Archive for December, 2009


Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

SOE’s EverQuest2 is an MMO that takes its name seriously. Very seriously. In fact, InfiniteQuest might be a better name for this game.

The original EverQuest is one of the few MMOs that I have not yet played. When it launched in 1999, the memory of my unpleasant experience with Meridian 59 was still fresh. As friends began to exhort the game’s virtues (it surprised me how fast the term “EverCrack” sprang up), my immediate reaction was, “Oh, hell no!” I imagined battles with my modem that would exceed any in-game combat. I was content to continue enjoying my single player games, where I could be blissfully ignorant of concepts like ‘ping’ and ‘latency’.

Fast-forward 10 years where I’ve played almost every popular MMO in existence except EverQuest and it’s younger sister, EverQuest2. A free trial offer and a download later found me rolling up a Human Swashbuckler and venturing forth into Qeynos.

I was initially beguiled. The extensive use of voice actors lends a unique sense of charm to the game. I found the player community to be mature and friendly, as I was quickly adopted by a helpful guild that was willing to show me the ropes. I completed all the missions in the beginner area and eagerly headed to the mainland.

Here’s where I should mention that there are two different types of people in the world: Those who like lots of options and those who don’t. I fall squarely into the second category. I’ve been known to walk out of restaurants that had too many items on their menu. Give me too many choices and my brain will seize up like an old engine with a bad oil pump.

The EQ2 designers seem to subscribe to the philosophy that more is always better. By the time my character reached level 20 she had a quest journal that resembled the classified ads, four rows of quick bars containing skills I had no idea how to use, and an inventory full of items with dubious levels of importance. In a word, I was OVERWHELMED.

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, I had the opportunity to talk at length with one of the game’s original quest writers. Apparently EQ2’s ‘kitchen sink” approach stemmed, in part, from their lack of understanding of player behavior. They created the content with the expectation that players would pick and choose which quests they wanted to do. They never anticipated that we would attempt to pick up every quest in a given area until our journals were overflowing.

It’s unfortunate that EQ2 lost me in its sea of options and endless possibilities. The game had a lot to offer. But that, in itself, was the problem.

* Desert Bus is a game that involves nothing but driving a bus from Tucson, AZ to Las Vegas, NV – in real time. It is very, VERY boring.

The Shortest Distance

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

If you’ve ever lived in Chicago as I have, you know that the mass transportation in that city can be a bit…challenging. There’s the CTA “L” line, or elevated train, which gets you around downtown Chicago. There’s the Metra train, which goes out to the suburbs. And I think there’s another CTA rail line that takes you to the airports. I have to confess that during the 7 years that I lived in the area, I never did quite get the whole system figured out. The point is that sometimes getting where you need to go can be expensive, confusing and tedious.

So why do game designers feel the need to make transportation in their virtual worlds expensive, confusing and tedious? Don’t we get enough of that in real life?

My first dedicated MMO experience was Dark Age of Camelot. Perhaps things have changed since I last played the game over 5 years ago, but back then getting around in Albion, Hibernia or Midgard was a giant PITA! Yes, there were teleporters in the major hub areas, and your character could eventually purchase a mount. But the majority of the game was spent taking the public transportation, which consisted of watching your character riding a horse. For a very…long….time. Some of the longer horse routes make the flight times in World of Warcraft look like a jog around the block. It was tedious, boring and unnecessary. How much fun can you really derive from looking at the back of a horse’s butt for 20 minutes?

Speaking of horse’s butts, let’s talk about the transportation options in World of Warcraft. Here’s a quiz for you: You’re a level 60 human warrior standing in the middle of Gadgetzan. You own conventional and flying mounts, but you’ve recently used your hearthstone, so you can’t teleport to your bind point for another 30 minutes. You need to get to Zangarmarsh on the Outland continent. Quick! How do you get there? And how long will it take you?

The recently released children’s MMO, Free Realms takes a refreshing approach to game travel: Open your map, click on where you want to go, and *poof* you’re there. Want to meet up with friends in the game? Click on their name, select “teleport” and you’re instantly standing next to them. It couldn’t be easier, and it makes the game a lot more enjoyable. You can still be pedestrian and explore the world on foot to your heart’s content. But you’re not forced to do so.

