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Ian O'Rourke
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Breaking The Set Monthly Fee
Keywords: Video Games; MMORPG.

A while back I discussed how Dungeons and Dragons Online, quality of the game itself aside, was really broken because of the decision to charge a monthly fee for the game. Due to the fact DDO has no persistent world, and is largely a vehicle for playing through modules that are provided over time the monthly fee was at odds with how the game needed to deliver its content both in terms of frequency and types. This demonstrates a problem for games focused on delivering steady content to one degree or another with respect to how they charge.

While some games decide to go the completely 'free' route, such as Guild Wars, which you don't pay to play (though they will release a new boxed game periodically), other games, such as Dungeon Runners, are focusing on paying smaller amounts for extra dungeons and the like. I suspect these models will succeed, indeed, Guild Wars has already succeeded. One model that I can't see succeeding is the intrinsic linking of advantages in game with the amount you pay. Now, there is a fine line between what is a small payment for extra content, such as paying 5 GBP to have access to the Dread Dungeon of the Beholder, which will contain better equipment and stuff within, and paying extra just to have an advantage directly. One example were this fine line has been crossed would seem to be Archlord, as if I'm reading this right, the subscribers have a choice of three subscription levels and the more you are paying the bigger advantages you get over the guy paying less. This isn't for new content and lands which gives you access to advantageous items and the like when you challenge the content, it is quite blatantly an exercise in paying more makes you better. This seems to me to be a bit like having a pay to play chess game in which the person who pays more gets to have an additional Queen instead of a pawn.

The PLAYplus system is detailed here, and it can be quite clearly seen that you pay under the standard MMO fee for the Squire level (7 GBP), over the standard MMO fee for the Knight level (17 GBP) and a bloody ridiculous fee for the Lord level (31 GBP). At Lord level you're paying 31 GPB per month, that's like the price of a completely new game every month. Let's face it, if I was paying 31 GBP per month and someone else was paying half as much or less than a third of what I was paying I'd want to have immediate access to better stuff so I could lord it over them due to the size of my wallet. This seems to be what is happening, as three advantageous items are listed as examples of what might be given to people paying more, and one of them is a Talisman of Awakening which provides an increased rate of XP acquisition.

I'm sure some people are defending this by saying that the items the 31 GBP brigade get can probably be found in the game by lesser paying people, and I'm sure they can, but I'm sure no one is under any illusion that anyone paying 31 GBP per month, a grand total of 24 GBP a month more than some other players, won't be expecting to have a significant advantage all the time, not just until the cheap players get some gear.

I can't see how this payment model can succeed, I really can't. I have no idea how the people behind the game have come to a decision based on the fact this payment model will work. It will doom the game. True, some people may come to the game, pay the highest fee to gain the advantage because they have that sort of mentality, but they'll soon discover no idiot has signed up under the Squire rates anyway, in fact everyone is using the Lord rate, and they'll soon get sick of paying that much a month with no one to kick around on the lower fee. It's just a not a model that will sustain any sense of long-term play, if any play at all.

Complete madness. I'm all for experimenting with the way people pay for MMO games, but someone was smoking something when this idea was proposed.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Fall of Ragnoros

A month ago I mentioned how The Dungeoneers had penetrated Molten Core and made steady progress to the ancient fire elemental himself: Ragnoros. Tonight The Dungeoneers made their way to Ragnoros again, stood before him in his lava pit and gave him a good kicking, killed him and took his stuff. In true epic imagery style, all that remained of him was his massive hammer, lying like some gigantic piece of wreckage in the lava.

This is a major progress point in World of Warcraft, as the theory goes that only some ridiculously low statistic of players actually see the inside of Molten Core never mind take down its most difficult boss. This is madness when you consider all the people playing the game pay the same fee yet if the majority of them aren't getting into Molten Core neither are they seeing a whole host of other content. I can't remember the statistic, but to give some sort of idea of how mad it is, it's currently believed only four guilds on the Silvermoon EU server have taken down Ragnoros and are doing post-Molten Core content. Even if you assume a number of guilds may be doing Molten Core but not Ragnoros, that can't be a very large percentage of the server populace.

The aim now is to spend a bit of time seriously reducing the amount of time it takes us to complete Molten Core, in the hope of clearing the whole instance in one evening. This will mean, getting 40 players together aside, Molten Core can be done in one evening allowing us to farm it like locusts for gear. The aim being to gear people as much as possible and then rise to the challenge of Black Wing Lair, the next major dungeon in the game.

What's interesting about taking down Ragnoros is it's easy to see how hardcore raiding guilds become hardcore raiding guilds. It's all too easy to extend the points system for allocating loot into areas outside of the raid to try and reward people for farming. It's all too easy to start jealously giving loot to those who can use it the most efficiently in future raids in order to ensure better progress. It's all too easy to start picking on those the raid believe aren't holding up their own end due to not bringing the relevant potions or having the required gear. In short, as raiding becomes one of the primary things you do in the guild, you have to be constantly vigilant to make sure the guild isn't turned into something you no longer want to be a member of.

Is it true The Dungeoneers could have potentially progressed through the content faster by being much more selfish and hardcore over innumerable decisions? Yes. The trouble is, it wouldn't have been half as much fun because it wouldn't have felt as casual, it would have felt like work, and the members we have probably wouldn't be the members we'd have under that regime. Any theoretical increase in progress isn't worth sacrificing for the overall approach the guild takes, because ultimately your sacrificing a lot for what amounts to getting a few items that don't really exist a bit quicker.

At the end of the day it's supposed to be a game. It's supposed to be a social occassion. It's supposed to be fun.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
What's Xbox Live For? Porn!
Keywords: Xbox Live; Video Games.

One of the more interesting peripherals for the Xbox 360 comes out next month: the Xbox Live Vision camera, which integrates web cam antics into the 360. The PlayStation 2 has had a camera for some time, with integrated motion sensing and the like so you can actually use the camera as a controller for certain types of game. What's interesting about the Xbox 360 camera is it's integration with Xbox Live, as well as the games.

Obviously, those with a camera will be able to start having video as part of their conversations with other people on Xbox Live. You can already have voice communication, now you can choose to see the other guy's ugly mug as well. One of the disappointing aspects to this is the fact Xbox Live communications are now only one-to-one unless part of a game, while on the original Xbox you could pull multiple people into a conversation. This means, on the 360, you're not going to be able to have a group of friends all video conferencing, which is a bit annoying. Unless they've changed something, but I don't think they have.

The camera will also be integrated into games. One of the features I've seen is the ability of the camera to take front and profile shots of your face and then turn that into a model of your head in the game. This is a great idea as it can now be your mug playing poker or running around shooting terrorists in Rainbow Six: Vegas. I'm assuming the camera also has the motion detection abilities, so it won't be long before you can use the camera as an interface to games. One of the best games on the PlayStation 2 allows you to literally shadow box, but your punches control the actions of a character in a fight. It's fun in a group, anyway.

The biggest use will no doubt be for porn. Let's face it, whenever a new medium for video presents itself, it will invariable be used for porn. What amazes me is how Microsoft plans to deal with this as it will happen, it's 100% guaranteed. Funnily enough, they seem to have enabled all the features for it to become really popular. You can use the camera to send digital pictures to other Xbox Live subscribers, so people can now send text, voice and video messages (or a combination) to other people on Xbox Live. I'm sure a number of them will end up being shots of naked people. You can also have your gamer profile have a picture of you instead of the selection of graphics already available. I'm sure it won't be long before those are pictures of body parts other than the cranium. If you have a picture in your game profile it only shows to people on your friends list, so this should reduce the number of profiles visibly sporting penises. Finally, but by no means least, two people in a video conversation can activate the vibration function on each other's controllers. This has no obvious use other than in some sort of video-based phone sex.

