Remembering Ravious

“I’m really sad this morning.”

“Why, daddy?”

“One of my friends died this week.”

“Oh.”

Cancer claimed the life of Zach Best a few days ago. Zach, better known to most of us as Ravious of Kill Ten Rats, was a prominent voice in the MMO blogging community ever since he started writing on that site in 2008. He was prolific, opinionated, and personable, and I genuinely enjoyed reading his writing over the years.

I only got to meet Zach once, and only then briefly. In 2011, he and I worked to throw an impromptu “bloggers and breakfast” meetup at PAX East. It was pretty chaotic and crowded when it happened, and I regret not having had more time to just sit and talk with him and the other writers.

If you are unfamiliar with Ravious or want to revisit his writings, perhaps take a few minutes this morning to peruse his posts over at KTR.

My morning prayers will be asking for comfort, strength, and grace for Zach’s wife and children. I hope his kids always remember the special father they had and that they take time when they are older to share some of his life by reading his words left behind on the blog.

Fare thee well, Ravious. The blogging community will dearly miss you and your thoughts.

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Star Trek Online: A bug obsession

In hindsight, it was probably a mistake for Starfleet to allow its captains the privilege of naming their own ships. If they don’t regret it now, they will when they hear about their newest registered starship, the U.S.S. Snuggly Hedgehog. Truly, a name to strike dark terror in the hearts of dastardly foes.

I decided to switch things up — for now — by swapping out my Atrox carrier for a Pathfinder-class science ship. Kind of a more advanced Voyager variant. Sure, it might not have squads of fighters as its disposal, but it’s more agile and has a pretty cool aero shuttle to help out with attacks.

I present this screenshot without comment. I don’t think there is a comment that actually fits this, other than to say, yes, it happened.

The newest featured episode is “Melting Pot,” which we’re encouraged to run weekly right now for special new rewards. It’s actually a fairly frustration-free romp on a pretty (if small) planetary playfield. Things get a little nutty when scientists being scientists decide to play God and unleash a wave of nasty crab-things all over the place, but that’s what my shotgun is here for.

Following that, I thought it best to double back and work on some mission chains that I hadn’t finished yet. Unfortunately, this meant a trip back to the Delta Quadrant, because apparently I can’t start the Iconian War arc until I finish this.

I did some mission that involved infiltrating a Vardwuaaaaaaar underground facility. Initially, I was pretty excited about this. There were new mechanics involved, such as zip lining and rappelling, but that excitement quickly faded when I realized that this whole mission is on training wheels. It’s one thing to tamper down the frustration factor, but c’mon, you have to have SOME challenge.

Here, Tuvok is omnipresent, offering a constant tutorial of where to go and what to do. Funny, I didn’t see him beam down with me, so how does he know anything of what’s going on down here? And if that wasn’t insulting enough, large bouncy icons show you where you need to go to hit the next “F” for victory. Even though the mission was making a big deal out of not being discovered, I think it would actually take more effort to fail it than not.

It did get interesting at the end, as a plot twist involving parasitic aliens showed up. I think these are the same critters from the only good season one TNG episode (“Conspiracy”). It’s weird to see them suddenly pop up here, but I think it’s cool that the writers followed up on something the show never had the guts to do.

MMO open world housing is a failed experiment

This past week, Final Fantasy XIV pushed out its Patch 4.1 and with it, a highly anticipated new housing neighborhood. The ensuing housing rush — which lasted mere minutes — quickly sealed up all available lots and shut out the rest of the playerbase from buying one of these homes. It’s a problem that the game’s been struggling with ever since it launched its open world housing system, but now it sounds like things have come to a head and the dev team might actually do something about it.

Reading the news on this, I once again wonder why open world housing is this holy grail that some players and developers seem hellbent on chasing. It’s an ideal, a beautiful mirage couched in the notion of players inhabiting the very world they play, allowing them to stroll through neighborhoods of fellow adventurer’s homes and basking in the connectivity of it all.

