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Posts Tagged ‘puzzle pirates’

It’s the Decennial celebration for Puzzle Pirates this month.  It’s the plucky little MMO that thought it could, so it did, largely by making people happy to play.  ‘Tis the perfect time to check it out! (I’m Silveransom over there, the genesis of my little pirate avatar I use on Twitter and around the web.)

It’s kind of odd, thinking that it’s been around for ten years.  It was one of the pioneers in microtransaction monetization in the MMO space.  They started as a subscription-only game, but really exploded with their take on what we now call Free to Play (F2P).  Sadly, they aren’t quite as big as they used to be, but I suppose that’s true of most MMOs, given that the market exploded.  Still, the game is still alive, still developing in new ways (the alternate Sailing puzzle being the most recent addition), and it’s still one of the most solo-friendly games I know that still makes it easy to group up on the fly.  Guild Wars 2 might challenge that (if I ever get my computer running it for more than 20 seconds), but even then, Puzzle Pirates is still great fun, just a different sort of play experience.

I’m definitely a fan of the game.  It’s my MMO home, the game that has the most traditions I’ve taken part in, delightfully early access to the freedom of personal ships, and it happens to be a perfect fit for my puzzle-infused mind, one as fond of Tetris as Gyromancer, of Professor Layton as Puzzle Quest.  I’ve done a fair bit of fan art for the game, and even chipped in a little with some art that wound up in the game proper (the rare Easter Egg for the 2007 contest).

Happy tenth, Puzzle Pirates!  May Three Rings have continued success and fair winds!

…oh, and the Three Rings offices are sweet.  Really sweet.  Seriously, go check this out.  It would be a blast to work there.

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I’ve played a wide variety of games in my day.  These MMO things tend to want to monopolize your time, but I’m just not wired that way.  Some might consider World of Warcraft’s Azeroth or RIFT’s Telara to be home, then, for the social roots they put down there.  Me, I don’t really have such a “home”, but no MMO feels more comfortable to me than Puzzle Pirates.

I have several characters there, but my “main” character and identity on their forums is Silveransom.  I’ve actually spent almost as much time on the forums and community art and game design projects as I have in the game proper.  To this day, my greatest “achievement” in the game is getting some of my art in as an Easter Egg, this little Croatian-inspired beauty.  It’s no big deal in the grand scheme of Life, but the game and the community have been good to me, and I’ve had fun chipping in.

It’s not a traditional DIKU-flavored MMO, but it’s the first one that really wound up capturing my imagination.  I actually made friends there.  I started playing more than six years ago, and it has consistently been the one game I can go back to and feel comfortable.  To be fair, I did try World of Warcraft thanks to a ten day friend pass shortly after trying Puzzle Pirates, so that wasn’t my only MMO at the time, but even then, the clear dichotomy between the DIKU level-grinding loot-heavy pedigree in WoW and the different design of Puzzle Pirates was very clear, and I had a strong preference for the latter, even though I really liked the sense of world that WoW offered (as I’ve noted a few times, especially here).

Anyway, as is so often the case when I’ve occupied a space for a length of time, whether it be mental space or physical space, I’ve developed habits and traditions in Puzzle Pirates.  The very first sloop I bought was second hand, one a crewmate didn’t need any more.  She left a piece of small driftwood up in the bow of the ship.  It’s technically furniture in Puzzle Pirates, so it was placed there on purpose sometime, but she had just forgotten it.  She let me keep it, though.

Thing is, that piece of driftwood, possibly the cheapest bit of furniture in the game, became a tradition.  That little sloop was my transitional vehicle from a newbie in the game world to a pirate, more or less in control of his own destiny.  That ship was freedom, and that little personality quirk of a piece of wood in the bow was inextricably tied to that phase of my Puzzle Pirates experience.  It was, in its own way, a symbol of my change from a lowly deckhand who might just have washed up on shore, clinging to a piece of driftwood, to a ship’s master, boldly sailing into dangerous waters.  To be sure, there are other, bigger ships (like my favorite ship, the Longship that I painted and renamed the Silver Dragon), and other transitional phases in the game, like when I scored my first Ultimate trophy (in Rumbling, on my alternate Silveransom character on the test ocean), but y’know, those “firsts” stick with you.

