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“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

“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

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part III: “Vending Machine Tycoons” or “Give ’em Hell Bloodwing!”

November 20, 2009 4 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Links:

Sid Meier’s Vending Machine Tycoon

I am in the Arid Hills. It doesn’t look much different from the previous areas, just looks like more of the same: drab, dry, dead. But there is a certain comfort in familiarity, so I trudge on, boomstick in hand, looking for pieces of some legendary sniper rifle and a mine gate key.

There are vending machines to my left where I can get rid of any unwanted items in my impossibly large backpack. I don’t understand how Dr. Zed and Marcus can be such successful vending machine entrepreneurs on Pandora. They seem to have vending machines in literally every corner of this world. How do they get them there? Who keeps them maintained? Don’t they get attacked when they come to restock, pluck out sold items and collect cash? And how is it that no one ever breaks into these machines?

Skag Scars

A skag roars in the distance. Sounds big. I go through a drain pipe to the first cross-section. There are several caves about 50 paces ahead of me, and quite a few of the skags are already on patrol. They are all either my level or a level above. But unlike my first few encounters with the bastards, I am much better prepared this time around. My sniper rifle does a whopping 145 damage per shot, and Bloodwing is maxed out to do the most damage per flight.

I spot an Alpha Skag in the group. They are well-armored, and take the most amount of shots to kill. Using a sniper is out of the question if it starts charging. But I have my trusty sub-machine gun with me, and despite a sheer lack of skill with the weapon, I know it can dispatch foes if they get up close and personal. Aim and accuracy matter little if most of your vision is filled with a skag’s teeth. But patience is a virtue, and instead of firing at the first skag I can track through my scope, I wait patiently, and inch forward one tiny step at a time. In time the Alpha spots me. He roars, opening its mouth in all directions, letting out a terrifying howl. I smile. Big mistake.

A single shot down its pie-hole dispatches my first foe without much trouble. I hear multiple howls, without wasting a second, I turn around and sprint to the drainage pipe I just came from.

Choke point.

I dispatch them one at a time. Single-shot precision kills. At least two of them go down mid-air, as they leap at me, mouth wide open, in an attempt to bite off a piece. I laugh as one skag literally explodes into chunks of smoldering flesh. “What”,  I say, “you didn’t like that?” And I start laughing. It’s a triumphant moment. I feel superior to the creatures that died by my hands in every conceivable way. But this is just the beginning, and I had the advantage of the choke point. That is more of an exception than the rule. This world isn’t all that forgiving.

More skags at the next ridge. Not too much trouble. The previous area had several barrels that I lure them to. The blue ones explode with a large amount of electrical damage, green ones are corrosive, whereas red ones simply explode. Quite handy.

My momentary high is short-lived as I spot a poor soul impaled on a large pike. Subtle.

Separation Anxiety

There is a bandit camp around the ridge. Two of them patrol a sniper’s nest up top. A quick succession of head shots alleviates that problem. But the camp is another story. In the blink of an eye, my shield is gone, as well as half my health bar. I missed the grenades that had been lobbed at me by the one of the raiders because my field of vision was severely limited through the scope of my sniper. Cursing under my breath I fire back at the rifleman. He has already taken cover, and with all the bullets slamming into me, I cannot seem to get off a clean shot. A midget shot gunner, however, is not so lucky.

Bloodwing stirs, and I set him lose. “Give ’em hell, Bloodwing!” I yell. I tuck in to the right, out of the line of fire, my health nearly depleted. Bloodwing circles overhead once, then twice, and then continues the pattern. I am confused. Why isn’t he attacking? It isn’t clear to me then, but it appears Bloodwing is afraid of being too far apart from me, which limits him to a certain range. I am mildly irritated. Gonna have to train that damn bird better. He finally makes one last sweep overhead, and returns to me.

Keeping the rock outcropping between me and the barrage of endless bullets, I inch closer to my enemies, and then let Bloodwing loose a second time. This time he beelines to the crouching raider behind the barricade, ripping the poor bastard to shreds. Since I have focused on making Bloodwing a true agent of death, not only does he solve my problem with the raider, upon returning to me, he also restores a big portion of my health.

