Kingdom of Loathing: Sandbox or no?

This past week I felt the pull from an old favorite, Kingdom of Loathing, and acquiesced.  I know I should stop saying yes to these ex-girlfriends of mine, but the memories we’ve created are too rich to ignore!

Anyway, KoL has always held a weird spot in my gaming life.  It’s sort-of-but-not-quite an MMO, it’s heavy on jokes and puns and goofy stick figure drawings, and it’s unimaginably complex.  I think that might have been what shied me away from this game in previous eras, because while there’s a main quest line to progress through, KoL really is about making your own way by setting goals and achieving them.

Which says “sandbox” to me.  And yet it isn’t.  You mostly don’t make a permanent mark on the game world, but are constantly looking to expand your abilities and possessions.  Crafting is a huge part of the game, but so is discovering secrets and trying to unlock them for their juicy rewards.

In the two days that I’ve been playing following a complete character restart, I’ve started making a list of goals I’d like to accomplish based on items I’ve discovered, things NPCs have said, and advice from my clan.  In two days, here’s what I have so far:

  • Assemble a meatcar for a quest
  • Pursue the daily bounty to get the monster-hunting book
  • Figure out how to light the unlit birthday cake
  • What’s up with the slug lord’s map?
  • Kill the boss bat in the bat cave
  • Obtain more Hermit Permits and stock up on ten-leaf clovers
  • Translate the map to the Goblin King
  • Get the key to the tower in the misspelled cemetary
  • Assemble my epic weapon
  • Pull together a bugbear outfit so I can shop in that store
  • Pull together a scary clown outfit so I can kill the clown boss

On top of those, I’m getting back into the swing of cooking and cocktailcrafting (both of which are essential to get you extra adventures every day) and am reading through the wiki looking for other goals that I should be doing.

There’s a ton of depth to this game and very little in the way of penalties for exploring and experimenting.  It scratches an itch that I so needed scratched right now.

I’ve also been bowled over by how helpful the community is.  Between generous souls in the newbie chat and my newfound clan, I’ve had so many useful goods and advice sent my way.  Nice to get off on the right foot like that.

Rituals

I’ve come to realize that part of my pre-launch rituals with any anticipated MMO is to get into its podcasts.  It’s odd, because I don’t listen to too many podcasts (mostly a time issue), but I find they soothe the beast of excitement within me at times like this.  Maybe it’s because sometimes you just want to hear other people who are as juiced up as you are on the hype, or maybe it’s because there’s a lack of hands-on info.

In any case, I’ve downloaded an assortment of Guild Wars 2 podcasts and am sorting them out in terms of quality.  Any favorites or suggestions?

Quote of the Day

“Prime World has an optional gender bonus: a shield which will automatically deploy if the health of a nearby player of the opposite gender falls below a certain level. This shield is cheap, is in the default talent set for all characters, and is designed to encourage players of opposite genders to fight together. Teams are thus more effective if they are composed of both male and female players. In addition, this bonus helps encourage beginning female players, who feel more helpful when fighting in a mixed group.

~ Prime World’s website (emphasis mine)

Ultima X: A virtuous road

Entire novels I have written on LOTRO’s virtue system, which I like in theory but have grown to dislike in execution (TLDR version: it’s way too grindy).  But what I haven’t really commented on is the fact that the 20 or so virtues don’t really represent anything about your character’s personality or development apart form mild stat boosts.  You weren’t really “honest” to get that Honest virtue, you weren’t so much demonstrating Valour to complete that deed as you were just endlessly slaughtering worms, and so on.  The names are there for flavor, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity.

I recently got into reading all the back posts of the CRPG Addict, a blogger who’s going through all of the single-player computer RPGs from the start of the genre until now.  Good stuff, and if I ever think of myself as a glutton for punishment, I’ll look to his approach and sigh in relief.  But the reason I bring him up is that I’m at the point in his blog where he starts talking about Ultima IV and the virtue system that Richard Gariott set up.

I never played any of the Ultimas — they just never popped on my radar and none of my friends played them — but looking back, I sure wish I had.  I’m utterly fascinated with an RPG that isn’t just about gaining numerical power to defeat the Big Bad, but is about improving your character across the board until he or she is a paragon of virtue to be held up for the world to emulate.  In other words, it’s about real character development through tough choices.

I see hints and whispers of that with recent MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and SWTOR, where “choice” is being reintroduced alongside who your character is and how they’re developing as a person.  But it really isn’t quite there yet, and I think that devs are afraid to push too far into this territory because of how much players min/max and work the numbers game.  Real choice has real consequences, not just resets of the status quo, and real development means a chance for real setbacks, failures, and non-optimal quirks.  Maybe that is out there in some MUD or something, but it’s not in any MMO that I know of.

