Tuesday 11 December 2012

Hope never abandons you, you abandon it

After hearing Tim & Jon talking about Star Trek Online on the rebooted How To Murder Time podcast (and Patrick Stewart talking about space exploration on The Infinite Monkey Cage), I thought I might get the old starship out of mothballs and boldy go where quite a lot of people have gone before but I haven’t been for a while. Melmoth brilliantly captured the problem of picking up old characters, and between space and ground hotbars, bridge officers, tactical kits and whatnot, none of which I could really remember, I wouldn’t have stood a chance in a fight with a Clanger, let alone a Klingon battle fleet. Fortunately Star Trek Online has a few nice low-key ways of getting back into the swing of things, such as Duty Officer missions.

Duty Officer missions concern the day-to-day management of a crew of hundreds that the TV series generally glossed over, apart from the classic episode “Annual Performance Evaluation Reviews on the Edge of Forever”; calibrating shields and weapons, hosting ambassadors, granting leave, searching for contraband, that sort of thing. Pack the crew off with a couple of clicks, they return in an hour or two with loot, brilliant.

After a couple of days I thought I really ought to leave Earth Spacedock, though, so with a bit of helpful advice I at least got some decent Bridge Officers slotted up to give USS Hope some useful combat abilities, and took a refresher on Space Combat Basics (1: point ship at enemy 2: mash ‘fire all weapons’ button) followed by Advanced Space Combat (3: point ship away from enemy and repeat step 2 with aft weapons) and Extremely Advanced Space Combat (4: press all number keys then Ctrl-all number keys to see if your Bridge Officers can do something helpful like buff your weapons or debuff enemy shields). There are many tactics and manoeuvres in the Star Trek canon but none really capture my Extremely Advanced Space Combat technique, so I might have to dub it The Zoso Manoeuvre:

“Mister Herring! Attack Pattern Omega. Ensign Izzard! Polarise the hull. Lieutenant Osho! Auxiliary to structural, deploy repair parties.”
“Erm, sir… we haven’t actually received any damage yet.”
“I know. But we probably will. Ensign Lee! Dispersal Pattern Beta.”
“Dispersal patterns are for quantum mines, sir”
“Yes sir. We’re not fitted with mines.”
“Right. Well, if we were fitted with them, deploy them in Dispersal Pattern Beta.”
“Yes sir.”
“Right, I think that’s clicked all the buttons. Oh wait a minute, what’s this one with the little picture of the starship and the arrows coming out of it? That looks useful, do that.”
“That’s… Abandon Ship, Captain.”
“Oh well, I’ve clicked it now. Off we go!”

And so it was that USS Hope II did a couple more days of Duty Officer missions before venturing into space again…

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Player of a murdered game, owner of a murdered characer, I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next

Van Hemlock tweets: “Good grief. “#AvengeCoH” hashtags… seriously? What is wrong with you people?” And of course it is a touch on the histrionic side, but then this is a comic book universe, so arch-enemies and pledges of vengeance aren’t entirely out of character. According to narrative imperative, a group of orphan players should now travel the world, ceaselessly training in MMOG-programming techniques in mountain-top monasteries (that nevertheless have excellent broadband internet infrastructure) before returning to civilisation in the guise of The Group Of People Seeking To Exact Satisfation For A Previous Event (note to editor: there must be a catchier name), unleashing a new superhero MMOG of hitherto unimagined quality, and attracting all existing NCSoft subscribers away from their previous games. There’ll be a climactic confrontation with the board of NCSoft, probably on the window ledge of a skyscraper in the middle of a thunderstorm (it’ll need to be quite a big window ledge, perhaps with a conference table and lots of chairs), who will ultimately be vanquished, and good will have triumphed.

Until one of The Group Of People Seeking To Exact Satisfaction For A Previous Event turns out to be a robot from the future, and they all meet evil clones of themselves from a parallel universe, and their powers are drained and absorbed by an entity of pure energy from Dimension Z, and they get framed for crimes they didn’t commit and the public turn on them, and then they’re all killed, for a couple of weeks, until the deaths are retconned and then they get cancelled. Or something.

Monday 3 December 2012

Sometimes it is better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness

Since they added British tanks to World of Tanks a month or so back, I’ve mostly been playing those. I started out focusing on the medium tech tree, as most of my current garage is occupied by Soviet heavy tanks and tank destroyers, and the Brits eventually get the iconic Centurion. The early tiers always fly past quickly enough, but things bogged down in Tier IV with the Covenanter (also known as the A13 Mk III (Covenanter Mk I (Cruiser Mk V)), presumably as part of a cunning disinformation operation to make the Germans think we had a lot more tanks than we really did by assigning them at least three designations). At that point I decided to start on the British heavy tech tree for a bit of variety, and to make the most out of researching common tank components; before too long I made it up to the Tier V Churchill heavy tank, unlocked the option of the 6-pounder gun for it, and also upgraded the Covenanter to a Tier V Crusader. Looking at the stats the Crusader is a nippy tank that relies on speed and manoeuvrability, firing and rapidly moving, not really my forte, whereas the Churchill ought to be a nice, solid heavy, comparable to the Soviet KV-1, more suited to my preferred technique of slowly trundling forward, pausing occasionally to shoot stuff.

Something rather odd has happened in practise, though. I think my Churchill tank is cursed. I’ve outlined my theories on the random outcomes of World of Tanks battles before, and my overall win rate continues to bobble along around 52%. In the Churchill, over the past week I’ve been on the winning side in 5 out of 21 battles, 24%. I’ve seen some amazing performances, spanning the whole gamut of losing. There were battles where the team decided to demonstrate that it *is* possible for a pick-up group to display incredible precision and co-ordination, by carefully lining up in single file and one-by-one advancing towards concealed enemy emplacements, each one pointlessly exploding just in time for the next lamb to be slaughtered. There were road-rage incidents where two or three players collided during the Parisian traffic chaos of the start of the round and hurled expletives in chat (one of the joys of a multilingual swearing filter is that even if you can’t understand Italian, Polish or Czech, frequent bursts of asterisks convey the general tone of a message), rapidly followed by shells; when your own side are that stupid, even I was rooting for the enemy. There were battles that seemed to be going well, our team having a numerical advantage and closing on the enemy base, until our opposite flank crumbled and the dreaded friendly base occupation bar appeared, our heavy tanks having no chance of getting back in time to defend it. There were battles where my tank was destroyed but our team still had eleven other tanks compared to six enemy, a position we couldn’t possibly lose from, so I’d log out and play another tank, only to discover on reviewing the results later that, sure enough, we had managed to throw away the lead.

On occasion, at the start of a battle, someone will give a stirring pep talk. Something that brings to mind Henry V at the siege of Harfleur or Francois Pienaar reciting Invictus, something like “come on guyz dont suck my last 4 teams have been loosers lets win this”. Hearing that you ponder what connection there might have been between those last four teams, what common thread could have run through them causing those losses… I don’t think the results are entirely down to me, though, over the same timeframe I’ve fought five matches in a KV-1, won four of them, and in 12 rounds on the Crusader I’ve been on the winning side nine times. Maybe that’s it, instead of the usual 50/50 allocation of luck, the Crusader has nicked half of the Churchill’s. Or maybe it’s just a quirk of random outcomes, especially over comparatively small sample sizes. Onwards and (all being well) upwards!

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Any Friday you want, so long as it's black

Amazon’s Black Friday Deals Week is pottering along, and there’ve been a few gaming bargains; I picked up Rocksmith as part of a plan to finally get around to learning the guitar, though some would suggest that actually buying a guitar is perhaps the more crucial element of that plan. Half the fun, though, is seeing what other weird and wonderful items come up for sale, some of which are prime targets for the cult of spoof reviews; the BIC For Her Medium Ballpoint Pen “designed specifically for women” (on offer at 1.29pm this afternoon!) is a case in point, though 511 reviews is overdoing it slightly. I suppose it’s just conforming to the general internet rule of humour: if a joke is worth making, it’s worth making again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again until every last vestige of humour that might possibly have been present has been wrung so thoroughly from the dessicated corpse of the joke that it’s nothing but hollow, echoing words, at which point it’s gone so far past being funny that it’s become funny again as a form of peculiar meta-anti-humour, and then more people jump on and keep making the same joke pushing it past so-not-funny-it’s-funny into so-not-funny-it-was-funny-but-now-isn’t-again. Or something.

