Archive for the ‘Genres & Themes’ Category

Sisyphean Silliness

Thursday, November 1st, 2012
Sisyphean Silliness

I appreciate the fact that with its modern-day setting and a decidedly non-linear character progression system (that lacks classes or levels) The Secret World tries hard to be different from traditional fantasy-based MMO’s. Instead of a skill tree, this game has a skill wheel, with enough possible combinations to require a calculator and a tolerance for enumerative combinatorics. Tired of question mark-bedazzled NPCs who misplace their weapons or have strange fetishes for animal organs? TSW has seven different mission types, most of which include a convoluted back story that resembles an episode of Twin Peaks. If you’ve ever had the desire to kill mobs with a katana in one hand, an assault rifle in the other, and a rocket launcher strapped to your back – while simultaneously wearing bunny slippers – this game’s got you covered.

Unfortunately, for all of its innovation and creative design concepts, TSW has some baffling, and at times game-breaking shortcomings.

The problem starts with the skill wheel. Each time the player completes a mission or objective, they are awarded skill points that can be used to purchase abilities on this wheel. There are nine different main weapon types to choose from, and each weapon has a total of 56 various abilities. Funcom has since implemented “decks” that give players recommended combinations of weapon abilities, but even with these decks as a guideline, selecting a skill combination that is ineffective or incompatible with your play style, is far easier than it should be.

The first time I played the game during beta, I didn’t even realize that I was expected to select two separate weapons. Being the minimalist that I am, I chose Blood Magic as my sole ability with the assumption that putting all my skill points into one method of combat would make me a Badass Blood Magician® (or BBM, for short). The game gave me no indication that this was a less than optimal choice until I had already spent several dozen skill points and come to the unfortunate realization that I was less BBM and more ZPB (Zombie Punching Bag). In a game that allows for some type of point reset, this would have been little more than a minor annoyance, but for whatever reason Funcom believes in the “No refunds, no exchanges” form of character development. The only way to improve your character’s combat performance is to keep playing, accumulate more points, and hope that you spend them more wisely going forward.

When the game went live and the skill decks were implemented, I choose a Blood Magic/Assault Rifle combination. The description for this deck suggested that it allowed for ranged combat and healing abilities that I thought would compliment my husband’s tank/fighter character. Since it requires a considerable amount of points (and therefore, play time) to acquire all of the skills to make a deck, I still spent a portion of the game floundering around with mismatched and ineffective low-level skill combinations. This problem was mitigated by the fact that I never played the game alone – I was always grouped with my husband. I can only imagine how difficult and frustrating it may be for players who attempt to go solo, particularly at the lower levels.

What does all of this have to do with the comic? Well, earlier I mentioned that TSW has seven different mission types. Specifically, they are story, action, item, investigation, sabotage, group/dungeon, and PvP. Initially I embraced this variation in quest mechanics. If I’m in a Sherlock Holmes mood, I take an investigation mission. Item missions allow me to be lazy with a simple FedEx objective that usually has the added bonus of connecting to the main story arc in some manner. If I tire of killing mobs, I can switch to a Sabotage mission that requires stealthy game play and an intentional avoidance of combat.

More options should mean more fun for a greater variety of players. Which it is…except when Funcom inexplicably decides to put these various missions inside a solo-only instance area. Then suddenly the game turns into a Do-It-Again-Stupid (DIAS) grindfest of frustrating proportions.

The problems with these solo-only missions seem to fall into two categories: Either the combat requires a type of skill that, up to this point, the player has never equipped or used. Or, in the case of the sabotage missions, the player is not given a clear understanding of the requirements and limitations of the game’s mechanics, which leads to an unreasonable amount of trial and error.

For the former, I would often find my character’s healing and ranged combat abilities to be completely inadequate against the mission’s melee-centric mob boss. This meant many repeat trips through the instance until I had mastered a entirely new set of combat abilities that, up to this point, I had had no reason to use. For sabotage missions, the DIAS factor was so high that the instance became a joke-worthy revolving door. Security cameras that seemed to see through walls. Mobs with questionable x-ray vision. I could spend an hour (or more), carefully sneaking through a warehouse or underground lair, only to be seen by a mob ON THE OTHER SIDE OF A WALL and dragged back to the entrance of the instance to start all over again.