Yet it’s a failed experiment, one that is proven time and again to have far more drawbacks than benefits.

There are so many issues with open world housing that I’m frankly astonished that such systems haven’t gone extinct by now. Allow anyone to place a house anywhere, and the world is quickly going to be cluttered and uglified by sprawling housing tracts that aren’t managed by any urban planner. Limit open world housing to certain areas, and there is the very real danger of having too high a demand for too few spots. Ghost towns can ensue either way, the real gaming content for adventurers is sandwiched among structures that aren’t meant for most players, and the casual player (the one on the lower spectrum of time and money) is shut out from participating in this side of the game.

Then there is the cautionary tale of games like ArcheAge, which has to deal with open world housing and server merges regularly. Instead of being able to preserve players’ homes during a merge, the “solution” is to evict everyone and trigger a new land rush in the interest of fairness. This actually hurts the game’s reputation and can turn even more players away, especially loyal and faithful customers who are the MMO’s bread and butter.

I worry about upcoming sandbox MMOs that are throwing in their lot with open world housing, such as Chronicles of Elyria, Shroud of the Avatar, or Ashes of Creation. Without a way to adjust to the demand for housing, there is a danger of both cluttering and shortages, creating a long-term headache for developers looking for solutions that won’t involve making 3/4ths of the game world into suburbia.

A while back, when I was trying out Shroud of the Avatar, I became confused when I was trying to explore a town only to eventually realize that I had transitioned from the “real” town to a neighboring cluster of houses that offered no content or benefit for me. It was a mess, and this was just the starting village. I didn’t hold high hopes that the game got better from there.

Housing is, obviously, very important to me. It’s one of the few systems in MMOs that regularly allows players to express their own creativity and style the game world to suit their personalities. Even more important, it helps establish roots in a game and reinforce the notion that this is a virtual “home” of sorts. So this is why I get rankled when players are kept out of housing due to high cost, low supply, and other stiff barriers to entry.

MMORPG design and tech has already come up with great alternatives to open world housing thanks to instancing and phasing. There’s no reason why you can’t be strolling through a small housing neighborhood in a city and have the game phase to show you your own abode and lawn right there in front of you. Going all the way back to 2001’s Anarchy Online, players have been able to own their own instanced apartment without any worry about not being able to grab one.

We simply don’t need fixed open world housing, even in sandboxes. If there’s a desire to be able to stroll through neighborhoods, enter others’ houses, and maybe even engage in some activities in those houses (such as purchasing from a vendor), then more elegant solutions can and should be crafted.

I’m open to hearing arguments about the importance of open world housing and why all of these drawbacks are worth the numerous problems that they create. I’m even more open to hearing solutions to creating better and more flexible open world housing that satisfies the desires of players and developers without making an unmanageable mess of things. So far, I’m unconvinced.

LOTRO: Revisiting the Haunted Burrow

With a desire to take a small break from the general oppressiveness of Mordor and feeling in the spirit of the Halloween season, I took a jaunt back to the Shire to revisit one of my favorite haunts in Middle-earth: Bilbo’s Haunted Burrow.

It’s been literally years since I’ve been back here. The year it came out, I was all over the Haunted Burrow for the better part of a month and most likely completely burned myself out on doing all of the quests and whatnot. So this time around I was more interested in being a tourist than a dedicated adventurer. Fortunately, the Haunted Burrow caters to both.

I still maintain that the Haunted Burrow is one of the best MMO haunted houses ever designed. It’s rather compact and oddly themed (being in a Hobbit hole, which are usually known for being quite cozy), but the intimacy of the rooms, the vagueness of the maps, and the disorientating navigation all work to make this place feel much bigger than it is.

It’s not a quiet place, I’ll admit that right off the bat. There are screams and jump scares and noises galore no matter where you go. No music; the soundtrack is all special effects and ambiance, which works well to create a haunted house-like feel. There are secrets everywhere, including hidden doors, secret chests, and misleading doorways. A smattering of scared hobbits are wandering about, and some of the tricks that Bilbo left behind can stun, startle, or mess with you.

