Vacationing in the Grand Canyon

I’M BACK, BABY.

BOOM.

For those of you tuning into Bio Break recently, back in late 2008 and 2009, I was somewhat obsessed with an underdog MMO known as Fallen Earth.  “Obsessed” is used lightly here, as I’ve rarely loved an MMO in such a way as I did with this game.  When I signed on with Massively, I willingly left the game to dive back into LOTRO, which was a good decision but left a small, Fallen Earth-sized hole in my heart.  The doctors are perplexed that I won’t get surgery for it.

Anyway, call it end-of-summer-malaise, but I found myself gravitating back to Fallen Earth this week as if I was in a dream, unable to stop my fingers from signing back up.  Actually, since I completely forgot my old account information, I had to start all over again, but just as well.  There’s a lot of catching up to do!

I’m happy that GamersFirst has rescued the struggling franchise, since it’s one of my all-time favorite MMOs, and I do hope that the free-to-play switcheroo later on this year will help more than hurt it.  The past few days I’ve spent almost all my gaming time getting reacquainted with the old girl, and I have to say, she’s just as awesome as ever.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what it is about Fallen Earth that feels so different, so refreshing, and so immersive over other titles.  It has something to do with the fact that the quest text is genuinely interesting, witty, and keeps me reading it to the point where I actually know what’s going on.  Maybe it’s the black humor and occasional glimpses of mature content that give it an edge.  Or how the world seems so very big and I’m given fewer lifelines than I’m used to.  I could also point to the fun of scavenging and crafting pretty much everything I own, fighting mutated prairie chickens, or the refreshingly non-fantasy setting.  I can’t pick just one, but it does all come together.

And I had to take advantage of a really nice sale that GamersFirst was having — not only was the in-game store discounted across the board, but any points you spent on items would be refunded at the end of the sale so that you could re-spend them.  Through this, I bought more storage space, a hermit crab pet, a prairie chicken mount (best. mount. ever.), sunglasses, a shirt, and a couple other odds and ends.

While I’m struggling to find a clan — any clan, really — to join, I’m finding that the game I left is still there and better than ever.  The help channel still buzzes with friendly advice and helpful assistance from experienced players, the visuals have a lot of neat and intricate touches, and everything feels like it has more substance than I find elsewhere.

This is not to poo-poo other games, just to reiterate that Fallen Earth is a genuine MMO diamond in the rough, and I’ve always wished more people played it.

I’m taking my time going through the starter towns again, working on crafting and building up some wealth as I learn how to handle rifles (this time I’m going with rifles instead of pistols, mostly because the idea of using shotguns is a huge appeal).  It’s perhaps even more laid back than LOTRO is, and that’s saying something, but I’m genuinely excited to be playing it, and we’ll see where that takes me.

If you’re in the game, I’m Yeti Yesterday, and I’ll be glad to chat with you!  And receive your large donations of chips!

It’s not the size of the monitor, it’s how you use it

So with this month’s allowance, I splurged on something I’ve wanted for some time now: a second monitor.  And not just any monitor, but a really, really small one.  On Tuesday, it finally arrived from Amazon:

I first became interested in these mini-monitors when I saw them up on ThinkGeek.com a while back, and I thought to myself that they might be incredibly useful.  My problem is that my desk is just about as wide as you see right there — I have no space for a second regular-sized monitor — and I often keep having to tab out of games to check mail, twitter, and monitor other things for work.  Having a second (7″)  monitor would alleviate the need to be constantly doing that, and I didn’t need a huge one to fill that need.

Plus, sometimes I just like being able to watch YouTube or Netflix while I play, and the TV is too far out of my field of vision to be useful.  So this little guy is able to be situated right below my main monitor so that all I have to do is flick my eyes down to check on things.  As an added bonus, it both hooks up to the computer and is solely powered by USB, which made installation a breeze.

I feel slightly dorky for having gotten it, but I’ve already gotten a huge amount of use out of it over the past couple days, so I feel like it was a smart investment.

Plus, who wouldn’t want to watch Futurama while grinding?

Nostalgia Lane: Revisiting the SNES

I’m not interested in arguing whether the SNES was the best console in the history of video games, but I do want to say that, for me, it took the number one spot and never relinquished it.

