Is Chromie the face of World of Warcraft?

A half-decade ago, if you had asked me who or what was the face of World of Warcraft, I might have said “murlocs” or “Chris Metzen.” But that answer has changed in recent years,  and it’s not doughy J. Allen Brack. No, weirdly enough, Blizzard’s really latched onto Chromie as its key figure.

Like a lot of Blizzard things, it started as a bit of a joke — a giant time traveling dragon who just so happened to choose a cute-as-a-button gnome for its disguise — and then made it more and more canon. Chromie kept popping up in the game anywhere time shenanigans happened, and soon enough, she was appearing elsewhere.

When Blizzard made the stunning announcement of World of Warcraft Classic a couple of years ago, it was Chromie’s face that players saw at the start of the announcement trailer. And now with Patch 9.0, the cheeky gnome is up in everyone’s face as they go to her to beseech “Chromie Time” for their leveling journey.

What amuses me is that it’s always seemed like Blizzard really hated gnomes. They had them in WoW, sure, but always as the butt of a abuse or a joke. Chromie — despite not being a real gnome — seems to signal a change in this. Huge hulking kings, growling orcs, wishy-washy banshees all took a step back to let Chromie come to the forefront.

And I’m totally fine with that, because I like it when a game shows that it doesn’t have to be super-duper serious all the time. I like the idea of mighty power being compacted down into a small and unassuming form. And I like it because gnomes are amazing and should be the only race in the game.

Maybe it’s time to make Chromie the new warchief? She couldn’t do worse than anyone else that has sat on that throne.

Is Blizzard smart with its dual-launch approach to WoW expansions?

For a good while now, Blizzard has been rolling out its World of Warcraft expansions in a much different fashion than the rest of the MMORPG field. It always comes in two parts — or more, if you consider the studio’s tendency to hold back content to “unlock” later. But the two basic parts are the pre-patch and the actual expansion launch.

The pre-patch debuts core system changes and class reworks. It officially puts to bed the old expansion, as the studio did last week to Battle for Azeroth, and ushers in the new expansion cycle. Often it contains some sort of event or quest chain to keep players occupied as they wait for the real event — the actual expansion launch with the new zones, quests, features, classes, races, etc.

I used to be quite put out by this approach, because I felt like Blizzard was milking it too much and even spoiling the new expansion a bit. I felt it was somewhat akin to opening a third of your Christmas presents before the actual day. But now I’ve come to appreciate this approach (although I don’t quite endorse it).

Obviously, one great advantage to this is that Blizzard can indeed maximize its publicity. The studio releases significant patches and expansions so slowly that it makes sense to draw them out so as to make it feel as large and momentous to the playerbase as possible. The pre-patch got as much coverage as any actual MMO expansion would, and we’re not even AT the expansion yet!

Beyond that, it’s helpful to get the pre-patch going for both players and developers to evaluate all of the class changes. As long as Blizzard’s going to keep doing this thing where it feels like it needs to reinvent the class wheel with every expansion, it can’t leave these changes until the day of the expansion. Players need time to adjust and acclimate, and the studio needs time to put its full attention on how they’re working out instead of being scattered all over the place.

For Shadowlands in particular, the pre-patch is useful in that it installs the new leveling paradigm to allow players to create alts and maybe get an extra character or two ready for the expansion. I remember when Burning Crusade launched and pretty much all of us felt torn between taking our established characters into Outland and rolling a Blood Elf or Draenei. In 2020, we don’t have to choose; we can do one and then the other.

KOTOR: Sexist worms off to the rescue!

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Fresh off the now-exploded Endar Spire, Syppi and angsty Carth are hiding out in the apartments on the upper levels of Taris. It’s actually a pretty good setting for the initial stage of the game, as the planet is under Sith control (meaning lots of enemies around and no leaving) and rich in that Star Wars feel. Also, the music! The soundtrack is amazing as it settles into the background and helps you get into the mood of the setting.

So one big pet peeve I have with KOTOR is that none of the characters ever holster their weapons. I really wish they would, because it’s so awkward to have them constantly holding pistols and swords while talking and running around.

