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“Power-Leveling Professions” or “Money is Time, Friend”

January 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Power-Leveling Professions

A lot of gold making blogs out there will tell you to capitalize on the need for this generation of instant gratification to get what they want with minimal effort, even if the path they takes ends up costing them a lot more than the fair market price of the item. Examples include buying rare companion pets from from vendors in Netherstorm, and selling them for 200-400% their normal price, or buying that rare recipe that spawns once every half hour on that vendor, and auctioning it for 10 times the normal price. This makes sense to me. There is gold to be made at the expense of other people’s laziness, and their unwillingness to put in some extra effort that will save them currency in the long-term.

But then there are those times when I power-level my professions, irrespective of the cost of materials, because for me, hitting the profession level cap is far more important than saving the few thousand gold I will save by farming the materials myself. And therein lies the tradeoff. I make a lot of gold at the auction house, I am very good at it. Even in the inflated market of Cataclysm, I can net between 7-10K from the AH on a weekly basis, so money is no object to me in-game. As such, if I have a choice between spending that money that is just lying around, or investing hours upon hours, flying around, tapping nodes for those precious minerals one pickaxe-striking-node-animation at a time, I will always go for the former.

Am I a Lazy Gamer?

Does that make me lazy? I am generally not a lazy person, and given my nearly masochistic impulsion to pursue the most mentally debilitating of achievements in-game, I am certainly not a lazy gamer. When I started raiding on the new toon, my DPS was just about the tanks. This wasn’t acceptable to me. So I read up online, I theory-crafted, I painstakingly tweaked each and every little statistic, and gemmed, enchanted and reforged my heart out. I am now in the top four DPS’ers in the raid. Most importantly, I am not a lazy person in life.

The point I am trying to make is fairly pedestrian in nature: just because someone is buying your good at several times the market price may not be because they are lazy or ill-informed. It may simply be because they value their time over their money, because the ratio for the sheer amount of time invested farming, just to save those precious few thousand gold coins simply does not make sense to them. The process still ended up taking over two hours to get from skill 197 to 423, where I called it a night because I was moments away from a nosebleed! If I had to gather, say, the 320 units of Cobalt Ore alone, I could have spent somewhere between 5-10 hours farming. And that only got me skill points between 350 and 415. As far as I am concerned, paying 2-3 times the average market value for said ore, for me, is well worth the investment.

As someone who has played the auction house to his advantage since the game was in its infant stages, this is the first time I have gone all out, and spent “whatever it takes” amounts of in-game currency to power-level my professions, effectively filling the pockets of enterprising auction-house entrepreneurs. I have to admit, it feels pretty good to have enough gold to be able to blaze right past the arduous farming lane, and onto the endgame of a given profession, because let’s face it. The game is designed so you benefit (both personally and financially) when your profession is at the max-level, and not by selling copper scale pants all day. It is an interesting new perspective, one that gives me cause for pause (that should be a meme) and reevaluate how I view the market.

And then the goblin in me rears his green head, and asks, how can we use this new revelation to our advantage!

“The Artist Previously Known As Immersion” or “The MMO Kill Quest” – Part I

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

The Artist Previously Known as Immersion – MMO kill quest

I charge up my frostbolt, my fingers tingling as I manipulate the essence of winter itself, coalescing into an expanding ball of frozen shrapnel. With the flick of my wrist I lob the deadly projectile at the Blight Wolf, ripping through its hide in a cacophony of tearing flesh and splintering shards of deadly icicles. The beast howls in agony, convulses as the frostbolt proves to be more than a match for his raw strength and ferocity, and collapses on the forest floor. I take a deep breath, content in ridding the world of yet another demonic creation. I shamble over to the corpse of my adversary, weary from the battle and rummage through its remains.

The wolf is carrying a Knights’ Chest Plate, and a Fierce Dagger of Arcanum.

I am reminded once again that I am merely playing a video game, where Blight Wolves can carry 40-pound metal chest plates in mint condition on their person.

