Playing MMOs with a timer ticking down

While this will make me sound really stodgy, I generally order my day by half-hour and hour blocks. Until I’m off work in the late afternoon, I’m always thinking ahead of what I want to be doing next and how much time I want to allocate to each task. Get up and start exercising for 30 minutes, then a half-hour to dress and make breakfast, then a half-hour to get a few things written, that sort of thing.

One tool that I’ve used — not always, but on occasion — is a countdown timer. This is mainly when I have tasks that are too big to do in one day or when I have a lot of things that need to get done and have go dedicate only a portion of time to each. So I’ll put a timer on for, say, 45 minutes and see how much of a task I can get done before moving on at the end of that.

Out of curiosity, I started doing this for when I play games at night. Oh, I’ve timed my gaming sessions before, but I’ve never had an active countdown timer sitting on my desk ticking off the minutes remaining. Initially I thought that this might make gameplay more stressful — I want to unwind after the day, not feel like I’m pressured or under the gun — but in actuality, it’s freed me up to enjoy my sessions more.

That sounds weird, I know. But for me, it really works. Gaming with a timer results in satisfying and more focused sessions, and I’m not stressed out in the least by it.

I think that part of my problem in trying to juggle more than one game in an evening is that I never knew how long I should be playing each one. I’d be thinking about the next one I wanted to squeeze in, which would make me cut short my first game session or feel guilty about playing it when there were others to do. Instead, now I take the gaming time I have that evening (say, two or three hours) and divvy it up between the titles I want to play. I set a timer and then go, making it a fun meta-game to see just how much I can do before the time is up.

The timer not only subtly challenges me to do more in the time I’m given, it keeps me in games longer as well. I think I pressure myself to log out earlier when I do just one or two quests and then lose focus and start puttering around. Knowing that I’m committed to playing a game for the next 45 minutes removes that constant evaluation of whether or not I want to call it a night for this title.

Ack… I don’t think there’s any way to make this sound helpful or non-nutty, but I’m telling you, I’ve been doing it for over a month now and find that I’m blasting through more MMO and solo game content while freeing myself up for more pre-bed reading. I don’t think that I’ll ever want to push more than three games a night with this, but two or three seems to be a really nice spot for play. Thought I’d share that with you, is all.

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Sneaking and stealing in Elder Scrolls Online

It’s a new month — and a new vantage point for my journey through Elder Scrolls Online! With Morrowind completely finished, I thought I’d be going through the main core game next. And in fact I did that… for about three days. Then the month ticked over and I used some of my allowance to buy another DLC pack.

A few people strongly encouraged me to get the Thieves’ Guild pack, saying that it’d be better if I was working on those skills and quests earlier rather than later. I liked the idea of building up a thief skill line, so why not? I guess in my head this was more of a side class unlock, but what it ended up being is a whole new zone and quest series (which it did advertise right there on the store, so I obviously wasn’t reading that carefully).

Thus purchased, I started in on the life of crime — and gladly so. You see, ESO’s justice system has really intrigued me ever since I bumped into it. I haven’t really seen an MMO that has gamified a crime system with heat and bounties the way that ESO does, and it is executed surprisingly well. Attacking certain NPCs, pickpocketing people, and looting certain buildings, especially in towns, will result in an increase of one’s own heat (which degrades relatively quickly) and monetary bounty (which degrades slowly and must be paid to fully clear one’s name). If the heat isn’t too high, guards will only try to extort your money, but if it’s very high, then you’ll be attacked and most likely killed.

Another neat twist is that stolen loot can’t be sold to regular merchants, but only to special fences. And if you’re caught by a guard, you’ll lose all of that stuff.

The justice system makes for interesting choices: Do I engage in a life of crime or remain virtuous? Is the risk of stealing and pickpocketing worth the potential reward? Do I pay off the guard or try to make a break for it?

While I had flirted with this system earlier, Thieves Guild really immerses you right into it. Several quests in, and I’ve been sneaking through well-patrolled estates (sneaking and hiding is another part of the criminal life), grabbing everything that’s not nailed down, and trying to perfect the art of sneaking up behind people and stealing their stuff. Or, in my case, failing miserably and having NPCs call me all sorts of names. I’m really, really bad at pickpocketing and I don’t want to admit how many times I’ve been killed by the guards.

And while I haven’t determined just how “fun” all of this is on the subjective Syp scale, it is certainly a huge change of pace from the normal questing routine. I’m really interested to see where this questline will go and to attain some of the skills that will make all of this much easier. My only quibble is that it’s a shame there isn’t a better movement system to go with this pack, since NPCs can scale and jump off walls, and all I can do is pathetically try to hop onto barrels.

Battle Bards Episode 138: Wild wild westerns

Boy howdy, is it time for another highfalutin Battle Bards episode? Shucks, looks like! In this week’s show, the trio saddle up for a ride through the tumbleweeds and mesas of western MMO tunes. It may be slim pickins, but the pickins are actually pretty good!