To this day, I still own a SNES some 20 years (!) after its release.  Seriously, two decades?  Way to make a guy feel old, Mario.  My current SNES is a garage sale find, bolstered by eBay purchases when I went on a spree back in 2002.  It’s sat in my office for years and only recently made its way to our church’s youth group room, where I occasionally turn it on and introduce a new generation of kids to its wonders.

That happened the other night, as a matter of fact.  We were all hanging out playing the Wii, when one of my 7th graders asked about the small 13″ TV and the box sitting next to it.  “Is this that pre-Nintendo 64 thing?” he asked.  At his age, the N64 is probably the earliest console he even remembers, another make-me-feel-old comment.  “Yeah,” I replied.  “It’s pretty cool, let me show you.”

And so we sat down and I introduced him to the classics: Contra 3, Street Fighter II, Smash TV, Starfox (“Oh, THAT’S where that Super Smash Bros. Brawl guy game from!”), Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Zelda, and so on.  We had fun, and it showed that a good game is a good game, despite the era it was produced.  I’m not a believer in the “old games outlive their fun value due to aging graphics and newer playstyles” school of thought.

Getting reacquainted with the SNES like that made gave me a strong nostalgic flashback that I’d like to share.  As I’ve said already, we never had a NES for two reasons: we had an Atari 2600 and my parents didn’t quite get the obsolescence factor that kicked in around ’85, and we weren’t that well-off.  But when the SNES came out, my brothers and I decided we had to be part of this latest generation and each pitched in $50 to make it happen.

20 years ago, and I can still remember with stunning clarity the day we set it up in our basement and took turns playing Super Mario World.  I think that during the first week or two, there might have been days where it wasn’t shut off at all.  Soon we began to expand our library rapidly.  Super Castlevania.  Donkey Kong Country.  Mario Kart.  NBA Jam (that was my brother Jared’s favorite, for some reason). We loved the bright colors, the complex controls, the paralax scrolling, Mode 7, the FX chip, and all of the other shiny new doodads, of course.  But mostly we just loved the games.

And while we never got two seminal classics — Final Fantasy VI and Super Metroid (I know, I know) — the day I got Chrono Trigger ranks as one of my all-time happiest video game memories.  I remember sitting on the futon in the darkness, playing hour after hour of this incredible game, wishing it would never end.  I’m still overly eager for an iPhone port, which I hope will happen soon.

The SNES we bought still lives on in my parents’ home and in the same place, only now it’s being used as a babysitting tool for young children who have no sense of video game history.  I never quite liked a Nintendo console as much after that, and even the powerhouse PlayStation fails to conjure as much nostalgic value as the SNES.

A not-so-serious interview with Star Wars: The Old Republic’s David Bass

I first met David Bass in person at last year’s PAX, although we had been internet buddies before that.  Back then he was working for Gazillion, and little did we know that he’d soon be diving into the maelstrom of Star Wars: The Old Republic as a community manager.  Since then, he’s been enjoying the fine life of stress, Wookiee attacks, and the odd request to wear a Princess Leia slave bikini for his adoring fans.  Which he’s done.  Or so the legend goes.

Anyway, I called in a favor — I took a bullet for him back in the Clone Wars — and Bass agreed to suffer through a patented Syp interview (which means a lot of irrelevant details and probably nothing about SWTOR that you didn’t already know!).  Here we go!

Syp: Since you now work on a Star Wars game, it’s required by law that you divulge your favorite (a) Star Wars film, (b) Star Wars character, and (c) Star Wars quote.

David Bass:  a. Return of the Jedi (I’m a sucker for the third movie in a trilogy)

b. R2-D2…he is single-handedly responsible for the success of the Rebels, and I loves me some unsung heroes.

c. Definitely the part where R2 just barely saves Luke/Leia/Han from the trash compactor, and they start cheering and 3PO goes “Listen to them, they’re dying, R2!” Cracks me up every time.

Syp:  What was it like jumping into the SWTOR team so far along in the game’s development?  Was it hard getting your bearings?

