Wednesday 29 February 2012

The game's gotten old, the deck's gone cold

There’s a spot of kerfuffle going on, with news that GAME won’t be stocking Mass Effect 3 (or other future EA titles). GAME Group plc, operators of the majority of game-specific high street shops in the UK, haven’t had a happy time of late, but I hadn’t been paying close attention when the stories involved financial restructuring or Ubisoft titles for the PS Vita. The ME3 news is a bit more pertinent, as I had a pre-order for it with them.

I’d been thinking about bricks and mortar anyway after I bought a PC game in an actual physical GAME shop a couple of weeks back. Alongside discount classics (like the original Mass Effect, ironically), driving test theory tutorials and Woodcutter Simulator (no, really) on the “3 for £10” racks they had a few boxes of Rift, which I figured was worth a speculative fiver in case the first 20 levels hooked me in. I spotted a box of World of Tanks as well that includes gold, credits, premium time and a PzKpfw 38H735(f) for less than they’d cost normally, so I picked that up too. Not a bad idea if you’re thinking of starting the game from scratch, you’ll be an instant powerhouse in the lower tiers with the 38H735, though I’d ignore the advice in the manual to spend all your gold and credits upgrading it, better to save them for later.

Thinking back, though, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought anything in there, apart from Guitar Hero World Tour with peripherals as the box wouldn’t fit through the letterbox and I didn’t want to faff around with courier deliveries on release day. I’m not even sure why I’d habitually drop in if walking past the shop, though “habitually” is probably the clue. There was always the fun of “see if the PC section has shrunk again”, the ever popular “spot the box for the MMOG that’s closed down” and “guess the number of Sims or Warcraft games in the PC Top 20” (double figures was usually a safe bet), but mail order was always cheaper for new releases, and Steam’s sales with crazy discounts undermined the hunt for a bargain.

Eurogamer have a weighty piece up on what the demise of GAME could mean for the industry, pros and cons. The PC is fairly insulated, with Steam, Origin and other digital distribution services well established already; World of Tanks has been online for almost a year, I imagine the physical boxes have given them a bit of a boost in revenue and users, but as a nice bonus rather than a core part of the business. You might remember I was quite fond of RUSE, and I’d seen a couple of articles about a Cold War game from the same developers, Wargame: European Escalation (I hope there’s a tie-in novel, Book: Techno-Thriller); hunting around the usual online retailers (GAME, Amazon, etc.) drew a blank, seems that download is the way to go. I doubt too many PC gamers would be greatly inconvenienced if GAME does go under, but it would be a shame. For all they might have thrown their weight around in the past, I (just about) remember a time when a shop selling nothing but games was a strange and wonderful idea.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

The man in the coon-skin cap by the big pen wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten

Reading about the $870 worth of Mass Effect 3 DLC, I can’t help but think Bioware have missed a trick for Star Wars The Old Republic. Most of the ME3 cost comes from assorted toys, accessories and hardware peripherals that include DLC unlock codes – a mere £70 will get you a nylon bag with a code for an in-game assault rifle, a promotion much less controversial than an earlier plan to offer an AK-47 for £70 with a code that would unlock an in-game bag for additional inventory space (gamers were absolutely outraged that they’d have to clutter up their bedroom with piles of weaponry just to carry around more loot in the game).

For SWTOR there’s the Collector’s Edition with the high-quality action figurine character replica statuette (definitely not a doll), but I haven’t seen much other tie-in merchandise; I imagine this is due to the Star Wars IP, as George Lucas is notorious for his maniacal preservation of the artistic purity and integrity of his vision. Nevertheless there’s an opportunity for some classy, tasteful merchandise, not only from Bioware but all MMOG publishers, if they take a leaf from sports so that when a character reaches the in-game level cap the player has an opportunity to buy an actual physical cap. It could be embroidered with a classy, tasteful alphanumeric string that would unlock an in-game equivalent, so both player and character could sport the fetching headgear on the team bus back from the final mission, belting out a song over Ventrilo…

All right, maybe not. Unfortunately there’s not much else for me to look forward to having hit level 50 in SWTOR. The main problem is the PvP warzones that I’ve been participating in nigh-daily; just as Moridir observed in a previous comment, up to level 49 the boosting algorithms seem to work quite well to give a fairly level playing field. Lower levels are at a disadvantage, not having their full range of skills, but apart from that can still effectively contribute. A fresh level 50 is chucked into a pool that includes people who’ve been grinding gear for two months, and the potential power differential is vast. Without getting back into the age-old “gear vs skill” debate there’s not much incentive to hop onto the upgrade treadmill, slogging through tier after tier of gear, with little to look forward to apart from finding someone in inferior gear to dish out a kicking to, even the momentary pleasure of unleashing pent-up frustration denied by the self-knowledge that you’re just perpetuating the cycle.

I popped down to Ilum, the open world PvP zone, joined up with an ops group, and spent half an hour edging slightly forwards, then edging slightly backwards; massed combat in SWTOR isn’t much different to massed combat in WoW or WAR, or most other MMOGs I imagine, packs of players shuffling around, AoE heals generally countering AoE damage, and occasional stragglers being picked off; stray too far forward and a “yoink” ability pulls you into the middle of the enemy pack for instant death, but hang around in the middle of the pack and you’re probably safe. With roughly balanced forces it’s a cagey stalemate, which is at least a marginal improvement over a massacre followed by one side giving up.

There’s still the story, of course. I haven’t wrapped that up yet and I’m quite intrigued to see how it all pans out, but it hasn’t hooked me so much that I’m desperate to finish it. Interspersing the story with general planetary missions, flashpoints, warzones and the like has made it feel very fragmentary, my own doing, but an inevitable consequence of developer-driven narrative within a MMOG. That’s not the only factor; single player games have a much better chance of digging their story hooks in and The Witcher 2 didn’t manage it either, it’s been kicking around my Steam library somewhere near the start of Act 2 for months and I’m not sure I’ll go back, but the story alone wouldn’t keep me in SWTOR. That there are seven more stories to experience is a temptation to play other characters, and I’ve dabbled with several, but I’ve never really been one for alts. I might well come back for another stint in the future, probably playing a Republic Trooper (tried a couple of Jedi for a few levels and they were insufferably smug, and it’d be nice to have a different play style from the Agent, plus the female Trooper is voiced by Jennifer Hale); pottering about having a look at the first Republic flashpoint and seeing warzones from the other side has been fun, but not that different.

If ever there was a box I wouldn’t tick in the “What are you most looking forward to about Game X?” section of a questionnaire, it would be the one labelled “Raiding”. Unless there was another one labelled “The complete absence of hats”. Or “The fascinating socio-political debates in /general”. Anyway, I’ve never been serious a raider, had no great desire to participate in eight man SWTOR operations like the Eternity Vault, but the afternoon after I hit 50 the guild had a run planned, I had a couple of spare hours, and it turned out to be rather fun. Plenty of clustering up and running away and hopping over stepping stones and pushing buttons, shepherded by our chilled raid leader with some assistance from a more hardcore raider we grabbed from general chat to round the team out (who was good enough to only point out how simple an encounter was after a couple of wipes; I like to think what we lacked in cohesion and gear we made up for with enthusiasm and charm, like excitable puppies at an obedience class just about getting the hang of “sit”, briefly). I was only personally responsible for one failed encounter (as far as I remember, losing a DPS race when we split into eight separate one-on-one encounters; slowly chipping down a tank-ier mob worked better) and got a couple of purple gear upgrades out of it, happy days.

