Saturday, 28 April 2007

Five reasons why I blog: Revenge of the Meme

It has recently come to my attention that I have been tagged, deliberately, callously, and with beastliness of forethought by the Ancient One. And he didn't even buy me flowers.

  1. Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet: The shield of anonymity, it’s a powerful tool. It enables me to sit here and write whatever I choose, in whatever manner of voice that I wish to use, and then put it out for people to read and interpret and react to. Am I Melmoth, or is Melmoth really me? If I had a portrait painted who would I see? It’s wonderful to be able to experiment with who I believe I am without some of the more obnoxious constraints of societal intervention

  2. Because I want to be a writer: Language is funny. Those who are naturally inclined to belittle and mock will have read that heading as me believing that blogging is a way into my becoming a writer. They are wrong, I’m very happy with my work as an aerospace software engineer; deep down I want to be a writer, even though I know that this will never come to fruition. The stumbling blocks are that I have no stories to tell, and I am not terribly good at writing, therefore, blogging is a way for me to live out my desire in some small way, to relieve the pressure of not knowing whether I can put something on a page and have somebody else read it and enjoy it.

  3. Because the voices told me to: They’re so demanding.

  4. Ordinary people can be insightful: You don’t have to be the lord king guru of all you survey to have good ideas, sometimes the little people have ideas too. Blogs are a wonderful medium to convey ideas, and the good ones will be picked-up by others and become buoyant, and the not-so-good ideas will settle to the floor of the sea of blogs, like so much detritus. It harms nobody, but it can empower them to better things.

  5. It is part of my master-plan to take over the world: And if you think that blogging about MMOs is a weird way to go about taking over the world, you wait until you see the marmosets wielding tiny uchigatana and mounted on badgers. Oh, I wasn’t supposed to mention those yet...

I'll tag Zoso and Elf, because I haven't seen them tagged elsewhere yet. Plus they're the only other two people IN THE WORLD who read this blog.

Friday, 27 April 2007

The traveller has come. Choose and perish.

With plenty of time to spend thinking about LotRO rather than playing it, I pondered on my final decision of class and race. And then I pondered on my pondering. And then it all got a bit existential; I think at one point John Wayne rode in on Neil Gaiman and tried to lasso me with rope made of Dolly Parton's eyelashes, which had been hand-rolled by Guatemalan maidens.

Anyway, when I woke up I decided to write a little bit on my method of character selection. I also decided never again to eat jalapeño peppers stuffed with cheese when drinking large quantities of port.

When it comes to fantasy MMOs I tend to be pretty set in my ways when it comes to the choice of race. I usually rule out playing a human pretty early on; it's not that I find playing a human in a fantasy setting dull, there are a lot of cool human characters in the fantasy genre, it's more that the representation of humans in most MMOs is just... wrong. We're not talking Uncanny Valley here, we're talking Ministry of Silly Walks. To my eyes, the human representation more often than not looks awkward and that grates too much for me to be playing one for any length of time.

When I was younger and playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I used to love elves. Back in the day they were elegant, aloof and refined. Their weapons were unique and mysterious, their fighting style was unnatural and yet in complete harmony with nature. Surfing down staircases on a shield was a big no-no, in fact they had a punishment along the lines of rafanizou if anyone was caught doing that, but obviously it was a mystical and antediluvian ritual, with elven radishes which had been bred especially over a thousand millennia. These days elves seem to have been reduced to the status of pretentious, borderline-anorexic humans with pointy ears. They're the Paris Hiltons of the fantasy genre.

We're running out of fantasy staples, but never fear, because I like dwarves. I guess if I'm honest I am a dwarf at heart these days: grumpy, rough and ready, loyal and devoted to friends and really quite hairy. Well maybe not the last one, but I did try to grow a beard once, and in the end isn't that what counts? I like playing races that have some sort of obviously distinguishing height difference, mainly because it's something that will actually stand out in the World of Wealllookalike, so short of stature dwarves or hulking ogres always appeal to me. Dwarves are feisty, tough, usually in the thick of battle and rarely back down from a fight, and that's the sort of character that I admire. And if nothing else, there's always the beer; the vast vats of lovely, frothy-headed bitter ale.

I don't have any aversion to playing the more diminutive races, in fact I find them fun as I stated above, but there is a caveat in that I can't play the overly cute ones. I probably wouldn't play a fae in EQII, but I would play a Ratonga. I like the Yodas, the Angs and the Belkars of the fictional world. I make an exception for Sir Didymus, he's borderline cute, but so very funny with it.

