Thursday, 31 May 2007

We pause this blog... bring you this important news story:

I'm trying not to do the 'linky, linky, editorial, I'm just going to point you to stuff' thing here, but anyone who's interested in developments in MMOs should go to the WAR Production Video Podcast page and watch WAR Production Video Podcast #7

For me this is great, because it's the sort of thing I'd be banging-on about if I had a suitable soap box, like, say a blog...

Anyway, the PR department (can you call Paul Barnett a department?) definitely understand about all things 'bear paw'; hopefully the implementation team will be assiduous in their execution of the ideas.

Here's hoping! And if not, the Inferno awaits...

We now return you to the irregularly scheduled ramblings of an English loon.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Thought for the day.

MMO concepts that were turned down:

  • Carebear Wars.

  • Pirate Outlaws Online.

  • World of Hobbycraft.

  • High School Clique!

  • City of Agoraphobics.

  • Grind until you Die: Life as a Worker Ant.

  • Lord of the Dance Online.

  • Dark Age of Crufts.

  • Age of Plato: Symposium Adventures.

  • Grind until you Die II: Journey of the Spawning Salmon.

  • The Chronicles of Spelling Using Punctuation.

  • SpermQuest: The Fertilising.

The Shores of the Acheron: Swing low, sweet aggro.

Along the shores of the Inferno we can witness the multitudinous annoyances of MMO life, played out for all eternity to those who chase the banner of The Perfect Grind. As your guide, it will be my unashamed pleasure to highlight some of the more popular thematic annoyances as we continue our tour. Let us begin, then, with a topic most appropriate for such a place: Low level mob aggro.

Outside the entrance to the king's palace.

Helen: "Ulfar! At last!".

Ulfar the Mighty: (Slightly out of breath) "Sorry I'm late everyone, I had a bit of trouble on the way in".

Samantha: "Ulfar, is there a small squirrel chewing on your arm?"

Ulfar the Mighty: "What? Oh, this. No, it's the latest in adventuring fashion. It's, uh... I... Oh who am I kidding. Excuse me ladies, I just need to run in a straight line for four hundred yards to get rid of it".

Runs off.

Comes running back, with five small animals all hanging from various limbs and appendages, all of them gnawing away in a furious and yet fruitless fashion.

Ulfar the Mighty: "Be right back".

Four hours later...

Helen: "Where the devil has Ulfar got to? We're supposed to be getting a quest from the king and the royal party is almost over."

A mound of forty or so writhing animals from around the countryside shuffles into the room, shifts around a bit and mumbles something unintelligible before collapsing in a heap on the floor.

In many MMOs mobs that are far below your character's level will still aggro. Admittedly it may be that the games will implement an aggro range, such that higher level mobs will aggro when you step foot on the same continent as them, and the vastly lower level mobs will require you to get fairly close to them before you get their attention, but invariably you will get close enough, and you will get their attention. And that's about all you'll get. They don't do enough damage to threaten your character, although it's just enough that if you're suddenly jumped by a suitably tough mob you will be disadvantaged. They don't give any XP because they're just too low in level, or if they do give XP it will be of any value you like as long as it falls between one and three. They don't drop any loot worth writing home about, in fact half the time it's just junk that will fill precious bag space, although just for added aggravation they will all drop the animal part you needed for that quest fifteen levels ago which you had to spend four hours grinding away for. Some of them will drop two, even if that part in question is, say, a nose...

The fact that these mobs can hit you at all is a total insult to your heroicalness. You're standing around in your armour of wonderment with its plus five bonus to Glinting Sexily in Sunlight, and suddenly a guinea pig sneak attacks you and starts doing annoying but negligible damage. This is a standard guinea pig mind you, not one of those dire, aged guinea pigs of yore, that would roam the frozen wastes of Niflheim and lay waste to entire villages with their mournful squeals, and who could only be appeased with a giant peanut from Yggdrasil. So there it is, this standard run of the mill guinea pig doing damage to you with its species' centuries-evolved ability to find weak spots in chain mail, and you have two options: fight or running away, because the feisty little fellow certainly isn't going anywhere, he's made the catch of his life and he's going to take you down, one hit point per hour until he is victorious and has avenged his entire family, who you killed five months ago for their noses. Your first choice will be, in all likelihood, to smite the foolish little critter, but unfortunately this will take an alarming amount of time. For a mob so far below you in levels it takes a surprising number of strikes to defeat it, as it dodges and parries blows that have felled demons. If that was the only fight you had in a day it wouldn't be so bad, but within five seconds of having defeated the mob, his brother will turn up and launch himself at you with wild abandon, possibly with a yell of "Freedom from nasal tyranny!" as he does so. Five minutes and three hundred guinea pig corpses later, you decide that running away would be the least frustrating option, besides, you need to empty your bags of all these sodding guinea pig noses.

Can there be anything more heroic than a full-armour-plated warrior running in a straight line with a train of small furry animals chasing behind them, some of which are crippled from previous battles and others so old they're in wheelchairs?