One danger of looking at random odd items is that it can make the personalised recommendations go a little strange, but, a bit like jokes, you just need to push things far enough, until the site says: “Inspired by your browsing history! Customers who viewed cricket spring return stumps, a slow cooker, a colour coded index chopping board set, solar garden spotlights, six water filters, a kayak, a food processor, a digital radio and radiator reflector panels also viewed… erm… god, I don’t know, a set of deck quoits? An ornamental hatstand in the shape of Reginald Maudling? I give up, I’m going to go and help this other customer over here who’s just bought a book by recommending every other book the author has written, I bet they won’t have thought of that…”

Friday 16 November 2012

Silent Storm Sale

If anyone, perhaps inspired by XCom, fancies a bit more turn-based action, GOG.com have a weekend sale on strategy & wargames. My pick of the bunch would be S2: Silent Storm Gold Edition, a World War II(ish) game without the strategic layer of XCom but with lashings of turn-based fun. There’s also the even more XCom-y UFO games, IL-2 Sturmovik for flight simmery and a few others.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Innovation is the whim of an elite

You wait all day for a Kickstarter revival of a classic space combat franchise, and then two come along at the same time… Though Egosoft’s X series has been manfully plugging away at galaxy-spanning trade and combat with regular releases since 1999 it never seems to have caught the imagination quite like Elite, so it’ll be interesting to see what Braben & co. come up with. I haven’t chipped in myself yet, as I have to admit to being a touch skeptical after the problems with the two Frontier games and lengthy gestation period of Elite IV (and I’m not sure about Dangerous as a subtitle; I would’ve gone for Elite: Competent, or Elite: Mostly Harmless for preference). Still, fingers crossed they pull it off.

Perhaps inspired by all the space-combat-ness, when I noticed GOG.com had bunch of EA games on sale I bought Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. Despite the first two being formative PC gaming experiences I’d never played the latter games in the series, so I thought I’d rememdy that, especially as the price of freedom turned out to be $2.39 in the sale. The FMV sequences haven’t aged too badly; sure they’re a bit blocky and low resolution, but in this age of YouTube, mobile phone camera footage and streaming video over not-terribly-fast broadband that’s not terribly jarring. The opening goes on a bit when you’re itching to get into the cockpit and fly (yada yada, retired, farming, bar-room thug, get on with it) but eventually you get into space, and at that point the graphics do rather show their age. Not just the graphics; spoiled by the ubiquity of tutorials in modern games, I’d forgotten than back in Ye Olde Days of 1995 you had these strange artefacts, “manuals” I think they were called, that somehow offered guidance in the forms of “words” printed on “paper”. Course I hadn’t bothered downloading the PDF versions of the manuals, but not to worry, I remembered an ancient technique practised by those who may, entirely hypothetically, have swapped games on tapes or discs without accompanying documentation: the art of pressing every key on the keyboard to see if something happened. And that, as I told the board of enquiry, is why, at the time of the attack by enemy fighters, I was looking out of the left window of the ship with the engines set to 25% power, the windscreen wipers going furiously, and the on-board drinks dispenser midway through producing a cup of synth-Bovril.

Eventually quitting the game (in prehistoric times the convention of pressing ‘Escape’ to bring up a menu hadn’t been standardised) I went off and downloaded the supporting bits and pieces from GOG.com, but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back. Despite the moment of madness in buying WCIV (at least I managed to resist getting the complete Ultima series at the same time) I’ve got a pile of games of more modern vintage to work through; British tanks in World of Tanks (a weekend of x5 XP and some bonus Premium time catapulted me through to Tier IV and a Matilda and Covenanter), Unity of Command (a well-reviewed operational level wargame that was recently added to Steam), Mass Effect 3 multiplayer challenges, Civilisation 5… Having finished one complete play-through of Borderlands 2 (and started a “True Vault Hunter” second run, plus a couple of other characters) I’ve decided to park it up and perhaps return to it once a few DLC packs are out, so I finally got around to the new XCOM game. In contrast to WCIV there is an extensive tutorial, taking you through just about every aspect of both the strategic and tactical game. It’s hardly “dumbing down”, though, the original UFO: Enemy Unknown had a step-by-step introduction in the manual that I can still (very dimly) remember, XCOM just integrates it into the game itself, and adds characters like your Chief Scientist and Engineer to present the information in-universe. Incidentally, with graphics technology coming on in leaps and bounds from the weird triangular people of the early 90s such that the visuals of cut-scenes no longer need the talents of Mark “Voice of “Luke “Christopher “Maverick” Blair” Skywalker” the Joker” Hamill and Thomas F. “Biff from Back “Todd “Maniac” Marshall” to the Future” Wilson, it seems a touch odd that computer-generated voices haven’t made a similar level of progress from the text-to-speech software that was so much fun with the original SoundBlaster; is it a much more difficult field, or just less costly to get someone in a booth recording dialogue so less impetus to the research?

XCOM seems thoroughly splendid, as most reviews have suggested a worthy update of a classic, and leaving it a while may have been a good idea as I haven’t hit any major bugs yet, possibly thanks to a couple of patches since release. Half the fun is always naming your squad after friends, family, bloggers, film stars etc.; so far I’ve gone with Ramsay “Chopper” MacDonald leading his cabinet from the Second National Ministry, 1st “Viscount” Hailsham proving a dab hand with a sniper rifle, and Philip “RightHon” Cunliffe-Lister extending his brief to specialise in live alien capture. I’m just hoping their rearmament policy isn’t too late…

Tuesday 6 November 2012

There is an inevitable divergence between the world as it is and the world as men perceive it

Finally, the British have arrived in World of Tanks. In a conventional World War II game it would obviously be the work of a deranged madman to include non-existent French tanks before the sturdy tea-boilers of the good old UK, so World of Tanks is clearly an alternate history game. I reckon the point of divergence in the Tankiverse was that Britain and France didn’t declare war on Germany when it invaded Poland, so the Phoney War was the shaky preservation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact until May 1940, at which point Hitler strikes east instead of west, launching World of Tanks with its German and Soviet vehicles. Shortly after, the United States enters the war; this is where things get a bit tricky. Japan aren’t involved yet, presumably waiting until World of Warplanes and World of Warships to stage Pearl Harbor having ruled out the possibility of building a really, really long bridge to kick things off with tanks, so that’s not the catalyst. With elections being a bit topical and all, then: George S. Patton gets bored, secures the Republican nomination for the 1940 election, sweeps to victory, and decides to invade Russia. Via Alaska. Entirely plausible (for very small values of “entirely”). That gets us to the EU/US launch of World of Tanks, with added American tanks.

In this world the UK, rather than the US, adopts an isolationist stance. The French are biding their time, still miffed because they didn’t get Alsace-Lorraine back after World War I for terribly good reasons that I can’t be bothered to make up, eventually launching an invasion to reclaim their territory with a bunch of stupid prototype tanks in Operation: Patch 7.1 during January 2012 (or July 1941 by the Tankiverse calendar). Fighting a two-front war, the Germans formulate a cunning plan: elite Brandenburgers capture a French submarine and torpedo a convoy of Darjeeling bound for Liverpool in June 1942, a date that will live in leaf-infusion infamy. This is too much for the Brits, who kick out Chamberlain or Attlee or some bloke like that, elect Churchill, and storm onto the Normandy beaches. Voila! Germany vs the USSR vs America vs France vs the UK. Watch out for a Kickstarter campaign soon for the tie-in novel, “A Bunch Of Countries Fight Each Other For Some Reason But Only With Tanks And This And That”.

Friday 19 October 2012

It's the age-old struggle: the roar of the crowd on the one side, and the voice of your conscience on the other

So Project Eternity has finished its Kickstarter campaign with $3,986,929 (plus a bit more via PayPal to take it past four million total). A spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale was never going to be a particularly tough sell (the most difficult part was probably not getting buried under an avalanche of cash) (well, that and living up to expectations set by some of the most beloved PC games of all time, but that’s still to come), but hitting the original $1.1m target in just over a day was still pretty impressive.

It’s not just Kickstarter that’s racking up money outside the conventional “buy a finished boxed game for $60” model, Mechwarrior Online has raised $5 million through its Founder’s Program, a sort of pre-sale as it goes into open beta, and Chris “Wing Commander” Roberts is seeking funding through a variety of routes for Star Citizen. Gamasutra had an interview with Funcom’s Craig Morrison, touching on the problem of MMO launches in the current landscape,

And I think we need to get people out of that mindset, so that a game can start at like 100,000, or an indie game could start at 10,000. Because a studio game is going to want to have a decent place to start with, and wherever that level may be. But that a game can start, as long as it’s cost effective, as long as you budgeted your project to be in that ballpark and you know from the beginning, “Okay, we’ve set our budget, we’re aiming for 100,000 at the start.”

And then we need the gamers to not react with, “Oh, well. That’s a worthless game then, because it’s not going to have a million users.” We need the users to be, “Oh cool, this game appeals to me in my niche and my interests, and I want to see this game succeed, so I’m going to support it.”

And then if the game takes off and grows, then you can get that kind of organic growth.

Perhaps a funding model like Star Citizen can help with that, getting people (and their money) involved early, building the player base and game together, rather than hyping the arse out of a game while developing it in the desperate hope of making the money back before everyone buggers off. The traditional model can still work in a lot of areas, but with development times getting longer and costs getting higher the big companies tend to focus on the safe money, ever increasing sequels in a limited number of genres; not exclusively, this week’s UK charts have a new IP in Dishonoured at number two, and XCom at number seven reviving tactical combat, but they’re sitting amongst Just Dance 4, Resident Evil 6, Fifa 13. Sequels aren’t a bad thing per se, Borderlands 2 and The Elder Scrolls V are also in the Top 10, but variety is the spice of life.

