Weekend Update

Well, it settled down a bit this weekend work wise, so I did get a chance to engage in real life for a change.  The WoW instance group convened and undertook Mana Tombs (See the Ancient Gaming Noob for details on how that went on Thursday).  In RL, I actually got caught up on a number of RL personal projects which mostly include getting our vegetable garden boxes built and planted.   So far we have 2 4′ x 4′ boxes and one gigantic 12′ by 4′ box.

At the risk of going all political, Mrs. P and I intend to reduce our consumption of both food and petroleum products by growing our own.  Fortunately, I had the help of our Warlock, Bungholio, to assist in wheel barrowing 2+ yards of soil for gardening into our newly constructed raised beds.

In the virtual world, I found myself searching searching searching for the Next Thing(tm).   My spider sense is telling me that WoW, despite our commitment since release, is starting to get a bit long in the tooth.  TBC is feeling more an more gamey rather than worldly.  I’m sure many of you probably have figure this out a long time ago.

After a few different iterations, our instance group is on the verge of capping out and will likely exhaust the content of TBC and Sunwell before the next expansion.  Quite frankly, it really hasn’t felt like a “world” since Azeroth.

Maybe Wrath off the Lich King will  bring back the mojo, but I’m pessimistic.  So the task begins, what is the next thing to offer before our group of intrepid (and somewhat time limited) adventurers?

Age of Conan?  I don’t think so.  I actually logged in this weekend to my surprise to find that the beta servers were still live.  I actually patched and continued one of my toons destiny quest with a view to finally getting out of Tortage.  I can’t say my impressions have changed since my beta impressions, but I think I’ll give it a go at least until I’m in the real world to see what I can see.  Unless they pull the plug on beta.

Lotro?  Mines of Moria is due out SOMETIME, maybe by the end of the year.  I can’t imagine that our full group will want to transition to LotRO.   When our WoW group was on hiatus, our LotRO foursome made some progress, but ultimately decided on returning to WoW.  I’m still playing but I don’t think its a good fit for our group.

Warhammer?  Might be a possibility if the game could live up to even half the official hype and one quarter of the unofficial hype.  I suspect Warhammer will be confronted with the difficult decision of releasing either in the third quarter (pre-WotLK) or basically year-end on top of Lich King.  If Conan is any lesson, EA will choose to push out Warhammer anytime when WoW doesn’t have an expansion ready for release.  I have no idea whether Warhammer will be a replacement for our WoW group.

So I find myself in search of the new or at least different.  Vanguard?  Conan? Guild Wars?  Tabula Rasa? What about old Everquest? (thanks Tipa).  I feel like I’m seriously on the lookout for the Next Thing(tm) at least as far as our group in concerned…

Looks to be a loooong summer.

Being a Place Matters

A number of bloggers, including myself, have ragged on Age of Conan for the extensive use of zoning and instancing. Too much use of these design elements leaves you with the feeling of the “world” being merely a series of rooms connected by jumps rather than the impression of a contiguous world. In a word, it doesn’t feel like a “place.”

I got waylaid this (U.S. 3-day holiday) weekend by a last minute work project and got almost no decent gaming in, but I made time to soak up some of the Mars Phoenix mission events. Being a total space dork, how could I not? One of my earliest memories was watching Neil Armstrong step on to the surface of the Moon.

The images returned of the Moon returned by the Apollo program transformed the Moon in people’s consciousness from being effectively a 2d small floating disk to a bona fide three dimensional world of its own. As Carl Sagan would say, the Moon became a “place.” A place where we could imagine that we could go and explore and see ourselves walking over a distant horizon.

A similar transformation occurred in 1976 when the Viking missions successfully landed on Mars and began returning pictures like these:

I’d been to places like that. I could see myself in that landscape and wanted more than anything to sprint off toward the horizon to see what was over that next ridge or hill. For me Mars became a “place”. Even though the Viking landers were totally stationary, they managed to convey the impression of a complete new world. Not bad with just a few static images.