Episode 138 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Renewal” from Fallen Earth, “Ashe” from Overwatch, and “Crimson Hills” from Aion)
  • “Calm Guitar” from Crossout
  • “Thermock Hold” from WildStar
  • “Way Out West” from LEGO Worlds
  • “Main Theme” from Wild West Online
  • “Eyes of Ice” from Aion
  • “Cool Ranch Tumbleweed Explorer” from Pirate101
  • “Main Theme” from Dino Storm
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Katriana and PanagiotisLial
  • Jukebox picks: “Legend of the Eagle Bearer” from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, “Into the Wilderness” from Wild Arms, and “Escape” from Return of Obra Dinn
  • Outro (feat. “Antique Cowboy” from Ragnarok Online)

Try-It Tuesday: Oxenfree

Time travel. Ghosts. Conspiracies. Teenage drama. Sounds like a great combination!

Lately I’ve been really jonesing for a good adventure game/walking simulator fix — something along the lines of Edith Finch or Firewatch that would tell me a good story in an immersive world. And wouldn’t take more than a few hours. I did some research, drew up a list of titles I had yet to play, and then realized that one of them — Oxenfree — was sitting in my GOG library as a free game that they gave out a while back.

Created by some ex-Telltale Games devs, Oxenfree drafts up a story of a group of five teenagers who are heading out to an island for an evening of beach R&R. Each one of the characters, including the main protagonist Alex, carries with him or her relationships and baggage. Alex, for example, lost her brother a year ago and is now grappling with the fact that her parents got a divorce, her mom remarried, and she now has a step-brother her age (who is along for the ride).

The beach party takes an unexpected turn as Alex’s radio tunes into a frequency that should have been left alone. Weird voices, time displacement, and strange happenings start popping up all over the place. Alex even sees herself in the mirror dispensing cryptic advice.

Other than some very light puzzles involving the radio, Oxenfree is mostly about exploring the island (which has a rich and occasionally disturbing history) and navigating the fivesome’s relationships via dialogue options. Alex can choose to remain silent during chats or break in with up to three options, all of which create a very natural-sounding flow of conversation. And while the game doesn’t make a big deal of it until the very end, many of these conversational picks end up influencing relationships and changing the ultimate outcome.

Fortunately for this dialogue-heavy game, Oxenfree is both written and performed admirably. The kids are genuinely interesting to listen to as they quip, argue, observe, and share history. While all of them have interconnected histories, it’s only through the dialogue selections that the player is gradually informed as to what they are. I always wanted to hear all of the dialogue and would sometimes stop walking just to make sure I didn’t transition to a new screen or trigger a script and cut off the chatter.

My greatest complaint about Oxenfree is, other than its relatively short length, the control scheme. For a game that only has a handful of inputs (movement, radio, map, use, dialogue selection), it should have been 100% controlled by the mouse. Instead — and with no options to change this — movement keys are the WASD or arrow keys, enter is the use key, CTRL is for the map, shift is for the radio, and the mouse picks the dialogue. I kept having to move my hands on and off the keyboard during the play due to needing the enter key and wanting my right hand to always be near the mouse in case one of the time-limited dialogue options popped up. It’s just an annoyance that shouldn’t have been present.

Another small quibble is that a lot of the game’s very important backstory — the overall mystery of the island — is relegated to a series of hidden letters (“Scavenger hunt! Scavenger hunt!” Alex crows) that only start unlocking late in the game when I kind of wanted to wrap up the tale. They should have been present earlier and been far more noticeable for their narrative importance.

Overall, Oxenfree is a funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes downright creepy game, even though it uses a rather distinct 2-D painterly visual setup (which — quibble number three here — can make using the island map a little difficult). There’s a little incentive to replay to make different choices and see how other dialogue options would have played out, but I think one solid playthrough gave me most of the game experience that I needed here. Definitely a recommended title.

LOTRO: Shadows of Angmar done… for the last time

Moving at a clip that went a lot faster than I had anticipated, I wrapped up both Eregion and Volume 1 of LOTRO’s epic book series in the first week of the month. Eregion’s content zipped by as I zoomed through quests on auto-pilot, and the last few books of Volume 1 were more about traveling and talking than any actual questing.

This marks the second, and most likely the very last, time that I have finished Volume 1 in the game. For the longest time, I would just skip it on previous characters, having determined that it was too time-intensive and unrewarding (in both story and useful rewards). To be honest, I only finished it now because I was determined to get through all of the solo content on the progression server.

Volume 1 is very much a product of the early years of LOTRO. There are a few fanservice moments and high points, but that’s offset by an overabundance of travel (which was obviously meant to be a time sink), bland characters, and a storyline that didn’t feel urgent nor that connected to the well-known story told in the books. Sure, at the end it definitely ramps up for the last quest or two, but Ms. Darth Vader up there doesn’t stick around to be an interesting recurring character.

So where does that leave me? I feel a little at a loss for the remainder of February, here. Until Moria unlocks, my options aren’t that great. I’ve already finished my level 50 class quest and most of the Eriador deeds that I need, so I suppose finishing those up are an option.

A much more fun option, however, is Bingo Boffin! I checked back last week to see if he was now appearing to me after having disappeared for a while there, and sure enough, he showed up with a new quest for me to do. So I jumped back on that train, showing his journal to Tom Bombadil, going tavern hopping, and learning the ropes of treasure hunting. I’m not exactly sure how far I’ll be able to go with this chain, but with little else to do, I might as well see!