Crowdfunding isn’t immune from the problem, though; as John Walker pointed out, the big success stories are rooted in nostalgia, the people and/or IPs behind Planescape: Torment, Wing Commander, Mechwarrior. Not that nostalgia is a magic wand, SHAKER, an old school RPG with impeccable pedigree, doesn’t seem to have caught the imagination like Project Eternity, and doesn’t look like it’s going to hit its million dollar target. Ironically, while crowdfunding may be a way of attaining more organic growth in a game’s player base, you need to get a good start in Kickstarter; the SHAKER project was originally titled “An Old School RPG” and didn’t have a whole lot of detail, perhaps dissipating the initial excitement needed to build up the head of pledge-gathering steam that powers further coverage.

I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen an MMO Kickstarter from big names, along the lines of Wasteland 2 or Double Fine Adventure. I’m sure we’ll see some come along, perhaps on other platforms or with different funding mechanisms, but for now a quick Kickstarter search for “MMO” doesn’t turn up very much. There’s Eric Heimburg’s intriguing Project Gorgon that sadly that isn’t even halfway to its target yet, and a few other (over)ambitious looking projects trying to invoke Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot and the like that have secured even less. Come on, though, people, how can A FITNESS RPG have only hit $11 so far? “Finally, a deep-space survival MMO game to incentify fitness. Level, Earn and Battle.” That’s got to be worth a $10,000 pledge.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Wot I'm Playing: Roundup

It’s a busy old gaming time at the moment. MMO-wise, I’m still on holiday; I’ve popped in to City of Heroes a couple of times since they announced it was to close, though I feel I ought to give it a proper good-bye, maybe one last run of the Positron Task Force or something. Guild Wars 2 is patched up, just in case the mood strikes, but it’s been Skyrim fulfilling my recommended daily allowance of fantasy questing.

There’s something of a tension, though, between my general meandering around the world, resulting in an overflowing quest log full of all sorts of interesting sounding things to investigate, and my slightly completist/OCD side trying to get everything ticked off. Even when absolutely determined to finish existing tasks before acquiring any more, it’s hard to avoid picking up a couple of new quests for every three you finish. Like both Morrowind and Oblivion before I’ve reached a sort of mid-point where there’s an awful lot I’d like to do still, but there isn’t a single thread that’s really got me hooked to yank me through, so it’s easy to get distracted by other things. Like Borderlands 2.

Borderlands 2 is a worthy sequel to the loot-spewing RPG/shooter of MOAR DAKKA original. As an operant conditioning chamber it’s incredibly effective, I almost subconsciously now run up to anything with a green light on it and hit the ‘open’ button, useful in the game for racking up stacks of cash, ammunition, eridium and gear, but quite hazardous when crossing the road at traffic lights. Crammed with pop culture references, I particularly enjoyed a three-way stand-off in a graveyard as part of “The Good, The Bad and The Mordecai” (no prizes for guessing which classic Leone film it references) (“Duck, You Sucker!”, obviously); it worked especially well to the sound of Short Change Hero by The Heavy, the song used in the introduction of the game, a gloriously Morricone-influenced piece that I went and bought and have had stuck in my head for the past couple of weeks.

Away from frantic gunslinging action, I’ve also been popping back in to a bit of Minecraft. I’ve seen bits and pieces about updates and improvements over the past year or so and keep meaning to check them out, but had never quite got around to it until Shuttler started talking about multiplayer servers, so I hopped on for a quick look around. Then, y’know, you have to have a quick dig, so grabbed a bit of wood, made a pickaxe… and then it started getting dark, so obviously you need to build a quick house, and pop a chest in it for storing things, and then a second level, digging down for coal, perhaps a quick mezzanine, oh and a wheat field of course, and then once you’ve got the wheat you might as well grab a few animals to start a farm, and… well, it’s like Yellow Car. Just as you never stop playing Yellow Car, you never stop playing Minecraft, it just happens that sometimes you’re not logged in to it.

With similar longevity World of Tanks has been kicking around for the best part of a couple of years, and I still hop in for a spot of armoured combat now and again. There was a big update, version 8.0, a few weeks back, overhauling the graphics and physics within the game; previously steep slopes had a sort of invisible wall that stopped you crashing over them, now you have to be a bit careful around cliffs. Not just at the top either, from force of habit on one map I was hunkered down at the bottom of a cliff, where previously I would’ve been out of the firing arc of anyone above, and got a rude surprise when an opponent plummeted down in a death-dive… I’ve got a few favourite tanks in tiers II, V and VIII that I mostly play, no real goals progression-wise for the moment, I might pick it up a bit more seriously when British tanks arrive in version 8.1.

In the meantime there’s another multiplayer update to Mass Effect 3, Retaliation, that’s just come out. It’s a pretty major overhaul, adding a whole new enemy faction in The Collectors, a Challenge system of some sort and Hazard maps with additional dangers, alongside the usual new classes and weapons. I’ve been firing up ME3 for the fortnightly “Operations” that set challenges with commendation pack rewards that offer you the chance to unlock Yet Another Rank Of The Sodding N7 Eagle Pistol. Some of the challenges (“Achieve full extraction in a mission in under 15 minutes”) are absolutely fine; others (“Achieve full extraction in a mission with all four players as the same non-human race”) are much trickier. Not so much in execution, but the matchmaker has no way to specify that you’re trying to complete these challenges, so forming a compliant team in the first place can be terribly frustrating.

I’ll probably be playing Retaliation for a couple of days as thanks to slightly irritating staggered launch dates we don’t get XCOM and Dishonoured until Friday in the UK. Though Dishonoured looks deeply splendid in a Steampunk-ThiefDeus Ex-ish sort of way, with all the other games around at the moment I decided I’d only pick up one of the two big new games at launch, and the pre-order offers swung it. Dishonoured has (roughly) 904 different pre-order variants at different retailers offering slightly different perks, items and what-not; XCOM has, as far as I can make out, the same Elite Soldier Pack pre-order bonus everywhere, apart from Steam, which thanks to a curious tiered pre-order reward system also chucks in some TF2 bits, and a copy of Civilisation 5. As, shockingly, I don’t have Civ5 (absolutely loved the first game, back in the day, but just haven’t got around to any of the sequels), I figured I might as well go for that offer, making something of a mockery of the whole “too many games” business, but never mind. I’ve managed about four turns of Civ5 so far and really want to take a proper crack at it, should enough time somehow become available.

In readiness for XCOM I’ve been finishing off a run through Silent Storm: Sentinels, an excellent turn based tactical RPG in the mould of the original UFO: Enemy Unknown that recently became available on GOG.com It’s good stuff even if, like in the original, things go slightly downhill with the appearance of Panzerkleins. I don’t think I’m ready for the Ironman mode of XCOM with no reloading, though, I’ve been saving quite a lot during missions. Mostly when using grenades. Confronted with a basement full of enemy troops, a grenade seemed like the perfect solution, but a slight error in trajectory resulted in the grenadier lobbing the Mills bomb into the head of his own comrade, from which it bounced off, then detonated, taking out the three members of my squad storming down the staircase, the staircase itself, and most of the hallway and kitchen floor above, resulting in two more of my squad ending up in the cellar rather sooner than planned, slap bang in the firing line of four rather cross Hammer soldiers. That’ll be a reload, then…

Friday 5 October 2012

I'm a Metastarter, Wicked Metastarter

Hey, you! Remember those games from when you were younger? They were brilliant, weren’t they? Especially that one, you know, the one that was totally your favourite and the best game ever, and you’d play it with your friends and times were simpler then and happier and the sun was brighter and the days lasted longer and everything was better not like these days I mean have you heard that modern music it’s all noises you can’t even hear the words and you wouldn’t dare go out on the streets after dark and you’re stuck in a dead end job and you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking racing around to come up behind you again the sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older shorter of breath and one day closer to death. If only games were like they used to be, everything would be better, but they don’t make games like that any more.

Or… do they? Through the power of Kickstarter a magic time tunnel has opened to the 1990s and every game you ever liked is getting a sequel, direct or spiritual, so KiaSA Productions are getting in on the act as well. Unfortunately we don’t have a solid pedigree of classic games to build on, so we’re launching a Kickstarter for Metastarter: The Nostalgia-Heavy Kickstarter RPG.

Create your party! Roll up a party of one to six game industry legends choosing from classes including Designer, Artist, Programmer, Composer, or advanced classes such as the Maverick Genius who receives a boost to the Add Innovative Features skill, but suffers a constant Wild Overpromise debuff.

Select your portfolio! Make deep tactical choices as you select the back catalogue of your team; did they produce a couple of mega-hits, or a long running series that was generally favourably received? Oddball cult favourites, or lots of mainstream sales but little longevity? With a limited number of Cachet Points you’ll have tough decisions to make.

Get Kickstarting! Once the team is assembled select a classic game genre that’s far less popular these days, and launch your Kickstarter! Set a target amount, create a promotional video, decide whether to include ‘A Secret Moonbase (on the actual moon) For All Players’ as a $2.4 billion Stretch Goal, and watch the money roll in!

