Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Go away, or I shall taunt you a second time!

Aggro, hate, threat, whatever term you prefer to use for the unpleasant attention of monsters, is a fundamental part of MMOs. Let's assume for a minute we're stuck with the class system (as in character classes, not the struggle of the proletariat and bourgeoisie). At a basic level, you probably have a tank, healer and damage dealer. The tank holds the aggro, the healer heals the tank, the damage dealer... anyone want to take a guess? Award yourself ten points if you said "deals damage", five points for "flounces around for a bit then turns up after the hard work is done to shout 'MY KILL'", and if you said "pulls the aggro off the tank, uses up all the healer's manna in a futile attempt to keep him alive, causes a wipe, then insults the rest of the group for not doing their job and quits in a huff" then award yourself a stiff drink and a bit of a lie-down.

(Disclaimer: I invariably *play* damage dealing classes, I'm allowed to say stuff like that.)

Obviously there's a lot of variation: other roles such as crowd control and buffing/debuffing might be performed by dedicated classes or combined in others; damage dealing often comes in ranged and melee flavours; hybrid classes perform multiple roles with varying degrees of efficiency; some classes may have pets to perform other roles, etc. etc., but at the end of the day, some classes are designed to be better at surviving the attention of monsters, and part of the game is to make sure they're the ones being attacked, rather than the squishy types standing behind them.

This is where things get a bit tricky. Due to class balance, the better a class is at soaking up damage (or avoiding it), the worse they have to be at other things (typically dealing damage). This makes the typical MMO tank a peculiar beast without many parallels; the tank from whence they got their name, the armoured fighting vehicle, is heavily armoured, true, but it also has a socking great gun for shooting stuff (momentary diversion for tank grognards: granted, you can find some better examples if you really try, like the early WWII British Matilda II, with very heavy armour and comparatively poor firepower, but never mind).

Lack of damage means tanks need another way of getting and keeping the attention of mobs, often some form of "taunt" or "provoke" ability to gain extra aggro. Other classes may have specific abilities to reduce aggro caused by their own attacks/healing, or may just need to consider their own actions slightly more carefully (like waiting until the tank has stormed into combat before drawing too much attention to yourself). This works as a game mechanic, especially for giving the damage dealer a bit more to think about than how many buttons he can press to inflict indiscriminate havoc and devastation upon the surrounding area, but it can seem very artificial; how does aggro reduction work, are you pointing behind the mob shouting "Look! Behind you! A badger, with a gun!"? Is the tank's taunt something like "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" while tapping his helmet in a strange fashion? One of the best analogies I remember is someone from the City of Heroes boards, likening being a Tanker to sitting in an armoured dustbin getting beaten by mobs, occasionally popping your head up to shout "YO MAMA'S SO FAT!" at them to keep their attention. It's even more of a problem trying to adapt this system to Player versus Player combat, where you can't force players on one team to attack a certain player on the other without some fairly extreme intervention (like the tank's taunt rendering the opposition unable to target anyone else).

As per usual, I've no real solution to the situation, though in writing this I have realised if any MMO includes a "French Taunting Knight" tank class who gets to shout "You don't frighten us with your silly knees-bent running around advancing behavior!", I'm playing it in a shot...

Monday, 29 January 2007

Gotta try and shake off this creeping malaise

I had one of those "meh" weekends in World of Warcraft. Nothing terrible, just a vague sense of dissatisfaction, really. Getting lured back to the auction house was a bad move to start with; while in Stormwind to visit a class trainer, might as well pop in and sell a few bits from the Outlands... and while there, well, it can't do any harm to have a little look, can it? Of course it can, I've gone from smugly admiring my shiny collection of quest rewards to coveting my neighbour's ox (well, not "ox" so much as "Blade Dancer's Wristguards", but it's the same principle), and my pile of gold was somewhat depleted ("A mere 20 gold for that piece of armour? I make that much in ten minutes now, I'll take it... and that sword... and the dagger, the throwing axe, a couple of pairs of trousers and that recipe for sauteed marsh wombat spleen (mmm, sounds delicious, just right for that dinner party I'm hosting)")