This all made me think of the missed opportunity that EA had with Ultima X.  On the verge of launching, the company canceled the title (its second UO sequel and arguably the Ultima that UO should’ve been) right as World of Warcraft came on the scene.  And out of all of the cancelled-before-release MMOs ever made, this is so shameful because of the potential what-might-have-been.

I wrote a whole article on this, but Ultima X not only looked terrific (it had a lush stylized look reminiscent of WoW) but was focused on the concept of virtues, choices, and consequences.  In the tradition of the Ultima series, players would be given options at many points that would have no clear right/wrong outcome attached, but would rather increase one of the eight virtues over another.  Who your character would become was shaped by his or her choices.

So yeah, it’s a falutin’ shame that Ultima X never came out, because I would love to play that game even today.  Hopefully this sort of forward-retro thinking will be picked up by developers a little more gusty than BioWare (but with the same intention) in the future.

Play Diary: Busting the Vault (#sto )

Yesterday was mostly Star Trek Online day, as I haven’t put much time into that game lately yet was feeling the itch to get back into space.  What really prompted me is when I found out that a new daily mission had been added to the game that allowed players to mine for dilithium (the main in-game currency that can be exchanged for store points or used to buy nifty stuff).  As I’m dilithium-poor, I thought it was worth checking out.

The mining mission is actually pretty nifty.  You suit up in an EVA outfit, then head out to the surface of an asteroid and look for shards of dilithium.  When you find one, you can activate a little minigame that requires you to use the arrow keys to rotate and resize a triangle to match what’s on screen.  The quicker you do it, the more dilithium is mined.  I think my best was 753 in a minute.

I went to exchange my dilithium for Cryptic Points, and found that the market was currently around 253 per point, which seemed high but I have no idea.  For people who like to play the market, there’s some money to be made selling high and buying low, but I don’t have the patience for that.

Next up on my agenda was to continue the Romulan featured series arc and hope that it would nudge me over the line from 39 to 40.  I want me a new ship, darn it!  While that didn’t happen, I did encounter one of the coolest episodes in the game to date (and that’s saying something).  I’m just constantly amazed with how inventive and different STO missions can be, especially the featured ones, and this one is a great example.

It’s called The Vault, and I’ve seen it mentioned many times on other MMO blogs.  The backstory is that the Romulans have a massive secret facility where they’re doing… something… and you’re called to break into it and find out what’s going on.  Instead of using your ship or a ground assault team, the game requires that you hop into a shuttlecraft (or if you’re rich — which I’m not — a Delta Flyer or Runabout) and make like a mouse.  Shuttlecraft missions are really interesting, because they make you so much more vulnerable and limit your options, which definitely ratchets up the tension.  In this case, I knew that practically everything could squash me like a bug, so my best chance was to be stealthy.

Just getting into the Vault was tricky, because it’s got ships and a sensor net around it (and the facility is the size of “a small moon”).  Your bridge officers give you a few options of how to do so, and I chose the path that had me jetting over to an asteroid, cutting off a piece, pushing it through the sensor net and following it in.  Honestly, I really did hold my breath going through the net, certain that I was going to be spotted.

Once inside — and again, the place is HUGE — the next step is figuring out how to open a chamber door.  I think there’s a couple ways, but I found a code that allowed me to head on in.  It’s fairly straight-forward for a while, as all you have to worry about is disabling tractor beams and dodging these shield-damaging beams.  But once I got to the very end and found out the TERRIBLE SECRET that the Romulans were hiding, I was discovered and had to make my escape.

This got awesome in a hurry, because you’re not only going through all the traps that you had to dodge before, but you’ve got fighters on your tail and the occasional Big Ship that cannot be fought but must be avoided.  I was destroyed once, but just once, and after a few nail-biting moments, I was scott-free.

Honestly, I wish more games had missions like this, because that was completely engaging even though the combat aspect was minimal.  MMOs can and should be about more than just fighting, and this is proof as to how they can achieve it.

Play Diary: Mad Gods (#swtor #lotro #vanguard #gw2 )

SWTOR

My Bounty Hunter, Door, is deep into the thick of Dromund Kaas, which I consider to be the superior of the tier 2 planets (Coruscant is too busy and too much like Nar Shadda to be engaging).  I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that I might even like her more than my Agent.  The Dark Side choices, while morally repugnant for the most part, often come with hilarious one-liners that make the genocide worthwhile.  And as a Mercenary, I’m just blowing crap up from here to kingdom come and loving how un-subtle it all is.  Sometimes you want complex mechanics, sometimes you just want to hit a couple buttons and watch things go “boom” and numbers go over 9000.”

