Archive for August, 2007

Lost

I have been very retrospective of my MMO career the past week. I’ve been thinking of past friends, past games, past joy, past sorrow. I look at where I am now and where I’ve been, and I wonder what happened to me. There are many things I wouldn’t change about myself at all. My knowledge about the genre in general, and how to act for two. But then I wonder why I’m not as nice as I once was, why my goals in the game has changed so drastically much, why my play style, while still playing a lot has changed to the point of unrecognizing the importance of what you do.

When I was younger, I didn’t play for the loot quite as much, I didn’t play for the levels. I played because I wanted to hang out with my friends that I met online. Even more important I wanted to meet new people. I loved meeting all the various people online, in fact I can just think of my younger self telling me how foolish I am now for not wanting to do that still. Now, I am extremely anti-social, as much so online as I am off, something that never used to be true. I once thought the greatest part of these games was your ability to meet people whom you would have no chance of meeting in real life, no longer. Now it is all about the stats, the gear, the loot.

I once liked all those things, but it was never important. Yeah we would go out and camp the giants in YS to get some quick xp in order to level up a few times in a night, but it was more about hanging out with my friends. Now, even when I am out with friends, there is little fun to be had, it is more about finishing quickly so that we can earn more xp or get more loot than before. A good example of this is our raid alliance which is considering going DKP, and we instantly start thinking about setting up our own raids, and i start thinking about “do we have the pieces to do it?” Instantly I start thinking of all the classes that we have in our guild, and all the classes that another guild has that would come with so that we can have successful raids. But now, I sit here and wonder, why do we even care about raids? There are plenty of difficult places that we could go to hang out as a group. Raids are just a means to an end and we can find that end elsewhere. Yes the loot is nice, but it is secondary and somewhere I’ve lost track of that.

I’ve lost track of what these games are really about. And while I know that it is about hanging with friends, and not about loot, stats, or how fast we can go through a zone, I don’t really know how I can get back. I can on the base stop caring about loot and all that… but will it make me the more pleasant, fun, carefree, and outgoing player that I once was? I don’t know. I wish I knew how to be that guy again, but I don’t, and it makes me really sad. Because truth be told, I had a lot more fun back in those days when I was that player.

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Car Broke

So yesterday the sun roof window broke in a somewhat up position… given the rain we are getting in southern Wisconsin currently, this is very very bad. After a few moments of trying to push it down and push it up and everything I could think of, the window itself actually started to stick up further! After this attempt I came back later and put some WD-40 on the various movable parts in it in hopes that they were just a little stuck and needed some grease. This seemed to help jiggle them a little but it was still stuck.

Finally, I called my brother-in-law who is a mechanic that I always bother for car problems and told him of the problem I had. I basically said I don’t need it fixed but I need it shut and am looking to see if there is some way I could do it from here. We discussed many options and he said he’d call his friend who used to be a mechanic and lives closer to come try to do it quickly. So hopefully his friend will be able to do the trick. I wonder what I should give him as a reward? I should give him money & such, but I am thinking of giving him some cookies or something too.

At any rate, this couldn’t be timed too much worse. School is coming up next week so I need my car (and my current schedule would overlap my roommates work schedule which would make borrowing the car difficult), and I am on the low end of money in the summer time where I really need my student loan right now to pick myself up.

Well, like I said hopefully this will all turn out easily. The friend is supposed to be by my mom’s house either today or tomorrow to fix it. (Oh yeah I drove the car to my mom’s since that is the only garage I know to put it in to keep it out of the rain.)

Civ 4: Beyond the Sword

I’ve been putting off writing my thoughts on this latest expansion for civ because I wanted to play it a few times, but then I kinda stopped playing it for a bit for various reasons and kind of forgot about it.

So looking through the expansion it was a fairly good one. They added in a ton of new civs, leaders, 2 new technologies, corporations, and bunches of new units, they also had some new scenarios which all have various themes like fantasy and sci fi which I’ve not had the chance to play yet. I’ve never really been a huge fan of scenarios in these games, however I may play these because of the themes… I think it’d be cool to see dragosn or what not in civ.

