A Story About a Tree

This is a story about a tree.  You already knew that from the title.

My life was happier before the tree.  Before the tree, playing RIFT was fun… relaxing… engaging.  Heck, I just went through a vampire nest and cleared out 2,000 Edwards in the time it took Stephanie Mayer to think up another synonym for “gorgeous.”  You could even say that I was riding at the top of the world.

So quickly things change.  So quickly are our lives ruined.

I saw the tree as I climbed up a steep hill.  It wasn’t anything to speak of; a gnarled old thing that lurked like an arthritic claw.  On any other day, in any other game, I would’ve passed it by.

Except.

Except it had a sparkly, glowy artifact at the top-most branch.  And I simply cannot resist gunning for artifacts in this game.  The devs like to put them in out-of-the-way places that encourage exploration, and I love that.

The only problem was that this particular artifact was put there by a clearly insane person at Trion Worlds, and when I find that person, he or she and I will be having words.  Words that end with fists attached.

As a gamer who cut his teeth on Pitfall! and Super Mario Bros., I’m no stranger to platforming.  Sometimes I even enjoy it.  But this was a platforming puzzle that I quickly realized was neigh-on impossible.

It was bad enough that the branches were so narrow that a single misstep would send me plummeting back down to the ground, but I could’ve lived with all that had there not been one evil, demonic branch that stymied my progress:

Oh, I learned to hate that branch.  That branch made it absolutely impossible to proceed.  I couldn’t jump past it or edge around it, because it blocked the entire approach.  But… there was an artifact up there!  That obviously meant that it could be done, right?

Right?

And thus a few enthusiastic attempts quickly became an unending obsession.  I had to get past the branch.  I could TASTE that artifact.  I kept going, try after try, quickly climbing into the triple digits of attempts.  I was obsessed.  And this tree was going to drive me mad.

Oh sure, as soon as I was getting close to giving up, I would make it past the branch somehow, but not in any way I could replicate.  I nearly whooped in relief, but would quickly fall off as there was no way up the next branch without sliding off.  Time after time after time I climbed, I growled, and I deeply wished for a chainsaw to cut down that tree.

It never happened.  For all I know, the artifact is still up there, laughing at me and my stupidity.

And I could not sleep last night, as the madness welled up from deep within.

Branching Out

First of all, I’m all a-flutter over the one-plus week world event that’s starting in RIFT today.  In fact, as soon as I publish this post, I’ll probably be in the game scoping it out.

It’s definitely a good move on Trion’s part, for several reasons.  One, we’re at the one-month mark after release, and we all know that means it’s time for every player to consider whether or not this game is worth subbing.  Having something big happen in the game at this time is a good incentive to keep playing, and all of the other features of this patch help as well.  Video recording in game?  Does any other MMO come equipped to do this?  That’s pretty dang cool.

We’re also seeing that Trion held a few cards back from us, and is now playing them one by one.  That’s a tricky thing, because you really want to impress everyone at launch with a wide and deep arrangement of features and content, but you absolutely must have something new and surprising to unleash down the road as well.  We kept hearing RIFT devs talk about how the dynamic content wasn’t just about rifts, but was an effective toolbox to give them freedom to craft events.  From what I’ve heard so far, this world event is something much different and more grand than the smaller zone invasions or local attacks, and there’s even a new UI element to follow that.

So I’m going to be deep in RIFT this week even as my LOTRO Lore-master hit 50 today and I’m Eagling everything in the face as hard as I can.  Between those two games, I feel as rich of an MMO gamer as anyone has a right to be — but I think I need to branch out a bit.

It’s not that I’m restless, but that I really love MMOs and would hate to be so immersed in just two titles that I start ignoring everything else out there.  So I’m going to start lining up a list of very side games to explore and enjoy, perhaps on a day of the week I set apart to do this sort of thing.

So far, here is my to-play list:

  • DDO: After PAX East and seeing the new DDO content, I felt it calling once again.  I may join back up with the Massively guild, but will probably be rolling a new character (I’m thinking sorcerer).
  • A MUD/MUSH/MOO: As part of next month’s project for Massively, I want to at least get into one of these text-based MMOs.  Still evaluating my options, however.
  • EVE Online: I simply don’t understand the phenomenon of this game — it really feels like a cult sometimes — but I’m willing to take another crack at it.
  • Guild Wars: Will I ever finish even one campaign?  I really need to find out!  And before GW2 launches, no less!

Throw MUD at me!

So next week I’m going to be starting a one-month series on MUDs for Massively, and I’d love to know which you consider to be the biggest, best and most influential ones.  Throw names and links at me, and I will smile at you benevolently!

Why Owning An Eagle In LOTRO Will Change My Life Forever

I did it.