Then, there was the questing. Four of us had a little wander around Hellfire Ramparts; I really didn't think we'd be able to get very far at all, but maybe there was an outside chance of getting the first boss at least. As it was, we cleared through to the final boss with very little trouble, and had a fair crack at the dragon before he got a bit miffed and one-shotted the healer. For the rest of the weekend, though, we were on in dribs and drabs, precluding another instance run. That meant questing in the Outlands, which is a fine activity, but generally rather unsociable; you need to all travel to the same area (though thankfully this isn't really a problem in the Outlands any more, unlike previously where you might find yourself in the Eastern Plaguelands, and your friend in Silithus, and a half hour journey from one to the other), find common quests you all have available, or run quests that some of you have done before, or run other quests that some of you don't have yet (so they'll have to do them again later). As the mobs don't scale to group size or level, and the vast majority of quests are solo-able, having a group of three or four players tends to be overkill, rendering encounters largely trivial (until you get bored and play "see how many mobs the least armoured members of the party can pull", and other fun party games), and while you blast through "kill (x)" quests where each kill counts for the whole group, it's not much quicker than soloing for "collect (x) body parts of creature (y)" quests (indeed possibly slower, depending on spawn rates). All in all, things rather conspire to make playing with your friends (surely the point of an MMOG?) *less* rewarding in many ways than playing solo, other than for the occasional world elite/boss mob.

Forced grouping certainly isn't the answer; although it solves the problem of solo encounters being trivial for a group, it makes it even more difficult for a group of friends to get together and run new and worthwhile quests for all of them when they happen to be on together, especially when quests are designed for fixed group sizes. It all makes me pine for City of Heroes again; in that, every mission you did was an instance, and the number and level of opponents scaled to take account of the size of your group. You even have a difficulty setting, and the "sidekick" system to allow players of disparate levels to team together. None of your friends around? No problem, off you go and fight crime. Someone else arrives, they can join mid-mission, and the spawn sizes increase to take account of that. You're blasting through the missions? Turn up the difficulty setting a notch. A third person arrives, but they only started playing recently and are ten levels below the rest of you? Get them into the team, sidekick them to someone else, and off you go again.

Oh, and to cap everything off, London Irish put in a rather lacklustre performance against Saracens on Sunday. Ah well. Roll on next weekend...

Friday, 26 January 2007

No time for Vanguard

With Vanguard: Saga of Heroes about to launch, I've been taking a bit more interest in it. The timing is pretty bad from my perspective, though: a couple of months ago there was the pre-Burning Crusade lull in World of Warcraft, in three to six months time I might well be ready to move on again (or I might be a dedicated raider, you never know... well, you probably do actually, but still). Right now, though, I'm quite happy wandering around Hellfire Peninsula. There was a cheap Vanguard pre-order pack available with access to the final beta, which at any other time I would have jumped at, but during Burning Crusade launch week?

Maybe that's for the best; while I've been keen in the past to get into open/final betas (or "free trials by any other name with a bit of server stress thrown into the deal") as a way of getting a look at games without paying, this might not be the best idea. Open betas don't usually last too long (one exception being Auto Assault, which I think managed about a year and a half... I still have a soft spot for that game, but sadly almost nobody else did). Being a comparatively casual player to start with, and then knowing that any progress will get wiped away for launch anyway, I usually don't get too much further than the starting areas with a few different races/classes; unless the game is disastrously underdeveloped, these areas should be fairly well polished, and the combination of shiny new game smell, and rapid progression through levels/skills/items (shouts: "LOOK! I have upgraded my rusty blunt spoon to a rusty *sharpened* spoon!") tend to give a positive experience. If the game's called Captain Grind's Grindcrusher: The Ultimate Earache (Extreme Grind Edition), and you start up the beta and the first NPC is Geoff the Assigner of Extremely Grindy Quests who gives you a quest to kill 100 identical Grindbeasts, followed by a second quest to kill 200 identical-except-very-slighly-differently-coloured Grindbeasts... you might just about figure out it's not for you if you don't like grinding. The more cunning designers might adopt the Melmoth's First Circle approach to questing, showering you with plaudits (and indeed "phat lewt") for accomplishing such arduous tasks as "walking to that person just over there, the one with the huge flashing arrow pointing to them, in case you get lost on the way", so by the time beta finishes, you decide this is a really most splendid game and well worth buying.

Having actually gone and bought the game, and raced back through the initial content you got to know in the beta, you suddenly find yourself in a wilderness with not much to do, and a conspicuous lack of showers of rose petals from delighted NPCs. Some heavy crunch time got the starting areas finished, but unfortunately the development team were turned into shambling zombies in the process, and are now trying to eat the brains of the marketing department who *promised* users all sorts of features which would take another six months of unpaid overtime to actually put in. As Van Hemlock most appositely put it: "MMOs are a lot like fine wines - they're best if they've been left to mature a bit, and then should be allowed to 'breathe' before drinking!"

