Posts by Scopique

MMOs on a Scale

Posted by on Oct 5, 2017 in Editorial

I had originally intended to leave a comment on Syp’s post today regarding the possibilities of adding role-playing to MMO quests, but in the process of trying to form a coherent thought that didn’t sound like a blog post in its own right, I realized that I should probably branch off an write a blog post anyway.

After reflecting on the most recent D&D marathon that was chronicled in the Adventure Co section of this very website, I came away with the impression that among those who had traded TRPGs for MMOs, there was a greater tendency to apply MMO approaches to TRPG situations than there was to take advantage of the open nature of TRPGs.

What’s an “MMO approach”, then? MMOs kind of exist on a scale of free-action somewhere between the “here’s a shovel good luck” freedom of sandbox games like Minecraft, and the “you have one job” rigidity of side-scrollers. While MMOs do have stories, as players we are always only passing through them. We are presented with an illusion that we’re “the hero” and that we are “making a difference”, but the story is already written. The only choices we can make are how long we want to dally on the road to the next milestone, and whether or not we want to interrupt our narrative consumption with some extraneous activity like PvP or crafting.

MMOs teach us that all problems are to be solved by figuring out a puzzle that’s probably been sourced from some other, more well-known puzzle (Tower of Hanoi, the Riddle of the Sphinx, etc), by collecting items, or more likely by killing something. Our D&D game, then, kind of progressed this way, or so I felt. We ran published modules, which in and of themselves don’t offer a lot of freedom, but the main benefit of an RPG is that if the GM or players want to go off the rails, they can (even with published modules), unlike in MMOs where there’s absolutely no room to go anywhere but the rails. Applying the MMO mindset to a TRPG means that conversation and nuance are rarely considered as means to an end, options are not explored despite having literally all the options that the theater of the mind can invent, and at the end of the interaction, sending someone home in a Zip-Loc bag is the best and most forthright way to get beyond the current obstacle.

So if MMOs can push their mindset into TRPGs, can we reverse the flow and get TRPG-level freedoms into MMOs?

I think we already have them in sandbox games like Minecraft or in the “survivalbox” genre. These games provide the framework and the tools but impose no narrative. The stories are the experiences of the players, not the experiences of the characters, so the decisions we make as players affect the game world: who or what we kill, where we build, and how we treat other players. But that’s not “role-playing”, that’s dicking around with self-sourced goals. Very few — if any — survivalbox games offer any kind of tools for players to create these structured, in-game narrative threads for players to “role play” through, so while survivalbox games can offer a lot of players the ability to play together using mechanics without reservation, there’s no purpose except in what the players devise for themselves.

On the opposite end of the scale, then, we have more simplistic games such as platformers and side-scrollers. In these types of games, we don’t get freedom, but we don’t expect freedom: we expect a score. A lot of MMOs lean in the direction of using loot as a primary driver. In some ways it subverts any narrative the game offers, even becoming an impediment for those players who’d rather blow through content to progress in the ways that matter to them. When the acquisition of loot and the importance of gear is the agreed upon (and even designed) as the real reason to play, there’s no need for free-form decision making. So long as players (and developers) believe in and seek out this kind of game, having the absolute best role-playing options in any MMO isn’t going to have a high ROI.

I don’t think that MMOs can accommodate free-form choice model. If they did, they’d look like survivalbox games. That’s not a bad thing because a survivalbox game with MMO structures like quests, dungeons, and raiding would be kind of cool…but also kind of impossible. The reason is the “Ms” in MMO: Massive and Multiplayer. MMOs must offer the same opportunity to all players, and in order to do that, no one can seriously affect the game world with a lasting consequence (unless you’re a dev/designer). TRPGs deal with small-party cause and effect in a world of complete on-the-fly imagination, so as happened in our D&D game, if the players blow up a flour mill in the course of a mission, that’s OK (although the villagers will probably starve because of it). In an MMO, if blowing up the flour mill is an option, we know that the flour mill will be rebuilt in the next fifteen minutes so other players can take their turn in destroying it. The only alternative is to instance the world based on individual player decisions, but I don’t think we’re at the technological point where that’s feasible, even if our reality operates on that exact principle. 

