Friday, April 29, 2005

A Small Goddamn World

I was sitting here at work, minding my own business, when all of a sudden there it was: a link to a little Flash movie called "A Men's Room Monologue."

It's not the finest film ever made, but it's funny and cute and well done. And it's a freshman film school project. And (get this) it's by someone from my old alma mater.

Man. It was all fun and games until now. I was sitting here, thinking, "Man, life is good. I'm working at a game developer, got my apartment, two cats, and a girl, and I've probably gained like 40lbs. Awesome." But then this damn thing came and showed me that I haven't done a damn thing since I got out of school. My degree has just been sitting there in a glass case with the words, "In case of resume, break glass."

I see Flash cartoons all the time. Some of them are better than this one. But the fact that this is by someone from my old school makes it somehow more inspiring and real. I sit here and compare this with my own Freshman films, and I think, "Self, you suck." This guy has sound and urinals and awesomeness. I had little blobs of Play-doh attacking my friend while he slept.

Since I graduated from RIT in '98, I haven't done a damn thing with my degree. Not a single little film, not a solitary wee script. I have shot short video of my cats making out, but that's it. I complain about having too many ideas and not enough time, but the truth is, I don't make time. I don't. And why?

It's been almost 7 years since I graduated. Life has kicked me in the balls a few times since then; I was dirt poor in San Francisco, I got laid off and laid back on, etc., but that's no excuse. The excuse is that I'm afraid to make something of worth, for some reason. I let myself sit there and play computer games all the time when what I should be doing is learning to use Flash and making little films that I can be proud to have made. Yeah, thousands of people may be playing the game I worked on this past year, but if thirty people see a Flash animation I made, then that's far more "worth it" to me.

When I watched the short linked above, I thought to myself, "I could do that." I'm not sure I could anymore, but damnit, I owe it to myself to try.

Which means I probably won't.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Federal Court to Rule on Whether Blade: Trinity Licked Balls - Cinematic Happenings Under Development

Wesley Snipes says that Blade: Trinity, which I reviewed here, was forced on him, and that he didn't have time to express his concerns about how crappy the film was going to be. He's suing for $5 million.

He ought to sue for whatever he would have made had the films gone on for another sequel or two. David Goyer took a film series that simply rocked and made it lick balls.

Snipes claims that the purpose of the film was to create spin-off characters (the Nightstalkers) for the studio. I can't believe I didn't come up with that. I fear I may lose my cynic's license.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Men from the Boys

Ah, the World of Warcraft PvP Honor System.

I'm sure that sometime last week the gates of Hell crack'd, freeing only the smallest and pettiest of demons to prey upon humanity. Many of these despicable creatures hollowed out the souls of employees at Blizzard and began making decisions in their stead. The result? The new PvP Honor System.

Let's take a look at what has happened since the system landed:

  • Popular questing areas in the mid-game have been rendered useless by gangs of roving NPC-killing thugs.

  • Level 60 characters are hunting down and gang-killing level 48 characters for "Honor"

  • Alliance groups are camping Horde targets and Horde-slanted instances

  • Players on PvP servers report not being able to live long enough to really play, thanks to bloodthirsty gangs of gankers

  • Places like the Undercity and the Alliance camps in Stranglethorn are routinely wiped of NPCs

  • The "I threaten to quit but end up not quitting" quotient on the official forums has increased seven-hundred-fold, while the "I already cancelled my account" quotient has grown exponentially

  • The gameplay experience for a sizeable number of players has been sacrificed in favor of the small number of high-level, PvP-interested players who are happy with the change.

Visiting the official WoW forums (a maddening and faith-in-humanity-draining experience on a good day) reveals two sides: those who feel the game was ruined, and those who tell the former group to stop being a bunch of babies. The casual gamer's MMO of choice has become a ganker's paradise in less than a week.

Really, this just serves to remind me why I think that most people who play these games should just be destroyed. Those who just want to run around and quest and play (and who joined PvE or RP servers to do so) have had their play experience ruined by Honor-hungry gangs of bored high-level players. Basically, Blizzard has chosen to reward some players for making the game unplayable for others.