Revitalized, I switch to the SMG and come out of hiding guns blazing, lobbing two grenades at the remaining foes. It does not take too long, and within minutes they lie at my feet, fresh bullet-holes gaping like the unending depths of a dark, dreary abyss.

I hear something shriek overhead. Rokks. These guys have very little health, but in large groups they can swarm you, and rip your insides out in seconds. There is trouble ahead. I can feel it in the air. I better be careful.

Hugging Chemical Barrels is a Bad Idea

After clearing out another small camp, and inching close to the edges to keep my distance from the rokks overhead, I spot another sniper perch in the distance. I crouch, debating if I should send in my personal agent of death on wings, or dispatch him with a single bullet? Bloodwing would not be able to get him at that range. He has already established that any considerable length of distance between us causes him severe separation anxiety. And that is when I notice the corrosive acid barrel next to the lookout. A single shot explodes the barrel, showering him in acid. I watch his surprised expression through the scope, as the acid eats away at his body, literally devouring him whole. Good riddance.

The Fourth Piece of the Puzzle

My map tells me the four pieces of the legendary sniper rifle are in the next camp. I start shooting. Psychotic midgets, shotgunners, badass bruisers, they all succumb to the overwhelming firepower I pack, backed by the ferocious talons of my trusty companion. It’s a little odd they some of them come out of hiding only after the very last combatant on the field has been eliminated. I have a feeling if they all came at once, I would be swarmed, overwhelmed and killed. This all seems a little too… easy.

The sniper rifle has four parts I need to secure. I have found only three so far. I make several circuits of the camp, and my map indicator offers little help. I am a little frustrated, three other three pieces were essentially just lying about, why isn’t this one? It is then that I notice that only one of the buildings in the camp has an upward pointing arrow. And if that is not enough of a hint, there are three storage cabinets on the roof of the structure as added incentive. I jump above, and grab the last piece. But what truly annoys me is that this last piece was a good distance away from where my map marker suggested.

Sledge is a Cocky Bastard!

My map tells me the mine key is in Sledge’s Safehouse, which seems to be just up the hill from my present location. I take out my sniper rifle to scope out the area. The criminal hideout sits atop a small hill about 100 paces ahead of me. So ballsy are the inhabitants, that they have made no attempts to hide the entrance. In fact, upon closer inspection, the entry point prominently displays the words: “Sledge’s Safehouse.”

Cocky bastards! (See what I did there?)

Bloodwing stirs restlessly. He can sense the blood of the upcoming battle. I pet his head. I check my weapons, making one last round of the camp to pick up any additional ammunition. Satisfied that all my ordinance is in order, I start my short trek to the safe house.

Time to hunt!

Links:

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part II: “9+3=12” or “Why Don’t They Call Him 3-Balls?”

November 2, 2009 7 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Links:

Skag Gully

This place is trouble. Partly because the inhabitants include demonic dog-like creatures known as ‘Badass Skags‘, and partly because my opposition now seems to be around my level or a level above. I have a better sniper rifle now, but it’s not a massive improvement over the last one I’d held. I also have a new sidearm, it does more damage and reloads faster, but it fires a little slower than the last one.

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I have collected over 40 guns in the first two hours of gameplay. That is impressive considering most shoot ’em ups offer you around a meager 20 weapons by the end of the game. Contrary to my initial fear that so many weapons will become difficult to manage, the process is addictive and fun. Although my Hunter specializes in Snipers and Repeaters, I am also carrying a ‘Terrible Shotgun’ for when the blasted skags get up close and personal. Which they do. All the time. The problem is that I can cycle through only 2 of 4 unlockable weapons slots. So I constantly have to manually switch between the shotgun and the sniper.

Borderlands, in many ways, is unforgiving. Enemies come at you in packs. They are relentless and determined. Almost every fight with creatures your level or above is a challenge. That sounds frustrating, but it actually turns out to be an exhilarating experience. I am walking into fights confident that I can do a good job, but never certain that I will come out on top.

Fight for Your Second Wind

Then again, Borderlands is very forgiving in some other regards. The constant stream of unrelenting enemies finally takes its toll. I collapse. Instead of having to reload at a prior point, the game maintains the level of immersion and introduces me to the death mini-game.