The first thing I noticed that while all the new things were great, 90% of them seemed to be from previous games that they just never bothered to put in Civ4 for instance the Native American civ was in the base Civ3, but hadn’t made an appearance here yet. This was not just in the civs, this was in the units as well. Still, there were some new civs & units to keep it fresh like the Holy Roman Empire and the Levee. I was still disappointed by this, it just made Civ 4 feel a little more like Civ 3 without giving it any distinctiveness of its own. (They were advertising the heck out of those scenarios as well and I was really hoping to see mech suits & dragons in the game natural).

There have been several gameplay modifications as well. Just playing it, I have noticed that they tweaked the pollution of a city a bit because nearly every city I have had seems to go into the sickly face mode fairly easily. This actually is a pretty good thing because previously you really could get through the game with only one or two health buildings in the game (I usually got by with just the aqueduct and a hospital). Now you almost need to build all of them, though you can usually put them off until other things, you’ll need to build a couple early to make sure the health of your cities don’t get too low. There are also a couple of new health buildings which help in this cause.

I haven’t totally figured out the new espionage system in the game, that is something I’ve never done hugely well with. Although it does seem that with more espionage points that you put into a particular opponent, you get more of their map whited out, you see what tech they are working on, and you see their units without any real work at all which is very nice. I always hated going through the work in Civ3 to get anything done. I’ve still found very little use for spies, I realize they allow you to go in and destroy opponents improvement & buildings, but I have never found this hugely useful, I’d rather build units to do that which can actually fight. I have however noticed that the spies are attacking me far more than before which creates a need for the new espionage buildings to get built (one of which improves defense against espionage). Great Spies, like normal Spies I find fairly useless… although I have found that they help in getting an additional golden age easier (usually after 4 or 5 it is nearly impossible to get further golden ages), and the scotland yard that they can create are somewhat nice.

Corporations are pretty cool… I haven’t fully decided if they are really worth their weight, but it’s fun to try out a new dynamic. They basically act like late game religion, but they cost a ton of money to maintain. A few of them seemed worthwhile, but some of them seemed like they didn’t offer many benefits for the cost they incurred on the town. Actually considering you also have to sacrafice a great person of the appropriate level, this may be another reason why one may not want to have them… I think these are best looked at if you really look at the benefits of the corp.

I noticed a couple other new game dynamics, but the only one I can think of off hand comes from one of the new civ’s units which is this elephant that not only does better vs. mounts, but also will always attack mounts first. So no longer can your opponent hide the mounts in a stack, you will always attack them! That is a great idea and I hope they add more such units in the future.

Overall, a good little expansion… I think I liked the Warlords expansion a tad more just for the reason that with the civ buildings and the fighting stuff, I felt like they added more that I was interested in with that expansion. I do think they added more here though. Actually considering the number of leaders they now have in the game, it is more than a little surprising they also didn’t add new triats for them, but this was a very well balanced expansion at the very least and if you are a fan of the game it is definitely worth the buy.

Camping

It has been a little while since I have post largely because I went camping last week with my daughter and haven’t had much time to do any posting.

We went to Governor Dodge which is about 45 minutes away from where we went. I had never been to Dodge before in my life, and I was amazed at this little park that really is quite close to the city. It is in a valley system with bluffs everywhere, a river goes through and there are a couple small dams that turn them into small lakes, a waterfall, a prairie land, a forest, and a bunch of campgrounds.

We stayed in this cool site where you actually park, walk about 50-60 feet to get to the campsite. It was a bit far for the car and it was a pain to get anything we needed like food. But overall, the sense of being out further away from other campsites was wonderful. We heard people talking and dogs from time to time but we really felt all alone for the most part. The site itself was also on top of a ledge on one side, and on another was a hill that went down. It felt like we were on top of a small mountain, which I think we kind of were.

Unfortunately, after a summer of dryness and scorching heat, the weather became wet and cold really quickly. The first afternoon we got there was beautiful but unfortunately we spent most the time setting up, though my daughter did get to swim in the lake a little. That night we got some pretty harsh thunderstorms, but the passed over quickly just in time for daytime. Unfortunately, the tent we were using had some leaks in it and we were constantly fighting getting dripped on and getting sleeping bags away from the walls.

