WildStar: The best-laid plans of mice and gamers

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You’d think that getting four days off work, more or less, would equal lots and lots of gaming time. You would think that, at least. But the past holiday weekend almost had the opposite effect on getting in some MMOs. For starters, I had a really nasty bout of the norovirus for most of the week, and about the time I started to get better, my kids and wife got sick from it.

That, coupled with general baby exhaustion and having to wrassle the other kids, meant that most of my waking hours was spent shuttling around the house doing odds and ends. I also wanted to get Christmas decorations up, so that was more time chewed up.

This was all distressing in relation to the fact that WildStar was having its first double XP weekend from Friday through Sunday. I didn’t get to log in once on Friday at all, and that made for a bummed Syp.

Fortunately, I did get a couple sessions in on Saturday and Sunday, and boy howdy did that XP boost really kick in. I made a last-minute decision to not focus on my fledgling Esper, but instead to see how far I could get my level 35 Medic. I dug out some of her bonus XP and rested XP flasks and then started speeding through quests as fast as I could.

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By Saturday night, I was level 45 and feeling really juiced from the whole experience. Sunday wasn’t terrible — I got to level 49 over the afternoon — but my general exhaustion caught up with me hard. When everyone went to bed at 8, I followed suit even though it mean that I’d have to earn that last level the normal way. Oh well… priorities.

It’s a great feeling to have a near-50. The weekend revitalized my interest in the Medic, and I was able to spend all of those ability and AMP points on shoring up my build. I even got a spare ability point drop, which was probably my jackpot of the sessions.

The best part is that I was able to do all of this leveling in just two zones: Farside and Wilderrun. That means that I have a few zones left ahead of me, and once I hit 50 I’ll be earning extra gold and elder gems while going through those areas.

It was also great just to level through zones again. That’s something I’ve been missing on my Engineer. Carbine needs to get more areas out, chop-chop!

Retro Gaming: Master of Magic part 9

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(This is part of my journey going checking out Master of Magic. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Perhaps I’ve been playing too conservatively, for now I am on the receiving end of a multi-pronged invasion of enemy troops. The only question is if my standing army and my defensive militia can hold them off — or if I’ll collapse entirely.

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Granted, the enemy AI is as dumb as a post and sends one lady on a horse and four teeny tiny floating spirits against my main army. Freya throws a couple of lightning bolts and flees for her life. Basalisk power!

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Constantly being notified about what city is building what and having to choose a new project gets tiring, which is when one turns to the option to give the go-ahead to the Grand Vizier to automatically handle that. Let’s just hope that he/she/it doesn’t run my empire into the ground by building Starbucks franchises instead of defensive fortifications.

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I preemptively fling a basalisk at Kali’s invading army. Kali throws a lot of spells on him while I counter with an iron skin enchantment. The basalisk gets overrun in the end but still manages to take out a few units. Time for more war bears!

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OK, I get quite enough of this from my kids at home as it is, I shouldn’t have to take it from you too. And how unfair is it that Master of Magic doesn’t let you select responses or fling taunts back at your foes?

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Round 2 of the Kali vs. Syp title bout. Kali casts counter magic right away, which takes away my ability to cast any spells, and then bombards my lines with magic. Most of my troops are wiped out in the initial moments, but my hero and war bears live on. Once my bears reach the enemy line, they maul the invading army to shreds.

WAR BEARS FTW!

So I found out that there’s one thing the Grand Vizier really likes to make, and that is a crapton of ships. I have ships pouring out of every city that can make them, and meanwhile I’m going, no! No more! I don’t use them at all!

Hm. Maybe I can make a parade.

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One of my cities is allowed to create a fantastic stables, where I’m able to train flying griffins. I still haven’t figured out why some cities in this game are allowed to build certain structures while others reach the end of their building tree and can’t. Maybe it’s a population barrier. Anyway, yay, I have griffins.

And that’s where I’ll be stopping my journey through this game. The enemy is merely tooling around my lands without doing anything serious — and fleeing constantly at the first sign of combat. I’ve satisfied my curiosity and lost my interest for the time being, so that’s usually a good sign that it’s time to move on. Decent if somewhat befuddling little game that still has some retro pixel art charm to it.

Three things I’m thankful for today

turkeyHappy Thanksgiving to all of my readers, fellow bloggers, and friends! It’s a pretty mellow day here, as we’re dealing with a two-week-old and I’m recovering from the norovirus. We already went out to a restaurant for our big meal and are preparing to put up Christmas decorations and switch over into the holiday countdown mode.

