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In Other News – June 29 2015

In Other News – June 29 2015

Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment

I picked up Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment for the Vita this weekend. I enjoyed the first half of the first season of SAO, quit the second half of the first season, and was meh on the ideas behind the second season. Being an MMO player, the idea of being virtually stuck inside the game is both interesting and frightening. We’ve moved away from the idea of the “MMO as a living world” and into “MMO as a string of mechanics”, so bringing it back around to the space as being it’s own ongoing ecosystem is cool; physically dying in the real world if you die in the game, however, is very uncool.

The game itself is in Japanese with English subtitles, which under most circumstances is just fine. In this case, it’s like a psychological experiment gone haywire, mainly because in the hour or so I’ve put into the game, 2% has been fighting things, another 10% has been running from place to place, and 88% has been thumbing through conversation. I don’t actually know what these conversations were about, since my brain refused to process anything after what seemed like the twelfth hour of reading one language while hearing a different one. Adding insult to injury, the Japanese propensity to include every single little twitch and emote and exclamation and gasp and muttering and sidebar to the main conversation while requiring that each be progressed through a press of the button…

The game itself is borderline-obnoxiously convoluted, but like anime itself, it takes a while to get used to and once you do, you get more comfortable with it. Supposedly you can “bond” with secondary characters through such mundane tasks as “talking to them” and “sitting with them at a cafe”. Doing so increases their ability to fight. They’ll also make requests for specific actions in combat, like “please stun” the target. Complying allows the two of you to fight much better in the long run. But to get to that point, you need to master the basic, LB, and RB hotbar states, both for you and for the requests you make to your companion. It’ll take about an hour of just familiarizing yourself with the character screens before you can become effective…if you can get some time alone outside of conversation, that is.

Destiny?

I’m not going to touch the brouhaha that has been surrounding Destiny and Bungie as of late, except to point you at this article which reminds us all that Activision is behind Bungie now.

I re-bought Destiny for the XB1 because A) I had $50 card from the purchase of said machine, B) XB1 had a bundle on sale for $45 that included the game, the two current DLC, and some extra crap, and C) my brother and friend (XB1 owners) had it, but had yet to get anywhere. I enjoy Destiny just fine; I never got very far on the PS4 as I wasn’t playing as often as others, and while I’m OK at shooters, I’m not so spectacular that I can stomach plowing through them alone (especially some of Destiny‘s creepier locations, which cause me shoulder-tension stress).

So it’s back into the grinder. I got to level five on Sunday, have my Sparrow, and my supa’ power now. There’s an upcoming mission that I’m dreading, where I have to defend the radio tower or something like that. I remember that it gave me much stress and much grief, and I really only got through it because I had other people to help at the time.

Massive Chalice

Another game I worked on this weekend was Massive Chalice. It’s one of XB1’s “Games with Gold” selection for June, and had been on my Steam wishlist for a while. In a nutshell, it’s like Crusader Kings meets XCOM. You control a kingdom pressed on all sides by a magical enemy. You have to take over territories by building fortresses, and then you need to install regents there. In addition, you have to (or can, if you’re smart) marry those regents to other characters so they’ll produce more characters. The kicker is that the characters come from your pool of soldiers, so once they’ve been promoted, they’re out of the battle.

Combat is very much like XCOM. You move, the enemy moves, you get a percent-chance-to-hit on your preferred target, and so on. If your character dies, they stay dead.

The conceit is that you not only have to keep your soldiers alive on the battlefield, but you have to take them out of service for the “greater good” of the kingdom (and to make kids). Do you keep your best soldiers fighting and possibly dying for good, or do you force them to have sex and produce children because they have desirable traits? Wait, that doesn’t sound like a difficult decision…

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The Vine Dragon Cometh

The Vine Dragon Cometh

finally got back to Guild Wars 2 this weekend, driven by a desire to complete my Living Story ahead of the release of Heart of Thorns. Since GW2 is one of my capped games, I feel a need to keep up with it*, especially since the expansion will be building upon the situations presented in this second season (and the first, I suppose, but I skipped that out of apathy and confusion).

I managed to plow through three of the five remaining episodes, leaving only two to complete. I have to say, they’ve proven to be a pretty good challenge, and I spent a good chunk of time screaming at the monitor. I ended yesterday tracking down the Master of Peace, and was frustrated by the mechanics in that area. But I’m also impressed with the designs that I’ve encountered. There have been a few puzzle-battles in these episodes, and they’ve had some interesting solutions. I could have easily have looked them up on the web and saved myself some grief, but of course that consider that cheating, both in the lazy sense, and in the experience sense: I feel better about learning them through trial and error than I ever could had I simply steamrolled them like minor annoyances.

