Archive for June, 2009

Since I’ll be out of commission for a while, I suggest the following as something bigger and better to pick up:

Game Design Concepts

I’ll be checking it out too; I read faster than I write, and this guy has more experience than I do.

So have fun with it, and if it turns out that coming back here is less and less appealing, well, maybe I’ll have to post some pretty pictures to liven up the place.



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Stream of Consciousness writing is an interesting thing.  Sometimes, it’s interesting to see how someone thinks, or how they make connections, and other times, it’s horrific to see where people go when they deign to think.  More often than not, it’s an excuse some writers use for explaining why they have textual diarrhea (including bloggers, which is part of the appeal, oddly enough), rather than presenting a tighter narrative or analytical structure.  (I’m certainly not immune to this, but then, blogging isn’t writing a term paper, either.)  It’s especially interesting to see the journey from point A to point B, since the two may not initially seem connected, but following the links in the chain show how even disparate things can be connected with enough meandering.

This, of course, is the appeal of the “Six Degrees of Separation” theory and the casual sport of namedropping.  For some reason, people want to feel connected and important, and if they can prove even an incidental link to someone else who is more important, it seems like a little thunder can be stolen, or at least echoed.  Of course, in a nepotistic society where who you know is more important than what you know, this isn’t a great surprise.  It’s still potentially dangerous, shallow and stupid, but not surprising.

It’s also why people follow the herd in something like American Idol or political campaigns; people like to feel that they “picked the winner”, which somehow makes them feel more important, since their choices were apparently validated by their peers, imagined or otherwise.  (Of course, objectivity is thrown out the window, but facts are so inconvenient.)  Call it the bandwagon effect, the halo effect (or the Halo effect), or social flocking, whatever, people tend to like to find those links that make them feel important.  (What else is Facebook, after all?  Ixobelle noted, rightly, that it’s sort of a game, complete with a very visible score and addictive mechanics.)

This is, of course, a rumination on the notion of internet hyperlinks, and the way that they make research considerably different from the days of card catalogs.  Casually dropping a hyperlink into a blog post can give those so inclined the ability to dig deeper down the rabbit hole of any particular topic.  Links lead to other links, and pretty soon, you can find that you’ve burned hours just following whims and interesting tangents.  (The tvtropes.org website is a great launching pad for just this sort of tangential ADHD research.)

Blogrolls can expand exponentially as a result of this sort of “browsing”.  A sort of “hive mind” can form, where ideas echo around within social circles, everyone adding to the great ball of wax that a simple idea spawns.  Sometimes that winds up polishing the discussion into a pearl, sometimes it just degrades into Gordian Knot, but it’s usually interesting either way.

Still… I’ve got to admit, I miss the intellectual rigors of a University and term papers.  I like it when things are painstakingly researched and analyzed as objectively as possible.  I ramble rather extensively about gibberish here on the blog, but as my itch to create rather than pontificate has increased, so has my desire for data, rather than opinions.  Extensive link browsing winds up creating a lot of mental cruft when I’m looking for hard data and incisive insight.

Short story long, I was all geared up to provide another handful of links for public consumption, but took a moment to think about it.  Do I really want to contribute to the static?  Not as much as I used to.  There’s a lot of good stuff out there, definitely… but how valuable are these little collections I come up with?  I’m a bit ambivalent about them.

So… back to the drawing board.  Literally.  I need to create, not just… graze.  I love data, and I soak it up like a sponge.  I’m just a bit oversaturated, and need to clear the system.  One way I do that is by drawing.

I’m involved in illustrating a children’s storybook at present, so I’ll be busy with that for a while.  It’s not the Steampunk BattleTech art that I’ve really been itching to create, but it will be a great diversion, and a way to stretch my art muscles.  Who knows, I might even dig into art creation a bit in this, my narrative dumping ground.

Back in a bit.

