Sunday, August 30, 2009


My main gaming PC died yesterday. Awoke from a nap to find that it had locked up hardcore. Refused to respond even to a hard reset. Switched it off from the main power switch, and now it won't start up at all. Checks the system RAM and then dies whenever I try to power it up. It should still be under warranty (it's only a few months old). I'll call the manufacturer tomorrow. However, I have already resolved that if it costs me more than $100 to get it working again that I simply won't.

I'm typing this from my old PC. It runs WoW and Wizard 101 just fine. I can run LoTRO and some other older MMOs tolerably. However it won't run Champions Online at all ($50 down the pooper...yay), and runs many other MMOs that I enjoy (e.g., Runes of Magic, Warhammer Online, Free Realms) at such poor frame rates and at such low settings that I can't enjoy them.

In the last twelve years, three out of the four PCs I have owned died seemingly at random. One overheated when a cooling fan died and fried the processor (Win 95), one glitched out and forced me to reformat the hard drive to get it going again (Windows Millennium Edition), and now my latest PC has apparently died an equally random and horrible death (Vista). Unfortunately, I can't afford to replace the latest one.

In that same time I have had exactly zero consoles die, out of a half dozen I have bought. I have also had zero installation and set up issues with consoles. The main reason I've stayed on the PC for so long is that the three MMOs available for consoles; FFXI, EQOA, and PSU; are not to my tastes (to put it politely).

In the next month, one of two things will happen. It will turn out that I can fix my PC inexpensively, either because the damage is under warranty or because the bits I have to replace are cheap. Or I will abandon PC gaming as a serious hobby altogether, at least until competent gaming PCs go sub $300.

Just in case this is my last post for a while, I don't want to leave on a total sour note.

I still believe that MMOs as a genre are taking the first tentative steps. To be alive to witness the transition from MUDs to MMOs was imo akin to the transition from silent film to "talkies." We have only begun to see what is possible. It's been only ten years since EQ and UO. Did film reach the heights that are possible by 1940? How many films from the 40s and 50s do we even watch as students of history (much less because they remain compelling today)? Adoption of MMOs is still low (considering humans as a species), but steadily climbing worldwide. Eventually, I expect that virtual worlds will be as commonplace as e-mail and facebook. Twenty years from now, we will realize that the salty foam that gathered around our feet was the start of a wave that altered society forever.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why do I blog?

I assume that pretty much everyone that reads this blog also follows Bullet Points, but just in case Anjin has a succinct but though provoking post up. My favorite quote:

"If all I was looking for was validation from the community, I'd be dying my hair black and cutting myself by now."

I'm pretty much in the same boat as Anjin. I am truly greatful that some folks take the time to stop by. It helps my motivation a lot to know I'm at least whistling at few people instead of directly into the wind. But in the end, I do this mainly because I enjoy writing. Putting words together to make stuff is fun.

I also feel like there is a need for more blogs focused on general MMO commentary from folks that haven't yet become jaded oracles of snarkyness and negativity. I really get tired of reading blogs written by cranks that get pissed every time a new MMO comes along that wasn't design by Christ himself to cater to whatever their fetishes happen to be. It was just such a series of posts about a yet another new "good but not earth shattering" MMO that prompted be to start this blog in a drunken fit of pique. I'm glad that I did, it's been fun.

Hopefully that will be the most self indulgent post you'll see here for a while ;-)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Champions Online: Photos from my vacation in open beta

Thought I'd post a few of the screen shots I took, as well as point out some of the specific features that caught my eye.

This is the first guy I rolled up, Electric Dude.

He is as close as I could come to a remake of one of my City of Heroes characters, an Electric/ Electric Blaster of the same name. In terms of appearance he's identical. He also ended up with the same travel power (teleport), and a lot of similar combat abilities. My CoH character has a lot more powers than this guy did even when I took him up to 40 for the closed beta event. However in terms of how the characters play, it's not contest...this guy is a lot more fun. His controls are more fluid, and somehow he just "feels" more like a superhero.

The mundane appearance of this character helps me stand out a bit in a game where most players are running around as super hero clones, S&M call girls, cyborgs, space demons, werewolves, and anything else you can imagine. I also feel like it contrasts well with his fairly flashy powers:

One of the things I really like is that as you level up abilities they become more impressive. Level 1 electric blast is above, level 2 is below:

I didn't take any screen shots, but level 3 is a real whopper. I also love how teleport works. When you teleport you wink out of existence and become a little glowing ball of light that can fly really really fast:

From the standpoint of another player, you disappear and reappear in a different spot. In addition, while you are flying around as a little ghost ball you are invulnerable to attack (at least as far s I can tell), making it a great escape power. It's saved my ass quite a bit during the end of beta event.

Next I wanted to see what a melee class plays like so I rolled up this chick:

As has already been pointed out by others the melee animations in this game are great. She also gave me an opportunity to try out the travel power acrobatics. It's sort of a compromise between super jumping and super speed, neither as high as former or as fast as the latter. But you still run hella fast and jump hella high, I really liked it. Plus when you back up you do flips!