Speaking of minor annoyances, I also spent a good amount of time clearing out my bank space while on layover in Divinity’s Reach. Specifically, my crafting materials. On Saturday, I thought I’d actually make a go of working on my crafting, only to find that I couldn’t make a damn thing because A) I lacked materials, and B) my skills weren’t high enough.

Crafting in GW2 is one of the worst systems I’ve seen; worse even than the push-button travesty that passes for trade skilling in other MMOs. I’m normally interested in crafting, but the gathering mechanics plain old suck. If the sum of a zone’s quests are considered “grinding”, then collecting materials through “click and animate” repetition is certainly a new circle of hell. While I can philosophically appreciate GW2‘s attempt to provide advancement though experimentation when crafting, having to craft crap just to consume crap seems to double the amount of time it takes to progress, at the expense of doubling the resources. Regardless, it’s far too tedious for me, especially when I know I could be doing something else that’s at least mildly interesting. Maybe once I complete the living story, I’ll go back to the lower level areas and farm materials. More than likely I’ll just buy stuff from the AH, considering I sold most of my high level materials for more gold than I can use at this point.

 

* In writing that sentence, I thought that it was a bit weird. I’ve got capped characters now in GW2Star Trek Online, and World of Warcraft, but GW2 is the only one I feel compelled to play because of it. I think it’s because my GW2 cap was earned, whereas with STO I was able to level through the offline duty officer system, and WoW came about thanks to the boost-to-90 that came with Warlords of Draenor. I don’t value those capped characters any less, per se, but I also don’t feel that I’ve gotten to know them as well as I know my GW2 character, who’s been through the entire story — dungeons included.

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Stag Party; Cult of Personality

Stag Party; Cult of Personality

Stag Party

After last week’s encounter with a rampaging horde of….mushrooms…the party and it’s caravan moved northward on their way to Waterdeep.

They must have hit a time-pothole because the days just flew by, and before they knew it, a tenday had passed without incident. But since this is a game and not a calendar simulator, that meant something had to go down this session.

Thankfully, it wasn’t anything too bizarre. Just a herd of deer on a nearby hill. But because it’s a fantasy game and not, like, Monopoly, there had to be something weird about this herd: a single, majestic stag with a pelt like gold, and antlers like shiny, tax-bracket-busting platinum. This glorious beast caused the caravan to grind to a halt as everyone had to rubberneck, but several members of the column decided that driving rickety carts up and down the coast in shitty conditions was, well, shit, when they could retire in a castle purchased through the sale of that sweet, sweet deerskin.

Several of the other caravan members, however, warned these would-be Schwarzeneggers that such a creature was not for humans to possess. Surely this was a creature of legend, possibly the house pet of a powerful god or goddess, and you know how they can get when you piss them off. And if you didn’t know how they could get, killing their favored animal would be one way to find out. This seemed to make sense for most of the hunters, but there are always those few assholes who just can’t see past the dollar-signs floating in front of their eyes, and so three of them ignored the pleas and set off towards the hill.

The party seemed a bit torn. At first, they were unconcerned, siding with the sandwich-board-wearing crowd that this kind of animal was not one to be trifled with, and those hunters would certainly get what they deserved. But in the interest of stopping those jerks from bringing celestial ruin to their caravan, sprinkled with a sense that “if this is happening, then the DM probably wants us to do something with it”, they opted to tail the hunters into the forest to see if they couldn’t throw them off the trail of the stag.

Turns out “caravan member” doesn’t come with a Mensa membership, because the hunters quickly lost track of the stag, and the three of them thought it wise to split up to cover more ground. Not wanting to split the party, Our Heroes started their own sleuthing using their Wisdom (Survival) skills to track the creature through the thick woods. After getting lost just one time (man, we really need to start with the dice shaming, because the elven tracker rolled a 1 at this point), the trail lead the party to an ivy-covered ruin in the middle of the woods.

With the shafts of sunlight falling down through the trees, leaves swaying gently in the wind overhead, the players ID’d the ruins as belonging to an elven goddess of nature. Like, duh. Miraculously, everyone made their stealth rolls except for the bard (as the monk put it, “because you never stop talking”). No matter: her monologues didn’t seem to cause any undue alert as they rounded the corner of the crumbling wall to find the stag standing there, bathed in sunlight, all majestic as fuck.