Thank you MMO developer for immersing me in this game, for convincing me that grinding away on your carefully crafted world will enable me to improve in power to the point that I'm known throughout the lands, cherubs sing my praises, cathedrals are built in my honour, demons cower at the mention of my name and small furry animals with only three legs will still make me run like a schoolgirl to get away from them. You don't read fantasy stories where the adventurers are travelling from one town to another, and at some point a wolf jumps out and attacks, and then a bird, and then another wolf, and a pack of rabid guinea pigs and another wolf, and a giant bear and a sabre-tooth duck. And even if you did, you wouldn't get a description of how the adventurers bravely ran away (Sir Robin, I'm looking at you) with all this wildlife trailing after them across the countryside. If someone wrote a fantasy book based on an MMO, it would be five hundred pages long, of which one hundred pages are just detailing the adventurers fighting off an endless stream of crap animals on their way between towns.

One hundred pages would describe the adventurers trying to form a group with the right class/race mix. Hmmm, The Book of the MMO, I like it. Coming to an Inferno near you soon!

The annoyance factor of low level mob aggro is so high that eventually you think 'sod it' and turn around and shout "Come on then you irritating bastards!" at which point you realise that all the crap mobs have stopped chasing you, and you're left facing the elite Fel Koala of Grungmar who promptly pokes you a new ar... well, you get the idea. If you look carefully before you begin your corpse run, you'll see all the low level mobs snickering from behind a nearby tree, flicking V signs and thumbing their noses at you. Those that still have noses.

And let's not forget the joy of the gathering profession in an MMO. If you think you're safe now that you're gathering in an area that you've out-levelled, guess again, there are more ways to defeat an adventurer than mere combat. Try to mine that ore and the mob attacks, and even though they're so low in level that they're effectively vegetation they'll still manage to get a hit in and interrupt you so you can't finish the task. So off you run, because killing them is too tedious, and just as you break their aggro range one of their friends, who was waiting for you, picks up the chase. So you run back in the other direction, past the ore that you note someone else is now mining, and pickup the original mob and two more of his friends as you go. Eventually you give up, turn around to fight them... and there's the Fel Koala of Grungmar, wearing an evil smile and punching his fist into the palm of his other hand.

Monday, 21 May 2007

A monstrous weekend.

I managed to get some time in Lord of the Rings Online over the weekend, in-between DIY adventures: accursed plumbing epic quest line! Although I think I gained a level in Avoiding Unexpected Jets of Water, which is nice.

The odometer on my dwarf minstrel ticked over to twenty two and I received a nice aura - Tale of Heroism - which buffs the Will and Fate stats for the fellowship. What's more this is as handy for my minstrel as much as anyone, although Zoso's captain with their not insignificant power problems will probably appreciate it too. I say 'received' the aura, but in Lord of the Rings Online what this of course means is that I crawl grovelling on my belly to the trainer and give them all of my worldly possessions. They then taunt me with the skill training manual by waving it just above head height, making me jump for it; occasionally they will throw it to another trainer and back, both of them laughing at me until finally one of them drops it, and then as I scrabble around on the floor trying to pick it up, they take turns hitting you with a big stick.

Ok, I'm clearly exaggerating there. They don't have sticks, they just kick you a bit.

And pour honey over you.

And then cover you in feathers.

Having trained, I took my honey-glazed chicken dwarf to the Barrow Downs with the aim of trying to get a group into the Great Barrows; my dwarf has a whole plethora of quests to perform in this instance and I wanted to have a look in the place whilst trying to get my hands on some shiny quest rewards. I also wanted to make some money to replace my dwindling cash reserves post training extortion. This, as it turns out, was a Bad Plan. The Great Barrows is a fun instance, very atmospheric with some good dungeon-crawling events which I won't spoil here, but I think it is fair to say that it warrants a group that is at the very least at the level of the quests there, the highest of which is level twenty four. After the usual pickup group shenanigans at the start, with everyone charging in with cries of "Baruk Khazad" and so on resounding in the cavern, I waited for all of five seconds inside the entrance before a train of party members, with an even bigger train of angry looking elite spiders chasing them, came charging back up the tunnel and dived out of the instance. Then, of course, the nature of the pickup group swings the other way, and crazy words like 'tactics' and 'patience' are bandied about, and it takes time for people to look these words up and understand their meaning, and then tactics are discussed. When I say 'discussed', I do of course mean the pickup group definition of 'discuss' which reads:

dis·cuss /d?'sk?s/ Pronunciation[di-skuhs]
verb (used with object)
1. to shout really loudly at other people until they are swayed to your point of view;
call people names until they either leave or ignore you, esp. with respect to them
learning to play, or being a noob.
2. to consider a particular topic in speaking or writing. Usually at volume, or in ALL CAPS.
3. Rare. To explore a problem with reasoned arguments.

See also: Bitching. Aggravating arse-wits. Humanity (doomed).