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I am on my knees. A skag is tearing out chunks of flesh from my chest. The screen is getting darker. The world is fading out. This is the end. Or is it? I realize that I can still fire my weapon from this warped perspective. So I aim, and I fire. I unload two entire clips from my pistol, my screen is all but black, and I can barely see. Literally the very last bullet in the magazine kills the skag. It falls dead at my feet.

My vision kicks back in with a jarring suddenness. My shield is gone, my health is barely a sliver of the full amount. But I am alive and on my feet. And that counts for something. Killing my foe has given me second wind. So I patch myself up using healing packs I purchased earlier, and I push on.

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Objects and creatures drop ammo and money. The game smartly gives you the loot that you need the most. If you are low on sniper ammunition, it will drop with more frequency. If your health is low, your next kill will drop a small medi-vial. It is a smart system, and it works wonders. You never run out of ammo, but given the sheer volume of enemies thrown at you, you are almost never at full capacity. It’s a healthy balance.

Nine-toes

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See the guy in the screen shot to the right? I hate that guy. I have fought through an insane amount of skags, psychotic midgets, and armed goons to get to this guy. He is located in a subterrenean room accessible by a small elevator. He has a good weapon, better aim, and comes equipped with a fairly powerful shield.

(Spoilers ahead. Highlight text to make it visible.)

And then there are the pet skags. I don’t remember both their names, but one was called Pinky. They are either heavily armored or have an unrealistic amount of hit points because my bullets don’t seem to make any dents. They come charging out of the alcoves of Nine-Toes’ room and corner me in the little space at the entrance to the room. I try running around, but I am stuck, and the two bastards are tearing me from limb to limb.

I am barely halfway through the health bar of the first dog, I haven’t shot Nine-Toes once , and Pinky is kicking my ass from the side. The sheer volume of damage takes its toll, and I go down like a sack of potatoes. I shoot at the first skag almost blindly, no longer aiming carefully, just spraying and praying. It takes a while, and my vision turns almost completely black when I get my second wind.

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But that glory lasts only a few seconds. I still don’t have a shield and my health is practically non-existent. I go down a second time mere moments later, and no amount of random bullet sprays can save my life. There is a flash of light, I seem to be tumbling through a void of neon-lit tubes, and I materialize again at Skag Gully’s entry point cloning station.

Damn it!

Aside from a trek back to the fight, death seems to be almost inconsequential in Borderlands. If you go down, you can get second wind by killing anything nearby. If you die, you respawn with all your items, no durability loss, no experience loss and fully recharged to go at it again. Ammunition and health vending machines are also placed conveniently nearby for you to restock as needed. This trivializes the death system, and provides a stark, diametric opposite to an otherwise harsh and unforgiving world. On the other hand it helps with immersion and ensures that you never, ever have to reload.

No-Toes

I go back to the bastard’s hideout. Instead of taking the little elevator down, I perch myself atop the thing and take aim. Pinky is in my line of sight. She looks at me, her mandible(s) separate in three directions, exposing the soft fleshy interior. Animal instinct kicks in, and without giving it a moment’s thought, I fire a shot down her throat. She goes down in a single hit. I shake my head at my own stupidity. They are armored, but their face obviously isn’t. And it doesn’t help me that I figured this out after dispatching the two enemies to which this knowledge applies.

Nine-Toes himself puts up a decent fight, but in the end he is no match for my long-range-sniping and cover-taking abilities. The last shot takes his head off, and pixelated, cell-shaded blood sprays all over the floor. I triumphantly walk around the room, looting the various objects. I am disappointed by the mediocre and unimpressive ordinance his weapons cache has to offer.

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At least I survived my first boss encounter! Or did I?

Links:

“Sensible Spawns” or “WoW vs. Borderlands”

October 30, 2009 5 comments

Most modern MMOs like to define themselves as virtual worlds. What this implies is that even if the player logged off, the world would continue to exist regardless. Bears would roam the forests, wolves would chase down and kill rabbits, Frenzyheart would fight on against the Oracles, the Purple Gang would patrol the West Side Heights, and so on and so forth. This creates a sense of immersion, a sense of belonging in a living, breathing world teeming with its own life.

