Wednesday, 30 May 2007

A perfect image

My new graphics card turned up, so I had a great time fitting that last night. The little plastic clip on the motherboard holding the previous graphics card in place was tucked under the heatsink of the X800XL, making it rather fun to try and release, but a bit of deft knife-work did the trick (remember, kids, always wave cutlery around your PC case when fitting new bits, what could possibly go wrong?) With the 8800GTS fitted, I was just doing the last minute checks (new card fitted, check, all screws removed during the fitting process screwed back in (ideally but not necessarily where they came from originally), check, all cutlery taken out of the case, check), and was on the verge of powering the system back up when I thought... "power, power, that rings a bell... oh yes! The graphics card needs power!" You might be wondering how I missed that, as I carefully followed the detailed, step-by-step instructions for fitting the new card. Well, as it turned out, the detailed step-by-step instructions were a somewhat generic pamphlet, obviously included in every graphics card from that manufacturer (and several others, probably), which included such pearls of wisdom as "insert the graphics card into the appropriate slot (AGP or PCI-E)", "if the graphics card requires power, plug cable in" (picture of several different types of plug that may or may not be needed by your card). I suppose I should be thankful the company specialised in graphics cards, if they made a variety of PC components it might have been more generic still. "Fit the component into the PC case in the appropriate place. Use appropriate connectors. Enjoy your new component!"

Anyway, rooting around the case to find the PCI-E connector from the power supply, the realisation slowly dawned that... it didn't have a PCI-E connector (the X800XL hadn't needed one). Cue much swearing, wondering whether an 8 pin EPS connector (whatever that is) would fit into a 6 pin PCI-E slot (I figured the chances were good, especially with a suitable amount of brute force), and searching for the bits that came with the power supply in case there was an adapter there. Fortunately, the graphics card came with an adapter, so with a bit of tinkering, turning the spaghetti mess of wiring in the case into an even spaghetti-er mess, power was connected, and away we went! Miraculously, it all seemed to work as well. Fingers crossed, touch wood, clutching horseshoe etc.

Graphics-wise, it's... nice and all. Framerates were up with the same settings as before, and I could crank up some extra levels of detail without everything shuddering to a halt; the previous card wasn't totally obsolete, though, so it's not going from "Super Low Quality" at 640x480 to "AIEEE MY EYES!" at 1680 x 1050. It's a bit like getting an epic weapon in WoW, it's an upgrade, you're doing more damage, but it's not like you can suddenly take on three elites at once and smite them all in a couple of blows. In MMOs, the "oooh, pretty landscape!" effect wears off the 17th time you're running from Bree to the North Downs, and combat involves more squinting at health bars and cooldown timers than admiring flecks of realistically rendered spittle from the Warg trying to bite your legs. Still! I'm ready for DirectX 10 and Vista, when it becomes unavoidable, and there might be a bit of scope for tinkering with drivers n' stuff.

What I'm really pleased with is actually the overall noise of the system. Like I mentioned, the PC sits in the living room, where whining fans would get pretty annoying (so I steer clear of official game message boards, *badum tish*). In the previous setup, with a passive graphics card, the only fans were the CPU cooler and the case exhaust. This worked reasonably well, but the case fan had to be set to a fairly high speed as it was the only outlet for all the heat produced by the graphics card (and everything else). The 8800GTS is a chunky card that takes up two slots, using one of them to exhaust heat directly out of the case, and it varies its fan speed depending on the load on the card. The net result is that I can maintain the same temperatures as before with the main case fan at a lower speed, and the graphics card fan is barely audible when the system's idle (and it doesn't even spin up too loudly while gaming). So that's nice.

Monday, 28 May 2007

And there was nothing more to tell

Ho hum... nothing very much to talk about from this past week, I'm afraid. A bit of Lord of the Rings Online, mooching around the Lone-Lands; enjoyable enough, but not terribly anecdote-worthy.