It’s been a good run and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, but the time’s come to hang up SWTOR for a while, especially with Mass Effect 3 imminent. While the subscription ticks down I wouldn’t mind taking another look at Eternity Vault or Karagga’s Palace; I don’t think I’ll be becoming a regular raider, but it’s a lot more attractive than warzones at the moment.

Monday 27 February 2012

To a valet no man is a hero.

In Rift my Bahmi has a racial ability: Mighty Leap.

It has little effect in PvE; mobs will still aggro if I try to leap over the top of them; I can sometimes use it to negotiate that damnable bane of all MMO heroes – the slight incline in terrain; but generally the ability does nothing.

Except look exceptionally cool.

I can use it to leap past an unsuspecting mob (admittedly not hard, seeing as, outside of a five yard radius, they all have the observational skills of a mole in a blindfold ), and if I position myself just right, I can land with a thud in front of them, and follow it immediately by a second thud, delivered with force to their braincase using my two-handed hammer.

It’s Batman. It’s Hulk. It’s Neo. And it’s Goku. It’s Spiderman; Predator; Aang.

It’s V.

It’s glee.

It’s you. And me.

Isn’t that what a hero should be?

That was a party political broadcast on behalf of the Still Just A Goddamn MMO Valet Party.

Friday 24 February 2012

Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more, than when we have nothing and want some.

Rift has me happily frustrated – the difference between having a hyperactive puppy and feral cat on the end of a leash. Where the puppy strains with loll-tongued enthusiasm against its master’s restraining pull, desperate to investigate all the new things in the world –which primarily involves chasing cats, ducks, rabbits, other dogs, flies, leaves, shadows, and various other adversaries which the puppy has clearly made the hell up– the feral cat is generally to be found being dragged along on its back, or face, or pretty much any part of its body that isn’t its feet, while it claws and chews and hisses and yowls at the leash, the holder of the leash, and more than likely itself at several points during the ordeal.

My overarching frustration is with the soul system; my happiness with it comes from the fact that it provides me with the fundamental urgency and drive to continue playing the game. The soul system provides a nice level of flexibility with respect to character builds, with the standard caveat that this only applies to non-raiders who aren’t interested in optimising the heck out of every soul point. I prefer entertainment over efficiency when it comes to games, where optimisation is, for me, a vampire which preys on entertainment, sucking the fun from it and leaving nought but the dry empty husk of complicit conformity. Working hard. Efficiency. Toeing the corporate line. This is what I do in the real world, and because of that, when I enter a virtual world I want to be able to hunt naked through a forest, dance wild and carefree with my swords beneath a curtain of rain, or wade aimlessly across the snowy back of a mountain at the top of the world. Skyrim managed to invoke that feeling of blithe liberty, of spontaneity and sovereignty in sublime union, and I will always admire it for that.

I have a build for my warrior in Rift, a fairly common combination of Reaver/Paladin/Warlord because I do love me some self-healing tank, but I’ve eschewed the deep thirty eight point investment in Reaver that is common amongst end-game builds, instead opting for a little more variety, flexibility and fun by delving deeper into the Paladin soul. The frustration comes from the fact that I now have a build which I think will be a lot of fun to play, but I’ll need to get close to level fifty (the current level cap) before it all comes together and realises its full potential. Thus the happy frustration, where every level I gain more points towards completing my character, but in the meantime the character feels somewhat disjointed – a fractured piece of a greater whole. Rift still manages to achieve that careful balancing act, however, where the levelling leash both holds me back and at the same time enlivens my enthusiasm for progress.

The most dangerous temptation, of course, is to play an alt. I switched to my low level cleric alt last night, and the hit of gratification from getting soul points so quickly in those early levels was the MMO equivalent of shooting up, “Ohhhhhhh yeah. Mmmmmm, three soul points in as many minutes. That hit the spot, that hit the spot gooooood.[gurgle][slump]”. Thankfully there’s always Mrs Melmoth to keep me grounded, who takes exception to watching me sit in the dark and dribble into my keyboard, the hugely dilated pupils in my ghost-lit face staring blankly into the computer’s window of neon aurora.

My other happy frustration comes from Rift’s combat system, but I’ll save that for another post, where my recent travails with respect to LotRO’s combat system will hopefully provide a suitable (and possibly lengthy) counterpoint to my experiences with Rift.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Thought for the day.

Mentoring systems –such as those seen in games like EQ2, CoH and STO– are still rarity in the genre, despite being an obvious enabler to allowing friends to play together. Yet most MMOs implement some form of PvP where players of varying levels are slammed together, with the level disparity ‘normalised’ by temporarily increasing the level of the lowest players.

Thus the system is often applied to PvP, where lower level players are more likely to be put off playing again because they are dramatically behind the power curve of higher level players (due the significant differential in equipment, number of powers, etc), and are in direct competition with those players.

Yet the system is often not applied to PvE, where lower level players are more likely to be prevented from playing with friends if they are dramatically behind the power curve of friends who are at a higher level, and are thus unable to join them in a cooperative effort.

It seems to me, at first glance, like a curiously backwards convention of design.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized

Via the RPS Sunday Papers there’s a rather nice piece on Kotaku, “Gameplay and Story Are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s a neat analogy; without music, music isn’t music (said Captain Tautology), and without gameplay you haven’t got a game. Gameplay alone works just as well as music with no vocals, but story can be just as integral to a great game as lyrics can be to a great song. Just as most game stories don’t stand up particularly well on their own, lyrics don’t have to, so long as they work in the context of the music; separated from a song they can be trite or indeed gibberish, “tutti frutti, ah rooty” indeed. They don’t have to be particularly intelligible or meaningful to be a vital element, an instrumental version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wouldn’t be the same.

There was a recent Gamasutra post, “Putting story before gameplay ‘a waste of time’ says Jaffe”, and reframing it in music/lyrics terms is quite interesting. Writing 90 verses of fantastic lyrics for a song is indeed a waste of time if they’re accompanied by someone banging some railings with a stick. Likewise a game can have a fantastically involving story, but if experiencing it involves awful controls, wonky camera angles and generally terrible gameplay it’ll rightly get slated. That’s pretty obvious. What Jaffe is really railing against, though, is gameplay being sacrificed for story, which is more difficult to parallel in music; I’m struggling to think of lyrics actively making a song worse, apart from perhaps deliberately offensive lyrics. There’s Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long”: “we were trying different things, we were smoking funny things” sets my teeth on edge, but it’s not like the song was any good to start with; Geezer Butler has the same rhyming-a-word-with-itself problem in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (“generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses”), but it doesn’t spoil the song for me. I don’t think it would be misrepresenting the general position to frame it musically as: the music is the important thing, not the words. And by and large I’d agree, but there are exceptions. Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is musically simple (a few strummed chords and a bit of harmonica), but the lyrics propel it for seven and a half minutes. With a plethora of quotable lines, notably “money doesn’t talk, it swears”, it works. If it had no words, or seven minutes of “Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong”, it wouldn’t. The music/gameplay needs to be solid enough to support the base, but an RPG or adventure game can have straightforward gameplay (hit monster with sword get loot/use every item with every other item and bit of scenery in a desperate bid to work out what the hell the designer was thinking of), it’s the combination of that with a story that can elevate them.