Why do I hate Carth so much? Well, you’ve obviously never played KOTOR if you have to ask that, but the short answer is that he is trying way too hard to be a Han Solo type, if Han Solo was much more insecure and needy. To make myself feel better, I steal and equip Carth’s custom blaster while calling him a sexist worm and a sexless marsh toad. He’s a romance option, but that’ll happen only when Hell freezes over. And even then, probably not.

Without any clear direction other than to try to find Bastila’s escape pod, it’s time for that RPG tradition of “barge into every domicile in the area and steal everything that’s not nailed down.” And even then, we have a hammer to pry things up.

Naturally, as this is Star Wars, there’s a cantina nearby. It’s got an assembly of assorted toughs and brats, although you can play some cards or fight in an arena if you’re feeling lucky.

KOTOR wasn’t the first game to include some sort of morality meter, but it definitely was the first to really catch my attention. Although it’s kind of a trite and stilted feature these days, the light-side/dark-side paths in KOTOR aided in both roleplaying and replayability. You could go down the light side by being nice and helpful, down the dark side by being Hitler reborn, or just hang out in the middle by doing a bit of both. Since there isn’t much of a benefit from going “grey,” you might as well go all-out one way or the other for bonuses, exclusive force powers, and visual flair. As I said last time, I’m doing light side because I never really saw much fun in being unnecessarily cruel.

One of the first LS/DS choices on Taris is whether or not to turn in a doctor who is hiding hurt Republic troops. I kind of wish I could be floating in a jar in my underwear some days. Looks comfy.

The only real drawback to light side is that you don’t end up with as much stuff. Like, you give away more credits to be nice than extorting them, that sort of thing. Then again, you get that artificial feeling of being a good person in a virtual world where NPCs praise your name and then dash off, never to be seen again.

One nice touch is that KOTOR does make a bit of an effort to portray the Sith as something other than evil killing dudes. You get to know how they’re still people who work 9 to 5 jobs and party afterward. They’re still on Team Evil and deserve to be killed, of course, but it’s a little humanization that helps to round them out.

Also, Syppi totally steals one of the Sith uniforms to disguise herself and gain entrance to the lower city. It’s time to leave this life of upper crust luxury and descend into the belly of the city beast.

Welcome to lower Taris, where criminal gangs struggle for turf and swoop-bike races break all the speed limits. It’s more grungy but far more Star Warsian, if that makes any sense. I’m just glad there are tons of mobs to gun down, since I need the XP to get as many Scoundrel levels as possible on this planet. The only real combat gripe I have at this point is that there’s no natural hit point regen nor any force healing, so it’s either buying/scavenging a lot of med packs or keep making trips back to certain rest spots to heal up. Carth keeps falling down in battle if someone sneezes in his direction.

Battle Bards Episode 179: Arrr pirates!

Shiver me timbers — the Battle Bards are coming aboard and demanding that all capable musicians appear on the poop deck and blast out a few shanties and jigs for their pleasure! In today’s episode, this motley crew examines the pirate themes that sail across many-a-MMO. Will they find rich booty — or only a few pieces o’ eight? Find out!

Episode 179 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Salty Sailor” from World of Warcraft, “The Adventure Begins” from Tales of Pirates, “The Redmoon Marauders” from WildStar, and “Driftwood Island Combat” from Pirates of the Caribbean Online)
  • “Pirate Ship” from MapleStory 2
  • “We Shall Sail Together” from Sea of Thieves
  • “Freeport Theme” from Atlas
  • “Pirates” from Ashen Empires
  • “Port Theme” from Florensia
  • “Randy Dandy Oh” from The Legend of Pirates Online
  • “San Juan” from Pirates of the Burning Sea
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener note from Katriana
  • Jukebox picks: “Credits” from Flashback CD, “Hero Approaches” from Port Royale 4, and “The Time Traveller” from Luna: The Shadow Dust.
  • Outro (“Bay Theme” from Cloud Pirates)

Idle Life Sim is the casual sim I didn’t know I needed

My relationship with mobile gaming is worlds apart from how I approach PC gaming. Mobile gaming is, for me, something to fill a couple of spare minutes — maybe when I’m waking up or having quality time in the bathroom. So these days I’m not looking for super deep or involved experiences, but rather something I can open up, having fun for a minute or two, and then walk away without feeling like I’m dropping the ball.