About the most exciting event (for me, at least, it's not going to get me very far on the after dinner speaking circuit) was deciding it's time to upgrade my two year old graphics card, an ATI X800XL. As my PC sits in the living room, I've tried to make it as quiet as possible (Silent PC Review is a handy place for that), and the X800XL is a passive card with no fan, just a hulking great heatsink on it. Ideally, I was looking out for a passive replacement, but it seems that most of the totally passive cards available don't offer a huge benefit over the X800XL in terms of performance. Fortunately the Silent PC forums suggest that the stock cooler on the 8800GTS series of cards is actually pretty quiet, and at under £200 they're pretty reasonable for a high-end card, so one of those should be turning up tomorrow. I'll see if that's enough to get the graphics sliders up from "Medium" to "Engage Graphics Mode: EXTREME!" at a sane frame-rate...

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Some are building monuments, others jotting down notes

In most MMOGs, we (or "I" at any rate) can spend an inordinate amount of time on "character builds", deciding which skills/abilities/powers to select in order to smite our foes or assist our comrades in new and interesting ways. Lengthy forum guides, spreadsheets and third party planning programmes abound to help you choose between the combat or assassination talent trees for your World of Warcraft Rogue, or determine which power pools would be best for your City of Heroes Blaster, or in Dungeons and Dragons Online whether to pick an Elf for the racial bonuses then splash a level or two of fighter for the weapon proficiencies and bonus feats as opposed to picking a human for the extra skill points and working up to a prestige class (via a couple of levels in Ranger for two weapon fighting, of course, plus a couple of Exotic Weapon feats...)

In Lord of the Rings Online, this isn't really the case. As in WoW, you automatically gain abilities on levelling up (so long as you have enough sacks of cash to pay off the extortionist... sorry, I mean class trainer); your main decisions in customising your character comes with your choice of equipment and traits. Equipment, as ever, is a case of grabbing the biggest, shiniest stuff you can find with the most bonuses, and while traits allow you to accentuate certain aspects of your character, they're not really something to spend hours deliberating over. By level 40, you're selecting five class traits (which have the biggest effect on a "build") out of a choice fifteen or so, whereas at the same level in WoW you'd be assigning 31 points between many talents in three different trees, and in CoH picking 20 powers from a selection of 18 primary and secondary powers, plus up to four pools of up to four powers each (and then assigning enhancement slots to those powers).

As well as there being fewer choices, there's no dependence with LotRO traits, you can slot any traits you have available in any order. In WoW, you have to have spent a certain number of points at one level of a tree before you can move on to the next; in CoH, you can only select the third level power of a pool if you have the first or second level power (and the fourth only if you have two of the first three); DDO has feats like Whirlwind Attack that require you to possess other feats before they can be selected. In all those cases, some level of forward thinking is needed if you want a certain talent/power/feat at a certain time, and it's quite easy as, say, a WoW Mage, spend a few points here and there in useful looking talents in all three available trees, then realise in later levels you're missing out on the really juicy stuff deeper down that you can only get by focusing in one area.

To remedy such mistakes, or just change things around, there's often a respecification ("respec") process to change your choices, involving varying degrees of pain. WoW lets you reassign your talent points whenever you want, but it costs progressively more money each time, and you have to start from scratch assigning the points (so it costs as much to reassign a single point from one talent to another as it does to completely alter your build). CoH allows you to run a trial once every ten levels or so, with the option of a respec as a reward if you succeed, though again you have to re-do all your decisions from the start, and once you've had your three respecs you're out of luck (apart from the general free respecs handed out now and again... and veteran reward respecs for subscribing to the game for so long... they're pretty good about it, really). To change your LotRO traits, you just need to have a chat with your local minstrel, and though it costs a bit of silver (what doesn't in Middle Earth?), you can slot and unslot any trait at a whim.

So: comparatively few choices, no prerequisites for slotting traits, and respecs at will. Good thing, or bad thing? I'm... not entirely sure at the moment. It's certainly liberating, running around without a power-selection worry in the world, but might it pale eventually and hurt the longevity?