Anyway, there's an outline of the general preconceptions and prejudices that I take with me when I approach a new game.

So I expect that you have an idea of what race I'm likely to have chosen - there will be an exam at the end of this post - but what follows is an outline of how the decision was refined and how I arrived at my initial character for LotRO. So let me take you on a journey further into the murky depths my brain; please wear the protective goggles provided at all times, and take time to read the instruction leaflet on how to assume the crash position correctly. In the event of excessive cynicism, oxygen masks will drop from the compartment above your head, please fit your own mask before attempting to fit masks to those less tolerant or understanding than you. Don't worry about John Wayne and Neil Gaiman, they're just after your Lucky Charms, and are mostly harmless.

It will be fairly obvious to those paying attention that fairly quickly I ruled out the race of man. (And woman). And woman, thanks Stan. They stand awkwardly, they're gangly, and they run like they've watched Forest Gump one too many times, including, the last time I played in beta, leaning into corners but from the waist-up only. I mean, what the hell? Maybe it's a Tolkien thing, I'm sure there is probably a five page song in the Silmarillion on why the gods made all humans lean around corners but only from the waist-up. Anyway, the one stumbling block at this point in my decision was that out of the choice of classes, the Captain was the one that first caught my eye, which is exclusive to the race of men. (And women). And women, thanks Stan. This made it a bit tricky, because the Captain class is very much my style of play: a jack-of-all-trades group support and all-round good guy. However, after a little research it seems as though the Captain class may be just a little too much of a JoaT, this coupled with their being a pet class which I can never really get on with, and the fact that I have played hybrids in WoW for the past *mumble mumble* years, meant that I could convince myself that this wasn't the class for me. So that ruled out playing a human, awwwww no waist-leaning for me.

Elves were a lot simpler to rule out, thanks Lord of the Rings the Movie, and your shield-surfing Legolas that has spawned a million "Kekekeke" bouncing clones. It's still hard to escape the fact that they're skinny humans with pointy ears, even with all the background lore behind them, I can't help but feel that. I know it's hard to make attractive humanoids in games, but those elves are pretty fuggly; we're not talking Liv Tyler fuggly, where the fuggly meter goes all the way around and comes back on the other side, and you actually find yourself deeply attracted to her even though you keep thinking of her Dad half the time. Maybe that's just me. No, the elves in LotRO just look like really bad plastic surgery mistakes: you know those celebrities who no longer look like they're part of the Earth gene pool any more? Put pointy ears on them, and you've got LotRO elves.

So, mentally kicking dirt into the weird-running, plastic surgery reject races meant that I had then ruled out the Loremaster class. At this point I had to review my reasoning again because I liked the idea of that class, I mean who doesn't want to be Gandalf? All the Legolas-loving men-in-tights can put their hands down. Gandalf is the sage. The wise man of ages. The force for good. If Tolkien had had just a shred of forethought he wouldn't have named him Gandalf the White, and the film would have instead gone: "Gandalf? Yes... That's what they used to call me. Gandalf the Grey. That was my name. I am Gandalf the Daddy. And I come back to you now at the turn of the tide.", and there would have been the classic line of "Who's your Daddy?" when he forced Sauron out from Theoden King. However, in LotRO the Loremaster is a strange class which doesn't seem to have a strong enough definition, and again there's the pet thing. Why do pet classes annoy me, well in this instance it's the choice of pets that you're restricted to:

Captain of Gondor: "Loremaster, the enemy horde outnumbers us by three to one, whatever can we do against such odds?"

Loremaster: "Fear not little one, for I shall send my faithful companion to tackle them!"

Captain of Gondor: "Your faithful companion?"

Loremaster: "Yes, Alan, here"

Captain of Gondor: "Alan, is a small bird"

Loremaster: "Well... yes. But he is a fearsome fighter! He can perform great angry feats of rage if you give him a chance"

Captain of Gondor: "Loremaster, there are four hundred orcs out there, and you propose to attack them with a chaffinch"

Loremaster: "Alan is not a chaffinch, he's a lesser spotted wren."

Captain of Gondor: "Oh well then... Go on then, show us. Show us what mighty... "

Loremaster: "Alan."

Captain of Gondor: "What mighty Alan can do."

Loremaster: "Right Alan, this it, don't let me down. Off you go."

Alan: "Squawk!"

Loremaster: "There he goes. See! See him bravely attack the enemy head-on!"

Loremaster: "Oh dear."

Captain of Gondor: "They're... eating Alan. Is that a... dip? They actually brought some sort of herb dip, Loremaster."

