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Ian O'Rourke
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And Onyxia Falls

In World of Warcraft, deep within Dustwallow Marsh, in a place known as the Dragonmurk, the Black Dragon Onyxia sits in her fiery lair, protected by the insidious Black Dragonflight. Onyxia is the daughter of the mighy dragon Deathwing, and sister to Nefarian, the Lord of Black Wing Lair, and she uses her charms and powers, often by taking human form, to lay seeds of doubt, sedition and despair among the races of Azeroth.

Or she does until forty members of The Dungeoneers penetrated her lair and gave the bitch a good kicking, thus killing her and taking her stuff. We also put her head on a massive stake in the city of Ogrimmar for good measure.

Killing Onyxia is one of those marker points in the game that exists once you enter the endgame. Basically, to progress in any significant way you have to be a member of a guild and tackle Molten Core, kill Ragnoros at the end, at some point you should also be killing Onyxia and then moving on to Black Wing Lair and killing Neferian. That is the traditional set of markers, other instances exist, such as Zul'Gurub and the two An'Qiraj instances, but following the Molten Core, Onyxia and Black Wing Lair road is the one to glory.

So, killing Onyxia for the first time has a number of benefits which can be best summed up by bringing fortune and glory to The Dungeoneers. Fortune in the sense that it is now another boss we can start working to farm status in order to farm the hell out of it for the loot and distribute that to the members of The Dungeoneers. Glory because the announcement that Onyxia has been killed is made in the city of Ogrimmar and it is one of those markers that makes clear how a guild is progressing in the endgame. Despite being closed to new members, it is inevitable we will see a glut of people petitioning for invites, especially since Onyxia was taken down before we've encountered Ragnoros in Molten Core.

Regrettably, I missed the fight itself as I don't yet have Onyxia access due to my two month absence from the game and the fact doing the Molten Core runs is pretty much all I have time for at the moment. Still, it was good to be part of The Dungeoneers assembly in Ogrimmar for the grand announcement.

Yeah, it's only a game, but as I've said numerous times it's a game that is more like a social club, and just like any social group, you sort of like to celebrate your achievements. I have to admit, if I'd stayed out of the game and missed all this, I'd probably have regretted it.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
A Crit! OMG A 2145 Crit! I've Just Cum!

World of Warcraft is great as a grand game of digital dungeoneering, killing things and taking their stuff. It's great fun, but there are some elements of it that are irritating. The reason they are irritating is they represent a style of play in traditional pen and paper role-playing games that I don't like: the obsession with power building your character to be the ultimate bad ass. I've admitted defeat in some ways, and I've come to terms with the fact acquiring equipment to progress in the game is necessary, but I still take the lazy man's option. As an example, I'm happy to collect the Arcanist Tier 1 gear as it should prepare me for the fun of Black Wing Lair. In other rewards I pimp Zoltis to be a capable bad ass in terms of challenging the next content, and that's it.

This is not the case for all, and the pursuit of ever higher damage is an obsession.

One of the major obsessions is the Damage Meter, which records who did the most damage in a raid so that can be put into the raid channel at the end of the raid to show who is the ultimate bad ass. People are obsessed with them, but the trouble is it influences people to actually play badly. The raid is essentially a team effort with everyone contributing, and at all times you should be thinking of the larger group. This means causing the highest amount of damage at all costs isn't a good idea. As an example, causing too much damage and drawing the current target away from the main tank, who is happily holding it in place so you can pound on it, isn't good. You also get various tasks assigned to you in a raid, for example, in one specific boss in Molten Core Zoltis does very little other than remove dangerous effects from other characters. As a result, he causes very little at all in that fight and neither will any other Mage. It's also true to say certain types of encounter, due to their length and the abilities of the enemy, favour certain classes. In short, too many variables for it to be really a true reflection of who could cause the most damage.

Despite that, people are still obsessed with them. The Dungeoneers have actually banned their use in raids. While we can't stop people running them everything possible is done to stop the results being something people openly track across the raid after and during every single fight. It's all to easy for the raid to turn into a race, with people asking for the meter to displayed after every single trash mob. Since this was influencing the play of people even on a macro level, such as launching attacks at the enemy way too early in order to try and edge up the damage meter, it was decided keeping them under wraps was the best idea.

I dislike the Damage Meters that much I've found a mod that filters out Damage Meter traffic from the chat channels for me. This means, even if one does get posted I can happily move on in total ignorance. I do keep an eye on how Zoltis performs with Theorycraft, which allows me to see improvements through gear, but I'm not getting into the raid league tables.

Don't even get me started on the almost orgasmic exclamations when people score a crit. I remember a time when crit chance wasn't something you put much thought into, but as the post-60 environment has matured it's become a total obsession for many people. When they cirt, how often they crit and how much they crit for. Give me those big yellow numbers! It becomes a way of comparing penis sizes in game, the amount you crit for being the ultimate expression of your digital member. The amount of times in a raid you get sudden exclamations of 'OMG 2145 Crit!' is legion. Only to be followed by someone announcing with great delight they crit for 2157. You can't keep it to yourself of course, you have to call it out in a burst of uncontrolled euphoria just so everyone else knows.

How many times have I been told the Arcanist Gear is complete crap? Each and every time it drops. I've been told it's crap, shit, a waste of points and every other variation I can think of. You know, maybe the people collecting it are happy with it because having that equipment allows them to continue playing the game they want to play. Maybe they are only interested in preparing themselves to see new content not necessarily, and tirelessly, hunting down every last bit of 'Ultimate Power Gear' that exists in the damned game. It's quite possible, they are using the time you spend tirelessly hoarding that equipment, or farming to make equipment, to do something else a bit more fulfilling? To be honest, being told it's crap every time it drops is just someone checking his penis size again, trying to show he's more knowledgeable, and in a way saying the person wanting the Arcanist gear is an idiot. Why say it otherwise? Once maybe, but each and every time?

This whole pursuit of damage and the holy crit has interesting effects on the raid points being used for Molten Core, and it's a positive effect for me. Quite often, even when my points are quite low due to being reset, for the Arcanist shoulders, which are crap, of course, I can get quite close to gear due to a couple of Mages not wanting them due to them hoarding their points for the Ultimate Mage Sword, Robe or Trinket of Doom that drops much more rarely. Despite being way down the list last raid I nearly got the Arcanist Robes 'points cheap' due to the hoarding brigade. The trouble is, the item your saving for may drop eventually, or The Dungeoneers may be sick of farming Molten Core and have moved on to Black Wing Lair before you even see it.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
When New Content Isn't New Content

The infamous patch 1.11, Shadows of the Necropolis, was released on the European servers last Wednesday, which sees a number of additions to the game, most notably the Mage and Shaman talent changes, the Scourge Invasion and, in line with the invasion, the addition of the massive new raid instance Nexxramas. This patch, along with a number of others I suspect, again highlights the difficulty Blizzard faces in pleasing a large, vocal and impatient audience for their product, who are all paying the same monthly fee to continue playing the game.

Content generally has to provide three things: something interesting to do, something challenging to do and something that allows the character to progress and improve. It's worth keeping in mind, that in the post-60 environment this means getting new equipment. Blizzard may be adding new content by definition, but this does not mean it's content for everyone, at least not yet.

Take the 40-man raid dungeon Nexxramas, this is a massive addition to the game. It has a ridiculous number of bosses, includes all sorts of new equipment to find, including a third tier of armour sets for each of the classes. You'd think this is a good thing? Well it is really. I don't see any problem with it and I like the idea that it's been added. The issue is though, it only caters to those who like 40-man raids, or those capable of organising and running 40-man raids, which isn't a large proportion of the Warcraft audience. A number of people have produced statistics to show it's actually less than a third of the audience. The reason for this is quite simple, the social structure capable of fostering the attitude and approach to challenge these instances, in a productive and fun manner, is quite rare. It takes a massive effort by an individual, or small group of individuals, to keep such a structure running and not breaking under its own weight. The Dungeoneers have increased their membership significantly, and its done amazingly well in making this transition, but the stories you hear about other guild regimes and personalities from the new influx is scary. It's not surprising that many people remain outside of a guild, or in a guild that is very small and not really capable of challenging the larger content. This not only removes the option of experiencing the content, it removes the option of using it to progress your character via the equipment held within.

As you would expect, Blizzard is making steps to provide new content for people who don't want to raid or can't raid. The problem is this content doesn't really satisfy the three criteria, as while it will ultimately progress the character to one degree or another through the acquisition of equipment, it's rarely interesting and it's quite often not that challenging. To be honest, it's largely just an investment of time, killing the same creatures repeatedly until you have the correct number of widgets and/or reputation to get your reward for being the good worker bee. In truth, it's like a basic diet, but instead of serving your basic eating needs, it serves to keep you occupied and little else. While this is new content by definition, I can well understand how it is not new content in terms of actually providing something interesting to do. As an example, I'm glad The Dungeoneers has done so well as a social structure within Warcraft, and that I really enjoy the raids, otherwise I'd be ranting and raving at the sorry ass excuse for new content. Yes, it's great that The Scourge are invading Azeroth, but it's great in the sense of getting into Nexxramas and taking down the main man, not in terms of killing the same undead endlessly to collect their bones. One is epic, challenging, interesting and has a sense of grandeur that makes you feel like a hero in Azeroth, the other is just donkey work.

So, look at it this way. I'm a player in World of Warcraft who enjoys raiding. I'm in one of the most successful guilds on the Silvermoon server in terms of longevity and social benefits, which allows me to raid in a fun and rewarding atmosphere. I am currently enjoying doing 40-man Molten Core, 20-man Zul'Gurub, the Onyxia quests and have Onyxia, Black Wing Lair, the 20-man and 40-man Ahn'Qiraj and Nexxramas to look forward to. In short, World of Warcraft, for me, has a wealth of content just sitting there for the taking and I have the mechanism, The Dungeoneers, to grab it by the balls and wrestle it into submission and have fun doing it. The only limit is time.

Now, look at the player who doesn't have time to raid or doesn't like raiding, and many don't, even some in The Dungeoneers choose not to do it. He's a bit like me and doesn't like PvP either, and we'll leave out the issue of competing in PvP with people wearing gear from the content he can't see or do. Does his future look as rosy? No it doesn't. What content has he got once he reaches 60 in the form of content that is interesting, challenging and provides some character progression? Well, in all honesty, his options are very limited. The only option he really has is to grind reputation which is boring, or go to Silithus and do the various grind quests there or take part in The Scourge invasion and do a similar form of grinding. He might also choose to do some of the fluff quests that pop into the game every so often around real world holidays. Despite getting a worse deal in terms of content, based on our interesting, challenging and character improvement criteria, he gets less character improvement along with it.

It's safe to say, his World of Warcraft game has changed significantly, and this is the crux of the problem, the way the game changes in the post-60 environment. Depending on what you want from the game, you can either weather that transition and have pretty much the same amount of content available as when you levelled, or suddenly find it all drying up. The irony is, for some of the people hitting this brick wall, it's not even about the character progression so much, but just having something new to see, to regain that pioneering spirit and sense of adventure that existed during the levelling process. They enjoyed questing and seeing new things, and then it ended.

Even if we accept that players exist who don't 'see' any of the grandeur and wonder within the setting and the story, and it's all about getting better equipment: why should they always suffer having characters who progress less because they can't or don't want to raid?

The answer, of course, is the expansion: The Burning Crusade. The Burning Crusade will return the game to how it was while levelling to 60, at least for a while. It will provide character improvements purely through gaining experience and levelling, and you'll gain this experience in exciting new environments and fantastic new 5-man and 10-man dungeons (which tend to be the limit for people not in guilds). Blizzard have also learned some lessons in terms of how they design the dungeons, making more of them like the Scarlet Monastery, which can be completed in sections, and including such concepts as 10-man raid bosses. How long this second honeymoon lasts for the people not being served by patch content will depend, as some will consume it all too quickly, but it will be a revival in the game for many people. The expansion will also have another affect, all the 20 and 40-man raid instances introduced in the game since it launched, out of reach of all these non-raiding people, may well fall into the reach of the non-raiding player via the virtue of needing less people to complete when all the players are level 70, or 'overpowering' them with a full level 70 compliment.

The trouble is, while each patch has released new content for the game at a surprising rate, the nature of some of this new content, raid instances aside, and the one additional 5-man dungeon, can be called into question. Essentially, not all new content is new content. It's certainly true that not all new content is new content for everyone, and it's certainly true that some people get a bum deal in terms of the content being interesting, challenging and providing real ways to progress their character.

In truth, some people are quite right to moan about the lack of content in my opinion. Some might say they should stop moaning, view the game as complete once they reached 60 and leave the game. The trouble is though, they want to return to the excitement and sense of adventure they had while levelling, or if more gear focused, the more equal playing field represented by that environment. The game they joined and paid the monthly fee to play. They also have social connections within the game they might want to keep. Them quitting isn't good for Blizzard either. As a result, stopping moaning and just quitting isn't good for anyone.

It's safe to say a lot rests on The Burning Crusade, but as with all things, for some, this will just be a brief, glorious interlude, before the new level 70 endgame begins, at which point Blizzard will have to pull some interesting new approaches out of the hat or face the same problem.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
Battlefield 2 Without Points
Keywords: Video Games.

A while back I was commenting on how the whole points system for Battlefield 2: Modern Combat seemed to work quite well, and fostered, engendered and supported a fast and dynamic style of play for the most part. It's not perfect, but as these systems go, it's pretty good. One of the ways to see if a points system within a game does anything, is to see how the game is played when the points are turned off.

Personally, I always play ranked games, as the perception is you'll have a lot less idiots in the game as non of them want to ruin their PPH (points per hour) score. Over the last couple of weekends we've had visitors though, and as a result of this someone else has been playing on the Xbox 360. I didn't want them lowering my PPH so they played un-ranked games all the time. The difference was immediately obvious.

The first thing I noticed is I lost connection with the server a lot. This never happens in ranked games, so I was left wondering if you get the same message on being kicked off the server as you do if you truly lose connection with the server? If this is so, the person using my Xbox 360 spent a lot of time getting kicked from servers even though he was doing nothing wrong. It's either that, or everyone running un-ranked games has unreliable systems.