I can't help but think Xbox Live is going to become a bit more of a surreal place in the coming year. I doubt I'll see any of it, but I'm also sure it will take place. Then again, maybe it won't, as a lot of people don't even talk on comms, never mind enter into the murky world of video. Still, the camera is also perfectly usable on the PC, so it serves two purposes and is almost certainly a worthy purchase.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
A Lean, Mean, Ice Bolt Throwing Machine

A couple of months ago I discussed how my break away from World of Warcraft had allowed me to adjust to the endgame, and the fact it was all about the bling, and take a different approach to the game. Basically, I came to accept that playing the game from now on, and progressing through it, was a matter of turning Zoltis into the best killing machine he could be with the time I have available to play the game, and that this would mean accumulating gear. Well, something seems to be working, because for the last two Molten Core raids Zoltis has come 3rd on the Damage Meter. Interestingly, at least one of the people above me is probably taking a lot of healing resources to keep his place, while I take hardly any.

What's strange about this is the new position on the damage chart seems to have come from nowhere, as he'd usually languish around the bottom of the top ten, behind the odd Warlock and a host of Hunters and Rogues. I've not changed the way I'm playing at all and I'm still not using any sort of enhancement magic to increase damage. This is the most surprising thing, as I know other people take potions to cause more damage, and yet they are still behind me on the damage meter. This is fascinating, because those people spend time between raids farming the materials to make those potions, yet I spend considerably less time playing between raids and yet my damage output seems to be at least holding its own against them.

It's a bit weird.

It must come down to gear to some extent, but then everyone's gear is getting better so even that's a bit of a mystery. It's good that my gear is now allowing me to have circa +300 damage without significant impact on my available health and mana. There is also room for improvement there as I can still get better equipment here and there that should bring the total to +400 damage and this is without any enchantments that could be put on the equipment (which requires farming again). Of course, I can't help but think the obvious reason for this rise through the damage chart is because other people are not putting as much effort in and have sort of given up their positions.

Anyway, I'm not really that interested in the whole Damage Meter thing, it was just a surprise more than anything else, and I suppose a bit gratifying since the default job of the Mage class is to reign down as much destruction on the enemy as possible. At least it is one indicator that the path of pimping out Zoltis with better and better gear is having a significant effect.

Thankfully, Zoltis won't be becoming a hermit in the Swamp of Sorrows either, as the plan for generating cash seems to have worked, with Herbalism proving to be a great way to be self-sufficient.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
Saints Row, Rap and Respect..Dawg
Keywords: Video Games.

I'm not someone who feels old. I don't feel old because I'm still clued into popular culture, so I can quite happily discuss history with someone one day, the latest news stories with someone the next and then what's happening on Celebrity Love Island on another. Diversity is the key. Still, there is one area in which I feel old, and it's a generational thing.

I have zero understanding of the current younger generation's fascination with gangster culture, rap music and, by and large, the whole African American influence. Now, I hasten to say, I have no problem with the fact it a proportion of this stuff comes from a certain image of African American culture, it's more the complete inability to understand why every kid wants to imitate it. It just doesn't connect with me in any way, so I lack the ability to understand why it connects with them. The feeling is probably exactly the same confusion as what some adults felt when Rock and Roll came along or their kids started wearing pins through their noses.

What triggered this realisation? Well, over the weekend we had visitors, and my nephew basically spent every waking moment he could playing on the Xbox 360. In an attempt to add some diversity to my gaming collection, which consists of two military FPS games, he downloaded what looks like every available game demo on Xbox Live. One of those games was Saints Row. Now, Saints Row isn't unique, it's what's called a GTA-style game, in that you are given a city, or a large proportion of a city, to play around in, but you play around it in as a criminal of some sort. I'm not someone who comes wading in with some moral imperative to remove these games off she shelf, but I do question the appeal, and more importantly the fascination they hold for some people.

In Saints Row you're basically a street thug looking for respect, trying to control and expand your territory. In the demo you can do numerous things, such as rob stores, be sent on missions to recruit prostitutes from other gangs, barge into enemy gang hideouts and shoot up the place and even perform hits on other gang members. You can also pull people from their cars, essentially performing a car-jacking. You can also cause gang wars in the streets, and shoot up cops if they get in the way. You have a character who needs to earn money and get his respect meter as high as possible, as the higher that is the better missions you get. Your character even stands in the gangster fashion, with one shoulder slightly lower than the other and holds his gun sideways as he blows away other gang members. You constantly get told how hard you are, how dangerous you are, how reckless you are and basically that people respect you for being a bad ass, violent mother fucker. It's safe to say you're almost a psychopath, and it's certainly true to say your respect for human life is quite low.

I just don't get it. As I say, I'm not prudish over this stuff, or sitting on the moral high ground, as I'll happily watch a good movie that deals with this exact same subject matter. I watched and really enjoyed 8 Mile, which is sort of in the same territory, and I've watched many crime dramas of one sort of another, obviously. It's not so much not understanding that people exist who live this sort of lifestyle, or that great dramatic stories might be able to be woven from them, but the complete lack of understanding as to why a generation of middle class kids, whether white or black, want to embroil, imitate and immerse themselves in the lifestyle. I like some Rap music, but the majority of I can't fully relate to and, to be honest, sort of wish they'd just stop going on about their hard life, the guns, the violence and making sure they had respect. I mean come on, what the hell are people doing adopting the whole thing of wearing their trousers round their ankles, speaking in mock African American accents and calling people 'bro' all the time?

So, I suppose I've hit the time when a younger generations musical tastes, and associated culture around it, are a complete loss to me. A complete loss. It's a bit sad that it's happening, but I suppose it's inevitable. I just hope I never become like some of the people I know who are part of the generation above me, as they are totally divorced from popular culture completely, it's as if they exist in the same world, but are isolated from it at the same time. Is that inevitable also?

We shall see.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Sky is Falling...Again

The sky possibly did fall a while back, but Azeroth is a fantasy world so it surely can fall again. If the fact The Burning Crusade was going to give the Paladin class to the Horde and the Shaman class to the Alliance wasn't enough, now a whole load of people are complaining about the 25-man raid cap in The Burning Crusade as if it's the end of the world.

As far as I'm concerned, the more I here about The Burning Crusade the better it gets. I like the fact each faction now has the same classes so that the dungeons can be balanced for all without having to take into account that each faction has a class missing. Blizzard are already announcing some of the new abilities each class will get to make them viable classes in raids. The Dungeoneers have been experimenting lately with a few class changes and I believe the conclusion is having a shadow priest and a balance druid in the raid works really well as a damage multiplier for the Mage and Warlock DPS classes. I had a balance Druid and a Shaman in my group on the last Molten Core raid and the combination of the +3% crit chance and efficiently and well timed totems made an amazing difference. We are still undecided what's best on balance, but experimentation is good. I can certainly understand how some of the Paladin blessings give the Alliance significant advantages in challenging the difficult dungeons based on how the Shaman totems helped.

I also like this 25-man raid cap, bringing to an end the 40-man raids, though one was planned for The Burning Crusade, so there might be one more. What it means is there will hopefully be some good 25-man raids along the lines of Zul'Gurub in the new expansion. This doesn't mean the game has got easier, as Zul'Gurub is, by and large, harder than Molten Core. It's easy to get lost in the crowd in a 40-man raid, while everyone has to be more on the ball in a 20-man raid, so hopefully this will also be true in a 25-man. Challenging and more available content, what can be bad about that? Still, making a decision to make the typical raid size 25 is a brave decision, as it goes against any convention any MMORPG has set in the past, and as far as I'm concerned that means Blizzard is willing to make hard decisions to appeal to a broader market, which is always a good sign.

