Thursday 31 May 2012

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.

The revelry for the Queen’s diamond jubilee is due to get under way here in the (not so) United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Nations (formally The Empire – cue The Imperial March) this coming weekend. I find myself unable to get excited about the event and, but for mini-Melmoth, would probably have hidden myself away until the whole sorry celebration had passed. I look back at previous jubilees and see people in carefree celebration of their love for Queen and Country, but now there seems to be the acrid fug of corporate sponsorship hanging over the whole affair, and in my darker moments I imagine later in my life watching films of the event, where children sit at long tables, wearing their Lloyds TSB t-shirts, eating little cakes with Hasbro logos on the top, and waving their Mastercard flags at the camera. More though, it seems to me as if a large section of society is keen to participate not with a mind to enjoying the rare pomp and circumstance that comes with a monarch’s long reign, but being able to brag at a later date of ‘having been there’ to those who weren’t. For me, it’s another small sample from the petri dish which cultures the sickness of modern society.

As m’colleague astutely pointed out: ‘Bit like MMO betas…’

Someone pulling the “Well, I was there in beta” seniority gambit is always a reliable indicator that the conversation is on a fast track to nowhere good. It’s been amusing to watch, with the openness of MMO betas in recent times, how this has now been amended to ‘closed beta’. Even better if you can lay claim to ‘in from alpha’ supremacy.

In alpha, am Alpha.

It seems to me that there will be difficulty in escalating this war of ultimate authority much further, without having to resort to claims of being a member of staff. Nevertheless, I’ll still not be surprised when I see someone yelling on a forum that they’re friends with someone who walks the dog of the partner of the hairdresser who once cut the hair of the community manager when they were in town for a convention.

And I frankly can’t wait for


which wins by a nose over

“I’m in a secret beta” (which I can’t tell you anything about. But I can tell you that I’m *in* the secret beta. And I must. Because then you’ll be fully aware that I am somewhat better than you.)

as the sort of strange statement which will make me Spock an eyebrow.

I think it’s a little sad that, for a large section of the community, these events have become nothing more than achievements themselves, titles perhaps, to be collected and displayed as little indicators of how they’re superior to all the other collectors of virtual tchotchke. And once the lording-it-over-others is complete, it’s swiftly on to the bitching-at-the-developers; primarily, it seems, because the beta wasn’t the immaculate gaming experience that the player had been fantasising over, as a substitute for that ruined copy of Penthouse under the bed.

So if you are in a beta for an MMO in the coming weeks because, oh I don’t know, you were lucky enough to be able to afford a ‘pre-purchase’, or lucky enough to win a competition for access, try to remember that it’s your chance to make the game a better place for others. By all means take the time to experiment with the game as you will, to blast through content and burn yourself out before the thing has even launched, if that’s your wont. But when you encounter a problem or frustration, as is the way of a beta, take a moment to report it in a calm, considered and constructive fashion. MMOs are big and complex beasts, and it is possible – however unlikely – that you may find a weakness which has not been found before.

Those are the achievements I’d like to see rewarded, and perhaps MMO developers should consider taking a more active part in this: handing out in-game perks and rewards for players having discovered bugs which were confirmed and fixed in beta. It could be a splendid way to get more players trading their glory for passion. Then again, maybe I’m wrong entirely, and MMO developers see beta as simply another source of fuel for the hype machine. But rare is the MMO beta which sees an overwhelmingly positive response from the online community, and indeed, it seems to me that it more often establishes a core community which is privileged and needy in spirit.

I believe a game’s community is grown, as though from seed. Thus, it would behove developers to consider well the current nature of beta tests, for this is the critical stage of sapling growth, where community can be both encouraged and guided, and then cultivated to a mature crop. Or it can be left to wither and sprawl, where it will eventually choke upon the suffocating rancour of its own thorny creepers. For, as much as I despair at the communities which tend to form around these MMO betas, you do, after all, reap what you sow.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration

Mass Effect 3 got a new multiplayer DLC pack yesterday, ‘Rebellion’, including two maps, three weapons and six new characters, much like April’s ‘Resurgence’ pack. I haven’t posted about ME3 since finishing the story in March, but I’ve been playing the multiplayer since then, hopping in for a quick 20 minute dash now and again, shouting “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!” a lot. You don’t *need* to shout “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!”, the guns in the game make actual sounds and everything, but I find it helps. Pro tip, though: don’t hold down the push-to-talk button while shouting “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA”, for some reason other players find it less helpful.

I played through most of the Mass Effect series as an Infiltrator, heavy on the sniper rifles, and started out similarly in multiplayer, but it’s a rather different prospect when waves of mobs are charging around the place, you don’t tend to have so much time to line up your shots (though Infiltrators seem to be the class of choice for the hardest difficulty levels, when tooled up with a Black Widow). I switched to Adepts, Sentinels and Engineers for a while, focused more on biotic- or tech-powers, but after unlocking a Krogan Soldier discovered the Joy of Melee. Running towards a bunch of Cannibals full-pelt, unleashing the heavy melee charge/headbutt/swipe and laughing (both in and out of game) is great fun, though since superseded by the Batarian from the Resurgence DLC pack who couples short-range high-damage Ballistic Blades with a magnificent SUPERPUNCH as a lethal one-two combo. It’s been most illuminating, trying out different races and classes and their play styles.

I doubt ongoing multiplayer numbers are going to be challenging Team Fortress 2 or Warcall of Halofare Dutyfield, but 1,800 years of time played in the first few weeks isn’t to be sniffed at. It’s testament to the combat mechanics of Mass Effect 3 that they stand up well enough on their own to make a decent game, comparable perhaps to something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fallout Tactics that took CRPG systems into a more combat-focused direction, or Wing Commander Academy (if anyone’s misty-eyed for the halcyon days of gaming past when publishers were benevolent charities, before the evils of “Day Zero DLC” and the like sullied the whole business with squalid money, bear in mind Wing Commander Academy was pretty much the Wing Commander 2 engine with no plot or missions, shoved in its own box as a standalone game).

If EA/Bioware are such bastards, you have to wonder as well why the two multiplayer DLC packs so far have been free. Fear of more bad publicity after the ME3 ending business? Seems unlikely, passage of time and the promise of “clarification” seems to have calmed things down, Retake ME3 on Twitter has been quiet since April, the Facebook page looks like it’s mostly just internal bickering now. Generosity of spirit? Would be nice, but also seems a touch unlikely. They make the money from players spending to unlock new equipment? Seems plausible; I enjoy the multiplayer well enough, but not to the point of shelling out real money on a couple of maps, whereas the prospect of some new characters and weapons is bound to be enough to get a few impatient people splashing out the Bioware points on equipment packs. The gambling aspect of the equipment packs still makes me a little uneasy, but if free DLC packs are part of the equation that sweetens the pill slightly.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Time to Windmill.

A quick update to my previous take on Old Man Murray’s deeply splendid Time to Crate review system for FPS games.

I happened to notice the windmill in the background of this screenshot from the post earlier today, and I was quickly reminded of the splendid windmills found near the start of the introductory area for the humans in Warhammer Online. Then I started to fancy that I saw a windmill somewhere in Guild Wars’ pre-searing Ascalon. And wasn’t there one or more in World of Warcraft’s Westfall? For certain I know there were windmills in Lord of the Rings Online.

A very quick search on Google shows windmills in Vanguard and Guild Wars 2 too.

So, Time to Windmill, then. Find out how quickly you can reach the first windmill in your MMO of choice from a starter area. Time it as a simple on-foot run by a high level character (who can then avoid most mobstacles, depending on where the nearest windmill is located). Use travel points only to cross between areas where travelling on foot is impossible. I think the method outlined is fairer than the time a new character takes to level their way to a windmill, as that would be too dependent on a player’s skill/knowledge in levelling.

My current theory is that every fantasy MMO has a windmill somewhere. See if you can find yours.

Variety's the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.

It’s not all bikinis and brassieres in Tera. Admittedly it is primarily bikinis and brassieres, but I thought I’d offer up a couple of screenshots of my main character as proof. At least you now know that there’s one character in Tera not wearing a bikini, and I think I saw one other male character wandering around at some point. Possibly. It was a little hard to tell because my view was blocked by a barricade of boobs.

First up, over to the right, we have one of my alts – Pusillus the popori. Who I think is really rather cute, as far as kittens with mohawks, warpaint and a battle axe go, at any rate.
Here’s my Aman Slayer, currently my main character, sporting a lovely straps and shoulders leather number, delightfully accessorised with an off-the-hip blue bath towel. Sassy! And yet practical too; washing the gore from hands and sword was never so easy. Introducing the all new Brigandine & Bath Robe armour from Kaiator International! Take two armour sets into the shower? Not me, I just slaughter and shower in one!
And those aren’t lamellar plates, ladies, that’s 100% prime Amani dragon beef. Hel-loooo scaly!