It’s kind of weird because everything old is becoming new again. We have the GM mode of Divinity: Original Sin II which offers the mechanical handling of number crunching while staying out of the way of the narrative and is probably one of the closest CRPG games offering that TRPGs do. Beyond that, if we want to really provide a video TRPG experience, we need to gaze way back to the days of MUDs, MOOs, and other text-based CRPGs. Anyone could jump into these games, but certain people from the community could be promoted to craft the world and create experiences for the players. These could be one-off adventures for players in the right place at the right time or could be world-changing events that everyone would have to deal with when they completed. I’m not sure why we haven’t moved more forcefully in that direction, considering the earliest MMOs like Ultima Online pulled so much from those early CRPG adventure games. Maybe we’re getting there — I’m thinking of games like Legends of Aria which allow for custom rulesets, or even the most advanced mods for Minecraft — or maybe we haven’t gotten there because of the potential for people to use such tools to harass and annoy one another, or more importantly to unbalance the game world, specifically between players who use such systems to “twink” their characters and their friend’s characters beyond a mechanical “level appropriate” load-out — once again, ignoring any pretext of narrative in favor of loot and power.

I think in order to achieve this level of content a game would need to be built with the primary focus being on the toolset and not the game itself. While I have recently discovered the modding tools released by Larian to create areas for DOSII, the tools are sufficiently obtuse to someone who doesn’t have the professional vocab that Larian devs/designers have, meaning that the tools, while powerful and exciting, aren’t going to help someone who just wants to set up a quest line for her friends to run through over the weekend, and then maybe offer it for other players to build upon/use themselves. If the tools are easy but powerful (a tall order indeed) then the game can be and survivalbox as it wants to be, as players can find or set up a server that suits their external goals of providing an experience that meets their game-internal goals. That needs to be the focus, then: good, easy to learn and use tools that can be employed by the end user to create professional designer-level experiences within the framework of the game. Beyond that, players would need to accept that yes, the game may become imbalanced. Players may (will) abuse the system, but there will also be those who take the responsibility seriously and create something that can offer more freedom than the current crop of MMOs are able.

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Samsung’s Head Mounted Display

Posted by on Oct 4, 2017 in Editorial, Hardware, Virtual Reality

Samsung WMR headset and controllers

Samsung has thrown its hat — head mounted display — into the virtual ring. Starting on October 6th we’ll be able to order their new Windows-compatible “mixed reality” device with controllers for $499, putting it on the same price-footing as the technology’s recent forerunner, the Oculus Rift.

There’s a lot of HMDs hitting the streets these days, from Acer, Dell, and HP to name a few, all which are lining up behind Microsoft’s MR nomenclature, and all with lower system requirements, higher resolution, and lower prices than the flagship HTC Vive. The Samsung Odyssey HMD above will be displaying at 1440×1600 per OLED eye screen, with a 110-degree field of view. The other recent HMDs are displaying at 1440×1440 with a 95-degree field of view, according to an article on The Verge. The Oculus and Vive displays are only 1080×1200 each and have the 110-degree field of vision. In addition, the Odyssey, like the second gen HMDs, do not use external “lighthouses” or markers that need to be placed around the room, and instead, rely on internal tracking in order to help orient the user in real space which makes these HMDs far more portable than their first gen counterparts.

I’ve been really on the fence about PC VR. Prior to now, I would have preferred the Vive mainly because of its tight association with Valve, and because of the BS surrounding the Oculus. However, the price was always going to be a sticking point, even after I upgraded my PC to be able to handle the technical needs of either device. Being as these two devices were “first gen”, only having two options, and the admittedly lackluster software available made it relatively easy to pass up knowing that if VR caught on in any way, there would be another wave of devices that were easier on the requirements, easier on the wallet, and that there would hopefully more reasons to have a VR device.

Mainly it’s been the reasons, though. The PSVR is pretty good; better than the Samsung Gear or anything requiring a cell phone to handle the duties of a binocular display if we want to create a hierarchy. Thing is, I don’t really use the PSVR very much, and I can’t decide if it’s that I’m not using the PSVR, or that I’m not using the PS4. I suspect that it’s the latter because if I could get myself to sit down for the console, I could easily use the headset. In looking at what’s available for the PC, the offerings are of an order of magnitude more plentiful, although a lot of the software is still “game jam” level quality and barely above the fidelity that we had during the Lawnmower Man era of VR. There’s promise — always promise — in projects like Sansar from Linden Labs, makers of Second Life, which places Sansar in exactly the right place for wider VR adoption. Microsoft recently acquired AltspaceVR which is already pumping out shared VR spaces. Although both Altspace and Sansar are bringing the stereotypical VR experiences that we envision when we hear “virtual reality”, they’re also going to have to deal with the Brave New World of a more physical sensation in an era where 4chan exists, something that visionary Raph Koster is already talking about. That’s not appealing, but it’s something we must confront and deal with if we want to have these Nice Things.

