Monday 31 October 2011

A man's character is his guardian divinity.

If you haven’t already read Cynwise’s deeply splendid look at the Pandaren and the influences involved, I’d highly recommend you do so.

Stemming from that post is a link to Samwise‘s gallery which includes concept images of the Pandaren, and which upon closer inspection also gives hints –to those who may be interested– as to a couple of possible appearance options for the female of the species.

Specifically here, here and here.

I particularly like the Conan-ian appearance in the image above, possibly with a tagline of: “Don’t think of me as a clownish Po, think of me as Iorek Byrnison wearing a goddamn Batman mask.”

Friday 28 October 2011

For I am ready to halt, and my sorrow is continually before me.

It seems that every mob now stuns during combat in Lord of the Rings Online’s Rise of Isengard expansion. I can’t begin to describe how annoying and pointless this feels.








What? Oh yes, well, I suppose I could at least try.

My experience with combat in this latest expansion has been one of general annoyance. I’m wondering whether my frustrations are the result of the change in how character stats work, such that my character has yet to accumulate enough newly itemised gear in order to get back to the level of power she once enjoyed. I do know that Wardens are also suffering a little in this expansion (admittedly it’s the sort of suffering the Sultan of Brunei would experience if he found he’d lost a five pound note), something of which Turbine is aware and intend to address in a forthcoming patch. Regardless of my class-specific woes, the number of misses, evades and parries my character experiences when in combat with basic, even-con mobs, has reached quite tiresome levels. The peak moment of heroism was last night, where my character snuck up carefully behind a stationary guard, took careful aim at point blank range, and then powerfully launched a javelin into the ground at the guard’s feet, with my character presumably smacking their forehead on the up-ended spear shaft with the momentum of the follow through. While my character staggered around clutching their head, the guard –after he’d managed to stop laughing– understandably decided to retaliate. Of course what actually happened was the words EVADE popped up on my screen, and I wondered what level of martial arts training this hillman had undertaken to be able to dodge a javelin thrown at his back at point blank range while he was seemingly oblivious to my character’s presence. And then I started to wonder why these supernatural ninja warriors hadn’t already taken over the lands of Middle Earth.

Do I need to talk about the giant slugs which can parry my attacks? I mean, is it really that hard to define an inheritance class of mob, called slug, with the Has_No_Blarmed_Chance_Of_Parrying field set to TRUE? Or perhaps it’s just an indication that it’s time to sharpen the ol’ sword, when a slug successfully uses an eyestalk to perform a parry and counter-riposte to your attack.

The reason for noticing all these niggles is that I’m constantly given time to contemplate them mid-fight, every time an enforced pause is foisted upon me. I’ve mused on the stun as a mechanic before, but the ironic situation is that every time I’m stunned in combat I’m simply being given yet another opportunity to mull and fume over the fact that there’s nothing to do when I’m stunned. Every stun is now a short advert break for how annoying stuns are. Quite frankly I’m seriously considering that this is all just a prelude to Turbine slipping in adverts for the LOTRO Store during the intervening period.

Slug parrying getting you down? Visit the LotRO Store today and pick up a Slug-Be-Gone salt shaker legacy for your legendary weapon of choice, only 250 Turbine points!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled grind…

What is the point of the stun? What?! Kif, I’m asking you a question! In the past I imagine it was a numbers game: someone, somewhere, had a spreadsheet which showed that if you halted play for two seconds every fight, and added all the delays over all the many many fights in which the player would engage, that you could add another day or two to the /played time for a character, which when multiplied by a healthy number of subscribers would probably equate to a second kidney extension to the CEO’s swimming pool.

In a free-to-play game the point becomes more about the fact that it’s unavoidable and, barring the odd class with a long cooldown ability, unbreakable, therefore I have no control in this; it enforces the realisation that, at any point, the game could simply choose to win, and therefore the only reason you experience victory at all is because the game lets you. It doesn’t add any level of peril, because most fights are never anywhere near the level of challenge where a stun might stall your defence for long enough that the mob could kill you. And even if it did, even if the mobs were clever enough to whittle your health low and then pop a stun and finish you off, what of it? All that shows is that the only way for the game to win is to STOP YOU PLAYING YOUR CHARACTER… If you really want me to stop playing your game, just say, I’ll go and find another one. Stuns like this, used consistently and for no tactical reason, are just one of those supreme examples of blasé thoughtlessness that we often see in MMO combat design.

Or so it seems. I’d be very happy for someone at Turbine to explain the stun mechanic to me, to outline why it adds anything to the combat, anything at all, except for extreme annoyance and frustration and downright hair-tearing incredulity on the part of the player. Alas, my only –admittedly cynical– hypothesis for an explanation so far is something along the lines of “This is the sort of tedious trite crap we’re going to be pulling over and over again at the end game, so we thought we’d get in there early and build up your tolerance to it”.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Now what would be really interesting is if, say around 20.12.2011, World of Warcraft announced that it was going free to play.

