Portraying relationships in games, or where did all the mothers go?

We’ve had a slew of powerful storytelling games released recently featuring characters who are strongly defined by their relationships.  For example, the Big Daddy/ Little Sister relationship in Bioshock 2. Father/ Son in Heavy Rain. Father/ Son again with Sazh in FF13.

This is an important step in storytelling, because many of us are defined by our relationships at least as much as our ‘stats and abilities’. If relationships in stories ring true, then a lot of players will identify far more easily with those characters. I was struck by The Brainy Gamer’s reaction to Bioshock 2, which was that it was the closest he had ever come in a game to conveying what it meant to be a father. We do feel emotional about our own relationships. And that’s a deep vein to mine for storytellers. Not only that, but because of the peculiarly interactive nature of games, a well portrayed relationship allows the player to actually experience it themselves in a very immersive way. You don’t have to feel protective over a game character’s child … but you can, and you might.

But why does it always have to be fathers?

Half the freaking NPCs in Wrath have father issues. Arthas, Darion Morgraine, Garrosh and Varian, for a start. Not to mention the initially poignant but quickly tiring scene between Saurfang and his Son in ICC. All three of the examples I gave above (Bioshock 2, Heavy Rain, FF13) feature father issues.

Do none of these people have mothers? In FF13, the only mother who is featured is Hope’s mother, who makes a brief appearance before dying tragically in order to give him a suitably emo backstory. That, by the way, is the function of mothers in heroic fantasy.

And yet … in the article referenced above, TBG compares Bioshock 2 to The Odyssey. And Homer wasn’t shy about portraying strong women, and strong female relationships. People in Ancient Greek Myth had mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives, who were an important part of their lives. (They also had husbands, sons, fathers, etc etc.)

FF13 does redeem itself with some strong female characters, with strong female relationships. For example, Lightning is cool and badass. But when you see the relationship that she has with her little sister (fiercely protective, guilty about not having had faith in her, suspicious of her boyfriend) the character really rings true.  Fang is badass, laconic, and bristling with bravado (it was a stroke of genius to give her an Aussie accent in the translation, I keep expecting her to crack open a can of lager) and her relationship with the bouncy, chirpy Vanille is one of very deep affection and probably more. More than that, they both obviously look out for each other.

The obvious answer is that games are written mostly by men, and many of these men are also fathers so they write what they know. But part of the skill of writing is also to be able to research and write what you don’t. It still doesn’t explain why so many heroic characters in games either focus solely on their fathers, or have mothers who conveniently died in the backstory.

We do have some good female characters. And any powerful and well written relationships are better than none. But isn’t anyone else feeling that the constant focus on father/son relationships is getting a bit tired?

Stories of the Week

I thought it might be fun to experiment for a month or so by summarising some main gaming related stories of the week on Sundays, with some links and comments.

Warhammer Online takes your lunch money

Another nail in the coffin of the subscription based MMO was placed this week, as Mythic Entertainment made one of the worst possible customer relations faux-pas and billed many of their playerbase several times by mistake. i.e. to the tune of several hundred dollars (plus any bank related expenses if the account went overdrawn). Charges are being reversed, but it’s likely that the PR damage has already been done. wasdstomp gives his personal experience of being charged 16 times.

Now, if you engage in a lot of online commerce, then it’s quite likely that you’ve had to deal with mistaken payments on at least one occasion. This happens more frequently than anyone likes to admit. Arkenor relates a billing error from STO, for example, although this isn’t anywhere near the same scale as Mythic’s screwup.

But still, there’s an element of trust in passing credit/ debit card details around online and although the system is only as secure as users can make it (and it is a good idea to check through your monthly statements regularly, just to keep an eye on these things), this kind of breach of trust is the sort of thing which persuades players not to bother with MMOs at all.