The next day, it was cloudy and noticeably cooler. We did go swimming despite the coolness and actually had a pretty good time. We also went to the local Wal-mart to pick up odds and ends that we forgot and then returned to our campsite. The entire day we really didn’t have a good chance to get a campfire going. I’m not entirely sure why, the wood was purposely brought back to the car so it wasn’t wet, but it just wouldn’t start for some reason, so we went to bed a little early.

That night, it started raining more, it started a s a sprinkle and we thought nothing of it. But it kept on raining over the next complete day. We tried our best to keep ourselves entertained. We went to wal-mart again to pick up cards and marshmallows (our previous ones got melted in the car the previous day). Went into town for a nice brunch, and drove around the back areas of the park. We then came back to the campsite and played some cards in the tent but we eventually became really bored and sick of dealing with a leaking tent and decided to pack up some things and return home a day early.

This actually turned out to be a fairly good idea. Besides not having to deal with wetness and boredom. We did get some good sleep, and we got some stuff home which we were worried about getting home in a single car (we set up the tent site a day early and thus avoided having to bring it all in a single trip).

It also meant we had less to pack up the next day when we returned. It turned out to be a great and beautiful day. We got a campfire started quickly while we took down the rest of our tents and dried off various wet objects. Got some marshmallows roasted and s’mores made. Packed up the car and then went to the trail for the waterfall. it was a very cool waterfall, and it really was a highlight of the trip. (It is small but still pretty neat in its own way). After this, we got in our swimsuits and went swimming in the lake. Surprisingly, despite being nicer weather, we didn’t enjoy swimming this day. The lake was cold and dirty from the previous two days of rain and we didn’t want to be in the water. But we did rent a paddle boat, which while awfully noisy, was a fairly pleasant trip around the lake that I think my daughter enjoyed greatly.

The time since then has been spent doing smaller things with my daughter and trying to recoup from what was a long week with her. I still don’t think I’m totally recovered, but we are starting to get back up there. School is right around the corner again and I am not looking forward to it.

Epic Video Games

So why do all video games have to be epic anyways? I look around and the storyline of every game is some epic scale… save the universe/world/girl/etc. Nothing real. In fact these are the same type of stories you tend to get from action, fantasy, and sci-fi movies. I use movies here mostly because much of the game industry compares itself to the movie industry, even if done so unintentionally. It is common knowledge that game storylines are aweful nearly accross the board… has anyone realized that those genres in the movie industry are known for having bad stories nearly across the board? Sure, we see a rare gem like Lord of the Rings that is actual quality, but for the most part, the storylines of these genres tend to be nothing.

I think the reason is that in general people don’t care about the epic stories, what really affect people far better is the personal story. For instance, I think in general to most people will find more personal meaning by watching Schindler’s List than they might find in watching Fast and the Furious. That is not to say that many people don’t prefer to watch Fast and the Furious over Schindler’s List, but people respect the List more than the Furious, and people think it is a much higher quality film as well. This difference really goes towards mood of the viewer more than anything else. When push comes to shove… Schindler’s List is the better movie despite not making the money that Fast & the Furious likely did.

So why is the game industry trying so hard to mimic Fast & the Furious instead of Schindler’s List? Strike that, why is the game industry trying so hard to mimic 2 Fast 2 Furious instead of Schindler’s list? Because not only is the industry trying to mimic pointless movies that are not taken seriously, they are mimicing pointless sequals that are rarely as good.

Money is one thing, but this really only works for the original in most respects… quite often it is the first that makes the most… Metroid Prime did better than Metroid Prime 2, and Metroid did better than both. There is a caveat to older games though. These can often be rejuvinated, but even here we tend to see greatest return on the first of a new revision. For instance, FFVII did much better than previous Final Fantasies, but it was also the first real 3D FF game, and has largely done much better than any FF game since that point. Likewise, Mario 64 has done much better than the 3 or 4 Marios that have come since then, and has done better than many of the previous Marios as well. Of course in every rule there is exception, but this seems to work nearly across the board.