Lord of the Rings Online was still offering standard and lifetime subscriptions right up to the point that it announced it was going free-to-play; getting your most ardent fans to agree to sign-up for a year mightn’t be a bad plan if you were going to open the game up to all, for ‘restricted content’ free play at least.

In addition, a forthcoming expansion which, potentially, could be seen as specifically targeting a younger audience, might work better if the subset of younger players who couldn’t normally afford a regular subscription were able to play for free, and then pay smaller amounts for the combat pets, mounts, and other items they were interested in.

Now, if World of Warcraft were to add a cosmetic item system, something which has already proven incredibly lucrative in a game such as LotRO, then you might consider it as further evidence that an in-game WoW Store was a distinct possibility, and free-to-play often goes hand in hand with an RMT store.

Of course, realistically you’d expect Blizzard to test the RMT waters first, perhaps with a small vanity item that could be bought with real money and then traded on the game’s auction house to other players, as a finite controllable experiment.

Don’t take this as some sort of proclamation as to what I believe is going to happen, but it is an interesting thought experiment to consider whether –what with the recent decline in subscriptions of their aging game, along with a core audience which seems dissatisfied no matter what they do– Blizzard would entertain the idea of opening World of Warcraft up to the pocket money demographic.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

A man is born alone and dies alone; and he experiences the good and bad consequences of his karma alone

Tipa’s exclusive reveal of Winds of Pandaria sounds awesome with a capital ‘Z’ (followed by capital ‘O’, ‘M’ and ‘G’, lower case ‘l’, ‘o’ and ‘l’, then ‘wtfbbq’ in either WingDings or Cyrillic, depending on available fonts). The undoubted highlight for me is:

The Pandarens live in peace and harmony, and that means NO MONEY. Yup. Gold GOES AWAY ENTIRELY. The Auction House now deals in barter and karma. Do a nice thing for someone, you get a little karma you can spend. You can even help out animals and monsters for more karma. Blizzard just killed the whole gold farming industry. Now you’re going to see bunches of level 90 rogues jumping around trying to do nice things for you.

I’m not sure what I’m looking forward to most, Gevlon’s head exploding or the term ‘gold farmer’ becoming obsolete and replaced entirely with ‘karma farmer’. Probably the latter in a future expansion when new camelid races are added, as the question would arise of why Blizzard would release a statement about a contentious incident involving one of those played by someone from northern Italy named after the US President acquiring protective yellow fruit nightwear? If you’re playing along at home, that’s ten points if you said “to calm a Parma llama Obama karma farmer banana pyjama armour drama”.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Monday 24 October 2011

Thought for the day.

Werewolves in top hats, gnomes performing the dance moves from Bloodhound Gang’s Bad Touch, steampunk motorcycles and planes, Murlocs, escorting orphaned children through the Dark Portal in Hellfire Peninsula, ridiculous sexual dimorphism in PC races, non-combat pets, Haris Pilton, giant cow-men riding on chocobos, polymorph, Quilboar, dressing up in an ogre suit, shoulder pads you could hide a small village under, remote-controlled fighting robots, Santa Claus and the Grinch, Big Love Rocket, blue space demons, wibbley-wobbly timey-wimey, mechanostriders, transforming into a furblog, parachutes, escorting mechanical chickens, ludicrous retcons, kobold candles, Forsaken Death Knights, teleporters, steam car vs rocket car racetrack, Thunderfury, jet packs, Tuskarr, dressing up in a murloc suit, orbital death satellites, pink elekks, Engineering, Gnomish Nutritional Effervescent Remarkably Delicious Sweets…

And you’re worried about pandas?

Friday 21 October 2011

Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded as to just how confusing and daunting MMOs can appear to a person who has never played one before. City of Heroes is good at doing this because even though I’ve played the game before, and even though I’m fairly familiar with many of the tropes and systems with which we associate MMOs, CoH has added many new systems since I last played regularly, and it often does things a little bit different to the MMO norm anyway.

City of Heroes now has Trials, a sort of dungeon run restricted to one location, rather than the multi-mission, multi-location story arcs of the Task Force group content. I guess you could see the Trials as Not-so-Public Quests, in the fact that you go to an instance with a fixed group, but the challenges of the event dynamically update as your group completes each stage. At the lower levels the main trial is Death From Below, or ‘sewer trial’ as it is often referred to among the CoX cognoscenti. You can queue for the trials through a LFD-like interface, but the CoH crowd, being the more sociable and old-school lot that they are, generally seem to prefer organising a group through global chat channels such as Global and Help, and then queuing the whole group up at once, whereupon it is instantly ported into the instance.

