And suddenly … combat!

I have noticed in MMOs these days, it is quite common in cut scenes or instances for devs to think it would be cool to have the character/s ambushed, or have an NPC you are talking to suddenly attack. For sure, it is cool and dramatic to be attacked out of nowhere, but depending on class you can be at a disadvantage if you can’t use your opening move. I noticed this a lot in SWTOR, for example.

In other words, there are two types of MMO character classes.

  1. Those who prefer to set up their combat in advance.
  2. Those who can just whale in.

For example, any class that relies on stealth or crowd control (where the stealth or crowd control has to be applied before you get into combat), or has a move like charge (nb. you can now charge in combat, they changed it because it was annoying) where you get some extra damage and resources if you use it to enter combat would be type 1. Any class who starts on full resources (like a full mana bar), can use CC in combat/or and doesn’t have a special move with which to enter combat would be type 2.

Open world solo PvE is typically much friendlier to type 1 classes, where you are  in control of when the combat begins so you can take your time to set things up.  (SWTOR does this a lot too, so I can’t really fault Bioware for not being even handed.) For sure, people complain about lack of immersion when mobs are standing around in small groups waiting to be pulled and killed, but it’s great if you are trying to sneak up on them and CC one before backstabbing one of the others.

I also remember liking the old solo crafting instances in LOTRO (they are in Moria) with my burglar because I had all the time in the world to sneak through, pay attention to patrols, and carefully set up every fight. It was fun and quite engaging, given that the instances themselves weren’t too exciting. You see this playing style also when people are soloing high level instances in WoW, where you need to plan out every pull.

Truth is, I kind of like the excitement of having mobs jump out at me. Even if I’m on a class that would prefer to control the start of the fight, it’s a fun challenge to figure things out on the fly and see how good your survival instincts really are. (Obv if I was a PvP player this would be more de rigeur).

What I don’t like so much are mobs like the challengers at the temple of the red crane (WoW) where you first talk to them, then there is a 5s wait, and then they suddenly enter combat and attack you. I wish they either went red instantly or else allowed enough time for you to back off and get out of range before they go aggro, so that you can then use your combat setups.

[WoW] Smart storytelling in Patch 5.1 (minor spoilers)

WoW_DominanceCast

The Horde army in 5.1 is known as the Dominance Offensive. But looking at these NPCs (dominance medic???) you have to wonder what else these blood elves are up to after dark…

Patch 5.1 hit WoW recently and with it some new Scenarios (3 man instances) and Dailies (which are rapidly becoming the theme of this expansion). But that isn’t the only thing that landed with the new content.

As you work through the dailies and build up reputation with your factions invasion army, every few days you will also unlock a new questline which tells part of an ongoing story. Last week I wrote about one off events, dividing them into event driven and time driven, depending on whether it was a player’s action that kicked off the event or if it had its own schedule.

These new ongoing questlines look to be a bit of both. They seem to depend on your faction reputation (which you can improve by doing quests), but the reputation is gated by dailies (so there is a time-based limit on how quickly you can faction up.)

wow_dominanceplot

There is an achievement for finishing this storyline, which also gives us an idea of how much is left to run. Each mini storyline corresponds to one line in this box.I do worry about there being one called ‘rise of the blood elves’, although purging Dalaran sounds like fun.

The interesting thing about the storyline so far is that all the new mini story questlines are … actually telling a pretty cool story. I am now really looking forwards to each next update. And I feel really engaged and keen to do these dailies now to unlock more story, even when they are in that freaking mine place.

You can also tell with clockwork precision when guildies have done various parts of the quest due to people making comments on guild chat such as “Oh shit, Garrosh is here!” (said in the same way you might say ‘Oh shit, the boss is back’ at work, if your boss was a raging psycho.)

Intriguingly, this has also sparked me into working out more backstory and personality quirks for my characters. Mrs Spinks I already knew quite well, she’s a chirpy cockney with no sense of fear and no moral compass beyond looking after ‘her boys.’ Think undead Mrs Kray with a big axe. Mrs Spinks has no issues with working for a raging psycho like Garrosh, and would normally be pretty sanguine about a warmongering warchief – if nothing else, it means good employment prospects for warriors. But since Garrosh managed to royally piss off the entire Undercity, no Forsaken is going to cry if he meets with an unfortunate farming accident.

Scutter (the goblin priest) simply lives on another planet, and is happily trying to preach the prosperity gospel to the Klaxxi in between raids, it’s hopeless and pointless but she doesn’t see it. She’s loyal in the ‘oo shiny!’ sense and completely fails to see the big picture. If she says or does anything smart and/or useful, it’s a coincidence. She likes kittens, explosions, and making inappropriate new friends.

So where is the plot going?

Yeah, this is the spoilery bit.

There is one section of the Horde plot where you get to go meet Thrall (you just knew he was going to be involved) and free a troll village from the Kork’ron elite guard who are oppressing it. If you pay attention, you will notice that some of these orcs are using warlock-like abilities. Mrs Spinks may not be the smartest warrior on the block but even she can recognise a Shadow Bolt to the face.