The main people complaining are the hardcore raiding guilds, who have organised themselves around the 40-man dynamic and they see a shift to more raids being 25-man as something that will destroy their guilds. To be honest, I'm not going to loose any sleep over this at all, if these guilds are focused that much on being efficient at doing 40-man raids above all else that they can't adjust to smaller raids it's probably safe to suggest that all that binds them really is loot. If they had bonds and goals beyond soullessly defeating the 40-man content they would be welcoming the variation in content, allowing them to do 5,10,15,25 and 40-man dungeons with their colleagues in the guild. The Dungeoneers do 40-man Molten Core and 20-man Zul'Gurub at the moment, without it being a problem. Indeed, Zul'Gurub has become the place we sort of trash on an ad-hoc basis as 20 people are relatively easy to get, hopefully it will be the same for 25-man raids.

The other fascinating idea is scaling the dungeons to different difficulty levels. I'm not sure how this is going to work exactly, but one example was Hellfire Citadel, a level 60-62 dungeon, and as a result one of the first you will encounter in Outlands. It was suggested this would be usable at level 70 by having a setting for that level with increased difficulty and better loot. This is a great idea as it doesn't mean this content gets left behind as all the characters in the game level beyond it. I can't see how this is a bad idea.

Interestingly, they are also trashing the honour ladder for PvP. At the moment, you earn honour for partaking in PvP, primarily in the various Battlegrounds. The more honour you have the higher rank you get and the higher rank you get the better gear you can get access to. The trouble is the ranked ladder the honour points work on is relative to everyone taking part, so there is always only so many highly ranked people on the server at any one time, and unless you keep up your PvP rate, your rank will decay. This is being changed so that honour points become like a currency, being able to be traded in for items and stuff. This is an interesting one, but also a challenging one to implement right. Honour points will now be like loyalty points you earn at supermarkets and petrol stations, the difficulty being how do you balance the amount of points you need to buy things between people who irregularly shop and those who constantly shop? A difficult question, as you don't want people who PvP infrequently never having enough honour points, or those who do it 247 being able to buy literally anything.

All you hear is people complaining about The Burning Crusade, while everything I hear about it has me thinking it's going to be one of the best things to happen to the game. What's certainly proving to be true, as I've always argued, specifically when the the uproar over Horde Paladins and Alliance Shamans erupted, was all the changes can't be viewed in isolation. The Burning Crusade will change the game on numerous levels and the changes are a mosaic of related elements. It's impossible to view any change in isolation and say you don't like it. All you can do is decide whether you like the game as a whole once the expansion is live.

What is interesting, is how the fact people invest so much time in World of Wacraft, and any other MMORPG for that matter, that they are unable to view it like a game, it's almost as if Blizzard are screwing with their career, future job prospects and prosperity - such is their fear of change. You wouldn't believe it was just a game you play when you have time and when the moment takes you. A number of people describe playing an MMORPG as having a second job, it obviously is for some people, in more ways than just the time investment.

Personally, I think The Burning Crusade is shaping up to be an expansion that is taking risks to open more content to more people for longer, and is actually showing that Blizzard is trying to crack the problem that a lot of games in the MMORPG genre have: they become the domain of a select few who dominate every strata of the game and ultimately bring down the game in the long-term.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
Becoming A Hermit In The Swamp of Sorrows

World of Warcraft has an economy, of sorts, as characters get gold by various means, rewards for quests and selling stuff, and they also have a myriad of ways to spend that cash, buying stuff, changing their talents and repairing their equipment. It's quite a simple system put to other MMO games, but it is an economy.

Obviously, one element of playing the game is making sure your character remains financially viable.

It's not been a big issue up until recently, because Zoltis has had plenty of money, like 700g and higher. The quests he's been doing have meant his gold reserves have been going in the upward direction. The trouble is now, the quests have dried up, he's bought a warhorse for 800g and in line with this his costs are shooting up. The main culprit at the moment is the purple tax, the higher cost you pay for repairing epic items. As The Dungeoneers have progressed through Molten Core Zoltis has got more and more epic items, combined with wiping on the bosses we are learning to beat, and you have rising costs. The primary loss for dying is the fact your gear gets damaged and has to be repaired. It's not unusual, on a raid that includes a boss we can't beat comfortably, if at all, to have repair costs of 2-3g. Not as high as some people, but still an issue. If you then combine that with the need to start investing in potions to aid with the bosses such as Ragnoros (which will be a confrontation every Saturday for the foreseeable future) you have another cost. Also, when we start to challenge Black Wing Lair we'll face tougher bosses and probably generate even more repair costs, and we'll have more epic gear in the process.

So, I'm faced with taking actions in the game to ensure Zoltis doesn't go bankrupt, thus not covering his costs, and basically having to go live in the Swamp of Sorrows as a mad hermit.

So, the first decision I've made is to stop ignoring my professions. In line with the art of avoidance, I totally ignored my professions while levelling. I didn't even learn first aid. So, Zoltis went from 1-60, and then quite a lot of time at level 60 with his sole profession being herbalism at 3 (out of 300). I changed this a while back by levelling first aid, as it was obvious this was essential for raiding Molten Core, and now I'm levelling the herbalism skill. The goal here is to collect them to sell on the auction house, hopefully generating cash, and to also give to guild members to make me potions, hopefully for free. This gets rid of one cost, and hopefully provides another form of income.

I am now also faced with farming. I shudder at the thought. For those not in the know, farming involves killing or collecting things repeatedly over the course of hours in order to generate cash. It's just a boring and mindless slog. It's not challenging and it's all done in areas you've visited before. You do it to collect the stuff that drops so you can sell the stuff. One of the main reasons I liked World of Warcraft was I'd never had to farm. Ever. It seems now the price of challenging the endgame is rising, and the answer is to farm, just a bit. I'm going to have try numerous strategies for this, the options on the cards at the moment are laying waste to the Air Elementals in Silithus, trashing Shadowfang Keep or hoping the herbs collected once have a Herbalism skill to speak of sell well.

So, next week we shall see if Zoltis becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams, covers his cost with a modest profit, or ends up feeling like a sweatshop worker in an attempt to desperately cover the costs of delving into these dungeons.

If all of them fail, then I better get used to the the Swamp of Sorrows.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 04/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
Insidious Marketing Genius

I may have mentioned this before, I can't really remember, but a World of Wacraft CCG is being produced. For those not in the know, CCG stands for Collectable Card Game. You have no idea what one is? I'm sure you do, otherwise you wouldn't be hear reading this? A few examples that proved to be major hits were: Magic: The Gathering and more childish stuff like Pokemon. We've also had a CCG for every single property known to man, Star Trek and Star Wars included. In years gone by I've seen kids trading Pokemon cards endlessly, though I don't think they ever actually played the game. I've also seen a hall the size of a football field full of tables with people playing Magic: The Gathering competitively. Hell, I know the person who went to New York to represent the UK in the Raw Deal Championship, which is the CCG of American Wrestling (yes, I know, I despair as well).

Personally, I can't abide the games, but it's suffice to say they are popular, they make a ton money, and producing one for World of Warcraft is a stroke of genius.

