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Thought of the Day: “FPS: First Person Spectacle” or “Spectacular Setpieces Suck”

April 22, 2012 Leave a comment

NOT THE FACE!

Modern Warfare was a great game. It took an aging concept, put it in a modern setting, gave it some very memorable characters, an redefined reinvention. Modern Warfare 2 was a decent follow-up, but it seemed to me that the set pieces were more frequent, the situations were more dire, the settings were more hazardous, and most helicopters that flew or tried to rescue someone crashed in a fantastic cacophony of churning metal, flying debris and a giant ball of fire. Modern Warfare 3, frankly, was ridiculous. The set pieces seemed to outnumber the amount of time players actually had control of their character, and this time, every rescuing helicopter crashed, and the passengers always survived unscathed.

I am using the series as an example, but it seems to be that first person shooters (single-player obviously, not multi-player) are more about the fantastic spectacle and less about the challenge. At first it was some form of explosion or crash or ambush. Then it morphed into larger set pieces with collapsing structures and manic car chase sequences. Battlefield 3 took it up several notches by collapsing skyscrapers during a devastating earthquake, and oh-so-shockingly, the protagonist survives the building crashing on him. I can go off on a tangent here and talk about why every first person shooter hero seems to have skin made out of Adamantium, but that is a topic for another post.

Maybe I am using a frame of reference limited to the FPS titles I have been exposed to in the last year, but the pattern is pretty apparent to me: make a massive spectacle, a sequence so insanely improbable and outlandish that one can’t help but marvel at their screen. I think the only time that a set piece actually gave me goosebumps and fit very well into the story arc was *SPOLER ALERT* in Crysis, when the mountain slowly deteriorates in the distance, shaking off skyscrapers-sized boulders and the colossal alien ship encased within rears its extraterrestrial head. /*SPOLER ALERT* Outside of that, every time I lose control of my character because they need to narrowly escape death in one fashion or another, is a nuisance and hindrance more than anything else. But then again, perhaps the worst type of spectacle is the one when you actually do have control of your character during a spectacle sequence, because you don’t know if dodging bullets and dispatching baddies in a meticulous fashion should be your top priority or watching the insanity of the spectacle unfold.

This was supposed to be a “thought of the day” post, so allow me to be succinct: the fact of the matter is that first person shooters are increasingly more about the spectacle, and less about the challenge/story/experience. And with the never-ending race for creating the next best engine, that is not likely to change any time soon.

“200 Hours of Amalur” or “Amalurning to Not Trust These Numbers”

February 6, 2012 4 comments

Context

There are a few things I want to talk about today. But in order to do that, I need to establish some context. Damn context. Gets me every time!

First and foremost, 38 Studios’ lead designer, Ian Frazier conducted an internal test. He had testers play Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and complete the game in a “speed run”. Since speed run sounds (intentionally) ambiguous, this is how it is defined:

“That means easy difficulty, skip all cut scenes and dialogue, sprint everywhere that’s sprintable, fast travel everywhere you can, don’t do any combat you don’t need to do… that all took around 200 hours, and that was a speed run.”

That is actually an astronomical number. In a day and age where single-player versions in video games take 3-4 hours to complete (hello modern Warfare 3!), a 200 hour video-game is an unprecedented, shocking and welcome event. Of course it is also said that the main storyline should take only 30-40 hours (which is between 15-20% of the 200 hours) to complete. So the 200 hours of gameplay is largely dependent on how much of an overachieving completionist you really are.

The second piece of contextual information you need is that since August 2011, I have invested about 14 days of playtime into my main character, a Night Elf Hunter in World of Warcraft. 14 days is approaching 350 hours of played time in WoW. This implies I spend around two hours daily playing WoW.

Beyond the Context

MMOs, by design, require you to invest a significant amount of time. The meta-game, at every level, is designed around grinding. If you want the best PvP equipment, you must grind points in PvP. These points are further gated by a weekly cap, so you cannot play for a hundred hours in a week and get the best gear in a week. Professions, PvE content, world events, daily quests, transmogrification, and just about every other in-game mechanic is designed around perpetual grind. The reason for this is simple and possibly forgivable. No developer in the world with a finite team and finite resources can create content fast enough to be consumed by the player base. Months of coding, tweaking and planning can be completed in a 20-minute dungeon run. I don’t like the fact that i have to grind everything in an MMO, but as a lifelong fan of the genre, I understand the rationale.

Lately though, it seems that this design decisions seems to be penetrating single-player games, particularly RPGs.

Take Skyrim for example. Prior to the launch, there was a statement by one of the developers that the quest system in the game would technically spit out an infinite number of quests for the player to take on. One example of such behavior was the Thieves Guild, which could send you on a wide variety of jobs across the land. The jobs were randomly created and you could pick from one of several mission types. A second example were jobs made available through barkeeps and innkeepers in towns and cities. These randomly generated quests could send you to go kill <insert antagonist> at <insert location>. Technically, you could have an infinite number of quests in your log. However, I personally found this to be incredibly lame, as it seems to add unnecessary, artificial padding to an otherwise great game.

I enjoy a complex RPG with a deep, compelling storyline and well thought-out lore. Dragon Age took me over 106 hours to complete, and I veered into every nook, cranny and cramped dungeon corridor I could get into. I was elated to find that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s “speed run” will take you over 200 hours. But after realizing that only 15% or so of that is the main storyline, I can’t help but wonder how much of this game is fluff activity that yields limited to none player satisfaction.

My point is very simple, MMOs should certainly try not to artificially inflate content, but I don’t think that is likely to change any time soon. Single-player games, however, don’t need to pad content with unnecessary grind mechanisms, random quest dispensers, and fluff, unpolished content simply to get more player hour mileage out of the title. 10 times out of 10, I would prefer a tight campaign with side-quests that have meaningful premise, meaningful consequences and meaningful rewards, than “the ability to complete an infinite number of quests”. I am hoping the the later is not the case with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning when I open the box and install the game tonight. But I guess I will let you know in 200 hours of playtime!

“The Holy Trinity of Modern Shooters” or “Do AAA Developers Care About Critical Success or Commercial Success?”

January 4, 2012 1 comment

The Holy Trinity of Modern Shooters

I haven’t played a shooter in nearly two months. I finished Modern Warfare 3 the day it came out, not because it was oh-so-good (it wasn’t), but because there was a story that has been in the making since 2007, and I wanted to see it to whatever (largely bitter) end. I also played Battlefield 3, which was shockingly similar in premise, up to and including playable Russian operatives, but moderately more enjoyable and equally unlikely. Gears of War 3 is sitting somewhere around my Xbox, ready to be played, but I think at this stage, I am just tired of shooters.

It seems to be that shooters these days rely primarily on the three factors:

An on-rails experience: Everything these days seems to center around playing the role of the developer’s puppet, a well-trained mouse making it’s way down an elaborate maze while an invisible hand guides it and ridiculously over-the-top set-pieces fuel it.

Over the top action sequences: You can survive bullets to the face, you can outrun a nuclear explosion, you can survive at least three separate helicopter crashes, you can jump from the tallest buildings without breaking bones. And while we are at it, why is it that 90% of the time, the chopper that was supposed to rescue you, crashes right before, during, or immediatly after the rescue attempt?

Shock value: This is perhaps the most critical of these elements. Every major shooter suffers from the need to create the biggest shock value, a controversial scene that will create airwaves, and fuel the next the right-wing anti-video-game-pundits tirade of why video games lead to artificial insemination or explosive diarrhea while simultaneously burning holes through our social and moral fabric.

Do AAA Developers Care About Critical Success or Commercial Success?

At this stage, I am just tired of the endless clones that result from the unholy amalgamation of the afore-mentioned three factors. Oddly enough, the best games of 2011, Portal 2, Bastion, Skyrim, did not need to resort to these elements in order to be critically successful. So perhaps all these developers care about at this stage is commercial success. Critical success and audience satisfaction be damned.