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I’m an artist by trade, and I love creating things.  I grew up wanting to be a Disney animator, and my BFA degree is in computer animation.  I also happen to love math, and have spent a fair bit of time as a math tutor.  I grew up loving math and the intersection that it has with art in things like Origami, the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci numbers (there is a TON of math in art).  I love being able to take “right brain” and “left brain” notions and use them to reinforce each other.  It saddens me to see students that I tutor fear negative numbers or fractions.  Math and art are both deeply inquisitive ways to look at the world around us, and both have a great deal to offer to those trying to understand life and make their cognitive functions more effective, and to each other as disciplines.

Raph Koster brought “Lockhart’s Lament” to my attention, and it resonates with my experience.  I managed to find a deep fascination with math early on, and I persisted with it despite my deep disgust with memorization and busywork.  Of course, so-called “Investigations Math” is worse, as it doesn’t bother actually teaching anything, leaving students to figure things out on their own.  The truth is somewhere in between; students need to learn how math works, but more important, they need to learn why, and how to extrapolate the critical thinking required for mathematical analysis into other aspects of life.  Students need to learn how to think, not how to regurgitate.

Of course this has game design applications, since that’s what I talk about around here.  Game designers need to give players tools and show them how they work, then stand back and let players play.  Good math is playful, good art is playful.  It’s the experimentation and discovery that makes them both fun.  Games are very similar; the exploration of the game functions and artistic content is a significant part of the fun that can be derived.

To be fair, that’s not the only way to play (or design) games, or the only reason to do so, but it always bothers me when games quickly devolve into reflex checks or memorization hurdles.  Likewise, tightly straightjacketed games with little room to explore and experiment don’t hold my interest for long.  This is why level-gated games like WoW bother me; I’ve got to jump through the highly repetitive hurdles of leveling (with very repetitive combat) to see more content and get on with exploring and experimenting.

I think it’s no mystery why The Incredible Machine is one of my all time favorite games, and more recently, why Boom Blox and Crayon Physics are high on my list.

I wish people wouldn’t be afraid of math, or dismiss art as frivolous luxury.

I suppose there’s a tangent to be run exploring linguistics and how writing and wordsmithing is similarly creative and playful while being fascinatingly structured.  I do lean on alliteration and creative use of words around here, after all.  Perhaps that’s best saved for another article, though.

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I really wanted to work these in during my I Am Become Death article, but I didn’t have them ready at the time.  Also, there are a few things that I missed that I wanted to mention that these pictures can help illustrate.

Most of all, though, I wanted to call attention to the last screen shot on the page, because it gives me a bit of hope for Blizzard amid all the snarkiness that I’ve perhaps unfortunately indulged in.



This is Sendoku:  Dark, brooding, blue… and really in need of a hug.  You might think it’s a hard life, that of a Death Knight, but it’s really the emotional turmoil that hurts (since anything mortal or material can just be mercilessly murdered).  You should see his CD collection.  *shudder*

Unholy Homies

Unholy Homies



His fellow emobrood critterlings seem to like him well enough, though, and even Daddy Lich King seems like he might give Sendoku a hug someday.

With Frostmourne in hand.

Just in case.

Early on in his tasklist for the village assault, Sendoku was told to go steal a horse, that it might be converted into a Death Charger for him to ride on.  It’s an interesting bit of lore, since horses are a key part of the whole “knight” mythos, but it’s ultimately a somewhat disappointing chain of events.



Sendoku ran into town risking defeat at the hands of the village defenders, angling to swipe a lovely horse to claim as his own.  (By getting someone else to kill it back at the camp, naturally.  Death Charger, remember?)  He grabbed a stark white and grey stallion, since it stood out from its more colorful brethren as a proper Death Knight mount.

Death Charger

Death Charger

Back in the camp, the Horsemaster took the horse and shunted it into the Death Zone Shadow World (or something like that), where his minions would Necromance it in a weird Azerothian emo form of Pimp My Ride.  Sendoku was actually sort of looking forward to that, since that horse went so well with his armor.  Upon entry into the Death Zone Shadow World, though, it was revealed that all of the horses that wound up as Death Charger candidates went through the same cookie cutter and wound up as identical equine tanks.  Ultimately, it didn’t really even matter that he had brought a horse, since the first one that he captured escaped when he accidentally dismounted, and he was forced to grab another one that materialized a few dozen paces yonder.  Apparently, there are plenty of critters to go around.