A number of my peers are discordant with the above scenario, for I am trying to find raptness and spatial logic in a game where you can fit, literally, several dozen elephant-sized mounts into your backpack, a game where lush tropical forests and frigid snow-capped mountains can co-exist mere yards apart, a world where the forces that threaten the extinction or assimilation of all sapient life forms are indefatigable, and continue to resurrect, no matter how many times you vanquish them.

However, none of that detracts from the fact that captivation, as tenuous and fragile a concept it is, does not need blatantly non-immersive elements to ruin a player’s experience. Wolves should not possess bulky chest plates in their sparse hides, every individual on the server should not have a ‘special’ key to an impenetrable fortress, and water should react to you walking in it, and not stay ripple-free (I am looking at you Dragon Age: Origins!)

Perhaps it would be prudent to delineate immersion first. Immersion is the capability of any entertainment medium to get the audience psychologically invested in the alternate world. Strictly in terms of video games, it implies building an emotional bridge between the player’s reality and the game world, engrossing the player sufficiently to build a tangible sense of belonging. If the player feels a sense of triumph for killing C’Thun, or is distraught by the seemingly inconsequential demise of Duncan, or screams out loud while rounding a corner in the UTC’s dreary hallways, the game has accomplished one of the most critical and elusive elements in contemporary gaming: an feeling of immersion and belonging in the game world.

This sense of immersion is tricky to achieve, extraordinarily difficult to sustain, and incredibly brittle, thanks to a plethora of factors that can dramatically diminish or even reverse immersion. One genre that is especially susceptible to shattering the immersion formula is Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games.

MMO’s, by design, cater to a countably infinite amount of players undertaking the same content in a cyclical manner. This is, in part, necessitated by the genre’s prerequisite for being a persistent world with a massive focus on multiplayer. But that is discussion for another day.

For now, let us observe a sample quest: A mayor of a town asks you to execute 10 bandits that have been operating in the foothills immediately surrounding the town. Let us scrutinize some of the ways in which the illusion of immersion is compromised in said quest.

  1. Why is it 10 bandits? And why are they always multiples of 5 or 10? The arbitrarily fixed nature of this number always gives the player pause, and makes him realize that the perfect cookie-cutter number is a product of a pattern-oriented quest-designer, not a randomized coincidence in the game world. This is especially exacerbated by the fact that each preceding and succeeding quest also asks you to accomplish tasks conveniently organized around the same number. Kill 10 demons. Skin 10 wolves. Retrieve 10 stones. And so on.
  2. You head to the foothills and stumble across the bandits. They aren’t hiding in the dense foliage or lying in silently and surreptitiously to pounce upon hapless, unsuspecting victims. They are simply walking around, tracing random paths across the cluttered forest floor, aimless, purposeless, insipid. They don’t converse with each other, or even attack the throngs of players and NPC’s on the main road a mere 10 yards away. In short, they are literally there to be slaughtered, so you can complete the quest. As soon as that realization sets in, it ceases to be an immersive experience and instantaneously morphs into a chore that you are required to trudge through to advance to the next indistinguishable, uninventive task.
  3. As you go about mindlessly hacking away at the first bandit, none of the other bandits come to his aid in the slightest. They continue to meander, as if in a dreamless sleep, completely oblivious to their comrade being massacred by your over-powered, over-equipped avatar. They move nay a muscle, as you finish off the first foe, relieve his body of any worldly possessions and move on. The only time any other member of this allegedly fearsome group of bandits reacts to your presence is when you get within his numerically-defined radius, or if you start attacking him. Once again, you are reminded that this is a game world, where these ‘individuals’ are lines of computer code that behave and react as fodder for the completion of your ultimately inconsequential mission.
  4. As you decimate a bloody path through the bandits, and their population begins to thin, you suddenly notice a new bandit appear, literally out of thin air, and begin to ramble in the same randomized pattern. For every bandit you dispatch, another one magically appears out of nowhere and takes his place. You realize that your quest is ultimately pointless because you aren’t making any difference in the bandit population.
  5. Ten bandits are dead. You have accomplished the mission. Your sense this being a futile endeavor is further reinforced as you see no quantifiable change in the bandit population. The tangible effect of you spending the last 30 minutes of your life trying to save the town from said bandits is exactly nothing, for no discernable change can be observed.
  6. You head back to town, and hand in the quest. The mayor lauds your efforts, though he has no way of knowing if you actually accomplished your goal. You could have taken a leisurely stroll around town and reported back to the mayor, claiming to have decapitated and disemboweled 10 bandits. And none would have been the wiser.
  7. Finally, as soon as you complete the quest, the mayor turns to another player and offers the same quest with the same rewards. And then another player, and then another player. You are reminded for the umpteenth time that your actions are of absolutely no consequence in the world and nothing you do will ever amount to anything. So thank you developers, for another shamelessly unsatisfying evening of pedestrian content and trite questing.