Monday, 21 May 2007

Simple twist of fate

In Lord of the Rings Online, you can improve your character by equipping traits. Virtue traits (Charity, Honour, Valour, Helping Old Hobbits Across The Road etc.) are acquired through exploration, completing quests, and wiping out vast swathes of orcs/goblins/insects/undead/similar plagues upon the land, so in the general run of things I'd acquired several of these with varying effects, and had more-or-less picked at random which to use.

In a bid to not run out of power after about ten seconds fighting, I thought I'd take a moment to look a bit closer at the improvements offered by the various traits, which meant trying to weigh up the benefits of +1.1 Power Regeneration (Non-Combat), -0.5% Magic Vulnerability and +2 Agility against +0.7 Power Regeneration (Non-Combat), -0.5% Wound Resistance and -0.25% Ranged Vulnerability. Is 0.5% good? Is 1.1 enough to make a noticeable difference compared to 0.7? Is Might better than Agility? And where does Fate fit in? It was a bit like reading food labels; "0.02 milligrams of sodium... sodium explodes in water; do I need 0.02 milligrams of that?"

In digging around, I found a splendid guide that lists the virtues, the benefits they give, and where they can be obtained, so I've picked out a few with increased power regeneration, maximum power, Will and/or Fate to hopefully give a bit more staying power in combat (as it were). As virtues stack (e.g. completing both the Lore of the Cardolan and Places of the Old Forest traits gives two ranks of Wisdom), I also set out on a trek to complete some of the exploration traits for a further boost; although I'd covered a fair amount of Bree-land in general questing, there were a couple of ruins I hadn't yet visited, and some distant corners of the Barrow Downs and Old Forest (helpfully shown on the maps at The Brasse). I'm still not really sure whether Disease Resistance is more desirable than a reduction in Ranged Vulnerability, though...

Friday, 18 May 2007

Yea! Heavy and a bottle of bread

Captain Zoso (similar to Captain Zep, only with less space detecting and more poking boars with a halberd) hit level 20 last night, so off I wandered to my Captain trainer. I'm getting a bit suspicious of the trainers in Lord of the Rings Online, they seem to have an uncanny knack of leaving me totally broke every two levels...
"Hello! I have just made level 20, can you train me?"
"Sure! How much money have you got?"
"How much money?"
"Um... well, I've been carefully hoarding my wealth, so I have about 200 silver"
"Right... well, let's see... by a funny coincidence, I can completely train you up with a resurrection skill, the ability to wear heavy armour, and a few other bits for... 200 silver!"
"Oh. Well... actually, I only have 187 silver 12 copper after all"
"That's all right, I'll wait here while you go off and sell all your worldly possessions to that vendor there"

Still, being able to wear heavy armour is nice, if for nothing else than a bit of a change in appearance. So far most of the medium armour I've been wearing has been pretty bland, a nondescript leather shirt and trousers. There are a few nicer pieces, mostly the Elven items, but hats have been a great disappointment (for someone with a hat fetish, at least). My hopes were initially raised by the frankly magnificent musketeer-style broad brimmed hat, complete with feather plume, my Elven archer had, but other than that helmets are distinctly towards the "functional" end of the spectrum with a distinct iron-pot-on-the-head influence, while non-metallic headgear manages to span assorted comedy fancy dress genres like "the Robin Hood hat" and "the pointy wizard hat". Heavy helms aren't much better, but at least the armour is a bit more chunky and metallic. Not that I actually own any, mind you, this is just from using the "what would this look like?" feature while forlornly browsing the auction house to see if I can pick anything up with the four silver thirty eight copper I have left after the class training...

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin' for a fall

While wandering around near Bree last night, I noticed it was dark; Lord of the Rings Online has a day/night cycle, and it can actually affect the game. In this case I remembered a quest I'd picked up many levels previously, a farmer who'd been having trouble in his fields, but only at night. It was marked as a fellowship quest (usually needing a group), but as I'd significantly outlevelled it, only having been around Bree during daylight for a while, I thought I'd head up and take a look.

