Archive for August, 2012

The Chase and the Sausage Factory

August 19, 2012 Comments off

The Chase:

I have been taking the tortoise approach to the Acquisitions Race for reasons of limited daily playtime and esthetics. The Chavin preach self-enrichment as life philosophy, and I am relieved that Bioware included a public sector angle, so to speak. I would have felt awfully un-Jedi running around and hip-checking competitors over a few shiny trinkets alone. As it stands, I will be pleased to dump the whole sorry collection into a Republic dropbox on Monday, for the intel-wonks to pore over.

It is fortunate that Jedi do not care for material rewards, because the most interesting item at the Enrichment vendor, the bowcaster, comes in Rifle and Sniper Rifle proficiency varieties and is probably the antithesis of a civilised weapon. It would be nice if force users could get something memorable from the event, especially if Sand People cosplay isn’t quite one’s thing. I do like that clunker of a speeder, though.

The slow approach is better, moreover, because it is enjoyable to drive around places like Nar Shaddaa and take in the local sights again. The corollary of this game being so battered by vitiriol and irrational hatred is that logging back into it with sagging expectations makes for a sweeter reminder of how good it actually is. The smuggler’s moon has its internal logic of glittering facade hiding slums, shady cantinas and spice laboratories, and it’s fun to unwrap it yet again without threat from low-level NPCs.

On a cautionary note: while the event did get people to log in and got public channels buzzing on Nar Shaddaa, Coruscant and the fleet, it is still essentially a solitary exercise. I have no problem with that, but having consolidated servers and achieved a critical mass of interacting players again at great cost to morale, Bioware needs to work harder to keep them connecting and to push back against the single-player MMO misperception that will probably never quite go away entirely.


The Sausage Factory:

Perhaps it’s just me, but in the olden days when the grass was green, game developers maintained a certain distance from the audience. It might sound like heresy, but in the case of Diablo 3 and Blizzard in general, I would rather the devs be less responsive and less overt about it when they do respond.

The detailed discussion of D3 class changes with constant references to crowdsourcing and forum feedback reminds me of what has happened to media coverage of politics. We have gone from covering political events to covering the coverage of those events, to covering the popular response to the coverage of the coverage, and we do occasionally lurch into absurd iterations going even further. Political actors adjust to media realities, and so we ended up with lamentable dominance of media operations or spin-doctors over actual policymaking operations inside governments and parties. The equivalent in game industry is not good for the product, either.

On the surface of it, it looks great. ‘We heard your concerns and here they are reflected in the design! We see YOU using a skill nearly exclusively, and so we are responding by making others more interesting. This is interactive, we are working on this together, you and we!’ Transparency of the devs’ thinking process as they search for truth, however, is no substitute for having gotten things right in the first place. Increasingly, paid-for betas and ‘release now, patch later’ are becoming the norm, and this feigned chumminess with the end-user only serves to lessen the design team’s responsibility.

In the end, it ought to be their field of expertise. Try giving ongoing design feedback at the bar of a self-respecting sushi chef sometime.

Categories: Mentality, Uncategorized

Self-Expression, or The Illusion Of Freedom

August 14, 2012 Comments off

As I half-ponder, half-plan my return to SW:TOR, the usual fundamental gaming questions arise. What shall I do on my next logon? What goals remain, are they reachable by multiple alternative paths, and in what order should they be pursued?

Were I currently part of an active guild, strong suggestions would present themselves immediately, based on the needs of others. During the server transition phase, however, my gameplay will be self-directed and socially mercenary in nature. Not strictly congruous with the nature of my Jedi Guardian character, but quite acceptable to the man at the keyboard.

Things To Do, or immediately accessible content, are at the heart of an MMO’s quality. The lack of endgame content (not something I’ve observed to be the case) is frequently cited as one of the major causes of SW:TOR’s popularity falling short of expectations. Perhaps the greatest change to WoW in Mists of Pandaria is diversification of things to do at level cap. And, of course, the distinctive and rejuvenating feature of sandboxes and PvP-centric MMOs is the treatment of players and player activity as content.