The bottom-line is that immersion is a very frangible concept that takes an unprecedented amount of change in the way developers imagine game worlds, and meticulous attention to detail as they attempt to build a sense of emotional attachment to the virtual environment. This continued practice of satiating the inherent need to have large numbers of players go through precisely the same content results in a self-perpetuating snowball effect, recursively building upon an already broken strategy. Unless developers are willing to drastically overhaul the conventional methodologies deemed critical to building an MMO, and challenge the norms that define parameters for player inaction with said world, it will be increasingly impossible to build any lasting sense of immersion in MMO’s for years to come.

Categories: Immersion, Monotony, Realism

“Rotten on the Inside” or “Real Life Parallels”

November 25, 2009 2 comments

Full disclosure: I have not played Aion extensively. My interaction with the game has been limited to about 10 hours worth of gameplay on a friend’s account. Despite over-exposure to the MMO, I don’t much disagree with the opinions of my peers in the blogosphere.

Aion launched two months ago. Since then, despite enjoying a fairly successful commercial launch in a hyper-competitive market, against the caped heavy-hitter by Cryptic and the indie-developed Fallen Earth, I don’t hear good things about Aion. Jayedub, always the diplomat, said earlier this month: “To summarize, I thought that Aion is not a bad game, in fact it’s pretty solid; but not being able to experience the PvPvE till level 25 and the grinding gameplay was too much for me.” Pitrelli also got tired of it earlier in the month. I could link about 15 other blogs, but what boils down to is that Aion, gorgeous as it may be, is a perpetual grind-fest. It is not innovative, it’s design is more banausic than inspired, and arguing that “it gets fun around level 25” is the equivalent of saying “you have to eat 25 piles of dung before you get the cake.” I’d rather just not have the cake.

Ready for an awkward transition? Here we go.

I work in media. We have an anchor who looks like the girl next door, the sultry seductress, and the good girl, all rolled into one. But that is an on-screen persona, enhanced substantially by the application of copious amounts of make-up. I have seen what she really looks like when she rolls into work, and it makes her stalkers (two of which she has taken out restraining orders against) all the more laughable.

My point? Aion is similar to this anchor. On the surface, it looks like your dream MMO: visually stunning, graphically superior, alive with the ebb and flow of a dynamic world teeming with life and energy. But when you play it for an extended period of time, beneath a glossy, shiny exterior lurks an ugly beast, hell-bent on devouring your time and your coin, in exchange for prosaic content, bromidic gameplay and an incapacious, linear world.

Yesterday I stumbled across this new trailer for Aion. I can’t help but wonder if  fresh coat of make-up is being applied to perpetuate the facade. The trailer touts the graphical revamp, and quite frankly it looks phenomenal. But great looks does not a good game make.

