I’d Like To Get Ahold Of Her Ample Nacelles, If You Know What I Mean

I can’t explain the currents of my whims and tastes, but I found myself once again drawn to Star Trek Online (I know, I know) after reading a bit about the Season 2 update.  I wasn’t under any delusions that it suddenly morphed into an awesome game, but I needed a bit of mindless violence and visual eye candy.  So once again my computer felt the cold, icy hands of Cryptic clutch at it.

Fun fact number one: Did you know that I was still paying for a STO subscription, even though I canceled it back in late May or early June?  If you did, then you’re not my friend because you didn’t tell me.  But apparently, yes, I’ve been shelling out fifteen bucks a month that went overlooked on our bank statement.  This got more fun as I discovered that the ability to submit a ticket on their website didn’t work (huh, guess that cuts down on customer service’s workload) and the phone number I fished out of a directory led straight to an answering machine.  Fortunately, one of the devs came to my aid over twitter and directed me to another place to enter a ticket.

So that’s still in the works.

Fun fact number two: I logged back on to my highest-level character, only to be assaulted by what I can only describe as a one-minute long wall of text, as the game kept spamming accolade achievements and XP increases and level dings all over the screen, catching me up on the past few months.  It was pretty funny, and I think I got two levels out of it when it was all said and done.

However, I decided to roll a new character — a Bajoran science officer — to see the new changes from the beginning.  I had fun naming my Borg bridge officer “Three Point One Four” because, as Tipa said, “She likes pi?”

Everyone likes pie.

So far so interesting.  I tried a couple of the diplomacy missions, and really couldn’t figure the one on Vulcan out (in my defense, the quest stumped a lot of other folks too — I think the direction given was too vague).  The Memory Alpha diplo quests were easier to understand, and actually reminiscent of classic RPG dialogue quests — talk to people, piece together clues, make crucial decisions based on info gathered.  Diplomacy’s a good idea to have in the game as long as they work hard to make it at least half as interesting as combat.

STO gets a lot of crap thrown its way these days, much of it deserved (it still lacks a lot of compelling, repeatable content; the item shop practically screams “money grubbing insanity”; sector space still exists what is up with that come ON Cryptic), but it’s certainly not all bad.  As someone said in the fleet last night, this game has gotten pretty good when nobody was looking.

There are two parts of the game that really connect with me.  The first is being able to have a ship that you piece together and outfit — I have enough virtual people MMOs, I think I needed a virtual vehicle MMO as well.  The second is that space combat in particular isn’t as fixed as combat in other games.  There’s a surprising amount of strategy that goes into it, not only with positioning but also how you outfit your ship.  For my starter ship, I dumped the torpedoes and decided to invest in two forward-firing disrupters (one a dual bank, one a dual cannon), then because the starter area is pretty easy, I fly around all the time with maxed-out power to the weapons.  The end result?  If I can keep an enemy in my sights, they go down and fast.  But there’s certainly a lot of different ways you can go with ship builds and how you attack.

I’d like to see the top tier one of these days, but it’ll be a while coming if ever since I’m juggling a few different MMOs (and another new one for my Game Archaeologist column next month) at the moment.

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Passion, Fun and the Battle Against Cynicism

Those who know me know that I have five overriding passions in life.  I am passionate about my faith and my God, which is the entire reason for my being.  I am passionate about my lovely family, who bless me every day with their love and general hilarity.  I am passionate about writing, as you probably can tell by the way I can’t seem to stop.  I am passionate about movies, not just for the entertainment but for the art.  And I am passionate about games, because they fascinate and involve me on so many levels.

Passion can come in many varieties and flavors, some upbeat, some angry and some involving 6,000-word posts on a class nerf.  Generally I want to stay positive about my passions, because being negative — while occasionally fun and easier to write — is draining and ultimately corrupts any joy you have left.  There’s always bad to be rooted out, but that doesn’t mean one has to roll around in it until cynicism coats everything.

Leigh Alexander penned an interesting article on Gamasutra last week about cynicism in gaming, stating that (and I’m paraphrasing here) everyone’s unhappy in the industry.  Developers are unhappy, gamers are unhappy, journalists are unhappy.  The root of the problem, Leigh says, isn’t easy to pinpoint, but instead involves how these spheres react to each other.  Bad games makes for unhappy everyone; companies putting undue pressure on employees makes for unhappy devs; negative commentators makes for unhappy devs and other unhappy gamers; closed-off devs and untrusting gamers make for upset journalists; and so on.  It’s like a cynical feedback loop that becomes self-sustaining and unstoppable after a certain point.