I say instantly, but of course it takes differing amounts of time for people’s computers to load the map, and this is where my problems began. Having been the first into the map, I decided to have a quick look around the start, where I quickly found a helpful Longbow NPC who offered to train-up my character if they required it, as well as offering a number of other services. No, not *those* kind of services, longbow is not a euphemism. Since the XP gain is so mind-bogglingly delicious in these trials, or certainly this specific trial at these low levels, the developers have helpfully added NPCs at various stages through the run who will train-up your character, so that you can gain levels and get your new skills without even having to wait to the end of the current instance run. Nifty!, as I believe the loquacious kids say.

One of the other services offered, however, was to switch to a different character build. This was new to the game since I’d last been there, and looking around and not seeing the rest of the group yet, I decided to have a quick play with swapping my build.

I’ve had better ideas.

Having switched builds, I found myself with no powers whatsoever on my hotbar. Not to panic, a quick word with the NPC about training and I could see that I was essentially a level one character, with seven-or-so levels worth of powers and slots to pick, exactly as if I’d just initiated a character respec. It makes sense: when you want to change character builds, you’re generally going to want to use a different build. Okay, admittedly in a game like CoH I can sort of picture those builds being categorised as ‘AoE Damage’, ‘More AoE Damage’, ‘The Same AoE Damage But With Different Colours’ and ‘Defensive Build With Contingency for… Nah, Just Kidding, This One Does Urethra-Loosening AoE Damage Too’, but in reality there genuinely are different ways to build most powerset combinations, mostly for damage, but control/defensive builds are a valid consideration; not to mention the fact that you use an entirely different set of enhancements (the game’s item/e-peen/advancement equivalent) for each build, which with the game’s crafting system giving a wide variety of enhancement ‘sets’ (each of those sets giving interesting bonuses and procs based on the number of enhancements of that set slotted in your character’s powers), means you can add quite a variety of customisation to a character. But if we’re honest, it’s mainly about the AoE.

It was, of course, while staring at a blank character build that the rest of the team turned up. Fair enough, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with this secondary build anyway, so I just swapped back to my origina… ‘You Must Wait Fourteen Minutes Before You Can Change Builds Again’.

Oh dear.

What followed can only be described as a frantic grab for powers as the rest of the team opened up the sewer doors and began dispensing AoE justice – the best kind of justice. It was like being late for work, where you dash around the house grabbing whatever you think may be necessary, nay, whatever immediately comes to hand, such that you turn up to work with your trousers on back-to-front, and a briefcase which contains a pair of socks, your wife’s epilator (buzzing), one slipper, a packet of sultanas (mostly emptied out into your bag), three dishwasher tablets, half of yesterday’s broadsheet, and your cat, who looks at you with the hate-filled eyes of one who has been unceremoniously dumped in a dark bag and forced to fight for its life with an aggressive epilator.

I accepted the powers that I’d frantically grabbed, and jumped into the action. We completed the instance without any trouble, probably because with eight players all blasting away, there’s not an awfully great challenge to the whole affair, even if one of those players is standing at the back and using the mutated macramé power they mistakenly picked – knotting particularly vicious looking cushions to throw at the enemy, while hoping that nobody else on the team notices.

It’s interesting how such a simple thing can cause trouble. I can’t honestly say whether it was my ‘yeah, yeah’ MMO attitude to clicking on buttons, or whether there indeed wasn’t a prominent warning to let the player know that they wouldn’t be able to change builds again for fifteen minutes, BEFORE they committed. Regardless, for anyone who doesn’t really understand ‘alternative builds’ in the context of MMOs, it might well cause a lot of confusion and frustration for the new player to find themselves locked out of their main build for fifteen minutes. Either way, it reminded me of how much I take for granted in MMOs these days with respect to my inherent knowledge, and how hard it must be for developers to truly place themselves in the shoes of the new player, to weight their tutorials, instructions and warnings so as to give those who are inexperienced the best possible chance, while at the same time not hindering the ‘yeah, yeah’ crowd of MMO regulars.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a staff meeting and I need to quickly pop a tie on Mr Tiddles and brief him on how to act like another software engineer. Mainly it involves instructing him to only purr when a particularly interesting algorithm is displayed on the projector screen, and to not lick his bum at the conference table (etiquette dictates that such activity is generally to be confined to one’s cubicle). Having his hair attacked savagely and randomly by an epilator was a good first step to a disguise, however; he will do well here.

Thursday 20 October 2011

O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Like fresh snow falling on the frozen river, there are those of us in the MMO genre who settle but briefly, and are prone to drift when winter comes. Yet we mustn’t forget that this genre is built in layers, and beneath the drift are those whose attentions lay across a single game, their focus forming a frozen foundation, their passion packed solid around its structure; we can find within this silent stable scene reflections and echoes of that once tumultuous mighty river, which carried us along to unseen destinations in a frothing frenzy of chaos and excitement.