Jaffe is fine with games like Skyrim where “the player by the very nature of playing the game … is the story”, but the analogy breaks down if you try and crowbar player-driven vs developer-driven narrative into it (Karaoke? People making up their own words to an instrumental? An otter singing along to the noise made by the machinery of an ice cream factory?) It’s clearly not perfect, but I think there’s one other area where a musical parallel may be appropriate, the idea that as technology has brought more cinematic elements to games, so developers can lose sight of gameplay in a bid to tell a story in a medium not designed for it: “If you’ve got something inside of you that’s so powerful … why the fuck … would you choose the medium that has historically been the worst medium to express philosophy and story?”

Now I’m not a big fan of musicals, ballet or opera, but I’m not going to try and shoot them down as sub-optimal mediums for telling a story; “Look, Mozart, this Figaro geezer getting married or whatever? Just leave it to a playwright and get on with writing a kick-arse symphony, yeah?” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a radio series, novel, TV show, film, adventure game, comic, several stage shows and commemorative towel without a definitive version (though the towel is probably closest), each brings out different facets that appeal more or less to different people. Games are a young medium, they might not have excelled at telling stories so far, but that’s no reason not to try.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

KiaSA's Guild Wars 2 beta press preview.

M: Alright Mr Z, we’ve been playing in a recent press beta event, so what do we think about this so called Guild Wars 2, if that even is its real name.

Z: It’s not really a name is it?

M: ‘Guild Wars 2’ ?

Z: Indeed, it somewhat fails to convey the majesty and beauty of the game which lies hidden beneath that veil of ponderous nomenclature.

M: So we propose a different name?

Z: Absolutely so, and so absolutely. Something which does not belie the noble spirit and thrilling adventure which is found in this gamiest of games.

M: Such as?

Z: Neville.

M: Guild Wars: Neville?

Z: No, just Neville. I think that is a name which covers all the necessary bases required by an MMO of this magnitude.

M: Very well, so what do we think of it? I, for one, thought there were a few too many radishes.

Z: It was quite radishy, was it not?

M: I mean, there were radish people, radish houses, a giant minefield of explosive radishes. Three out of the five skills on my warrior’s hotbar were radish based…

Z: Ah, but were you not wielding a radish in your main hand at the time?

M: Well, yes of course, what other weapon could there be for the savage combatant?

Z: I myself prefer a radish in the off-hand, matron, thus leaving my main hand free to wield the more versatile glaive-glaive-glaive-guisarme-gooseberry

M: Well, each to their own. At least Neville 2…

Z: No, no; just ‘Neville’.

M: At least ‘Neville’ allows for a wide range of weapons within a class, although locking certain class play-styles to certain weapons may prove awkward in the long run.

Z: Speaking of ear plugs, what did we think about the World vs World vs World combat?

M: I thought they did rather well to find an arena that could hold three worlds, and frankly it was exactly the spectacle one would imagine it to be. When that one world took the folding table and smashed it over the back of that other world, while the third world leapt from the top rope and did a powerbomb on the world with the folding table? That was pretty neat.

Z: I’m just not sure about those leotards.

M: I suppose the various worlds did look a bit silly in all that figure-hugging lycra…

Z: No, ‘leotard’. Not sure about it. It should sound like leopard, but it has delusions of grandeur and affects a ridiculous pronunciation. I bet it drives a Range Rover Sport and lives in Wilmslow. Stupid leotards.

M: Right you are. But let’s talk more about Neville.

Z: Lovely fish and chips.

M: Hmm?

Z: Neville. Owns the restaurant at the end of the road. Does a mean cod in batter.

M: Ah, no, the other Neville, the one you stayed up all night playing with over the weekend.

Z: I never! This Neville sounds like a lascivious slattern!

M: I’m talking about Guild Wars 2.

Z: You mean Neville?

M: Yes.

Z: Well why didn’t you say so? All this talk of midnight philandering with strangers…

M: I wasn’t quite sure about the starship combat – didn’t really seem to fit in with the general magi-punk setting outlined in all the preview videos.

Z: It certainly was a curious addition, although perhaps they’re trying to capture some of the Star Wars: The Old Republic market. The fact that you can customise your spaceship is a positive, however.

M: Absolutely. But basing all the starship designs around the 1948 Bristol 400, albeit in an incredibly painterly style, is somewhat odd. I gave mine a fur-lined steering wheel though – fallalish.

Z: Another feature I enjoyed was that of the dynamic rifts which appear across the land.

M: Oh yes, most interesting. Did you notice that they happened to be in the form of Arthas Menethil’s spread buttocks.

Z: Really? That’s genius, I hadn’t ev…

Zoso: Hoy!

M: Busted!

Melmoth: I say, what the dickens?!

Z: Leg it!

Zoso: Who the blarmed blazes was that?

Melmoth: I’ve really no idea. I mean, they looked almost exactly like us, except for the evil-looking twirly moustache and black eyeliner.

Zoso: I quite like my twirly moustache, it’s not that evil is it?

Melmoth: No more than my black eyeliner. D’you get into the Guild Wars 2 press beta?

Zoso: Nah, I think it’s meant for, y’know, press and fan sites.

Melmoth: And we’re not a fan site?

Zoso: You wrote an entire post satirising their artistic justifications for skimpy armour design.

Melmoth: I just think they have something against twirly moustaches and black eyeliner, which is rich coming from a company that called their game Guild Wars 2.

Zoso: Well quite; I think it’s clearly a Leslie, or maybe even a Clifford Prodger.

Melmoth: I certainly think it’s trying to live up to being a Clifford Prodger, let’s hope that all the genuine gushing beta preview reports are true.

Zoso: And that we do indeed have a most magnificent Clifford Prodger on our hands.

Melmoth: I wouldn’t mind having a Clifford Prodger on my hands, that’s for sure.

Zoso: Yes, I’ve heard the rumours.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Thought for the day.


In Skyrim I see a mountain and think ‘I’ve found a source of adventure.’

In a fantasy MMO I see a mountain and think ‘I’ve found another wall of the sheep pen.’


“Level 21 tank LFG dung”

If you end up in a shitty PuG, at least you’ll know why.


If a player decides it’s better to jump from the top of the castle tower and die, then rez, rather than fight their way back down again, is the death penalty too low, the content too tiresome, or the player too jaded?

Saturday 18 February 2012

If honour be your clothing, the suit will last a lifetime.

In any case, despite my frustrations, it seems that a decent set of cosmetic female armour is indeed obtainable in Rift, with a little bit of dedicated searching and saving.

I’m most pleased with the ensemble, and there’s even a nice winged helmet to go with it too, part of the ‘one month veteran’ reward set; I can certainly see myself getting the three month veteran rewards if the game continues to hook me the way it has thus far.

Friday 17 February 2012

The truth is, hardly any of us have ethical energy enough for more than one really inflexible point of honor.

It is probably from a terribly male perspective that I agreed with Katy Perry when she sang that “girls are so magical, soft skin, red lips, so kissable”, but it also frames the reason why I often play female characters in MMOs: not because I want to look at a cute bottom, but because I enjoy the juxtaposition of taking such an incarnation of loveliness, wrapping her in a hulking suit of armour, and having her kick the ten living arse bells out of a muscleheap of ogres.