Eschewing level 50 dungeon runs, I ran skirmish after skirmish for a good week or so until I had enough points to purchase my class quest items, which resulted in me finally getting my Eagle-friend trait.  I guess the Eagles gotta know if you’re really in it for the long haul or not.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I splurged on a Tundra Eagle skin in the LOTRO store so that I could have an all-white Eagle that I named Frostbite.  Suffice to say, he looks like he means business.

As a pet class operator, getting a new beastie like this is a real highlight, and the last I’ll be seeing unless (a) I want to spec into the Bog-lurker or (b) Turbine adds another one with an upcoming expansion.  But I’m okay with the Eagle right now, particularly because I know it’ll change my life in four significant ways:

1. I’m prime for a power trip!

I think it’s cute and all when people lug their little pets with them around town, as if they simply couldn’t be parted from their ferret or little rat dog for more than ten minutes.  But what can that animal actually do to help their daily causes?  Nothing, I tell you!

As for me, I’m going to be strolling down the road with a fully-armed Eagle perching on my shoulder, ready to pluck out eyes and shred faces if I give the word.  All will tremble before me and give me the respect I deserve, or a screeching feathered nightmare will be the last thing they ever see!

Plus, I’m guessing it’ll make getting loans at the bank easier:

“Mr. Syp, I don’t think your credit limit is sufficient to cover–”

“SCREEEEE!”

“–Congratulations, here’s a million dollars!  On the house!”

2. Free air travel without cavity checks by the TSA

You hear that, guy who felt me up when I was going to Boston last month?  Now I don’t need to be ritually humiliated to participate in air travel?  I can just hop on my Eagle and go anywhere I like, first class!  No boring safety checks either, just grab on to a fistful of feathers and kick that bird into gear!

3. I’m bringing the USA to Middle-earth!

There’s nothing more patriotic that a bird who likes to eat mice and fish, darn it, and I’m all about loving my country with avian symbology!  Middle-earth needs a bit of Americanization anyway — did you know that Bree doesn’t even have ONE Wal-Mart?  Or a Starbucks?

That changes today!  Now as I go through the world, people will eye the majestic bird at my side and feel their hearts pulled toward the notion of a republic instead of oppressive monarchies!

U-S-A!  U-S-A!

4. Fish

If you haven’t heard, fish are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are really good for your heart.  They’re also high in mercury, which is really bad for everything else in your body, but that’s the trade-off.  My Eagle is a non-stop seafood buffet, and all I have to do is hold out my hands to receive a fresh, flopping happy meal delivered.  Thanks, Eagle!

/AFK: Humorous Choice Edition

If you have a choice between boring A and exciting B, will you not pick B and consider yourself a rogue, even though everyone else would most likely pick B as well?

And if C decided to stop by and challenge your expectations, it might stand to reason that a switch would be in order.  But only if D didn’t pop in, announce “All of the above!” and ruin everyone’s day.  Oh, D, the only letter we hate more than you is the dreaded E — “None of the above!”

Welcome back to /AFK, a weekly roundup of interesting blog posts that caught my attention:

  • Elder Game — Evolving quests
    “WoW changed the thinking here. For the most part, it never even occurred to us in the MMO industry that it might be possible to create so much content that players could level entirely through quests and never repeat a single one.”
  • We Fly Spitfires — I like big swords
    “When I play MMOs I immediately pick melee classes and then go out of my way to find the biggest, meanest looking sword I can possibly find in order to proceed smacking the living daylights out of everything whilst giggling with glee.”

The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight

“And he says to me, he says to me, ‘You got style, baby! But if you’re gonna to be a real villain, you gotta get a gimmick!’  And so I go, I says, ‘Yeah, baby! A gimmick, that’s it! High explosives!’ Ah ha ha ha ha ha!”

~ TEMBWBAM

Man, who remembers The Tick?  Seriously, it was one of the best, most absurd cartoons ever broadcast and I loved every minute of it.  It parodied and subverted superhero conventions before that was the “in” thing to do.  The creators had such fun coming up with bizarre superheroes and villains, and one of my absolute favorite was the incomprehensibly named “The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight.”

No, I didn’t ever really understand his name, but that was part of his allure.  He was crazy, he was psychotic, and he absolutely loved his bombs.  Now mad bombers are one of those despicable things in real life, but in fiction they can be really hilarious and relatable.  Like Crazy Harry from the Muppets.  After all, many of us are quietly pleased by things going “BOOM” in controlled circumstances, from building implosions to fireworks.

This is why I’m developing a strong crush on RIFT’s Saboteur class.  Yes, I know they’re slated to be nerfed with the next patch, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing it.  Flinging bombs all willy-nilly?  Pressing that button to detonate?  Yes, please!

I was excited to try one in beta, but the explosive noises then were so muted as to make the class sound like it was stepping on mice (“oomph”) instead of blowing crap up.  Now I crank my speakers and let the good times roll!