Finally, I decided to get a little more creative with the character editor. I started with the idea of a fire imp, but ended up with something a little different . . .

This was also the first character where I messed around with the ability to change the color of your powers. I turned most of his fire abilities from fire orange to light blue to make it look a little more like "eldrich energy." Below is what fire flight looks like:

He looks super cool when he is in full flight, however I needed a third hand to hit the print key while I held the camera in place for a good pose. It occurs to me now I could have mashed it with my nose...maybe next time.

All in all, I am very much looking forward to playing this "for reals" when the game goes live for pre-orders.

Champions Online: open beta impression

I absolutely had a blast in the open beta. The combat system is fast paced, fluid, and a lot of fun. The character customization, both in terms of what your character looks like as well as what they can actually do, is exceptional. The graphics are also lovely, at least if you turn off the thick black outlines in the graphics options.

My only real gripe is repetition in the starting area. Classes start out with two basic attacks that function nearly identically regardless of what class you pick, and you will be playing though the same tutorial with every new alt. But really in the grand scheme of things that's a pretty minor quibble. It takes maybe 15 minutes to gun through the tutorial area, and after that you get to pic from one of two main starter areas (one is a desert Hulk inspired area, another is a Canadian wilderness Alpha Flight inspired area). As soon as you get there you pick your first additional power and your first travel power (from many options), both of which potentially make a big difference in how your character plays. And from there on out is all gravy.

I'll definitely be pre-ordering this one, though I'll admit I'm a bit ticked that I missed the six month option. I also suspect that the naysayers that had their undergarments atwist right after the NDA went down either played early builds that weren't as polished as the current one, or simply aren't part of the potential audience for a game like this.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Things looking up for Champions Online, and other quick news hits

Among the bloggers that I follow, there were two in particular I was waiting on to give their impressions of Champions Online. Anjin, of Bullet Points, is a fan of comic books as well as MMOs. Sente, of A Ding World, is the most hardcore City of Heroes fan I follow. Both Sente and Anjin have posted their initial impression of the open beta, and are pretty positive. In fact, the the buzz on the net has completely turned around for this game. In addition, the open beta is truly open now (at least until Fileplanet runs out of beta keys). To me that signals confidence in the product on the part of Cryptic, and I think it's a great move. Hopefully, I'll be able to get one of the keys before Fileplanet runs out so I can stick my head in and form my own opinions.

In other news, to the surprise of few save Tobold, the leaked WoW expansion rumors turned out to be true. The expansion will certainly get me back to try things out, but my urge to play the current game has pretty much vanished. Obviously a goblin mage will will be the best character type to play (particularly if they have a flying carpet and a swami hat!)...why even bother leveling any of my existing toons?

Finally, City of Heroes is getting Issue 16 about the same time that CO launches. The main theme of the patch is that heroes will be able to customize the color of their powers. For example, if you are a blaster type that shoots lightning, you can make it any color you like. Unfortunately, CO offers this option right out of the box..which sort of steals their thunder in my mind.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Things aren't looking too good for Champions Online

The NDA went down on Champions Online, and so far the early reports from the MMO blogosphere are pretty universally negative. The sole semi-dissenter I've come across is a post by Beu over at Spouse Aggro, who points out that the game is still in beta. The problem with this counter argument, if indeed it is meant as a counter argument, is that I have never really seen a game make a major turn around during open beta. What you see is pretty close to what you will get at launch, at least for the content that they give you access to. Improvements tend to be in the area of client performance, if anywhere.

Even before this round of early reports, I found it odd that they hired Bill Roper to helm the launch of CO. Hellgate was a pretty amazing tragedy in my mind. There were a lot of great features in HL, but it got the legs kicked out from under it by a few unfathomably poor management and design decisions (but that's another post). Hiring the guy that steered that ship straight into a reef seemed (at best) a puzzling decision to me. A few months after he was hired, CO announced that you could buy a lifetime sub for $200...but only before the game launches (!?!). At that point alarm bells started going off in my head. Now that reports from the beta are coming in, color me officially skeptical.

All that said, this is a game that I've been following for more than a year. Whenever I get an opportunity to try it for free, I certainly will (I haven't yet looked into the conditions for getting into the open beta). I try never to form a firm opinion of something until I've experienced it myself. That tends to get me in to trouble a lot when I'm dining out. "Well, that's an odd sounding dish. Doesn't seem as if it would taste very good, but I'll never know if I don't try it..."

In any case, expect some impressions on CO here at some point. I sincerely hope that my skepticism is unwarranted.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A bit of a digression

My love of MMOs definitely sprang out of my love of paper-and-pencil table-top roleplaying games. With that thin justification, I'm going to devote this entire post to my thoughts on Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition.

Despite the fact that RPG mechanics (online and offline) are a bit of an obsession with me, I didn't buy the 4th edition books when they came out. If you have moved to a new town where you haven't yet met any role-players, 36$ is a lot to spend just to grok how a system works...even if it is the newest iteration of the most popular PnP franchise. Last week Borders helpfully sent me a coupon for 40% anything in their store. That was enough of a discount to get me to at last check it out.

