Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page
Youch. This is pretty scary – apparently it’s not difficult for people to tap into your cell phone, listen to every conversation, read your text messages, track your location, and even use the phone to listen to you when you’re not on the phone.
I downloaded the 14-day trial for Star Wars Galaxies last night on a whim, since I’d never played it and had always been curious. I experienced the horror of the NGE vicariously through various online sources but lacked the personal experience that can be so valuable. Coming two weeks after Star Wars Day (“May the 4th be with you”), and 5 years after the game’s launch, I was admittedly pretty late to the party, but then that gave them more time to polish and perfect the experience. I normally learn as much as possible about games before playing them but decided this would be a blind test, wherein I wouldn’t study classes or races or character builds or any of the various new player guides; instead I wanted to experience this game the way a new player most often would. The result was a bit disappointing in several ways. So without further ado, here’s my take on Star Wars Galaxies after playing for 2 hours.
The voice work and music were excellent. I’m uncertain if it was actually Harrison Ford doing the voice work for Han Solo but it surely sounded just like him. I don’t think it was Anthony Daniels doing the voice work for C3PO but it was a good facsimile. The music was of course cribbed from the movies, but hey, it’s fabulous music nonetheless. The world was attractive, and the graphics perfectly decent for a 5-year-old game. The class selection was difficult for me as they all sounded at least somewhat appealing; the same was true for the races.
Character creation gave a decent variety of customization; my Mon Calimari Bounty Hunter could be altered to look fairly different, with each option looking decent.
The combat was fast and fairly fun; I liked the blaster carbines anyhow. I appreciated that I could hold down the mouse button instead of having to click multiple times on a given target. The responsiveness of the aiming system was good (though there was no in-game indication what hitting ‘y’ does – it changes the targeting reticle from crosshairs to a circle but I couldn’t tell what mechanical effect this had).
The game did a fairly poor job at explaining the various elements of the GUI. I’m a veteran MMO player and yet some of the menus were fairly opaque to me at first, e.g. hitting ‘P’ brings up the “Phase” menu, which apparently shows what abilities a class will gain over time as it levels. The manner in which this is represented is anything but immediately obvious. Likewise, I gained several powers in the process of gaining my 7 levels, and couldn’t tell what these powers did since the mouse is coupled to the camera, meaning you can’t mouse-over elements of the HUD to get tooltips (actually, as I discovered just before quitting for the night, you can decouple the mouse from the camera by hitting escape – obvious, it isn’t). I discovered that hitting the apostrophe key ” ‘ ” brings up the power menu, but none of this was explained in game. Do they expect the users to read the manual? Should players have a cheat sheet by their keyboard to remind them of the various nonstandard keybindings?
The character movement was a bit sluggish; the worst part of the movement by far was the jumping. There’s a good half second delay between hitting the space bar and the character on screen responding, meaning I couldn’t accurately time jumps at all initially… it took some practice to adjust for the annoying delay. I understand that jumping isn’t central to the gameplay but this was really poorly executed.
Speaking of movement, I was disappointed to see there was no support for mouse-only movement; hitting both mouse buttons at once does nothing, and the keyboard is needed to move. Blergh.
Again about the movement, I was disappointed to find that the game relies on walkmeshes. This means you can’t move wherever you wish but are restrained to the paths that the designers built in. This becomes immediately evident when in the cantina… the NPC quest givers are arranged on small raised platforms around the circumference of the cantina, perhaps a foot higher than the middle of the area. In order to speak to them, you need to use the stairs at either end of the platforms, rather than just jumping up… and likewise you can’t jump down afterwards, but have to take the stairs. What’s the point of even *having* a jump button if it’s sluggish and delayed and doesn’t allow you to actually, you know, jump over things?
A minor but persistent annoyance manifested itself every time I zoned; I like to have the camera zoomed out a bit so I can see around my character, and every time I zoned the camera reset to right over my shoulder.
