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Archive for December, 2008

Lest my grumbles about EA, Guild Wars and the industry at large give the impression that I’m just a grumpy codger who hates games, I’ll go in a different direction today.

I happened upon this article from the Escapist magazine, and couldn’t help but love it:

Sephiroth Saves the Symphony

I’ve been a fan of Arnie Roth ever since I found out he was connected to Mannheim Steamroller.  I’ve loved their music since I was growing up.  These were the Fresh Aire and Classical Gas days, before they decided to focus on Christmas iterations.  Their Carol of the Bells is still my favorite version of the song.

The article is partially an interview with Roth, who has been recently working with the Play! concerts, kin to the Dear Friends concerts.  Ah, I wish I could go to those concerts.  I have an Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mistuda music collection, as well as several other CDs of game Original Sound Tracks and variations (like Final Fantasy Potion Star Ocean/Valkyrie Profile and Yoko Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts).  I’m unabashedly emotional about FFX’s To Zanarkand‘s pure sound, and the haunting emotional resonances of Aerith’s Theme.  Hearing them performed by a full orchestra is a delight.

I loved Roth’s collaboration with Patrick Stewart and the Anima Eterna Orchestra on The Compleat Four Seasons by Vivaldi.  I have Mozart, Bach, Schumann and Handel in my rotation of music, along with these game composers.  To me, they have always been siblings in music.  I love classical music, I love Mannheim Steamroller, and I love these examples of game music.  Uematsu and Mitsuda are spiritual successors to those greats of history.

It’s heartening to see Arnie Roth take game music seriously, and to hear stories of professional orchestra musicians finding value in the music and the performance of it.  This is precisely the sort of positive influence that keeps me interested in games.  They can be uplifting, ennobling and inspiring.  They make us feel in ways that no other medium can.  That their music can and has been taken seriously by professional conductors and musicians gives me hope that the medium still has vast potential.  Yes, the music alone can stand on its own merit, but it really has such emotional resonance because of the games.

The loss of Aerith and the impact that has on the gamer.

The innocent dreamlike lilting of To Zanarkand and the dreamlike genesis of Tidus (and the repurcussions thereof).

The famous opera from FFVI.  Of itself, not the pinnacle of opera, but certainly unique in games, and beloved for playing it straight.

In a world where Shrek and sarcasm feed callous and cynical generations, it’s nice to find something simple and uplifting.  There will inevitably be those who mock the music for its lineage, or those who will look down on something sweet and pure, but for me, music like this is a refuge.

It’s very encouraging to see others take game music seriously, getting past the superficial prejudices and finding something of value in the work of Uematsu and Mitsuda and their fellows.

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Apparently, there’s been some kerfluffle about this little teaser from EA:

Bioware’s Star Wars MMO to use Microtransactions

So now they “misrepresented the facts” and are pulling back from a semi-controversial comment.

Wimps.

Since when did EA give a flying flan’s flagella about PR?  This is the company that actively abuses its customers.  (All in the name of antipiracy, of course… political parallels?  Nope, not here, this is not the country you’re looking for.)  They are also publicly traded, and utterly beholden to their shareholders.  Some of those investors might actually be paying attention to the market, which has actively abused subscription based MMOs by anyone who isn’t Blizzard, and an economy that is rapidly approaching Depression era level meltdown.

In a world where Maple Story is profitable but Age of Conan and Warhammer are floundering, microtransactions make sense.  I’d actually suggest a dual currency model where purchaseable items are cosmetic or frivolous rather than gameplay altering, but such a common sense moderate (and demonstrably profitable) plan just has no place in the rabid fanboy world of the internet.

Players are demanding another failure based on the subscription business model, all while whining that WoW is awful and that there’s no innovation in the MMO genre.  Y’know who’s to blame for that?  Yup, the idiots who complain about innovation and who keep their WoW subscription alive.

It’s the economy, stupid.  Then again, when the U.S. is behind Croatia and Liechtenstein in mathematic comprehension, I guess this shouldn’t surprise me.

