First alt is for fun, second alt is serious business

Do you remember the first character you played in your first ever MMO?

You probably didn’t bother to go look up optimal builds on bulletin boards, you didn’t care or even understand what the endgame was and you certainly had no plans for what you’d want to do with your character later on. Maybe you picked your character because you liked the look, or it fitted some favourite genre concept, maybe it was based on an old pen and paper character, or a favourite character from a book, film, or comic.

In any case, you logged in and the whole experience was a voyage of discovery. You were learning how to play, exploring the game world, figuring out how to interact with other players and NPCs, and probably making lots of mistakes and doing lots of things that you’d later judge to be embarrassingly bad. But it was fun. It must have been fun because you stuck it out long enough to either learn better or to start another alt. On the next alt, you used all the things  you had learned about the game from your first character. You were able to save time, make sure to pick up important quests and items, and probably had a much smoother ride through the game.

And it’s funny that in some games, you can go back and ‘correct’ any mistakes more easily than others. In a level based game, you can go back and repeat old levels if you want to make sure to pick up all the loot, grab all the achievements, or finish up anything you forgot last time. Although modern MMOs make it easy to change many things about your character if you later decide that you chose badly, the experience of nonoptimal levelling will stay with you. It won’t affect your character later in the game; you can replace gear, repeat any rep grinds that you missed, and so on. But you will know that you could ‘do it better’ if you ever wanted to start again.

That lends a lot of replayability to a game. It’s the notion that if you start again, your experience will be sufficiently different to be interesting (or at least, more interesting than mooching round the endgame and doing daily quests ad infinitum). It might be different because you pick a different class, level in different zones, pick different difficulties, or because the game has some randomness built into the levelling game.

I was thinking about this with Dragon Age. I finally gave in to my story fixation and set the difficulty to Easy permanently for my first play through, and I love the extra flexibility that this gives my game. I can pick companions because I like them and not just because they have classes or abilities that I need to beat the difficulty. I don’t have to stress over character builds or loot, I’ll just make do with whatever I get that looks interesting. And I can still get through the game, experience the story, and learn enough about the mechanics that I can play through again on a different character with a harder mode later.

Or in other words, I gave myself permission to just have fun and it let me focus on the parts of the game which I most enjoy. Next time, I’ll already know the basic storylines so I’ll be able to focus on other sides to the gameplay. I enjoy the combat, I just don’t want to spend too muc time on it right now.

But you can never have that initial experience of just having fun in the game again. Next time through, you cannot help being more knowledgeable. Lines of dialogue that made you laugh out loud in surprise the first time through will only raise a smile. The badass boss that beat you three times before you changed your strategy and smacked it down? You’ll get it first time of course, because you figured out that strategy yourself.

The relaxing thing with a single player game is that you can take your time. But in MMOs, we often rush through the fun parts as fast as possible. It makes me wonder whether all MMOs should make you play through solo first for awhile, to give you space to learn and explore, and only then let you loose on other players after everyone else has had their fun.

 

Dragon Age: So, what did you do at Redcliffe Castle?

This isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that …

For many fantasy fans,  it’s a crucial part of the genre that heroes be heroic and that doing good deeds  is rewarded in stories. If that is important to you, you will not enjoy playing Dragon Age.

It is clear from early on in the game that this is a dark fantasy. Very dark indeed. Even where it is clear that evil needs to be fought, the people who fight it are far from good themselves. The vaunted maturity of the title means that players have the option to choose between the lesser evil and the greater evil, and to decide for themselves whether the means justifies the ends. And the game will not punish the player unduly for making the nastier choice; sure, some of your companions may disapprove but the game isn’t biased towards one type of morality over another. Being good won’t be punished, but there’s no inbuilt reward for it either.

One of the earlier moral dilemmas faced in the game takes place at the human stronghold of Redcliffe Castle. I was fascinated by an rpg.net thread which asked players to discuss the decision that they made there in game, and to justify it. The thread is full of spoilers for that part of the game, but I was impressed that different players made spirited defences of all the different options available.

As a GM, I found the storytelling consequences just  a little cheap (it wasn’t as true a moral dilemma as it probably should have been), but the device did work. It made people stop and think. And I can’t really talk about it without spoiling the encounter so I’ll stop there.

