Star-Fired Beef


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Are you anti-Virtual World?

What matters going forward is who, if anyone, is going to spend money on an open PvP title with meaningful crafting, cat girls, fantasy magic, and automobiles. In my opinion, a small but loyal audience of sandbox-starved gamers will spend money on an open PvP title with meaningful crafting, cat girls, fantasy magic, and automobiles. Not WoW die-hards, not young I’ve-only-got-20-minutes-to-play parents, and not older gamers pining for another godawful EverQuest grindpark with updated visuals.

Trion has the only current triple-A sandpark on its hands here, so I hope it can avoid tweaking the game’s virtual world elements in an attempt to lure the anti-virtual world majority. [bold mine]

- Jef Reahard on Massively

The above quote was taken from an article about the upcoming MMO ArcheAge, a Korean game being converted to English for a western audience by Trion. The “virtual world” comment caught my eye and it really got me thinking about the people I know (even if only online) and the reasons they play what they play. Is the MMO playerbase an anti-virtual world majority?

Virtual Worlds, Themeparks and Sandboxes

Over the last few years, as the themepark model of MMOs has been refined and streamlined into what it is today with WoW, TSW, Wildstar, Rift, LOTRO, etc., the common use of the term “virtual world” has become more synonymous with “open world sandbox” than the all-inclusive base meaning. It is used as a contrast to those strict themepark worlds, where all player activities are strictly controlled and compartmentalised. It is used to refer to the game itself rather than the setting.

That said, the sheer amount of lore and history and detail in games like WoW, TSW and LOTRO are incredibly deep and there are details that some players love discovering because it is something new to them, even after years of play. My WoW friends are regularly commenting on a bit of npc dialogue or a hidden cave that they stumbled across and never realised had been under their noses for years. They have been a part of Azeroth for so long, have visited and revisited so many places, seen so many stories (all npc stories, of course), that they have a perhaps unbreakable connection to that world. I am but one among probably millions of people who have played LOTRO at some point, and although I have not ventured past the Breelands, like those millions of players I have been swept up in the sheer awe of being present in Middle Earth. It is a world, to me. But not in the sense that Jef is using. The actual game is average at best. You could swap in WoW’s mechanics and gameplay and it would work just as well. Same with the Secret World – I love the setting, the stories are amazing, the characters are incredibly well written, the atmosphere is perfect, yet I recognise that the gameplay mechanics are pretty average. Bring in Rift’s mechanics and you wouldn’t lose much, if anything, from the experience. These are static worlds.

I believe that Jef is referring to virtual worlds in the sense of dynamic worlds, ones where change is common, sometimes radical, and usually permanent. Most importantly, such change is mostly, if not wholly, player-driven. So, not Cataclysm-style zone revamps, or developer-decided change like the destruction of Lion’s Arch. The power to change the world, to leave your mark upon it in a way of your choosing, is key to a virtual world in this sense. And although I think it may – barely – be possible to create a virtual world in which players cannot harm each other, I believe that a solid foundation of a truly immersive virtual world is the ability to mess with your fellow players in ways that have consequences for you both. Yes, this will most likely mean open world PvP. At a minimum, having the power to change the world around you means that others must be affected by that change, and thus you must be affected by the impact that others have on the world too. Otherwise you’re simply in a museum, a zoo, a…themepark. What Jef is talking about in the quote above is the fear that “tweaking” ArcheAge’s virtual world elements means stripping out the ability to meaningfully change the world (and therefore have the world changed for you by others).

Where do you stand?

As much as I hate to say it, I believe that Jef is right that the majority is anti-virtual world. Certainly among my online friends, I am reasonably sure that most of them are unwilling to play in a dynamic world where their choices have significant consequences and there is an element of risk vs reward to most activities – where they could possibly lose more than a token repair cost. Certainly there are many people who agree with Syp – they don’t want other players to be able to have a meaningful impact on their play, because they assume that such an impact will be a net negative. Players with social anxieties, who don’t like grouping and play solo whenever they can, would probably tend to be anti-virtual world. Very casual players, who can or want to only log in a few hours a month, would probably tend to be anti-virtual world, since they’d probably have to spend the majority of their time catching up on what has changed since the last time they played. That would be all kinds of frustrating.

