Faerie Boots

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

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.

Excuse Me, Is That A Poleaxe In Your Back?

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

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

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.)

Ain’t Misbehavin’

April 23rd, 2010

The other day I was playing Allods Online. I had a quest to kill a mob that required a group. Not wanting to wait in what could have been a very long respawn conga line, I formed a raid to facilitate the process.

The terrain of the area had a small but steep hill where players could stand on top and hit the mob with ranged attacks. Since the mob could not path to them, it would automatically reset. Players quickly recognized this exploit and used it to grief others. Soon the situation devolved into a profanity-laced 3-ring circus, with the griefers taunting the raid members, the raid members yelling epithets at the griefers, and the mob yo-yo-ing between the two. All of this in an effort to get credit for completing an incredibly ill-conceived quest.

Oh, did I mention that I was level 5 and this took place in the beginner area?

But this post isn’t about the game’s questionable design choices. Goodness knows I could rant about that for paragraphs. This is about the behavior of the players.

I felt as if I was wrangling a bunch of 6th graders on a playground as I tried to cajole and placate everyone involved. Based upon the amount of verbal abuse and general lack of emotional maturity exhibited, I wondered afterward if perhaps I was dealing with kids. And it got me to thinking about why bad behavior is so prevalent online.

Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade attempted to explain this phenomenon with his Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Although the online disinhibition effect does account for much of it, I think there is also a generational component.

We have all kinds of social constraints in place to facilitate co-existence. We learn at an early age the consequences of stealing someone’s lunch money or lying about our homework. But our rules of etiquette haven’t caught up to our technology, which has resulted in a technological generation gap. Parents may be concerned about their children being exposed to objectionable material online, but they fail to realize that controlling their child’s own objectionable behavior is equally important. I doubt that many parents have the time or inclination to closely monitor how their children interact with others online. Many probably aren’t even aware of the significance of establishing some form of online etiquette.

It’s unlikely that a child will be traumatized by seeing a pixelated ass cheek. Bullying and name-calling is far more damaging, especially when it’s done anonymously. Until we create consequences for bad online behavior, or remove anonymity completely (which I am in favor of doing), 12 year-olds will be typing “gaywad” and “STFU” without any recognition or concern for the harm they’re causing.

Life Is Just A Fantasy

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.

Move Along, Nothing To See Here.

April 4th, 2010

Disclaimer: This is not a review. If you like Mortal Online, please feel free to stop reading right now. Really. You won’t hurt my feelings. I promise. Also, this is not a “Leslee Plays” type of post. I’m not attempting to write a story about the game from my avatar’s point of view. Instead, this is an actual account of what happened to me during the first 2 hours of play.

Trust me, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Mortal Online is a new MMO by Swedish developer Star Vault. It is a first-person, open-world, sandbox-style game that uses the Unreal Engine. The “Unreal” part means your avatar is guaranteed to be uglier than a half-orc with a bad haircut and a Botox addiction.

Want proof? Here ya go…

During the character creation process your avatar is naked. This lack of clothing might make more sense if it wasn’t for the fact that the only customizable features besides hair style/color and skin tone are cheeks, eyes, mouth, ears, and 2 separate sliders for the nose and eyebrows. Yeah. My character’s junk is swinging in the breeze while I’m fiddling with the slider for his nose bridge? Must be a Swedish thing…

Once you’ve finished the creation process and selected your character’s ‘background’ (which determines what professions you have access to), you are unceremoniously deposited into the game world.

Did I say “deposited”? Make that dropped on your ass in the dark with nothing but a half-written owner’s manual and a rusty sword that you can’t figure out how to use. The game has realistic day and night cycles. If you are unlucky enough to enter the game during a night cycle, you must stumble around in the dark until you find a lit area. Or you fall and break your neck. Whichever comes first.

I eventually met a friendly German player who was willing to help me rather than using me for target practice. (Did I mention that this game is PvP-centric with corpse looting? Yeah, it’s one of those.) He kindly offered to show me the way to the nearest city where I could purchase a torch from an NPC. There was only one problem with this plan:

I never did find the city or the torch-selling NPC. Instead, I walked, and walked, and walked until the virtual sun finally began to show over a horizon. With no in-game map or compass I had no way of knowing from which direction the sun rose. Could have been north, for all I knew. There were also no road signs or points of reference. Eventually I couldn’t even find any fellow players – friendly or otherwise.

After digging around through several layers of poorly labeled interface windows, I discovered that my character had the ability to tame wild animals. This led to Gary the Attack Gazelle.

Gary was supposed to be able to attack or defend on command. Unfortunately, due to server lag or AI pathing issues, he couldn’t go more than 100 yards before resetting to his original position. I suppose I should have named him Gary the Boomerang Gazelle.