I’ve also been fiddling with outfits, being somewhat unsatisfied with several that I cobbled together from my meager wardrobe over the past several weeks. I’m hoping that Moria will introduce more outfit designs, although I honestly don’t remember if this is that case. Probably is.

I do wish that SSG would put out a roadmap for the year, although it was pretty tardy in doing this in 2018 and doesn’t seem that motivated to communicate these days. Besides, we know that the next major content update is most likely Minas Morgul, so I’m steeling myself to take my Lore-master back to the hell that is Mordor. Hopefully this time it’ll be better. That’s always an encouraging sentiment!

Four things I love about Elder Scrolls Online — and two I hate

With minutes to spare, I managed to wrap up the entirety of the Morrowind expansion (minus Clockwork City’s DLC) before the month of January was out. Great romp for the most part, although I am eager to get off the mushroom isle and see what the rest of Tamriel holds (maybe fewer elves?).

Now that I’ve got a month under my belt and am starting to get my bearing in this game, I thought I’d make a quick list of four things I really do like about Elder Scrolls Online — and two things that don’t really do it for me.

LOVE: The graphics

I’m not always a pure eye candy gamer, but I do appreciate striking visual scenery in my MMOs. It helps prompt exploration, as the landscape can make me want to see what else is out there. ESO does wonderful in this department. I’m often caught taking screenshots of the various locales and like the fact that this looks as good (if not better) than the graphics I praised over at FFXIV.

HATE: The combat

Our guild got into a discussion of this the other night, with some long-time vets saying that they enjoyed the fast-paced action combat. Me? I’m not the biggest fan. It’s serviceable but not that fun to engage with for the most part — a lot of fast clicking and moving about and watching slippery bars dwindle from both sides (?). I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different weapons and builds, and ultimately I just picked a dual wielding setup so I could rapidly hack down enemies and move on. It’s better than some other action MMOs, but it does make me miss tab targeting setups.

LOVE: Immersive systems

I’m really impressed how ESO manages to work in some more immersive systems into its overall design, such as the justice system or pushing deeper into guilds to earn new dialogue options. It’s not quite as immersive as, say, Project Gorgon, but it is a step up from many MMOs that have settled into a combat-only atmosphere.

LOVE: Questing

With loads of voice acting, scripting, and multi-stage events, ESO’s quests feel more significant and engaging than I’ve seen elsewhere. I generally have enjoyed the dialogue, found a few quests hilarious or memorable, and think that the fewer-but-better approach works very well here.

HATE: Housing limitations

I was super-excited to get my Elder Scrolls house and start decorating, only to find out very quickly that I had hit some sort of arbitrary “traditional furnishings” limit. Hey, if I paid $20 for an instanced house, I should get to put whatever I want to in there!

LOVE: Freedom of travel and direction

While there is a main storyline path to follow, ESO really excels in allowing players to go wherever they like and do whatever, thanks to the level scaling tech. As a result, I’m never worried about whether I’m of an appropriate level for a zone — I just travel, quest, explore, and unwind!

When MMOs won’t let you start over

The other night I logged back into Warframe to give it another try, and when I did I bumped into an odd issue: I couldn’t start over.

I’m the type of MMO player that if I’m unfamiliar with a game or haven’t been in it for a while, I like to start from scratch. I want to go back through the early levels or tutorials, I want to bond with a freshly made avatar. And usually, that’s not an issue at all. Most MMOs want you to create a stable of characters as a way to keep you in and playing as much as possible, but this isn’t the case universally.

In this case, Digital Extremes made Warframe as a game where you’ll only really need one character, because you can collect all of the suits and swap between the classes as you go along. And since you don’t have any facial visuals or other significant choice to make at the start, rerolling isn’t seen as needed.

Except that people like myself and others would still appreciate that. I looked up how or if this was possible, and I got a touch annoyed at responses by others along the line of “Why would you want to? You don’t need to!” Even if that was the case, why not give us that option? The only way I can figure out how to make this happen is either to create a brand-new account or petition support. And for someone who’s basically asking the game to woo him, this is something that gives me an excuse to walk away.

I bumped into this in RuneScape a while back as well. There I see this as an even more serious issue, since you DO have the gender and visual choices, and when I came back to the game I didn’t necessarily want to be the goofy dude I created the last time around. Sandbox or no, would it really have been that difficult for this feature-rich MMO to let you, y’know, reroll?

Apparently not:

No support for these reasons:
1) Hackers
2) Regret
3) It’s just as easy to make a new account

This feels so weird and alien to me — and a good reminder that some of these MMOs live in a bubble apart from the wider genre at times. A feature that’s standard across the board (including in other sandboxes) is negated here for… reasons.

I experience a mixture of frustration and annoyance at this attitude from both the studio and the players who defend this omission. I’m a big boy, give me the option to reroll if I want to. You may not see a reason for it, but I may have very valid motivations for doing so. At the very least, it would have been more welcoming and less off-putting for this one player who is now not playing your game. Is that a good reason enough?