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The immersion factor is however shattered when you kill a boar, and another one pops up. It does not dig out of the surrounding mud, or come out of a farm enclosure of some kind. It simply… materializes out of thin air.  In no other genre of gaming, be it FPS, RTS or even RPG, do your enemies pop out of thin air and re-populate the area minutes after you cleared the menace. The person who gave you the task of clearing out said enemies is still in the same peril, asking adventurer after adventurer to fix the situation for him.

Syncaine made a great post about how to address this issue from quite a few different viewpoints.

My post is more about the way in which these enemies (re)spawn. It’s a pity to see Borderlands, which is not an MMO, come up with a viable and intelligent solution to the persistent respawn problem, without succumbing to the same old lazy formula. I recently started “The Borderlands Chronicles”, a series of posts that recounts my adventures as Bronte the Hunter in Borderlands, providing narrative, critique and commendations along the way. You can find Part I here.

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The skags spawn out of that cave on the right, NOT thin air.

The later section of this inaugural post covers my fight with some skags, the game’s version of demonic dog-like starter creatures. They too respawn over time. The difference is that they charge out of small caves built into the game world. You cannot enter these caves yourself, they are a little too small. But the overall effect undeniably feeds immersion.

You spot a skag, you snipe it from 50 feet out. Immediately two more skags come snarling, charging out of the adjacent caves. And even if you kill every skag in the area, the respawn process will involve more skags eventually walking out of the caves, instead of magically appearing out of thin air.

The system makes sense. It is intuitive, it allows for the beasts to be persistent in the world without breaking the tenous thread it has with the implied realism. Why can’t we have that in WoW? Or Champions Online? Or for that matter, any other MMO that uses the same respawn system?

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part I: “Zed’s Red Baby!” or “Skag Skirmish”

October 29, 2009 6 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Link:

Bearings

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I am outside the town of Fyrestone, accompanied by a chirpy, nerdy, attention-hungry robot, Claptrap. He is voiced to perfection as a cowardly creature who tries to act all professional and official, but can’t help being himself. Claptrap has just handed me a device that apparently plugs into my brain. The device shows me my health bar, experience bar, ammo counter and a compass. Over the course of the game, additional modules will come onlile such as the objectives tracker and the skills interface. I look around at the world I just got thrust into. I scroll through my two starter weapons: a rusty but powerful looking sniper rifle, and an odd-looking handgun.

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What can only be defined as the town’s main gate stands a few feet to the right, a vicious sun beats down on me, towering rock formations, sluggish windmills and structures  together with sheets of metal litter the landscape as far as the eye can see. Yet, somehow, everything seems cramped. The overall feeling is undeniable: this ain’t home, this is a bad place.

Here goes nothing.

Fyrestone Fyrefight

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Fyrestone is a shithole. Before we even enter the main gate, it has already come under attack by raiders. They jump into the town through a rock outcropping directly over my head in glorified dune buggies, and take off into the heart of the town. The robot finally manages to open the gate, and a mere four minutes into the game, and I am neck-deep in my first firefight.

Given that this is just the tutorial part of the game, I am willing to overlook the seemingly inept AI. They charge at me, guns blazing. When shot, they recoil realistically and shake their head trying to recover. But then they keep coming at full speed anyway. The sniper rifle kicks in my hands and fires with a satisfying boom. The second raider gets a well placed shot in his masked head, and I watch it explode in all its cell-shaded glory through the my rifle’s scope.

The town is dead. Or empty. Or both. I don’t come across a single soul as I make my way through the settlement. Doors are shut. Shutters are down. There isn’t any indication as to what happened to the inhabitants or where they went. Raiders attack me in groups of two or three. I settle into a comfortable pattern of taking out most of them from a distance with the sniper, and tearing hot lead into them with the quick-firing pistol up close.

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Scattered along the way is plenty of ammo and money stashed in conveniently placed boxes, safes, piles of junk, the bodies of my slain foes, and even a few toilets. I come across my first weapons crate. Inside is a ton of pistol ammo, and two brand new pistols. They offer differing recoil rates, damage, firing speeds and other modifications. The cool thing is that if you hover over a weapon, there is a hud element that pops up, comparing it against your equipped gun. Any stat improvements get an upward pointing green arrow, any loss in stats is denoted by a downward pointing red arrow. The only problem is that it is not intuitive. If you have the sniper equipped and you are looking at a pistol, it will compare the pistol’s stats against that of the sniper, and not against the pistol in your other equipped slot. So make sure you take out the weapon you want to compare against the new armament.