David: It’s no secret that this is the biggest game BioWare’s ever made, and it’s probably the biggest game ever made period. I knew that coming into it, but this is definitely the first time that I’ve had to come to terms with realizing I’ll never know everything about this game. It’s just too big. So you learn it in pieces, you fill in the knowledge gaps as it becomes necessary. Like, “Hey, we’re showing an Operation at this con, so let’s sit down and go over it.” It’s definitely an unusual way of learning the system, but the alternative of sitting down and playing the game completely through would take me the greater part of a year, I’d guess, so I think this system works well.

Syp: What does an average day for David Bass look like?  What are your primary responsibilities?

David: Right now we’re in the middle of convention season, and I’ve become the de facto point person for organizing the logistics for each show. These shows all come one right after the other, so there’s a million things that have to get done in quick succession, like putting together a staff schedule, the stage shows, any panels we do, as well as making sure all our fan sites get interviews and play time on the show floor.

Outside of convention season, I get to go back to a “normal” schedule, which means I get to focus much more closely on our fan sites and guilds. Every morning, the Community team does a standup, where we go around and go over the things we’re working on that day, and make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Then I’ll hop onto our forums for a few minutes just to get an idea of what the hot topics of the day are. I’ll ease my way over to the fan sites, going over any news posted on them, and then check out their forums. The fan site forums tend to have a very different atmosphere than our official forums, and I really enjoy hanging out in them whenever possible. As for guilds, we just started up a Guild Testing program, so I’m keeping a close watch on the guilds and their forums so that I can pull a few into testing if we find any that are really beneficial presences in our community. One of my favorite parts of the job is being able to reward helpful members of the community with unexpected bonuses, like access to testing or some swag.

Syp: Who has the coolest Star Wars toy in the office and what is it?

David: Back when I worked at Gazillion, I got to visit NetDevil while they were working on Lego Universe. They had this awesome corner of the office that was basically a Lego warehouse…every single piece imaginable in aisles and aisles of containers. Stephen and I went in and built us a couple minifigs. I took an Admiral Ackbar one, which is my absolute favorite little piece of swag to have at my desk. What I really want, though, is the old Lego Imperial Star Destroyer… they don’t sell those anymore, sadly.

Syp: You’re an old hat at this MMO thing now.  What companies and games have you been associated with, and how did you get involved with this line of work to begin with?

David: I think it’s hard to be an “old hat” when you’re barely out of college… I remember the moment in college when I realized there was an industry job where you get paid to talk and interact with fans, and I immediately said, “That. That’s what I want to do.” I became deeply invested in the Pirates of the Burning Sea community before the game came out, not because I was directly interested in the game, but because I loved the community and the people who were running it. Then I started pestering the Director of Community over there at Flying Lab to see if he’d be willing to invent a Summer internship for me, and I just kept bugging him every few days about it until he finally relented. I’m told I have to publically state that this is NOT the proper way to get into the industry, but hey, it worked for me. Unfortunately, Flying Lab couldn’t bring me on full time after my internship, so I began looking for other stuff, and ran into the Cryptic folks at New York Comic-Con.

Cryptic hired me while I still had a couple months left of college, so I worked remotely from school until I finished (which was not something they had ever allowed before; I felt very privileged), then immediately moved out to California. Spent almost a year there working on Champions Online and Star Trek Online, then I moved on to Gazillion, a startup company where I met the infamous Stephen Reid. We were both there until late last year, when we both got hired by BioWare at almost the exact same time, which was probably the funniest coincidence I’ve ever been part of.

Syp: Do you adhere to the light side of the force, the dark side, or the wimpy middle when you play?

David: Light Side. That’s not even a question. I absolutely find it impossible to make a dark choice. I was a huge fan of the game Black and White, and I wanted to check out some of the evil spells, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill innocent villagers for entertainment purposes. And KOTOR, obviously, I wanted to go with the canonical ending. Plus I liked the implications of the canon ending for that game (I won’t spoil what I mean here, but trust me, if you haven’t played that game, it’s got one of the greatest twists you’ve ever seen in a video game.)

Syp: Going to conventions is part of your job, but for most of us, it’s weird to think of what it’s like to be on “the other side” of the show floor.  What’s the craziest thing you’ve experienced at a games convention?