Orcs using warlock spells has always been associated with demonic corruption in the past.

So my prediction is that Garrosh’s new advisor, Malkorok, is going to turn out to be Mal’Ganis. Who will throw Garrosh to the wolves (and/or Sha) and somehow escape at the end of this expansion to be one of the main bosses in the next, which is already suspected to have a Burning Legion theme. Mal’Ganis is also probably one of the better villains in WoW who is still standing, so I’d be rather happy to see him again. We do have unfinished business, after all.

I’m quite curious as to the Alliance storyline also, now. Anyone want to share?

[Quote of the Day] The problem with player driven narratives

Who wants to hear the story of me following a trail of mithril ores until I got to a cypress tree, slaughtering drakes and wolves and polar bears along the way, until I found an orichalcum ore, yay, then I saw a rich mithril vein and had to figure out how to get to it, and it was guarded by a veteran something or order, and hey, there’s a cave there I never saw, so I went down it and saw stuff, and oooh, a chest, and oh darn, wasn’t I meant to be completing this zone, except by now the vista I was wandering to is somewhere southeast of here instead of northwest so I guess it’s time to head back in that direc…eep, a DE just exploded on me, ok, fightfightfight, and now this escort DE wants me to go that way (looks longingly at the vista)… oh screw it, the vista is always going to be there, trots off after the mass of people following the NPCs…

Jeromai (Why I Game)

Btw if you think this doesn’t happen in ‘pure’ sandbox games, consider that for a lot of sandbox players, this might be more interesting than their stories.

Question of the Day: What are your favourite instances/ flashpoints of all time?

I have been running a fair number of flashpoints recently in SWTOR, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Kaon Under Siege might be my favourite instance/flashpoint in any MMO ever. What really makes this instance stand out for me is the incredible atmosphere, great instance-based storytelling, a few challenging trash mob pulls, and interesting enough bosses (OK, the bosses are not really the highlight of this flashpoint, but I feel they have enough strategy to keep them both interesting and in genre with the rest of the instance).

kaon1

What I mean by atmosphere is that this is a zombie survival type of setting. Parts of the instance are eerily dark, with players using torches that hover around their heads. Parts involve zombies/rakghouls jumping out at you, in packs. Even if you know the instance reasonably well, the atmosphere is solid. Part of this is down to good pacing; sometimes you can see the rakghouls wandering around so you have time to plan the pulls carefully and other times you’re walking down a dark and quiet corridor and they leap out. It leads to an instance that doesn’t feel as though it’s just a static bunch of mobs standing around in corridors.

By storytelling, I mean that you pick up an entire storyline as you are travelling from boss to boss. There are some conversations (that people tend to skip through if they’re in a hurrt) but also you get some of the information as you are moving/ fighting. On arrival, you know that the planet is quarantined, then you learn via radio that some nobles are trying to break the quarantine so you try to stop them, then you see their hijacked ship crash, talk to the surviving pilot and see him succumb to the disease, and finally have to pick your way through infested and dangerous areas to get to a place where you can find where the infestation began and get a pickup for your team. It’s very smoothly put together. There’s plenty of show to go along with the tell.

The bosses have some interesting features. One boss fight features waves of rakghouls where one character gets to sit in the weapon turret and everyone else helps mop up and take out the rakghouls that are more dangerous. Another boss has to be kited towards explosives when it goes into frenzy (although tbh people seem more likely these days to tough it out). Another set of three have different abilities depending on the kill order. So again, it doesn’t feel like a set of bosses standing in a room waiting for you.

Some of the packs of trash mobs have interesting abilities also. There are rakghouls which have crowd control, others which explode when they die, and others which will throw players around (probably into any other packs of mobs in the area). So as players learn the instance, they can learn the routes which avoid pulling two packs at once, and learn which mobs should be taken out first.

kaon2

I feel it’s an instance which shows off the very best of SWTOR design, with an attention to the detail, storytelling, that extends into boss mechanics in a way that I haven’t really found in WoW recently. (My favourite WoW instances were Stratholme and BRD, vanilla versions.)

So for any fellow instance runners: Which are your favourites, and why?

[Diablo 3] The good, the bad, and the state of the game (minor spoilers)

diablologo

So, I’m coming up for air from some serious bouts of Diablo 3 this week, albeit not as serious as the guy who already soloed Diablo on Inferno mode, or the guys from Method who killed him in a 4 man group on the same setting. That does seem quite fast given how difficult Blizzard touted inferno mode as being but I am sure it will still be plenty hard for normal players, especially since they’ll have had to play the game through three times before they get to pick that setting.

Meanwhile your narrator is on Act 2 of Nightmare Mode (that’s the next one up from normal) and has been playing a bit of co-op in Normal Mode with Arb. I’ve been enjoying it; Diablo 3 is a fun game, I am a sucker for the gothic grimdark Heaven and Hell themes, and there is a lot to like about it. In fact, there are many utterly and genuinely great things you should know about D3.