As such, I’ve had occasion to give a sloop to other pirates once in a while, and I always leave a bit of driftwood on the ship for them.  Is it silly?  Of course.  Is it fun?  Yes.  Will they remember it?  I hope so.  It’s the little touches like that that remind people of where they have been and why.  That’s important for charting a course to the future.  To be sure, the future will happen whether or not you’re ready, but if you know where you’ve been and why, you can position yourself better for when it does come.

So what does this have to do with blogging?  Well, tradition is a strong tool in maintaining information through generations.  It can also be a strong tool in reserving headspace in readers, carving out your own little niche in the blogging hivemind.  The human mind is geared to find patterns.  Traditions are patterns, ranging from the tenuous to the tedious, perhaps, but the whole point is that they are repeated events.  And people remember them, for better or worse.  If you do something more than once, especially with any sense of regularity, you may well be establishing a tradition.  Memes had a start somewhere, for that matter, but they grow because they are repeated and shared.  The tradition goes viral.

If you are trying to maintain a tone or tradition for your blog, maybe you use a particular “signoff” line like Mark Rosewater’s Magic The Gathering articles.  Maybe you just maintain a role or character for your posts, like Warchief Garrosh.  Maybe you post a random My Little Pony cartoon or a photo.  Whatever the case, you’ve done something patterned, consistent, and readers will remember it.

So go, have fun, and maybe, just maybe, carry over or establish a tradition.  You might have fun with it, and your readers might have fun with it.  That’s one of the best parts of blogging, when you share something fun with those people out there.

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I’m not a fan of PvP (Player vs. Player combat) as found in most MMOs.  The prevailing DIKU DNA, manifested in levels, gear and ganking, just doesn’t provide the level playing field that I prefer when it comes to pitting my playing skills against those of another human.

I loved Street Fighter and other assorted fighters when I was in high school.  SF2 really hooked me, and I thoroughly enjoyed several derivative games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, SFAlpha, Killer Instinct, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, DarkstalkersSoul Edge, and their variants.  Mortal Kombat is too exhibitive for my taste, but for a while there, there were a lot of good fighter games floating around, so there was no dearth of options.  The most expensive game I ever purchased was the SNES cartridge of SF2Turbo ($70 at the time, stupidly expensive, but still a ton of fun).  My friends and I spent a lot of time and money in arcades and at home with fighting games, a not uncommon thing for teens of the 90s.

My skills were never such that I could play in a tournament, but I did hold my own against most arcade players, and won far more often than I lost.  It was very satisfying to play in a hard-fought match and come out on top.  Steamrolling new players wasn’t much fun, and I’d often take it easy on them reflexively.  I like to win, but I like it to be an honest win that requires good play on my part.  Perhaps I was doing a Darwinian disservice to those noobs by taking it easy on them, but I tried to always have fun and try to let the other player have fun too.  It seemed to me to be a better way to spend my time.  Constantly losing to a better player is only fun if you’re learning something  (and if they aren’t a jerk).  Frustration isn’t fun.

The best part of these fighting games was the intricate balancing jobs they did, working with disparate characters and playstyles.  Some games were better balanced than others, to be sure, but on the whole, success in fighting games when playing against other players usually boiled down to player skill.  This made successes sweeter and failures more instructive.  It was also a lot of fun.

Dave Sirlin has made a bit of a career out of writing about SF games and fighting games in general, and he wrote a great article some time ago about how World of Warcraft teaches the wrong lessons.  Everything Sirlin writes is filtered through his SF background and his “Play to Win” ethos, so it’s not going to be a set of assertions that works for everyone, but it’s a solid read, and really strikes at the heart of what I don’t like in MMO PvP.

One of his memorable quips is the suggestion of a “level 60 Chun-li” and the absurdity that such an image presents.  It’s silly to think that player time investment in building a character would outweigh player skill in the fighting game scene, yet it’s precisely that paradigm that drives PvP in most MMOs.  This is why open world PvP inevitably degenerates into a cycle of bullying and “ganking“; players aren’t looking for a fair fight, they are looking to win, or worse, to give grief to other players.  A game system where time investment brings more powerful characters in the form of higher levels and/or better gear doesn’t offer much in the way of a fair fight.  (Notably, it also causes problems even when you’re not playing against other players… there are problems playing with other players against the computer.  Levels do weird things sometimes.)