I just enjoy looking around. It’s all slightly tacky and not-so-serious, which is exactly how I like my Halloween decor. This place does make me wonder how messed up Bilbo was to create such a place with the sole intent of sparking an adventurous spirit in his fellow hobbits. I think he should’ve been a lot more concerned with liability rather than inspiring his friends, because this place is a death trap waiting to happen.

Here’s a detail I never noticed before: A mounted warg head where the candle produces smoke out of the nostrils. Two minutes later, this whole place is aflame (I bet), but it’s worth it for that special effect.

There are many quests to run in the burrow and I vaguely recall getting quite good at them so that I could rack up a lot of tokens. The lazy man’s way is to only pop in and grab the four free chests (the three hourly ones in the “safe” room and the daily chest in the basement).

It would be cool if the devs would somehow expand this place or add new content to it, but I’m content to see it come back every year and offer a scary yet controlled space for us weak-spirited trekkers to explore.

A not-so-scary trip to Disney

So here’s something: I went vacation. In October. That’s a rarity for me, because it’s not usually the time of year that I take off, but I’ve been working hard and haven’t had a break since April, so I felt pretty OK with enjoying a vacation for a week.

What happened is that my parents and brothers and all of my nieces and nephews went down to Disney World for a family vacation that’s been in the works for a while. Because of school schedules and my wife’s new job, we couldn’t commit our entire clan to taking off for a week (plus, we had gone earlier this year, so there’s that). However, I successfully lobbied for the idea that I would take my second-youngest down with me for a few days to celebrate his fifth birthday.

My wife and I debated how to handle this, because we knew that “the twins” as we call them (my 7 and 8 year olds) would hit the roof when they found out. It’s that whole “feeling left out, life isn’t fair, he gets it so I should too” thing that happens in any family with more than one kid. We do try to drive home the point that sometimes one of them gets something the others don’t, and that’s just how life is, and we can’t always give everyone the same things. Plus, we did something a little extra for them last week to sooth the sting of being left out.

When we told my five-year-old that he was going to Disney — an hour before we left for the airport — he lit up like a Christmas tree. I don’t know what made him happier, spending three days at Disney or getting his dad’s undivided attention for all of that time.

It was a really great trip. Not relaxing, not in the least, but that’s to be expected when you do Disney World with a time crunch. We took a plane on Saturday, went to the parks Sunday through Tuesday, and caught an early flight home on Wednesday. It was a ton of walking in a ton of heat and humidity, making me once again wonder why anyone would want to move down to that sunny swamp.

Probably the best thing we did was to get my son a Disney badge letting others know it was his birthday. He kept getting stopped by visitors and cast members and — on one special occasion — Snow White during a parade to be wished a happy birthday. Invariably he’d shout back “I’M FIVE!” with pure happiness.

It wasn’t a perfect trip. There were Columbus Day crowds (that’s a… thing? I guess?) and I refused to wait more than 20 minutes for a ride with a squirrely kid, so we did some of the smaller rides more often. I lost my wedding ring. I had to walk many miles on a broken big toe. But there were no meltdowns, no disappearances, no major problems. With only one kid in tow (which is a novelty to me these days), we were able to get to the parks early, be nimble in our plans, and just focus on having fun.

Probably the best part of the whole trip was going to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. It was a last-minute impulse purchase on my part, but I feel that it was well spent. It opened up the Magic Kingdom to a smaller crowd on Tuesday night with really cool decorations, trick-or-treating, lots of costumed characters out and about, a spectacular parade, and some wicked fireworks. We strolled around and did all of the rides we couldn’t get in before, and I made sure to visit my favorite — the Haunted Mansion — at least three times. Don’t worry, the boy got to pick most of the rides, and those almost always ended up being (a) It’s A Small World or (b) anything that went “fast.”

