Thursday, 29 March 2007

The Flawed Prayer

As said by Melmoth before each game session:

Our developer, who meant to leaven,
Shallow be thy game.
Thy MMO come.
Thy quests be done,
for loot as well as experience.
Give us this day our daily grind.
And make us run long instances,
Which give loot that is of no use to us.
And leads us not into Eden;
But delivers us to Cokaygne:
For thine is the rep grind, the nerfbat, and the monthly fee,
For ever and ever (and ever and ever).

Saturday, 17 March 2007

101 ways to confuse yourself when playing an MMO.

Number 1.

Have the game's sound turned off whilst playing your favourite MMO, with iTunes playing on random in the background instead.

At the exact moment you pull a mob, the Final Fantasy IV fight theme plays...

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Das Ich und das Dress (Part the first).

As MMO players we all take on the role of a character, to a certain extent, within the online world we've chosen as our virtual home from home, but what does that character represent to us, and what does it say about us? Concentrating on the more generic idea of an MMO - a game with various races, classes and professions - and ignoring for now those virtual worlds where your character is simply an avatar, presenting an interface to enable you to interact with others and nothing more (not withstanding the fact that it's fairly easy to draw conclusions about a person when their avatar is a ten foot tall dragon-scaled penis called Cecil), what, if anything, can we tell about the person behind the character when we examine the character itself?

Potentially the first thing we notice when first presented with another character is their sex, and immediately we enter in to interesting territory when trying to establish anything about the player behind the character based on this information. Although a lot of MMOs are RPG based, the role-playing aspect of this is often no more than 'I am playing the role of this class or profession', any need to relate to the character is often limited to the fact that if the character does well the player gets to explore more of the world, and if the character dies the player is set back in achieving this goal. It seems that it is rare for players to relate to their characters as an entity that is alive within the world that they are exploring, to play the role not just of the class they have chosen but of the character as a whole. Thus many male players will pick female characters; since the need to relate any more than superficially to the character is dismissed, the deciding factor often comes down to 'if I have to stare at the back of my character for hours on end, which arse is going to be most easy on the eye'. Female players seem to pick male characters less often, and this could be because women tend to relate emotionally to people and objects much more naturally than men do, and therefore playing a female character comes more easily as they can relate to it on a deeper level, in such a way as female to female friendships are often closer than their male to male counterpart.

If we know the sex of the player behind the character - we will try to avoid knowledge of the player when initially examining an area of character choice - does the choice of playing a character of the opposite sex indicate anything to us about the player? There have been many and varied studies on such behaviour, but the general conclusion would probably have to be 'not really' (I'm sure Freud would disagree). Most male players who pick a female character do so for 'aesthetic' reasons, and female players who pick a male character often do so because they wish to be assumed to be male, to avoid the still sadly prevalent and unfair (although, again, drastically improving for the better) image of female gamers as being less capable than their male counterparts. The more disconcerting trend is the opposite of the last example, where a male player plays a female character in order to aid their attempt to convince other players - specifically male players - that they are female player; often such meta-gaming is a harmless attempt to gain an advantage, usually gifts of items and help, from those members of the player community who are more susceptible to the scantily clad female form...

Another very interesting and contrasting area, but one that I couldn't speculate on, is that of gay players. Do the general trends with the gay player population follow the trends that seem apparent in the straight community, or do they differ? Polar opposite? A mix? Too varied to even attempt a generalisation? It would be interesting to know.

So it would seem that it's hard to establish much from the sex of the character alone; with female gamers still being proportionally in the minority compared to male gamers, even though their numbers are growing in leaps and bounds, the chances of a male character being played by anything other than a male are slim, whereas it might be suggested that a female character could equally likely be played by a male or female, if not still favouring the player being male. When you meet a new player for the first time, do you draw any inference from their character's sex? Does it affect your view of that player in any way? Consider it next time you meet a new player, it would be interesting to hear people's opinions and experiences.

Ok, so a character's sex isn't necessarily a great indicator of the player behind the veil, what about character race?

Things start to get a little more interesting with the introduction of character race into the equation. There are several things that can affect the choice of race in an MMO, and some of these choices may allow us to begin to develop the picture of the player behind the character, such that it becomes a little less blurred. It seems prudent to discuss the various factors that combine into the creation of a character separately and to then discuss them in combination with one another, but in discussing the choice of race of a character it is hard to entirely ignore the effect class distribution has on this area.