You also get killed by your own side a lot. This happens for numerous reasons. The first reason is just people don't care about friendly fire as much. If someone is driving around in a vehicle and you are on the road in the way the chances are they will pursue their own selfish ends and just run you down on their way to wherever they are going. If you move in on a flag to help ensure the capture process goes successfully, even if you move in together as a duo, your team mate may just shoot you down like a dog to ensure he gets the maximum points from the capture (which is weird since he's in an un-ranked game). The more extreme thing you see, is people actually shooting down their own helicopters. This happens a lot at the helicopter spawn point. In the ranked games, people will occasionally send a few shots off in the helicopter's direction if someone takes off without any passengers or leaves someone behind. This usually results in a quick landing so the person can jump in. In an un-ranked game, if a person misses the helicopter and you don't fly away quick enough they'll literally shoot it down out of spite or so they can jump into the helicopter when it re spawns.

This again shows the positive effect the points system has, as it makes you want to play in a ranked game because you get a better gaming experience. It doesn't matter whether you are a great player, average or terrible (as the game matches you against people of a similar rank), you will get a better game when it is ranked. This is not always the case, as games have been ruined by these rewards systems, most notably by tying the points too closely to winning the game, rather than just performing well as an individual, and linking your score to getting things in the actual game.

So, this is just another way of saying Battlefield 2: Modern Combat should get even more kudos for designing an excellent player scoring system.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
Calling Farm Status

The Dungeoneers raid Molten Core on a weekly basis now, at the moment this means starting the raid on Friday, and then continuing through with raids on Saturday and Tuesday before the raid resets. Obviously, as time goes on, you hope to be able to complete Molten Core in one four hour raid. I suspect that tends to demand that the majority of the raid are equipped with Molten Core or better equipment, meaning by the time you can do it that quick the majority of you don't need to visit the place. The two raids at the tale end of this week represented perfectly how exciting and frustrating these raids can be.

In the first raid, on the Friday, we had set the target of downing four bosses so that we could concentrate on later targets on Saturday. This meant taking down Lucifron, Magmadar, Gehennas and Garr. Not only did we achieve that target we brazenly called farm status on all those bosses as each of them went down on the first attempt with minor deaths and with little stress. We even tackled Garr, despite it being only the second or third raid we'd took the challenge on, with only three Warlocks instead of four. He still went down easy. While some have proclaimed this due to the fact The Dungeoneers now have better equipment due to the earlier Molten Core raids, I don't believe the equipment is having such a massive affect yet, and it's more due to experience. As a result of the smooth nature of the raid the loot came freely, and the raid had an air of the casual raids the guild used to have before hitting the endgame raiding wall and Zul'Gurub.

The raid on Saturday was a totally different experience, though I suspect this was influenced by how well the first four bosses had gone. It's safe to say, after the raid on Saturday, that The Dungeoneers will not be calling farm status on Baron Geddon, Shazzrah or Sulfuron at the current time. I must admit though, after laying the smackdown on Sulfuron in the last raid cycle, I fully expected him to be given the farms status call on Saturday, but he seemed to throw us a bit despite the fight being simple in concept. As a result of these difficulties people got stressed, started to get a bit aggressive over the failures, finger pointing starts to sneak in and it all starts to go a bit postal. To be honest, it wasn't that bad, it's more the potential exists for things to get a bit too nasty, rather than it actually getting nasty. It's not so much the wiping that makes the raid less fun, but the reactions of everyone to it. At times, people need to step back, realise it's a game and move on. It is easy for me to say that though, as I'm enjoying the raids because I can turn up, be perfectly productive, without doing any preparation or farming for materials ahead of time, my repair bills are also quite small. I can generally only take one healing potion per fight and rarely need to drink one, and I have those, and I don't run out of mana on the boss fights, so my lack of mana potions or pots has never bothered me. The only thing I need to sort is a bit of levelling on my First Aid. This isn't the case for some, for one reason or another they farm like demons for potions and have much more costly repair bills which generates the need to farm for cash.

What is interesting is the skills that go into organising and running these 40-man raids. I used to often find myself defending my choice to go to science fiction conventions when I was younger, and while I've never been put in a position to defend my time playing World of Warcraft, I'm certainly prepared to. Even if you discount the whole issue of it being like any social club people may choose to take part in, the only difference being the venue is on-line, I'm also now willing to put forward the case that the game does foster the development of interesting skills. As an example, I don't think its totally by coincidence that the main person organising and running raids, at least in that stand up to be shot down sense, is a team leader at work. The whole process of motivating and consistently getting 40-people to work together, have a sense of discipline and attention to detail to pull off the tactics necessary for the boss fights is no small feat. It is a leadership position, and you generally have to earn that status to stop the raids descending into chaos and becoming something people don't enjoy, and ultimately breaks the guild. All the members of the raid develop skills though, relating to working with others, team building and how you have to rely on the efforts of others to succeed. While some of us have these skills in the guild already, it's amazing to see how mature some of the younger members of the guild are in this regard, and I'm talking under the age of 18. It's safe to say, having your son spend his Friday nights doing raids rather than going out to the pub or night clubs may not be the waste of effort some parents think it is. It's teaching them how to work in a team and how to communicate effectively and get their point a across in a mature group. Well, at least it is with The Dungeoneers, I can't vouch for the raiding experience with other guilds.

On a wider note, The Dungeoneers are increasingly becoming the guild to join on the Silvermoon server, a number of guilds have broken up or ejected members over the last three months ensuring The Dungeoneers are one of the largest, and certainly one of the oldest guilds on the Silvermoon server. The whole issue of being a guild that raids has been so successful that the guild is now closed to recruitment, which probably isn't what the many people who whisper guild members hoping to join want to hear.

It's a good time to be playing World of Warcraft, it feels pioneering again, exciting and new, with a sense of breaking a new frontier. A new frontier which can net you Epic items, which isn't all bad.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
World of Blingcraft

Once you get to 60 in World of Warcraft the game becomes all about equipment. The game should be called World of Blingcraft. You want good equipment because of the bling factor, the ability to walk around your capital city of choice knowing people are checking you out and inspecting your equipment. You also want the bling so you can kill bigger things in even tougher dungeons and get even better bling. I've mentioned this numerous times before, and probably complained about it a lot. You can tell the games about equipment because it's all that people talk about incessantly. Take the chatter within the guild, either on the guild chat channel or the voice comms, it's all about items. You can't go three minutes without some item being linked to in guild chat, something they've just found or something they've seen someone else wearing. To be honest, I think some people spend a lot of time wondering around inspecting people's gear. The talk on the comms seems to pretty much always be about what items are available or what they are farming for. As an example, The Dungeoneers recently had an Epic pattern handed to them in Molten Core, which means the guild can now make a pair of Epic +2% critical cloth gloves, virtually every Mage in the guild was farming in the same spot the day after.

When it comes to World of Warcraft, every character becomes like Mr T, a serious badass decked out in the best bling.

I've always took the approach that my character in the game is one simple thing: a playing piece. The goal in my new approach to the game is to make Zoltis the best lean, mean and dangerous killing machine in the game in the time I have available to play. In short, the best playing piece I could possibly have. What's interesting about this is it reinforces the whole idea that role-playing, for many people, is all about this sort of idea: creating the most efficient character and unleashing him on the world at large. After all, the most popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft, is all about this, and the previous most popular game, Everquest, was made in a similar vein. These games were influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, which follows a similar principle, even more so in its current edition. Even games like Exalted are very similar, offering a game of high fantasy and epic adventure, but the biggest reason it's popular is the charm system provides for another game of efficient character builds and testing that against the environment. You can also look at collect able card games, they follow the exact same principle, with efficient deck builds being part of the tactics of the game, they even follow the same model in that some cards (akin to equipment) are rare and 'take time to find' unless you have lots of cash.

One of the problems I've always had with this approach to the game, beyond it taking some adjustment to find it interesting, is the fact that the various stats that make up the rich tapestry that influence a Mage's effectiveness are pretty obfuscated, or need constantly calculating manually when you get new equipment or move equipment around. As an example, I have no idea what DPS (damage per second) my spells deliver, or exactly how much +DMG I have from equipment (I can add it up, but it varies depending on how long a spell takes to cast), or whether I'm better off at any particular time with more +DMG, +CRIT or +INT gear, as you always have to compromise on this front.

As a result of all this, I've installed the mod Theorycraft. Theorycraft is expertly named, as it basically exposes the underlying engine of the game, how the various facets of it relate to each and gives you the results in a simple and understandable form. So, after installing it, even without tweaking the options, I was immediately presented with the damage of all my spells, not the basic damage range given by Blizzard, but the average damage per spell taken into account +DMG and +CRIT, which was interesting to know. It's especially interesting to see how these values changed depending on what gear I had on as my +DMG, +INT and +CRIT changed. As an example, I tend to have endurance equipment, which allows me to keep casting spells longer, and damage gear, which reduces the amount of spells I can cast, but they do more damage individually. I had assumed I had a higher chance of a critical with my +DMG gear as one item has a +1% critical chance on it, but no, I have a higher critical chance with my endurance gear because of the higher +INT on the endurance gear. I'd learned something already, just by installing the thing.

After tweaking some options, I got an incredible amount of information, and while you can get a bit anal about it all, some of it is interesting. So, one element is the whole +DMG thing. I can now see, quite clearly, how much +DMG I have in reality for each spell (taking into account the casting time) and how much of my DPS comes from the +DMG gear. I never knew this before, as I had to add up the total, and I never bothered working out how much it was reduced by on each spell due to casting times. I also have clear visibility of my critical chance, and how much damage this adds as it goes up and down, thus allowing me to see the influence of those +2% critical chance gloves I mentioned earlier. It also gives damage stats as a function of my mana pool, which gets a bit more esoteric, such as knowing how much damage I do per mana point, which is interesting, but a bit superfluous. The more interesting stat is how much damage I do as a function of my total mana pool (even with additions like mana gems). I do 5K less damage as a function of my mana pool with my +DMG gear compared to my endurance gear. So, with my endurance gear, assuming nothing like mana drains and the like, I have 5K more damage in me when wearing my endurance gear.

You could go on forever, the only fault I have with the mod is you have to have the gear and have it equipped to have its effect factored into the results. This is a bit annoying, as the perfect thing to be able to use the mod for would be to see if it's worth farming for those fancy +2% critical chance gloves. They're obviously good, as everyone is farming like a demon for them, but I'd like to know actually what difference they make to my overall damage, as opposed to my current +DMG and +INT gloves.

This is a bit of a change for me, as I'd normally not play a game that involved the whole science of an efficient build as a function of play, and I'd certainly avoid a game that linked this with a collecting mentality, which World of Warcraft does with its equipment. Still, I'm finding I've acclimatised to it and can potentially move into enjoying it for a number of reasons: a good proportion of the collecting is done in dungeons, and I quite like doing these; a good proportion is done multiplayer, in groups or in raids, and often with the guild, which has a social element; it's a computer game, which sort of makes it okay. You'll still never find me playing collectible card games, or getting seriously into traditional role-playing games that support this style of play, but I think I've learned to accept it and approach it in the correct way when it comes to World of Warcraft.

As they say, welcome to the endgame, it's all in the bling, but still features a happy dose of killing things and taking their stuff. Which is nice.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
A Legendary Item Drops

Certain dates go down in Dungeoneer history, the day the guild formed, the folding of the Hex Spammer membership into the guild, the first year anniversary party, and the first Epic to drop on a Dungeoneer raid. Thankfully, I've been there to witness them all. Now I can say I was there when another great moment occurred.

On Saturday 3rd JUne 2006 a Legendary drop, Bindings of the Windseeker, fell from the shattered corpse of Garr in Molten Core.

I'm sure that doesn't really mean much to people who don't play the game, but Legendary drops are called legendary for a reason, they drop from bosses in the endgame dungeons and they drop at a ridiculously low rate. One of the pioneering guilds on the Silvermoon server was supposedly raiding Molten Core for nearly a year before the drop I saw today fell into their hands. Not only that, I believe the member of that guild sporting the Legendary item that is eventually created from this Legendary drop (along with its partner from another Molten Core boss) was the only one on the server with it, despite the game being out for 15 months.

It is extremely rare, and it is a serious event.

To be honest it felt serious, and I'm pretty sure the whole raid was in shock. I think the shock was so great we didn't know how to react to it. It was a bit like suddenly being given the One Ring and being asked to deal with it. Due to the mature attitude of the guild, we didn't all succumb to its charms and start killing each other, but it did feel like some sort of portentous event, a bit like the Council of Elrond taking place in the middle of Molten Core, as we decided how best to handle the responsibility before us. Responsibility, are you mad? Well, to a certain degree, I suppose I am, but responsibility is the right word. This is a drop that ridiculously low percentage of World of Warcraft players will ever see, and here it was, sitting before us, after a ridiculously low number of visits to Molten Core.

It was complex, as you've not got a Legendary item, you've got one of two Bingings of the Windseeker drops that allow you to begin an unholy series of quests in Molten Core and Black Wing Lair, along with farming extremely rare items, that then need smelting in places like Black Wing Lair. It costs a fortune in terms of in game gold and it will probably consume your life along with the guild that helps you. If deciding who got the Legendary drop was like the Council of Elrond, than the person trying to make the Legendary item has a task just arduous as throwing the One Ring into Mount Doom. At the same time, despite it being just the start of something that will seriously consume your life, there is probably thousands of people who would value being one step closer to actually starting. The trouble is the item is bind on pick up, so the future owner has to be decided on the spot. It's made even worse by the class entry for the item being Warriors, Paladins, Hunter and Rogue, so it's not like the classes that can use it is restricted to reduce your choice.

The discussion went backwards and forwards, a few people passed on it, and ultimately a Rogue decided to use his points on it. Personally, if I was playing a class that could ultimately use the fabled Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker, I'd probably have passed on the Legendary drop as well, for the simple reason I'd not have wanted to commit to the personal quest to actually get the damned thing built, assuming I ever saw the other Legendary drop I needed to start in my lifetime.