Launching the Kickstarter campaign is just the beginning of Metastarter, though; fight for industry press coverage, try and create a buzz via social media, deal with trolls who still hold grudges over a patch that fixed an exploit on one of the team’s previous games in 1994, face the logistical issues of shipping the $417 reward level unique limited edition hand-drawn commemorative tea-towel and napkin set around the world, can you beat the $3,336,371 top score? Find out, in Metastarter: The Nostalgia-Heavy Kickstarter RPG, not coming soon to Kickstarter or any other crowdfunding platform!

Also be sure to look out for the sequel, Releasing A Kickstarted Game To Inevitable Disappointment As Nothing Can Possibly Live Up To The Idealised Perfection Fans Have Had In Their Heads For The Last Ten Years, due in 12-18 months!

Thursday 27 September 2012

Mounting fury over lack of Mists of Pandaria backlash

IRVINE, CA — Fans of massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft are disappointed and angry that new expansion Mists of Pandaria has caused little disappointment or anger in the wider gaming community. Two full days have passed since release and the expansion has racked up a paltry 15 one-star reviews on amazon.com, a far cry from the triple-digit numbers hoped for. “I just don’t understand it” said keen WoW player Ian Keenwowplayer; “after the rage that greeted the announcement of Pandaria at Blizzon 2011 I was sure we were in for a maelstrom of all-caps fury, but it’s been a real let-down. My speciality is to instantly leap upon any mention of the movie Kung Fu Panda and point out that Pandaran in Warcraft lore pre-date the film by many years in a highly detailed argument with extensive annotation and footnotes. I was there at midnight on Reddit and in the general chat channel with a paste buffer full of quotes from tie-in novels, but had no need to deploy them. I had to actually play the game in the end.”

Blizzard spokesperson Ian Spokesperson tried to put a brave face on the reception, pointing out page after page of incoherent forum rants with random capitalisation, bizarre punctuation and highly innovative approaches to spelling the word “ridiculous”, but under questioning was forced to admit that the forums were always full of incoherent rants, and nothing had really changed since the expansion apart from a rise in accusations of Blizzard “panda-ing” to the lowest common denominator of their player base. Studies have yet to determine whether the majority of authors are making deliberate puns on the homophones “panda” and “pander”, or idiots.

In a bid to understand the lack of reaction we reached out to the Deputy Chairman of the National League of Angry Bloggers and Union of Really Quite Cross Online Commenters, Ian Deputychairmanofthenationalleagueofangrybloggersandunionofreallyquitecrossonlinecommenters. “It’s just been a really busy year”, he said. “We’ve had to be unnecessarily disparaging about Star Wars: The Old Republic, TERA, Diablo III and The Secret World, not to mention assorted updates and expansions. Guild Wars 2 is currently taking a massive amount of effort to tell everyone just how little we care about it, and how boring it is. It’s hard to keep up the sustained levels of bile and hatred that’s expected, especially when you factor in news of disappointing sales and job losses to be repugnantly gleeful over.” He also feels that the really big triple-A campaigns like that for Mass Effect 3 are having a damaging effect overall, setting unreasonable expectations. “People don’t understand the resources needed for something like that, I mean to be so tenaciously insane over something so inconsequential, we just can’t manage that for every release. We still have members searching out any story related to Bioware, EA, or the words “Mass” or “Effect” and posting furious comments, we’re not expecting them to be available for unwarranted abuse about other games before 2015. You know, we try a bit of fast-turnaround small-team abuse, but people see a couple of ‘OMG THIS GAEM SUX’ user comments on metacritic, they’re just not interested, they’re all ‘where is the nineteen page deconstruction of every quote ever made by any person connected with the game in an interview, where is the personal abuse on Twitter’, that sort of stuff takes time, you know?”

In a bid to pacify the increasingly angry Blizzard fanbase, Mr Deputychairmanofthenationalleagueofangrybloggersandunionofreallyquitecrossonlinecommenters agreed to launch an exclusive attack on Mists of Pandaria. “Erm, it’s really stupid” he ranted “like, uh, that movie with… y’know… the voice of the guy from School of Rock and… yeah, Kung Fu Panda, that’s it”.

“Oh really?” he continued “Originally seen in The Frozen Throne expansion for Warcraft III in 2003, five years before the film? No, I didn’t know that. Yeah, that’s fascinating, really… look, I’ve got a bus to catch, yeah? OK, great, you send me the scans of all the comic panels that included or referenced Pandaren together with the fan-fiction they spawned, yup, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for that, I really do need to be going though, OK?”

Monday 24 September 2012

Hobby Corner

Greetings, hobby idiots! It is I, Simon Quinlank, Earl of Hobbies and Margrave of Pastimes. I have seized control of this blog in order to bring my latest hobby to you. This hobby is called Recreating The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports Within A Different Game, and it is a good hobby. For this hobby, you will need:

  1. A passing familiarity with The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports. If you do not possess a passing familiarity with The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports, you may obtain one by playing The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports, specifically the Skeet Shooting event. If you do not possess The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports you may emulate it using the Multi Arcade Machine Emulator, but only if you completely legally possess the ROM and do not illegally download it at all. Other methods of gaining a familiar level of familiarity with The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports include “watching” a “videographic recording” on “You Tube”, or remembering the BBC television quiz show “First Class” hosted by Debbie Greenwood. I am going to remember the BBC television quiz show First Class hosted by Debbie Greenwood.
  2. A Different Game. There are many computer games, of which some are not The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports. You shall require one of these. I am going to use the computer game Borderlands 2. This is a good game, even though it was not featured in the BBC television quiz show “First Class” hosted by Debbie Greenwood. Neil Petark claims that Borderlands 2 did feature in the BBC television quiz show “First Class” hosted by Debbie Greenwood, but he is wrong. He is probably thinking of GamesMaster hosted by Dominic Diamond.
  3. A flask of weak lemon drink.

You may drink your weak lemon drink now, or save it until later. I shall drink mine now while thinking of Debbie Greenwood hosting the BBC television show “First Class”. Hello, Debbie Greenwood. Would you like some weak lemon drink? ANSWER ME!

Next, start playing Borderlands 2. In order to Recreate The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports Within Borderlands 2, you will need a shotgun. For the most accurate recreation this should be a shotgun with a two-round magazine, but other shotguns may be used if you are a second-rate hobbyist not dedicated to accurate recreation, such as Neil Petark. Once you have a shotgun, you will need to locate a Bullymong Slinger. These can be found in many of the early zones of Borderlands 2. Approach the Bullymong Slinger, and say these words that I will now write down: “Hello Bullymong Slinger! My name is Simon Quinlank and I am Recreating The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports Within A Different Game. I require that you fling objects such that I can shoot them from the air using this shotgun!” (Note that at the point I said “Simon Quinlank” you should say instead your own name, for you are not Simon Quinlank, unless your name is Simon Quinlank, but it is not, for I am Simon Quinlank.)

The Bullymong should then commence the flinging of objects. It may have commenced the flinging of objects even before you started speaking to it, demonstrating an admirable zeal for the hobby of Recreating The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports Within A Different Game. Granted, it is flinging boulders directly at you, instead of hurling clay pigeons in front of you, but I deem this to be close enough to count as a successful hobby. Now you must shoot them, with your shotgun! BANG! BANG! Do you see? Then, reload the shotgun as more projectiles are hurled. Then, shoot the projectiles, BANG! BANG! Then, reload the shotgun. Continue until you run out of ammunition, become bored, or die. Congratulations! You have Recreated The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports Within A Different Game. You may now select another different game in which to Recreate The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports, or you may return to your weak lemon drink. I am going to return to my weak lemon drink. Hello, Debbie Greenwood, did you enjoy my Recreation of The Skeet Shooting Event From The 1984 Konami Arcade Game Hyper Sports Within A Different Game? OF COURSE YOU DID!

Friday 21 September 2012

If the tanks succeed, then victory follows

The old MMO “trinity” has been flexing somewhat of late, what with the skill wheel of The Secret World, the everybody-heals classes of Guild Wars 2 and three player instances in World of Warcraft amongst other developments. Inspired by Tobold’s post title, Playing without a tank, I thought I’d conduct an experiment, and refuse to either play or group with a tank in a game for a week to see what happens.

In hindsight, though, World of Tanks might not have been the best choice of game…

Monday 17 September 2012

I cross the void beyond the mind

I’ve worked out who I am in Skyrim. Let’s examine the evidence:

  • Mysterious stranger
  • Followed by a frequently changing companion
  • Interferes in the business of anyone and everyone
  • Opens a lot of locks

I’m obviously an incarnation of The Doctor. My general approach to the game is entirely consistent with that, constantly being distracted by new and shiny things (not to mention dressing Lydia in Forsworn Armor and calling her Leela all the time):

“Of course, Jarl, I shall immediately go to this remote monastery you speak of, many miles away, to learn more. Come on, Leela!”
“It’s Lydia”
“That’s what I said. To the monastery, allons-y!”