There is hope however, and some information gleaned from the trailer (and Korean translations) is quite promising:

  • Graphics: DX10 support; dynamic weather effects; glossier world
  • New Areas: Underwater zones; other new zones; new cities; new dungeons
  • Questing: New quests; questing revamp
  • Playing Characters: New skills for existing classes; new classes
  • Player housing: High degree of customization for interiors and exteriors of player housing
  • Mounts: Tameable mounts; mounts for two riders; mounted combat
  • Combat: Revamped to be more action-oriented; Scorpion-esque ‘GET OVER HERE!’ whip; crossbows

The word ‘new’ seems to be premeditatively married to the list above. However, it seems like more of the same. If you notice, none of the elements in the list above address the issues of monotony, the mindless grinds or the lack of innovation. At least not directly. A combat system with the added aureate effects is pointless, if I have to repeat the process for literally every quest and objective. Customizable housing, tameable mounts, new weapons and improved graphics are all great things, but they add to the periphery of the game, while the core remains effectively untouched. And if the core is still rotten, a shiny exterior simply does not cut it.

My time these days is completely occupied with a wide variety of MMO, RPG, and non-RPG pursuits. Even if the news about Aion was ground-breaking, I don’t know if I would have time to invest in it. But for those that play it, I hope similar dialogue in the MMO community necessitates that the developers pay some sobered attention to the suffering aspects of the game, and stop whitewashing over the glaring imperfections in the game with improved pizzaz and shiny fluff.

Categories: Aion, Monotony, Opinion

Champions Online Realism – Part II: “Misleading Variety” or “Various Misgivings”

October 15, 2009 5 comments

Note: Part I can be found here. The first part of this post was not necessarily a scathing critique of the ‘Help a Citizen’ mission structure, but it was certainly not the most polite. In the interests of being fair, I have to comment on how my view on these types of missions has evolved. You also need to understand that this isn’t a critique of the whole game, or even of the mission structure in general. It is my thoughts on the “Help a Citizen!” sub-category of the missions paradigm.

The great thing about MMOs is that they continue to evolve, (arguably) get better and introduce increasingly complex worlds. Though in all honesty, sometimes this level of complexity is just enough for you wrap your head around. Other times, you have a hernia from all the complications and intricacies involved in the game, and then your hernia has an aneurysm. Not trying to point any fingers. Eve Online.

In Champions Online, The first several missions I received from random citizens in Millennium City were decidedly similar. They had the same time limit, they were instanced, and you had to kill some boss deep inside that instance. It’s the game’s equivalent of repeatedly slamming my junk in a drawer. It’s painful, it’s monotonous, and despite being a novel idea initially, the repetitions have made me detest it.

“The Good” or “Misleading Variety”

But there have been some good improvements overall. For one thing, the latest “Help a Citizen!” missions I got to play have more variety to offer. One had me rescuing a few scientists from the bad guys. Another had me retrieve some critical information in the form of six briefcases. This is certainly a step in the right direction. While the overarching theme remained unchanged, the difference in objectives made it somewhat bearable. Its sort of like adding a padded cushion inside the drawer where I am repeatedly slamming my junk. It doesn’t hurt any more, but its still monotonous and its still boring.

Second, the Crime Computer now lists all of the “Help A Citizen!” quests. This is good for two reasons. First, you can read the mission text in advance, and know what it entails. If it sounds boring, you can decline and move on. Second, the system now guarantees that you will not miss a mission from the citizens, since all of them are listed in the Crime Computer. Being a character that uses a flight power, I can see how someone could have bare minimum contact with citizens on the ground, and as such miss a few of these missions.

The instances, at least the ones I have seen, are markedly different. The textures, the layout and the flow is not necessarily cookie-cutter. That being said, the instances are essentially a finite series of rectangular rooms connected by winding hallways. I have yet to see one instance that does not follow this pattern. Contrast this against, say, the instance structure in World of Warcraft, or even something more open-world like EvE Online.