I am not trying to say that this is the only motivation. I am sure as a labor of love, most developers feel they are creating something of value that will be remembered for some time to come. The latest trailer for Rainbow Six: Patriots is a stark reminder of this. There is a scene where a civilian is instructed by a terrorist cell to go to Times Square to detonate the vest or his wife will be killed. Team Rainbow intercepts this man, realizes there is no time to diffuse the bomb, makes the split/second decision to chose the life of one over the lives of many, and throws him off of a bridge with seconds to spare. The bomb detonates before the poor bastard hits the water.

The developer jargon accompanying the trailer says the game will confront the player with similar tough choices, which begs the question: do they understand what ‘choice’ means? Choice implies that I have two or more ways of resolving a situation, and each of these paths has it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages. If one choice ends in one man dying, and the other includes him and everyone around you (including you) dying, is it really a choice? My point is that the entire thing is created for pure shock value, and the illusion of choice is stapled to it to give it illusion of meaning.

An article I read recently by a gentleman called David Burroughs on Sabotage Times called into question the need for such shock value, how it has diminishing returns and how it ultimately doesn’t add anything of value.

Is it right to expect the player to abstain from ‘murdering’ the ‘people’ in the airport when the only means of communication awarded the player is engage with the game and shoot, or do nothing?

Can something as intentionally controversial as ‘No Russian’ carry any real weight when the entire narrative is experienced down the barrel of a gun?

This is a very subtle but significant point. The whole point of the No Russian mission was to paint a picture of the atrocities of war, and how it would affect us if the horrors visited upon people in warzones were inflicted upon the ‘civilized’ world in a single act of mindless madness. But how can something like that carry any weight when the narrative involves you committing the atrocity. The whole point of identifying with the victims is to be able to paint on a face for the antagonist, but when you are the perpetrator yourself (or at the very least a silent observer) how do you create the impact? Ostensibly, the whole idea then, is to create controversy, an act filled with such a horrendous premise that developers know it will attract the ire of critics almost universally. And perhaps they welcome it. For no publicity is bad publicity, right? Except this strategy has exponentially diminishing returns.

Ever wonder why a small child getting blown up, while on vacation in Europe, in Modern Warfare 3 didn’t create nearly as much hype?

“Why I Quit WoW, Again” or “The Endless Cycle”

August 2, 2011 9 comments

I have “quit” WoW a grand total of… well actually I have lost count at this point. It is a great game, one that has been the cause of many a triumphs and digital glories, but also one that stagnates over time and becomes too “casual-unfriendly”. I have also come to realize that WoW is a great game if you are at the top of the food pile, the 10% or so of guilds that raid regularly, accomplish goals and manage to dent the world in their own way. If you don’t have a guild to run things with, you’re either on your own, or you are playing with a rather large contingent of blithering idiots who can’t tell their two handed mace from their short sword.

Over the course of time I have started to run out of time. In college, I could get back from classes, do a bit of work, raid for four hours on a stretch, play a little more, and still have time to go out with friends for a couple of drinks. Now there are several days when I can’t play anything because everything is packed in so tightly, there is no wiggle room. It has been brought to my attention on a few occasions that I “need to learn how to say ‘no’”, and I “need to lessen the load on my plate.” But all of that is easier said than done when you are involved in as many things as I am.

The ‘gain’ vs. ‘fun’ Debate

WoW, by the end of it had become a chore. I logged in every day, and because of the lack of time, I would try to maximize my ‘gain’ in the game. Veteran MMO players will understand this. There is a very thin line between maximizing your gain from the game (be it loot, gold, experience, or anything else that somehow advances your character in some dimension), and just having fun. Years ago, leading a guild, downing the toughest raid bosses was fun, because I had all the time in the world to spare. Now everything was centered around the maximum gain. I realized soon that I hated what I was doing in WoW. I would log in every day, finish the compulsory dailies, and try strenuously to find a half-competent group to run a 5-man with, followed by some AH manipulation and then log off till the next day.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It was monotonous, boring, and more than a little tedious. By the end I was just trying to justify paying for the subscription in-game, because I somehow owed it to those measly $15 to put in my time and advance my character in whichever small way possible. And during all this, I wasn’t having any fun at all.

So that is why I quit.

Categories: Opinion, World of Warcraft

“Massively Cumbersome Looting” or “I Hate it When a Body Sparkles”

December 30, 2010 1 comment

“…we already accept inventory mechanics in which 100 metal ingots take up as much space as a ring, bears sometimes carry swords and multiple hides but have only a 50% chance to have one leg or tooth on each corpse, gold bars are worth less than gold coins, and gold coins take up no space.”

Zubon, Looting, Kill Ten Rats

Zubon recently made a post about looting and how convoluted this mechanic is in our favorite MMOs. He touched upon limited inventory space, a thorn in my side for as long as I have played MMOs. Industry standard-setters like WoW are the worst culprits of this disease. When you kill a foe, you much walk up to its body, click it, manually transfer all items to your inventory and move on. Zubon argues, and I agree, if the experience I get goes directly into my character’s level, cash is deposited directly into my coffers, why is it that I need to manually pick up that Great Axe from the squirrel I just downed? (The absurdity of which merits another post.)

Both looting and limited inventory space are archaic and dated concepts in MMOs. Looting is nothing more than a senseless time sink, nothing good comes of it for the player, and it doesn’t serve any other purpose than the alleged psychological advantage of knowing you just teabagged the corpse. I am being facetious, but the point stands: looting is obsolete, and unless it serves some actual purpose, such as salvaging in EVE Online, I think it needs to be automated to allow players to a) get the most out of their experience and b) remove one of the most repetitive, mind-numbing aspects from contemporary MMO gaming. I bet if I put up a poll asking MMO players if they would like to physically loot bodies or just have the items dumped into their inventory, the majority would choose the later.

I know I often champion the need for immersion, but once you have looted that useless piece of junk from the 85,657th body, immersion can suck it. With the advent of new technology, mechanics and the continued metamorphosis of the MMO industry, I believe it is imperative that developers take another look at these dated concept, and remove/revamp those that force players into incessant grinds and repetitive gameplay.

Categories: Looting, Opinion

“Dealing With the End of the World” or “Four Weeks to Cataclysmic Events”

November 9, 2010 1 comment

This was bound to happen. We are exactly four weeks, unless my math is off, and it usually isn’t, from the release of Cataclysm (EDIT: thanks for the confirmation, Tobold!) The blogosphere is abuzz with opinions regarding the end of Wrath and the pending beginning of Cataclysm.

A lot of things are now happening in the player-base simultaneously.

The End of End-Game Raiding

First and foremost is the boredom, either brought about because your guild has been farming endgame for a while now, and there is literally nothing left for you to do anymore. Or because they never got to end-game, and they are so close to “greens that are better than purples” that they see no point in raiding. In any case, fewer and fewer people are motivated to engage in end-game raiding, especially if the primary motivation is loot, because said loot will be obsolete in less than a month.

The Lazy Subscribers

Another is a sense of lethargy for some players, regardless of their endgame persuasion, they are just tired of the existing grind and just need something new. This group includes players like me, who, for one reason or another, just cannot bring themselves to play another few months leading up to the sparkly new content that will once again spark their interest. I let my subscription run out about two months prior, not because I had conquered all content, or because there was nothing left to do. I got tired of two things. First, the inability to raid with my friends because my geographical location is nine hours ahead of EST. Second, because despite my love for WoW, I find myself increasingly aware of the endless grind for better gear. Once you make it to level 80, the only way forward, especially in PvP is to farm more loot. Whatever the case, I won’t be back before Cataclysm.

The Overzealous Overachievers

This is a special band of individuals who go into hyperdrive mode when an expansion nears. They have neat little lists of all the things they want to accomplish before the new content hits, especially if the new contents changes or removes some of the older contents. The list items range from normal (explore all the kingdoms) to completely luck-based (obtain a raptor mount from Zul’Gurub) to the utterly insane (Complete LoreMaster when you never even touched one of the two vanilla continents). These are the people that (probably) spend the most amount of time in the pre-expansion hit world.

The Biggest PvPenis

And finally, PvP explodes as more and more players are logging on primarily through force of habit, only to realize they haven’t much to do online, and then join the BG queue to fill that void in their hearts known as pre-expansion blues.