Ready to Roll

Ready to Roll

Or maybe he just shafted another initiate by stealing his horse.  Ah, well.  No love lost among these brethren anyway.  Still, it pays to look over your shoulder now and then… or have a few minions to watch your back for you.

Loyal Minions

Loyal Minions



Especially when you’re told to fight five other Death Knight noobs to prove your dominance.  I’ll be blunt on this one:  they shouldn’t have made the NPC DK Initiates try to imatate humans by using inane terms like “owned”.  I know, there’s a dose of tongue in cheek in the whole game, as well as a penchant to embrace the absurd, but that stood out as being, well… dumb.  The groveling that those DK Initiates did after Sendoku whipped them was vaguely satisfying, though.  (Especially when the next dolt in line thought they had a chance to “own” him after the other guy “phailed”.  Morons.)

View from the Cemetary

View from the Cemetary



Phasing is pretty cool.  I don’t have any good “preburning” pictures, and I feel remiss in my self-imposed duties for neglecting that… but the sense of time progress lends a nice air to the storytelling and atmosphere.  I maintain that it would be better if they just went ahead and made a great single player game to really nail down the storytelling…



A bit later, Sendoku was charged with assassinating the curiously regenerating Mayor of the nearby Havenshire, and maybe some random citizens while he was at it.  The gates and doorstep of the town were overrun by a horde (get it? Hyuk!) of ghouls, which made for an interesting sense of life by way of undeath.





This is one place where I can be (sort of) serious; if Blizzard can do this sort of “incidental atmospheric life” thing without having any other players around, it undermines the “I play MMOs because they seem more alive than single player games” argument a bit.  If anything, the ghoul conga line and dogpile suggest that NPC critters do the whole “undead mindless attack swarm” better than a bunch of noob Death Knights ever could, and that the completely AI-driven characters sell the storytelling far more effectively than other players.  This whole DK starting questline really fits more into a single player game than an MMO, and it’s even engineered that way.  Well, except for that whole “$15/month to play” thing.

Timing is Everything

Timing is Everything

Speech bubbles are funny sometimes, albeit occasionally unintentionally.  Context is king.

Fractions are Scary

Fractions are Scary

Oh, and as I mentioned the tedium of Patch Day, I had to note this pair of screenshots from the patch notes.  First, this note on DK abilities made the math geek in me chortle.  Blizzard, you dummies, 2/4 is equal to 1/2.  I know that there are a lot of people in the U.S. who have the math competency of rutabegas, but that’s still silly.

…OK, OK, I know that it’s a list of two different numbers that just happen to be separated by a slash.  They aren’t really fractions.  It just looked odd enough to me that it cought my eye, and I grabbed a shot of it for posterity’s sake.



And then there’s this little gem.  I know, it’s probably not a big deal, and it’s a bit odd that it was tucked away in the patch notes in a relatively bland, unimportant place… but that they even put this in at all suggests to me that there are still a few people with some class over in the WoW dev team.

I never really did get into D&D (beyond a passing interest and a brief flirtation with Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment and Neverwinter Nights Diamond Edition), but Mr. Arneson did have a significant effect on gaming as a whole, and for that, he deserves thanks and accolades.  I wish his family well.

Death Knight nuttery aside, there really are real people behind these game thingies.  I don’t agree with a lot of them and a lot of their decisions, but they are people, and it’s nice to see a human touch here and there that doesn’t smack of saccharine or cynicism.

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I love Stargate.  I don’t enthuse much about it around here because I’ve already got a lot on my plate, and I do try to keep things at least marginally related to game design.  (Yes, yes, I could rant about Stargate Worlds, but they have kind of slipped off of my radar.  Woe is me.)