I suspect the winner will come to feel like he actually did win the One Ring, a possession promising so much, but one that will instead just prey on his mind as vast unrealised potential. It'll send him bitter and twisted as he hunts Molten Core for that second Legendary drop, for months and potentially years. His nights will be haunted with dreams of him sporting this illustrious blade in Ogrimmar, but his face will be haunted by the reality that he will have to sell his soul to realise the power in his hollow possession.

You never know. I suspect it really is going to be a strange thing to have lying around in the bank.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Return of Zoltis!

Yesterday, Zoltis entered the Molten Core for the first time, killing trash mobs with The Dungeoneers in order to collect various materials the guild needs to make fire resistant equipment, and pick-up any Epic items that happen to drop (and one did). You know what? A few organisational difficulties at the beginning aside, which I contributed to as I had to take a call on my mobile and couldn't join voice comms for about 20 minutes, it was great, and I really enjoyed it.

Will it last? We shall see, I have quite an ambivalent attitude to these things, it'll last as long as it continues to be fun. Which isn't that enlightened really, it's sort of common sense, but I think it was the right thing to do, taking the break when I did. It allowed me to distance myself from it, move away from the tensions associated with The Dungeoneers transition to a guild that raids, which they seem to have solved, without becoming an all consuming raiding guild. I knew they could solve it, and that The Dungeoneer attitude could continue in to raiding and make it a great, fun and exciting thing to do rather than a mind-numbing obligation.

Ironically, but in a good way, some of the things that were items of contention, are now common practice as people have realised that the Earth isn't going to open up and swallow anyone due to the changes. They have a good, casual friendly DKP system that rewards those who go to more raids, but ensures that those who go to less raids are not locked out forever (all points are wiped on getting an item, and there is no bidding). They've even moved to making voice comms mandatory for raids, which was a real 'hot topic' just before I left, but it just makes sense. It makes sense because it makes dynamic communication more fluid and it makes the guild smaller and more intimate and thus reduces conflict within the ranks as the guild grows. In typical Dungeoneer style, they don't exclude and make exceptions for those with connections not capable of supporting the comms. They are even starting to discuss and make practical decisions on class compositions, with a goal to balance the needs of the raid while keeping things flexible to accommodate all. They've also increased their membership to a degree that they can do 40-man and 20-man raids multiple times a week. I believe The Dungeoneers are now the biggest guild on the Silvermoon server.

In short, it's an exciting time to return, and hopefully it's going to allow for some fun, social dungeon delving, with the acquisition of the odd Epic item along the way. Regrettably, after being the only Mage in the guild for a long period of time, there is now serious competition from a number of Alts and new members. Thankfully, most people don't seem to follow the strategy of signing up for raids well in advance, so from a week today (they raid on Fridays and mop up on Tuesdays) I should be a regular.

As well as the raiding I've got the whole series of quests leading to Onyxia to do, and with the next patch I'll have my 'complete frost' build to try out and possibly some gear to hunt down in various places, while I'm waiting for gear to drop from Molten Core. It sounds interesting, hopefully it will be. Watch this space.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
A Moment of Warcraft Weakness

I had a moment of weakness this weekend, as I started to think I wanted to get back into World of Warcraft. It's perfectly understandable why this happens, my brother still seems to be enjoying the game with his Alliance character, as he's in a guild raiding Molten Core, and he seems to be able to do and enjoy this without farming anything in between. Have to admit, taking on the endgame instances is appealing, if it truly doesn't involve mindless farming in between. The Dungeoneers are also progressing through Molten Core and seem to have got the whole raiding thing going at last. This is a good thing.

The Mage revamp is also coming on-line in the next patch, and I always had it in the back of my mind that I might reconsider playing again after the class changes. To be honest, the class changes look really boring, and they aren't that exciting, as the main problems the Mage class has is their damage has been equalised with everyone else's, their kit itemisation is crap and the one thing they should get, more damage, can't be given to them due to the health limits on the other classes. I could go on about the ridiculous increases in melee damage due to the various weapons people can get and how Mage items don't scale in a similar manner, but that would be seriously boring, so I won't. Still, the Mage revamp is supposed to be a benefit to people who mostly do PvE, rather than PvP, so it would benefit me, even if it is boring.

You also can't ignore the fact I've been watching a lot of E3 footage over the month of May and that has included endless amounts of people getting excited about the new expansion. It would seem every Gamespot staff members plays the damned game.

The main issue is probably the social side of it all, and as I've probably commented before somewhere, this is the killer element of all MMO games, and quite often the element that keeps people playing despite it no longer being fun. The game becomes a social club, and stopping playing the game is like shutting yourself off from club membership. It's this that's the hardest part, as the game had become a medium by which I interacted with various people, some of whom I know physically and some I don't, and now I interact with them either a lot less, or not at all in the majority of cases.

Still, I recovered from my moment of weakness and decided it wasn't a good idea, as I'd not be rejoining because I enjoyed the game, I'd just be doing it for the social network, and that seems slightly stupid. I did look into it though, to see if the environment had changed enough for me to enjoy the experience, and all I found was the usual crap, and people still getting exciting over new content that isn't new content at all.

Talent changes are not new content, hell, let's assume you have a character for each class getting significant changes this patch, namely a Mage and a Shaman, it's not new content. There is nothing new or interesting to do and explore. It's just your skills have changed, so you can now move your points around to go and kill the same things in the same places. It's fascinating for all of five seconds until you realise all you can do with your talents is visit the same places doing the same things.

But we have the new quest hub at Light's Hope Chapel? It's not new content either, it's just grind quests to collect drops killing the same creatures you've been killing since you turned level 55 and going into the same instances to boot. Not only that, you're doing all this to get gear that represents only a marginal improvement on what you can get elsewhere. It's not new content, as it doesn't give you a place you've not been to, creatures you've not killed nor a challenge you've not risen to tens, hundreds or even thousands of times before. Is it the new items that are new content? I don't think so, but I'm beginning to think it counts for it with a large proportion of the player-base. Why would I spend hours of my time mindlessly killing the same creatures to get an item that doesn't really exist?

New content is a new zone, or a totally new dungeon, something new to see and do. The only people who are getting any of this until the expansion comes out are the hardcore raiders, who get another massive raid dungeon in the next patch. That's fine, I don't have a problem with the new raid dungeon's introduction, but it is a perfect example of new content. New content is an environment you've not seen, creatures you've not killed or a challenge you've not already beaten, ideally, it would include all three.

As a result, I recovered from my moment of madness. Well, I think so. Possibly. Damnable game.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
Battlefield 2: A Rewards System in Action
Keywords: Video Games.

Battlefield 2 has three ways of measuring progression in the game: you achieve medals for performing certain tasks, you gets points for each game you play and you also get a PPH score, which represents your points per hour. In order to progress through the military ranks, you have to have a set number of medals, total points and PPH. In the beginning you tend to just need a certain PPH, as you go on you need a certain PPH and a certain total score and then you start getting into needing medals as well. As an example, for my next rank I need 25 PPH and a total score of 250.

The medals are a bit of an annoyance, as a core of them can actually be cheated on. If you get a medal for fixing a number of vehicles in a game round then you get a number of mates to damage vehicles for you so you can fix them. Need to kill a number of people with only a knife? Then get yourself on-line with a friend and kill each other in turn. This is the main annoyance though, it's the fact that they detract from getting rewards as a natural function of playing the game as you wish. I mightn't be interested in playing as a Sniper, so I'm certainly not interested in killing four people with a single clip of a sniper rifle. In my mind, these are a bad mechanism for controlling the ranking system, as they force a player to not just play the game, but run around trying to achieve a specific thing. In a way, they are actually disruptive to naturally playing the game. I'd not want one person on my team running around desperately with his knife trying to kill people, and another following vehicles around trying to weld them at every opportunity rather than capturing flags. I actually believe this good ranking system would have been even better without the medal component.

The basic points system is a running total from all your games. This is quite simple, in every game you play you get an overall score and a position out of all the players in the game, this score is then added to your overall total. Once you get to a certain military rank, you need to have a certain overall score to progress to the next rank, but the key figure is still the PPH. There isn't much to say about this element of the reward system, beyond the fact it does reward those who play more. Still, this isn't an entirely bad thing as long as once you get to the highest ranks you have as much chance of holding onto them as people who play more. The total score links in with the global Xbox Live Leaderboards. If you look at the current global leader, he has 34762 points and 29508 kills on the chart (and a military rank of First Lieutenant and a PPH of 105 if you go into his personal stats). The second place player has 33906 points and only 1342 kills, which shows masses of points can be killed while only killing a few people (and a military rank of Major, higher than the global leader, and a PPH of 70). There is a wealth of stats for each particular player on that website, right down to fire/hit ratios with every weapon and vehicle. It's comprehensive to say the least.

The points per hour is the key measure for progression through the military ranks, as both the medals and the overall points never go down, but since your PPH is an average, it can go down, thus reducing your rank. The focus on PPH has some positives and negatives when it comes to the game. The main positive is it ensures that those who are at the highest military ranks are consistently good at what they do, even if they have gained this PPH through playing a specific map all the time. The focus on PPH means the top ranks aren't something you get just by the virtue of playing long enough, which would be the case if it was based only on your total score. Indeed, the PPH ensures that someone who just plays a couple of hours a day has as much chance of getting the top rank as someone who plays 24x7, it may take him longer due to the medals and overall score, but once he gets there he's got as much chance of keeping it as the next guy. In terms of how the game is played, PPH tends to focus the player on playing a fluid and intense game of constantly capturing flags. An individual sat sniping all the time, or sitting on a flag protecting it will probably not get as much points as someone who has taken 2-3 flags (unless he kills a ridiculous amount of people). As a result, it would seem the lone sniper model of play I've discussed before has a natural limit to what military rank you can reach.

As with all reward systems a few drawbacks do exist with the PPH system. One of the main ones is I think it places a focus on certain maps available in the game. It's obvious that the Backstab map gets played a lot more than any other map, for instance. If you opt for a Quick Match you will invariably be matched with a game running Backstab. At first, I thought this was because of it's mixture of intense vehicle and urban combat, including raiding buildings, but now I think it's because it tends to be quite fluid in terms of flag ownership, which allows for lots of flag capturing and hence a higher score. In fact, certain maps are great for the tactical position they put the teams in, but they're not going to generate a high score for anyone. As an example, Missile Crises has the Chinese team owning all the flags but one. The European team have to attack from their one flag position, and raid a fortification in order to open a defensive gate. Until they've done this they can't get to the rest of the map and begin capturing flags. It's a challenging and interesting game, but since the battle tends to be focused on opening the gate the available points in the game are low due to no flags being captured. This has another effect, if one team captures all the flags and holds them, then the points available in the game are also low as a team has dominated the game and each flag has been taken less times, and again everyone's points are lower. So, ironically, you're best being in a close game of constant flag re-taking, then being in a game which saw you get a Major Victory. This last permutation is a bit odd, and annoying, as you can find yourself loosing a rank due to being in a succession of games in which you wiped the floor with the other team, which is sort of ironic.

A positive aspect of the game is it doesn't reward progression through the ranks with benefits in the game. I find this to be a cardinal sin, and not great game design. It always seems self-destructive to me to design a game that rewards those who are naturally better anyway with benefits in the game that make them even better. You've already proven you are better than the average player (though in some games all it means is you had more time), so now we are going to give you a rifle with better accuracy and greater range just to rub it in. It just makes those who are not the best at the game even more ineffectual and they stop playing. It's not perfect though, as I understand the ranking system can be used as an exclusionary tool, by hosting a game that is only available to those above a certain level. Still, my brother couldn't enter a game I was in earlier today, so it looks like you can do it the other way, so I suppose it's not too bad. You can always just host your own game with ranks in your own range.

What I'm finding surprising, is I seem to be getting better at the game. Either something has come together and my thumbs have actually started responding to the activities on screen, or I've spent two hours today playing with the most inept people in the Battlefield 2 community. Interestingly, it may have been because I was playing with people of a similar skill level, as the game was restricted and my brother, who is a higher military rank, could not join. We shall see in the coming days, this may be worth experimenting with by hosting a game for people in my area of rank. This understanding of the points system is also affecting me, as now I'm beginning to see myself focusing on the Backstab map as it's the one I'm most familiar with, and it tends to be a good points generator.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
Run And Gun And Stop And Pop
Keywords: Video Games.

Every so often you hear new ways of describing games, as an example, there was a time that 'stealth' games didn't exist, but at some point it entered the gaming lexicon and we all now know what it means. I've been hearing some new phrases as I've been popping into the archived E3 footage on Gamespot. These terms are Run and Gun and Stop and Pop.

Run and Gun represents the play style of First Person Shooters, the type of game that I'm invariably bad at because they demand tremendous amounts of manual dexterity and hand-to-eye coordination. As the name would suggest, the action in these games is focused on constantly moving and shooting, and that is the way to win the game. As I say, this is the default way FPS games are constructed, so hundreds of them can be named, but the common ones are Quake, Unreal Tournament and the various Battlefield games. Battlefield 2 on the Xbox 360 is perfect example of this, the best way to win is to keep moving and to be able to target people and kill them efficiently while running, strafing, turning and jumping. It's not really like real combat at all, as trying to use cover is a sure way to die.

Now, with the advent of Gears of War, the new term I'm hearing is Stop And Pop. The idea in these games is it is a bit more like real combat in that the key element is moving from cover to cover and shooting from cover. As a result, the game is less about running around in the open and targeting people while constantly moving, but efficiently using cover and shooting targets by popping up and unleashing hell before popping back down again. You invariably find that Stop and Pop games are third person games, as you need to be able to see your character in front of you in order to put him into cover, have him pop up, etc. If you watch the footage from Gears of War you can see the game play focusing on people jumping behind cover, peaking round and firing, shooting wildly while keeping your head down, doing SWAT turns between elements of cover, and trying to flank the enemy. I'll be honest, I wasn't interested in Gears of War, as I was thinking it would be another shooter I'd just get frustrated with, but now I see this Stop and Pop thing in action I'm really interested.