Opinions Abound!

Everyone is talking about the expansion in one context or another it seems.

Syncaine has a post up about the differences he sees between Ultima Online and World of Warcraft, the most prominent of which, it seems to him, is the tendency for WoW to “prevent bad things from happening to players”. In the interest of partiality, it should be said Syncaine’s opinions notwithstanding, he hasn’t played WoW in quite some time. I remember the older days of vanilla WoW, when everything was blatant and well-pronounced grind, and while I understand where Syncaine is coming from, I would much rather prefer the, uh, I suppose hand-holding for the lack of a better word, than corehounds that spawned every 18 minutes, and running UBRS 40 times to get your guild keyed for Onyxia.

Spinks wonders whether the WoW formula will eventually cater only to the ultra (turbo?) hardcore raiders, and more people will continue to dip briefly into F2P titles before something else half-interesting comes out, endlessly repeating that cycle. I do agree with this point to an extent, but I think it needs to be refined a little. I don’t think people get tired of raiding, or WoW would have died out in 2005. I think people get tired of raiding the same content, a phenomenon to which Blizzard has consistently responded with new content patches introducing new instances and/or expansions.

Psychochild, as usual, has an incredibly well-thought out post about the problem he sees with the MMO industry today. Although his list is comprised of some very broad concepts, what resonated with me a lot more was Wolfsheads comment underneath the post. He says:

“You’ve made some great points! For me, the big culprit is unambitious and risk averse game designers — they create the rules and they set the agenda. The buck has to stop with them. They are the slippery pied pipers that the players follow via a steady diet of rewards and incentivized gameplay.

People are simply experiencing MMO fatigue. I believe MMO bloggers are just echoing the dissatisfaction of the MMO community in this regard. This is a complex subject and there are many forces at work which are contributing to the general malaise out there. Just as the Roman Empire fell due to many reasons, so too are MMOs in decline for many reasons. Here are a few off the top of my head:

1) Lack of Choice – Where are the quality niche MMOs? How is it we live in a 500 channel universe for television but we only have a few AAA+ MMOs to choose from? Obviously, good MMOs cost a heck of a lot of money to create. We’ll have to wait this one out while the costs to produce MMOs comes down much like what happened to the music business where anyone with a computer can produce a studio quality album.

2) Lack of Innovation – Players are bored with essentially the same content (dressed up as “new” expansions) being offered to them. There’s a reason why most TV series — even good ones — don’t last more than a few years. There’s a reason we don’t use cell phones that are 10 years old too. Unless you are selling toilet paper, every business must innovate to stay alive.

3) Lack of Player Freedom – MMOs have morphed into big budget single-player video games with Hollywood cinematics that have more in common with Zelda and God of War than Ultima Online and EverQuest. Players must stay on the rails. The story always ends the same. No deviation. Also, where is the dynamic world we were promised years ago?

4) The Rise of Demographics and Metrics and Based Design – MMOs are now designed to appeal to the widest possible demographic. While this is good for the bottom line and there are some good things about this, there are also a lot of negatives such as dumbed-down gameplay, welfare epics, etc.

5) Convenience Based Design that Panders to Time-Starved, Short Attention Span Gamers – This is all about money and related to #4 above. Instead of the player conforming to the virtual world, now the virtual world must conform to the player. The result is solo friendly MMOs. Travel is almost instantaneous and rendered pretty much meaningless via portals and dungeon finder tools. Loot means nothing as well as it basically grows on trees in most MMOs.

6) The Death of Community – Thanks to solo friendly MMOs, people barely chat anymore and why would they? Community and playing online with other people was one of the big selling points of MMOs years ago, now it’s just a marketing ploy. What community is left is dominated by vulgar jokes and general idiocy on the Trade Channel.”

I particular like point # 5, that convenience-based design which panders to time-starved, short-attention-span-gam- have I talked about Larisa’s post yet?

Larisa, being Larisa, instead offers a list of reasons why WoW is still one of the greatest things to happen to gamers and nerds (a double-whammy category that I am a proud member of, as is, I am certain, Larisa) worldwide. A lot of her points are personal, unique experiences, but then again, that is what online gaming is all about: experiencing the same world through the lens of the people we interact in it with, and through the lens of our own distinct backgrounds, ideologies and experiences.

“Why Medal of Honor is Unrealistic?” or “Headshotting the Noob”

November 5, 2010 1 comment

I am not an American. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize the brave men and women who fight for their liberties and countrymen against an enemy so entrenched in the ancient ways of warfare, no civilization has ever been able to subdue them. The War on Terror is a messy, horrid affair. It is bloody, there are casualties and ultimate sacrifices are made on a daily basis.

When I picked up Medal of Honor, and perused through the marketing lingo with such bold catch phrases as “realistic military shooter” and “play today’s war firsthand”, I was intrigued. The original Medal of Honor landed you, in Saving Private Ryan style, on the beaches of Normandy. It was a terrifying affair, and one that permanently imprints you with the utmost sense of respect for the insanity, the violence and the sacrifices the Greatest Generation had to go through to topple the Third Reich. My expectations, understandably, were quite high for this latest installment.

Instead I got a bunch of bearded jocks who trash talked their foes, fought an unrelenting enemy without so much as breaking a sweat, walked around in plain sight without getting spotted, reigned death upon their adversaries while jamming to heavy metal, and proclaimed themselves the “not the hammer, but the razor edge that will decide the war”.

The troops that stormed the beach on D-Day seemed like a band of brothers, patriots till the end, fighting for what’s right. This new game made those respectable soldiers seem like a bunch of dicks who got some new cool toys to play with and they genuinely took pleasure in wiping out the enemy. My point is that the new installment, in its pursuit to be a cool,  “trendy” military shooter, instead came off as a lame attempt at capturing the war through Michael Bay’s lens with an equally abysmal cast of forgettable and fake characters.

The reboot sucked, and the final nail in the coffin, in all likelihood, will be in three days, when Call of Duty: Black Ops launches, and headshots MoH like the fucking noob it is.

“Player Controlled World Events!” or “Here’s to Hoping They do Something Right!”

October 31, 2010 1 comment

I am not a big fan of Cryptic. This isn’t to say they don’t work hard or their games aren’t popular. I am at odds with the developers over at Cryptic because every action that comes from then seems to be entrenched in making more money as quickly as is humanly possible, and has little to do with customer satisfaction. Maybe that is generalizing too much from select isolated incidents, but the fact of the matter remains: my trust in Cryptic is minimal at best and it will likely take a miracle to restore any faith.

I digress. Massively last week reported that Cryptic’s Star Trek Online will allow players to generate content though The Foundry. There are two questions that pop into one’s mind with such an announcement:

  • First, will anyone be able to generate and post their content and are there any quality control mechanisms in-built?
  • Second, is this a smart move by Cryptic to allow the thousands of individuals with their creative skill sets to contribute to the evolving world, or is this simply clever way to mask the fact that they developers have no idea what the player base wants in terms of content, so they are conveniently handing over the reigns to said players?

The first question, lo and behold, was answered in the same post. All user-generated content will be properly reviewed and subject to intense scrutiny by both the player base and the developers before it makes it onto the live servers. Good strategy, there should be a comprehensive check and balances system to ensure only the best of the very best makes it to the live servers. But then the question becomes, what if the best of the best simply isn’t good enough? Does it automatically get in because there simply isn’t anything better? On a personal level I am quite excited about this step, because I believe the player base can best design (or at the very least inform) content that it wants to engage in itself. However, I look at half-finished, unpolished, and at times downright botched work from Cryptic earlier, and I fear that this little experiment will go so awry, no other developer will ever attempt it again.

This isn’t the first time user-generated content has made rounds of the MMO world. Several WoW addons allow you to create in-game quests to (re)enact events or forge entirely new adventures. Though the use is primarily restricted to RP, such as the excellent 4.01 compatible Verisimilar addon for WoW, it goes to show there is interest in the community for community generated content.