I have to say, as far as ‘not a lot of armour’ looks go, I really like the barbarian design they have for male characters in Tera. Despite my hand towel jests, the half-robe half-armour style is one which really tickles my fantasy fancy, much like my character’s plate’n’dress Templar armour in Dragon Age: Origins.

Later armour models for the Slayer include trousers and such, which will never do, but thankfully our old friend Ankia the Equipment Remodeller (with her equipment all hanging out) will let me keep the cosmetic look of my current armour set, should I so desire.

Speaking of cosmetic items, En Masse have recently had a community event where they posted a video to Facebook extolling the virtues of their action combat system, and at set levels of ‘shares’ of the video on Facebook they would post codes for cosmetic items in the game. The code grants one item, for use on one character only, which is a bit of shame if you’re an altoholic like me, but the cosmetics are nice: a pair of sassy spectacles, a pirate eye patch and a cat mask. The top level of Facebook ‘shares’ was reached in such a short space of time that En Masse released a special bonus level, set exceedingly high, which will unlock a pirate hat should the Tera community achieve the goal.

I think it’s well understood that community is what makes an MMO great, and it’s perhaps not surprising that we’re seeing MMO publishers looking to those established online communities, such as Facebook, in order to promote their game to as wide an audience as possible, through a series of incentives designed to appeal to their core fan base. It seems like a natural strategy to me, although there is perhaps an inherent danger in encouraging your more rabid fans into spamming others with promotional material for your game; the Tera community blitzed the early levels of the En Masse event, such that the initial three cosmetic items were unlocked before I was even aware that the event existed.

On the topic of community events, Tera’s first run of its political system is well under way. There are three regions to vote for, and multiple players running for Vanarch in each. In the screenshot you can see the current exit poll status for Northern Shara, and my vote marked against the Fairy Tail candidate (I think I can reveal my vote without spoiling the ballot), who was in second place as of last night when I took a grab of the screen. As long as your character is level twenty, an icon appears below the mini-map which opens a window showing you the candidates for each region; a little party political broadcast piece, written by the candidate, explaining what their policies will be; and a button allowing you to cast your vote. Not surprisingly, nearly every candidate is offering low taxes (Vanarchs can set taxes on NPC shops in their region), as well as additional amenities in the towns. A player can vote once for each region, and receives a useful health potion in the post as a reward for each vote, so there’s a minor incentive to vote, perhaps aimed at those players who aren’t simply intrigued by such a system; certainly a political sub-game to the main MMO grind has the potential to qualify for a Hemlockian Nifty![TM] award, so we’ll have to see how it plays out, and, importantly, whether it has any real impact on the game. I’m quite excited for it, playing as I am on an RP server, because it has the potential to support a complex political dynamic within the RP community, directly within the game’s system.

And finally, just because he’s such a handsome fellow, a screenshot of my current mount. Press the spacebar when stationary and he lets out the most almighty thundering roar, such that I keep expecting to see his lungs come flying out of his mouth, as if from a cannon. There are a fair few design traits which detract from Tera, but by golly there’s a fair bit to like too.

Monday 28 May 2012

With a whole lot of nothing on your way to nowhere.

One cannot easily express the joy of discovering that specific class in an MMO which just clicks. After time spent slogging along with the class which you think you ‘ought’ to be playing, or which you think would ‘make a nice change’, you reach that moment of despondency where you consider giving up the game. On a whim, you roll a class that you’d been avoiding, because it’s the flavour of the month perhaps, or a certain type of player is generally associated with the class, and you worry that you’ll be an accessory to that sort of reputation. Regardless of reason, you grudgingly roll a new character of that class. Like conciliatory sex, you’re not quite sure how you got started, and you’re determined not to enjoy yourself, but within five seconds you’re wondering what all the fuss was about, and five seconds after that you’re blissfully unaware of anything at all, utterly enraptured as you are by the endorphins of the event.

In the case of the MMO, you’re transformed in an instant from the unnamed father on Cormac McCarthy’s road, into Julie Andrews cresting a sunlight-dappled hill, grass rippling beneath the breeze’s gentle stroke.

‘And the hills are aliiiiiiiive, with the sound of slaughterrrrrrrr!’

And your partner stares in horror at you from their place on the sofa, as, with arms raised, you unleash this shrill falsetto, which threatens to shatter their teeth and your PC’s monitor, and sets half the cats in the neighbourhood into a frenzy of angry confused copulation.

Such was my pleasure at trying the Slayer class in Tera, where before I’d been busy grinding away with the Lancer, which is the game’s tanking class and, shock of shocks, also in short supply for dungeon runs towards the end-game.

Here’s a tale, tell me if you’ve heard it before:

Tera has issues with players trying to form groups for dungeons; the primary block is the fact that the game’s de facto tanking class, the Lancer, is in short supply. Lancers queue for only a few minutes before they’re assigned to a dungeon group, whereas it’s reported that every other class will face a wait of forty to sixty minutes. Why the shortage of tanks? Well, it doesn’t help that the Lancer is the only classic tank at the moment, whereas the other tanking class, the Warrior, is an evasion tank which is both a lot harder to play and a lot harder to heal, outside of expert hands. This is due to change in a future patch, but for the time being, the Lancer is *the* tank. One class, out of a pool of eight.

I think it’s also fair to say that the levelling game in Tera is an unabashed grind, with fights getting progressively longer as the players rise in level; Darwin’s great theory is alive and well in Tera, as evidenced by natural selection favouring those mobs who evolve extra zeros on the end of their hit points. And in the fine tradition of MMOs, the Lancer is a complete slug when it comes to the inevitable solo levelling grind. No DPS stance is granted because, one assumes, it would be considered unfair on the poor DPS classes, who don’t have an alternative role to switch to. So the Lancer class has the rougher responsibility of trying to be a tank in dungeons, and the tougher time of trying to level as a tank outside of dungeons. I mean, it seems fair to me, that’s why we see so many tanks at the end ga… oh wait, I think I might see a problem. I think I’ve got it… I… no. Wait! Yes. Wait! No. No. Yes. No… Hang on. Ye… Mmm. Yes! Got it! Now I could be wrong, but I think this could be one of those issues that’s been reported –here and elsewhere around the blogosphere– on and off, for the past six or more years.

Next up: Why do players solo in MMOs (when they can’t get a group as a DPS class, and tanking is a thankless tedious grind for ninety percent of the player’s time)? Gee, we’ll have to get our greatest experts of expertness on that one right away, Bob.

To my mind the MMO genre as a whole isn’t dying, but it does seem as though it has been floundering for some time. Pundits keep coming up with reasons as to why: ‘Games cost too much to develop’; ‘MMOs are too complicated’; ‘Players are fickle’; ‘The subscription model is outdated’; ‘The subscription model is the One True way to pay for an MMO and F2P is destroying everything’. And on and on. For me it’s this: for whatever reason, a staggering number of MMOs simply refuse to unlearn old falsehoods.

Friday 25 May 2012

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal

Syp asks “Progress?”, comparing character screens of Fallout 2 to Mass Effect 3. Spoiler: the answer is “yes”. Particularly as, in the comments on Wilhelm’s piece on talent trees, Syp clarifies: “I’m not huge on talent trees either. What I want are clear, meaningful choices for my character — and lots of them.”

I like a nice bit of character creation far, far more than the next man, unless the next man also has a vast army of pencil and paper characters not dead, but sleeping in dusty folders of photocopied character sheets. Computer RPGs aren’t great at options and choices, though, every possibility has to be considered by the developers and implemented within the constraints of the game, an increasing burden as time moves on from 2D sprites and a bit of typing to complex 3D graphics, voice acting and the like. From another older post:

The journey from pencil and paper RPG to computer RPG to MMO has generally been one of convergence. There’s an Encampment of Generic Monstrous Humanoids threatening the local Village of Friendly Villagers, Neville the Mayor wants you to take care of it. In a pencil and paper RPG, your actions are limited only by your imagination (and that of the gamesmaster, and possibly the rulebook). You could kill ‘em all, or sneak in and assassinate the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and hope that panics the rest of them, or try and reason with the Chief, or threaten him, or you could poison the river they use for fresh water, or pose as a manifestation of their deity and command them to leave, or embark on a far-reaching campaign to psychologically unbalance the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and convince him there are elements within the encampment working against him, causing a bitter and divisive civil war which you and the villagers can easily mop up after.

In a computer RPG, you’re limited by the imagination of the designers and the capability of the game engine. Maybe you’re down to about three of the options, Reason With The Chief (charisma check), Sneak In And Assassinate (stealth check), Kill ‘Em All (god will know his own, check).