Following the farmer's directions, I wandered through the area, expecting a bit of lonely sentry duty, but on cresting a hill I was suddenly confronted with a vast multitude of men, hobbits, elves and dwarves... a muddy farmer's field, crammed with people, minstrel's lute-riffs ringing out? I'd obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere and stumbled upon Glastonbury. At that point, one of the crop-spoiling ruffians I'd been sent to dispatch leaped from nearby undergrowth, but before he could say "Hello Staddle! Are you ready to rock?", he'd vanished under a hail of arrows, sword blows, and lute chords with some really nasty diminished sevenths.

On a busy server, LotRO suffers from the old "camp the named mob" problem particularly badly in a few quests (or "camp the lost hobbit you're supposed to escort to safety"); if there's a few of you in the area, it's easy enough to team up so you all qualify for the reward, but as most of the quests are marked as being for fellowships, chances are you'll bring a few friends along to start with, and when there's seven or eight people standing around it's not quite so straightforward forming up groups:
"Is everyone here for the ancient spider queen, yes? Let's team up to take this hideous foe on! Right, who's in a group already? You are... and you... is that in a group together, or with... right... "
*the ancient spider queen appears in the background*
"...and then... oh, wait, we can only have six in the group, so... you've already done the quest, but you're here to help your friends?"
*the spider queen taps a foot (or five) in boredom*
"Well how about if you're not in the main group, but help out once the mobs tagged, OK? Right, well I'm going to kick you, but don't take it personally..."
*a loremaster turns up, and Alan the Chaffinch pecks the spider queen to death*
"So! The current team here is Team A, we'll tag the queen and defeat her for the quest objectives, then reform as specified into Teams B and C with these other people here who need the queen but couldn't fit into Team A, and..."
*someone points out the dead spider queen, and another group arrive*

Once you get ten to fifteen people clustering around, there's no hope of grouping or orderly queuing, it's just a race to tag the mob first. I was going to make the suggestion that named mobs should have one of those numbered-ticket dispensing machines next to them, and the mobs spawn with a *bing*, "Group number seventeen, spider queen now being killed by group number seventeen, thank you", and we'd all laugh uproariously at the comedic juxtaposition of the supermarket queuing system with heroic fantasy questing... but then I thought "why not?" Say, have a quest NPC you talk to in the area, he adds you to a queue of groups wanting to kill the mob, when the mob spawns on your "turn", it's automatically tagged for your group. You still have an incentive to kill the mob before your turn, as that'll speed up the time until "your" spawn, but at least there's a bit of order to the situation rather than a desperate tag-race.

I suppose such a system would actually take considerable effort to actually implement *well* (apart from anything else, making sure there's no griefing potential, and that the system's obvious enough that GMs aren't inundated with tickets about mobs not spawning or not getting credit for mob kills), and for relatively little benefit; it doesn't go anywhere towards tackling the root problem of the constantly respawning weeble-mob as a game mechanism. Personally, in the case of the impromptu festival I just ditched the quest as it was so far below in level anyway, and for a few others I've just joined the tag-fest and got the credit for the quest eventually.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Tryin' to find a job of work

After deciding to stick with my Captain in Lord of the Rings Online, I've mostly been playing that this past week or so, getting up to level 18 and Chapter 11 of the "book" quests. Along the way, I managed to completely fill my inventory with assorted junk, and with crafting materials taking up more than a bag, I thought I'd better take a while to sort that out.

My Captain is an Armoursmith by vocation, which includes three professions: Prospecting to mine and refine ore, Metalsmithing to make metal components and armour, and Tailoring for cloth/leather components and armour. Crafting in LotRO is obviously designed to encourage co-operation between players, as few professions are entirely self contained; even metal armour tends to need leather straps or pads, which require boiled leather, which can only be made by a Forester. As my Hunter alt is a Woodsman, a vocation including Forester, Woodworker and Farmer, I can send animal hides over (the hides just drop, they don't require a skinning profession), boil them up, and send them back, which is handy.