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Mini Portfolio

Since it’s come up a few times, I’m throwing together a mini portfolio of some of the artwork I’ve done over the last few years. This is naturally a picture-heavy post, so the “More” link here is a natural stopgap for those who don’t want to bother with loading graphics. As one might guess, All of these images are copyrighted by me, and I’ll be grateful if you don’t use them without my permission. I might not even come after you with my rabid lawyer wombat.

Oh, and most graphics are actually links. Sometimes that doesn’t buy much, but other times, the link will take you to a larger version of the picture. Please enjoy, and I’m happy to answer any questions that you might have.

(more…)

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Guild Wars Goofs

I’ve written about some of what I like about Guild Wars.  It’s not a perfect game, though, and there are a few things about it that bug me.  On balance, I’m very favorably inclined towards the game, so this list is considerably more… nitpicky and superficial than the Goodness list.  I’m also only partway through the game, and I haven’t tried all the classes, so I’m sure that I could add to both lists as time goes on.

First and most annoying from a gaming standpoint, I can’t issue simple commands to my henchmen.  I can tell my pet to Attack, Guard or Heel, why not henchmen?  I play as a Ranger, and often, I want to pull an enemy from its friends, but I can’t do that when my henchmen start attacking whatever I target. Even a simple “stop” or “go” command would be great.

Second, and more generalized, the skank factor. This is present in nearly anything these days, but I’m tired of the relentless oversexualization. It’s mostly women who suffer, but even some of the male dance animations are tasteless. (Monks have some cool kata moves, though.) Elementalists suffer the most here, but really, all of the women have an uncomfortable “look at my chest” stance and most have attire more suited for a harem than serious adventuring. I blame Boris Vallejo and decades of testosterone oversaturation in the industry.

Third, Necromancy. In GW, like WoW’s Warlocks, the Necromancer class seems to want to be the prototypical “antihero”, but even in-game the portrayal is fairly schizophrenic, ranging from sociopaths to cosplaying undertakers. It’s almost like the designers are tossing a bone to the emo herd, when what they really need is a slap upside the head and a job in a soup kitchen. If you want to see “necromancy” done right, read Sabriel by Garth Nix. GW’s pasty white emo rockers are shallow and ridiculous.  Beyond that, antiheroes are overdone, even when done well.  What’s wrong with being a real hero?

Fourth, characters by the numbers. Yes, the storytelling is a notch above WoW, but still several notches below the giants of the fantasy genre. The “rebellious strongheaded prince vs. his stubborn antiquated king father” trope was tired when Arthas went all Dark Side on his daddy. I just can’t care all that much about Prince Rurik or the King when both are phoning in their lines based on writing from Cracker Jack boxes. I didn’t jump into GW for a literary experience, but it could at least be better than this.

Fifth, forced grouping.  I absolutely detest forced grouping.  An early PreSearing quest requires making a party to acquire an inventory expansion.  (OK, it’s not necessary to the gameplay, but it’s still annoying since it’s a high demand item.)  There’s another quest that requires another player to go open a gate by pulling a lever, despite an NPC soldier walking past with absolutely nothing better to do.  These two quests are a big part of the chat spam in Ascalon; people offering to be “gate monkeys” for gold, and others asking for party mates to go get the belt pouch.  I can understand forcing groups to assemble to do raids and such, but as a general principle, forced grouping annoys the snot out of me, especially when it’s so… vapid.

Sixth, the Searing.  Yes, I have a “permanent PreSearing character” because I happen to like that world.  It’s very much like going back to a beloved save game in an offline RPG, as I described here.  It’s funny, since the Searing really does give a sense that the world has changed, something that many (including myself) seem to think is missing from the narrative of MMOs.  I’ve just gotten used to other MMOs and their static worlds, with the ability to go pretty much anywhere if I feel like it, since things never really change.  This is only a complaint because of what I’ve come to expect (static worlds).  When taken as a part of the narrative of GW, it’s actually very effective, and a nice departure from the static MMO worlds that have become the norm.  Still, I like having the option of leaving a character in the PreSearing world.

