Wednesday, June 21, 2017

When a Gamble Doesn't Pay Off

"You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're only second best."
--Lancey Howard, The Cincinnati Kid


If it isn't obvious, I have a low opinion of gold farmers.

Gold farming, particularly the large operations, are a source of account hacking and MMO economy manipulation. They are by no means the sole source of either, but they are far from an innocent bunch. By using real money to purchase in in-game source of currency, the gold farmers encourage the "pay to win" mentality in what is at times a very obnoxious form of hard sell. There was a time in late-Wrath through all of Cataclysm where you couldn't walk through an Alliance or Horde city and not run into a bunch of bots in formation spelling out the name of a gold farmer website.* And even today, at least a few times a week I get spam mail in SWTOR from gold/credit farmers, which I find quite hilarious given that it is so easy to spend a day and accumulate enough credits to buy most items in the auction house.

I've occasionally wondered why gold farmers do what they do. Sure, the short answer is "money", but there's plenty of other ways to make a living than dealing in the MMO version of Bitcoin. Well, Cracked magazine's website has a post up about a gold farmer leaving the gold farming business behind.**

(I should also note that Massively OP also picked up on the article and posted a referring article on their website.)

The article itself is worth reading, if for no other reason than that it confirms my opinion that Blizzard's attempts to combat gold farmers using the WoW tokens was a shot across the bow of the WoW gold farming industry. It also deals with the nature of MMO/WoW/video game addiction, and that addiction is very much a real thing.

Oh, and the real gold mine (pardon the pun) is pairing this article with one from a year ago, about how a small time gold farming operation looks from the inside.

My single biggest takeaway is that small time/independent gold farming operations remind me of small time professional gamblers. I don't mean the people who are on television at Texas Hold 'em poker tournaments, but the people who gamble at casinos, racetracks, and online for a living. Sure, someone may strike it rich at any time, but those times are very rare. You may even have a better shot at making it as a pro athlete than as a small time gambler or gold farmer, but that dream of making it big is a siren song.





*No, I'm not going to provide a pic of it. Why give the site(s) free advertising?

**I remember when Cracked was Mad Magazine's wackier cousin. When did Cracked actually start putting up some serious stuff in addition to the humor? I know that they were already serious when Robin Williams passed away and they had a couple of really good articles about the intersection of comedy and depression.

Monday, June 19, 2017

An Oldie but Goodie

Courtesy of the LOTRO forums comes this little graphic from Yosoff:

If novels followed MMO logic. Just sayin'...

Yes, I am amused.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Raising a Pint in Salute

While longevity in a blog is one thing, longevity in a podcast is quite another.

The time it takes to publish a blog post is pretty minimal compared to the effort it takes to pull together a podcast. From a technical aspect alone, there's the design, the equipment/software, and the editing to create a polished finished product. While you can run both on a minimal budget, the hours spent working on a blog pale to those spent on a podcast.*

Therefore, I wanted to take some time to salute two podcasts that reached significant milestones: The Twisted Nether Blogcast and the Battle Bards podcast.

***

You may be cool, but not Blog Azeroth cool.
Twisted Nether is a live blogcast that has just reached its 9th anniversary. Fimlys, Hydra, and Zabine run the WoW focused show --which is the face of Blog Azeroth-- and are frequently joined by bloggers across the WoW-verse. (Full disclosure: I was a guest on Episode 166, recorded live on April 28, 2012. Back then it was just Fimlys and Hydra running the show, and I'm very glad I got to know them through TN.) TN encourages listeners to join the live blogcast and comment in the live comment section, and while the recording time is frequently at odd hours for Eastern North America, I heartily recommend listening in on a live blogcast.

Through TN I've met several fellow bloggers who have since become friends, including Ancient from Tome of the Ancient. If you're curious about WoW comings and goings, I heartily recommend Twisted Nether for an entertaining look at WoW from people who love it so much that they run a live show in the late hours Sunday nights (EST).

However, I did learn one thing about a live blogcast: don't make a quip that can be construed as being awkward. In my case, it was the final question round, and I made a quip about not having heard these questions before. If you've heard Twisted Nether, you've heard the questions, so it wasn't so much as amusing as awkward, and I should have known better than to try to say that. Still, Fim and Hydra were fantastic hosts, and even though I no longer play WoW, if I'd the chance to go back on just to talk with them, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

***
Something about that lute reminds me of
the LOTRO Minstrel class. Just sayin'.

Battle Bards is an MMO podcast created by three people who truly love MMO music, and will be dropping their 100th episode shortly (if it hasn't dropped already. EtA: Here it is!!!).

While the music might be a minor aspect to MMOs in general, the thrill of that first loading screen with the stirring soundtrack blaring through the speakers is a fond memory to even the most hardened MMO gamer. To that end, the team of Syp, Stef, and Syl --the Battle Bards-- scour the MMO world for the interesting and unusual as well as comparing themes among various MMOs.

I've been a long time listener to Battle Bards, in no small part because a) I'm a music lover and b) my long time blogger friend Syl is a host. While I agree or disagree with the Bards' selections, I do find something interesting each episode. However, looking back at the podcasts, I believe that Battle Bards really hit their stride on their fourth episode, the interview with LOTRO composer Chance Thomas. Chance was an engaging guest, and the Bards performed a great job in exploring the music of LOTRO and the process Chance works through when composing a piece. At that point, the podcast became more than just a discussion about favorite pieces and began hitting on the nuts and bolts of the music itself.

The Battle Bards demonstrate in spades that all you need is a love of the music to explore the amazing world of MMO soundtracks.





*By comparison, the livestreaming of a game takes less effort. Once the software and equipment are configured, all you have to do is bring your creative self and play away. Once a livestream graduates into a vlog, however, editing begins to assert itself.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Way Late News Announcements...

...film at 11.

Seriously, I've been a wee bit busy and haven't had the chance to mention this, but Chance Thomas is returning to score the LOTRO soundtrack for Mordor.

Considering I really liked his previous work for LOTRO, I'm happy to see this.

Here's the link to the livestream interview and announcement:


Friday, May 26, 2017

Speaking of Anniversaries...

...Age of Conan is 9 this year.

Yes, the MMO that garnered more discussion about it's M rating --and the accompanying violence and nudity-- than anything about Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age setting is about to hit double digits in age next year.

I, like a lot of players, got the 9th Anniversary e-mail which included the goodies of an instant L80 for all accounts that were in good standing prior to the event's start, and I figured "why not?" My Barbarian was still mired in the mid-50s, and the grind that I'd need to do in order to get simply to L60 seemed daunting enough that the lure of having a max level toon was simply too much to pass up.

This time, I decided I'd try something a bit closer to a more traditional MMO class, the Conqueror melee DPS class. I also decided to balance the masculinity of my traditional Cimmerian Barbarian with a female Cimmerian Conqueror.

It was during the character creation that I became reacquainted with one of Age of Conan's more eyebrow raising aspects: bust adjustment.

The fact that AoC has that isn't necessarily the issue here, since Aion has it as well, but that AoC felt the need to go in the direction of what I'd call the voluptuous model of female toon design. While AoC's female design allows you to adjust the body to go from practically emaciated to heavily muscled, the bustline pretty much starts at a "C" cup and goes all the way to "you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me".

Because apparently that's how Cimmerians roll.

Cimmerians are not easily amused.*


The oldest mini-Red stopped by right after character creation --and, thankfully, after I'd put the gear on the newly minted toon after zoning in-- to check out the scenery.

"At least the gear covers her up," she said with a critical eye. "I was thinking that there'd be almost nothing there."

I snorted. "That's because I'm wearing heavy armor. There'd be a lot less there if I was playing a Necromancer or a Barbarian."

"Still, it could be worse."

Then another new L80 toon ran by, gearless.

"Oh."

"Yeah," I said. "Like that. You can make all of the gear disappear in vanity armor." I demonstrated by removing leg armor and a few other pieces in the vanity armor tab. "You can always tell the oversexed teenage boys by the lack of armor the female toons wear."

"Absolutely. Why do you play it, then?"

"Because I really liked the Conan short stories and I enjoy the world that Robert E. Howard created, warts and all. And in spite of the obvious oversexed nature of the women, the MMO does allow female toons and NPCs to be powerful people. Plus, the scenery is amazing."

I headed out to Connall's Valley for a view from the waterfall atop the village.