I find it strange, therefore, that this is one of the few areas where MMOs (and many other games) still seem to skirt around the issue; skirt being the operative word here, because finding a female suit of armour without a skirt component –more often one which barely offers protection for the pubic bone, let alone any major skeletal structures below it– is still uncommonly difficult.

It’s not an objection to the more sexualised style of armour, you understand – each to their own. It is the almost wanton lack of alternatives which serves as the basis for my confoundedness. It seems strange to have a general level of acceptance for, say, the curious dichotomy of orcs being mages and warlocks, with them wearing frilly robes and carrying little wands (which you’d imagine the stereotypical green brute would be more likely to use for picking its nose, or spontaneously shoving up the bum of a fellow orc for comedic effect), while still having such resistance to allowing the option of presenting the female form in a non-sexual manner.

Of course it’s not all bad: Lord of the Rings Online offers a splendid variety of armour items, and, as far as I’m concerned, is still the best fantasy MMO by far for allowing players the freedom to create precisely the character they wish to present to other players and the game world.

My recent experiences in Rift prompted this latest post on the subject. Rift has, in its Borg-like development process, assimilated the wardrobe function of other MMOs into its own MMO-mechanical systems, but upon searching through the cosmetic armour options for my female warrior, I found the armour designs to predominantly consist of bikinis, skirts and exposed midriffs. And this perhaps serves as a reflection of how I perceive Rift in general: it does its best to include those features which players often laud in other MMOs, but it does this in the aforementioned Borg-like fashion – indiscriminate. Thus I’m left with a general impression (which may be entirely unfair) that these features are included without understanding why the players want them, with the eponymous rifts being the feature of exception, which Trion not only absorbed, but really managed to improve upon.

As I mentioned, Rift prompted this post, but I’ve talked about the issue many times before. I’m also well aware that it’s one of those topics which endlessly haunts ships on the blogging sea, but shouldn’t that then reinforce the point that this might be a genuine issue for a modest section of the player base? It’s clearly not a big enough issue to drive the majority of players away, but I can’t help but feel that as long as an issue such as this persists, it maintains a perfect example of the MMO genre’s fabled stagnation and rigid inflexibility, an adamantine resistance to the penetration of consensus, which no steel skirt or bronze bra could ever hope to emulate against arrow or sword.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Things without all remedy should be without regard.

It’s fairly easy for me to identify which game is holding a candle in my heart and gently warming the hearth of my affections, because I often find myself quietly humming one of the game’s iconic theme tunes throughout the working day. This morning, as I made a cup of tea in the office kitchen, I caught myself subconsciously humming the tune to a game which I’ve recently returned to playing — the gamer equivalent of catching yourself doodling the name of someone you didn’t realise you fancy, onto the cover of your exercise book during a particularly dreary double lesson in geography.

I had been playing the game, yes, but I didn’t realise that it had settled itself quite so highly in my regards. It’s no mean feat, because as anyone who reads this blog will know, when it comes to MMOs my Tower of Regard has but one heavily guarded ground floor entrance, and the only way to climb any higher is by way of a thin rope slicked with oil, covered by crossbowmen, with angry lions tied on every five meters for good measure. I had only intended to noodle around with the game in question, which I like to do in an attempt to determine further what does and doesn’t work for me in an MMO and why; so it was quite the surprise to find that it had slipped like a thief in the night up that perilous rope to a higher level in my Tower of Regard.

I’d had a hankering for playing another MMO, what with my enthusiasm for solo SWTOR being reduced to staring sloth-like at the screen –tongue hanging out and down to one side– as the game frantically clung to the bottom of the rope in the Tower of Regard, legs lifted and wrapped tightly around the rope near its head, such that its bottom swung pendulously a few centimetres above the floor. Meanwhile, static groups in various other games meant that my desire for playing said games outside of Group Hug Time was greatly diminished. So the choice was between EQ2 and Rift, seeing as both had options to play for free. Rift now offers a trial of its first twenty levels with some basic restrictions (such as not being able to equip items of purple quality or higher), whereas EQ2 offers a more ‘freemium’ affair, with a selection of races and classes available, but with many desirable options tucked away in display jars behind the sweetshop counter that is their in-game store. One such fruity boiled-sugar delight was the beastlord class, whose play-style sounded intriguing, both different and powerful, akin to the Artificer in DDO or the Warden in LotRO; it’s the sort of design where it appears that the developers took leave of their shareholder-aligned senses, and briefly went bonkers.

“I know” [puff] “let’s… uh, make a monk… that’s also a conjuror.”


“Yeah man.” [drag] “Yeah. Give it pets and kung-fu and healing and, like, stuff.”

“I-… it should also, like, be,” [puff] “y’know, part demon and part… badger.”

“Woah, yeah.”

[pull] “An’… an’ it can totally transform into a spaceship.”



[drag] “An’ be able to wear fine hats.”

“Pfff, nah, that’s just silly.”

Unfortunately the Beastlord was all that really interested me, and seeing as it was locked behind a heftily priced expansion, while possibly also requiring a purchase of the class itself from the EQII Store, in that moment of decision I went with Rift’s more amenable ‘We’re here. These are the first twenty levels of the game. Pick any race or class you desire. Now login and away you go’.

Thirty levels and a one-month recurring subscription later I’m still playing the game, as well as quietly humming its theme tune the next morning while making a cup of tea. I’m not entirely sure how the game has managed to shimmy its way up that oil-slick rope; it’s not that there isn’t plenty to like about Rift, but I can’t see how it’s more compelling than, say, SWTOR. I do have some ideas as to why I’m enjoying the game, however, and hopefully they’ll be suitable fuel for the muse to generate future posts on the subject.

One thing I have discovered is that I’m definitely a sucker for the front-loaded free MMO experience – Rift is currently getting my money where EQII was offered the chance first; despite the former having a much more restricted experience over the entire levelling range, it offered the greater freedom in that part which was free to play. It seems that the short-lived but rich bait of ‘free to play freely’ is the more tempting lure with which to capture me, as opposed to the long lasting but restrictive bait, which keeps me nibbling for ages but rarely lets me take a bite big enough that I find myself subsequently hooked.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

If you've heard this story before don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again

A couple of years before release, when we were getting the first glimpses of group conversations in Star Wars: The Old Republic, there was a bit of scepticism over how the Super Happy Mass Effect Conversation Wheel of Alignment Sparkle Time Fun (© Melmoth) would work with multiple players. At the time I didn’t think it was something that would translate well to a MMOG environment, but the first flashpoints (SWTOR dungeons/instances) really have that Bioware-RPG feeling for a group of players.

The Esseles and Black Talon flashpoints have a short introduction, a couple of conversations where each member of the group picks a response (a dice roll determines the response that’s used, with some sort of modifiers making sure everyone gets a chance to speak at some stage) and plenty of fairly standard MMOG action (clearing corridors of “trash” mobs, the odd boss here and there with shiny loot). At three or four points during the flashpoint there are more conversations, with decisions to take that affect how things play out, a nice set piece or two, a climactic confrontation, then home for tea and medals. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, taking the standard Bioware formula, adding another three players and sprinkling with MMOG-ness, but as with the proverbial swan it doubtless takes a lot of furious paddling below the surface to appear so effortless.

