The Better Bio Break Bureau Bonanza is now in session

Item the first: I’ve added a new page to the site, Nostalgia Lane, which contains a list of all the retro titles I’ve covered in the series.

Item the second: Happy Community Manager Appreciation Day to the awesome men and women who are on the front lines of the forums, dealing with people and issues that would drive me insane within minutes.

Item the third: Do you have an MMO blog?  Do you link to me and I, because of my oafish nature, have yet to do the same?  Let me know, and I will make sure it gets fixed!

Item the fourth: Elves.  Why hasn’t someone taken care of them yet?  Get on this, people!

Nostalgia Lane: Colonization

When I first went to college in 1994 (egads that seems like forever ago now!), the administration tried something different with our freshman class: we all got laptops on the first day.  Now, they weren’t free — I think we ended up paying $2400 apiece over four years for these buggers — but the concept of a whole campus that was computer-enabled was huge at the time.  A year later, and the college got wired for the internet (although we never got this in our dorms, alas).

As crappy as those little laptops were compared to today’s standards, we loved those machines.  You could lug them around to do your homework anywhere instead of your dorm room, bring them to class to take notes or (heh) play games, and generally feel like you were taking the first step into a much more technological age.

Because we all had the same computers, game sharing became prolific and popular.  My friends were constantly engrossed in computer games instead of console titles, and we thrilled to some of the classics of the mid-90s: X-Com, Master of Magic, Jedi Knight, Command and Conquer, and Colonization.

Egads, how I did love Colonization.  I’ve always been an on-again, off-again fan of the Civilization series, but those games usually lose their luster fairly quickly.  I think it’s because I never liked the veeeery slow ramp up through the ages and technology that suddenly went exponentially fast at the end game.  Colonization felt better, because you were put in one era and left there — the three-hundred-or-so year span from 1492 to 1792 in the New World.

Your mission was pretty simple: Build up an empire of colonies for your mother nation, and when you felt ready enough, to declare independence and fight to win it.  The bulk of the game was in expanding your territory, engaging in buying and trading goods, and edging out the competition.  There could and often were conflicts between the colonies and the natives, which had to be resolved either by diplomacy or force.

There was a lot more emphasis on creating goods and trade routes than in the Civilization series, and I always got a thrill in exploiting a new avenue for profit.  But more than anything else, the game was a fertile ground for an inner story.  I mean, sure, there’s a loose overarching one of a colony looking to become independent, but as with a lot of these types of games, the bulk of the real story grew in my head as the game unfolded.  I’d imagine all sorts of vendettas and epic struggles that were played out on screen, and it wasn’t uncommon for me or my roommate to be up way past midnight to see what happened next.

While they did come out with a Civilization 4 variant of Colonization, I never tried it.  I don’t think it could come close to the fun I had with the original, really.  Even today, the graphics and basic gameplay are still pretty solid, and I’d love to see an iPhone port.

/AFK: Forumophobia Edition

Forumophobia: The mortal fear of going to — or posting on — an internet gaming forum due to the abundance of know-it-alls, trolls, malcontents, leet-speakers and 95% trash post rate.  How can we combat this people?  With lollipops, of course.  With LOLlipops.

Once again I bring you /AFK, my personal pick of the best or most interesting posts from this past week:

  • Ardwulf’s Lair — How LotRO Works
    “This is a world I know and am at home in, in a way that Norrath and Azeroth – and even Telon, which otherwise came closest – never were.”
  • Screaming Monkeys — The Cataclysmic WoW Disease
    “The game is suffering from a strange disease and we don’t know what it is. We see the victims, friends, family, bloggers, guild members who are quitting WoW after only a month and a half of Cataclysm.”
  • Levelcapped — Naivete
    “Winzen should have released this mod to the community, as is intended to be done with mods, and garnered the accolades of an appreciative Internet. Instead, Winzen aimed higher. Much too high.”
  • Werit — Where is Mythic?
    “What surprises me (and bothers me) is that Mythic has to know what kind of impression this lack of communication gives to the playerbase (well, the website/blog going part). Yet they don’t really do much about it.”
  • Elder Game — Classes vs. Open Skill Systems
    “But if you accept this premise, you need to know what you’re doing here: you’re intentionally creating an illusion of complexity that will wear off in six months, tops. If it takes you twelve months to make it, you’re betting a LOT of resources on that illusion.”

Rift’s Identity

I intentionally stopped talking about Rift for a week or so because I wanted to refocus my energies on LOTRO and not to burn out talking about/thinking about Rift as we count down the final month before launch.  But that week is over, and I guess here we go again!

More than anything else, I’m really dying to know how Rift is going to play out as a game.  Not whether it will succeed or fail financially, but whether people will accept it despite its similarities to other games, whether the dynamic content will have staying power, and whether it will end up being the game that Trion Worlds wants it to be.