With that standard in mind, Idle Life Sim is perfect for me. It’s like someone took the basic concept of The Sims — outfit a virtual dollhouse and have an autonomous character fiddle around in it — and merged it with a clicker game. It’s nothing deep, but it is enjoyable to mess with for a little bit of time here and there.

In Idle Life Sim, you start out with a single character and a one-room house. Your character has a career of your choice and generates money from this on a constant timer. That money can be spent to upgrade his or her career, buy more outfits, purchase furniture, or upgrade to bigger houses. You also have to increase your popularity (which is accomplished by dressing up right for parties). But seriously, that’s about it.

Yes, it’s a total ad-driven game, in that they want you to watch ads to generate even more money or special currency. I don’t do this that often, to be honest, but the option is there. It doesn’t feel that grindy, though, and I think a lot of that has to do with the presentation.

Everything here is so laid back. Unlike most clicker games, Idle Life Sim isn’t about fighting. Most of the time your character is interacting with your house objects while you take trips over to the always-rotating in-game store to see what wallpaper, carpet, and furnishings you can afford. There are objectives to accomplish for premium currency, but I think the real objectives here are to make your sim and house into what you want to see. 

I do like the presentation here. It’s cute without being that derivative of any other mobile game I’ve seen. The interface is very fast and intuitive, and there are a lot of little details that are fun to check out (such as the outside changing seasons). The whole package has personality, and that’s pretty much why I find myself logging in to tweak my little house day after day.

Anyway, a light and breezy recommendation from me today.

Feeling out World of Warcraft: Shadowlands’ pre-patch

I don’t ever think I’ve experienced a World of Warcraft pre-patch (which is, let’s not kid ourselves, a patch, no “pre” needed) that’s felt as exciting as an expansion launch as I have with 9.0 last week.  In a way, it feels like multiple expansions are launching at once. In a way.

By streamlining the leveling experience, adding a new starting zone, adding tons more character visuals, and offering players a single expansion to comprise most of that character’s leveling experience, it’s like the doors were thrown open to alts. The new leveling scheme is far more smooth than before, without any worries of having to jump from expansion to expansion before hitting the level cap. Now we can just focus on a single destination, experiencing that story from start to end.

I restrained myself to creating — for now — a single alt who had been waiting for this moment.  Gwenders the Gnome Hunter jumped out of the gate and into legend. I’m envisioning her being a total gearhead, with mechanical pets, as much steampunk transmog as I can find, and engineering as her profession.

And with her, I got to experience the new Exile’s Reach starting zone. For a 45-minute zone, it was incredibly well-done, especially to onboard new players into WoW. Not too busy or overwhelming, but not too hand-holdy either. And it helped that there was good mission variety and some nice visuals.

Before I knew it, Gwenders was level 10 and ready for her expansion journey. I deliberated a little over where to take her, but in the end I figured that Warlords of Draenor was a good pick. That expansion had a great leveling experience, its own tier of engineering, and the garrisons. I’m wondering if the Shadowlands era might see a newfound appreciation of WoD as simply a leveling expansion, since that’s where its strengths lay anyway.

Considering the crowds of people who were at the Dark Portal and in the starter quest zone, I’m not alone in this.

And egads, every time I come here, I’m floored with how pretty it is.

Again, it’s hard to put into words how much better this feels to level up than it did a month ago. Keeping one’s headspace in a single expansion without having that nagging worry that you might out-level the story or need to rush. In fact, the levels are coming pretty fast and furious. I’m not even halfway through Shadowmoon Valley, and already I’ve gone from 10 to 20.

Sunday Serenade: Big Giant Circles, Edwan, and more!

