Tuesday 31 January 2012

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together

Poor old LEGO Universe has been dismantled, put back into its storage box, and stashed in the attic of ex-MMOGs. Its passing is generally unlamented; I only really knew of one person who played it, briefly; everyone else was in Minecraft. As catastrophic launch timings go, putting out a child-friendly game based on a building block IP at the height of the Minecraft craze was a bit like Karl Benz spending years designing and building the Motorwagon to include unparalleled safety features (crumple zones, rollbars, airbags etc.), but a month before official launch finding some dude called Notch knocking up jet bikes in his garden shed for a tenner powered by fusion reactors that never need refuelling. It also required a subscription just as almost everyone else (EverQuest II, Champions Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea etc.) moved to free-to-play models.

There’s a fascinating piece on PC Gamer containing some lovely concept art, and also tantalising glimpses of what might have been, such as PvP with construction:

“We always had capture the flag PvP in the internal build of the game, from some of the very earliest pre-beta versions. Besides the usual CTF run-and-gun, a lot of the strategy revolved around managing your minifigure’s Imagination supply—do you spend your points defensively to seal up breaches in your own wall, or tactically to construct bouncers and shortcuts that let you outmaneuver the enemy, or offensively on siege weapons to open new holes in his defenses? Do you sacrifice valuable time harvesting mobs for more Imagination, or do you rush straight into battle?”

(Which reminds me I must try Ace of Spades sometime)

It seems the LEGO IP was a double-edged sword (or double-sided brick), and the benefits of the global brand might have been outweighed by concerns for its image:

“LEGO is extremely sensitive about the safety of kids’ online interaction, to the point that implementing even the most basic social functions like in-game chat or friends lists became these kind of monumental tragic struggles that swallowed systems designers whole. A lot of our PvP games had to be backburnered while we were waiting for final word about how team functionality would work, or whether we’d be allowed to have it at all.

LEGO’s dedication to child safety superseded all concerns of production schedule or profitability, which was a principled move on LEGO’s part but it made some seemingly-straightforward parts of development really, really tricky.”

You have to wonder why they were so worried, really. I mean sure, Little Timmy might have stacked a few bricks on top of each other in the game and said to his friend “ha ha, it looks like a willy!!”, but it’s inconceivable that sensationalist press would make up insane, lurid accusations of online perversion based on the flimsiest of pretext, isn’t it? That would be like translating a glimpse of alien sideboob into “full digital nudity and sex”, and… oh. The Mass Effect nonsense probably didn’t do Bioware any long term harm with its Mature rated games (and may even have fallen into the “no publicity is bad publicity” category, apart from the people demanding refunds over the lack of hardcore digi-shagging), but it’s not hard to see LEGO’s quandary.

After reading that piece I’m regretting not giving LEGO Universe a try when I had the chance, but though there was a token nod towards free-to-play later on, by all accounts it was little more than a strictly limited trial. With news that the Wii-U controller will have near-field communication support you could envisage a future of different payment models, such as buying a physical box of LEGO bricks, popping them on the controller, and unlocking those same bricks for online use as well, but for now… well, at least there’s still Minecraft.

Friday 27 January 2012

Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.

Aside from the story-drive class missions and general planetary exploration of Star Wars: The Old Republic I’ve been putting in a bit of time with some of the repeatable content, daily missions, mostly those for warzone PvP and space combat.

Space combat is… fine. A bit disappointing if compared to the space elements Star Wars: Galaxies introduced in Jump to Lightspeed, which were great; free-form PvE and PvP combat with whole fleets of iconic and not-so-iconic starships including multi-crew ships (Melmoth once manned the rear turret of my Y-Wing) (no, that’s not slang). Of the few trial weeks I had in SWG, they were mostly spent flying, but it wasn’t enough to persuade me to subscribe to the game. I hanker for the days of X-Wing as much as the next man (probably considerably more than the next man, unless the next man is someone who’s legally changed his name to ‘Hank Wing’, middle name ‘er After X-‘), but I think I’ve established it’s mostly nostalgia, even with Black Prophecy available and free to play I’ve not been back to it. I haven’t entirely abandoned hope that SWTOR might unveil an expansion, Something Very Similar To Jump To Lightspeed But With A Different Name To Avoid Trademark Issues, but commercially it probably wouldn’t make sense, rather like the beloved sandboxiness of the rest of SWG.

So taking the space combat in SWTOR for what it is, it’s a decent enough rail shooter evoking the 1983 Star Wars arcade game, though shinier graphics and the odd ship upgrade aren’t massive steps forward in 30-odd years. There are daily space ‘operations’ available from your ship-board computer which, combined with the rewards from the individual missions themselves, give a decent return in XP, credits and space commendations. The missions are fun enough the first couple of times but with no random elements (that I could discern, at least) they pale fairly quickly. Still, it serves a purpose as quick-hit self-contained blast as a break, or while waiting for friends, or during crafting.

In terms of random elements PvP warzones are right at the other of the spectrum from space missions, somewhere betweeen “long term weather forecasts” and “things The Daily Mail say cause cancer”. For 30-odd levels I’d been hopping in to warzones now and again for a bit of a break from PvE and generally rather enjoying them (and wasting commendations, as it turned out you’re limited to 1000, and I’d been saving them up for level 50), it was only recently that I noticed there’s also a daily mission to win a warzone battle, available near the class trainers in the Imperial Fleet. As with the daily space operations it gives a nice chunk of XP and credits on top of those gained in the warzone, plus a box that contains a couple of stacks of warzone-only consumables and a random green item, so it’s worth grabbing, though it’s a bit of a pain to have to schlep up to the Fleet to pick it up when you can join a warzone from anywhere; I’ve taken to using the emergency fleet pass to wrap up a session at the end of an evening, then starting the next session with a bit of a bag clear-out at the market and a crack at a warzone or two.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about SWTOR warzones, but where the unchanging nature of space combat meant my interest has dropped away over time, the endless variety of human interaction of PvP means warzones have generally supplanted World of Tanks for my daily drop in dose of screaming frustration (and/or triumphant victory).

Thursday 26 January 2012

It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.

1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

1:28 And yay did God visit the forums to see if his creation was good. But lo did the forums say ‘No, God’ and ‘God no!’, and they did explain unto God why only a newb would create man in a such a way. And the forums did then show God how to create a man who would have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

1:29 Then God became confused. For though one post on the forums did say ‘Create unto ye a man in this fashion, and your man shall be the greatest upon the earth’ verily did another spring forth which declaimed the first and spoke unto God ‘nay, create man in this way or let him forever crawl upon his belly and suck dust for all the days of his life’.

1:30 And God did consider bringing floodwaters on the forums to destroy all life under the various topics and every creature that has the breath of life in it. But quickly did God realise that there were no living creatures on the forums, only phosphorous manifestations of vitriol and invective.

1:31 So God destroyed man and made him again. And again. And again. Until eventually God thought ‘sod it’ and hit the random button and hoped for the best.

1:32 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, he wasn’t sure about it any of it any more.

2:1 And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he went and twiddled with Jupiter for a bit, because it was without form, and void, and he could play around with it without suffering the truculent criticism and dissent of alternating prepossessions.