Approximately five hours later, the group had formulated the genius plan of the hunters laying traps, the guardian pulling aggro and everyone hitting things with sharp metal objects, and apparently my minstrel was tasked with the responsibility of healing. I know! A healing class. Healing. These were unique minds at work, that much was clear. We made fair progress after that, as most pickup groups do, until we encountered the first really tough part of the instance with a couple of really rather well health-endowed boss mobs. Try as we might - and we might have tried 'as we might' more than we might have. Or something. It was late and I was inebriated - we couldn't defeat them, and with my character's paper doll showing two items of equipment as being broken and the rest as severely damaged I decided to call it a night, much to the relief of everyone else who were obviously in the 'We shall not be beaten!' mode of instance running, where you know you can't win, but you keep beating your head against the wall in some sort of strange noble ritual of fruitless endeavour, until someone decides to quit and then you can blame all your failure on them "We would have beaten it if we'd had just one more try".

Yes, dear. Of course, dear.

At the end of that unsuccessful run, with little loot and no quests completed I returned to the town of Bree and found an NPC vendor who could repair my equipment. The bill: one hundred and forty four silver. Bear in mind that the most money I've had at any one time was about two hundred and thirty silver and you can see why going in to the Great Barrows, or any other instance in LotRO, is a Bad Thing if you're below level, in a pickup group, or like me, both at the same time.

In other adventuring news, I decided to grab the quest line for the Bone Man in the Barrow Downs - the area outside of the Instance of Costly Repairs - which requires you to speak to a ghost who haunts Bree and is only available during the game's night time. This meant I had a few hours to kill before the ghost would be available for interviews and requests to "do that walking through walls thing you do. Awwww, go on", and I didn't fancy adventuring on the minstrel in the mean time, at which point I remembered the Monster Play aspect of the game.

Monster play is a great way for someone like myself, with a hideous case of alt-itus, to play a different character without totally ruining my chances of ever getting a main character above level five. You find your local neighbourhood Fel Scrying Pool, there's one near Mud Gate in Bree, and use it. On your first time, you are presented with a choice of five level fifty servants of Angmar to play, you pick one, name it and you're flung headlong into the service of Sauron as part of a garrison in the Ettenmoors. In both normal and monster play your characters earn destiny points for performing certain feats of daring-do, and these are shared in a pool between all characters on both sides of the game. Once you've spent the points they're removed from the pool and you'll have to earn some more. In the normal game they can be used to buy temporary buffs, but in Monster Play they're used to improve your character. I created an Orc Reaver, a melee machine who looks a bit like me after a bad days DIY, and I upgraded him with the numerous destiny points I had received from levelling my various characters in the normal game before I finally decided on the minstrel. This allowed me to purchase a trait which improved his appearance, giving him a bit more armour and some cool looking weapons - you don't get items for your monster character like you do in the normal game, so this appearance trait changes just that, the appearance - and then I purchased a new skill and some other passive traits which boosted the character's damage, armour and avoidance abilities.

Basically you then get a huge number of quests that require you to either go out and slaughter, well everything really, and collect items from dead NPCs such as hobbit toes, or to collect general items such as fragments of troll stone from sun-struck trolls (they really should put on a higher factor sun cream) that are dotted around the landscape. Many of these quests are repeatable and will earn you more destiny points among other things, which you can then use to improve your character and take on tougher quests. Interestingly, to 'level-up' you have to take part in the PvP that Monster Play is really all about; killing other player characters from the free people of Middle Earth will earn you points that will eventually lead to your character gaining a rank. Once you've gained a new rank, further traits and abilities become open to your character for you to purchase such as advanced appearance traits that make you look even more fearful, thus reflecting your improved power.

An interesting interaction between Monster Play and the normal game is that of the shared Destiny Points pool: it may well be that to go raiding the tougher instances in the game you'll want to buy some buffs with Destiny Points. If you don't have enough points, you can dive in to Monster Play questing for a bit where all quests generally give out Destiny Points, and then switch back to normal play and buy your buffs. Encouraging players to try different parts of the game like this is quite a nice idea and it will be interesting to see if the interaction makes a noticeable difference to player participation in PvP. Already on the server that I play on there is a strong community on the monster side of the game, with some people having undertaken nothing but Monster Play since their normal character reached level ten, which is required for a player to participate.

I found my Reaver to be a standard melee class, playing a bit like the champion class, with a basic attack, an AoE arc attack and a very nice finishing move which can only be used when the target is below fifty percent health and which uses all your remaining power, but it is a nice burst of damage nevertheless. There are also a couple of utility moves, I bought one which allowed my character to regain some health and at the same time gain a small boost to its damage at the expense of some of its damage mitigation when he kills an opponent, and the Reaver comes with another ability as standard which allows you to fling sand into the eyes of foes, reducing by a decent amount their chance to hit you. All-in-all it's a nice change of pace compared to the minstrel and it should help to curb my alt-itus a bit, although the quests are quite repetitive and not too taxing. However, the PvP element requires enemy players, of which there are few of the appropriate level as of yet, so gaining ranks from PvP for the time being is either a matter of luck or waiting around endlessly, picking your sharpened teeth with your sword and twiddling the string of hobbit toes around your neck.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Notes from the boardroom.

Colin: "Norman, you're looking glum, whatever is the matter?"

Norman: "You know, Colin, it's these 'player' critters; they're getting through our quests at an alarming rate, we need something to slow them down a bit, but we need to make it look like it's a cunning game mechanic..."

