Posted by: L1H | June 9, 2009

DDO Will Be Free-To-Play

Turbine’s DDO: Stormreach is gong F2P – that’s free to download and play, with premium membership benefits for those that subscribe.


Turbine’s DDO and I have history.  At the game’s launch I wasn’t very familiar with Eberron, the game’s setting, but I was very comfortable with the 3.5 rules that the game was based upon.  I was in the beta for DDO and stuck around for about 2 years.

I didn’t leave DDO because the game sucks.  I didn’t leave DDO because Turbine didn’t listen to its players.  I didn’t leave DDO because I was bored.  I left because I missed SWG – I longed for a sandbox MMO that was less “instanced”.

My SWG baggage was never DDO’s fault.  DDO is amazing.  Combat is played out in real-time with MMO dice-rolling happening under the hood.  The freedom to swing your weapon anytime: the air, a monster’s legs, through a barrel, not to mention the ability to climb and jump, it all makes DDO feel totally different than any other MMO out there.

DDO’s dungeons are very three dimensional instead of the typical flat MMO instance and features some amazing puzzles and traps.  I would argue that DDO’s dungeons are the best group PvE content available – I’m talking Super Mario Galaxy level design genius.  Bravo, Turbine.

Give DDO a try, it will cost you nothing, and my hope is that hundreds of thousands of new players will discover how this often over-looked MMO is a diamond in the rough.

Posted by: L1H | June 8, 2009

Player Made Stories: Catching Up to 1982

I’m a big fan of NPR – yeah I’m one of those people.  One of my favorite podcasts/shows is Radiolab, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.  

Each episode of Radiolab features an interesting subject or scientific curiosity: sperm, morality, sleep, laughter, you never know what central theme or question these guys are going to explore next.

Recently Radiolab asked the question which is better: radio or television?  They even staged a faux “boxing” event and had the audience vote by applause which is better by category.  Television was better at “pictures”, hehe, but for questions like which medium is better for conveying emotion, radio was the hands down winner.  By the second act of the show the question of how does telling stories via the radio differ from telling a story on television?

Robert Kulwich and Ira Glass, a guest host for the event, had a great back-and-forth which really nailed the distinction between the two mediums.

Essentially radio is more intimate, more emotional.  Simple moments that would be otherwise unremarkable become “mythic” because the listener gets involved in the content, we co-author the story by “painting” pictures with our minds as the story describes the scene.

Hearing a father’s deep voice describing the love he has for his daughter, how her flesh all too vulnerable and, by extension, he too becomes vulnerable, really drives home how powerful a medium radio is.  In contrast, to see footage of the father playing with his daughter, to witness a visual montage of this little girl growing up, would register as totally unremarkable, common, and doesn’t pull on the “heart strings” as easily as the “telling” of the story would.

Television, however, has to build up to an emotional moment, more production is involved to achieve a real emotional event.  Loud bright moments lend contrast to darker quiet moments.  It’s a lot of work to keep a person staring at a screen, to keep them engaged and concentrating on what’s playing out before them, and because television is a visual medium, you’ve got to stage, time, and build everything to elicit an emotional reaction.

This got me thinking about my old Pen and Paper adventures: D&D particularly. 

We didn’t have miniatures back then, my friends and I just used a dry eraser marker on an overlay map, and playing those campaigns was a pure “theatre of the mind” experience.  As advanced as our console/computer RPG games are becoming, I think the point of being a “co-author” of the story, like telling a story on the radio, is what made those tabletop games so magical.

Take a DM description of a simple room:

Compare this:

“You walk into a room that’s 20′ by 20′.  The dim chamber before you is unoccupied and dimly lit.  A thin coat of dust covers every surface.  The entire room appears to be made of a smooth grey colored stone.  The floor is tiled while the walls are adorned with elegant arches set into their surface.  The room is empty save for a simple pedestal at the center the room which appears to be made of the same stone as the rest of the room.  The pedestal’s waist is carved with the same arch shaped lines as the chamber’s walls.  Across the room you see a short ramp of stairs leading into an arched doorway.  A similar door and exit is to your left.”

To this: Click Me.

Did the GM fail to describe the room well enough or did the picture fail to meet the vision in your mind?

Do our video games involve us in “co-authoring” the story, like a tabletop game, or does the visual medium of video games diminish our need to fill in the blanks?  What special challenges do video game developers have when telling stories?  Can they elicit emotion as well as other mediums?