I might note that a very narrow power band might make for tolerable PvP, of course.  Guild Wars gets close to this.  World of Warcraft, with its endgame characters being orders of magnitude more powerful than new characters, is a bit different.  It shouldn’t take 300 characters to kill one foe.  (Sadly, the video has been lost on that one, and the 300 weren’t even enough, but still… the power of a end game character is absurd compared to a new character.)  Maybe that makes for good fantasy power trips if you’re the powerful one (and that was a Player vs. Environment contest), but it’s awful for PvP.  Puzzle Pirates has a very narrow power band, and the vast bulk of the game is based on player skill.  This is a big part of why I still consider it to be my MMO home.  It just feels more like my skill matters, rather than my time investment.

I want a level playing field for PvP contests.  If I fail, it should be because I wasn’t good enough.  If I win, it should be because I played well.  It’s all about player skill.

I don’t see that in most MMOs, which is one of the reasons I’m a dedicated solo Explorer who occasionally indulges in dungeon prowling with other players.  I don’t mind an imbalanced contest against the computer’s monsters (though it’s nice to have a spectrum of challenge), but when I’m playing with other players, I want to know that the contest is one of skill, strategy and tactics, not a barely disguised measurement of time investment.

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I’m decidedly not a fan of the sort of PvP that is typically offered in MMOs.  While I was a huge fan of Street Fighter 2 once upon a time, and thoroughly enjoy a bit of Puzzle Fighter-esque Swordfighting in Puzzle Pirates (though Rumble is definitely superior in my book), those are very different animals.  They are delightfully balanced, tuned like a loved machine.  The imbalances that come with a leveling system and gear variance make MMO PvP far less appealing to me.

Still, on my last day of the ten day retrial of WoW (for The Burning Crusade… though I spent the bulk of my time pushing through the high 40s and low 50s with my old character, Padgi) I figured I’d at least see what the Alterac Valley had to offer a scrub like me.  Open world PvP is just a cycle of bullying fueled by ganking, so it’s an aggravating waste of time for me, but the battleground was a bit more interesting.

It almost felt like taking part in a bit of good old WarCraft, just as a foot soldier rather than a disembodied commander.  Of course, the only direction and strategy was “rush em!”, and try to stay in the knottiest of Zerg knots so as to stay in the action and hide behind juicier targets.  I’m sure some focused battleground groups would wipe the arena with such an unfocused blob, but it was fun enough to run about willy nilly and take out targets of opportunity.  I probably killed this one Human dude a half dozen times… a rather surreal way to wage war, but fun enough for what it was.  (I still think a Valhalla MMO would be a good idea.  We’re not living alternate lives, we’re piloting weirdly immortal bloodlusty berzerkers.)

As it happens, though, it seems my computer is allergic to PvP.  Just as our blob was about to overwhelm the northernmost Alliance graveyard and push on to the NPC boss, I was cut down by an errant Shadowbolt… and my computer crashed.  Hard.

I got a Blue Screen of Death, and my computer spent the next fifteen minutes in a death spiral of rebooting and recrashing.  I finally powered it down and let it rest for a while, after which it seems to be running well enough… but for a while there, it was a most unhappy machine.  It has happened several times in the last week or two… and I’m still not sure why.  I blame it on Steam, since the first time it crashed, I was playing the recently installed Mirror’s Edge… and I’ve had crashes during other Steam games… though that was the first WoW crash.

It seems my computer has some problems with PvP as well.  Maybe the Cataclysm will make it happier.  In the meantime, it’s Rumble for me.

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I’ve played Puzzle Pirates for a couple of years now, and I’ve played Wizard101 since the open beta, though I’ll play both in fits and spurts.  Both have puzzle minigames, and both are a ton of fun.   There is one niggling little thing about W101 that bothers me, though.  At least one of the minigames is machine solvable.  (Yes, Tipa complained about busted minigames ages ago, and I actually started this article around then, but I’m just now polishing it off… since I forgot about it.)

The games in question are Diego’s Duel and Potion Motion.  The part that made me think this are the score tables with obscenely high scores and even duplicate scores (see Tipa’s screenshot for Diego scores), as well as the perfect predictability of upcoming events.