Still, if you’ve ever had a fandom tingle in your bones for Stargate, especially SG-1 or Atlantis, you might get a kick out of what my little sister did recently:

Chappa Pie

Yes, that’s a very punny riff on the Gou’ald name for the Stargate, the “chappa’ai”.  She’s an English major, so she’s got to get it out of her system now and then.  My little brother is an artist, so of course he had to chip in.

Oh, and yes, I have seen the pie in person, and it’s awesome.  I just wish I’d had a hand in its creation because I like that sort of creativity.

I almost feel guilty for introducing my family to Stargate, considering that they have taken the fandom *coughobsessioncough* WAY past what I’ve ever done (Gou’ald logo design)… but at the same time, there’s just something heartwarming to see my siblings employing their talents and having fun with something that I happen to like too.  I hope that I can do better for my children; give them the good while not sending them off the deep end.

Then again, perhaps this isn’t a surprise, though.  My mother did introduce us all to MacGyver, so SG-1 was a natural successor to the throne.  RDA is the man.

Anyway, go check out her blog.  The pie isn’t the only great part about their party.

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I can’t stand mustard or mayo on my sandwiches.  Almost every single catered party that I’ve had the misfortune to experience made the assumption that putting them on sandwiches is The Right Way.  It might be for somebody, but not for me, so more often than not, I simply don’t eat the sandwiches.  It’s not much of a loss to me (unless I paid for lunch as part of a package deal), but it is wasteful, and completely avoidable.  The caterer assumes that their way is the right way for everyone else, and winds up with a reality that doesn’t match their vision.

Similarly, I don’t like onions.  At all.  Almost every single homemade chili recipe uses onions, as do many, many other recipes.  Most “serious” cooks wouldn’t be caught dead cooking without onions.  I will not eat food with onions in it.

My sister and mother suffer from Celiac, a trouble with the intestines where wheat is damaging to eat.  Wheat.  “The Staff of Life” that almost every single recipe uses in one way or another.  Specifically, it’s gluten that is the problem, and that’s not just from wheat; gluten is nearly everywhere.  Celiac almost killed my sister, and it took many months to diagnose because doctors assumed she had “irritable bowel” or some such other handwaved and untreatable problem.  Luckily, she’s better now, but she has to be very careful about what she eats.

Many moons ago, a girl in my high school died because she ate a candy bar that had peanut oil in it, despite having no peanuts, and not advertising the oil.  The producers assumed it wouldn’t be a problem.

These days, food manufacturers are very careful to point out when peanuts are part of their product, or even part of the facility where their non-peanut products are produced.  Chex cereal recently reintroduced their Honey Nut Chex with a prominent label proclaiming that it’s “Gluten-Free”!  The assumptions are being challenged, and information is in a very real position to save lives.  The consumer is empowered, and can make intelligent decisions about where their money goes.

My utter contempt for onions and lesser disgust with mustard and mayo is far from life threatening.  It’s just a personal preference (albeit one with social ramifications, as gagging on a disguised onion can be a bit awkward).  Yet, it drives my consumer patterns just as my sister and mother are driven by their particular needs.  My concerns are mere quibbles compared to a potentially life threatening purchase.

And yet… consumer preferences do dictate the life and death of companies that cater to those preferences.  I do not patronize a restaurant that uses onions in all of their offerings.  I do not recommend caterers who assume that mustard and mayo must be used.  I go to Subway, Cafe Rio or Costa del Sol, where I can get food the way I want it, or I just forgo eating out entirely and spend my food money at the grocery store and do my own cooking.

Will my relatively paltry bankroll and less-than-highbrow tastes sink a company?  Not alone, no… but then, my consumption alone won’t keep a company afloat either.  Customer tastes usually need to be accounted for as a bit within a set of aggregated data.  Still, as a rule, there are plenty of companies that make a decent living by catering to variable tastes, like Subway or Blimpie.  There are also those that make a decent living with a one-size-fits-all, shut-up-and-give-me-your-$15 mentality.

There is room in a mature market for both types of company.  There is room for those who just want a vanilla product, whether it’s ice cream, clothing, a game or anything else.  There is room for those who want something a bit different.  Smart companies find ways to satisfy as many people as possible, to earn as much money as possible, presenting themselves in positive light to both sets of customers.  That’s the point of market segmentation, and giving the customer options.

