SWTOR: The trouble with surnames

As the launch train rounds the bend and heads into the station to pick up a few million passengers, one recent reveal by the Star Wars: The Old Republic team has a few people scratching their heads.  I’m referring to the Legacy system, which was unveiled the same day as the NDA drop and a few other things, which has had the effect of burying it somewhat.

I’ve been mulling over what little info BioWare’s given us on this, and found that I’m siding with the folks who are a little (or more than a little) unsettled by it.  Basically, the Legacy system is a way for all of your characters to contribute to a single XP pool that will eventually be rewarded with… uh, we don’t really know that.  I’m guessing social items and whatnot.  It also allows for the use of a single surname across all of your characters on that server, which does the double duty of providing a consistent identification for people who are alt-crazy and gives you a last name.

With me so far?  Generally, I’m cool with this, but there’s a few problems lurking in the shadows as have been pointed out by several fans.  To whit:

  1. Some people don’t want that single name of identification yet do want to enjoy the benefits of the points system.
  2. Roleplayers and others have a hard time figuring out how people from different species can share one last name (and they don’t necessarily want these people to be “related”)
  3. Because surnames are unique on a server, it’s going to be a race to get to them first (and if you come late to the game?  Good luck!).

My beef is with #3, because all of the sudden BioWare’s turned my launch day plans from a leisurely exploration of the game into a rat race as I keep muttering prayers that nobody else will pick the last name I want before I get to the point in the game where I can grab one.  So now there’s a layer of stress where it wasn’t before, and I’m not thankful for it.

Obviously, I could either just eschew the Legacy system outright (but I, like you, am fond of rewards) or just have a page full of last names at the ready and go with whatever.  These little things matter, because whenever there are rewards and ways to grab a unique customization for your character, people are all over it.

I’d much rather BioWare give us a way to either (a) reserve our surname in advance or (b) strike the “unique” condition from it so that we don’t have to compete with others.  Or, how about just being able to create that surname at character creation like other MMOs?

It’s just a name.  It shouldn’t be stressful.

Book Report: A to Z in communicable diseases

I haven’t done a “what I’ve been reading” post for a very long time, and there are a few book recommendations I’d like to pass along.  Cool?  Cool.

The first is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a novel that’s both been received with wide acclaim AND has quite a bit to do with us MMO players.  The conceit is that it’s a dystopian future where the world has gone to pot and most everyone now lives in an online world called OASIS.  OASIS consists of many themed planets (including MMO conversions like Azeroth) that function as learning environments, homes, businesses, and games.  One day the creator of OASIS dies and leaves behind a contest to find three hidden keys and gates — the person who does so will inherit OASIS’s parent company and billions of dollars.

The interesting catch to this contest is that the creator was obsessed with his childhood in the 80s, and left behind an 80s-themed “almanac” as a clue.  Because of this, contest participants have become obsessed with 80s culture and brought about an 80s revival in the 2040s.

What follows is an entertaining romp through cyberspace, MMOs, and plenty of references to 80s movies, TV shows, video games, and other pop culture lore.  Since it all takes place in this huge MMO, it’s not uncommon for people to be flying X-Wings, stomping around as MechaGodzilla, and diving into classic D&D dungeons while leveling up.

This is one of those books that I really hope gets made into a movie some day.  There’s a lot of affection for geek and 80s culture, and if you’re into these things you’ll be delighted with it.  My only nitpick is that sometimes the writing isn’t as smooth as it could’ve been — I often caught myself thinking, “This is exactly how I write” and I usually expect better from what I read.

I’ve also been doing a lot of diving into Kindle-only books, since many of them are cheap ($0.99 cheap) and sometimes surprisingly good.  One that I found and highly recommend is The Academy by Zachary Rawlins.  It’s best described as Hogwarts-meets-The Matrix, but it’s more than that.  It starts out with an average teenager who gets attacked by werewolves and wakes up in a special academy dedicated to training superpower-sensitive warriors and scientists.  The thing is that their powers come from being able to handle nanotechnology with inherent abilities, so it’s not so much magical as it is high-tech.

The Academy is extremely rough around the edges — it needs another pass by a good editor to catch typos and spacing errors, and the lead character isn’t engaging at all.  What does make this gripping, and it is, is how interesting this world is and how atypical everyone is in it.  At first glance, it’s setting the scene for the good guys (the Academy-trained Operatives) versus witches and werewolves and the like.  But the good guys aren’t so good and often are just one shade above pure evil, and it’s hard figuring out who’s trustworthy and who’s just using who.  Also, everyone is divided between houses and major factions, all of which are vying for new recruits from the Academy, which means that your friend today might be your enemy tomorrow.  Or your enemy now, except you just don’t know it.