It's a stroke of genius because the market is perfect for it. You see World of Warcraft and the typical CCG have a lot of similarities, despite the fact one is a computer game and the other is a card game. First, they both cater to an obsessive collector mentality, and not only that, they both link the need to obsessively collect to having better ways to achieve victory in the game. You may still lack skill, but you have better tools of the trade (gear in World of Warcraft and more and better cards in the CCG). Second, they both cater to the efficient build mentality, the concept of finding the best combination of numbers and applied strategy that will grind your opponent into the dust. In World of Wacraft this manifests in terms of how you spend your talent points (combined with gear) for maximum efficiency, while in a CCG it is how you construct your deck (with your available cards) for maximum efficiency. Hell, the CCG even follows a similar sort of naming conventions, with different deck builds being given names, just like different talent builds in World of Warcraft (and Diablo before it) get names. It's a match made in heaven. It's not surprising that one of the best people in The Dungeoneers for analysing talent builds in World of Warcraft is that exact same person who went to New York.

The added brilliance comes from the fact that certain rare cards will give you rewards in the computer game. This is an absolute master stroke, as people in World of Warcraft will collect anything and do anything to have something the other guy doesn't have even if it's just a pet turtle. So, not only do you have two totally different games that appeal to the same mindset, you also have people who will never play the game collecting the cards for the extra stuff they can unlock in the game should they find one of the bonus cards in a pack. We are lead to believe the extra things you can get are purely cosmetic, as if they did anything else the World of Warcraft community would literally explode, but this won't reduce their appeal.

If you also consider a CCG is quite a good item to sell, they apparently represent a good mark-up, you can bet that each and every Game and Game Station store is going to have these cards prominently displayed complete with large and colourful stands. It's going to sell on an unprecedented scale, it won't matter how good the game actually is.

To be honest, the game actually does look interesting, as it is focused around a hero, his talents, skills and equipment, etc. As a result, two people battling it out with the card game is meant to feel like two heroes having a duel. While I'm not going to say this is the only game that does this, it's one of the few that do, most of them present you with several characters or creatures to use, the focus on it being a battle between two individuals, and the rest of the cards representing what that hero can do and equipment he can use, is quite unique. What is even more unique is you can form parties and have two parties fighting, allowing battles with multiple participants on each side. I think this is even more unique, but I'm not an expert.

I can safely say I'll be keeping well clear of it. It will almost certainly consume a core of The Dungeoneers though, since a lot of them actually know each other from the CCG community, to the extent one was the web master for the Raw Deal CCG website. This means some of them will spend an inordinate amount of time on World of Warcraft, and then one of their other hobbies will potentially be dominated by World of Warcraft as well.

Still, no matter what I think about the whole CCG thing, I have to tip my hat to whoever had the idea, because it is guaranteed to make a complete bucket load of cash.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
And Before Ragnoros We Stand

Deep under the volcano Blackrock Spire sits the Molten Core. The Molten Core was created three centuries ago when some mad old Dwarf leader decided to summon an ancient fire elemental to defeat his bearded enemies. He did better than he could ever have imagined and released Ragnoros, one of the four elemental cronies of the Old Gods, from his ancient prison. Ragnoros subsequently trashed a Dwarf city and decided to create the volcano of Blackrock Spire. He then set up home in the Molten Core deep below the mountain, a rather hot place full of all sorts of monsters, and a lot of his evil chums. Needless to say he's waiting for a small army of heroes to come, trash his crib, kill his scheming mates, kill him and take his stuff.

Well, The Dungeoneers like to do what their names suggests, and we don't like to disappoint.

This weekend and last weekend has represented everything that raiding is about, both the highs and lows. Each weekend for the last three months we have been trashing Molten Core and getting better at it, to the extent we can now move through the first six bosses in the place with relative ease in our Friday slot, and we can do the last two and Major Domo on Saturday leaving some time for Ragnoros himself. All the bosses are on farm status, with the exception of Major Domo, as we only beat him for the first time a weak ago. Last weak we set ourselves the challenge of beating Major Domo, and we wiped, wiped some more, and then wiped even more, we didn't get frustrated and annoyed and just tweaked tactics, but we didn't give up, and ultimately we beat him. At that point it became a game, a very good game, in some ways it also became a bit like a sport, as it was a team win, a team of 40 people coming together to beat a challenge. It was an experience.

This weekend the aim was to do the same again, but stand before Ragnoros himself and try and take him down. We had an efficient run on Friday, and we had an efficient run yesterday, the only problem was we stalled on Major Domo, as it took us four attempts to take him down as we sorted out the most efficient healing. This left little time for Ragnoros himself, but we decided we'd have one attempt, just to get a feel for the big guy. It was well worth the look, as everyone gasped on comms when he came rising out of his lava pit, the guy is massive. I was expecting him to look like any other fire elemental, but just a bit bigger, but no, he does look like one of the four ancient elemental cronies of the Old Gods. He's massive. It was all suitably epic, a confrontation of Gandalf versus the Balrog proportions, potentially one of the most impressive moments in the game so far. We tried, we got him down to 59% health and then died. This is good, as we'd never faced him before and our various enhancement spells had ran out, most of us had run out of potions and we still blasted through 40% of his health. It's going to be a suitably rewarding experience taking the big guy down.

What makes this all impressive is The Dungeoneers are on the rise. When the original members of the guild started playing World of Warcraft there was an impression it was a great game but that certain content would always be beyond us, namely the 40-man raid content. In short, we'd be casual players always looking for the sorry excuse for content Blizzard might throw our way. This has proven not to be true. At one point I reached a conclusion that the first year anniversary of the guild might have been its high point, but I'm glad to say I was wrong on that score. The Dungeoneers is proving to be a way of challenging a whole wealth of excellent content with a bunch of sane people with the right attitude. It's not just about the loot, it's about beating the content, the loot is just the reward, and a vehicle to go on and beat more of it. We are viewed as one of the prime guilds to be a member of due to this attitude and also because we are making our own way through the content, which is better than joining a guild that has already mastered it all. The guild may have gone through a troublesome patch, but we've come out of it stronger than ever.

Ragnoros, we're coming to get you!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/07/2006 Bookmark and Share

The title makes no sense? The amazing thing is it does to some people, I believe ZOMG STFU PLIX in on-line speak essentially means 'Oh my god, shut the fuck up, please'. I think the please on the end sort of adds something. Over the last year, though it seems to have got more intense in the last two months, I've been introduced to a whole other language, spoke by people who have spent way too long using mobile phones, the Internet and playing on-line games. If you want to see the English language get totally massacred, and live in a world in which any concept of sentences and paragraphs has been cast aside for 'texting English' than you need to play World of Warcraft.

It's been 'enlightening'. You get to see such classic English as 'u' being used for 'you', 'm8' being used for 'mate' and 'l33t' being used for 'leet' which is short for 'elite', as in 'very good'. Then you have 'nub' and 'noob' being short, or even longer variations on 'new', meaning the individual knows crap about the game and is therefore worthless. The best one I've encountered is 'e-peen', which seems to be an Internet slang reference relating to ego, primarily a reference to comparing penis sizes. A conversion might go as follows:

[BadAssCow]: Dude, I pwn'd a bubbledin five levels higher than me, my e-peen feels huge. [Translation: I killed a Paladin five levels higher than me and I feel so clever and big].

[SexyElfChick]: You're so l33t. [Translation: Your very good at this game]

[Gromar]: STFU and stop spamming the channel nub. [Translation: Shut the fuck up and stop spamming the LFG channel you new and therefore worthless person].

[AngryGnome]: You're all fucktards. [Translation: You're all fucking retards].