She’s still trying to gain access to the Great Hunt, and I’m not quite sure if BioWare’s toeing the line of how long they can stretch out this application process without it becoming a running gag.  I mean, I thought I was in it back on Hutta, but apparently that was like getting engaged to become engaged someday.  I’ll tell you this, however: Even though the huntmaster is a giant Wookiee, I’m not above shoving a blaster up each of his nostrils if the next time I go there he says, “Oh, just ONE more thing you gotta do!  PLANET SCAVENGER HUNT! WOOO!”

So in the meanwhile, she’s ripping up the planet left and right, and figuratively mooning every Imperial she can.  Because, Imperials.

LOTRO

I’m pushing hard to finish up with Enedwaith’s epic storyline, and there’s some impatience there because I’ve already done it and know how it ends.  Yet as with my SWTOR Bounty Hunter, I’m taking great pleasure in having a DPS-slinging tank at my disposal who doesn’t like to die, ever.  Hitting a devastate on an AOE swing is pure joy, my friends, even more so when I can activate one of my finishers because of that.  And my ghost archer, Gozer the Gozarian, is an invaluable assistant, especially when I want to go to ecto bars in downtown Galtrev.

I had to remind myself last night to “play in the now” instead of thinking about just how much content I had to get through before checking out Update 6’s new zone.  I know I have plenty of time left before this fall’s expansion, so I’m expecting that April and May will be spent going through Isengard, with the summer devoted to the Great River and various side-projects (skirmishes and Virtues and the like).

Realm of the Mad God

After hearing some chatter on this over the past couple weeks, I gave Realm of the Mad God a try and found it… okay.  On one hand, I like the retro pixel look and it’s easy enough to move and fight and level.  Yet it’s also frustrating because you can only see a portion of the battlefield from top-down, and I wasn’t sure how you could group up with others and where to go.  Maybe I should do a little more reading on the subject.

Vanguard

I’m not going to subscribe, but I was just way too curious about this game following the F2P announcement that I downloaded the trial and spent some time in the newbie zone.  I probably only clocked an hour or so, but I have to say that the reports are true — it IS a very beautiful game with an excellent soundtrack, and I really would like to explore it in depth.

I rolled a Gnome Necromancer and am excited to start patching together her first undead abomination, but I guess that’s not coming for another couple of levels.  Next time I log in, I’m going to go through the Diplomacy tutorial.

Guild Wars 2

Can I just say that after this past press beta weekend that I’m even more excited for this game than I was before, and leave it at that?  I’ll leave it at that.  /bouncing happily in my chair

Let me be as antisocial as I want!

Over the past year or so, I’ve been coming to terms with the revelation that I am an introvert to my very core.  You’d think this would be something I’d have known since, say, high school when I’d lock myself in my room every afternoon and evening to read and play on the computer, but no.  Ironically, most of the characters in the books I read were very extroverted, and as such, I must have convinced myself that these were qualities that I had too.

So I’d find myself doing activities that extroverts loved — going to parties, concerts, etc. — and just hating them.  I couldn’t understand that on week-long mission trips why I’d go bonkers about four days into a nonstop social experience.  I’d bought into the idea that introverts = antisocial losers, and I couldn’t let that be me.

Except that I am an introvert, with all that that entails.  Part of the revelation I’ve had these past couple years is from reading essays from other introverts who have explained so well the nuances of this personality type.  That we live in a world of extroverts, but trying to conform to the 75% or whatever of society who are like that is like hammering a square peg into a round hole.  They explained that introverts do like social connections, can be leaders, and are often welcome members of any team.  It’s just that we approach life a little differently.

A good quote from The Atlantic:

“Introverts are not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’ Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.”

So now I know enough to give myself adequate alone time.  I know that having quiet time is necessary to recharge my batteries for the bursts of time when I do need to be outgoing and social (which is, of course, a large part of ministry).  And while sometimes I do really enjoy being around people, sometimes I don’t — and that includes part of my gaming experience.

It’s why the whole attitude of “You’re playing an MMO, and ‘multiplayer’ means you should group up and be social” irks me.  I don’t see that as a mandate that must be followed; I see it as an option.  One of the best aspects of MMOs is that they (should) give you options as to how you want to play that day.  Options to progress, options to set goals, options to be as much or as little social as possible.

And while some extroverts and devs may be stymied by the stubborn reluctance of some players to group, there might just not be any magical key that’s going to unlock that.  Make the rewards as great as you want and penalize soloing as much as you want, and players who want to “play alone together” will still find a way.  Maybe some devs get it, but sometimes I get the feeling that the attitude is the same as a well-intentioned friend trying to pull you to a shindig that you know very well you’ll end up hating.  “But it’s great!” they say.  “That may be,” you reply, “but it won’t be for me.”