Still, the genre does indeed seem frozen to many of us who drift. With the onset of winter, the silence descends. The thunderous gods of the waters stand muted and still, an eerie quiet envelops the thickly blanketed wood through which the river runs: all the harsh blows of sound are deadened by that shield of snowy silence. Exuberance hibernates within her den, curled up in quiet content alongside Clamour and Activism. This winterish discontent causes a melancholy view, all is frozen and still, all is bland and featureless.

The blankness of this cold carpet canvas, which with numbing despotism across the genre lies, yet leaves us with a small fire of faith, carefully kindled, towards which we can hold out the hands of our hope and keep them warm: the great thaw will eventually come, and with it a new world appears, reinvigorated and renewed.

I certainly find it hard to weather these winters in the land of Blog. Inspiration most often comes from playing: interaction and frustration are the foodstuffs upon which my muse feasts, before dumping her digested diatribes upon the page for your consumption. Yes indeed, reading a post equates to eating muse manure. And it is not adversity which prevents me from playing, on the contrary, because adversity is the Beef Wellington of muse foodstuffs: a hearty fare which fills to bursting point the stomach of seething satire. No, it is the bland formulaic mediocrity which starves the muse, rice and curds which neither offend the palette nor delight, but provide the base, the nutrition of entertainment, and nothing more. It is docile entertainment. Without passion. Lobotomised. I found the same when playing through the two DLC modules for Dragon Age 2 recently; having finished them both I could not deny that I had been entertained –entertainment had occurred– but it was the sweaty discomfort of sitting in an entertainment sauna, as opposed to the fiery consuming passion of being burnt at the entertainment stake.

Winter is here, and there’s barely enough fuel to cook the muse a modest meal, let alone build a pyre to ignite the imagination. Here’s hoping that an infusion of vernal freshness into the genre is not far behind.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Heresies are experiments in man's unsatisfied search for truth.

News today that Microsoft is intending to patent a celebrity shaping system for their search engine Bing.

“A search for an evening dress using the persona of Jessica Lange, explains Microsoft, would return dresses that reflect the actress’s ‘style and/or fashion preferences,’ including ‘color, fit, designer, cut, etc.'”

Which quickly leads us to wonder which MMOs would be turned up when the term was searched for under certain celebrity personas. So we programmed a quick rough’n’ready plug-in for the KiaSA Captcha AI and tried out a few random personas.

Searching for ‘MMO’ when using the Naomi Campbell persona turned up EVE Online, possibly based on the fact that they’re both overly interested in their own appearance, while regularly turning around and biting the hand that feeds them.

World of Warcraft was, predictably, returned in many results. The persona of famed temper-tantrum prone singer Björk being a fine fit for a large section of the game’s populace, and the ‘once young, fun and whacky, but now old, tired and should probably just retire gracefully’ Robin Williams persona also provided a solid hit for the game.

We had to tweak the plug-in slightly when Patrick Stewart’s persona returned Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Mark Hamill’s returned Star Trek Online. Now Stewart returns DC Universe Online, while Hamill’s persona gives Marvel Super Hero Squad Online.

BBC presenter Clare Balding‘s persona returned LotRO as the top result for MMO searches, which we assume was due to her being charming, homely, and fanatically interested in horses to the point of distraction.

A search using the Lady Gaga persona returns City of Heroes as a top hit, probably due to the fact that everyone likes the game, but few people seem to openly admit it. Plus Lady Gaga could probably learn a thing or two from the crazy-mad outfits that can regularly be seen on display in Atlas Park.

The Richard Nixon persona always returned a nostalgia tinted version of EQ that never really existed, no matter how much we tried to refine our search terms.

The George Lucas persona returned the original version of Star Wars Galaxies as expected, but then consistently overwrote its results, first with the SWG Combat Upgrade, then the New Game Experience to cries of “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

A Sasha Grey persona? My word, how did that get in there? Regardless, although it’s probably not one that would be used from work, for an MMO search it returns Rift. Associations seem to revolve around a burst of popularity, a sudden realisation that you’re the best (in a sea of mediocrity) at something which is of only passing interest to the fans of your genre, followed by a gentle descent into obscurity.

And the persona for renowned flip-out maniac Christian Bale returned Hello Kitty Online. Hmm, well we’re still ironing out some bugs in the KiaSA Captcha AI Search system, but as a first attempt, we’d say it was an unqualified success.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance

Bioware’s Ray Muzyka says “One of the most common things we’re already hearing is that people seem to find it hard to go back to other MMOs once they play The Old Republic”. Impressive, but why? Did he continue “… because our beta client uninstalls any other MMO on their hard drive, muahahahaha!”? Or “… because they can’t remember the 34 character passwords for the other games they’ve had to change for the third time in the last two weeks thanks to new security concerns.”? Some terrible cynic (not us, obviously) might think “… because they’re almost completely burned out on the genre and the last gentle glowing ember that briefly flickered into life, kindled by SWTOR, guttered out after the third ‘kill ten womp rats’ quest.”