Let the customer choose, and give them as many reasons as possible to choose your products.

This is why I am a big proponent of microtransaction models in the MMO genre.  I have no interest in a company-dictated grilled onion sandwich with mustard and mayo.  I do have interest in the game that makes no assumptions about what I want, and just gives me choices.  I’m a discerning customer.  It’s my money to spend, and I will do it how I please.

This is also why I don’t call for abolishing the sub model, since others have the right to their preferences.  I do call for a more mature market, though; one with clearer information, better clarity in what my dollar buys, and that offers me more choices than “take it or leave it”.  Such a binary choice does a disservice to the industry.

This is why I keep promoting ideas that offer players choices, and why I challenge assumptions about what “true MMOs” really are.  It’s why I’m tired of the DIKU model, and why I’m itching for something more than tired old mechanics and treadmills.  Yes, Blizzard and others can polish and make cosmetic alterations to tried and true systems, but it’s all just so much paint on a tired old foundation.  For those like me who have lost interest in the Way Things Are, more of the same isn’t going to drum up much interest, even if it’s polished to a high gloss.

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Star Control 2

This was perhaps the first game that I played extensively with a friend, and the first game that I wrote what we now call a FAQ on.  Of course, it was more just a series of notes to myself for places, names and stardates, but still, that I even took the game seriously enough to take notes on it was new to my little Cro-Magnon mind.  My friend even made a huge star chart out of several sheets of graph paper, complete with color coding, coordinates and racial locations.

I ran StarCon2 from DOS, and even in my younger days, the nerd in me appreciated how well the naming scheme fit into the lame 8 character folder name limit.  I probably still have the StarCon2.exe file on at least two older computers.  The game maintains a spot of honor on my game shelf.  What does it have to teach designers today?

First and foremost, the game gave a great sense that the player affected the galaxy. A big part of this was the fact that time marched on, no matter what the player did, and certain “scheduled” events happened even if the player wasn’t there. That sense that “life goes on”, or that the player wasn’t the center of the universe, made it all the sweeter when the player actually managed to make a difference, like saving a species from extermination, or helping to create a new species. This, of course, gave the game replay value, as determining the best way to save everyone took a few stabs, and careful planning. In this, the GameFAQs era, such would be a matter of looking up someone’s FAQ on the game… but then, there was no such resource, so making the discovery of these scheduled events, and how to manipulate them, was a glorious thing.

Much of the game was about exploration and discovery. The search for the Rainbow Worlds was one such nugget; if you found one of them by happenstance, or followed vague clues, you found a hostile world that was astoundingly rich in resources. If you dug a little more, and asked a few more questions, you could find a couple more of these gems. If you dug even more, and did a little lore diving, you would find the pattern that let you pinpoint all ten of the worlds. Again, such charting is subverted by a simple FAQ, or a few times playing through, but for the explorer content to take the game on its own terms, there were many things like this to be found.  Characters would drop hints about other species, and following up on conversation trees and historical lectures paid off with clues for more things to do and see, as well as a deeper appreciation for the universe of StarCon.

The music was awesome, even on tinny little speakers.  It was one good reason to have one of the then-coveted Sound Blaster cards.  Today, there are remixes available from the Precursors, and listening to them last week, I found that it’s still some of my favorite game music.  It’s lighter fare than an Uematsu or Mitsuda collection, and as with all great game music, it offers a very clear connection with events and characters that make the game unforgettable.  (The Star Trek riffs are also a nice little aural Easter Egg.)

The graphics were great for a 640×480 game, with a decent and consistent UI and excellent story and character paintings.  Of course it was all very stylized and cartoony, but in the age when Sierra Adventure games were the epitome of game art, it fit right in.  I still miss that era, since no amount of normal mapping and pixel shader bling can make up for the sheer art competency that was required for those games to really shine.  Those artists pulled off more with their limited toolset than they really should have been able to, and I respect their efforts greatly.