David: PAX East was my first experience from the BioWare side of things, and I think the craziest thing was watching the doors open on the first day. People bolted in as soon as the show opened, ran over to our booth, and within 30 seconds the line was about 5 hours long, and another 2 or 3 minutes later, we had to shut the line down for the day. People were willing to wait 8 or 9 hours to play, and even when I told people the show would probably close before they got to play, they still wanted to wait in line. Our fan base is the most dedicated group of players I’ve ever seen, and it’s extremely humbling to all of us. It also makes me want to do the best possible job I can, because those are the people I want to do everything for and never want to let down.

Syp: If you could go back and change one thing about the Star Wars franchise, what would it be?

David: I wish that I had been born earlier, so I could’ve experienced the franchise when it first began. Never having been able to see the original films in theaters makes me sad.

Syp: Outside of SWTOR, what MMOs do you play if any?  What are your favorites overall, even if you don’t play them any more?

David: I try almost every MMO that comes out, but a lot of what keeps me in a game are my friends, and these days, my friends are very bouncy from game to game, so that doesn’t help me at all. I’m also very easy to please, as I consider myself a fairly casual player (usually due to the lack of free time I have…), so I’ve never really run into a game I didn’t like.

I’ve played the tutorial to EVE at least 7 or 8 times…I love the idea of the game, I just can’t dedicate myself to its learning curve. At the moment, I’ve been shifting away from MMOs and into MOBAs (League of Legends, spefically), but in the past I’ve been heavily invested in LotRO, Rift, Warhammer, Guild Wars, and WoW.

My tastes vary depending on my free time and what I’m in the mood for. I don’t understand the people who have that mindset of you can only like one MMO at a time. That’s just wrong. I love LotRO because of its setting, Guild Wars because of its ease of hopping in and out, Rift because it’s one of the most polished MMOs ever, and Warhammer because I loved the PvP and the Public Quest systems. It’s not an either/or situation.

Syp: You said to me that you’re upset I’m not going to PAX because you won’t be able to tell me to my face that my opinions are wrong.  Well, here’s your chance.  I give you full permission to correct me about one wrong opinion I hold.  Go for it!  I double-dog dare ya!

David: Elves are awesome.

SWoWTOR: The Deja Vuing

Star Wars: The Old Republic can’t go a day without getting compared to WoW across the field, which is and isn’t entirely fair.  I mean, c’mon, what game hasn’t been compared to WoW since 2004 and called a “WoW clone” at some point?  But SWTOR isn’t exactly pulling away from the tried-and-tested formula either.  As much as I’m really excited about the game, have faith in BioWare to tell terrific stories, love the setting, and will probably invest hundreds of hours into it, I’m not fully won over into believing that it’s going to be cure-all for WoWness.  In fact, just like RIFT, SWTOR will most likely emerge as an acceptable substitution for those comfortable with old systems but bored with old games.

I still am disappointed in the fact that half of the classes are lightsaber-wielding Force users, and part of me still rages on about how BioWare could’ve gotten away from the holy trinity and yet embraced it, medpack-healing Smugglers and all.

The good and the bad aside, what interests me the most these days is the phenomenon surrounding the build-up to SWTOR.  A month or so ago, I was on a podcast where I was babbling about how this is, without hyperbole, one of the biggest MMO movements we’ve ever seen.  It just is.  It’s been building for years now — almost a decade, if you count the fan-love for KOTOR — and I can’t imagine the fever pitch that it’s going to reach by the end of the year.  And through all of the development process, I’ve seen numerous parallels to the same atmosphere that surrounded World of Warcraft in 2004.

Probably the most interesting parallel to 2004 is that we know SWTOR is going to launch with limited copies — an approach that I haven’t seen used in any MMO (save perhaps Darkfall… I think it was Darkfall) in the past five years.  BioWare states that this is to ensure the best possible player experience, which translated into normal-speak means “We don’t want to blow up the servers and face weeks of bad publicity when players can’t log in.  Especially if this happens over Christmas.”

The studio is perhaps taking a cue from WoW, which did actually launch with limited copies — the game completely sold out in hundreds of stores, and even with that stopping the influx of more players, servers were totally swamped for weeks and weeks afterward.  I don’t think a lot of people remember just how bad it was, how the president of Blizzard had to make a lengthy public apology for it, and how long it was before both more servers were brought online and more copies of the game arrived in the store.  It was insane.