The reason this comes up now after playing World of Warcraft for over a year is, in the past, you never really encountered this subculture that much. You did if you visited the World of Warcraft Internet forums, but then only the truly insane, or people who wanted to see the depths of human stupidity visited that on-line enclave. As I levelled Zoltis through the game I grouped with people in the guild, who know how to put a sentence together, and I'm 99% sure the people I grouped with randomly throughout the game all spoke sensibly. Lately, the whole degeneration of the English language has just been painfully visible. Is it linked to the fact that the game now has a global LookingForGroup channel, which should really be named the global GeeksDebatingAnalMinutia channel? It possibly has something to do with it, as most of it has been encountered there, but it's probably not the only influencing factor.

Why do I play this game I here you ask? Well, you do have a good point, after reading this post you're probably wondering why anyone plays it? The simple reason is it's a good, enjoyable, on-line game which involves cooperative grouping to meet challenges. It also teaches you a lot about speaking to people on-line, making an argument on-line and effectively leading groups over an on-line medium. The community at large obviously has a proportion of teenagers who seem to have very low social skills and lack an ability to communicate, but you just turn certain communication channels off and you don't really encounter them as you play the game. I may exist in that virtual world, just like I exist in the real one, but just like the real one all that matters to me are the social groups I engage with, not every single person in existence.

It's not just World of Warcraft, as you encounter it on MSN as well. Do any of you have young, teenage girls as relatives who talk to you over MSN? Do you understand anything they are saying? I have to say, 80% of the time I have no bloody idea. The irony is here, the chances are I do know the sorts of bands they like and what they might enjoy doing, but it doesn't help me any. It's like I'm receiving an alien transmission from the depths of space and my universal translator ain't working. They speak in short statements of three to six 'words' each of them only having three to four characters in them, including the obligatory numbers. I can literally have fifteen minute conversations and have no idea what we were talking about. As an example, out of the blue comes the message: 'Ya, like ma space?' Errr, she's a relative and she's under age, I have no idea what the answer to that is. A while later, I managed to decode the fact she had a MySpace page and she was asking if I liked it. An excellent example, as I know what MySpace is and I know teenagers are flocking to such services in their droves, but the language did not comprehend. I decided it was less stress all round to use the block function.

It does make you despair when you think that the youth of today are growing up in a world in which the capacity to communicate is huge, and yet it seems to be causing language to degenerate. Oh, the irony.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Sky is Falling

Not in this world, but in the world of Azeroth in World of Warcraft. You know the sky is falling because the whining, complaining and all around asinine commentary on the forums about the various changes coming with The Burning Crusade have spilled over into the global chat channels of the game itself. Yesterday, the news hit the World of Warcraft website that the two new races in the expansion, Drenai for the Alliance and Blood Elves for the Horde, could be Shaman (once only Horde) and Paladins (once only Alliance) respectively. This means that the unique class to each faction is no longer unique. The forums lit up with intense vitriol, and every 5 minutes someone who had recently logged on would voice their dislike for the decision in the game.

The reaction was on such a scale you'd expect they'd have reacted less if the sky actually was falling.

This has obviously been done for a number of reasons, while it is cool to have classes only available to specific factions, as the Horde hate Paladins with a passion and the Alliance have a similar view of Shamans, it does make life difficult as in PvE the sides share the same raid dungeons. As a result, you could never design an endgame raid dungeon to need skilled application of specific Paladin abilities because you can't count on the raid team having that class. If every class is available to both factions this removes the problem. This also removes the Paladin advantage that the Alliance supposedly have in PvE raiding. The reverse is also true for the Horde, as they apparently have a PvP advantage due to the Shaman class. The decision may also have an eye cast towards the faction imbalance, to the extent some say the Horde faction is dying due to lack of numbers, which in turn has an effect on the economy. The thought of being a Paladin, and a Blood Elf female, might just well appeal to a certain Alliance demographic. Hell, they may still be able to be Hunters, which if implemented, will turn the Horde into the Blood Elves and some others. The addition also adds diversity just as much as it removes it, as while there is less diversity per faction, people more enamoured with a faction can now experience a new class.

People are complaining about everything, the lamest complaint being it is the greatest sin against the sacrosanct lore of World of Warcraft and The Burning Crusade is the end of the game. Some people just lack any sort of context over this stuff. The truth is, the World of Warcraft lore only exists to make a game cool, it's never been an entity worthy of 100% consistency in and off itself. It's never been that. Just like a good drama will twist established continuity to tell a good tale, a game will twist established continuity to create a great game. Anyway, these people love to whine, they whined when the Tauren could become Druids, they whined when Razorfen Downs was in the South Barrens rather than near Ashenvale somewhere and now they whine because of the various things in The Burning Crusade. For example, they really can't get their heads around the Drenai and the dimensional construct that brought them to Azeroth, calling them Space Paladins with a ridiculous spaceship. They sort of miss the fact it's not a spaceship, but a magical construct for travelling between dimensions, and also miss the fact the orcs in World of Warcraft are from another bloody planet in another dimension, the only difference is they came through a magical portal rather than having a magical construct move them through. A distinct lack of imagination is being shown, put it that way.

Despite the stupidity, the change does present some unique wrinkles that Blizzard will have to solve before The Burning Crusade goes live. The first major one is the position of the Paladin and the Shaman classes themselves, as they never had to compete before for spaces in groups and raids. Every other class has their raid role sort of defined, they might not like it, but it is defined, as a result the arrival of the Paladin on Horde side is probably going to put pressure on the Shaman. But is it? You see, I'm not sure people are thinking big enough. Is the Paladin better than a Shaman for PvE raiding? Yes. Does this mean the Shaman will find it hard to compete for a place? Not necessarily, as surely the presence of the Paladin on the Horde side will cause some re-thought on all the roles in the raid, such as the role the Druid currently has now a third secondary healing class has been added? Hell, why won't this just result in more Shaman and Druids taking a more varied role? It may result in more open roles for all. You also have to consider each class will get new talents from level 61-70 anyway and as a result the role they have now may significantly change in the post-The Burning Crusade environment.

The other problem, of course, is the magic number have changed. Each faction had eight classes available to them, which just happened to neatly fit into a raid of forty. The presence of the ninth class on each side changes this totally. Who cares though? You rarely take exactly five of each class on each 40-man raid anyway due to specific class needs for specific bosses or just running with who you have available. Then you have the fact a lot of extra 5-15 man content is coming in The Burning Crusade and you have a different landscape again. To be honest this 'fighting for raid spots' problem isn't really a problem associated with the new class for each faction, it's purely down to people having set ideas on raid composition, instead of being relatively flexible and thinking of the individuals behind characters. As I say, within reason, obviously some things do make it too difficult, you work with the dedicated players who come. It's not done The Dungeoneers any harm.

One of the biggest problems is probably the loot tables, though I'm not really sure what all the factors that go into this are. Obviously, Horde people will now start seeing Paladin drops in MC, etc. The main issue is people now see nine classes wanting loot drops not eight. What's really ironic about the whole issue is people moan that The Burning Crusade doesn't introduce any new classes for each faction, which would cause similar looting issues. I'm pretty sure the whole looting thing will be managed by the token system used in the latest raid dungeon, which basically means that groups of classes compete for their class-specific loot by collecting tokens. This means the new class on each side can be added and you can have 3 sets of tokens for which 3 classes compete for. In fact, it's almost like they've thought of this already and implemented it in the latest raid dungeon to get people used to it. Who'd have thought?

The point of all this is, stupid lore freaks aside, people are ranting about how it is a bad idea as if it is being implemented now, with no other changes to the game. But this is not going to be the case, the game will change in many ways in The Burning Crusade, and while it may not turn out great, there isn't really a reason to assume it won't and that the Paladin and Shaman class changes won't be used to their best advantage to improve the game for everyone.