“Klkh89uklnblkberiusysoppwjew,” it said. There was probably an Emoji in there somewhere, but no one in the party could understand what the stag was saying, and holy crap the stag was talking! probably threw them off as well. With an air of ungulate exasperation, the stag changed languages to Elven, which everyone but the bard understood (how’s that for irony!). Unfortunately, the creature seemed to be babbling, talking about how the party was on the right path, they should follow the river of gold, and that the road ahead was filled with sorrow and bloodshed. All was not lost in translation, however, because before their eyes appeared an intricately carved longbow, strung with silver string. As the party drooled, the stag pranced away with one parting shot: “Not all will survive…”

Back at the caravan, the party found the three hunters had returned, empty handed but not without totally bullshit stories about how they were this close to nabbing that stag. As if.

Cult of Personality

The party rolled on in silence (again, another time-pothole) for a few more days, straight into a standing rainstorm that made the road muddy and treacherous. Beneath the darkened sky, the party heard the sharp snap of a wagon axle breaking, and saw the shadow of a cart tumble off the road and into a shallow ditch, it’s Crates & Barrels ™ spilling across the ground.

As some members of the caravan moved to help, they were rebuffed by the cart owners. “We got this,” they said, suspiciously turning help away. The party  looked ahead and instantly understood: it was one of the cult’s carts that had tumbled into the ravine. The cultists weren’t actually well regarded into the column. They didn’t interact with anyone, kept a guarded buffer around their carts, and never ate or camped near anyone else in the caravan. Those who offered to help were actually kind of glad that they were denied, because fuck those guys, but they were also pissed because this was delaying the entire group’s progress. And it was raining.

The original party was wary about getting close to the cult wagons because since they had recognized one of the cult members as being from the camp outside of Greenest, they were concerned that they themselves would be recognized. They enlisted their new pal the warlock to head up to the front of the column to see if there was anything he could see. Being the perceptive type, the warlock spotted a small parcel that had spilled out of the crates. This parcel, wrapped in an oiled rag, shone in the meager light, and looked like solid gold jewelry.

Using his powers of Charisma (Persuasion), the warlock convinced the cultists that they really should enlist some help because they’re pissing off the entire column, and they all need to get moving again. They begrudgingly agreed, and positioned the warlock at the back of the cart to help push it up the slippery incline. Now, being a native of Waterdeep, the warlock knew a thing or two about a thing or two, and one of those two things was Dexterity (Sleight of Hand). Covering his actions as a slip of the hand on the rain-slick cart, he thrust his hand under the tarp and pulled back a small, silken pouch which he dropped into a secret pocket in his voluminous sleeves.

After getting the cart back on the road and leaving the cultists to fix their axle, the warlock examined his purloined treasure: four decent sized onyx stones, valued at around 50g each. He wasn’t sure what their game was, but these yahoos weren’t just run-of-the-mill cart jockeys hauling sweatshop jeans to Waterdeep-Mart. He brought these items to the attention of the party, and the ranger took him and the cleric aside to give them the rundown: those people in the cart he had just helped were Dragon Cultists, and they (the party) had been hired to track them, find out who they were delivering to, and what they were going to do with the cargo. The end result was that the warlock and the cleric were officially absorbed into the party and taught the secret handshake, and given the secret decoder ring.

The cultists, never the popular crowd, was even less popular now, having delayed the caravan by several hours, refusing help that would have sped up the recovery, and for being dicks in general.

*   *   *

There’s a wealth of potential options to pad the time while the party travels to Waterdeep. Not all of the options are required, or even suggested. The trip is supposed to take two months of carting, and I guess the balance for me is to make the trip feel like it’s taking time, but not to send the players running away out of boredom.

I picked the stag hunt option for this week because it awarded a magic weapon (a +1 longbow, for the ranger who might be reading this). Actual item rewards have been very hard to come by in this module, which I personally think is OK. After decades of MMOs dropping loot like clouds drop rain, making items — and magic items specifically — more of a rare occurrence sounds like a more believable scenario than if they’re just hanging from trees like fruit.