So actually, maybe the "bad" timing is the best possible timing. Once I'm done with the Burning Crusade, if people are generally positive about Vanguard I'll probably check it out. They'll have worked the initial kinks out, be adding new content, the box will be £10 cheaper to buy, and there might be a few old guildmates playing from launch who can spare a couple of copper pieces! (And there'll be world peace, and a solution to global warming, and I'll have won the lottery and be free to play all day... hey, I can dream...)

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

A Pack Rat's Tail

I'm a terrible pack rat, I just can't throw anything away. Maybe it stems from Zork and similar adventure games, where you'd habitually pick up anything that wasn't nailed down in case it was useful later (and if it was nailed down, you could use that crowbar you picked up earlier to fix that...) This carried over to computer RPGs, where my characters would stagger under the weight of their sword, a spare sword (in case the first one was lost or broken), a backup spare sword, an ornamental sword which wasn't very good for actually fighting with but looked nice, a two handed sword for extra damage, a shield in case defence was the better option, a mace in case of opponents more susceptible to bludgeoning, a glaive, a guisarme, a glaive-guisarme, a glaive-glaive-glaive-guisarme-glaive etc. I'd amass enough of a collection of scrolls, potions, rings and amulets to set up a library with a particularly well stocked bar and jewellery shop in the foyer, but would be loathe to actually use them just in case they were needed more later.

The apogee of this has to be the Elder Scrolls series, particularly Morrowind and Oblivion, and their magnificent "sandbox" worlds, where you weren't limited to the traditional weapons, armour and the like, but could also pick up cutlery, crockery, ornaments, housewares, furniture, small animals, shrubs, villages... Being limited in the amount you could carry (I'd always work on developing my Strength, if for nothing else than being able to carry a few extra plates and a nice vase) this necessitated a new place to store things: your own house, either within the regular game, or through a user-written add-on. Many's the hour I could spend in Oblivion, just wandering around town purloining assorted items to furnish my house. A bit like Old Man Murray's take on Deus Ex, in fact.

Anyway, for reasons I can't quite fathom myself, I had a fun evening chucking items around between various characters in World of Warcraft last night, as the Burning Crusade opens up new crafting possibilities for some of the stacks of cloth, leather, metals and gems kicking around on various alts. Also, with all the new item drops, I had a fairly ruthless (by my standards) clearout of stuff; some old armour, now outclassed by Burning Crusade drops, a bunch of useless items like the Faded Photograph from some Un'goru Crater quests (you never know, they might add an NPC in a new patch who gives you a bundle of epic loot for this stuff!), so I wound up with nice, neat banks, with everything lined up in the correct order. Maybe it's just obsessive-compulsive personality disorder...

Monday, 22 January 2007

I am the god of Hellfire (Ramparts)

Disclaimer: the post title is a Crazy World of Arthur Brown reference, not a suggestion that I defeated the Hellfire Ramparts single handed.

This weekend I got my first look at a Burning Crusade instance when a group of us decided to take a nice bracing stroll around the Hellfire Ramparts. According to the guidebook they offer a delightful view over the peninsula, and present several fascinating examples of Outlands architecture. The only drawback is a slight infestation of demonic Fel Orcs, but apparently a firm tap on the nose with a stout walking stick should see them off.

Our Sunday afternoon jaunt didn't start too well, as a patrol rather unsportingly joined in an already furious encounter, but after a chance to see the area from a more ghostly perspective we were nicely warmed up, and didn't have too many other problems, at least to the final boss. With myself as a Rogue, a Paladin, a Priest, a Mage and a non-feral-specced Druid, we were a bit too squishy, and the dragon baked us lightly at Gas Mark Death. Later that evening we had another try with a Warrior, and that worked rather better, so it was home and dragon-toasted crumpets all round.

For the first expansion instance, the Ramparts are a nice and compact, only taking a couple of hours for our modestly equipped group of level 60s (most of us seeing it for the first time). That's probably the ideal instance size for me; having a more or less free Sunday, I could even fit two runs in either side of dinner, where a single five hour session wouldn't have been possible without drawing heavy wife aggro. It got me thinking that the Deadmines (the first Alliance instance in the original game) would work *far* better as multiple wings rather than a single instance; maybe one for the mines themselves, another for the foundry, and then the final area. You still get the story (and I really like the story and layout of the Deadmines, revealing their purpose as you get further in), but without having to do the whole lot in one gruelling slog (the problem being compounded by the fact that, unless you have a really good group, being powerful enough to deal with the final boss makes the first half of the instance rather pointless). I gather most Outlands instances follow the multiple wing approach, so that gets the thumbs up from me.