Well, unplayable isn't exactly true. PvP-server players can travel in groups and generally be careful, even though that won't stop a level 60 group from annihilating a group of level 50 players and getting "Honor" points for it. Folks on the PvE servers, however, don't have the option. To get Honor points on a PvE server, you have to attack opposing-side NPCs and hope that players get angry enough to try to stop you. This ends up with round-the-clock NPC killing, which causes the deaths of generally every NPC in a town. If you're questing in zones like the Hinterlands, Arathi, or Stranglethorn, you're likely to find that your griffon/wind rider master is dead, as are all of the quest NPCs and merchants. This means that people, many of whom don't play WoW for any type of PvP interaction at all, cannot turn in quests, cannot travel to other flight points, and cannot sell or buy items. As much fun as that sounds... well, it doesn't sound like fun at all. And Blizzard's system encourages it.

The baffling thing to me is that Blizzard has a decade or more of dealing with online morons to draw upon. How they could put forth such a naive and stupid system is beyond me. Thus the devils-from-Hell theory. The other theory is that they did it on purpose, which makes my head explode.

Oh well. Maybe I won't be playing Guild Wars alone after all.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

My Head Hurts

Station Exchange

I hate it when I see a situation that I can't immediately form an opinion on. Usually I jump quickly to one side or the other and then change my opinion all willy-nilly as needed, but in this case, I just can't. Basically, SOE is acknowledging the fact that people are buying and selling EQII currency and items for real-world cash, and they're making moves to give a controlled, SOE-sanctioned environment for this to take place. I just... Damnit, I can't decide how I feel about this.

One on hand, I hate the fact that there are people out there who pony up hundreds of real-world dollars to shortcut the game experience. People will pay hundreds of dollars for in-game items and high-level characters so they don't have to go through the grind to get to the top levels (where they tend to realize there's nothing to do). It's the most messed up thing. I can't imagine anyone paying that kind of money for a savegame at the end of KotOR 2. Not to mention that people are making tons of money selling things they didn't manufacture and never owned in the first place. Argh. That really bothers me.

On the other hand, it's good that SOE is trying to make a secure environment for this sort of thing. People get ripped off at a fair clip in these situations, and SOE is setting up an Exchange in which a third party (SOE) supervises the transactions via PayPal and credit cards (and they take a small percentage of the sale for themselves). The problem here is that an infrastructure already exists for people to buy and sell things outside of SOE's supervision, and it's pretty clear that neither Blizzard nor SOE either cares enough to or are capable of putting a stop to the practice, despite what their EULAs say. I mean, really. If I can go out there and find a farming company to buy WoW gold from, then Blizzard can damn well find this stuff out themselves. They just aren't trying to stop it.

Really, I'd just like to see the money going to the ones who deserve it: The developers of the game. It's retarded that people can make livings selling virtual property they never created, never built, and never owned. Yeah, the seller may have camped Grognar the Ballshitter for a week for the item, but so what? It's part of the game. I started to get disgruntled with the grind on my druid in WoW, but did I feel I should be compensated for it? No. I never put in a single day of work to make sure the druid class was balanced, that its powers worked, and that it looked cool, whereas the Blizzard developers worked some horrid crunch to get the game out there so greedy morons could make hundreds of dollars selling Blizzard's property.

I think MMOs should just bite the bullet. When you buy an MMO, you should have the option of buying the regular version for $50 or the Super Mega Awesome version for $1000, which includes a level-capped character with perfect gear and 1000 gold. Better yet, you can pay $2000 and get a game that, when you log on, shows you the ending of the game and says, "You win!"

Far be it from me to deny someone his living, but really, it's retarded. The worst part is that it wouldn't exist if bigger morons weren't willing to pay these people for the stuff. That's the worst part for me. People are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to skip to the end of a game they like enough to invest hundreds of dollars in. And rather than stand up and protect their intellectual property, SOE is bending over and endorsing the sale for real-world cash of items SOE designed and implemented. It's like if I came over and blatantly sold one of your DVDs to someone in front of your face, and you just nodded, shook hands with everyone, and took a few pennies for letting me come over and sell your shit for my own profit. It's just stupid. I mean, while it doens't affect my WoW experience in any way to know that people are out there farming and selling in-game items (especially since my own WoW time has been relegated to periodic time-wasting at this point), it offends my sense of how shit works and of how those who created and manufactured a product should be the ones benefiting from the sales of that product.

Hrmm. I seem to have formed an opinion.

SOE, shame on you. And, good job.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Coolest Game Ever

I imagine it went something like this:

Hasbro Exec: Okay. Any more bright ideas? We're late for lunch.
Hasbro Idea Guy: I have one: Kids buy figures, push them around on the table, and the goal is to knock the figures over by hitting them together or with giant spring-loaded rockets.
Hasbro Exec: Goddamnit Bob, you keep bringing this up. Don't you remember the lawsuits?
Bob: Yes.
Hasbro Exec: Then why bring this up now?
Bob: I dunno. I thought this time would be the time.
Hasbro Exec: We're late for lunch, Bob.
Bob: I know. But lookit! I had some made!
Hasbro Exec: Okay, fine. I'll take a look.