For a game that’s been out over 5 years, there are some surprising bugs still. The newbie encounter area that missions send you to after leaving the tutorial is called Station Gamma. I found, fairly early on in this area, a place where the walls disappeared and I could see space all around. This was immensely disconcerting – though it’s nice to know that space surrounds you at all times, one doesn’t expect to see through walls generally. This bug was completely reproducible, and again it occurs in the newbie encounter area where virtually all players will spend an hour or two. A bug this serious in this commonly visited an area shouldn’t remain for 5 years.
Speaking of bugs that shouldn’t remain for 5 years, when I viewed my Bounty Hunter’s phase menu I was treated to this meaningful string: “skl_d:[class_bounty_hunter_phase1_novice]”. Yeah, I’m guessing that doesn’t belong there. 5 years after launch I’d hope for better; actually, I’d hope for better AT launch.
The game’s collision detection is annoyingly intermittent. Some placeable objects / furniture items were solid, and many were not, and the only way to tell which was which was trial and error. Sometimes you can run right through a large circular table, and sometimes a small plant would block progress. Ergh.
Overall I was disappointed by my two-hour tour of Star Wars Galaxies. The interface was poorly explained in game, the movement was burdened by the walkmeshes and the poorly implemented jumping, and the presence of two fairly serious bugs in such common places as a class progress menu and a newbie zone’s entry area were deeply troubling. I’ll play some more because I’m interested to see what else the game does well and what else falls apart, but my initial take on the game is honestly less than flattering.
Some recent discussions about soloing vs grouping have spurred me to contemplate the nature of guilds. A lot of people seem to only be familiar with one type of guild, and assume that their type is representative of all guilds (e.g. spinks speaks of “guilds” by which she means “raiding guilds”, as if they were one and the same). This leads to some communication breakdowns, where one party assumes things another party doesn’t.
Guilds can exist for a number of disparate reasons, and almost always exist for more than one. The five most central reasons for guilds that I’ve come up with are: achievement, friendship, crafting/trade, roleplay, and PvP. Let’s look at each in turn.
Goal: Achievement guilds focus on gaining power for the guilds’ members. Power can be achieved via levels, loot, faction, skills, etc.
Behaviour: Achievement guilds tend to group together a lot to complete quests, visit dungeons, etc. Some content cannot be soloed or cannot be easily soloed, and that content is the focus of achievement guilds. Many achievement guilds focus more on loot than on levels, with the implicit assumption that levels are easier to get than high-end loot.
Subtypes: One of the most common subtypes of achievement guilds is the raiding guild, which focuses primarily on endgame raiding.
Goal: Friendship guilds exist to foment strong bonds of friendship between members.
Behaviour: Friendship guilds tend to use guild chat a lot to talk about personal issues as well as make small talk; members enjoy sharing their lives and thoughts with each other. Friendship guilds are also frequently strong support networks for members, providing a lot of in-game gifts to each other as well as advice and support for out-of-game issues.
Goals: Profit! Crafting/Trading Guilds are often all about the money, though they can also support artistic expression if/when the game supports this.
Behaviour: Crafting/Trading Guilds thrive on economic interchanges. They often aim to help members master crafts, gain footholds in markets, or dominate said markets.
Goal: Roleplay guilds seek to provide a context for members to roleplay and to create a shared narrative.
Behaviour: Roleplay guilds often have a lot of in-game events scheduled that don’t directly pertain to achievement or crafting/trading. Remaining in-character in public channels is often paramount (especially /say and /emote).
Subtypes: Some roleplay guilds represent groups that exist in the game world, e.g. mercenary companies, businesses, etc. These groups tend to focus on roleplay centered around the group’s official activities. Some roleplay guilds don’t represent groups that exist in the game world, but are simply collections of people who like to RP together. It’s also worth mentioning that a small percentage of roleplay guilds focus on erotic roleplay, often forming as bordellos/escort services (this is most often an example of a group existing in the game world).
Goals: PvP guilds seek to excel in PvP combat encounters (as opposed to PvP politics, which is usually roleplaying, or PvP economics, which is usually crafting/trade).