In a typical MMO… well, it’s going to be Kill ‘Em All, isn’t it? Or Kill Ten Of ‘Em (then ten slightly different ones, then ten other different ones, then the named one), or possibly Kill ‘Em All, Wait For ‘Em To Respawn, Then Kill ‘Em All Again ‘Cos The Boss Didn’t Drop The Right Loot Last Time.

So particularly in MMOs, skills, choices, talents etc. tend to be related to combat, either your main role within it (tank, healer, crowd control etc.), or more subtle choices in how you fulfil that role (avoiding or absorbing damage, single target or AoE damage/heals etc.), which (very broadly, massive generalisation etc.) makes many choices a problem of maths/logic; “If two rogues take three minutes to kill seven goblins, how long does it take nine rogues to kill twelve goblins? If a wizard sets off at 9.03am in a fight casting instant-damage magic missiles against a boss with 1200hp, and another wizard sets off in the opposite direction casting damage-over-time acid arrows, does a 5% mana reduction in the cost of a magic missile benefit the first more than a 2% increase in damage over time for the second? For extra credit write a 12,000 word forum post explaining to the developers why this is RIDDICKYEWLESS, and mathematically proving you have been slapped in the face.” Some people love that sort of stuff; I quite enjoy a maths teaser myself now and again, especially if presented by Dara O’Briain, but I’m not desperate to break out a spreadsheet every time I level up in a game.

There’s a clear line from Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate series that (broadly) use AD&D 2e rules through the Knights of the Old Republic games using D&D d20 rules run through the fantasy-to-sci-fi-o-tron (replace “sword” with “lightsabre”) on to the Mass Effect series; in the original Mass Effect you can just about see the vestige of the rogue/scoundrel type class in the form of the Decryption skill, required to open certain doors and containers. Was it a meaningful choice, to be able to open a few extra crates or be a bit better in a fight? To once again quote Stephen Fry:

I remember Hugh and I wrote a sketch in which I played a waiter who recognised a diner in my restaurant as a Tory broadcasting minister. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him how much I admired his policies of choice, consumer choice, freedom of choice. I then was horrified to notice that he had only a silver knife and fork for cutlery at his table. ‘No, no, they’re fine,’ said the puzzled politician. But my character the waiter raced off and soon returned with an enormous bin liner which I emptied over his table. It contained thousands and thousands of those white plastic coffee-stirrers. ‘There you are,’ I screamed dementedly at him, virtually rubbing his face in the heap of white plastic, ‘now you’ve got choice. Look at all that choice. They may all be shit, but look at the choice!’

Undoubtedly the “RPG” elements of the Mass Effect series have been either dumbed-down or streamlined, depending on your outlook, over the three games, if using the “stats and skills and inventory management” definition of “RPG”; Rock, Paper, Shotgun suggested “guns and conversation” might be a better genre description. If you want meaningful choices, though, I submit there are few better examples. On one level, everyone is doing pretty much the same things, visiting pretty much the same planets, battling the same threat. On another level, though, everything is completely different, in Mass Effect 3 different characters are alive or dead, friend or foe, lover or ex-lover-in-really-awkward-demonstration-of-the-problems-with-workplace-romances. The class you choose, and the skill points you assign, affect how you fight (and do make a major difference in combat), but you don’t need to have put points into Charisma before a companion will talk to you, nobody is imprisoned in a cell and can only be freed if you happen to have picked a class that can space-lockpick, options in conversations depend on your general reputation and previous decisions rather than rolling dice against your Persuasion skill. I’d say that’s progress.

Thursday 24 May 2012

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.

I’ve been trying to work out an interesting way I could support the New Blogger Initiative, taking into consideration that there are more sponsor blogs of Syp’s project than KiaSA has regular readers. Invariably any of our readers will read one or more of those bigger blogs, so what to do to show solidarity, other than post “YEAH! ME TOO!”, which seemed redundantly redundant.

I but briefly considered writing advice to new bloggers. There is, however, the inexorable fact that I am a terrible blogger as far as blogging goes, with infrequent updates, long unwieldy posts, and, as statistics clearly demonstrate, massively deficient marketing skills. Not to mention the fact that others have already written deeply splendid and detailed pieces, which I’d only be reiterating in part.

I did recall having once written something about blogging, however. After much protest and several kick starts, my two-stroke mind eventually clattered and thrummed into life, with a belch of smoke and just the one obstreperous backfiring. Back in the murky depths of time, in the year they later came to call ‘2009’, I wrote an interview piece for Randolph Carter’s Grinding to Valhalla where, amongst other topics, I discussed some thoughts about blogging. My one genuine piece of blogging advice can be found there, and is still true today.

One thought struck me, however, as I read ‘[in blogging] new members arrive, others leave’: I considered that it would be a shame if that blog and my interview disappeared, such that I was unable to view my piece of writing again in another three or more years, and see if it was still as applicable then as I find it to be today, three years after I wrote it.

So I’ve popped a copy here on the blog, and being that it has some modicum of advice about blogging, it gives me a good reason to tip my hat to the NBI, for whatever that’s worth. And if any of the few of you who read this have yet to hear of the initiative, do say so in the comments, and after I have regained consciousness, I’ll try to write up some sort of tutorial on how to use KiaSA’s blogroll.

Anyway: On with the show! As they’d say if this were a theatre, and not a blog.

Please take a minute and describe what your blog and podcast are about.

Killed in a Smiling Accident is a blog that myself and m’colleague Zoso decided to create because our own personal blogs were very MMO-centric and we weren’t sure we were going to be invested in MMOs for very much longer, but we were fairly sure we wanted to continue blogging. I’m also a terrible blogger with regards to frequency of updates and I feel the pressure of not providing content for the readers, so it’s very reassuring to have a reliable writer there to keep people coming back. I’d say my blogging style was akin to PvP: a huge burst of front-loaded effort, then nothing for ages because I’m all out of energy. The accusation that my posts are often deliberately verbose and lengthy in order to stun-lock the audience into not going anywhere are unfounded, however.

As you may gather from the title of the blog, we set out with a philosophy that we would try to inject humour into whatever we write, where possible, because there are plenty of serious pundits out there already. We favour the slightly surreal and peculiarly British styles of Fry and Laurie, Eddie Izzard and Monty Python, however, which is not to everyone’s taste but suits us just fine.

KiaSAcast is the pair of us generally being very silly and also discussing various topics mainly to do with gaming, a large part of which is dedicated to MMOs.

What was your first MMO and what was that experience like?

My first MMO was Dark Age of Camelot. I’d been eyeing-up Everquest for some time but wasn’t sure I wanted to make a financial commitment to these relatively new-fangled MMO things. When I saw the blurb for Dark Age of Camelot and saw the variety of races and classes on offer, I caved-in and subscribed. As to the experience? Looking back I probably didn’t get half of what I should have from the game. I certainly discovered my alt-a-holism pretty much straight away as I bounced around from class to class, race to race and faction to faction; I think my problem was that I wanted to experience everything at once, I suppose I was akin to the proverbial child in a sweetshop. I still have very fond feelings for that game, it treated me well, gave me some wonderful adventures and definitely fuelled my enthusiasm for MMOs.

For me the experience of my first MMO is very much like the experience of my first girlfriend; except that it wasn’t called Lisa, and it never confused the hell out of me by trying to touch tongues together while kissing when we were only seven years old.

Can you recall that first MMO “Wow!” moment?

Yes, that was in City of Heroes. If I can cheat a little, there were actually two ‘wow!’ moments in pretty quick succession. The first was the character creator, I was frankly astonished by the flexibility and scope for creating your hero. The second was a slightly strange thing: being able to jump above average height from the ground. I’m not talking about the Super Jump travel power here (that was more ‘giggle like a school kid in a whoopee cushion factory’ than ‘wow!’), I’m talking about the basic jump any character can perform as soon as you enter the game. I was so used to MMOs where jumping was either not allowed or was very restricted, yet here I was able to leap huge fences in a single bound, land in the middle of a bunch of street thugs and start pummelling them. It felt so comic-booky. I think that with City of Heroes Cryptic perfectly realised the idea of what it is to be heroic; I think I’ve spent more time grinning from ear-to-ear in that game than any other MMO.

At your peak, how much time per week would you say you spent gaming? How about now?

Let’s see, at my very peak possibly five hours a night each week night, and then ten hours over the weekend. I think in mathematical terms that is generally referred to as ‘a fair bit’. These days it’s slightly more modest, probably a couple of hours each week night and maybe five hours over the weekend, if I’m really into a game.

Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other PC, console, or tabletop games?

I used to play pen and paper RPGs a great deal but have lost contact with my regular groups of yore. I play console games when I can, especially most Tuesdays when I get together with some fellow bloggers and online ne’er-do-wells to have fun in various co-operative games. I tend to buy PC and console games with every intention of playing them, and then go back to an MMO shortly afterwards. I blame the Internet, credit cards, and the fact that I didn’t take the Impulse Purchase Immunity feat at third level.