Having said that, old timers are used to all sorts of wacky game-related screwups and as long as the company turn it around, fix the problem and reimburses everyone speedily, many of the playerbase will give them a second chance. Especially if EA (Mythic’s parent company) could sweeten the deal with … say  … beta spots for a certain upcoming MMO which really could use some good word of mouth.

It always makes me sad to report bad news about WAR. There were so many things to like about that game, it feels like kicking a puppy.

Anyhow, if you were affected, Chris at Game By Night has some advice on practical advice on how to sort out your refund and complaint, from a banking insider.

Apparently WoW has an expansion coming out

No dates yet for Cataclysm but various press outlets report that they’ve had emails about registering for the press beta.

And in case you somehow missed it, Blizzard have been coming out with some class previews for Cataclysm, including wide ranging changes and new abilities. None of this is yet set in stone, but is a useful pointer to where they are heading.

One of the early reviews was for priests, who will get an ability to pull a raid/group member to their location (Leap of Faith). This received a lot of kneejerk reaction, including a stern shake of the head from Tobold, and epic QQ from Tamarind.

Personally I think it sounds like fun and I hope that this does make it into the game in some form. But the fact that I could think of at least three ways to grief people with it before figuring out even one legitimate use doesn’t bode well.  I think something a little more subtle (maybe a spell to wipe threat from a friendly player) would have been more priestlike, but then that has different issues in PvP.

What I like about the idea is that it shows that Blizzard understand that standing passively at the back is one reason that healing isn’t as fun as it could be. So giving priests more power to affect a fight directly, rather than at one step removed, is one of the ways they are exploring to make heals more fun.

Other high(?)lights of the preview:

  • Bye bye tree form (Will try to comment more on this next week since I do also play a resto druid – basically I’m really happy with the proposed changes.)
  • Bye Bye blood dps and unholy/ frost tanking builds. (I guess the great DK flexibility experiment either failed or was too much effort. DK tanks are my prediction for more overpowered tank next expansion.)
  • Mages get the bloodlust/ heroism analogue. (I wonder if they should have just removed that buff from the game or toned it the hell down, it makes way too much difference in 5 man instances and I’m still not sure whether 10 mans are balanced around it – Blizzard claims not but is that really possible?)

And there were also announcements about the rage normalisation changes and hunters using focus instead of mana, neither of which was unexpected although they’ll both be sweeping change.

Over the next few weeks, a lot of current players will be analysing these previews and trying to decide which class to play in Cataclysm. The classes with the sexier updates will attract more people. I didn’t really see anything which made me wonder ‘why the hell are they doing THAT?’ Well, except maybe leap of faith …

One thing is for sure, that’s a hell of a lot of balancing for Blizzard to try to get right.

And if you were wondering about the paladin update, that isn’t due out until next Friday (16th). For the class which has most epitomised Blizzard’s Wrath ethos,  will it be more buffs, the nerfbat, or a complete redesign? Paladins have certainly rocketed in popularity over the course of the expansion, and they were never an unpopular class. But has Blizzard decided to call time?  Personally I’ll call it a win if they can make it impossible for low level tankadins to forget Righteous Fury (their tanking buff).


Gryphon Chick, just can’t catch a break, can we?

catgryphon

Whatever you think about the Warcraft pet store, these things do make great presents for friends who play the game. I’d never have bought this baby gryphon for myself, but I’m sure that Cuddly Cthulhu, the Beanie Baby Chinese Dragon, Kingslime key ring, and the Plastic Landshark will be glad of the company. And, long after I have stopped playing WoW, it will be fun to look at the gryphon toy and remember not only who gave it to me, but all the fond memories I have of Warcraft and the people I met while playing the game.

(Yes, all geeky households DO contain a selection of randomly geeky small toys. How else would we decorate our computer desks or cubicles at work?)

In a week where a lot of bloggers have been thinking about facebook games, it’s a reminder of why gifts are considered to be so significant in our culture (and probably most other human cultures too).

gryphingame

And for anyone who is curious, the in game pet doesn’t have any special animations but it is a very detailed model.