Finally, as I mentioned in Part I, the quest text now clearly labels the amount of time you have to complete the mission. Previously, you would find out the mission had a time-limit after accepting it, which was annoying. And that leads into my next point…

“The Bad” or “Various Misgivings”

"By 'cross the street' I really meant 'eat shit and die'!" or "I got up this morning thinking about how I could ruin your day!"

…every “Help a Citizen!” mission is still 30 minutes. I don’t understand this. The missions I mentioned earlier, the one in which I had to rescue some scientists, took me 4 minutes to complete. The timer was 30 minutes. On average it takes me seven to eight minutes on a mission. I think the missions can be made a lot more challenging and interesting by imposing stricter and more realistic time limits. If I am going to go retrieve some information in the form of briefcases, how about saying that the briefcases are booby-trapped to destroy the contents in 10 minutes. A simple alteration like that gives the mission a sense of urgency, while simultaneously serving as a tool for driving the mission forward.

Champions Online introduces the public missions format. There are several missions in the game which are out in the open world, and anyone and everyone is free to lend a hand in defeating whatever menace plagues the area. One might argue that such open world events are not a new concept, such as the Ahn’Qiraj gate event in World of Warcraft. But Champions actually tracks all the players completing objectives in the area and assigns them scores based on their level of contribution. You can participate solo, or bring a party of 5 or more, it’s really quite open-ended. The top ten contributors are displayed in public in the area for the length of time it takes for the event to reset. For instance, in the last ‘A Bullet Bound for Biselle’ mission, I had the longest e-peen.

Now for a game that introduces such an open-world idea of missions, it baffles me that the “Help a Citizen!” quests are all instanced. There isn’t a single case where the mission takes place out in the open. It is almost as if all the “Help a Citizen!” missions were designed by an introverted, agoraphobic programmer with a penchant for claustrophobic spaces.

Given the level of programming that must have gone into the public missions, scripting for a solo quest outside the instances should have been elementary. Yet we see an endless stream of instances that, aside from architectural and textural differences, feel the same. You have built an entire city with a plethora of unique locations. Use that to your advantage! I listed some of the ways you can make these missions more realistic and open-world in Part I. Here they are again. A citizen walks up to you and pleads for you to:

  • rid their neighborhood of gangsters
  • help them get home in a tough neighborhood; point A-to-B escort
  • stop a theft at a store nearby; mobs spawn at the front and/or back door and attempt to escape
  • rescue their kidnapped, loved one from an open-world location; the mob spawn is triggered by your location in the ransom exchange area

Can we get some love in this department?

As mentioned in the prior post, the game is still very much in its infantile stage. The changes are arguably for the better, but it remains to be seen if the developers take the time to craft a world that feels authentic and wonderous, or hide behind lame design devices for the sake of bloated content and ease of implementation.

Champions Online Realism – Part I: “Immersion Interrupted” or “Annoying Citizens”

October 12, 2009 4 comments

Champions Online is a fun game. It’s a welcome break from the cookie-cutter monotony of pre-determined classes and abilities that makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a plastic spork, and provides a fresh foray into the ever-evolving world of MMOs. Revisiting my last few days in the game, a few interesting trends and observations have emerged; of which I will detail one here.

“Immersion” or “Citizens”

My character, Prometheus, is a Power Armor specialized superhero who can fly using jet-boots. I remember in the early double-digits of my leveling career, I was cruising a few feet above street level, when I spotted a Socrates terminal (the game’s version of a master mission giver). The “!” above the terminal served as the proverbial carrot, and I swooped in to check out what challenge the game might have in store for me. As I neared the terminal, a citizen rushed to me, a speech bubble over his head saying: “I need your help!” my first thought is that it is a generic, non-interactive event to poorly establish the fact that the citizens are “real people too!”

"Also, you're fat!" or "Spandex is better!"

Without warning, a mission window opened. It involved members of <insert evil gang here> entering a <insert building> and causing general mischief. The citizen implored me to look into the matter. I was intrigued. I welcomed the opportunity. I relished in the fact that I was playing a game which made you feel like you’re part of a vibrant, bustling city, where even the most random strangers can count on you to be their city’s savior. I accepted the mission.