Seeing the latest today from the Mars HIRISE observer, those feelings are rekindled. This is my new favorite picture (the first of a spacecraft in the process of landing on another world). Click for the full width shot. Its really breathtaking.

With images like this, Mars is more than a place. More importantly, space travel and planetary exploration is made more real in our minds. We’ve seen the NASA animations about how these landings are supposed to look, but we’ve never seen them happening until now. I can almost see the lander drifting across the Martian landscape in its last few minutes of descent not unlike so many other similar images or scenes we’ve actually witnessed back here on Earth. Its like we were there.

No human has yet visited Mars, so these images in effect create merely a virtual Mars in our collective minds (like the virtual Moon). With each new mission and new set of images brought back, the impression is created that Mars as a world has become larger and more unbounded. Its an illusion, but a compelling one.

To create a compelling game world, for me at least, the designers have to similarly stitch together their resources to create that illusion. Simply having zoning doesn’t mean that’s broken. In EQ, zoning, while a necessary evil, didn’t seem to break the illusion of a continuous world. A few seams, maybe, but if you’ve ever stitched a few side by side vacation snapshots together to create a panorama, you know that the resultant composite image says so much more than the individual ones that the borders between pictures don’t really matter. They match up, there’s a small hiccup going from one to another, but leaving from the left of one, you enter from the right of the next.

Even with zoning, EQ was able to create that sense of place which persists into EQ2. Likewise, environments like WoW and LotRO’s seamless outdoor worlds are indeed places in my mind. I never got that impression from games like PotBS and certainly didn’t from AoC. I felt boxed in like there was no horizon over which to travel. Neither in my mind’s eye, nor in the game did I ever get that same feeling I get just by looking at those few pictures from Mars.

Age of Conan Closed Beta Impressions– Part II

This is the second of a series of my impression on the Age of Conan Closed Beta.  For part one, go here.

The Starting Experience

Initially you start out shipwrecked on the beach and quickly work your way to the starting noob town of Tortage (*cough*Tortuga*cough*).  Welcome to prison.  You’ll be here for a while.  The town is big and nicely done with a large number of starting quests to get you going.  You’ll recognize the quest givers by the now ubiquitous rotating three-D exclamation point.

Much of the starting player sequence is told in voiced over dialog mini cut scenes.  These are generally very well done, but feel very much like a single player RPG.  The mini cut scenes are presented as a voice over dialog with the NPC you are talking to.

Your part of the dialog is selecting from a limited number of responses like “Oh, yeah, I’ll see him dead first”, “Oh really? Well, can’t blame a man for taking a profit” and “Goodbye”.  Your varied responses seem to inevitably lead you to the same conclusion– awarding you a quest or on occasion, providing background lore.

While I generally like the idea, it does get rather annoying since you have to complete the dialog to get the quest the quest giver is offering.  And if he’s offering more than one quest, the only way you’ll know that is after being awarded one quest, you’ll see there is still a gold ! above his head.  Immersive, maybe, but after a while it just becomes cumbersome and annoying.  Once you realize that your responses don’t really matter, you simply click click click until you see the message that you’ve been given the quest.

All that eye candy in Age of Conan comes with a price.  The game is heavily instanced.  All indoor spaces and other zones are instanced requiring a significant wait staring at a loading screen.  While I say “instancing” it might be more accurate to just call it “zoning” since the area you are traveling too is generally just a public area that requires loading.  While the “miracle” patch I referred to in my last post seemed to speed up the loading screen, get used to staring at it and enjoying the otherwise quite nicely done soundtrack selections.  Likewise, I didn’t seem to have much lag or take a performance hit with several other players on screen at the same time.