Another quote from the aforementioned article:

“Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion.”

That sounds so familiar, especially whenever people get into an online discussion of grouping vs. soloing, doesn’t it?  Personally, I do understand WHY people like to group, raid, and PvP, but I don’t always see a lot of understanding by that crowd as to why I love to solo in peace.

I’m not even against parties or grouping, I just don’t ever want to feel like I have no other recourse but to partake, just because someone’s dragged/forced me to do so.  Soloing PvE content is generally relaxing and recharging for my personality, whereas grouping and PvPing is not.  Those are acceptable in short bursts, but it’s not what I thrive on when I play.

And I honestly don’t know how many introverts engage in MMOs vs. extroverts.  I don’t know if the ratio is the same as in society or if it skews to favor one side or the other.  I do know that some people who admit to being introverts are far more social online than they are in real life, so that party personality you’re talking with may not be as such if you met on the street.

In any case, every time I hear a dev gush about how some new system or twist will suddenly open the floodgates to grouping and pull in all those reluctant groupers, I wince.  Maybe a new approach is called for, game design that considers not just playstyles, but extroverted and introverted personalities.

Where to get MMO soundtracks

Yesterday on Too Long; Didn’t Listen (you know, that podcast you so adore!) Dodge and I were talking about MMO and video game soundtracks, a topic which I quite adore.  I wanted to follow the podcast up with a quick post about some places that I’ve found legal ways to obtain these scores:

Free MMO soundtracks:

Amazon MP3 downloads:

Direct Song:

Blizzard Store/iTunes/misc.:

Let me know if I missed any and I’ll add them to the list (I’m not looking to list/link torrents and CDs, however)!

Could this year be the Summer of the MMO?

Eh, close enough. They both start with "M".

If there’s one constant in MMOland — nay, video game world — is that summer, for reasons beyond my ken, is a game release dead zone.  Spring, fall, Christmas — those are the expected launch windows.  And yet, 2012 is bucking this trend in a huge way.  It’s quickly becoming the summer of the MMO, and I’m certainly not complaining.

I’ve always thought that summers would be ideal time for MMO releases, as school and college students have copious amounts of free time, as well as many of us working schlubs who take time off for vacations.  I mean, that’s why Hollywood focuses on the May-June-July corridor for the big budget blockbusters, right?  Maybe the MMO industry is just wising up, maybe it’s a coincidence as all of these projects converge, or maybe the end of the world really is coming and we might as well have a few months to play Guild Wars 2 before it happens.

After the sparse desert of 2009-2011, we seem to be drinking deep of new releases, expansions, and F2P conversions.  This winter’s already been busy, what with SWTOR, STO’s F2P and EQ’s F2P.  Coming up an a cavalcade of awesomeness: Aion’s F2P is hitting next month, TERA and Diablo III are arriving in May, June’s playing host to DDO’s first expansion and The Secret World, and MechWarrior Online and Vanguard’s F2P will happen sometime in the summer.  On top of all of that is my strong hunch that ArenaNet’s also targeting June for GW2 — just a guess, but the way the beta is going, I think it could happen — and this could be the most fun (and hectic) summer gaming season ever.

Speaking of Vanguard, I’m actually pretty excited about it going F2P.  It’s been on life support for many years now, and not just a few people predicted that SOE would pull its plug (as the company is doing with EQOA).  Instead, it seems as though SOE is investing some faith — and money — in the game, taking the effort to create a F2P version and beefing up its dev team.

Vanguard was a huge topic of discussion leading up to its 2007 release, and I for one kept a close eye on it.  The saga (no pun intended) of its development, of Brad McQuaid’s audacious claims, of the crash and burn, of its limping into SOE’s library, and of its critically lambasted launch left this game bruised, battered, and with a reputation that would ensure it could never run for public office.  And yet, strange things happen when an MMO endures — they often get better.  The events of the past fade a bit and people start seeing the game for what it is, not the hoopla surrounding it.  As a result, it’s garnered an admittedly small but very positive fan base that love this game.

It’s that game I want to see, the game that had really interesting ideas — some misguided, some inspired — but I never wanted to see it so bad as to pony up a subscription.  I remember back in 2007 being fascinated with the idea of a necromancer building his pet from parts (if this actually went in or not — or was a dream of mine — I can’t say) and the wildness of the world.  But then LOTRO came along, and that was the game focus of that year for me.

So Vanguard at least gets a try for me, and since I know my summer dance card is filling up quickly, I’m going to take it out for a quick test drive.  The game’s got a 14 day trial, and I can’t be the only one who heard yesterday’s news and am downloading it.  Several bloggers I respect love this game, so that gives me hope there’s something here worth checking out.