The second questions, however, remains a mystery. If my review of the Blood Moon Halloween event (exactly a year ago to the date) is any indication, Cryptic has never been particularly good at adding content to their games. So perhaps by handing over the driving seat to the player base, they will be able to garner interest that their own content development team failed to illicit. It also means that they can add content to their title, apparently completely free of cost, since I sincerely doubt players will be rewarded monetarily for generating content that makes it to the live servers. I suppose time will tell the true merit of this bold move, and I for one hope its to get the community involved in the project, and not because the folks at Cryptic have run their idea well dry.

If implemented correctly, I think it can be a defining moment in the ongoing MMO evolution. Imagine you gather atop a hill with your friends. Your guild master, an aged veteran of countless wars is briefing you about the undead plague that has spread though the country farmlands in the past week, and how you must use overwhelming numbers to charge and eradicate every undead soul in your path till nothing is left standing in your wake. As a reward, you will get guild points that you can use to purchase things from the guild bank, or repair your equipment. The GM is your quest master and your raid leader rolled into one. And then you charge, axes and swords and battle-hammers raised high, playing out a user-generated event with in-game buddies for in-game fame, glory, and some form of user-generated currency.

I think that would be a helluva lot of fun, so at least for going boldly where no studio has gone before, I salute the team at Cryptic for their audacity and willingness to take risks.

“What MMOs Can Learn From Red Dead Redemption” or “Emotionally Penalized”

June 30, 2010 9 comments

Preface

I have been playing red Dead Redemption lately. The statistics tell me I have finished “18.6%” of the game. Note that this number isn’t necessarily a reflection of the main storyline. It is a figure designed for completionists like me, that will obsessively fuss over the smaller tasks and side-games to ensure they get that precious, oh so precious, 100% completion statistic!

Thought: Why do we never see random world encounters in MMOs?

Spinks has a post up today that spoke about activities your character engages in between organized group activity sessions. One of the bullet points listed was as follows:

“The origin of our grinds is not just to keep people playing but to answer the question, so what does your character do when they aren’t killing dragons?

  • Maybe they just like wandering the world (not really much to do in most MMOs here.)
  • …”

This got me thinking: why is it that in MMOs, you go to specific locations to accomplish specific objectives only? Whether its a world boss, or a quest, or a daily, or a dungeon, you take the shortest path to the location, completely ignoring anything and everything else between point A and point B. What is the fun in a persistent online world if everything can be found on WoWHead or (the now-defunct) Thottbot, before you even attempt to do it, where everything is explicitly and exactly laid out? Why is it that no MMO (that I know of) has randomly generated world events for players to participate in? For if that were the case, maybe more players would actively engage in world exploration and wandering, beyond questing for the first time.

Red Dead Random

Red Dead redemption has a fantastic storyline and stellar voice-acting. But beyond the central narrative, as is the case with most Rockstar Games, you can take on a wide range of missions and side-activities either for monetary gain or social stature (fame or infamy). Some of these activities have to be sought out, such as “kill 5 Coyotes before they harm you”. But there are several missions that pop out of the blue as you are horseback riding your way through the countryside. You are at complete liberty to accept the mission (no prompt or anything, you can just choose to participate in the action), ignore it altogether, or shoot the mission starter in the face if that is what pleases you.

Let us take an example of some missions I have come across in Red Dead Redemption and juxtapose them against counterparts quests in an MMO, specifically WoW.

The Kidnapping – Red Dead Redemption

I am riding on my horse down the dirt-path carved into the terrain by frequent travelers. I am minding my own business, on my way to meet a new contact who goes by the name of Irish. I am contemplating if I should just fast-travel to the location; in retrospect, I am glad I didn’t exercise that option. You’ll see why in just a second. Suddenly, I hear someone in the distance say:

“Please sir, would you help me? They’ve taken my wife!”

I pause, wondering if this was a mission marker that I missed on my map. The rider who has sought my help turns up as a blue circle on my mini-map. As I contemplate my response to this stranger’s query, he simply takes off in one direction, eager to get to his wife. As the blue circle grows distant, I get a message on my screen suggesting I follow the rider. I think a second longer and decide to follow the poor guy, and see what this random encounter has in store for me.

The man rides at top speed down bushy knolls and grass highlands for a little bit, and then he stops short of a posse of hooligans. His wife sits atop a horse, with a noose around her neck. Before I can even so much as gauge the situation, a firefight breaks out. I take out my trusty Winchester Repeater, and over the next few seconds, gun down the three perpetrators.

Then I realize I was too slow. They have already killed the husband, who lays crumpled next to his dead horse. I look over at the wife. The shooting has scared off the horse atop which she sat, and she is hanging from the tree branch. I panic. I run over to her increasingly limp body, but even as I am closing the distance I get a message on-screen that says matter-of-factly: “The victim has died.”

I am utterly devastated. Had I been a few seconds faster, both in the decision to follow the man and in the shootout, I could have saved their lives. I know they are digital beings in an artificial world, but the sense of loss is still palpable.

I came across this encounter a second and then a third time. The second time I ignored it altogether, because it was late and I just wanted to finish one last story mission before calling it a night. The third time I immediately followed the man, this time to a different location, with the kidnappers using a cart as cover, and the wife already hanging. I managed to save the husband, but the wife perished. The husband collapsed at the hanging, limp body of his wife and wailed.

A few things to remember:

  • The mission was completely optional
  • If you chose to take on the quest, you simply followed the husband, there was no mission log to keep track of the mission, and no prompt saying that you were now on this mission. In fact, you could abandon course at any point and just go your way if you so chose.
  • There were multiple outcomes: you could save both husband and wife; you could save just the wife; you could save just the husband
  • In any of the scenarios above, you weren’t penalized for failing (unless you take into account being emotionally penalized); if you failed, that family was dead, you were responsible for it, and there was nothing you could do to change that

The Kidnapping – World of Warcraft

Here is how WoW handles the same quest. There is a quest giver that is always found in the same exact location. In order to take on the kidnapping quest, you have to go to the quest-giver, you won’t come across the quest-giver at random. The quest is formally accepted, and shows up in your quest log. You are now officially tasked with the rescue of the fair damsel. The husband quest-giver does not accompany you, he does not lead the charge to get his beloved wife back. He just stands there, expressionless, leaving the responsibility to you.

In fact, you are not the only person he sends to save his wife, he sends along anyone and everyone who approaches him.

You go to the location where the wife is being held. The location is static and never changes. You could repeat the quest with 10 other characters, the same wife will always be in peril and be found in the same exact location. Why does she always get kidnapped? Why do the kidnappers never learn and change locations?

There may be the possibility of you failing the quest in case the wife dies. If that happens, you can simply abandon the quest, go back to the quest-giver, and he will give you the same quest as if nothing ever happened to her. You can go back to the mission location, and there she is, magically resurrected from the dead!

If you succeed, you either escort the wife to the husband, or she runs away, apparently to reunite with her husband. You never see her again. Even when you go back to the quest-giver, she is nowhere to be seen or found. And the husband continues to stand there, never moving, almost as if he is expecting the next kidnapping to happen any second, yet he does nothing to stop it.

The Juxtaposition

Let us construct a table.

Red Dead Redemption World of Warcraft
Mission is optional Mission is optional
There is no mission in your mission log There is a quest in your quest log
The mission-starter is randomly generated The quest-giver is always found in a static location and the location never changes
The objective’s location is randomly generated The objective’s location is static and the location never changes
Tactical situation varies (cart being used as cover; more vs . less kidnappers) Tactical situation remains the same
Failure has consequences; the family dies permanently; there are emotional consequences though Failure has zero consequence, you simply hit the reset button
You can partially succeed or partially fail You can only succeed or fail
Whether you fail or succeed, it is highly unlikely you will come across the same couple again in the same situation If you succeed, you will find the same quest-giver in the same place, offering the same quest, with the same damsel in distress in the same location

The question then becomes: why can’t more MMO developers introduce more open-world gaming to their titles? Why must everything be static, pre-determined, fated to occur in the same exact manner for all eternity (or at least till Deathwing comes along and fucks things up for everyone!)

There is an inherent fallacy in MMOs. As a powerful champion in the world, you are supposed to be able to create a meaningful and lasting impact, saving the world time and again from endless threats and predicaments. Yet your actions seem to have zero impact on the physical world.