Posted by: L1H | June 4, 2009

TOR: Let the Bothan Out of the Bag

I admit I’m a little nervous about Bioware’s upcoming MMO, SWTOR.

We know so little about the game, I’m afraid of even putting forth a working opinion.  I once drove to Georgia to meet Funcom at DragonCon and hear about AoC – a full year before it launched.  I got to meet several developers, ask questions, and actually played a capture-the-flag demo for hours over the course of the weekend.  I felt confident about speculating what AoC would be like at launch – boy was I wrong!

Even with “hands-on” AoC experience, I could not have predicted the game’s shaky launch, the content/polish disparity “post-Tortage”, the 800k MMO tourist exodus after 30 days, and I also couldn’t have foreseen how Funcom would adapt as a company and attempt to address many of these issues a full year later.

With TOR all we’ve got are some promotional videos (read: propaganda films), screenshots, and a few interviews.  The real question on my mind, and it’s kinda sad, is what business model is TOR going to feature?  

I believe that this “bomb” is being sorted out now, the details being finalized as I write this, and eventually Bioware is going to have to let the “Bothan out of the bag” and let us know how we’re going to spend our hard-earned credits on their game.  This all feels like an infomercial where they don’t tell you the price until AFTER they make their pitch, not until after they list all the benefits and features of their product, and ONLY THEN show you how 4 easy payments of 19.99 gets you a lifetime supply of Oriental Pearl Cream – but wait there’s more . . . 

The subscription model works, has worked, in the past because it eliminates the need to make a value/pain decision every month.  The payment is automatic, debits your account, is almost invisible and painless, and you don’t have to ask yourself every billing cycle, “do I really want to spend 14.99$ this month on this game?”

Don’t get me wrong, MMO’s are one of the best values around, hours and hours of entertainment for 50 cents a day, you can’t beat it – especially if you compare that to a night at the movies!

Yes, subscriptions are an elegant model from a more civilized time.

However, the theme of the era are micro-transactions, not limiting your highly active clients from just spending 14.99 – you can spend more if you want more goodies!

Playing Wizard 101 and buying content a la carte has really opened my eyes to the micro-transaction model.  I see how it benefits casual players that don’t want the burden of carrying another subscription – but there is nothing casual about Star Wars and me.  If a SW game comes out I’ll buy it, I can’t help myself, and a Star Wars MMO makes me doubly vulnerable to greedy execs who want to leech as much of my disposable income as possible.  That’s why when I hear about TOR I just want to know: will it be the carrot or the stick?

All I know for sure is that when SWTOR is launched I’ll be playing it and at the same time George Lucas and Bioware execs will be eating sushi off a naked stripper and giving each other high-fives across the table.

E3 revealed the first official trailer of a game that I have been waiting a long time for.  

I (We) hope you will enjoy the show:

Posted by: L1H | June 1, 2009

Mount and Blade: Late to the War(Party)

I spent hours – way too long if you ask me, writing a very detailed review of Taleworld’s medieval combat simulator Mount and Blade.  However, after it was written I hesitated to click the “publish” button.

See, the wiki entry describing the particulars of this little indy title covers everything that I could say: only better and with more brevity.  If you want a proper, game journalist review, then all you have to do is google it and read up on M&B’s meta-score.

Lots of folks have described M&B’s game-play and major features, written guides, but the elephant in the room, the reason this game features such a robust community of modders and fans, is love.  The game was made with loving hands and you can feel it every second you play it.  It’s as real as mom’s home cooking.  It’s an indy game, a labor of love, and I love M&B back.

This game surprises you like a blind date.  You wake up the next day and realize the hollow pain in your chest is love.  I haven’t felt this much passion and excitement about a single player game in years.

I’m on my third play-through now, so I’m well aware of M&B’s flaws: some dated graphics, a few half-baked game-play elements, minor bugs.  All of these things get a pass, mostly ignored, because the majority of the time you’re totally engulfed in the moment.  M&B is stocked full of surprises and what it lacks in AAA studio polish it makes up for in charm and character and depth.