This week’s Star Trek Online expedition demonstrated a slightly less graceful implementation of story-driven group play, more of a thrashing sort-of-butterly stroke. Since the game went free-to-play, group nights have mostly been spent on “Feature Episodes”, linked missions that tell a story, at one point released on a weekly basis. I have to confess I haven’t entirely been paying attention to the exposition text from NPCs, I think there was an ambassador involved somewhere at the start, and probably some Klingons or something. I seem to recall a group of starship captains, each commanding a crew of hundreds and enough firepower to take decent sized chunks out of a planet, were responsible for a health & safety inspection in a night club at one point, but that might’ve just been a cheese-fuelled dream. Anyway, the specifics haven’t been terribly important as the missions generally boil down to entertaining bouts of Kirk-style diplomacy delivered with fists and photon torpedoes. We don’t stack Ferrero Rocher into a pyramid, we replace the hazelnut with antimatter and launch a full spread of them at anything that looks at us funny.

This week there was a newly released episode focusing on Deep Space Nine, so we toddled along to have a look at that. (Danger: the following contains vaguely remembered possible spoilers for that episode.) There’s a very important conference going on, and you’re sent to… all right, to be honest, I was mostly skipping the text again. Some missions have voiceover text, I think this latest Feature Episode includes it throughout, but it’s not really up to Bioware standards. Where SWTOR delivers brief, punchy, well-voiced cutscenes, STO shoves a dense block of text up in an oh-so-closable window. If you were sitting around a table playing a board game or RPG with others, handing out a short pamphlet and telling everyone to read it wouldn’t really be compelling gameplay, it doesn’t work well for an online group either. From what I could gather, in the best MMOG traditions the first part of the mission was to undertake some trivial tasks from some NPCs too lazy to walk around themselves: get some bootleg liquor, act as a virtual pimp and hoover someone’s starship. Our first instinct, “What would Kirk do?”, had to be abandoned when it proved impossible to either punch or snog our way to success, so we tried “What would Picard do?” After a very well received off-Broadway production of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis we decided that wasn’t getting us anywhere either, and tried “What would Sisko do?” I was unsure of what this entailed, having only watched a few episodes of Deep Space Nine, but following the lead of our Trekkie/er/ist leader it seemed to be running around and clicking on anyone with something floating over their head.

Aside from the fact that this wouldn’t have been vastly compelling group content at the best of times, our elite away team instantly activated Plan Sperple and spread out across the station, randomly clicking on anything that looked clickable. It wasn’t clear if we were all supposed to talk to NPCs in turn, or if just one of us had to talk to them, or we were all supposed to talk to them simultaneously, or some mix of all of the above; we managed to render two of the optional goals uncompletable, either by speaking to the wrong people at the wrong time, or selecting the wrong dialogue option, or just giving the game a headache, we’re not really sure. Still, we managed the key objectives to move the mission forward, and got to participate in the pan-galactic conference of great importance. Instructed to take seats, we naturally jumped on top of the table as per the time honoured sport of “try and place your character in a ridiculous pose for the cutscene”, but sadly (as in SWTOR) the game forces your characters to preordained locations. A bunch of alien dudes with weird foreheads then droned unskippably on for a bit; those more in to Star Trek may have had more of an idea who they were, I can just about remember Klingons, though they seemed to be represented by a lizard-thing… Shockingly the delegates reached an impasse, so it was down to the Federation’s finest diplomats to sort things out! Unfortunately they weren’t available, so it fell to us instead, and once again we ran around the room frantically clicking on anyone clickable. This was surprisingly successful, though I have no idea what we said to anyone, we probably made completely contradictory promises that will lead to a galaxy-shattering war in the future, but it got us out of the conference room.

Finally, the action kicked in; the station was attacked! Much vworping of sirens and wobbling of the camera to simulate phaser hits. We had to escort the ambassadors to their shuttles, fighting through units of Some Bad Aliens in ground combat; despite a couple of overhauls ground combat is still a bit ropey in STO (much like Pirates of the Burning Sea), but at least it was more involving for the group. On reaching the shuttle bays, we then beamed up to our ships to ensure their escape, and that’s when the game really came into its own, space combat on a grand scale, waves of enemy ships, friendly Federation ships giving support, protecting the shuttles as they made their escape. It took a while to get going, but at least there was a strong finish.

In a world of identikit “use hotbar ability to cause damage” combat-heavy MMOGs, Cryptic at least make an effort to broaden the game content in keeping with the source material, and the first part of the mission would probably work quite well solo, especially for someone more into Deep Space Nine. Tipa has a far better write-up from the perspective of someone who actually has a clue about both STO and the Star Trek universe in general, reaching a similar conclusion. I think, with sufficient resources chucked at it, the STO episode could’ve worked well in the SWTOR engine, structuring the mission to keep the group together, increasing the interactivity of conversations, perhaps adding in bridge crew as more fleshed-out NPCs if not in a full group of human players, but such resources are probably prohibitive, especially if trying to get Feature Episodes out on a more frequent basis.

Even SWTOR seemed to run out of steam somewhat after the first flashpoint for each faction. Subsequent flashpoints have been far more linear without much of a story driving them. It’s hardly unusual for the best content in MMOGs to be front-loaded at launch with later gaps left to be grouted over in future updates; mid-level City of Heroes task forces featuring series of missions on similar maps against identical enemies, Lord of the Rings Online at launch when the fun of the Shire gave way to the desolate Lone-lands and attendant boar-grinding, post-Tortage Age of ConanSWTOR has more than sufficient content across two factions and eight classes for getting to the level cap, so subsequent flashpoints not living up to the high standards of the first is hardly the most heinous crime; it’ll be interesting to see if future updates bring more story-heavy branching flashpoints, or whether more repeatable content is seen as a better investment. Though Esseles and Black Talon have some replay value to see how the different branches pan out, story isn’t something that’ll keep players coming back twice a week like the chance of a loot drop from some big boss. From that perspective, story just gets in the way; I’m sure there are guides aplenty with loot tables and detailed instructions of which choices to make for optimal completion of Black Talon to allow displays of precision synchronised flashpoint-running from the Derbyshire Light Infantry:
“Squad! Atten-TION! By the left, quick MARCH! And HALT two three, click two three, space-skip space-skip select first reply two three, space-skip, space-skip space-skip select second reply two three, left TURN! Quick MARCH! Perkins, you ‘orrible little man, are you LISTENING to that NPC? You’re up on a charge!”

It’ll also be interesting to try the multiplayer features of Mass Effect 3. Star Wars: The Old Republic may turn out to be a little like Concorde, the ultimate development of story-heavy MMOGs, a fantastic achievement, but a bit of an evolutionary dead end that nobody can really afford to emulate (apart from a Soviet knock-off with a dubious safety record…) If multiplayer ME3 gives that same flashpoint-type experience with no subscription and the possibility of introducing new content as DLC, available on consoles as well, that could be a more sustainable model for the future.

Friday 10 February 2012


“By all the DEITIES/ANCIENT_RELICS, a HERO_TYPE! Here, in REGION! I can’t believe my luck, here am I with PROBLEM_A, and here you are, a HERO_TYPE, with exactly the HERO_TYPE_SKILLS required to solve PROBLEM_A. I’ve tried to get NPC_GROUP_A to help, but unfortunately they couldn’t manage it, due to IMPLAUSIBLE_REASON.