Which makes me wonder, why don’t all MMOs make transportation this easy? Sony realized when they were creating Free Realms that they needed to make “getting to the fun” as simple as possible, or kids would quickly lose interest. But developers seem to think that we adults ENJOY tedium, or at least they believe that we’re willing to tolerate it. Sure, it’s fun to explore. But at what point does ‘exploration’ become an imposed potty break?

Banned: The Update

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

In my last post I discussed my recent experience of getting my Lord of the Rings Online account banned.

(For the record, although the email I received called it a “temporary suspension”, my Turbine billing account listed the game as “banned” until the year 2037.)

Four days after the initial notice, I received a second email from Turbine’s In-Game Support, stating that my account “…was identified as being compromised as it accessed our game from an IP address directly associated with gold farming, selling, powerleveling, and account hacking activities. Other accounts in addition to yours were compromised, and as soon as we identified this we suspended the affected accounts so that they could not be further abused.” Scary stuff! At the end of the email I was instructed to contact them again as soon as I had changed the password on my master Turbine account.

The following day I received a third email indicating that my LotRO account had been reinstated. Anxiously I logged into the game, half expecting to find my minstrel naked and penniless. Or worse – deleted.

Instead, I found nothing.

Nothing was missing. No gold or items had been taken. None of my characters had been touched.

Which leaves me mightily relieved and perplexed – all at the same time. I was grateful for the fact that resolution occurred in 5 days, not 2 weeks. Although I found the 2 week estimation to be excessive, and the lack of payment suspension to be annoying, it wasn’t the time or the money that truly bothered me. It was the lack of transparency.

Turbine originally claimed that they had reason to believe that my computer had been compromised, but they weren’t giving me the information I needed to take appropriate action. It’s rather unsettling to think that your computer may have been hacked, or that it contained a virus that managed to elude your best cyber defenses. I STILL don’t know what they saw in my account that caused them to take such drastic measures. Perhaps I was accidentally caught up in some type of preemptive anti-hacking initiative? Maybe it was a simple case of mistaken identity?

Or maybe Middle Earth now has ninjas?

Does Middle Earth Have An Unemployment Office?

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Well, it’s official. The US economic recession has now hit Middle Earth. My level 45 minstrel in Lord of the Rings Online has lost her job.

Earlier this week I received an email, supposedly from Turbine, stating in part the following:

Your account has been identified as potentially being accessed by a third-party. Turbine has temporarily suspended your account to prevent any further access to your account. Please note that this does not indicate in any way that Turbine has been compromised; in most cases this indicates a security issue on the computer used to play the Lord of the Rings Online. IMPORTANT: Please understand that this suspension is not a punishment, but a way to prevent further access to your account.

Being the natural online skeptic that I am, I initially assumed that the email was a phishing scam and considered deleting it. Unfortunately, a quick check of my LotRO billing account indicated that my account had indeed been banned – until the year 2037, no less. (I guess Turbine feels optimistic about the longevity of their game!)

The email went on to request that I run a full virus scan on my computer and then contact their online customer support to get my account re-instated. After completing the online support ticket I was given a friendly message stating that it would be at least 2 weeks before I received a response from my request.


This entire episode has me completely baffled. A deep scan of my computer via Avast Antivirus produced NO viruses. None. Since I have a dedicated gaming computer, I don’t browse the web or even have an email program installed on it. I’m behind an encrypted router. No other games on this computer have been affected, including Turbine’s other online game – Dungeons & Dragons Online – for which I have an active subscription. A simple dictionary attack of my username/password information seems unlikely, since I would think that Turbine would limit the number of login attempts.

So what happened?

Conveniently enough, although Turbine has banned me from playing LoTRO until I reach the age of 70, they neglected to suspend my automatic payments. I guess it’s ok for me pay for a service I can’t use while their customer service department tries to figure out whether or not I’m worthy of re-instating. Imagine if your cable TV company contacted you stating that they think your next door neighbor is leeching your cable signal. As a precaution, they’re turning off your cable TV service for the next few weeks, but they’re going to continue to bill you for it until they get the issue resolved.