Everyone talks about the combat, and well, because it is amazing.  Depending on the difficulty settings of the game (I play on 97% Difficulty – read 3% less than “Normal”), your character is as vulnerable to an arrow to the head as the foot soldier next to you.  There are moments in M&B that are filled with so much intense violence I had to walk away from my computer for 15 minutes to catch my breath.  This is a testament to the game’s realism.  The physics of the combat engine takes into account weapon speed, damage types vs armor types, relative speed of your target, weapon arc, distance, gravity, weather, it’s just a lot to wrap your head around.  The realism doesn’t trump the game-play, it’s all happening under the hood, for all you know you’re just having fun.

I should comment here about the gore, because most people associate realism with flying limbs and gallons of blood.  M&B has blood, it gets caked on your armor and weapon if the fighting is prolonged, but mostly it’s implied through sound design and not actually displayed: the gore is never gratuitous and if it was, frankly, it would have been too much for me since the actual “fighting” is so intense and personal.

Have you ever wanted to ride down an enemy with a heavy war-horse?  Shoot an arrow into the unprotected leg of an armored opponent?  “Couch” a jousting lance under your arm and spur your horse to charge?  Climb your way up a siege tower and onto a castle, fighting along the parapets as you and your men take control of the walls?  Crush an enemy shield into splinters on his arm?  Cripple a cavalry charge with a wall of pikes?

M&B’s combat physics allows for all of the above and more.  It’s simple and then suddenly complex, opening up breakthroughs and revelations as you, the player, learn and grow alongside your character.

This is something that really stood out for me.  In most games you are limited by your avatar (in-game statistics, gear, etc…), but in M&B the inverse is more true: your in-game skills enhance your RL abilities.

This synergy between you and the game is one of the reasons I love M&B’s combat.  It reminds me of the original Tomb Raider (in essence only).  Tomb Raider on the PS1 featured a totally new control scheme that required you, the player, to develop a specialized set of skills and timing for navigating Lara Croft around the game-world.  Next thing you knew you were hanging from cliffs, springing off walls, and expressing yourself freely with the controls, not fighting them.

This progression feels so right in M&B because the combat is so utterly real.  At first you’re getting knocked around, run through, and cut down, but with each knock on the head you learn.  You learn to time your parries, to feint, to step into the direction of your strikes for added damage, and the next thing you know you’re a god on the battlefield – and this has little to do with any level or skill progression, it’s pure blood and bone and muscle: you’ve leveled up in RL.

If you’ve ever tried to melee in Oblivion then you know how “off” it felt.  In 1st person mode your character felt like a floating head with arms springing out of it – the sense of spatial distance never really clicked.  Most games try to solve this problem by taking you into 3rd person view and bringing the camera back 10′ the moment you equip a melee weapon.  Fallout 3 is an example of a game that uses this solution.  The problem here is that most character animations look half-baked in these FPS games, not to mention the camera doesn’t seem anchored in the right position and you’re left fighting the camera and the controls while trying to navigate your character.

M&B not only solves this problem by offering a hybrid camera view: somewhere between 1st person and 3rd person.  Somehow M&B pulls you into your character without losing the perspective benefit of a “chase” camera.

I struggled with the shoulder height “hybrid” camera for a few minutes during the tutorial, but then it just magically clicked.  See in M&B you have to be able to see your opponent as well as yourself: he’s heaving his arms up for an overhead strike – now you have to quickly set up your horizontal parry, or side step, or execute a quick forward lunge!

M&B exists on two different tiers.  You’ve got the “first few hours” of game-play where you’re figuring things out, learning the ropes, getting comfortable with the controls, and on the surface some of the game’s systems seem overly simple.

Sometime around mid-game you start to ask yourself questions (why do crossbows suck in the rain) and peek under-the-hood and realize that M&B is very complex – much deeper than your first glance revealed.  See, M&B cleverly allows you to experience this layered game by not overwhelming a new player but then rewarding experienced players with complexity and nuisance.

Even something simple like moving across the world map has a lot of math going on behind-the-scenes: the average speed of units in your army, the speed of your slowest unit in your army, amount of trade goods in your inventory, extra pack horses, terrain, time of day, morale of your party, etc …  M&B doesn’t “show its work”, like a elementary math teacher would say, but the more you play the more you become aware of the underground river beneath your feet.  This is true both of the combat and non-combat game-play.

I don’t want to list all the wonderful “a-ha” moments I experienced in M&B because their discovery is part of the game’s experience.  I know some jaded gamers would complain that all these little nuggets of wisdom should be in the manual, and some of them are, but part of the value of games like M&B is “figuring it out”, and I believe you’ll thank me later.