The juicy soundbite is extracted from a wider interview and sounds a bit arrogant on its own, especially as he says earlier “One of our core values, as an organisation, is humility”. In context he’s talking about that fourth pillar, the story in The Old Republic, and how it adds a greater sense of depth and purpose; the quote continues “… there’s a real sense of purpose to everything”. I’d agree that MMOGs can imbue numbers with more significance than single player games, though I’m still a little sceptical as to how a truly massive game can maintain the focus on one player; it’ll be interesting to find out how SWTOR does it.

Monday 17 October 2011

Whoah camouflage, things are never quite the way they seem

I was outraged while playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution to be subjected to a terrible bug. During a shoot-out I was pinned down by automatic fire emerging from a blank wall. Obviously there was an enemy soldier behind the wall shooting straight through it; were it was another player I would’ve assumed malicious use of a cheat, but as it was just the AI I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I was all set to make a post starting “Dear Sir, why oh why oh why oh why etc.”, but couldn’t let go of the right mouse button or I would’ve stopped hunkering down in cover and been shot.

On the off chance, I loosed off a few bursts of my own towards where the bullets were coming from, and was slightly surprised to see blood splatters, then the body of a solder materialise from thin air as his cloaking device failed. It wasn’t a bug at all, it was an invisibility suit; I wish the game had warned me, though that might’ve slightly reduced its effectiveness.

I should probably be thankful that the tactical decision of the stealthy enemy was to stand completely still in one place shooting at the boxes I was hiding behind (and equally thankful that those boxes, like all boxes in cover-based shooters, were conveniently packed with concrete, iron plates, kevlar and other composite armours capable of withstanding any projectiles short of an artillery barrage), as if he’d tried something as crazy as “walking around the boxes (while completely undetectable)” I would’ve been in trouble.

Friday 14 October 2011

Narrative is linear, but action has breadth and depth as well as height and is solid

So it seems the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer is sadly going to be less Marx brothers focused, and more creating custom characters to fight on different and unique fronts in the war. That makes a lot of sense; as Jonathan B mentions in the comments Mass Effect (like the vast majority of RPGs) includes side quests aplenty, and we (like the vast majority of people who plays RPGs) have commented several times on the absurdity of wandering around a village/space station performing INCREDIBLY VITAL tasks like delivering packages, sorting out petty crime and trimming shrubs into beautiful topiary shapes while the WORLD(/galaxy/universe/multiverse) ITSELF is in MORTAL PERIL and there ISN’T A MOMENT TO LOSE.

Replacing optional side quests with optional sections from another character’s point of view that still tie in and contribute to a bigger story seems so obvious that some other RPGs must surely have tried it, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Half-Life does something similar with its Opposing Force and Blue Shift expansions seeing you take on the mantle of different characters experiencing the timeline of the original game, and occasionally crossing paths with the other protagonists. Steven Moffat’s Coupling used several unconventional narrative techniques to great effect, and they’d be well suited to something like the framing device of Dragon Age II, events being related by a not-necessarily reliable narrator. I suppose a significant problem is that structuring multiple simultaneous points of view is difficult enough at the best of times when you can precisely script the actions of all involved, give a player control and the complexity goes through the roof. It doesn’t really matter, so long as there’s a galaxy to save. But first, I’m just going to help Mrs Prodger complete her ornamental teaspoon collection…

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads.

The locomotive of my MMO enthusiasm has finally run out of steam, for the time being at least. The once huffing-puffing funnel is cold and still, and the roaring firebox –burnt out– now smoulders silently, where even a vigorous stirring of hype elicits nothing more than a gentle ember glow. As the running gear of my fervour slowly seizes, resistance to resuming my journey along that straight, bland, unchanging MMO track builds inexorably. A number of us are still keen on playing together, and as such we have all clambered like the Keystone Kops onto a single handcar, which we propel perilously down the MMO track, our arms flailing, but hanging on against all the odds nevertheless.

City of Heroes is the game we find ourselves enjoying at the moment, primarily, I feel, because it is one of the least MMO-like MMOs around. Oh, it still has all the standard MMO tropes, I grant you, but what it lacks is many of the border guards, barking dogs and machine gun posts of the traditional MMO regime, whose only purpose seems to be to stop you getting together with the people of your own kind, whose company you enjoy. CoH used to be excellent for getting a group together, now I would say that it is probably unsurpassed. I’d proffer that its whole purpose is to delight those who use it, but that would be inaccurate; its purpose is to be ignored entirely by those who use it. In short, City of Heroes’ grouping system works like this: invite people to your group, pick a mission, have fun. Everything else is taken care of. It’s the Jeeves of MMO group mechanics: useful, helpful, discrete, empowering, facilitating and, sadly, an incredibly rare find.