Bloggers Guild, Whiny Post Day

If anyone is playing Warcraft (or thinking of it) and likes the idea of a guild with other bloggers, blog-lovers, blog readers, or anyone who can put together a cogent argument about why hybrids should/shouldn’t heal in under 5 minutes, there’s a new game in town.

Tamarind@ Righteous Orbs (or should I call him the-blogger-who-used-to-be-tamarind, or Kumquat and other orange coloured tropical fruits) has set up a new guild as a hangout on Horde Side of Argent Dawn (EU). It’s called Single Abstract Noun, so if you are interested, roll up an alt and ask someone for an invite.

Argent Dawn is also my home server, it’s a RP server and also is one of the EU day one servers (ie. it opened on the same day that WoW launched in the EU), so there’s a fairly mature community in both senses of the word. I’ve always rather liked it.

Miss Medicina has also started a US branch of Single Abstract Noun on Argent Dawn US. So good luck with that also, and I’m sure she’d welcome new members who play on the US servers.

Do be aware that if you roll a character on a roleplaying server, you’ll be expected to pick a vaguely appropriate name (or rather, inappropriate names are liable to get reported) and although roleplaying isn’t compulsory, it’s bad form to deliberately trash it.

Whiny Post Day

In another announcement of interest to bloggers around the globe, Klepsacovic is organising World Whiny Post day for March 17th. Mark that date in your diaries, and prepare to get in touch with the blogosphere’s emo side. Won’t that be fun?

Bonus prize if you can pick something to whine about that NO ONE ELSE IS WHINING ABOUT. And as he so rightly points out, if no one makes any posts, then 18th March can be Whine about the lack of Whiny Posts day.

And although Klepsacovic is a WoW blogger, I’m sure the invitation is open to all.

Are paladins popular enough yet?

I’m always fascinated when Zardoz publishes one of his regular Armoury Datamining updates – this is about as accurate a census as anyone outside Blizzard can hope to compile. It’s based on current armoury data, from which he can assemble tables of most popular classes, specs, races, and even most popular items of gear.

It’s a terrifically underused resource, but if you believe in the wisdom of crowds and want to know which are the most popular builds (for example) or which race has the most even gender split (blood elf, possibly because no-one can  tell the difference?), there’s a lot of current information to be had there.

So from Zardoz’ site, here’s the current state of the level 80 WoW population as of 21st Jan. There are ten classes, so a totally even split would give 10% of the population playing each one.

There is no information here about which characters are mains as opposed to alts, but that’s not such a big distinction as it once was.

% of level 80 characters Class
15.4 Paladin
13.8 Death Knight
11.4 Druid
9.9 Priest
9.8 Warrior
8.8 Mage
8.4 Shaman
8.2 Hunter
7.4 Rogue
7.4 Warlock

So, a few things that jump out.

  • Four out of the five most popular classes are (or can be) tanks
  • Three out of the four most popular classes are (or can be) healers
  • Four out of the five least popular classes can only dps.
  • The most popular class is over twice as popular as the least popular class.
  • The least popular class/spec combination is Subtlety specced Rogues which make up a mere 0.5% of the level 80 population.
  • Female Dwarf Rogue is still the way to go if you want to stand out, they are the least popular class/race/gender combination.

Zardoz also tabulates the most popular talent trees and specs for each class. So what role are those hybrids playing? It’s difficult for me to interpret Death Knight data since any talent tree could be a tank, so laying those aside.

Paladins: The majority are retribution, but both holy and protection are also popular secs. Paladins are relatively easy to play and have three strong trees at the moment, all of which are highly played. To put this in perspective, there are more people playing the second most popular paladin tree (Protection) than are playing the most popular druid tree (Resto).

Druid: The majority are resto, although feral isn’t far behind. I can’t tell how many of those feral druids are tanks, except to assume that it won’t be 100% of them. Balance lags behind – perhaps there are just plenty of options for people who want to play healer hybrids and not everyone wants to look like a fat owlbear while doing it.