I sincerely applaud Funcom for attempting to do something different, and I understand how incredibly difficult world and puzzle design within an MMO can be. Having played Age of Conan, Funcom’s other (notorious) big budget MMO, I wonder if the mindset of the studio’s developers is one that conflates challenge with difficulty? If so, someone needs to explain to them that frustrating a player is not the same as challenging them.

One is enjoyable. The other leads to cancelled subscriptions.

Faerie Boots

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Now that I’m no longer working for an MMO developer, I once again have time to play MMOs. Currently in my ever-revolving playlist is a new online game called RIFT.

RIFT plays like an updated version of Warhammer Online and looks like a dirtier version of Guild Wars. Its claim to fame are the titular rifts; temporary inter-planar doorways from which routine invasions occur. In terms of game play, these rifts act as spontaneous public quests. If you’re in an area when a rift opens, associated quest objectives instantly appear in your tracker and the system automatically creates a group or raid, which you are prompted to join. Although these rift events are supposed to be spontaneous, my sense was that the system times them at regular intervals, or they are based upon the player population within a given area. The game tries hard to keep you engaged by constantly bombarding you with rifts, enemy invasions and wandering high level mobs, to the point that it can become chaotic and overwhelming to an old geezer like me.

RIFT's fae character

"These boots are made for... dancing?"

Although RIFT has the standard Cleric, Mage, Warrior and Rogue classes, each class has a set of eight different “souls” from which you can choose a combination of three that forms a “role”. These souls act as class specializations, with each having a unique set of abilities that you gain over time as you level. Supposedly you can mix the souls in any way you choose, but I found that if you didn’t follow the game’s recommended combinations you would end up with a rather goofy (and gimped) character concept. My Rogue soul mixture of Bard, Assassin, and Bladedancer resulted in a character that could turn invisible, sneak up behind a monster and scare it to death by playing the mandolin – LOUDLY. Hilarious as it was, it wasn’t a very effective strategy.

The Druid, a soul choice for the Cleric class, has three Fae companion characters from which to choose. I find the art design for one of these fae companions to be a bit unsettling. It is my sincere hope that this creature is not intended to resemble a prepubescent female child. With its exposed cleavage and derriere, it would be wandering disturbingly close to pedobear territory. Barring this extremely unseemly choice leaves the possibility that this character is meant to resemble an adult female dwarf. In fuzzy knee-high boots and polka-dot underwear? Eh, ok.

I would have found it far more interesting if the artists at Trion Worlds had designed a MALE fae creature – with or without polka-dot undies. But in our deeply homophobic American culture, I’m sure a half-naked male faerie would have garnered the game a harsher ESRB rating. Because we all know that in fantasy, only females have breasts, abdomen and behinds that are impervious to arrows and swords.

World of Red Dead

Monday, June 21st, 2010

When I began this blog last year, I was essentially unemployed. With plenty of spare time on my hands, my MMO addiction could blossom unfettered by pesky time constraints.

Fast-forward two new jobs and eight months later, where I now find myself perpetually sleep-deprived and temporally challenged. I was recently hired by a local game developer to work on an MMO that has something to do with light sabers and Jedi. Or, at least, that’s what they tell me. I’m too busy writing acceptance criteria for hydra events to know for sure – which isn’t nearly as sexy as it sounds.

I’ve quickly discovered that working for an MMO developer is a bit like becoming a prostitute: What was once your hobby is now your job. It’s still enjoyable, but you’re doing it for completely different reasons. Sure, I still play occasionally, but my enthusiasm for playing/mocking (plocking?) the more esoteric games has sadly diminished. I will continue to write to this blog when time allows, but it will be sporadic. My apologies, dear reader.

