’re on the second edition [probably should avoid book metaphors, tree people may find books slightly offensive – Ed.], and it’s always going to be a subjective issue. In my view I think they still haven’t gone far enough towards the alien end of the scale, but it’s always going to be difficult to tell from a select number of screenshots. Certainly our friend to the left with the tree branch hair is approaching that level, whereas the one below right is definitely ticking all the boxes on the Foxy Chick With Leaf Hair cosplay checklist. Again though, there may well be variety in the character creation so that both options are viable, and there will almost certainly be people who like the ideals of the Sylvari, but to whom a strange alien appearance doesn’t appeal. Not to mention it’s a tricky scale on which to balance: at one end you have the Poison Ivy look, which is essentially a Playboy model with green lipstick and body suit, and at the other end you have World of Warcraft’s druid Tree of Life form, certainly a far more alien sentient plant design, but perhaps far less appealing to the majority of players. So I imagine ArenaNet’s Kristen Perry slid up and down this scale (having seen pictures of the inside of ArenaNet’s studio, I wouldn’t put it past them to have created a giant fun-park scale which everyone could slide up and down on tea trays) trying to balance a requirement for alien humanoid flora against a desire to still present an attractive aesthetic design; it’s a design brief where I imagine H.R. Giger would have had a field day.

Certainly the current Sylvari incarnation is an improvement over the original design, and it manages to find a place on the design scale that avoids the horrors of both Tree of Life Form in a Bikini and Naked Human Wrapped in Stinging Nettles, something for which I’m sure cosplayers and cosplay admirers everywhere will be grateful.

Monday 8 August 2011

Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow.

From now on, before I start playing a new MMO, my character is going to write a linkedin system, using papyrus punched with their teeth if they have to, and hand it out to every NPC in the game.

Thus, when my character approaches a new faction, having adventured for years, with a hundred levels under their belt, the defeat of countless potentially world-ending villains, the rescue of multifarious powerless persons, the destruction of numerous evil relics of infinite power, the overthrowing of divers despotic regimes, the prevention of multitudinous cataclysmic events across both time and space, and a dedication to the slaughter of wildlife that would give a T-rex indigestion at the mere thought, they can point the snooty NPC –who wants my character to collect badger turds for faction reputation before they’ll speak to them properly– to their linkedin profile, which reports a network of over fifty thousand satisfied NPCs who were unable to save their own sorry arses, and a reputation of AAAA++ Would Definitely Have This Hero Save Our Town Again.

Then my character would take the bag of badger bum blops and empty it over the NPC’s head, telling them that it’s their own damn porridge so they can use their own damned spoon, before wandering off and finding a faction that willingly accepts an offer of aid.

Friday 5 August 2011

We dance when e'er we're able.

“Finally, no matter how fantastic a game’s music is, when you hear the same music for the thousandth time, you start wanting to change things up a bit. Many players will simply turn the game music off and play their own collections. The problem is that an external music player has no context as to what’s going on in-game. Guild Wars 2 will offer a solution for this as well. We’re giving players the option of choosing external music playlists that the game’s audio engine will use as a replacement for the default in-game music. Players can choose different playlists for background ambience and battle music, for instance. Additionally, when appropriate, such as during cinematics, the game can revert back to in-game music temporarily to give the best possible cinematic experience, then resume the custom playlist when it’s done.”

ArenaNet continue their series of audio design diaries with an interesting piece detailing some of the new features they’ll be adding to the audio system for Guild Wars 2.

As a player of MMOs who generally turns the sound off after a while, I have to say that I’m quite excited at the prospect of being able to tweak the music score when the mood takes me. Jeremy Soule’s soundtracks are always a delight, but still, there are nevertheless going to be days when you just feel the urge to listen to something a bit different.

It’s fun that (they claim) you can pick your own selection of ambient and battle music to be played at the appropriate time determined by the game system, and I’m already considering the excellent possibilities that such a system would allow: battle music set to Yakety Sax, the Ying Tong Song or the The Tra La La Song? How about a hook for when you inevitably run away from combat or attempt to avoid crap mobstacles, for which there can only be one song to bravely throw-in the sponge to. Then there’s the possibility to switch things up a bit, having songs such as Iron Maiden’s Run for the Hills as ambient music, while Eine kleine Nachtmusik tentatively tinkles into your ears whenever an epic battle breaks out.

Once again ArenaNet are making all the right noises, where the overarching impression I take away from their media presentations is one of ‘careful consideration of the issues facing players of MMOs’; it’s encouraging, yet my enthusiasm still can’t help but be tempered by the fact that we’ve heard asseverations like these in the MMO space before, where the resultant game did not seem to deliver anything like the promises of its promoters.