It would seem fair to say that in general most players will determine their character first and foremost on class, then race and then sex. In discussing them in the reverse order, we try to demonstrate how the least important choice seems also to give us the least information about the player, but that in combination with the other choices it will develop into a more important indicator than it was when considered in isolation.

Many MMO games try to encourage racial diversity by restricting the selection of some classes to only a few of the available races, and thus a large part of race selection boils down to whether your chosen class is available to that race. However, there are other factors that will affect the choice of race, some being more telling about the player than others. Racial-specific abilities in most MMOs tend not to divulge much about the player's decision in choosing that race, they are often minor niceties which are often overlooked by most players for the more important reason for racial choice: appearance. The appearance (and associated background, if any) of a race is probably the big deciding factor for a player facing the choice of what to play, and it can probably give us some insight into that player and the general player population in general.

Still to come: conclusion of racial choice; class choice; class development; names and affiliations...

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

The terraces: The terrace for the indefatigable loot linker.

Onwards! Onwards, dear traveller, into the depths of the inferno; we come ever closer to the Third Circle, but let us again take rest on the viewing balcony of another terrace. Regain your strength whilst contemplating the sinners within, our journey will soon continue apace.

The indefatigable loot linkers.

We've all experienced, at one time or another: that lucky item drop that is something above the norm, something a little bit special. Often enough this happens when teamed with a small group of people or when playing solo, and the urge to share your exultation at such fortuitousness often leads to sharing a link of your newly acquired item of wonderment with members of your guild or your circle of friends.

Fear not, dear traveller, for such action will not find you ensconced within the oppressive walls of this particular terrace. No, this place is reserved for those sinners who feel that every item that they've ever owned is worth noting to not just their party, or their friends, or even their guild, but the entire known world.

The indefatigable loot linker begins early, and with a conviction to rival the greatest zealots. From first level they are linking every quest item they are offered; not just the items they gain, which would be tedious enough bearing in mind that every other player has probably had something very similar if not identical offered to them, or will have very soon, no, the loot linker shares every item the quest offers, including the ones they themselves cannot use, and then debates at great length in any channel of communication that hasn't had the foresight to silence or kick them already as to which item they should choose. This would be bad enough, but it doesn't end there: the loot linker, in their discussion of the terribly difficult decision of whether to take the dagger or the staff on offer, will link every item they currently have, and how these new items will affect their current character build. They will deliberate at great length on the difficulty of the decision, they will link items from other quests that are comparable, they will link future items that may be upgrades, they will link all the items they have on auction, and how that might enable them to generate enough money to buy a better item from the auction house or a vendor.

And of course, they link all the possible auction house and vendor items they might be able to buy.

This goes on for quite some time, with nobody being able to communicate with one another for the sheer quantity of linked items being flooded on to all channels, until finally someone yells at the loot linker that they're "only level two, and what the hell does it matter what they pick, because they'll be upgrading the item in question about one hundred times in the next hours worth of levelling!". At which point the loot linker goes off to sulk, but not before linking the rare twink item that they've already bought for their character and can use next level.

Instance runs are another joy, as any item drop from a boss will illicit a blustering tidal wave of deliberation on the part of the loot linker; they debate for an epoch as to whether they should roll on it, because so-and-so an item is better [link], and they might respec in which case they'd prefer [link] or [link] and [link] is nice but [link] would be better if it's a sunny day, but they'd rather have [link] in case it rains, and [link] on the off chance of low-lying smog. Then finally, when someone threatens them with extreme physical disfigurement if they don't make their mind up as to whether they need the item or not, they [link] the very much better item that they're already wielding, and explain how it goes better with their shoes [link] and hat [link].

We must not forget, as well, the utter fruitless linking of the most common quest items in order for people to give the loot linker praise; we're talking of the most common of common items, the items that unless they are somehow levelling their character whilst being entirely unaware of their surroundings (actually, we'll meet examples of these in some of the deeper circles of the inferno), every single player has gained at some time during their adventuring career.

"Hey I just got [The 10,000th Most Common Potato of Extremely Common Ancestry. All Exactly Like This One]."

And there is silence. And more silence. And yet someone, somewhere, feels the need to acknowledge the loot linker. Ohttre (God of Bewilderment) knows why, but they do.


And of course, that is the straw that engulfed the camel in a ten megaton atomic explosion and five hundred year nuclear winter.