Two minutes out of town…

“Ooh, a cave, I wonder what’s in there?”
“Shouldn’t we be going to the monastery, my Thane?”
“I told you to call me Doctor. Anyway, what monastery? Look, a chest! Quick zap of the old soni…lockpick, and, ooh, a Steel Helm of Fire Resistance. I wear a Steel Helm of Fire Resistance now. Steel Helms of Fire Resistance are cool.”

There is one tiny difference: The Doctor is famous for his aversion to weapons and pursuit of non-violent solutions to conflict, whereas in extreme circumstance, if pushed, I will sometimes wield a sword. And an axe. And a couple of daggers. And stab unsuspecting bandits in the back. Or shoot them with a bow. Or cast an assortment of fireballs, lightning and ice shards. Hey, nobody’s perfect…

Monday 10 September 2012

Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year, whether he feels like taking it or not

I’m on a bit of a MMOG-break at the moment. I’m coming to the conclusion that the longevity of a game may be less to do with the game itself and more my own frame of mind when approaching it; this year I spent several months in Star Wars: The Old Republic, hitting the level cap and doing a few operations, a month or two in The Secret World, and about a week in Guild Wars 2. It’s not that Guild Wars 2 is a bad game, it’s perfectly splendid, but I just haven’t been bitten by that “must play it” bug; there comes a point every now and again (I’ve blogged about several over the past years) where I need to take a break from killing a certain number of things by activating hotbar abilities to cause damage. With the Paralympics just finishing, hot on the heels of the Olympics, I’m feeling a similar way about Olympian endeavours; 25-odd days of top-notch sport have been fantastic, but a bit of a break now isn’t unwelcome. Four years is probably overdoing it slightly, but a bit of time pottering around Skyrim, engaging in turn-based World War II-ish fights in Silent Storm: Sentinels (now available from GOG, hurrah!) and perhaps madly shooting in Borderlands 2 at the end of the month might well recharge the old batteries for a proper go at GW2 or something else MMOG-y in a while.

Saturday 1 September 2012

In Memoriam City of Heroes

So. Farewell then
City of Heroes
You were My First
Like the Barry White
(But not my Last or Everything.
Still. One out
Of three
Isn’t bad.)

E. J. Zoso, age 17½

Terribly sad news that Paragon Studios are to close down, bringing an end to City of Heroes. As my first ever MMOG, City of Heroes will always have a place in my heart, somewhere between the pulmonary artery and left ventricle. It got me into this whole business and set a bar that even now some games limbo under rather than superjumping over, with features like flexible group sizes, sidekicking to play with friends, character customisation.

“In times of trouble, go with what you know”, as they say, and we know nothing here if not A Bit of Fry & Laurie. This genuinely heart-wrenching sketch from Series 2 seems rather apt.

“How do I like my MMOs? I like them the way Paragon Studios used to make them.”

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess, and you don't find out til too late that he's been playing with two queens all along

I’ve been somewhat remiss in posting about the card & board game exploits of our irregular (in many senses) gaming group. Over the past couple of years we’ve tackled a fair assortment of cardboard-based diversions, many covered during Murdering of Time, or in textual form at The Azadian and Power Armoured Beard. Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Dominion, Thunderstone, Small World, Battlestar Galactica, Ticket to Ride, amongst others, have been big hits, and last weekend featured a couple of new additions to The Shute Library.

Gloom, as seen on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, is a card game in which the objective is to make your family as miserable as possible, and then kill them off. Gloomy, eh? As well as making your own family unhappy, you can play cards on other families that make them more happy, although of course that makes their player unhappy. It’s something of an emotional rollercoaster… The cards are nicely done, being transparent, so they can be stacked up to cancel out or enhance previous effects. A lot of the fun is in the storytelling that players are encouraged (though not obligated) to do to explain precisely how the family member in question became Popular in Parliament, or was Devoured by Weasels. In our game there was a particularly action-packed park where, amongst other improbable happenings, a teddy bear (with a human brain) Found Love by the Lake (in the form of a swan, apparently), while a hapless explorer was Drowned by Ducks after being Pursued by Poodles. We had six players, using additional families from a couple of expansion packs (but not the extra rules, while we got used to things), and the only slight problem was that the game dragged a little. We used all five family members for each player, and cutting that down to four as the rules suggested for a four player game, or even three, would’ve probably been ideal; as it was it took too long to kill off an entire family, especially with action cards preventing several untimely demises.

Lords of Waterdeep is a Dungeons & Dragons boardgame without many dungeons, or indeed dragons. It’s about gaining power and influence in the city, mostly by collecting resources, then spending those resources to complete ‘quests’. To stick to the D&D theme the resources you collect are Fighters, Rogues, Mages and Clerics, but with a bit of a tweak to the fluff text they could just as well be Brick, Wood, Sheep and Wheat. You might pick up a few references to Elminster or Zhentil Keep or something if you’re into the Forgotten Realms, but there’s no need to have any D&D knowledge at all. Like many games it seemed confusing and overcomplicated when pressing out hundreds of cardboard tokens and first reading the rules, but it only took a couple of turns to get the hang of things, and it rattled along very nicely after that.

On a bit of a stroll around the forums of boardgamegeek.com, I think I stumbled across the boardgame equivalent of the MMOG “theme park” vs “sandbox” debate: “German-style” vs “American-style” games. In neither argument do the terms have a concrete definition, more a series of characteristics; in neither argument is there a “right” answer, just personal preference, with many people perfectly happy to play games of, or with characteristics of, either or both types. Naturally, then, there’s no shortage of flamewars burrowing into deep semantic rabbit warrens as participants attempt to convince each other that their subjective personal opinion is The Truth. As The Economist put it, “arguing over what the difference is seems to be gamers’ second-favourite pastime.” Today’s xkcd is strangely aposite, fractal nesting of subcultures indeed.

It turns out I’m generally on the Eurogame side of the fence, particularly the element: “There is very little randomness or luck. Randomness that is there is mitigated by having the player decide what to do after a random event happens rather than before. Dice are rare, but not unheard of.” It’s something of a surprise; dice, for me, are inextricably linked to games, from early family games (Ludo, Monopoly etc.) through the polyhedral splendour of RPGs, but sure enough there’s a remarkable paucity of dice in the games I’ve enjoyed; Small World and Battlestar Galactica feature a little bit of rolling, Settles of Catan uses 2d6 per turn, but as a randomising element rather than resolving actions. On the other hand Blood Bowl decides almost everything with dice, and I didn’t get on with that at all, though I still haven’t tried it against a human opponent. Blood Bowl: Team Manager, though, a card game, was excellent. We tried Last Night on Earth once as well, a zombie boardgame. It didn’t help that, thanks to certain cards being played, two of us human players missed our first two turns, a pointlessly frustrating start that might’ve coloured my view of the rest of the game, but then there was all the rolling; roll a dice to see how far you move, roll dice to determine the outcome of fights, roll dice to see if more zombies turn up, yada yada. Not my cup of tea at all.

It’s not that I’ve suddenly become dice-phobic; Zombie Dice are great fun, and there’s something oddly satisfying about throwing a massive handful of dice to resolve a ludicrous short-range broadside in Uncharted Seas. I can certainly understand the arguments in their favour, the dramatic tension that dice rolls can bring, but for whatever reason I’ve enjoyed the diceless games more. It might retrospectively explain why I was more into the theory and fluff of RPGs and wargames than actually playing.

There’ll never be an end to the debate, though. Even Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are in on it, both trying to co-opt God to their side of the argument. Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice” suggests He is more of a Eurogamer, whereas Hawking counters with “Not only does God definitely play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” So I’m definitely not inviting Him round for a game of Blood Bowl.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Moving with superior velocity, achieving a more elevated altitude, raising an item of greater mass

“Hello sports fans! Welcome to this live coverage of the results of the bidding process for the inugral MMOlympics. I’m Clifford Prodger”

“And I’m Barry Bumgardener”

“Frequently. Now, as Olympic fever sweeps much of the world, it’s surprising that, until now, no MMOGs have been getting in on the act, perhaps with some sort of in-game tie-in event”

“Perhaps not *that* surprising, Clifford, as those Olympic types are really rather keen on their brand protection, backed up by the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995 (OSPA) to prevent unauthorised association with the games.”

“That’s true. Still, we…”

“In fact after consulting the Brand Protection document, I’m shocked by the flagrant manner in which many existing online entertainments are flouting the guidelines.”

“Yes, anyway, it…”

“The Olympic rings, for example, are quite clearly a protected symbol, and yet how many MMOGs unashamedly include rings as items of jewellery, hmmm?”

“That’s not really…”

“MORE DAMNING STILL! Listed expressions are: any two of the words in list A below OR any word in list A with one or more of the words in list B below:”

“I think we’re straying slightly from the…”

“LIST A: Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve. LIST B: London, medals, sponsors, summer, gold, silver, bronze. How many so-called massively multiplayer online GAMES (list A) feature items made of GOLD, SILVER or indeed BRONZE (list B), hmmm? Hmmm? ANSWER ME!”