It’s quite simple HERO_TYPE, I need you to use your HERO_TYPE_SKILLS to do TASK_X in order to solve PROBLEM_A. I would do this myself, but unfortunately I can’t do TASK_X because I’m otherwise occupied doing LAME_EXCUSE_Y. I blame NPC_GROUP_A who are supposed to be helping me out here, but they’re all CAPTURED/USELESS/DEAD.

TASK_X is simple (but not simple enough for me to do, see LAME_EXCUSE_Y). You will need to go to A_PLACE_NEAR_HERE and RESCUE/RETRIEVE the OBJECT_OF_TASK_X. However, the OBJECT_OF_TASK_X is, alas, guarded by many TERRIBLY_CONVENIENT_OBSTACLES which you will need to overcome by KILLING/DISABLING them. Once you have removed the TERRIBLY_CONVENIENT_OBSTACLES from your path, you should be able to reach OBJECT_OF_TASK_X.

When you have done this, return to me —-I’ll still be standing right here, but I am very busy, honest (see LAME_EXCUSE_Y)—- and I’ll gift you one of MODERATE_TROUSER_UPGRADE OR AMAZING_WEAPON_YOUR_CLASS_CAN’T_USE OR SOME_STRANGE_FRUIT. I’ll also give you NOT_QUITE_ENOUGH_COIN_TO_COVER_EQUIPMENT_REPAIRS.

Thank you HERO_TYPE, I know you will do it, because you’re TOKEN_PRAISE_IN_AN_ATTEMPT_TO_MOTIVATE_PLAYER.”


“Ah, HERO_TYPE, you’ve returned! Did you manage to retrieve OBJECT_OF_TASK_X? Excellent, that means I can DO_SOMETHING_TRIVIAL and solve PROBLEM_A. Here’s your reward.

Oh but dear me, it seems that solving PROBLEM_A has revealed a deeper, darker issue in PROBLEM_B. PROBLEM_B is even more serious, and so I have developed an even more serious LAME_EXCUSE_Z to counter my having to solve it. What’s more, NPC_GROUP_B have spectacularly failed to do anything useful towards solving PROBLEM_B other than getting themselves into trouble. You, HERO_TYPE, you will solve PROBLEM_B, by performing TASK_Y and TASK_Z. Return to me when you have done this and I will give you A_REWARD_THAT_WOULD_HAVE_BEEN_HANDY_UPFRONT_TO_HELP_YOU_WITH_PROBLEM_B.

Good luck, HERO_TYPE, and may the MYSTERIOUS_POWER_OF_THIS_WORLD be with you.”

[brushes hands] There, I think that about does it. One simply needs to create a script to substitute for the variables, and it should be possible to produce just about every quest in every theme park MMO ever. Hopefully, with all the time this will save, people can get on with creating engaging game play, or something.

P.S. On an entirely tangental note, do watch this if you haven’t already seen it linked elsewhere.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Second hand point of view from the second hand news

Spinks was talking about the problems of role-centric gear, something I’m having a bit of an issue with in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Not so much for my character, being a Sniper I only have the “Shooting People In The Face A Lot” role, more my companions. They require their own full sets of weapons, armour, earpieces, implants, heated towel rails etc. It was fairly straightforward at first when I was just accompanied by Kaliyo, especially as some missions offer companion-specific armour as a reward. Indeed it was quite nice to be able to use twice the number of random drops as normal, kitting her out in any suitable heavy armour that turned up (so long as it was aesthetically pleasing enough, of course). I’d look out choice bargains on the galactic trade network for both of us, put the armstech crafting skill to good use for weaponry, sometimes even give her some nice orange gear from planetary commendations if I was already well kitted up with heroic rewards or PvP stuff.

As your crew grows, though, so do their armouring requirements, and at higher levels it became more of an effort to keep myself in decent gear let alone everyone else. The sensible thing is probably to just use one companion and ignore the others, but it seems a bit of a waste (and strangely familiar) to always leave some of your team moping about the ship in their starting gear. Missions continue to offer upgrade options on occasion, but when you have a choice of six pairs of companion-specific boots it can be a bit of a struggle remembering what everyone is currently wearing and whether you care enough to get them some new stuff (not that they ever appreciate it; you’d think a flash pair of boots with vastly improved stats would net some Affection points, but nooo, they just want random bits of tat, the ingrates). Loot drops can still be helpful, but it seems that 82.6% of the armour I’ve found in the game is +Strength stuff, useless for any of my crew (I admit there might be some “other queue always moves faster”-type selective observation going on there).

Kaliyo remains my favourite companion personality-wise, we have a similar attitude to authority even if mine is generally well-meaning irreverence and hers is more credit-driven sociopathy; we get on fine so long as the conversations stay away from the profit opportunities of selling the rest of the crew. Capability-wise, though, I’ve found a healing companion is more effective, and my preferred healer has the added advantage of using exactly the same type of armour as me. This makes the armour upgrade process considerably easier:

“Oooh, that’s decent looking leg armour, Mr Commendation Vendor, I’ll take a set.”
*vanishes behind a nearby rock; sound of a zipper*
“Snazzy! Oh, hey Doc! Got an upgraded pair of trousers for you! Yeah, they’re still a bit warm, don’t worry about that…”

He must feel like a younger brother, always stuck with the cast-offs that don’t quite fit properly. Still, he should probably be grateful he isn’t in my Star Trek Online crew; armour is universal in that game, so when I get an upgrade for my Captain he passes his previous gear to the First Officer, who passes her gear to the primary Tactical Officer of the away team, who passes her gear to the Chief Science Officer, who passes his gear to the secondary Tactical Officer… by the time the tertiary Engineering Officer gets anything it’s about eighth hand. You have to hope that the 25th century laundry service is really good at getting out those ground-in stains…

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Have I Got MMONews For You

Exciting news this week via Slashdot that game-like “employment simulations” are being used to assess candidates for jobs:

There’s simply a computer game. If you win, you get the job. If you lose, game over.

Speaking to KiaSA, Clifford Prodger of recruitment specialists Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel said “We did have some early teething troubles, such as a larger than usual number of candidates with a propensity for storing animal entrails and hats in their desks, and their limited range of interaction with objects; when tasked with photocopying a document they tended to kneel in front of the machine, perform a vaguely non-specific mime and colour in a strip of paper, expressing surprise when this didn’t have the desired result. Many others were found to be unable to perform basic functions such as finding the coffee machine or going to the toilet without a line manager marking the objective on a map, leading to some completely undrinkable coffee when a hurried team leader got the labels the wrong way around. Remuneration was also an issue with more than one case of an applicant having to be forcibly removed from the premises because they refused to work further unless their boss rewarded them with the Seven Souls Sword of Sanctified Susurration and seventy seven silver pieces. But we’ve stopped basing our simulations around MMO systems now, and everything seems to be working quite well.”

Monday 6 February 2012

The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same.

I do wonder whether limiting the availability of legendary weapons to the raiding set is one of those attack roll fumbles on the part of Turbine, which results in their ranged assault taking an unfortunate intersecting trajectory with their own foot. I base this only upon my own circumstances, which may be atypical for the average Lord of the Rings Online player, but nevertheless some level of custom has been lost, even if that level equates only to the purchasing potential of the singular author of this post.