  • That village you saved by killing the 10 wolves nearby is still under threat from said wolves.
  • That Deathlord you vanquished still taunts denizens from the depths of his dungeon.
  • Even the wife you rescued is never reunited with her husband because she is suddenly and inexplicably kidnapped again by the same group of miscreants you just dispatched.

It is ironic that MMOs are designed to give the player a feeling of power and control over the world, yet the world utterly fails to show any signs of a positive (or negative for that matter) impact by the player. Every threat remains. Every wolf still howls at the gates. Every damsel is in perpetual distress.

I long for the day when they craft an MMO experience that mimics the random world encounters of Red Dead Redemption. Till then, I suppose John Marston will continue to handle the discrepancy.

Article of the Day: “The Evolution of Gaming” or “Demands Evolution Complexity”

June 21, 2010 1 comment

The article of the day was this incredibly insightful look into the mind of John Riccitiello, CEO of one of the biggest powerhouse gaming companies of the contemporary gaming age: Electronic Arts. Add to that equation some very powerful writing by the great Stephen Tolito, and you got a fascinating read. The article is difficult to sum up because in typical Tolito style, it touches upon so many different points. But there are a two things that stand out, and I will try to summarize those here.

The most important point in the article is that fact that most gaming CEO’s actually don’t play video games at all. That is the practical equivalent of the President of World Bank utterly disinterested in global economies and the international monetary status quo, or if Micheal Dell was actually a cyberphobe. It makes little to no sense that someone who is responsible for a gaming behemoth have such little interest in playing said games himself, like when Activision’s Bobby Kotick told a gathering of developers that he doesn’t play video games. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, that is like if Steve Jobs kept promoting the iPhone, but used a BlackBerry instead. It’s retarded to realize that some of the biggest minds in the industry are merely driving the companies towards financial success, and they have no actual idea of what makes a game memorable, or, at the very least, fun.

Another point was somewhat along the lines of what Gordon said a couple of days ago about returning to some of his favorite MMOs, only to find them bland, almost prehistoric by today’s standards, and in some cases plain irritating:

“It’s not just Everquest that I’ve had this experience with either. Anarchy Online and Dark Age of Camelot were the same. I adored them when they first came out but when I briefly tried each of them again a couple of years ago, I just couldn’t get past how terrible they looked, how frustrating their UIs were and annoying the grind was.”

- Gordon, The Point Of No Returning To MMOs

Riccitiello resonates these view in his own way:

“When I played games a decade ago or 15 years ago, I was a lot more forgiving,” he told me during our interview this month. “Part of it was, if you could sort of simulate [something] in software, almost anything, it was the first time you saw it. If you could just pull off the technology and engineering, you didn’t necessarily need the same artful insight, and you certainly didn’t need the polish. A lot of it, if you remember games going back to like GoldenEye on the N64, is that we remember them as a lot better than they are.

Stephen Tolito, The Unexpected Gamer Who Runs EA

Both viewpoints essentially cover the same debate. Video games have evolved in every facet, from gameplay, to technology, art direction, sound design, graphics and so on. The change has been so markedly drastic in the last decade, that if we were to go back to our favorite games from just ten years ago, we would be sorely disappointed because our sense of what makes a game memorable and fun and exciting has metamorphosed over the course of time.

I have one recent example. With the imminent release of StarCraft II, I decided to load up my StarCraft I Battlechest and replay the campaigns for the original game and its expansion, so I am fully in tune with the events leading up to the second game. What I found instead was a dated game with bland graphics, poor level design and cookie-cutter units with predictable gameplay. Bear in mind that the game was truly revolutionary when it first game out, so much so in fact that it is played competitively to this day. But I was turned off. After about an hour into the Terran campaign, I was typing in cheat codes to skip missions themselves just so I could relive the story without trudging through the trouble of actually playing the game.

The bottom line is that what was the norm yesterday is no longer true today. What once excited us about a game visually is no longer acceptable. If we see clipping errors or graphical glitches in a game like Crysis, which, until 15 years ago, was an unimaginable technological feat, we immediately feel turned off by the ‘lazy’ developers. We take things for granted. We nitpick. We comment on the most anal aspects of gaming, that until a few years ago, didn’t even exist. Are we being too harsh? Maybe, but that is the price of evolution.

We are at a stage in video gaming history where titles are visually richer, the stories are intricate and complicated, the gameplay is revolutionary and complex, and the bar is being perpetually raised higher. It is a time of great innovation and inevitable letdowns. And as the evolution shapes and morphs our experience and expectations, so must our criticisms evolve to better guide the ebb and flow of contemporary video game development.

“Health Bar Watching for the Serious Enthusiast” or “Healers Have the Worst View of Fights”

June 8, 2010 3 comments

I have played a Paladin all six years of World of Warcraft. I have also played a few alts:

  • A mage: Pantheon
  • A Hunter: Xanthus
  • A Warlock: Tereminus
  • A few other lower levels alts just to get an idea of the other classes

But at the end of the day, home base has always been the Paladin class. It is where I feel the most secure, it is the class I enjoy the most, and despite my frustrations with the lack of love for the class from Blizzard in the past, I continue to cling on to it like a desperate Republican supporting the likes of Sarah Palin for fear of the Democrats taking office.

I digress. Within the Paladin class, I have clung on to the Holy tree like socks on Velcro. In fact, I have played the Holy Paladin with such singular devotion and dedication that I have have absolutely no idea how to play either of the other two specs. Being an old-schooler, and despite ample evidence to the contrary, the phrase ‘Paladin DPS’ always strikes me as a bit of an oxymoron, so much so in fact, that I have never had a Retribution spec. I used to tank a little in The Burning Crusade, when Paladin tanking actually became viable, but that too was sparse, and completely abandoned in Wrath of the Lich King.

Larisa’s article (Why Tanks Have the Best View in the Game and other Summertime Musings) jolted me out of my perpetual need to stick to the Holy Paladin class, and made me realize that WoW has a lot more to offer in this highly versatile class than I give it credit for. The most convincing aspect of this realization is what Larisa points out in her entry: tanks have the best view in the game, and by contrast, healers have the worst view.

Yeah, you try enjoying the scenery with THAT!

I can’t recall most of what any instance looks like. I have a vague idea, but the fact of the matter is that I couldn’t tell you if Onyxia looks any different from Sartharion. Or if the Anub’Rekan in the 5-man instances looks the same as he does in 10/25 version of the encounter. Or what the inside of Lord Marrowgar’s room looks like. I have a vague idea, but I just don’t know for sure. And the primary reason for this is the fact that I am almost always looking at one part of my UI: the health bars of all the idiots relying on me to keep them alive.

In any given fight my eye never leaves that portion of the screen. Sure I move if there is AoE in the area, or if the fight dynamics require me to haul ass to ensure success and phat lewts, but at this point that has become more of a muscle memory than anything else. I hear “BONESTORM!”, I keep my eye on the health bars while trying to keep away from Lord Marrowgar using peripheral vision. I see walls of fire approaching in the distance, I relocate to a safer location, and even during that movement, toss out a Holy Shock to someone in need, hoping for a crit, so that my next Flash of Light will be an instant, and none of those precious, precious health bars would suffer.

Other factors notwithstanding, this is one of the biggest reasons why being a healer in WoW sucks more balls than a Bubble Tea addict on a binge: watching those godforsaken bars for hours on end, never taking in the sceneary, or enjoying the smaller pleasures of endgame raiding in the game.

Time for a spec/class change? You betcha.

More on this in upcoming posts.

Article of the Week: “Game-to-Movie Conversions” or “Chesty Jake Ain’t No Persian Prince”

June 8, 2010 Leave a comment

CNN.com had an editorial up today penned by Scott Steinberg, head of video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, as well as the founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV. He also recently penned a book, Get Rich Playing Games, and runs a not-so-modest-sounding blog called “The Video Game Expert“. [Sidenote: I can't find a website for TechSavvy Global, GameExec magazine or Game Industry TV. Am I missing something here?]