In war we’re tough and able,
Quite indefatigable.
Between our quests we sequin vests and impersonate Clark Gable.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Thought for the day

Sophisticated game engines that blur the lines between cutscenes, scripted sequences and regular gameplay can be a powerful tool for increased immersion. It can be irritating when control is taken away from you and you’re forced to observe something while frozen in fear, or through the unbreakable window of a locked room, but at least it’s preferable to the illusion of interaction when there’s only one possible outcome…

“Right young Geoffrey, let’s make up a story together! What would you like to hear a story about?”


“You’d like a story about chartered accountants? Excellent! Once there was a chartered accountant; what do you think his name should be?”


“No, Geoff, that’s wrong, he’s called Nigel. Once there was a chartered accountant called Nigel, who lived in…”

“Outer Space!”

“Don’t be silly, Geoff, Outer Space has no accredited institutions that can confer chartered status. No; once there was a chartered accountant called Nigel, who lived in a medium sized village in the Thames Valley area within convenient commuting distance of the headquarters of several multinationals. One day, Nigel learned that…”

“He had magical powers!”

“NO, GEOFFREY! WRONG! Now we’re going to have to back to the beginning of the story, and try again until you give the correct answer. You can look it up in the Wiki here if you like. Let’s try again; once there was a chartered accountant called Nigel, who lived in a medium sized village in the Thames Valley area within convenient commuting distance of the headquarters of several multinationals. One day, Nigel learned that…”

Wednesday 3 August 2011

I even think that sentimentally I am disposed to harmony.

“At ArenaNet, we’re serious about audio. This week we’re going to take a look behind the scenes at the Audio Team that has been working so hard to create a compelling soundscape for Guild Wars 2.”

So begins ArenaNet’s latest blog post looking behind the scenes at various production elements of the game, this time concerning audio.

It isn’t really necessary though. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s splendid to learn that attention to detail is important to ArenaNet throughout all systems of their game, and the insight provided as to how they achieve their results is fascinating. However, I can’t help but feel that this particular effort is a little wasted, because as long as the haunting orchestral chanting of the traditional Guild Wars theme comes blaring out of my speakers (with the option to turn the volume up to Over 9000) as soon as I launch the game, drowning out all else, and never stopping until I logout, then I’ll be perfectly content; the rest of the game’s audio could consist of ArenaNet engineers performing interpretive armpit farts, I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t notice.

Just give me that song and my soul is sold.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Link it to the world. Link it to yourself.

As is the way in this blogosphere of ours, a number of other blogs have already reported on the recently released initial details of StoryBricks, an RP storytelling game programming framework which is in development by the fine folks at Namaste, a company who ‘Just want to play’, something which probably makes developing a game somewhat difficult

“Let’s make a game!”


“Actually, I just want to play.”

“Ooo, I like that idea better!”

“Let’s just play a game!”


Nevertheless, Namaste’s MMO Wizard, Brian Green, and Cat Herder, Kelly Heckman, did manage to restrain themselves from playing for long enough to sit down with KiaSA and give us an introduction to the concept of StoryBricks, and show us the current prototypal realisation of Namaste’s ideas: ideas which they are demonstrating at Gen Con Indy right now!
NOTE: Values of ‘right now’ may vary depending on when you’re reading this. If, for example, it is the year 2037, then they probably aren’t demonstrating StoryBricks ‘right now’, and this would probably be of little concern to you anyway, since you’re actually looking for a way to rid the Earth of its current overlords, the Xzibliks of Pangifran VII (Hint: Custard Cream allergy).

Perhaps the most important thing that we took away from the impromptu meeting did not actually concern the game or its concept –which is nevertheless exciting and interesting and packed with promise and potential– but instead revolved around the philosophy the company is taking in developing their game. Namaste have decided to take their newborn out to show the world. As with any doting parents, the concern is that others may see just another amorphous pink blob making some noise, but their overriding hope is that sensible people will look past the fresh, near-embryonic packaging, and instead see the potential contained within this little bundle, a bundle which will grow and adapt and strengthen over its years of development into something special. Now we’re not entirely known for being sensible here at KiaSA, and yet even we could see the potential in their current concept.