The setting and mood were a tasty mix of high adventure in the vein of the old Star Trek (Shatner Kirk, that is) mixed with a hefty dose of humor.  Alien races had clear identities and themes, with definite “voices” conveyed with unique fonts and syntax.  To date, I still use the Orz term *frumple* in casual communication.  It confused my wife for the longest time.  If you don’t find something to like in the Pkunk, there’s a bit of your soul that is screaming for attention, you should find it.  There’s also something deeply satisfying in talking a Shofixti down from using their Glory Device.  Meeting the Ilwrath (aptly named) is suitably creepy, and while combat is inevitable, at least you can choose to pump your foe for information before fighting, or jump straight to insults and ordnance.  First contact with these diverse aliens is usually a great bit of storytelling, and the way that you can cause interactions between the races is still something that I don’t see in modern games.  (For instance, you can manipulate some races to obliterate each other, making scavenging operations easier.  Cold, but effective.)  Also, talking to some aliens can make previous contacts interesting, as they are cast in a new light.  The Arilou are especially enigmatic, and their interaction with the Orz can be enlightening.

Oh, and tangentially?  This sort of thing will never fly in an MMO.  You can’t give players that much power.  Single player games still rule in storytelling as a result.

The wide variety of different ships for combat provided by the aliens makes the “Melee” combat a ton of fun.  Notably, Star Control (the original) was mostly about this sort of one-on-one combat, with only a small side of storytelling.  That StarCon 2 made *both* work is icing on the cake.  Here, again, the Pkunk shine.  It’s hard not to love a race that recharges their starship batteries by insulting their opponents, and who have a chance to spontaneously reincarnate with a fresh ship on destruction.  Each ship has its uses, and pitting your team of ships against a friend’s team can provide hours of fun.  Team construction is based on a point-based balancing system, with each ship worth a certain amount of points, and each player given an equal amount of points to use (or not use, for that matter, making handicapping easy).  The differences between primary and secondary weapons, ship handling and even physics make for interesting combat tactics, especially when you down an opponent ship and they pop in with another type with different tactics that may be the rock to your scissors.  (Though overall, the balance is more akin to Pokemon’s deeper, nuanced system of strengths and weaknesses, rather than a true RPS triangle.)

All in all, it’s a fantastic game, a collection of great game design ideas, rolled up in fun visuals and great writing.


I’ve downloaded the open source version of the game, released in 2002, more than once now, but only recently installed it.  The game holds up well, and while there are some things that I’d change about the UI (notably, the rerelease makes planetary landing much better), and the visuals are notably just 640×480, it’s still a fantastic game to play.  And it’s free.

As I note in a comment to a Rampant Coyote post over here, I’d pay decent money for a Nintendo DS port of the game.  It’s one that I’d buy before 95% of the current crop of games, and there are design elements that I wish had been adopted by the blockbusters of the modern era.  (Among them the nearly unlimited saves, dynamic universe, witty writing, and simple but fun physics-influenced combat.)

Oh, and Star Control 3 doesn’t count.  That game was just… not good.  I’ll leave it at that.

Bottom line, I can’t recommend Star Control 2 enough, and since getting your hands on it is now extremely easy (and free!), it is one that any serious gamer or game designer should spend a bit of time with.

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As a father of a little girl who means the world to me, this is heartbreaking:

No Hugs and No Sleep

A few “years” later, and that same little girl shows more compassion and morality than most “real” people:


It’s just a game.


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(With apologies to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita.)

Sendoku isn’t Vishnu, but as a newly minted Death Knight, subject of the Lich King, he is a harbinger of death, one who uses terror like a madman’s cudgel and fear like a torturer’s scalpel.

Early in his career, he was told that the hunger gnawing at his soul could only be sated by killing.  His very first fight set the tone for his existence, as he was told to fight a fellow initiate to the death.  The later massacre of scores of soldiers was only a mild escalation in his ultimate task to eradicate all life on Azeroth under the direction of the Lich King.

