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.

Blogging Hazardous to Your Health

Came across this recent article in the New York Times highlighting the perils of blogging which apparently is just south of Bering Sea fisherman or coal miner in terms of occupational risk. From the article:

“Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December.

Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the nonstop strain of producing for a news and information cycle that is as always-on as the Internet.”

Fortunately, as my recent post count indicates, I’m OSHA-compliant and in no danger of succumbing to any blog-related malady. But for the rest of you, lets be safe out there. Take a break and do something healthy and relaxing like raiding…

Potshot goes console

Ok, not exactly. Its probably been 25 years since I’ve been seriously interested in a console.

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To tell the truth, I’m still not particularly interested in console gaming systems.

Confused? So was I and then in a fleeting moment of clarity, it all came together: I needed to buy a Sony Playstation 3.

Two things led me to this conclusion: 1) Blu-ray Disc won the format wars and 2) I wanted to set up a media server so I could access music, video and photos from our home theater complex(tm). For us, that means the place where we watch TV and have a modest surround sound system hooked up. I’ve been jealous of a buddy of mine who archived all of his cd’s in FLAC and streams them all over his house using a SlimServer/Squeezebox on his home network. I wanted to do something similar. I also wanted to step up to Blu-ray since we love HD but are growing increasingly dissatisfied with anything on cable.

Two hardware purchases were not in the budget. So, after poking around a bit, the PS3 seemed like a pretty decent solution. They recently released a bluetooth “normal” remote so you can watch DVDs without having to do everything by game controller and a series of relatively recent firmware upgrades allows the PS3 to recognize DLNA compliant media servers. With a bit of wrangling, most internet radio is supported as well. In researching a bunch of this stuff, I’m now nearly cool having learned an entirely separate set of technology subculture jargon.

So in classic Potshot fashion, I went shopping for a DVD player and came home with a game system.

Sony seems to have a way of making neat things and then totally screwing up the support and marketing. PS3 today seems to be more of a media center/extender than a game system. Too bad they’re only just figuring this out. Something Microsoft seemed to figure out with Xbox earlier. Too bad they bet on HD-DVD. Oops.

I must say, hooking it up and getting it on our wireless network was pretty painless. Likewise, upgrading the firmware over the internet was one click simple. Downloading and setting up a media server on one of our other machines to share music, etc. was very easy. There are a number of decent free or low cost options out there (like TVersity). Enough that I probably downloaded and installed four or five and will continue to play with them to see which we prefer. Unfortunately, Squeezecenter (the new name for Slim Server) is not one of them. Its free and pretty slick, but its not DLNA compliant so the PS3 wont recognize it.

Overall, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. One box, two solutions. So focused on the Blu-ray and media center aspects of the system, I didn’t even bother to buy any games for it before it arrived. So it occurred to me, maybe I should pick up a game or two to play. But which one?

Of course, all the usual blam blam blam games came to mind, but I thought I might want something that was, well, more Mrs. P friendly and that we could both play. Now anyone whos gone PvP with Mrs. P knows she’s not afraid of fragging yer ass or getting fragged, but lets say the CODs and Ultra-Mega Death Champion fighting games of the world are not her strong suit. She does have a weakness for cute though.

Only one solution for the inaugural console game then: Lego Star Wars: the Complete Saga. I’ve gotten lots of feedback from friends that they’ve really enjoyed the game despite playing it with their kids. To paraphrase much of what is written about it: peeps love Star Wars, peeps love Lego, what’s not to love?

We’ve only just taken the plunge, but so far its proving amusing and entertaining. I’m sure there’s more where this came from.

Not bad for a blu-ray media center.

Old Bones

Moving is not a particularly fun task.  There’s a certain element of defeatism when confronting those boxes that you moved last time that you still haven’t gotten through and yet here you go again moving them one more time.

You know the boxes, those catch all junk boxes that you’re going to sort out on the other end when you’re not so concerned about time.  And you never do.  Each one is a subtle reminder of the quest incomplete.

Of course, from time to time, in this endeavor one uncovers a long lost treasure:
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Yep, my certified card-carrying geek polyhedral dice from my table top days.  Most of those actually came from the Dungeons and Dragons basic boxed set that came out in 1979.  I picked up a few others, including the super cool ten-sided and the faux-suede pouch at a gaming convention at the old Dunfey Hotel in San Mateo, CA.

The Dunfey was something of a fixture which could be observed whizzing by on U.S. 101 in what is now the throbbing heart of Silicon Valley.  At the time, I’m guessing it must have been a Pacificon in 1981 or so, it was distinctively styled as a medieval castle (I think its a Marriott now and has been long since renovated in a more Mediterranean style).

Think the first boxed D&D set, the first Apple II computers and the serious slide rule and pocket protector crowd milling about in the crappy convention rooms of a B-rate hotel in the shape of a castle.  Heck, they had entire rooms devoted to Diplomacy.  It really didn’t get much better than that.

These dice have an interesting way of rearing their heads from time to time.  In 1979, me and my geek friends were nearly hopeless dorks in middle school.  By 1981 and the time of the convention, it was beginning to be the time to put away dorkish and childish things to be high school-cool, not that we succeded.  Like the lost One Ring, they lay submerged but not forgotten until they emerged again in a renaissance of geekdom and beer addled table top gaming in college.

They passed in and out of use from time to time as the old table top group met less and less frequently as life, computers and teh intraweb slowly consumed more of us.  I don’t think I’ve rolled for a wandering monster or made a saving throw in anger in more than 12 years.

I like the idea that as my wife and I prepare for a big move to be closer to friends, family and to restore ourselves to a lifestyle with more balance, these old bones, relics of adventures past, should reemerge to remind me how much a part of me those days and those experiences still are.  As I’ve reconnected with many old friends and gotten thoroughly reimmersed in the gaming community in the last year or so, it seems particularly apt.

Maybe its time to get out the old graph paper again.