Confessing that I am somewhat averse to raiding would be as to your traditional vampire admitting that they are somewhat averse to sunlight; indeed, the last time I tried raiding my reaction at the keyboard could easily have been mistaken for the pained panicked gesticulations of one fighting off the unseen horror of supernatural fulguration, and I wouldn’t have blamed Mrs Melmoth for leaping with a cry from the arm of the sofa, blanket outstretched like a temerarious flying squirrel, and smothering me to the point of near death. And hopefully because she thought I was on fire, and not because living with my nightly game-induced rantings had finally driven her to manslaughter. So yes, I don’t raid – I may have mentioned this before. As such, upon reaching the level cap in LotRO, I was stuck for what to do, not because there was nothing left to do, but because I was prevented from my preferred path of ‘doing’ by the artificial constraints of the system. As with many MMOs these days, LotRO offers an alternative reward to experience points once a character has reached the level cap; I can’t remember if it was World of Warcraft which first offered this option in the form of increased gold, the first time a set of developers realised that “Hey chief, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that some players actually prefer basic questing over that curious hybrid of aggravated office politics enacted through the medium of Twister which we’re calling the ‘end game'”. I also can’t remember if LotRO’s system offers enhanced cash rewards, but one thing that it certainly does offer is increased item experience for the player’s legendary weapons.

In the last expansion I was able to earn, through working at the skirmish system, a token which allowed me to craft a Second Age legendary weapon for myself. Again, I think this probably wasn’t possible at the very start of the expansion, very much conforming to the ‘these are special weapons, for special people’ format of raiding being the One True Way to progress your character once it reaches the level cap. However, by the time I’d casually sauntered my way to the point where I could use a Second Age weapon, the raiding set were on to earning their First Age weapons, had thrown away enough Second Age weapons to arm the entire population of the Free Peoples, and thus it had been ordained from on high that the peasants of the player population were to be allowed to touch Second Age weapons; although they did have to hang a sign around their necks which read ‘Unclean’, so that everyone who mattered knew that these weapons hadn’t been earned through noble and honourable hard work, but instead these players had simply stolen their way to wealth through lesser means, such as skirmishing and questing.

It was fairly easy to reach the level cap in LotRO’s latest expansion, Isengard, and I still have a whole wealth of quests left to do – entire areas of the map that I’ve yet to properly explore, but I won’t go there yet. The problem is that I would feel I was wasting legendary experience by levelling up Third Age weapons (of which I already have a set which are maximum level), with the potential of breaking them down, and getting a portion of that experience back to apply to a Second Age weapon later on. I enjoyed the experience of crafting my own powerful weapon, naming it, and then levelling it up through questing and skirmishing; I liked working out which weapon title would work well with my weapon, of which I was quite proud, and then questing for the reputation to earn it; I was happy that the weapon would mean nothing in the wider echelons of power within the game, because it meant plenty to me. Hilariously I imagine that those Second Age weapons from the old expansion meant more to me than First Age weapons mean to most raiders, which seems to be more what the spirit of the system should be, even if the mechanics of it, along with the lamentable transitory nature of MMO possessions, results in something far closer to consummate consumerism.

I still use those Second Age weapons in fact, because although the power curve has moved on with the inevitable pressing drive of the expansion’s tidal wave –pushing all before it, and washing clear all that it leaves behind– they are still powerful enough in their own right for my character to quest happily and perform their role in a small group. They aren’t optimal, but they are meaningful, and for me the latter is the greater trait.

Thus, other than paying the rent for the kinship house, I won’t venture into LotRO for the time being. I’ve stopped listening to the podcasts and reading the discussions, and I haven’t looked at the LotRO Store in some time. I have, of course, read that Turbine are looking to start selling non-cosmetic (sinmetic?) armour in the store, a move which seems to indicate that they want or need to find other ways to make money from the player base. Having spent a not inconsiderable amount in the store in the past, I can say for certain that Turbine would still have my custom if they’d just opened up some basic options at the end-game outside of the standard raiding treadmill. Perhaps, though, I dwell in a curious no man’s land between the levelling game and the raiding one, which is only inhabited by a tiny subset of players. As one other curious anecdotal piece of evidence, I have noticed on several of the blogs dedicated to cosmetic outfits that recent submissions have consisted almost entirely of high-end raid items, as though some sort of creative coup d’état was taking place, such that even the realm of cosmetic outfit invention should be purely the preserve of the ‘privileged’. Yes, well done dear, you’ve earnt the highest tier raid gear and managed to put each piece into its correct slot, this is a creative cosmetic outfit how, exactly? You are a unique and special flower though, just like all the other unique special flowers standing around you.

Thankfully Turbine’s payment system is slowly spreading across the genre, such that now I can freely dip into many MMOs. More importantly, I can reward those MMOs specifically offering me rewarding content and game-play experiences. In an ideal world my purchases would offer justification to a developer to produce more content of that ilk, but such feedback loops still seem to be in the embryonic stages of development at the time of this writing. One thing seems clear, however: that exclusionist approaches to the end-game cannot be the best way to maintain a healthy balance of player types, and that if you’re going to exclude non-raiders come the end-game, then why bother with a levelling part to your expansion at all? Concentrate on making exquisite raid content and keep your raiders happy, and at least you won’t be offering half-baked raids because you’ve split your resources, trying to maintain an illusion of a levelling game which has long since fooled anyone.

Not all sheep willingly follow the herd, and it seems to me that developers need to work out whether they should work harder at convincing the players that their interests are the same, or whether they should let part of their flock wander away, and instead concentrate on building the best enclosure possible for the remainder.

Saturday 4 February 2012

The future of advertising.

Due to equal opportunity legislation, ‘human billboards’ were renamed to ‘xenomorphic lightshows’ sometime around the year 2409.

Thursday 2 February 2012

KiaSA's Alternative Guide to Fanfiction.

Via Rock, Paper, Shotgun, news that David Gaider, lead writer at Bioware, recently judged a Dragon Age fanfiction contest and posted a blog entry with some advice for prospective fanfictioneers. All very nice, but for *real* insight you can hardly beat the KiaSA team: Melmoth once talked to someone who was fairly sure they’d once known someone who’d thought about writing some fanfic, and Zoso managed to read almost a paragraph and a half of the Wikipedia entry on fanfiction before he got distracted, clicked on “Star Trek”, and spent the rest of the afternoon looking up Appearances of Tribbles in Popular Culture. With such unrivalled pedigree, we humbly present The KiaSA Guide To Fanfiction.

The first golden rule is to ensure your stories respect any intellectual property they use; Verant banned an EverQuest player, at least partially over a fan fiction story. To avoid legal issues it’s best not to have an established game character engage in atypically perverse or deviant behaviour; if using Bioware’s Hawke or Shepard, for example, for heaven’s sake don’t portray them as abstinent and chiefly concerned about saving the world rather than snogging the face off the rest of their team.

The second golden rule is that, contrary to wider media portrayals, fan fiction isn’t limited to badly written sexual fantasies and borderline pathological wish fulfilment. It’s much easier to get a cheap laugh by pretending it is, though.

A good structure to use for your story is Campbell’s Monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey:

Hero’s Journey Overview

  1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD
  2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE
  3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
  4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
  5. CROSS THE THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
  6. they encounter TEST, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES.
  7. They APPROACH THE IN-MOST CAVE, cross a second threshold
  8. where they endure the ORDEAL
  9. They take possession of their REWARD and
  10. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
  11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
  12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the ORDINARY WORLD.