Like what I remembered, the new graphics card handled the scenery at max levels with aplomb. I still shake my head as to why LOTRO has issues when SWTOR and AoC don't, but that's something I can't control.

Far below is a Cimmerian village.

AoC was as beautiful as I remembered when I played it more regularly.

"Wow," the oldest mini-Red whispered.

"Yeah. The scenery is pretty amazing."

"Why'd you stop playing it so much?"

"It was getting too grindy. You know how it is grinding deeds in LOTRO? That's a walk in the park compared to AoC's grinding for levels. And on top of it, the respawn rate is so quick that you have to spend so much time fighting through an area just to need to fight back when you're done."

"That sounds like you have to group up to get even basic things done."

"That's about right. And when you play late at night, your grouping options aren't necessarily the greatest." I scratched my beard, considering. "Still, I might have to give it more of a go now with this toon, since she's already at max level."

My oldest patted me on the shoulder. "Good luck, Dad."




*What, you expected me to post Larethe as she was when she first zoned in? Sorry, but no. While I'm quite aware that over in Europe toplessness isn't considered as big a deal as over in the States, I'm still not planning on crossing that line.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The End of one Road, but another Road is Just Beginning

This past weekend brought several big events, only one of which was MMO related.

First, mini-Red #3 graduated from middle school and will be joining her brother at high school this fall. To put this in perspective, she had just entered 1st Grade at elementary school when Souldat and I started PC back in the Fall of 2009, so the majority of her life I've been blogging about MMOs.*

She still has that same tank-like attitude of "come at me, bro!" that she's displayed in gaming, and her drive is for perfection in whatever she tackles, whether it is gaming or playing percussion. I've occasionally thought about letting the rest of her companions in the Drumline know what they're getting with her, but then I smile and shrug and say to myself "Nah, let them find out for themselves."

Second, mini-Red #1 has graduated from high school and will be attending university in the fall. As you may have surmised by reading the blog, she is going to major in Music Performance. I know she's got at least four years of college ahead of her and then potentially graduate school, so only the first part of her educational journey is complete. But still, she's persevered in the face of adversity and I'm really proud of her (and her sister). She's had plenty of mentors along the way, and they've helped her at critical junctures in her education, and I'll always be grateful for their work. I can freely acknowledge that I don't have any real experience with dealing with someone so obsessed with music and making a difference in people's lives, so their assistance was invaluable.**

Finally, mini-Red #1 finally finished the LOTRO Shadows of Angmar Epic Questline, several years after she began playing LOTRO. She was stuck for the longest time on an instance in Angmar, where it's an escort quest that the NPC she was escorting kept dying because (as a Hunter) she couldn't pull either DPS down the enemies or at least pull aggro quickly enough. Pairing up with her brother, she was finally able to get over that hump and keep going on the Epic Questline. She already knew what to expect, because a (now banned) player on our server started blabbing to people randomly about spoilers in the story, but even then the instances after that point still brought out the feels. She also wasn't thrilled that the final boss fights took well over 15 minutes each to win, but win she did and that was that.

In a way, mini-Red #1's success in overcoming obstacles in real life mirrored her eventual in-game success, and I don't think it strictly an accident that both finished at roughly the same time.

I just certainly hope that her university experience is better than what people experience in Moria...





*She's even breached the topic of "when can I start dating?" with us, which freaks me out even more than the mere fact that she's going to be attending high school this fall.

**But in taking after my own heart, she (as well as the other mini-Reds) have developed a love of studying history. I can now talk about historical topics with them and they can hold their own in the discussions. I guess were's multi-talented geeks....

EtA: Added a word to correct a funky sounding sentence.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Late Thursday Humor

It's still before midnight, so it counts.

Anyway, Dorkly occasionally strikes comedy gold with RPG/gamer memes.

And without further ado, 20 Out-of-Context D&D Quotes That Accurately Represent The Game

Like this:


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Is Someone up for a Story?

I've been thinking a bit about the rise of livestreaming video games, from the Let's Play videos to the "Teens Play" series to the rise of Twitch.TV. Not that great a surprise, given that people will watch others play video games in much the same way we used to crowd around someone playing Gauntlet or Galaga at the video arcade back in the 80s and marvel at their (lack of) skill.

That said, geek icon Wil Wheaton has been producing his own version of Let's Play for boardgames and RPGs for a few years now. The series, called Tabletop, presents Wil playing games he finds enjoyable with several friends/acquaintances. It gives people a chance to check a game out and see if they're interested in playing it in a lighthearted manner.*

Wil's most recent episode of Tabletop explores a pencil and paper RPG that I've recommended in the past for people who want to stick their toe into the RPG hobby but without being overwhelmed by numbers and tables: FATE Core.

FATE Core uses what is known as the Fudge system to handle random events in the game: four regular six sided dice with two minuses (-), two plusses (+), and two blanks. Minuses and plusses cancel each other out, so you could potentially end up with -4 to +4 as your range. No fuss, no muss. FATE also emphasizes story over mechanics, so the GM works with the players to tell a great story.

Well, enough ado about FATE Core, here's the episode:



Oh, and did I mention that Felicia Day plays with Wil?




*Plus that table he uses, from Geek Chic, is simply amazing. If I had the money AND the room.....

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Happy Anniversary, LOTRO!

It feels kind of weird wishing LOTRO a happy 10th anniversary, since it feels only yesterday that I was wishing the same for WoW.*

The mini-Reds love the Anniversary events and are always pestering me to get more involved, so this time I took a break from grinding deeds and ran across the length and breadth of Middle-earth in the gigantic scavenger hunt that the devs put together for this special occasion.

And crack some skulls.

Being L81 but only up to the Rise of Isengard and the Great River expacs and quest packs, I was kind of shut out of completing most of the scavenger hunt events, but I still crept along as best I could without aggroing too many enemies. Unfortunately for me, I discovered that even neutral animals out in the wild would come from miles around to chase after me if the level difference was high enough, and when I poked my nose out of the Rangers of Ithilien's hideout, I was looking at the scenery only about 10 feet from the opening to discover a deer zipping at me from points unknown.

At least my toon can outrun a deer down a twisting passage if given enough of a head start.

After that little surprise, I decided that asking for a port to some of these locations was not a good idea, because I'd be a smudge on the ground quicker than you can say "WTF??!!!"**

Nice view. Of course, Frodo was a bit distracted
when he was at Amon Hen.

But that didn't stop me from making it to Amon Hen and then attempting to skirt across the length and breadth of Rohan. (And collecting all of the stable locations.)

Not exactly the length and breadth of Rohan,
as it's the Great River, but I found this really cool.

Still, for long time players this was a trip down memory lane that they'll not soon forget. And even though I started up an account shortly after LOTRO went F2P, I didn't really start playing seriously until long after, about 3 years ago.

If there's one thing that I wish about the 10th Anniversary event, it's that it would last an extra week. I'm not that into collecting stuff from the event as far as gear and fashion is concerned, but for some reason the firework event has been very soothing to me, much more so than in years past.

No, this is not an archive screen capture.
I just like fireworks.

Maybe I'm getting old, but... /shrug

I can live with that.





*I blame kids for my amnesia.

**I have had that dubious experience with roving threats. Once when I was shuttling back and forth from Annuminas as part of the endgame for Shadows of Angmar, I parked my toon in what seemed to be a pretty secluded area, free from enemies, while I went to go grab a beer. I came back a minute later to find that I'd been killed, with a roving threat gloating nearby.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

The End of a Kickstarter

The other day, Anita Sarkeesian dropped her last video in the Tropes vs. Women series. Entitled The Lady Sidekick, she explores how female sidekicks are primarily in place to reinforce traditional attitudes or provide an ego boost for the (male) protagonist, rather than as fully formed characters who don't necessarily need male protection.


It's hard to believe that there was a time before Anita's Kickstarter back in 2012, because it feels like we've aged so much since then. It was a relatively simple idea: a short series of five 10 minute videos exploring stereotypical tropes concerning women in video games. But thanks to the visibility garnered by haters, her Kickstarter blew up the gamer corner of the internet. The series then expanded well beyond its originally intended scope into two full seasons worth of videos, along with bonus content, and generated a lot of discussion on both video games and gamers themselves.*

The funny thing is, the more the Gamergate crowd tried to silence Anita and others, the more positive interest they received. Anita would have never landed on the Colbert Report were it not for the haters, and her videos received far more interest and views as well.