The Good

* THE CLASS DESIGN AND TALENT SYSTEM. This isn’t just good, it’s amazing. No futzing around with talent trees trying to decide if you want 1% extra block here or +10 resist vs undead trees there (that kind of fiddling is purely in the gear), instead you get to pick 6 attacks which will be bound to keys 1-4 and the left/right mouse buttons. Each ability is distinctive and has immediately recognisable effects on the screen and in play, and you get to further customise the ability as you unlock runes by levelling up. Finally someone has twigged that players want their choices to matter immediately and in every fight. That is what this system accomplishes. While Blizzard start you off with a balanced power set which involves one key for defensive spells, one for your long (ie. 2 min) cooldowns, etc., you can leapfrog this and just bind whichever powers you prefer by picking the Elective Mode (Options-> Gameplay-> Interface).

I’ve never been a fan of talent trees but I adore this system. I’m also fond of being able to respec whenever you aren’t in combat. It encourages players to experiment with some of the synergies and try things out, or respec to more appropriate skills after a boss kicks your arse. And you can tell fairly swiftly if a given skill set is working out for you or not.

Each class is fun, distinctive, and has some solid signature abilities which are thematic to the class. Moving away from mana and the associated mana potions was a great move too. It all works. This is Blizzard design at its finest and deserves to be widely copied.

* COMBAT AND LOOTING. It’s fast and furious, there’s lots of clicking, it’s Diablo.  I especially enjoy the physicality of the whole thing. When characters use their movement powers (ie. charge or leap on the Barbarian) they bound around the screen scattering mobs in their wake in a way that’s both easy to follow and strangely satisfying. When mobs or chests or barrels are destroyed, they throw out a veritable fountain of loot that lands with another satisfying crash on the ground. I also like how you collect gold or health orbs just by being in the vicinity.

I think D3 must have a design goal that the player never has to wander around for more than 20s before encountering some monsters. But that suits me.

* LOYAL TO THE ROGUELIKE ROOTS. There is going to be a lot of discussion with this game about what exactly makes a Diablo game into a Diablo game. Some of this is doubtless Blizzard being lazy, there’s no special need for a Diablo game to go Tristam->Desert->Mountains or reuse plot elements and NPCs into the ground. But there are definitely gameplay features where the game remains close to its roots in a good way. The random packs of mobs with randomly assigned abilities/ suffixes means that the game on harder modes rewards cautious and defensive play above pure damage. It also means there is a heavy dose of luck in exactly how difficult any random fight will be for any class/group.

That’s very much the way you play roguelikes. Sometimes the game throws you into a situation that’s just plain unfair – deal with it, that’s how procedurally generated games work. It drives you into developing a play style and character that is able to cope with the unexpected.

* GOOD USE OF ACHIEVEMENTS. I’m not the greatest fan of achievements but they do work really well here, there’s a good set of achievement goals for everyone from the casual player who is happy rerunning normal mode over and over again to the ultra hardcore.

I think it’s a nice touch that you get to see when any of the people on your friends list get an achievement. I liked it in WoW and I like it here too.

* SLICK MULTIPLAYER. It’s a fun game on multiplayer, and very easy to drop into one of your friends’ games and then teleport to them.

d3merge

* DIVERSITY. After the general fuss over the demon hunter (I still hate the heels) I’m really happy to say that D3 actually does make some good steps with diversity. In particular, Tyrael appears as a dark skinned guy, there’s some use of older characters (such as Cain, Adria, and the male Barbarian and Monk) and younger ones (the emperor) and it isn’t always the women who betray your character/s.

I’ve also shown images of the female barbarian (NM Act2)  and wizard (Normal Act 1) above, and I think they both look great without being stripperific.

It’s open to debate as to whether any of the PCs or NPCs are or could be gay. I actually think all the main characters are written to be sexless, and the enchantress and templar are just naive.

* GOOD USE OF BOOK SNIPPETS. I enjoyed the use of lore text via snippets of books, diaries, and journals that you find around the world, which are read out to you. I like that you can keep killing stuff while you listen. The actual game journal itself could have used being better designed so that you could search it more easily afterwards. Bioware’s codexes are good examples of how this could work.

* GOOD WRITING FOR COMPANIONS/ CRAFTERS. For me the best written parts of the game were the companion storylines, which are fed to you via snippets and short conversations as you progress through the game, Bioware-style. All those companions and the two crafters had solid story arcs and I rather enjoyed them. Yes, they’re stereotypes but that’s not really an issue for this game.

There is also some fun NPC dialogue on the various villagers and associates at your camp which changes between quests as the story progresses.

I did feel very Conan when I ventured out on my Barbarian with the sleazy scoundrel companion. It could have happened in a Robert E Howard book.

* ATMOSPHERE. I think this worked best in Act 1, but there is a definite atmosphere. I felt immersed, I wanted to know what was going to happen. I don’t think this game is as effective as Diablo 2 in setting up either the mystery or the terror of these vast unknowable good/evil powers duking it out over the earth. Back then, I was genuinely scared when I first encountered Diablo himself – my partner ended up sitting next to me and using the healing potions because I was so nervous of actually fighting the dude on my own. Maybe I’m a more hardened gamer now, and used to tanking boss mobs, or maybe they just don’t set up the terror like they used to.