“Why don’t you have a little sit down and a couple of dried frog pills, Barry, you’re frothing slightly there.”


“Partially. Now, in no way cashing in on any other event taking place, the International MMOlympic Committee…”

“International MMO-generic sporting event Committee, you mean?”

“Yes, yes, we’ll do a find-and-replace on the tape before its broadcast”

“We’re live, Clifford”

“All right, we’ll do find-and-replace on the brains of everyone watching. The International MMOlympic Committee have asked for bids to hold the inaugural MMOlympics, but as it’s such a massive undertaking, too much for any single game, the process is broken down on an event-by-event basis.”

“C’est vrai. That’s right.”

“Why the French, Barry?”

“Je ne sais pas, je viens juste à l’envie de tout dire en français d’abord, puis de le répéter en anglais. I don’t know, I just got the urge to say everything in French first, and then repeat it in English.”

“Probably the dried frog pills. Anyway, first up: the opening ceremony. What the Committee are really looking for here is spectacle, something with a real sense of scale, something that looks, as Oscar Wilde would say, batshit insane.”

“And the winner is… a troop of werewolves wearing top hats riding rockets accompanied by flying carpets, mammoths, trikes and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face dance. Yes, the opening ceremony will be held in Stormwind City, World of Warcraft.”

“On to the actual sporting events now. First up: Archery. Now the bidding was particularly fierce for this one, wasn’t it Barry?”

“It certainly was, Clifford, and it looks like the committee have hedged their bets slightly by awarding Archery to: All Of Them! Or, to be technically accurate, Almost All Of Them, Apart From A Few Of The Modern-Day Or Sci-Fi Ones, Though Even City Of Heroes Has Archery Powersets”

“And speaking of City of Heroes, there’s celebration from Paragon Studios as their superhero MMOG is awarded the Athletics”

“In keeping with the brand-protection-compliant non-infringing motto of the MMOlympics, ‘Moving with superior velocity, achieving a more elevated altitude, raising an item of greater mass’, it was the travel powers of City of Heroes that clinched it, particularly Super Speed and Super Jump. There’s some controversy over use of the Flight power, though, and whether it would result in a long jump distance of ‘infinity’ or ‘until the map runs out'”

“More good news for hero games now, as Gymnastics goes to: Champions Online. DC Universe Online pushed them hard, both games featuring Acrobatics as a travel power, but the versatility of Champions clinched it with Swinging, Jet Boots and Ice Sliding offering a variety of performance options.”

“It’s the Swimming next, and the committee have opted for Lord of the Rings Online, thanks to fond memories of time spent swimming around Lake Evendim with a strange sort of butterfly-esque porpoising movement for maximum speed. LotRO also secures Equestrianism; though plenty of games allow players to ride horses, it already has (sort of) show jumping in its festival races, so only needs the addition of a mounted /dance emote for the horse to stage the dressage as well.”

“On to Cycling; a bit trickier, bicycles being rather less common than horses in MMOGs, but the hi-tech approach of the British team that’s aroused some suspicion must surely lead eventually to hover-speeder-bikes, so step forward Star Wars: The Old Republic, helped by the fact that the cycling helmets are already suitable for Sith Lords.”

“Guns might not be quite as prevalent in the genre as bows, but there were still a lot of options for the Shooting. The committee felt that tab-targeting and AoE fire was a bit like cheating, though, ruling out bids from The Secret World and the superhero MMOs, amongst others. World of Tanks was a strong contender, but the vehicles had an unfortunate habit of demolishing the rifle range, so in the end they’ve opted for another game where you actually need to aim your weapon: Fallen Earth. There could be a shift in the future, though, as the possibility of laser guns being used in competition means that phaser shooting from Star Trek Online will also be in as a demonstration event.”

“Now Barry, one of the more popular events is the Beach Volleyball”

“You’re certainly a big fan, aren’t you Clifford?”

“Who isn’t, Barry? It needs great strength and endurance to run and jump on energy-sapping sand, so the competitors are supremely fit. Really fit. Supremely fit and toned. Lithe, toned, fit bodies, glistening with a supremely sheen of toned sweat, lithe…”

“Here, I think you might need these dried frog pills. Anyway, get your mind out of the gutter Clifford, there’s far more to the sport than the stereotypical ogling of scantily clad ladies.”

“They let *ladies* play now? Whatever next. Of course you’re right, though, Barry, which is why the MMOlympic Beach Volleyball will be held in TERA, although there was a strong showing from the spellcasting classes of Guild Wars 2

“‘Showing’ being the operative word, eh? Eh?”

“I rather think you’ll find ‘plinth’ is the operative word, actually. A slight pause now, as we wait for the committee to announce the venue for Sailing”

“Now, Clifford, I’ve got a theory for this one. I reckon they’ll opt for The Secret World

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Barry, but… there’s no sailing in The Secret World, is there? I mean Kingsmouth is a fishing port, but you don’t actually go out sailing at all.”

“Aaaah! You’re thinking too literally, Clifford. Watching a sailing race, you see, is very confusing; there are boats everywhere, heading in different directions as they try and make best use of the wind, to the untrained eye it looks like complete chaos, but to an insider, one with secret knowledge, the scene resolves itself, as in television coverage when they project arcane lines and geometries to show who is actually leading, and that’s a lot like the Dragon society in The Secret World, seeing order in chaos, aaaaaaahhhhh! Aaaahhhh!”

“No, not ‘aaaahhh’, Barry, the committee have opted for Pirates of the Burning Sea. Because you sail in it. With wind direction and everything.”

“How unimaginative. Mind you, note for the actual Olympics: a couple of 12 pound bow chasers per yacht would definitely make things more exciting.”

Pirates of the Burning Sea also put a bid in for Fencing, pointing out that one of the fighting styles in the game actually is ‘fencing’, but the committee took a dim view of the additional use of flintlock pistols. From a packed field of All Of Them, Even The Modern Day And Sci-Fi Ones, they’ve opted for Age of Conan, as it at least tried to be a bit different with its directions of attack and blocking.”

“On to the Diving. Several candidates here, but the committee felt that the title of “AHHHHHHH” in Warhammer: Age of Reckoning was a nice touch, and a bit of a consolation prize for unsuccessful competitors.”

“A bit of a grab-bag now, as the committee have decided to combine Boxing, Judo, Taekwondo and Wrestling into a sort of Mixed Martial Art free-for-all contested by Monks from Dungeons and Dragons Online, Martial Arts Scrappers from City of Heroes, and pretty much anyone else, so long as they don’t equip a weapon or cast a spell. Outside interference from party members or henchmen will be closely monitored.”

“And to round it all off, another grab-bag of ‘Sports ending in -ball’, to be represented by the Huttball warzone in Star Wars: The Old Republic

“It’s not a perfect match, of course, Barry, with all that aggression and violence”

“You’re quite right, Clifford, Handball had to be toned down rather for an online equivalent”

“That was a very humorous confounding of my expectations”

“Toned. Well that’s the end of the major sporting events, the committee are just going through a few of the unsuccessful bids. They were very impressed by the Mechwarrior Online proposal to stage every sport using precisely re-created digital versions of the current Olympic stadiums and venues, but with all the human competitors replaced by 20 metre tall 100 ton Atlas Battlemechs, but felt the logistics might be too much for a single game. If the Athletics had been split into sub-events then the multiple soul options in Rift would have stood it in good stead for the heptathlon and decathlon, and the committee did concede that jumping between systems in EVE Online was, indeed, quite a long jump. The original Guild Wars application had to be turned down, though, as it turned out they thought it said non-jump, not long jump. Final Fantasy XI were going to submit an application for the marathon, but didn’t get it in in time as they were stuck in a boss fight.”

“And in terms of infrastructure, the MMOlympic Village is to be provided by EverQuest 2 and Wildstar housing.”

“That just leaves the vital job of security, no less important for online games than real world sports.”

“You’re not wrong, Barry, and after studying the sterling work done by G4S for the London Olympics, only one company could offer similarly stringent online security: SOE.”

“Or, in breaking news, Blizzard”

“That’s strangely topical, didn’t news of the battle.net hack happen the day after this post?”

“It certainly did, Clifford, which is why this segment was edited in afterwards.”



Tuesday 7 August 2012

Oh death, where is thy sting?

I had been having some trouble, I can admit that much; I wouldn’t say that my dungeon run in Dungeons & Dragons Online was a nightmare, but I had been struggling through somewhat, with each fight having to be a careful pull and kite in order to maximise my time spent actually playing the game, rather than sitting around licking my wounds.

It’s all part of my holding pattern while I wait for Guild Wars 2 to arrive: I dabble solo in this game and that, not really finding the enthusiasm to play any single game with the traditional idolatrous fervour of the MMO addict. We’re on the taxiway with Air ArenaNet now, and the air of anticipation means that I can’t concentrate on anything – sometimes snapping alert as though from a daze, whereupon I find myself staring blankly at a half-finished inflight magazine which I don’t remember opening, let alone reading. Soon the engines of anticipation will build to full power, the excitement and tension palpable, the thrumming power of that passion, held in check, causing the cabin of the community to vibrate. The allotted take-off window arrives, and with the flip of a switch… release. A roar of exultation follows, our craft swiftly gathering momentum in its eager urgency, then with a swell and a sigh we launch, soaring onward to the peregrine climes of Tyria.