The only thing I didn't like was the loot. Or rather, the lack of it, as the curse of random loot struck again. It wasn't the worst case ever, as most of the blue bind-on-pickup drops were useful to someone (lacking a Hunter or Shaman, I was expecting a load of Mail to turn up), but there wasn't a single thing useful for me. I probably shouldn't have done it, but curiousity made me look up the possible drops, which is like the bit on the gameshow where the host says "Come and have a look at what you could have won", revealing a shiny new car to the crestfallen contestant who's going away with a plastic figurine. Oh well. I never wanted that speedboat anyway...

Friday, 19 January 2007

Isn't it nice when things just... work?

So goes the tagline in Honda's excellent Cog advert (well worth a look, if you've never seen it). It's a shame so few things just... work.

World of Warcraft interface addons, for one. They're a bit of a delicate ecosystem of their own; from using one compilation pack for patch 1.12, patch 2.00 required many addons to be re-written, so as a temporary measure I grabbed another compilation pack someone had produced for the beta client (and which Melmoth had the foresight to save the day before, as all the interface websites collapsed under the strain of a good chunk of the playerbase all trying to find updates of their favourite addons). And there were some new and shiny things in there, but some things missing I'd liked from the previous compilation, so I started adding a few bits here, taking off a few bits there... I've now got a bit of a sprawling assortment of addons, which mostly function, more or less, but a couple of things seem to have decided to just stop working entirely, and others pop up error messages here and there. This isn't to take anything away from the addon authors, who in most cases produce really useful stuff, for free, spending much of their own time debugging and improving; it's hardly their fault I've gone and installed their addon on top of 23 others all trying to interact with the same bits of the game. Just another little annoyance...

Then there's monitors. You might recall, a little over a month ago, I got a nice new widescreen monitor. And after a few days, it started making a high pitched whining sound, almost painful to listen to. The nice people at Viewsonic said it sounded like a failing coil in the power supply, and said they'd arrange a replacement. Simple, right?

Or not. My wife and I work full time, which usually makes arranging deliveries a bit of a hassle, but over Christmas we had plenty of holiday, so it would have been a good time to sort out return and delivery of a replacement. Except Viewsonic didn't have any replacement units in stock. And still didn't have any replacement units in stock in early January when we were both back to work.

Last week, they did have a replacement unit in stock! I've got limited flexibility in my working hours, but I can get away early on a Friday if needs be, so delivery was arranged for Friday afternoon. Needless to say, no monitor turned up Friday afternoon... Turns out there may have been a mixup between "dispatch" and "delivery" (quite why we'd want to arrange when they dispatched the monitor, I don't know, but hey). And the actual delivery work is subcontracted, but the person on the phone couldn't tell us who would actually be delivering the parcel or supply a reference number, so we couldn't get in touch with the delivery people direct.

Wednesday, a card turns up from the delivery service. "We tried to deliver a package, but nobody was in..." So we phone the delivery company; nice helpful people, they asked if there was somewhere they could leave the package if nobody was around? Strangely enough, we weren't too keen on them dumping an expensive monitor in a garage or somewhere, so no. Anyway, weren't they picking up the old monitor? They couldn't see anything about a pickup... still. Arranged delivery for this Friday afternoon.

Yesterday, a card turns up from another courier service. "We tried to collect a package, but nobody was in..." OK, so that explains it, one company delivers, an entirely different company collects. Only this company are subcontracted to a repair service, themselves presumably subcontracted to Viewsonic, and the card says the courier service will rearrange collection with the repair service, and none of them have phone numbers or reference numbers. In the middle of trying to phone one of Viewsonic, the collecting courier service, the repair company, or anyone else vaguely connected with any of this (and failing, as everywhere was closed for the day), our neighbor pops around with a little gift. It's a Viewsonic VX2235wm, which the delivery service had dropped off earlier today. Fortunately, our neighbors are lovely people (though we may now be in the wife's bad books, as, prompted by the delivery, the husband was last seen investigating the possibility of buying a nice large widescreen monitor).

As is often the case, any time we've managed to get in touch with a human being, usually at Viewsonic, they've been nothing but polite and helpful, but there's not usually much they can do in the face of byzantine multinational bureaucracy. Oh well. At least this new monitor (so far) hasn't started making any strange noises (fingers crossed), and I'm back to larger, vibrantly coloured gaming. Sorry for the not particularly entertaining post, sometimes you just need to vent...

Melmoth's Inferno

M'colleague Melmoth has just started his blog, Melmoth's Inferno, with his rather splendid take on The nine circles of questing. Go read!

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

I recant!

Despite my dire prophecies of doom, everything went pretty smoothly last night. Other than one server restart, fortunately before we'd grouped up to do anything, and a bit of instability in the Outlands, it was plain sailing. Not even a queue to get on the server to start with!