The other universal truth is, of course, the people complaining so vocally probably represent a ridiculously small proportion of the World of Warcraft player-base, which numbers in millions. The majority of people just get on with playing the damned game.

Of course, the current theory is the whole thing is a hoax? Yeah, right, talk about desperation.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Twink Wars Begin

One of the fascinating things about MMO games, specifically level-based games like World of Warcraft, is the game matures as the average level of the population increases. As an example, from a PvE perspective, the whole experience of levelling up and randomly grouping with people trying to do the same thing as a grand adventure of exploration only happens once, when the server is new and the game is new. Over time people either quit or the population matures to be one of an overwhelming majority of maximum level characters. You then find the majority of characters under 60, quite often not enough of them at each level bracket to efficiently form groups, are the second, third or even fifth character of an existing level 60.

This has a number of interesting effects, as discussed in The Guild Wars Begin, the game becomes all about being a member of a guild that can progress through the endgame instances, as this is largely the only PvE content you have to experience. As a result, people constantly search to be a member of a progressing guild, guilds compete for members and some people even constantly change guild in an attempt to progress faster. The effect is the economy changes as the majority of low level characters in the game have a level 60 with much more money to support them. Anyway, these things have been discussed before.

Another interesting anomaly of a 'mature' World of Warcraft server is the concept of the twink. Basically, this issue is related to the level 60 sugar daddy concept, as you're effectively ensuring that a lower level character has all the best gear they can get as the level 60 can either afford to buy it, trash the low level dungeon with the equipment in or call on his level 60 friends to get the low level character easily through the dungeon (if the equipment is bind on equip). Basically, the level 60 support network ensures the low lever character has the best of everything. Now, compared to a player of a low level character who doesn't have a level 60 waiting in the wings, the twink has a significant advantage. To be honest, the gear isn't the main problem, as the un-supported low level character can still get the gear, though it's difficult due to the lack of characters at a similar level as a percentage of the population. The main problem is the high level enchants that can only be performed by level 60 characters, at significant cost, which the twinks have on all their gear. These enchants are usable by all levels you see, but they can only be created by a level 60 and only afforded by a character plugged into the level 60 economy.

All this wouldn't be that much of an issue if the game was just a PvE game, but it isn't, the PvP Battlegrounds have level range brackets (10-19,20-29 and so on until 50-59 and 60). Ironically, people had begun a transition to lower level Battlegrounds with lower level alt characters because of the gear problem in the level 60 Battlegrounds. The people undertaking PvP with the advantage of being in a guild that can challenge the high end content have a significant advantage in gear terms. Now though, the gear gap is making itself known in the lower level Battlegrounds as people twink their characters. The arms race continues. This means that the person joining the World of Warcraft party late suffers again, not only does he find the economy is massively inflated, not only does he find the population at his level isn't big enough for efficient grouping, he now finds, if he likes PvP, that he must face a horde of geared up, enchanted up, level 60 supported foot soldiers in the Battlegrounds. If he wants to compete he has to spend ages in instances getting gear, which he can't get groups for, or resort to buying gear he can't afford.

The really insidious thing is, this whole twinking concept relates back to being a member of a powerful endgame guild again, as this issue now permeates through the whole level range. As having a level 60 to support you is only half the battle, as now the lower level Battlegrounds become the domain of guild domination as well as the guilds organise themselves to twink their level 19, 29, 39 and so on characters just like they systematically did the same to their level 60 characters. I wouldn't be surprised if some PvP guilds had 'twinked' teams at the lower levels, the only barrier stopping this is the need to PvP with their level 60 to get a higher PvP rank, but once they achieved a rank they are happy with or got as far as they realistically can, the lower level Battlegrounds must be a promising target for that sweet taste of domination they obviously crave.

So, this basically means, any player who has less time to play, or cannot get into a guild, or who just doesn't like the PvE raiding style of play has literally nowhere to hide. The players with more time, with a guild to challenge the endgame content efficiently hold all the cards at every level throughout the game.

Interestingly, a number of topics are being discussed on this issue, one is to make the Battlegrounds deliver enough experience that people can't just sit at the level break of particular Battlegrounds forever. This would seem to only solve half the problem. The other solution being proposed is to apply level restrictions to enchants, as these seem to be the main issue, after all, the enchants can only be obtained with a level 60 support network, the gear can, in theory, be obtained by people without such a network. Will this ever happen? It's hard to say, because while the discussions on this issue are quite vocal, I'm finding it hard to understand how many people are really playing the game now without a level 60 character? The figure might be surprising one way or another.

The more interesting aspect of all this is how the maturing environment seems to hold within it the keys to its own destruction. At this current moment in time I find it hard to envisage how any of the mature World of Warcraft servers are a welcoming environment to new players. They'd join the server and just face problems getting groups, problems buying stuff, problems getting a fair match in any Battleground and while facing all this they'd face the relatively hostile environment of being a new player among level 60 giants who believe everyone should know everything about the game. This must influence the amount of new players that join the party late who actually stay? True, Blizzard opens new servers every so often, and you'd think being on one of these would be better? It is, but it still wouldn't be the experience that everyone enjoyed when the game was first released, as a core of the population on that server would be experienced players running to new, fertile ground to level as fast as possible in an attempt to form a guild that owns the server space. In short, the game becomes relatively hostile to new people.

Does an MMO naturally mature and slowly, and inevitably, die due to a lack of new blood?

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
Nintendo Does An Apple
Keywords: Video Games.

For years Apple marketed its product in a different way to almost every other computer company. It didn't market its machines based on raw speed and power, it made them a lifestyle choice, in an attempt to appeal to people who wanted nothing to do with technology. This wasn't really that successful, though it did create a niche market for them. This all changed with the iPod, of course, which essentially used a similar strategy but was much more successful. The iPod is so successful it owns a ridiculous percentage of the MP3 player marketplace, and to be honest, I suspect a lot of people with iPods don't even know it's an MP3 player they own. They just have an iPod.

So, why not try and do an Apple with other technologies, by making them a lifestyle choice, something that says something about you, looks sexy and is cool? Well, it would seem that Nintendo are trying to pull off an Apple-style marketing campaign with their products.

The new Nintendo DS Lite just cries out as having been designed to appeal to the same sort of market segment as Apple products, one of the units is even 'Apple white'. The units are slim, and they look cool, and would slip nicely into a handbag. They look so nice you're tempted to buy one before even thinking about it. If you throw in the various imagery Nintendo are using, of sexy people in their twenties and thirties playing with the Nintendo DS Lite, they are certainly trying to make it a must have item for the iPod generation. This marketing works, I have to admit it works on me. On seeing the Nintendo DS Lite on the release weekend part of me wanted to buy one so I could carry it around with me and play games whenever a spare moment arose. The fact I've never really played on my Gameboy Advanced since I bought it was momentarily forgotten. It becomes an item to covet.

The fact they are adopting this strategy for the Nintendo DS Lite is interesting, but what's more interesting is it's also the strategy they are seeking to adopt with the Nintendo Wii console, and the re-imaging of the Nintendo DS is a build up to that really, as it helps cement the new image in the minds of the populace before the console is launched. The Nintendo Wii isn't a games console in the sense that the iPod isn't an MP3 player, or that's the goal. Just like the iPod is a product people listen to music on, and the technicalities of it may well be lost on them due to the nature of iTunes, the idea is to turn the Wii into a unit that allows for social gaming and does away with all the technical crap and penis size comparisons that tend to dog other consoles. It's less about the number of polygons and more about social occasions. It's about getting your friends around for a dinner party or a movie, and also playing a few games.

