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Archive for December, 2009

“It’s A Wonderful Life”, “A Christmas Carol”, “Silent Night”, “What Child Is This?”, “Carol of the Bells”, “Auld Lang Syne”

This time of year is packed with tradition.  Why do we do the same things each year?

“The Lord of the Rings”, “The Hobbit”, “The Blue Sword”, “I, Jedi”

Why do we read books more than once?  What is it about them that we want to revisit?  Why are they so great?

“The Ten Commandments”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Tempest”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Canterbury Tales”, “Casablanca”

What is it about these bits of entertainment that sticks?  Is pop culture actually culture?  (Beej, I’m especially interested in your take on this…)  More than once, I’ve noted that a story is good, but “it’s no Shakespeare”.  What was the expression before Shakespeare’s time?  “It’s good, but it’s no Chaucer”?  How is it that these things stand the test of time?  How do they become cultural touchstones that people continue to look to and revisit?  Why?

Why can we watch episodes of our favorite shows over and over?  I can watch Stargate SG-1’s “Window of Opportunity” every week and not get tired of it.  (The whiplash change from silly to serious just works, far better than most shows I’ve seen.)  Things that resonate with us seem to always have a home.

Sometimes it’s just a moment.  “You Shall Not Pass!”  A Crowning Moment of Awesomeness.

“Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian” isn’t Shakespeare, but I’ve found that I enjoy it.  A few moments stand out, though:  The Tuskegee Airmen are my clear favorite, especially in a quiet moment with Amelia Earhart.  You might get the gist of the interaction just from watching them exchange salutes, but if you know a bit more about the Airmen and Ms. Earhart, the moment is considerably more poignant.  Custer‘s moment of reflection near the end of the movie also resonates with anyone who has read a bit of military history, or who has served in leadership, especially in the military.  The movie works best when it draws from real history.  (Of course, I’m also partial to the Air and Space Museum anyway, so it probably just resonates with me more than some, and I spent time in Alabama, where the Airmen are rightfully lauded as heroes.)

We can mention the Titanic in casual conversation and use it as shorthand to allude to hubris, arrogance, and human incompetence.  No internet firefight (or id game) is complete without someone invoking Hitler or Nazis, whether directly or indirectly.  The Constitution isn’t just a piece of paper.  Da Vinci, Einstein, Newton, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, Stalin, Ghandi.  We don’t even need their first names any more; everyone knows who they are and why they are important.  (Tangent:  or at least, everyone should know.  Don’t get me started on the sorry state of American education.)  These are the names, places and items that wove the tapestry of culture today.  Does it always need to be real, though?

George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, Puck…

Aeris?  Is she even a spoiler any more?

Video games are young.  Very young, compared to most of these cultural touchstones cited.  And yet, what serious gamer hasn’t at least heard of Aeris?  For good or ill, her plight is a touchstone in the gamer culture.  And are we not members of society at large?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Video games have a place in history, for good or ill.  I harbor no illusion that Arthas is in the same weight class as Rocky, but his name is not unknown.  He is no MacBeth, but he is important to some people.  His rise, fall and ultimate fate aren’t exactly Campbellian, but they are an important component of a game that millions of players have played.  It’s still bizarre to me to see “For the Horde” as a bumper sticker, but it communicates a lot in three small words.

We’re a motley bunch, we gamers, but more and more, we’re everywhere.  What effect are we having on culture?  Are we providing cultural touchstones that will help us build positive things in the future, or will our legacy live in infamy like that of the Titanic?

Perhaps it’s just that I’m especially introspective this time of year, but I do reflect on these things on occasion.  I believe that games have great potential, and can be a force for good.  We can make things that are replayable, and offer something each time through.

I’ve taken the opportunity to replay LucasArts’ “The Dig”, and I’m finding things that I didn’t catch the first time through when I played over a decade ago.  Each time I read “I, Jedi”, I find something interesting.  Each time I watch “It’s A Wonderful Life”, something else clicks for me.  (Especially now that I’ve spent a few years studying financial and political concerns.)  I fully expect that playing FFVII or even watching Advent Children again will make something else click for me.  Playing Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days has me itching to play the original KH again, to see what else fits together.

Every time I read the scriptures, something else clicks for me.  Not because the content of the scriptures changes, but because I have changed.  It’s nice to have those touchstones to bounce off of, and build on.

I often wonder what I’m providing to build on.

Happy New Year, everyone.  Here’s hoping the last one was a good one for you, and that the next one can be built on the successes of your past.