I tried to enjoy Lord of the Rings Online’s latest expansion, but outside of the absolutely stunning cosmetic items the new content provides, there’s nothing new there that excites me. If I were already chugging happily down the MMO track, then this would undoubtedly be solid fuel to keep the big wheels turning, but there’s simply not enough originality there to kick-start a seized and stationary locomotive of enthusiasm. I think I am, perhaps unfairly, disappointed that the latest expansion doesn’t really include any fresh system which drags the game in new and interesting directions: despite how players may feel about the skirmish and legendary item systems, they were at least attempts at something a little bit different. This latest expansion includes an implementation of phasing, a technology which Blizzard has already successfully proven doesn’t really work as intended, often breaking the immersion it is supposed to enhance, and sometimes inadvertently becoming one of the barriers to grouping with friends. I hesitate to say that this expansion was lacklustre, but to my mind it seems as though Turbine may be dedicating resources to their own Titan, because although they are clearly not neglecting LotRO, there just doesn’t seem to be the desperate drive to impress that was present in the previous paid expansion, as though LotRO will not be the flagship in Turbine’s fleet for much longer.

In the meantime I’ve switched tracks and find myself hurtling along in the game train, whose tender is overflowing with rich fuel. So far I’ve shovelled Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Space Marine, Gears of War 3 and Bastion into the firebox, and the pressure of choice was so great at one point that my boiler was in danger of bursting. I burnt through those games in short order, however, and now I’ve picked up the latest DLC for Dragon Age 2, because despite all the raging Internet forum complaints, I still found the game enjoyable enough to run through it twice. Mark of the Assassins has added Felicia Day, which is never a bad thing to my mind, or to the minds of the majority of Internet nerds, upon which I’m sure Bioware’s marketing department is relying. Somewhere in the recesses of Bioware Marketing HQ, a big tick is being slowly and firmly scribed with a squeaking whiteboard marker against the name Felicia Day, ensconced as it is alongside the names Jennifer Hale and Claudia Black, beneath the double-underlined heading “Voicerotica for nerds”.

It’s good to be back on the game train, something always worth doing from time to time: often, when you play MMOs exclusively for too long, you forget what the simple pleasure and satisfaction of playing a game actually feels like.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Shepard Brothers Save the Galaxy

Confirmation of some form of multiplayer component in Mass Effect 3 is prompting feverish speculation. How can Bioware possibly explain three Commanders, all called Shepard? We might just have the answer in these exclusively fabricated scenes that certainly won’t appear in Mass Effect 3: Salarian Crackers:

[Opening scenes of the game]

The Illusive Man: We’re at war. No one wants to admit it but Humanity’s under attack. Three very specific men might be all that stands between Humanity and the greatest threat of our brief existence. We need three leaders, and we need to surround them with the brightest, the toughest, the deadliest allies we can find. The team will have to be strong, their resolve unquestionable.

Commander Groucho Shepard: Well that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself.

Commander Chico Shepard: What has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds and lives in a circus?

The Illusive Man: That’s irrelevant.

Chico Shepard: Irrelephant? Hey, that’sa that answer. There’s a whole lot of irrelephants in the circus.

Commander Harpo Shepard: HONK!

Miranda Lawson: Please, Shepard. Shepards. I know you distrust this organisation but you must believe me, Cerberus is dedicated to the cause of Humanity.

Chicho Shepard: Cerberus? Cerberus up some lemonade, maybe we can talk.

Harpo Shepard: HONK!

Groucho Shepard: Why, you’re the most beautiful NPC I’ve ever seen, and that’s not saying much for you. Will you marry me? Do you have any side quests with good rewards? Answer the second question first.

Chicho Shepard: And-a marry me as well!

Miranda Lawson: I can’t marry both of you, that’s bigamy.

Groucho Shepard: Yes, and it’s big of me too!

Harpo Shepard: HONK!

[The Shepards and Miranda are pinned down by enemy fire while investigating a research facility]

Groucho Shepard: Hello, Normandy? Three men and one woman are trapped in this building. Send help at once! If you can’t send help, send two more women! No good, they’re not receiving. Someone has to flank those heavy weapons and take them out.

Chico Shepard: I wouldn’t go out there unless I was in one of those big iron things, go up and down like this… What do you call-a those things?

Miranda: Tanks.

Chico Shepard: You’re welcome.

Harpo Shepard: HONK!

[The Shepards confront the gravest threat the galaxy has ever seen]

Reaper: We are legion. The time of our return is coming. Our numbers will darken the sky of every world. You cannot escape your doom. You cannot even destroy any part of us.

Groucho Shepard: Oh yeah? One morning I shot a Reaper in my pyjamas. How it got in my pyjamas, I don’t know.

Reaper: My kind transcends your very understanding. We are each a nation – independent, free of all weakness. You cannot grasp the nature of our existence.

Groucho Shepard: Yes I can, you’re just some alien vessel.

Chicho Shepard: An alien what?

Groucho Shepard: Not an alien what, an alien vessel. Don’t you know what vessel is?