The Neutral

* SERVICEABLE STORYLINE. The story in D3 does the job, but it’s patchy. Act 1 is generally solid. Act 2 is all over the place but picks up after you get the dead mage guy on board (I love his voice actor), Act 3 is slow but picks up a lot towards the end and Act 4 is fast but has some good set pieces. Like TAGN I wasn’t thrilled to find myself heading out for the same desert in Act 2 that I played in Diablo 2. It’s reusing old plot elements just a little too much there.

There are plot holes, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” or “How did my character know that?” The biggest one to me is from Act 1 where someone talks about the rarity of Nephelem to Act 2 (I think) onwards where everyone starts referring to you as one. I don’t recall that particular revelation taking place. It would have been better if it’d been part of the PCs backstory, included in the initial introductory video clip.

There is also some plot driven stupidity, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal,” or “OK, I figured out who character X was within about 2s of first meeting them, why has it taken the PC and everyone else the entire rest of the act to do so?”

* NPCs mostly exist to open doors for you. I just thought I’d note that in passing. I liked the ensemble feel of Acts 1-3, with NPCs occasionally dropping into your party for a quest or three. It did feel as though you were interacting with them.

* The Auction House really changes the difficulty of the game. If you are regularly buying appropriate yellow gear from the auction house, you will be playing this game on a vastly easier difficulty rating than if you go it single player style and only use your own drops and merchants. I think this will definitely affect how quickly people blast through it.

* You will need to play defensive in higher difficulties. Ignore the tempting 2H weapons and amazing offensive powers, if you want to survive in the harder modes, you’ll need to grab a shield and spec defensively. This means lots of vitality. So really, the game isn’t as flexible as its billed. It’s not that there is one true spec for each class, I think they have more diversity than that, but defensive trumps offensive.

The Bad

* LAG. It’s just not right to have lag in a single player game. It directly affects the play experience and it’s built in. I don’t much like the always-online requirement, but where gameplay is affected I find it unforgiveable.

* THIS IS THE NPCS STORY. Blizzard do this a lot, in SC and in WoW also, and that is focussing so much on telling the story through the NPCs that it becomes their story. You are the hired muscle. It worked for them in WC because you were actually playing the story NPCs in the scenarios. But as soon as you introduce your own character, there isn’t really much space for it in their storytelling.

The final cut scene really highlights this. There isn’t even a closing narration from your character about whatever it plans to do next.  There isn’t much closure for some of the NPCs either. I get that there’s bound to be an expansion but the ending here feels rushed, and they could have done better.

* DIFFICULTY. It is partly due to the auction house but this game falls on the easy side. Admittedly I’ve only touched on the first two difficulty levels and I can see how it will ramp up, but there’s difficulty and then there’s difficulty. I’m struggling to put this into words really, but I feel as though there’s something missing.

* RANDOM EVENTS DISAPPOINT. I loved the random events during the beta, but those ones near the beginning of Act 1 are by far the most interesting in the game. After that, it’s mostly ‘defend this objective against waves of mobs’ or ‘kill these demons which suddenly appear.’ Blizzard have the ability in D3 to slot in some far more interesting random events and we know from WoW that they have the skills to design them. They just didn’t.

* HOW MANY TIMES DO WE WANT TO REPLAY THIS? The idea of having to replay the game several times in order to set a harder difficulty was fairly core in D1 and 2, but feels very dated now. It’s like having a MMO where the maximum level is 60 but they only put in half the zones and after that you had to play them again on ‘hard mode.’

It’s not that I precisely mind replaying it, but having four difficulty levels highlights the issue.

* INCOMPLETE. This game was released without the ranked PvP or real money auction house. The latter is due to be online sometime soon (I think they said 23rd May) and I have no personal interest in PvP in Diablo but those were two sizeable factors that appealed to large sections of the community. And they aren’t there.

Sooru (you should follow his blog if you are playing D3) rounds up some more areas where he feels that game lacks polish.

Ethics and the Morality Wheel. Why choices create characters.

One of the appealing factors of MMOs for a lot of players is that you can create your own character.  But what does that really mean?

The standard setup is you can design what they look like, pick a gender, maybe race and age if the character generator allows it, and give them a name. In a sandbox game you can then decide some goals for that character (and show that they are the goals by going off and actually doing it.) In a themepark game your goals are more restricted but you can still say “this will be my PvP alt”, or “this is the alt I’ll level with my bf/gf.”  If you are a RPer (or just like writing backgrounds) then you might also give your character an in game back history. Some games or addons let you share that with other players.

Hopefully the game intro  will then give you some setting framework to hang your character on. In WoW you will start in your racial starting area and pick up extra information about your character’s home culture as you go, for example.