To be honest, Gears of War isn't the first game to feature this Stop and Pop game play, it just may be the first one to feature it in an environment that is meant to be as fast paced and as visceral as a Run and Gun game. As an example, I've been playing Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) recently, after getting a bit frustrated with the Run and Gun of Battlefield 2. GRAW is a much more enjoyable game for me, single-player anyway, as it is based on moving between cover and shooting from cover. It's not about moving and shooting through open spaces. Not only does this mean the game is slower paced, it also feels very atmospheric and intense, this is especially true when you are in a fire fight with numerous enemies and bullets are flying all around you. It gets even more atmospheric when you have your squad as well as an armoured vehicle and Apache Attack Helicopter to command. I will say this, the game is set in Mexico City, and the realisation of the city is fantastic, it's expansive, atmospheric, and the heat haze effect is brilliant. Great stuff.

The long and the short of it is I'm now really looking forward to Gears of War. I can actually see people in charge of licensing for specific properties looking at Gears of War and literally thinking 'Ah Fuck'. Imagine a Colonial marine going through such fantastic realised environments with Stop and Pop game play as the aliens advance, screeching and jumping through the environments? If that's not good enough, imagine controlling a Warhammer 40K marine, rapidly moving through the Stop and Pop environments, shooting his bolter and facing of against the forces of chaos in gorgeously realised Warhammer 40K environments? Hell, Gears of War even has a gun with a chainsaw bayonet, which is decidedly Warhammer 40K. Yeah, anyone in charge of Aliens or Warhammer 40K licensing is looking at a wasted opportunity with Gears of War. Warhammer 40K especially, I'd think.

Gears of War, another game to add to my must buy list.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
The MMORPG and Voice Chat
Keywords: Video Games; MMORPG.

I've not got an encyclopaedic knowledge of all MMORPGs out there, but I'm pretty sure none of them have integrated voice chat yet. It's probably inevitable that someone will do it eventually, as the prevailing wind is travelling in that direction. You obviously have Xbox Live, which has integrated voice chat as one of it's main selling points, and any MMORPG on that platform will have to deal with that, and number of PC games now integrate voice chat to enhance the experience, for example, Battlefield 2 implements a whole command and control voice chat system in which squad members speak to each other, the squad leader speaks to the commander, etc.

The question is: Would integrated voice chat be good for an MMORPG?

When asking that question I think it's probably best to get something out of the way first. I don't think large scale, open voice chat would work on a MMORPG at all. At least I can't conceive how it would work. How could you manage tens, if not hundreds of people being able to talk to each other just because they are in the same city? Any integrated voice chat in an MMORPG would have to be controlled. As an example, a voice channel being made available to a guild would work, as would a dynamic one created for characters who have grouped. In theory, a city could have a meeting house, or something, that allowed all within it to communicate via voice if their character was in that room. You might also allow a character to set-up private channels with anyone he wanted, a voice version of the 'whisper' function. As a result of this, I suspect text will always be a part of an MMORPG, as I'm not sure I'd want the trade channel in a major city blasting into my ear as everyone tried to tell me what they had to sell over voice like Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler.

I can't imagine anyone wants 'free for all' integrated voice on any scale. Now we've got that out of the way, we can look at some more specific problems.

I think the problem with this question is there will never be a clear answer, because like with any role-playing game, the people playing it are choosing to play it for radically different reasons. Take this article, it puts forward a good set of arguments as to why text is the best interface for an MMORPG. The only flaw in this argument, of course, is it's biased towards the immersion view, and as a result the individual doesn't want voice under any circumstances, as it breaks the immersion. This is no different to my view as to why Neverwinter Nights works so well as a text based medium, especially for people with a bit of writing skill. The use of text within a MMORPG allows the person playing the character to remain anonymous, it doesn't matter whether his character is a male Orc, a female Elf or something even stranger, his text is essentially neutral at worst or, depending on his writing skills, a representation of that character. Indeed, the fact an MMORPG is text based is a major selling point for these types of player, to the extent some of them find it a superior experience to pen and paper gaming, despite bucking against the design of the MMORPG, because they can't see that the person playing the character is a balding fat bloke eating snacks at a gaming table. As I've said though, this is a very immersion centred view.

The trouble is, a lot of people don't play MMORPGs from an immersion perspective. Indeed, I'd argue the majority of people don't. As a result, arguing against integrated voice communications from that perspective doesn't fully hold up to scrutiny, as it represents a relative minority of the player-base. It's true to say that the majority of the player-base of a MMORPG, especially in the popular ones such as World of Warcraft, are playing the game as a challenge to be beaten. It's a game that involves using your characters skills and resources, as well as those of others in groups of various sizes, to beat various challenges in the game in order to get rewards. That's it. It's a game like any other, and your 'character' is just the tool, a playing piece, by which you do that. If any role is being played, it's a role in a tactical or team sense. In truth, this is the style of play the MMORPG is designed for. In this paradigm, integrated voice chat would be less of a problem as there is no 'fourth wall' to break, everyone accepts the 'playing pieces' are being played by Dave and Neil from Newcastle and Sven from Sweden. In this model, you're no less likely to use voice chat in the MMORPG than you are in any other tactical game, like Counter Strike, Battlefield 2, etc.

You also have to take into account that with ever increasing regularity voice chat is a part of the MMORPG experience for a lot of people, they just happen to use tools like Ventrilo, Skype and Teamspeak. Admittedly, these tools are often used within Guilds, but then we'd already established that integrated voice chat would have to be filtered like this as well. You see, under the model of the MMORPG as a series of tactical challenges to be beaten, forming social groups that can combine to beat the larger challenges, which often demand 20 or more people acting as a team, some form of voice chat becomes necessary to one degree or another. This is why games such as Eve Online also have voice chat being used heavily outside of the game, because the game is much less focused on role-playing, and instead is more focused on the players themselves, not so much their characters, running a corporation, and that needs a more immediate and fluid interface. The set-up of the game makes voice chat essential to a degree.

It all comes down to this: if you are trying to author or role-play a character in the game, then you'll value the text interface as that gives you the power to do that independent of who you are in reality, at least until we have very good text-to-voice; while those playing a game as themselves, which has no 'fourth wall' to break, and demands a more immediate and fluid communication mechanism to guarantee success at the challenge of the game, will prefer voice.

It's true that voice chat would ruin immersion and influence the role-playing aspects of the MMORPG, but most people aren't playing it for that reason, and under the model they are playing the game, voice chat makes sense for them. I'd also argue the way integrated voice would be implemented would make it easy to ignore for the people who didn't like it, as they already have to section themselves off from the populace of an MMORPG at large to conduct their immersion and role-playing focused style of play. As a result, integrated voice would enhance the experience for many (the tactical game players), and not really affect the few (the immersion/role-players).

At the same time, it doesn't bother me in the slightest if voice features remain something people organise outside of the game. I just don't happen to think it would be the end of world if someone did integrate them. The reason for this is quite simple, the only difference integrated voice would make for me is, I'd have the option of communicating via voice with random people I grouped with. That's about it. All else would remain the same, as I'd already be communicating using voice chat with the guild, I'm sure. I suspect this would be the same for the immersion and role-playing brigade, they'd just use the ad-hoc group voice feature less.

The truth is, the majority of these virtual communities are not virtual communities of the characters being played, but are virtual communities of players. Until a game comes along that does make the whole point to play a character in a virtual community, which would be really cool, the argument against integrated voice doesn't really hold much water. As the argument against is based on something the game isn't trying to be. After all, when the community is a community of the players, it makes sense for the social groups formed to use voice? Doesn't it?

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Donkey and the Carrot
Keywords: Video Games.

There is one element of gaming generally that I don't understand, actually, that's not true, I understand it perfectly, I'm just not sure why people enjoy, or get suckered into it, like the proverbial donkey slowly walking forward reaching for the carrot. I'm talking about rewards, achievements and unlocking as a way to motivate people to continue to play games. It obviously works, I'm just amazed, and to some extent disappointed, that it works.

A few days back I was discussing unlockable content in computer games, and how I thought it was very annoying, pretty stupid and actually spoke to the negative personality traits of most human beings. It was probably an understatement to say that the individual I was talking to was shocked I held this view, mainly because it was totally alien to him. He loved unlockable content, in fact, as he expressed at the time, he is guaranteed to play a game that rewards him with unlockable content. If he can play a game and obtain something that someone else doesn't have, and ideally gives him an advantage, it drives him on to achieve it. He even went as far to suggest games without unlockable content didn't interest him as much. I was left thinking: what happened to just playing a game because you enjoy it?

The discussion then moved to the belief that unlockable content wasn't that big a deal as the whole theory of game design was based on a series of unlockable content, in that you can't get to one level until you've complete the previous one, etc. While this is true in the broadest sense, it's such a generalisation it doesn't really serve any purpose. True unlockable content is usually something you can't get by a natural extension of playing the game; you have to do something above and beyond completing the various levels, sections, whatever, etc. You might have to complete the game on the hardest level, or do something that demands a bit of skill in the game. All this is fine with me really, as I can ignore them. I play the game because I enjoy it, not because I feel compelled to achieve these esoteric awards. Unlockables become bad when they give those who have them advantages in the game. The biggest sin is when people can dedicate time to unlocking things in the single-player game to gain a competitive advantage in the multiplayer game. It's a marketing gimmick to increase the longevity of the single-player experience, and it's guaranteed to succeed because people will do anything for an advantage against the opposition.

What's fascinating is people are just drawn to the whole idea. One of the fascinating elements of Xbox Live at the moment, and a pure genius idea by Microsoft, is the fact that your persistent identity on Xbox Live can accumulate achievements in the games you play which translates into a cumulative Gamerscore. This Gamerscore is obviously prominently displayed on your Gamer Card, which is the main way people see you on Xbox Live. I ignore the feature totally, and I end up with whatever score I end up with just by virtue of playing the games I play. This is not true for everyone though, people will actively try to achieve every achievement a game has to offer thus maximising their Gamerscore. Not only that, I've read a number of discussions on Xbox forums that focused on what games offered the easiest way to increase your Gamerscore. People are laying down money, to buy or rent games, purely because it is a way to get their Gamerscore up. The only reason they can have for doing this is because they believe it provides a level of status, and again gives some form of advantage, no matter how nebulous, over an Xbox Live members with a lower score. It's like a way for gamers on Xbox Live to compare their penis size maybe? I wasn't surprised to find my debating partner loved the Gamerscore idea, and was currently trying his best to obtain every achievement in Battlefield 2: Modern Combat to get his score up.

My adversary then went for the killer blow, putting forward the theory that if I was so against this element of gaming, I wouldn't play World of Warcraft. He thought he had me, because MMO games are invariably massive users of this whole model of keeping people interested through dangling rewards in front of their nose. I had to smile riley at him and accept that he was right, and that's why as soon as this model became the main reason for playing, I stopped. The genius of World of Warcraft was I could play it for so long before I quit.

As is usual in these cases, we agreed that our different viewpoints appeared totally alien to each other and moved on.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
Dungeon Runners Action RPG MMO Madness
Keywords: Video Games.

Every so often a person is lucky enough to get his wishes granted. Well, not real big wishes like becoming an independently wealthy, mega-successful novelist or anything, just the odd small one. As an example, a while back I postulated that someone should merge the concept of the action rpg, with the concept of a MMO game. Basically, take the core concepts of Diablo, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath and apply a relatively modest subscription fee to it in order to continually expand the content. To be honest, last time I talked about it I was imagining it being a Xbox 360 game, but a subscription based PC game will do.

Well, it would seem great minds think alike, as someone else has had the same idea, NCSoft to be exact, the makers of City of Heroes, City of Villains and Lineage II, and they've called it Dungeon Runners.

Dungeon Runners comes with over 50 quests and they'll obviously add more over time. Not only that, the dungeon levels are randomly generated so it's never the same experience twice even if you are repeating a quest for some reason. Let's face it, every MMO game runs out of content to one degree or another, so you'll repeat dungeons at some point. They are also of varying length with some being 15-minute affairs and others will be much greater in scope allowing for multi-part quests and much longer runs. Initially, it doesn't contain PvP, which is a good thing, though they may introduce a PvP element in some way. When they do hopefully they'll introduce a consensual PvP model, otherwise the ridiculousness of will beckon.

Despite my enthusiasm, a few problem areas do exist, the main one being the game only ever lists three classes: Warriors, Rangers and Warlocks - which neatly fall into the broad categories of melee, ranged and magic. This is a bit limiting. While the game should be focused on fast-paced action to a degree, it shouldn't be devoid of tactical elements, the right use of abilities at the right time, and ideally a richness in terms of game play through the interaction of character abilities. At the moment, there is a risk the game will be just mindless button bashing, and while that should be an element of the genre, it shouldn't be all of it in this day and age. Still, NCSoft also developed Guild Wars, which I'm lead to believe has good, tactical and skill-based PvP so there is a chance the abilities of these three classes may still offer hope for some depth. I'd still have preferred some more focused classes, but then maybe each type can be quite varied depending on what abilities they have. It's early days.

The other problem will be getting people to pay for the game on a subscription basis. The MMO market is currently focused on subscription fees only being allowable when the game features a persistent, virtual world for the characters to run around in. Any game that drifts too far into the contentious area of using instances for everything seems to get moved into a bracket of being a rip off if they charge a monthly fee. It's complex, because most games have an on-line component these days, and some are largely created for on-line purposes, but the majority of them don't charge for the privilege. As a result, the need to maintain a consistent world is the only measure people use because trying to base the fee on whether continual and quality content is being delivered is slightly more nebulous. I could see an argument, discussion over what the fee should be aside, for saying that Dungeon Runners should be able to charge a monthly fee if it delivers new quests, extra character levels, dungeons, monsters, etc. After all, how is this really different to World of Warcraft? The Dungeon Runners servers still have to be maintained and the game has to add new material to keep it interesting? It doesn't have a persistent, virtual world but it has everything else.

Hopefully it will be great, group-based, tactical action and adventure digital dungeon delving with the promise of new content constantly being added. It would be great to get a group of friends together and play through the content as a team.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
Instances Are The Spawn of the Devil
Keywords: Video Games; MMORPG.