But if you are playing through DAO, do check out the thread. It’s really quite interesting to see a storytelling device play out that’s rather richer than we are used to in MMO questing.

 

 

 

 

Dragon Age, and the unending battle of fluff vs crunch

I am still working my way through Dragon Age, and still thoroughly enjoying the game. While people agree in general that the game is of high quality, there is a split of opinions online as to how well it actually works … as a game. All of these games which tell stories have to provide a mix of storytelling (ie. exposition, introduction of NPC characters, exploring the world) and actual gameplay. So it isn’t surprising that different players value different parts of that mix in different ways.

Brainy Gamer has a fair summary of gameplay issues, particularly with how persuasion works in the game. (This has been an issue with pen and paper games since forever also. How DO you play a character who’s smarter or more persuasive than you are in real life? In P+P we either roll the dice, or the GM shrugs and has the characters respond as though you were being convincing.)

evizaer picks apart the combat gameplay

Mitch Krpata finds that the game doesn’t do anything to show a non-RPG guy how to play or relate to it.

It’s also not surprising that a lot of MMO players are really digging Dragon Age. The mixture of quests, exposition, combat gameplay, and large world setting isn’t that different from the MMO standard, but being a single player game, DA is far more tailored for the single player experience. The UI is familiar, the basic tactics are familiar (crowd control? heals? tank? check.)

Neither is it surprising that a lot of gamers like the game, but criticise the gameplay. It does feel awkward to show such awesome storytelling, and then follow it up with a scene where you run around picking up everything that isn’t nailed down. That doesn’t really help the story, and it feels old fashioned. Really, everything your character owns or acquires should have some sort of story behind it, whether you earned some money and bought it from a merchant, or it was gifted to you. Picking up loot from random monsters is often daft, and grabbing everything in sight in town is just stealing.

I also agree that letting you queue up commands on characters in combat, or switch to a full turn based option, would have improved the combat experience. In many ways, DA isn’t even trying to raise the bar or change anything major about RPG gameplay – a genre which is old and already feels strained. Even as a roleplaying game, DA is an awkward mess of old skool D&D tricks such as old fashioned puzzles, problems that can be solved by killing more stuff and dungeons with the equivalent of 10’x10′ rooms with traps and wandering monsters, and more modern RPGs which take a more story based or character based approach and offer more nuanced moral dilemmas.

But still, somewhere along the line players have to decide whether the good side outweighs the bad, and that’s a personal decision. Whether the fluff (everything that isn’t direct gameplay, like dialogue, story, worldbuilding, character design and animation,  achievements) outweighs the crunch (hard gameplay, stats, how gear relates to performance). And when the fluff is this good, it feels churlish to ignore large steps forward in one side of the game and just cavil about locked chests.

Dragon Age is one of the most immersive RPGs I have ever played. The human noble origin brings tears to my eyes (I’m a sucker for stories where a character’s beloved parents die, probably because my mother died young). I have felt genuine regret at decisions I have taken in the game, I’ve certainly wanted to shout at some of the characters. And I’ve laughed at others. That sort of strong emotional response shouldn’t be brushed away as ‘Well, the storytelling is OK I guess.’ It’s far more than OK. It’s the response you feel to a good film or a good book. This is why people love it, and the tactical gameplay is probably better than most MMOs.

You can’t compare that to a game on rails like Uncharted 2. Yes, the cut scenes in Uncharted are great. But they’re just bridges to the next platform/shooter section. I don’t care about those characters, except that they amuse me. The cut scenes in DAO are interactive, and although that just means picking options from a list, it also means that you have ways to drive the story forwards in different directions.

As a gamer, I’d love to see better gameplay for interpersonal interactions. There’s no reason why dialogue shouldn’t be as exciting as a shooter – it’s easy to imagine scenarios where someone’s life could just as easily depend on how a conversation proceeds as how quick a player is on the draw. It’s totally fair to criticise DAO for not even trying to advance the state of RPG gameplay.

But it feels harsh and one dimensional to me to fail to note the advances the game has made in the areas of storytelling and immersion. I never wanted to cry when I was playing Uncharted 2 (except possibly in frustration at not knowing where I was supposed to go).