What’s makes this mini-review timely is that an expansion for M&B is due out in the next few months that’s going to feature updated graphics, enhanced game-play, and a multi-player mode.  The game began as an indy project headed by a couple from Turkey.  The final release version of M&B is our generation’s definitive medieval (mounted) combat simulator – it has no peers, no equal, and if you missed it, like I did, download it today!  You can find it on Steam or get it directly from Taleworlds website.

Anyone interested in Darkfall or the upcoming Mortal Online should visit the land of Calradia.  If you enjoy the idea of fantasy combat that mixes RPG elements with FPS twitch skills then M&B is a title you should check out.

I will say this, and this is coming from a MMO player, that single player games feel a little lonely these days.

I want to share this world, this experience, with my friends.  I want to look down a line of infantry soldiers, all controlled by real people, no AI, and look at each of them in their polygon faces and say, “Hold the line!”.  The coming M&B expansion will help (32+ multi-player), but I can’t help but ask: what if?

What if Pirates of the Burning Sea had M&B’s avatar combat?  Yoda would wisely say, “A perfect game, it would be.”

Anyway, check it out and post a comment if you have any M&B game-play questions.

Posted by: L1H | May 26, 2009

Gaming Update: Casual Friday (Tuesday)

I wanted to make a brief post and offer an informal gaming update.

For starters my gaming habits have really shifted recently.  WAR is still the main course, but lately more casual games have been taking a bit of my time.

Wizard 101 has been an unlikely distraction.  What’s compelling about this game is that Amy and I actually can play together.  The game-play isn’t too deep, which is perfect for Amy’s first MMO – not to mention her computer can run it great.  

Her and a few RL friends of ours actually formed a weekly static group, purchasing new areas in Wizard 101 a la carte (instead of maintaining a subscription).  Seeing Amy get jazzed about customizing her little wizard, leveling, unlocking new spells, etc … it has been a great shared experience for both of us.  Lets face it, Wizard 101 is a MMO on “easy mode”, but if it’s fun, who really cares?

I haven’t logged into FreeRealms in a few days but I have been enjoying it.  This isn’t a game that I’m going to put a lot of time in, but it’s nice being able to jump in and explore: the world is beautiful.  The only downside, from my point of view, is how heavily instanced the game is.  Every step of the way you’re sucked into an instance.  

I understand all the advantages of keeping content instanced, scripted, and controlled, but this minimizes the time you spend actually interacting with world around you (other than travel) and worse: other players. This is a shame because the persistent world of FreeRealms is lovely and you can spend hours just running around exploring and socializing – if only folks weren’t plugged into mini-game nodes (and totally detached from the world around them) like that nightmare scene from The Matrix where Neo “wakes up” in that vat of goo.

I still play Puzzle Pirates during my lunch break since it’s a browser based MMO that I can play on my MacBook Pro.  I still don’t understand a lot about this game, but I’m getting better at some of the basic ship puzzles, especially sailing. 

What FreeRealms doesn’t seem to pull off that Puzzle Pirates succeeds in is connecting these “instanced” mini-games to the persistent world in a meaningful way.  While pillaging with a crew on a ship you might be asked to abandon your station and help man the bilge – the ship is taking in too much water.  You take your little character across the deck of the ship and can see all the players at each “station”, manning their own little puzzle mini-game: gunnery, sailing, bilging, navigation, carpentry, etc …  

Each player’s performance affects the function of the ship so it’s not so much about personal advancement but more about being a part of a crew and the synergy of your efforts.  If your ship gets grappled and a melee breaks out,  a sword fight or brawling puzzle plays out like a duel – only you can choose to team up on opponents or just try to stay alive and hope your other crew mates take out the enemy first.  Lots of fun.

I have to mention Mount and Blade.  This single player PC game has been ruling my life lately.  I am going to write a proper review of it in an update later this week: it deserves a post all its own.  Independent PC gaming at it’s best!

That’s about it.  Have a safe week.

Posted by: L1H | May 11, 2009

Are Players the Problem?

A handful of upcoming MMO games are going to feature NPC “companions” for your main character.  These support characters will be more than standard MMO “pets” – more than vanity creatures with an auto-follow script.  You’ll develop relationships with them, level them up, and potentially build a roster of NPC characters to swap out depending on what quest or task you’re engaged in.  They’ll have a story, a shared story, and choices you make can affect how they respond to your character.