Priest: Shadow beats out Holy for popularity by 0.4%, Discipline lags behind. So the majority of  priests are healers but a lot of people like the dps tree also. I think Blizzard has done a decent job on priest class design – fun dps, fun heals, and can use similar gear for both. I suspect that this is why they’re the more popular of the non tanking classes.

Warrior: Protection has always been the most popular Warrior spec and that’s still true. Arms and Fury are close in terms of popularity, I think well geared raiders are shifting back to Fury at the moment, but Arms is viable and still the preferred PvP build. Although Warriors are a less popular class than the other tanking classes, there are probably still more warrior tanks than druids or death knights. Clearly Paladins are by far the most popular tanking class at the moment, though.

Shaman: It has always been strange to me to see Shaman lagging behind priests and druids in the tables. They’re all healer/caster hybrids who can use similar gear for both roles. Shamans (like druids) also have the option for a melee dps spec, which is usually popular with players. Maybe people just don’t like totems, or shamans aren’t viewed as interesting to play?

So what has changed?

Here’s an older set of data from July 2009 (just after patch 3.1). Main changes are:

  1. Paladins overtake Death Knights. This is a large leap, so lots of people have levelled Paladin alts since then.
  2. Priests overtook Warriors. Not such a big percentage change, but they’ve clearly been popular alts too.
  3. Shaman overtook Hunters. Again, people looking to the hybrid classes as popular alts.

Solving the Tanking Problem?

One thing is very clear. The tanking problem isn’t that the classes are not being played, it’s that either the barriers to tanking are too high, people are enjoying the other specs more, or people just don’t want to do it.

So I’d expect to see Blizzard making tanking (even) easier, and exploring ways in Cataclysm to let tanks use melee dps gear (we know they are talking about this). People are evidently flocking to their paladins so that design has to be seen as a success.

But I do wonder how far ahead one class will be allowed to get in popularity. My guess is that paladins are a lock-in for the rest of Wrath and that Blizzard will be aiming to make other classes more appealing when they revise them for Cataclysm – we know that’s going to be a substantial amount of work.

Having said that, does it really matter if one class happens to be the most popular? Maybe people just like their knights in shining armour more than their demon-summoning warlocks?

The Warcraft Alt Dilemma: Alts yesterday, alts tomorrow, but never alts today

Anyone else been intrigued to try the dungeon finder for lower level alts?

I haven’t had much time to play around with lower level instances myself but the few experiences I’ve had have been pretty positive.

I ran an old level 15 draenei  mage created at the beginning of TBC through Ragefire Chasm (previously rather inaccessible to alliance) – it was chaotic but polite and the group were vaguely respectful of the paladin tank who said at the start that it was his/her first time. I did notice immediately that my mage felt very useful. Whenever the pull got out of control, which happened a lot, I could drop a frost nova and run back to give the tank time to grab the mobs. I’m quite sure it was more fun than spamming AE-of-choice in level 80 heroics.

So the thought of levelling a new alt and making generous use of the dungeon finder at the same time is very alluring. There is a problem with this picture. The Cataclysm in the room. In only a few months time, there will be a host of new class/ race options in the game, and a whole new levelling experience to try out. Is there really much point levelling an alt right now just to mess around with the dungeon finder when that goblin rogue, worgen warrior, tauren paladin, dwarf shaman, troll druid and so on are just around the corner?

Plus there is the issue of limited character slots on servers.

This means I’m going to get my low level dungeoneering fix from existing alts, of which I have abandoned many along my current path to greatness. Looking through the list, I was reminded again of my old priest. The first character I ever raided on, her incarnation ended after a messy guild break-up at the beginning of TBC. After which I took a long break from WoW. I seem to also remember that this was an era where paladin healers were crazy overpowered and no one else could keep up with them, which broke my will to play at the time.