So what am I thankful for today? I could list a lot of personal stuff — the baby, of course, and my health and all of the daily blessings I receive. But this here is a gaming blog, so let’s focus on that right now, shall we?

1. That Massively (OP) is still running and I’m still writing for it

It’s hard for me to process that it was less than a year ago that we got the email from AOL telling us that the company was simultaneously shuttering most all of its weblogs. The plan to start up our own site was born amid a frantic week full of high emotions, despair, and crazy hope.

And yet, here we are with MOP running strong after the community rallied around us and provided the funds we needed to get off the ground. It’s been a massive amount of work for all parties to get the site up and keep it running, but we’ve done it and I’m quite proud of what we’ve accomplished. And reporting on the daily MMO news while getting to podcast and do other columns still hasn’t gotten old for me, even six years after I started all of this.

2. For my WildStar/SWTOR guild

Taking the extra effort to apply and be interviewed for Remnants of Hope proved worth the hassle, because this has been a truly welcoming and active guild in both of the scifi MMOs that I play. I enjoy chatting and running content with them and am always pleasantly surprised how supportive they all are.

3. For so many gaming choices

While I’ll always wish that I had as much time to game every day as I wanted, I’m not complaining for a lack of terrific MMOs and other games to enjoy. It seems like there are so many titles that are worthy of my attention — and I am very rarely bored.

Happy Thanksgiving all! Enjoy your time with family, friends, and frantic video gaming!

My theory on jumping puzzles in MMOs

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My current operating theory on why jumping puzzles have proliferated modern MMOs is thus:

In every studio there’s one developer who is both the sole bully and the sole proponent of jumping puzzles. Call him the Biff. And everyone is terrified of standing up to the Biff, even though everyone else thinks that jumping puzzles have no place in these types of games and are often annoying and alienating to non-twitchy players.

So the Biff gets away with shoehorning them into the game while the studio is forced to pretend as if jumping puzzles are good ideas, because not even the execs want to stand up to the Biff. The Biff gave the CFO a wedgie in the bathroom that one time and called the lead producer a “butthead.”

Therefore, taking a stand against jumping puzzles is really standing against the tyranny of a bully who thinks it’s funny to make you fall down and go splat in a video game. Arise my fellow gamers and tell the Biffs of the world “no more!”

Vote on my next retro gaming journey!

My time in Master of Magic is winding down — there will be one more installment this weekend — and I’m looking ahead to my next excursion in retro games. So once again I leave it up to you to vote on one of four picks from my GOG library. I’m picking a hodge-podge this time around: one horror, one stealth, one RPG, and one adventure game.

Here are the choices:

  • Alone in the Dark: Classic survival horror/adventure title that was one of the first of its kind. Scared the crud out of me when I was a kid.
  • Thief: Old-school stealth title using a Doom-like FPS engine.
  • Ultima I: Going back to where it all started!
  • King’s Quest III: Picking back up from my trip through all of the King’s Quests.

So what will it be? Vote and make your voice heard!

Marvel Heroes: I believe in Magik!

magikGeez, Marvel Heroes keeps rolling out new characters, don’t they? You’d think at some point whichever developer is in charge of gameplay balance would have a complete and total nervous breakdown trying to handle 53 characters and all of their various builds. I know I would.

So anyway, yesterday fan-favorite Magik came onto the scene. I’m not as huge into comics as most, so the beginning and end of my knowledge of who this person is comes from this game alone. I really enjoyed having her as a team-up, especially with her summons, so why not give her playable character a shot?

On the surface, Magik has a lot going for her that appeals to me. She’s got the ridiculous, only-in-X-Men costume, a giant sword, and — oh yeah — the ability to summon demons. A summoner! With both melee and magic powers! I am down with that.

She handles pretty good. If you want a basic sword-swinging fighter, it’s all here — attacks that port you to your enemy, attacks that restore health, attacks that restore spirit. Swish swish! But I might be more into her magic side, although I haven’t gotten many of those abilities yet. Spirit fangs is kinda cool, sending out a spray of unstoppable magic bolts.

But of course, I’m most attracted to her summoning abilities. Magik comes with an arsenal of demons, leaving it up to the player which types to have out at any one time. A lot of little demons or one big one that backhands everything to death? And demons can be sacrificed for different abilities, such as sending out shockwaves or restoring health. So far it’s pretty neat.

I’ve been playing her with my level 60 Magik team-up, which is as bizarre as it is unstoppable. Demons demons everywhere. Like demon carnival.

I think I might actually be investing some effort into Magik instead of merely leveling her to 60. Right now I’m going through the story mode for the different bonuses and also to get a handle on her playstyle (thank you, Gazillion, for infinite free respecs). After that, we’ll see.