"Thanks! I've been wanting [link] for a while because my [link] is getting old, but I'll soon be able to get [link] or [link] or [link] or [link], but then I'll need to change my [link] and [link] so that they're comparable, otherwise I probably won't be able to go to Linkville and get my [link] or link my link link [link] linking [link] link linky linkety [link] link linky link link [link] link link..."

Predictably, it goes downhill from there.

And the moral of the story is: don't acknowledge your indefatigable loot linkers.

Actually the moral is: always hurt, with extreme prejudice, all known indefatigable loot linkers. However, in case you're too decent a soul to do so, never fear, as this terrace of punishment will be here, waiting for them.

As we move on - move along at the back, keep up! - I will just briefly point out to you the linked (just my little joke, there) terrace next door to the one we have recently visited, the protractedly named 'The terrace for those people who feel the need to shout "DING!" in the server global channel so that every player is fully informed of the fact that this person has finally achieved the near-insurmountable task of reaching second level.'

Sinners beware!

Friday, 9 March 2007

The trouble with the rat race.

I hate competitive gaming. I don't know why I despise it so much, I'm not a hopeless player but I'm never top of the tables either; I'm a master of mediocrity, if you will. This shouldn't really be a problem as I happily understand that not everybody can come first, and at least I'm not always last, but it doesn't make my view on competitive gaming any less severe.

And so, I play cooperative games wherever possible; when certain friends were all playing Tekken and Street Fighter, and learning those dodecatuple-secret-probation manoeuvres that required you to physically induce RSI and hairline knuckle fractures just warming up before a fight to enable you to pull off the combos that would allow you to make 'L' loser signs at your 'best friend', I was instead playing Toejam and Earl with my best friend. Toejam and Earl was great because you had to work together as a team to progress and there was no incentive to compete with your team-mate: if he got a great item it helped you both and he was never more powerful than you for finding it, he just got your undying gratitude that he'd found Rocket Skates and not shot himself off the edge of the map. You were both, as a cooperating team, the better. I loved that game, and I still play it today because it sums up for me what so many cooperative games these days are not.

My introduction to online multiplayer gaming was through Quake II. A quick dip into Deathmatch game play was enough to put me off for a while, until I finally discovered the joys that were team capture the flag and team fortress. I say 'joys' because they were, at least, cooperative in the fact that your team were working together towards defeating the other team, but even in these early days of my online gaming experience the Rat Race effect was in evidence. In QII, Counter Strike and UT2k4, all of which I played a fair amount, there was as much competition within your own team as there was with the opposing team. Who came top of the kill scores, who got the most headshots, who had killed the most people using only a small lump of moss called Kenneth. And if people weren't so good at killing others, then they'd use a different stat to prove that they'd 'won' over the other people on their team:

"Most kills? Pfff. Well ok, but anyone can kill other players. I mean, it's the whole point of the game! Now if you want to see a real player, you want to be looking at the 'Most suicides by jumping your vehicle backwards into lava from the top of a mountain whilst shooting yourself in the scrotum' stat..."

And so the Rat Race became apparent in my mind, and continued to show itself in any multiplayer game I tried, what's more it seems to have gotten worse as time progresses. You could play the Happy Smiley Game of Helping Your Friends Through Genuine Generosity of Mind, and as soon as you logged on you'd hear:

"Most help? Pfff. Well ok, but anyone can help other players. I mean it's the whole point of the game! Now if you want to see real altruism..."

It shouldn't have come as much surprise to me then, that MMORPGs evolved a whole new level of Rat Race mentality. In an MMORPG you have a million things to be 'better' at than all the friends, colleagues and general players that you meet on a regular basis. I should note that I'm talking about the PvE side of things here; if people want to go play PvP and beat the snot out of each other and make virtual 'L' loser signs whilst claiming their victory was through skill, when if they were honest it was possibly due to the fact that they were four levels higher and had far better gear than the other player, and their team mate healing them all the while might have been a slight advantage too (yes, some people do heal in PvP. I'm one of them, in fact), then I say all power too them, it gets them the hell out of the area of the game I'm playing, where people use words of more than one syllable and don't throw their keyboard at their Mum if she interrupts them with some inconvenience such as a lovingly prepared dinner. I know I'm generalising, there are always exceptions to the rule, and not everybody is like that. But in general they are, that's why it's a generalisation.