This tactic could have a number of interesting effects, which I'm sure is what Nintendo are hoping. First, they are hoping it is going to broaden the market for their console, a combination of a cheap price and it being a sexy item, along with a unique advertising campaign, may well turn it into an item that gets purchased well outside the typical console demographic. The more interesting effect is it may actually reduced to what degree they are in competition with Microsoft and Sony. It's all too easy to see the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 as the two units in competition, the two consoles you have to make a choice between as you are probably unlikely to own one of each, though I'm sure some people will. The Wii sort of comes from left field and doesn't necessarily appear to be in competition because it has positioned its proposition different enough, and priced itself well enough, it can quite easily be purchased under slightly different criteria by people already owning an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. It's like you buy one of the big two for your serious, gamer gaming and then Wii for a more social approach to it all, and a bit of fun.

I had my doubts about the Nintendo strategy in the past, but I'm coming around to their way of thinking. Will they be the top dog in this console generation? Probably not. Will they sell a lot more consoles with this strategy than they would positioning themselves as direction competitors to Sony and Microsoft? For sure.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
When Is Grind Not Grind?

When you hit level 60 in World of Warcraft you tend to get two types of people, those who suddenly feel the game has turned into a wall of grind because all they've got left to do is grind 5-man instances for obscure gear, grind PvP for honour ranks or grind endgame raid instances for gear. Then you get the other view, these people don't understand what anyone is moaning about as every MMO is about grinding, World of Warcraft has always been about grinding, so it's no different at 60.

Who is wrong? Well, truth be told, they're both correct, and it basically comes down to perception.

Let's take the view that the game is ALL grind first, as that tends to be the simpler one. This view comes down to the opinion that all you do in an MMO is grind and if you don't like that you shouldn't being playing one. This view isn't necessarily incorrect, as all you do while levelling is kill X number of creature X or collect X number of item X until you reach the point of killing Elite X who may be in an instanced dungeon. You may also be mindless levelling a profession which might also involve endlessly looking for specific herbs, endlessly killing things to skin them or grinding dungeons to get magical items to disenchant. The view of these types of player is so focused on the grinding they'll even stop doing Quests and dungeons because they are less efficient and just mindlessly grind turtles for 10 levels. In short, they sort of stop actually playing the game and experiencing the content and just literally kill turtles to 60. Not sure what the point is, but they do it. In truth, when the game is looked at purely from a mathematical perspective, purely on what it takes to get to the next level, it is all grind.

The simple fact is though, that way of looking at the game lacks a bit of imagination and soul, and this is the key to why some people suddenly hit the grinding wall at 60. Two reasons exist as to why the journey from 1-60 isn't seen as a grind and it comes down to the art of distraction and the art of avoidance.

The other view is that levelling to 60, at least for the first time, possibly for 50% for the second time, depending on your second character, is not just levelling but it's a grand adventure that involves seeing new landscapes, going to new places, killing new creatures and getting cool new abilities. Even better, the method by which you do this is batched up into definable objectives called Quests, which often have cool narratives to go with them. You're not killing X of creature X you're depleting the forces of the Scarlet Brotherhood, you're not killing X to collect their teeth you're getting ingredients for a potion to poison the lot of them, and you're not just going into the Scarlet Monastery to farm for items your going in to kill the local leaders of the damned Brotherhood. It has an Epic quality to it, a bit of mystery and adventure. Not only that, some of these Quest chains have a story that extends for quite some time, the Scarlet Brotherhood featured heavily as I levelled Zoltis, for example. This is the art of distraction, as you are being distracted from the grind either unwittingly or via cooperating consciously or subconsciously with the designers.

The art of distraction is something the original developers of the game seemed to understand, while the current lot seem to be missing the point totally. Look at the recent attempts to get those who don't want to raid better gear? All they've been given is repeatable quests to kill the same creatures to earn reputation and badges or insignias which can then be turned in to get various rewards. Grind, pure and simple and not even an attempt to distract the audience from it. Bad design. Compare this with the quest chain to access Onyxia's lair, which feels epic, and involves multiple dungeon runs to kill enemies and do things, it involves travelling the world to kill multiple dragons and even disguising yourself as the enemy in an act of subterfuge. All of it obviously ends with you finally killing Onyxia. That is what quest lines should be about.

The other influencing factor is the art of avoidance, and this quite simply involves avoiding anything that does appear to be a grind. You find professions a boring bit of grind? Don't have any. You find repeating dungeons endlessly for specific items of equipment? Then do them till you are bored of them and then just use the equipment you find as you level. You can quite literally play the game, going from Quest line to Quest line, enjoying the story and the new places. The key here is, some classes help with the art of avoidance more than others. As an example, the Mage and Hunter are two classes that from 1-60 are amazingly gear independent. Sure, gears helps, but it's not necessarily essential. This isn't necessarily true of the Warrior class, for instance. Retrospectively, while I have some issues with the Mage, it was a great class to pick, and it's probably no surprise the class I believe I should have picked is a Hunter. The art of avoidance, it worked for me.

You know what I find strange about the post-60 environment? I'm still not grinding! True, I'm grinding the instances like Molten Core and Zul'Gurub, but the art of distraction kicks in based on the fact that doing these digital dungeons, killing things and taking their stuff is primarily why I play the game. Other people grind for potions, grind for gold to cover their ridiculous repair bills. In truth my repair bills are going up but they ain't that bad, easily recoverable by the Quests I'm doing. As for potions, I don't see the need. Other people want healing potions, mana pots, damned fire protection potions! I'm a Mage, I don't need any of them. I never run out of mana, my health goes down so fast I'm usually doomed anyway and if not a bandage puts me back to full health. As for fire protection potions? Screw that, just make sure Fire Ward is always up. Again, the Mage proves to be amazingly 'grind lite'.

Anyway, the up shot is it's possible to see the pre-60 game and the post-60 game as a totally different experience or just a continuation of what you've always done: grind. I'm lucky, I seem to have the best of both worlds, as my post-60 environment seems to be a similar experience of seeing new stuff, beating new enemies and doing it with a relatively sane bunch of people. I still don't see it as grinding. The closest thing I came to grinding was my First Aid ability at 60, and I'm now tempted to get my Herbs skill up. Possibly.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Credibility Gap

A while back, I employed a guy at work. He was a nice guy, had the base skills we wanted, and was perfectly capable of learning some of the other skills we needed down the line. Historically, he worked for a much bigger corporation than the SME I was working at, but I didn't see this as a problem either. The trouble was, in his first month of employment he made a couple of mistakes that he shouldn't really have made, and then compounded this by having a complete lack of ability to engender any sense of confidence in the staff that he knew what he was doing. In all honestly, occasionally he didn't, he was new and that's to be expected, the problem was, even when this happens, you can work in a way that imparts confidence to those you are trying to help and work with, he just couldn't do this. The problem was, in the big corporation he worked for he was used to being in a certain box and never being challenged to step out of it, while the SME environment constantly challenges you with new things. The inevitable happened, and it ultimately got to the point people would openly ask not to deal with him and deal with someone else. We had to let him go.

Why am I telling this story? Simply because this exact same thing has happened in World of Warcarft and created another minor drama in The Dungeoneers.

Basically, the raid took on another member a while back, and this new member made a number of classic mistakes. First, he tried to pass himself off as being the player behind a particularly renowned character on the server, someone in a position of responsibility in one of the most successful guilds on the server, and hence in possession of a lot of experience. The inevitable happened, and both the character who joined our guild, and the other character he professed to be, were playing at the same time. He was rumbled. This lead to his second mistake, he blamed his brother who was using his account without permission and it was never him, the real player of the character we'd let into the guild, who had made these bold claims. Not only that, over the course of his time with the guild we could never be sure it was the real player of the character playing the character during the big 40 man raids.