Another question I’ve been mulling over is if players are going to feel a lack of identity in the game.  For most MMOs, you ARE your class — “I’m a captain in LOTRO”, “I’m a blood DK in WoW”, “I’m a Dark/Dark Defender in CoH”.  You identify yourself as that class and, by extent, the roll that class or build plays.

Enter Rift, where there are an extreme lack of “classes” (called “archetypes” here).  You’re one of four archetypes, which means that no matter what you pick, 25% or so of the rest of the game is right there with you.  Sure, you have eight souls and a mind-boggling amount of builds you can make with them, but how do you identify yourself in this setting?  “I’m a 50/16/0 Reaver/Warlord/Beastmaster” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, nor is it that easy to decifer.

You could try to say what you DO in terms of a role — “I’m a healer/tank/DPS/pet-master/buffer” — but that’s not only generic-sounding, but pointless in a game where anyone, with a flick of a key, could be that too.  Every archetype can perform multiple roles, often overlapping with other archetypes.

See what I’m getting at?  The more flexibility they give the character system, the less chance you have of being a distinct anything.  It’s a game where you — and everyone else — can change quickly, easily and often.

So what will people end up identifying themselves as?  I’m guessing specific builds that will be given spiffy names by the players, but who knows?

Six Things I Hope Get Fixed In Rift

I think it’s fair to look at the drawbacks, issues and negatives of games that you’re excited about — at least, from time to time — not as an exercise in cultivating cynicism, but to stay realistic and balanced (Pete at Dragonchasers and Rift Watchers had the same idea here).  Thus, here are six things I really hope get fixed in Rift, if not before launch, then soon thereafter.

1. Defiant starting zones

I’m torn on factions at this point (and I’ll probably just go with whatever the guild I pick chooses).  I like the concept, look and mounts of the Defiant a lot better, although the Guardians have dwarves and a much, much better starting zone — here I’m talking both the initial tutorial and the 1-20 level area.

The Defiant tutorial is a lot longer than the Guardian one, and then you come out in a starting zone that reeks of non-personality.  If you’re at all familiar with World of Warcraft’s Lich King expansion, you know that there were two starter zones for Northrend: the bland Borean Tundra and the visually stimulating Howling Fjord.  The Defiant area is so the Borean Tundra it gives me flashbacks — just a jigsaw puzzle of nondescript locales.  When you compare it to the lush forest that the Guardians explore, it’s like night and day.

2. Combat sounds

I tend to agree with Wolfshead when he says:

“The actual audio of the weapons themselves such as the swords hitting mobs is less than spectacular. It seems that Trion’s sound designer has recycled the same metal clanging sword sound over and over. I could barely hear the sound of my ranger shooting an arrow with his bow. The gunshot sound effects were even worse and sounded more like a peashooter than a real shotgun going off.”

In this, Rift is a paradox.  Sometimes Rift’s audio is just incredible and detailed, like how you can hear your character panting after a jog if you zoom up close, or how the sound is muted a bit underwater.  But yeah, many of the melee combat sounds are quiet and uninspired.  Even some of the magic spells need a bit of oomph behind them.

3. Better explanations

Rift is okay — just okay — in explaining things to you as you level up.  Mostly it’s all front-loaded at the start, but by the time you’re in your teens, the game sort of gives up trying to teach you things that seem to be important, such as collections.  There’s also some other system in place that uses buffs in an item (a planar thing?) that I haven’t figured out because I don’t recall the game ever taking the time to tell me about it.  Just kind of, hey, here it is, have fun.

4. Public grouping

Word on the street is that some sort of public grouping system (or open grouping) is in the works, and that’s good as it is sorely needed.  Due to the proliferation and nonstop nature of the dynamic content, there needs to be a way to quickly jump into a group or raid without having to spam the chat channels.

5. A larger diversity of armor models

At least in the beginning zones, everyone looks alike because all of their armor looks the same because everyone’s getting them from quest rewards.  In my experience, I didn’t get a lot of usable armor through drops, although I could just not be looking in the right places.  I’d love to see more variety in looks, however.

6. More races

I have to say, for a game that prides itself on a hugely flexible class system, its racial choices are dull to the point of uninspiration.  Two humans, two elves, a dwarf, and a slightly larger human.  That’s… wow.  It’s just bad.

I don’t think we have any shot of seeing any other races before launch, but this would be one of my top wish list items for an expansion.


World of StarCanceled

As a kind of postscript to the previous post, you’ve probably seen the meteoric rise and flash-fall of a World of StarCraft mod that took SC2 and turned it into a WoW-ish MMO.  I think I echo a lot of people’s thoughts when I say:

  1. I am deeply impressed this guy was able to pull this off, even at a basic level.
  2. It looked dang cool, and reinforced the fact that a lot of folks would LOVE a StarCraft MMO.
  3. Did the modder not see the inevitable conclusion of this?  Blizzard isn’t a kindly grandfather passing on the family legacy to his kin; it’s a soulless business out to make money and protect its interests.  I’m just surprised a team of cute-but-deadly Murlocs didn’t show up at this guy’s doorstep and execute him in full sight of his neighbors.