Gaming never used to be anything negative with me, except when I couldn’t get a game to run on my ancient PC.  Back in the day, my friends and I simply loved games, played games and debated games, but it was always in the spirit of something we liked, similar to toys and cartoons.  With the internet, now I’m exposed to thousands of people who instantly disagree with whatever I think or feel, and aren’t ashamed to tell me so, and sometimes seem like they never want me to like games at all.  Is it too late?  Am I destined, as both a gamer and a games journalist, to become a bitter cynic who plays MMOs but hates them and myself while I do so?

Man, I hope not.  I really don’t.

It’s important to critically evaluate things, to be sure, but there’s a virtue in taking the “glass half full” road too.  I don’t think we cut developers enough slack, I don’t think we give each other enough respect when it comes out our differences in gaming tastes, and I don’t particularly care for this attitude that we can’t like a game without being called a “fanboy” or look forward to an upcoming MMO without “falling prey to the hype.”  Those are the cynics talking, and I categorically refuse to join that crowd.  I’m sure I have my days, but that’s not who I want to be.

Working for Massively has opened my eyes to the field of games journalism, which has a lot of great parts to it and sucky parts as well.  There’s an air of cutthroat journalism when it comes to getting exclusive, jumping on stories ASAP, and being better than one’s competition, but that’s more or less the name of the game.  Fortunately, there’s just so much to like about it — getting to write about something you love, for one.  Getting to talk to the people who make the games you love and forming relationships with them as you do it.  Being part of a team of writers who prize good, creative writing above all else, and support each other, particularly when one of us has a minor victory.  Getting that rare positive comment on an article that makes your day.  Shyly telling someone that you’re an honest-to-God journalist and realizing that that’s true.

I feel bad when I see the negativity that goes on in the comments, and on Bio Break, and in forums, and on other blogs, because I don’t want people to hate something they want to love.  Nobody likes to be disappointed, let down, burned out or snookered, but it happens, and those acidic feelings tend to make their way onto the web either to be exorcised or to spark a riot.

I think Leigh was a little too harsh, because there’s a lot of love and passion and excitement and joy in all spheres of gaming — and I truly believe that those of us who want to be positive, who are having a good time, and who would choose to love rather than hate don’t feel the incentive to write or talk about it as much.  We’d rather just be playing.

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Eee Queue Too: Extended Boogaloo

When MMO historians look back on 2010, I think they’ll find it ironic that the biggest cataclysm of the year had nothing to do with World of Warcraft’s third expansion.  Instead, it’ll be the domino effect of subscription games toppling over into free-to-play/freemium/hybrid payment models, spurned by the success of smaller titles with these models and DDO’s 2009 conversion from a sub-only game to a sub/free-with-microtransactions hybrid.

Then comes along 2010, and LOTRO falls to this (unsurprising, considering that they share a studio with DDO), Cryptic contemplates it, and then SOE finally throws their hat in the ring.

As you may have seen from the news breaking out all over the blogosphere, SOE is converting EQ2 to — and this is putting it kindly — a more varied business model.  They’re essentially splitting EQ2 into two different versions on two different types of servers: the normal subscription game with the current servers, and a F2P version on special new servers (with the name EverQuest 2 Extended).

I’m not a huge EQ2 person, obviously, so it’s not like I know the ins and outs of how this impacts current players.  I will say that from my personal perspective, I’m intrigued.  Heck, I’ll play EQ2 for free, especially casually, whereas I don’t have the time or current inclination to shell out dough for it.

The limitations of EQ2 Extended remind me a bit of LOTRO’s upcoming change, with some of the higher level content locked (but available for purchase, natch), and several races and classes locked away (ditto).  They also have a one-time purchase to upgrade to a higher level of free service (again, much like LOTRO).

What strikes me as really funny that the highest level of this new service — Platinum — is essentially a regular subscription, only much more costly.  In this case, $200 a year (that’s $16.66 a month) for all of the same stuff subscribers on other servers get.  The one consolation is that they give you $60 back in station cash, so I guess that’s something.

So if DDO and LOTRO is any indication, the EQ2 community should be hitting the roof right… about… now.