Chicho Shepard: Sure I can vessel!
[Starts whistling]

Harpo Shepard: HONK!

Monday 10 October 2011

That's no moon.

Tamel Coe

It’s amazing the number of Easter eggs you can find in MMOs, as well as the variety. Such variety.

Take this statue of a Grace Jones look-alike in City of Heroes’ Atlas Park district, for example. Now, I’m not normally one for looking out for such details, especially considering the fact that most female character anatomy is already flaunted and displayed in games with the alarming casual detachment of an inveterate horse trader showing off his prize mare, but it’s hard to miss such a swell example when you fly right into a six foot high rendition while your attention is otherwise occupied in talking to a friend.

And so I draw your attention to the statue’s seemingly rather well defined lower lady parts being thrust in the viewer’s general direction.

You may allow your monocle to fall from your eye… now.

I hope you had it on a chain, those things are expensive!

City of Heroes has badges for every achievement under the sun, so when said friend asked if I’d got a badge for discovering this hidden pearl, I was somewhat disappointed to find that I hadn’t. I suggested to them that it might be called the Vadge Badge, but the conversation quickly clammed up after that.

Friday 7 October 2011

I have seen the future, and it is fuzzy

I haven’t bought a PC magazine for a while now. They used to be invaluable for news and reviews, packed with adverts (in a good way, when they were one of the few ways of finding hardware and software and comparing prices), and cover discs were mysterious emporiums of delight and temptation in an era when getting online incurred the wrath of the rest of the household for disconnecting the only phone, stretching a tripwire of a cable down the stairs, and running up enormous phone bills just to see, slowly appearing line by line, a very low resolution image of… I mean, just to download some terrible game you could’ve typed in quicker from a magazine listing.

For some people cover discs might still be a last lifeline to multi-gigabyte demos and the like, but the rest of us have progressed a fair way through the 101 Uses for an AOL CD (remember them?), so the latest issue of PC Gamer magazine has dispensed with the DVD in favour of additional content plus a couple of gifts for readers, a Team Fortress 2 hat (very snazzy, but I haven’t played TF2 for years) and 30 days free access to the OnLive PlayPack.

I don’t think we’ve covered OnLive here on KiaSA, barring one aside if the search function isn’t lying through its teeth, as frankly it sounded too good to be true. Playing a game over the internet? Inconveivable! The service has just launched in the UK, and after listening to the discussion about it on the latest PC Gamer podcast I was intrigued, and picked up the magazine. You can sign up for free to OnLive, the PlayPack just gives full access to more games, but I figured it was a bit rude to keep enjoying the PC Gamer podcast for nothing.

Obviously a magazine can’t rival the quantity and timeliness of gaming internet sites, but with so many of them worried more about the frequency that keyword-littered posts can be cranked out than what’s actually in them and an ever-filling news feed then cherry picking the best stuff and “printing” it on some “paper” suddenly seems like quite a good idea. Of course you lose the benefits of a “Comments” section, but you can always leave a blank pad of paper and some crayons in a pub around closing time and sellotape the results under the articles if you really want (of course contributors to this little corner of the web are fine, splendid and valued for their wisdom (especially you), and on occasion comment sections can enhance or even supplant the story under which they reside, but every now and again it’s nice to have a little bit of quiet time). I don’t think I’ll be subscribing to PC Gamer, but I’ll be keeping more of an eye out for it, especially if they’re giving out more hats.

OnLive, though; it seems to actually work. Fire up the application, connect, click a couple of buttons, and within moments you can be playing American football with dogs (I may devote an entire post to Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football, but first I have to check it actually exists and wasn’t the result of feverish hallucinations). No download or installation (apart from the very compact client), no patching, straight in there. It might just be the future. Not the present; running the application at full screen everything is rather fuzzy around the edges like a low resolution YouTube clip, you’d want a rock-solid internet connection with decent bandwidth and usage allowance before contemplating OnLive as your platform of choice, and the library of available games isn’t that impressive (dog football aside), but that it works as well as it does is undeniably impressive. For one thing it’s the ideal replacement for a magazine cover disc as a mechanism for demos; instant access, easily controlled by either available time or content, giving you a good idea if a game is worth picking up. As with PC Gamer, not something I’ll be subscribing to just yet, but well worth keeping an eye on.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Putting a ding in the MMOverse.

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them […] by the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” –Steve Jobs

Which certainly has a ring of truth with respect to World of Warcraft’s success, and is possibly why it is failing to delight its players now.

Like many high achievers, Burrell likes challenges so much that he actually seeks them out and consciously creates them

“Why intentionally ‘make a mess?’ So you can get really good at ‘cleaning up!'”– Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld

Although EVE Online may be the one to have apologised to its user base for losing sight of what makes the game great, it’s still worth any MMO developer remembering why MMO players often become passionate about a game: the truly great moments in MMOs are often not about the challenges you create, but are instead about the challenges that you enable the players to create.