So Fallout 4 managed to scare the crap out of me finally

I wouldn’t say that Fallout 4 is a scary game, as a whole, although I have no doubt that the devs tried to go for horror pieces here and there. But the biggest true scare of the game for me so far had nothing to do with vampires or carefully placed skeletons.

I’ve been meticulously revealing the map and the other night went to a small park on a hill. There were a couple of cabins and a faded sign that warned me about feeding the bears. I got a little chuckle out of this…

…and turned to see a mammoth bear charging right at me at 30 miles per hour. It plowed into me as I yelped and shot back from my desk, after which I scooted up and tried to recover while this thing was batting me around like a play toy.

It was, for a second, truly terrifying. It blurred the lines between games and reality and had my instincts thinking that there was an actual angry bear running right for me.

Taking the bear and his pesky partner down was quite tricky — these things can withstand a lot of punishment and most of my guns aren’t too strong. I ended up using my laser musket and a healthy dose of VATS in the head to do the deed.

Bears. Because they actually are this scary in real life and should be treated as such in all video games.

Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests?

tabooA while ago I was in the middle of turning in a batch of quests in RIFT when one NPC’s quest completion text caught my eye and stopped my mindless task-turnins to really think about what was happening:

He had previously wanted me to kill this creature for some reason or another, although I am hard-pressed to remember why.  It’s one of many disposable, forgettable quests that flow around far more substantial ones.  But since MMOs these days are combat-centric and pretty much all quests require killing, we just have assumed that whatever justification the NPC gives for this mission is morally right.

Yet this quest giver wasn’t out for justice, but petty vengeance.  He wanted to play with the head afterward.  He’s obviously off his rocker and yet my character can’t really call him out on it.  I’ve caught a few other quests where NPCs have extremely flimsy pretexts for sending me on a killing spree, usually more for convenience sake than survival or retribution.

Anytime you get into a serious discussion of morality and ethics in MMO questing, you’ll immediately hit the wall of mass murder-by-gameplay. But if we chisel through that wall, we might see that there are issues beyond just this that developers have to consider when designing stories and quests for online games.

Modern MMOs require absolute scads of scenarios to fill up their questing logs. Most of these are fairly tame and play out against a black-and-white (or good-and-bad) moral setting. “My daughter was kidnapped by gnolls, please go rescue her.” “I need sixteen bulberries to create an antidote to giant spider poison.” “Go press the thingie to stop nuclear armageddon.” And so on.

However, once in a while a quest designer strays outside of the safe (and arguably boring) bounds of generally accepted reasons to go on these quests to dabble in the taboo. What about a quest in which the player is given instructions to torture an enemy soldier or exact vengeance on a tribe until they leave their homes and go off into the wilderness to die? I’ve seen these. In mature-rated games, such as Fallen Earth and The Secret World, dabbling in the taboo is more common, but it still happens even in the most benign titles.

You ever notice how most MMOs don’t feature children — or if they do, kid NPCs are invincible? There’s a rating reason behind that, because the ESRB and its associates crack down pretty hard on games that put kids in compromising situations (such as, say, an open-world FFA setting where all NPCs can be killed). Kids aren’t necessarily taboo, but MMO studios aren’t jumping to include them in most stories because they can complicate quests in ways not intended.

And there are other topics that are — if not forbidden, then generally avoided because they can be divisive, upsetting, or unable to be presented without pushing a certain viewpoint or agenda. Most players aren’t really eager to draw in real-world pain and arguments into their gaming space. That’s maybe why our fictional mass killings are so accepted — it’s pure fantasy and has no direct analogue to our real-world lives. But work in sexual or domestic violence, and then you have the very real possibility that you’re going to deeply upset or disturb some of your gamers.

So should MMOs keep some topics taboo? And if so, what? There’s probably no easy answer to that that applies across all games and all situations. I never like to come down on the side of censorship — a storyteller should have the freedom to tell whatever story he or she likes without restraints, after all. But there’s a measure of common sense, empathy, and wise thinking that needs to go into these quests too, since they’re involving a myriad of other people.

And going back to my original example, I think that quests with touchier topics should not be presented as an on-the-rails narrative. Give the player some agency in the story — whether it be a choice of action, a selection of dialogue, or a reaction how the quest is completed.

If an MMO story can make me think, can jar me out of complacency, or teach me, I generally applaud that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be shocking or controversial to do that, but it needn’t shy away from doing what it must if the situation (and world tone) calls for it.

What do you think? Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests? Have you ever experienced a quest that went too far in some way?