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Merry Christmas, all!  May you have a wonderful holiday, and reason to remember He for whom the holiday is named.

If you don’t happen to subscribe to Christianity, well, Merry Whatever You Do Celebrate!

Oh, and if you’ve been bad this year, don’t expect a lump of coal from Santa.  Al Gore threatened to melt Santa’s workshop at the North Pole if he got in the way of cap & trade legislation and other assorted power grabs in the name of Global Climate Change Crisis That We Must Act On Now While It’s On Sale.  Instead, you get a nicely shaped lump of recycled postindustrial Green packing material.  Don’t forget to look for a Nobel Peace Prize winner in your lump’s profile!  (They ran out of Elvis, Mother Teresa and Michael Jackson already.)

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No, not that Ownership Society, arguably a significant part of the psychology behind the housing boom and bust (and other problems in the economy).  I’m talking once again about MMOs and video games.  In an age of great sales via digital distribution, subscription games and ever dwindling PC game sections in stores, the landscape of game ownership is varied and interesting.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, but Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires is my reference this time:

The Importance of Character Customization

I wholly agree that character customization is a significant part of giving players some ownership in a game.  That’s a big part of establishing a relationship that the player wants to maintain, maybe even at the cost of a subscription.

What interests me is the cognitive dissonance between giving players ownership, all while running what amounts to a lease, wherein once the monthly cash drip is pinched off, ownership dissolves.

Of course, as in the discussions that inevitably come up about difficulty, it’s been noted that players don’t really want difficulty, they want the illusion of difficulty, and a pat on the back or some loot.  So, what do players really want from their characters?  What do players really want from their gaming dollars?

I don’t think there’s any one right answer. (Yes, that’s an obvious statement, but I do feel it needs to be noted.  Challenging the status quo of MMO design is sort of a hobby of mine.)

I just know that for me, ownership of a game is much more than customizing a character.  I want to play it whenever I want, however long I want, without incurring a cost to do so.  I’m happy to pay for a game I like (as my wife will attest to… like Andrew, I probably have more games than time to play them).  I don’t want to lease a game.

Likewise, ownership of a character in a game is much more to me than picking a class at creation and mucking around with talent trees.  I want more out of my gaming time than conforming to a dev’s script.  I’ve written about this before, and likely will again.

Perhaps it’s not so much that I want a sandbox game, but rather, I want a sandman character.  I don’t mind some structure to my games (after all, a sandbox is still a box, and you can’t think outside of it until you know where it ends), but I want to have flexibility in how I approach the game’s challenges.  I want to really own my approach to the game, to leave my stamp on the experience.  Not because I want bragging rights, but because it’s simply more fun to me to do things my way.  I want to make my own memories, tell my own story, and have my own fun.

Because, well, that’s what I want for my money.

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Torchlight Sale

Torchlight is on sale via Steam this weekend.

Half price for an already nicely priced game that’s good dungeon crawling fun?

That’s worth dealing with Steam for.

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Spurred by a recent “Pick Up Group” experience in Allods Online and a couple of articles (OK, and doing the WoW Druid Bear art for BBB), I wanted to write a bit again about tanking and the Holy Trinity of MMO combat.  Here are a few great articles to prime the pump as well:

Overcoming the Fear of Tanking (Spinksville)

On Being a Tank (Tank Hard)

Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design (Psychochild)

I’ve written about this sort of thing before.  Long story short, I’m highly in favor of breaking the trinity affording greater player customization and flexibility, hopefully making for more interesting combat.

Mostly, it’s because I want to be flexible when I’m playing a game.  I don’t want to have to depend on other people… though I’m happy to help other people.  That’s my particular brand of soloist play; I want to do my thing and have fun without needing other players… but if I want to help others out (and I often do), I want it to be fun and easy enough to get to do.  (Note, not necessarily “easy to do”; I like challenge in my games, after all.  I just don’t like fighting the UI or having insufficient tools to deal with idiot players.  I don’t like fighting other players, either; I’m all for cooperative PvE ventures.)

Perhaps a story will help illuminate.

I’ve been playing League side in the Allods Online beta as a Gibberling Psionicist.  I have characters of most races and classes for experimentation, but I picked the Psionicists as my “main” for the beta so I could push through to some non-newbie content before the beta ends.  The Psionicist is a DPS/Support class, designed somewhat along the lines of the Guild Wars Mesmer, where I find ways to control foes and the pace of combat, while burning them down with psionic blasts.  So far, it’s been good fun, if a bit repetitive.  (Finding my optimal “rotation” took all of three or four fights.  Certainly not several levels’ worth of fighting.  That’s another rant, though, and such design is certainly on par with other modern MMOs, so it’s not a glaring flaw unique to Allods.)