When did you first start blogging? How about podcasting? Please take us up to present with all of your projects.

My first blog post was in January 2007, on my old blog Melmoth’s Inferno. My first post on KiaSA was in March 2008. So if you link the two I’ve been blogging pretty consistently for about two and a half years. The first podcast was January 2009. So far those are my only projects, I’m always looking to expand my horizons but in all honesty I have enough trouble keeping up with just those two.

Did you find it difficult to go from blogging into podcasting?

Only in the fact that I’m quite a nervous person in real life, and it’s much easier to hide such traits behind text than audio. I’ve certainly enjoyed learning about how to put a podcast together, however, and we’re getting more adventurous with what we do with each successive show.

Do you have a schedule or some sort of routine you try and follow?

I understand that conventional wisdom states that a regular posting schedule is the only way to blog, otherwise you’re a terrible person akin to someone who waves a bag of sweets in front of small children and then eats them all yourself, but I’ve never been particularly fond of conventional wisdom, sitting there in the corner of the room, puffing on a pipe and looking all smug in its velvet smoking jacket. I couldn’t stick to a schedule even if I wanted to, however, because life is always getting under foot, tripping me up and making me spill my plans all over the kitchen floor such that they’re ruined, and the only thing to do is mop them up and throw them in the bin.

I do very much believe that I have a muse; when I write some of my posts I have no idea where they came from and so I attribute them to her, but she is very temperamental. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when they were giving out careers advice they got her mixed up with someone else, and in fact she should have been one of those gremlins that stops your TV remote control from working for no apparent reason, until you get off the sofa and walk up to the TV, at which point it starts working again even back where you were originally trying to use it, without you having touched a thing.

Would you say there is some grind involved in the process? If so, what is it and how do you cope with it?

I used to find it a bit of a grind when I was trying to post on a regular basis, because if inspiration hadn’t struck by the time I was due to post I felt I had to churn something out, and that made the whole thing unpleasant. Believe it or not, but I’m not one to talk for the sake of talking. If I don’t have something to say that I feel passionately about, or that I think is funny, then I really don’t enjoy the writing process. On the other hand, when I find something that inspires me I’m like Isaac Mendez from the TV show Heroes. Dead. No, hang on, before the dead bit – I just zone out for an hour or two, and when I come back to reality there’s a post ready and waiting for me that just needs checking for spelling, grammar and untoward predictions of the future.

By contrast, what do you find pleasurable about blogging and/or podcasting?

Hmm, that’s a tricky one. I’m not sure whether it’s the money or the incredibly attractive members of both sexes throwing their underwear at me. Ah wait, you see what I’ve done there is to confuse blogging with being a member of Take That. There are lots of pleasures to be had from blogging, it’s always a delight when someone leaves a comment saying that they enjoyed a post, and yet there’s also pleasure when someone rails against what you wrote, because then you know that you’ve touched a nerve, and written something that made people think, and that perhaps you stirred a little passion in them. Not the underwear throwing passion though, more’s the pity. Also I’ve met some genuinely fantastic people through blogging, and there are many others who I would like to meet one day.

At the end of the day, blogging is like being part of a huge family: new members arrive, others leave, there’s a strong bond between members and also the occasional bust-up, but generally it’s a good family. Of course there’re always a few strange cousins who live out in the countryside and are perhaps slightly too friendly with each other and their livestock but we try to ignore them as best we can.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable moment from your blogging days?

No one particular thing comes to mind, just lots of little moments. Those comments and posts where people have had kind things to say about my efforts are always a high point, of course.

Are you pleased with where your blog is in the blogosphere?

I’m slightly disappointed if I’m honest, because according to the schedule that we set out when we started the blog we should be ‘kings of the world’ by now, but perhaps that was slightly ambitious. Next year, maybe.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

I’d start blogging earlier in my life. Certainly with respect to MMOs I feel that I missed the golden age of blogging. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the way things are. Apart from not being king of the world, of course.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to try their hand at blogging and podcasting?

What’s the worst that could happen?

Well ok, you could be so intensely in to your blogging that you forget you left a pan of chip oil on the stove, which subsequently catches fire and burns down your apartment building, killing fifty seven people including five children. At your trial you find out that because the fire department was busy putting out your blazing building and its neighbours, they couldn’t spare the resources to put out the fire at the local puppy, kitten and baby dolphin sanctuary. Due to the death of these cute creatures, animal rights protestors call for the death penalty to be applied to your sentence. The government cracks down heavily on the civil unrest, but the general populace, fraught and angry from the current pressures of the global economic climate, rise up and eventually attempt a coup. With the country weakened due to the government utilising all available military personnel to instate martial law, the enemies of the state take the opportunity to exploit the situation and launch thermonuclear strikes against the nation’s major cities. Scared that the fall of the country would inevitably lead to an attack on they themselves, various allied nations retaliate with nuclear strikes of their own, beginning the Third Great War and shepherding in the apocalypse of mankind.

But really, that’s probably the worst that could happen, so I shouldn’t worry too much, just give it a try.

Can you picture a future where you will hang up your keyboard and microphone and no longer blog or podcast?

Possibly the one where I cause the end of mankind due to letting a chip pan catch fire whilst I was busy blogging.

I’m certain there will come a time where I won’t be blogging any more, for any number of reasons. The one I’m most excited about is where I won’t need to blog anymore because technology will have advanced to such a state that there will be much more interesting ways to communicate with the global hive mind. Dream blogging perhaps, or Drogging as we’ll know it, which I’m now off to patent and trademark.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing an MMO. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. Please describe the kind of game you would make.

I imagine I would make a really cheap 2.5D grindfest with graphics ripped-off from various other games, all the meanwhile siphoning off the majority of the company’s cash reserves into offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.

Well, it serves them right for putting someone like me in charge of a company with unlimited funds.

So there you have it. I get to keep my interview post for posterity, and you get to receive the one tiny and infinitely pointless piece of wisdom I have to dispense with respect to blogging.

Just remember: blogging isn’t so terribly bad, and worse things happen at sea. So don’t update your blog while you’re on a boat, and I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Theory without experience is mere intellectual play

In Our Time is a fantastic programme on Radio 4 covering ideas of culture, history, philosophy, religion and science, with a full archive available if you have a few hundred spare hours. In a recent episode Melvyn and the gang (The Right Honourable The Lord Bragg and three professors) discussed game theory, a bit of a whistle-stop tour as In Our Time has to be, but plenty of food for thought.

One of the most interesting things they discussed was the ultimatum game. In the ultimatum game there’s a sum of money (say 100 gold coins) and two players (let’s call them Geoff and Jeff, to avoid confusion). Geoff proposes a division of the money between the two of them, Jeff can then either accept the proposal and take what was offered, or reject it in which case neither player gets anything.

On a purely rational basis Geoff could offer Jeff one gold coin while keeping 99 himself, as faced with a choice of one coin or nothing Jeff should take the money and be grateful. Would you, in Jeff’s position, accept that offer? Or would you tell Geoff in irrational but highly anatomically detailed terms precisely where he could shove his single coin? If the ‘gold’ coins were chocolate money, would your answer be different than if they were 24 carat doubloons? The game has spawned a lot of research, experimentation and variations, and a bit of idle wiki-link-following led to a rather fun Puzzle for Pirates based on a broadly similar premise:

There are 5 rational pirates, A, B, C, D and E. They find 100 gold coins. They must decide how to distribute them.

The pirates have a strict order of seniority: A is superior to B, who is superior to C, who is superior to D, who is superior to E.

The pirate world’s rules of distribution are thus: that the most senior pirate should propose a distribution of coins. The pirates, including the proposer, then vote on whether to accept this distribution. If the proposed allocation is approved by a majority or a tie vote, it happens. If not, the proposer is thrown overboard from the pirate ship and dies, and the next most senior pirate makes a new proposal to begin the system again.

Pirates base their decisions on three factors. First of all, each pirate wants to survive. Second, given survival, each pirate wants to maximize the number of gold coins he receives. Third, each pirate would prefer to throw another overboard, if all other results would otherwise be equal. The pirates do not trust each other, and will neither make nor honor any promises between pirates apart from the main proposal.

A sensible option at first glance would be for Pirate A to offer most of the money to the others, lest he get chucked overboard and sent to Davy Jones Locker, me hearty, arrrrr etc. He doesn’t need to do that at all; with the tweaked rules it’s a neat logical brainteaser with a solution, click through to Wikipedia if you’d like the details and explanation. Well worth bearing in mind, I’d say, if you’re in a group of five exploring a dungeon and you need to propose a way of splitting up a pile of cash at the end…

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate.