Behaviours: PvP guilds tend to focus most often on either gank squad or zerg tactics. In a gank squad, quality is key, and members need to be disciplined and careful, and as skilled/powerful as possible for greatest success. Gank squads roam the game world looking for targets, most often easy targets, to overwhelm. Some gank squads seek fair fights or even fights where they lack advantage, for greater challenge. Zergs are all about quantity, and seek to add as many players as possible to achieve simple numerical advantage.
Subtypes: PvP guilds can focus on PK, anti-PK, or warfare. PK or player-killer guilds seek to gank unsuspecting targets, and can be home to griefers. Anti-PK guilds seek to hunt down player-killers and protect their targets. Warfare guilds seek conflict with the opposing side in a side-vs-side game (e.g. WoW, DAoC, WAR); this might involve capturing battlefield objectives, city sieges, etc.
Well, based on a post by Syp, Ysharros has stirred up an interesting discussion on solo vs group play, and I have some extended thoughts on the subject. Rather than continually derailing the conversation there I thought I’d use this place to sort out some of my own thoughts.
A lot of people seem to dislike the thought of people soloing in online games. They think that playing solo is contrary to the idea of the genre, that it’s antisocial, that soloing is a form of leeching, and that it makes one a poor guild member. Let’s look at each of these ideas in turn.
“Playing solo in a multiplayer game is stupid. If you want to solo you should play a single-player game!” This is flawed reasoning on several levels. First and foremost, people choose to play the games they choose to play because, surprise, they find those games fun. If I wanted to play Oblivion, I’d play Oblivion. The fact that I choose to play EQ2 is suggestive that there are things about EQ2 that I like. Go figure. Telling me to “go play Oblivion” is tantamount to saying I don’t really know what I enjoy; I do. I don’t need anyone’s advice on which games to play. Second, there are a lot of activities in MMOs that aren’t found in single-player games. One of the biggest of these is crafting and trading, which can be a lot of fun for some players; the effectiveness of these systems is linked to the presence of other people though. Third, MMOs provide a lot more content and a stream of updates, which one doesn’t find in Oblivion; I can spend 20 or 25 hours and finish Oblivion, and that’s that. If I spend 25 hours in EQ2 I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg that is EQ2’s massive content. If I go away for a year and come back, Oblivion is the same as it was before; EQ2 has had updates, expansions, adventure packs, etc.
“Soloing in a multiplayer game is antisocial.” Not necessarily. First, it’s healthy to recognize that there are a lot of ways to be social. You can e.g. chat with friends on guild chat or send whispers, and that’s quite social. You can hang around public places and talk to people, which is also quite social, but doesn’t require you to be in a group. You can listen in to the various help channels and offer a steady stream of useful advice, which is again quite social. Or you can adventure with people in a group, which may or may not actually be social. After all, some people join groups then say nothing, don’t listen to what others say, and do their own thing. The mere fact that they joined a group doesn’t make them social, nor does the fact that someone else is ungrouped make them antisocial.
“Soloists are leeches.” This argument is surprisingly common for all that it’s completely unmerited. Allow me to present the examples of Al, Bill, and Charlie, who are members of the Koolguys Guild. Al and Bill like to solo, while Charlie is in groups all the time. Al spends his game time mostly doing his own thing. He likes to chat with the guild, make jokes, and catch up on everyone’s lives, but he mostly likes to explore the game and learn everything he can about it. Al is the guild’s go-to guy for lore questions, questions about difficult quests, etc. Al can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the game, and he loves to do so. Al isn’t benefitting from anyone else’s hard work. Al is not a leech. Bill, on the other hand, is a crafter and a trader. He makes high-end items which he gladly gives to guild members. Bill is quite wealthy and also is happy to give or lend money to guild members to help them out. Bill is not benefitting from anyone else’s hard work. Bill is not a leech. Now Charlie, on the other hand, spends all his time in groups. He likes to join groups, hit /follow, then go afk for extended periods. He uses his guild members, and PuGs as well, for his own ends, while contributing nothing of value. Charlie is benefitting from the hard work of others and is not contributing meaningfully. Charlie is a leech.