(Bob busts out a few figures. They look like horribly misshapen Star Wars characters, some with gigantic goofy hands and others with big fuck off guns that shoot spiring-loaded rockets)

Hasbro Exec: Those look like crap, Bob.
Bob: I know. But it's like this: If you don't pay to manufacture and market these toys, then my friends the Horribly Misshapen Clone Troopers and I will have something to aay about it.
Hasbro Exec: Bob, I don't think--

(Bob triggers several figures to fire, and the Exec is assaulted in the eye by several huge-ass plastic missiles)

Bob: Anyone else have a problem?


Attacktix is an interesting idea: Why not let the figures physically hash things out on the table? Instead of rolling dice and tallying hit points, you march your figure up and thwack enemy figures, hoping to knock them over. Or you take aim from afar, fire a (surprisingly powerful) plastic rocket at the enemy, and hope to knock the enemy over. Really, you end up with a game in which kids are shooting at each other with plastic rockets, which really sums up my childhood to a T. But this, in the day and age in which most toys' "rockets" only fire about 3 inches because some kid managed to shoot himself in the eye and burst into flames or something, shows an interesting reversal of flow. This tells me that toy manufacturers either don't care if kids shoot themselves and burst into flames, or they have decided to take a risk and put something out that's new and different (if not terribly deep). That's somewhat encouraging.

There's some strategy to it. The more expensive the figure, the harder it is to knock down. Melee units have faster movement (represented by the number of clicks, or "tix," made by the little wheel in the base as you push the figure along on the table. Many units have special powers that activate when they fall over, often enabling other figures to take a free attack or letting the player bring dead figures back to the table.

The rules are simple, and they're based on physical things. For example, the Emperor can possess enemy units, but only if the Emperor figure can physically grab on and piggy-back the possessed figure without touching the table himself. If you shield a figure with another, and if the figure in back physically props up the shielding figure, then the figure in front doesn't die. The simplicity and physical nature of it is pretty damn interesting and, dare I say, refreshing. It beats counting squares or arguing whether one can pre-measure before one shoots.

I'll likely never find someone to play this game with, but I like it in theory. I just can't shake the feeling that it won't be around too long before some parent hauls her burning wreck of a child to court with one huge red rocket sticking out of his eye. Hrm. Maybe I'll get a second starter to keep closed for eBay.

Just... Wow.

Treat your mother right

Oh. My. God.


Monday, April 18, 2005

Guild Wars and its Relationship to Balls: An Essay

In case you're not aware of my balls-related rating system, look here and here. That ought to provide the background needed for this article, as well as serving as useful kindling if you print them out.

I played Guild Wars most of the weekend (part of the Beta Weekend event). As you might remember from this article, I've been looking forward to Guild Wars for some time. In fact, ever since they first showed it to me many moons ago, I've thought, "Hrm, that looks like fun." I pre-ordered my copy, got into the Beta Weekend Event (or BWE, as the kids call it), and played most of the weekend away.

Working at a game developer and living among fairly hardcore WoW fans as I do, I am surrounded by people who are harsh gaming connoisseurs, or however you spell that. I seem to have been the first person in my circle to kick the WoW addiction (and get my balls back) for the most part, and Guild Wars, to me, represented another way in which I amd some friends might spend some time online without having to grind to hang out together. I played all weekend, partially to find out if I'd like the game, and partially to inspire some friends to try it out and see if they like it, too.

The result? Almost universal failure.

I'm not sure why. For my part, I really like the game. The complex way in which skills can interact, leading to varying ways of handling problems, appeals to me. I made four characters: A warrior/necromancer, a warrior/ranger, a necromancer/elementalist, and a ranger who didn't last long enough to get a secondary profession. The warrior/necromancer handled quite a bit differently from the warrior/ranger and the necromancer/elementalist, and I liked that. My favorite was the necromancer/elementalist, and I nearly got him to the point at which the rest of the game begins before the weekend ended.