I have two days from the posting of this article to consider my options in regards to the Odyssey if I want to get in on the pre-order bandwagon before the first round is sold out. As someone who loves technology, the thought of VR and MR is exciting as hell. From a practical standpoint, though, I’m not entirely sure that it’s worthwhile, and that bothers me. No, I’m not looking for something to throw money at, but I also don’t want to see a technology dismissed — again — prematurely. I want VR to do well, and I feel that supporting it when it needs it the most is a good way to show that, but I also have enough pricey tech gathering dust and I don’t need to add to that pile.

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Game Over Man – Divinity: Original Sin II Level Editor

Posted by on Oct 3, 2017 in Divinity: Original Sin II

Game Over Man – Divinity: Original Sin II Level Editor

OK, I’ve now posted about Divinity: Original Sin II: The Game and Divinity: Original Sin II: The GM Mode, but Larian keeps on giving and yesterday afternoon I found out that they have released Divinity: Original Sin II: The Level Editor. This means that all other games can go home now, as far as I am concerned. Their presence is no longer needed for the remainder of 2017.

In The GM Mode post, I likened what Larian was doing to the beloved Neverwinter Nights toolkit, but pulling up just shy of offering the level of customizability that NWN‘s tools offered in being able to lay down terrain, drop in buildings, and add placeable objects. The DOSII editor allows for this exact kind of manipulation.

If you’re interested in modding the game but aren’t content to use the levels included with the base package, you can follow the (currently incomplete) information on the Divinity Engine Wiki (which also contains documentation on the GM mode), and you can check out this informational video which shows the toolset in action.

After learning of the video I rocketed over the wiki because the last bit of information that I needed was “is there scripting?”. Of course there’s scripting, but the documentation is a work in progress so it remains to be seen exactly how — with examples — this can be used, and whether or not it’s “portable” like the NWN scripting system was (i.e. can scripts be attached to objects which can be used in conjunction with other objects, although thinking about the game, which has a “use object with” option in the right-click menu, I am willing to bet your left eyeball that it does).

This talk of a level editor is the kind of thing that might zip right past people’s interest, but for me, it’s really the icing on an otherwise already delicious cake. I love to be able to create stuff and creating content for games — while something that I usually never get around to finishing or if I do, publishing — is very relaxing and exciting for me. I can’t wait to find some time to dig into the documentation and try the editor, although I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be looking to make. Probably something for the GM mode to start, because that seems to be the “easier” option as it’s mainly creating terrain and features that a GM can further customize. Creating an entire adventure — basically a free community DLC — is one of the more daunting options, and for me to do something like that I’d need to know the extent of the tools and the greatest limitations.

Now I just need to find my notes from my NWN adventure editor…

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Ultima Online Turns 20: An Appreciation

Posted by on Sep 29, 2017 in Ultima Online

About a 1000 years ago when I was in high school, my friend Bob and I would travel all over New England in search of places to SCUBA dive. Both being geeks, we often passed the travel time talking about cool ideas for video games that we’d like to see. One of the ideas we kept returning to was an online game (back in the day when 28.8k modems were top of the line) which required players to purchase a “class pack” from their local retailer in order to make a character that they would play. Everyone in the game would be another player, and as the players could affect the world around them, actions had permanence. One situation I remember us talking about was if a necromancer character finds and inhabits an abandoned tower, he could take it over (unofficially), and raise an army of undead to defend it against other players, who could plow through the skeletal army and “liberate” the tower by killing the necromancer. This was the kind of game we wanted to play, and as incredible as it might seem, we weren’t aware of MUDs or MOOs at the time. We knew of BBS door games, and the games we saw advertised on AOL and CompuServe which charged exorbitant fees that we couldn’t afford. We were left to just talk about it and marvel at our ignorant assumption that if we only had the money and the talent…

When I graduated from college, though, I heard about an upcoming game called Ultima Online, probably from a magazine because back then there weren’t as many gaming-themed websites as there are now; hell, there weren’t that many websites at all. I grew up with Ultima games and was familiar with their lore and gameplay. Based on what articles were saying about UO, everything seemed to promise the kind of game that Bob and I had always wanted. I spent $5 to enroll in their beta program because let’s face it: there’s no way they’d allow the download of an entire MMO client on 28.8k speeds, so the $5 was to cover shipping and handling and probably some other fees.