There is a “boss” fight on the League newbie island.  It’s a super powerful Wisp that requires at least three players to tackle; a tank, a damage dealer and a healer.  It’s the same old dance of “deal damage/mitigate damage/heal damage”.  As long as MMO combat is based on hit points and damage, we’re pretty stuck with these core roles in some form.  There is nothing crazy about this particular fight, then, it’s just a fight that requires a group (GASP!  I PUGged!) or an extremely overleveled soloist.

The first time I fought the boss, I just shot at it to see what it would do.  It chased me and pretty much ate me for lunch.  Gibberling nuggets, extra crispy.

A level later, still saddled with the quest to kill the boss, I answered the call of a tank who needed help to take it down.  A healer met us at the boss rock (it’s an open world boss that just putters around a rock in a circuit until a fight), and we proceeded to beat it into protoplasm… slowly.  The tank took the brunt of the attacks, I did my best damage from short range (so I could work in a dagger stab or three while skills were on cooldown), and the healer kept us all alive.  The healer’s mana actually died out close to the end, so he just moved in and started stabbing as well, but we were close enough to victory that it wasn’t a terrible breach of etiquette, and nobody fell but the baddie.

Yay, quest finished, experience earned, congratulations and thanks all around, group dissolved, chalk one up for the good guys.  (At least, until the respawn.)

A few days later, I’m one level older, slightly more powerful (though with no new abilities), and about to leave the newbie Allod.  Someone is spamming LFG in the zone chat, trying to get a party together for the same boss.  I figure, sure, I have a little time and would like to help.  I get there only to find three other DPS characters (two Hunters and a Druid).  OK, sure, just burn the boss down fast and hope it works, right?  Nope.  Nobody wants to try, and it turns out, for good reason.

A tank finally shows up after ten minutes of zone spam, and we go to town on the boss.  It turns out the tank didn’t actually tank, but just spazzed out in flaky DPS tango mode.  I get “aggro” because I’m doing solid DPS with my now-rote rotation, and the Big Bad Wisp proceeds to fry me again.  I’m soon followed by a Hunter who was also doing solid damage.  The tank disappears, the healer says the tank was incompetent, and we sit around for a while waiting for another tank.  Eventually, I give up, and move on.  (I still wonder about throttling my DPS, but the healer was pretty adamant that the tank wasn’t doing her job.)

So much for helping other players.  It’s a good thing I didn’t still need that quest; I’d have been more annoyed.  As it was, it was grist for the blog mill, so I was happy enough.  I won’t do that again, though.

The fight failed for lack of a tank who actually tanked.  I blame the game design just as much, though.

If any of us were able to step up into the tank role, regardless of class, we could have shuffled around and tried with someone else at point.  This is why I love the Druid class in World of Warcraft (or the Paladin or even Shaman, maybe even a Warrior).  Played well, a Feral Druid can either take point and tank in Bear form or shift a bit and start scratching backs in Cat form.  No respecs (though Dual Spec is nice to extend the flexibility), no gear swapping, just role swapping.

I would have happily stepped up as a tank if my Psionicist were able to do so.  Sure, it would probably mean some sort of “dodge tank” or “mesmerizing tank” rather than the traditional “hit me, I can take it” tanking, but that would be fine with me.  That wasn’t an option, though, so I wound up frustrated.  Sure, I had a stun (on a long cooldown, and the boss is apparently immune), a magic shield (on another long cooldown) and an “AAAH!!” button (a clone that takes aggro and then dies), but those aren’t really tanking tools when I’m puttering around in cloth armor holding a little dagger.  All in all, it just wasn’t working.  One guy in the group even wandered off to quest for a bit while we waited for a new tank.

Again, I don’t like depending on others.  I would have gladly put my head on the chopping block to help other people, even if it would have been more difficult to do, but waiting for someone else was something I didn’t do for long.  I’m not sure what it’s like to need a DPS, but I’ve also had occasion where needing a competent healer made for frustrating gaming, too.

When I have the ability to shift into different roles as occasion demands, I’m a LOT more likely to enjoy playing in a group.  I can plug holes and adapt to tactical situations.  I do that in Puzzle Pirates when I’m out sailing my ship with other people.  I let them pick their favorite stations, then play whatever still needs to be done.  I get and sympathize with the tanking philosophy, and the utilitarian moral of doing what the group needs.  I don’t like it when the game arbitrarily makes that depend more on the class (or even the build) than the player.