And so, some six or seven thousand years hence, man is still a complete and utter shambles today, even after the great re-roll around Genesis 6:9.

In other news, I spent a few hours on the DDO forums last night trying to determine a sensible build for a new character, because stat choice can have a large impact on the viability of a character and is largely set in stone once the character is created. After searching around for absolutely ages, I concluded that there definitely wasn’t a Flood Forum button anywhere to be found. So I picked a path which looked about right (and which the forums will tell you is tantamount to deciding to eat the serviettes at a Michelin-starred restaurant rather than anything from the menu), and got on with trying to play the game under the pressure of several fathoms of guilt and inadequacy which had built up over the course of my browsing.

After such an evening of reading the forums, I can’t help but expect that I’ll login with a new character one day only to be confronted by a huge ‘NO! WRONG!’ sign, whereupon I find myself summarily ejected from the game, my account deleted, and the game in the process of uninstalling itself from my hard disk drive.

I really wouldn’t mind an MMO where I could customise a character’s abilities based upon the alien concept of them sounding fun, while still being able to fulfil a role within the game. Or, if ‘learning to play (in a very specific way determined outside of the game by spreadsheets and data mining)’ is still to be a requirement, then perhaps it would be sensible to postpone those decisions which require learning until after I’ve had a chance to play.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Riders of the Republic.

“We’ll also introduce the option to bring Skirmish Soldier along to aid you on your adventures throughout Middle-earth.”
       — Nereid, Executive Producer for Lord of the Rings Online

Rumours that LotRO’s mounted combat will be a very pretty but slightly tedious on-rails shooter, in outer space, are as yet unfounded.

Turbine have confirmed, however, that they’ve employed a huge number of voice actors for their Riders of Rohan expansion, although they are using them primarily to type text into the quest dialogues.

Despite the general hoo ha surrounding Turbine’s decision to start selling non-cosmetic armour in the LotRO Store, they’re determined to press ahead with moving more core components of the game into the micropayment system; to that end they’re implementing a conversation dialogue wheel system in the new expansion, where responses to NPC’s dialogue can be purchased for between 50 and 250 Turbine Points depending on the type of answer given – monosyllabic grunts being cheapest, while loquacious flirtations and incensed f-bombs are priced towards the more exclusive end of the scale. So now when playing through group content, all your fellow players can see how much of a stingy git you are based upon how your character responds to the shared group conversation system!

Boldly Going Both Forwards and Backwards

Dear The Firm,

It’s here:
The reverse button in Star Trek Online

You’re welcome,

The KiaSA Team.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

When the silence between two people is comfortable.

Just a quick post here to say thank you to MMO Melting Pot for the Piggie, Syp for KiaSA’s Flushie, Syl for an honorable blog mention, and BBB for the kind compliment. And apologies if I’ve missed anyone, but frankly that is already far more than I feel is personally deserved.

I’d also just like to say that the voice of KiaSA is a blend of prose, and it works as a choir in a cavern: individual sounds made the greater through harmony, as that sonorous symmetry ripples, rebounds and resonates into something pure and clear. Something stronger. Which is to say, in a roundabout way, that as much as any individual praise is deeply appreciated, I will always always consider it shared, for without a Zoso there would, without a shadow of a doubt, not be a Melmoth.

Comments off, because this post is genuinely meant only as an offer of thanks for kindnesses, and not a solicitation for further praise, congratulations or otherwise.

Thought for the day.

In the land of the grind, the one-trick pony is king.

Applying the generic MMO philosophy to real life would mean that my boss asking me to write some code would inevitably result in me having to kill at least fifteen people or animals before the task was done.

Thankfully there is a distinct lack of wolves and boars hanging aimlessly around the office, but that pair of third floor accountants by the printer look as though they might aggro if I try to collect my hard copy.

I still find it interesting to consider ‘Why primarily combat?’ for a large number of MMOs. You may view that question in different ways depending on your prejudices, but it needn’t automatically be considered a failing of developers; indeed, many MMOs have tried other approaches without staggering success, so perhaps players have been seen to reject these alternatives. Again, though: why primarily combat?

Because combat provides an easy win condition? To satiate a fantasy which we cannot experience in real life? Because it is an easier system to encapsulate in lines of code than the alternatives? Because it’s a system which easily satisfies the input–>reward philosophy of gaming? Because we have yet to be offered alternatives which provide the exhilaration of the fight?

I’m not sure of the answer –or whether there even is an answer– otherwise this would have been the Revelation of the Day.

Monday 23 January 2012

A long time ago, in a milliners far, far away...

Badadadadada dum dum dum dadada daa daaa dum dum daaaaaaaaa! There’ve been literally some messages to the KiaSA team and not a single one of them demanded the return of Hat News Now Today, so we packed our correspondent off to some backwater of the galaxy and ignored him. Nevertheless he kept sending back holocrons for publication that were transported across the galaxy in the blink of an eye before sitting in a depot near Weston-super-Mare for a couple of weeks and finally turning up, squashed through the letterbox at the office with a ripped corner, so we thought we might as well run them.

This week we’re looking at the early-to-mid level headgear available to an Imperial Agent in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Our model, Agent Bowie-Numan, styled himself on early New Wave synth-rock, mid-period Ziggy Stardust, Ben Stiller in Zoolander, and finding a “complexion” option during character creation that looked like a touch of lip-gloss and some eye-liner. He apologises for some of the poor lighting conditions, as he was taking the pictures during a bit of downtime while infiltrating a rebel base and the flash would’ve been a bit of a giveaway.  On with the hats…

Check the bass out on these

Upon first glance the Chief Editor dismissed this initial submission out of hand, assuming Agent Bowie-Numan was simply flaunting the favoured accessory of sports stars and Cyberman impersonators, a set of Beats by Darth Dre headphones, and forwarded the shot to our sister team at Headphone and Earpiece Weekly. The Chief Sub-Editor vigorously disagreed, insisting that it was something worn on the head, and thus a hat. The Sub-Chief Editor angrily pointed out the lack of crown or brim, while the Sub-Chief Sub-Editor sided with the Chief Sub-Editor, plunging the office into the worst chaos and discord since The Great LotRO Tiara And Circlet Schism. A lengthy series of arbitration meetings concluded with the warring factions agreeing to rename “Hat News Now Today” to “Items Placed in a MMOG Head Slot News Now Today”, though nobody could find the Tipp-Ex to amend the headed stationery, and then it was lunchtime and everyone forgot about it due to a fierce debate over salted vs dry roast peanuts down the pub. As for the headgear itself, nobody was quite certain if the main purpose was to protect the jaw from quite specific attacks, to make talking more difficult, or to keep the ears warm.

 

I got a well nice hat down Camden, yeah?

Another piece vindicating the decision to move away from the strict “hat” focus. Not really an Agent item due to the stats, but appreciated by the panel for its pilot’s oxygen mask inspired styling, isn’t it? Isn’t it, though. Standard.

 

There'd better not be Ewoks

At last, an undisputed hat (or helmet) (some Venn diagramming may be needed.) Presumably an ancestor of the Scout trooper helmet, suitably Imperial, but could do with a bit of a face mask to be more ominous.