*looks around*

Captain of Gondor: "Loremaster?"

Ok so the way the Loremaster class is implemented is actually a fairly clever way to get around the First Age Non-proliferation of Magic treaty of Middle Earth (Sauron is so getting a visit from the United Nations inspectors), but as I say, it just wouldn't work for me as far as I can tell, and so I could happily move on to the next race.

Dwarves. Now we're talking! Those hairy tin-barrels on legs, armed and dangerous even when they're doing the spring cleaning, they're the nutters favourite nut. Hopefully you've latched on to the subtle vibe that I like dwarves. However, class choice was a problem for me here. The Champion was my initial preference, but being one of the major DPS classes, everyone and his wife will be playing one, and this is a big turn-off for me. Flavour of the month classes are never on my list of Things I Must Do To Be Popular With The Cool Kids. The Hunter suffers like the Champion for the same reason, in my eyes. In addition, dwarf hunter? Eh? A dwarf. With a bow. Oh yes, I can see the dwarves of Tolkien, all lined up at the back of the battle with their bows. And then, when the battle commences and the Captain of Gondor orders the archers to attack, the dwarven archers all barrel down the hill, overtaking the charge of the Riders of Rohan, and then smacking in to Sauron's forces, beating them about the head with their bows and stabbing them with arrows. The Guardian is tempting, and I may well try a dwarf guardian at some point in the future, but the whole YO MAMMA issue puts me off, although I have to confess that I haven't played the class so I don't know how well taunting has been implemented in LotRO. And finally, the Minstrel. For me the dwarven Minstrel suffers the same as the Hunter: I have visions of the dwarf charging in to battle with cloth armour and clobbering enemies with a lute and garrotting them with the strings; any injuries in a party with a dwarf healer had better be curable with beer, because that's all there's going to be in the medicine kit. I hadn't ruled out the Minstrel, but playing one as a dwarf wasn't going to happen.

So finally I looked at Hobbits. The Hunter was more tempting with this race and certainly more believable, but again everyone goes for DPS, and so I rarely do. The Guardian similarly tempted me, since it's always fun to play a diminutive race with a tanking class, but seeing as I had already dismissed a dwarf Guardian, a hobbit one wasn't really any better. The Minstrel, could work very well: I like playing support and healing classes, and this was a strong consideration for a while, but I've played healing classes to death in WoW, and the whole Minstrel 'strumming his instrument in the middle of battle', if you know what I mean, just seems a bit weird.

"Hey guys, here's a little number I wrote the other day."
"Die! Die! Die! You Orc bastards!"
"Thank you. Thank you. I'll be here until the end of the battle. Try the salmon it's delicious."

Which left the burglar. I've never really gone for stealthy, tricksy little characters before, and the concept intrigued me. Even better, they're not the insane DPS machines of other MMOs, so they are less likely to attract the ADD-bouncing "Kekekeke!" player to them. What's more, they're actually a group support class in LotRO, providing debuffs and the opportunity to start the 'game-mechanic formally known as conjunctions' at will. A change of pace from healing seemed pretty good to me, and so with all the other options considered, this is the race/class combination that I settled on, with the alt-o-holic in me keeping the dwarf Guardian in mind for later, if I really take to the game.

I rolled my character on an RP server as I'm very much a fan of the RP in RPG, and I will always try to make sure I'm somewhere where I can at least get the opportunity to try it; this doesn't happen too often as I'm unfortunately a bit shy and retiring even with online anonymity as a shield, but having the opportunity to role-play even if it never comes to fruition, is something I aim for. I won't go into my deliberations on character naming, but a post on character background and professions is in the works.

So there we have it, a journey through the weirdness that I like to call my mind. Please stow your trays and return your chairs to the upright position, we will be landing in normality shortly. Flight attendants are now coming around to collect your sick bags. We hope you weren't too freaked out flying with Melmoth Airways, and we look forward to you flying with us again.

Have a sane onward journey.

Bumper bear

My druid's bear form has a bumper sticker on its rump that says "Feral and proud".

But if I find out who stuck the "Wide load" sticker next to it, it's mangling time.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

LotRO: Shadows of Angmar. First imdepression.

Or should that be LotRO: Servers of Fubar?

Still, I'm sure the issue with the servers not restarting properly after a scheduled reboot will be sorted out quickly enough.

It's just ironic that I've just bought the game and a full house of offline servers is what greets me when I load it up for the first time.

Wait, it's not ironic is it? It's that other thing that sounds like ironic.