What are these instances of which you speak? And why exactly do people think they are the spawn of Old Nik himself? Well, it's to do with MMO (massively multi-player on-line) games. The idea behind these games is that they are, you guessed it, massively multi-player and on-line. These games can be implemented in two ways, by providing a massive virtual world that all the players interact with, or by creating hubs that allow players to interact but when they go off to do their stuff they enter their own instance of that part of the world, sectioning them off from all the other players. Examples of the former would be World of Warcraft and Everquest II and examples of the latter would be Guild Wars and Dungeons and Dragons Online. It tends not to be as simple as that though, as games that do offer the massive virtual world, often use instances. The most well known example is World of Warcraft, which uses instances for the various world dungeons and also the PvP Battlegrounds.

The issue some people have with them is it ruins the reality and the immersion, as you travel around this virtual world you should have the chance of bumping into other players no matter where you go. The people against instances tend to insist the potential for interaction should be present whether you are taking a walk on the beach in the sun, hunting down a rare creature in a swamp, or laying waste to the ancient sunken temple. In principle, this argument does seem to hold water, after all, you are playing an MMO game, surely the whole point is encountering other people on your travels and adventures? I agree, but I can't help but think the people who take this purist approach are sort of forgetting why instances came about in the first place. It also smacks, to me, of being slightly naive.

Do you really want another group of players trashing the ancient sunken temple at the same time you are? I can't see why you would want that really. You've got yourself all set up for a few hours of killing things and taking their stuff so I'd have thought the last thing you'd want would be other people turning up to try and kill everything before you do in order to beat you to the stuff? Realistic? Possibly, but more likely just a severe pain in the arse. It opens up all sorts of possibilities, like using numerous tactics to let other people do the work and then jump in for items or easy kills. Lots of opportunity to ruin another person's day. Even worse, you'd probably find the sunken temple was permanently occupied by Chinese farmers who are in the process of claiming squatters rights.

I also see this another way. The purists are taking an approach that is very focused on the realism of the virtual world. I tend to think instances do a better job of modelling a sort of dramatic reality, albeit in a limited form, with respect to the virtual world. The use of an instance allows the players involved to be the heroes of the action they are undertaking, to rise to the challenge themselves and get the just rewards. When you enter the depths of the ancient sunken temple you'd like it to look and feel in every way like you are a heroic band of adventurers, unique in a way, not one of a hundred or so people trashing the place at the same time. In this context I find it hard to imagine how instances are nothing but a positive. To be honest, I'd have not even played World of Warcraft if it wasn't for the instanced world dungeons, it was one of the main attractions for me.

You do have to look at the use of instances on a case by case basis, as their use will affect other parts of the virtual world. As an example, the introduction of instanced PvP Battlegrounds in World of Wacraft has had a tremendous effect on the game. A good one as far as I was concerned but I can sympathise with why it was a bad one for other people. The PvP Battlegrounds are essentially games in their own right, organising PvP between teams based around achieving various objectives. They effectively take their queue from FPS games, using scenarios like having to capture a flag or hold onto various 'bases' for as long as possible. It gives PvP an overall objective, and the honour rewards result in the players getting better gear. The problem is it has almost completely removed any mass PvP in the virtual world itself. On a non-PvP server, this is good news really, as the PvP is sectioned of in an instance for those who want it, and everyone else can happily get on with quests without having towns and cities attacked (to a degree). On a PvP server I can see why it's a pain, as many players signed on for roaming and dynamic PvP across the landscapes of the virtual world (even though it's pointless in terms of achievable goals). Personally, without the ability to capture towns and change the face of the map in the game, I'd argue the instanced battlegrounds are still better, as this gives the opportunity for the battlegrounds to be forums for people on different serves to engage in PvP with each other (though the feature is not implemented yet).

Strictly speaking, I can see how it does break the MMO idea, as once you enter that instance you are not fully playing an MMO as only the people you are with are actually playing in the same 'world' as you. As a result, people argue that using instances fractures the community, but surely this is only true when instances are used as the prevalent method of play? I can understand how those who want a vibrant virtual world that all the players share dislike Guild Wars, as it doesn't really have a world you share, it just has the odd 'hub', any sense of the larger world is a personal instance. This does fracture the community as in this type of game the 'virtual world' is essentially just a posh lobby you frequent before you play the game with a relatively small group of people in your own instance. This is not to say the model is bad, it has its advantages, but I can understand people having issues with both World of Warcraft and Guild Wars both being called MMO games, as the experience is very different.

The translation of a dislike for completely instanced games into the purist idea that any use of instances is bad just seems like a ridiculous proposition. I can see how an MMO without instances is, clinically speaking, a more pure MMO, but in reaching for that ideal you are bringing in a load of problems that aren't worth a relative handful of environments not being instanced. The use of instances can improve a game, and they are a tool to be used in the right circumstances, it's just, as usual, everyone disagrees as to what those circumstances are.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
Star Trek Online: Will It Really Work?
Keywords: Video Games; MMORPG.

After having become embroiled in one MMORPG that I enjoyed for a year, I find I can't help but look around for others. It would seem World of Wacraft has opened the floodgates to a genre I'd previously chosen not to get involved in. This can be nothing but a good thing for the MMORPG industry, as I don't doubt for a second that I'm not one of hundreds of thousands of people that are now considering other MMORPG titles despite not being in the market at all previously.

Star Trek Online is an intriguing idea. It's not necessarily one I'd buy into, but I find the idea of trying to produce a Star Trek MMO very interesting. You see Star Trek provides numerous difficulties when it comes to running it as a pen-and-paper role-playing game, so it's also going to face a number of challenges as an MMO. The central two issues that prove disruptive to some, though I must say I've run and played in several successful Star Trek role-playing series, are the fact the characters exist under a command structure, and the fact Star Trek really isn't about physical things. Star Trek is essentially a morality play and character drama. Indeed, a focus on the physical things in the universe, and explicitly solving problems divorced from the morality or character drama, causes the universe to collapse. The Star Trek setting isn't meant to exist as something that holds up to realistic analysis, instead it exists as a supporting framework for Star Trek-style stories. In truth, Star Trek has more in common with The West Wing, rather than a TV show trying to put forward a plausible future.

The main problem with the universe for the MMO is it exists to be looked at through the eyes of Federation characters for the purpose of telling stories about human morality, development and the human condition. The universe isn't really designed to tell stories about Ferengi Traders trying to make money. It also means Star Trek can't be everything to everyone, a game that involves players being everything, from Ferengi Traders to Federation Officers via Klingon Warriors would just collapse under its own weight as that's actually three different games: one of free trading, one of exploration and another of politics and battles. Essentially, the Star Trek universe isn't a sandbox to be played in from all angles. As a result, you sort of have to decide to make it be about Federation Officers, Federations Starships and exploration, but, ironically, that's probably the hardest to implement. You also annoy all the people who wanted to essentially turn Star Trek into an espionage or FPS game. The numerous forums are already full of people bemoaning the track taken with the game and having a total obsession with bad ass weapons and boarding ships and kicking ass, or running around causing havoc by breaking the Prime Directive as much as they can.

A core of the player-base won't like the command structure either. One of the goals of Star Trek Online is to give the players an opportunity to command their own ships with other players as crew. This is a great idea, and I agree this is how the perfect Star Trek MMO should work, but I just can't see it working in practice. There will be a core of the audience for this game that would make this element a joy to see, as even now people engage in various Star Trek Simulations on-line over forums and through IRC. An audience for it does exist, but all you need is one player who is 'just working his way to Captain to be a petty tyrant', or whatever goals he has, to ruin it for everyone. You also have to factor in the issue that the very people who would make the starship crew model work, are the same people who will be setting Nazi's, pulling other players up for 'not playing right' and trying to out do each other in terms of setting knowledge.

It's a style of play that demands an implicit social contract and I suspect the chances of all signing on the dotted line are small.

The other issue, of course, is the design model of the typical MMORPG game is actually anathema to the whole basis of what Star Trek is about. Now, I'm not some Star Trek zealot that is outraged by this possible dichotomy, but it does propose a problem for the game. Every MMORPG is based on exploration and seeing new things, which obviously fits perfectly, but the longevity essentially comes from focusing on the greed and obsessive nature of the majority of the audience by increasing the power of their characters, allowing them to gain more and more powerful equipment and make obscene amounts of money. The majority of games are designed on the principle of Darwinian competition matched with being better than your neighbour. Now, the lack of PvP reduces the Darwinian competition and arms race aspect, but the 'better than thou' mentality still pervades. In order for the game to remain true to a game about Federation Officers you can't give players money, and neither can you give them access to better and better equipment. So, what will the characters 'grind'? How will they progress? If it is via officer ranks how will this relate to other players or will it purely be a time earned thing? Ultimately, every game hits an endgame of some variety, what will Star Trek Online's be?

To be honest, virtually every design decision is a controversial one. You are either forced to make radical choices against the norm which may well limit your audience, or adopt a generic MMO approach and make it nothing like Star Trek and thus still get no audience or one that isn't really committed. Think about it? You can't use level-based advancement, or if you did use levels they'd have to just be used as a mechanism to hand out skill points. A Star Trek Online character would have to get better at things, but not level up to the extent he can single-handedly take on 10 Gorns in his sleep at tenth level and tackle a Delonian Phase Beast at twentieth. You then have Starship combat to figure out? How far do you go in making the game a simulation? How do you factor in the issue of multiple players being different members of the crew during the combats? How do you do quests? Are they given out on spaceships or space stations? Do they consist of killing ten Tribbles in the Jeffrey's Tubes? It's all a bit mind boggling.

The whole idea of providing a virtual environment, in the form of an MMO, for a group of mature people to immerse themselves in being the crew of a Star Trek ship, and getting sensible missions to perform, sounds great, but it also sounds very ambitious, and potentially only of interest to a relatively small market. I'm actually at a loss as to what the characters in the game will do hour by hour without it being a case of collecting ten Tribbles or fixing ten power conduits?

It's possibly my limited imagination, but I see it as a great idea that is doomed to failure. One thing is for sure, it will undoubtedly feature a veritable horde of sexy Vulcan babes, the typical player's character of choice. Would Vulcans be allowed to use emotes? One for the hardcore.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 04/05/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Seduction of the Ninja

It's called a Bridge too Far, and it's a map in Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. It's an urban battlefield, and the American and Chinese forces are battling to control key points in the field of battle. One of the key points, as you might have guessed, is a bridge that constitutes the only way across the river that runs through the centre of the city. As the brave assault soldier armed with an M16 and some grenades I jumped into a jeep and headed into battle only to find the battlefield deserted. Where was everyone? I saw the two helicopters take off from the base as I drove away?

It was like walking around the landscape of 28 Days Later, just without the threat of zombies with a particular virulent form of pink eye. It was all kind of eerie, until I died from a single bullet wound to the head. So, maybe someone did think there was zombies about after all. I re-spawned, looked at the class types everyone on my team was playing, and the tally was 9 Snipers, and whatever I chose. Great. Nine gamers seduced by the idea of playing the Ninja. The opposing team was obviously doing the same thing.

It explains why a Bridge too Far is one of the more popular maps, it's sniper heaven.

The Ninja's powerful seductions seem to weave their spell on the gamer community no matter what the game or the medium, be it a first person shooter, a computer role-playing game or a traditional role-playing game. It's like a plague. Battlefield 2: Modern Combat is a game of modern combat, it's fun, frenetic, loud and visceral, yet a core of players choose to play the enigmatic man who steals the transport helicopter just so he can parachute onto the top of a very tall building and be the lethal, and hidden deliverer of death. The killer who doesn't have to interact. In the words of Patrick Swayze he isn't the chatty assassin, he's the silent assassin, all but mute. The sniper class has its place within the tactics of the game, but it's total madness to see over half your team run out into battle with their sniper hard on.

It's not just Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, of course, the Ninja appears in many things, though he may be rarely called that. The same was true in World of Warcraft, for a long while the Rogue was one of the most popular classes in the game. The reason is quite simple, Blizzard had the genius of not just giving Rogues all the usually abilities of an uber-cool stealth class, they also made them the primary damage dealing class in melee combat. Perfect. The perfect Ninja character, one who can sneak up and deliver death in a blur of blades. It's tantamount to gamer porn that is, it probably releases specific chemicals in the brain I suspect.

It was the same in Splinter Cell. It had a unique multiplayer mode in which two people played mercenaries guarding a location and 1 or 2 people played the spies trying to sneak in and achieve certain objectives, such as deactivating five viral canisters or something. Each side had hi-tech tools to use in this game of cat and mouse. It was a very good idea, and the lighting in the game made it a very tense game of stealth against fire power. Well, that was true for a while, until people figured out that the spy was a perfect Ninja, just without the sword, and didn't actually have to run from the mercenaries and could in fact attack from the shadows and kill them with lethal neck braking moves. As a result, the game turned into a form of Unreal Tournament, but with super stealth Ninja assassins. The spies often won the game, not by ever achieving their objective but by killing the mercenaries repeatedly until they ran out of re-spawns. Playing the mercenaries was more like playing in an Aliens game, you just never knew when the bastard was going to leap out of the shadows and kill you. You also knew you were going to die, all that differed was how and when.

While I've been lucky and not encountered anyone who gets a hard on over playing a Ninja in a traditional role-playing game, the allure still holds for some. It's quite simple to see really. Whenever a role-playing game comes out set in a contemporary setting, there is always a core of gamers wanting to know if the system can build an effective sniper, and if people can be killed in one shot. It's a mark of a quality game if it's 'realistic' enough to build that character who can be the paper-based equivalent of the Battlefield 2: Modern Combat sniper.

What is this fascination with being stealthy and having accurate and lethal attacks? Personally, I put it down to two things: the shadowy character who attacks from a hidden location is a reflection of the gamers personality in that he doesn't want to interact, or it offers the best route to success, and probably the best route to success in the game without having to interact. Whatever the reason, the epidemic is frustrating.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Poor D&D Online
Keywords: Video Games.

I feel sorry for D&D Online, and the reason I feel sorry for it is it's a great idea that is trapped between the pricing model of a single-player game and a MMORPG. The core idea of D&D Online was to duplicate a certain style of D&D play. The style in question being small groups of characters facing up to the challenge of completing modules (a series of challenges in one form of environment or another) for the purposes of experience and loot. While D&D is played in various ways, there is a certain classic way of playing D&D that follows this model, and it was quite popular at one point with a myriad of modules being released. These modules are often referred to in revered tones by those that played them, and consist of such classics as Against Giants, Keep on the Borderlands, The Temple of Elemental Evil, The Tomb of Horrors, Queen of the Demon Web Pits and numerous others I can't remember the name of.