I had maybe 10 or 12 skills with the necro at level 7. I had a ranged lifetap, a touch-ranged lifetap, a couple of damage spells that affected multiple targets, my undead minion-summoning spell, a resurrection skill (which anyone can get but only works once per mission, unlike the resurrection skills monks get), etc. In most situations, I could use my DoT lifetap on the enemy and wait him out, but if things got hairy, I needed to think quickly. If I could get three guys close together, I could pretty much take them out all at once and end with nearly full health if I paid attention. But I had to pay attention. It wasn't just, "DoT this guy, send pet, stack more DoTs, drain life drain life drain soul dead." It seemed far more hectic than that. It felt a bit more like the Diablo II necromancer in that you were always moving, always casting a spell, and most likely always doing something different and exciting. Killing felt less like grinding when I was rounding up bandits by the threes, surrounding them with bugs and firestorms, and creating bone terrors from the fallen to hound those who still live.

I enjoyed the long walks through really pretty areas. I enjoyed finding trainers (even the elementalist trainer by the big awesome tower in the snowy area), I enjoyed going through the catacombs for the fifth time (each time the path led me through a different area, to temples and caverns and ritual chambers I'd probably never have found just running through). I enjoyed going to get the devourer egg both times I had to do it. I enjoyed fighting grawl to collect their necklaces; I only needed five to get that piece of equipment from the collector who wanted them.

Sure, the game has its problems. For some reason, characters and certain terrain have huge collision boxes that block movement, making it a bit of a chore to get around compared to, say, WoW. Lag can be an issue, with characters popping about (if you are detained from your destination, you'll likely be jumped there after a few seconds... even into the same space as the NPC you're trying to reach). Also, the Mesmer class requires a higher degree of twitch and timing than other classes, but they note that it's for "advanced players" on the class selection screen.

But yeah. Guild Wars sorta reached for the balls this weekend. I think about it more than I think about WoW at this point, and WoW was the previous balls-holder.

My friends, though, went the other way. I spent the afternoon playing with one, and we had fun, but he decided he wouldn't buy the game in the end. Another friend took pains to point out everything that was awkward with the game (he even picked the Mesmer class for his first character, which seemed to be a bit motivated by spite). My fiance' played a bit last night, and she loved the character design and the look of the game, but she found it hard to learn, which is fair, since there's no tutorial to speak of. In the end, I found myself wondering when Guild Wars would stop licking balls.

As much as I liked it, and as much as I know I'm going to buy it when it comes out and play it as long as I enjoy it, the game apparently licked so much balls that I'll be playing it alone when I do, and that sucks.

I dunno. Am I insane? Are other people too critical? Is it that they resist leaving WoW, or is Guild Wars really not good? It seemed good to me, a good halfway point between WoW and Diablo, and considering there's no $20CAN monthly fee, I'll overlook some missing polish in return for a game that has some interesting choices to make and far more flexibility and uniqueness per character than a game like WoW. Every time someone complained about something in Guild Wars, I wanted to say, "Dude, look at Beyond Divinity and other games like that. This is lightyears past that crap." That a no-monthly-fee game can even compare to an MMO is worth something to me, and having it compare favorably against other online action RPGs like Diablo definitely puts it in line for having the balls. Every instance in which it licked balls was like a bad collision volume here or a bit of "too much walking around" there.

In the end, my friends didn't like Guild Wars, and I really did. Since I suck at making friends in these games (because I am a snob who feels like everyone else in the game is a knuckle-dragging 13-year-old psycho), I will likely play it until I can't solo anymore and then drop it. And really, I've already played it far more than I've played the last three games I bought, so there you go.

Just... if Guild Wars hadn't licked balls so much, it would have my balls by now. Such a complex balls relationship can never be a good thing.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Trending Downward

I had a conversation with a friend of mine a while back. Here's essentially how it went:

Friend: You should write a rant about how Game Rankings scores tend to drop over time after the initial reviews of a game come out.

Me: Hrm. That's a good idea.

(Several weeks pass)

Me: What should I write about? Oh, I know! I'll write about how Game Rankings scores tend to drop over time after the initial reviews of a game come out! I am pure genius incarnate!

I guess I hadn't thought about it before, but it's true. Generally, especially for big-ticket games, the scores on Game Rankings tend to start high and drop over time. Since the games don't tend to actually lose quality after they're released, there must be some other explanation for that phenomenon.

It could be the novelty factor. Maybe the earlier reviews are just more hyped on the game, and so they give the game higher review scores than they otherwise might. That doesn't speak highly of the reviewers, but then, none of the suppositions in this rant do.

