Archive for the ‘PvE’ Category

Samson’s Underwear

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013
His deity opposes headscarves.

At some point last year I decided to play Champions Online, Cryptic Studio’s spiritual successor to City of Heroes. Although I’ve never been a big fan of the superhero genre, I can appreciate the appeal of pulling on a pair of tights and stopping runaway locomotives. And even though I ultimately found City of Hero’s gameplay too repetitive for any long-term enjoyment, I had gotten a couple of months’ worth of fun out of it and expected something similar for Champions.

In case you are unfamiliar with superhero conventions, it should be noted that there is an unspoken, unwritten rule about how female superhero characters are portrayed in both comic books and video games: They will wear as little as possible, and often strike anatomically impossible poses.

Knowing this reputation for overt sexism – and with tongue firmly in cheek – I created my first Champions Online character: NAKED MAN!

Naked Man in his original incarnation was actually about as naked as a long-haired Ken doll. His backside was bare, but with only a hint of cheek delineation, and his front was asexually devoid of any external genitalia. He was never meant to titillate. His creation was as a joke, intended to poke fun at the ubiquitous hyper-sexualization of female superheroes. To further my subversiveness, I chose a flying ability that caused a rainbow to extrude from his heels (or butt – I was never sure which) whenever he took to the skies. I giggled in gay pride defiance every time I played him.

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a statement against female sexual objectification and homophobia!

Naked Man in his original rainbow glory.

As expected, I quickly lost interest in Champions after a month of play and moved on to other MMOs. And also true to my nature, I returned to Champions Online a year later to pick up where I had left off. Unfortunately, during the interim, Naked Man had been stripped of all his…nakedness.

When I logged back into the game after my year-long hiatus, I was met with a Naked Man who had been reverted back to the game’s default bald, blue unitard model and an in-game message informing me that Naked Man’s nakedness was found to be in violation of Cryptic’s ToS (Terms of Service).

So a FEMALE character with her bits barely covered and her cleavage precariously contained is ToS compliant? But a “naked” male character with no discernible genitalia is in violation?

A Champion's butt.

The first rule for MMO superheroes is NO EXPOSED BUTT CHEEK!
Unless, of course, you’re female.

While redesigning the now not-so-naked Naked Man, I discovered a curious discrepancy between the male and female models in regards to the amount of visible derriere. The game’s character creation process forces a visible covering over the male model’s backside that does not exist on the female model. Tarzan will now be wearing tighty whities?

I don’t have a problem with games enforcing a certain level of modesty on character customization, otherwise you end up with something like this. But the difference in body coverage seen in Champions’ character models is egregiously sexist and is obviously informed by the sexual objectification of female characters that occurs routinely in the comic book/superhero genre.

Ultimately, I don’t object to a little eye candy – beefcake or cheesecake – but make it gender agnostic or don’t do it at all.

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.

Talking Smack

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012
Talking Smack

I’ve never been much good at playing “pet” classes. My very first character in World of Warcraft was the pet-centric warlock. The only reason I chose that particular class was because I had been told that warlocks receive a unique mount for free. In hindsight, I have no idea why this was so compelling to me. Maybe I thought the game would require my character to spend time as a barn hand, shoveling horse manure. Considering how many quests Blizzard has since created that involve poop and outhouses, I may have been more prescient than I realized. Sadly, my warlock was abandoned by level 45 in favor of the more hands-on rogue.

For whatever reason, controlling a “pet” in a game feels unseemly to me. If I need to beat up on a bad guy I want to do it myself, not stand back in relative safety and demand that a magic hedgehog do the fighting for me. It feels unheroic to me. It feels… detached.