Tortage is divided into two bona fide instances– the solo player “night” version and the multiplayer “day” version.  You can switch from one to the other at will at the Inn.  The single player “destiny” quest series is completed in the night version.  The schtick is that you are an amnesiac and trying to regain your wits as you become immersed in the politics and lore of the world and Tortage in particular.  Kudos to Funcom for creating a plausible immersion mechanism for managing what is essentially a long series of solo progression quests.

Let me just say the Tortage section is simply way too long.  I’m not powerleveling through by any means, but I’m also not completely slouching my way through (particularly on the 3rd and 4th alt) and my highest level character has spent about 5 hours in game and only reached just over level 10.  Rumor has it that if you’re uber you can blow through the whole 1-20 thing in 5 hours or so.  At 5 hours and level 10 I was ready to be done with Tortage.  Maybe its just the Bartle explorer in me, but I felt trapped and having alt-itis, I would dread the thought of having to free other alts from the prison that is Tortage.

And that’s one of my greatest complaints.  I would like to be able to go experience the world.  I’m not jazzed at the idea of investing 10 or 20 hours just to see what the rest of the world looks like.  My previous comments on class balance and quest difficulty apply to all the Tortage quests.  Some are insanely difficult, some are trivially easy, some simply require brute force kill, die, kill, die, kill to get through a 3 mob spawn.  Death involves respawning at a spawn point with full health.  I didn’t notice a death penalty initially, but in running the volcano instance on my destiny quest, I picked up a death penalty which can be cleared by finding your “gravestone” aka clicking where your corpse died.

None of the quests in Tortage where particularly interesting– the usual kill this, pick up that sort of stuff.  Some intrigue which at times I found engrossing.  As a matter of fact, early on with the heavy single player RPG feel to it, I was beginning to get a bit of that Oblivion feel, but unfortunately that went away and Tortage wore on and on.

Rewards and gear drops at least for the first ten levels were complete crap.  Almost everything I got was vendor trash.  As soon as I had a small amount of money, I purchased serviceable kit from the armorsmith and weaponsmith near the west gate to Tortage.  I got a distinctly Diablo feel to looting and gear drops in the early levels.  Thats due in part I’m sure to having to click on a loot bag that drops from each mob and then of course basically getting nearly nothing useful from them or merely a trivial upgrade.

Progression

New spells and combos are awarded automatically, so no need to seek out a trainer.  Of course, if I needed to seek a trainer, I might find out how to actually play my class over time since there is very little by way of meaningful tutorial.  Tips help and a “field manual” can help some, but players not terribly familiar with the current generation of MMOs may find themselves flailing or simply missing opportunities to develop their skills.

For a noob area, I must say levels 1-5 went very quickly while they bogged down significantly for 6-10.  At present there seems to be a bit of a flat spot where somewhere around level 6 or 7 you find yourself with many quests that are orange or red (higher difficulty) to you and not much lower.  With running around and the zoning, it can feel like it takes a while to make progress.  This is all the more frustrating when you consider that you must escape Tortage to enter the rest of the world which I’ve yet to see with something like 20 hours played.

WoW, EQ2, LotRO and even PotBS seemed to get the noob progression about right.  Start small, explain things early, often via the quests themselves, gradually increase difficulty and introduce complexity, then send them on their way off in the world.  Part of the feeling of progression come from exploration and discovery.  After the tenth time running across town to zone via a row boat to White Sands Isle, you stop feeling heroic and start feeling much more like an errand boy.  You often are in other games to, but hey, give me some different scenery at least.

Again, the post is getting a bit long so stay tuned for the rest of my thoughts in Part III, but I’ll leave you with these tidbits:

I haven’t found a bank, a mailbox, or any crafting trainers yet and you can’t sit in a chair.

Age of Conan Closed Beta Impressions– Part I

Been fairly busy of late, so the blog suffers. I was involved over the past few months in the Age of Conan technical beta stress tests though not part of the regular closed beta until very recently. There’s a fair amount to cover, so I’ll break this into a few posts to make it digestible.