It’s kind of funny, because I can feel my personality and playstyle shift when I move into this role.  With the Bard or Riftstalker I have a deliberate purpose, but with the Saboteur it’s all about being crazy and rushing headlong into danger.  Fling fling fling, boom boom boom.  If I get into a good pattern, I can detonate a number of spike charges on one guy, put a time bomb on him, and move on to the next mob while the first has half of its health, trusting that it’ll die before too long.  It’s a wonderfully powerful rush.

So here’s to you, Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight.  You knew the way to true explodey happiness long before I ever did.

Nostalgia Lane: Rating BioWare’s Lineup

In honor of the recent Dragon Age II launch and in anticipation of the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, I thought I’d go back through BioWare’s library and rank the games from best to worst — and why.

Knights of the Old Republic

I know, I know — as safe, predictable and boring a pick as they come, but I can’t think of a BioWare title that both bowled me over as a game and a story as KOTOR.  We may take it for granted now, but Star Wars games by the early 2000s were really sucky and had lost a lot of the essence of what made Star Wars… well, Star Wars.

Then comes along KOTOR that not only wipes the slate clean by jumping back in time a whopping 3,000 years, but carried with it the Star Wars spirit in all its glory.  It was simply awesome all around, even with a couple whiny companions, and I never got tired of picking Dark Side options.  No wonder why fans were really hoping that KOTOR would be the setting for BioWare’s MMO, and they were right!

Baldur’s Gate II

As I’ll talk about later, the original Baldur’s Gate never clicked with me, but BG2 was a lengthy obsession in my gaming.  I played it alongside a friend who was doing the same thing, and we’d often call each other to swap war stories about our adventures every day.

At the core of Baldur’s Gate II was the feeling of a wide-open world where you could just go on a whole bunch of adventures before finally settling down to tackle the main plot.  Because of that, I took my sweet time exploring the city, establishing my own personal fortress, wooing a girl or two, and building up my character to uber-elite status.  It was a terrific ride from start to finish, and I don’t think I’m alone in considering it one of BioWare’s finest masterpieces.

Mass Effect

Hm… now this is tricky.  Which is better, Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2?  I love both almost equally, but I’m giving the edge to ME1 because the story felt more gripping and I couldn’t get enough of that bouncy rover vehicle (just kidding on that last part!).

With both games, I am jazzed that BioWare decided to go the scifi route because we get precious little of good scifi storytelling in RPGs these days (cue caveman marine: “I MASTER CHIEF!  I BLOW STUFFS UP!”).

Mass Effect 2

Also quite excellent, although the overarching story and final act were underwhelming as motivation.  Still, I totally loved the characters, and the part with Joker saving the day probably ranks as one of my favorite RPG moments ever.  And how funny was his relationship with EDI?

Very funny, is the answer.

Dragon Age II

Unlike the two Mass Effects, I have no compunction against ranking DAII higher than DA:O.  While I appreciate the characters, dialogue and SOME of the story of DA:O, overall it was a bland-feeling game that claimed to subvert typical fantasy tropes — and yet fell right into them anyway.  Whereas Dragon Age II just feels more exploratory and less rote of a RPG, one that I’m more likely to finish.

DAII has a better combat system, a protagonist who actually talks, and the freedom to explore the world BioWare had to establish in the first game.  I really like the fact it moves forward in the timeline and intertwines with aspects from DA:O, although not as much as some people were hoping, I’ve heard.

Dragon Age: Origins

Here we reach the middle point — the “not bad but not especially good either” section.  As I said, I didn’t hate DA:O so much as completely lose interest somewhere 3/4ths of the way through, which isn’t a great sign if that’s supposed to be where the story is ramping up.  There were quite a few things that I’m fond of here, such as the dog as a character and the dynamic between the mages and Templars, but overall it wasn’t enough.

Neverwinter Nights

This is kind of a weird entry in the BioWare experience, since it was both a single-player RPG and a multiplayer experience.  I tried it but didn’t really latch on to it enough to remember anything more for this post.

Jade Empire

Hm.  Cool setting?  Sure.  Martial arts?  Neat.  Everything else?  Forgettable.

Baldur’s Gate

And thus I’m relegating BG to the bottom of the heap, even though it was BioWare’s big breakout hit.  BG2 was so superior in every way that BG is just sad in comparison.  I never really liked the repeating maps or the initial lack of direction, and the story wasn’t nearly as interesting as its successor.

BioWare and the Romantic Movie Genre

So back at PAX East, Larry asked if I’d help him with his Old Republic interview by using my many years of academic and professional training by holding up a microphone so he could take notes by hand.  Yes, I said immediately, not because I have a microphone fetish, but because I’m a nosy person and wanted to interject a few questions of my own.  After all, if the opportunity is there, it’d be a waste not to take advantage, right?  We’re all gamers, you understand how I’m thinking.