Namaste’s intention seems to favour feedback from their target market from day one, or as close to ‘day one’ as you can get without your presentation consisting of a pencil and a piece of paper with the words MAKING A GAME scribbled across the top. So if you’re reading this, and it’s not the year 2037 but slightly closer to 2011, you can go to Gen Con Indy this week and see for yourselves what Namaste is working on, just a few months into their development cycle. They’re garnering feedback from those people whom they hope will want to play with StoryBricks, a development concept which seems alien in the world of game making. I mean, where are the secrets? The exclusives? The ‘Could We Just?’s and the ‘Ooo, Sorry We Can’t Yet!’s? Where’s the dangling of screenshots of half a tree next to a house, with the implication that ‘This could be somewhere exciting in the game!’ but with caveat that ‘It probably isn’t’. Instead what we have is, well… what we have. It’s the current development build as they work through their core ideas, which they then bring to you, the players, and ask ‘Is this what you would want? How could we make it better for you?’


Don’t misunderstand: they have solid plans, ideas and goals, this is not a fishing expedition with dynamite, they are simply testing the waters and seeing which bait is most likely to get players to bite, metaphorically speaking, of course (KiaSA has never been to Gen Con, but we hear that some of those free-form RPG sessions can get pretty heated).

Who is this target market of players that they are currently reaching out to? Well, initially it seems it’s the storytelling RPG demographic, the White Wolf and Dungeons & Dragons crowd; it’s those people who currently build interactive stories with pens and paper, who might like to have an intuitive and fun way to build their stories within a 3D virtual space, where NPC AI reacts to the players based on a framework or back-story that has been planned and implemented by the story’s creator using StoryBricks.

But what is StoryBricks? In its current form –and remember that everything is in very early development: a state of flux that rivals primordial oceans, but with similar prospects for creating exciting new things– StoryBricks is a system which allows gamers to program their own stories. It’s clear that this newborn has indirectly inherited from a lineage that includes systems such as MIT’s Scratch and, more loosely, Lego Mindstorms, the latter of which certain sprang to mind because one half of KiaSA has recently been working on a project that uses National Instruments’ LabView. These graphical systems are different concepts from what a text-based coder is used to, but ‘algorithms is algorithms’ as Oscar Wilde once said to Ada Lovelace as they successfully fought off another wave of Neptunian Robomatons (we really must get around to writing that story), and visual programming systems such as these are great enablers for non-coders to, quite literally, plug and play their way into programming. The story programming is linked to objects and NPCs in a 3D game world, which operates much like your standard RPG, except NPC AI is determined by the rules programmed into the story framework. You play Neverwinter Nights, say, but the NPCs’ AI reacts to the players, and indeed other NPCs, based on their StoryBrick programming, such that emergent game-play is a real possibility.

Here’s an example based on our impression of the game from the demonstration. Consider a thief at an inn who has an object which the players need for their quest. In most MMOs the players would simply stab the thief, loot the item, perhaps have to wait for the thief to respawn another seven times so each member of the party could stab him and loot the item, before handing it in for some XP. In StoryBricks the… Brickmaster? may well have programmed the local guard to be ‘wary’ of the players, such that as they approach the thief the AI determines that the guard will watch the players and intercept them if they attack. The players will witness the guards distrust through emotes. The players may discover, however, that the bartender of the inn is ‘resentful towards’ the thief (perhaps the thief has a large tab he hasn’t settled; such back-story would be available to the players as per the Brickmaster’s story framework) and that with a little persuasion and passing of coin, they can get the bartender to ‘place sedative’ into the thief’s next drink. With the thief unconscious, the player’s could pickpocket the thief without rousing the guard’s suspicions.

Parallels can clearly be drawn with other systems for player created content, such as Second Life, LittleBigPlanet and City of Heroes’ Mission Architect, but where those games concentrate on giving players options to build objects, levels and missions, StoryBricks is aimed at allowing the players to build a story, creating something more akin to a Dungeons & Dragons module for players to experience, where the work of the GM in running NPCs is subsumed into the module framework itself.

It’s certainly an ambitious and interesting concept, and one that should be easy and exciting to follow in the coming months if Namaste’s current honest and open development style continues. KiaSA will definitely be keen to give feedback whenever possible, starting with our current observation that although StoryBricks such as ‘likes’, ‘hates’, ‘owns’ and ‘gives’ are all well and good, there’s certainly a market for more KiaSAble StoryBricks, such as ‘splungthrust’, ‘sternly clenched’, ‘panicked squassation’ and ‘ejected sardanapalian spumescene resulting from cheeseboard indecision’. On second thoughts those might be a bit too specific for general use, perhaps we could license the option for a future expansion pack.

Monday 1 August 2011

To many people holidays are not voyages of discovery, but a ritual of reassurance.