With one of our group not having The Burning Crusade yet, and my (mostly unfounded as it turned out) pessimism over the potential stability of the server, we headed up to the Plaguelands for a quick visit to Scholomance. I've not seen much of the late game instances; back in my first WoW run, Scholomance and Stratholme were tougher than they are now, so on first hitting 60 with a motley assortment of green gear, they tended to be run as raids of ten or more for the loot rather than for the quests, which was pretty dull. Now, with the mobs thinned out a bit, and gear boosted by PvP and some strategic raiding (of the auction house), a group of four of us made great headway last week, completing the first part of the "Krastinov, the Butcher" quest series. Last night we wrapped up the final two parts, so I finally got hold of Mirah's Song, a nice off-hand sword I've had my eye on for quite a while. Wonder what the odds are of the first Outlands drop being a more impressive weapon...

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

The Dark Portal is...

... down for maintenance. We apologise for any inconvenience caused, and would like to reassure you that hordes of slavering demons will be sent forth at the first possible opportunity. The invasion of your lands and subjugation of its people into our demonic kingdom remains our highest priority. Thank you for your patience.

Actually, I've no idea on the status of the portal, or indeed the servers, at the moment. I was half tempted to stay up 'til midnight, but they don't seem to like it at work when I doze off during meetings. Come to think of it, dozing off during meetings is an occupational hazard regardless of how much sleep I've had, but never mind.

My copy of The Burning Crusade turned up in the post yesterday, so I've at least got everything installed and ready, but if the servers are as stable as they were after the 2.00 patch I'm not really banking on getting much done in the next few days.

I'm rather hoping everyone who was taking part in a certain other stress test will be off to the Outlands, so I might get a little bit further than the server selection screen in that...

Thursday, 11 January 2007


In a quick diversion from MMOGs, I'd just like to talk about telephones briefly. Well, not so briefly really, but never mind. As most of you probably saw, Apple just announced the iPhone

Now, I have one problem with this. It's not a damn phone!

OK, so it is a phone. Otherwise iPhone would be a pretty silly name (even aside from the Cisco lawsuit). But it's not just a phone.

For many years now, when out and about I'll often be carrying (if I have enough pockets) a mobile phone, an MP3 player and a PDA. The devices have changed over time; the phone from some old Nokia years back to a Sony Ericsson T610, the MP3 player from a 64Mb flash based Diamond Rio to a 20Gb Creative Zen Jukebox to a 60Gb iPod, and the PDA from a Handspring Visor to a Sony Clie to a Tapwave Zodiac. With each iteration, there's been more and more feature overlap; the original phone just made calls, the MP3 player played music and the PDA was more or less a diary (with a few games, eBooks, an offline web browser...) Now, all three devices have calendars and address books, all three have games, all three can play music and video (well, the phone can't, it's a few years old now, but plenty of current models can). "Convergence" is the big buzzword, but I still use three separate devices; for the calendar/address book, the interface on the phone is horrible, and the information can't be updated directly on the iPod, hence the Zodiac still being most useful for those. Although the Zodiac can play music, it only has 128Mb internal memory and two SD slots (though at least the price of SD cards has come down a lot since I first got it) compared to the 60Gb of the iPod (which I've 2/3rds filled).

The iPhone looks like it might finally be convergence done properly, rather than just stuffing more and more features onto a phone with a tiny screen and the worst interface in the history of time (unless you're dialling telephone numbers, in which case the digits 0 - 9 are pretty effective), it could well be The One Device which I can replace everything else with (so long as they up the storage so I can get my 40Gb of music on there). But there's a catch...

I don't really care about mobile phones. Yes, I have one, and yes, it's very useful sometimes so I wouldn't want to be without it entirely, but, being an unsociable person with no friends, I spend an average of 87p per month on calls, plus another 50p on data transfer if I'm going crazy (I sometimes download e-mail to the Zodiac via bluetooth and GPRS, but it's only really necessary if I'm nowhere near an internet connected PC for webmail, which is less and less often now). This, for the mobile phone companies, puts me somewhere in the "leper" area of Customer Attractiveness, which is fair enough, I suppose I'm like someone who wanders into Starbucks and buys the cheapest coffee possible, then sits in the comfy chair drinking it for the next seven hours. I accept I'm in a minority. Mobile phones shift eighty squillion units every hour, whereas I'm the only person in Western Europe with a Tapwave Zodiac, hence the new device not being the "Newton II", or the "iPod with extra stuff", or the "iPDA", but the iPhone.