My hope is that maintaining these “relationships” doesn’t degenerate into some variation of Nintendogs/Sims: virtual babysitting isn’t a “relationship”. 

That being said, examples that range from SWG Creature Handlers to Pokemon clearly demonstrate how attached we can become to our virtual friends, even if they require a little hand-holding to develop.  This is hardly different than when we were children and playing with dolls (er, GI Joe), attaching human qualities to inanimate objects.  This kind of attachment is emotional content that we exert into our games.  Pets and NPC companions serve a purpose by which we seem to exercise this part of our nature.

Are game developers simply exploring these features because they are compelling in their own right, or are advanced NPC companions the first step to finally solving the “player problem” in MMO games?

Remember players are the ones that exploit the game, tax the server, speak out of character, optimize, gank, destroy emersion, and collectively behave poorly.

An NPC, in contrast, is always in character and usually willing to help.  They play by the rules and don’t detract from the player’s heroic story arc.  They get stuck on geometry occasionally, sure, but 99% of the time you can count on them to play their role.

My first thought when I played Fallout 3, a single player game, was how amazing a MMO it could be, how I wanted to explore this world with my friends – but then I remembered the “player problem”.  Would the wasteland have the same atmosphere and feel as desolate with dozens players at Megaton spamming, “LFG Ghoul Town”, or bands of players spawn camping the Super Mutant Behemoth?

Are advanced NPC companions going to replace the need for real players in our future MMO games?  Are they the future?  

Would you pay 14.99$/month to play in a virtual world that is stocked full of AI characters in a developing story centered around you?  It would be like 10 million unique instances of Azeroth where the subscriber is the “real” hero.  

Clearly many players prefer to solo in their “massively multiplayer” games, and only group by necessity (see: WoW), but are they taking for granted that one day their online worlds could be populated by AI inhabitants instead of real people?  

We often joke how silly NPC quest givers are, asking us to deliver a message to another NPC across the courtyard and then back again, but what happens when we become obsolete and they can complete their own simple tasks?

Terminator MMOG: Rise of the NPC’s.


Posted by: L1H | May 4, 2009

Japanese Kids Survive Zombie Attack

So this was entirely staged, but I have to admit that these kids show more bravery than I would ever be able to summon – even now.  I remember crying and pissing my pants when I was asked to hold the American flag during the national anthem at my elementary school graduation – it’s doubtful I would have found the courage to engage a zombie in melee range with Saran wrap.

Posted by: L1H | April 30, 2009

Level 1 Caveman: Primal Blueprint

A book being written by Mark Sisson called Primal Blueprint makes the argument that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were probably stronger, bigger, and likely smarter than us, and we should strive to adapt our modern lifestyle to that our (natural) paleolithic beginnings to maximize our health and achieve effortless fat loss.

Sounds interesting eh?

Okay, so cavemen didn’t have a Nintendo Wii, but but if they did I imagine they would use the nunchuk as a hunting device, maybe as makeshift bolas?

I’m still wrapping my head around some of these concepts, but much of what Mark has written at his blog, Mark’s Daily Apple, is perfectly in alignment with what I already know to be truth: avoid processed foods, exercise naturally, etc … give his blog a read.

A very personal blog called Son of Grok, written by a fella inspired by Mark’s writing, tracks the efforts of one determined nutcase trying to follow the Primal Blueprint, and he succeeds!  I don’t have to tell you that being a caveman in modern times ain’t easy.  Better yet: this guy puts up some amazing Primal recipes!

Be safe.

Posted by: L1H | April 24, 2009

Beyond the Sands

I amazes me how WAR‘s live events enlivens the RvR lakes.

The first day of the Beyond the Sands live event could largely be labeled as PvE, requiring both realms to travel to a RvR lake and complete a few standard kill/collect/fetch quests.  This didn’t stop both Destruction and Order from simply showing up for a good fight: meanwhile everyone else was just trying to complete their quest objectives and get out before the skirmish consumed them.

The second night of the event actually staged a competitive PQ in the middle of the RvR lakes, but the actual fighting was less severe, with both sides reluctant to engage both the PQ boss and each other, so the fighting felt more like a back and forth instead of a head on collision.

I completed all the objectives and received my aviator goggles which, when equipped, gives you a special “sight beyond sight” buff that allows you to spot hidden treasure that fell from the crashed air ship.

Screw the WAR: I’m going treasure hunting!

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