As I’ve mentioned before, AoC hasn’t been particularly high on my list. The early marketing spin of mature=boobs+blood and FPS-like combat coupled with the PvP focus suggested that AoC was not likely a must-play game for me. Nor was Robert E. Howard a particular favorite author of mine. Nonetheless, many reported aspects of the game had me curious enough to want to see what it was all about despite the two+ strikes going in.

Performance and Hardware

For those who may not be aware, AoC has had two betas running– the Fileplanet Open Beta which you had to pay for, and the closed or General Beta. Shortly after the last round of stress tests, Funcom saw fit to invite all the stress testers to the general beta, hence my access.

Confusingly, general (closed) beta participants are still under the NDA except with respect to their level 1-13 experiences, so anything I relate here pertains only to levels 1-13 (mostly solo play). I mention this because of the controversy over the version of the game client used for the open beta. Bildo and Keen and others have adequately covered that ground, so I wont rehash.

Since I didn’t sign up for the Fileplanet beta, I can’t comment on how significant the performance issues may have been. I can say that the closed beta client was pretty decent with few of the reported issues with the open beta client occurring for me. I have had lockups and few CTDs, but nothing close to the scale others have reported about both the open and close beta clients.

Despite the apparent total marketing meltdown fuckup with the open beta, Funcom pushed patches out before this last weekend on both Open and closed beta I believe. Many folks are calling this the “Miracle” patch and I must say that many of the significant loading time and other annoyances seem to be receding into the background at an acceptable level.

Also for reference, my current system stats are as follows:

Intel Core Duo E8400 3.0 GHz
4GB Ram
nVidia 8800GT 512MB
WinXP

Not the top of the heap by a long shot, but decently above “recommended” specs for AoC of a Core Duo 2.4GHZ, 7900 GTX card and 2MB of RAM. I’ve been running on high settings without any significant problems. There have been some annoying lag spikes, but that isn’t a client-side hardware problem. Haven’t been checking framerates because quite frankly, its been consistently smooth for the most part, so I assume its been north of 25-30FPS or I would have started to get that flipbook animation/slide show feeling.

Graphics

The look is pseudo-realism, so think EQ2, LotRO, Vanguard. The (starting) world is lush with almost too much detail. Personal preference, but I think LotRO has done a better job of tying all the graphical elements together in the environment. For me there are a few too many sharp edges and hard lines between textures which don’t blend. This pertains mostly to vegetation rather than buildings and such which seem more smoothly integrated into the environment. Water is probably the best I’ve seen in an MMO. Surface ripples and vees out behind your character as they move through the water. Waves lap at the shore. Nice.

There are a reasonable but not excessive range of avatar customization features. You can dive into advanced options and tweak just about any feature with sliders and pick lists, or you can random and minorly tweak your overall appearance. Overall, I think the models are very well done with a few caveats based on style preferences rather than oddness. Animations are generally very well done and quite smooth.

Men are big and strong and women are buxom, full stop. The wimpiest male version I could come up with would still probably come up to me, crack walnuts with their biceps and then sweep the floor with my weaksauce gamer ass. Not a fault unique to Conan, but I’m still waiting for a wider range of body types, ages, fitness, etc. rather than permutations of the epic hero, but that’s me. No shrivelled aged scholarly mystical caster types here nor gangly broken tooth meth heads either.

/rant on

Women in Conan are quite simply objectified and typify the misogynist tendencies in most fantasy writing (and present in Robert E. Howard, his writing and most societies in the 1930’s when he was writing). I see manifested throughout the game an environment sadly faithful to Howard’s writing and his particularly strange (Oedipal?) and adolescent male view toward women. Yes, there are “positive” depictions of women in AoC (e.g., Valeria somewhat of an exception) though the contrary seems to prevail far too often.

I’d love to play a game where tough smart women characters of varied body types (i.e. something other than Barbie doll-esque proportions) were available so that women might actually be attracted to playing the game. Amazon to princess, nymph to crone, is that so hard? Apparently it is because developers don’t yet realize that women are mammals, not mammaries.