Colin: "Hmmm, it's a tricky one, Norman. If only... no."

Norman: "What is it, Colin?"

Colin: "No, it would never work, we would never get away with it."

Norman takes Colin's hand in his and pats it gently.

Norman: "My dear, Colin, if there's one thing we MMO developers have learned, it's that we can make those 'player' mammals jump through tiny hoops of fire into pits of boiling acid if we can put enough spin on it."

Colin: "Well... what if we made some of the mobs invisible?"

Norman: "Invisible, my dear fellow, whatever do you mean?"

Colin: "Well, I mean exactly that. Make mobs that are, in effect, and in actuality, not visible."

Norman: "But, 'players' would have to run around in endless circles for hours just trying to find them! Not only that, but it might even be that they're running around in entirely the wrong area and they'd never even know it. If we placed the not-entirely-within-the-visual-spectrum mobs in the middle of groups of plainly visible mobs, the 'player' things would have to fight through huge swathes of these normal mobs just for the opportunity to run around in circles to see if an invisible mob is roaming there."

Norman and Colin laugh nervously at the silliness of it. Then they stop and look at each other.

Colin: "It wouldn't work, would it?"

Norman: "It's genius, Colin, we'll get the programmers on it right away."

Colin: "I love you, Norman."

Norman: "Not now Colin."

Guess who spent ages hunting for invisible mobs in Lord of the Rings Online last night.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Thought for the day.

In Lord of the Rings Online, isn't it a little dangerous to have player characters able to choose a crafting profession that allows them to create magical rings?

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

It is not without some irony that this post started out being about trying to determine why I often can't stick with one character for any length of time, and it ended up being about something else entirely. I'll re-roll the other post soon, I just want to get this post to level 20 and see how it parses once it has its new abilities.

It's clear that developers recognise their players' desire for their characters to appear unique and for outfits to look, for want of a better word, coherent. Several games have implemented a 'locker room' functionality that allows players to try on items of clothing, especially bind-on-equip items, before they commit to actually wearing them. This allows you to reject Voton's Elemental Leggings of the Almighty Moon which turn out to be tight leather trousers with a hole in the back that allows your fat dwarven buttocks to hang out, for the ever so slightly more appealing full plate helmet with a flaming halo around the crest, which is unfortunately named Chizwizzle's Chamberpot. This is a Good Thing, but also typical fire-fighting and ignoring of the base problem: people care what their character looks like, and it's only the most dedicated of munckins that will pick the +5 Str Hat of Stinky Tom the Local Tramp over the +4 Str Hat of Captain Jack Sparrow's Sexual Appeal.

Incidentally, I think they missed an excellent opportunity to make the locker room a shared area between players, with some sort of mini game where you can gain modest XP by whipping other character's buttocks with a rolled-up towel. I know, I'm a game design genius.

I like the idea of starting off with poor looking equipment and working up to more heroic gear: LotRO does this very well, with low level hammers, for example, looking like something the character has grabbed from his tool shed to go chasing after those goblin kids from three doors down the street, "I know your Dad, young man!". Actually, if it was a dwarf, he probably has their dad's head hanging over his mantelpiece, in which case - in some crazy liberal society - you might view the goblins' retaliatory attacks on the dwarf's prize begonias as vaguely justified. Eventually you perform some epic or class quest and your character obtains a shiny weapon that you can actually believe has a bit of history to it, that has been crafted by a master weapon-smith and that wasn't just picked off the shelf at the local DIY store:

"What is that?"

"It is my mighty sword, Meeshurar, with which I shall smite my foes terribly!"

"That, my friend, is a small metal ruler, and the only thing you'll be smiting with it is the self esteem of the colleagues who have to fight alongside you."

Some people don't want to be the most powerful, some people just want to look cool, and of course the definition of looking cool is a very personal matter a lot of the time. The ePeen brigade who strut around in WoW with their swords that are twice the size of their own body, which they wield one-handed alongside a shield that doubles as the keel of a small luxury yacht look pretty daft to me, but those people probably think they look cool because in many games the size of your purple epic weapon reflects your relative power, although some more cynical members of the MMO community might say it inversely reflects something else.

The main problem with this 'size reflecting power' thing is that as a developer expands their game they generally have to create bigger and more exotic weapons to impress the people who are prepared to spend an inordinate amount of time grinding away to get them, and you quickly begin to realise why the majority of MMOs haven't implemented player collision routines or friendly fire damage: with the size of some of the one-handed swords currently in World of Warcraft a player would only have to back out of a narrow doorway and they'd have six people impaled on the weapon at their side. They'd spin around quickly to apologise and decapitate the bemused audience, who were standing five hundred yards away. Boss mobs in small confined dungeons would actually be defeated by laughing themselves to death through the comedy value of watching twenty melee fighters trying to draw their weapons and getting them stuck in the floor, the walls and each other. Having achieved the drawing of weapons with only a thirty five percent fatality rate, the melee players would raise their weapons in the air in a triumphant salute and promptly get them stuck in the vaulted ceiling.