There's also the fanboy factor. Big magazines and sites tend to assign reviews to the people on the staff who like and know the game in question the best. For example, when I was in the biz, I reviewed a fair amount of action/adventure and PC RPG titles, because I liked those. I never reviewed sports titles (except hockey and wrestling, one of which I really liked, and I bet you can't figure out which), fighting games, etc. So right there, you're more likely to get a positive review unless the game is extremely disappointing. The smaller groups, which tend not to get early copies and can't always manage to get reviews out when the games ship, don't always have that luxury. Maybe that's why the later reviews tend to be lower than the first ones.

There's also the extremely cynical (and poorly named) swag factor. The big guys all get copies of the game from the publisher, well in advance of others. They've also been romanced to some extent by the publishers and have developed some intimacy with the game through demos, press events, swag, etc. When such a game comes out, the review goes one of two ways: extremely positive with a stupidly high score, or sadly disappointed with a much higher score than the review's text would bely. The little guys don't always get copies, and they often have to buy their own at ship, which avoids the swag factor entirely. While the little guys might not have the professional experience that the big guys do, their reviews might be more honest, since they don't have that incestuous relationship with the publishers' PR folks that the big guys do. While I don't think there's a lot of swag whores in the mainstream gaming mag biz, it's hard to ignore the fact that a low score can seriously wound your relationship with the publisher, and the big guys rely on the publishers for early copies, pre-release assets, and early-development scoops. The little guys, who have a frequent buyer membership in Target's electronics section, don't have to worry about that. Also, when a publisher hands you an exclusive review, you're far more likely to be positive in your review. You don't want to shut off your chances of getting other exclusives by giving a poor review, and no one wants to see "IGN EXCLUSIVE!!!!!!!!" on a review for a game that gets a 6.5/10.

Game Rankings is an important site. As journalists, we hated it, because not only does it traffic in others' hard work, but it also gives publishers a crowbar with which to try to pry corrections and second reviews from us. When I gave one game an 85%, I got comments from the publisher saying that Game Rankings rated the game much higher, and that all of my colleagues disagreed with me, so I should seriously rethink my score. Granted, I got much worse feedback from the readers (mostly consisting of variations of "U r teh ghey lol"), but the publisher was trying to use Game Rankings as a tool to get me to say, "Oh golly, I'm so sorry, I'll get about fluffing my score up right away suh!"

Now, as a developer, it's a handy tool. I can tell at a glance how the game I worked on is being received, and I can see how the readers feel about each review. The funny thing is that folks at my company are going, "That low review is crap, because look at how low-rated it is on Game Rankings!" without realizing that the readers who ranked the review are the same folks who gave our game a 63% rating before it even came out. It's the same case of "Everyone's a moron except those who agree with us."

Anyway, as time goes on, scores on Game Rankings tend to slide downward, meaning that Game Rankings is a handy tool only after a few weeks have passed since the game's release. If the big-time reviewers were more responsible and less wide-eyed and likely to spontaneously go chibi when they get handed a game to review, then the problem wouldn't be as bad as it is. As it is, irresponsible reviews lead players to buy games they wouldn't like and developers to pat backs that maybe ought not to be patted quite yet.

It's amazing how much in this biz depends on the whims of poor managers, irresponsible journalists, and fickle end-users. All that money, hanging by a thread.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Video-fenky's Fenegi on Ferrets

Fenegi said to me, "I deny that ferrets are mean."

There. I quoted you, just like I threatened.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Na na na na na, We're Not Listening....

Seeing game reviews from the other side, as a developer, is proving an interesting experience. Compared to writing reviews, the reviews themselves have more weight when they're about your product. This is your hard work on display, with some outside voice you've never met (though actually, I met a lot of these folks when I was in the biz) bridging the gap between your company's carefully phrased marketing and the gamers hungrily awaiting the game.

Despite what everyone in development says (until the review is positive), reviews are extremely important. Many times during the development of our latest game, I heard people refer to how they thought something would be reviewed, often in the same sentence that they trashed reviewers for being ignorant shills who give every game high ratings. Really, reviews are part of the two-part axis of success for games, sidling up next to sales success in the horrible mixed metaphor of life.

We've had generally ridiculously high scores for our reviews thus far, which leads people here to giddy optimism. Now, don't get me wrong, I think our game is good, but I also think it's far from perfect. In fact, some here have expressed that development on this game was a nightmare compared to previous titles. One guy even told me, "Don't judge [company] by this game. This game is being handled horribly." But so far, well, the reviewers have been, well, ignorant shills. And the folks here are eating it up.