I’m interested in ArcheAge, and I really hope that there is no move away from a virtual world by Trion. The game that I am most excited about, though, is Star Citizen, due to the virtual world (universe?) foundation of it. I’m not against themepark play – I love TSW, for example – but I think that my next true MMO home will be in a sandbox virtual world. One that has meaningful consequences for my play.

 


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What I Played: Steam Challenge – Bad Hotel

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (click here for the master list).

Time played: 74 minutes.

Now, I should preface this by noting that I played both BEEP and Bad Hotel on impulse, simply because I had a) been thinking about the whole Steam Challenge thing for a while and it was pretty much on my mind every time I looked at my Steam library, and b) they were the games that I happened to have my cursor resting on when I felt that impulse become overwhelming enough to translate into action. I didn’t know much about them other than BEEP was a platformer, and Bad Hotel was a music-driven tower defence game ported from mobile. I’d picked them both up in bundles, and so I had no real expectations of them being super exciting.

It’s just as well, because while BEEP just bored me by not standing out in any way, Bad Hotel actively drove me away.

Let’s start with what I did like. I found the cashflow mechanic to be an interesting change from previous tower defence games I’ve played. The convention I’ve seen is that you gain the money you use to place defences, by destroying the waves of enemies that are trying steal your stuff or get past you. The longer you take to destroy those enemies, the slower you accumulate cash, which can hamper your effectiveness in the long term. You also cannot lose your towers once you’ve placed them (though you can usually manually dismantle them to free up space or get around unit limits). Plants vs Zombies used resource-generating towers to fuel your defence, which quite frankly just meant that you really needed to spam those towers at the beginning to ramp up into a good economy, and if they died it was tough to recover. Bad Hotel goes in a slightly different direction by having your core building (which is your win/loss condition: if it is destroyed you fail the level) pulse every second or two, which generates cash from each room attached to it. The rooms that provide your actual defence (guns, minelayers, etc) give you very little cash per pulse, so you need to buy the “sunflower” rooms to be able to replace the rooms you will lose to enemies, in a timely manner. Add in the fact that those rooms also double as the walls protecting your core, and things get rather interesting.

The art style was fine, at times it kind of reminded me of early South Park animation – Mecha Streisand would not be out of place at all as a boss. Some of the enemies were pretty cute, like angry clouds shooting lighting bolts at you.

Unfortunately I struggled to overcome my gripes with it, and in the end I couldn’t. I got to the stage where I had healing rooms, which restored some of the health of other rooms at regular intervals, and that is where my frustration came to a head. Over the course of several attempts at several levels I tried figuring out how those damn healing rooms worked, but it seemed too random to plan around. Sometimes I thought the heal pulsed through all damaged rooms, other times I thought maybe they were limited by range, or number of rooms healed per pulse, or or or…I gave up trying to work out how they operated. There was no immediately obvious help explaining how they worked, so I decided it was too much effort for too little reward to keep going when I don’t understand what I’m doing.

I say that that was where my frustration came to a head, and that’s because it had been rising steadily as I got further into the game. There was a distinct and surprising jump in difficulty at one point, where I’d been casually dominating my way through the levels with little effort. Suddenly there was a lot more to deal with. Sadly though, the prime “strategy” that seemed to work was just chucking rooms out willy-nilly as fast as cashflow would allow. There seemed to be little chance to plan an optimal configuration at all, other than repeating the level over and over. Other frustrations included rooms “falling off” when a nearby room was destroyed. At first I thought it was just rooms built of top of the destroyed one that fell off, but nooooo, sometimes they were fine while rooms below fell off instead. There were problems with mines, where enemies would move straight through them without setting them off, yet other times they’d blow up as soon as an enemy got into proximity.