Dragon Age Hint: So you need more storage space

One of my major issues with the game is the lack of some kind of vault in which to store items that you might need later on in the game. I end up carrying around way too many gifts for companion characters I haven’t even met yet, for example.

If you have the same problem, you’ll be pleased to know that there is now an (free) unofficial  addon which adds a storage chest to your camp. You can get hold of it here. Read and follow the installation instructions carefully so that everything ends up in the right directories. It won’t conflict with the storage provided as part of the Warden’s Keep DLC if you already have that.

It’s a generous addition by one of the Bioware coders, on his personal time. He’s also provided the source code, so addon writers looking to add things to the campsite could use that as a starting point.

Dragon Age (PC Version)! My first thoughts.

dragonagegraff1 Trust me, I’m a dwarf

Dragon Age is the game I’ve been waiting for ever since I started to play CRPGs, and I hadn’t even realised. In fact, I’d all but given up on ever having a computer based RPG that came anywhere near the nuances of a tabletop game. But I was wrong.

Bioware have learned a lot since the days of Baldurs Gate and Knights of the Old Republic – BG had a large game world and lots to do but never really grabbed me as a story. KOTOR leapt for the jugular with a character based storyline but made the player so much front and centre that it was almost embarrassing to play. I felt awkward knowing that the game was so blatently all about me.

In Dragon Age, you are the hero. You will do great and terrifying things, but there’s a whole world in this game and a lot of other people too. You will affect them, they will affect you.

The game is a solid blend of CRPG sections where you can explore the scenery, talk to other characters, do quests, and take everything that isn’t nailed down; and party based combat. Both sides of the game seem exceptional to me from what I have played so far. But the story and the immersion is where the game really shines.

The origins of the title are long intro sections for each combination of race/social background which ease you into your character and flesh it out a bit before the main storyline kicks off and you are taken away from everything and everyone you once knew. I’ve played through a few origins and thought they were all effective – although I can see how some might appeal more to different players. The mage background, for example, offers an insight into a life lived entirely inside the mage tower, with some moral and ethical dilemmas thrown in. But because of the moral choices, it doesn’t feel as streamlined as the city elf background where you’re given a fairly arse kicking revenge fantasy (no moral dilemma there!). The dwarf commoner is my favourite so far but none of the ones I tried were clunkers. They all worked at getting me to like my character and connect with it, and offering some long term character  based goals as well as purely quest based ones.

Voice work is great, although there do seem to be a lot of people who talk with posh English accents around the place. I’m a convert to voice work in CRPGs now, although I can’t imagine what sort of resources Bioware must have at their disposal. As others have commented, it is a little jarring that everyone except your character is chatting away – it makes them come across a bit grim, like the man with no name. But appealing voice work brings even the least convincing character models to life. The animation is also pretty good. I especially loved watching my city elf warrior heft a two handed sword around. I’ve seen people do real life swordplay with those and the moves looked right to me (none of this swinging it around your head like a rhythmic gymnast).

The heart and soul of the CRPG is in the companion characters who will join you along the way, and how your main character develops a relationship with them. There is always a danger in CRPGs that because the player is in the driving seat, all the other characters feel weak – they are always deferring to your opinions and letting you make the decisions. That does exist here, but they will also step up and challenge you when they think you are making a mistake. It’s not like having a full AI on board, but they do feel convincing to me as 3 dimensional characters.

For example,  as my dwarf rogue, I was commenting to my husband that I liked Alistair but thought he was naive and a bit of a tit. He said that as his mage, he liked him because he felt that they had a lot in common – they’d both been taken from their parents at a young age and sent off to an institution to be raised. So the character and conversation options were there to support both of those experiences.

The fighting sequences are fast paced, although you can pause the action as often as you need to, and can be as tactically deep as you care to go. Easy mode is a lot easier – you won’t need to pause the game too much and area effects won’t harm your party through friendly fire. Normal mode (which is quite hard in places, even after the last patch) requires more thought and hands on interaction. Although you can set programmable tactics for each character, mages need a bit more babysitting to get the best out of them. If one particular fight is kicking your butt and you get frustrated, you can change the difficulty to easy for that, and then back again afterwards.