With this in mind I was a bit apprehensive when I first learned that all classes in Star Wars: The Old Republic would be assigned a “companion” character. “Oh great.” I thought. “An NPC that I have to dress and babysit. Just what I always didn’t want.” Not only is there a sense of detachment from combat when a pet is involved, I’m also frequently annoyed by the compounding of minutia. I have enough trouble doing the constant comparing/contrasting of stat bonuses and skill abilities that’s required in almost any RPG. For me, doing it for two characters becomes less a game and more of an exercise in Excel spreadsheet acrobatics – with the added threat of strabismus. I realize that number crunching is an integral part of online games that many players enjoy. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

Thankfully, SW:tOR’s companions are fairly undemanding, easy to manage, and probably wouldn’t be strictly classified as “pets”, as their combat abilities are completely independent of those of your character. Make sure to keep their gear current, set them to “attack” mode, and let the game’s AI do the rest. In the game’s many dialogue scenes they even have their own responses and actions based upon what conversation choices you make. Overall, companions add an interesting and fun dynamic without being burdensome – if only you could get them to SHUT UP!

My only experience has been with the Smuggler companion, Corso Riggs. Perhaps the other classes have less verbose buddies. After almost every kill, Corso feels the need to articulate his feelings about the enemy. These taunts and boasts are amusing the first 100+ times. They eventually became boring, annoying and monotonous.

Which leads me to my overall perception of SW:tOR. Here’s a game that has truckloads of back-story, history and mythology to draw from that yet somehow still ends up feeling dated, boring and monotonous. As I kill yet another generic mob, who is inexplicably standing around waiting for his (and it’s almost always a “he”) inevitable death – only to reappear 5 minutes later. As Corso yells his canned response for the bazillionth time. As I wander through beautifully designed yet sadly empty and player-less world environments. I can’t help but think to myself, “This is not the MMO I’m looking for.”

The Tao of WoW

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
Aerobic exercise if overrated.

A few months ago a gaming community kerfuffle occurred when someone Photoshopped a picture of Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler with text from an interview she had given 5 years ago, in which she stated that she wished games had a fast-forward button to allow players, such as herself, to skip combat entirely in favor of dialogue, story, or other gameplay elements. An internet firestorm ensued, as gamers raged in righteous indignation. Skip combat? How dare she suggest something so blasphemous! “Burn the witch!” they declared! If you’re curious (or feeling masochistic) you can read more about this controversy here.

Once upon a time, a fellow employee at a game studio where I worked arrogantly declared that I must have less gaming experience than him because of the questions I was asking regarding skill stats. Never mind the fact that I was at least 10 years older than him and had been playing video games before he was born. My lack of knowledge regarding this particular aspect of gaming made it obvious to him that I was an inexperienced n00b. The implication seems to be that if you’re not interested in combat, you’re not really a gamer.

But challenging yourself by playing a game in a way that wasn’t intended, by subverting the rules in new and interesting ways, is the very essence of a “gamer mentality”, and is something that has intrigued me since I was old enough to play “Operation” with my toes. (I don’t recommend it.) So when I read about Everbloom’s zero kills achievement in World of Warcraft, I had to try it for myself.

Since joining the Peace Corp guild I have re-rolled my conscientious-objecting rogue three times. Who knew it was so hard to not kill something? The goal is to reach level 85 with zero creature kills and zero total kills. At the beginning levels, this is far more difficult than you might imagine. My first rogue was decommissioned when a helpful(?) worgen decided to kill a mob that I had temporarily stunned in self-defense. Once tagged, the kill is attributed to you, regardless of who does the actual killing. My second rogue was put out to pasture when I accidentally clicked on a critter to do a /love command and instead beat the poor creature to death with my fists from 6′ away! Who knew my arms were that long?

I realize that playing World of Warcraft in this manner is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It requires a degree of patience, skill and desire for exploration that many may find frustrating and/or boring. (You will spend a great deal of time getting more than your daily requirement of aerobic exercise and will become intimately familiar with the local cemetery.) But I think it serves as an example of how various forms of gameplay are equally valid. Wanting to skip combat doesn’t make you any less of a gamer. It just makes you a different kind of gamer.

Fishing On An Acid Trip

Friday, January 27th, 2012
We're not in Kansas anymore.

In anthropology there are two terms used to refer to how someone experiences culture: etic and emic. Similar to the concepts of objective and subjective, if you’re talking about your own culture, you’re probably giving an “emic” account. If you’re attempting to describe Final Fantasy XIV, you’re doing so from an “etic” perspective.

Or you’re a nitrous oxide-sniffing space alien. I get the two confused.