Do I agree with everything Anita presented? No. But really, agreement on all items presented is not the point. She made me think, and by doing so she forced me to confront things I'd simply accepted as "the way things are".

So here's a toast to Anita Sarkeesian. I wish her well.





*It may be only April, but I think that might be the understatement of the year.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why I Love MMOs, Part Whatever

Last night, World Chat discussion on LOTRO drifted around from "are goblins orcs?" and "Was George RR Martin inspired by Turin's relentlessly grim tale?"* to "When is the Beren and Luthien standalone novel to be released?"

Inspired by the latter, one of the players recited a shorter version of the Tale of Beren and Luthien in World Chat. Took the player over an hour, but it was worth it.

At one point someone made a snarky comment about the endeavor, but I channeled Animal House and replied "Forget it, he's rolling."

The book is released June 1st, 2017.
From Wikipedia.


The part about Sauron turning into a werewolf inspired a short lived "So Sauron was a Furry?" discussion, however....





*I said that he was partly inspired, but he also took heavy inspiration from Shakespeare and Medieval history. "The Children of Hurin is what you get if you let GRRM write Tolkien," was my response.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Memories....

..like the corners of my mind.*

Everybody does anniversaries differently, and LOTRO is no exception.

Justin Olivetti --you know, Syp from Bio Break-- over at MassivelyOP has an article on the anniversary plans that Standing Stone Games is planning for LOTRO's 10th anniversary, pointing back to the Standing Stone Games announcement.

I hope you're ready for a scavenger hunt...




*There. That intro from The Way We Were should give you a great earworm for the rest of the day. ;-)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Brave New World I Suppose

I've noticed a recent uptick in traffic to PC from anonymizeme.pro. Normally I'd not worry to much about it, but this uptick almost exactly matches the passing of the new US law to block online privacy regulation.

If you've not heard about it before now, the long and the short of it is that back in October the Federal Communications Commission presented rules prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) from selling your online browsing data to third parties: companies wanting to sell you stuff, private investigators, anyone at all. Congress decided that was "executive overreach" and passed the bill above to elimination such privacy regulations, with the side effect of letting ISPs sell your data to whomever they feel like it.

Normally if this were a problem with one ISP, you could simply replace them with another ISP. The issue here is that in the US a huge number of people have only one real ISP to use --their cable company-- because local towns and cities often have non-compete agreements with one cable company in exchange for that company providing local access programming.* So, if your local ISP decides to sell your online browsing data, you don't have an alternative available to jump to.

To fix this issue, some people have set up their own virtual private networks (VPNs) and others are using anonymizing services such as anonymizeme.pro. So while some people look at browsing records from anonymizeme and think "okay, who's doing something shady?", I look at it as merely a sign of the times.

And naturally, late night television has been using this new law as cannon fodder:



And....





*That's something that has almost completely disappeared from local cable, but that hasn't kept the cable companies from using their local monopolies to keep competition out.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In Praise of the Code Jockey



I don't talk about my work at all on this blog for obvious reasons*, but at one time in the (now distant) past I worked for a software development house. Sorry, the software involved was CAD/CAM/CAE --the design software companies use to create new products-- so it's not like I worked for Microprose or something.

While I wasn't a Dev myself, I worked on the Software QA end of things. I was one of the people who designed and built the testcases, maintained and expanded our own testing software, and helped debugging the thorny problems by quickly zeroing in on which software code change was the likely culprit. It was tough work, particularly for a guy who came from a science background who puttered around coding in his spare time, but it taught me a lot about how to code, how to design software, and how to handle group dynamics**.

There were projects I was assigned to that pushed me to the limit --physically and mentally-- and I will be forever grateful to my wife for tolerating me during those insane hours. But no matter how hard or long I worked, the Devs worked even harder. When I was pulling 80 hour work weeks, they were hitting 90. I would frequently get to work at 4 AM so I could make progress without having people drop by, and there would always be about 3-5 Devs in the building, coding away.***

You'd think that the hours and demands would keep me from wanting to make the jump from QA to Developer, but you'd be wrong. I looked up to those people, because I admired their coding skill and their drive. They were creative, they were fun, and yet they were serious about getting the work finished. It irked them when we had to release the software when they knew there were bugs in the system, but the decision was never theirs.****

So you can imagine the smile on my face when I read Ravanel Griffon's post at Ravalation about Developer Appreciation Week.

***

The idea is a simple one --to acknowledge the devs in the game industry-- and give them a big thumbs up. Give a shout out to the dev team (or teams) that you admire the most and why you like them. Basically, make them feel welcome.

And believe me, I can do that.

When I criticize a game, I make a clear distinction between the game and the dev staff itself. The dev staff almost never control the release schedule, they're on a tight timeline, and they're chronically underpaid for the amount of hours they put in. I knew a guy who used to work for a dev team that put together Betrayal at Krondor, and I heard stories about how they had to do it for the love of coding and designing games, as the money was definitely not the same for the game devs as it was for other software developers. They have to work with tradeoffs and limitations of the hardware, they recognize that people will find weaknesses that they never envisioned, and that meeting expectations is often a fool's errand.

We gamers don't exactly help our cause either, as we are frequently cranky, overly nitpicky, and demanding of a standard that nobody could ever hope to achieve. And if the devs ever do catch lightning in a bottle, they set themselves up for an impossible standard that gamers will try to force them to meet.

But here's a shout out to all the devs out there, trying their best to make gaming fun and meaningful.

***

Oh, you wanted some specific dev team?

Well, I think I'd have to go with giving some love to the original SWTOR development team. You know, the ones who had to deal with he inflated expectations that accompany the Bioware name, the KOTOR brand, the Star Wars Galaxies loyalists, the amount of money EA spent on development, and EA's own promotion that SWTOR was going to be a WoW killer. With a expectations like that, nothing less than WoW-like numbers and subscriptions would mean success.

And as we know, SWTOR did not reach those numbers.

Was that the fault of the devs? No. They made an MMO that was essentially "WoW in space", but with specific class stories with light or dark side endings. The technical challenges of the MMO genre meant that SWTOR couldn't expand the Star Wars universe and provide persistent changes based on your choices (such as with other Bioware titles such as KOTOR, Mass Effect, or Dragon Age) without massive use of phasing like WoW used. The devs felt that in SWTOR the journey and the ability to play around in the Star Wars universe was the important part of the MMO*****, while the semi-transient MMO community believes "the game begins at max level."

In spite of all of those expectations and challenges and misreading of tea leaves, the original SWTOR devs produced a very solid MMO that continues to hold its own over the years. I still love the classic game (L1-50), and based on how the mini-Reds have reacted to the class stories, those stories still hold up well several years on.

SWTOR had to change in order to survive with a steady stream of updates, end game content, and switching to F2P to stem the bleeding. To compare with another heavily hyped AAA title, I'm actually surprised that Wildstar is still around because I thought they'd waited too long to convert to F2P. SWTOR has not only survived but gotten mentions on the E3 presentations from EA, and it would have been all for naught if those first devs hadn't decided to change the game rather than simply circle the wagons.

So here's to the original SWTOR dev team, who hoped to catch lightning in a bottle but ended up having to change the game's entire focus to survive. It was no small task, but they met the challenge and left us a legacy.






*I mean, really. I've no idea why some people natter on about their jobs on blogs, because you're just simply begging for trouble. When I was hired at all of my jobs, one of the requirements for the gig was to sign non-disclosure agreements, and I've seen people fired from their jobs for what I'd term innocent discussions on social media. So why risk it?

**Also known as "how to run meetings and keep from going nuts when people don't listen to you."

***There was once an April Fools Day prank played on the entire development staff where every time you opened a new window on the SGI workstations from 3 AM through Noon the machine would play a little jingle and make a weird laugh. The first person to discover it loved to come in at 2 AM to work on his graphics coding when nobody else was around, and so he opened a new window at around 3 AM and he nearly fainted. I heard later that for a few short moments he thought his workstation was possessed.

****I and several other QA people were also on the release team, and we frequently argued for more time to fix the bugs, because we could see the impending train wreck a bad release would make. The release manager would also agree, but we were overruled by senior management who had their own agendas.

*****My evidence for that is the MMO itself. WoW is designed to get you to max level as quickly as possible, Wildstar went totally old school and recreated the attunement quests to even begin to raid, and LOTRO is designed to immerse yourself in Middle-earth. If the journey wasn't as important to SWTOR, we wouldn't have had 8 separate class stories and plenty of group quests per planet.