Let your players make a mess, then give them the tools to clean it up.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Output of the overmind.

Bit of a case of the lurgy at the moment, so the usual verbose verbiage is in short supply. Instead here’s a quick dump from my brain sphincter, until more solid content is forthcoming:

If you consider free-to-play MMOs to be a bit of a purchasing minefield, try navigating through the world of mobile phone tarrifs, which isn’t so much a minefield as a field full of weasels with mines strapped to their backs, so that they can chase after you if you try to escape.

If real life imitated MMOs, we’d only spend a few years in a town before moving to the next one over because we’d done everything there was to do in our previous town. By your mid thirties you’d be living in a town at least two countries distant, never having revisited your home town, and scared to go on holiday anywhere else because you’d have to single-handedly kill all the indigenous wildlife around a hotel before they’d deign to let you in.

The first super villain who works out how to switch on collateral damage will win City of Heroes approximately three and a half seconds later.

If you think about it, for saving all of Middle Earth, Frodo obtained a short sword, a cloak, one piece of epic armour, chronic depression and a debilitating mental weariness which forced him to leave the land forever. Perhaps Tolkien was ahead of his time and was foreshadowing Lord of the Rings Online all along.

Final Fantasy XIV was the first game in the series to almost live up to its name.

Rumour has it that the reason Blizzard’s next MMO is taking so long to come to fruition is due to legal wrangling with the Pratchett estate over Blizzard’s world design. Titan is a flat world balanced on the backs of four e-peens which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant shoulder pad which flies through space. The Pratchett estate claims that simply taking the ‘s’ out of the name of their famous series –on which Blizzard’s world is based– doesn’t really differentiate it enough from their trademark.

If you took all the people who have spent more money on MMOs than they have on other forms of entertainment, and got them to form a line from New York towards London, you’d find that most of them had drowned.

Sources close to KiaSA suggest that TERA Online is having difficulty in beta testing with regards to balance. Engineers are still adamant that they’re not going to reduce the boob size of female characters to correct this, however, and have suggested the lore be updated to reflect the fact that the females of the Exiled Realm of Arborea naturally develop a second set of ‘ballast breasts’ on their backs instead.

Apparently, according to at least one website, Melmoth is a bit more snarky when he has the lurgy.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Thought for the day

With Google+ and Facebook enforcing the use of “real” names (whatever they might be; Charlie Stross has a fine take on it all), perhaps this is the beginning of the end of nicks, handles and “Cool Internet Names”. Unless the social networks can somehow tap in to biometric data and government records, though, I’m not sure they can do much about “Not Technically ‘Real’ But Entirely Plausible Internet Names”; I wonder just how many Luther Blissets are signing up…

Monday 3 October 2011

Cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

Ever had that dream where you’re standing alone in a school corridor which stretches off to infinity, your back to the main door, when the silence that saturates the air around you like a fog is blasted away by the sudden clanging crescendo of the home-time bell. You stand in front of those closed doors, their imposing nature warped and exaggerated through the magnifying lens of the dream, so that they seem to arch overhead like cloaked villains, threatening to swoop down on you, a tidal crest of terror ready to break.

Smaller doors to classrooms, which line that corridor unfathomable, burst open in unison and unleash a savage swarm of students, chittering and clamouring, rolling and washing, down the hall towards you. You search about in desperation for sanctuary from the approaching horde, but the main doors remain resolutely closed, and the corridor is a blank and featureless barren box, save for the uniform doors which pour forth a churning torrent of children.

In an instant of dream-time the stampede is upon you, the doors which restrained you now burst open under the weight of the stomping masses, and you are carried tumbling along at the head of the lowing herd. Glimpses of the world break through the cloud of dust that envelops you, and spin around in nauseating fashion as desperately you claw and grasp and clamber to stay afloat on a flooded river of backpacks and blazers. All too soon you sink and are trampled by this uncaring oblivious force, battered and broken by a surging sea of self-interest.

Finally the deluge dwindles, and as the last trickle of students makes its way erratically down the entrance steps where your broken body lies, a few of them stop to make sure that you don’t have anything of value on or around you, before peeling off in various directions and disappearing into the streets surrounding the school.

It’s funny how I always seem to have that dream when I start playing a new MMO or expansion.

In other unrelated news, I’ve decided to hold off on playing any more of Lord of the Rings Online’s Rise of Isengard expansion for the time being, due to a combination of general MMO weariness, and the fact that the first few weeks of any new MMO seems to be the breeding season for screaming wild-eyed zealous boy-band fans, and locusts. Together. They form some sort of ungodly hybrid pig-tailed insect swarm, and it seems best to simply stay out of their way, especially if you like your MMO with some of its content intact, and your soul with some of its hope for humanity intact.

Release: that magical time in an MMO when a large portion of the player base spends a week or so stamping one another into the mud in order to be first to be bored at the end-game.