In order to replicate this, the idea behind D&D Online was to release a game with a number of modules, and then release modules on a regular schedule to keep the players busy. The problem then is how do you get some monetary return for the modules you are developing? The obvious way is a monthly fee, the trouble is that drifts your game into MMORPG territory as far as the general computer gaming audience is concerned and that brings a load of baggage with it. It also means the players of the game expect to be able to play it and have something productive to do whenever they want to play it.

D&D Online was never meant to have the usual MMORPG baggage. It doesn't have a massive persistent world for the characters to wonder around in. It only has a city, and that only serves as a place to find others to group with and pick a module to do. It doesn't have crafting systems. In truth, it shouldn't even follow the model of a typical fantasy MMORPG by playing to the process of levelling characters to a maximum level and then playing an endgame.

You see, the D&D players of yesteryear who used to play these modules focused on playing the modules, not necessarily aggressively levelling a character. A group may have got a set of characters to level 12 by going through a number of modules, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't create new characters to play through a newly released set of modules that got them from level 1-7. Not only that, if a new module came out for levels 6-8 they would have created characters of that level expressively to play that module if they found it suitably enticing. This breaks the principle of an MMORPG totally, as the typical MMORPG never adds new low level content by and large, as ultimately the game matures and the endgame is reached and the content is focused on keeping the high level players busy.

The trouble is, can D&D Online break this MMORPG model? And is it even a popular enough model to support the game? In truth, Turbine should not be concentrating on just creating modules that demand higher and higher level characters, as the level cap for D&D Online should always be relatively low (it only really goes to twenty and the higher you go the harder it gets to implement in game), and they should in fact be releasing a good spread of modules for a good spread of levels to ensure that new content exists for all levels. This doesn't guarantee the online players will follow the model of their pen and paper counterparts of creating characters expressively to do modules, but what's the alternative? A quick spiral destruction as everyone reaches the level cap? The introduction of boring repetitive content to keep them busy? I believe this has already happened with a Dragon Raid Encounter. In fact, I think it was even present from the beginning, as the game is based to some extent on doing quests/modules more than once.

The trouble is I suspect the idea of duplicating classic, module driven D&D pushes against so many of the accepted norms for a fantasy game you pay a monthly fee for that it's doomed to failure, or to be perverted into some bastardised version of a true MMORPG that sort of limps along with a relatively unique fan base. It's also difficult to implement, as it's virtually impossible, at any particular time, to ensure that enough modules exist to get a player from the first level to a respectable high level without them duplicating modules, after all, the pen and paper game compensated for this by the DM producing his own.

Is it possible a different pricing model could have been found? It's difficult, as the modules have to keep coming, the game lives or dies by them. It's possible each module could have been purchased for a smaller fee, but then you face the problem of people not buying all modules and fragmenting who can play with who. Not only that, some people stuck in the levelling mindset would not buy modules for levels lower than their character, which would disrupt the cash flow model. D&D Online could have also been released as a series of games, each one taking the characters through a series of modules for a specific level range, so game one has modules to get the characters to level 3, game two to level 6 and so on. This also represents cash flow problems, as well as keeping the community together across releases, and also suggests an end to the experience. It's a difficult one.

All this is a pity, as the idea of having a classic, module driven version of D&D available as an online computer game sounds really appealing. I know it would work for me. Just the idea of being able to arrange with friends to login and do the latest module that has just bean released sounds really good. You then put the game to one side for a number of weeks until the next couple of modules are released then arrange to do them. The trouble is, with the right pricing model, I'd buy into the idea that you are paying a subscription for the modules, and those modules will be for various levels through the games level range.

It's just a very difficult model to match up with a pricing structure, match player expectations based on previous norms (even now the games gets criticised more for what it isn't rather than what it is) and keep the community together.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Expensive Next Gen Gaming
Keywords: Video Games.

This next gen gaming lark is getting expensive, isn't it? The retail price for an Xbox 360 game is 50 GBP, and the rumour is the average price for a PlayStation 3 game is going to be 60 GBP. To be honest, this is becoming an issue in the gaming industry I would suspect. As people said at the time, each console generation makes games more costly to produce, to the extent they end up becoming like big budget movies. The problem, I somehow suspect, is a lot of the people with these consoles can't really afford to buy that many 50 GBP games, so they survive off the second-hand market. As an example, this is undoubtedly true for all the younger audience who can't support their gaming hobby through having a job. The trouble is, the second hand market isn't really viewed as that much of a positive thing by the people who make the games as they don't get any money from that at all.

I must admit, I've been forced to look at that 50 GBP price tag for Tomb Raider: Legend and question whether it is worth it. While the game has been getting good reviews, if not amazing ones, the common consensus is it's only about 10 hours long. That doesn't seem long at all, even taking into account my very casual approach to these games. That means you could almost certainly finish it in a week, and if you put in an two afternoons over a weekend you may finish it in a single weekend. That doesn't seem much for 50 GBP? Especially when you consider the game has virtually zero replay value, something I never do anyway, neither does it have any longevity via on-line play.

A game of that length, and that price, is potentially a target for being rented? Don't you get like 3-4 days each time you rent it? So if you rented it for two blocks of time you'd almost certainly finish it? The other element to take into account is the PC version of the game is much cheaper. It comes in at 30 GBP, but a measly 18 GBP if you buy it from somewhere like (which has the Xbox 360 version for 40 GBP). It's really hard to justify buying the Xbox 360 version to be honest, as the gaming experience isn't actually any different.

The odd game still makes sense, I'd still rather it not be so expensive, but it becomes easier to justify. These games tend to be the ones with a solid on-line element, as that extends the life of the game significantly. If the on-line game is interesting it usually extends the life of the game until the next version comes out, which is a year minimum. If you look at games like Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, the chances are you probably won't even play the single-player game to any great degree.

In my head you see, 30 GBP for a computer game seems acceptably, but anything above that just starts to get a bit ridiculous. It just seems too much. I mean come on, 50 GBP is half of 100 GBP, it's not an amount to be frivolously squandered. The other argument I have is what I'm getting for the extra money? I suspect, in a lot of cases, not that much. If the next gen games are going to be 25% more expensive than the previous generation then you want something that truly gives a different playing experience, rather than being the same games that just looks prettier. If the next gen is just going to be a case of better eye candy (as it is with Tomb Raider: Legend), I'd expect to pay the same retail price for the games to be honest. In fact, in the future, any game that comes out on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Xbox 360 and all the Xbox 360 has to show for it is some better graphics has to be viewed as immediately suspect.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Dungeoneers...Unsigned

I've taken the next step in slowly weaning myself off World of Warcraft. The first step was cancelling my subscription. The second step was removing my membership from The Dungeoneers as a function of the site's security. The reason for this is simple, if I'm not going to play the game any more, then I shouldn't bother myself with the future direction of the guild either, should I?

Obviously, I still feel attached to it. I even feel like it's failing when it could be going on from strength to strength. It may even be going on from strength to strength and I don't see it due to opinion and intention being spread across numerous mediums and activity in game being invisible unless your on-line all the time.

The main thing is, if I'm not playing, despite the fact I remain interested in the guild's welfare, I should just let it lie. So I am. No big deal. It's just the guild doesn't really exist without playing the game, does it?

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
One Year or 29 Days

Well, it's over for the foreseeable future, I am disconnecting myself from World of Warcraft. To be honest, for about the last 3-4 weeks I haven't been on much, and when I am on I haunt World of Warcraft more than I play it. Logging in out of habit, only to realise all I see is endless, repetitive farming as far as the eye can see. It was bound to happen eventually, as a lot of the principles and design decisions on which MMORPG's are based I actually detest, it's a testament to the design of the game that I've been playing it for as long as I have to be honest. Indeed, 2005 was a year dominated by World of Warcraft.

The game was great as you progressed to 60, don't get me wrong, it had it's low points, but it was pretty damned good. You didn't have to farm for anything. You didn't even have to level your professions. You didn't have to worry about gear. You could just do quests and the various instanced dungeons along the way. All the choices I consciously made, even down to the choice of class, which is relatively gear independent, involved avoiding the typical MMORPG traps.

I braved a blizzard to get the game, and the journey Zoltis made across the landscapes of Azeroth was fascinating. As game that allowed you to see new things and visit exotic place it was pretty impressive. I remember when Zoltis first entered the Undercity, it's wacky, Tim Burton cartoon style architecture was amazing. It's almost a pity you get so used to it over time. Then there was the first giant I nearly walked into, the ground actually quaking as it approached. I also loved the instances, in fact I largely played the game to do the instanced dungeons. I enjoyed the whole Scarlet Brotherhood element, an enemy that sort of hounds undead characters from the earliest levels right through to giving their demonic boss a good kicking. It was great when Zoltis finally got his mount, a bit late and after getting a loan off my brother, again driven by my inability to suffer mindlessly farming for gold. I even burned through my one and only abuse incident, and I think it's a testament to the community, at least on the Silvermoon (EU) Horde side, that most people proved to be sociable and nice.

It was the endgame that did me in. It didn't at first, in fact I quite liked the endgame in the beginning. I'd been told it would change the game into something I'd not like, but once I got there I thought it was great. Lots of social raids to UBRS, Scholomance and Stratholme, it made getting the gear inside those instances a breeze (apart from my Magister's Robes, those damned things always eluded me). The trouble is, that's not truly the endgame. The true endgame is aptly named, and it brings about all the things I listed in Why I Play World of Warcraft that would ruin the game for me. The exploration ends, the endless grind for gear begins so you can visit higher endgame instances to grind for more gear. It's not even as if the endgame instances are that exciting, they focus more on complex boss fights, which don't really work for me. I did give it a go though, about eight visits to Zul'Gurub, and I even won an epic, the first official Dungeoneer raid epic, which was momentarily exciting, but ultimately quite hollow.

To be honest, the anniversary party of The Dungeoneers was probably the high point and the end of it all. The experience overall has slowly gone down hill since then by and large. The whole month of March has just seen the game be one big trial with me not playing it much, not only that I can't see anything in the future to improve that situation. The expansion? Possibly, but once I've made the break I can't see me returning in 4-6 months.

Still, I have to break myself away from World of Warcraft as I sense I'll need the spare time to play on Xbox Live in the not too distant future. This is good, as it brings my gaming back to being social, casual and fun, playing such classics as Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat on-line, and hopefully enjoying the exploration and cinematic nirvana that is going to be Tomb Raider: Legend.

Better gaming opportunities than World of Warcraft now exist.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Games: Old And New
Keywords: Video Games.

I found a copy of Total Air War. Actually, I didn't just find a copy, I found my old copy that I'd got rid of before we went to Australia. It was sat by the side of one of the computers at Louise's brothers, it would seem it hadn't been sold, but passed on. I managed to retrieve Total Air War, M1 Tank Platoon 2 and Total Annihilation and its expansion.

Total Air War. I must admit, when I spotted it I felt elation, not only that, I'm sure my mind, deluded with shock at the time, could hear the signature Tomb Raider music kicking whenever she found a relic. The excitement over finding the game was short lived, as you'd think I'd learn by now that nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It was the recommended specification that should have provided the warning that playing the game now wouldn't be the same as playing the game then. I mean this game has a recommended specification of a P200 with 32MB of RAM. I remembered the graphics as being really good, and I'm sure they were back in the day when an 800 by 600 resolution was an amazing thing. Now though, since my monitor is an LCD screen, it tends to look naff if it runs at anything other than its designed resolution of 1280 by 1024. I'm trying to forget the music that plays on the menu screen, it sounds like some five year old playing on a cheap electronic organ he's gotten for Christmas.

Old games, don't revisit them, they only break the illusion.

Based on the above experience I don't think I'll even install M1 Tank Platoon II, but I probably will give Total Annihilation a shot. The reason for this is I remember the Total Annihilation graphics being quite good and also quite scalable in that you seemed to be able to ramp up the resolution. This may be rose tinted nostalgia as well, as I suspect the resolution my monitor is working at, which isn't that high by today's standards, wasn't even dreamed of when the game was released. It's worth a shot though, it'll be interesting to see what the musics like as I remember it being really good.

Enough of the old games, back to the new games. April might be the month that the Xbox 360 becomes an interesting purchase. The reason for this is simple: games. I'm very interested in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, which came out in March. It seems to be getting glowing reviews and I like the look of the co-operative multi-player options both against the computer and in team versus team modes. You also have Tomb Raider: Legends coming out, and the more I hear about this game the more I think it's going to be a major cinematic gaming experience. The game has a whole international, action and adventure, James Bond and Alias feel to it with Lara raiding tombs, getting into buildings in a slick cocktail dress (no doubt the cover of a party or something), using fancy binoculars, using comms to communicate with her team back at the mansion. I may be setting myself up for a disappointment, but it sounds amazing. Finally, and this is the shocking one really, I'm liking the sound of Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, specifically for the multi-player elements on Xbox Live. While I said this about the PC Game, and then never really invested in it, I just like the sound of the more immediate console version, and the more consistent experience via the console. The graphics look amazing, just the idea of seeing the bullets churn up dirt and cut realistic chunks in walls has me hooked. I'm hoping its an intense, adrenaline pounding, visual and auditory experience of chaotic modern combat.

The important thing is the computer gaming front is looking up. On the PC I like the look of Titan Quest, Supreme Commander, Warhammer Online and Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, though most of these are not available until the second half of 2006 or even 2007. On the Xbox 360 we have Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat and Tomb Raider: Legend, all of them effecitvely available within the next week and a bit. Of course, I have a PC and the games are a while away, I don't have an Xbox 360 and the games are available, but such is the way of things. That situation can be rectified, I just don't like buying consoles while they are still at the ridiculous early adopter price. Still, you can always makes exceptions.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Hobby Review: World of Warcraft, Redux

When I looked at World of Wacraft in the context of my Hobby Review, I basically came to the conclusion I need to play it less and in a more scheduled manner. You know the drill, set aside one evening a week for it and a bit of time on the weekend. I'm wondering now whether I could give it up all together? Even that question is unnerving really, it's a game, their should be no 'could I give it up' question, and it just shows how the whole MMORPG model works really.