Anyway, that’s all in the past. I was curious to check out the Alliance Wrath questlines and the dungeon finder turns out to be just the motivation I need to bring my sole alliance level 70 out of dustballs.  Fortunately, she just about had enough cash on her still to cash in on dual specs.

One thing I realised immediately in instance runs. Lower level healers have very limited mana pools and mana regen compared to my comfortably overgeared resto druid. And you know what? I’m enjoying the challenge immensely. The lower level instances are everything that the zergfest 80 heroics are not.

So far I’ve somehow gotten my way through Utgarde Keep (which was actually really tough to heal, or maybe that was just the tank) and Nexus (which was much more manageable). Shadow is much improved since I last tried it, and priests still feel to me like the Rolls Royce of WoW healers to actually play. (ie. smooth, well engineered, runs like a dream once you get it onto the road.)

I’m quite sure that it is the challenge of the lower level instances on a non-overgeared toon which is making them interesting to me at the moment. It will be interesting to see how long that lasts. Also, thumbs up to the Howling Fjord quests for Alliance, they’ve been good fun so far.

Blast from the Past

blastfromthepast

Speaking of my old priestess, I dug out this ancient screenshot.

I’m sure any old hands won’t have any trouble identifying where she is, what she’s doing, and … maybe even what robe and staff she is using. They were iconic in their day.

You can even see that I have friendly nameplates turned on to help with healing since I wasn’t in a group or raid at the time. Ah, those were the days.

Random LFG in WoW: Day 2

In which badges are traded in for epics and a hapless stranger is relentlessly mocked

Anyone else finding these random heroics quite addictive? They’re very ‘just one more’ish and I’m still finding the whole setup to be successful beyond my imaginings.

Is it just that the horrible players people talk about haven’t found the tool yet? Only time will tell.

1. This one was an early morning instance, run on my new death knight. Drak’Theron Keep, an uneventful instance with a friendly group of early risers. After this instance finished, I realised that I had 30 emblems of triumph so ran off to upgrade my green shoulders to … err… Tier 9. I think that sums up how WoW has changed in this expansion. They are shiny! I even bought a rare gem for them.

2. The Old Kingdom. This instance marks the first time that my Death Knight actually topped the damage meters in an instance. Baby’s first pwnage? Clearly those epic shoulders were dazzling the others into standing around and gaping instead of actually nuking stuff. Another smooth run until we got to the extra optional boss at the end where the healer had one of those healer-psycho moments and managed to pull all the mushroom guys and the boss at the same time. I don’t actually know how. Group disbanded after the wipe (I think no one could be bothered to run back in and regroup just for one badge.)

3. Utgarde Keep. I suspect the LFG tool is actively trying to cycle me around the different instances, I haven’t had a single one repeated yet. Another perfectly fine group which is a shame because it would be way more fun to write about a dysfunctional one. Upgraded my green leggings for the nice purple ones that dropped off the last boss. Sadly the LFG tool still doesn’t think I’m well enough geared to let me queue for ToC or the new heroics, which is a shame because they’re the most likely source for a weapon upgrade.

4. Grabbed my partner and queued for an instance on Spinks. We pulled Drak’theron again, and the rest of the group had already killed two bosses and was waiting by the third. I have noticed that people really don’t mind being brought into a part-completed instance with the new tool, probably because they’ll get their completion badges more quickly. Noticed that one of the other guys was called Pornostar (or something similar) so we mocked him relentlessly about his name, in the sure knowledge that we wouldn’t get kicked. But who calls their character Pornostar? Really, people, you manage to name your dogs and cats, your cars, your partner’s naughty bits and even your kids so I know you understand what names are all about. So why when it comes to naming a character do you just type the first thing that comes into your head? Non-RP servers are weird. I have noticed that I am much more likely to boss people around or poke fun at them when I am on my tankette, I must be more careful to use my power for good.

I am increasingly curious as to how long the positive experiences will last. Guildies report that lower level instances are more active also, so it may be that players now have a much better chance to practice group skills while levelling. Is it still going to be like this a couple of months from now?