I used to be in the habit of turning off General Chat upon first entering an MMO, or at the very least flinging it into a separate tab of the chat window marked ‘DANGER – MINDFIELD!’ to caution me against the volatile minds buried within. I performed the same operation upon first entering Tera, and thankfully the game remembers these settings between alts – because recently I’ve rolled a lot of alts. With limited time to play in past weeks, I’ve primarily taken to rolling a new race and class each time I login, and then blasting through as much of the starter area of the Island of Dawn as time will allow. This enables me to experience some of the flavour of each class, and at the same time inject a few delirious hits of Ding to keep my MMO cravings in check and leave me languorous, before I invariably have to dash off to take care of real life responsibilities.

In the early days of the game the global chat was an unending stream of drivel, as is often the way in MMOs, and it inexorably built up to the usual thundering churning deluge of froth and furore, as torrents of abuse dashed themselves on the unchangeable rocks of personal opinion, forming whirlpools of circular arguments that spun in upon themselves, drawing down to the suffocating depths of their unreason anything foolish enough to drift too close to the topic at its centre.

I diverted the river of global chat into a remote reservoir, which this time I labelled ‘Barrens’, and forgot about it for a good long while.

Nevertheless a lot of an MMO’s community is in its text chat, so I would occasionally flick back to Barrens to see if anything had changed. About a week or so later things started to calm down, and the global chat channel changed from frustrating to fascinating – now a fast but freely flowing expanse of diverse topics. I had rolled on an RP server, as I usually do, with the hope that a slightly more sensible subset of players would migrate there; I was quite surprised, however, at the dramatic change in the channel, and indeed one of the topics under discussion was that very fact. It transpires that the river of drivel had struck a tributary, and the LFG channel was where the rapids of rage now ran. So I left Barrens open by default, and flicked my attention to it every now and again while I repeatedly adventured across the Island of Dawn.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn. It was at the same time amusing and saddening to see nearly all of the discussions follow disturbingly similar paths to those we’ve seen repeated amongst blogs over the years.

That the river of global chat drivel should break its banks and flood the fields of normality is no real surprise; it’s the fact that, upon receding, it left behind such a fertile field of rich discourse. I was tempted to turn the thing into an experiment – to start seeding topics into that fruitful soil, and harvest the bounteous crop of conclusions which grew there. And then I wondered –seeing as no idea in blogging is ever original– whether others had already done the same. Whether developers had already done the same.

An interesting topic perhaps, but whether I could raise the topic of ‘raising topics as an experiment in fast-forward blogging’ as an experiment in fast-forward blogging, without causing a segfault in the universe, I’m as yet undecided.

Monday 21 May 2012

Have I Got MMONews For You

Host: This week, teams, news of trials of a device that uses an Xbox Kinect camera to sense body position to assist surgeons.

Melmoth: Never one to miss out on a commercial opportunity, EA were quick to announce Arthroplasty Arthroplasty Revolution, where players perform complex surgical moves to the beat of Weird Al Yankovic’s Like a Surgeon. Due in 2013.

Zoso: The trial is going well, but the social media functionality of the Xbox had to be disabled after surgeons kept interrupting procedures to update their status. ‘Kinect: update Facebook, doing surgery lol.’ ‘Kinect: send tweet, BP dropping rapidly, sad face.’

Melmoth: Surgeons have expressed delight at the intuitive controls, but were quick to point out that five reboots to update the Xbox dashboard during a coronary artery bypass can be somewhat frustrating.

Zoso: Bloggers were swift to criticise the system for its restrictive group composition. ‘If you’re not a healer, you just don’t get an invite’ said a disgruntled tank.

Melmoth: Senior consultants have advised against the use of the term ‘red ring of death’ during any surgery where the patient is required to remain conscious.

Zoso: The voice recognition component still needs a bit of work, with a surgeon’s command of ‘Kinect: show x-rays of pectoral area’ resulting in the Xbox playing MP3s of XRay Spex.

Melmoth: Rumours that the system also incorporates achievements and a ranking system, where surgeons can try to beat their colleagues’ best times for removing a kidney, are entirely unfounded according to a senior health official.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Friday 18 May 2012

But, alas, to make me a fixed figure for the time of scorn.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

            – Excerpt from High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

As it was when I wrote about my enjoyment of the small detail of a turning horse’s head in Lord of the Rings Online, there are elements to Tera which are just breathtaking. Contrails form from your mount’s wingtips as you fly between locations; I haven’t worked out if they’re random or based upon the environment being passed through, but it is a simple moment of delight when they appear.

I’ve deleted the two thousand or so words which I wrote next, because many people have already judged the game and those who play it, and I cannot bring myself to present a justification for my playing it to the MMO equivalent of Freud’s inner circle.

Suffice it to say that I feel this is a game which tried not to bridge the chasmal divide between Eastern and Western cultures, but launched itself wholly across in an attempt to forge a beachhead, and found itself firmly repelled.

My time with Tera will shortly be drawing to a close, but I don’t regret having played it, for I have had joyous encounters on my journeys within both the world and the game, where I discovered a different culture of design, all of which I happily feel has been a worthwhile expansion to the universality of my MMO experience.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Every man of ambition has to fight his century with its own weapons.

With the instigation of a stress test for Guild Wars 2 this past Monday, I was able to log-in and refresh my memory with regard to some of the game’s systems. As such it gave me a nice opportunity to compare and contrast some of the ideas realised within that game with those found in TERA, which I’m currently playing.

My first impression is that in the classroom of MMOs, TERA is that kid who was brilliant at one subject; in all else that kid was at best average, but in one subject they grew whiskers and a shock of white hair and positively shone, in the eyes of their peers becoming a cross between a Super Saiyan and Albert Einstein. TERA is really rather good at action combat. Guild Wars 2, however, seems like the kid who was never brilliant, but was pretty good at absolutely everything, irritatingly popular, and likely to become head pupil of the school upon reaching the sixth form.

Do feel free to carry the analogy wildly off on your own tangents. For example, I picture EVE to be the gruff kid who sits at the back of the class jeering at everyone else and occasionally flicking the ears of World of Warcraft, who used to be the popular rich kid until everyone finally tired of him always turning up with more complicated and expensive versions of other kids’ toys, which he’d invariably break by the end of the first day.

One difference between TERA and GW2 which I find Quite Interesting, but others may find somewhat more prosaic, is the role of weapons within the game. For TERA, each class has a single weapon set available to it. The Warrior dual wields swords, but the representation of these swords is one icon; the Lancer’s shield and lance are also represented by a single entity. Therefore there are no cross-class loot issues when it comes to weapons in TERA – every class has its own weapon set, and every set is self-contained, even if it is comprised of more than one functional item. I really like the system; it’s a simple and elegant way to eliminate the issue of dual wielding classes having to keep multiple weapons/shields/handbags upgraded in order to remain viable, compared to their single-weapon counterparts.

Speaking of maintaining multiple weapons brings up one of my minor concerns for Guild Wars 2: good grief if there aren’t a lot of weapons to maintain in that game, at least for certain classes. Take the Warrior in GW2, for example, who can wield a prodigious variety of weapons. The fact that certain skills –and thus certain styles of play– are intrinsically linked to a weapon type means that, in theory, the Warrior will need to keep two swords, two axes, two maces, a warhorn, a shield, a greatsword, a hammer, a longbow and a rifle all upgraded in order to be able to fulfill each and every play style. Now, perhaps this is not the intention, and a player will be encouraged to focus on one or two themes, but it certainly seems a little overwhelming to think that a Warrior might want (but hopefully not need) to maintain an up-to-date version of all these various items.

Until my knowledge of the game has matured, it’s hard to know how this will resolve itself – weapon level could be irrelevant when compared to the power of the skills which the weapon enables, for example. Suffice it to say that I remain as yet unconvinced where this linkage between skill system and weapon requirement is concerned, but I keep an open mind as always. However, I think that thematically it’s a fabulous idea, where each weapon offers its own distinct flavour of combat, rather than just a mechanical flip of a damage type stat.

And in our contemplation of damage-type-weapon-swapping shenanigans, let us bow our heads and take a moment to reflect upon the current king of weapon stockpiling: Dungeons & Dragons Online. For no DDO session can be complete without the party emptying out their backpacks into the middle of the dungeon floor, rummaging through the subsequent pile of weapons as though they were Lego, and trying to find the exact right piece to fit their current build requirements.

“Dang. If anyone finds a dark blue four-er, can they let me have it?”

“Is that a two-by-two four-er, or a four-by-one? And do you need it in piercing, bludgeoning, slashing, adamantine, byeshk, cold iron, crystal, mithral or alchemical silver?”