It’s the first part of a series, and I think the second comes out in the spring, so I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Get a move on, little GW2 doggie, and launch already!

It’s been popping up more and more in conversations I’ve been having/witnessing and blogs I’ve been reading that the balance between excitement and exasperation for Guild Wars 2’s progress has shifted for the worse.  It’s not that we’re not already in love with the game — we are (Royal We) — or that we don’t want it to succeed — we do (universal we) — but that it’s starting to feel like ArenaNet’s biggest problem is being launch-shy.

As Wilhelm aptly puts it:

“Unfortunately, one of the old school problems ArenaNet is having is getting to market.  One of my caveats for the game was that it might not ship in 2011.  If I were writing a 2012 MMO Outlook… and I just might… I would probably say the same thing, since it seems possible that it might not ship in 2012.”

I agree; I’ve been saying so for a while now. At the pace ArenaNet is going, it just doesn’t feel like we’re tracking toward release so much as poking around at great ideas every so often.  I mean, wasn’t there supposed to be a Guild Wars 2 beta started by the end of the year?  One month to go for that, devs, but I’m not going to hold out hope.

I mean, what do I know.  ArenaNet is as tight-lidded with its info and internal development as any other big-name developer I’ve seen, so they could totally be on the cusp of beta/launch and are just not letting us know until the moment of their choosing.  But… I don’t think so.  I don’t think beta is going to happen next month any more than I think we’ll see launch next spring… or summer… or even fall.  And again, I have no idea how much is left to be done, but I wonder just how much ArenaNet’s dragging its feet due to being too perfectionist and too afraid to pull the trigger.

It’s easy to understand why.  ArenaNet’s been hyping itself up to such an incredible degree about how GW2 is going to buck the trend and do MMOs the right way, but there’s always the danger of overtalking what one can deliver.  Plus it’s a sequel to Guild Wars, which carries with it a tremendous amount of expectations (and an established community as well).  Plus plus, even though it’s not a direct competitor for most MMOs’ business models, it is going to compete for play time nevertheless — and if it doesn’t release at the right time, it could feel the ramifications for years to come.  While a great success and a terrific game, Guild Wars was nevertheless overshadowed by releasing too close to World of Warcraft.  Is ArenaNet adopting a “wait and see” approach with SWTOR and the fallout there?  I can imagine a scenario where a mostly finished game is being held back until marketers and accountants and analysts can identify when the SWTOR tsunami wave finally breaks to allow other titles into the market without being overwhelmed.

Of course, this is just speculation and brain-dibble, but the fact is that that’s all I have to go on since ANet isn’t really being that forthcoming about what the heck it’s doing.  Considering just how many gamers’ hopes are riding on GW2 living up to its promises, it’s a disconcerting feeling.

But I don’t *want* to use the force, Ben! (SWTOR beta thoughts)

Everybody and anybody (who’s interested) is giving the SWTOR beta a try this weekend — the last chance before the early access launch to do so.  Many curious souls are eschewing second-hand articles for first-hand experience to satisfy their curiosity, as I did last week.  I didn’t get tons and tons of playtime while I was on vacation, but I was able to level up a Trooper to 10 and had a bunch of random thoughts to share with you.  If you don’t mind, that is.