Bloody annoying. That's the one.

Monday, 23 April 2007

MMO Blogger All-stars

As a thought experiment, I wondered what it would be like if a bunch of the more famous MMO bloggers out there, got together with the aim to creating a team/group/guild/fellowship/dance troupe within a game. It would be interesting to see how blogs differed on experiences when the group adventured together. It's possibly a recipe for eXtreme Dah-rama[TM] but it could also be an interesting insight into how different, experienced gamers see the content they play in direct contrast to one another. There's obviously the left-pond/right-pond time difference to complicate matters among other things, but sorting out details is left to others.

I'm more of a (dumb-)ideas person. Now, back to work on my battery powered battery charger...

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was a disappointment for me. Not because the game wasn't any good, on the contrary, it was a lot of fun and I had many hours of enjoyable questing solo and with friends; I loved many of the features of the game, such as the spell combo. system, where you could trigger greater effects by having members cast the right spells in the right order in unison, something we're seeing emphasised in more recent MMOs such as EQII and LotRO. What disappointed me about FFCC was what it didn't do, and this is entirely my fault, because my overactive imagination went to work on a snippet of information before anything substantial had been revealed. Now this sort of thing happens all the time, the difference being that when my idea of what this meant didn't come to fruition, I didn't find the first forum that was vaguely related to the game and post an 'open letter to the devs' about how wrong they were, and how I knew everything about their game, and clearly they didn't have a clue. I was just a little disappointed for a missed opportunity, and then realised that I was probably being a bit overambitious with the idea anyway. As usual.

The snippet of information was that the Gamecube-exclusive game was going to have Gameboy SP connectivity.It seems pretty obvious that Gameboy == Portablilty will always evaluate to true. So the conclusion I jumped to was that FFCC was not going to be one game, but in fact two. Essentially I saw the Gamecube game being the main game, where you'd spend most of your time, but that there would be a Gameboy game that would allow you to continue the adventures of your character without having to lug around a console, a portable diesel generator and a reasonable sized CRT TV. I envisaged the Gameboy game having sub quests that would allow you to maybe gain slightly better items, or maybe prestige and nicety items that had no real effect on your character's prowess in combat, and perhaps to just play through various levels or stories for your character that had no bearing on the main plot. When you plugged the Gameboy in to the Gamecube to play the main game, the two would sync the items and events performed, and thus you would have those items in the main game. The reason I thought it might only be prestige items was that not everybody who had a Gamecube would have a Gameboy too, so making character advancement be based on the Gameboy game too would be a little unfair, although an awesome marketing ploy if you could make a game great enough that people would buy a Gameboy just to play the added content (which is certainly a phenomenon known to happen within the gamer market).

Of course, after being vaguely sensible I then went off on an imagineering-fest, where I had the Gameboy game being part of the main adventure, that you could play linked Gameboy adventures with other people and trade items with them. A lot of the enthusiasm for this was fuelled from my old Dreamcast. Ah, Dreamcast, how I loved thee... but down that road lies reminiscence of epic proportions, so I'll not travel there for now. Amongst the Dreamcast's awesome features was the fact that the memory cards had a little display and controls, and essentially doubled as a mini game console, we're talking more Tamagotchi than Gameboy, but it was pretty clever nevertheless. So in, say Sonic Adventures, you would have mini pets that you could collect, and you could do various things in game like race them, but you could also download them to your memory card and take them out and about with you, and essentially you had a mini Tamagotchi game that you could play. When you uploaded the pet again, the new and improved pet would be able to win tougher races, but also you could breed it with the stock of pets you had in the main game and pass on some of its new traits to other pets.

And so I was reading on Virtual Cultures about Richard Bartle's keynote presentation, and it reminded me of all the time I spent in MUDs at University when I was meant to be coding, and how text based adventures were great fun - still are great fun - and wouldn't it be good if we could encourage people to enjoy the wonders of text-based adventures. Now this could mean MUD, or it could mean Nethack, either way, the player's imagination is forced to work a bit harder, and seeing as some people seem to think that this is the only way to develop the 'player as hero' in MMOs - you know, it's the player's fault, they just aren't trying hard enough to imagine themselves as a hero - then this might be one way to develop that.