The mission appeared in my mission tracker list. I had 29:58 to complete the mission. What the hell? The mission text mentioned nothing about there being a time limit! (In Cryptic’s defense, they have since fixed the issue by clearly marking the time-limit in the mission text). I abandoned everything else, completely forgot about my pending conversation with Socrates, and soared high into Millennium City’s skies, rocketing towards my new goal.

Just to summarize:

  • Random citizen asks for help
  • Unsolicited mission window opens
  • You have 30 minutes to finish the mission
  • Threat is at an instanced location in the city
  • Threat involves a mastermind hell-bent on his latest sinister scheme

I reached the warehouse. 26:52.

I searched for the entrance, a small shining door somewhere in the four outer walls of the structure. I took me a few circles of the building till I realize the intended entrance is on the top. I went in. 23:41.

The mission text updated immediately, and told me I needed to defeat <insert Super Villain here>. I cut through hordes of enemies my level, and some a tier above me. 21:27.

I found the Super Villain, and cleared the room around him to ensure there were no unfortunate pulls during the encounter. I don’t have the foggiest about his abilities or if I will even survive the first encounter with the bastard. 19:35.

Dreading a fairly embarrassing ass-kicking, I engaged him… and killed him… in about 30 seconds. 19:01.

There was a celebratory snippet of superhero-themed music, and the mission was complete. I got a below-average amount of experience, making it feel like more of a handout than an achievement. I was also mildly irritated by the fact that the mission timer was slightly misleading, but glad that I now had more time to finish up what I originally intended to do.

“Interrupted” or “Annoying”

Now that sounds like a good way to immerse the player into the living world of Champions Online. That is until it happens again, in a different spot, with a different civilian. They come to you for help, open a mission window. Remember the list from above?

  • Random citizen asks for help – CHECK!
  • Unsolicited mission window opens – CHECK!
  • You have 30 minutes to finish the mission – CHECK!
  • Threat is at an instanced location in the city – CHECK!
  • Threat involves a mastermind hell-bent on his latest sinister scheme – CHECK!

All aboard the fail train. It was cool in the beginning, but then it turned into a bitter disappointment, much like  my last girlfriend. Yeah Kelly, I am looking at you. The bitterness turned into mild annoyance, which has now reached the boiling point of wrathful vengeance. At least once a couple of hours of game play, if you make the mistake of cruising too low to the ground, some citizen will hand you the cookie-cutter mission with the location and mob details slightly altered, crappy experience, and no collectible rewards.

“The Solution” or “What Not To Do”

This is a fairly consistent pitfall for MMO developers in particular. Someone somewhere comes up with an innovative concept, something that will give the player a sense of wonder and immersion. Someone else will infinity replicate the process and pepper it in every corner of the game. This effectively ensures that you will eventually want to use your shoulder-mounted Gatling gun to tear some hot lead into the next citizen that pesters you with yet another rendition of aneurysm-inducing monotony.

The solution is simple, at least on paper: offer more variety. Instead of using the same cookie-cutter to carve out “different” missions, use a different cookie-cutter, or different dough altogether. Here are a few examples, off of the top of my head. A citizen walks up to you and pleads for you to:

  • rid their neighborhood of gangsters
  • help them get home in a tough neighborhood; point A-to-B escort
  • stop a theft at a store nearby; mobs spawn at the front and/or back door and attempt to escape
  • rescue their kidnapped, loved one from an open-world location; the mob spawn is triggered by your location in the ransom exchange area

Notice that none of the examples above are instanced, they can all be programmed to be out in the open world, thus adding another layer to the level of realism and immersion.

That being said, Champions Online is still a throughly enjoyable game and I am having a great time exploring the rich world. The fairly new contender for the MMO market share has just about a month of experience under its belt, so I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Let’s see what the developers come up with next!

Note: Part II can be found here.