I think there are three more real issues than money though. First… talent. The industry is just not geared towards writing talent. Movies and Television employ screenwriters, and while there are more writers coming into the industry, they are still not relied on much in the field. In most cases programmers think that they can write stories as well as anyone else, which is ironic because I doubt they would think that everyone else (like say the secretary answering the phone) could program as well as they could. Because of this, the stories are weak at best that get produced, often failing to even outdo high school level stories in many cases.

The second is somewhat related to the first but not entirely. And that is familiarity. The game industry is a copy cat industry. And what we see work once is copied beyond belief. Doom was hugely successful, and it was successful with a bad story. Now we see countless remakes of Dooms, in fact nearly every FPS put out is just a remake of Doom with a slightly different setting, but mostly the settings and stories are the same damn game. This can be said nearly everywhere… Tied to this is that game developers often develop games they want to see based on what they like to see in stories. Unfortunately, game developers tend to be the types who really enjoy Sci-fi, fantasy, and action genres and thus this all we see, even down to copied bad stories. Not to say anything against this, I personally love these genres too.

The third problem, is ease… it is just easy for everyone to shell out the same game over and over again. This is why you see copy cats and sequals in the movie, book, magazine, news, and television industries as well. If it has little to no effort, that is better than any effort at all.

But we as an industry really need to get over it, because we are not taken seriously by anyone else. Maybe we could easier make the claim that we are art in some fashion if our games actually were art in some fashion. And using the last issue, one of the easiest ways to create art is through story. Why not have it if it would help the respectability of the industry so much? Why in god’s name would the industry not want to be respected?

B5 Returns

Last week I was surfing around somewhere and I saw that Babylon 5 was putting out a new movie which was releasing last week. Thinking back on it now, I think that I did hear about it previously but I didn’t remember it for the life of me and it took me by surprise. So I promptly ordered it.

Understand that until recent years, Babylon 5 had been my favorite sci-fi series of all time. Now with an explosion of television shows like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes, it has fallen to #4 on my list but it is still easily one of my favorites. (I do think Heroes is eventually going to drop but right now I am really liking the show). I am very excited to see the show making a return in some format, even if it is straight to DVD. It gives me hope for other shows which have had similar fates like Firefly (whom only the main star has been able to maintain acting and only in really bad movies so I think even he could come back).

So my review of it… First I was happy to see that they were able to round up some of the former actors, including two of the captains and one of my personal favorites… Galen. Unfortunately, one of the captains was the third one who really wasn’t worth even having in the show in the first place. I think they mostly needed her for the fact that Sheridan was becoming president of the alliance, but she was aweful and really should have stayed buried.

The DVD featured what essentially was two episodes. The first featured the third captain, with a priest dealing with a demon. Literally, a demon. I really didn’t like this episode. It reminded me of a crap filler episode of the show, especially one of the early ones. And when you got two episodes, I really would wish that they provided something a little more substantial. The second thing about it was that while there were religious undertones throughout the show previously, they weren’t as blatant as this. In fact, the show had previously always interpreted angels as being Vorlans and demons as being Shadows so I don’t understand why they came out in this fashion. I always appreciated the undertones. That being said, the actor who played the demon was brilliant, the other two actors that were in the episode were forgetable.

The second episode was longer, and really made the purchase worth the while. Sheridan is worth bringing back, and Galen was amazing as usual. I also appreciated the Centauri Prince that they brought into the show, I thought he did a fine job on the part, and hope to see him in future releases. The story was good and felt like a potential starting point for a new series of plot lines, which if this one makes money I imagine Warner Bros. will continue to make them. I am hopeful they do cause this one was good.

