Archive for May, 2010

Excuse Me, Is That A Poleaxe In Your Back?

Monday, May 24th, 2010

I’m often asked by friends to give my thoughts and recommendations on various MMOs. Usually this isn’t too difficult. Having played so many different online games over the years, it’s easy for me to assess a game’s strengths and weaknesses. What I find more difficult to quantify is the game that has all the right elements, but somehow loses its appeal over time. This is often caused by something that should be completely inconsequential. I call this phenomenon the Niggling Pixel Effect.

Are you naturally blond?
Does your eyebrows EXACTLY match your hair?

I originally wrote about Alganon back in December. Although the developers have since revamped the UI and some of the other art assets to make it look less like a WoW clone, the overall game play remains pretty standard MMO fantasy fare. Which, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Aside from the usual glitches and bugs that plague every new MMO, it is a solid, palatable game.

Since Alganon is free-to-play after its initial purchase, I’ve spent the past 6 months leveling up a cleric. At first I found the game to be a pleasant, snack-like diversion, similar to that bag of Doritos you grab from the vending machine in the middle of the afternoon. It’s the type of game you play when you can’t (or don’t want) to pay for a subscription to the full course meal of a ‘real’ MMO. But as I progressed through the first ten levels, I found that my desire to play the game was steadily decreasing. It was then that I realized that I was suffering from the Niggling Pixel Effect.

First it was my avatar’s face. Apparently designing attractive human faces in video games is no easy feat, because ugly avatars are everywhere in the land of MMOs. Since you spend the majority of your time looking at the back of your avatar, an ugly face can sometimes be ignored. But over time I found myself groaning every time I logged into the game and saw my avatar’s ugly mug staring back at me.

Nothing says 'medieval fantasy' like brown latex pants and sneakers.

Next came my character’s clothing. I realize that it’s standard procedure in fantasy games for your character to begin her journey in rags and eventually become the MMO equivalent of Liberace. But I found the clothing in Alganon to be not only unattractive, but anachronistically distracting. The setting of the game is supposed to be psuedo-medieval, yet my character is wearing a brown latex wetsuit? Strike two.

Finally, there was the poleaxe. Initially my character’s weapon was Velcro’ed across her back in the usual video game fashion. But after a particular patch was installed, my character suddenly found her poleaxe buried into the middle of her back. If this is a glitch, the developers have not been in a hurry to fix it. She’s looked this way for months. Strike three – you’re out.

These are all relatively minor issues that other players may be able to overlook. But the Niggling Pixel Effect is different for each player, and the ugly faced, wetsuit-wearing, inappropriately-placed poleaxe carrying avatar became unplayable for me.

What is your Niggling Pixel?

Muzak To My Ears

Monday, May 10th, 2010

I’m guessing that the majority of MMO players don’t pay much attention to in-game music. You either ignore it, mute it, or have other sounds playing in the background. But sound design can be immensely important to the overall media experience. Imagine the movie Conan the Barbarian with cheesy 1980’s synthesized tunes instead of Basil Poledouris’ majestic score. In my opinion, the music made that movie the cinematic icon that it is.

Music within a game should invoke a certain tone or feeling that coincides with the overall theme of a particular area. If an MMO contains a race of people that are known to be war-like, militaristic and ruthless, the sound design for that area should be complimentary – with heavy drum beats and a steady, marching rhythm. Or at the very least, a piece of music that suggests a sense of foreboding or dread.

So what were the developers of Allods Online thinking when they used this [.mp3 file] as the looping background music for the capital city of their EVIL empire?

Go ahead, listen to the entire thing. I dare you.

Allods, like many MMOs of similar ilk, has two waring factions: the ‘good guys’ of the League, and the ‘bad guys’ that make up the Empire. The races of the League include humans, elves (with fairy wings, no less) and teddy-bear looking creatures called Gibberlings. Although not up to the standards of video game composers like Jeremy Soule, this area of the game contains light, airy music that is appropriate – if not a bit forgettable – with oboes, strings and flutes.

Conversely, the races of the Empire consists of humans, an undead variant called the Arisen, and Orcs. Their capital city, Nezebgrad, belies the developer’s Russian roots: Stalin-esque statues are everywhere, and the overall art design suggests a steampunk Moscow. While I applaud the developer’s attempt to break from the standard fantasy genre, their efforts are completely ruined by their bizarrely chosen background music.

According to the website, Astrum Nival spent over 4 years and $12 million dollars creating Allods Online. For a free-to-play MMO, it does have above-average production values. Which makes this choice of sound design that much more inexplicable. Maybe the lead sound designer was the CEO’s brother-in-law?

Good Grief

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Like many fans of World of Warcraft, back in 2006 after the Burning Crusades expansion had been released, I created a Draenei character to experience the new content designed for this race. At the time I had been playing WoW for only a couple of months, so I was still relatively new to the game.

As I adventured my way through the Draenei starter area, I came to a small village called Azure Watch, which was home to several quest-giving NPCs. When playing any MMO I prefer to complete as many quests as possible en masse, as this saves on the tedium of running back and forth; kill the 10 boars, collect the 6 wildflowers, find the murlock with the umbrella, kill 10 more boars, give the pipe wrench to the owlkin, then return to the village for my rewards.

During one of my return trips in which I had at least a half a dozen quests to turn in, I was met by an entire village of dead NPCs – and one Orc Warrior with a lot of blood on his blade. Helplessly I stood there and watched as he killed every NPC in the village, then waited until they respawned just to kill them again. Unaware that killing quest-givers is permissible in the game, I spent several minutes being completely, utterly confused.

And what does a new player do when she is confused and needs help? Contact customer support, of course!

To Blizzard’s credit, my support ticket was answered very quickly. Certain that the orc player was somehow cheating by killing the NPCs, thus preventing me from completing my quests, I was more than a little surprised by the customer service representative’s response:

I’m sorry, but GMs are not allowed to interfere with this type of player behavior.

This type of player behavior? He’s killing every NPC in sight! I can’t complete any of my quests.

It’s Blizzard policy that players have to police each other in these situations.

But I’m level 5! I can’t do anything!

We recommend that you ask for help from your guild, or solicit for help in the general chat channel.

You can’t stop them?

Sorry. It’s against game policy. Is there anything else I can help you with today?

Realizing that the situation was hopeless, I thanked the GM and logged out of the game. At the time, I wasn’t a member of a guild, and being so late at night I doubted than anyone would respond to my pleas for help in chat.

This entire episode led me to wonder just why Blizzard allows this type of player griefing. Do they think this encourages community interaction and cooperation? Is this somehow an adjunct to the PvP portion of the game? And are they completely unaware of how off-putting and alienating this is to new players?

I have since asked members of my guild (Pig & Whistle Society) their thoughts on this issue. Although many agreed with me that it’s a form of player griefing that shouldn’t be allowed, one member stated that he approved of the killing. In his words, it would “break immersion” if there were NPCs that were immortal.

I guess having players stand around for 10 minutes waiting for the NPCs to respawn is not immersion-breaking? Why not just have the NPCs kill each other off?

By their twin brothers.

Who wear pink dresses.

(Yes, I know it’s absurd. That’s the point.)