And that's the catch. It's a phone (it says so in the name!), so, chances are, it's going to be sold like a phone, in stupid bleedin' phone shops where the handset itself is a disposable irrelevance, it's the lovely expensive monthly contract they want you to sign. True, there are "pay as you go" (no monthly fee) options, with more expensive phones (as they're not subsidised by the contract), but the "top range" handsets (and unless something else amazing comes along by the end of the year, the iPhone is going to be slap bang at the top of the range) frequently aren't even offered on those tariffs. And yes, you can get sim-free phones without the contract, but that's much, much more unusual, so there's nothing like the competition or economies of scale as for something like an iPod that's sold everywhere.

Ah well. I've never really been a bleeding edge adopter (and I think it'll take a few generations to *really* nail the iPhone), so I guess it doesn't make too much difference whether the first iPhones are sold through phone shops, consumer electronics shops, or shops staffed with crossbow-firing rabbits. Hopefully by the time I come to replace my current pocketfuls of gadgets, you'll either be able to get one for a reasonable price with no restrictive contract, or there'll be a "super iPod", with a large touchscreen interface, which maybe happens to make phone calls too...

Oh, and eventually (if there isn't one already), I'm sure someone will release an MMOG designed for a small touch-screen, like the iPhone, and you'll be able to play anywhere by WiFi/3G/GPRS/whatever. There we go, MMOG link!

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Farmer Geoff and the Rabbit Ballista

Thinking about the poor bloke with his house fall of Murloc eyes, and how quests could be part of a more dynamic world, I remembered a program that ran on the ZX Spectrum called "Rabbits and Foxes". As I remember it, you typed in the number of starting rabbits, and the number of starting foxes, and the amazing computational power of the Spectrum would then simulate this vibrant and diverse ecosystem. With lots of rabbits and not many foxes, the foxes have plentiful food and multiply rapidly, but then they're eating all the rabbits and the rabbit population dwindles, in turn meaning there isn't enough food for the foxes so their population goes down, reducing the number of predators so the rabbits flourish, etc. This was pretty Deep Science at the time, and I was fascinated by the graphs this program produced... for about ten minutes, then I went back to playing Saboteur (hey, I was only eleven).

It turns out this was a demonstration of the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey equations (see here for the complicated maths bit, with a nice graph for those of you like me who haven't done calculus for a while), and I got to wondering if this could work in an MMOG: Farmer Geoff grows carrots and keeps chickens, so he doesn't like rabbits or foxes, and sends mighty adventurers off to do battle with whichever is more prevalent at the time. You're still running a "kill ten creatures" quest, but at least there's some vague sense that your actions are having an impact on the world, that you're a part of it, rather than just killing an arbitrary number of some endlessly respawning beast.

That's a hopelessly simple example, I grant you, which has a plethora of problems. In order for the player to actually notice their actions affecting the world, either the predator-prey cycle has to be shortened to an absurd level such that five minutes after killing a load of foxes, there are rabbits everywhere, or you have to keep the player around Farmer Geoff's farm for a few months as the ecosystem gradually adjusts. Also, killing fluffy bunnies who nibble a mean old farmer's carrots is hardly the stuff of epic quest, the rabbits aren't going to pose much of a challenge. Well, unless maybe five of them found a discarded crossbow, and two of them brace it while two others pull the string back and cock it, and then they maneuver it around like a rabbit-size ballista with the front two providing elevation, two more at the back adjusting the direction, and the final one shouting targeting orders and firing it. Or there is a precedent for a more threatening foe, but that would possibly disturb the predator/prey relations slightly. Finally, we'd still have to "cheat" pretty heavily with respawns and other MMOG conventions, otherwise the graph would show the fox population rapidly tend to zero as they were all butchered for XP, the rabbit population rapidly tend to zero as they're butchered to increase weapon skill and gather scraps of hide for crafting, and the Farmer Geoff population rapidly tend to zero as the bored adventurers kill him just in case he's got a 1% chance of dropping the Pitchfork of Uberstats.

Still, it's got to be better than ten more Murloc eyeballs, hasn't it?

Monday, 8 January 2007

What's the story?

Today I'm going to look at the Meaning of Life. Don't worry, I only mean in MMOGs, otherwise we're into "What's it all about? Seriously? When you get down to it?" territory, and then there's nothing for it but drinking heavily or joining the Klatchian Foreign Legion.

Plot, and the part you play in it, is one of the central problems of a massively multiplayer game vs a single player game. In a single player game, you can be Luke Skywalker or Frodo; in an MMOG, you're more like Third Stormtrooper From Left or Ragged Villager, and it's not really so much fun when your quest is "stand around menacingly while Lord Vader gives a dramatic monologue" or "hang around in the background eating mud to provide suitable ambience". So most MMOs cheat, and set you off on a quest to finally rid the village of the evil that has been plaguing it from the nearby dungeon. And if you want to finally purge the evil again next Tuesday and twice on Thursday, sure, go for it!