In the meantime, I really am an irascible git with respect to my gaming patience, to the point that I’m actually spending most of my time reading.

Nevertheless, I did, at some point, find myself struggling through a dungeon in DDO. It so happened that I reached a point where I could no longer progress without aid: a lever needed to be operated while another person would run through a series of gates. Having come quite far, I decided to purchase a hireling and complete my otherwise solo sortie with a little help. Being a melee sort, I decided to grab a cleric hireling, and that’s when I was reminded by just how much healing changes the game.

Just like that, my character became an irrepressible and immortal being. Where before I was tentative and circumspect, I was now transformed into a hooligan – there are those who would think themselves hooligans, but they would be compelled to stare agape at my antics and call out ‘Steady on there old chap, have a care!’. I was suddenly pulling whole groups of skeletons, pulling additional groups of skeletons, pulling the sisters of those groups of skeletons. It was carnage, at the end of which I would stand panting in the midst of a bone pile that would make Razorfen Downs blush, and my health bar would still be reading ‘Don’t know what all the fuss is about’. That was just for starters, then… then I got blasé. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I do know that by the end of it I was running back and forth naked through a series of traps, dragging a train of skeletons behind me, while I sang U Can’t Touch This. I do remember riding a clay golem. And trying to goose a fire elemental with a stick of dynamite. If we stopped to rest but briefly, I would imagine I was calmly sitting in the camp fire, stirring the embers with my feet and watching my health bar drop and rise, drop and rise.

I’m curious to see how Guild Wars 2’s healing works — whether support classes and group healing will become the essential crutch that they are in other MMOs, or if ArenaNet will find a way to balance encounters such that they are required only in the direst of situations. That’s what I hope for, not for a removal of healing altogether, but a return to it being a tactical decision, an occasional counter to an enemy’s pressed attack, rather than a vital constant where defeat is ensured if it ever goes away. GW2 certainly seems to have less emphasis on healing, and the downed mechanic makes death less of a certainty once that health bar has dropped to zero.

It’s somewhat sad that abundant healing enables our characters to achieve so much, yet restricts them so much the more if it is then ever absent. With GW2 I’m hoping to find a freer form of gameplay, although never so free as yee-hawing naked on a bucking golem through the impotent defensive lines of the minions of darkness, I grant you.

Friday 3 August 2012

Egotism, n: Doing the New York Times crossword puzzle with a pen

(BBBC Spoiler Warning: this post contains light spoilers for the Dead Air mission of The Secret World)

There’s an excellent example of an investigation mission early in The Secret World where you need to repair a radio mast. Examining a plate reveals the mast’s model number and website of the manufacturer (http://manticore.orochi-group.com). Looking up the model number on the site reveals “… provisional repairs can be carried out without recourse to specialized parts and labour. Primary components: brackets, anchors, antennas, lightning arrestors. Provisional repair materials: household adhesives, conductors and amplifiers.” It might as well say “Have you played an MMO before? Just go and click on anything that looks clickable”, but y’know, it’s a nice touch. Having taped a bunch of random bits of metal to the mast it starts working again, and strange beeps start emerging… Is it malfunctioning? Is it tuned to a radio station broadcasting the very cutting edge of monotonic electro jazz fusion funk? No, obviously it’s Morse code, I was just trying to build tension there.

At this point you have two options: you could jot down the dots and dashes, find the Morse alphabet and manually decode the message, or you could download an app, hold a smartphone up to the speakers and have it do that hard work. Or you could just Google the solution, of course, so three options. Or find a friend who knows Morse code, four options… OK, *amongst* your options are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and a smartphone app. I downloaded “Morse Code Reader”, cranked up the headphone volume, held the phone up, and as glowing green letters started appearing on the screen spelling out a message I thought “that’s rather nifty”.

For me the various elements were pitched about spot-on, interesting and diverting without being frustrating. Another mission, The Kingsmouth Code, was a *smidge* on the esoteric side in a couple of places; never the full head-scratching madness of adventure game logic, but at a couple of points I’d deduced some elements of a clue and needed a little nudge to put everything together (hurrah for Dulfy and some great guides that give hints as well as spoiler-tagged solutions).

Last night I was investigating one of the new missions added in the latest patch with Kris, and after some fun collaborative puzzle solving on voice chat (“A series of letters and numbers, what could it be? Co-ordinates? A numeric substitution cipher of some sort? Let’s run around randomly and see if there’s something to click on!”) we found a van, and the headlights started blinking in (presumably) Morse code. Without an app to decode the message, though, the prospect of trying to manually decode the flashing didn’t appeal at all, so it was straight off to Google for the solution. Of course not every player owns a smartphone, or would necessarily want to bother to download a Morse code app, but for me the audio version was a nifty puzzle, the visual version was some tedium to be avoided. Some players doubtless solved The Kingsmouth Code in seconds, while simultaneously doing cryptic crosswords in both The Times and The Telegraph, others probably didn’t even pause to read the in-game text before hitting Google to find out where to go and what to click next, it must be difficult to pitch things for such a wide audience.

I got into codes and ciphers early with The KnowHow Book of Spycraft, simple things like pigpen, then later the work at Bletchley Park in World War II was the perfect combination of military and technological history to fire my interest. Simon Singh’s The Code Book contained a £10,000 Cipher Challenge, I had a crack at it, and was pretty chuffed to solve some of the early ciphers with a bit of coding, like a program to calculate letter frequencies for various possible keyword lengths of a Vigenère cipher, but gave up on the later, really rather tough stages. A bit of deciphering in The Secret World could be fun, but again very difficult to pitch; Fez included a particularly challenging puzzle that’s interesting to read about, but it sounded pretty frustrating to be involved with.

There is nothing new under the sun, though; Richard Bartle wrote an interesting post looking at some puzzles from MUD1, including a link to an article on the pros and cons from 1985. There’s even a few unsolved puzzles, or at least solved puzzles where the derivation has been lost; I presume the pronunciation question is based on the heteronyms of Polish (nationality) and polish (make something shiny), but as there are other five letter heteronyms it’s the sort of pub quiz question that causes fights in the car park, even if the “block capitals” part implies case is crucial…

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Take Courage! Whatever you decide to do, it will probably be the wrong thing.


I like the original on the left because I based her on Isabela from Dragon Age 2.

I like the one on the right because I think she looks more like a classic Norn, such as Jora[1]

But which one should I play as my Chesney Hawkes? My ‘not going to re-roll, sticking to my guns, this is it, final answer, no alts until I hit the level cap’?

There’s only one way to find out!


[1] I still need to tweak the mouth somewhat, so it doesn’t look as though her greatest enemy was not Jormag but an industrial class collagen injection machine.

[2] Or have a vote. Or roll a dice. Or see which one turns up first in my dreams wearing a wetsuit full of jelly—I’ve said too much.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

Necessity is the mother of futile dodges.

Calcaneus. The heel. That terminating projection of bone behind the articulation of the lower leg. A major structure of the foot; a critical design flaw, and cause for recall, of the Achilles model of Greek hero; and the primary reason why action combat doesn’t work in MMOs.

The KiaSA Guide to MMOs has this to say on the subject of action combat: It’s an awful lot of jumping around, without really taking into consideration the power of the heel.

The KiaSA Guide to MMOs has this to say on the subject of the heel: Provides a simple yet highly effective method of being able to pivot on the spot, thus ruining most forms of action combat found in MMOs today. Also: combined with a baby parsnip and a doll’s wig, can present a passing fair representation of Prime Minister David Cameron.

‘Dodge! Dodge!’ cry the developers; thus I fling my character around the screen like a freshly landed sea bass flopping its way across the deck of a boat, trying—in utmost futility—to escape its tormentors. In the meantime, my enemy stands on the spot and spins around slowly, punching me all the while.

“Can’t you see I’m dodging here?”

“Yes, yes [smack] you’re doing a tremendous job. [thwack] Stirling effort and all that [thock]. I really am quite in awe [spang] of your mobility and [biff] energy, leaping all over the place [poon] as you are [bosh]. I mean, you’re really making my job [funt] modestly more difficult [dorf] than it need be, maybe more [bum].”


“Sorry, I was aiming higher, but you, well—moved.”

“I’m not going to be able to sit down for weeks, you know.”

“Look I’m sorry, it would have happened if you’d just stand still, instead of all this…”


“This flopping around.”

“I am NOT flopping.”

“Here we go…”

“This is active dodging!”

“Uh huh.”

“I was trained by a Grand Master, I’ll have you know!”


“Spent punishing years in Tibet.”


“Forged my mind and body into the singular living embodiment of the art of ‘getting the frack out of the way’.”

“But aren’t you just, uh, running around in a circle and jumping a bit?”