  • Overall, I’m quite pleased with the game’s aesthetic, level of polish (although there were still noticeable bugs), and unobtrusive UI.  It looks good, and I think it should age well because of it.  The slightly cartoony thing worked for WoW’s longevity, so there’s that in its case.
  • Regarding the conversations, I liked how you had the freedom to reply how you liked without always worrying about dark side/light side choices.  Most of your conversational tacks are independent of the points system, and if a physical action or dialogue choice will have a DS/LS consequence, you’ll be informed in advance with related icons.
  • Like some others, I do think it’s interesting how our morality may conflict with BioWare’s; some of the “good” decisions I made were rewarded with DS points, as if the game was trying to tell me I was wrong.  Then again, I think it’s important to realize that DS/LS aren’t necessarily equal to Evil/Good, but an independent system that has its own code and standards.
  • Little touches I liked?  Random conversations you’d hear as you’d run by folks.  The interiors of homes and shops.  The seamless transition from the game world to a phased instance.  The high-tech trappings after being in fantasy worlds for so long.
  • Not every weapon or armor piece is moddable, but some are, and I enjoyed seeing how easy that system is to use.  At level 7 I was able to test out my early access crystal (the black beam with gold outline) and it was a cinch to equip and cool to use.
  • The stories are going to carry this game.  They’re really quite good, and I didn’t feel like I was getting “text box fatigue” like I do in other games.
  • I deeply appreciate that BioWare isn’t handing your character everything right out of the gate.  Getting your first lightsaber/companion/ship/personal transport are major milestones that are heady to achieve instead of just being dished out for the sake of convenience.
  • Having played so many BioWare games at this point, several of the quest “twists” weren’t as surprising as they were expected.  It kind of gets easy to predict these, but I think that’s true with any franchise (I felt like that after watching a bunch of Joss Whedon’s shows — the plot/character reversals almost became their own cliche after a while).
  • The game can get pretty dark, especially with your character.  You can do/threaten fairly despicable things.
  • I enjoyed exploring around, and I like that there’s a system in place to reward you for doing so (datacrons and exploration XP).
  • I’m very intrigued by the legacy, social, and LS/DS systems — all of these look to give your character access to more social gear and abilities outside of the standard gear grind.

Bottom line is that I’m still quite excited for next month and pleased that my expectations haven’t been too high nor too low for this title, but right on the money.  Revolution or not, SWTOR is going to make bank and make many gamers happy, and it should be a fun ride.  There’s plenty of room for BioWare to improve upon the game, but there’s a very solid foundation in place already — more so than World of Warcraft did in the beginning, I might add.

C’mon December 15th!

Quote of the Day

“So the next time you think about bitching about balance or opportunity in an MMO, consider this broad overview and realize that MMOs are about keeping as many people as happy as humanly possible while trying to keep all of these eggs and chainsaws in the air. It’s not an easy task, and is probably the second choice job for developers, because they couldn’t find a job as a police attack dog test subject.”

~ Levelcapped

As an aside, I agree with  most of what he says in this post.  Skyrim would make a terrible MMO, and it’s perfectly okay to have both MMOs and single-player titles as types of RPGs.

Ten (gaming) things I’m thankful for today

  1. To have a job writing about video games with some of the most fun folks in the industry
  2. A wide variety of choices when it comes to MMOs and payment models
  3. Great guilds in LOTRO, Fallen Earth, Guild Wars, and EverQuest II
  4. Terrific-looking MMOs 0n the horizon
  5. A wife who doesn’t mock me for being into online gaming (and gives me time to play them)
  6. Level up dings
  7. A smart and sassy gaming blogosphere that loves to jaw about MMOs
  8. In-game vanity pets
  9. Collector’s Editions
  10. That I live in this era and not 100 years ago when MMOs were called “ye interactive theatre evente”

Star Wars: The Old Republic post-NDA interrogation [Updated 11/19]

Well, not from me, you understand.  Despite the awesome power that I wield on the internet — literally to the point where I can bring websites to their knees just by bookmarking them — I only recently got a SWTOR beta invite, even though half the known galaxy has been in for a while now.  It’s okay.  It’s just a small game, anyway.

But I have been looking forward to the NDA drop to hear others’ impressions, thoughts, and beta reviews, and I wanted to pull as many quotes together here as possible.  Let’s begin!

“At this point I was really skeptical about all the buzz surrounding it, and in general pretty damned dark on the MMO industry. As a result I have said some negative things about the game at several points, generally due to the grass roots hype machine. But all that said, I have been one to freely admit my mistakes… and I said I would gladly eat my words if the game lived up to the hype. So I went into this beta weekend expecting disappointment.  This is me formally eating everything bad I said about the game.” ~Tales of the Aggronaut

“I’ve had a blast testing, and it’s been almost half a year and I’m still not tired of it, so I guess that’s got to count for something!” ~MMOGC

“I really don’t want another wall of text MMO where I really only read the objectives and compare rewards and never consider what the narrative reason is behind my task. It’s kind of a “thing” that’s been missing from MMOs: a real mechanism that nails the unappreciated aspect of lore and story to the player’s forehead so that he can’t ignore it, or can’t just read the objectives before robotically plowing his way through to get the reward. I really started to care about what I was doing, and how it was affecting the story.” ~Levelcapped