Friday, March 31, 2017

You Have Died of Dysentery

Back in prehistory when I attended high school, the computer room was filled with Tandy TRS-80 Model III computers.* Given that most families did not have computers at home, the computer room was frequently open an extra 1.5 hours after school so students could work on programming in BASIC (or, in the advanced classes, FORTRAN and COBOL).**

But for me, that meant goofing around on the few game programs that the school had.

Far and away, my favorite game was Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio. It was a predecessor to Sid Meier's Civilization, and it gave the players a chance to rule an Italian city-state with a few basic options. You can even play it now for free on the Internet Archive.

I was fascinated with the game, and as it was programmed in BASIC I asked for and received a printout of the source code.*** I had this grand idea that I'd convert the program to TI-BASIC so I could play it at home, but I never got around to finishing up the conversion. Still, the concept of having a printout of a complete computer game never failed to fascinate me.

Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I came across this article a few weeks ago about the history of the classic computer game Oregon Trail and how, for a few years, there was exactly one printout of the source code in existence.

I've never played Oregon Trail, as it was released a bit too late in the 80s for me to play it with the same zest I developed for the Ultima series, but I knew of people who were almost religious in their devotion for the game.

And here, in classic 70s/80s computer fashion, there was a period when the original incarnation of The Oregon Trail could have easily been lost forever.






*My high school was the first in our area to require a computer programming class for graduation. Given that it was an unlikely case a family did have a home computer (it was likely a Commodore 64, TI-99 4/A, or an Atari 400 or 800), this was a big deal.

**My hatred of the COBOL programming language dates from my experiences with it in high school. Why anybody thought COBOL was a good idea is beyond me.

***I believe I still have that code somewhere in the basement, along with the TI-99 4/A computer that I used growing up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

On Releases and Glitches

I've been watching the launch of Mass Effect Andromeda with more than a passing bit of interest, even though a) I'm not even finished with the first Mass Effect game, much less the entire trilogy, and b) I don't really have the money to drop on a new game.*

Still, the armchair quarterback in me has been following along with the hype and inevitable problems at the game's launch.

You know the old adage "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me"? This definitely applies to software releases these days. Even the supposed gold standards of software development and release, Blizzard and Apple, have had their share of software launch bugs.

This makes me wonder why someone would even bother buying the game at launch, much less pre-ordering, when you know that bugs will frequently be the reward of playing the game first. Another way of putting it is "Why pay to be a beta tester?"

Sure, you may get extra goodies such as an extra in-game item or the soundtrack**, but is it truly worth the headache of dealing with a game that is frequently in need of major patches to even make it enjoyable?***

***

In the case of Mass Effect Andromeda, there are bugs, and there are features.

The bugs are the obvious items: system crashes, graphical glitches, selections that don't work, etc. You know, the usual stuff.

But features, those are design decisions that may seem like bugs but aren't.

There are animation glitches in Andromeda, no doubt, but the overall look and feel of the animation is not a bug or a glitch. That was a design decision.

I'm reminded of the behind the scenes extras in the DVD release of The Incredibles. In the video article, they were talking to Pixar developers and engineers about the technical leaps they had to make for The Incredibles to work. As it was Pixar's first animated movie with an almost exclusively human cast****, they had to expand their technical capabilities to get certain aspects of animating humans right. At one point during production, one of the engineers had to go to John Lasseter (the head of Pixar) and tell him that "at the moment, hair is still pretty much theoretical." The concept of having hair move properly when animating a human --whether that hair is dry or wet or in a convoluted design-- confounded the developers for a long while.

And in the work surrounding Mass Effect Andromeda, the scale of the game meant that Bioware likely had to determine what priorities the developers worked on, and what aspects of development they were going to use an off-the-shelf or generic solution for.

This isn't exactly a newsflash to people who have worked in software development; in my time at a software shop we handed translation from our software's format to other formatting standards --akin to converting from JPG to PNG and back-- to a third party. The trick was to integrate the third party's software into our existing package seamlessly, and that was not as simple a task as you might think. The number of bugs that resulted from that integration was... pretty large at times. A lot of times it had nothing to do with the third party software at all, but with coding in a completely unconnected part of the software.*****

What does all this have to do with the facial and character animation? My speculation is that part of the Andromeda animation wasn't a high enough priority to deal with as an internal project, and so Bioware used an off the shelf product to handle the animations. And the issues with the facial and character animation could be due to a) integration with the main software, b) the third party software needing tweaks to work better with the overall product, or c) the third party software is being asked to handle something that might be beyond its current capability.

Or maybe a combination of all three.

But this isn't just my speculation, here's an Animstate Roundtable which included professional animators discussing this very issue, pointed out by an article from PCGamesN and Gamasutra. The entire roundtable is interesting, but this part I found resonated with me the most:

"Simon: Before I speculate on what the cause of these animation issues are, I think it’s important for people to understand some of the numbers behind a game like this. I don’t have exact figures from ME:A, but we do know that Mass Effect 3 had over 40,000 lines of dialogue and Dragon Age had about 60,000. If we split the difference at 50,000 and conservatively estimate that each line averages out to about three seconds, that puts us at around 41 and a half hours of dialogue. That’s about 21 feature films worth of just talking. Most of the major animated feature films have a team of about 70+ animators working for two or more years to complete just one movie. A game like Mass Effect might have somewhere between five and ten focused on more than 20X the content in the same amount of time. To add to that, we need to also factor in localizing (translating) the game into at least 4-5 additional languages.

Now, it’s just not possible to keyframe that amount of content to any acceptable level of quality, so teams looking at that much scope try to find procedural solutions. I know in the past they’ve used an off the shelf solution called FaceFX, which analyzes the audio tracks and creates animation based on the waveforms, projection, etc. At a base level, it can read as a very robotic performance and I suspect that is what we’re seeing in some of the footage. You can work with the audio and the procedural tools to polish the performances in various ways of course, but when you’re staring down thousands of minutes of performance to clean up, your definition of “shippable” is a sliding bar that moves relative to team capacity and your content lock date. If it were my team and project, I would try to gather metrics on which scenes were the most watched based on playtest and use whatever polish time I had with those as a priority, letting the lesser seen ones go with a default pass." --From Animstate.com ROUND TABLE – MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA

***

Back to the original thought behind this post, why bother buying a game at launch if you know there's glitches and/or features that need to be cleaned up? Part of that is, I suppose, faith in the development house to get the job done right. Or if not done right initially, then to fix the problems quickly. Reputable development houses don't just sit on problems, they fix them.

And another part of this is the reality behind software development. It is much more complex than, say, building a fence or even a car, and constant tweaks in response to unforeseen problems is pretty much par for the course.

And finally, there's also the recognition that very few software development houses announce a release when they feel it's ready --okay, it's Blizzard-- and that when a release date is presented to the public there becomes an enormous amount of pressure to meet that date. The company doesn't want to lose face to its investors, the investors are constantly asking each quarter "What have you done for me lately?", and the development staff doesn't want to disappoint the fans. For my money, Blizzard does it the right way, but even they aren't immune to the occasional bad release.

From my perspective, I have absolutely no need to rush in and buy something the moment it is released, so I'm content to wait. I did that once, when I bought the original AMD Athlon system back in 1999, and six months later I could have paid about $600 less for the same system. I learned my lesson that time, and I've not wavered from it.






*Yes, I'm quite aware that you don't need to have played the original ME trilogy to have played Andromeda, but it provides a good buffer to rushing out and buying the game from the get go. Besides, immersing yourself into the world of Mass Effect prior to playing Andromeda isn't necessarily a bad thing, even without the Geth or Reapers.

**Okay, I can understand the soundtrack enticement.

***I'm not a fan of the Assassin's Creed series, but the bugs of Assassin's Creed Unity are infamous among gamers.

****I kind of count the robot as a minor character.

*****Okay, I'm going to get a little technical here, but in C and C++, memory allocation is a huge thing. If you don't do it right, or you go beyond your allocated memory, you could end up overwriting whatever else is in memory. It's very powerful, but it is also dangerous. If you don't clean up your memory allocations, you end up with what are called "memory leaks". And eventually that will kill your performance and potentially cause crashes of software or the computer/server. The greater the complexity of the software, the harder it is to find these memory leaks by yourself and you have to rely upon --you guessed it-- third party software that shakes memory leaks out. But the fun doesn't stop there, because something might be working perfectly fine in its "leaky" state, and once you fix it the function/code stops working right. And then you have to go find out why that's the case, and maybe you find even more memory problems underneath it.