Short story long:

Tesh goes on 2 PUGs, one good, one bad.  Still tired of the Holy Trinity and inflexible game design.  Recommends the ability to change roles at the drop of a hat, even in combat.

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I’ve had my eye on Machinarium for a few weeks now, so I had to try out the demo:

Machinarium

I liked it, and will probably pick up the full game one of these days if it goes on sale.  I like some adventure games (“The Dig”) but don’t like others (“King’s Quest 7″).  The genre really is a mixed bag.  Machinarium’s demo plays fairly well, though, so I recommend at least the demo to anyone who is interested.

For a pair of differing opinions, check out Andrew’s experience over at Of Teeth and Claws and Nels Anderson’s take at Above 49.

In the meantime, the demo reminded me of the importance of trust in game design.  There was a point in the demo where I found my gamer instincts warring with reality.  Naturally, Here Lie Spoilers…

..

.

The game is all about clicking on stuff, trying to find what you need to solve puzzles.  Sometimes, you have to combine objects you’ve gathered to progress.

Level 2 has your character trying to get through a security checkpoint.  You need to devise a disguise to get past the sentry.  At one point, you pick up a traffic cone as part of the disguise, but there’s still a stack of cones left over.  You can click on the stack, and the character throws a cone into the nearby canyon.  This is where I ran into trouble.  I wasn’t sure that I’d never need another cone, so throwing them in the canyon seemed like an irreversible move that I might regret later.  I never want to get stuck in a game, so I don’t like irreversible moves.

Thing is, you need to throw all the cones overboard to get to a puzzle piece under the stack.  I only found this after I had exhausted all other possible moves and just went ahead and threw caution to the wind.  I didn’t want to get myself stuck, but the devs were a step ahead of me and made the game so that I couldn’t get stuck.  My instinctual desire to keep all potential puzzle pieces around until I had it solved, a sort of MacGyver/Packratitis affliction, ran contrary to the solution of throwing away potential puzzle pieces to get to the solution.

This might just be a set of mixed expectations, just as much my fault as the designers, since often in these adventure games you actually do need everything and even a lot of apparently useless stuff to solve the puzzles.  In a way, this skirts Twinkie Denial conditions of “extreme lateral thinking” and “no lateral/logical thinking”.  Some pieces just don’t make sense unless you’re reading the devs’ minds, and some are blindingly obvious in their function… which means they don’t really work that way in the game’s logic.

Still, I don’t like throwing pieces away that might have a use later.  I had to trust that the devs knew best by having my little character throw the cones away.  That wasn’t something I did lightly, and I find that it reveals a slightly untrusting/adversarial relationship that I have with puzzle designers.  (In contrast, the only reason I’m still working on one puzzle in Professor Layton and the Curious Village is because I do trust the devs that there’s an answer to it, despite evidence to the contrary.  Funny how that works out.)

All in all, this is probably just as much, if not more, about my approach to the game.  I don’t like throwing away potential puzzle pieces.  I don’t like needing to trust the devs that much, especially when the puzzles themselves may well get increasingly obscure as the game goes on.  I detest needing to read the designer’s mind; to me that’s the sign of lazy puzzle design.

I do still like the game.  I’m leaning toward buying it at some point.  It’s just not a perfect game, and this tenuous trust between player and designer can make or break a game, especially one based on puzzles.  Players need to know that they will have all the tools and pieces at their disposal, and that their cleverness will carry the day.  That’s the backbone of the puzzle/adventure game genre, and really something that should be the core of the design.  Obscure elements or lack of communication of clear goals, tools and pieces can kill a game like this very quickly.  Some of this is UI design, some of it is game design, but players need to be able to trust the designers… even if (maybe especially when) they default to “not trusting”.

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Just a quick thought, this one.  I’ve been reading up on Allods Online, seeing what others have to say.  Consistent among them is the notion that AO is “good for a free to play game“, occasionally noted as being better than a subscription game.  As if the business model inherently makes a game better or worse.

Mark me as a dreamer, but I look forward to the day when games can be judged on their own merits, rather than being “good for being a member of some arbitrarily contemptible lower class” of game, whichever side of the holy wars one subscribes to.  This reason alone is enough to champion the increasing democratization of the business model.

Then again, I think racism, “solo vs. group”, “Democrat vs. Republican” and football rivalries are dumb, too.  *shrug*

Oh, and my dad can totally beat up your dad.  Neener, neener.

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