It's not just size, though. You might get some of the more outstanding weapons glow with a ghostly light, or have flames springing from the blade as if the weapon itself was trying to manifest its inherent ability to cause pain and injury as a warning to others. As if a twenty two foot long serrated blade wasn't convincing enough. The problem lies with where the developer goes next, flaming swords become passé and 'so last season dahrlink', and so bigger and more enviable effects are applied, until eventually you have a bunch of people running around with weapons that have miniature galaxies orbiting the hilt and the ePeen brigade are comparing whose weapon has the most advanced civilisation living on it.

A simple example of personal preference: in LotRO I like the half-kilt/half-mini-skirt item of clothing for the dwarves, you can see evidence of it in the picture from yesterday. Yes, yes, I love dwarves, and more specifically dwarves in kilts. Read into that what you will, I'm sure Freud would have a field day. Actually, it'd probably be something really boring: "Dwarves in kilts? Ah, now that means you have a slight aversion to cranberries. Now if you'd said you liked cranberries, well, that would mean you're a hypertensive erotic cavalier with a penchant for fondling bowler hats at passing strangers". I'm not so keen on the full length smoking jackets though, they look excellent on elves, especially with their dandy hats with a feather in them, all very suave. On a dwarf the long jacket that almost reaches the floor looks like someone threw an old paisley sheet over a traffic cone and glued a weird bearded head to the top of it, like that one poor kid at Halloween who had ideas of being Frankenstein's monster, and ended up as 'kid under a sheet'. Dwarves don't do trenchcoats. It's the same with gloves: I like big chunky gloves, of which I've found examples in both medium and light armour, but I always seem to find better gear that is, unfortunately, in some skin-tight bondage-ventilated version; those gloves probably look foxy on elves, but on a dwarf it looks as though he's just escaped from a freak-show at the local circus, where he probably had to bite the heads off of chickens, or worse, pretend he was a Cosplay convention 'babe'.

And let's not forget colours too; LotRO, like Dark Age of Camelot and others before it, tries to remedy the 'I look like a principal from the Commedia dell'arte who was tragically involved in an explosion at a paint factory' by introducing dyes in order to allow players some freedom of choice. This freedom does come at some expense to the character, and there's the fact that it never seems to dye the part of the armour you actually want, it generally changes the black stitching to the Honeysuckle White With A Hint Of Saffron dye that you used, and leaves the main bulk of the armour colour as Oh My God My Brain Is Bleeding Out Of My Eyes. With a hint of lavender.

The really strange thing is, developers do sometimes put a lot of effort into character customisation, but it seems as though it's in the wrong place: the face. In the game of Real Life we're forced to play in a first person twitch gaming environment, and the resolution on this reality is pretty good, thus facial expression and facial individuality is a very important initial factor in determining the motives and attributes of a stranger. In most MMORPGs the majority of players play the game in a third-person view and zoomed-out quite considerably to allow a decent view of the surrounding terrain, therefore that elf running towards me may have the most stunning face ever, with a cute little dimple in her chin and a mole just above her top lip, but I'm never going to see it. I'll see that she is tall and thin; she isn't entirely naked, therefore isn't a warrior class in full plate, and I'll also see that her outfit has an interesting colour scheme that seems to be making my nose leak meninges. And that's with the elf wearing a hat: half the characters will be wearing a full-face helmet.

Ok, Moon On A Stick time: what would be nice is the ability to apply a 'template' to your armour which you could perhaps buy from a vendor for a nominal value, which would change the way that item looks in line with the template description whilst maintaining the existing stats. Better still, give this ability to tailors and armourers: they could create the templates instead of the armour items, you could imagine them applying a template as reworking a piece of armour to fit the client better. It could be that more expensive templates exist that change all items into a matching set of armour. What's more, why do I have to be shown wearing armour at all? I'd quite like my character to look like Conan the Cimmerian, for example, with a loin cloth, fur-lined boots and perhaps a green silk girdle for ultimate protection. I've played games where I can create this look at character creation, but before long you're wrapped-up in more armour than a Sherman tank. I can't understand how you can't have a Conan-like character charging around slaying stuff because 'it would be unrealistic and immersion breaking', when most female characters in most MMORPGs are forced to slay enemies whilst wearing a chain-mail thong; that part in Return of the Jedi where Princess Leia is a slave of Jabba the Hut is ruined now because all I can think is 'Pfff, as if he'd dress a slave in epic plate armour'.

Let the great chant of City of Heroes ring up to the heavens, because they got the idea of character customisation so right, it's a shame they forgot about game-play a bit towards the end there, but you can't have everything. The few promotional videos of The Chronicles of Spellborn that I've seen floating around seem to have a similar take on allowing freedom to customise character appearance, and I have to say I'm looking forward to trying it.

Giving the players a little more control over how their character appears is not beyond the ability of developers, we all understand that you have an artistic vision and that customisation is possible but a non-trivial factor to add to a game, but apart from our actions, appearance is one of the fundamental enablers in allowing players to express who they are.

And I'm a dwarf in a kilt.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Friday, 11 May 2007

Thought for the day.

The Recursive MMORPG: whereupon you play a character in a virtual world much like ours, who gains levels by playing a virtual version of The Recursive MMORPG and levelling up a character.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Wh... who are you?!