I haven't researched LotRO crafting in great depth yet, but so far it's quite strongly reminiscent of WoW, not least in forcing you to churn out almost useless items as I blogged about a while ago. LotRO questgivers positively insist on showering you with decent items as rewards, rather removing the market for the sharpened flint sellotaped to a twig you're trying to sell as a spear. I did get about half an hour's wear out of one helmet I made from a dropped recipe before someone gave me something better, but that was about it. From what Potshot and Tobold are saying, it doesn't really sound like there's much to look forward to either, so if I was only worried about the money I should probably just sell gathered materials (again, like WoW), but there's something quite satisfying about making items (even if only to sell to vendors), so I'll probably keep churning stuff out.

Talking of crafting in WoW, I made a half-hearted attempt to boost my leatherworking up to the maximum 375 required for the few not-entire-useless craftable items, the Primalstrike Vest, Bracers and Belt (ignoring for a moment the raw materials required if I ever did make it that far). Originally I'd logged in to try and complete the week's ten arena matches to qualify for points, but there was a six minute wait for each match to start with, which dragged the whole business out from a half-hour of rapid-fire combat into an hour of queuing occasionally punctuated by random violence. Even that might have been tolerable, if it wasn't for the fact that every two or three matches we'd turn up in the arena starting area to find no opposition, and if we didn't leave of our own accord then the characters got logged out. Abandoning that farce, I popped over to the auction house to look for Primal Shadows and Fel Hide, as my leatherworking has reached the point where the only worthwhile item I can make with less than about 500g worth of raw materials are Fel Leather Boots, and they're yellow rather than orange now so don't even guarantee a skill-up. Primal Shadows are fairly reasonable, but either people have twigged Fel Hide is a desirable item or it's just not being skinned as much, as prices for that have rocketed. Course, I could go and try and grind the stuff myself, but even the most optimistic reports suggest that 12 hides in an hour of dedicated grinding is good going... so two solid hours of mindless grinding for enough hide for three pairs of boots which might or might not get me three points of leatherworking skill. Not really an appealing prospect.

Meanwhile, over in City of Heroes, I was... crafting! City of Heroes has always had the advantage that there's very little "dead" time; there was never much travel time once you hit level 14 (when you qualify for a travel power and can jump/fly/teleport/speed across city blocks faster than a speeding bullet), and the addition of extra stops to the mass transit system and teleport pads in bases has further speeded things up. The drawback was a lack of variety, it was either beat up cultists in robes, or beat up fascists in uniforms, or beat up... well, you get the idea. With the addition of the Invention system, you can also rapidly travel to... the consignment (auction) house!

Crafting in CoH is a much more egalitarian business than in WoW or LotRO. There's no professions or disciplines or vocations, and there's no grinding out 500 level 1 widgets to qualify as a deputy-sub-apprentice in order to make level 2 widgets, anyone can make anything (if they have the money and components). There's no gathering profession, all inventions are built with salvage that drops from mobs, and for the pièce de résistance, just about everything crafted/invented by the players is superior to the quest reward/drop/shop bought items previously in the game (although as "loot" is rather different in CoH it's not a world-changing improvement, but it's a nice little boost which stacks up the more player-invented enhancements you equip).

What I'd really like to see is if a CoH-type crafting system could work in a more conventional loot-based MMOG: reduce either the quantity or quality of items gained from mob drops and quest rewards (you'll still be doing quests for money and XP, so it's not a great disincentive) to push you towards using player-crafted items for preference, have easy-to-access auction house/consignment house/player shops or similar mechanisms for trading (standing around spamming/reading trade channels is dull and, for large volumes of trade, inefficient), and make crafting more widely accessible with a greater variety of crafted items, so you don't have a million armoursmiths churning out ten million identical helmets just to become slightly better armoursmiths.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Well, the captain, he might prove true

I experienced a class epiphany in Lord of the Rings Online last night. In the last exciting (for small values of "exciting") installment of "What Character Should I Play?", I was vacillating between a Captain and a Hunter, with a nagging feeling that a Guardian might be more useful, and a Burglar could be fun. I thought I should get it out of my system, so I created a Burglar and a Guardian, flipped a coin, entered the world as the Guardian, ran up to the first NPC and... couldn't be bothered with it. Logged out of the Guardian, logged in to the Captain, finished the Prologue, visited Strider in Bree, and I'm now ready to embark on the epic quest proper.