Java has this problem too, and that's why a lot of Java implementations --especially early ones-- have so many memory problems.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Musical Inspiration for a Friday

I know, I know, it's St. Patrick's Day. You'd think that I'd dip into some Celtic inspired video game music for today, but I decided to go in a different direction.


Jeremy Soule composed this piece for Skyrim, which does have some Celtic overtones to it. For some reason, I missed this particular version when it came out a year ago.


Sid Meier and Company brought back Christopher Tin to compose some pieces for the recently released Civilization VI. This piece, Sogno di Volare ("The Dream of Flight"), has an inspirational feel that would be at home with some of the pieces composed for the Olympics. By comparison, here's John Williams' Call of the Champions for the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002:



Finally, here's something that speaks to the majesty of the city of Durin's Folk. I found that I'd missed this music when I returned to the halls of Khazad-dum.


Friday, March 10, 2017

A Neat Honor

I've been avoiding this for the past two weeks, but I think I can't hide any longer.

A long time friend and fellow blogger, Navimie of The Daily Frostwolf - Druid Edition, nominated me for a Real Neat Blog Award. I've been nominated for similar awards before, and they all follow a similar pattern: a shout out to the nominator, answer some questions, and pay it forward by nominating more bloggers and ask them questions.



For me, the easy part is the thanking and nominating. The hard part is answering the questions.

I have a problem where I can sit there and think up multiple answers to a question, and in my own mind find them all equally valid. I was the kid who'd raise his hand during a test and ask the teacher "which are you looking for, the answer "xxx", or the answer "yyy", since you could argue that "yyy" is correct from this angle but "xxx" from another angle.* And if you give me an open ended question...

Yeah, answering questions is my Waterloo.

So here are the three things to do as part of the award:

  1. Thank and link the person who nominated you.
  2. Answer the seven questions your nominator has provided.
  3. Nominate seven other bloggers and create seven questions for them.

I covered item #1 with a reference to Navimie above (/waves).

***

Here are my seven questions (for item #2):

  1. What would constitute a perfect day to you?
  2. Which super villain (if any) do you secretly admire or feel sorry for?
  3. If you had to recommend one book to read, what would it be?
  4. What is something you wish you could do but you can't (eg draw, sing)?
  5. If you could play with someone in World of Warcraft, who would you play with and what would you do with them?
  6. What was the kindest thing anyone has done for you in a computer game?
  7. If you could choose your spirit animal, what would it be?

Okay, here goes:

1. What would constitute a perfect day to you?

I'm a parent and at work I'm on call 24x7. What a perfect day for me is a day of undisturbed peace and solitude, highlighted by a good nap and a hike in the woods followed with some time by a lit fireplace.

I'm not saying I'm not happily married nor happy to be a parent, but a completely stress free day without worrying about this or that would be great.

2. Which super villain (if any) do you secretly admire or feel sorry for?

Most super villains aren't people that you can empathize with. Such charming people as The Joker or the Purple Man tend to bring out the reactions my family has when interacting with a centipede.** The sadist, the merciless crime boss, the purely insane, and the power hungry are all part of the pantheon of super villains.

And several superheroes started out originally as villains and morphed over time into ne'er do well superheroes in their own right, such as Luke Cage, Deadpool, Catwoman, Emma Frost, and Harley Quinn.

But of the major pantheon of super villains, there is one that even in his old villain mode I had a great deal of respect for: Magneto.***

For those who know their history, X-Men was born in the 60s, and provided a mirror to the times.**** Fear of "The Other" --particularly the immigrant and minority communities-- was reflected in humanity's reaction to the mutants. And the mutants themselves were a reflection of the Civil Rights movement, with their two factions' leaders representing opposing viewpoints: Professor X as Martin Luther King and Magneto as Malcolm X.

The X-Men movies enhanced Magneto's stature, emphasizing his response to the anti-mutant sentiment as a Holocaust survivor, with his determination to not have a mutant Holocaust happen again by any means necessary. He is a sympathetic figure, and you can understand his motivations even though you disagree with his actions.

3.If you had to recommend one book to read, what would it be?

Hoo boy.

If you'd have asked me this about 25 years ago, I'd not have hesitated in recommending Lord of the Rings. But over the intervening time, the movies came out and I stepped back from being a rabid Tolkien fan. I figure that people want to read LotR have already done so, as well as Harry Potter, A Game of Thrones, and other series have captured fans.

And really, I've learned from recommending books to my wife that you have to tailor your book recommendations to what people like to read. In her case, just about all SF&F books I've recommended have fallen flat, so I've given up trying. However, there has been one Fantasy series that she really did like, and that was Kristen Britain's Green Rider series. I've only read the first three, because when I read the third I stayed up until 4:30 AM to finish reading it, and I really really don't want to deal with that again for a while.

So I'd have to go with Green Rider, which got someone who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction to read something genre related.

A close second would be Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death series, Mystery novels set in the Henry II's England with the hero a Sicilian woman trained in the medical arts and very much a fish out of water in backwards England.

4. What is something you wish you could do but can't (eg draw, sing)?

Given that I'm the only non-musician in the house, you'd think that this answer would be to play an instrument. But I'm actually fine with not being able to play, because I know my mind works in an analytic fashion that tends to clash with creative things such as improvisation.

But what I'd really like to be able to do is just simply "wing it" and be improvisational, whether it is in a meeting, DMing an RPG campaign, or writing. I'm one of those people who have to have all the angles worked out ahead of time, so I wouldn't be stuck saying "Uh....." in front of a crowd. And yes, that has happened to me, back in my college days when I was in Model UN.

I'm simply unable to effectively improvise something, and I'd love to be able to pull that sort of thing off. It would really help in my (feeble) attempts at writing fiction, working on our landscape, or even decorating around the house.*****

5. If you could play with someone in World of Warcraft, who would you play with and what would you do with them?

Back in the days before cross server grouping was allowed, Tam of Righteous Orbs had orchestrated a "bloggers guild" on one of the EU servers. The idea was that WoW bloggers could hang out and play the game with their "virtual kin". In an apt metaphor of blogging everywhere, the guild started out great and then petered out as time went on.

About a year or so later, Vidyala and Rades (of Manalicious, Orcish Army Knife, and From Draenor with Love) created a guild on Moonrunner (US) to hang with some of their fellow (now no longer active) blogger friends, and my Dwarf Paladin joined their small guild. I'll freely admit that I had more than my share of boneheaded moments, like the time in The Stockade when at the final boss a bunch of trash aggroed on me in the final boss fight and rather running to the tank and letting her take over the pull I got the bright idea that she'd be overwhelmed and decided to lead this trash on a merry chase throughout the already cleared instance. No, it was not my finest moment. At all.

But a few years later, when Blizz began to roll out cross server grouping on a test/pay basis, I got an excited ping from Vidyala:

"Red!"
"Hey Vid!"
"Wait a sec, let me try this...."
[Vidyala has asked you to join a group]
[You have joined the group]
"Woooo!!!!!"
"Yay!!!"
"This is awesome!!"

I'd never been able to group up with Vid on her main and my (then) Alliance main, Tomakan, before that moment. It was an exhilarating thing to be able to group up and run an instance or Alterac Valley with a friend's main from another server.

But if there's one thing I'd love to do in WoW once more, it would be to revive the spirit of those two old guilds and get some of my long time blogger friends together again. If there's one thing I really do miss about WoW, it's the discussions and playing around with some of my blogger friends over those years. Given the spectacular disintegration of my Horde guilds and the bleeding dry of the Alliance guild, I've kept the guild/kinship aspect of MMOs at arm's length while I play. But I still miss the shared camaraderie of my blogger friends, because we have shared the experience of loving something so much that we write about it. And it's not an exclusive club by any means --anybody can create a Twitch stream or start a blog-- but that shared experience means we have a connection that the average MMO player doesn't have.

And those bloggers that have gone silent over the years, I really do still miss.

6. What was the kindest thing anyone has done for you in a computer game?

The kindest thing? There was the time when I was in Desolace (Wrath Era), leveling Quintalan to L80, and a max level toon stopped alongside me, told me he was going to unsubscribe, and proceeded to give me a ton of items he'd stored over the years.