I'm Batman.

Wait, sorry, Superman. No, no, no, the Hulk... I mean the Thing! That's it, yes. I'm definitely Wolverine... 's fellow X-Man: Cyclops.

Spiderman! And that's my final offer.

Daredevil! Damn it!

Ok, I'll stick with Batman. I'm Batman, yes, that's who I am. Batman. That's me.

Hello? Oh the bugger ran off! Well, no matter; I can catch him again easily enough, for I am the Flash.

Flame on!

As you can see, Tim Burton's Batman movie would have been ever so slightly more surreal had I been cast in the lead role, mainly due to my suffering from a severe MMORPG affliction: Multiple Entity Alternation Disorder.

We'll take the surrealism of 'lanky English nerd' portraying 'all-American super hero' as read.

It's quite difficult for me to put my finger on exactly why I flick around characters faster than the Roadrunner on methamphetamines, but seeing as I'm suffering a relatively strong bout with my characters in Lord of the Rings Online at the moment, I thought I'd try to document my, mostly irrational, reasoning as to why.

As I stated previously I had decided to initially try a hobbit burglar. Hence, once the log-in servers had deigned to let me in (do I detect the piquant tang of bitterness in air?), I rolled-up my character and entered in to that hellish den of iniquity and depravity that common folk call the Shire. Oh yes, don't be fooled, it's all butterflies, water voles and fragrant flowers on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you can find the sinister underworld of Michel Delving. For example, the mafia-controlled so called 'pie delivery service'; did any of you people actually look inside these so-called 'pies' to see what you were actually carrying? Underneath that fake pie crust were bags of Class A pipe weed. Didn't you ever wonder why you had to avoid certain hobbits? A 'hungry' is the hobbit mafia nickname for an undercover Bounder. So now you know.

Where in the Inferno was I? Oh yes, a hobbit burglar. Have you noticed that the majority of burglars are hobbits? Criminal underworld, I'm telling you.

Anyway! I reached level eight with my hobbit and everything was going well, but it was then that I made my first mistake. In wanting to not rush off in levels whilst I waited for others to find a character they were happy with, I decided to create a dwarf character to play around with; I do love my dwarves, but not in the way you're thinking you filthy minded sinners! So I followed my own advice and rolled a guardian and I got him up to around level six or so, but I found the reactionary/tanky/hit-me-baby-one-more-timey method of combat not really to my liking, certainly not for a quick side-character for a bit of fun. I therefore, instead, rolled a champion for a brief taste of hot dwarf on goblin DPS action.

It was at around about level twelve that I realised that I was enjoying this class an awful lot more than the burglar and thus I decided to stick with it as my main character. Again though, I'd slightly leapt off into the distance in level compared to others, so I once more thought to try a different class while I waited for them to catch up, a class that I didn't intend to play at all.

I imagine you can see where this is going.

It was around level fifteen that I decided I really liked my elven minstrel, and that I would instead make her my main character, I just couldn't get away from the fact that although I've played healing classes to death in Word of Warcraft, the main reason for this is... that I really enjoy playing healing classes. I berated myself for being so silly, and then told myself that I can't speak to me like that, which was followed by me telling me that I'll speak to me how I like because I'm in charge here, which in turn prompted me to say that I hate me, and so I told me to go to my room, at which point I stormed out, slamming the door in my face.

Um. With the minstrel sitting at level fifteen and waiting for others, I thought I'd pop back to the dwarf champion for a bit of a blast around, maybe skill-up some professions. Yeah, bad idea, I know. My love for dwarves - not like that - bubbled up to the surface once more. And the dwarf minstrel was born.

Oh dear.

And this is where we leave it, dear reader, with the dwarf minstrel being a level ahead of the others, but with the others now finally decided on what characters they will play, I find him lagging behind in the epic quest line, as he still has a couple of fellowship-required prologue quests to complete whilst the others are waiting patiently at the next stage: book one, chapter one.

The others don't know about the dwarf minstrel yet. Melmoth hopes the others don't hit him with sticks; they probably won't, they're getting used to the idea of seeing a different character turn up every day and introducing itself as the New and Improved Melmoth.

Flame on!

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Thought for the day.

If a Quendi and a Hobbit were to mate, would their offspring be a Qubit?

Burglar's Log(in)

Well, it would have been a Captain's Log but as I mentioned before I couldn't bring myself to play those waist-leaners.

So, in the age-old tradition of reading any journal in the voice of Captain Kirk:

Can't... log... in. I am GETTING... very frustrated. THIS... is the third... day OF FOUR... that I have been unable... TO log-in to the Lord of the Rings Online SERVERS.

Spock! I... LOVE you!

The World of Warcraft release was pretty much as bad as this, and I know these problems seem to affect certain groups of players more than others, but with reports of the US having little to no logging-in problems, one has to wonder what Codemasters are doing differently.

Oh well, hopefully I'll be able to log-in and play tonight, although the shock of it might cause me some serious injury.

Still, looking on the bright side, if the log-in servers are still down it's another excuse to read through the entire xkcd archive again.

Like I need an excuse.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express...