He is not quite alive, having been reanimated to serve in thrall to the Lich King, nor is he truly dead or undead.  He and his brethren are at least somewhat mortal, as some have not survived the Lich King’s war efforts.  So he’s understandably confused about his existence, and the suggestion to focus on obedience to the will of the Lich King and the tasks at hand undoubtedly help efforts to ignore exisistential musing.

All his homies agree he really looks good in black, and he’s got a really cool hat.

Even when he will eventually break free of the Lich King’s will, as foretold by this oracle, he will still serve Death, and be a slave to his eternal hunger for killing and destruction.  He will turn his blue, glowing eyes to the North, pushing forward with his kin, looking to bring death to the Lich King.  …who is already dead.  Sort of.  And who wields Death for fun and profit.

Death Knights aren’t exactly the sharpest cutlery in the rack, but they may well be the angriest and the angstiest.  (Three Panel Soul is highly recommended.)


Short story long, the Death Knights are a mishmash of most emo and necro tropes, complete with big old honkin’ swords that glow like Azerothian lowriders, proving their utter dominance over all things edgy and cool.

Like any other WoW character, they enter the world with a nicely done flyby with a narrative to convey some backstory, and then they look around for questgivers with gold exclamation marks over their heads, positively itching to go kill stuff, but unlike other characters, they kill stuff with Death!!!  (Or a big old honkin’ sword, diseases, and maybe a pet Ghoul or three.)  Of course, they look better than other newbie characters, as the beneficiaries of years of refinement of Blizzard’s art assets and rendering engine, and they enter the world in full plate armor, at level 55, far more dangerous than a level 1 character.

The lore and art on these Death Knights is very tightly designed, and very well rendered.  I make light of it a bit, but that’s because I’m not a fan of the theme of the Death Knights.  As an artist in the game industry, I can look at what they are doing with these guys and applaud their art direction, animation and the very strong story and theme that Blizzard has developed, and I give credit where it’s due; the Death Knights are among the best designed characters in the WoW universe, both artistically and mechanically.  I personally find the overbearing (even if occasionally lampoonish) focus on Death and Destruction to be distasteful, but I’ll readily concede that even that is extremely well presented.  (Is it too punny to give Blizzard brownie points for execution?)

That said, the Death Knights do get bonus points for being honest.  Any WoW character embarks in the world as an agent of death, with a long career of slaughter in front of them.  Sure, it’s handwaved aside by saying that Druids are “maintaining the balance of nature”, or some other way of villainizing various critters and humanoids (it’s a war, after all, right?), but mechanically, the bulk of the game is about killing stuff.  (A point my wife has remarked about on more than one occasion, and really, from the outside, it is pretty silly.)  Death Knights know what they are all about, and they embrace it wholeheartedly.  That’s not a virtue, especially since they are just out for revenge and killin’, rather than any noble goal, but at least they are honest about what they do.

So what?  Do the Death Knights shake off the “monster pinata” complacency that most of us have slipped into?  Does it really make a difference when your “kill ten rats” quest turns into “kill 100 soldiers”?  Should it?  It’s just a game, right?

Hyperbolic German reactions aside (as Longasc points out, German leaders are coming down hard on violent gaming), desensitization is real.  The Death Knights are told to kill human characters who will cower and beg for their lives, innocent people who would otherwise be content to see to their village’s need for wood or hay.  It’s all very much in theme for the Death Knights, and Blizzard has carefully crafted the experience to give a sense of what a Death Knight’s existence is all about.  Does any of that sink in as players just go about, completing quests and killing stuff?  Do they think about it, or just go on with the business of prepping a new tank for raids?  Do they care even if it does sink in?

Again, it’s extremely well crafted, but I find the subject matter doesn’t sit well with me.

If Blizzard would take this level of work and turn it to a more noble pursuit, I’d be more impressed overall.  Of course, they aren’t really trying to impress me, so I doubt they care.  That’s just my take on things.