Maybe you’ll pick out a personality or character for your new creation as you go along. (The default in games is the chaotic greedy alignment who doesn’t like taking orders but goes along with whatever gives the best rewards. Sometimes you’ll get the lawful lazy alignment,  where your character follows orders and doesn’t think about it much.)

So what difference does a mechanic like the morality wheel in Bioware games make to that?

A very different type of chargen (character generation) was in Ultima 4 where… you were asked to answer some ethical multi-choice questions in a gypsy’s caravan. The answers affected your starting class, and in the rest of the game you were vaguely encouraged to be virtuous by the game mechanics. It was interesting and different at the time, and felt as though you were really generating a personality … or at least a few traits.

agent1

It’s a feature in Bioware games in particular that you will be making a lot of semi-ethical conversation choices as you play through the game. So in a way, you can keep defining or redefining your character’s personality as bit as you go along. I was trying to decide this week why that felt effective to me. So here’s one particular example where I made a choice in a conversation in SWTOR, and although it made no difference at all to the plot, I felt strongly afterwards that my character had become more real to me. Or at least, I knew how to keep ‘playing’ him in conversations if I wanted to keep that character trait.

This character is my agent, he’s pretty dark side which means ruthless, unforgiving, kills at the drop of a hat, all that regular nasty stuff. I usually pick dark side options in conversations. Well, almost always. So the occasions when I don’t are quite memorable to me because I had to stop and think about it.

In this example, I’d been sent off to kill someone. They weren’t especially nice and probably had it coming. But I knew a bit about their history and I’d felt a) I could see why they’d ended up that way and felt a bit sorry for them, because it was a fairly traumatic  upbringing b) the person who was telling me to kill them was way worse, by an order of magnitude.

So during the conversation, at one point, I warned the NPC that their life was in danger and they should get out of dodge. They ignored the warning so I went ahead and fought/ killed them as per orders. I had decided though when I took that light side choice that if they decided to listen and did leave, I’d have let them go.

So here’s what I am wondering. Why is it that a gameplay option that made zero difference to the story (like I say, the NPC paid no attention and I had to kill them anyway) made ME feel different about my character? Like, suddenly I saw him as someone who was a brutal, efficient operative, but not completely heartless or unsympathetic any more. More of a hard man doing a hard job (which is still not a morally strong position) than the total emotionless psycho that he’d seemed up to that point. I’d let the gameworld affect me and my decision making rather than just going along with the ‘yeah, he’ll be pure darkside’ script I’d started with.

Later I added a moral rule that despite being ruthless and all that, he’d probably not kill someone who was injured and alone but would (grudgingly) provide some medical attention instead. That was because he was a healer. Not a nice person still, but there’s an instinct not to hit someone when they’re down if there’s a choice. Again, there was at least one instance where I spoke to someone who was injured, gave them some painkillers, but they died anyway. Didn’t affect the plot; DID affect how I thought about my character.

Ethical Rules in Action

So one of the features of the decision wheel is that you’re encouraged to make ethical decisions all the time, all the way through the levelling stories. But what does that really mean?

Ethics is all about how people decide what they’re going to do in any situation. If a situation demands “what should I do/ say next?” then that’s an ethical decision. One of the ways we make this easier for ourselves (so as to avoid having major moral dilemmas every time we leave the house) is to figure out some basic personal ethical rules that are going to form our own morality.

These might include rules such as:

  • I will not lie.
  • I will be punctual.
  • I will be nice to strangers.

Religions have a lot to say on the subject of ethical rules and will doubtless have some to suggest too (ie. love your neighbour as yourself, judge not lest ye be judged, don’t gossip  – that’s a Jewish one, believe it or not.)

You could get more complex (and most people do) and say:

  • I will not lie, except to prevent harm.
  • I will not lie, unless someone really close asks me to.
  • etc

Professions and organisations often have ethical codes too, to define how they want members to behave.

  • A doctor should act in the best interests of the patient.
  • The customer is always right.

So really, in a Bioware-type game, you’re being given the opportunity to define a code of ethics for your new character, and see how it plays out in the game. You could instead pick random options, or define a code that involves, “Always pick the top left option” or “Always pick the option that my current companion will like” which is going to end up with a character that feels unpredictable or who always is swayed by the people they are with. And that’s a choice too.

There is a lot more to ethics than this. You can decide “I want my character to act like a good person would act’” (virtue ethics), or “I want my character to do whatever gives the best outcome” (consequentialism), or “I want my character to do the right thing whatever the cost” (deontological ethics), or even “I’d do what a good person in this society would do” (pragmatic ethics.)

That’s one way to build a character in a morality type conversation game. There are also others by which you decide “my character is mostly going to do the right thing, but there are exceptions and these are them.”

Anyhow, here are some ethical rulesets I’ve either designed or worked out in play for my SWTOR characters so far. One of the things I enjoy about the morality wheel is that it does allow you to figure out your character in play.