The game was…nigh unplayable. The main reason was simply the speeds. If you think rubber-banding in an MMO these days is bad, you ain’t seen nothin’, buddy. Nevermind if the place got crowded somehow. But as patches came down and the game improved, things started looking up. I bought both a 56k and my first broadband modems specifically so I could improve my MMO performance, and so began my foray into the world of MMOs.

Ultima Online is still my all-time #1 favorite MMO not necessarily because it outperforms all other MMOs I’ve played in every way…just in ways that matter. A lot of people credit World of Warcraft‘s success — and other games inability to duplicate it — by saying that it was the right game at the right time. The same can be said for UO for me. It was the right game at the right time for me, and for me it was the first MMO I played. I consider myself to be amazingly lucky in that regard because UO tried to set the bar so high that I feel subsequent MMOs let players down in ways that they’ll never know if they haven’t played UO.

My friends and I rolled on the Atlantic server, being as how we could spit into the Atlantic from where we live. I spent most of my game time in and around the town of Vesper. I was a miner and blacksmith, so the mountains to the north of the city and out past Minoc, as well as the range to the west, served as my stomping grounds. I was so focused on my craft that I never left the Northeast for the first year or two that I played the game, and the first time I did venture forth — heading to Britannia, of course — was almost terrifying because this was in the days before the Trammel-Felucca split and PKs and griefers were everywhere on the roads, and monsters were in the woods. After finally arriving at my destination and making it back home again, I vowed never to travel overland again. So I started using rune books, specifically to our little neighborhood along the coast south of Covetous.

I remember the thickly settled area to the north of Vesper, and the shops I’d frequent there (and which I’d avoid because they never had any stock). At some point, we had joined a guild which owned a castle, because back then I was apparently OK joining up with strangers. We used external applications that were sanctioned by EA that helped us with reagent and material management. We watched elaborate player-run ceremonies like plays and weddings. I remember RPing with a stranger in the streets of Vesper, them a confused refugee trying to find their friend and me a well-meaning bystander who was trying to help. My friends and I ran from PKs and sometimes fought back, except against that jerk who stood in the entrance of the portal to Felucca in the Vesper cemetery, because players physically blocked players, and he was demanding a toll to use the gate or wanted us to get pissed and attack him so we’d take the criminal penalty. We just turned and left and came back later.

We spent all of our discovery time on the Stratics UO site, which — to my utter amazement — is still in operation, although now in message board/wiki form. Since I worked a day job with friends who also played, we spent a good chunk of our days (behind closed doors) planning our in-game operations for buying property, exploration, and mercantile aspirations that probably never became as grand as we’d hoped they’d be.

I can’t remember why we stopped playing UO. It was a little while after they introduced the “Renaissance” and the graphical client that was nice, but…wasn’t UO. I suspect we followed Raph Koster from UO to Star Wars: Galaxies, which is probably my #3 MMO of all time and is a reflection for another post.

I’ve tried going back to UO not a few times but the adage “you can’t go home again” is true because it’s true. The game retains a lot of what it launched with, but it hasn’t stood entirely still. It now has quests of a sort, whereas at launch it was a pure sandbox. Real estate is near impossible to find, even after 20 years, and I suspect most of the housing on Atlantic is owned by The Syndicate, one of the oldest and original UO guilds that still has an active presence in the game. I get the pangs of nostalgia whenever I see images of the game or read the almost-annual recollections that Raph Koster posts to his websiteUO hasn’t stood still, and neither has my experience in the genre, which informs what I’m willing to accept these days. Themepark games are a bit too simple, but the “heirs” to UO‘s openness — the survivalbox games like Citadel or ARK — are too focused on achievement over adversity. Even WURM in either of its incarnations is too brutal, but probably captures the spirit of UO the best out of anything these days.