I can't say with absolute certainty I won't pick up another character, but I'm fairly sure I'll stick with the Captain now. Even though it only takes a couple of hours, at most, to work through the starting areas, having done it once, I really don't want to do it again.

It's a sort of psychological inertia, the aversion to repeating content; some people can re-read books or re-watch films, but I seldom do (not that it stopped me buying DVDs, until I twigged that I hardly ever played them... one still being in its shrink wrap after a year or so was a bit of a giveaway). If stuck in on a rainy afternoon with the login servers down, I might glance down the DVD pile and, even though I enjoyed the cinematic masterpieces the first time through, think "oh yeah, bloke heads down the river, mad Colonel, the horror, the horror, know what happens, no point watching that again... three blokes go after gold, Mexican standoff, hilarity ensues, know what happens, no point watching that again...". The funny thing is, if I get past that initial inertia (like if a few people get together, when Heisenberg's Law of Film Selection states you can't find something which nobody has yet seen *and* that everybody wants to see, or a film comes on television and the remote control is all the way over on the other sofa) and start watching something again, I'll usually enjoy it as much the second time around, sometimes more so, picking up things I missed the first time.

It's a similar thing in games; I never really progressed with alts in World of Warcraft, as after running through different starting areas, you wind up in pretty much the same parts of the world on the same quests. Even though playing a different class can change your approach significantly, I'd log in, look at the quest log, see the Defias Messenger staring back at me, and then extrapolate from that through Darkshire, on to Stranglethorn, running up and down to Booty Bay, grinding Furbolgs, over to Winterspring, the whiteness, the endless-ness stretching on beyond the human imagination, desolation of the soul... and I'd log out again. If I got past that, I'd probably enjoy playing through it again, but I don't have that push of the "log out" button being over on the other sofa.

Anyway, I think I've reached the decision just in time, as every time I change my mind Melmoth is forced to roll new characters according to some square-cube law which, by my calculations, would mean that had I gone on the play the Guardian and then Burglar, every other character on the server would be Melmoth. Twice.

Monday, 7 May 2007

This indecision's bugging me

Not much to report from this weekend, partly from being away for much of it, and partly from having three MMOGs on the go. Though I've had multiple subscriptions running a couple of times before, I'd focus on a single game, and go with that. Similarly, although I might flick around a few different low level race/class combinations while getting used to a game, I've always "locked in" to one as a main character fairly quickly, and hardly played anything else.

Not only have I been hopping between World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online, but I've compounded the problem by not deciding on a single LotRO character either, spending roughly equal time on a Captain and a Hunter (and having a nagging feeling I should actually be trying a Guardian or Minstrel, judging from the Looking For Fellowship calls; seems like, as per usual, there's never enough tanks and healers...)

Friday, 4 May 2007

Money doesn't talk, it swears

In wandering around Paragon City and Middle Earth (when the login servers are available) for the past few days, money has been a bit of a hot topic.

In Lord of the Rings Online, it's the lack of money that's an issue, as just about everyone seems to be finding. I rolled an Elf Hunter, originally just as a crafting complement to my Captain for a few early quests (the Woodsman Hunter can boil hides and treat wood for the Armorer Captain, who in turn can smelt ingots for the Woodsman), then thought I'd have a little look around Ered Luin... and sort of wound up at level 11. I haven't spent money on any fripperies like luxury foodstuffs, musical instruments, gym memberships or even new weapons and armour, but even so training the level 10 and 11 class skills has totally wiped out my meagre savings. Just treating rowan wood (a 48 copper piece of wax being needed for each treatment) and sending large stacks of hides through the post become a serious expense when you're scrimping and saving for every silver piece.