I always feel a twinge of disgust whenever I see this question approached from a purely consumptive perspective, as in: the player needs to chomp through a certain quantity of content that triggers adequate dopamine release at every stage, lest he feel that his oh-so-precious money has been ill-spent. For some reason unknown to me, this attitude afflicts MMOs more than most other affiliations. Few people would consider rescinding their loyalties to the Washington Nationals, Burnley or Auxerre just because of losing streaks, relegations and small hopes of league trophies.

It is a pity, because I do think that many people experiencing the MMO malaise we see everywhere would get more out of their games if they treated them less like bowls of content and more like toolkits for self-expression. It is perfectly legitimate to reject a particular set of tools as unsuitable, but once adopted, it is foolish to blame the tools for one’s failure to do anything rewarding with them.

One might object to this and ask: what self-expression? In most themeparks, there is a fairly short list of available activities: questing to level, questing at level cap for pertinent benefits, small group instancing, raiding, gathering-crafting and exploration. Also instanced group PvP and world PvP, the latter usually unrewarded unless happening in special cordoned-off areas. That’s about it. More or less end of story. Honourable mention goes to the economic metagame, which can be too complex in some games to pigeonhole in this way, but it does not threaten the point I am making.

From the standpoint of self-expression, it would be easy to proclaim sandboxes superior. Indeed, the absolute limits are gone and the freedom is incomparable. However, the relative limits are about the same. The vast majority of players are still steered by the game systems into a very finite set of particular activities. In UO, for every Rainz, there were thousands of people going through the same motions of skilling up, crafting, house-decorating and optimising for ganking or for survival. And so it went all the way down to EVE, whose primary activities are describable roughly in themepark terms, even by writers passionately insistent on the difference. One’s hi-sec economic activities, incursion fleet, wormhole, PvP roam, batphone rush and so forth are not particularly different from those of another player and his corporation. One fits one’s Drake or Tengu in the same long-established optimal way as everyone else. The rest is an aspirational mirage on the horizon which only a tiny percentage of players ever make their reality.

Gevlon’s recent experience, incidentally, is quite illustrative of the mirage: the green misanthrope heard of the freedom and imagined that, with his detachment and skill at social engineering, he could rock New Eden to the core. He invented creative, half-informed schemes which were repeatedly cut down to size by his commenters and field reality, until he distilled his choices to a themepark-like array of well-worn, standard EVE activities. In the end, it turns out he had been able to do a greater number of unique and interesting things in WoW, the on-rails themepark than in EVE, the sky’s-the-limit sandbox.

No, self-expression as I use it here does not mean doing something no one else has ever done. It means doing something many other people have also done, in your own way, with your friends, coloured by your own personality and principles, making your own memories. Even if it is just a Deadmines run, there are many like it, but this one’s mine. Content is a means to that end, not the end in itself. Instead of whining that the MMO offers only adventures in portraiture, paint the Mona Lisa.

The Secret World or The Bee’s Knees

August 9, 2012 Comments off

You get your powers and your special snowflake status by swallowing a bee in your sleep. More or less sets the tone for the rest of the game.

No, I have not cravenly jumped ship. SW:TOR is still my MMO of choice, but after the heartbreak of F2P, The Secret World’s free weekend provided a little welcome distraction… and occasionally, a reminder of why I still like TOR.

Faction selection in TSW offers uptight eurotrash, the inscrutable Asian stereotype (based in Korea; Funcom knows how to butter the toast) and the American party animal. The more reputable dictionaries include a portrait of the present writer to augment their definitions of uptight eurotrash, so Templars it is.

Character customisation is limited to the character’s head and complexion and involves the standard MMO potato head. The complete lack of body customisation is made up for by an emphasis on clothing choices. Not my thing, really. I’ve never been a Sims man, and I’ve always been more interested in the physical features of RPG characters than what they’re wearing, but the chargen is serviceable overall.

My first thought as I entered the mock-up of London, with my hearing assaulted by the so-very-cockney flavour of cockney: this is an upmarket version of those Flash “MMOs,” like Rusty Hearts or something, with an emphasis on fluff and fashion on a lightweight frame of gameplay. This initial impression was catalysed partly by TSW’s slightly odd visual style wherein very good textures and models are combined with uninspiring, perfunctory animations. It was also quite wrong, because TSW’s combat system is pretty fun and well thought-out, as discussed below.