 

Maybe eye holes would've been a good idea

Agent Bowie-Numan spoke particularly highly of this piece, hoping it might lead to a guest spot playing a synthesiser with Orbital at Glastobury.

 

A touch of the Afrika Korps

Still with the jaw protection; could it be a design fault with the riding position on speeder bikes that caused a rash of troopers being hospitalised with badly bruised chins before new headgear was issued?

 

I sprint so fast I need a spoiler on my hat

Finally for this update, Imperial formal headwear, also known as “The original series Doctor Who Time Lord fancy dress hat”. Not strictly designed for combat, being a piece of social armour, but nonetheless tremendous fun to wear while adventuring just to see if NPCs can keep a straight face when giving you missions. So far the famed Imperial discipline is really holding up, as not a single person (or droid) has started a conversation with “What the hell have you got on your head?”

Saturday 21 January 2012

My hobby.


Creating my avatar in Star Trek Online as an Avatar, then hanging around in Ten Forward and watching Trekkies’ heads explode.

Friday 20 January 2012

For the loot, honey, for the loot.

I mentioned in a previous post how pleased I was to see that I could instruct my companion in SWTOR to toddle off and sell all my junk loot in order to keep my limited inventory space clear for more important items, such as my fifteenth cosmetic neckerchief – this one will look simply darling in any medium-to-long range combat situation. Of course I imagine that Force users don’t instruct so much as persuade, in what is apparently the Jedi/Sith equivalent of sudo make me a sandwich. I mean, I’d make a rubbish Jedi, because the potential for Force abuse would be far too tempting to resist:

Companion: “But my favourite is green!”
Jedi [making a hand movement]: “Your favourite is yellow.”
Companion: “But my favourite is yellow!”
Jedi: “Well gosh, that *is* most conveniently handy, because that means you can have the yellow wine gums, and I’ll have all the green ones – which are my favourite.”
Companion: “Yay!”
Jedi [makes a subtle hand movement]
Companion: “Ow! Damnit!”
Jedi: “The phantom knicker-elastic snapper again?”
Companion: “It’s, like, every time we’re on the ship.”
Jedi: “It really is most perplexing.”
Companion: “And then there are all those draughts that keep lifting my dress. But we’re on a ship, Jedi! In the vacuum of space! IT’S A VACUUM!”
Jedi: “It is a *terrible* mystery. Truly it is. *monch* *monch* Mmmm, these green wine gums really are delicious.”

In my fresh play through of Skyrim as well, I quickly decided that I will skip the insane levels of inventory juggling and trips to the shops to sell my leftover loot, and instead I would only collect items which would really improve my character immediately, along with any gold coins I stumbled upon.

This is no revelation, just a simple hop skip and a jump along the natural progression of ‘loot leaving’ in an RPG. At first you leave no item unyoinked, twigs, bits of frayed string, fish bones, odd socks, cabbage leaves, cat hairballs, those waffle makers that everyone buys and only ever use once. Heck, it takes half an hour to progress a yard down the first path you encounter while you collect every piece of gravel along the way. After a while you make some money –because in EVERY RPG you start out with no money whatsoever– and you start to feel a little more flush, so that you only feel the need to, say, pick up every other Marmite jar. And you manage to pretty much leave the empty ones alone entirely! A little further in your progress down the Road of Single Player RPG, you find that the weapons and armour your opponents drop are hardly worth enough to warrant collecting, and you barely even look twice at old toenail clippings any more. Yet more time invested sees you leaving even some magical items, recoiling at the thought of having to break off from adventuring in order to traipse all the way back to town to sell them. And it’s not like you’re desperate for the gold now – a little more gold and you can probably buy that really nice castle down by the lake, with the hot tub and the billiard room. You know you’re over the hill of progression and coasting down the other side towards the retirement village of Dunitallnow upon Sea when you start to leave any item that isn’t a legendary artefact, and even then you have to think twice before popping the Holy Invincible Fist of the Almighty into you backpack in order to see if someone will give you some money for it; possibly enough to buy a new gold and diamond pull-chain for your en suite toilet back at the castle. In the end you reach the point where you’re so rich you just abandon cavernous rooms full of wondrous treasure, and when kings offer you dominion over entire regions of their kingdom, you sniff haughtily and give them such a look, as though they’d just rubbed themselves all over with dog poo and asked for a hug.

And yet, despite being so rich that I could buy the moon and still not have enough real estate to store all my worldly (and moonly) possessions, I *still* can’t walk past a blarmed wardrobe and dresser without having a peak inside, just in case. Just in case?! Just in case what? Just in case this mangled camphor box –inside a decrepit old woman’s rundown house– has, amongst the mouldy long knickers, scarves and the top half of a set of false teeth, the Inevitable Sword of Impossible Greatness? A weapon which could cleave the planet in twain and complete my dominion of time and space! Unlikely as that is, it might be hidden there, I’ll just have a peak… “ah no, it’s just some mouldy long knickers and a dusty long pink rubbery… is that a… ?! A…?! Aaaa…aaahhh! Oh, ugh, I think it is! Ewww! Ewww! I think I touched it!” And then I have to spend the next five minutes flapping around the place, holding my hands as far away from the rest of me as possible, while looking for some soap and running water. Such are the hazards of the ever-looting RPG adventurer.

But why this compulsion to look for that next improbably powerful item on the Fantasy Top 100 Items That Could Destroy A World? I mean, if it can cleave a world in twain, is that good? Can you cleave too much? Can you have too much cleavage? If it has a thirty six times direct damage modifier when cleaving, do I really need that? In RPG terms that would be 36DD Cleavage, and I’ve just no idea if I could even handle something of that magnitude.

In the end, I know who to blame: for, every time I get the urge to search for loot, the devil of temptation and the angel of abstinence are to be found, sat upon either shoulder, giving me advice. The devil whispers in my ear “Go on, loot it, looooot it; you know you want to”. A sweat breaks out on my brow, my hand hovers over the loot key, but with a wince I draw my hand sharply back as though the keys were brands which would burn ‘inveterate looter’ onto my finertips for all to see. I turn with great effort to the angel of abstinence who looks upon me with kind eyes full of understanding. Steepling her hands in front of her mouth, she looks thoughtful for a brief moment, and then shouts “For God’s sake man, what are you waiting for?! Loot the damn handbag, there could be some amazing treasure in there!”

Stupid angel of abstinence.

Thursday 19 January 2012

We make choices but are constantly foiled by happenstance

Like Melmoth I’ve been spinning the plates of MMOG hotbar combat in Star Wars: The Old Republic, though I’m not quite so tired of the whole business just yet. Doubtless burnout will kick in at some point, but for the moment I’m happy enough getting that crockery rotating. If character abilities are the “plates” in this analogy, though, my Welsh dresser is getting a bit crowded…

Maybe time to back away from the plate analogy. When I hit level 32 with my Imperial Agent and got a new skill, I didn’t have a space for it in any of the three hotbars on screen (plus a fourth with companion abilities). A bit of shunting and ditching a hotbarred consumable squeezed it in, but it’s getting to the point where I don’t really want too much more to think about during a fight.