While there are a lot of nicely done quests, some do fall into the old rut of "Kev wants you to talk to Steve; Steve wants you to find an item and take it back to Kev; Kev does something to the item and wants you to take it to Steve; Steve sends you to Geoff who sends you back to Kev (etc.)" (Substitute appropriately Elvish names there for Geoff, Kev and Steve, obviously. Geoffnir, Kevrond and Steveriel maybe.) Fortunately in one case, there was a stable near both Kevrond and Steveriel, so I thought at least that might take a bit of the drudge out of shuttling between the two by speeding up the journey, except the stablemaster wanted ten silver. "TEN SILVER??/? I only want to go up the road, I could get to Bree for one silver, and that's about fifty times further!" Maybe government regulation enforces low cross-zone prices, and the stablemasters have to recoup their costs with drastically inflated local travel prices, either way it's quite literal highway robbery which left me trudging back up the road.

I suppose it's easier to make money scarce then gradually reduce costs/increase rewards rather than the other way around; in City of Heroes, money is anything but lacking...

CoH doesn't have "money" as such, but heroes gain "influence", and villains "infamy", which is functionally equivalent (much like LotRO "morale" being functionally equivalent to "health"). For a long time, there was almost nothing to spend it on, so high level heroes had millions of influence kicking around (that's not exaggerating for effect, I think my main hero had something like 34,000,000 influence, even after sending a load to alts). With City of Villains, there was a bit of an attempt to take some influence out of the system by introducing Supergroup (the CoH equivalent of a guild) Prestige, used to fund bases; after level 35, you could toggle a mode to either gain prestige for your group or influence for yourself, but not both. Influence can be exchanged for Prestige, but as there was so much influence kicking around the exchange rate is deliberately insane; seeing as there still wasn't anything to spend influence on anyway, I traded a few million in to boost our group's prestige total.

Now, Issue 9 has brought in loot; mobs can drop recipes for enhancements to your character, and salvage which is used to make the enhancement from the appropriate recipe. There's an auction house where you can buy and sell recipes, salvage and enhancement, and I'm a sucker for auction houses (though the total lack of money has restricted my economic experimentation in LotRO). I spent a while last night browsing around, and it's... a bit weird! But fun. In the CoH auction house, a seller puts an item up with the minimum price they'll take for it; a buyer puts a bid in for an item at the maximum they'll pay for it. If an item has been listed at or below the bid price, the buyer gets it for the amount they bid. The auction house tells you how many of an item are listed for sale, how many people have placed bids on those items, and the price the last 5 sales of that item, which, in this three day old economy, is an interesting logic puzzle for trying to work out what things might be worth... (so, the last 5 sales of this item were for 2,000,000; 1,000,000; 150,000; 750,000 and 1,500,000. There are 48 people bidding for this item, and 17 for sale... how much should you bid and/or accept for a sale? Then you start to think... well, if I list an item at 10,000, someone would get it if they bid that price... but if I list it for 10,001, and they raise their bids in increments of 5,000... they'd pay 15,000 for it... but then maybe they'd think I'd think that, and bid 10,002... so maybe I should list it at 10,003, but then they'd think I'd thought that they'd think of that...) There are two main problems I'm having at the moment. Firstly, moving from fantasy games where a handful of silver/gold is a decent sum of money back to CoH and its millions of influence is like trying to work out prices in old Turkish Lira ("a cup of coffee for EIGHT HUNDRED THOUSAND LIRA??/?" "Yes, sir, that's 23 English pence"). Secondly, prices aren't displayed with commas separating the digits, so I'm spending a while just counting zeroes to double check if recent sales were for 100000, 1000000 or 10000000 influence, and I imagine there'll be ample scope for items suddenly shifting in price by factors of ten.

I've no idea how the CoH economy will work out long term, it looks a bit of a glorious, sprawling mess at the moment. I don't think it'll really hurt the game as some fear; although the new enhancements can increase the power of your character, it doesn't look like they'll make a massive difference unless you really go crazy farming/buying stuff, and being there's not much in the way of PvP/raiding where those few percent differences are all important there's not much incentive to go that mad. Equally, it's not a hugely compelling reason to stick around in and of itself, but it's a neat enough bonus while bouncing around hurling fireballs to sometimes pick up recipes and salvage, and I can always while away half an hour in an auction house... (so maybe they'd increment their bid in multiples of five... I should make the price a prime number...)