All this I might have powered through and persevered for a few more hours, possibly until the end. However, that damn core pulse. It was horrible. This was the “music-driven” part of the game that I’d been interested in exploring, and it was a huge letdown when I realised what it amounted to. The core pulses, with a certain tone. That pulse spreads throughout your hotel, and each room produces it’s own tone depending on it’s type. Maybe it’s distance from the core as well? I couldn’t tell. I guess the idea behind it is that different hotel configurations will give you different tonal progressions which add up to unique “tunes” every time you play. That sounds good in theory, but in practice it just drove me mad. I could not deal with the repetitiveness of it. It was the final nail in the coffin for me and this game.

So, sadly I cannot recommend Bad Hotel. Many people seem to like it, though, so perhaps I was just doing it wrong. C’est la vie.


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What I Played: Steam Challenge – BEEP

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (click here for the master list).

Time played: 75 minutes.

I didn’t expect much from this game. All I asked was that it be briefly enjoyable, and give me a pleasant experience to remember (and write about). It kinda sorta succeeded.

The graphics were nothing special. I often like cartoony art styles, but this was just…inoffensive. Bland, dare I say. There was one decision that caught me out a few times and ended up just irritating me rather than inspiring me to appreciate it. Using different shades and textures of filler colour for the background elements and terrain is fairly common in these scrolling platformers, but I found that the sharp borders led me all too often to mistake the background for the foreground, and then wonder why I couldn’t go up that hill or jump onto that ledge. A minor thing, but when it leads to your death or even just feeling foolish, it matters.

OH GODS EVEN WRITING ABOUT IT IS BORING ME. That’s the problem I ultimately had with BEEP. It is a solid platformer, and I suppose it might be challenging in the later levels, but the story was pretty much nonexistant and the gameplay itself just didn’t grab me. The one design decision I hated, and what ended up making the experience not worth it for me, was the pits of doom. Falling to your death is fine as an occasional puzzle or obstacle. But BEEP had this death plunge everywhere. You were basically jumping around mountaintops. I died a lot in the almost 2 zones (of…6? I think) that I finished, and I would wager 90% of those deaths were from falling off the mountain. With unlimited lives, and checkpoints, there is little in the way of punishment except time and frustration.

Eventually, I realised (at about the 70 minute mark) that I was just doing this because I was stubborn. It wasn’t enjoyable for me, it was just slogging through levels for reasons I don’t care about. BEEP isn’t a bad game at all, but I’ve been spoiled in the past with games like LIMBO and Trine, both artistically and mechanically. BEEP just doesn’t stand out in any respect, and that’s why I got bored.

A decent pickup if you haven’t played platformers much, as it is easy to get into and runs very smoothly. Great for kids, too, I would think.


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What I Played: Steam Challenge!

This is an intro to a new series I’ll be (hopefully) staying with for a long time!

Games played so far:

Bad Hotel

BEEP

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading all the Steam Summer Sale posts around the blogosphere, and one common theme was a resolution to actually clear some of the backlog that people have built up over the years before going too crazy in the recent and future Steam sales. My inspiration to do so myself was steadily gaining momentum, until last week I followed J3w3l’s link back to Aywren of Sygnus.org, where she resolved to blog about her personal challenge to clear that Steam backlog. That was the tipping point for me, and I am now taking up Aywren’s challenge for myself! Thus, this series. :P

Now, I have almost 300 games in my Steam library and I have played very few of them, thanks to MMO’s and the “neverending” games like Hearthstone, Diablo 3, Civ 5, and the like. But I have just managed to make a clean break from WoW, uninstalled Hearthstone in a fit of pique at the over-use of RNG and the very stale meta-game, and removed myself from the treadmill of Neverwinter Online. So I am ready to throw myself into my Steam collection and find some unexpected experiences!

All bright-eyed, I went to my library and immediately found myself in the grip of decision paralysis. What to play? I have a huge variety of titles, from massive open-world games like L.A. Noire and TES: Oblivion, to tiny indie games that might only take a couple of hours to complete. Action, RPGs, roguelikes, strategy, adventure, puzzlers, platformers, there was so much to choose from. I needed a plan.

So, my first way to filter is to do a playthrough of my library alphabetically – as in, play one title from each letter per playthrough. That way I have a psychological mini-break that gives me a sense of accomplishment without having to consider the big picture. Up to 26 games per round is much easier to deal with than the hundreds of choices I’d be confronted with otherwise.