Other thoughts… the special features were fairly weak. They consisted of short interviews with the three main actors (mostly lockley and sheridan) and JMS. There were tributes to the two actors who have passed away since the show ended, these tributes while a nice thought turned out a little disappointing. The Sheridan interview for this was actually pretty good, and the JMS part was decent but I was hoping for behind the scenes clips with those actors, and even if they just got phone interviews with the other B5 actors it would have been nice to go beyond just the actors who appeared in the show. The new spruced up graphics were great, you can really tell how far technology has moved since the show originally aired, however I felt they relied on blue screens a little too much, often when they didn’t even need to (many hallways were completely blue screened). I realize this is a cost saver, but it also makes it feel less organic. But I suppose I can’t complain when the show is on, even if there are these minor complaints.

Overall, a decent disc. I think it was worth the money solely for seeing some new episodes. Although, I hope in future DVDs that they give out a few more features, and don’t have the junk episodes like they did here.

Gold Pharmers

Back in the days of Asheron’s Call and Ultima Online, a lot of people sold stuff on eBay and made some money. I personally sold stuff in order to make up the cost of the game to help myself afford it, since at the time I did not have a job, this was a luxury that needed to pay for itself, and it did. I probably paid for about a year and a half this way and was happy to have the ability to do it. At this time, there were people who farmed for money, but not many, and most of them were players like me who were in reality just trying to make some money if they could. At best you would make about $20k a year which is by no one’s means a good salary.

Then the various companies started to put pressure on ebay to shut the auction business down, and slowly but surely the amount of chinese pharmers went up. You see the pharmers work for websites that make a business out of selling gold, the players used ebay who didn’t care either way. That is not to say that I don’t think pharmers wouldn’t be around now if ebay were still legal, but they probably wouldn’t be as relevant as there would be far more competition out there. There wouldn’t be as much profit, and as such, not as many i don’t think.

Why I bring this up is that no matter what game developers do, pharmers are here to stay whether we like it or not. The devs pretty much opened up the door for them to become big, and now they can’t close that door back down. Raph Koster thinks the best idea is to get rid of items and gold entirely to stop them, but I doubt this would even work.

First of all Raph is somehow missing the point on why many people play these games: the loot. People love to hate it, truth is that it is huge in the grand scope of things. The one game that tried to do away with loot was City of Heroes which failed after its initial 3 months largely due to its lack of end game (which loot is part of). If you took out loot and money completely, these games would be short term, 2-3 month games which may be good for some people. Raph may like that because then he doesn’t get stuck on the same project for years upon years.

If you go the other way, and start making everything no-trade, no drop, or soul bound as various other games have tried. You still end up with the gold farmers coming in on a different aspect and actually getting particular items for you. Many farmers already do this. In fact, I once heard a story about a team pharmers who were trying to set up a raid pharm that would allow other players to come into the raid to get an item from the raid as raids are one of the few places pharmers don’t really touch right now which is strange.

So how do you minimize the impact of pharming? Now as I kind of insinuated at the beginning of this article, I actually don’t mind people buying and selling in game items for real world money. As long as you can still get the same in game items & money without using real money, I’m cool with it. My real problem tends to be how pharming really kills in-game economies and in addition takes away some prime real estate from players, as well as increasing general lag and bandwidth costs of companies.

As much as people whine about MMOs being a fair playing space where everyone has the same chance, I don’t think this is even true anymore. Most people in the real world sink time in order to get rich, and this happens in the games too. If you don’t have the time to get rich in game because you are rich out of game, why not use the out of game resources in game? Likewise, if you get rich in game because you have the time to sink in it, then why not get resources out of game for that time sunk?

With all that in mind, I’ve started to wonder about the concept of having the company itself sell in game currency to players. By doing this, you basically negate the need for the gold pharms. Gold is the easiest things for these people to make money off from and thus you would be taking away that source. People could still sell money, but it would be insecure and would also have to be cheaper than the company line which could really cut into the profitability of these pharms. Hell, maybe as part of the deal, the player can sell money back into the game (at a lower cost) in order to even out the amount of cash that is in the economy in the game. After all something would need to be done to counterbalance the in game economy problem that this might create.

I don’t know if this would work, but it seems like an interesting option. It would essentially be printing money, which is in essence doing the same thing that is already being done without the prime spots being camped and lagged down, and lessening in game advertising.