My week of holiday over, it’s back to the grindstone for me; as well as getting back to playing MMOs I should probably return to work too. I managed a week away without MMOs quite admirably all things considered, and the palpitations were barely noticeable by the end of the third day. I attribute this to my quick development of a survival strategy to deal with the oppressive fresh air and interminable rest and relaxation the holiday resort provided, and so I present here a few tips and tricks to avoid MMO withdrawal while being forced to experience the ghastliness that is moderate sunlight, forest scenery, and light exercise.

If you have children, make them collect things.

My three-year-old daughter has a fascination with pine cones, something which becomes somewhat of an obsession when presented with a forest packed to the canopy with conifers. I made the most of the situation by setting her tasks to collect certain numbers of pine cones and return them to me. When she returned with the correct number I would offer her the choice of a plastic sword or an item of clothing from her suitcase, the latter of which she quickly learned could be equipped in order to improve her resistance to elemental damage. If she brought me an incorrect number of pine cones, I would either ignore her entirely, or incessantly repeat the same nonsensical sentence to her until she went away and collected the correct number. As the holiday progressed I found that I could increase the complexity of the task to keep things interesting, asking her to collect only pine cones of a certain size, for example. Of course, any pine cones that she collected prior to me assigning the task were ineligible for submission. Eventually, however, pine cone collection became tiresome to us both, and so I determined to set her more challenging tasks. After the angry phone call from the petting zoo asking if I was related to the small child with the plastic sword who was attacking the pigs, I decided to stick with creatures that could be found in the surrounding forest; unfortunately she never did manage to catch a wolf, despite several nights alone in the forest searching for them. I found the trick to convincing her to undertake the more extreme tasks was a suitable reward, with access to her mother and food curiously being the best motivators, while MMO staples such as gold and ‘character building experience’ seemed not to provide any incentive at all.

Create your own Fed Ex quest

Write a letter asking the recipient if they would like a bag of obscure sweets from the place you intend to visit on holiday. Seal the letter in an envelope and address it to a friend who is not going on holiday with you. Take the letter with you on holiday, and at some point during the vacation hand it to your partner. Your partner will look at it, tell you it’s addressed to your friend back home, and that you should probably give it to them. Upon returning home give the letter to your friend, whereupon they will open the letter and tell you that, yes, they would like a bag of obscure sweets from the holiday location you just returned from. Keep the letter until the next time you return to that holiday destination, at which point you can then buy the sweets. Give the sweets to your friend upon your return: quest complete!

Don’t forget to loot everything

Be sure to wander in to every holiday villa you come across and take all the items you think you might be able to sell for a quick profit. Don’t mind any people who you may stumble across while rummaging through the place, they should ignore you. Be warned, however, that the occupants might try to tell you their life story and burden you with a tale of woe; if this looks likely, make a run for the exit, grabbing anything you can from the table by the door on the way out.
Also make sure to loot any corpses you see. Most combat seems to take place primarily on sandy beach areas where you’ll find many corpses laid out on death shrouds, being dried in the mid-morning sun ready for mummification. Usually these corpses have plenty of loot left in their bags and satchels, but don’t under any circumstances try to acquire their plate-mail bikinis: some curse binds the armour to them even in the after life, and they will rise up from the dead and immediately aggro.

Holiday mail

Don’t forget when travelling abroad that many foreign places –despite being scary and full of foreigners– still exhibit some of the basics of modern society, such as rudimentary mail systems. Be sure to look for mailboxes and take the opportunity to dance on or around them wherever you can. It’s often difficult to explain a full suit of oversized plate armour to a customs official, so it’s best to improvise an impressive legendary outfit when you reach your holiday destination: putting on a bikini and covering giant palm leaves in silver glitter then taping them to your shoulders makes an excellent approximation for epic plate armour, for example. I didn’t have time to think of any outfit ideas for females however, sorry.

Consider crafting

Find a nice open space on a nearby beach and, using a small bucket, begin building rudimentary sandcastles. Repeat this process until you have at least three hundred and fifty tiny sandcastles or you have filled the beach, whichever comes first. Once complete, quickly rake all the sandcastles back into the beach before anyone can observe your work, and then start again, only with a slightly larger bucket. For an authentic experience increase the number of sandcastles you require by a factor of 1.2 each time, and place an arbitrary restriction on the creation of each castle, such as requiring a shell for the front door, or a flag made from a near-extinct flower only found in a single isolated location three hundred miles away from your current position.

Hearthstone emulation

At the end of the holiday, simply get in the passenger seat of the car, quickly go to sleep and let your partner drive the many hundreds of miles home through nightmarish holiday traffic. When you awake, however, it will be back at your house, and it will appear from your perspective that you instantaneously transported there! Any budding Paladins may want to take a roll of bubble wrap with them in which to encase themselves before the journey.