Of course we had to do the cult in distress suggestion from the module because reasons that will become apparent later on. I do like how the module is offering these different scenario options, but isn’t making direct connections between the possible elements, but which can be connected into a coherent side-story with a little creative arrangement. As always, I feel that I’m struggling to keep the game engaging, and I’m finding that making stuff up on the fly is difficult for me (the official stuff sounds good, but when I have to ad-lib, it sounds like a third grader is making shit up). Having these “heeeyyy…that fits well with what happened last chapter!” revelations helps me pre-plan the direction that these one-off encounters take. The question is: is the party taking notes, and will the remember the cause to the upcoming effects to make this kind of planning worthwhile?

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Early Access Should Die In A Fire

Early Access Should Die In A Fire

Yes, that’s link-bait headlining at it’s finest. No, I am not ashamed, because I’ve been thinking about EA recently and the more logical weight I put behind it, the less appealing it sounds.

Of course I’m guilty of buying into early access, so this isn’t  some high-and-mighty commandment or some born-again fire-and-brimstone sermon. From day one, I’ve been honest with myself about what EA means to me and to the producers of the projects I’ve supported, but I’ve done so with the understanding that there is no guarantee in early access or crowdfunding. I’ve looked at EA much like I look at Kickstarter: it’s an investment, and with any investment there’s a chance you could lose your shirt and have nothing to show for it.

But recent discussions and events surrounding early access (and Kickstarter projects for that matter) have started to turn me off of the practice of EA. Not the purpose, just the practice. Here’s why.

Over on Google Plus, Rog Dolos had posted about his thoughts on early access. In his post, Rog talks about how the purpose has merit — allowing developers to interact closely with their audience — but also that games in certain genres benefit best from being finished, and how they tend to lose a lot of their impact when played piecemeal. I feel the same way, in that I might be interested in 100% of a game that’s 25% done, but there’s not enough there to keep me playing until there’s 50% done, or 75% done. After become satiated with the 25% that’s complete, I might not return until it’s 100% done, but there’s also a good chance that (me being me) I might never return.

I ran across an interesting quote from the guy behind the @Steam_Spy statistic scraping account, talking about some interesting trends that can be gleaned from looking at publicly available Steam numbers:

Every game still has only one launch event and if you’re going to release it in Early Access that date will [be it].

With EA, players get to have interactions with the developers so that they can feel that they’re the “fifth Beatle”, thereby investing more than just money, and developers get an attentive testing group, and financial backing. Done right, this can be quite the boon for developers who are able to keep one hand on the wheel and one hand massaging the community. As an example of a company who does this well (so far), look at Wildcard, creators of ARK: Survival Evolved. Their EA launch day was terrible, but they quickly turned it around and earned back the trust of their players and have sold enough to earn over $10 million dollars in revenue.

Being one of those people who picked up A:SE on launch day — and I specifically say “launch day” because I wholeheartedly believe in that quote above — I played for a week, but haven’t been back since. Why? It’s because of the sentiment Rog expressed and that I support: what’s present in EA is nice if it works, but it’s never going to be enough to keep the fires burning though until the end. I can either enjoy what’s there for as long as possible, which isn’t going to be very long, or I can put it on the shelf and wait until it’s “done”. Or I can just not jump on the EA bandwagon.

The problem is, what is considered to be “done” in this era of the Internet and Steam-delivered overnight patches? Developers may have a design document with checkboxes they use to determine when a game is “feature complete”, but it’s an arbitrary line from the consumer point of view. One day it’s EA, the next it’s “done”. Look at Heroes of the Storm. It was in “beta” for the longest time, but there were keys in the wild for anyone who wanted one. When they announced a launch date of early June 2015, it was a shrug; the game had been available and accessible for so long that insinuating that it needed an “official” launch date was pretty much a non-event just to say it was out of “beta”. There are mental ramifications, though, and I suspect that has more to do with our silently agreed upon acceptance of what “released” means than any idea of being released as being the product’s finish line.

And what about games that can’t manage to summit Mount Deliverance? Too many gamers reserve a special circle of hell for “broken promises” and “lies and dishonesty”, thinking that every overreaching project or development team that underestimated their scope had deceit in their heart from day one. Just today, it was announced that Windborne would be closing down development, despite having been a staple in my wishlist on Steam for over a year. I thought that the developer framed a decent explanation, and I’m certainly in no position to refute what they say, but sadly, that can’t be said for some people who are commenting with venom:

If the [Early Access] community was a bank you now would been bankrupt, because we would make a massive class action against you, we would go to our lawyers to get back our money, because when you decided to stop developing the game you broke the contract. You did not go bankrupt, you still have the money, you are just a bunch of thief, liars, trolls and assholes.