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One of these new pistols has a scope, allowing me to rapidly snipe my targets from a distance. They take less damage per shot, but the firing rate more than makes up for the loss of damage. The pistol handles well in my hands, each cracking shot reverbrating through the surrounding rock formations. Complete by accident, I shoot at a red barrel next to the last bandit, and he disintegrates in the resulting explosion.

Kill Ten Rats

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I meet Doctor Zed. He is an strange fellow, operating on a dead body, and claims that despite his medical practice, he does not hold a professional degree. The very first mission he gives me holds true to teaching RPG basics. I am asked to kill a few skags, vile looking malevolent dogs that attack anything on sight. I head out from Fyrestone in search of their hideout, only to find it just across the road.

The fight, although quick, is intense. I snipe the first skag from a distance, it buckles, making me think I nailed it in one shot. But then it shakes its head and starts charging. I take aim again and hit it square in the head. It goes down with a pitiful yelp. I hear more snarls, I whip my rifle around towards the series of small caves where I spotted the first skag. As my visions pans left to right, I spot one… no two… no wait, three skags charging at breakneck speed. I panic for the briefest moment. Then I aim and fire.

b1-7

The shot connects perfectly with the second skag’s head. It takes me a second to find the third skag through my zoomed perspective. I finally find it, it is merely 15 meters away. FPS shooter instincts kick in, and I pull the trigger without thinking. The first shot misses. 10 meters. I spot the fourth skag several meters behind the third one, running straight at me. I frantically click the left mouse button, willing the gun to shoot. The reload time, an otherwise negligible 2.6 seconds, lasts an eternity. The skag is just 5 meters away. Then the unexpected happens.

Just as I fire off the next shot, the beast leaps in the air, coming straight for my face, flying through 5 meters of empty air in a split second. Painful red marks fill the screen and my vision teeters. I get out of zoom mode and fire a shot at my feet, but the skag is already running away. Running away? That’s odd. Maybe it is a glitch or a bug. I’ll worry about that one later, there is a fourth one dangerously close. I zoom again, aim at the fourth one as the third one runs away, and fire.

*click*

The chamber is empty. How the hell did I use up all six bullets already. The first two shots killed the first skag. The third shot killed the second skag. The fourth shot missed. The fifth shot missed when the third skag lept. The last shot was wasted on the ground trying to kill the third skag up close.

Damn it!

No time to reload. I switch to my handgun. And that is when I see the third skag wasn’t actually running away. The third skag was trying to gain some distance on me so it could leap attack again. I see it turning around, realizing that both skags are more or less the same distance from me, closing in from two different directions.

The next few seconds are filled with panicked gunshots. The two skags go down, making teeth indentations somewhere on my thighs. My handgun has three bullets left. My rifle is empty.

I hear another skag snarl in the distance.

Time to reload!

Links:

“Halloween Horrors” or “Nothing Rhymes With Orange”

October 17, 2009 2 comments

halloween-horrors-or-nothing-rhymes-with-orangeHalloween is fast approaching. In the U.S., if you are a kid, it is a time for tricks and treats. If you are a young woman, it is a time to dress up in the sluttiest outfits imaginable and go wild. If you are a young man, you are glad for the young women.

Being an MMO-player gives Halloween a different flavor altogether. It is the time of the year when you inevitably engage in digital activities and events designed around October 31st. These activities may range from fluff achievements, titles or items to complete encounters, epic lewt, and complex new threads of a unique scenario etched into the fabric of the existing lore framework. Let’s take a look at some of the upcoming Halloween events in some of the most popular MMOs. And yes, we will continue my obsession with the number seven in this list as well.

Fallen Earth – Days of the Dead – October 23 onwards

George Romero would be proud. If you can look past the extremely creative event title, indie-hit Fallen Earth plans to use throngs of the wandering undead to melt your faces. The developers have chosen not to blatantly incorporate Halloween-related elements to the game play. Instead, they came up with a cool side-story, weaved the threads into the existing world, and created an event that would allow players to fight off an emergent zombie menace.  The zombies are clones that, in a manner of speaking, ‘went bad’, and now carry nanites that may be harmful to humans or other cloning facilities.