It took a lot of effort to make this trip work, even so far as pre-writing a week’s worth of posts for Bio Break here, but I needed the mental break from the routine. Not writing, not gaming, and not working for five days helped reset things in my head, and hopefully creating a lasting memory for my son is what it was all about for me.

Star Trek Online: Nostalgia Tour-D

Yes, so as you might have ascertained, the whole Star Trek Discovery thing and my brush with Cryptic’s Neverwinter as of late has led me back around, once again, to Star Trek Online. And what does Syp do each and every time he comes back to this game? Why, start over, of course!

I don’t exactly know why I relish raising up a new character. Maybe it’s the fun of the missions or trying to do things a little better this time or making different choices. It’s partly because I don’t feel anything for the characters I used to have and want to bond from scratch with new ones.

Also, I wanted to see the much-vaunted lighting changes. I have to admit, they are spectacular, especially in indoor ground missions. Familiar areas have transformed into very moody and atmospheric settings, and the lighting adds so much to the whole look of the place and characters. Bravo, Cryptic.

Anyway, while my Andorian Lt. Commander works her way through the Klingon series, I took a detour to do the new featured episode with Geordi LaForge. I guess it’s something that can be done at almost any level, because I’m like 10 and I had no problem with it.

Hey! It’s me and the Reading Rainbow guy! I love you, Geordi, but I do miss your visor. Your freaky blue eyes don’t make you as personable, for some reason.

So this whole mission — which has to do with an alien that captured a Galaxy-class starship a long time ago — is really a blatant excuse to take players on a tour of the team’s painstaking recreation of parts of The Next Generation’s Enterprise. Well, a ship very similar to it.

Why blatant? Because we’re in the middle of trying to retake this ship and Geordi abruptly says something like, “Hey, a holodeck! Let’s go in there! Nothing bad ever happens in those!” And I go, “Whatever you say, although I am holding the power cord in my hand and will give a sharp yank the second the giant bugs come out and the safety protocols go off.”

And yes, the safety protocols do go off, because of course they do. Borgs instead of bugs, though.

Ten Forward! I thought this room was bigger in the show, but it’s been a while and I’m not going to gripe here. I’ll admit that as a former Trekkie, I was poking around these rooms and quite enjoying the tourism angle. They really did a great job mocking this up.

Next stop on the Nostalgia Trip-D, engineering. Even more bits to look at here, although I could’ve done without the people shooting up the place. I miss that pool table in the TV show.

The bridge and observation room were all well and good (I was disappointed that I couldn’t go into the head to see what Star Trek Online’s version of the bathroom would look like), but I made a beeline to the ready room as fast as possible. I loved the view out of the window onto part of the ship, and it was kind of cool to see that there was a little bed around the corner for the captain to nap between saving the galaxy.

Great mission, 10/10, would run again. I was glad to get a purple ship phaser that would fire in a 360-degree arc. I’m sure that’s going to come in handy in my piddly tier-2 starship.

Battle Bards Episode 107: Blade and Soul expansions

After 50 episodes, the Battle Bards have made the brave decision to revisit the hallowed lands of Blade and Soul to look at two of the soundtrack expansions. The team combs through The World and Silverfrost Mountain albums to see what bounty can be harvested. It’s another lively episode with plenty of upbeat music, so what are you waiting for?

Episode 107 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Hammer of the Dog Sorcerer,” “The Dreamdrift,” and “Hogshead Hamlet”)
  • “The Road/Lycandi Foothills”
  • “The Pot Fighter”
  • “Pine Stone Island”
  • “The Stranger”
  • “Forest of Illusions”
  • “Blood Battle”
  • “Pig’s Ranch”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Jukebox picks: The Annotator podcast, “The Old Republic Theme” from Knights of the Old Republic, and “Gremori Dungeon Ver. 1” from Closers Online
  • Outro (“Snowy North”)