There was also the time when I was on Quintalan in The Hinterlands, and a max level alliance toon appeared right beside me. Being on PvP-Stormscale (US) at the time, I thought I was dead. But the toon basically shook her head no, gave me a thumbs up, and went on her way.

There was the time when a friend, knowing that my Alliance guild was all but dead, offered to have me join her guild instead.

But I think the greatest kindness showed me in game was when Soul and his wife had decided that they wanted to get off Stormscale, and rather than leave me behind they sent me a snail mail. Inside, they wrote what they were going to do and rather than leave me --the newbie-- behind they paid my transfer fee.

7. If you could choose your spirit animal, what would it be?

Heh. The oldest mini-Red has seen this design around and wants one for college:

From teespring.com.

But that's obviously not me.

As for a spirit animal, I'd have to go with a wolf. Not sure why, but a wolf it is.

***

Part #3 requires seven bloggers to be nominated and to create seven questions for them. The list is fairly short, since my blogging list is somewhat small these days (and several people on the list have already been tagged), but the questions....

Blogs:

  1. Going Commando (Shintar is also known for Priest with a Cause and Neverwinter Thoughts)
  2. Ravalation
  3. JVT Workshop
  4. Hawtpants of the Old Republic (Njessi is also known for Murloc Parliament)
  5. Tome of the Ancient
  6. MMO Gypsy (Syl can also be heard as one of the three hosts of the Battle Bards podcast.)
  7. Manalicious (I know that Vid has been busy and Manalicious has gone into mothballs, but it's worth a try. She's also known for her artwork on From Draenor With Love and her original blog, Pugging Pally.)


Questions:

  1. What attracted you to blogging as opposed to other forms of social media?
  2. What are your top five movies of all time?
  3. Outside of blogging or gaming, what are you most passionate about?
  4. What is something about you that nobody would ever guess?
  5. What do you find most engaging about gaming?
  6. If you had a chance to go back in time and tell your younger self something, what would you say?
  7. What is your favorite band and why?






*I usually got a stare, then a "Redbeard, sit down and answer the question." I learned the hard way to give the teacher what they wanted, answer-wise. I can play that game if that's what they want. But it goes against my firm belief that you should be honest in your dealings with people. Which, I suppose, makes me a lousy Diplomacy player. Or a lousy office politics player, for that matter.

**"Kill it!! Kill it with fire!!!!" is a typical reaction, as is "DAD!!!! KILL THIS!!!!!"

***He now counts --more or less-- as a superhero in the comic, leading a team of X-Men. Don't ask me any more details, because I'm not up on the X-Men comics.

****Marvel has done this before. Spider-man was a reflection of teenage angst, and both a desire to fit in and finding your way in the world, only under the backdrop of having superpowers.

*****It would have also helped in my attempts at talking to girls when I was a teen and a college student. As for my wife, you may ask? She asked me out, not the other way around.


EtA: Added Syl's other work to the MMO Gypsy listing.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Miscellaneous Wednesday Thoughts

Playing through the Rise of Isengard expansion in LOTRO, I learned that the Rohirrim vendor in Dunland is not from the Riders of Rohan expac after all, but the other main reputation faction for that expac. I shouldn't have been surprised by that, but somehow that possibility slipped my mind.

Not that I took advantage of either faction's rewards, because I'd kind of outleveled the area before I exited Dunland itself. In fact, I got the Riders of Rohan starting e-mail while I was still in Dunland, which left me puzzled. Oh, not the fact that I reached L75, but who the relatively cryptic e-mail was talking about.*

***

The Turbine/Standing Stone version of Theodred makes him seem like he'd have been a great king. He actually presented a pretty good case analysis of Saruman, but unfortunately he didn't realize one thing: Saruman had already been cautious in his build-up and had the overwhelming force he needed.

More scouting/spying would have helped here.

***

Overheard on SWTOR's Taris Chat:

Player 1: "Did you see the new trailer?"
[Several people]: "Yes. It's a fake!!"
Player 1: "Yeah, but they used Old Republic clips in there!"
Me: "It's not the first time, and it won't be the last."
Player 2: "I wonder how many people saw "4th" on the upload date and thought "OMG! This must be real!"
Me: "May the 4th: Star Wars. March the 4th: Basketball. Star Wars. Basketball."
Player 2: "This basketball.... Is it like Huttball?"
Me: "Yes, but with 100% fewer Hutts."

***

...and one "uh oh" moment...

I've been grinding a few deeds in Moria, and I was finishing up an explorer deed in Flaming Deeps when I saw someone ask on World Chat where a good place in Nud Melek was so jump and die that wasn't part of the Bridge of Khazad-dum.

"Going for the hidden achievement, eh?" someone replied.

Hidden achievement? Hmm... I looked over the edge of where I was standing, and suddenly my fear of heights kicked in.

On an MMO.

Oh, nope nope nope nope nope......





*Smart move, devs, to not give anything away. "Gandalf? Is it Gandalf? Oh, I'd love it to be Gandalf!!" [Gets a bit farther in the Epic Questline] "Oh. Not Gandalf. Well, that was unexpected."

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Hail and Well Met

Some thunderstorms and the occasional stray tornado blew through our area last night. Luckily the damage found nearby was minimal --only a few downed wires and flash floods-- but the lightning and wind woke me up at around 1:30 AM. I rolled over and eventually went back to sleep, but in that half-awake state I mumbled to myself that "at least I didn't have to worry about this crap on Taris."

Hail this size you won't find in a steaming jungle with toxic swamps.

Which actually was a pretty good point.

Well, outside of the fact that I'm not so sure I'd want to fight Rakghouls and thunderstorms at the same time: "Rak-nado! Coming to the SyFy Channel in 2018!"

Weather has always been a tricky thing in MMOs. The classic single world MMO, such as WoW or LOTRO, could have weather easily integrated into it, but the multiple world MMO (such as SWTOR and to a minor extent Wildstar*) weather takes a back seat to an individual world's atmosphere. Think of it this way: while you can spend a lot of time --gamewise-- in a WoW zone or an entire continent (think Northrend, for example), your average time spent on a small slice of a planet in SWTOR is comparatively small.

But even on games such as WoW, region shaking weather such as a monsoon or a hurricane or even thunderstorms is a very rare event.

The only pure weather event that I can think of that I see with (somewhat) regularity is the numbing and visibility killing fog that emanates out of Forochel in Middle-earth. I've seen that fog creep all the way down to Evendim** from time to time, which causes massive visibility issues for a game that tends to rely upon old-style line of sight for figuring out where the maguffin you're supposed to find is located. But rain and snow in LOTRO aren't that big of a deal, just like how they are in WoW.

From hiveminer.com and flicker.com.
When it is nighttime, that fog is really creepy.

In fact, I'd argue that the only big "weather" event for WoW was back in Cataclysm, when Deathwing would randomly blast an area with his dragonfire in a "hellfire and damnation" souped-up version of a global/raid/world boss.

My "Stood in the Fire" achievement came in the
Blasted Lands after a 5-man run, but I unfortunately never
took a screenshot. This was from viktdk.wordpress.com.

The big problem with a huge weather event is that it would require more than just "oh look, rain" on screen. You need to implement a form of phasing, where you have trees losing branches and rain (or snow or hail) bouncing off of houses and other "background" items. And for all of that effort, you'd expect the devs to put in a few quests as well. I mean, why go to all that extra work just for a background effect when people are clamoring for raids, instances, and questlines? I can see where at the height of WoW the devs there could tinker with that sort of thing, but the age of the 10 million subscriber MMO seems to have passed, taking with it the budget necessary for such side projects.

In the end, I guess that MMOs will continue to do what they have, and have a region with "rain" or "snow flurries" which turns on and off from time to time. It's a shame, really, because no matter how MMOs add and modify regions, without the impact of weather --and severe weather-- the world will feel static after a while.

Without having to worry about dodging downed tree branches.





*For those not aware, in Wildstar some of the zones are actually on moons of Nexus.

**Unless that's a bug, but hey, I don't mind bugs like that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

In Memoriam: Loren K. Wiseman

One of the RPG design greats, Loren K. Wiseman, passed away on February 15th.

No, Loren isn't the household name that Gary Gygax was, but he was a very influential RPG designer in his own right. He was a co-founder of Games Design Workshop (GDW), and a co-creator of the SF RPG Traveller. Later, he was a designer on the Steve Jackson Games' interpretation of the Traveller universe, GURPS Traveller.