I’m sold.

There is nothing I enjoy more than a developer’s ability to use a real-world event and give it the game’s own special flavor, without breaking the lore. That was until I realized that one of the consumable items you obtain during the event is the “Pumpkin of Extraordinary Merit”. Well, at least the overarching concept is fresh and engaging.

Runes of Magic – Halloween Bundle – October 16 to November 1

Herein lies the problem with mircotransactions. While it sounds like a good idea to only pay for what you may be playing/interested in, seasons like Halloween are largely neglected. The only thought given to any semblance of an in-game connection is buried in another microtransaction. Runes of Magic offers a Halloween Bundle, filled with fluff and largely decorative items. As far as I can tell, there are no in-game events or encounters specific to Halloween. A part of me wants to commend them for not jumping on the seemingly inevitable themed-content band wagon, but they did put up a post about microtransaction-based Halloween items. And that, somehow, is much worse.

Age of Conan – Night of Lost Souls – Unknown

While Fallen Earth does a decent job of masking the event in the lore and giving it the game’s own personal flavor, Age of Conan goes a step further and creates a well-constructed mythology around the events of their seasonal content. Here is a short excerpt:

“As the day slowly but inevitably gives way to the longer nights as the year wanes, there is a time when the thin veil between the night as we know it and the true darkness of the worlds beyond the realm of mortal men is pulled back.”

Players will have three new quests, two solo and one group, and several in-game items to acquire. Most significantly, the game promises to take you to familiar places transformed by the recent taint of the Lost Souls. Sign me up!

halloween-horrors-or-nothing-rhymes-with-orange2Warhammer Online – Daemon Moon Rising – October 23 to November 2

There may be a pattern here, I just can’t seem to put my finger on it. Could it be… zombies? Originality, this season in MMOs, seems to have taken a back-seat to convenience. With Left 4 Dead rallying the masses around the zombie extermination cause, America’s obsession with blasting the undead has grown to unhealthy proportions. I suppose it’s only natural that literally every MMO in-game event is related to zombies. In Warhammer, there is a public quest requiring the Daemon’s Cradle, a major PvP scenario in the Highpass Cemetary, and of course, a ton of Halloween masks.

Champions Online – Blood Moon – October 27 onwards

The superhero simulator will see its first content release with Blood Moon. The content patch will introduce – you might want to sit down here because the shock may be too much – zombies! What’s the twist? The souls of the superheroes (the game’s versions of Batman, Superman etc.) have been trapped by the undying Takophanes. What sets this game apart from the crowd is that aside from new items, encounters and gameplay mechanics, the patch will also introduce a brand new Celestial power set.

Oh and there are werewolves.

Aion – Harvest Revel – October 25 to October 31

There is an eclipse. It brings out zombies. End of story.

World of Warcraft – Hallow’s End – October 18 to November 1

Making no attempts to mask the season with significant lore underpinnings, or simply releasing demonic armies for players to fight against, World of Warcraft will again feature Hallow’s End this year. Masks, brooms that double as flying mounts of all varieties, stat-boosting candy, and magical transformation wands are just some of the fluff ietms you will have access to. In addition, the event will see the return of the Headless Horseman, his dancing pumpkins, and another chance to score some of the 87 bajillion trinkets he carries.

Hallow’s Originality” or “Lore Whore”

Seasonal events are a great way to connect with your player base in a novel and interesting fashion. For MMOs that have been out for several years, seasonal events can also create a sense of  familiarity over the course of time, but it also runs the risk of being monotonous year after year. Regardless of your level of comfort, these events do allow players to break away from their daily grinds in the game.

The real juxtaposition, for me, lies between the level of realism in every aspect of MMOs, and the amount of fun said content can be. On any day of the week (and twice on Sunday), I will take lore-saturated, well crafted in-game experiences over events that have a blatant connection to the season at hand. For instance, I am very excited about Age of Conan’s Night of the Lost Souls, but Hallow’s End will be a boring, repetitive and shallow experience. I mean “Hallow’s End”. They didn’t even try with that one!

What are your feelings on seasonal events? Is realism more important to you, or does something else float your boat entirely?

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.