  • My Bounty Hunter is mostly about getting the job done and having some fun. She’s even quite chilled out and humane. But she has a very short temper and itchy trigger finger so if someone pisses her off during a conversation, they may well get shot in the head. (I decided to be light side, but take every conversation option that involved ((shoot him/her))).
  • My Agent is a stone cold bastard, but he’s loyal to the empire and not as heartless as some of the people he works with. He will hesitate before killing people who are in front of him and obviously vulnerable – which is a weakness in an agent, probably.
  • My Sith Warrior is powerful and chafes against being ordered around,  more of a force of nature than a force of evil. She trended light side initially as a way of acting up against her masters, but sank into it deeper because it’s often quite effective, sets people off balance,  and is a sign of how independent she can be. (She’s not ‘good’ so much as likes to assert her own personality – but I think probably has become a better person than she’d think.)

I don’t know if I think they have more personality to me than my WoW Warrior, but I know that her persona is mostly internalised. With these characters, you actually get to act it out.

Thought of the Day: The pitfall of MMO storytelling

Do you ever find when reading a book that you’re more interested in some of the characters or storylines than others? When I first read Lord of the Rings I remember skipping some chapters so that I could follow the ringbearer – don’t hate me, I was 14 at the time.

I was thinking back this weekend to which parts of Cataclysm had been the most fun for me. And came to the conclusion that it had mostly been the new Forsaken starting areas and the later follow up in Andorhal. (I like the Forsaken and they did a great job on Silverpine/ Hillsbrad, what can I say?)

And it’s in the nature of Blizzard’s levelling experience that after a bit of one storyline, you’ll be whisked off to another zone to do something completely different.

If, for the sake of argument, Blizzard had decided to follow up on the Forsaken storylines in 4.2 rather than Hyjal, there’s a good chance I would have resubbed just to see what happened next. After all, does anyone hordeside NOT want to know what happened to Koltira?

And I think this is one of the pitfalls of the “fourth pillar” in MMOs. Not all stories are the same, and of all the multiple stories going on in a world as big as an MMO, not all of them are interesting to all players. There is a question that has been doing the rounds for years about whether all players should be able to see all content. But the truth is that most of them would be perfectly happy if there was enough content that they cared about to keep them busy. If I get to chill with my NPC forsaken colleagues and their politics, I probably don’t care what the hardcore raiders are doing in the firelands. Crack on guys, give Ragnaros hell, and enjoy those wipes – I’m busy here…

Providing storylines for everyone’s taste in every patch would be a crazy amount of effort to expect. But if story is one of your primary draws, then you will also have to expect people to only show up when you’re telling a story they want to hear. Now the advantage of a sandbox where people have more freedom to tell their own stories comes a bit clearer.

Do people still dream of a virtual world?

RPS asked readers yesterday to describe their dream game. It’s not an unusual question, especially on a slow news day (if anyone is interested, I think Dune or Iain Banks’ Culture would be my dream MMO setting), but what surprised me was the number of commenters who asked for some kind of a virtual world.

You might be excused for not realising that the dream of a virtual world was one of the design goals behind the original MUD, and original MMOs — it’s no accident that EQ’s slogan was “you’re in our world now.”

Richard Bartle mentions this in a recent interview with Massively, where he discusses how the original MUD got ‘gamified’. More chat-focussed text games like MUSH/MOO also got gamified but in different ways (characters had stats attached to them, for example) which left them more RP oriented.

MMOs have come a long way from that, gamification having taken over the virtual world way before it stepped into the real world. And the players who cared most about virtual worlds sidestepped into fanfic and other online communities which were more about storytelling and less about xp and achievements.

So it’s strange to me that the RPS commenters (a broad spectrum of PC gamers) are still thinking about it … in their dreams.

[Dragon Age 2] My story and review (with SPOILERS) and some thoughts

da2_hawkeact2 Hawke’s finery (which she wears around the manor in Acts 2 and 3) reminds me of a school uniform.

Dragon Age 2 is, I think, going to be a game that provokes strong reactions. In my last post I briefly mentioned some of the shortcomings of the game (the repetitive areas, repetitive fights with waves of mooks teleporting/ rapelling in – funny how we don’t complain about repetitive fights in MMOs really…). I’ve also mentioned briefly how DA2 incorporates more and more elements from good tabletop RPG games – the idea that your character and their companions have families, backgrounds, stories that will impinge into the main narrative and give your character (and companions) extra goals and motivations, and how I felt more of an emotional connection when playing this game.

I thought they did make good use of Hawke’s family and family ties in the plot. Your sister/ brother and mother are intended to be emotional ties and plot elements (OK, there is a whiff of the disposable NPC here). I know that when I decided to support the mages in the end, it was largely because of my in game sister. I enjoyed this in DAO also, with my dwarf warden deciding the new ruler of Orzammar based on the fact he was nailing my sister (it always comes down to sisters with me ;) ), but with this game they’ve taken it further and brought it more front and centre to the plot.