After a couple of hours of this torture masquerading as a game, I finally gave up. Although I can appreciate the concept of a class-less, level-less, build-you-own-destiny type of game, the complete lack of objectives, goals or narrative is incredibly unrewarding to me. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that this type of game allows the player to construct their own story. But without a more defined framework and set of tools for the player to use, the ‘story’ becomes more Homer Simpson than Homer’s Iliad.

I never did find a torch. D’oh!

The Chronicles of GameGuard

February 24th, 2010

The Chronicles of Spellborn is a little-known European MMORPG that never quite got off the ground. Created by Dutch developers Spellborn Interactive, it features a fps-style targeting system using the Unreal Engine. Unfortunately, Spellborn Interactive went bankrupt last year, just 2 months after the game’s release here in the US. It is currently available for free while the game is being converted by Frogster Asia into a free-to-play system supported by micro-transactions.

But this post isn’t about the merits or shortcomings of the game. If you can ignore the painfully ugly 1998-era avatars, the unique fps-style combat can be fun. Rather, this is about an anti-cheat program called GameGuard.

One of nProtect’s products (they also make anti-virus software), GameGuard is used by several Asian MMOs including Lineage II, Flyff, Huxley, and others. It claims to block cheating by hiding the game’s application process, monitoring your computer’s entire memory range, terminating applications defined by the game vendor as “suspicious”, and blocking certain calls to DirectX functions and Windows APIs. It even auto-updates itself as necessary.

Sounds as harmless as a teddy bear, doesn’t it?

Sure, if your teddy bear happens to be named Rootkit.

For the uninitiated, rootkits are never a good thing regardless of their intended use. Imagine buying a new couch that contains a hidden gremlin who rearranges, breaks or removes the other furniture in your house. The only way you can use your new couch is if you agree to allow the gremlin to continue his mischievous behavior. Now imagine that even if you get rid of your couch, you still have to go through a complicated exorcism involving a pogo stick, a light bulb, and Martha Stewart in order to get rid of the couch’s gremlin. That, my friends, is a rootkit.

I initially downloaded and installed TCOS when the game was released. I saw nothing in the documentation about the automatic installation of an anti-cheat program until the GameGuard logo flashed briefly across my screen during the login process. Although it proved to be fairly benign on my computer, it did disable the programmable keys on my G15 keyboard and made my antivirus program (AVG) very unhappy. GameGuard is known to conflict with an entire list of applications, including Razer mouse drivers, Google Chrome, Steam, and NeoPaint.

After removing the game I attempted to post warnings on TCOS’s forums about GameGuard’s potential problems. My posts were consistently removed by the moderator. Eventually the developers relented and posted an FAQ page, listing all of the applications that conflict with GameGuard, along with instructions on how to remove it. The company filed bankruptcy a month after the page was posted, so I guess by then they didn’t care about their public relations.

What I don’t understand is why companies like Spellborn Interactive feel the need to use a third-party program like GameGuard. Granted, I don’t engage in PvP, so I don’t know how prevalent cheating may be. But other PvP-centric games like Guild Wars don’t resort to rootkits, so they’re obviously not necessary to run a successful MMO. I can’t imagine that cheating is so problematic that it’s worth alienating your players in an effort to prevent it.

That makes about as much sense as DRM.

Baby Seal Clubbing

February 19th, 2010

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m no fan of player-versus-player (PvP) combat in MMOs. According to the Bartle Test, I fall squarely into the “Explorer” category. I’m more interested in surveying the virtual world around me than in being pwned by a 12 year old.

Although some MMOs are PvP-centric, most keep it cordoned off from the PVE sections of the game, and provide players with the choice to opt in or out at their discretion. Often, if PvP combat is the central theme of an MMO, the game designers still provide a protected “beginner” area where players can learn the game’s mechanics before being thrown to the level 50 Wolves of Ganking.

Player versus player combat has always been a part of Pirates of the Burning Sea, and for this game’s genre, it makes sense. Epic sea battles are its mainstay. But what doesn’t make sense, is the developer’s decision to allow high level players to attack low level players in the beginner areas.

PotBS has a map conquest system that I profess to not completely understand. It involves seizing your enemy’s ports by attacking their ships as they sail in or out. Players often exploit this by camping outside the ports of the beginner areas, because they know that low level players will be attempting to move between the ports to complete PVE missions. It makes sense strategically, but it creates a miserable experience for new players. I recently got stuck in a British port at level 10, unable to complete any more quests because high level pirates would attack anyone who tried to leave. I asked in chat if there was any solutions to this problem. Someone suggested – without a hint of irony – that I should log out of the game until the pirate players had left the area.

PotBS’s player population has been declining since the game launched 2 years ago. Slow, repetitive combat and a steep learning curve were some of its biggest drawbacks. Currently, Flying Lab Studios is in the process of closing 3 of their servers, leaving only two – a US and a European server – remaining. In light of this waning player base, it strikes me as odd that FLS would allow a game mechanic that is so detrimental to the retention of new players. One veteran player cynically referred to it as “baby seal clubbing”. I call it “going bankrupt”.