World of Warcraft: 11 years later

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Has it really been eleven years since World of Warcraft came out? I mean, it is, but it’s still kind of amazing to me how much time has gone by and that WoW is firmly in the two-digit MMO club.

To indulge in a little nostalgia, on Saturday night I loaded up the game and spent a half-hour or so puttering around the Draenei newbie area. While much has certainly changed about the game as a whole, this little zone is more or less identical to how I first experienced it back in Burning Crusade. Same angry plants muttering and stomping around. Same shield that floats about four inches off of my forearm or back. The only thing different that I saw was the addition of a monk trainer and some better spellcasting effects for the Shaman’s lighting attack.

Enough time has passed now so that there have been more years that I haven’t been seriously playing WoW than when I was (the scale tipped over the past year). It’s a game and culture that I’ve been following as an outsider and former player, having mostly moved on and yet recognizing that WoW left a deep imprint on me at the same time. I was talking with my fellow Battle Bards the other day about how the art and music of this game have such appeal, a warm comfy blanket of feels that can almost cover the jarring changes and constant shifts of design.

Lately I’ve been pondering why Blizzard disturbs me with its design approach to WoW. I don’t have a direct dog in that fight, but I still do care on some level. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that the studio keeps changing its systems and design philosophy — after all, change is a core tenant of MMOs — but that it’s frequently so drastic that it gives me the impression that Blizzard has no confidence in its design or decisions. It keeps wildly course correcting from expansion to expansion, sometimes making things better and many times making them worse. For me, it created an atmosphere of uncertainty, knowing that the studio might well abandon a hot new feature the second a new expansion arose or that the class I enjoyed today might well be really different tomorrow with yet another one of the class revamps.

Change isn’t bad. But you’d think after 11 years World of Warcraft would be settled into a comfortable and profitable groove, knowing what works best for the game and its community. Instead, it still seems like the design team is trying to figure it out.

I do regret having jumped off the train back in 2008 or so. The more years that pass, the harder it is to ever get back into a game, especially one that’s been reinventing itself and adding more top-heavy content. I don’t quite blame either the studio or players for taking that fast-pass to level 100 to avoid having to deal with what’s come before.

For me, the best parts of WoW were always the small details. That familiar music, making a zone seem bigger or more personal than it actually was. The clever little animations on enemy NPCs (I liked the treants dying by being sliced in half and looking surprised at it). The gong/crash sound of accepting and turning in quests. The touches that made a zone’s ecosystem seem less generic and more fantastical.

I appreciate WoW having the option to explore 20 levels as a newbie or vet without needing to sub up. For those like me who need to satisfy a nostalgic craving now and then, it’s perfect and easier on the pocketbook (disclaimer: I cannot remember the last time I had a pocketbook or what a pocketbook actually is). I apologize to the mutated plants and angry owlkin that I slaughtered; I can only say that I was acting under orders.

Congrats to WoW for 11 years. Hope the decade ahead of it treats the game and its community well and that Blizzard does find a groove that works well for everyone.

Retro Gaming: Master of Magic part 8

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(This is part of my journey going checking out Master of Magic. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Hey guys, guess who’s severely neglected his navy and is now paying for it with the most one-sided battle of all-time?

And now we return your regularly scheduled retro game playthrough.

At this point, exploring the world is getting old and I’m losing my desire to expand my lands. I have three continents under my finger, why can’t I be content with that? And so I shall be.

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Syp: Making friends and bridging cultures since… never, I guess. At least I get to make a cheesy Star Trek II: The Wrath of Rjak joke here.

As an aside, those little gargoyles holding up the magic mirror need their own game or TV show or something. They’re adorable.

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Freya thinks she can let some of her troops wander around my land without worry. She was wrong. I sic a newly summoned basalisk on her soldiers’ butts, and they die screaming in pixelated agony. I guess the basalisk is like the fantasy equivalent of a tank? Except that it poops?

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Since the enemy navies are taking out my few ships, I’m losing my “bridge” between continents to ferry my armies. Since I’m lazy, instead of building more ships I move my summoning circle to FilthyCasual to see if I can help out the second continent boost up its defenses.

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Well this ain’t good. According to the power graph, I’m third out of four factions — and Rjak is far outstripping me. (I’m blue, he’s purple.) The only thing I’m winning at is research.

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Anything I should be doing for this? Quarantine? Oh… just sit and bear it? I’m good at that.

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For kicks, I take my basalisk army over to a death knight tower to see how I’ll fare. Actually, it’s not too bad — I do lose one of my basalisks, but that’s it, and we emerge with a new spell, more gold, and a magic sword. Excalibur! Or whatever!