Seventh, the habitrail effect.  Shamus describes it well here, but in a nutshell, PreSearing Ascalon is pretty much free range adventuring, but once the world burns, suddenly the topography is all over the place, with walking paths through narrow valleys and plateaus.  It feels more constraining than it should.  Ultimately, this doesn’t bother me all that much, since I’ve gotten used to it, and it does make it easier to find things in missions, since the paths don’t often have a ton of branches.  Still, for a wandering soul accustomed to going anywhere with minimal rerouting, it’s a bit… cramped.

Eighth, dead NPCs. I play a Ranger/Monk, and I usually have a Monk henchwoman along.  Why in the world can’t we use our handy resurrection spells on the occasional NPCs who lend a hand, or quest NPCs who have the gall to die (usually because they rush into combat instead of following along like good little escortees)?  They aren’t in our party, so somehow the magic doesn’t work?  Lame, lame, lame.

Ninth, arbitrary party sizes.  Yes, I can respect them as pacing tools.  I can even respect them as tools to minimize relying on henchmen too much.  (Though I’d disagree with that; I love the henchmen mechanic.)  But seriously, if I can scrounge together three of my closest friends to play together, I want to be able to party with them in PreSearing Ascalon.  But nooooo, I’ve got to wait until the Searing to be able to have a party of four people.  Lame, lame.  If my friends and I want to zerg the heck out of the lowbie mobs, let us!

Tenth, plodding PreSearing.  This was part of “sixth”, but then I realized it’s actually its own concern.  (Notice to English handicapped readers:  those are two proper uses of the different words “it’s” and “its”.)  This article from the GW wiki illustrates the trouble:  in order to progress to level 20, you must “death level” and resort to weird timing on quests and other gymnastics.  There’s even a title for it, so the designers know that people are doing it.  Bizarre.  All I want to do is be able to grab a henchman and go hunt Charr north of the Wall, exploring all of the map while I merrily go on my genocidal way.  Only, there are no henchmen, you need another player to open the gate, you’re limited to two in your party, and the Charr hunt in groups of four or more.  Lame.

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Dyeing for Choices

Apparently, the question of whether or not World of Warcraft will allow for armor color customization has been around for a while.  Guild Wars allows for coloring via their dye systemClothing customization is a large part of Puzzle Pirates, and a significant element of demand that fuels their dual currency microtransaction business strategy.  (Though, to be fair, PP doesn’t allow customization after purchase, you determine the look before you buy.  GW and WoW clothing is often crafted for stats, or earned from quests or loot drops, so the coloring takes place after the fact.)

I’ve long argued that customization for MMO avatars is vital to a sense of ownership for players.  It’s something that lets people get more involved, increasing enjoyment and loyalty.  It’s a currency sink that keeps an in-game economy from exploding into hyperinflation.  The emotional connection a player has for their avatar can be enhanced by allowing the player to control aspects of their appearance.  (Would that it were that easy altering ourselves sometimes…)  It’s even possible to monetize an MMO largely through such options, assuming you have sufficiently interesting gameplay to keep people playing, and sufficient customization options to make it important to players.

My company’s A Kingdom for Keflings taps into the new avatar customization that Microsoft installed in the XBox system.  Our game is fun on its own, but giving players the option to put their own avatars in the game is another layer that increases the appeal. (more…)

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Guild Wars Goodness

Guild Wars does a lot of things right for me as a player and as a game designer.

Firstly and foremostly, there are no subscription fees.  I cannot stress this enough as a player with a very constrained gaming schedule.

Secondly, the tech spec requirements aren’t cutting edge.  I appreciate not having to buy a new gaming rig just to play the game.

Thirdly, I can solo the game.  As near as I can tell, the whole thing.  Henchmen and Heroes are absolutely brilliant.  There are few things that bother me more about online gaming than forced grouping or design that all but requires grouping.  I don’t mind playing with groups sometimes, but if you as a designer force me to group, I will not be a happy camper.

Fourth, it looks fantastic.  The art direction is impressive and interesting.  I greatly appreciate the subtle colors.  I’m generally a desaturated kind of guy, so the naturalistic color palette at use in GW makes me happy.