I’m fine with the basics, the bread and butter stuff, or in a Sniper’s case the rifle and grenade stuff; bread and butter might be perfect specialisation options for a class centred around making sandwiches, but they’re not going to cut it against a horde of rakghouls. Unless you smear the floor with butter to make them fall over, then bludgeon them to death with an especially crusty baguette, that might work. Anyway, the basics are fine, get into cover, shoot enemy with gun, pew and indeed pew. It’s the assortment of situational skills that are more the issue. To return to the kitchenware, some abilities are a bit like a melon baller, fish kettle or set of specialist cheese knives; useful in quite specific circumstances but the rest of the time they clutter the place up, and when you really need them you either forget you have them entirely or spend half an hour rooting through cupboards shouting “Darling! Have you seen the TĂȘte de Moine scraper? The TĂȘte de Moine scraper! You know, the… No, no, it’s not in that draw, I’ve emptied it all over the floor already (by the way you might want to watch you don’t tread on a lobster pick when you come through)… Over the microwave? No, I’ve looked in… no, no, you’re thinking of the Parmesan frisker… yes, the thing behind the spinach shredder, definitely Parmesan… well I suppose I could just use a lemon zester, but… Oh, cock, I’ve been shot by a Smuggler.”

SWTOR is of course not alone in its plethora of skills, it’s something I posted about when playing WAR as a Bright Wizard for example. It avoids some issues of situational skills by blurring the boundaries between solo and group play through companions (as Tobold and others have noted), so you don’t have important group skills such as taunts or a “heal other” ability that are completely useless when solo. Spinks also has a fine post about the way the game ramps up the difficulty to introduce certain abilities and concepts; at the end of Chapter One I was having terrible trouble with a boss who marmalised me before I could even get him near half health. A quick glance at the forums revealed I wasn’t the only one, and that the key to the fight was interrupting incoming attacks using a skill that had been gathering dust next to the grapefruit spoons. It wasn’t the first encounter involving an opponent with a charge-up ability, there’d been previous fights where mobs had annoying wind-up attacks, but as it wasn’t essential to interrupt them I’d just been bulling through with the usual attack spam and recovering afterwards. As it turned out there was a Plan B for the boss, on returning to the game after checking strategy tips I noticed a colleague log on, who was kind enough to tag along for a hot Darth-on-Darth force-choke-off, but having been reminded of the interrupt skills I’ve actually been using them more in general play (when I remember).

Solo, or in a small friendly group, re-adjusting is usually quite straightforward; a group of us were in a Flashpoint and had wiped once or twice using the patent pending “use random attacks on random mobs!11!” technique so we paused, started marking targets and using crowd control (partially via the “Slice Droid” skill I’d been generally neglecting in favour of a potato ricer), and sailed through the rest of it. It’s PvP that’s most problematic, as warzones offer few opportunities for quiet contemplation of optimal skill use. I’ve been rather enjoying PvP for the most part, and doing well enough I think, but there’s often a nagging sensation (typically after respawning) that I overlooked something, like the 3 second Evasion boost “panic button” skill that I’m always panicking too much to find when I really need it.

As with so many things it’s an impossible balance for developers. Players want sufficient options to make combat challenging and interesting but for each player that’s a slightly different point on the continuum with the two-button phase at one end, and at the other 17 hotbars packed with skills like “Rotating Thrust-o-matic: does 363 damage over X seconds, where X is the inverse square of the range from the player to target, to a non-human target with more than 17% but less than 64% health whose name includes an equal number of vowels and consonants”. There’s also the development and reward aspect of gaining new abilities, always a cornerstone of RPGs; even with hotbars are stuffed to bursting it’s a bit disappointing to turn up to a trainer after levelling and only getting a new rank of an existing ability. A new skill rank is the level-up equivalent of socks for Christmas; you bound downstairs to the tree, grab a present, what could it be? A new bike? A football? An attack that does massive AoE damage and incapacitates all targets for ten minutes that’s also a self-heal? That AT-AT toy with motorised walking action you’d been dropping subtle hints about (“THAT ONE! I WANT THAT ONE! I’VE DRAWN A BIG CIRCLE AROUND IT IN THE ARGOS CATALOGUE WITH A FELT-TIP!”)? In hindsight the fact that the parcel was sock-sized and squishy should’ve ruled out the more ambitious guesses, but nevertheless it’s hard to muster fake enthusiasm when tearing off the paper reveals a grey nylon pair of “Shoot Enemy With Gun: Rank 3”.

If you’ve had your character planned down to the last detail since pre-launch, I guess that’s the equivalent of knowing what you’ll be getting for the next 50 Christmases, quite appropriate for a Sith (insert obligatory “felt your presents” gag…)

At the end of the day I suppose you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and then beating the eggs with a guive-guive-guisarme-eggwhisk. I’m sure I had one around here somewhere…

Wednesday 18 January 2012

STOP SOAP.

Just a quick message to say that we here at KiaSA would like to express our full support today for our fellow Internet comrades in wanting to stop SOAP. SOAP has been around in the world for far too long, oppressing and restricting the olfactory freedom of the populace. Gamers, especially, have long bucked the trend against SOAP, and it’s about time that the rest of the world woke up and smelt the ro…

Do what now?

Really?

Well what the hell is SOPA?!

I can’t even look it up on Wikipeda today because of SOP… oh, there’s probably some irony in there somewhere.

Sorry everyone, as you were.

Monday 16 January 2012

We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.

So my time with Star Wars: The Old Republic is coming to an end. There’s no real surprise in this for me: I wasn’t going to buy SWTOR initially, but the breathless blog banter lauding its already much vaunted fourth pillar of storytelling had convinced me that, for the price of the box, it’d be worth a look whether I chose to subscribe to the game afterwards or not. The fact that m’colleague and other friends were also intending to play, however, added much needed girders of reinforcement to the somewhat shaky foundations of my decision, and thus I quickly cemented the whole deal with an order, before the building inspector of common sense could review the plan and tell me that it would never stand the test of time.

Based upon the standard indicators of ‘time played’ and ‘entertainment had’, I certainly got enough out of the game to justify the box price; compared to many games I’ve bought recently, I’d say that SWTOR settled towards the happy end of the value for money scale. Only games such as Dragon Age (89 hours played) and Skyrim (128 hours played, and counting…) can make any sort of impact on the ‘value for money’ assessment, and really those two should be treated as freakish outliers of my recent game time investment.

I have enjoyed my time in SWTOR, but while the story element is certainly entertaining, in wrestling for my continued commitment to the game, it simply wasn’t differentiating enough to be able to overpower and suplex the plodding linear progression and constricting nature which is typical of this type of MMO. This is not a failing of SWTOR – for many this is still as perfectly enjoyable and entertaining as it always was, and for those people SWTOR is surely a fast flowing stream of fresh IP into the rather stagnant pond of fantasy MMOs. My tastes have definitely changed, however; be it through burnout, or having discovered pastures which are richer grazing, better suited to my game-play appetite, I struggle now to find any pleasure in on-rails grind, as well as the hotbar combat, common to MMOs of this sort.