Or just play it through in easy mode if you’re more about the story and the character than the tactical combat. That’s just as valid a way to play and I enjoy that the game gives me those options.

And really the one flaw with the character classes is that mages feel as though they have many more options. As a mage, you can have crowd control, you can nuke, you can have AE, you can heal, you can buff. Fighters and rogues are a little more one sided, although my rogue has some stuns and can set traps and throw bombs so I don’t feel restricted with her at all. The game is not set up to assume you always have a healer along, but if you don’t, take a lot of healing poultices and have one of the party train in herbalism (to make more cheaply).

And about the maturity? They’re not joking. Even if you ignore the blood and the entertainment on offer at the brothel (it’s all fade to black) or the options to romance your party (I can’t report on that since I’m having enough trouble getting them to stay with me at all, let alone anything more), the issues and moral dilemmas raised in the game are a step beyond most fantasy fare. How do you feel about casual in game racism? Would you kill a child if you knew for a fact that doing so would also destroy a demon? Free the condemned prisoner, even if you know he might kill again? This is a game where you will be facing those types of choices, and you’ll have to take responsibility for where they lead.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there are also achievements to unlock and lore to discover – Bioware have used something similar to WAR’s tome of knowledge where new pages open up to inform you of what you have learned about characters, items, gameplay, lore, and so on. Lore entries may also be expanded later as you find out more. I found that worked very well, although indexing it by number doesn’t make it easy to search.

My dwarf just hit level 10 with *cough* a fair amount of hours played and I feel as though I’ve barely touched the surface of the game. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, as you can probably tell. In fact,  I absolutely love it and will plan to spring for the warden’s keep DLC at some point, if only because I’m happy to have the chance to throw more money at Bioware for content of this quality.

Tell me about your character

Let me tell you about my character in Dragon Age. She’s a feisty dwarf rogue who began her life as a casteless commoner. She doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, she hates rules, and wants to do the right thing but doesn’t see why she should do it for free because that made you a sucker where she came from. Her story is of someone who came from nowhere and is struggling to learn what ‘doing the right thing’ really means.

When I compare notes with my husband, he keeps saying, “You’re horrid,” or “You’re evil” when I tell him about my dwarf girl’s exploits. But I’m not playing as evil, just as someone who doesn’t know any better and really really wants to try anyway.

Her companions aren’t very happy with her (except for Morrigan who she gets on with very well), and I think being motivated to try to stay friendly with them is probably having a good effect on her. I feel like I actually have a character that could change and grow through the game – it may not be Oscar winning material but it could be a solid fantasy pot boiler! To me, that lifts the whole game up another dimension because I actually feel as though I’m role playing.

So, tell me about your character?

How to Patch Dragon Age Origins on PC

It took a bit of searching to find the most recent 1.01 patch for Dragon Age Origins yesterday, but Bioware have swiftly updated their social site to make the patch much easier to locate.

And because a picture says a thousand words, the screenshot below shows how to find and download it.

dragonagepatch1

1. Log into the bioware dragonage social site at: social.bioware.com

2. Select My Games –> Game Patches as shown above

dragonagepatch2

3. If you don’t want to log in or don’t have an account, you can go directly to the patch page using the URL  http://social.bioware.com/game_patches.php

3. The patch page (pictured above)  has a big blue download button that you can click to get the patch.

 

 

Happy Patching!

Thought for the day: Single player games and the internet effect

I’m much more likely to want to buy a single player game when it comes out when I know that a lot of my friends will be chatting about it online. The pressure to be part of that ‘first wave’ is higher than it used to be. Even being three days late on Dragon Age due to later European release dates felt like an absolute age to me. And I’m sure I used to be much more relaxed about waiting 6 months until the game was in the reduced pile.

This is the same reason that a lot of people here download TV shows or films illegally. Not because they can’t afford to buy it, but because they don’t have the option.

When will distributors realise that we want to read, watch, listen, or play these things at the same time as the rest of the world because we TALK to them about it?

5 things I learned about Dragon Age

edited to add a link to the review: Read it here — it’s now up on the web.