“Oh, that is IT. The minute I’m able to stop dodging I’m going to fwap you *so* hard. Are you… are you tiring at all yet?”

“Not really.”


“I could probably go on like this for hours. I mean, it’s not like I’m having to break a sweat or anything; I just keep spinning on my heel and carry on punching. How about you?”

“I’m getting quite tired actually.”

“Perhaps you should have a little lie down.”

“I couldn’t possibl—”

“Here, let me help: [FUNCH]”

Oh sure, I can dodge the preposterously telegraphed attacks, where the enemy spends more time winding-up their strike than I used to spend trying to eke out an extra bit of speed from the Evel Knievel Deluxe Dare Devil Stunt bike. That damnable bike, where I’d quickly wind the handle to close to the theoretical maximum speed, then spend the next half an hour oscillating between fractionally faster and fractionally slower speeds as my body alternately lost and regained its coordination, before ultimately tiring to the point where I slipped, mistimed the release, the bike flopping pathetically over onto its side two centimetres away from the ramp, and I knocked myself unconscious on the launch ramp as I fell. Good times.

That form of one-button active dodge is just a quick time event in disguise. Certainly the ‘dodge event’ serves to break up the monotony of traditional rock ’em, sock ’em MMO combat, but it’s not really a step-change in the evolution of combat, more a small step in the right direction.

Tera solves the ‘heel pivot’ issue by having the mobs be continuously dumbfounded when your character dodges. Whenever you leap behind a mob, they will stand there in a comic ‘Durrr, where’d she go?’ sort of way, before slowly turning around and—after a merry ‘Boh! There she is!’—continue on with the fight, allowing you to get a few free hits in without retaliation in the interim. Still, Tera was one of the few MMOs where I actively sought combat, rather than trying to avoid it all costs unless directed to do so by a quest.

DDO solved the problem by making casters ludicrously more powerful than melee, and seemingly giving every boss a massive unavoidable AoE knockdown in order to punish anyone daring to get into melee range. The fact that casters need to chain-chug mana pots purchased from the Turbine store in order to maintain their level of power? Coincidence. But that’s the danger of having the power-gaming community rule a game: it’s terribly easy in such a case for the developer to exploit the need for maximum optimisation, primarily through in-store incentives.

“Oh, you don’t *need* to buy this from the store. Not at all. The content can be done just fine without Store Consumable X. I mean, gosh, of course you’ll probably run it about thirty seven seconds slower than if yo—”

[Store Consumable X has sold out]

MMOs, for now, are combat. Even in TSW, which at least tries to mix things up a little, I’m beginning to tire of the number of problems in the world that can only be solved by going out and slaughtering a *precise* number of tightly clustered creatures. Yet for all their insistence on combat being the Ultimate Solution to all problems…

“MMO Mother, I can’t do up my shoes!”

“Kill five pairs of them!”

“MMO Mother, I’m having trouble with my homework.”

“Kill your homework!”

“MMO Mother, I can’t open this packet of crisps.”

“Kill the packet and all the crisps inside. And then kill nine more packets to teach them a lesson!”

“MMO Mother, there’s a wasp!”

“Right, what you need to do is travel halfway across the world and ask Uncle Geoff whether we can borrow his wasp catcher. You’ll probably find that he’s happy for you to do that, but that his wasp catcher is broken, as it often is. Thus, you’ll need to travel to seven locations across the globe, collecting the rare parts which can only be found in these out of the way places, and bring them back to Uncle Geoff. He’ll then repair the wasp catcher for you, but only if you can perform the Ritual of the Wasp. To learn the Ritual of the Wasp, you’ll need to speak to the Fifteen Sages of Waspdom, who are spread out—far, far, far, far out—across the world. They’re slightly eccentric folk, though, so I expect each of them will require you to quest for an insignificant item of no consequence before they divulge their secrets. Good luck!”

“Can’t I just kill it?”

“What sort of crazy talk is that?! Kill it… I never heard such— aye, what sort of child says such things? I blame your father.”

…it seems strange that when seasoning their combat, the MMO chefs decided to leave variety in the spice rack. The current format of standing still and playing a game of Farmville on fast-forward (press buttons, in order, based on time-limited resources, eventually win) clearly doesn’t lend itself terribly well to a more dynamic form. It’s almost as though MMO combat is stuck somewhere between the more cerebral experience found in tactical RPGs, and the more dynamic action found in beat ’em ups and FPS games, and can’t really decide to which audience it ought to cater. That’s not to say that MMO combat doesn’t have its own style, its own niche differentiation, it’s just that the fundamental design is nowhere near compelling enough to be used so persistently, without it quickly becoming impossibly dull.

Monday 30 July 2012

Mechwarrior Offline

There are some pretty beefy multi-joystick controllers available for Mech games, and dedicated sim-pilots can construct impressive multi-screen home cockpits, but Suidobashi Heavy Industry have gone one better with Kuratas, a 4 metre 4.5 tonne BB-gatling-toting robo-monster. I wonder who’s going to be the first to turn up with one at an Airsoft fight…

Thursday 26 July 2012

All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.

There are no respecs in The Secret World. If you place your Action Points (APs) and Skill Points (SPs) into an ability tree which you then find you don’t really like, no problem, just start spending points in a different tree. You can go back and repeat quests to earn plenty of AP and SP, and a quick dash through the PvP gauntlet in Fusang Project when you know the correct tactics will also grant you swift gains. So, no respec necessary, say the developers, just change course and carry on!

Which just goes to show how little they understand.

Those misspent points haunt me, taunt me—flaunt their redundancy. In my dreams a constellation of orange AP icons swim around my head before diving, in regimented fashion, into a black hole. A long twisting line of blue SP icons waddle along on their lower edges like parallelogram penguins, before hopping one after the other into a furnace. All this to the tune of Disney’s Pink Elephants on Parade

Look out! Look out!
Poor decisions have been made!
Here they come!
Hippety hoppety.
They’re here and there,
Poor decisions everywhere!

Waking up in a sweat in the night, screaming “I SHOULD HAVE PUT IT ALL INTO MAKING FISTING BETTER” is at best going to elicit a grumbled rolling-over from Mrs Melmoth, and more likely a sharp clout to a sensitive part of my body, followed by an interrogation the next day as to the precise meaning of such an outburst.

It must break a Hague Convention in some perverse way: to breed and cultivate a group of OCD, statistic-snorting, optimisation addicts, and then to start making games which give them the freedom to make mistakes, then correct for those mistakes, while leaving the initial errors in place. It’s like telling Monk that he can leave the tumbled pile of bricks over there, and just start building a new tower over here. Uh, not willingly, no.

Perhaps I should have re-rolled my character, back when there was still a chance I wouldn’t horribly burn-out trying to catch-up with my friends in the game again; by now it’s too late because I’ve progressed too far. However, I suppose it’s a tribute to such a system that I still have just the one character (possibly a first for me in an MMO), and having changed tack with regard to that character’s development on several occasions, I’m still playing the game without issue. I’ve been enjoying myself, even. Admittedly, there was that one time where I raged for hours about the cruelty and madness of not making a respec token available on the in-game store, but I don’t think the Post Office clerk was all that interested—their only contribution was to ask if it was a book of first or second class stamps that I wanted. And the night terrors continue, of course, but perhaps it’s all part of my rehabilitation from altitus.

Actually, I’m finding playing just the one character quite liberating, and the novelty seems to be taking hold, because I’m approaching the forthcoming release of Guild Wars 2 with a rugged determination that I’ll be playing just the one character, at least until such a time as I feel that I can do no more with them.

Of course there’s still the danger that I’ll wake up yelling about how I should have picked a Mesmer, but a decisive swat from Mrs Melmoth is sure to be a quick antidote to such concerns. Is it true that TSW has cured me of my altitus? I suppose we’ll find out a month or so after GW2’s release, but for anyone playing at home, I suspect that m’colleague is making a book on how long it will be before I re-roll, and that the longest duration he’s given odds against is in the order of microseconds.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Holiday quest complete.

Achievement unlocked! 10 – Summer holiday!

Achievement unlocked! 50 – Negotiated the British public transport system!

Achievement unlocked! 75 – Survived fresh air, sunshine and exercise!

You have gained an interesting amount of experience.

You are exhausted and must rest before undertaking another holiday quest.

You have been granted the Sore Feet feat.

You have been awarded the title The Trampled.

You have been awarded the title Lord of Shoulder Rides.

You are now hunchbacked.

Unlocked the Slightly Less Ghostly White skin colour in the character creator.

Your reputation with the Wife faction has increased by 50 points. You are now Friendly with the Wife faction.

Your reputation with the Daughter faction has increased by 100 points. You are now Popular with the Daughter faction.

Your proficiency in dual-wielding backpacks has increased.

You have been granted the Proffer Tickets Using Only Your Teeth feat.

Your resistance to overcrowded tourist traps has improved.

Your resistance to overeating junk food has weakened.

You have seven bizarre souvenirs to place in your player house.

Your bank account contains twelve copper pieces.