Simple question, answer silently to yourselves, would you play this game with your wife? you mother? your daughter? Would it bug you if they did without you? If not why not? Discuss (amongst yourselves). Park your rants elsewhere, this is not the typical hypocritical American violence>sex perspective. Try (hard) to think why this is so. Suffice it to say that typical media and entertainment industry depictions of women aren’t going to be changed by AoC.

/rant off

Races and classes

Aquilonian, Cimmerian and Stygian. Research project: research and discuss Robert E. Howard’s views on race and the rise of fascism in the 1930’s. Relate to the foregoing. Discuss. Yes, you could do the same with Lovecraft, Tolkien, Lewis as well. Maybe you should.

Three soldier archetypes– Guardian, Conquerer and Dark Templar
Three mage archetypes– Herald of Xotli, Necromancer and Demonologist
Three priest archetypes– Tempest of Set, Priest of Mitra and Bear Shaman
Three scout archetypes– Assassin, Barbarian and Ranger

So far, I’ve played a Conquerer, Demonologist, Priest of Mitra and Bear Shaman, all up to around Level 10. My general impression is that the classes are still in need of some serious balancing at this point. Some encounters seem near impossible with some classes that are trivial for others of the same level. Keep in mind that this is all during the Noob portion of the game, not at endgame where no one would expect a caster to have the survivability of a tank, nor the tank not have the dps of a caster, etc.

Among the major divisions (caster/non-caster), combat has a very samey quality. All the head smashing types don’t seem particularly differentiated early on. Similar with casters excepting Bear Shaman. The BS plays much more like a melee class in all respects.

The healing classes to me seem the most disappointment at the low levels. They just don’t seem to have any significant healing abilities. At low levels, most have wimpy HoTs though they are considerably tougher than the usual squishy. I’m told “healers don’t really come into their own until about level 20 or so”… which is a bit of a warning sign for me. In no encounter was healing even remotely capable of significantly forestalling the inevitable.

Combat

What AoC seems to be really good at is allowing you to take big heavy and/or sharp things and bash people to bits with them. And that is fairly fun. I’ve actually had the most fun with my conqueror (high dps warrior type). Note the similar Barbarian is actually a scout class and while higher dps is also more vulnerable.

The vaunted combat system is a welcome departure from typical Diku MUD autoattack combat but not without its limitations. Attacks are left, middle, right (1,2,3 keys). You don’t swing, you don’t attack. As you progress, characters learn combos that are special attacks you can initiate in combat like most MMO spells and abilities.

Like Tobold, I’m thinking either the twitch kiddies or the G15 crowd will have greater efficiency in getting them off when you want them and you will want them. Executing combos requires initiating the combo then, when its icon appears on screen, you have a window of time to hit the requisite attack key to execute the combo. Timing in the mechanics is a little sloppy at times, or maybe its lag in combat that causes problems in getting them off sometimes. Key presses seem more reliable than mouse clicking but your mileage may vary.

Certainly, combat is hands on. That is good. Its also a bit of button mashing which can sometimes take your attention off the otherwise quite nicely done combat animations. I think spell caster effects leave something to be desired still– they feel a bit more like a low grade particle overlay– but the melee combat feels pretty visceral. I think the blood spatter on the “camera” effect for fatalities is just too cheesy.

Character balance being off right now, its hard to judge the effectiveness of characters in combat. Some encounters are trivial while similar encounters of mobs at the same level are near quick and certain death making succeeding in some encounters simply zerging one mob down, dieing, running back and taking down the next. Repeat.

As this is getting a bit long, I’ll save the Noob experience and more thoughts for Part II.