Although this has been subject to numerous criticisms, it’s easy to copy and paste. It also needs some slight adaptation for proper fanfic:

Stages of the Journey

1. THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma, generally by making the story a blatant parallel to Harry Potter or Twilight at every opportunity. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress (that’s ‘furious masturbation injuries’ to you and me)

2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change. “Hey, Ma! Pa! I gots them there urges to go a-shagging!”

3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternatively, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead. “Have you ever, you know… *done it*?” “No, you?” “No” “I’m scared of doing it.” “I’m scared too.” “Hold me” [They shag]

4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. The hero comes across a seasoned traveller of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. “Now, take hold of my equipment, and I shall begin your training”. Or the hero reaches within (their underpants) to a source of courage and wisdom.

5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values. Let the incestuous inter-species shagging begin!

6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World. You wouldn’t believe that there’s a lot of shagging in this part, but there is. Involving both the allies and the enemies. Mostly the enemies, for some reason.

7. APPROACH TO THE IN-MOST CAVE. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world. And when we say ‘prepare’ we mean ‘get naked and shag’. And when we say ‘the major challenge’ we mean ‘turning the evil emo overlord to the side of Good, and then shagging them’. The KiaSA Team thinks that we all know what is meant by “Approach to the in-most cave” – can we get a ‘Giggity Giggity Giggity Goo’?!

8. THE ORDEAL. Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World (fnarr!) and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear (wearing clothes, not getting to watch Harry and Ron double-team Hermione, a complete lack of sparkle, no double-hermaphrodite option in Bioware’s character creator, that sort of thing) Out of the moment of death comes a new life (because nobody ever uses a condom in fanfic for some reason).

9. THE REWARD. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death – victory shag! There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again – my character shagged too much and their peepee parts fell off. :( <- 'Peepee parts fell off' sad face.

10. THE ROAD BACK. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, because the author is bored now that they’ve written out all of their shagging fantasies. Leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home (although this withdrawal method can work, the KiaSA Team still recommends the use of a condom). Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission, although the urgency and danger often quickly disappear once the protagonists have had several rounds of ‘urgent danger’ sex.

11. THE RESURRECTION. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home — nnnnn-o, nope, sorry but we’re at a loss to find any innuendo in that previous sentence. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice (by having to choose not to shag at least one major character in the story). Another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level: the hero picks their favourite companion and shags them extra good. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved – i.e. if the hero has any peepee parts left at all, they’re certainly no longer in any condition to allow for furious masturbation.

12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed — always leave the hero with some love juice in reserve, in case you get horny again and need to write a sequel.

So there you have it, the KiaSA Team’s basic guide to writing fanfic. We hope you enjoyed this light-hearted spoof, which in no way reflects the realities of fan fiction on the Internet.

And now we’re off to kiss with tongues.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

For us, there is no spring. Just the wind that smells fresh before the storm.

Speaking of character creation and customisation, here’s my female dwarf in DDO.

Beauty, as they say, is often in the eye of the beholder.

Thankfully Beauty carries a big axe, so she should be able to cut her way out again.

Dwarf Barbarian/Bard. Sing loudly, and carry a big axe.

Now we just have to see how long it takes before the re-roll.

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.

Once more the sinusoidal wave of my gaming activity seems to be fast Fourier transforming into the domain of peak enthusiasm. Gaming groups seem to have sprung up spontaneously in this new year for both Star Trek Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, like overeager daffodils launching forth from the soil in anticipation of the efflorescence which accompanies Spring’s lusty renewal. Hopefully it is not too early a re-emergence – not just the product of an unseasonable thawing of frostiness towards the MMO Winter. Even SWTOR is getting another chance at fertilising the furrows of my imagination, with a small static group forming in order to work through the content at a more sedate pace than the traditional MMO levelling cycle demands; a bit less ‘Evel Knievel attempting to jump the Grand Canyon’ with all the requisite hanging on for dear life, bugs in teeth, legs flying out behind you like a Chinese dragon; a bit more ‘cycle holiday in the south of France’ with frequent stops in verdant fields for a nice bit of crusty French stick, some Brie, and a good glass of rich red.

It’s not all been frolicking freewheeling down dell and dale, however. Having recently placed my feet in the stirrups of character creation, swung myself up onto the back of the DDO, and been unceremoniously flung to the ground several times before I’ve even managed to fully grab the reins, I’ve found myself yet again admiring the way that Skyrim handles character creation and development. I suppose it’s a somewhat similar situation to that which Tobold describes with his party of players, who are coming to both new characters and new rule set for their pen and paper role-playing confabulation. It seems to make an awful lot of sense to have a player pick cosmetic choices such as race and sex (I always pass on the racing, but am most definitely pro-sex) and then launch them into the game. Character development in these cases generally comes from the player’s natural inclinations towards certain aspects of the class system. If the player favours a sword and shield, then their skill in both becomes greater, and thus they slowly develop their character based upon how they choose to play. It’s a much more organic system, with the character growing along the path of least resistance, which runs parallel with the path of player preference.

Of course I say the initial cosmetic choices are simple, but, for me, a mid-level re-roll can easily occur when I’ve had enough time with the character to realise that I picked the wrong beard option. Or that I should have gone for eyebrow shade number two, instead of number four. I mean, it’s obvious now, in this light, and with my crafted armour, but back when I was young and reckless and carefree, eyebrow shade number two seemed like the sexy choice! It was easy, good looking, and fun, at a time when I didn’t even realise there was the potential for an optimal eyebrow shade … ah those salad days when our judgement is so much the greener!

My approach to character creation in a game like DDO is almost Lovecraftian, starting with puppy-like exuberance, followed later by abject terror, and concluding with a not inconsiderable level of knee-hugging insanity. Creating a character in such a game is like building a house, where you get three quarters of the way through construction only to realise that you’ve plumbed-in a toilet next to the refrigerator in the kitchen – a convenient and possibly intriguing combination, but generally not the Done Thing, for a multitude of reasons. The problem, I find, is all the distractions along


the way, where you start out with a solid goal, a perfect concept of the character you want to play, and then as you start to build that character you notice other features which could conceivably be included into the build. It’s as though you’re trying to put together a jigsaw, but you keep noticing other pieces from different jigsaws which look really nice. So you try to fit those pieces into your jigsaw, rearranging the old jigsaw by taking pieces out, or making extra holes in otherwise perfectly good pieces, or just pushing the pieces against one another and then thumping them with the bottom of your fist until they fit. Eventually you take a step back from your frantic fabrication and realise that your initial, perfectly sensible, character jigsaw has been deformed into some hideous amalgam of parts, with what you thought was a nose actually turning out to be half a knee, along with the melancholic creeping realisation that your character either has five pimply buttocks or you’ve misappropriated and misaligned several breast pieces quite badly.

So it’s back to the drawing board with a determination to stick to a core concept; to focus, damn it, focus! I’m just going to play a Fighter. That’s IT. Perhaps… perhaps with a little specialisation in one of the prestige enhancements. Kensai looks nice. Ooo, but that gives a bonus to a Monk’s Ki regeneration, so maybe a splash of Monk. But of course I’ll need the Whirlwind Steel Strike feat to make my longswords class as Monk weapons…

Three or four hours later, your design for a half-elf Fighter 8/Monk 2/Bard 6/Ranger 3/Wizard 1 is just about ready to be deleted so that you can stop arsing around and get down to creating a workable character. Damn it!