Looking over the article Why I Play World of Warcraft, I'm starting to wonder whether some of the issues outlined in the potential for ruin section are finally clicking into place. I play the game for the instances and the exploration, so you'd think the fact The Dungeoneers have arrived at the endgame instances is a good thing. I thought it was a good thing at first, but that was while doing the first tier of endgame raids, not the 20 and 40 man ones. The trouble is the first tier of endgame raids have really been removed, leaving only the 20 and 40 man ones. I don't find these as fun, with their focus on a series of single boss fights. I certainly don't find the amazing amount of boring farming and grinding that kicks in between these endgame instances to ensure you have potions, keeping your monetary funds remotely healthy, or getting the best gear you can and so on. It's bloody endless. You just can't avoid it. Even if you decide to back off Zul'Gurub and beyond, you now face a long grind and tiring and exhausting 5-man dungeons to take up the option of upgrading current gear. Yes, it's great that the 5-man dungeons are challenging, but they're not new, you've already done them lots of times. I want to beat the endgame dungeons because they are a challenge to be met, but not if it's largely boring.

In short, the the game is starting to feel like work.

Then we have The Dungeoneers. As I said in Why I Play World of Warcraft the guild is probably why I'm still playing because I went through a couple of periods when I got sick of the levelling process, but luckily the social element of the guild and the fact I eventually did see new content meant I got over those hurdles. Now though, The Dungeoneers is rapidly becoming something that contributes to me not wanting to play the damned game. Over the last few months I've been forced to back off threads because of people taking arrogant and ill-informed opinions. I've also been pushed into logging out of the game twice and doing something else because I couldn't be bothered any longer to debate issues with people who have a set inflexible agenda, pursue a position out of ignorance (and often one that makes no sense, even to the extent of actually working against themselves) and start laying claims of lying and dishonesty.

You see, in the real world, face to face, across a table, I'll debate these issues out whenever people want. Over the Internet though, a certainly personality type exists that just gets difficult, arrogant, uptight, can't construct their arguments properly (or even proper sentences and paragraphs) and won't even acknowledge any points the other side makes even if they are increasingly on shaky ground. Worse, they start making assumptions about the person they know absolutely nothing about. I find that hard to deal with, because they presume too much. It's like when I had my first World of Warcraft abuse incident, it really annoyed me because it was done on-line, if it was done face-to-face the response would have been a smile and a shake of the head in the knowledge the guy was an idiot. Disagreements are a nightmare on-line, at least when with people who have no sense of debate or discussion, just the repetition of their view, which isn't the same thing.

I'm beginning to the think The Dungeoneers Anniversary party was possibly the highpoint of the guild for me, sort of the accumulation of all that had been achieved over the year, an event heralding the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. As I've said numerous times, this new era has to happen, and the problems associated with it have to be dealt with, whatever the results, but that doesn't mean I have to be part of that future does it? It's going to go from a guild in which you felt you knew everyone, to one full of people you have less connections to and just a bit more focused on the 'hard work needed' to get epic items.

Strangely enough, despite me trying to tread ever so carefully yesterday around the issue of people voting and not understanding the what, why and how of the vote, people have reared their head today in shock that there is a second round of voting, despite the fact it's quite clear in the document they've supposed to have read before they voted. Democracy, you've gotta love it.

In short, The Dungeoneers is starting to feel like work.

The question then remains: What am I actually holding on to? The promise of new and exciting landscapes to see and explore I think, as that's why I played the game for the most part, new lands to see and new dungeons to beat. I never had to farm or grind in the game, now I'm feeling the need to. I could stop playing until the expansion comes out and play then when I have new lands and an extra 10 levels to go through, but if I did that I'd start some 'levels' behind everyone else as they'd have levelled via equipment while I wasn't playing.

I have to face up to the fact the game is a sort of an addiction, as part of me wants to see the back off it, but another part can't let it go. I honestly believe, if I severed my connections to the game now I'd not miss that much, just a vague feeling that at some point in the future I might miss out on it returning to something I'd like.

It's entirely possible one result of this hobby review could well be the ditching of World of Warcraft all together.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Dungeoneers Move Forward

Change is always interesting. Some people fear it, but personally I think it is great. It's exciting and dynamic. I'm not one for changes sake, but change done in the context of moving forward and meeting new challenges is always slightly stressful, exciting and intense. This is particularly true when people are involved, which is invariably always true. The Dungeoneers have begun to move, as we progress from a social guild that levelled up together to a larger guild that faces the challenge of the endgame instances: Zul'Gurub and beyond.

The first phase is a guild-wide vote on the new looting rules for the endgame instances, which is to be used when Epic items drop. This is a fascinating process, as while I've managed all sorts of change processes over my career, and persuaded the opinion of others, and argued the case for various strategies and options, I've never literally had the decision on something be the subject of a democratic vote by a large group of people. I'm starting to feel like how a politician must feel.

You see the vote is out there, for all the members to decide on, and I'm quite happy to move forward on whatever the result is, as for me the important issue was to have a decision and move forward on that basis whatever the consequences. The trouble is, you can't help but start to worry about how people are voting. Don't get me wrong, it's not keeping me awake at night, but as the first decision I'm invested in being subject to a open vote it is fascinating. For example, I'm putting as much work in as possible to make sure everyone votes, but for some people it's like they have to be forcible dragged to the polling booth. It's important all vote, as you can bet some people who didn't vote will complain they never had a chance or moan about the decision. The decision has to stand up to scrutiny and allow us to move forward. I feel like a representative of the UN trying to ensure a fair and representative election.

The other problem you have is the reason people vote. You see I'm voting for an option I am comfortable with and one which I think will allow the guild to move forward over the longer-term. You can't guarantee everyone will do this. You can't even guarantee everyone voting has read and absorbed the options available and instead just voted for no change. You can really see this happening, as if people have to be pressured to vote, they're hardly going to read the page of A4 outlining the options and how they are going to applied are they? The natural extension of this is: do you end up with a system most people have voted for out of purely selfish reason or out of ignorance and it actually causes more problems than it solves. This vote is the best way to move the guild forward, all the options are good and sound and all should be present, but this democracy lark is a funny business even though none of would have it any other way.

It's actually going quite well, and unless something radical happens in the next free days it's probably already possible to see the winning option, despite it being a system involving two rounds of voting.

This is a small step on the road to ensuring The Dungeoneers is a guild that accommodates endgame raiding as part of our much vaunted open play style. It's my view, that one of the next challenges is to improve the way we can schedule and organise events of all types within the guild. I happen to think this can be done via an add-on to the game that provides scheduling functions within the game. The add-on is known as Guild Event Manager, and it seems to work really well. I have a strong belief that event management will go much smoother when people do it as a natural extension of playing the game. We shall see.

This is driven by my dire need to play World of Warcraft in some sort of scheduled, organised manner. I realise I may be trying to tame a beast that cannot be brought to heel, but I have to give it a shot. The only alternative is always to be playing the game inefficiently or haunt the game every waking moment to try and bring about or wait for spontaneous events to take place.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
PlayStation 3 Goes Xbox
Keywords: Video Games; Xbox.

I remember when the Xbox was launched, people thought Microsoft was mad, because entering the console market was not only difficult, it meant going head-to-head with Sony. I also remember, when the console was announced as having a hard disk and network connectivity as standard, people thought Microsoft were slightly mad for essentially putting a PC in a smaller box. As for Xbox Live? A console dedicated to on-line play with a service you have to pay for? Everyone was very sceptical. It would seem Microsoft had it right, as the PlayStation 3 is not only going to have a hard disk as standard, complete with a Linux-based operating system, Sony are developing their own on-line service similar to Xbox Live. This is seriously ironic, as the hard disk as standard was the Microsoft position on the original Xbox.

This competition is good, as the presence of the PlayStation Live (for want of a better name) service will undoubtedly bring about changes in Xbox Live. Like Xbox Live, there will be a couple of different levels of service, but the rumour is the free offering from PlayStation Live will allow people to play games, something which Xbox Live doesn't allow. If you can play games on-line for free on PlayStation Live I'm left wondering what they are charging for like, so I'm a bit sceptical on that score. The other improvement is PlayStation Live is going to allow individual companies to put their own servers within the infrastructure, this is something Xbox Live has always resisted doing, but it is doing with the Xbox Live service for Xbox 360. This opens up the option for dedicated servers, rather than the peer-to-peer connections between Xbox units, MMO style games, etc. Apparently, the PSP will also be compatible with the PlayStation Live service by virtue of the fact it has wireless connectivity.

It's quite possible that Sony are playing a game of smoke and mirrors, they did brag a lot about the capabilities of the PlayStation 2 and they didn't really deliver anything exciting at all, instead the Xbox came along and delivered something unique into the market place (the hard disk and Xbox Live). Still, the PlayStation 3 does look very interesting, even down to all the connectivity options, loads of USB ports, and it even has memory card slots so you can use your compact flash cards with the system. They PlayStation 3 also has an air for having been designed with a lot of future proofing built in, while the Xbox 360 feels more rushed and transitional (even to the point of suggesting they'll upgrade it over time). Still, the future proofing of the PlayStation 3 does mean it can work at resolutions hardly any TV supports and uses a next generation 'DVD' technology that could turn out to be out of synch with the movie industry. It's certainly got me keen to see the unit when it's released.

This is the rub though, as the PlayStation 3 isn't going to be launched until November 2006, and that's if it is launched on time. The Xbox 360 will be a bit more of a mature offering by then, and should have solved it's availability problems ready fro Christmas 2006. Sony will almost certainly be suffering production problems during the 2006 festive season. The battle doesn't really start until 2007 really. It will be an interesting year.

You know what? If that PlayStation 3 could just act as a Digital Video Recorder it would be a stupid decision not to buy one, but I doubt it will. They've got me keeping an eye towards the PlayStation 3 release, which is probably what they want.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
Hobby Review: World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft has to be first, for the simple reason that it is currently such a dominant force on my free time that it cannot be ignored. World of Warcraft is quite simply a hobby in its own right that needs looking at and reviewing before I can even consider anything else. It's probably safe to say, at this current moment in time, World of Warcraft, as the singular computer game I'm currently playing, is the only hobby that is seeing any sort of serious activity.

I don't think this is a good thing.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not giving service to the idea that people devoted to World of Warcraft are by definition people who need to seriously look at their life and assess what's wrong with it, but it's probably not good for an individual's free time to consist of playing World of Warcraft or mooching about doing nothing much and then wondering where the time went. As an example, in the month of march I went two weeks without really playing the game at all (I probably spend 3 night a week and never more than 50% of the weekend on it on average, which leaves room for periods when I play it a lot), but that doesn't mean I went a way and read six books, or radically overhauled or kick-started a role-playing campaign or watched two seasons of the X Files. No, looking back on it I didn't do much.

The issue with World of Warcraft is it's always the easy option, the temptress calling out to be booted up and played. It's so easy you see, due to the current size of The Dungeoneers an activity of one sort or another will be going on in some way most evenings. You go in, get a raid going with the guild and you kill things and take their stuff and time passes. I think it involves chemical processes in the brain and the strange combination of tactics, acquisitions and banter puts you into some sort of strange meditative state that is mildly addictive.

I also sense that I've hit a transition point with the game, for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the game has now thoroughly changed. The time during which the game felt like pushing forward a new frontier of exploration is over, instead we are well into the endgame, a period in which everyone has to find a guild of one for or another in the pursuit of doing bigger, larger and harder dungeons for the treasure they hold. The trouble is, when such great, but rare, hard, time consuming and expensive (in a virtual sense) to obtain items are up for grabs it seriously changes the focus of the game. The bottle half empty person says it changes the game into one of petty mindedness, politics and alliances as people try to maximise their chances of getting rewards. The bottle half full person says it represents a time in which a group of people approach the game with a purpose to try and get those rewards for all as efficiently as possible. The truth is both are true to one extent or another.

The main issue is the endgame brings about a need to spend serious amounts of time, ideally on a regular basis, to break these larger dungeons and make any sense of serious progress. It also demands more organisation and commitment from all involved in the process. In a way this is good, the focus on set objectives and the challenge of meeting it is exciting, but the potential politics and the time investment has to be something I'm sure I want to entertain? As this will undoubtedly make World of Warcraft an even bigger part of my life. I'm also not sure the structure of the endgame instances is working for me, as they are more focused on big, dominant, strategic boss fights rather than a dungeon populated with stuff to hack your way though in a delicate dance of class abilities and resources.

The other issue is Louise, she's finally starting to get slightly irritated by the time I spend on the game. What's interesting is this isn't so much a reflection of the fact I spend every waking hour on it, because that isn't true, it's more a reflection that we do have other hobbies we could do together, and I could be spending my time in better ways. I don't entirely disagree with her. As an example, World of Warcraft is a solitary activity, in the real world anyway, not so much in the virtual space, and as a result it essentially cuts her off because I'm upstairs, having to concentrate, can't just break from the game easily and now I've started wearing headphones due to the voice communications. As an example, when I was playing on Xbox Live a lot she had less problems with it as it demanded slightly less dedication and was played in the same room and as such didn't cut her out (and I suspect the people I was talking to being family also helped). It's also true to say too much World of Warcraft means we don't progress on stuff we do together, such as watching TV shows on DVD or, in the past, even playing computer games together, such as Tomb Raider.

Does a solution exist? Possibly. At one point I was thinking of really getting involved in the endgame raiding, actually stepping up to be a major figure in leading that process, probably with the help of a couple of others. I still like this idea, but when thinking of everything in balance I'm not sure it's for me. I also don't think I'm going to move into playing the game 4-5 nights a week to hit the endgame instances, master them and harvest the rewards. I'd like to, but I have to seriously question whether I want World of Warcraft to be that dominant. The solution so far is to focus on playing the game on Tuesday, Friday and probably a bit on the weekend and that's it. One advantage I do have in this regard is The Dungeoneers seem to lack an the organisation will, and an individual to stand up and lead the process, so a raiding strategy doesn't seem to be forthcoming either, so any idea of raiding the endgame instances 4-5 nights a week is probably a moot point anyway.