One Dollar, One Vote

We’re a bunch of pathetic whiners with no backbone. Keen’s got a post up about the latest details of Age of Conan’s end-game raiding grind which he takes issue with. I whole-heartedly agree that that kind of tired resource sucking design element is a big turn off. I wasn’t that interested in AoC even after participtating in the stress tests, etc. From what little I’ve seen, Keen’s PvP weekend impressions were spot on, but I digress.

The issue at hand is that here is a game that purports to have structure that Keen and I’m sure many others will find objectionable, annoying or at least off-putting. Maybe it matters little to some, maybe it matters a lot to more. At the end of the day, Keen seems resigned to vigorously object to the approach the devs have taken but will still gladly give them $50 for the box and probably some subscription revenue (not to mention whatever they get for the so-called Fileplanet “Open” beta). I’m sure many of us will find ourselves in a similar conundrum.

I did the same thing with PotBS. I was very luke warm about the game from closed and open beta but decided I’d give FLS the benefit of the doubt since I didn’t have time to personally experience all of the aspects of gameplay during beta. In retrospect, I wish I didn’t. I did know about most of them (not the buggy ridiculously broken ones, but the major design features) and even though I was somewhat iffy on whether that would be the game for me, I handed them $50 only to cancel before the initial 30 days ran out.

LotRO wooed me and I gladly gave them my $50 and subbed. I loved the early part of LotRO, but the middle bits started being unfun. I parked my accounts but kept them live and the dollars flowing to Turbine which has regularly and continually improved the game, added content and garnered my attention again. I had seen the high quality that Turbine had put into the game and was hopeful that it would evolve in the right direction (for me at least) and consciously wanted them to succeed in doing so. So I’ve paid and continue to play.

I continue to go back and forth with Eve. Its not 100% my game, but I do like what they’re doing and want to support it. But I can’t always justify keeping the subs live when I’m just not playing and not sure that I’ll come back to stay next time. Or the time after that.

WoW I’ve continued to play and bought TBC without hesitation even though I wouldn’t bring my new mains to Outland for a year after the expansion. Quite frankly, if I knew then what I know now about TBC (at release at least), I probably wouldn’t have thrown down for it on release. I’ll certainly be more careful about WotLK because I think WoW has lost its way though I’m still enjoying our group adventures.

We have two true feedback mechanisms that work with game developers– our dollars and our feet, and our feet only matter if they’ve already gotten our dollars and by then, its probably too late for us at least. The number of games that have successfully “come back” after losing someone is probably small (EQ2). The number of successful games that have grown and grown into a player base is similarly small (Eve), but have slowly grown because of their design decisions not despite them.

In the democratic capitalism of game development, one dollar (or euro or yen, or won or …) equals one vote. If we really want to see projects succeed, we have to put our money where our mouth is and buy and subscribe. We are patrons of the game arts. If, however, we object to design decisions made, then the last thing we should do is support them with our hard earned cash.

Once they’ve got it, don’t expect an audience with the game gods or even assume that you have a voice that matters. If you’re playing, you’re paying and if you’re paying, they’re doing something right (in their minds). If AoC sells 250k boxes ($12.5 million), they’ve probably gone a good way toward recouping their development cost. Tack on three more months of subs (beyond the initial 30 days) and you’ve got another $11+ million. $24 million in revenue in the first four months. Not a hit, not a giant win by any means, but enough revenue to take the pressure off the devs so they don’t have to answer the question “Why aren’t more people playing? Why aren’t more people staying?”. If we don’t pay, they have to ask those questions and hopefully win our business. If not, and they are still successful, then its just not our game.

The dirty little secret is that unless it sucks SO bad that we can’t stand it, subscriber’s remorse sets in and most of us want to see some kind of ROI on our time or dollar investment in a game. We are enamoured by the new and the promise of the better. We like the shiny, even if its dingy and often refuse to see the Man behind the curtain which is the same Man behind all the curtains of all the unsatisfying games we bought and continue to pay for.

Truth is we get the games we pay for, so we must be very careful of what we pay for.