The two voices so far that have bucked the trend have been Gamespot and 1UP, which is often the case. When I read the review on Gamespot, I found myself thinking that the reviewer wrote exactly the review I would have written: insightful and honest and both brutal and fair. The game came out positively, but Gamespot didn't blow sunshine or anything else. The reviewer listed what is, in truth, the comprehensive list of what is good and bad with the game. 1UP was likewise honest, though quite a bit more harsh in text and less harsh in score.

Reading the Gamespot review gave me hope. While I don't want our game to fail in any way, I would like its flaws to be realistically acknowledged, and, well, it's hard to be realistic about stuff when someone is tossing your salad. Gamespot is a popular site, and better yet, it's respected, unlike IGN and its apparently random scores. Surely the folks here will see the mostly positive review, think, "Well, yeah, he touched on some things I thought were wrong with the game," and keep in mind ways to make it better. But no. It wasn't long before the attacks began.

"Don't let one lone dissenter get you down." "Look how low that review is rated on" And my personal favorite: "He must be confused, because he gave our game the same graphics score he gave Cubivore (note complete with screenshots of both)." Never mind that Cubivore came out in 2002, three years ago, before research and development led to improved graphics and performance on all platforms.

People who were, weeks ago, saying, "I generally trust [reviewer's] reviews," are now saying, "He was confused." The same people who were buying PSP games based solely on this reviewer's recommendation now point out how poorly that reviewer is doing on Gamerankings. Did the reviewer get hit by the retard stick in the meantime, or something?

I wondered why things never seem to change at this company, or indeed, in any company in the game industry. It's because people don't trust professional, outside feedback, and the majority of such feedback is so afraid to be honest or so filled with blind fanboy lust that they give everything a glowing review unless it's safe to do otherwise (i.e., the game is so crappy that the publisher goes, "Yeah, well, we know."). Intelligent, fair, and honest reviewers need not apply. We're only here to polish knobs, not to inform readers and help developers improve.

The frustrating thing is that we all suffered for this project, and taking the bad to heart might help reduce the suffering in future projects. While I'd love for this game to sell kajillions, I'd rather our next few titles not be exactly the same. Most reviewers bend over and don't ask for a reach-around, and developers, blind with love for their babies, slide right in and go to town. And when one guy doesn't bend over, and rather stands up face-to-face and asks for a handshake instead of a right royal rogering, developers are caught holding themselves. Now all of us who worked so hard on this project can expect to do so on another project exactly like this one, and it'll be justified, because everyone but "that psycho child-raper at Gamespot" gave us a infinity-bajillion-on-a-ten-scale rating.

Now, I understand morale and the need to keep it up (since I seem to be so good at inadvertantly harming it with my presence), but I also understand the need for honest feedback and for people to be real about what they've accomplished. It's all well and good to think, "Cool, we got awesome reviews, look out, world!" but we need to look at the big picture and accept that every review is an opinion, including the slavering fanboy ones. As the career counselor Marty Nemko, Ph.D. says at the end of his weekly radio show on NPR, "We gain comfort from those who agree with us, and growth from those who don't." We're getting plenty of comfort. Now for some growth.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Gamasutra - Features - "Social Game, not Social Life? ArenaNet on Guild Wars and the "Casual" MMORPG"

I've said (and read) many times that the problem with the MMORPG is the MMO part. I may be an antisocial ass at my core, but I enjoy soloing in World of Warcraft and teaming up when I have to. I like slaughtering my way through an area and, when I get to the boss, forming a partnership with the other folks there to fight that same boss so we all share the experience and the quest items that drop. I do not like being forced to group in these games, nor do I like the fact that many of these games, at high levels, almost force players to become the paragon of their classes: Warriors tank, priests heal, rogues "DPS," and mages "nuke." Jack-of-all-trades classes, like druids (my main class), get slotted into one of their ability groups; in the case of druids, they seem to be expected to heal and only to heal, despite that they can act usefully as a light warrior or a pseudo-rogue, as well. If you aren't specialized one way, then you're useless. High-end raid groups, which seem to either be the only way to have fun or the only way to really gain experience and items at high levels, are generally run by lifers who don't care who you are, as long as you're a Protection-specced warrior with his pants.