Personally, I find it difficult to get engaged with a story when you know thousands of other people have killed the same creatures you're sent to hunt, and when you're finished thousands more people will keep killing them as they keep appearing. Then everyone will hand their pile of assorted body parts in to the same NPC; just once, I want to see that NPC break down and scream "JUST STOP IT! I'VE GOT ENOUGH MURLOC EYEBALLS! My house is filled with Murloc eyeballs, my shed is filled with Murloc eyeballs, my neighbour went away for a couple of weeks so I filled his house with Murloc eyeballs too, Lord knows what he'll say when he gets back from holiday, I DON'T WANT ANY MORE MURLOC EYEBALLS! But still you adventurers keep bringing them to me; yes, a couple of years back, I thought it would be a bit of a laugh, I was going to put them in Geoff's beer one night down the pub, and then word got around that I was handing out XP and some silver for Murloc eyeballs, and ever since then, constantly, you adventurers are round here with Murloc eyeballs, looking so pleased when you bring them with your enthusiastic little faces, you think you're making my day, "ooh, he'll be so pleased with these Murloc eyeballs" you say as you come up to my house, and I didn't have the heart to point out that I've got ENOUGH MURLOC EYEBALLS TO CARPET REDRIDGE, but that's it! NO MORE! Next person who comes to this house is going to get BEATEN over the HEAD with a sack stuffed with BLOODY MURLOC EYEBALLS"

The problem becomes even more glaring with quest chains; often, they're very nicely written, and in a single player game would be engaging stories. Factor in the massively multiplayer aspect, though, and...

Luke Skywalker: "I must destroy the second Death Star off Endor! I need cover, though, come on Red Two and Red Three!"
Red Two: "Well, I guess. Share the quest!"
Luke: "What?"
Red Three: "We're not coming unless we're on the quest, or we don't get rewards"
Luke: "Oh. Err... it says you're not eligible"
Red Two: "Damn, must be a pre-requisite."
Luke: "Well... there was the shield generator, but they already..."
Red Three: "Right! The shield gen, and for that we need to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut"
Luke: "*Again*? Oh, all right, let's..."
Red Two: "Nope, hang on, I've just Thotted it, there's a step before rescuing Han"
Red Three: "So, this is where you bought the droids, and you get the quest from them to find Obi-Wan? Cool! Let's go!"

In theory, I really like the idea of the Face of Mankind system, where the story is player driven. As I understand it, a high placed member of your faction sets an overall goal for the faction, which is broken down to sub-objectives, and so on, down to the point where a squad leader is designated to lead you and your team on a specific "rescue this person"-type mission. In practise, of course, this means you're entrusting the course of the game to the people you see talking in the General channel of whatever MMO you've experienced...

I suppose I'm waiting for AI to advance to the point that it can be a over-reaching "dungeon master", providing every player on the server with a unique, engaging experience. At which point it'll doubtless become self aware, and either start a nuclear war, or at least refuse to open the pod bay doors.

Saturday, 6 January 2007

Look to the Future Now

I thought I'd have a bit of a look to the games I'm looking forward to in the coming year, and come to the conclusion that there's... not much, really.

In the next week or so, of course, there's The Burning Crusade, so I should imagine that'll occupy a couple of months fairly easier, but without a fundamental change in the end game it'll be back to Raid or Nothing after a while (a choice only marginally more difficult than Cake or Death). I really enjoyed Unreal Tournament 2004, so I have high hopes for UT2007, and to round out the year, there's Warhammer Online, if it makes its current estimated release of "Q4 2007".

I'll probably glance around Age of Conan, Vanguard, Lord of the Rings Online, via open betas if possible, but I can't really summon up too much enthusiasm. The main reason for being more interested in Warhammer is, like most British gamers, I grew up with Games Workshop, so get to wander round waving my walking stick and shouting "I remember when this was all just fields, you know, and White Dwarf covered role playing games as well, it wasn't just the Citadel catalogue, and have you seen the price of Space Marines these days?" Well, that and building on the well-regarded Realm vs Realm combat of Dark Age of Camelot. But mostly the walking stick waving.

If there's anything else out there you reckon I should take a lot at, drop me a comment!

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

On Queue

Looks like it's 2007, then. Happy New Year everyone!

I'm back to work again, so ending days of lie-ins, lazing around, and spending all day in battlegrounds.