Mobile gaming could be a wonderful way to do this. The mobile device that is most accessible to players, and that a large majority of players will already own is the telephone. As technology develops in leaps and bounds, these devices are already capable of playing quite complex Java games: my current 'phone is quite basic by top-end standards, and yet has a Java implementation of SEGA Megadrive (Genesis to you leftpondians) games that look and play pretty well, certainly they're entertaining enough for me to play whilst sat at a station waiting for public transport, for example. So a text-based approach to a mobile MMO is easily achievable on the most common mobile device, and considering MMOs generally equate to some non-trivial level of time investment, going for a medium that isn't processor and hence battery intensive would be wise. Now, a 'phone's screen isn't the largest area to be reading swathes of text, so it would seem that a Nethack-a-like game, as opposed to a MUD would be more appropriate, with perhaps slightly more user friendly sprites than @, # and co. Ok, so not text-based in the end, but keeping the philosophy of text-based games like Nethack in mind.

The other great opportunity here is that a large proportion of mobile 'phones these days support wireless connectivity, and Internet connectivity; so the potential for wireless link-ups, or updating your character's progress to the main game server are there to be explored.

There are horrible complications with client trust, if you allow people to play a game offline and then update the online world with data from offline play, so that's a nasty hurdle to have to overcome, but I firmly believe it can be achieved.

Once you break out into the mobile world there are lots of fascinating ideas that can be thrown in to the mix. How about having the real world location that you're in effect the game in some way? Then there's the opportunity to have extra functionality when in close real-world proximity to other players. Players could have certain monster mobs associated with their copy of the game, if two people are playing nearby, the game could grab new monsters from the other player and introduce them in to your game. In fact, a clone of one player's character could be copied across and become an NPC for the other player to fight, and perhaps one of the cloned player's (now NPC) items would drop as a reward for defeating them.

The synchronisation between the platforms could be two-way as well. In the constant MMO, i.e. the one you would play at your PC, you could earn new content to adventure in for your mobile game; perhaps successfully defeating a dungeon would open up a version of the on the mobile game, which would allow your character to then explore. The 'constant' dungeon would require a group perhaps, whereas the mobile version was soloable. The mobile version wouldn't give you the great items that you would get in the constant one, but would allow you to play for prestige things, such as character titles or vanity items that you could in turn, transfer back to the main game.

The mobile game could be as simple or as involved as designers thought the market could handle, it would seem that the majority of mobile play would be in 'dead time' such as a long train journey or waiting at an airport, where people want to hop-in and play a quick burst of something, but be able to drop it quickly as well. Tobold recently posted about tradeskill improvement: you could easily have the mobile part of your MMO encompass several mini games that allow the player to create items and improve their character's tradeskill, which will then get synchronised to the main game, in an attempt to avoid the 'staring at a progrss bar' style of tradeskills of the moment. One advantage of this is that you could make the mini-games along the lines of Puzzle Quest, which are essentially Bejewelled with an RPG system tagged-on, without breaking the immersion or continuity of the main game.

There's no doubt that mobile gaming is a big industry and that people want to play games even when they're away on holiday; whether such 24/7 gaming is healthy or not is another debate, but if that is what people choose to do with their lives, why not cater to it. Even narrowing the field down to mobile 'phone gaming, their are multitudinous game companies that do very nicely from the downloadable game market, so gaming on 'phones is in no way a novel idea.

Tapping in to that market by tying it in to an MMO franchise might be an interesting adventure, though.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Where’s the street-wise Hercules?

I rarely, if ever, feel like a hero when playing an MMO. It's not really a matter of power though; admittedly City of Heroes allows you to take on hordes of mobs at a time, in a super-heroic effort, whilst many other games will restrict you to taking on one or two mobs before the situation starts to get a bit sticky, but even in those less bonkers-odds fights you still feel relatively powerful compared to the mobs that are are highlighted as being in the level range of your character. Ok, so this level of power is artificially generated by allowing you to conveniently gauge how powerful your current opponent is and only pick fights that you stand a chance of winning, but I think that's fair enough in most respects: the Fellowship of the Ring would have been a very different story if Gandalf had instead shouted "C'mon noobs we can take him" and convinced the rest of the fellowship to stand their ground and fight the Balrog... I wonder if Tolkien had considered 'corpse run' as plot device?

Gandalf knew the Balrog was too powerful for the group to fight, so he sacrificed himself to save the rest of the group and inadvertently spawned a million copycat tanking mages in MMOs to ruin the instanced runs of groups everywhere. But that's another story.