Anyway, the premise is that one is a member of one of the three secret societies, investigating, containing or exploiting paranormal, occult and otherwise extraordinary phenomena, in competition among themselves. After swallowing the bee (sorry, will never get tired of that), the player character somehow manages to attract the attention of a recruiter who presents the usual offer-you-can’t-refuse, and away we go. I suppose it would be unkind to wonder how the Templars, Dragons or Illuminati manage to get wind of the bee-gulper. The latter doesn’t really leave the flat, trashing it instead with bee-induced powers like they’re Leahblo on Day Two.

After an orientation in London, New York or Seoul and a brief introduction to combat via induced borrowed flashback (induced by street theatre, an injection from an old, wacky Jewish scientist or sexual encounter respectively and depending on faction) one selects one’s primary weapon and with it, one’s fighting style. Your trainers lie about the exclusivity of this choice, by the way – go back into the training hall immediately and pick up your second weapon. Actually, pick them all up.

The weapons – assault rifle, shotgun, pistols, blade, fist weapons, hammer, and three “focuses,” one type for each of three schools of magic – are the organising units of the game’s skill system. Each weapon is associated with two ability categories in the first tier. When all skills in both categories are mastered, one can access a second tier of six categories containing more specialist skills for that weapon. There are also three tiny non-weapon categories comprising generic utilities for tanks and healers and so on.

Skills are divided into active skills and passive skills. Seven of each are allowed to be equipped at a time, which forces interesting, difficult choices and encourages designing and saving different gear+loadout combinations (“decks”) for different situations. Passive skills sit there and enhance things, obviously. Either global things or by modifying how active skills work. Active skills, generally speaking, are divided into resource builders and resource consumers. Resources work like familiar combo points from other games. You hit something five times with a builder, get five resources, spend them with a consumer. It is desireable to work on mastering two weapons simultaneously, as you can hold two at once and attacks with one weapon’s builder skills build resources for both equipped weapons. So even if you’re using, say, pistols exclusively and dualling hammer school just for the crit passives, it is wise to have one hammer resource spender on your active bar because your pistol shots build hammer resources, too.

The skills are purchased with Action Points, which are what one gets for questing and killing. There is a secondary kind of point that is awarded at a similar rate and governs the quality of gear that one is allowed to put on.

And… that’s it for character advancement. The player is permitted to combine weapons as he pleases, and generally do stupid or oddball-but-working things with the category choices. The freedom to make stupid choices is the best kind of freedom and one of my most cherished rights as a gamer. Props go to any developer who is not afraid to grant me that freedom even at the risk that I will merrily bollix up my “gameplay experience” and blame them for it. Did I mention that there are no respecs in the game? There are no respecs in the game.

There are right choices to make, too, and for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time reading through all the skills and figuring out synergies Funcom offers suggestions of prearranged decks that are supposed to work well together. It is usually clever to combine abilities that are empowered by each other’s effects. For a simple example, one can equip a passive that adds a bleed effect (Afflicted is the TSW parlance for any DoT) to a blade AoE move, and combine it with an AoE move from another school that self-heals a little for every Afflicted target struck. Having a couple of skills that set a Weakened state and a couple that exploit Hindered, on the other hand, might be an objectively poor choice, unless they’re tied together by converting passives somehow.

Through this levelless free-wheeling system and the possibility of situational adjustment of skill decks, the game originally attempted to dilute the trinity. It failed. Tank, dps and healer builds are as alive as ever, though it is easier to fashion oneself into any role on the fly if one has the appropriate set of gear stashed away.

Returning to theme and questing, the mission classification system is needlessly restrictive and complicated. There are seven types of the things: main story quests, investigation, item-related, action, sabotage, PvP, group/dungeon. Only item quests can be taken in batches of three at a time. This is meant, presumably, to force the player to delectate the content slowly and attentively instead of running around optimising questing routes, and I suppose it works, but the annoyance factor is not worth it, imho. Yokai begs to differ and explains the system well here.