With more limited time in the evenings, battlegrounds are getting a bit irksome again, mostly due to queues. The basic problem is queue lengths, a minimum of 20 minutes for the Alliance in our battlegroup. If you have all day, this isn't so bad. In fact, it can be a benefit, giving a chance to get a snack, blog, tidy the place up a bit, and generally not spend nine straight hours glued to a screen. With only a spare hour or two, it's very annoying.

It wouldn't be so bad if you knew you'd get a decent game at the end of the queue, but you don't; firstly, you might get crushed in short order by a well equipped and organised opponent. Fine; that's life as a pickup, if Blizzard can get some sort of "matching" system working, to ensure more balance between the gear of the two sides, all well and good, but it's an occupational hazard when you go into a battleground. What I really can't stand, what rankles more than anything, is spending 20 minutes in a queue, getting the message that you're eligible for a battleground, being all pumped up to wage a one-man(/Elf/Dwarf/Gnome) campaign of havoc and destruction upon the unsuspecting Horde, and joining Arathi Basin with the Horde at 1950 resource points and holding four nodes. Or joining Warsong Gulch 2-0 down as the Alliance flag is borne away amidst a ravening pack of purple-geared fiends. Brilliant, 20 minutes in a queue for ten seconds in the battleground, no honour points, and a token to chuck in the pile. I'm not entirely sure how this could be fixed; merely limiting a battleground to the first ten or fifteen players who joined would be pretty galling if you had a great game going, and a couple of your team lost connection for some reason putting you at a disadvantage. Maybe some relatively simple criteria, like once Arathi reaches a point that one side can't win even if they took and held four resource nodes for the rest of the game, or in Warsong if one side is 2-0 down within a few minutes, then don't send any more players from the queue to that side.

Part of the problem is the multi-queue system, where you can queue for all three battlegrounds at the same time. In some ways, this is an excellent idea; I doubt many people would bother with an hour and a half queue for Alterac Valley if they couldn't run some other battlegrounds while waiting (in turn lengthening the Alterac Valley queue further...) The drawback is that it makes it more likely you'll join a lost cause. I'm as guilty of causing the problem as anyone; say the queue for Warsong and Arathi is 20 minutes, and 1 hour 30 for Alterac. I'll join the Warsong and Alterac queues, and after 10 minutes, the Arathi queue. After another 10 minutes, I should be in Warsong Gulch, hopefully at the start of a round. I've then got ten minutes to see how it goes before I'm eligible for Arathi; if we're losing Warsong badly, I'll switch to Arathi instead, leaving a space in Warsong, which some other poor Alliance sucker will get sent into, causing them to post an irate comment in their blog about getting sent into lost cause battlegrounds... Once Warsong/Arathi finishes, back in the queues to repeat the process, except at some point Alterac Valley will pop up, and I'll almost certainly head there, even if we're winning Arathi/Warsong, as Alterac is generally worth so much more honour.

The final problem with the multi-queue system, with a two minute window of opportunity to enter a battleground once you reach the head of the queue, is it tends to put the more populous side at an instant disadvantage. A new instance of Warsong Gulch opens; the top ten people on the less populous side, with short queues, jump in and are ready. The top ten people on the more populous side have been in their queues for 20 minutes; maybe five see the alert, and leap in, ready to do battle! Of the other five, one has dozed off in a puddle of drool while waiting, another one alt-tabbed off to read Tobold's blog for five minutes and is so engrossed they forgot the queue completely and will miss the alert, another had queued up Warsong just in case but the Arathi instance they're in is going pretty well so they're not going to switch (but they just hide the alert rather than leaving the queue), another wandered into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee at just the wrong moment, and the last one received an e-mail saying they'd WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS! in the Nonexistent Lottery of a Fictional Country they hadn't even bought a ticket for (subject to some minor fees, of course), and has gone down the pub to celebrate. The two minutes pass, the battleground starts, one side is instantly outnumbered 2-1, and meanwhile the next five people in the queue get their alerts (of whom a couple have dozed off, etc.) Obviously that's a bit of an extreme example, and in the grand scheme of things it doesn't make much of a difference to the vast majority of results, but it's one more little annoyance just to stack up with the others.

Anyway, with all the above, I doubt I'll do too many battlegrounds now, except during bonus honour weekends. Last night was a particularly bad case, quick defeat by a premade in Warsong, then joined Arathi to *instantly* receive the "Horde Wins!" message, and then finally into Warsong again just in time for the third flag capture by the enemy. I had more fun playing Bookworm Adventures while sitting in the queues, so in the end I just shut WoW down and carried on with that instead...