This is a very stupid mistake to make when dealing with a faceless medium as the Internet. When working with a group of people to achieve an objective, each and every person has certain wants, needs and aspirations attached to that and doesn't want to fail, as a result, those perceived not to be up to the task, for whatever reason, will be singled out. This happens in the work environment, as in the case above, the poor guy engendered a feeling of not being able to help them work better, and it will certainly happen on an Internet-based game as you don't even have to speak to the guy face-to-face and as such any barriers to being ruthless are pretty much gone.

In all honesty, as far as I was concerned, his situation had become untenable the moment he made the two mistakes, and more importantly, continued to allow someone else to use his account. He should have been removed from the guild and the situation openly explained in a post on the guild forums. We didn't do that, as some people believed he should get a second chance. The trouble was, while that's a noble aim, his second (and arguably third and fourth) chance would be mired continually by the lack of confidence in him due to the original lie, whether it was him or not, and the fact no one could ever have confidence the person playing the character was the player we wanted as a member. He had lost all credibility, when that happens a person has to be removed, and in truth, a person should realise that and remove themselves.

The inevitable happened, he left the guild last night after another eruption of 'that's not him' resulting in him being kicked from the raid and then no doubt a hail of whispers by people telling him they are completely sick of him. The second inevitability happened afterwards, with some people cheering his going and other people arguing back that we'd just lost the best main tank (a role the Warrior class performs) in the guild. The fact he'd never actually proven this, and even if it wasn't part of the grand lie he wove, half the time it wasn't that player playing the damned character anyway. The difficulty the guild got itself into by not removing him due to the untenable situation he created himself, was him leaving looks worse and potentially looks like he was being picked on and abused (true, to a degree, but because of the position he'd put himself in). It's also true to say that the various dramas around his credibility make the officers look indecisive.

Anyway, the interesting part of it all is, it proves once again that group dynamics are in play. He mad a classic mistake, which doomed any second chance he was given. Other players have got off to a bad start due to being young and inexperienced in these social groups and have gone on to greater things, because they never pretended to be something greater than they are, or engineered their own downfall by putting the social group in a situation were they never knew who they were playing with. A few even continue to have faults and annoyances, but the issue is you deal with them on that basis and understand them. The last thing you can do is make bold claims you can't live up to, and in the case of the Internet make people wary of whether you are actually you or not. You then become the weaker or erratic member of the team, a core of the team start feeling you're not helping them attain their objectives, instead getting in the way, and the result is inevitable.

Of course, it's just a game.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
Everyone Likes A Drama...Not

I've got to the point now that I actually laugh when people call World of Warcraft just a game. I don't laugh out loud, but I shake my head a bit or smile slightly. I know what they mean, it should be just a game, it's something you do for fun, and anything you achieve in it isn't real. The trouble is, they are also very wrong. World of Warcraft can never be just a game because the endgame involves setting up or being a member of a guild, and a guild is a social construct to allow people to form a social group to challenge, in teams of 20 and 40, the endgame content. This social group will always be the source of one drama or another due to the politics, perceptions and wants and needs of the social group's members.

As a result, whether you like it or not, World of Warcraft isn't just a game, it's an exercise in group dynamics, and to one degree or another, managing the desires of a large group of people, the majority of which you've never met. It demands a lot of skills I recognise in myself from the IT Management and Project Management perspective, for example.

The Dungeoneers aren't a democracy, it's not an iron-booted dictatorship either, but the team of officers and the guild master who run the guild are generally responsible for making the decisions on how the guild operates and why. The membership can have an amazing amount of say, but they don't vote in any way to get their say actioned, they can only hope those running the guild agree or can be persuaded of their argument. This works quite well, because a core of the officers know each other in the real world and have been friends for some time, and the officers who aren't part of this group are all adults who can argue maturely, by and large. The dilemma in this situation is when should the apparent wishes of the membership, assuming it's even correct that the wish is representative, be adopted even though it turns the guild into something the people running it don't favour? Some might say those running should follow the will of the membership, but then the other argument is the wishes of the membership might be intent on creating something that self-destructs, rather than looking at problems from a wider perspective. The Dungeoneers have always been set on being a guild that raids, rather than an all consuming raiding guild, but the membership puts in the odd issue or concern here and there, each of which seems to be a small step to becoming a raiding guild.

The other problems that arise are related to problem members, some of these prove to be problems that can be ironed out, while others aren't and they result in the ultimate sanction: getting kicked from the guild. In all honestly, we've had to do this surprisingly few times, under five I think, as the majority of times we have a culture clash the member chooses to spend his time with another guild and we wish him luck. After all, that's how it's supposed to work, if the guild doesn't serve your needs, and your needs can't become part of the guild, it's time to move on.

You get a mixture of problem people. You often get young people who are just immature and need to grow up a bit and learn to deal with a diverse group of individuals a lot of whom are much older and some are even from different cultures. These are often the more interesting problems, as while some guilds adopt a strategy of only allowing over eighteens, The Dungeoneers has always proven to be a good environment for younger teenagers if they can learn the skills to interact correctly. We even have an officer who joined the guild at 14 and is now 15. This is why I suggest that these games can be educational for younger people, depending on the social environment they become embroiled in. We have another member who has recently been discussed repeatedly as to whether he should be kicked or not, but he has matured in terms of how he interacts and how he plays his character to the extent he may well be a valuable member in the future. We like to be all embracing, and a productive and fun social gathering.

In all honesty, the biggest problems have always arisen from the older members. We recently had to kick a person from the guild because he was the worse type of player The Dungeoneers could encounter, someone who plays the part of being mature, open and willing to discuss anything on comms, while sowing all sorts of shit via whispering other members. He always sounded so mature on comms, the exact open minded sort of player you wanted, but too many arguments and disagreements started to surround the player and a number of examples came out of what he was whispering to other players. As an example, someone joined a raid halfway through, and since this new character competed for the same gear as him he whispered him to tell him not to use his points for gear as he hadn't been their since the start. He was just someone obsessed with getting gear as quickly as possible and seemed to be willing to cause no end of trouble to achieve his goals.

The irony, of course, is you kick the guy after debating the situation for weeks and always defaulting to the fact he must be a good guy really, and that creates more dramas of people wanting to know why the guy was kicked. People start talking and make-up conspiracy theories and whatever else, probably not considering some people agonised over this for ages. You also potentially create, with every person that leaves the guild under bad circumstances, someone who will bad mouth you at every opportunity.

The majority of issues come up around loot and how it is distributed, which is amazing when you consider that non of it is real. As soon as the game becomes about gaining items in a purple shade it's like those hiest movies when all the thieves start doing each other over for the bounty. The Dungeoneers had a massive and quite heated debate over whether we should adopt a points system to control loot flow, and I happen to think they adopted a sensible system that provides some control while ensuring the items distribute to all. Yet people still moan because it's not just a basic everyone rolls system. We also have people trying to pervert the points system by thinking they can just get items with their points and sell them, which is incorrect, just like with a roll system you only 'roll', by spending points, if you're going to use it. It's madness. Again, people with different views, or views adopted momentarily to achieve specific agendas.

So, ever been in charge of a team of people at work? Been a manager of a department? Maybe a project manager? Any job that tries to lead a diverse group of individuals towards an overall end goal while trying to maintain an environment that is in some way interesting, challenging and relatively conflict free? Well, that's what running a guild is like in World of Wacraft.

Of course, it's just a game.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 04/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
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
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