As a Puzzle Pirate veteran (and one-time Tetris addict, and everything in between), I’m pretty good and fairly experienced with puzzle games.  I had the second highest score for the Sorcery Stones W101 minigame for a while a month or two after release. This isn’t just sour grapes on my part, this is something that looks and feels like someone manipulating the game.

I also had the #5 score in Potion Motion until someone consistently filled the high scores with the exact same score of 12345.  (Which has since been surpassed, of course, but I doubt those are legitimate either.)  That was a very high score for the time, and I soon thereafter hit just over 10000, so I know that it’s possible to be legitimate, but to score exactly the same score seven times in a row, at the top of the charts, and with no clear outliers like a 12300 or 12450 just screams “hack” to me. (Oh, looky there, one of the hacks is documented.)

It’s been noted more than once that with online games, the client is “in the hands of the enemy”, who often can and will abuse it.  Cheating in offline games doesn’t usually affect other players, but cheating online is a problem if competition is important.  Thankfully, competition in W101 minigames is just for high scores (which do little), but they do act as currency and item fountains, which has effects on the interplayer economy.

W101’s minigames also differ from PP games in that at least some W101 minigames (Potion Motion and Diego’s Duel) are completely predictable.  New pieces in Potion Motion always come in in the same order, so it’s possible to learn the pattern and set up obscene combos and optimized move routines.  (At least, they used to be… I’ve not tried it in months, so please forgive me if this has since been changed.)

Sometimes, predictability is a good thing, as in Diego’s Duel, effectively a pattern recognition almost-platformer.  NES players wouldn’t have ever finished Ninja Gaiden if it were random.  Though notably, it’s possible to design a machine that plays Mario perfectly… the skill isn’t in learning to master a dynamic system and make good split second tactical decisions, it’s in memorizing the timing and patterns, then executing perfectly.  Potion Motion, on the other hand, would benefit greatly from randomized piece generation.

Puzzle Pirate devs go to great lengths to design their minigames to avoid machine solvability.  They are built on random piece generation and player choices, meant to maximize benefit within the constraints of an unpredictable system.  Game pieces behave predictably, and the game mechanics themselves don’t change, but the pieces of the playing board change.  Without foreknowledge of the pieces to come, the games are not machine solvable.

Of course, the puzzle minigames in PP are the backbone of the game, where in W101 they are little more than a diversion and health/mana refill. It’s understandable that their respective devs would have different priorities.

Still, if you’re designing a game in video format, and multiplayer competition is relevant to what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to avoid machine solvability. Someone will abuse it, and blow up the scoring curve.  Random puzzle piece generation can be a pain sometimes if the game board is prone to locked positions (sanity checks help, but those can be expensive), but even that can be dodged with savvy design.

In other words, it’s good to give players choices.  If their choices degenerate to locked boards with no moves, or One True Path that was devised by a computer (and executed best by one), you’ve destroyed player choice.  Client hackery is one (bad) thing, but a game designed in such a way that machines can find the best way to play them in the first place isn’t much better.

Yes, players will always seek to optimize their play (like an optimal build and damage rotation in WoW, something that Elitist Jerks are dedicated to), but it’s not ideal to make it easy for the cheaters to ply their trade.

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In Soviet Russia, item shop pwns you.

…and yes, I’ve read reports that the prices for Russians are an order of magnitude cheaper.  Funny, that.  One for the home team, I guess.

Guys, this is not how you monetize a microtransaction game.  I know capitalism is hard, just like math, but this… is an order of magnitude beyond ill-advised.  I thought it was an honest if spectacularly embarrassing mistake, but as it turns out, it’s more like a faceplant.

Ah, well.  I hear WoW is still a good game, for a subscription game.  (Imagine the italics there dripping with disdain.)  All those who have been whining about AO either in-game or on blogs will surely find Blizzard waiting with open arms.

In the meantime, I maintain that the art direction of Allods Online is solid, the core game is fun (if nothing revolutionary in the DIKU mainstream), and the ships and their mechanics look awesome.  The game is good, even great in places.  The business plan… not so much.  (Curiously, my precise reaction to WoW, come to think of it…)

Oh, and I can get a six-man (actually seven-man) ship in Puzzle Pirates for $5, and I can solo it.  Guess who gets my money?