As I’ve noted before, the DK starting quests are very nicely designed, with a clear sense of progression, great spatial location, excellent art direction, and smart teaching mechanics.  (The flying eyeball recon quest at the start is a fantastic way to show people around in a low stress manner.)  Players don’t get a “this is an optimal DPS rotation” tutorial, but jumping in and playing a DK is a very smooth and forgiving experience.  (Ironically so, perhaps, since such would seem to benefit newbies more than vets who have qualified for DKs by having a high level character somewhere.)

The Phasing technology gives a nice sense of progress along a timeline, and really sells the storytelling.  It’s still not Hemingway or Shakespeare, but it’s a LOT better than what any other new character will see in WoW.

The Runes and Runic Power system is an interesting mutation of a mating between the Rage and Rogue Combo mechanics, and I found that it nicely promoted optimization of DPS rotations just by how it works, considering the cooldowns of runes and the gradual building of Runic Power.  It seems complex at a glance, and it certainly has the potential to be so, but getting up and running with it was a smooth experience.

So, I’ll add my voice to the choir saying that the Death Knight design and starting area is awesome, and that Blizzard really did a great job on them.  I won’t sing the praises during the chorus, when the theme is embraced, though.  I’m very glad that I had the chance to see a bit of the DK experience first hand, and I have some good screenshots to study… but I can’t honestly say that the experience was a pleasant one, on balance.  It was downright uncomfortable, and not something that I’d really want to do again.  (Which is not unlike the Arthas novel, actually… well crafted, unappealing characters and theme.  It works for some, certainly, just not me.)

The Death Knight experience offers some of the best work that Blizzard has done to date, and if dark magics, necromancy, Death and Destruction don’t bother you, the DK starting zones may well be the best part of the game.

A final note, though… I do wish that Blizzard would turn their eye to crafting this sort of experience for single player games.  If this sort of thing, complete with Phasing and a renewed focus on storytelling, is the future of the MMO genre (including SWTOR), I’m really going to be miffed that they didn’t just make a brilliant single player game.  More and more, I’m convinced that storytelling just isn’t meant to be a major component of MMO design.  Players should be telling their own stories, and all that effort crafting great narrative really should be in single player games, or even films.  But that’s another post…

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Spinks has a great post up on player behavior, and it’s well worth reading for the main points…

When Good Players Aren’t

but what really caught my attention was a tangential concern, that of account sharing.  I made note of it over there, but I wanted to echo it here.

Perhaps it’s just one piece of the “anarchy” puzzle that is Tesh, but I’ve never liked that account sharing is technically against the Terms of Service in most of these MMO things.  It’s my account, I should be able to decide who to trust with that data.  As it happens, I’ve done so, letting my wife or siblings play with my accounts in games.  Yes, I did so knowing full well that the company could pull a jerk move and delete my account for it, but I did so because I trusted my family with my data.

And ultimately, that should be my choice.  I’m therefore a conscientious objector to that part of the standard MMO TOS (as well as other parts, for that matter).  Then again, I’m also the sort that believes strongly in individual responsibility rather than state mandates.  I don’t talk politics much here (on purpose), but I can’t help but see parallels between the State of the MMO Provider and the State of the Union (and politics vs. human nature in general).

Ultimately, society works not because government (or the Provider) is perfect, but because We the People work together (even though we aren’t perfect).  Top down design in games (“thou shalt group”) and top down design in government (Chrysler much?  Bailout nation?  Moral hazard?) are both dangerous.  In both cases, if someone gets ripped off, it’s their own fault, and it’s not Big Brother’s job to swoop in and right the wrongs, whether it’s with a bailout or a banhammer.

This is also why I see no problem whatsoever if an MMO player wants to sell their account (or if someone wants to buy one).  I’ve always thought restrictions against that were ridiculous as well.  It’s technically against the rules for most MMOs, but as I consider those rules ill-advised in the first place, I have no problem breaking them.  Maybe that makes me a terrible scofflaw, but then… I’ve always thought that pointing out and objecting to bad laws and dumb rules is a moral obligation, and a cherished right in the country I live in.

Funny how quick we are to sign (or vote) that away sometimes.

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