I’m not sure how much longer UO has. Management of the game was offloaded to Broadsword a few years ago, along with Dark Age of Camelot, but EA still has their hand on the tiller to some degree. It was recently announced that UO would be offering a “kinda free” account with severe limitations, which is either because they’re secure enough to let it ride, or they’re fishing for gimmicks to bring in much-needed new blood. I will be legitimately sad when UO eventually goes dark. I hope that EA understands the impact that the game has had on the industry and allows the game to roam free in the public domain so that the “grey servers” can transition into unofficial “white servers”. Public run servers are always contentions due to licensing and all that, but I wouldn’t want UO‘s influence to vanish forever. Someone, somewhere who is just getting into the games industry should be allowed to find UO and be amazed enough to grab the opportunity by the horns and really extend its influence out to its rightful place in the industry so that everything old can be new again. I know I’d play that game.

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Videorama: Heat Signature

Posted by on Sep 28, 2017 in Heat Signature

Videorama: Heat Signature


Watch live video from Scopique on www.twitch.tv

I’m not usually an indie games kinda guy, but I heard some folks talking about a title called Heat Signature. I checked out some videos on Steam while chatting with the Esteemed @Mindstrike one night, and I guess it made a suitable impression on us; I logged into Steam last night and found that Mr. Strike had gifted it to me, so I did what any level headed human would do, and set up and impromptu stream.

What is Heat Signature?

You are either a freedom fighter, an outlaw, or a rogue soldier with a chip on your shoulder. Something is seriously dusting your doilies and you’re not going to stand for it. So you jump in your space-pod and head out into the void to find a target. Matching speed, you dock with their airlock and proceed to kick ass in the (Manson) family way. You do this by WASDing your way through a series of interconnected rooms, avoiding automated cameras and turrets and patrolling guards as you seek your objective.

How does it play?

The game’s conceit is its “pause and act” mechanic. By pressing the spacebar, the game halts and allows you to set up your situation. You can switch weapons (assigning up to two, one for each mouse button), or you can take an action that is triggered the minute you let off the button. Most of the time, this system is used for getting the drop on a target. When you see something you’d like to attack, pause the game, line up the shot (or designate the target for your trusty melee wrench), and release. You’ll immediately get back to action mode, and hopefully have taken out your enemy. Timing is of the essence, however, because as soon as you unpause, everyone is unpaused — including other enemies. And if you fired a weapon, chances are the whole ship knows and have triggered a timed alarm. If you can take out the captain before the alarm reaches 0, you have a chance to escape. If not, your character is captured and imprisoned.

All is not lost, though, because you seem to have a never-ending roster of other characters waiting back at HQ that you can switch to at any time. The interesting thing about each character is that they have a grudge that they need to settle. Most of them seem procedural along the lines of “revenge on X who Y’d his/her Z”, like “revenge on Doug who Killed his Mom”, and apparently that’s something they can work towards. If a character is captured, another character can have liberating them as their goal. The only problem is that all progress — money, gear, etc. — is held by the characters themselves so if someone is captured, their stuff goes with them and other characters start at ground level.

I found the playthrough fun. Each ship mission is rated for relative ease based on the size of the ship you infiltrate, and the number of on-board defenses. Each ship went fast enough that there’s an undercurrent of “one more mission” to the game, which gives it a great pick-up-and-play as well as a session longevity vibe. It can be brutal, however: ramming your pod into a ship can trigger external defenses which will damage you and leave you with nothing but auxiliary fuel to get back to home base, and considering the inertial physics at play it’s not always easy to hit the mark on the first try. Sometimes I found myself kicked out of the infiltrated ship for…some reason…and in need of medical attention. I’m not sure what happened in those situations, but so long as the alarm isn’t sounding, or if it is and you can redock and take out the captain fast enough, you can complete the mission.

Since Heat Signature has launched recently (as of the writing of this post), they are running a special in-game event: for the next 7 days if you find the right ship to board, you can unlock a special weapon drop throughout the game. Any time you start a new game you’ll have the chance to get that weapon, but if you miss the window, or if you fail to find that weapon, you’ll neverbe able to get it in any game you start, ever. That’s kind of an interesting mechanic and a good impetus to take the leap if you’re on the fence about the game, but act fast!

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