Personally, I'm not interested in playing someone else's game. I don't want to get to level 60 just to be a face in some dood's raid crowd. Some people really enjoy it. Me, I prefer slaughtering troggs by the hundreds at lower levels, by myself or teamed with my fiance' or a friend. But the game, for better or for worse, has aged to the point where level 60s run everything: If you're not level 60, you don't "know" your class, according to the forums. The new content coming from developers is generally new dungeons for lvl. 55-60 characters. Soon, here comes Battlegrounds and probably a level-cap increase. Which is all fine, because the lower level stuff is already well done. It's just that I'm not likely to ever see the higher-level stuff, and if my cat-form-specced druid will be forced to heal to play the high level content, most parts of me don't really care.

I linked to the Guild Wars article above because I have always found that game intriguing. NC Soft was one of my contacts back in the day, and I was lucky enough to get extensive previews of City of Heroes and Guild Wars early in the cycle (thanks, David). The central premise behind Guild Wars is, as you'd kow if you'd bothered to read the article, that the game will require no subscription fees. What they don't get into in the article is the somewhat innovative character development structure in the game. That's both its highest selling point to me, and the reason why more people probably won't leave WoW for Guild Wars.

Basically, you start at level 1 (as you might imagine) and play through level 10 or so (might be 20; I don't remember). At that point you have your character as he will be, pretty much for eternity. From then on your development isn't so much in how strong you are, but rather what equipment and skills you have. Each character has a "skillbook" that contains his skills, and he can have maybe 8 skills equipped for a given mission. The trick isn't just in grinding mobs until you're so strong that you can roll over an obstacle, it's in obtaining more skills so that you have more to choose from when you go into the next mission. A level 20 guy and a level 50 guy are, in theory, different only in the number of skills they have to choose from. Granted, the level 50 guy has played more, and so he has better equipment by process of elimination, but there you go. The best comparison is between a Magic: The Gathering player with a starter deck and two boosters and one with a starter deck and a hundred boosters. They can both only bring 60 cards to the table, but one guy will likely have a better deck by default. It's also extremely possible for the younger player to defeat the older one, too, if they have good cards and decent skills.

Since ArenaNet and NC Soft aren't getting paid to keep you logged on month after month, then the "grind" doesn't pay off for them. They want to make a compelling game that will A) be fun enough that you'll recommend it to your friends and B) act as a compelling preview for future expansions, which will have a real price on them rather than being free quarterly updates. Also, since a level 50 character isn't exponentially more powerful than a lower level one, there's no sense in making players grind to reach come godly maximum level. In some ways, the game becomes more about the missions and obtaining new skills and trying out the ones you have than about watching an XP bar slowly slip from left to right.

Now, they are doing some things that could hurt immersion in the game world, like give main hubs with instantaeous transportation anywhere in the world, but that's nothing worse than what Sony Online did to EverQuest with the Plane of Knowledge. As time goes on, it seems more and more obvious that players don't care as much about game world cohesiveness as they do about making macros to eke 0.5% more effectiveness out of their characters. If they cared about cohesiveness, then they wouldn't be farming major story dungeons like the Deadmines or "saving" Gnomeregan for the tenth time. World of Warcraft succeeds in its immersiveness, but that's a cherry on top, not the bottom line. For Guild Wars, the cohesiveness is based on your character, not so much the world. In some ways it's refreshing to anticipate playing a game that is unabashedly a game.

Now, this is all supposition. Guild Wars could suck when it comes out, or the strength of my fiance' continuing with WoW could keep me from buying Guild Wars when it comes out, but on paper it sounds like a good idea. Why shouldn't casual gamers be able to play with the lifers? Why shouldn't lifers be rewarded with more choices of skills? Why should lifers be gods compared to folks who only play 2 hours a day or so? Why not even things out, let everyone conceivably compete with everyone else, and hrmm... NOT CHARGE A MONTHLY FEE?

Hey. They're doing something different, which makes my toes curl. We'll see how it turns out in a few weeks.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Out the Door

It's an odd feeling having a game you worked on go gold. I'm not sure I can even adequately explain it.

The game I've been working on for several months went gold recently. The past few weeks, the office has been like a ghost town, and now new people are scoping out my office to see where they want to put their stuff when they move in and I move out to another one. A lot of people have been on vacation for weeks, while others of us have gone on to new things or interim things to work on until the other projects ramp up. It's strange to see things go from WORKWORKWORKWORKWORKWORKWORKWORK to ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

The feeling around here is blind relief, really, but everyone is waiting to see how things go with the reviews. We're all prepared to spit on the critics and say, "Screw you, we were making art!" and stuff, and generally disregard negative feedback and take positive feedback straight to heart. Personally, having reviewed games professionally for a very long time (and doing it here for a while with no professional standards whatsoever), I'm curious to see what people say and see how much of it is discounted as "ignorant critics" or taken to heart and used to improve future projects. I'll probably get all frustrated and rant about it here when it all happens.