I won't write a detailed review. However I can say with confidence that I don't like the new system. In no particular order:

1. It is not remotely realistic. It's not as if D&D was ever one of the more "realistic" RP systems available. But 4th edition is simply way over the top. It's as if the same sensibilities that are needed for CRP or Board Game design were applied to a PnP RPG. For example, characters can regain health points a set number of times per day, regardless of class . . . or whether they even know first aid. Got stabbed in the face with a sword? No problem, think nice thoughts for five minutes and it will heal right up.

Great if your point of reference is CRPGs where being able to regen health outside of combat is standard. But completely utterly stupid if you are trying to simulate a world that is a believable fantasy infused iteration of our world.

2. It's not Dungeons and Dragons. The game is so distant from previous iterations of D&D, both in terms of both mechanics and tone/ setting, that they would have been much more honest to call it a new game.

3. It would be nearly impossible to play without miniatures. The bulk of abilities that you gain in the game reference very specific positional situations or zones of space that have no meaning if you aren't playing with miniatures on a grid based map. I guess you could argue that this takes the game back to it's roots, since grid based miniatures combat is where DnD started in the 70s. However, in my mind the reliance on maps, miniatures, and a very structured turn based combat system distances the game from the one thing that I think PnP RPGs offer that no CRPG ever could: the opportunity to be part of an engaging emergent narrative.

PnP RPGs at their best are closer to improv theater than a board game. Everyone has a personality and goals, and the fun of the game is seeing how those elements play out and interact in the situations created by the GM. The mechanics are there to help you resolve events. The mechanics enable and enhance the narrative, they do not constrain the narrative. A system that forces you to whip out miniatures and move around on a board.... is a board game first, and a RPG second.

I'm sure you could role-play with D&D 4th edition. Just as folks role-play in WoW and EQ. However, much as in an MMO, the mechanics that the game offers neither prevent nor empower that goal. D&D 4th is a board game with MMO sensibilities thinly disguised a PnP RPG.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Three obscure innovations I wish MMO designers would steal

Apologies for the lack of posts, RL has been a demanding (but rewarding) mistress of late.

On to the topic. I've played a lot of MMOs over the years, and it seems that all too often nice features are buried in obscure or mediocre products. In no particular order, these are my personal top three.

1. Procedural Quest Generators (Anarchy Online): SWG had something similar, but no MMO that I have tried had a random quest generator as deep as the one used in Anarchy Online. There were a series of sliders so that you could adjust the missions for your class, playstyle, and party size. To give one example, by adjusting the sliders you could generate missions that were combat heavy "break down the door and shoot everyone that moves" missions or missions where you could win by stealthing past everyone and stealing an item. Once you had the mission parameters set the way that you liked them, you could randomly generate missions over and over until you got one with a quest reward that was useful to you.

The brilliance of the system was that it provided unlimited content that players themselves balanced to their tastes, rather than forcing some designer to guess what the players will want. The missions did get repetitive eventually, it's nothing you'd want to hinge your MMO on. However, adding that sort of system to a game that already has a deep scripted questing environment would definitely add a ton of value to an MMO, and with a lot less developer overhead than creating new zones or quest hubs. When I played Anarchy Online I got a solid month of entertainment out the mission generator.

2. Flexible yet Simple Crafting (EQOA): It seems that in most MMOs, either your crafting is limited to predefined recipes or the crafting system is way way too deep to be entertaining for casual players. The sole exception that I am aware of is Everquest Online Adventures. Crafted items had base stats like AC or DPS. The other properties of an item were determined by the gems you included while crafting an item. Gems could add to any base stats, and could also add properties like offensive procs on weapons and defensive procs on armor. Instead of hunting around for a recipe that made a good item for a given character build, you simply designed it. Want a full set of Intelligence plate-mail for some insane reason? Just make it. Remarkably, the system for crafting was actually no more difficult to figure out than something like WoW or LoTRO. Assemble ingredients and hit a button.

3. Diablo Style Endgame (Phantasy Star Online): In Phantasy Star Online, once you reached a certain level you gained access to new dungeons where mobs could drop the highest level loot. Admittedly they weren't really new areas, but the same areas that you had been adventuring in with new monsters that behaved differently and had different resistances. However, either solo or in four man parties, the eight "final dungeons" were extremely addictive to play through. Loot was completely randomized, and the best items were fantastically rare (1% or less drop rates rare).

At first gear drops that were enormous upgrades would come quickly. However, once your gear hit a certain threshold the odds of getting an upgrade on any given run was pretty low. Despite this, PSO kept me playing in the "endgame" longer than almost any other MMO I've tried. I literally put in hundreds of hours into the final dungeon tier, and to this day I still play offline occasionally. The "maybe I'll get something this time!" mechanic is extremely addictive.

What I really liked was that the endgame supported both casual and hardcore playstyles. It rewarded casual players by being accessible solo. However, it also rewarded the super-hardcore because they were far more likely to have stumbled across the best gear. I find it a bit mystifying that Diablo/ Rogue style dungeon mechanics don't appear in more MMOs (Dungeon Runners excepted).