“My overall summation was:  My pre-order is intact and I’m wishing the beta went longer so I could play more, so even though there are some negative things said in the following, I don’t think they detract very much and overall the game is very enjoyable.” ~The Nomadic Gamer

“But setting aside the massive load times, the weird clipping and video problems that came with not being able to move to a lower setting, I actually really like the SWTOR beta.  I don’t so much like the quests.” ~Hunter’s Insight

“Overall, Star Wars: The Old Republic isn’t revolutionary but what it does do however, it bring a sense of meaning, a purpose to the journey to max level. This is game that I feel I could sit down and enjoy it for what it is and not feel like I have to X this and X that.” ~Gamer BC

“I also had a huge problem with the way Bioware morality is assigned. More than once I boggled at the choices that led to Light Side points over Dark Side, and felt like I had to choose between “staying good” and doing what I felt would give my character internal consistency.” ~Casual is as Casual Does

“The NDA has lifted, and I can now tell you: Bioware succeeds at raising the bar in MMO storytelling. What they don’t succeed at is making the game more than a themepark MMO.” ~Professor Beej

“There’s also the question of fresh content. By using heavy voice acting and a deep storyline, producing new content for players is going to be both expensive and time consuming. In an age where some MMOs are churning out content patches every month can BioWare afford to spend three to six months creating new quests for us to play?” ~Mana Obscura

I’ll be adding more as they roll in, but I’m not going to be posting (probably) anything else for the following week, as I’m heading out on vacation!

[Added 4 new quotes 11/19]

Owlbear Obsession by Calvin Kline

It began, as with so many other obsessions, with a single click.

I was visiting EverQuest 2’s Wanderlust Fair in the Darklight Woods when I saw an unusual Gnome.  His name was Milton Flunknuttle, and his sole purpose in life was to be a vendor for owlbear vanity pets.  So, cool, right?  I mean, I saw that and I had to have one.  Owls + bears in one terrific package!  So long stupid fluttering book that’s my only non-combat pet to date; hello hooting and honey-eating companion!

Except that Milton’s supply of owlbears was “out of stock,” which made me wonder just how much SOE was trying to mess with my head.  Out of stock in a digital world… hm… okay, I’ll roll with it.  Maybe it’s a once-a-day thing.  Maybe I needed to keep checking back to see if his supplier came in.  But nothing doing — Milton steadfastly remained out of stock the entire time I was questing in the zone.  About the twentieth time I talked to him to check, I knew that I was becoming obsessed.

I didn’t care.

Finally I broke down to check out the wiki and saw that there was a mid-20s quest that he kicks off to resupply those dang owlbears.  Since I was 19 at the time, I made a mental note to come back, and headed elsewhere.  Fast-forward to yesterday when I returned at the grand level of 23 to see the little feather above his head indicating that I was about to do a whole series of silly tasks.

He sent me into a neighboring zone to talk to another gnome, Millie Flunknuttle (love these gnomish names!), who was a (owl)bear to find.  After wandering the zone for an hour and failing to see a quest marker pop up on my map, my guildies educated me in the art of setting waypoints, and everything went smoothly from there.  Oh hai, Millie!  Gimme some owlbears so I can go back and finally buy one!

Not so fast, Syp, she says.  First you gotta go procure a few eggs.

Fine.  Eggs.  Got it.  Anything else?

Yes, you’re going to need to inhabit the body of this clockwork owlbear, go find a momma owlbear, and dance at her until she lays an egg.  Rinse and repeat five times.

…Seriously?

Yes, seriously.  Now shoo!

So here I was last night, dying like crazy because the densely packed mobs in this zone are a couple levels above me and have no compunction against bullying an innocent, egg-searching traveler.  I finally found a mother owlbear, got into my owlbear robot, and went up to her and hit the dance button.  Nothing.  Hit it again.  The game tells me that I’m not dancing with enough variety and the owlbear is becoming bored.

What, is this Dance Dance Owlbear?

It turns out that my hotbar now has four dance skills on it, so I start mashing them in a random pattern, watching the two Owlbears sing (huh, not dance? whatever) until the mommabear poops out an egg with the weirdest expression on its face (the owlbear, not the egg).  That only took me 40 minutes to do, and I was feeling exhausted from the day — not the dancing — so I called it quits.  Then I pondered just how psychotic the quest designers of EQ2 are, and what kind of insane asylum I’ve stumbled into.

But today?  I will be back.  I will be dancing.  I want that pet.  That is my life.