It’s a chance that developers take, asking for money before a project is complete, with no idea if they’ll be able to complete the project to their — or the community’s — satisfaction. As someone who’s not comfortable taking chances with my financial future on the scale that indie development requires, I can’t fathom the mindset that people have that leads them down this path. Personally, it doesn’t seem worth the risk, but I’m happy for those who manage to make it work. I’m also saddened and angered by people who project their regret at having partaken of EA onto the developers without absolute proof of their accusations.

What’s the alternative? As much as I’m sure no one wants to hear it, maybe traditional publishing shouldn’t be replaced with crowdfunding methods. The rise of crowdfunding through KS and EA campaigns was due to a backlash against corporate bean-counters getting in the way of a developer’s ability to make a really fantastic product by only green-lighting known quantities like franchise shooters, or by forcing a shift in focus to an nascent mirage like mobile. Look through Steam’s front page and you’ll see a dearth of EA titles crowding out all but the AAA projects. It’s getting harder and harder to surface games that aren’t EA, and I believe that it’s indoctrinating people into believing EA to be just another step in the process we need to endure. Traditional publishing isn’t a panacea: they cancel projects just like indies and smaller studios do, and they sure as hell generate their share of ill-will, but they’ve got track records and enough successful properties that today’s failure is overwritten with tomorrow’s successes. At the very least, cutting down on EA and KS projects would thin the herd.

The ramifications for the industry and the community of continuing to support EA are just too great, in my opinion. I’ve got an average track record when it comes to KS and EA titles I’ve purchased. Some have come through, like Shadowrun  Chronicles and Wasteland 2, while some have gone belly-up in a spectacular fashion, such as Greed Monger. I’m still waiting for a few, like Meriweather: An American Epic, which was one of the very first projects I contributed to through Kickstarter over two years ago. Sometimes I get my money’s worth, but other times I’m throwing money into a hole with no return. Technically, no return is expected; the only thing I do expect is the worst, so I’m never let down…only pleasantly surprised when a project comes through.

I don’t think the gaming community knows how to invest wisely. I know I sure don’t, but I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of a segment of the population that susceptible to a really good PR campaign. In the real investment world, backers have a wealth of information that they can research to help them make a decision. We don’t really have that in the games space. Sometimes we can focus on the track records of developers, if they’ve made games before (like Brian Fargo and Chris Roberts, believe it or not). Having been able to “get stuff done” in the past is about the only criteria we have for judging the viability of project, and sometimes that’s not enough. Game consumers lack the kind of information that we need to make “informed” decisions, which is made worse by the fact that there’s no way that developers can actually provide that kind of information. In short, it’s a crap shoot for everyone.

It’s become en vogue for indies and smaller studios to turn to EA and other crowdfunding, offering a back-stage pass in exchange for cash up front, but after the ink dries, all bets are technically off. Not every failure is a bait-and-switch, despite consumer’s angry assertions to the contrary; sometimes, things don’t work out, no matter how hard you work to try and ensure they do. We as a community, by and large, aren’t able to absorb this, either financially or emotionally, yet we seem powerless, unable, or unwilling to stop supporting EA because we feel that it involves us as part of the industry we love, feel that it “helps the little guy stand up to the big guys”, or simply feeds our entitlement culture by giving us what we want, as soon as we decide we want it. Even though it would remove an avenue for the scores of indie and smaller studios, I think we need to stop supporting EA and crowdfunding efforts, at least until we can come up with some method for better investment decision making on the part of the consumer, and to somehow help indie, small studios, and neophyte developers plan and execute in a way that mitigates the potential for failure as much as possible, if at all possible.

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You Can’t Stop The Pissing Match

You Can’t Stop The Pissing Match

Another E3 is coming to a close, and as an event that’s fueled by hype and spectacle, many people feel the need to issue a “scorecard” tallying up the advances and fumbles of the presentations to ultimately be able to declare a “winner” of E3. And just as the sun rises in the East, there’s a contingent of contrarians who wish people wouldn’t do that, because we should all just be happy that everyone is happy and so on and so forth.