So although the consumer in me is sympathetic to the thought of people getting turned out in the cold if they wait too long or can’t afford it until later, it’s understandable why BioWare is going with the limited quantities approach.  The studio most likely has no idea how big this is or isn’t going to get, and even if players yammer that they should prepare plenty of servers in advance, the response has to be, “How many, then?  Servers aren’t cheap, we can’t prep and stock a thousand of them, so what number is ‘enough’?”  When you have a game that’s bested any EA pre-order numbers — EA, people! — in history, you’re beyond the point of easy comparison.  You simply don’t know, but are forced to make educated guesses and put a hard limit on what you can accommodate on Day One.

It will certainly be interesting to see if BioWare will come through the launch period without hitting either of the pitfalls of WoW’s launch.  There is one big difference between 2004 and now, which is that BioWare can turn back on the switch for digital downloads as easy and quickly as it wants instead of having to wait for physical boxes to get shipped around (although that’s part of it too).

And while BioWare’s reps deny that this is a deliberate attempt to drive up demand — especially considering that the company won’t release a number on how limited the rollout will be — I refuse to believe that marketing isn’t jumping up and down out of joy over it.  I’m sorry, but I know marketers, and anything that makes their product more desirable is a win-win for them.  Deliberate or happy side effect, it’s already proving to be a powerful motivation to get players to commit to the game now instead of waiting until launch day.

Because, by then, it could be too late.  At least for a while.

Quote of the Day

“If the Chamber of Raiyun were a module for the tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast would be sending lawyers all over the country, the world even, explaining to judges and juries why the dead dungeon master found floating in the river, perhaps slowly colliding with even more dead dungeon masters, wasn’t a justifiable homicide.”

~ Tipa

The Annoying Pugger

Despite common sense, I do engage in pick-up groups quite frequently, especially in RIFT where the LFG tool makes it just about as painless as possible.  On the average night I’ll run one or two 5-man dungeons to stay on top of the gear curve — and pick up some nice XP and notoriety as well.

For the most part, these PUGs go smoothly — everyone pitches in, we have fun, there’s some light chit-chat, we get the gear and go home.  But on occasion you end up with the pugger from hell which ruins the experience.

Last night I was experiencing Charmer’s Caldera for the very first time with a PUG.  It didn’t really start well; the tank was too timid and kept doing ready checks before every trash pull, one of the guys disconnected, and we were crawling to the first boss instead of flying.  That happens from time to time, so I stayed patient and assumed it would get better.

It did, for the most part, except for one member of the party.  He was our support bard, and it took me several minutes to figure out that he was going to be a pain in the rump for the remainder of the run.  He was that type of annoying pugger who straddled the line between useful teammate and incompetent, just good enough so we didn’t have a reason to trigger a vote kick but irritating enough that it was going to sour the rest of the run.

His entire contribution to the team was throwing buffs on us before battle and then hopping around while we fought.  He didn’t attack, he didn’t contribute to the group healing, just hop hop hop hop hop hop hop HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP.  Ugh, I hate hoppers.  I used to see them a lot more than I do now, but then or now they’re the epitome of irksome.  This is when you’d wish the game would give you a SIDDOWN! ability that could physically pin a character to the ground for a time out.

Above that, he would start skinning beasts in the middle of fights, leaving absolutely none for the rest of us.  And he knew he was being a butt, too, because he said things like “Ooh, sneaky sneaky!”

The worst part was after our second boss fight when a really nice leather hat dropped.  As both he and I were rogues, we each rolled need, and he won.  Fair enough.  But then he had to stop and say “Ooh, P’WNED!”  “What, the boss?” our tank asked.  “No, the guy I beat for the hat!”

Pwned?  Seriously?

A small part of me snapped and my eye didn’t stop twitching until we finished the run (during which I hit level 49, yay).  That level of annoyingness is just bizarre to me — why be a jerk?  Why don’t you contribute more to the team when you’re asked?  Is your cat hitting the spacebar repeatedly?

Now, there’s no larger point to this other than to give a mild vent about a mildly annoying guy, other than to say that sometimes you do end up with people who aren’t outright horrible, but who just get under your skin and you’re too polite and/or helpless to really do anything about it.  I know I could’ve quit, but when you invest an hour of time into a dungeon run that took you 45 minutes to queue up for, there’s some incentive to stay put.

Whew.  There.  I feel better.  I almost want to go… jump for joy.