The simple fact is that I like to look into the world when I play a game of this sort, for if it is not –to a greater extent– about the world in which our characters inhabit, why have the world at all? We could easily write games where the player is required to stare at a number of little coloured icons, and press them in optimal order based upon the variable cooldown counters which tick above them, and simulate pretty much everything there is to MMO combat, without the need for a game world. Even UI addons which move these elements of buffs, debuffs and hotbar abilities into the middle of the screen do not alleviate the simple fact that the player’s attention must be, for a disproportionate amount of play time, concentrated on these tiny little UI elements, rather than the world around them. The perceived increase in difficulty of tanking, and to a lesser extent healing, in these games stems from the fact that the situational awareness and positioning that these roles require runs counter to the entire rest of the combat design – to stare at tiny little icons and press them when cooldowns allow, when debuffs require, or when priority demands. The entire combat design of these games, which has barely changed from generation to generation, is akin to a person in a pit spinning a comfortable number of plates on the end of broom handles, and where every now and again an angry wolverine is thrown in such that the plate spinner has to try to frantically beat it away with a spare broom handle while still trying to keep the plates spinning.

In Skyrim I have to watch where my enemy is in the world. If the enemy is close, I try to hit him with a big sword. Sometimes the enemy will try to hit me with a big sword, and in this case I have to watch for him swinging at me, at which point I block the attack. After one hundred and twenty eight hours or so of playing, this is still fantastically entertaining to me. I do not have to look down at a UI element and see if my sword is off global cooldown. I do not have to look at another, different, UI element to see if my shield is off its five minute emergency cooldown. I do not have to juggle a number of short duration buffs which, if they drop, will mean the almost guaranteed defeat of my character. The cooldown on weapons is, to some extent, reflected in the length of time it takes to swing them: two-handers feel slow and ponderous compared to their one-hander cousins, but this simply serves to add solidity and texture to the combat, while building in a suitable restraining mechanic to the more potent damage range of the various two-handed weapons. There are no plates to juggle in Skyrim’s game-play, just one big plate, which I must smash over the head of my enemy; this is what I need in a fantasy game, not taking a sixty second ‘day’ and organising my hotbar meeting schedules into this time period.

“Well I’ve got an armour buff telecon in fifteen seconds, maybe we could reconvene the channelled ranged attack best practise seminar until after then; hmmm, but that does leave me with a short window where we could probably leverage a quick value-added primary attack GCD, which would be win-win if we can then schedule for the thirty second self-heal strategic planning afterwards. Of course, we’ll have to be proactive if an off-GCD defeat response occurs in the meantime – we’ll fast track it and bump the rest of the day’s schedule if that happens. I’ll get my people to macro your people. Okay, ciao.”

I could not program an Excel spreadsheet to play my Skyrim character effectively.

That’s the feeling I can’t shake with many of these hotbar-based MMOs – that an Excel spreadsheet could probably be doing it better. The realisation hits that a spreadsheet program should be my gaming idol, that at the next PAX I may well witness an Excel box surrounded by the flickering flashlight of photographers while two scantily clad women lean in from each side, one leg kicked out saucily behind each of them, planting kisses on the sides of this perfect specimen of hardcore MMO player. And then there’ll be the stupid puns in magazine articles, such as How to Excel at MMO Gaming.

Again, I have nothing against SWTOR as a game, I’ve just come to an even more firm conclusion that MMOs “where you play combat primarily in the user interface rather than the game world” are not for me. Which is rather a shame, because that’s most of them, by my current calculations. I’ll be interested to see if games such as TERA have actually made an action-orientated MMO, or whether it’s the same old concession to hotbar plate juggling, only now the rabid wolverine is a permanent fixture; in which case I can’t imagine it will fair terribly well (the game that is, not the wolverine, who I’m sure will have a whale of a time). I’m also somewhat less sure about Guild Wars 2, because on the one hand the game has a vastly restricted hotbar space, such that there are far fewer plates to keep spinning, but on the other hand the hotbar is still there, and I’m just not sure that you can realistically expect to have a hotbar and a true action RPG occupying the same game client.

In the meantime I’ve rolled a new character in Skyrim; having finished the main story and vast swathes of the game, I now want to go exploring with a slightly less accomplished (read: overpowered) character, and discover all the places that my boss keeps telling me about from his play through, but which I’ve yet to discover. I went for my favourite character type the first time around, a female paladin sort, wearing heavy armour, wielding a sword and shield, and well versed in the arts of healing magic. It was tremendous fun, but now I’m going to play an orc barbarian, with a big two-handed axe, and wearing only light armour; I’m going to see if it’s possible to play an in-your-face melee character without relying on heavy armour or healing magic. I’m also happily taking a leaf out of SWTOR’s book and eschewing the quick save option in all but the most game-breaking cases. This has already lead to interesting developments, where, in the first town at which I arrived, my character accidentally (no, really!) stole something from the bar of an inn and –in self defence, Your Honour– killed the innkeeper when he attacked over the inadvertent indiscretion. As a result of which I quickly fled the town, with the grubby wooden plate I had stolen as a somewhat disappointing trophy of this early exploit in my adventuring career. An intriguing, if ignominious, beginning.

I’ll see you all in another hundred and twenty eight hours.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with a vibroblade

According to a developer blog, in Star Wars: The Old Republic “The Imperial Agent is an expert at infiltration, seduction and assassination”; a bit of a Space James Bond. In fact playing an Agent reminds me somewhat of Alpha Protocol where dialogue trees typically had three choices: Aggressive, Suave or Professional, broadly equated to Jack Bauer, James Bond or Jason Bourne. SWTOR doesn’t explicitly tag things that way, but there are certainly elements of those three in the choices you can make, from extreme ruthlessness to raised eyebrow insouciance. For the “seduction” part of your brief sometimes there are conversation options specifically labelled “[FLIRT]”, and if one turns up I can’t help but select it to see the result, regardless of who I’m talking to; other members of Imperial Intelligence, Sith Lords, defecting rebel fighters, nobles, Hutts, Jawas, attractive looking vegetation, I’ll flirt with anything. At the risk of delving into deep psychoanalysis and uncovering mother issues, I think there are both in-game and meta-game reasons.

Character-wise, as a representative of the Sith Empire there’s a fairly relaxed moral code. I don’t know if Imperial Intelligence hold Sexual Harassment in the Workplace seminars, but if they do they’re probably a bit different to contemporary versions. “Hey, Darth Corporate-Video-Actor! Are you about to use your Force powers to abuse a slave? STOP! Think about it. There’s something wrong, isn’t there? That’s right, you haven’t set up a HoloCam to record the incident to upload to Sith Lords Do The Funniest Things.” I generally pick light side options when confronted with major moral choices, but for the most part gallivant around the place as an irreverent space womaniser.