“Soloists make poor guild members.” I’ll grant that this one can be true if and only if the sole purpose for the guild’s existence is raiding, and there’s no other type of support one can give to the guild. I’ve never however seen a single game where this is the case; there’s ALWAYS something that soloists can contribute. Maybe they’re contributing money or status to the guild, maybe they’re crafting supplies needed by members, maybe they’re a good source of information, maybe they’re just, you know, nice people who are pleasant to chat with. All of these can provide value to a guild, even one that’s obsessed with raiding. If the number of spots in a guild is strictly limited and its main focus is raiding, then ok, I can understand why soloists would be less desirable than people who group a lot. If the number of spots isn’t strictly limited or if the guild is in any way casual, then these arguments fall apart, and soloists can meaningfully contribute.
So what is a soloist? It’s a person who spends more than half of their game time ungrouped. I might spend 49% of my time grouping, raiding, helping guild members on quests, and hitting dungeons in PuGs, but if I spend 51% of my time solo (while also chatting with guildies, supporting their efforts, making the guild atmosphere more fun, etc) then I’d consider myself a soloist. Soloists can and do group with others sometimes – that’s a major issue that seems to be forgotten or ignored by those who think games are about grouping, period. It’s rarely all-or-nothing… just like literally every player who self-identifies as a “group player” is sometimes ungrouped, so too people who prefer to solo might quite enjoy grouping sometimes.
I generally solo in online games. I enjoy RPing, crafting, trading, helping others, and occasionally raiding. I have good reasons to play MMOs (e.g. the activities above don’t exist in single-player games) but I also have good reasons to play them solo. I often go afk for extended periods, or even have to log out. I like exploring at my own pace. I like finding my own balance between activities and even between alts. Now, I do like working with others, but because I have good reasons to solo, I often solo despite enjoying the process of grouping. I am nonetheless a good guild member, hardly antisocial, not a leech, and I’m free to play games the way I want.
One of the fundamental mechanics for any game that has crafting is the acquisition of raw materials. Most MMOs have a fundamentally similar acquisition process, which requires the character to travel through the world until she finds a deposit of raw material, then use a gathering craft to acquire the material. E.g. a character might stumble across some ore sticking out of the ground, and then use a mining pick to extract some ore for crafting. Sometimes a tool is required to obtain the raw materials, and sometimes no tool is needed.
There’s always a fundamental element of unreality in this approach, in that over time metal and wood will spontaneously appear, sticking out of the ground; there’s very rarely much similarity to how these raw materials are acquired in real life. That’s of course due to the static nature of these game worlds; players can’t clear-cut forests or mine deeper underground because that requires the ability to change the world.
Though I favor dynamic worlds in most regards, and prefer closer simulation of real life activity in many regards, when it comes to gathering raw materials I rather prefer the less accurate but simpler and more fun approach being commonly taken now. If my character needs ore, I don’t really want to go down to a mine and dig out a mineshaft for hours at a time; it’s preferable by and large for me to just stumble upon raw materials in the course of doing other things.
I have mixed feelings about the necessity for gathering/crafting tools; some games, like LotRO, won’t allow you to collect or process raw materials unless you have the appropriate tool in your inventory. Thus you can’t mine without a pickaxe, can’t cut wood without an axe, etc. Other games like EQ2 are more forgiving in this regard; a player merely has to click on the source of raw materials to gather them, and no specialized tool is necessary. Tools can however provide a bonus to gathering speed, which I appreciate.
Though it bears no resemblance to reality as noted above, I liked the way raw material gathering worked in Age of Conan in one regard: raw material deposits had a visible amount of content, and you could tell before interacting with them roughly how much material you could extract therefrom. That’s a nice touch, and worked especially well with the trees, which would grow when they bore more wood, and shrink when harvested.
One thing I miss from LotRO is the raw materials consignments; a character could pay NPCs to gather raw materials for her, which I found very convenient indeed. I’d still run around and gather things myself, but I’d regularly send each of my alts to each of the consignment centers, to pay NPCs to collect hides, wood, ore, and scholarly materials for me. Depending on which crafting tier the components came from, the price and amount of time needed by the NPC would vary, obviously increasing with each tier.