Power isn't really the problem, it's the very nature of being the hero that just doesn't work. You notice I wrote the hero. In most cases the RPG in MMORPGs these days is taken as referring to a bunch of 'stats' that make up your character, which you increase Progress Quest style by slaughtering every living thing in the world, its children and its children's children, until you are king of the genocidal maniacs and your stats will no longer increase. The role playing part of RPG seems to have been cast by the wayside when it comes to MMOs, and the obvious reason for this is that the role most people want to play is the hero or anti-hero in a story. One of the exceptions to this idea of the player as hero is EvE Online, where it seems that the corps is the hero, the one that makes a name for itself, and players are perhaps more happy to play 'third cruiser from the left in a field of five thousand' as long as it furthers the status of the corps; it seems that the rise and fall of corporations drives the 'story' behind the game, and the players are part of that story, but never the direct focus of it. You would think that City of Heroes by its very nature - comic-book hero MMO - would allow the player to really feel like the hero, but it doesn't really work like that. In most comic books there are multiple heroes and villains operating in the world, yet the storyline tends to follow just one character or group, and occasionally mixes in other heroes in cross-overs and the like: it's the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, not The Amazing Adventures of Every Marvel Superhero Ever Invented. In CoH you fight your way around Paragon City, thwarting evil doers and righting wrongs, but at every turn you see another hero doing exactly the same, and a lot of the time they have the same powers as you too! After a while, you realise that you're actually just part of the crowd and it's the NPCs like Statesman and Positron who are the real heroes. You're simply Mary Jane or Aunt May: there as a plot device for Spiderman. It's the same in World of Warcraft, where the famous NPCs are the main heroes and drivers of what little storyline there is. The players are just pawns in the games of NPCs. If you imagine a novel of WoW, it would follow the adventures of Malfurion, Jaina, Thrall, Cairne, Sylvanas and the rest. If players were ever mentioned they would be the messenger that runs in and interrupts a council of elders and their speech would start "My lord, I bring grave news...", or more likely a naked messenger bouncing into the room shouting "HELLOZ I WUD LEIK SOME GOLD PLIZ".

Players in MMOs are the Riders of Rohan to Theoden King, Red Squadron to Luke Skywalker, Gold Rings to Sonic the Hedgehog. The hero wouldn't get very far without the players, but the players aren't the hero. The story isn't about them. Now, some people won't care about this, they're happy to play NPCs' bitch, as long as they get to slaughter things and are rewarded with shiny items that show they've slaughtered more things and for longer than anyone else, they're happy.

But not me.

If I play an MMORPG I would like my character to be a part of a story, and I would like that story to be about my character in some way. I'd like to feel that my character has had adventures, and that these adventures were due to actions that my character took. If there are powerful NPCs in the game, I'm happy for my character to start out running errands for them, but as my character gains power and influence, I'd like to eventually help these NPCs as an equal, and perhaps eventually have them come to me for 'work'. I would also like the moon on a stick.

Ok, I don't actually want the moon on stick, mainly because I couldn't dual-wield it with my sun on a chain of interlinked rainbows, but also because I do understand that there are always limitations to what can be implemented in something as complex as an MMO. But there seems to be such little innovation in the market at the moment, everything is sticking more or less to the same formula whilst evangelising their innovative feature 'Look! now you can grind professions as well as combat skills' or 'Look! Now you can grind levels on an evil character that other players can then grind on' or 'Look! Now you can grind your character's crotch against furniture!'. Maybe not the last one.

Then again.

The first problem with the 'you as hero' in MMOs is the inevitable second M in the acronym: multiplayer. If you sit down and play with your character as the hero of a story, then Joe Journals over there has to be able to sit down and play as a hero in the world too. If there are four or five of you in the world wanting to be heroes, great, you've got yourself a fellowship and you're all going to do well (just watch out for that nut job who likes to tank with his mage). When you've got several thousand players in a world, all keen to be the focus of a story, things fall apart and the NPCs take over.

The second problem I'll highlight is the fact that most MMOs are not persistent worlds other than that they are, hopefully, always available to players. Changes in the world generally never persist, and there are obvious reasons as to why. If a new player logs in to your game, finds that his neighbour's farm was attacked by wolves and the neighbour would like you to join his posse to hunt them down, the new player is not going to get much joy if he gets to the area the wolves were last seen only to find that Joe Journals got there ten minutes ago, and has systematically destroyed all lupine wildlife in the area to the point of extinction. No wolves in the area to hunt, therefore no 'quest' to complete, therefore no reward or gratitude from your neighbour.