The second filter is to not count any of the games in my Can’t Stop Won’t Stop category, which is where all the “neverending” games go, like the Total War games, Crusader Kings, Civ 5, AI War, Blood Bowl, Terraria, and so on. I only have two roguelikes in there at the moment, Dungeons of Dredmor and FTL, because I know I like them and will continue to play them. I’m happy to count the roguelikes I have yet to try, since I win either way – I get to confirm that I want to play it over and over, or I get to check it off the list.

The third filter I decided on is to choose games I’ve already installed where possible. Most of my hard drive space is taken up by my Steam games and with a limited monthly download I should concentrate on not using that all up unnecessarily.

The fourth filter I’m using is to vary the genre of games as much as possible as I go. So if I play a platformer, and the choices for the next letter are FPS, RPG, platformer, and adventure, I’ll exclude the platformer from my candidate list. If that next game is a FPS, then the following choices will try to exclude both FPS and platformers. And so on.

The fifth filter I will maybe use is to choose games that have the Steam Trading Cards where possible. I added up all the possible card drops I could get by playing the games I have, and it turned out to be over 300 cards. I sell all the cards I get so at an average of maybe 10 cents each, I’m sitting on a decent amount of cash for future purchases. This filter also has the added benefit of forcing me to spend more time with games that don’t quite catch my interest to start with, which I hope will at least get me to an hour or so /played and thus be able to say I gave the game a fair shake.

Lastly, I intend to keep the number of bigger games like L.A. Noire or Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect fairly low each round, as I want to explore a good variety of games without taking too long to do so. I will play some, of course, but I doubt I will be playing big-name big-game titles back-to-back.

One thing I haven’t yet decided, though: what to do with the episodic adventure games like the Walking Dead or Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People? They tend to take up multiple slots in my library, so I could justifiably do only one per round. But it’s hard to let go of the connected nature of them, I think I’d feel weird about leaving them to go do another 20+ games before coming back to the next episode. Thoughts?

Okay so that is what’s happening in the near future, wish me luck on this project! I have a few games already done for the first playthrough, and I’ll be writing those up soon. I’m not sure whether I’ll post in alphabetical order or just post them as I write/play them. I’ll also update this post to keep track of progress.


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Well Blizz, I guess we part ways here

So the last straw has been laid, and I think it has broken the back of my time with WoW. We had the Ji Firepaw incident in MoP beta, and it got fixed quickly. There was hope that Blizzard had learned. Then the Warlords announcement happened, with the “boy’s trip”. Then the Draenei April Fool’s “joke” this year. And now we have confirmation that Blizzard are consciously not interested in being socially progressive, are happy to continue to alienate women and minorities with their writing and creative design choices, and don’t want to change. So, like Cynwise, Akabeko, and no doubt many others, I am no longer interested in supporting them with my money. I’ll continue to play Hearthstone and Diablo III, since they already have my money for those, but WoW is not for me.

I’ve not really been happy with WoW as a game over the last couple of years since my guild disbanded, it has been a struggle to remain enthusiastic about it. Really, it was only the chance to play with friends that kept me subscribed, and even then I kind of dipped in and out. I’ve had much more fun in the settings and stories and mechanics of The Secret World, GW2 and even LotRO. Plus, now, to play with Navi and the Frostwolves I’d need to go through the tedious gear grind which sickens me; to play with Matty, Tome and the OLRG I need to be playing at ridiculous times (9am on a SUNDAY?! Who does that? ;)) AND go through the tedious level grind on Alliance which I have come to really loathe as a faction. Spending valuable money on a sub in order to disregard my principles is not something I’m willing to do at this time. Perhaps when my disconnection from friends grows too great, it will overcome my objections and I will resubscribe for a while. But I’d much rather tempt those friends to come and settle in a new MMO home with me. ArcheAge looks like the most likely contender for me at this stage, though I wouldn’t mind settling in to some LotRO in the meantime.

It’s a sad feeling, to realise that the line has been crossed, that things aren’t actually going to get better. I really hope that they can change things around for their next big IP.