Is It Time For SciFi To Shine?

More than BioWare’s storytelling, more than the voice acting, more than the garbage trucks full of money thrown at the budget, more than even the Star Wars license, I am eagerly looking forward to The Old Republic for one thing: I want a good scifi MMO.

Despite being Mr. LOTRO and Mr. RIFT these days, fantasy isn’t my one true love; on the contrary, I’ve always been a science-fiction fan, first and foremost.  Star Trek, Star Wars, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Voltron, Babylon 5, Miles Vorkosigan (new book out, super-yay!), Firefly, you name it.  Give me spaceships, laser rifles, fantastic technology, the span of the universe, and daring heroes rushing out to meet their doom.  Er, fate.  Fate AND doom.  A… date!

I’ve always been disappointed how few great scifi novels there are compared to their fantasy contemporaries, and likewise, I’ve disliked how few scifi MMOs have emerged compared to sword-and-sorcery RPGs.  More than that, it’s been disappointing to see so many scifi titles die out (Earth & Beyond, Tabula Rasa, The Matrix Online) as fantasy seems to thrive.  Scifi MMOs seem niche even for a niche genre.

Sure, there’s EVE Online, but I’ve tried it and found it wanting for fun.  Star Trek Online’s on the opposite end of the spectrum — flashy and good for a quick fix, but lacking in the long run for deep content.  Star Wars Galaxies never felt “Star Warsy” enough for me, although it’s a potential.  Anarchy Online’s decent but dated, and the rest is generally too marginalized to mention.

I think we’re ready for a scifi setting, even if it has kill ten ratbots.  I know I am.  I’m sick of bows and arrows — I want giant Aliens-style pulse rifles strapped to my back.  Even if we’re just substituting technology for magic, energy for mana, and power armor for plate armor, I’m on board.  I think there’s a growing hunger out there for a change of scenery if not a change of playstyle.  The Old Republic, WAR40K, BSG Online, Black Prophecy, Planetside Next, Perpetuum, Earthrise, Global Agenda, Trion World’s unnamed scifi MMO, potentially Blizzard’s next MMO — there’s a lot of movement towards science fiction in the past year or two.  Hopefully we’ll get one or two that hit all those sweet notes that appeal to a large cross-section of gamers and ends up giving the scifi genre more credibility as an MMO setting.

We’ll see, we’ll see.  Predicting the course of MMO trends is as futile as building a sand castle when the tide’s coming in.  All I know is that there’s a big void in my gaming life right now that can only be filled with futuristic goodness instead of Ye Olde Concepts.

Dad For Hire

Shawn at Massively wrote a really great opinion piece today called “The raid can wait; your kids can’t.” Go ahead and read it — I have a few follow-up thoughts once you’re done.

With two tykes puttering around the house, I give a lot of thought these days as to the example that I’m setting for them.  When kids are small, it’s sort of like you don’t have to pay attention to your habits because you’re pretty sure they’re going to forget anything you do in the next 30 seconds anyway.  But sooner or later there’s that moment when a kid repeats something you said or does something that you do all the time, and it sinks in: They’re learning from you.  You are their biggest role model, and it doesn’t stop.

Hopefully my kids will learn from what I discuss with them, but they’ll definitely learn from how I act around them and how I respond to them.  And it would be a horrible lesson to pass along that “Games > Family”.  I don’t think anyone intentionally does this (unless they’re sadistic), but there’s always a pull in relationships between your own desires and what others want from you.  There has to be a balance and priorities and all of that, but some things automatically trump others.

Unless it’s for Work work, I don’t game around my kids that much, but when I do I notice how they come over and just peer up at my computer with that dazed expression that’s taking it all in.  I pick them up and share with them a bit of what’s going on, but then turn it off and encourage them to go back to playing with their toys.  Computers will come soon enough in their lives as it is.

One of the rules I’ve set down for myself is that I am never too busy for others — for those I minister to, for my wife, and for my kids.  My daughter is relentless when she wants my attention — she crawls over, expends a lot of effort to pull herself up on my pant leg, and then claws at my thigh until I pick her up or get on the floor with her.  And I do it — I don’t ever want her to think, “Gee, daddy loves me, but not as much as he loves the big glowing box over there.”

I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.  Games come and games go — by the time my son enters kindergarten, The Old Republic will already be a few years old.  By the time my daughter is in high school, computers as we know them today will be so ancient to be laughable.  But I’ll never get these years back with them, so I better not waste them now.