I’m an equal opportunity gamer and while I don’t prefer to play partisan when it comes to platforms, really, I enjoy the drama of this score-keeping every year, and truly believe that people who finger-wag need to get over themselves and take a look at the culture we’re talking about. Deciding who “won” the event is a rational, safe endeavor for several reasons:

  1. We’re talking about video “games”, and games are naturally about competitionI’m not a competitive person when I’m actually involved, but I can appreciate watching titans duke it out by trying to out-do one another. It’s fun to see the lengths to which each company will go to impress us. They appeal to what the products they make appeal to: our competitive streaks. Competition is the core of the games industry. Even the most benign games we play pits us against time, quantity, AI, or other players. It may not be hands-at-throat competition, but it’s what the industry peddles, so it shouldn’t be surprising that so many people do see E3 presentations as being about competition.
  2. It’s pointless. Come next week, it won’t matter “who won” because we’ll be left with mostly nothing in-hand except video recaps and memories, so we’ll be in no better position than we were before E3. And once the adrenaline pumping spectacle of keynote presentations are in the rear view, everything that was announced will get thrown into a bucket and meted out over release schedules between now and the next E3, and no one will care who “won” this year.
  3. There’s no title belt involved. Who “wins” this year doesn’t earn the winner any benefits or advantages. They don’t get to parade around at other conventions with an entourage and a gaudy title belt to rub in people’s faces. At most, their PR people get a fist bump for a job well done, and then everyone goes back to work.
  4. The companies themselves do it. As I pointed out in another post, two years ago (as of the writing of this post), Microsoft was fucking up so bad that Sony could have brought out an interpretive dance troop to perform a rendition of their financial earnings and they’d still have been in a better place than Xbox was. Instead, they pulled no punches with underhanded digs at their main competition. To us, choosing a “winner” is academic; to them, it’s business, and they most certainly keep track of “who won” because it’s all about the PR. But they have to because the “loser” needs to work that much harder to win back those whom they might have been disappointed. That is a win for us as the consumer, for the industry moving forward, and for the companies who have to step up their games.

I’m not ignorant to the fact that there’s vast quantities of people out there who are always eager to promote their platform in order to justify their investment, and that they do so by denigrating the competition. In the end, though, how much does their posturing matter? Often times they’re preaching to the choir, and when the Sharks meets the Jets in an even sillier choreographed fight than anything that’s found in West Side Story, the eventual outcome doesn’t mean jack squat anyway. Not everyone who partakes in this “who won” exercise are doing so strictly to promote their platform of choice. Yes, people tend to play favorites, but if you’re not following people who are level headed enough to consider the pros and cons of all participants and put partisanship aside, you might want to consider reviewing your social media roster.

As consumers, we’re not as privy to the inner workings of the gaming industry as our Tweets and forum posts and blog posts would like people to believe. We speculate, and that in itself is a game…a game with zero consequences. What’s the worst that can happen? We’re wrong? Who gets hurt in those situations? No one. Same with choosing a different “winner” each E3. Not everything has to be a crusade, especially in this case where the results are ephemeral and without ramifications.

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When Hype Does Good

When Hype Does Good

Hype is one of those love/hate things. No one wants to feel pressured by PR, and there’s always someone in the wings muttering about “sheeple” under their breath, trying to make us feel bad for some petty and selfish reason. But we can’t help liking what we like, and it’s not something we should ever feel ashamed of. When the hype train rolls into the station, we’re all aboard for Funtown.

What I do feel ashamed about is lagging behind. I’ve written ad nauseum about my inability to finish games, my predilection to jump to new games, etc etc. That leaves a lot of incomplete journeys in my wake. Some of them I simply don’t feel bad about, like how I sat my only character in WoW in her mid 60s for the longest time, or any number of the seemingly millions of other MMOs I’ve played and never capped in and can’t remember at the time of this writing.

There’s a few, though, that really make me sad. The Secret WorldStar Trek Online. Guild Wars 2. I love those games, but I always drift away from them because Reasons. But every now and then something comes along — a video, news, an expansion — that makes me all excited to return.

I suspect that it’s the momentum of the social-sphere that helps. I watched the GW2‘s Heart of Thorns guild hall video this morning and when the pre-orders went live I jumped on it (the basic package…for now). That made me remember that my character still needs to complete her second season Living Story. It’s not mandatory, but GW2 is one of the few games with a level capped character (and the only legit leveling I’ve done — without instant-boosts or offline leveling), and I have an itch to continue with “completion” at this stage before the expansion arrives.

Often times I wish there was more hype, more momentum, surrounding some of these games because it’s proven to be a serious anchor for me. Hype is hype, though; it’s not the status quo, and if there was always something going on to keep the excitement high, it’d end up being the norm, and it’s the norm that I apparently have trouble with.