The companions are some of the absolute high points of the gameplay, storytelling, and writing, even against Bioware’s reasonably high standard. I think every one of them is a winner. From reading other people’s thoughts (there is a thread on rpg.net about favourite companions) it looks as though every one of them expands into an interesting three dimensional character if you spend more time getting to know them. What I liked about the thread I linked to here is how passionately people defend their favourites. I still think Merill was an idiot, but it’s cool that some people want to argue that she was a genius.

I enjoyed the idea of a game set in a single city. These single city campaigns have always been popular in tabletop RPGs (I’ll always remember The City of Seven Hills from our old and beloved D&D game) and have been touched on in RPGs before. Balder’s Gate was largely set in a city, as was Planescape. But setting the game in three acts over several years gives some geniune chances to see how the place and the characters change and grow. Seeing Aveline go from being a new recruit to captain of the guard was a good example, and well deserved.

I did think Varric was awesome and loved how his unreliable narrative tied into the game play and the framing story. The quest where he confronts his brother and you get a section where he single handedly takes out waves and waves of trash mobs was hilarious.

I also enjoyed the pacing of the story. Act 1 did feel slow with all of the side quests, but at the same time you really did get to know your way around the city and get introduced to some of the main characters who you would see in later acts. Act 2 was great and I loved the storyline with the Qunari, it was interesting, well played out, and Hawke did get to be a genuine champion. And then Act 3 was very pacey indeed but that worked for me since by that point I was quite keen to get to the end and not get distracted by side quests.

I also think DA2 marks a change in how Bioware write their lead characters. Although there is still the power fantasy element – you are the hero, it’s never been easier to romance the love interest of choice – Hawke in this game is equally pulled and pushed by other plot elements in the background. And to my mind, the game is all the better for it. It’s about you, but not entirely about you. Sometimes you get swept along by forces larger than yourself.

In particular, the love interests are not really under your control. Anders and Merill in particular have their own agendas, and however close you get to them in a relationship, you may not be able to change them … enough. I think it’s a very grown up piece of writing to ask a player how they would respond if a character they were emotionally close to went off the deep end. (And if the player isn’t interested, there are more ‘stable’ love interests who will be more predictable.)

I’m not sure I envy Bioware trying to design love interests that will appeal to any player, it’s pretty much an impossible task. I did generally like the LIs better in this game than in DAO, but fans of Alistair will probably be disappointed in Anders and Fenris. Having said that, it was nice to see a few familiar faces making a brief reappearance towards the end of the game.

And here’s a fun thread from the Bioware forums in which people discuss which they think the best line in the game was.

What I Did

My Hawke was a female 2 handed warrior. The 2 handed trees are super for smashing through waves of bandits et al really quickly. I think if I did it again I’d pay more attention to abilities that improve stamina regen though. I’m not sure how I feel about her voice, she was a bit of a posh girl and to me she always sounded awkward when she was being sarcastic/ witty.

I played my Hawke as being fairly feisty/ sarcastic in the first two acts and more assertive in Act 3. I suspect that the conversational choices are both more subtle and more key to how people respond than is immediately obvious.

My go-to party was Aveline, Varric and Anders, although I did spend more of Act 2 with Isabella in group than Varric because I liked her dialogues with Aveline.

Bethany did not come on the deep roads expedition with me (I was persuaded by my in game mother’s pleas) and ended up being taken to the Circle. From subsequent letters, she seemed to quite enjoy it there but was around to fight by my side at the end. Hurrah!

Astoundingly, all of the companions except for Sebastian ended up fighting by my side for the last fight. Fenris left when I sided with the mages, but came back when I asked him to. This surprised me because I hadn’t really spent much time with him. Maybe I was more charming than I thought.

In Act 2, Isabella left but returned in the nick of time with her artefact when I was talking to the Qunari. I duelled and beat the Arishok in single combat, and that was a tough fight even on easy mode.

I had Anders as my love interest. I do think he was a cool character, I liked how he was introduced at his clinic (you got the sense that he did have a genuine interest in helping people) and he did a great job of stopping blood mages from killing me and helping to identify people who were possessed in the first couple of acts. I also have a soft spot for blondes :P Yes, he went off the rails towards the end, and I was sucked in to hoping I could try to keep him (and everyone else) safe. I kept him in my party though, partly because by that time I just wanted to protect him from himself and partly because I needed him to help deal with the current crisis. I don’t think the relationship would have really lasted so I was amused when Varric said in the narrative that everyone left Hawke except for Isabella at the end. It may have been a bug (probably the love interest was supposed to stay) but I thought it was very plausible since she was pretty much my best friend.

Incidentally I’m pretty sure Anders didn’t use magic to blow up the chantry but alchemy instead. Let’s face it, if he’d had access to that sort of magic, templars would have been blown up a lot sooner than that.

When we went into the fade to sort out Feynriel, I took Varric, Isabella and Fenris, the latter two being corrupted by desire and pride demons respectively. I had no intention of ever taking Anders into the fade :)

As far as the Circle and Templars go, I tend to entirely blame the first enchanter for all the blood mages in Kirkwall. It was his job to train his mages better than that. If everything hadn’t completely gone to hell, I would have tried to get in a decent mage to head up the circle, but the templar/ circle relationship wasn’t really a good solution anyway. I still sided with the mages though since Meredith was clearly someone who had to go.