Tuesday 15 May 2012

He said true things, but called them by wrong names

Naming systems for uniquely identifying characters can be a tricky business in MMOGs, especially when server boundaries are broken down by features such as cross-realm zones in Mists of Pandaria or joining friends as a guest in Guild Wars 2. Maybe the games industry could look to areas with years of precedent; naming a racehorse, for instance, follows fairly similar criteria to character names in GW2: “Your name choice can be up to 18 characters, including spaces. All names are registered subject to approval by the British Horseracing Authority. There are approximately 250,000 names on the current register, therefore it is advisable to check availability prior to submitting your application.”

OK, so the jurisdiction of the British Horseracing Authority doesn’t quite stretch to GW2 yet, but apart from that… A quick glance at the runners of the 2012 Grand National isn’t terribly inspiring though, maybe a couple of potential guild names (“Midnight Haze”, “Smoking Aces”), but there aren’t many names you’d want for a character. Apart from “Shakalakaboomboom”, natch.

Pedigree dogs have to be registered with the Kennel Club, and the list of Best in Show winners of Crufts is much more like it: “Volkrijk of Vorden”, “Fenton of Kentwood” (Jesus Christ!), “Abraxas Audacity”, “Saxonsprings Hackensack” and, of course, “Araki Fabulous Willy” (who wouldn’t want a Fabulous Willy?) Maybe those six extra letters (dog names can be up to 24 characters) make all the difference.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show offers even more tantalising examples, as per a quiz on Slate; I mean c’mon, what MMOG wouldn’t be improved by replacing “G4ndalf” and “KniefStabRouge” with “McMagic’s Candied Ham of Pebbles Run”?

Monday 14 May 2012

The Secret, Whirled.

Guild Wars 2 has reached 500,000 Facebook fans, and some of them are real too! As such they’ve released some new artwork for their fans to enjoy; you can view the original work and leave a comment here.


Just as an exercise for the reader though, I’ve included a copy of the artwork within this post. Take a ruler, and mark yourself a trajectory by following the line of Eir’s aim along her arm.

Yes indeed, what ArenaNet have actually done here is to stealthily encode a reveal for the new Ranger Elite skill in Guild Wars 2: Dragon Nutshot.

Oh, I’m definitely playing a Ranger now.

P.S. Upon considering the above, I began to question what exactly is going on between the dragon’s legs. Is that a cosmos, or is he (just pleased to see us – Ed.) evacuating himself of chromatically distorted dragon pee after having been hit by an arrow? There definitely seems to be some sort of explosion of dark tendrils going on in the nether regions there. Further supporting evidence for my theory, if ever there was.

You can't depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.

Due to quests in TERA being such a general irrelevance, I find myself filtering the order of quests I undertake by giving preference to those which offer equipment upgrades; although, I’m still not sure about the technical accuracy of ‘upgrade’ in the context of a game where your character wears less armour the more they grow in power. It was always something which intrigued me about Star Wars: The Old Republic, the fact that the quests never showed a preview of the reward you’d be getting, and –perhaps due to the generally excellent storytelling– I never cared to know.

It’s a simple distinction, but an interesting one. By having the carrot waved around in front of their nose, the player rarely cares about the path they take while pulling the developer’s cart of flow. The developer, guiding the player in this way, gains a great deal of control and can instil motivation in the player, all without the need for world building or story. In fact, the reward will detract from the story in most instances, and I think it’s another area where BioWare were clever and alert to the pitfalls of the genre they were entering. The last thing you need in the Regency era ballroom of storytelling, where players are invited to twirl elegantly through the carefully choreographed steps of the plot, is a DJ in the corner with the glitter ball of phat loot, spinning to the thumping rhythm of tracks from Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward.

TERA is a curious beast in terms of how players are directed in their questing. There is a strong World-of-Warcraft-like impetus to click through the quest text and get on with adventuring, especially considering that the combat is the stronger pillar of the game’s foundation, along with the aforementioned carrot of the rewards being presented up-front. What’s more, clicking on any highlighted name in the quest text will place a marker on the player’s map as to where that mob can be found. In essence, the game seems to be using quests as an enabler to drive the players into combat, as per the standard MMO model. However, the game also marks any mobs for which the player currently has a quest by placing an exclamation mark above their head. Here we find the ubiquitous ‘quest marker’ being employed not only as a way for players to easily find quests, but the quest mobs themselves. What I find strange is that this would be a perfectly excellent way to remove some of the production line feel from an MMO, that of grabbing quests in an area and then slaughtering all the wildlife in the vicinity until the quest tracker was full of green ticks. Being able to wander freely, and have any Mobs of Interest highlighted to the player as they explore, seems a far more natural and immersive system than the current MMO standard – Lord of the Geocachings. I really like the idea, but it’s bizarrely extraneous in a game such as TERA, where there is no discernible reason to explore the world –outside of the potential for a screenshot opportunity (of which there is an opportunity roughly every four yards in this painfully pretty game)– and every quest mob can be found with pinpoint precision, each player a laser-guided bomb of mob obliteration.

It’s interesting how small adjustments in the presentation of quests, their rewards, and their objectives, can quite dramatically change the perspective from which a player approaches them. In a game where combat is its own reward, is the loot carrot really necessary? If a game wishes to encourage exploration and adventure, should it perhaps spend time finding ways to remove the unnatural geocaching of quests, rather than inventing new game-play mechanisms? Mechanisms which are layered on top of the already proven questing system, and thus often feel forced.

As the fundamental enabler of flow in MMOs for many years, it’s curious to see how little has changed in the design of quest presentation over the years, and fascinating to see just how little change is required to transform the way a player views the world through the questing lens, where slight adjustments to structure can alter the focus of a player’s attentions, blurring the boundary between mechanisms and mind-set, while throwing the game’s world into sharper relief.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Thought for the day.

Plus ça change: I remember how any new MMO that launched would have a General Chat channel filled with proclamations of how much better the game was than World of Warcraft. I’ve been in two new MMOs recently, and I’ve seen none of that usual banter.

Plus c’est la même chose: Now everyone is jabbering on about how much better the game is than Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Friday 11 May 2012

A noble craft, and also a most lively!

One of the nifty![TM] features I’ve experienced in a couple of recent MMOs is the inclusion of crafting in other aspects of the game, outside of merely producing five million worthless trinkets to be sold to a vendor, before being able to finally produce the epic quality Toe Ring of Time, which gives your character a best-in-slot 0.01% boost in DPS over anything you can acquire in the levelling game, which nobody will ever be aware of, and which will be replaced by the first piece of end-game dungeon loot that drops.

The first of these is within Star Wars: The Old Republic. Crafting skills in SWTOR can be used to bypass areas of the game’s instanced dungeons – flashpoints. I love the idea of this, the fact that being a crafter of a certain type actually means something. What I particularly liked was that access to a shortcut or bonus area was themed towards the type of crafter who could negotiate that access. A set of tunnels which take the players around several corridors of heavily armed guards might be filled with a poisonous gas, and thus a Biochem specialist would be required to repair the filtration system which would neutralise the obstacle; someone versed in Cybertech might be able to reactivate a facility’s sentry droids, turning them against the mobstacles that litter the paths through the instance. It’s not essential to have a crafter of a certain type along, all the crafting activated events are usually bonuses and shortcuts which make the job easier, and not requisites for successfully completing the instance. I think BioWare struck a nice balance between players getting a bonus for having a certain crafting class, without it being compulsory to ‘bring along a crafter’. M’colleague informs me that, alas, this design featured less heavily in the later flashpoints he experienced.

It was whilst playing TERA that I was reminded of SWTOR’s subtle mechanic for craftily encouraging crafting. In TERA, each crafting node will grant a modest buff when harvested. It seems that these buffs are random, or perhaps tied to the type of node harvested, but by gathering from a number of nodes you can quickly find yourself with a considerable stack of buffs, which although modest in their own right, can result in quite a boost to your combat prowess when their effects are combined. I like this system better than that provided in World of Warcraft, where the gathering profession itself gives you a permanent boost to a stat, or a utility ability, because WoW’s system just becomes another item on the Great Min-Max List (‘Has optimal gathering profession to boost combat prowess?’), whereas TERA’s system temporarily rewards you for the act of gathering itself; for crafters or auction house wranglers this is a non-issue, but for everyone else there’s now a reason to get involved in gathering, and hey, if you have all those crafting materials in your inventory, why not try putting something together? Incidental crafting –which may in turn lead a player to discover a deeper love of crafting than they would have otherwise imagined– is a nice side benefit of such a system.

I really like this blending of boundaries, where consideration is given to the fact that gathering from crafting nodes doesn’t have to exclusively produce materials for crafting, and where crafting doesn’t have to correspond purely to churning out equipment. It draws those mechanics into the main combat-driven system, smudges the edges, blurs the demarcations, but does so by giving modest bonuses to those players who gave it a try, not by punishing those who didn’t.

I’d certainly like to see more features like these in future MMOs, because I feel that it’s very much this sort of parallel design that helps to make a game feel like a world, rather than a series of independent mechanical systems.