Or maybe there could be. The game Spore has created a buzz around its procedural generation of content, and although little is known about the technology behind it, the idea of it is intriguing. Procedural or fractal questing could be an interesting way to think of how to make MMO worlds more persistent whilst allowing players to affect it in their own way, for their own story. If we go back to the wolf example we can see how it might work on a very basic and trivial level: Joe Journals has killed-off the local wolf population, which is great for your neighbour's farm. Or is it? With the wolf population lowered, the prey of those wolves is now free to multiply and might overrun your neighbour's farm eating his crops, so he needs a hand with culling them somewhat; or perhaps the wolf pelts that are usually used for clothing are now in short supply, and you're required to come up with an alternative source before the winter season arrives; or maybe the local wolf population was all that was preventing the neighbouring village from getting through the hill pass and attacking you, so now you have to help defend the village from attack.

If NPCs in games are usually the heroes, but we want players to take on that role, could we let players be NPCs as well as PCs? That is to say, one of the defining roles of an NPC is to hand out quests to players to enable them to earn experience and rewards. Instead of having thousands of NPCs, have the majority of players as the givers of quests. In this way, you involve people in each other's story, at the same time as progressing their own. So your character has moved on from the village where you started after defending it from the wolf epidemic, and now resides in the city after being given a point of contact by one of the people you helped. You decide to look for work and find a poster outside the inn for one of the local guilds looking for new recruits. After meeting with the guild master you are tasked with accomplishing some task to further the guilds status, and when completed you gain a rank in the organisation. At this point, you can get another quest from the guild master, but due to the procedural nature of the quest system you also have some quests that you can give to junior members of the organisation, having these tasks completed for you will also gain you rankings in the organisation, perhaps more so than if you just hassle the guild master for work all the time. You have to provide suitable reward that other players will want to perform these tasks, and as you gain higher ranks in the organisation one of these rewards could be to promote other people. However, other players will also be gaining ranks in the guild, and you will have to compete to get players attention, thus making rewards more interesting and perhaps unexpected. Politics and intrigue can become entwined with your story, other players' stories and questing in general.

Now if you're a member of the guild of guardians, other players might be members of the assassins' guild, so not only have you got to deal with the intrigue within your own organisation, you have to deal with the other organisations working against you. The assassins' guild might, through various questing, open a quest to assassinate the governess of the town. This in itself will open the quest for one of the high ranking members of the guardians' guild to protect her, which they won't be able to do alone, so they give out various sub-quests to other players: attempt to infiltrate the assassins' guild to learn more about the assassination; undertake work at the governess's house in order to be in the area when the assassin's strike. Success or failure at a quest will allow other opportunities to prevent the assassination, while the other guild works at quests that will give them an advantage. If the governess is killed, a new governor comes to town, and perhaps they tax the guardians' guild more heavily, whilst turning a blind eye to some of the activities of the assassins. There will be a chance at a later date for the guardians to redress the balance and put a new governor in to power, but this level of semi-persistence is believable and immersive, town rulers come and go through politics and intrigue, and the story of the town and its development can be traced through the players who affected its change. Now these players might not be heroes in the traditional sense, they might not be recognised world-wide as achieving greatness, but within their story they will be, and that story will be unique to them even though other players have taken their part in it.

Like anything in 'moon on a stick' land, it's easy to pontificate on the "wouldn't it be nice"s and "oh, if only they could do this"s, and then leave the hideous complications of implementing such a thing to others, but for whatever reason, innovation in the MMO arena seems to be stifled. Don't get me wrong, there's innovation out there, clearly, but it's all evolutionary and based very much on the same foundation, and that foundation is that every player is a unique individual, just like every other player. It will be interesting to see if a developer will be brave enough to take a genuine leap to another level, and how that will work out for the players and their characters.

I'm still holding out for my hero.

Friday, 6 April 2007

String cheese.

I've recently been suffering with an ear infection which, seeing as I have to use headphones at all times, has meant playing WoW with the sound turned off. So this got me thinking about sound within games. Sound obviously provides an atmosphere for an MMO, from the ambient sounds that help realise the world, to dramatic music scores which add emphasis on the heroic nature of the world's inhabitants. From the epic sound of battle on the open plain, to the blood curdling chill horror that can only be a male gnome laughing...

The problem I find with a lot of sound in MMOs is that it's very rarely dynamic in nature. When you enter a battle, the battle music (if there is any at all) fires up. What would be nice would be for different battle music to start depending on the opponents you were facing; if you're facing undead opponents, a haunting blood-chilling score could start, for example. Something that adds just a little more emphasis and atmosphere to the specific encounter. So far in WoW I've not missed having the sound in this case, I've just hummed the tune to 'Saturday night's alright for fighting', which works surprisingly well especially if you’re a dwarf. No, I don’t know why.