The article is a candid look at the tumultuous and frangible relationship between the gaming industry and Hollywood, and why is it that no one can seem to bring a successful video gaming franchise to the silver screen without it seeming more like a retarded afterthought than an respectable adaptation. The article also explores some concepts without much proof to the support the arguments, such as juxtaposing ‘dense, layered, movies’ against ‘one-dimensional video games’, essentially painting a fairly categorical black & white picture of the two obviously different and unique genres.

It’s worth a read, just to get some additional perspective into what a self-proclaimed video game expert (the video game expert no less) believes the biggest problem with video game to movie adaptations. Take a few minutes to read it here if you’d like. If you are pressed for time, I have provided a short list of bullet points below for your convenience:

  • Movies based on video games stink.
  • Things often come down to money, as studios will green-light best-selling games for silver screen adaptation, instead of making the decision based on a franchise with the most cinematic potential
  • A compelling universe and a fascinating cast of characters are what most video game adaptations lack
  • Most game-makers give development preference to multiplayer modes or better graphics, than spinning a compelling yarn
  • Very few studios have writers working full-time
  • Plot serves as a device in video games to drive players from one action sequence to the next, and not necessarily to tell a compelling narrative
  • Most game-makers can’t capture the subtle nuances of films like ‘Juno’ or ‘Lost in Translation’
  • God of War III is a compelling narrative and a literate piece of work
  • Movies are complex, dense, layered; video games are one-dimensional
  • Movies are passive; video games are interactive
  • The gaming industry is slowly finding its roots by investing in storytelling again

There are several points in here that one can readily agree with, such as the fact that movies are a passive activity, whereas video games demand interaction to be qualified as such. Or the fact that most game studios lack full-time writers, which makes little to no sense, considering literally every game is driven at its core, but some form of narrative. I also belong to the same camp which believed that Hollywood foolishly green-lights any franchise which has done moderately well for a silver screen version, without paying any heed to actual cinematic potential. Resident Evil is a great video gaming franchise, but translated to the silver screen it becomes two-dimensional, hollow, almost devoid of any personality or substance, overly-saturated with jaw-dropping stunts and rampant CGI. And somewhere along the process, you lose sense of what made Resident Evil so popular in the first place: survival horror. Couple that with the Matrix-style of the upcoming fourth adaptation, and you will start to see what a terrible idea this series of adaptations was.

Back to the editorial at hand.

Steinberg then starts spewing some conjectural arguments, pudding with no proof in it if you will, that I either completely disagree with it, or it infuriates me on a primal level, or both of the above. The most frustrating of these unfounded arguments was the statement that movies are complex beasts, providing the viewer with unprecedented depth and powerful narrative open to interpretation; whereas video games are largely one-dimensional, devices that focus less on central narrative and more on fringe elements such as multiplayer modes etc. Mr. Steinberg, with all due respect to the “one billion people” who have sought out your consultation services, that makes about as much sense as a squirrel in a cardboard suit playing Beethoven’s Fifth.

In his attempt to cement his argument with no factual basis and ample generic quotes from people in the video gaming industry, Steinberg forgets to consider one important element that may often lead to flopped video-game-to-movie-adaptations: a complex narrative to begin with.

Consider a game like Mass Effect. Aside from the central narrative of Commander Shepard representing the human race in a universe that is largely mistrustful of the species, against the backdrop of a rogue agent acting under the control of a powerful being of aliens spooling up for their newest galactic genocide mission, there are subtleties and side-stories and undiscovered nuances that set the game apart from its competition.

Take the Krogans just as an example. Here is a warrior race that mass-procreates and thrives on conflict. To combat their spread and inevitable conquering of other species (post-Rachni Wars of course), the Turians introduced the genophage, a genetic disorder that only allowed 1 in 1000 Krogan babies to survive. This forced the Krograns to become ever-protective of their species, eliminated their numerical advantage on the field of battle, and produced a new species from the ashes that was tougher, stronger and more resilient than their ancestors. This is but one, severely summarized version of a single side-story in Mass Effect.

Continuing the Mass Effect example, I clocked in close to 60 hours in the first game, and over 45 hours in the second game by the time I was done. That is over 100 hours of combined playtime in the Mass Effect universe. While I am curious to see what kind of an adaptation they come up with, I sincerely doubt it will be able to capture the essence of what makes the Mass Effect universe so special: an intricate, multi-faceted, multi-layered story with numerous inter-connected stories, all spooling into their own respective yarns. The series has already spawned two full-length novels, and a graphic novel.

So when Steinberg claims that movies are the complex genre, and the video game genre is what needs more than a single dimension, I have to vehemently disagree. I can agree with the fact that a lot of video games lack the central narrative that should serve as the backbone and not as a marginalized afterthought. However, this doesn’t change the fact that for games with incredibly powerful narratives, such as Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft, the exact opposite is true. There is no silver screen adaptation that can capture the true essence of these worlds in a 90-minute movie laden with eye-popping special effects and record-shattering stunts.

The rule that applies to books, also applies to complex, narrative-drive video games here. I can’t really think of a book that was faithfully and compelling transformed onto a powerful story in Hollywood, save, maybe, Watchmen. (Don’t say Lord of the Rings, that wasn’t a 90-minute flick, it was a 11-hour-23-minute saga, and only then was Peter Jackson able to capture a fraction of Tolkein’s universe).

The bottom-line is that video games, although still suffering from an acute shortage of dedicated staff writers, is by no means a ‘one-dimensional’ interactive beast incapable of achieving the complexity modern cinema can produce. In a lot of cases, the contrary holds true, and Steinberg should recognize that.

“Live Action Role-Playing” or “Experiential Video Game Theme Park and Resort”

May 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Via Massively, Game Nation wants to explore a novel concept in MMO gaming: a real-life, customizable game-world ripe with possibility and only limited by your imagination. At least that is what the marketing lingo claims.

“Game Nation™ is the world’s first Experiential Video Game Theme Park and Resort. Visitors will become players as their dreams and fantasies come to life in adventures yet to be told. You will become anything you like and live out the character you create. But this is no game. It’s real!”

Aside from a threadbare website and glimpses of purported grandeur, there is damn near no other information available on the precise details of such an ambitious project. All we know is that over the next 12 months, the company will select the ideal location for said experiment, and obviously we will be updated accordingly via the website and the Twitter account.

While the above seems like a incredibly bloated and preposterously all-encompassing statement, I wonder if there is any truth to the matter. LARPing, or Live-Action Role-Playing has evolved significantly over the years, and we have seen countless examples that go from absolutely, abysmally (happy Milamber?) absurd to incredibly immersive and impressive.

An example of the former category (ridiculousness and context debatable) is as follows:

The later category includes events like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. larping. You can find some images from this event here, and I a posting one below as well.

It is an interesting concept for sure, and it certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt considering its embryonic stage. It will be interesting to see how, in a setting such as this, the developers will deal with the ever-present issue of the illusion of choice. Will ‘players’ (participants?) be given meaningful choices? How will they safeguard against trolling, or the potential damage too much free will can cause in such an ambitious live role-playing arena?

Beyond these concerns, I am also curious to see how successful said experiment will be. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. LARP event above was attended by hundreds of individuals, but that was an isolated incident. How will the developers garner enough attention to ensure the potential player base leaves the comfort of their homes, the Double Big Mac with cheese with large fries with a diet coke, and trek out to wherever they set up and participate in the events. And that too for a (likely) a price.

I’ll keep a close eye on this intriguing new concept, and update here if anything new rears its head.

Categories: Immersion, LARPing, Opinion, Realism

“Looking Up” or “A Matter of Perspective” – II

April 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Continuing my quest to keep looking up, the following are some interesting vistas I came across this week in World of Warcraft.

The Culling of Stratholme, this is the area where you defeat the final boss of the instance, Mal’Ganis. Hazy mist swirls around the buildings of the once prosperous city. The Culling of Stratholme was perhaps the defining moment of Prince Arthas’ journey, a step that piqued the curiosity of his dark side, and then never let go.

And right after that, we have two shots from Halls of Reflection, the last of the many, many places you see the Lich King in, before you face off against him and his in Ice Crown Citadel.