Thursday 10 May 2012

What you might see as depravity is, to me, just another aspect of the human condition.

Having reached level twelve and finished the quests on the introductory Island of Dawn, I took the Pegasus flight to the major city of Velika. Situated in Southern Arun, this is the seat of the Valkyon Federation, a coalition of all the civilised races of the land against the invading Argons. The flight into the city was stunning, as my mount ‘rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend’, wending its way around the blanket of countryside rolled-up around the city’s waist, I could only marvel at the exquisiteness of the environs. There’s no doubt that these worlds which we inhabit have developed, in graphical terms, to the point where it seems as though one could reach through that lambent mirror sat upon the desk, and grasp the infinite pixels of possibility which it reflects.

After exploring the city for a while, and claiming my mount (which is granted at level eleven and instant cast – huzzah!), I went to the main hall to speak to the commanders of the war effort there, whereupon after a brief “well done” from the leader, I was palmed off onto a rather brusque and patronising fellow who pointed his sword threateningly at me, and told me not to get cocky after my initial success on the Island of Dawn. I could only look at him in wondrous disbelief, before pointing at my outfit, raising an eyebrow, and querying just whereabouts he imagined I’d be hiding any cockiness. He was lucky he didn’t get an extending lance right in his.

Of course that wasn’t terribly likely to cause him any trouble, because all the men in TERA are pusillanimous braggarts, encased in armour so thick that they reach for a can opener every time they need to pee. Wrapped in their comforting cloak of cowardice, they had the audacity to stand there and tell me that I had no sense of proportion. I told them that my sense of proportion was just fine, and that I had ample evidence of such every time I had to look at myself in a mirror.

I still reckon I could take ’em in a fight.

Having left the Keg Brothers to pat each other on their well-armoured backs, I ventured around the city once more. When a world is as beautiful as this, it draws you into the environments and encourages you to observe your surroundings. For example: I met this lovely lady, Ciebel, a priestess, and I couldn’t help but stop to praise her on her choice of outfit. “Finally” I thought, “a place without overt sexualisation of women! Here is this fine young priestess, in a slender yet chaste dress, who clearly has rejected the more lascivious outfits of the warrior caste.” I wandered away in quiet satisfaction, exultant in finding this small sanctuary in the city, where an innocent priestess stands removed from the incessant sexuality prevalent elsewhere in the realm!

But wait, elation! Joy of joys! In my wanderings I stumbled upon the cosmetic armour vendor. TERA has many cosmetic armour slots, and here I had discovered the Equipment Remodeller, who could offer cosmetic armour items! For a considerable sum of gold, of course. A considerable sum, but one which will be worth every scraped-together-coin, for I had found a set of sensible armour for myself. I could go back to the Keg Brothers and point my lance at them, and say “Hah! Observe how I am appropriately attired for battle and weep, for I could beat you all when I wore but a piece of thin copper wire as a thong, and so now… now I shall be as to a goddess walking amongst mortals!”

So, thank you Equipment Remodeller, thank you from deep within my heavily armoured breast. You are a shining beacon in a world of depravity, and I praise the gods for your presence. In this land where women are forced to wear degrading outfits, you are here with your sense of decorum, your sense of reserve and your sense of dignity. You have fashioned outfits which are tasteful, sensible, and practical. You stand as an example to all, and I would hold you up to all the world as the way that things should really be. Come. Come Equipment Remodeller, come here and let me hold you up, literally upon my shoulder, and I will raise you toward the heavens and rent the air with a cry of exaltation. Come here and… ah. Oh dear. Oh dear me.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing

Browsing around GAME the other day there were a few boxes of Fallen Earth: Blood Sports for 98p (reduced from £9.99). With Fallen Earth moving to a free-to-play model late last year it didn’t quite qualify for “spot the box for the MMOG that’s closed down“, but I wasn’t sure if the physical game was good for anything more than saving a bit of download time. Displaying the sort of hard-nosed investigative journalistic instinct that’s become a trademark at KiaSA, without thought to my own personal safety I grabbed a box and strode up to the cash desk. If they recognised me as an International Blogger of Blogging conducting hard-hitting undercover research who knows what might have kicked off, so clearly a disguise was in order. Not a problem: I tucked one arm inside my jacket, closed one eye and said “Avast, landlubbers, I am Horatio Nelson, famed admiral and victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, although I was killed during that so obviously it hasn’t happened yet. I’d like this game please.” I was about to hand over my credit card to pay, but at the last second realised it would’ve been a dead giveaway as it had the wrong name on it, so rummaged around and fortunately found a pound coin. “Arr, here be a shiny doubloon to pay for it, me hearty, splice the mainbrace. Yes, put the receipt in the bag please, thanks.”

They didn’t suspect a thing so I made my escape, and got the game installed. Looking at the website it appears to be a fairly standard “freemium” model, and redeeming the code supplied in the case granted 30 days of “Wastelander” premium status with a boost to XP gain etc., usual cost $14.99, so not a waste of a box. I’m not sure if it’s worth stacking up a pile of the boxes, or if you can only apply one of those codes to an account, I’m afraid my unswerving commitment to investigation doesn’t stretch to another 98p.

I can’t make much of an assessment of the game itself as I’m barely out of the tutorial, but it reminds me of Star Wars Galaxies in some ways (not that I ever lasted past a trial in SWG) with FPS-ish ranged combat and lashings of crafting. Like early SWG, Fallen Earth doesn’t have classes; character creation is just about appearance with no worries about too much supermodel perfection in a post-apocalytpic wasteland, plenty of options for scars, wrinkles, facepaint, tattoos and piercings. As you level up you can put points into a mix of stats, skills and mutant powers, a slightly daunting array of options a couple of hours into the game when you’re not really sure how things will develop, like attending a careers fare at infant school:
“So, small child, what sort of field are you thinking about? Lawyer, perhaps? Archaeologist? Lead Senior Direct Corporate Dynamic Future Product Customer Investment Manager?”
“I like painting and running around and Lego and making dens”
“I see, so which A-levels are you considering to further your aims? Art and Physical Education would be natural choices, I’m not sure offhand if there’s a syllabus that focuses on Lego, I’ll need to check up on that.”
“Are there any where you get to be a Flying Robot Wizard?”
“I’ll put down General Studies…”

I figured a bit of research was in order, and a quick poke about on the forums turned up a most helpful Ultimate Guide to Fallen Earth. In the section on levelling it says: “It’s crucial to follow a template because if you don’t you end up impaired and have to buy expensive respecs or even start over.”, with suggestions for builds such as Assault Crafter, Buffer, Debuffer, Hybrid Crafter and Melee Gunner. Seems like, as is often the case, the freedom of a classless system is a vast array of doors spread out in front of you covering all manner of strange and exotic options, where you’re completely free to pick whichever one you want, only it turns out you’re competing in Takeshi’s Castle and only five of the doors lead to freedom, the rest are painted onto solid rock and bruise your shoulder when you try and barge through them.

Classes vs open skills is always fertile ground for debate, and reaching all of level three is no position to render judgement on the system of Fallen Earth. I posted about Pirates of the Burning Sea, how I started out as a Naval Officer and became interesting in the trading/crafting aspect later, but due to the fixed class system had to roll a new character if I wanted to be a Freetrader; I could see a similar path in Fallen Earth, starting out focused on combat then developing crafting skills later on, with skill system giving the flexibility to do that with a single character rather than starting from scratch. With a bit of a lack of gaming time I’m not sure how much I’ll get into it, but then the beauty of free-to-play is that the option is there without having to leave a subscription going; I can be a procrastinator, and have my apocalypse later…

Tuesday 8 May 2012

You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile.

Sometimes I fear my hands are no longer the natural appendages to my own body with which I was born, but instead have been replaced by sentient creatures with a will of their own. At night they plot and scheme, writing messages to one another and performing complex charades. Then they move my alarm clock so I can’t find it in the morning, before burying themselves beneath me in such a way that I wake up with a dead arm. Attempting to find a wandering alarm clock with a dead arm at five thirty in the morning, while desperately trying not to wake your slumbering partner, is one of life’s more slapstick challenges. With the dull weariness of the recently awoken, your arm flops across to where the alarm clock should be, in order to strike it roughly about the head and silence its infernal chirping. But the alarm clock isn’t where you expect it to be, the realisation of which is replaced by the dawning awareness that you have no real control over your dead arm as it lands on the bedside table with a thunk – the sort of thunk which during the active hours of the day would go entirely without notice, but at silly o’clock in the morning is a thunk to rival the very thunder of the gods. In panic –partly because you’re still half asleep and partly from the innate survival instinct of avoiding death by not waking your partner– you yank your arm back, entirely forgetting you have no control of it, at which point it falls from the sky like a felled tree and strikes you sharply across the face. This has the benefit of waking you up properly. Unfortunately, your natural response to this attack from an unknown assailant is to leap from your bed and prepare to have at it, and thus you push yourself up and swing your legs out of bed with haste. You push yourself up, alas, with an arm that is still entirely unwilling to re-join the great collective adventure that is being a part of your body. As your arm gives way and folds in two, halfway through lifting you up, you can only reflect that this isn’t the sort of immediacy of exit you had planned as your head rebounds off the pillow and strikes the bedside table before following the rest of your body into a heap on the floor, followed shortly by the alarm clock, knocked from its perch, which turns itself off by striking you smartly on the nose.