So yes, anyway, the PvE Rat Race! MMORPGs are invariably a rat race: you fight monsters to level-up your character and gain better gear so that you can... fight even bigger monsters and gain even better gear. That's it. There's no 'You won! Well done! Have a cookie, and here is the list of developers that you'll probably never read whilst we play some end-game muzak'; you just keep running on that wheel until you collapse from burn-out or another company releases a bigger, shinier wheel, and you pootle off and run on that wheel instead. Nevertheless the formula works and in general many people, myself included, enjoy the run for what it is. And therein lies the problem: those people who like to prove themselves to be great need something to wave at everyone around them to demonstrate their greatness, and the RPG nature of many MMOs provides this in spades. So even if you are not a competitive person - competitive people have even coined the phrase 'Carebear' for such people, because they need to prove that the only manly approach to anything in life is to be beating it over the head until it you are the winner and can declare yourself better than it - you are forced to compete with others at every turn.

I see people trying to compete everywhere I go, in the most surreal situations. Running races are a good one, where people will race you from, say, the gryphon point in Menethil to the dock; I once had someone drink a swiftness potion so that they could 'beat' me in the 'race' we were having, except that I wasn't racing I was just making my way to the boat, you'd think they'd realise this what with me being a druid and having a travel form and yet running along in my normal Night Elf form. But no, they did a little victory dance when we got to the pier. Then we stood there and waited for five minutes for the boat to arrive. But they got to the waiting area first. Winner!

It's these surreal competitions that really make me boggle, when there are so many ways to prove yourself 'better' than other people, character level, shiny items, guild status, PvP rank, amount of gold, number of epic mounts you can use in a three yard journey...

Actually I think that was getting back to surreal towards the end. That's not to say that I haven't seen that: a chap in a pickup group went through about fix or six epic mounts whilst we were travelling across the Western Plaguelands to an instance: he had his race mount, rep grind mount, PvP mount, second PvP mount, reserve PvP mount. Well done, you won the, um, Mounty Cup, you win... a boggle.


I could live with all the faux competition, I really could. Ok, I admit, I'd like to be able to get to the end of the dock, watch the foot race champion of the world do his little victory dance, and then turn myself into a 1000 foot tall mega-demon, and eat his character, his alts, his guild and his PC's hard drive, but who wouldn't? No, what really annoys me is when people treat anything I do as an incitement to competition. If I'm running from point A to point B, then it's a running race! If I take on two mobs at a time, then it's a competition to see who can mass pull the most mobs! If I gain a level, it's because it's a race to get to the level cap!

It's not the fault of most people, there are a select group of people who have to compete in everything they do, and the nature of RPGs amplifies this competitive nature such that it infects many others; when people see someone rushing towards the level cap by playing non-stop for 43 hours straight and using every trick in the book to be 'the winner' it's understandable that they feel that the game is in fact a competition with everyone else, that it's everyone for themselves. And perhaps this is one of the reasons that pickup groups are in general such a feared entity in a game that is supposed to be about teamwork and cooperation against a common enemy: when the game instils in its players the need to compete and to be self sufficient, there's little incentive to strive to be a better team player, to have aiding others and working as a team against a common enemy as your primary goal.

When everyone around you can be seen as a competitor and therefore an enemy to your superiority, why bother with fighting the real enemies the game throws at you?

If Melomth were a Carebear, he'd probably be Grumpy Bear.

Occasionally turning into the 1000 foot tall Yog-Sothoth bear, where his Carebear stare would eat worlds and corrupt the very fabric of the universe itself.

So, we're talking really pretty grumpy.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

The terraces: The terrace for the patently manifest.

As we make our way on to the third circle of questing, let us take a brief diversion and look in on the first terrace of punishment that can be easily observed. Terraces are dotted here and there about the nine circles, and are areas of special punishment for those chief protagonists that are in abundant evidence within the nine circles.
Ah, and so we arrive.

The patently manifest.

Please note the sign on the wall outside the entrance: 'Herein are punished those who state the bleeding obvious', and the small sign beneath: 'Note: If you state the bleeding obvious, you'll be punished in here. Ow! Please not the fire! Aiiiieeee!'. Amazing how the sign maker managed to articulate his screaming agony on the sign, no?

There are many sinners being punished and tortured in the most inventive manner imaginable in this terrace, but we shall focus on a particular one, the person who shouts "Heal me!" at healer classes.

If you've played a healer class, it's guaranteed that you've met this sinner on your travels. They're the person who, at the least convenient and most stupid time, whisper, say or broadcast on all known communication channels and radio frequencies that now is the time for you to devote your time to restoring their rapidly diminishing health levels because, frankly, they're more important than everybody else.