9 Ways to Justify Changes in the Lore

I love the lore behind imaginary places, people, objects, games, worlds, and stories! And I’m not alone. Far from it, drawing people into these imaginary places is what drives the huge popularity of the great IPs of our time. Middle Earth, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Twilight, James Bond, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Sandman, Harry Potter, Warhammer. And so on.

They were stories first of course, or games, or comics, but to fans it’s all about the lore. About the imaginary history and the internal consistence, and even bout the places and events that are only ever visited ‘off camera’.

Now, MMOs, comics, and TV series have a unique challenge with respect to their lore, because it will change and grow over time. Sometimes in a long running series, it’s difficult for creators to keep track of every single aspect of the IPs history – and fans love to catch them out on it. This is especially true when it becomes more and more obvious that when the series began, the creators hadn’t yet decided how it would end.

And both TV series and games have reasons for wanting to insert new elements or directions into their lore. For a TV series, maybe the series needs to come to a neat ending (Battlestar Galactica), or a new show runner wants to take a different direction (Doctor Who), or one of the script writers just had a really cool idea that everyone likes. In games, developers also want to be responsive to what players want, and shifts in game design. Or maybe they just want to drop in a new race of space aliens because they look cool. Or in other words, there are good reasons for wanting to twist the lore into pretzels; to improve gameplay, or to improve a dramatic arc, for example.

As fans, we’d like to think this never happened, or at least that we would never notice. And in great novels, the chances are that the author will be able to go back and adjust the lore to fit the story if s/he needs to do it before publication. But in ongoing TV series, comics, or games, that isn’t an option.

It’s a familiar dilemma to pen and paper GMs also. You think of a great idea for next week’s scenario. But how can you make it fit into the game world?

Here are a few suggestions for game designers. Next time you need to do something crazy in game for gameplay reasons, try one of these excuses to sell it to the players.

1. A Wizard Did It

A time honored D&D favourite justification. This can explain just about anything you ever want to do in a fantasy setting. And as a bonus, can cover up any failure on the part of the GM to remember some minute background detail that was mentioned in passing three years ago. Players will ALWAYS remember this sort of thing.

For example: ”Why is there a black monolith in the middle of this desert? There’s no black rock around here.” “A wizard did it.”

If you get bored of wizards or are working in a different genre try these alternatives:

  • an ancient god/ civilisation did it
  • ultra high tech did it
  • black ops/ secret government labs did it
  • you have no idea what did it  (Oo, a mystery! As a bonus, if you are lazy you can listen to players discuss their ideas and then use the one that sounds coolest.)

2. A MAD Wizard Did it

Like #1, but when the thing in question is obviously pointless, contradicts current lore, or even acts against the creator’s best interests. You can even combine 1 with 2 if players ask particularly awkward questions:

Why is Bob riding a sparkly pony!

A wizard did it.

But all wizards are afraid of stars, you told us that last week.

Uh … a MAD wizard did it.

Sometimes you can even explain that the wizard in #1 later went mad and was responsible for #2.

3. Gotterdammerung

Everything goes up in flames for no reason. But it’s ok because it’s SYMBOLIC. Bonus points if you can work in a thematic colour scheme, weather effects, and NPC names.

“Do you think Mr Justifiablehomicide wants to be our friend?”

4. Crisis on Infinite Azeroths

It’s … a crossover!

5. The Hudson Hawk Defence

Also known as ‘the totally bullshit explanation’. Just state your highly implausible explanation with a straight face and see if anyone buys it.

You’re supposed to be all cracked up at the bottom of the hill.

Air bags!Can you fucking believe it?

You’re supposed to be blown upinto fiery chunks of flesh.

Sprinkler system set up in the back.
Can you fucking believe it?

Yeah! ……. That’s probably what happened.
— Hudson Hawk

6. I woke up, and it was all a dream

Made famous by Dallas, this explanation allows you to reset the lore to any time in the past that you wish.

7. Take the blue pill, Neo

Haha, bait and switch. Everything the players thought they knew turns out to be wrong.  In The Matrix, this was because the entire world known by the protagonist was just a VR simulation.

But a similar explanation can be used to justify why the players’ allies are actually their enemies or any of their assumptions (which were encouraged strongly by the game, story, or TV series) were completely incorrect.

Players will typically accept this once, but will then choose the blue pill and try to stick with the original assumptions because those are why they liked the game in the first place anyway.

8. Break the fourth wall

I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.

- Groucho, Horse Feathers

We don’t see this often in MMOs but occasionally an in-game narrator or tutorial will explain game mechanics to the player. A similar scheme can be used to try to explain lore changes that were made for gameplay reasons.

9. Blame Christopher Tolkein

Blame any changes on the vagaries of the IP’s current owner.

Christopher Tolkein and the Tolkein Estate can take the flak for Middle Earth based games, Games Workshop can shoulder the blame for changes in Warhammer, and so on.