I know I’ve discussed the topic before, so I’ll try to refrain from abusing a deceased equine. But how can a gal control herself when she gets email invitations to games like this. Oh, look – I’m a big-boobed, half-dressed little girl in some generic approximation of ancient China. Yawn. I suppose I should have known better, since Kingdom Heroes was created by the same people who brought us this mess. But US game developers seem equally unwilling to stray too far from the high-fantasy WoW formula. Former baseball star Curt Schilling is even getting into the MMO business with his project Copernicus, but with a description that includes “…truly evolving fantasy world that is both warmly familiar and intriguingly unique.” I doubt the game will be about alien space marines.

Recently I had the opportunity to play Red Dead Redemption on my friend’s XBox. Despite the fact that my skills with any console controller rivals that of a blind quadriplegic, I had a lot of fun. Which got me to thinking: Why doesn’t anyone develop a Wild West-themed MMO? There is a lot of untapped potential in that particular genre. If it worked for Rockstar Games in a single-player game, why not massive multiplayer? Who wouldn’t want to shoot cows and herd bank robbers? Instigate a saloon fight, or an ambush a wagon train? Think of the possibilities!

I want to be Annie Oakley, dammit. Not another night elf.

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?

Life Is Just A Fantasy

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Let’s face it – the fantasy genre in MMO’s has been done to death. No matter how stunning the graphics or how challenging the combat, inevitably you will find yourself lobbing fireballs at some ugly, and frequently quadrupedal, monster. Sure there are anomalies like Star Trek Online or City of Heroes. But overall, the total number of non-fantasy based MMO’s is pretty small.

For this reason, when Sword of the New World first released in the US back in 2007, I happily ignored my usual rabid skepticism and installed the game.

Based on the Baroque period of Europe during the colonization of the Americas, Sword of the New World: Granado Espada (did the developers expect to make sequels, or were they trying to meet their vowel quota?) promised a new experience for players, with a unique setting and the ability to control multiple characters at one time. The game even won the 2006 Korean awards for Best Graphics and Game of the Year.

From the game’s description I envisioned characters in powdered wigs engaging in fierce sword battles. Mozart-inspired background music. And quests involving the illegal export of rum or cotton. Although I wasn’t expecting absolute historical accuracy, I was hoping that the game would maintain the overall spirit of the time period.

Of course, the game’s developers took my expectations, stomped all over them and threw them out the window with my hoop skirt.

I could forgive the bad localization; I realize that good translators can be expensive. I can also forgive the fact that the “award-winning” graphics are the usual androgynous male avatars in silk stockings and female avatars with impossibly small bodies and large breasts. But what I can’t forgive is the complete lack of imagination in the quest story lines and monster design. A scantily-clad “girl” who lost her backpack in the woods? Giant technicolor chicken things? This is supposed to be an alternative to the standard fantasy genre?

Now, before I start getting hate mail from fanboys…errr…fanpeople in Korea, let me state unequivocally that I bear no MMO prejudice. If the nice folks in Liechtenstein were cranking out sub par MMOs in the same way that Korea does, my critique would be no less harsh.

At the heart of my ire is the fact that game developers, be they Korean or otherwise, are unwilling or unable to conceive of an MMO outside of the fantasy box. Instead, they just keep cranking out the same old tired tropes, over and over again, with different window dressings. There are so many other potential settings for MMO’s: The Wild West, ancient Egypt, feudal Japan, vampire hunters, secret agent spies. The possibilities are endless. Developers need to stretch outside of the accepted paradigm, and players need to be willing to embrace true innovation.

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?

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Warm Milk

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Pirates of the Burning Sea is a game for which I have some very conflicting emotions. I’ve always been a fan of the pirate genre. I even had pictures of Errol Flynn hanging in my bedroom when I was a kid, and I read every book about historical pirates that I could get my hands on.

Unfortunately, Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) doesn’t exactly live up to my expectations of what an online pirate game should entail. Don’t get me wrong – the game’s environments are gorgeous, the writing is superb, and there is a lot of fun to be had. But the actual game play is painfully repetitive. The majority of the game is spent in ship-to-ship combat, which may be a lot of fun when you’re doing open sea PvP port battles with other players, but when completing the game’s PvE missions it gets dull quick.