Fifth, I can move around the UI pretty much however I durn well please, and it’s an option in the game, not something I have to turn to modders for.  Why this isn’t a standard I’ll never know.

Sixth, click to move is nice.  I can’t believe this, since it originally put me off of the game (yes, I know it’s optional), but after playing Atlantica Online, I appreciate it more.  I can hold a sick sleeping baby in one hand and still actually play the game.

Seventh, the class system is interesting and dual classing is awesome.  I’ve loved dual classing since my D&D days, and the implementation here is brilliant.  It’s all about options and choice, and I love that.

Eighth, designing a guild cloak is cool.  I made my own guild (of one), and making the cloak was the highlight.  I probably spend a good half hour tinkering with it.  Yes, it’s kind of a lame little thing, but honestly, in a game where there are hundreds if not thousands of people who look just like you, it’s a very cool thing to be able to take a relatively large visual element of the avatar and customize it so fully.  Customization is king in the MMO sphere (Puzzle Pirates makes good money with it), and to see it as well implemented as it is here makes me happy.

Ninth, dye.  See Eighth.  I like being able to color my clothes.  It’s just one more touch of individuality I can bring to the game.  I actually wish dye were as customizable as the cloaks, but I can see that it might be tricky.  Still, being able to make my own dye and mix and match colors would be a great little minigame/crafting outlet.  (Hint, hint, Blizzard.  Next crafting skill?  Dyemaker.  Yes, it would be yet another herbalism/mineralogy secondary… and maybe would use both for source material, but man, would it be sweet.  Maybe I’ll make a whole post on that someday.)

Tenth, minimap quest tooltips.  Some consider this sort of thing handholding, but dangit, with my constrained time, I deeply appreciate knowing where I’m headed to find the Foozle of Death or the random NPC in the wilds.  Even as an Explorer, I love knowing where I’m headed.  (I can, and do, wander around when I’m not on the Quest clock.)

…and that’s it for today.  I may revisit this sometime, but for now, I’m happy.  Yes, there are things that I’m not so happy with in the game, too, but for now, I’m being positive.

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If you’re my brother in law or my “RL” friend, don’t read the rest of this until after Christmas.  It’ll just spoil the surprise.  Of course, if you don’t mind that… (more…)

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I’m in an introspective mood today. Must be the stormclouds outside. Or the economy. Or maybe the articles like these and sites like these that I’ve been reading lately. Maybe it’s the leftover Thanksgiving turkey I ate for lunch.

I’ve resisted the siren call of World of Warcraft for at least three years now. (Giving in a few times to the ten day trial, of course, and plenty of reading.) It’s not because I think it’s a bad game. It’s because I don’t have time for it. (Which drives my extreme distaste for the subscription model.) I’ve all but quit Atlantica Online, an excellent free game. I almost never play Puzzle Pirates any more, despite being a huge fan. I’m playing Guild Wars lately, and hopefully soon with my wife and friend and brother in law… but I can’t see that lasting for terribly long. I just don’t have the time. Oh, it’ll be great fun while it lasts, and I doubt I’ll ever get burned out to the point of disliking the game, but there’s just so much else that I would like to do. (more…)

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MMORPG Tycoon

Via a circuitous route that started with Tobold, I found this interesting little gem:

MMORPG Tycoon

It reminds me of the little marketing simulator program I played with in my Marketing class at BYU. It’s a sort of “metatool” that allows for experimentation with the MMO market. It’s not a complete model of all the possibilities that are out there, but it’s fun to tinker with.

Of course, I’d rather actually be designing a game or playing a game, but this sits in an interesting space between the two that I’ll probably spend some time in.

I’m still enjoying Guild Wars, and thanks to Amazon.com, I purchased three more copies for $5 each that I’ll be sending to friends and family, so I may wind up doing some multiplayer GW with people I trust. Still, I’m starting to burn out again on MMOs. I’ve all but dropped Atlantica Online (it’s still a fantastic game, I just don’t have time), and I rarely play Puzzle Pirates any more (it’s still fantastic too, I just don’t have the time). Oh, for the heady days of my youth, where I had time to burn and dreams to believe in.

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