This is a decade old fan made video promoting
the Traveller RPG. It uses the Pirates of 
the Caribbean theme to great effect.

I've never had the chance to play classic Traveller, but I've designed a campaign for the Mongoose Publishing version of Traveller, and have been waiting for some free time to run a campaign with the mini-Reds. Traveller is one of those RPGs that has a reputation, mainly because the character creation process involved your character having a "career" prior to joining your adventures. And yes, Classic Traveller had the possibility that your character would die during the career phase. (Honest!) Later versions of Traveller have done away with that aspect of character creation, but the Mongoose version does retain the possibility that your character suffers an injury that generates minuses on your character sheet.

As for GDW, it was a very influential wargame publisher and competitor to Avalon Hill and SPI in the late 70s and 80s. I've played a game or two of GDW's arguably most well known title, A House Divided*, and it is a good introduction into the overall strategies that went into the ACW. It is by no means a very deep or "authentic" game --you'll likely want to look at GMT Games' For The People for that-- but it is a fun game that can still be found today.

This is the version I'm most familiar with.
From Rick Byrens, via boardgamegeek.com.
Loren was active on the Steve Jackson Games' forums, where I conversed with him once or twice. He always seemed like a nice guy who simply loved making games.

He'll be missed.





*It's a grand strategy game of the American Civil War, now published by Mayfair Games.


Monday, February 13, 2017

A Cloud of Doom Following Me

On certain MMOs, such as LOTRO or SWTOR, you have a feel for what is going to come. In SWTOR, the more class stories you play, the more you find recurring NPCs. It feels distinctly weird when you know the ultimate fate of those NPCs when you encounter them on another class story, like Ianna Cel on Taris. For those who have played mainly Republic toons, Ianna does make an appearance in an Imperial class story.*

I've occasionally wondered whether her students have
questioned her ethics in pursuit of her goals.
From swtor-spy.com

Star Trek Online had a mid-teens questline where a Federation toon has to go back in time to save an outpost from an attack from "ghosts" (it's a Next Gen baddie), and you encounter McCoy and Scotty on the outpost. It feels, well, weird seeing them in their TOS uniforms, knowing how things work out for them in the movies and in the Next Gen television series.
Bones was on the station a year prior to joining
Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew.
From sto.gamepedia.com.

In WoW, you get that feeling of impending doom the most when the Bronze Dragonflight drafts you into correcting the timeline, most notably in the 5-man instances and raids from the BC and Wrath expansions. My personal favorite is the Culling of Stratholme, because you get the long intro grounding the WC3 era instance with the current Wrath timeline. And for those of us who have never played any of the Warcraft RTS games, it's quite the revelation. Sure, we knew that Arthas became the Lich King, because reasons, but it's a surprise that he made the leap from "infected grain" to "kill everybody to keep the Scourge of Undeath from spreading". It's the equivalent of saying "there's an ebola outbreak in Orlando, Florida, so let's nuke the entire city just to make sure we've got it contained."

This is the part that everybody skips, so I
thought it a good idea to post this YouTube
clip for reference. (Berial92 posted it.)

But LOTRO has the dubious distinction of having the overall plot known to tens of millions of people throughout the world, and millions of those people know a ton of minute detail about Middle-earth. And no matter what you try, you know how things will work out in the end.

Take the Dunlendings, for example.

You spend the second part of the Grey Company Epic Questline in Enedwaith, trying to assess the threat of the Dunlendings and attempting to get them to resist Saruman.** But the thing is, people who have read the appendices in The Return of the King know the ultimate result: Saruman dominates the Dunlendings, and gets them to join with his uruks to attack Rohan.

And when I reached Dunland itself and not only began working the Epic Questline but landed enough LOTRO points to get Rise of Isengard,*** I discovered similar feelings of anguish. I cruised through the Dunland and encountered Prince Theodred, son of King Theoden of Rohan. I wanted to somehow warn him of the impending doom he faced, but I knew that was just not possible. Nor would I have been able to change the future, because LOTRO's writers have done a good job of making an impeding train wreck seem avoidable, even plausible, until in-game reality kicks you in the pants.
Grimbold, about the night your liege goes back
in time....Oh wait, wrong franchise.

Makes me wonder how Cassandra must have felt.****






*I'd kind of like to have seen Thana Vesh in a Republic class story, but no such luck. She's an NPC who pretty much dominates every conversation that she's involved with.

**The first part of the questline is simply "getting the band back together" before they head off in response to Aragorn's Galadriel's summons.

***I've discovered that one way of racking up LOTRO points is to work on alts. And since I now have 8 slots courtesy of a premium account I can collect LOTRO points a lot more quickly. (The number 8 came from 7 slots for premium account, which is like the SWTOR mid-tier in that you have to have purchased coins/points/whatever using money, and 1 for purchasing that separately from the LOTRO store prior to me spending the money in the first place.)

****From Greek Mythology, she was the daughter of King Priam of Troy who was (in)famous for making prophecies that were never believed, courtesy of a curse Apollo inflicted on her for not succumbing to his advances.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Finding Value out of Gaming

Rocky: I can't do it.
Adrian: What?
Rocky: I can't beat him.
Adrian: Apollo?
Rocky: Yeah. I've been out there walking around, thinking. I mean, who am I kidding? I ain't even in the guy's league.
Adrian: (sighs) What're we gonna do?
Rocky: I dunno.
Adrian: You worked so hard.
Rocky: Yeah, it don't matter. Because I was nobody before.
Adrian: Don't say that.
Rocky: C'mon, Adrian. It's true. I was nobody. But it don't matter either, y'know? 'Cause I was thinking. It really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, see, if that bell rings and I'm still standing, I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I wasn't just another bum from the neighborhood.
--From Rocky (1976). Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone.



As I've occasionally alluded to in past posts, gaming is something I've done since I was a kid. I'm old enough to (barely) remember Pong when it came out, but I grew up in a household that played a lot of classic board and card games.* But at the same time, my parents got caught up in the Satanic Panic of the 80s and threw out our D&D collection right before I finished 8th Grade, and while I was allowed to play video games on our old Texas Instruments home computer, we never had a gaming console.**

And I still never understood the difference between playing Tunnels of Doom on the TI-99/4A and cracking open a Players Handbook and playing a Paladin.

Ooo, a chest!
From crpgaddict.blogspot.com.

Oh sure, the video game is pretty much an abstract dungeon crawl, but the dungeons my friends and I made back in the early 80s were pretty similar as well.*** Even Tunnels of Doom had Demons as monsters at the bottom levels of the dungeon, so you can't argue that there wasn't a "Satanic" aspect to the game. The only thing I can think of is that D&D and the other pencil and paper RPGs encouraged imagination, which when coupled to what the Satanic Panic people called "the occult", led to people going down a Dark Path.

Hey, look! An AD&D Players Handbook!!
From Army of Darkness and makeagif.com.
"Klaatu... Verata... Mlkhpffphff."
You know, the whole Necronomicon/Evil Book concept.

***

The reason why I'm bringing this up again is that I've been doing some thinking about what gaming has meant to me over the years.

While it has meant a primary form of physical interaction between people --friends and acquaintances sitting around a table or a television set-- it has also meant something more.

Games as Generational Connections

It's no secret that I've used games to hang around with my kids. The mini-Reds have been indoctrinated into gamer culture from a young age, and they've grown to become gamers themselves. Whereas other families might discuss sports****, we discuss games. Gen Con is an annual pilgrimage. Smash Bros games devolve into frenetic free-for-alls with all the excited screams and boasts that you'd see on a basketball court.

Some of my favorite memories as a father have come from gaming as well, such as the time when I first introduced the mini-Reds to RPGs, using the Savage Worlds system and a pulp setting from Triple Ace Games to give the kids a chance to be their own Indiana Jones. Or the time when my brother-in-law ran a Pathfinder one-shot for me and the mini-Reds, and the youngest mini-Red went off script and did something totally unexpected and stuck her PC's hand in the fire in the center of the room we were exploring.***** Or the times I ran instances with them in SWTOR and LOTRO.

I've no doubt that when my oldest goes off to college I'll use MMOs to keep in touch with her. I can imagine her occasionally logging into SWTOR or LOTRO to just putz around and occasionally group up, just before heading out to dinner or hanging out with friends.