Conclusion: I need to stop drifting into World of Warcraft as the easy option. I need to play it in a controlled way, as mentioned above, and any exceptions to that need to be organised, scheduled in advance events I can decide to do or not around other activities. This speaks to the heart of the issue I have that I'll look back on my life one day, when I'm ninety (hopefully) and my memory is going and wonder where all the time went. You see, in truth, deep down, I'd rather be running a great role-playing campaign, writing or working on than playing World of Warcraft.

I just don't, because World of Warcraft is easier. That has to stop.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Dungeoneers: Questioning The Philosophy

It's a bit annoying that the blog has been so World of Warcraft focused over the last few days, but things are getting very interesting with respect to the crises point The Dungeoneers have reached. Well, it's a more a decision point, it's not like anyone dies, so it's hard to see it as a crises, but decision point sounds so bland. It is making me re-assess the whole game and the very guild itself. Not in a negative light, but a re-assessment is happening. A re-assessment of all you believe in and hold dear, even if it is only in the context of a computer game, and as such pretty lightweight, but always interesting.

Recent discussions surrounding the DKP topic have made me look at the Guild in a different light. You see a key philosophy of how The Dungeoneers approach the game is as follows: friendly atmosphere, play how you want, play as much time as you want and get help if people choose to help because they want to or because your aims happen to align on the day.

This sounds great, a Guild of total freedom. At last an end to the controlling regime that other Guilds have. Hell, it is great, some of these things I feel quite strongly about, such as people being able to play how they want, and not have stuff forced on them. It's not all good though, and in some ways the above philosophy actually, quite ironically, invalidates itself. How so? Endgame raiding. A few issues arise over endgame raiding that the above philosophy, or a certain view of it, causes major issues with. The main issue is the philosophy is not being followed through on, because the natural extension of that philosophy is you will suffer some disadvantages because of your decision to play in a certain way.

The wider issue, if playing how you want and when you want is taken to its logical conclusion, and everyone truly did that then the Guild would suffer major issues and conflicts. There is a naive way of looking at the Guild, and that view is that the philosophy we currently have is actually a truth, as you can't play anyway you want, not efficiently anyway, not without argument. The guild philosophy should allow for a group of people wanting to raid efficiently to say no to people with the wrong Talent Specification. Simple, is it wrong? It's certainly not all inclusive, but then the Druid with the wrong Talent Specification has made a choice to 'rage it out in bear form' and if that makes him less useful for a certain activity it is a product of his style of play. Why is it a negative connotation of the individuals wanting to raid efficiently? The Druid made a choice, to be a second-class warrior, he has to live by it. It's not to say he'd never be able to raid, he'd just face the consequences of his decision when trying to get in behind other classes.

The other irony is, at times you get the perception that people have a reticence about some of the decisions that might have to be made to better accommodate raiding because it will ruin some sort of holy grail philosophy we have. I'm starting to question that. The unique thing about The Dungeoneers, I'd like to think, is how we navigate through issues raised by relationships and group theory, because we are all adult, mature and a core of us work in roles that demand we are very good at this stuff. It's not the philosophy itself, which is quite limiting really. Now, I'm not saying moving to accommodate raiding more isn't a ruinous territory that has to be navigated carefully, it does, but I think The Dungeoneers are capable of navigating it. The point I'm trying to make is some of the philosophies of efficient raiding are actually less selfish than some of the principles The Dungeoneers work on now, as the whole basis of raiding is designed on the principle of combining to achieve an objective for all, and working to benefit everyone. Now, it doesn't always work like that, but then that is where the The Dungeoneer philosophy truly comes in, we have to solve that issue, keep what is good about raiding, and avoid the negatives. We've done it, by and large with the rest of the game, I don't see why raiding can't be any different. It just need a bit of thought, and the strategy to be sold and championed to the members.

The Dungeoneers are perfectly capable of forming their own vision of endgame raiding and accommodating that within the Guild, it's just a pity, at the moment, the focus seems to be on protecting something we have, without actually sitting back to question how good that really is in the face of an ever changing game.

One thing is for sure, if you'd have asked me at The Dungeoneer's party that I'd be a voice for advocating potential changes to the guild to better support endgame raiding (not that I'm 100% sure what they should be yet, tweaks in most cases I think), I'd have said you were seriously deluded. Well, things change as they say.

The final problem is I think The Dungeoneers may have moved into being a social structure that does feel like work to keep organised, rather than the friendly gathering it was before. How it all pans out in the end will probably dictate how a lot of people approach or view the game. I suspect the honeymoon period is over, and the 'marriage' becomes a little bit more like work. I myself, have to eventually decide whether that's something I want.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
The End of Casual Raiding

The post-60 landscape of World of Warcraft changes significantly when patch 1.10 comes out, due to a number of changes Blizzard are making to loot and the instances that house them. Basically, once you reach 60 you tend to do the following instances: Dire Maul, Scholomance, Stratholme, Black Rock Depths, Lower Black Rock Spire and Upper Black Rock Spire. All these dungeons can be raided, which basically means you can take in more characters than the instance is set for, which makes it much easier to beat. The idea being you can only complete quests by going into the instance with the set amount of people, but you can get the loot by raiding it. As an example, Scholomance and Stratholme are 5-man instances, but can be raided with up to 10 men. This is quite important, as while we all like a challenge to beat, the game forces you to make multiple trips into these instances for gear, and you don't want to face the challenge each and every time. The exception to this is Dire Maul, which is designed for 5-men, and has a strict 5-man limit: it cannot be raided. The result of this is Dire Maul is visited much less than some of the other instances despite having some of the best loot, often better than the set-piece sets available in the other instances.

The status of Dire Maul in the game is important, because in patch 1.10, Scholomance, Stratholme and Lower Black Rock Spire will have strict 5-man limits imposed, which is how you need to do them to complete quests, and Upper Black Rock Spire will have a 10-man limit imposed. They are making changes to the instances, and they are improving the loot. This is going to make every visit to those instances, for every bit of loot, a Herculean 5-man effort. Now, they are increasing the drop rate of loot, so gear should appear more often, but it's still going to be a significant increase in time. I've done Lower Black Rock Spire and Stratholme 5-man, and while it can be done if you use all the tools you have available to you, it takes a while, it is slow and methodical and takes concentration. It certainly doubles the amount of time it takes, and you usually got the odd wipe just due to the odd missed patrol (moving mobs).

It is going to considerably change the landscape of the game, as the whole concept of raiding will cease to exist, unless you actually go into an instance that is designed for 20 men or more. In effect, no instance exists in the game that can be overpowered by taking in more men than it was designed for. So, for people who don't have regular, organised access to the 20-man content, they face always having to find 5-man groups, which can be quite difficult as you tend to need certain roles filled otherwise you just make your life difficult.

To be honest I'm a bit torn on whether this is a good idea or not. I understand the reasoning behind it, Blizzard are obviously have an agenda to re-use as much of the content as possible, and by improving the loot and making them more challenging they get a return on an investment they've already made. They are also attempting to make more content for people who enjoy 5-man instances, though I'm not sure endlessly repeating the same ones as 5-man teams is what they had in mind. The Dire Maul and higher instances are much harder than The Sunken Temple and below. I'm sure this all links in with the strategy for the expansion pack as well, The Burning Crusade. The main problem I have is the thought of visiting these places repeatedly as a 5-man group just fills me with dread. Yes, I relish a challenge as much as the next man, but after the third or fifth time? You're looking for it to become a bit of a social exercise by that point. The other problem is, I've been in some pretty bad raids overpowering these instances and they wipe and fail to get to the end due to lack of organisation and skills, I have no idea how people who going to do these instances in 5-man pickup groups formed from random people. We did one side of Stratholme today, it took 5 hours for one reason or another, and this was with various people from The Dungeoneers.

There is an argument, that if you've got the numbers, it might be better to just ignore the 5-man instances and just constantly run the 20-man raids. I can see the logic in that. How this all pans out, and how it influences my time spent on World of Warcraft is yet to be seen. It will have a significant influence on the game though.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
More Thoughts on Endgame Raiding

The more you think about this Zul'Gurub and beyond raiding lark, the more you start to think it involves a certain number of decisions to be made for it to be 'anything but unproductive', and all these small decisions interlink to eventually result in the same endpoint: the guild is organised around raiding. I'm not sure that conclusion is 100% true, I'm sort of thinking it through as I type, but it's proving to be an interesting exercise in trying to see through how The Dungeoneers are going to navigate this issue.

It's become obvious, as we all knew it would really, we just wanted to delay the decision I think, that we would have to proscribe limits to classes on the endgame instances. This is common sense, but it introduces a whole load of potential issues, because before it was simple, if you signed first then you came and anyone else would get a shout if a place opened up. Now you have multiple lists, one for each class, and multiple reserve queues, the order of each will have to be tracked, especially the reserve queues. As a result, it makes things more difficult to organise and potentially prone to argument when someone believes rightly or wrongly they were higher in the reserve queue. This is especially true if you are not endgame raiding more than once or twice a week.

It also becomes an issue for actually making sure people can get on raids. Using the old model there was 20 places for everyone to grab, and luckily we've never had a massive problem with over subscription, but this has changed as well now. The new model will mean there will only be say 5 Mage places, 3 Warlock places or 2 Warrior places, and so on. Even more problematic, we may not have enough of the classes to organise two raids at once. This will mean people will have to come on other days, but then some of the people will come to both? The logical conclusion of this is people who have a class that is oversubscribed start leaving The Dungeoneers, and people the guild will naturally start to target members that better fill the raid compositions. Even if it's not an official decision, it will happen as members will want more successful raids. As a result, the potential problem is guild membership and turnover starts forming around raiding.

While we don't know what sort of DKP system we may introduce, a DKP system feeds into this, of course. Just look at the example of having say 12 Warriors in the guild, and most raids needing 3, a core of them will by definition go on more raids than some of the others even if all of them are available and want to. This would mean some Warriors would have more DKP, or you start making the DKP rules horrendously complicated in an attempt to give points for people who would have come if a place was available. Nightmare.

I'm pretty sure, under this model, it's not long before signing up for a raid becomes something a bit more than just checking to see what's going on and signing up because you've got time and you think it will be fun. You'll be checking the schedules constantly because you don't want to miss the slots for your class, and more importantly the more you miss the more chance you have being in a raid with people with more DKP when you do happen to grab a slot.

The natural decision is to start using tools to aid with these issues, one such tool is GEM (Raid Assist Manager), and it is very good. It allows you to set-up raids, have members subscribe, monitor the situation with reserves so everyone knows the situation. It's good. Even that has some issues though, as there is facilities in GEM for the raid leader to ban specific people, and to select people who have requested to be on the raid over others. How tempting would it be for people to select a Warlock they know has better equipment or less DKP than them over someone else who signed up first? You also have the issue of people potentially using GEM because they prefer it, and they have good arguments that it may do the job better than the website, but the guild policy is to use the website. The guild within a guild issue.

So, you have all the above, and I've not even moved onto the whole issue of it just providing people with things to be annoyed and argue about. It is inevitable disagreements will arise, as people will start adding their own philosophy into raid set-up rather than the guild one.

Now, when I write stuff like this I get called the portent of doom, but that's not the case, I just think these things through. A few or none of them may happen. The issue for me is this: is endgame raiding actually totally incompatible with the approach of The Dungeoneers? You see, all the above little steps are all sensible to one degree or another in their own ways, but they add up to one hell of a change, as the overall effect is greater than the some of their parts.

Is it possible to do endgame raiding in a reasonably productive manner without essentially cultivating a membership that are primarily about endgame raiding? I think the jury is undecided. It is in my thoughts at the moment, but we shall see. It's important because despite being on the raiding end of the spectrum within The Dungeoneers, I'm wanting to raid as a social activity, not a one that is too planned, structured, passive aggressive and subject to politics.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 17/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
Raid Leader Zoltis

In the interest of providing some contribution to The Dungeoneers, I've started a regular Tuesday Raid. Basically, every Tuesday a raid will take place at 2000 hours UK time. I had to think about this for a bit before I did it. Do I have time? Do I want the responsibility? Is there a point, as I actually got the impression that a raid probably kicked off at 2000 hours UK time every evening anyway? After some thought I did it.

The simple reason is I like raiding, so I might as well have some control over it. This gives me a mechanism to have a scheduled event, every week which can be used to hit instances. I also believe in the theory that in any particular social group you have people who step up, and then people who wait for others to do it. I didn't want the new, larger guild, to lose momentum because the larger proportion of members are waiting for something to be organised. In truth, they can just try and do it themselves however they want, and still can, but I thought I'd put something regular on the calendar. This also goes in reverse, as I've been reliant on other people to do this myself, which means I'm largely passive in raids. I don't need to know the tactics as everyone else does. I don't need to know CTRaid because other people are doing it, and so on. This gives me the opportunity to do the whole Raid Leader thing, ideally in the domain of Upper Black Rock Spire and below and get to know the tools, the people management element of it and so on. I actually think it's a useful skill, and it's interesting because I find it more of a challenge doing it in World of Warcraft than I would in real life. Weird. It's the not seeing people face to face thing I think.

Organising the raid was different, the main area that was a bit tense was the organisation of the looting. It takes a bit of getting used to, assessing what should be just rolled for, what should be passed and then rolled on in a more controlled manner. It's all to easy, when you've got ten loot rolls zooming up your screen to miss the highest roll and tell someone else they won, luckily I only did this once, with a basic chest, and not something that is Bind on Pickup (which means it's only useably by that person once he takes it). You also find that you have to control the pace, as certain parts of the instance can be sort of rushed, but there comes a point in which proper tactics have to start being used - this is certainly the case in Upper Black Rock Spire. You also need to have a knowledge of the tactics used in the dungeon itself, this is why I"m not rushing to go to Zul'Gurub unless another person can take over Raid Leader responsibilities, I'm not 100% versed in the tactics yet.

Still, it was an interesting experience and I think it is going to continue to prove to be interesting, and also, in a strange way, actually a learning experience. We shall see how future Tuesdays progress.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
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