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Postscript:  I’m not trying to be snarky about those who, like BBB, tried Allods Online and found their interest waning.  It really just won’t scratch the same itch as WoW, especially for someone who is used to the endgame and doesn’t want to drag a character up through the leveling grind again.  That’s more a function of the age of games and how we get used to things, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My ire here is mostly with the businesswonks of Allods Online, with a small slice reserved by those who are cheering for the game’s failure, including those who are blindly prejudiced against the business model.  This is a failure of execution, not concept.  DDO, W101 and Puzzle Pirates do it right.

The actual game devs have crafted some great work, for which I applaud them.

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…what a ship is, what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom…

Jack Sparrow

Allods Online is a polished, well crafted MMO.  I dearly wish it would have taken a page from Puzzle Pirates, though.

One of the key points that differentiates Allods Online from most modern MMOs is the Astral and Astral Ships.  Players build ships that they can sail the Astral with, flitting between Allods (landmasses in the Astral aether), exploring PvE and PvP content.  The core mechanics of cooperative PvE and “open sea” PvP (making piracy viable, since players have to “port” with their treasure chests before laying proper claim to them) are very similar to Puzzle Pirates.  I’d say they make a lot of sense in any game where you have ships and islands or rough analogies.  EVE also comes to mind, though I’m not sure how well the concepts track there.

The part that I wish Allods Online would take from Puzzle Pirates is the wide range of ships, all the way from soloable Sloops (with NPC assistants) to Grand Frigates that can have 150 or more players aboard.  (Multiship PvP is also great in PP, with each “weight class” of ship having a use, given maneuverability, crew and firepower.)  Sloops are cheap enough for players to acquire one pretty quickly (depending on player skill and crew support), and players can be out sailing the ocean on their own ship far before what might be considered the “endgame”, easily within a couple of weeks for all but the most casual and incompetent of players.  There is a ship for nearly any group size, and a couple that fill similar niches, changing the combat tactics rather than the group size.

There are other things about PP that would make Allods Online more interesting, like the ability for crew conglomerates (flags) to own islands, the ability to make a living as a merchant (shipping, buying and selling goods between islands), the Black Ship to prevent ganking, and the dual currency system with blind auction currency exchange, but what really stands out to me is the ships.

I want my own ship in Allods Online, and I want to be able to solo it, and to take it out with a few close friends if I so choose. It’s no accident that I’ve grouped more in PP than any other MMO combined.  It’s easy to do, it’s easy to solo, and it’s easy to transition between the two via NPC swabbies, even midsession.  The bad guys are controlled by a dynamic spawn system that adjusts the PvE to your current ship’s staffing.  It’s painless and fun to be up and running, playing the shipboard games, solo or with others, very quickly, and changes midstride don’t wreck the whole journey.

Beyond game mechanics, though, there is a personal connection that you can have with ships.  I have a handful of ships in PP, and my most cherished game possessions are on one particular ship that cannot be sunk (you can sink ships, but only in arenas where you have to click through a confirmation to get to), decorated with the finest stuff that I’ve found in the game.  I’ve renamed the ship, painted it, and stocked it with trinkets and doodads that are irreplaceable.  It’s like private housing and a gameplay vehicle all in one, and I’m inordinately fond of it.  It is my home in Puzzle Pirates, more than a crew, more than an island, more than a server.

I want that connection to the Allods Online game world, a beautiful, imaginative place that I want to explore in glorious 3D.

That the current proposed implementation of ships in AO is based in the endgame and forced grouping (ships require a handful of players to function) makes me sad.  I still heartily recommend the game for its varied classes, great art direction, interesting lore, great business model, good combat and overall polish.  Apparently, you can customize your own ship in AO, a decision I do applaud and consider wise.  I don’t dislike the game at all.

I just wish that I could find the same connection with it that I have with PP, a connection firmly rooted in the freedom to own and sail my own ship, whenever I please, with whomever I please, even if it’s just barely-competent NPCs.  Allods Online looks to be shaping up to be a good or even great game.  It just can’t be my home the same way Puzzle Pirates is.

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