In game mechanic terms, conversation choices don’t tend to have deep or long term implications. I could be entirely mistaken, but I haven’t seen any opportunities to deviate from the linear story quests so far; I can detour via space combat, PvP, crafting or what-not, even ignore the story altogether, but if I want to take part I go where I’m sent, and do what I’m told. Course single player story-driven games also tend to railroad you in something of an inverse butterfly effect, but MMOGs have additional issues, such as the absence of a save game. Melmoth linked to the Penny Arcade quote about reaching for the quick save button leading to some contemplation in the comments of irreversible consequences, something Pirates of the Burning Sea made me think about last year. Moridir points out in previous comments that you can reset a conversation using the Escape key to remake lightside/darkside/affection choices, a sort of pseudo-quickload, worth bearing in mind if you really don’t like the way something turns out, but possibly not entirely reliable. In a single player game I might try my luck with a Sith Lord safe in the knowledge that I have a save game to fall back on should she reject my advances (with hilarious, or fatal, or indeed hilariously fatal consequences); in SWTOR I rely on Bioware not wanting to face the wrath of a million forum posts that would doubtless result if your future was seriously effected by a conversation option not clearly labelled “[FLIRT] [ALSO GET FORCE-CHOKED TO DEATH DUE TO A SERIOUSLY MISJUDGED CHAT-UP LINE]”.

That’s not to say my amorous attempts have been universally positive. There was one minor incident of ill-advised flirting involving a fanatical assassin, a top of the line holo-disguise and a dagger to the kidneys that would’ve definitely needed a quickload in a single player game, but an Imperial Med-Bot got me through it. I was a bit disappointed not to have got in a snappy Space James Bond zinger before the combat started, though, something like “Argh! That’s not quite what I meant when I suggested a game of ‘hide the vibro-knife’…”

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Thought for the day.

You know you’ve been playing a certain MMO too much when you walk past a door labelled ‘Project Room’ at work first thing in the morning, and your fuzzy mind interprets it as a project room.

I wonder if the Jedi have project rooms? Huge rooms with padded walls, full of oversize bean bags, enormous soft toys, and giant cushions, which the warrior monks can fling at one another with impunity. I always wondered why the Jedi Council looked so ruffled and out of breath every time they spoke to Anakin and Obi-Wan. If you watch closely during The Phantom Menace you can even see Mace Windu trying to discreetly hide a teddy bear that got lodged in the hood of his robes.

And pillow fights at Jedi pyjama parties suddenly take on a new and exciting outlook.

Monday 9 January 2012

That's okay. I'm never coming back to this planet again.

I’ve finally reached the halfway mark of the Old Republic marathon, where professional MMO athletes long ago reached the end, and have since received their silver foil blanket, had a drink and a biscuit, gotten changed, gone home, had a bath, flumped themselves down onto the sofa and are happily watching television with a glass of red in hand. Yet I’m still running plod-footed and heaving breathlessly around the track. Indeed, I’m not even one of your average MMO athletes: most people in the casual guild I joined having put twenty levels on me before I’d even had a chance to log in for the first time. I’ve come to the conclusion that I must be, somewhat appropriately, one of those comedy MMO runners who undertakes the trial with a wry sense of occasion, light of heart and purpose, and running the whole thing backwards while dressed in a giant chicken suit.

Like the marathon runners, we race along these paths, through landscapes and cityscapes of majesty and beauty, but always staying true to the well trod, well defined path. Barriers line the runners’ route, broken infrequently by refreshment stations where NCPs stand and offer bottles of XP to revitalise and give energy to our enthusiasm as we trudge ever onward. The goal is clear, the path is planned and set, the location is irrelevant – merely a change of scenery. The scenery in Star Wars: The Old Republic is both stunning and heartbreaking, because I look upon it and marvel, the bright sun of stupefaction shining from my wide eyes and smile. Yet how quickly the sunset of realisation falls across my face, my features dark as I realise that most of what I observe I can never explore. We players are still funnelled, as though running on a treadmill while an artificial world is rotated past, in order to give the illusion of movement and progress.

To cheer myself up, I went and bought my Bounty Hunter her mobility scooter which is available to characters from level twenty five. I think they have fancier names for them in the Star Wars universe, hoverbike I believe to be the formal term, with imposing monikers such as the Gurian Hammer or the Rendili Fireball, but I can’t help but see them as a sort of floating Zimmer frame for the infirm, or a slowly sliding Segway which I expect players to have about an equal amount of success in controlling. They are faster than running –I know this because Torhead knows this; for SWTOR is an MMO, and thus statistical proof trumps all– but the basic ones bumble along in such a manner that there must be a serious temptation to get off and push. Indeed, I still fully expect to see some more adventurous sort overtake me on an untethered Mandalorian washing machine at full spin cycle, vibrating it’s way along in a random path which still somehow manages to run circles around my hovering industrial floor scrubber. Still, my character has reached middle age, and as such it’s nice to get a mobility boost; I might pick up one of those nice Corellian cybernetic hearing aids for my character’s ear slot at some point too, they seem all the rage with dark lords of the Sith this season.

I do have trouble picturing some of these vehicles being used in the Star Wars films, and indeed perhaps we don’t see them because in the intervening time period the companies who produce them have gone out of business, and for good reason. Try picturing Han Solo and Chewbacca thrumming down the corridors of the Death Star on one of these, as they try to escape from an angry flock of storm troopers, and it doesn’t quite work; consider if the storm troopers were all stacked onto one themselves in Keystone Kops fashion, flailing around trying to maintain their balance as they race down the corridor at some frightening speed approaching that of a brisk walk; the corridors of the Death Star weren’t as wide as they were in the space stations of The Old Republic, and I expect the chase scene would end with them very gradually negotiating a corner before slowly and inexorably losing control and bumping into a wall. At somewhere around walking pace. Over a period of several minutes. After which everyone disembarks and carries the chase onwards on foot; several minutes later, we cut back to the abandoned hoverbike, where it finally decides the impact was too much and explodes in a huge fireball.

Of course being on the side of the ‘evil’ Empire it costs a player some forty thousand credits to obtain one of these hobbled jet skis, or hover pedalos, an amount which is the majority of savings for a level twenty five character who has spent frugally and chosen not to exploit the lucrative joys of Splicing. I expect the Republic have a much better health care system, and thus their war veterans get a mobility scooter for free. In contrast I stole my starship, and it only costs me seventy five credits to fly the thing from one sector of the galaxy to another, so I’m half tempted just to take that instead, crashing it into the living rooms of unsuspecting NPCs, then leaning out of the cockpit window and asking through the haze of smoke and sprinkler spray if they have any mundane life issues that they’d like a complete stranger to solve for them. Lost your cat, you say? I’ll get right onto that! Now when did you last see it? About two minutes ago, I see. And where did you last see it? Somewhere in the vicinity of the fiery rubble where my smoking sparking starship is now resting? I… seeeee… LOOK, OVER THERE! [activates jump to light speed]

I have to wonder what they use to power these hoverbikes too. I looked at the mini jet turbines attached to the sides and concluded that they were merely for show, that a vehicle this slow cannot possibly be jet-powered, and that they are, in fact, the Star Wars equivalent of Pimp My Ride’s car bling. It’s like the common ritual of young men in developed nations the world over, who at the coming of age, buy a really cheap old wreck of a car, and then stick glowing lights, stripes and bits of tinsel to it, in order to attract a mate, much like those birds who build a fancy nest out of the feathers and fur of other animals. Thinking about it, I’ve yet to see a Vauxhall Nova with feathers and a bearskin rug taped to the outside, perhaps that’s why these pimply youths struggle so much to find a partner?