Gathering raw materials is rarely much fun in and of itself. I think there’s potential for some minimal minigames, like in Free Realms, to spice up the mechanics of acquiring raw materials. I do think though that by and large it’s nice if the materials are easy to find (as they are in EQ2; AoC was terrible for this though) and the process of gathering is made convenient. Frequently crafting requires massive amounts of raw materials, and it can become pretty tedious to set out to acquire said amounts. If gathering is easy enough that characters tend to amass decent collections of materials in the course of normal gameplay, that facilitates and encourages crafting, which is a Good Thing on several levels.
What I’d Like to See:
- A huge, open world. This was one of the things EQ did best; there was so much to see and do that I was able to explore and seek new adventures almost continually. I think it’s desirable to add some fast travel options but not enough that it trivializes the distances and makes the world feel smaller. I think they’ve hit a good balance in EQ2 with the carpets, druid ports, and mage ports, plus the in-city teleporters. The huge world allows for a lot of small, hidden treasures… areas that you stumble across without planning to do so, that can provide a half hour to a few hours’ diversion each.
- Diverse languages. I’ve always appreciated the language systems in EQ, though neither iteration has been perfect yet. In EQ, you learned the basics of a language from somebody else who spoke it (good idea) then practiced it by listening to somebody speak in that language (poorly implemented – this led to people spamming macros to teach everyone in their group). In EQ2 you read a book and suddenly master the language. I accept that it’s difficult to create a granular approach to learning language, so it’s typically binary (you don’t speak it at all, then suddenly you speak it fluently). I think a combination of approaches is probably best, such that you learn a language from a PC or NPC, but it requires two or three sittings to master the language (time-restricted, maybe no less than an hour RL between sittings).
- City factions and betrayal. I like being able to earn the right to visit cities that don’t like my characters initially, and I love the ability to betray my existing city, make enemies of them, and change alignment.
- Guild leveling. This is a nifty idea, also implemented pretty well in LotRO.
- Healing out of group. I like to be able to heal anyone, anytime. The most effective and efficient heals can be group-only though.
- Gear that levels with you. This is a nice idea and makes characters feel more realistic; over time you learn to unlock more of the abilities of the magic items you have, rather than replacing literally everything every few levels. A balance should be found such that not every piece of equipment is upgradeable, so there’s still some turnover of equipment.
- Item decay and destruction. I like having items wear down with use, and to take it even further, I like the idea that on occasion an item can break completely, such that repair might not always be possible. This can lead to the need to occasionally replace gear that levels with you, and it’s a nice money sink. This works better in a game where gear isn’t emphasized too much, so players don’t freak out over losing an item they worked long and hard to obtain.
- An auction house with both supply and demand posting.
What I Wouldn’t Like to See:
- Trains. So. Much. Griefing. ‘Nuff said.
- Long rest periods between fights to regain health/mana. I don’t find it fun to sit around waiting for several minutes after a long drawn out fight. Let me get back into the action quickly; sitting around waiting isn’t a desirable part of gaming.
- Static spawns. The camping in EQ was tedious and downright horrid. If there’s a spawn needed for a quest, spawn it based on the presence of a PC on said quest. If the spawn starts a quest of its own or isn’t quest related, make the spawn’s location dynamic so it’s not in the same place every time.
- Forced grouping. Yecch. I appreciate the existence of content that’s designed for groups, but I also want content to scale from solo to a full group. I have no interest in playing a game that won’t allow me to meaningfully progress if I don’t feel like grouping / can’t find anyone to group with / have to go AFK a lot and thus am unsuitable for grouping on a given playsession.
- Buffing out of group. This leads to trivializing content and also to rude demands.
- Many difficult subcombines per crafting product. I don’t honestly want to spend half an hour of my time making one item unless that item is pretty epic (and required hours of material gathering).
- Crafting a lot of worthless items to level up crafting. I prefer to make fewer items instead of grinding out dozens or hundreds of bits and pieces.