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What I Think I Want In An Online Game

What I Think I Want In An Online Game

There’s as many ways to skin a cat as there are cats, which is a disturbing epiphany, even if it’s only a metaphor. Even in the vast and conventionally homogeneous realm of MMOs, they’re not all as similar as people’s hyperbolic spewing would have us believe.

I think the observable trend has long been that MMOs are sold on the idea that the “massive” in “massive multiplayer online” game refers to the number of people you can have online at the same time, but I’ve come to think of it in terms of the size of the game world itself. I’ll blame fast-travel for this expansion, since being able to portal from one end of the continent to the other makes the game world size pretty meaningless. There was the recent flap over flying in Draenor that to me is the difference between zig-zgging through the landscape and taking a straight line route to a destination. I was reading one player’s suggestion about how Elite: Dangerous should offer nav beacon to station “mini-warps” to cut down on travel time. It seems that in the haste to “fix” travel systems, MMOs have become too damn big for some people.

I am some of those people. Look at Star Wars: The Old Republic as an example. Step into Coruscant and you’ll get that feeling of scale, of being a very small and insignificant creature in zones that feel like they expect millions of people. The buildings are so massive that I’m surprised clouds aren’t forming in the rafters. This always bothered me. On one hand, I understand the designers wanted a proper feeling of epicness, but in practice it seems utterly ludicrous to be in such a massive environment. It’s not just Coruscant — a lot of SWTOR‘s environments are like this — and it’s not just SWTOR. I watched a video for the Pathfinder Online game, and I immediately got that same feeling: a whole lot of unused space that’s present simply to provide a visual sense of scale.

Really, it’s wasted on the experience. When a player steps into a new zone, there’s that “ohh and ahh” factor as they check out the art work, the vistas, and the layout. They notice things like the colors and the shapes, the density of obstacles, and the dynamic nature of the environment (water rushing, butterflies butterflying, and so on). Once they get their bearings, however, it’s down to work. Quest givers in a lot of MMOs tend to be clustered, and the jobs they hand out rarely take players far from their little mission hub, at least until they give out that one mission that has the player moving to a different mission hub. I’d guess that in the average MMO, there’s between three and six different mission hubs, connected by a “progress mission” per distinct zone. I’m just pulling that guesstimate out of my ass, but that’s what it feels like to me.

At that point, players are too invested in their tasks and on their progress to notice the environment as anything other than an obstacle. The visuals fade into a backdrop for the busy work, and players will rarely raise their head once they feel that they’ve gotten a handle on the zone and it’s aesthetic effects. Of course, should the player empty out her mission journal and opt to take a breather, then there’s really nothing but the environment to focus on. But that’s not the point of the game, is it?

I think about smaller environment games, or at least games where you’ve got the feeling that your in a smaller environment. Maybe just that you’re boxed out of the larger zone and are fed additional land in smaller doses. I think there’s two ways of doing this:

  1. Don’t let the player stop working: You see this in survival games like ARK: Survival Evolved where you always have to bee on the lookout for resources to keep yourself alive. You rarely have time to look at the world around you, and when you do, you tend to focus on what you can exploit.
  2. Narrow the opportunities: I’m thinking of Landmark, Daybreak’s sandbox voxel farm. Their foliage density is impressive so that once you get into a valley your vision is obscured so all you can see and really care about is a small section of the map at any one time. Same with some areas of World of Warcraft, where the landscape provides a really intimate feel that you might never know how big the zone is if not for the world map.

I’d really like an online game where it’s not possible nor even feasible to go very far, very fast, or a game which doesn’t push you through the landscape. I remember back in Ultima Online I refused to use the runebook, and spent the majority of my time in the town of Vesper…and by “majority” I mean that I ventured to Britannia once in all the time I played. It was a big deal when I did: although I was ready for the trip, it was like taking a vacation. Aside from that once-in-a-lifetime decision, though, it was another gameplay opportunity to do something new, but something I was totally in control over. When I felt I had nothing left to do, I could travel and see the world I had never seen, and it was all brand new.

I don’t know if there’s any games like this, or even can be games that are designed like this. It seems that while we can use fast travel, it’s up to us not to give in if we want that journey of discovery. It’s something I think I prefer, and enjoy spending my time localizing myself for longer periods of time these days, as opposed to covering as much ground as possible in as little time as possible.

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