Anyway! The thought of a cybernetically enhanced Sith, with bionic legs and superhuman speed on tap via The Force, pootling around on one of these scooters is, while terribly amusing, somewhat out of sorts with what I perceive as the Star Wars ethos. So I had to come up with another reason to justify it to my constantly questioning and insatiable mind, and the power source became the focus of my attentions. With jet power ruled out (through the medium of a harsh sharp laugh and a best-of-British disbelieving raised eyebrow) I considered what the power source might be. At first I imagined battery power was most likely, with the scooter doubling-up as a convenient charging station for the life-preserving functions of the Sith’s cybernetic battlesuit, as well as their iPod. However, on considering the bizarre shape and size of these hovering hand barrows, I realised that there was probably enough room within the extensive bodywork to house a small being. It soon dawned on me that these things are most likely pedal-powered. It made so much sense: the asthmatic speed; the slightly bumbling doddery nature of locomotion; the wheezing and panting and squeaking of cogs that they emit as they glide by. But who? Who could the Sith get to power such a device? For surely the life of such a being would be unforgiving and short and full of suffering – which would certainly explain why a Sith would deign to use one, enjoy it, in fact. I investigated further, dug into the depths of the Sith archives and found nothing; took a look in the user manual, whereupon I discovered the sickening disclaimer on page 147 in the section titled How To Replace Your Hoverbike’s Power Source:

“Many Bothans die to bring you this transportation.”

Friday 6 January 2012

A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon

World of Tanks has had a couple of big updates recently. 7.0, just before Christmas, introduced a couple of new maps, cosmetic camouflage and a host of tweaks. The main addition in 7.1, released yesterday, is French tanks to fight alongside the existing German, Russian and US vehicles.

Now I’m not some sort of ultra-grognard demanding a completely realistic recreation of World War II down to the rivet, there were already plenty of experimental, prototype, theoretical and/or post-war AFVs in World of Tanks especially in the latter tiers, but the ever-so-slight problem with French tanks is there was a bit of an unscheduled interruption in development and production from 1940 to 1945, so almost everything in the game past Tier II is especially experimental, theoretical and/or post-war, which doesn’t quite feel right. Course there’s a slight element of nationalism here, as for some reason the French tanks have gone in before a full British (or Commonwealth) tree; granted the UK turned out some pretty poor tanks (and some obsolescent tanks that might have been quite good had they gone into service a couple of years earlier, which World of Tanks should make up for with its tiered battles), but at least they existed…

As if to mollify me, the WoT team have given everyone a British tank as a present; apply the code “NEWYEAREU” to your account for a free Tetrarch (“NEWYEARNA” for US players). Like the Valentine, Matilda and Churchill it’s flagged as Russian due to lend-lease, but I’ll take it. It’s a bit of a comedy tank, the real thing notable mostly for being landed by glider during the invasion of Normandy despite being obsolete, but as it’s classed as a Tier II vehicle in WoT it gets to frolic with other early war light tanks instead of late model PzKpfw IVs and StuGs.

I’ve been playing quite a lot of low tier battles in over the past months. Since my last update I’ve been hopping on a few times a week, but fun as the average fight is, they’re not terribly blogworthy (“Dear diary, today I shot an enemy tank with my gun. Then I shot another enemy tank with my gun. Then an enemy tank shot me with its gun. I exploded. The end.”) I haven’t bought any more gold since that post, and upgraded to Tier VIII vehicles in both my lines of choice (the IS-3 and ISU-152), which took a few million credits. It’s an expensive business, fighting at Tier VIII; repair costs are hefty, often more than your winnings, and even stocking up on ammunition puts a hefty dent in the wallet. I’m trying to figure out a way of converting the ISU-152 to use some form of trebuchet to fling light tanks, as I reckon they’re cheaper to buy than 152mm shells… There are several ways to fund yourself; lower tier tanks almost always make a profit, so can be worth keeping around even after you upgrade. Gold can be converted to credits for an instant hit, or used to buy Premium status that boosts credit and XP earnings for each match. Premium tanks can be also purchased with gold and offer good credit-earning potential, especially the Tier VIII vehicles. Gankalicious was splendid enough to pass on a code for a T-127, a Premium Tier III light tank, which doesn’t rack up massive cash but gives a nice boost, and I’ve got the Tier II Tetrarch as well now.

As well as turning a profit, low tier fights are generally a bit more relaxed and fast-paced. Tense battles of careful positioning and manoeuvre are great, but after a couple it’s nice just to tear across a map at high speed, possibly exclaiming “woot!” or sounding a novelty tank horn on the way (oddly enough, horns were included in the 7.0 testing as gold-purchasable “cosmetic” items… I’m not sure if any played Dixie or La Cucuracha, but for some reason they didn’t seem to go down too well and weren’t pushed live…) Though there’s always action of some sort across all the tiers the introduction of new tanks unleashes an impressive horde of starter vehicles, so if you were thinking of having another look at the game, or starting from scratch, it’s a particularly good time to hop in and join the low-tier French madness.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

The tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime

There was an article on CNN last year, “Why most people don’t finish video games”, highlighting a stat from Raptr that only 10% of tracked gamers had completed the final mission of Red Dead Redemption (a game taking upwards of 30 hours to finish). The conclusion for single player games was the future being shorter, campaigns of around 10 hours, with further content in expansion packs.

Update: UnSubject has done some sterling work digging in to the numbers and 10% is at the low end, but the stats seem to confirm the shorter single player campaign, more than half the titles taking on average less than 10 hours.

For an MMO player[1], of course, 10 hours is “not a bad first session”. 30 hours is “a decent headstart weekend (with 18 hours of queuing and server maintenance)”. 100 hours will do for launch week (I seem to recall Raptr reporting one user with 149 hours logged in the opening week of Cataclysm, though that’s just the game client running as opposed to active play), but there’d better be more than that to warrant a subscription.

I don’t envy a company trying to keep both camps happy…

[1] OK, obviously it’s a certain subset of MMO players. Or a certain subset of all game players, there are probably 100 hour-per-week Spider Solitaire fiends, engaging in flamewars of eye-popping obscenity with those Freecell noobs between hands.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Quoted forsooth.

“I will tell you something strange that happens though, and has never happened for me before anywhere in the genre; whenever I enter a tough room I always reach up to quicksave. That’s weird, right? The game is filed mentally as “single player,” despite all the evidence to the contrary.

That’s quite a trick.”

                          — Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade on Star Wars: The Old Republic

There’s not much that I can add, except that I’ve also done exactly the same thing several times in Star Wars: The Old Republic. And found myself somewhat sad each time that I couldn’t save.

I had put it down to playing Skyrim non-stop for weeks (that’s game time) beforehand, an RPG where one generally has at least one finger surgically connected to the quick save key (preferably a second for backup in case you need to save while the first save is still going through) and fast save-reloads have evolved beyond simple muscle memory into something programmed into the player’s genetic code.

But now that someone else has put voice to the curiosity, I’m no longer so sure of the Skyrim connection. It’s an interesting phenomenon nevertheless, and it’s never happened to me in an MMO before, as far as I can recall; I wonder how many other players have experienced this effect in SWTOR.