I forget who we were talking with (am terrible at names), but during a lull in the interview I throw a curveball.  “So BioWare is notorious for interjecting romances into its games,” I said, “and I know you’ve said there’s going to be romantic options with the NPCs in The Old Republic.  What I want to know, as a married man, is the romance going to simply end after your characters kiss or hop in the sack, or will you show that relationships go past that point?”

Cue one slightly weirded out-slash-nonplussed developer.  It’s fun to earn that look.

Romance and relationships… AFTER the kiss?  Is it possible?  Do such things even exist?  In real life, of course.  But in romantic movies and BioWare games, not really.  The moment when two people finally admit their mutual attraction and get together is kind of the ultimate point, and nothing happens past that; it’s just left up to the imagination.  Further courtship?  Marriage?  Relational maturity?  Bah… there’s no need to do that.  Just hook them up and churn out a sex scene for the perverts and we’ll call it a day.

I guess what I was driving at by asking that question was the hope that BioWare would be using the persistent, ongoing nature of an MMO to continue relationships through their ups and downs instead of building up to a single moment and then effectively ending it by freezing that relationship in time.  I’ve always wished that NPCs in all MMOs would grow in their relationships with you, especially the ones you’ve done favors for.  Most of the times it’s like you get that quest reward and then they shun you forever after that.  What, no follow-up phone call?  Ask me over for dinner sometime?  Name a kid after the hero who saved mommy from the dragon?

We’ve seen how players are pleased with memorable NPCs return later on in a game, mostly because it helps carry on the illusion that the player-NPC relationship is continuing in a way.  If virtual relationships are to be an important part of the future of MMOs, I want to challenge developers to at least leave doors open for future twists and turns in those relationships instead of an end point.

A good day of gaming

Every once in a while, we need a good day of gaming, especially if gaming time falls short for us.  Sometimes I feel like I’m just nibbling at games between everything else and really desire to take a big ol’ bite every so often.

For me, it was Saturday.  A lazy Saturday, as it turned out.  After spending time shopping with the family in the morning, we laid the kids for naps and my wife entertained herself with various projects.  Therefore, I ended up with several hours of uninterrupted gaming time, in which I bounced between LOTRO, RIFT and Dragon Age II, accomplishing various tasks and feeling as productive as a gamer can.

I’m still working hard on getting my Eagle-friend for my Lore-master, but it’s probably going to take some time.  I was stupid during this quest chain and used some skirmish points to buy items that I could’ve farmed or purchased on the AH if I wasn’t being lazy.  Now I’m at the next step where I need special items that are only dropped by dungeon bosses or sold for ridiculously high prices through a skirmish vendor, and I blew almost all my skirmish marks already.  Doing some basic math, I figured that I’d have to run about 28 skirmishes to get the items if I couldn’t find a dungeon group.  At two a day, that’s a couple of weeks.  Ah well, I wasn’t thinking ahead enough.

As for RIFT, I’m not really rushing anywhere in particular but am enjoying Gloamwood for its quests and rifts, and am joining as many dungeon runs as I can get my hands on.  Dungeons in RIFT aren’t as mindless as I felt they became in WoW, nor are they as difficult to find a group for as they are in LOTRO.  Some of the fights are tough, but with a little perseverance and group strategy (boosted by swapping roles), I’ve seen many dungeons to the end without frustrated players throwing in the towel.

Dragon Age II is proving to be an excellent RPG experience.  It’s much, much better than the first game, which I felt suffered from too much generic fantasy and too tough of a combat system.  Instead, it’s shrunk the world down to a city and its immediate surroundings (like in Baldur’s Gate II) and set you loose to earn your fortune through various side-quests (again, like BGII).  I much prefer the combat in DAII over DA:O, since I’m not dying every single fight and magic doesn’t have to worry about friendly fire.

I first started playing DAII as a mean-spirited warrior, but quickly abandoned that to reroll as a goofy mage.  DAII’s dialogue system may be streamlined too much for some people’s tastes, but I like that I know exactly how I’m approaching the situation, and I really love the humorous choices.  It’s actually started to make my character sound like an actual character instead of a placeholder for myself, which I feel is a good thing.

I’m also cursing the game for making an elf that I actually find quite adorable and hilarious — the little quirky Merrill  (“They’re so big and grim! What do you suppose would happen if I tickled one of them?”).  The roster of characters may not be as strong as DA:O, but they’re not bad, either.  I’m still trying to figure out the optimal party setup, but I am definitely having fun with a rogue and three mages.

Story-wise, I’m once again vastly enjoying all of the yarns that BioWare crams into these games.  The over-arching tale isn’t as captivating for me as the smaller stories are, and I’ve found myself surprised a few times by twists and turns even though I figure I’m pretty good at spotting them coming.