Why We Keep Returning To WoW

It’s a tale as old as time, a tune as old as song — the migration of ex-WoWers back to Blizzard’s land.  I speak specifically of my fellow bloggers, who (like myself) have gone through repeated cycles of playing WoW, breaking up with WoW (“for the LAST time and I mean it, REALLY!”), spending months in other games, and then finding themselves one day reloading WoW.

We’ve seen it so many times that it’s not even worth a single eyebrow lift.  We play WoW, we leave WoW, and some of us return for another go.  What gets me is that a lot of returners tend to then say the same two things:

  1. Upon just returning: “Hey, this is actually pretty fun — I didn’t expect that.  More fun than before, even!  Why’d I ever leave?”
  2. Two weeks later: “Oh, that’s why.”

But obviously there’s something there, something difficult to define but nonetheless present that makes it so easy, so seductive to return.  I mean, heck, even Snafzg — the man who told me he was swearing off MMORPGs forever — is now back in WoW, and that is a miracle of some reckoning.  So why do we keep returning?

I have some theories.  Of course I do.  I’m obnoxious like that.

Theory the First: Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a powerful process of the brain in which good memories are slowly but wholly purged of any negative associations.  We remember great things in the past, but usually those memories are altered to forget about any warts or farts that came with the events.

Given enough time away from a MMO — particularly one you liked, one you played a while, one that might have been your very first online RPG — and you’ll start to forget the bad stuff.  You’ll forget the frustrations, the limitations, the bugs, the negative community attitudes, the slow pace of content patches, and your brain will be left with a pristine alternate history of your game.  Once you latch on to that nostalgia, it almost becomes like a virus that reprograms your entire attitude —  you can’t believe you ever left!  You had a good thing going and you gave it up for whatever current buggy, frustrating MMO!  You need to go back, and stat!

Theory the Second: Impatience

If I was to tally up the virtues of MMO players, I sincerely doubt that “patience” would be anywhere on that list.  We may be a passionate group with loads of spare time on our hands, but that doesn’t mean we like waiting for anything.  We hate waiting for releases, we hate waiting for patches, and we certainly hate waiting for games to improve.

This is why — on the whole — players are a lot less likely to give newer MMOs a fair shot (defined as “more than the initial month following release”) before passing judgment and uninstalling that obviously still-in-beta crap.  This is remarkably different than the earlier days of the genre, where players learned patience the hard way and would stick with broken games because there weren’t a lot of alternatives.

Say what you will about WoW, Blizzard threw a level of polish and dependability into their product that we still don’t see in newer titles.  Couple that with a mountain of additional content since 2004, and there you have a high standard — maybe an impossible one — against which subsequent titles are measured against and found wanting.

I don’t think we give newer MMOs as much of a fair shake any more, and if it hasn’t become a worldwide phenomenon by its sixth month, then many of us are more than willing to pitch it into the trash can and go back to something that has done this.

Theory the Third: Connections

Sometimes it doesn’t matter as much how you feel about a game in particular as it does how much you care about the people playing it.  We might have left WoW, but our friends and family and former guildmates might still be there — online relationships that are dangling into the abyss until we come back to pick up where we left off.

On the flips side, sometimes we return because a spouse or friend or group of friends make the decision to do so together, and you get swept up in a social movement of sorts.

Theory the Fourth: Substitute

I see this a lot as well, where someone returns to WoW not because they want to play it in particular, but because they’re waiting for a future game to launch and they need something reliable and familiar in the meanwhile.

So am I off?  What do you think?

Syp: Now 100% Legal!

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’ve jailbroken my iPhone to remain on my current carrier (T-Mobile).  Apple’s exclusive agreement with AT&T has rubbed me — and several million other people, apparently — the wrong way, which is why a recent court ruling feels like a sweet slice of vindication:

“Most notably, the FCC has made the controversial practice of ‘jailbreaking’ your iPhone — or any other cell phone — legal.

Apple fought hard against the legalization, arguing that jailbreaking was a form of copyright violation. The FCC disagreed, saying that jailbreaking merely enhanced the inter-operability of the phone, and was thus legitimate under fair-use rules.”

I sort of want to be childish and go “HA-ha!” in Apple’s direction, but I’ll channel my inner man instead.  While I didn’t need the FCC’s direct permission before, it’s great to have their full backing on this, because perhaps it’ll make Apple loosen up and officially support other carriers — and apps.