Skip to the end.

The conversation system in Star Wars: The Old Republic is always going to be a big talking point. Do you see what I did there?! Never mind. It’s clearly a much better way to immerse the player in the game world than walls of text which, no matter how well written, are always going to be a distraction from the game world proper. I’ve read on numerous blogs now how (brown cow) players have found themselves identifying with their character to the point of wanting to find out more about the story, and having trouble when choosing between the light or dark side options because they want to be true to the character their experience has created. Indeed, m’colleague mentioned in passing how other characters of the same class are slightly jarring because they also speak with ‘your character’s voice’.

I think those of us who are familiar with recent BioWare RPGs –such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect– don’t find the system to be anything out of the ordinary, where those players whose domain of experience extends primarily to MMOs will most likely find it to be a revelation. BioWare really have succeeded in taking their single player RPGs and extending them into the MMO space. I prefer to look at it that way: they haven’t made an MMO, they have taken the existing House of KOTOR and built a considerable MMO annex onto it, such that really you still live primarily in the House of KOTOR, but you can now have your friends over to stay, if you so want. I’m not sure how large the intersection is between the sets ‘People who play BioWare RPGs’ and ‘People who play MMOs’, undoubtedly it’s considerable in size, and yet there are still all those members of the two sets who remain outside this intersection, players who are now being encouraged towards it by SWTOR, much to BioWare’s profit, no doubt.

As much as I admire the conversation system, I do still find it a little ponderous in a world where you’re essentially being asked to kill ten womprats most of the time. I expect the idea is to give more meaning to killing those womprats by delivering grand exposition on the nature of womprats, and how they have ruined the life of Generic NPC 149. And that’s the problem in a nutshell for me. Outside of the class story, which is primarily a solo affair –very much ensconced in the comfortable living room of the House of KOTOR– even if you can bring friends along, all of these NPCs are still transitory. I know that when I speak to Henrietta Generic-damsel and get a whole great exposition about her life to this point, it’s all meaningless in the grand scheme of my adventures: I will do the quest, she will hand me a reward that I will probably sell to a vendor, and then I will never see that woman again unless I roll a new character. So why do I need to know about her at all? In all honesty I find it hard to care about her embarrassing knicker-elastic accident back in ’87, during a second year at university while she was dating Kevin from Lightsaber Comp. 101. Thus I quickly find myself returning to the standard MMO routine of wishing they’d just get on with it so that I could, in turn, get on with playing the game. Alas, once this mindset starts to take a hold, every conversation seems to be painfully padded out with unnecessary content, and every sentence seems to be spoken in an interminably slow manner…

“Hel……lo Boun……”

“Bounty Hunter”

“tee……”

“Bounty Hunter”

“Hun…”

“Bounty Hunter!”

“ter. I…… would…… like…… it…… if…… you……”

“Yes?”

“would……”

“YES?!”

“be…… my…… friend.”

“Oka– do what?!”

“For…… if…… we…… were…… friends…… I…… could…… give…… you…… a…… qu…………………………….”

“A ‘qu’?”

“……..est.”

“Fine, let’s be friends.”

“Excellent! Boun…… ”

“Bounty Hunter”

“tee……”

“Bounty Hunter”

“Hun……”

“Oh come *on*, hurry it up! Don’t you know I’m on paid time with my game subscription and all this exposition is slowing me down?!”

It’s dangerous to let that mindset take a hold of you however, because much like the quest text of other MMOs, it becomes far too easy to engage the ‘skip to the end’ device, which in the case of SWTOR is the Spacebar of Extreme Exposition Expedition (and not the Escape key, it turns out). Conversations go much quicker when you employ the SoEEE, but unlike skipping the quest text in other MMOs, while voice acting adds greatly to the immersion levels of the game, skipping over it does detract from the immersion levels in equal measure.

“He-burt Hun-it”

“Hi there.”

“La-but fn-it ha-bot?”

“Sure, I’ll look into a problem for you”

“Snor-bit sher-but?”

“The governor of the planet is going to meet with the Dark Sith lord of Dark Darkness, and you think that this might be a Bad Thing? And you want me to intercept him and go in his place, and I should use this disguise kit to fool the Sith into thinking I’m the governor?”

“Ye-zbt ha-yit bu-bit!”

“Oh stop fussing, I’m always discrete.”

“Fu-ou hm-ba rs-ole”

“Well there’s no need to be rude!”

“Pa-rpt fn-bar”

“That’s more like it; I’ll be back with your information in a bit.”

“Id-lo vo-u”

“I… uh, love you too? Sorry, that one didn’t make much sense; hang on, let me read the subtitles.”

And thus you’re so intent on skipping the voice acting that you end up reading all the quest text in order to find out how to answer a question appropriately…

Blarmed clever those BioWare folks. Blarmed clever.

Monday 2 January 2012

And all for love, and nothing for reward.

I recently completed the story arc for my Bounty Hunter on the planet of Balmorra, wherein I’d single handedly overthrown a rebellion by fighting my way through countless resistance minions, performing various acts of Empire sponsored counter-insurgency, and battling through a heavily guarded fortress complex to finally reach their leader. Not only that, but I’d managed to coerce this veteran –in exchange for his life– into revealing on a public broadcast that his group were being clandestinely sponsored by none other than, dun dun dun, The Republic!

As a result of this I’d paved the way for the reinstatement of a new Sith governess of the planet, an evil heartless witch by the name of Darth Lachris, and, if reports were to be believed, I’d shifted the balance of power not just on Balmorra but across the entire galactic sector. As the shock wave of news swept through the Senate regarding the Republic being caught –pants down– thoroughly abusing the Peace Treaty pie, my character received a grateful intergalactic mail message from the new malevolent ruler of Balmorra. In it she praised my character for her efforts – for single handedly changing the political balance across the galaxy in favour of the Empire, and in light of such, the governess went on to say, she had attached a bonus payment from the Empire to show its gratitude.

Two hundred WHOLE credits. Enough to buy one, maybe even two, basic medikits! One twentieth of a single skill training upgrade at my character’s current level. Two hundredth the cost of learning to ride a speeder bike.

Although it’s already been noted that SWTOR’s conversation wheel is somewhat lacking in appropriate MMO options, I’d also like to point out the similar lack of provision for returning quest reward mail to its sender, along with a suitable response.

Such as two primed thermal detonators, painted to look like testicles.

Sunday 1 January 2012

When MMO Players review.

Well, 2009 is finally here, despite them having to put back the release schedule by a couple of years.

To be honest, it’s looking pretty much like 2010 and 2011 at the moment. The starting area is very familiar and they even left the name the same. There are already huge crowds gathering in January, shouting loudly and bouncing around.

The images on the TV show some areas to be massively overcrowded from the outset. I think they may have upgraded the graphics engine for this year’s release, though; the colours certainly seem brighter, but that might just be a side effect of the alcohol.

And once again they’ve dropped the promised new months of Smegmember and Felchuary, so we’re left with the same old levelling content; I’ll give it two weeks before we see the first players reaching December.

I’d wish you a happy new year, but ‘new’? Pfff, this year has barely been released and it’s already rehashing old content… take this blog post, for example.