Utgarde Keep isn’t even close to being one of my favorite instances. But it sure looks pretty!

And finally, this interesting change in perspective from Halls of Stone.

“What Will YOU Play When You are a 100 Years Old?” or “In Honor of AnjinMarty: Some Bullet Points”

April 23, 2010 1 comment

Stephen Totilo has a cool little article on Kotaku about what games he would play when he would be 100 years old.

The original article that prompted Totilo to write this little piece was in the Christian Science Monitor. Of course, having read both articles, it got me thinking, what will I play when I am a centenarian? Since by that time, I will likely (hopefully) have (great?) grandchildren, what games would I encourage them to play?

As for myself, when I turn 100 years old in 2081:

  • I am sure Final Fantasy MCMXVII will be out by then.
  • As well as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Future Warrior: Space Marine 4 – Captain Price: Resurrection.
  • Blizzard will finally introduce a new IP after the ‘next-gen’ MMO they are currently working on.
  • Actually, considering the amount of time they take with each game, that new MMO may actually just be in beta.
  • World of Warcraft will get its 38th expansion (that is one every two years, if the pattern holds) and 1.1 billion people will be playing it.
  • Farmville would have died out 71 years prior (see what I did there?).
  • And the ghost of Peter Molyneux will still be teasing us with ‘innovative’ new ideas that fall remarkably short of the definition of the word.

In all seriousness, I would like to:

  • Play, much like Totilo, Half-Life: Episode Three. I doubt it will happen, but one can dream.
  • I’d like to be play some MMO that managed to rise above and beyond the grind-fests of today, and built a realistic sense of your impact on the game world.
  • And at some point, I would like to get a game tie-in to a movie that actually managed to remotely pique my curiosity.
  • Most importantly, I would hope that politicians in general, especially Australians, would not have had their way, and video games would continue to expand and thrive as the definitive entertainment medium.

As for what will I tell my grandchildren to play? I feel that I would not be able to dictate what they should play from ‘the golden age of gaming.’ If that seems odd, imagine your father telling you that you need to give Tetris, or Pong or Frogger a shot. You would probably laugh, partially because you live in an age where the line that divides reality from video games is increasingly blurred via high-end graphics, voice-acting, scripting and epic storyline, but also because, come on, you wouldn’t take gaming advice from the same father who sent you an email asking you how he could check his email!

One of my favorite comedians, Nick Swardson does a bit about explaining all the retro games that he used to play as a kid, such as Pac Man, to his grandchildren in the future. I am including the YouTube video below, it’s only 2 minutes long and you really need to start listening in around 0:48 for the retro section. My favorite line is:

“Well when I was your age, we had a game with a yellow circle! And it ate dots and fruit. And then it would be chased by ghosts! Oh my! Ooooooh!”

With motion controlled game a reality through the Nintendo Wii, the upcoming Natal technology from Microsoft and the contender-for-the-most-original-device-name-like-ever, Move from Sony, I wonder how drastically the future of gaming will change. The example from Swardson is funny as hell, but it is true in its own right. 20 years ago, Pac Man was all the rage, an innovative game you could play at arcades for hours on end. Now we have photo-realistic, voice-acted, dripping-with-realism video games like Heavy Rain with scripts longer than the biggest trilogies put together.

  • I wonder if our children will laugh at us for playing Mass Effect 2, or World of Warcraft, or even Crysis 2.
  • I wonder if our future generations will simply not understand the concept of experiencing entertainment through the sense of sight and sound alone, for they will play video games so advanced, they will be able to touch, smell and taste the virtual worlds that occupy their gaming hours.
  • I wonder if, at the end of the day, we are merely Pac Man players of tomorrow’s generations.

Fellow bloggers and readers, what would you like to be playing when you are a centenarian, and what would you tell your grandchildren to play?

EDIT: Who is anjinmarty? He is a bullet pointer. You should read his stuff.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

“All Gone Not” or “David Allen Strikes Back!”

April 15, 2010 4 comments

Alganon lumbers on like some aged soap opera. The producers of this soap opera haven’t had a look at the ratings in a while to come to the realization that it needs to be shut down. Like now.

The newly (self)appointed head of Quest Online, Derek Smart, known for his [/sarcasm on] unrivaled subtlety and decency [/sarcasm off] has, on an occasion or two, called his predecessor David Allen incompetent and incapable of producing a quality product. Regardless of which side of the fence you are on regarding the controversy at Quest Online (or if you are anywhere near the fence), the fact that David Allen never retorted properly does strike as a little odd.

Earlier in the week however, David Allen lashed out against Derek Smart, in a somewhat delayed attempt to reattain some of the lost dignity:

“Mr. Smart began a smear campaign attacking my credibility, first privately among the investors, and then publicly. As many have read on various internet websites, Mr. Smart has made disparaging remarks concerning my professional work and comments that could lead others to question my loyalty, honesty, and ability to successfully create, build, run, and manage a multi-million dollar MMOG development company; something I have been doing successfully for over four years.”

Massively reports that Mr. Allen has also filed a civil suit against Mr. Smart for indulging in said smear campaign. In his defense, Derek Smart has been more than a little harsh and quite vocal about the professional capability of David Allen.

The irony of Derek’s last name being ‘Smart’ is deeper than the hole Alganon has found itself in as of late.

Categories: Alganon, Controversy, Opinion

“Looking Up” or “A Matter of Perspective”

April 12, 2010 2 comments

I have been running 5-mans like my life depending on it. Some of it has to do with the fact that the Dungeon Finder Tool makes the whole process incredibly painless and straight-forward. The second reason is that I need upgrades in order to attain the goddamn gear score that stretch my e-peen sufficiently to be considered for higher level content.

I have been a healer in World of Warcraft from the very beginning. I enjoy the role and relish in my ability to pull the group out of impossible situations when a careless player pulls an extra pack or the tank refuses to factor mitigation into his rotation. However, aside from a few of the fights in the three new Ice Crown instances, and the Black Knight encounter in Trial of the Crusader, I can practically AFK heal each 5-man. This allows me some spare time during a dungeon run where I can organize my thoughts and posts for the day.

One of the things I have started doing recently, is looking up.

Put simply, I have started taking screenshots of the, uh, ceilings of the instances I am running. Ask yourself, how many times have you looked up in an instance and marveled at the sheer attention to detail Blizzard is capable of? There is artwork, unique geological features, stretching vistas and a plethora of other new perspectives if you look in places you aren’t used to.

For instance, the shot below is from The Nexus, in the room where you fight Anomalus.

Drak’Tharon Keep is next.

And finally, Halls of Stone.

“Dungeon Finder Tool” or “Gear Score Blues”

April 11, 2010 5 comments

I recently re-started my subscription for World of Warcraft. After some initial trouble with, oh you know, a hacked account, missing items and a complete unfamiliarity with the new content and game changes, I have finally started finding my own two feet in the game.

One of the best decisions Blizzard has made in the last few months has been the introduction of the the Dungeon Finder Tool. It is amazing how much more you can accomplish if you didn’t have to find a team for a 5-man yourself, and then convene at the location. In a manner of speaking it also takes away from the lore of these instances, which is curiously side-stepped in the name of convenience and automated dungeon trampling. That being said, once you have seen the same dungeon 50 times, flying to it every time you want to complete it becomes more than a little tedious.

Most importantly, I have found that even in an hour, I can easily complete between 3-4 dungeons, earning a good 15-25 Emblems of Triumph in a very short span of time. This feat in of itself is enough to keep me motivated.

Add to that the fact that you are teleported from where you are in the world, and then ported right back out to the same spot when you are done is a big plus. You can even port out in the middle of an instance if your team loses someone and you are just sitting around waiting for someone. It is incredible what a huge change this has brought about in the popularity of 5-mans, interest in which was rapidly dwindling due to the tedious nature of finding groups and physically rallying to the instance. Finally, it is cross-realm, so even in the least busy hours, you are bound to find some people that want to do the exact dungeon you want to (either by selecting it themselves or choosing it randomly), so grouping is made even easier.