One unique feature in PotBS is “User Content”. Players can create flag, sail, and even ship designs, that if approved, can be used in the game. When the game first launched, the approval process for the sail and flag designs was rather haphazard. Players would upload their designs to the PotBS website where other players could vote on it. If your design received enough votes, you were allowed to use it in the game. This resulted in a lot of goofy designs that were more than a little anachronistic. Eventually, a “Steering Committee” was created to review all of the player content before it was allowed to be used. At the same time, a lot of previously accepted player content was rejected. This leads to my rather sad mermaid tale.





When the game launched, I created what I thought was a tasteful, attractive and period-appropriate sail design of a mermaid (See ‘Before’ image.) My design was quickly approved and I was happily sailing the high seas in my pink Bermuda Sloop and mermaid-patterned sails. After a few months I quit playing the game and did not return for almost a year. Upon my return I discovered that my character had been moved to another server and my mermaid sail design was nowhere to be found.

Thinking that it was a simple error caused by the server move, I resubmitted my sail design. Which was promptly REJECTED! Flabbergasted, I sent a message to the Steering Committee, asking for an explanation. I was politely told that my design had been rejected because the ‘breasts’ on my mermaid were too ‘vague’. I would need to put a pattern on the design to indicate that my mermaid was wearing a bra, or remove the ‘vaguely breast-like circles’ completely.

WTF? My poor mermaid was deemed ‘offensive’ because her breasts were too ‘vague’?

In a fit of indignation I removed the ‘breast circles’ from the design completely and resubmitted it. My ‘breast-less’ mermaid was approved (See ‘After’ image.), but I lost a lot of respect for the folks at Flying Lab Software as a result of this incident.

I realize that the developers must comply with the ESRB’s standards, which are probably a bit arbitrary at times. But PotBS is not marketing itself as a children’s game. And the game is about PIRATES for cryin’ out loud! How can shooting, stabbing, burning and pillaging be OK, but round ‘breast-like’ circles on a mermaid flag design be considered ‘offensive’? How can we have such a pronounced contradiction in our culture, where violence is more acceptable than anything remotely resembling the naked human body?

I bet Edward Teach would have been amused.

Viewer Discretion NOT Advised

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

What do you think of when a game bills itself as “…a terrifying new horror MMORPG”? Maybe Gothic images of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos come to mind? Or perhaps something more modern, à la Clive Barker or Stephen King? I’m guessing that the first thing that comes to mind is NOT Korean peasants and cherry Kool-Aid.

Requiem: Memento Mori is a massively multiplayer online game for mature audiences that will immerse you into a dark world of bloodshed devastated by generations of scientific and magical abuse. Requiem Online offers a refreshingly new approach to the MMOPRG genre with its grim, dark atmosphere and tense, blood splattering action.

Sounds interesting, right? And it might be if it was actually true.

I think that both the horror and adult genres have a place in gaming, and have a great deal of untapped potential if done correctly. But if you’re going to advertise your game as being “adult” and “horror”, why not actually explore adult themes in an intelligent and thought-provoking way? And no, I’m not referring specifically to sexual content or nudity, either. Putting boobs in your game may garner you a ‘mature’ rating from the ESRB, but it doesn’t make up for poor writing or ill-conceived game play.

Requiem: Memento Mori (Where do people come up with these goofy names? Requiem: Memento Mori literally means “a piece of funeral music reminding you that you will die”.) thinks that throwing copious amounts of monster body parts at you covered in what looks like cherry Kool-Aid will somehow scare you. It doesn’t. They also think that making their female avatars half-naked is what passes for ‘adult’. It’s not.

Requiem is certainly not the worst MMO I’ve ever played – the interface is passable, the game mechanics are your standard MMO grind. But there is absolutely nothing “refreshing” or “new” about it. One of the very first quests in the game has you playing match-maker between two of the town’s NPCs. Yeah, scary stuff. And although the art direction for the game is somewhat unique, it’s not what I would consider pretty (and it often belies its Asian MMO roots).

Sadly, the most frightening thing about this game is all of its unrealized potential. EEKS!