.. but I'm going to try anyway.

Zoso and I enjoy some leisure time in Celondim.

Upgrade to Elrondsoft Vista[TM] today.

Arm yourself, because no-one else here will save you.

Would an MMO that heavily emphasised the group game, as opposed to the solo one, stand any chance of being successful? Is the big attraction of MMOs simply that you as a player are sharing space with other people from around the planet, or is it the opportunity to play alongside or against others that initially attracts people, but the current foibles with the way MMO games approach the concept of grouping often deters people and instead encourages them more into a solo style of play?

Looking around various blogs, a lot of people will mention the solo quests they performed in their 'journal of gameplay', or perhaps they have a frequent entry on their regular group's encounters. There is also the more occasional mention of guild groups, but very rarely is there a regular entry on pick-up groups, unless it's a tale of woe and frustration.

So, assuming that people would actually be happy to group more often than solo, is there any way that we can make group play more attractive? Is there some threshold where grouping suddenly becomes the preferable option over soloing in most situations?

The first obvious step is to have group game mechanics that empower the individual when they are part of a whole; it needs to be that the sum of the players is much greater than any player on their own can ever hope to be. This incentive, to make players perform extraordinary feats when part of group, is not new, but I feel it probably hasn't been exploited anywhere near its potential. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and Lord of the Rings Online amongst others have implemented team-based abilities, such abilities are beyond the power of any one player but by combining their own powers, usually in some sort of timing/ordering based mini-game, they can achieve great power through cooperation and good play. This sort of idea is a great enabler of team play, it encourages people to play as part of a group, but more importantly it emphasises the need to work together as a group. Too many games have group content that essentially requires people to band together because greater numbers will win the fight, but there is little reward for working as a team during the fight, hence pick-up groups tend to perform poorly because they are made-up of several players all playing solo towards the same objective. If games could provide tangible rewards for working as part of a cohesive whole, then players might be more inclined to learn how to play as part of a team, random teams would be more likely to succeed, and thus people would be more enthused about teaming again.

The next enabler of group play would be to remove the idea of solo classes. Pick-up groups are often hard to form for anything other than basic content because there's the wonderful Holy Trinity of class design still entrenched in most MMOs, that of Tank, Damage and Healer. To try to counter this problem - that a group might be ready and raring to go but not have a healer, because healers generally suck at solo play and so there are very few around, since a smaller proportion of people want to play a non-soloable character in a predominately solo game - the hybrid class has evolved, they can usually solo and bring one or more Holy Trinity class roles to the table at the expense of not being able to perform any one as well as a pure class. This however fails to work because games are predominantly solo, so a hybrid has to be balanced so that they can't become a soloing machine: a class able to output high damage and be able to heal well would be overpowered compared to the pure Holy Trinity classes. However, group play is balanced towards a group of Holy Trinity classes, and thus a hybrid trying to fill the role of one of these pure classes often can't perform as well and the group will fail. If a hybrid can perform the role of a Holy Trinity class well enough for a group, then it's usually at the expensive of their other potential roles, they sacrifice damage to be able to heal almost on a par with a pure healer, for example.

What if everyone was a hybrid instead? What you would have is everyone with the potential to tank, deal damage, utility (crowd control, for example) and heal, but you perform one of those roles at the detriment of the others. For example: if someone starts healing the group then their ability to deal damage is reduced or negated, if someone uses their crowd control ability then it reduces the power of damage and healing for a while, but since crowd control is a utility ability rather than part of the Holy Trinity, it perhaps reduces healing and damage together but by a smaller amount than pure healing would reduce damage. This change in ability is only temporary, if the player who was healing stopped for some reasonable amount of time or perhaps after each encounter, the abilities would reset and the player could next time choose to deal damage at the expensive of healing. Thus each member of the group becomes flexible, and the group as a whole becomes adaptable to encounters on the fly: a horde of mobs coming over the hill, everyone switch to damage dealing and burn them down; a single powerful mob, someone take-up the tank role, a couple of people switch to healing, and the others split between crowd control for adds and damage dealing.

Thus, group composition becomes less of a chore because you always have what you need: players. Once the group is formed the people pick a role depending on what the group needs and you can get on with playing the game. It would still present problems, obviously, nothing is perfect; some people will always want to do damage only, for example, but then they won't get too far if they're in a game that empowers group play and encourages cooperation. You can't design a game for everyone, and it seems that designing a multiplayer game that really emphasises the idea of playing well with others would be a Good Thing.

Individuality and choice is important to players, and at first glance this would seem as though the 'everyone as hybrid' concept was going to end up as World of the Stepford Wives. However, just because you're doing damage, it doesn't have to be the same damage as other people, some players could be melee-focussed characters and some could cast magic, assuming a fantasy setting. If you went for a melee character, then damage would obviously be through weapons, but healing might be through bandages and medicine. A caster would throw fireballs and cast healing enchantments. There's still room for individuality, even though people can 'do it all'. Interestingly a melee healer would have to run around and get close to people to heal, they have armour to take damage while in melee range so that's ok, and bandages would probably heal for more because it takes time for the melee healer to get from person to person, but a good group might organise themselves in a way that makes it easier for him to run around and heal. Having simple ways to make the group work as a whole to make life easier for themselves is a good way to encourage cooperation. Some people will scoff at the idea of a person having to physically run around and heal, but is that maybe because they're entrenched in the 'healer stands at the back and plays health bar whack-a-mole' methodology? Why couldn't it be effective to heal in this way, if the game allowed for it? "A caster healer would be superior", I hear the voices cry. Well, maybe, but game mechanics might make it such that the caster healer is more likely to draw aggro on to themselves, or the bandages of the melee healer might add an additional minor buff to the group as well as heal, enough that it would balance out the slightly more flexible approach that a group could take with a caster healer.