Both are from giphy.com, and from Field of Dreams.
Go ahead and get a tissue. That scene, where Ray talks with
the ghost of his father, still tears me up.

Games as Emotional Grounding

I may have played sports, but I was no jock.

It may come as a surprise to those who never played competitive or select sports, but there is a hierarchy to those who play team sports. The starters and main subs off the bench get the lion's share of attention, and the rest of the subs are, for all intents and purposes, there to round out a large enough of a squad for practices. Some teams have a byrule of having everybody play at least part of every game, but the competitive/select teams do not; they want to win, not build character.******

However, just because you play sports doesn't mean that you're a jock or a member of jock culture. I was always an outsider on the teams that I played on; I had different interests than most of my teammates, and I never hung around with them outside of practice or games. Perhaps this was best illustrated during the basketball banquet during my 8th Grade: the team was gathered to one side, and everybody had a chair to sit on.... Except me. None were to be seen, so I had to stand.

From all over the internet. Really. I found
at least six links without even trying hard.

And people wondered why I never hung out with the jocks outside of practice and games.

RPGs gave me a chance to feel worthwhile when life stuck me on the low end of the school pecking order. You get the ability to be the hero of your own adventure, working with friends to achieve a goal worthy of an SF&F novel. And for a kid who was head over heels into JRR Tolkien, there wasn't much more than I could want.

CRPGs and MMOs have a similar appeal, where you're the hero of the story, but instead of purely in the mind's eye you can see it up there on the screen. It also allows you to feel like you matter on no small level, and to an insecure kid that can mean a lot.

If there's one thing that I would wish for our community, it is that we open our arms more to embrace the marginalized. It's pretty well known that the gamer community has issues with people who want to shut the door and pretend that games and gamers are an exclusive boys club, behaving like the Puritans once they reached the shores of New England.# RPG companies and gamers have come a long way, but we've got a long way to go.

We're not there yet, but I really love this drawing.
From imgur.com/gallery/MZwow


Games as Drama##

Sure, there are your games that are abstract or have a minimal theme --such as Checkers or Go-- but unless the drama involves telling tales about escapades in a game of Poker, there's not much in the way of drama to those games. I don't look at the Euro boardgame Puerto Rico and think that there's a lot of drama in shipping goods as a colonial governor. Still, drama can leak in from player interaction or an epic match ("Dude, remember that time I only had a rook and a king and I STILL beat you?"), but RPGs have drama built into their DNA. CRPGs and MMOs have a story to tell, and you're along for the ride. Want to be Link and save the world (again)? Shepard needs to fight the Reapers and save the galaxy, are you game? I hear the Burning Legion has returned to Azeroth and the Horde/Alliance need heroes; are you up for it?

Even games that are more about the fights and bashing skulls (such as Bayonetta, Gears of War, or God of War) have a story to them. Drama can be interchanged for "plot" at this point, but in an RPG it means more because you want to feel like your choices matter. Non-MMO CRPGs can pull this off more easily because the developers can accommodate different choices in-game, but MMOs have the great advantage of player interaction that a CRPG can't hope to match. A visit to any MMO gamer blog will demonstrate the value of player interactions to an MMO player. Sure, there are people who are present to play the economic game or "win" the raiding/PvP game, but the reason why they play an MMO versus a single player CRPG is because you can hang with and fight alongside your friends (or friends of convenience).

Franchise fans are their own geek subgroup, too.
Hey I could have put Trekkies or Tolkien fans here, but at least
Zelda is CRPG related.  From Pinterest.

The pencil and paper games, RPGs and theme heavy boardgames, have drama as part of their central makeup. The whole point of RPGs is to get friends together and tell a story, whether that is by exploring a dungeon, taking part in an epic quest, or even dealing with eking out a living on the edges of the galaxy. The heavily thematic boardgames, such as Runebound or Fury of Dracula, borrow from RPGs to help the players tell a story while playing the game.

Of course, unintended drama can wreck a game. I've been in guilds that have imploded because of unnecessary drama, D&D groups that blew up because they either got too large or we weren't following the DM's direction to take the game###. And yes, I've been in game groups that had issues where the DM's SO received preferential treatment. It wasn't pleasant.

If you've ever been a DM, you'll appreciate this.
My oldest looked at the last one especially and laughed.
The place where I found this (via Google search) doesn't resolve anymore,
so I've no idea who to attribute it to.
Not everybody likes drama. Hell, look at the complaints about Dragon Age 2 from a story perspective and you see that a certain subset of gamers simply do not like games that emphasized story at (what they thought) was the expense of gameplay, as if it was a zero sum game. My wife still is reluctant to play pencil and paper RPGs because an ex was an obsessive controlling DM, and rightly or wrongly she internally associates "asshat ex-boyfriend" with playing RPGs. Games such as Mario Kart or Settlers of Catan are much more in her wheelhouse, because she prefers to not go too heavily into drama (both good and bad).

But in the end, the bonds you make in a guild or a gaming group can last a lifetime; you fought together, laughed together, goofed around together, and even cried together. Friendships like that are what keep game worlds alive.

***

Gaming has certainly changed me, given me an anchor, and helped me with my empathy. As a social outcast growing up, gaming was a lifeline to get me to interact with people that I would ordinarily never associate with. I'm still not perfect; I can tend to act like a mother hen to my friends (online and offline) when I should simply just keep my mouth shut and let them deal with their own shit the way they want to####. But gaming has made me more empathetic, more loyal, and more outgoing than I would have been without it. Sure, it's not like my Dad is going to call me up to talk about the latest expac in SWTOR or WoW#####, but when a bunch of my friends get together to play some Smash Bros and boardgames, we've got that same connection.

Okay, enough about me. What about you? What have games and gaming meant to you? How do they define you (if at all)? Do they keep you going, do they inspire you, and do they help you connect with people?





*Rook? Yep. Uncle Wiggly? Played it. Hearts? Of course; I thought I was really good at Hearts until I got to college and would routinely get my ass handed to me by my dorm friends. As for other games that people might not know much about today, Authors springs to mind. I think I still have my card deck of Authors around somewhere; I'll have to keep an eye out for it the next time I clean parts of the basement.

**True story: to get me to work on my free throws for basketball, my dad made me a deal that if I made 10 free throws in a row we would get an Atari 2600 console. I spent the better part of that summer and fall trying for that elusive 10 in a row, because I wanted to spend more than 5 minutes at a time playing Asteroids. After countless tries, one day the next summer I finally reached that goal only to have my dad renege on his promise.

***My very first adventure consisted of the following encounter: "You open the door at the end of the hallway and see 10 RED DRAGONS!!!" Needless to say, this 1st Level Fighter died.

****We still talk about college basketball a bit, but not to the extent that my neighbors talk about sports with their kids, or even I talk about sports with my father.

*****My brother-in-law did what any good DM does, and he improvised. He caused a spectre to arise out of the flaming brazier and attack her, which was a bit of a problem because we were already in a fight with some goblins. My youngest's two siblings stared at her, aghast. "What did you go and do THAT for??!!!" one of them wailed. "I wanted to see what would happen," she replied, nonplussed. (For the record, we did survive, but that was because I was the Cleric. As usual.)

******Sure, if you go to a random select team's website they'll say that they want to build character and sportsmanship, but my experiences say "win first, everything else second".

#It wasn't until I went to college that I was exposed to gamer girls, and I look back on my early days playing D&D with regret that I didn't think of asking any of the girls I knew if they wanted to pay. I'd vowed to not make the same mistake with my kids, and the mini-Reds have all grown up to become gamers in their own right.

##I could have easily called this the "Bioware Section", but they don't have a monopoly on good drama within a game. It only seems they do.

###My current D&D 3.0 game group grew out of one such blowup back in college. The DM had scripted everything --and I do mean everything-- to the point where we felt like we were there just to be "yes men" to his dramatic writing. When any of us wanted to do something offbeat or wanted to follow something not on the script, he blew up. Needless to say, he decided that we weren't worth his time and walked out, and one of us said "Hey, I've been a DM before. I'll take over and we'll start from scratch."

####"Stop being a creeper, Dad." "You're not an amateur psychologist, Red. Shut up." I've heard them plenty of times. At the same time, if somebody needs a hand or wants to talk, I want to be there for them. I remember what it's like to be isolated and not have anyone to talk to.

#####For the record, he calls almost daily during college basketball season. There's always a game going on that provides (you guessed it) drama.