All of which is to say that my hands are treacherous and work against my will, which conveniently allows me to explain how I ended up purchasing TERA this past weekend and playing it whenever time would allow. I mean, I turn my back for one second, and before I know it my hands are off signing me up for an account and downloading the game. The returns form on En Masse Entertainment’s website did not include an option for ‘Betrayed by evil sentient hand mimics’, so I decided that I would keep the game and see what it was all about.

Perhaps it’s an issue with the MMO model, but it is very easy for me to treat an MMO purchase as I would any single player game. That is, I will spend around £30-£40 and get a game from which I can expect around twenty hours or so of enjoyable game play. If I’m sold on the game after my thirty days of time is up, I can purchase DLC which allows me to continue the story. A single player game can clearly be replayed without further cost, but I can’t kid myself into thinking that I need the option to replay the game: the number of games I’ve ever been bothered to go back and play again, in all my years of gaming, can probably still be counted on my fingers. I see games such as Dragon Age and Skyrim as exceptional value for money, rather than the norm; I’d rather they were the norm, of course, but with the gaming industry such as it is, £1 per hour of entertainment seems to be the median. As such, MMOs don’t look too bad at all based on a box price and a month of play, with the caveats that you need to have the time to dedicate to the game Right Now, and you need to enjoy the sort of gaming experience which MMOs offer, compared to the more tailored experiences you get in games such as Skyrim or Dragon Age. I think this is where Star Wars: The Old Republic gets into trouble: in trying to offer this tailored experience within the framework of an MMO, it seems to struggle to mediate between the limitations of the two styles of gaming experience. SWTOR is clearly a successful game, but is it successful enough to justify the step change in development costs that its genre-hopping entailed?

My initial thoughts on TERA are very much as those that have been reported by sources elsewhere – I don’t think I’ll be in it for the long term, but I’m enjoying the experience so far. TERA’s combat is definitely fun, not a revolution, but certainly more what I’d imagined Guild Wars 2’s combat would feel like, where GW2 actually seemed to lean much further towards the traditional MMO combat style. TERA feels like an advance on DDO’s dynamic combat, and GW2 felt to me like a strange hybrid between Guild Wars and World of Warcraft. Where the environments in TERA are stunningly beautiful, the quest design is just stunning, in the more traditional blow-to-the-head wake-up-in-a-pool-of-blood-with-a-cracking-headache-and-no-idea-who-you-are sort of way. The saving grace, as others have already mentioned, is that the combat is a great deal of fun, so being told to go and Kill Ten Nouns (first MMO to have a creature called a Noun gets five bonus KiaSA points) is not seen by the player as another chore to be done in order to get their pocket experience. Is the combat good enough to carry the entire game? I think that’s where I find I’ll be leaving before too terribly long; as good as the combat is, and as lovely as the world design may be, I need more substance to my RPG. If they’d included more exploration and events akin to Guild Wars 2’s efforts, I could probably be happy that the quest design is so bland, but as it stands I just don’t think that the combat system will carry me through to the end game. Give me TERA’s combat and Guild Wars 2’s… everything else, and I’d probably be a very happy Melmoth, though.

Do I need to comment on the misogynistic treatment of female characters vis-à-vis their ludicrously sexualised outfits? Perhaps this is by design – an attempt to distract players away from the bland and repetitive quests; I imagine players are either so outraged that they find themselves happy to take out their frustrations on the nearest NPC which will accept a hammer to the face, or too busy trying to manage the extreme challenge of playing a complex action combat MMO with only one hand.

I’ll let you know how I’m getting on with the game at a later date, but for the time being I think it will be an interesting filler between my static group night in DDO, and the time Guild Wars 2 comes along and lays waste to my limited free time.

And for the record: if I do happen to find myself playing with only one hand, you can rest assured that it’s entirely an evil ploy by one of my traitorous sentient hand mimics.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth isn't secure the “Headline of the Day” award for:

Freddie Flintoff in Nintendo boss rescue

For gaming readers unfamiliar with cricket, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff was a fine all-rounder, particularly outstanding in England’s 2005 Ashes win, perhaps as famous for getting into difficulties himself with pedal-based transport.

For cricketing readers unfamiliar with gaming, Nintendo are a large Japanese consumer electronics company who make the Wii games console.

For readers unfamiliar with cricket, gaming, the concept of a “rescue” or the word “in”: welcome to the planet, lupDujHomwIj lubuy’moH gharghmey.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

And the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities and talents.

As I mentioned in the comments to a previous post, Guild Wars 2 seems to be a hybrid of questing and exploration, and as m’colleague so splendidly analogised yesterday, Guild Wars 2 seems to fit the bill of being a playground MMO, and this has me rather enthused. The theme park MMOs provide entertainment in a very regimented fashion, with players following the park’s set paths in order to join the queues for rides, where they receive a short infusion of thrill and verve. The sandbox MMO sits at the other end of the scale, providing no direction at all; much like the artist presented with a block of marble, the player in a sandbox MMO generally has to be able to visualise form within the blankness of the medium, and then act upon the medium to realise that form. As it is that many people are not artists, so it is that many players are not amenable to sandbox MMOs, often feeling lost, overwhelmed and daunted.

The playground MMO strives to strike a balance between the two extremes, and this was clearly what the public quests of Warhammer Online and the rifts of Rift were aiming to provide. Guild Wars 2 takes the idea a step further, however, in that each area of the playground has multiple ways in which you can play the game, as Hunter highlighted in a recent post. So, to take the analogy and stretch it somewhat into the realms of sexist stereotypes – the boys run around the climbing frame ‘fort’ shooting each other with pretend guns, while the girls can play field nurses to that same game. Or in MMO terms, the Killers and the Socialisers can inhabit the same area and not necessarily get in each other’s way. Meanwhile, the Explorers can wander around discovering all the various parts of the playground (including that hole in the fence behind the bike sheds), and the Achievers can try to involve themselves in as many games as possible, flitting from one to the other without interfering with the game that is being played at the time.

For the player who wants directed questing, there is the main player story and the scouts who will highlight the Events and Hearts in the area. For the player who just wants to do their own thing, it is quite possible to simply wander around the land and see what one stumbles upon. Guild Wars 2 provides a nice balance between sandbox and theme park. Is it the pinnacle of the playground design? I haven’t played enough of the game to be able to tell. It’s possible that this could be the World of Warcraft of playground MMOs; where WoW took the slightly rough and ready theme park crystal, expertly cut and polished it, until the thing shined and sparkled with multifaceted diamond elegance; time will tell if Guild Wars 2 has managed this with the playground model.

What gives me pause for thought is the apparent lack of support for the fundamental MMO social unit – the adventuring party. Most stark was the difficulty of grouping when the overflow servers were in operation, as though no real thought had been given to the traditional MMO social group. More though, there seemed little incentive to group when undertaking an Event or Heart in Guild Wars 2: players simply went about the objective individually, as a group. Perhaps this is by design, where the open world PvE of the game has taken Rift’s ingenious dynamic grouping mechanic to its ultimate conclusion, such that the people in the playground no longer have to restrict themselves to small select groups of friends, and can instead play together freely with as many or as few people as desired. PvP and dungeon instances are where strict groups will form, but in the open world, new players are simply able to join any game in progress without upsetting the balance of play, and are rewarded according to their contribution to the game. It’s not a new idea, we know of MMOs which have already tried to achieve this with varying levels of success, but ArenaNet seem to have designed their open world PvE game entirely around this concept, rather than trying to crowbar it into the gaps between the more inflexible traditions of the theme park.

So this is what interests me most about Guild Wars 2 at the moment: whether ArenaNet have managed to take the concept of the playground MMO –the attractive hybrid of theme park and sandbox– and made it a reality. If so, it may be the case, looking back some time from now, that we find they indeed didn’t provide the huge step change in game mechanics that some players were expecting, but instead made a huge step change in the entire philosophy of design for this style of MMO. Their manifesto claimed as much, and although I’ve yet to see the conclusive evidence which makes me believe, certainly there are hints that this could be the case. And I do want to believe.

There’s definitely some polishing to be done, but it’s possible that a diamond is hidden here, as yet obscured from view by the raw remnants of the crafter’s careful cuts.