In the end though, people are individuals and sometimes they just want to play on their own. This is where crafting, exploring and other such diversions would come in to play. These are still worthwhile activities, and can allow the player a little 'self time' without having to rely on others, but they are still able to socialise, maintain friendships and even make new ones. The crafter meets new people as they ply their trade and sell items, the explorer may well come across a group out in the wilds who could do with an extra member, they might join in, find the group fun and end-up playing with them for a while. It's possible to have the main theme of the game based around group play with alternative solo options as a sideline.

Strangely, MMOs seem to be inherently exclusive in nature, rather than inclusive, and I feel that questing is a big reason for this. What really needs to happen is the evolution of the pre-requisite and quest chain method of questing. It's all well and good to try to create a little continuity by having a chain of quests that lead up to a grand finale, and it's understandable that you have pre-requisites to stop people skipping to the final quest in order to grab the rotund reward at the end, but it's very restrictive to group play. What is needed is a quest system that empowers the group whilst not overly punishing the individual, and this is a tricky thing to balance. City of Heroes has a dynamic quest system where you are given random stand-alone quests that anyone can participate in, but they become pretty dull after a while due to their repetitive nature, and so they also include the old staple of quest lines too. As an aside: City of Heroes' dynamic grouping system is a much better example of how to make group play more accessible.

Thinking on quests as a chain, you start at the first link and work your way to the end link and then you've finished. What if you connect the start and end links, such that instead of a linear quest chain, you have a circular one? Thus it doesn't matter where you jump in on the quest line, you can still complete the chain. We think of quest lines as being 'perform A, then B, then C for result Y' but why? I, and many others, have already lamented the fact that players have little effect on their MMO world, thus starting-off with killing some badgers and finally working up to killing the evil lord Badgeron and his set of Badger Mafiosi doesn't mean anything in the fact that you haven't really defeated him, he's still there. Wait for three minutes and he'll pop right back as if nothing had ever happened. In fact the poor NPCs are stuck in their own Groundhog Day hell:

*alarm clock*

Badgeron: "Oh, what a wonderful morning. I'll make myself a quick cup of tea and then I'll see how the Badger Mafiosi are getting on with my latest nefarious scheme. Mu ha hah ha haaaa!"

Adventurers: "Halt thee, scallywag, we will not let your evil deeds go unpunished!"

Badgeron: "Accursed adventurers! You have meddled in my affairs for the last time! Prepare to meet your end"

*hack, slash, HEAL MEH!, crang, pow*

Badgeron: "I... am defeated. Farewell cruel world."

*alarm clock*

Badgeron: "Huh? Oh! It must have all been a horrible dream, thank goodness. Well, it's a lovely morning, I'll make myself a quick cup of..."

Adventurers: "Halt thee, scallywag, we will not let your evil deeds go unpunished!"

Badgeron: "Oh, déjà vu! But you're still going to die puny mortals"

*thunk, prang, HEAL MEH!, crash*

Badgeron: "Oh, cruel fate. I go now to eternity!"

*alarm clock*

Adventurers: "Halt thee, scallywag, we will not let your evil deeds go unpunished!"

Badgeron: "Wait. What?!"

*slash, chank, HEAL MEH!, zoink*

*alarm clock*

Groundhog day as an over-camped named mob. /shudders

The circular chain still presents the obvious problem that a player can now jump in at the point the recruiting group is currently at, but if it's a progression, then you're just stuck looking for a group, but simply at different point around the chain. Instead of linking quests by chains, how about linking them by area or NPC? It would work much like the reputation system of WoW (hopefully without the grind, if the quests are done well) where you could perform single quests that would build your overall reputation in that quest set to a point where you can then take on the final boss quest for that NPC. The single quests could be errands, killing some mobs in an area, or perhaps more complicated multi-part quests that need to be carried out in one go - defend the bridge from a wave of Badger Mafiosi, then escort the people trapped on the bridge through hostile territory to safety - then anyone can hop-in to the group and complete the quest the group is planning on doing, gain some XP and also gain reputation towards the final quest in that quest set. There will eventually be a point where you will have to form a group specifically for the final boss quest, but it is only one quest of many where you need people to all be at the same stage. Not only that but you could also have it so that the final quest will still reward some reputation for the quest set that it is a part of, therefore there's still worth in people who aren't ready to do the quest for the final reward in going and helping out.

And if nothing else, it's always amusing to watch Badgeron try to cope with another beating at the hands of your fellow adventurers.

*alarm clock*