The missions themselves tend to be a bit over the top and wringing a little too much mileage out of whatever it is they concern. If you are anything like me then ‘yes, I get the point already’ will be a frequent visitor on your mental stage as the NPC gets on with another iteration of the haunted stare and the harrowing tale. It does not help that your character is mute throughout the interaction (trying to retain the bee in his mouth, no doubt) and no response options are given. I know I have been spoiled by SW:TOR’s excellence in this area, but there is something akin to Uncanny Valley at play here: the NPCs are close to acting realistically but they’re trying just a little too hard. The Templar agent handler avers that “this is not a Dan Brown paperback”; unfortunately, pre-empting an accusation in a hip, pop-referential way is not the same as putting oneself in the clear. A Dan Brown paperback is more or less exactly what it is.

On the bright side, there is an amusing novelty to many of the mission givers: they describe a questable paranormal situation and leave it there. “There is this haunted house/amusement park/sewer. Just saying.” Given what you are, it is obvious what you are going to do. Also, honourable mention must be given to the crown jewel of TSW questing: the puzzles. The best of these do actually give one the sense of being an occult investigator. A few actually require googling, which feels weird and like cheating until you come across things like a burst Morse code audio transmission that would be impossible to decipher by ear for a non-professional. However, it does feel very good when one’s general learning or out-of-the-box thinking actually cracks a tough one without aid.

I have not had enough experience with the game’s dungeons to say much of worth, though I did tank the first dungeon without much of a hitch. Quick, very little trash, mostly bosses presenting variants on the dance – move out of this, drag boss into that, pick up adds. Not particularly innovative, but decent enough. Hostile area effects are marked very accurately by white lines on the ground, so the only explanation for staying in the bad is personal derp, of which I fortunately possess a generous supply.

Similarly, I have stayed away from PvP. Everything I read about it suggested a gib-fest, and I think I might be getting too old and comfortable to relive the WoW Season 8 Wizardcleave Experience.

The game is still subcription-based, and the box is a little expensive for what it offers, but it has a functional points-based cash shop, mostly with pets and clothes. The infrastructure is in place for a seamless transition to an F2P model, which is probably what will happen, not least because Funcom has acquired plenty of experience with it through their stewardship of Age of Conan. I’m slowly letting go of subscription elitism and coming around to the view that this model can work all right.

Categories: Other MMOs

Free To Play, or Train Yourself To Let Go…

August 2, 2012 Comments off

So, I was hoping to write an upbeat post for once.

I ended up biting the bullet and transferring Sullas to a destination silo on the 30th when it became clear that Bioware would do it for me by the end of summer. I was (and provisionally am) looking forward to reintegrating into the new community, returning to PvP, and making the best of the new situation.

Alas, after Harold Macmillan: events, dear boy, events.

I will readily admit that this is a disappointing development, probably for most of us who wish the game well and have developed a certain loyalty to it. It feels as though Bioware laid down its arms a bit too soon and fearfully, just as the game finally came into its own with tools like LFD, interface polish, numerous quality of life improvements that modern themepark players expect. Rated battlegrounds and the (stillborn?) story patch 1.4 never really got much of a chance to work their appeal. Surely, 900,000 subscribers amounted to some remaining fuel in the tank?

SW:TOR is the same game it was before this announcement, and it is still my opinion that it’s a very good game – with good mechanics, excellent levels of challenge available if you take a moment to find them, and the most immersive, epic storytelling in any MMO to date. However, it would be dishonest to argue on the grounds of superior taste. SW:TOR was designed for mass appeal. Its design did incorporate quite a few compromises to succeed in the Toyota way rather than the Bentley way. Succeed thus it evidently did not, although corporate mismanagement (referenced time and time again here at Soresu and elsewhere) rather than the core concept is to blame.

Cartel Coins are… so awfully tacky, though there is a certain dark humour to the conceptual link between EA and the Hutts. I do not really mind if people are allowed to buy Jawa pets, experience boosters, unique moddable outfits, coloured weapon crystals or whatever pleases them in the cash shop, i.e. if it works more or less like Lotro’s. I will begin looking askance at the system and indeed the game if it gets any more aggressive than that and encroaches upon in-game achievement. One test case will be the interaction of the cash shop with the Legacy and Valor systems, which at the moment present the player with several meaningful and worthy goals in the game.

Not a great week in TOR, but one tries to find inspiration to go forward from here. At least more people will get to experience the game, right?

Categories: Uncategorized