PC Gamer this month features a glossy and rather glowing full review of Dragon Age — this one is notable partly because of the writing but also because the reviewer played the whole thing through to the end (he comments that it took him about 80 hours for his first epic playthrough). Even the editor notes:

The last two months have been excrutiating. We’ve had Dragon Age in the office for what feels like an epoch, and John’s been raving about how sensational it is almost daily.

There’s also a pre-review in Eurogamer. And as a sign of EA’s confidence in the game, they note:

It’s an important game, then; we got an indication how important (and how big) when publisher EA started distributing a complete PC review version to press months before its release. That never happens.

OK, enough of the behind the scenes stuff, what have we learned about the game itself.

  1. There will be two modes of play. Easy which is similar to MMO style play, and Normal where you can pause to set up actions for each party member repeatedly during the fight.
  2. In addition, you will be able to set up combat tactics for members of your party, similar to the way you could program behaviour into your party in FFXII. So you can set them to heal when they get low on health, switch from range to melee weapons, and so on. It sounds as though it can get quite complex if that’s what you want.
  3. Similarly, if you are interested in picking out a complex talent and skill spec for your character and party you can do it. If not, they can be set to skill up automatically along preset paths.
  4. Dwarvish culture — we’ve heard a bit about the elves, humans and mages. Dwarves have a complex caste system by which young dwarves take the same caste as their same-sex parent (ie. dwarf girls get their caste from their mother, dwarf boys from their father.) Then there are casteless dwarfs, unrecognised as members of society and with their ancestry removed from dwarven history (so presumably their children are fated to follow in their footsteps.)
  5. How your fellow party members feel about you will affect some romance options (apparently there are gay romance options too, my money is on the naughty tattooed witch for the female one because only ‘naughty’ girls are ever allowed to be bi in games, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong) but also give them gameplay buffs, unlock personal quests, and determine whether they leave or not.

If there was one comment in the PC Gamer review that really intrigued me, it was discussing  NPC vendors who follows you around:

Treat them as more than a shop, talk to them, and the details of their past emerge along with a surprising ethical quandary.

What I’d give for an NPC merchant in a MMO who rewarded you for treating them as more than a shop! In any case, the reviews sound as though the game is everything it has been described as and more. Reviewers praise the immersiveness of the setting and the sense of detail and having experienced a world, not just a game.  Phrases like ‘the RPG of the decade’ and ‘it feels like the consummate, traditional PC RPG’ are not bandied around lightly.

How will I survive the countdown to release date now, dammit?! I already decided that my first character will be the city elf fighter — the city elf beginning involves a wedding, an abduction, and possibly a rape, so I’ll try to model her on The Bride from Kill Bill. Anyone else got any ideas for characters?

[rhetorical question: I'll survive by playing Torchlight, clearly. And maybe playing Dragon Age Journeys, the free flash game that goes live tonight.]

RT @all Apparently social networking is big with the kids these days

Tipa@West Karana and Pete@Dragonchasers have both written about the new Dragon Age: Origins character creator that was released yesterday. Dragon Age: Origins, for those who don’t follow upcoming games, is due to be released in November by Bioware and is a single player RPG, along a similar style to the Baldur’s Gate series. It’s going to be a large game and Bioware have been churning out loads and loads of trailers for it —  for example, each different character origin has its own video.

I love these kinds of games, even though I have a really poor track record for actually completing them. This one is going to involve lots of downloadable content (the first DLC module that you can pay for is going to be available on the same day that the game is released, which is possibly being just a little over-eager), and … err … vast amounts of blood spraying all over the place if the website is anything to go by.

What’s more interesting is that Bioware are launching a new social website based around Dragon Age. You can upload character portraits from the character creator already to your account and share them with friends, and will be able to upload achievements, information about where it is in the story, and talent/skill choices. Naturally you can also message other people through the site, use it to host dragon age blogs, and organise project teams to create new dragon age modules and addons with the toolset that’s coming with the game.

It’s a different take from Blizzard’s battle.net which seems to be more about being able to message people while they are in game and organise good matches for SC2 battles.

I do wonder how many social networking sites most players really want to keep up with — one for every different manufacturer is already starting to feel like a hassle. But I applaud Bioware for letting me create a pretty female dwarf (whilst cursing them for putting together a city elf background that actually tempts me to play an elf) and if anyone wants to friend me there, my username is Spinksville.