This is irritating on so many levels that they had to invent twenty seven new levels to encompass it all; it was during this time that they also found the long lost 14th level of irritation which had somehow got stuck down the back of Melmoth's sofa next to a boiled sweet and six pence in loose change.

There's nothing worse than having fought your way into the depths of some dungeon, having survived numerous encounters with multiple groups of aggressors and come out relatively unscathed, than to have someone holler 'Heal meh!!1' when you get in to a sticky situation and their health gets somewhere below the 50% mark. Just so that you sinners can try to understand, the conversation - IF WE WEREN'T SO GOD DAMN BUSY HEALING YOUR SORRY ARSES - would probably go a little something like this:

Sinner: "Heal meh!!11"

Saint: "What?"

Sinner: "Heal pls"

Saint: "I'm gob smacked. Heal you, you say? Me? A healer? With my reputation? Well, I don't know, it's such a radical proposal that I'll have to mull that one over for, oh, until the rest of your health expires, I would imagine"

Sinner: "But I need healz!!11"

Saint: "Yes. Yes you do. Quite badly, in fact, seeing as you're taking such punishment from that mob there. The question is, how am I supposed to know this?"

Sinner: "Wuh?"

Saint: "I mean. As a healer, I'm busy over here writing a thesis on the subjugation of women being rooted in the patterns of economic exploitation. Not to mention the sheer amount of laundry I have to get through, do you know how difficult it is to get Felblood out of Mooncloth? There're some interesting botanical specimens over here that I need to catalogue, and I've also got the biggest booger up my nose and it's going to take me a good half an hour with my eyes squeezed closed in concentration to work that little sucker out. So, bearing in mind how incredibly busy I am, it's a miracle that we made it this far into the instance, really, what with me being the only healer. I can only imagine that some form of divine intervention, some celestial cosmic event occurred over the past eleven battles that enabled the entire party to emerge from the fight relatively unscathed. I mean IT'S NOT AS THOUGH I'M SITTING BACK HERE, ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, STARING AT YOUR HEALTH BARS AND PLAYING HEALTH-BAR-WHACK-A-HEAL AND NOTHING ELSE. IT'S NOT AS IF MY ENTIRE PURPOSE IS TO KEEP YOU ALIVE, AND THAT, CONSIDERING THAT I AM PLAYING A HEALING CLASS, SPECCED FOR HEALING, WEARING HEALING GEAR, WITH A DEGREE IN HEALING FROM THE GRAND ALL-HEALING UNIVERSITY OF HEALING, I MIGHT, MAYBE, JUST PER CHANCE, BE QUITE AWARE OF WHAT THE HEALTH OF MY PARTY IS, AND WHO NEEDS HEALING AT ANY PARTICULAR TIME."

Sinner: "Buh my health woz low"

Saint: "Did you die"

Sinner: "Well it looked as thou..."

Saint: "DID. YOU. DIE?"

Sinner: "No."

Saint: "And do you know why you didn't die?"

Sinner: "Bec..."

Saint: "RHETORICAL QUESTION. It was because you were healed. By the healer. Because that's the healer's job. That's me, by the way."

Sinner: "Buh my health woz real low"

Saint: "Well I'm sorry."

Sinner: "It's alri..."

Saint: "SARCASM. Just because your health gets low, does not mean that I've run off to finish my thesis, or to find a place to wipe that booger because I don't want to get it on my robe. I haven't suddenly forgotten where I am, and what class I play. It may just be that the fight is a tough one, and that there is someone who is a higher priority than you who needs healing. You'll get your turn. And if you don't, there was a damn good reason why, and think yourself lucky that I'm here to resurrect you."

Sinner: "I woz just sayin"

Saint: "Why? WHY?! Why are you so special that you feel the need to point this out to me? Do I tell you what to do? Do I? Do I tell you to "Swing your sword!", "Use your combat abilities to do damage!", "Attack the mobs!", "Cast magical spells to the detriment of our enemies!"."

Sinner: "No..."

Saint: "No. No I don't. But I should, because then maybe, just maybe, you'd begin to understand what it's like."

** Sinner dies **

Sinner: "Rez pliz"

Saint: "Can anybody here resurrect?"

Sinner "You can"

Saint: "Anybody? No? Shame, we'll have to leave Sir StatestheObvious behind."

Sinner: "But u can rez. Hello? Hello?"

And so we continue on our journey, with the faint call of "Pliz, I need rez. And maybe some gold." fading away to nothing as we leave the sinners of this terrace to their eternal punishment, too grisly to describe here, but well deserved all the same.