ARGH! If any of you have experienced something similar to this, I’d love to hear your stories. Meanwhile, anyone need an unemployed minstrel?

Where Do Baby NPCs Come From?

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Half-orcs are a well-known adversary in Lord of the Rings Online. They can be found in camps throughout the Lone-Lands, lying in tents, relaxing near campfires, or patrolling abandoned ruins. They are a continual menace to the human residents of the area and your character will spend a lot of time killing half-orcs.

Killing MALE half-orcs.

Because, you see, female half-orcs don’t exist. Ever. At least, they don’t exist in the online world that Turbine has created. Which leads me to wonder just HOW the half-orcs got there in the first place. Asexual reproduction, perhaps? Admittedly, I’m not intimately familiar with Tolkien lore. Maybe there is an explanation somewhere for why no female half-orcs can be found. But I suspect that it has more to do with developer oversight than with adherence to Middle Earth’s rules on orc family dynamics.

Gil in World of Warcraft

Gil in World of Warcraft

Over the years I’ve noticed a distinct lack of family or children represented in many online games. Most often NPCs stand around patiently waiting to dole out quests to passing players, with no mention of family, spouse or even a girlfriend. Sure, you get the occasional ‘hook-up’ quest, where one NPC wants the player’s help in getting the romantic attentions of another NPC. Or you get the ‘rescue my son/daughter’ quests. But the daughter/son in question is always inevitably an adult, never a child.

Another Turbine game, Dungeons & Dragons Online even has the sounds of children playing as part of the ambient background noise for the Marketplace area of Stormreach. I always found this to be particularly unsettling because there’s not a child to be found in the game – anywhere. I asked a former Turbine employee about this. Not only had he never noticed the lack of children in either game, but he could give no explanation for their absence. He guessed that it was a matter of economics; Turbine didn’t want to spend the resources on having the art department create child character models.

There are only two MMOs I’ve played that depict children – World of Warcraft and Dark Age of Camelot. Granted, the children in WoW look a little odd with gigantic feet. But nevertheless, they are honest-to-goodness children and can be found in several places throughout the game world. DAoC’s attempt at creating children consisted of shrinking the adult character models down to midget size, which looked a little creepy. But I give them points for trying.

Although I am not a parent myself, I’ve always found the lack of children in an online world to be off-putting and a bit immersion-breaking. After all, any population, be it human or otherwise, is going to have a hard time sustaining itself if it can’t reproduce. How can all of these adult NPC quest-givers exist if there are no families? Why are children – be they orc or otherwise – omitted from online worlds? Simple oversight? Budget constraints? Or something else entirely?

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Or, at least, that’s what the mysterious collective known as ‘they’ often say. If what ‘they’ say is true, then the MMO industry is absolutely overflowing with approbation.

Alganon is a new MMO fresh off the presses that takes its WoW-cloning very seriously. From the moment you enter the character creation screen, your sense of promnesia is so palatable that the game might as well be a sheep named Dolly. The art style. The combat. The emotes. Algonon doesn’t even try to pretend that it’s anything other than a World of Warcraft knock-off.

Of course, trying to be just like WoW is certainly nothing new. Korean MMOs have made an industry out of it (i.e. Runes of Magic). But Alganon isn’t an Asian import; it was created by Arizona-based developer Quest Online. And what makes Alganon unique in its, uh, sameness, is the fact that it’s a remarkably well done clone. I have to admit that in the short time I played Alganon during beta, its familiarity was almost comforting. Sure, it was a bland comfort, like a bowl of oatmeal. But I’ve certainly played much worse.

Which left me wondering, why? If you’ve got the talent, skill and budget that Quest Online obviously has to make a superb WoW copy, why not use those resources to create something wholly new and original? Was it a shrewd business decision? Do they think that players aren’t ready to accept a radically different MMO? Is the MMO market so competitive that it’s too risky to veer too far from the accepted standard?

What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? Will we ever find our way out of Azeroth?