Let’s go over some of what we just talked about:

  • Cross-realm PvE, so you will never run out of players who want to run the instances you want to run.
  • Automated team building, you just select your role and whether you want to lead, the system does the rest.
  • Automated porting to the dungeon, and porting back out to the exact spot you were in. If you were mounted porting in, you will be mounted porting out.
  • Automated team replacement, so you can kick back and just twiddle your thumbs while the system searches for a replacement for that DC, or the healer that brought his failboat, or the tank who was “lagging too much to tank effectively”. During the wait you can also port out to where you were before and continue questing etc., porting back in when the new player joins.
  • Most of the time the system brings together equally geared individuals together. Sometimes however, it leaves a little to be desired. Examples include a Nexus run that was wrapped up in about 12 minutes flat because the group was so well decked out in end game gear, we didn’t stop, the tank didn’t take nearly any damage and bosses dropped before they could utter “YOU DARE ENTER MY LAIR, I WILL DESTROY YOU!” In another example, I have yet to complete Halls of Reflection more than twice, because the group falls apart at the first hint of failure, and I have consistently grouped with undergeared tanks.

Which brings us to Gear Score. This is a new concept that had me baffled for a while. Effectively it is a new mod that scans the equipment of a player and assigns them a corresponding score. I have seen players approaching the 7,000 GS barrier. A newbie level 80 in mediocre gear can be as low as 3,500 GS.

Over the course of time, this concept has gained immense popularity amidst the WoW player base. I see people leveraging their GS to advertise their services for 10-mans and 25-mans. Just the other night I responded to a demand for a healer for Onyxia 10-man.

Douchebag: “gs?”
Me: “4,746.”
Douchebag: “hell no, ned lest 5k gs, thx”
Me: “It’s OK man, I have finished the instance a few times, I can handle it very well.”
No response.
Me: “Hello?”
Douchebag is ignoring you.

And this isn’t the only time it has happened. I even saw someone advertising in trade chat that he was putting together a group for 25-man Naxxaramas, and needed players with a GS of at least 5K! While GS may seem like a decent method to vet out who may be an appropriate match for the content you are trying to tackle, it seems unfortunate that it is now being used deny less geared individuals a shot a the higher end content simply because their GS was 2 points short of the length of e-peen the group was trying to look for.

“Se7en Things to Learn From the New Secret World Trailer” or “Secret’s Out!”

March 26, 2010 2 comments

The new trailer for The Secret World, as seen by attendees at the GDC this month, is finally public. Rock, Paper, Shotgun also published Project leader Ragnar Tornquist’s thoughts on the trailer.

It seems Tornquist both mind-read my frustration with the painfully slim stream of information coming from Funcom, as well as my threats last week to set the Funcom offices on fire. I am glad we see eye-to-eye on this Mr. Tornquist, and it didn’t have to come to arson. I won’t even know where to get that much gasoline! Moving on…

Watch the YouTube video below in case you haven’t yet.

So what can we glean from the trailer?

One: Graphics
The graphics will never compare to Cry Engine 3′s ridiculous capabilities (I mean come on, the engine looks like it could reasonably simulate the freaking Matrix!), but they sure do look pretty! Swirling mists, a derelict boat swaying in unsteady waters, dilapidated ruins, quintessentially cliched suburban quiet towns, The Secret World seems to feature them all and then some.

Two: Atmosphere
The game will be highly atmospheric. The environments radiate with an ambiance of a world similar to ours, yet concealing something just behind the veil that makes it not quite right. The game lore suggests three cities, New York, London, and Shanghai: starter towns for the game’s three factions. Yet the trailer did not feature any urban metropolises (unless I missed something). I thought this was a bit peculiar, since the three cities are central to the game’s story, and battling out demonic abominations in the middle of Times Square sounds like a blast.

Three: Characters
The character models are sufficiently detailed, but they look a little off, and the animations look a little rigid. For all of it’s flaws, Champions Online excelled in the character creation, detail and animation department. I suppose I am now spoiled in a manner of speaking, trying to find flaws in reasonably well-detailed models because I have seen what an MMO could achieve the year prior. This propensity for well-detailed character models is even more perplexing considering I am used to the character models from WoW, and the character-less ship avatars of EVE Online. At the end of the day, the character models and animations look decent, but it must be said that the MMO isn’t even in beta yet, so there is a lot of room for tweaking and improvement.

Four: Enemies
There will be a very wide variety of monsters in the game, ranging from humanoid zombies to the lightening-infused squishy-looking, octopus-squid-Captain-Davy-Jones-from-The-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-movies-resembling… uh, things. I am also excited by the prospect that the enemies in this game look unlike any monsters we have seen before. Sure the developers have delved into the familiar with zombies and werewolves and the like. But there are several beasts that look and feel original.

Five: Voice-Acting
The voice acting is top notch, and decidedly ominous-sounding. Once again, although I am used to playing MMOs that smack you repeatedly in the face with enough quest text to fill the Encyclopedia Britannica and every crappy Star Trek novel ever written, I find myself irritated at the prospect of having to read any more quest text in any future MMOs that I invest in. I guess BioWare is to blame for that, what with their fully and meticulously voice-acted recent RPGs: Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. So when I see an upcoming MMO that I am genuinely excited about, and then I get the briefest whiff of quality voice-acting, I am excited. That being said, the voice acting seems a bit rushed in places. Almost as if the voice artists were hired on a per-hour basis!

Six: Script
The above is a nice transition into my sixth point. The scripts seems well-written, and from what we have seen the lore facilitates and enhances the story and background elements. The cowboy has stood out in both the gameplay trailer and the teaser for the gameplay trailer. I wonder what his story is, but I sure am excited about it!

Seven: Black Frames!
Last but not least, and completely unrelated to the game itself, Tornquist loves his carefully positioned black frames. Good god man, the screen went black about 42 times during that trailer. I know you are all about the secrets and the atmosphere, but my eyeballs hurt from rapid contractions over 90 seconds!

I haven’t been this excited about an MMO for quite some time, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Categories: Opinion

“Gaming Brats” or “We’ve Come a Long Way From Pong”

March 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Syp’s post yesterday was quite thought-provoking. This is the contemporary age of video gaming, where we are exposed to such marvelous worlds filled with life and possibilities. With features such as life-like animations, realistic weather effects and environments that looks polished, detailed and textured to blur the line between fiction and reality, developers are pushing the boundaries of next generation games. Every week we are given newer titles to engage us, worlds to explore, threats to thwart and kingdoms to conquer. We relish in not only the complexity and atmosphere of these alternate realities, but also in the fact that the possibilities, both in terms of the choice of titles available, and the paths we choose to take in a game, are endless.

However, as humans we have an innate need to bitch, moan and complain. Having evolved from a culture that reveled in controlling a yellow mouth that ate dots and berries while being chased by ghosts who it could also devour if it were high on smaller dots, to controlling a photo-realistic character that swoons the ladies, thrashes the bad guys, and manages to look incredibly suave all the while doing it, we have gotten spoiled. Where we were once content running a frog through oncoming traffic, we’re unhappy if a flower in a meticulously detailed tropical forest doesn’t disintegrate when we fire an entire magazine of hollow-points into it. Where we were once jumping with joy having successfully evaded a large gorillas flaming barrels, we get upset if a life-like character’s lips don’t sync with the utmost precision with the audio file of its dialogue.

Somehow, despite the fact that we are blessed with an entertainment medium that provides endless hours of immersive, alternate-reality entertainment, we, myself included, have the audacity to point out, complain about and throw temper tantrums about even the most benign and insignificant flaws we can find in our favorite titles. So what if the games aren’t perfect? So what if the advanced physics failed to adequately animate an object? So what if lip-syncing is inherently an imperfect science? So what if the graphics aren’t top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art. Hell, we even find room in our infinite collective wisdom to complain about how graphically intense a game is, and how current technology cannot run it at optimal settings (I am looking at all you whiners that complained when Crysis first came out!)

Syp is right. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would one day be playing the games I have the privilege of playing today. And I wonder, maybe this is the same conclusion Frank at Overly Positive came to recently.

Categories: Opinion
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