It's an interesting feeling. On one hand, I think, "Cool, people are actually playing it, and I played an important-ish role in getting it done." On the other hand, I think, "I friggin worked on this piece of shit for months, pouring my heart, soul, and personal relationships into it, and if they don't like it, well, goddamnit." In a lot of ways, the game is ending for us, but for everyone else, it's just starting. The game's life starts on its release date and goes on from there. But we're done with it. It's in YOUR hands now. All the crunch time and emotional difficulty and job-threatening exhaustion culminate in a game that I hope tons of people will like.

Reading the reviews will be interesting. I have my issues with the game that mostly come from knowing ways in which it could have been better. I know many things that affected the quality of the game, and I know reasons why those things didn't happen. I'm way too close to the project to form an opinion, but I am also highly critical of the game. I imagine that I am more critical than the critics will be, which frustrates me. If someone gives the game a real, honest, constructive review with real feedback, then maybe someone will take it to heart, and maybe the hubris I can see sprouting up among the staff here will fade. These people are immensely talented, and they are more so when challenged, but "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Anyway, our game's almost out, and while I won't tell you which one it is, I hope you play it and enjoy it. Despite my overcriticism, I think it's a good game that is rather different from most other stuff out there, and, well, if you buy it, then I can become rich and personally awesomnify the world by 27%. Which is a net awesome gain of about 15%.

Monday, April 04, 2005


It says a lot that I was actually disturbed by Sin City.

I read the graphic (appropriately called) novels several times on the train going to work in San Francisco. I remember being somewhat shocked by the books, but I enjoyed the visceral rawness of it, and I liked being shown things I'd never see in my normal life. Some part of me is interested in humanity's rock bottom, which I guess is why I liked undeads so much when I was DMing D&D. The Sin City comics were great, because everyone involved was bad, even the good guys. The cop trying to save a little girl blows the kidnapper's balls off. The guy avenging the murder of his perfect woman is a complete psycho madman. There's a layer of blood and silt on everyone in the town, and Frank Miller is the best at making characters who are covered in blood and silt.

The film is interesting in that it rarely ever shows blood as blood. Sometimes it's a white pool on the ground. Sometimes it's black and pooling in a dead man's slit throat. Sometimes it's even yellow. But the thing is, whatever color it is, it's somehow nastier than regular ol' red blood. Somehow the film sells us the three-color world of Basin City so completely that even in white sillhouette a man blowing his brains out is nasty and horrifying.

I had forgotten much of the graphic novels, and so it was interesting to rediscover the stories. I had forgotten Elijah Wood's character in the book, which was good, because it let me rediscover him in the film. I had forgotten Benicio del Toro's secret in the book, so I could discover it in the film. Of course, I had forgotten much of the rawness of the book, or I assumed that some of it would be glossed over in the film, but I was wrong. It's all there: The hooker tearing a girl's throat with her teeth, the talking severed head with the gun barrel sticking out of it, the dismembered guy being eaten by his own pet wolf. Somehow, where I said "Whoa, ew, cool" in the book, the film made me say, "Oh man, good lord."

It really is a fantastic film, and I imagine that the reaction I mention above is one the film causes on purpose. The "review" I linked in the title bar above contains an itemized list of the "offenses" in the movie, in case anyone's keeping score. Robert Rodriguez, the director, apparently shot the movie using the comics as a storyboard, and it shows. There were individual frames in the movie that I remember from the comics, which is pretty damn cool. The actors, especially Marv, looked more or less exactly the way they looked in the books. Marv's parole officer, played by Carla Gugino, looked exactly the way she did in the comics, especially in one scene in which she speaks with Marv in the bathroom, She's naked there, and it's almost like they gave her prosthetics or some CG to make her body look exactly like her character's body in the comics. The attention to detail is amazing, and the way in which it's different from our world is just pronounced enough to reassure us that this sort of thing isn't really happening on Earth.

I think I'd like to see it again, a matinee by myself, where I can really take a look at the film now that I know what to expect. It's not often that a film, especially one for which I read the comics, to disturb me the way this one did. I want to find out why it disturbed me so.

Besides, it was a damn good movie of a damn good comic. I'm tempted to take the comics with me when I go so I can compare and contrast. I expect a hideously good DVD.