Full Disclosure: I have no experience with the first Final Fantasy MMO (FF XI), nor have I played any of the single-player titles (FF’s I – XIV). I’m not sure why I have avoided the franchise for so long. I suspect I may be intimidated by how the games are chronologically ordered: Some sort of Roman numeral, base 23, pentadecimal system?

So yes, I freely admit that I may not be this Japanese MMO’s target audience. But regardless of how etic my perspective may be, a game’s story and characters need to have some universal elements that are easily identifiable to any audience, regardless of their cultural background. Or at least I would expect an MMO of this caliber and budget to try to aspire to that level of appeal? Instead, my first hour with FF XIV was filled with enough incomprehensible psychedelic weirdness to make Hunter S. Thompson think he was Gomer Pyle.

After creating my dark-skinned, but distinctly Asian-featured fisherman (why is it almost always impossible to create a black female character in a fantasy game?) I was immediately subjected to a rather long and involved cut scene. Followed by another cut scene. Which was immediately followed by yet another cut scene. And another one. This long series of cut scenes was only briefly interrupted by a very protracted and awkward fight sequence in which I threw rocks at a pack of wolves for over 10 minutes, (seriously, it took me 10 minutes to kill three wolves!) and the 15 minutes I spent doing a boring and unintuitive fishing sequence.

My entire time in this game felt less like a game and more like an interact-able movie. The art design was gorgeous, but I rarely had time to explore it as I was yanked from one cut scene to the next. At every turn the game seemed to be yelling, “Look at this magnificent story we have created for you!” Never mind the fact that the story they were trying so hard to impress me with was nearly incomprehensible. Treants. Moogles. Woodsin taint. Greenwrath. Dance lessons? After a while I gave up trying to make sense of it, as the game didn’t seem to care whether or not I was actually having any fun.

I often complain about the fact that many MMO’s don’t have children in them. Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online are two notable offenders. This omission is always a bit immersion breaking for me, as I begin to wonder just how the inhabitants of a given world exist if they don’t procreate. But Final Fantasy XIV has the weird distinction of having too many children. And not just regular kids, but also adult humanoids who look like kids. This was further compounded by the fact that it was impossible for me to create a female player character who looked more than a day over the age of 17. As an adult woman I’m not interested in having a teenage avatar, but the game’s rather creepy fixation on young, scantily-clad girls dictated otherwise.

“Yes we’re sexist and ageist, but isn’t that flying, flute-playing marshmallow kitten thing just adorable?”

Baby Seal Clubbing

Friday, 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”.

Fixing What Isn’t Broken

Monday, January 4th, 2010

You know an MMO is in decline when they get rid of their dwarf-tossing and replace it with painfully pedantic beginner quests. Case in point: Warhammer Online.

WAR has always suffered from putting all of its eggs into one PvP basket. Their “public quests” – cooperative PvE encounters – are a great idea in theory, but they are a complete failure if the player population is too low to support them. (For more information on how Public Quests work, watch this video.) Mythic didn’t take into account the fact that as a game ages, players move out of the lower level maps, creating population imbalances on the server. This means that all of those exciting beginner and mid-level Public Quests are as empty as a Greenskin’s head.

Mythic’s answer to this problem was to redesign the starter area. Initially, each race had their own beginner quests that were tailored to their specific racial histories within the overall storyline. These quests were fun, informative, and even involved some dwarf-tossing. The redesigned beginner area lumps everyone together doing generic we’re-at-war-so-go-kill-stuff quests, and involves tutorials so simplistic that a 10 year-old would be offended.

Sadly, I don’t think Mythic was seeing the bigger picture, and was attempting to fix something that wasn’t really broken. Yes, player population densities do shift, but the game would have maintained its population and attracted new players if they had addressed the lack of content and uninspired quests at the mid-levels. When my first character, an Empire Witch Hunter, got to level 20 the available quests became sparse and the quest rewards were often two and three levels above her. Nothing kills player enthusiasm quicker than receiving rewards that you can’t even use!

The irony of the situation is that although the combined beginner areas may give the illusion of player density, they have done nothing to improve the mid-level PvE areas. I logged into my level 32 Bright Wizard, who was last standing in Eataine – a Tier 4 area appropriate for her level.

The entire map was deserted.