What would be even better is if when you were close to gaining aggro from a mob the music score changed a little. I have the strange feeling I’ve played an MMO where this happened, but I can’t remember for the life of me what it was, or whether I dreamt it one night after drinking a pot of out of date cream, which in all honesty is more likely.

Anyway. There’s not usually a way to judge how close you are to suddenly getting Gordon the Ogre King’s attention, especially when you can stand right in front of him but about nine feet away and he doesn’t spot you, even though you’re sharpening weapons, casting buff spells and summoning demons from the netherworld. Then you take one step further forward... “Hey! Where you come from? Me smish” cries Gordon. So clearly ogres have an eyesight range of nine feet, right? So why can’t you take one step back again? “Hey, where you vanish to?” One step forward... “There you are, I’m go...” One step backwards. “Hey! Gone again”.

Ok, so aggro ranges are a stupid immersion-breaking convention at the best of times, but they work in some situations better than others. Imagine you’re in a dark dank forest, it’s misty and you can’t see very far (probably slightly further than Gordon though). Instead of having mobs out in the open where you can see them and then walk around them at what you think is their maximum Gordon range, have them hiding away ready to jump out. However, as the adventurer approaches an area of danger, the music score changes to a slightly more sinister tone. The adventurer is then aware that danger is nearby, but doesn’t know precisely where, but his keen adventuring senses tell him that it might be an idea to cast some buff spells and to ready his weapon. He won’t necessarily be able to conveniently avoid the fight, but he will be prepared for combat and, more importantly, slightly on edge and apprehensive... immersed if you will.

When it comes to combat itself, again it’s an incredibly repetitive affair, so a little greater diversity would be welcome. What’s more, it would be nice if the majority of fights didn’t sound like the frenetic drunken mating ritual of two west-country farmers in a dark alley.

*ungh* *arr* *crash* *ugh* *meow* *thunk* *oh yeah* *krang* *chang* *clank* *yee-har*

And that’s if you play a male character. Pick a female character, and not only does your plate armour consist of a soup ladle and the ends of a pair of candle snuffers, but when you fight in combat you sound like you’re having a world-record-length multiple orgasm.

Dramatic music scores are always a fantastic way to make a player feel heroic, but again, they need to be used in context. World of Warcraft gets the dramatic part of it right; I remember walking my dwarf paladin up the Valley of Heroes (does that sound like a euphemism to you too?) and the Stormwind score suddenly blasting out; this chanting choir of voices accompanied by a melodic string accompaniment and rousing drum roll, and I looked at the statues towering above me, the captain of the guard in full-plate armour (he was male so it was full full-plate) mounted on his horse awaiting my arrival, and I felt I was entering somewhere important. That I was important, and that I would do well here. I felt as though they were saying “Here comes the mighty dwarf! He enters the hallowed streets of Stormwind! Hail to thee paladin!”. It was epic. Great stuff.

Then, later, I was walking across the square to the bank and suddenly the choir bursts in to song again, and I’m thinking ‘Oh kaaay’ why the epic song now? What is this moment we’re having? So I looked around but there was nobody but me. So what are they singing about now? “There goes the mighty dwarf! He’s off to fetch some boar intestines from the bank! Hail to thee chef!”. Um.

Then later on still, I had a quest to buy some cheese, and so I’m in the cheese shop trying to decide which variety the weird old ‘cat’ lady with the cheese fetish wants when the choir breaks out again! And now I’m thinking ‘what the hell?’ I mean, what are they singing about now? “There shops the mighty dwarf! He’s buying some variety of cheese. We’re not sure which. Maybe it’s Alterac Swiss, or perhaps he’s favouring the subtle taste of Mag’har mild”. Why do they keep bursting in to epic song all the time, and how do they know where I am?! And so I spin around quickly and the whole of Elling Trias’s Cheese Emporium is filled with a choir and orchestra and they’re all looking really embarrassed at being caught.

True story.

So now, every time I walk up the Valley of Heroes, as soon as the thunderous tones of the Stormwind theme break out, I shout “I’m not buying cheese today!” and they’re cut short.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Motivation is what gets you started.

I took the Motivation Assessment over at the Daedalus Project after prompting from Zoso.

Overall Assessment:

The graph above is a visualization of your 3 main motivation components. Your Achievement percentile rank is 10%. Your Socializing percentile rank is 44%. And your Immersion percentile rank is 93%.

So I'm a vaguely sociable alt-o-holic that has no idea how to play.

Sounds about right.