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Playing games in a sand-box world

I got to thinking about games and worlds recently. Very loosely, by "game", I mean something with fixed rules and objectives, and by "world" (or "sandbox") an environment in which you're free to do as you wish. They're more vague labels on a spectrum than concrete concepts. There's Van Hemlock's splendid post inspired by Raph's equally splendid post itself inspired by a rather neat Slashdot comment. If only I'd posted that /. comment for a truly Ouroborosesque moment... anyway. Speaking of Slashdot, Zonk was back in Star Wars Galaxies, and pointed out as one of its original problems "Too Much World, Not Enough Game". What really triggered this post, though is a post over on the LotRO forums which, once you strip away the Tony Harrison-ism of the game being an outrage, basically points out that LotRO is more "game" than "world". And that's fine by me, I tend to get a bit lost in worlds.

The most obvious "world" is Second Life, and I tried that and couldn't think of anything to do. In single player games, though I've played and enjoyed Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion from the Elder Scrolls series, I haven't finished any of them. For the last two, I hit a point somewhere through the main plot and was paralysed by indecision, unable to choose between continuing my vital quest to save the world, or performing some tasks to raise my standing in the Fighters' Guild (and Mages' guild, and Thieves' Guild, and Feng Shui Consultants' Guild), or exploring some interesting looking ruins, or helping some townspeople, or picking up some nice crockery. I loved Elite back in the day, made Elite status and everything, but that was twenty years ago when it was mind-blowingly original; my favourite space-sims after that (Wing Commander, X-Wing, Conflict: Freespace) were much less free-form, and I didn't feel compelled to subscribe to EVE Online after a ten day trial.

So objectives and a sense of direction are important, but not to the exclusion of everything. As Jimmy Page described Led Zeppelin's sound as "tight but loose", so I prefer my games to be structured but free-form. To try and demonstrate I'm not a raving self-contradictory madman, consider Deus Ex or Operation Flashpoint; each level has clearly defined objectives, but you have some latitude in how you complete them. Not so much latitude that you could spontaneously decide to leave the army and take up farming, though. Perhaps my favourite examples are the Grand Theft Auto III series. I really don't like driving games, but after GTAIII was so successful on the PS2 I thought I'd give it a try on the PC, and loved it, even the driving and racing elements. Everyone praises the sandbox nature of the games, the fact that you can just run out, grab a car and drive around listening to the in-game radio, and that's great, but if that's all there was, a city for you to make your own way in, I'm sure the games wouldn't be anywhere near as popular as they are (though I'm equally sure some people would prefer that). At the heart of the GTAIII games there's a linear (fail a mission, try it again) story, and it's the combination of that plus the side missions plus the freedom which really made the games for me.

So back to MMOs, I don't mind the treadmill giving some structure to the game, starting you at level 1 in the level 1 area doing level 1 quests killing level 1 monsters, rather than chucking you in the middle of nowhere...
"What should I do, oh starting NPC?"
"I dunno!"
"What, there's no great evil befalling the world?"
"Not that I know of"
"No princesses need saving?"
"Nope, we're an autonomous collective"
"Oh. Don't suppose you need 10 murloc eyes, at all?"

That's not to say I don't want the treadmill cunningly disguised as far as possible, with enough choices and alternative options to give an illusion of free will, and so far LotRO is doing that well enough for me.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

It was gravity which pulled us down

Server problems put a bit of a crimp on my Middle Earth adventures last night, restricting my wanderings to the forums (mostly the hundreds of posts demanding a full technical breakdown of *exactly* what the problem with the servers was. I'm not entirely sure what people think they'd gain from the technical team outlining their precise fault finding process in excruciating detail, presumably to receive helpful advice like "Have you tried turning it off and on again?" and "Is it plugged in?", but there you go.)

In one of those annoying quirks of timing, it looks like Issue 9 of City of Heroes will be released today, just after a conveniently free evening, but such is life. I ran a few missions with my Dominator anyway to get back into the swing of things and earn a bit of cash for the new auction houses, and it was great fun raining flaming death upon all and sundry once more. Puts me on the horns of the dalai lama over what to play tonight now (such life or death decisions we face...)