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The Consequences of PvP in a PvE Environment

As I have many thoughts on the matter, I’ve decided to deposit my two copper into the conversation about whether PvE and PvP should mix in MMOs.

As Eri briefly mentions in her post, there is a distinct lack of (in-game) consequences for most PvE MMO open-world PvP (OWP). In games like WoW, OWP is restricted to simply combat practice, or denying someone some peace and quiet for a while. There are no consequences beyond the time spent/wasted. No gains for the ‘winner’, no loss for the ‘loser’. There is no incentive to it. All meaningful gains are locked away behind the organised, instanced PvP queues, and all losses are simply a factor of what you have already gained (rankings). I believe that this is a result of the nature of the game: these are primarily PvE games. PvP was never a fundamental playstyle that the game was built around. It was added onto an existing PvE framework, and it shows. Furthermore, these games are marketed as PvE experiences first and foremost, so it makes sense that the majority of players are drawn to that style of play.  Continue reading


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Hearthstone Key Concepts: Basics Addendum

Last time I talked about some basic strategic concepts for Hearthstone (and similar CCGs). By keeping those concepts in mind while you play, you should see an improvement in your results, even if it means you are closer to winning more games than before. Sometimes the decisions of one turn can make all the difference, but over many turns, and many games, applying those concepts  will help ensure that you are putting yourself in a position to a) reduce your exposure to having the tables turned on you, and b) increase the number of times such crucial turns end up in your favour.

Unfortunately, though, I have to address something I missed in the last post.

Card Advantage: Addendum

It came to my attention that I talked about all the facets of card advantage except the core one! Now, it might actually be really obvious to many people why card advantage is so powerful, but I think it is worth spelling it out anyway. Continue reading


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Hearthstone Key Concepts: Basic Tips for New Players

So I was indirectly asked to write a newbies’ guide to Hearthstone, and I put it off for a while – sorry! But the recent official launch has prompted me to get my butt in gear and outline some of the things players should keep in mind as they battle on the Hearthstone board.

I think most, if not all, of these concepts should be obvious in hindsight, and more experienced players probably don’t need the tips, but sometimes all you need is for something to be spelled out for it to make sense and be able to use it more consciously. I am assuming here a basic knowledge of the game, so you know how to attack, cast spells, what each special ability (taunt, battlecry, etc) does, and so on. These tips are going to be about strategy and how you go about executing it. Once you have mastered these concepts, then you will be able to judge when it is profitable to break them (if ever). Continue reading


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Reasons not to discount the value of early (alpha) access

So Liore over at Herding Cats has expressed her opposition to the practice of companies selling early access to beta and lately, alpha games. While I can understand that position, I don’t think the main justification, that “we shouldn’t be encouraging companies to sell us unfinished games”, outweighs the potential benefits.  So what are they?

(Disclaimer: I am not and probably never will buy in to an alpha or beta. I just don’t have any interest in participating in such things.)

Firstly, the obvious point applies that all these people are not being forced into buying into alpha. There is no shady dealing here, no dishonesty about what people are getting into. Compared to a rushed release where people are being charged for a supposedly finished product (mechanics-, balance- and content-wise), I don’t think there is anything misleading about alpha buy-ins. And with a rushed release, you have to cop a big hit to your reputation. What is the worst that can happen with alpha buy-ins? Some bad ‘reviews’ from unhappy people? Not only can you shrug that off (“it’s alpha!”) but you can then point to the ways you have incorporated that criticism into your development process later. That can turn out to be a PR win if you do it right. Continue reading

What I Played: Bastion

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One of the unofficial resolutions I made for this year was to make a dent in my vastly overcrowded Steam library. Through seasonal sales and offers like the Humble Bundle I have built up more games than I can possibly get through this year, even if I dedicated every spare minute to doing so.

So to get me off to a flying start I finished off Bastion. In December I started it, playing through one or two levels in a session, and after I returned home from staying with my family over the holidays I returned to that pace. The world map, where you navigate to each level, is fairly large, and so I thought I was not that far through when I picked it up again. However, it turns out that the map fills up pretty quickly and I was probably just over halfway. This led to a rather abrupt ending for me, which I’ll get into shortly. Continue reading

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