Time for another Sunday morning dose of random songs that I’ve been listening to this past week! Welcome to Sunday Serenade — now let’s crank the jams up with… 

“Neon Protocol” by Big Giant Circles — It’s like the most ’80s synth track ever made… and I want to marry it.

“Run Away” by Edwan — Pure energy and quick tempo. Sometimes that’s all you need, you know?

“Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran — Good song, but this remix makes it even better.

“Lost” by Eric Demn — Love that tropical vibe that takes my mind to the Caribbean even if I’m in Buffalo for the winter.

4 video game sequels that let me down

As a gamer, there are few things worse than greatly anticipating a release that ultimately lets you down. But one of those few things worse is when that title is a sequel to a game that you love dearly.

Because then you’ve gone from being overjoyed that you’re about to get the next chapter to follow up a game that you’ve had a great time with. You want more! You want to see improvements but also more of the same spirit! And so you follow its development closely for months or years and you circle its release date on the calendar.

And then it’s just a let-down. Either it’s a stinker or it’s barely adequate — a shadow of the great experience you enjoyed before.

I was thinking of this the other day and several examples quickly jumped to my mind:

Majesty 2

As you well know, the original Majesty may well be my favorite RTS of all time. I love its clever design and the way it oozes personality with its graphics and voice acting. But the sequel was so disappointing because it seemed to fail to understand what made the first game great. The design was so-so and the characters and look of the land became incredibly generic as the title shifted to 3D. Such a waste.

Chrono Cross

Now I actually like Chrono Cross as its own game. It was a beautiful PlayStation RPG with a classic soundtrack and a lot of innovative ideas. But as a sequel to Chrono Trigger, it was such a let-down because its story had only vague connections to the first game, no time travel, and a very muddled narrative.

Dungeon Warfare 2

The first Dungeon Warfare was such an amazingly fun tower defense game that incorporated Dungeon Keeper-like mechanics. I was thrilled to see the second arrive, looking much like the first. But man, I could never get into it. It plays a little different, and that little difference is enough to sour me on it. It just didn’t click with me like the first game, and the poor performance it has on my phone didn’t help any.

Mass Effect 3

The first game was great and the second Mass Effect was a stone-cold BioWare classic. So why wouldn’t I be there on day one to play the third game? Unfortunately, this one lost my interest about halfway through. It simply wasn’t as compelling as the previous installments, and if the internet’s testimony is any indication, I wasn’t missing much by pressing on to the end.

What are some game sequels that let you down?

LOTRO deserves better communication — and a better communicator

Lord of the Rings Online has gone on a rollercoaster this year, scaling admirable heights before plunging into very stupid depths. And whenever the game’s reputation is plummeting, you can bet that Standing Stone Games’ communication is a key factor in this.

This past summer, the game’s servers started failing all over the place, and instead of getting out in front of it with ample and clear communication about what was going on and what was being done to fix it, SSG hid behind a cloak of vague answers or outright silence. It was infuriating to see, and only after more than a week of customers howling for an official response did the studio’s leadership come out to deliver a few placating lines before disappearing once more.

Aside from that anomaly, the single point of comms for the studio is pretty much its one CM, Cordovan. Now, I know that being an MMO CM is a horribly difficult job that has to balance a lot on one’s plate. I would never take that job in a million years. But even so, I can identify when it’s not being done right.

To sum it up, Cordovan has shown us over the years that (a) he greatly prefers DDO to LOTRO, having come from the DDO community in the first place, (b) easily adopts a defensive posture when criticism draws near to him, and (c) is incredibly stingy with handing out information from the dev team to the playerbase. It doesn’t mean he never talks, just usually not about what needs to be discussed and at the length it needs to be covered.

It’s very frustrating to see this, because hey, I don’t want to beat up on the guy. As a player and fan of the game, I want to cheer the studio and its team on. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and draw from a bank of goodwill when things go wrong. But man does SSG and its CM drain that bank so dry in its sometimes adversarial way that it treats its playerbase.

One recent example of this comes from a forum thread in which the PvP community brought up an issue discovered in the Update 28 beta test. One very simple way of dealing with this would be to let the community know that the issue was known and the team was aware and/or working on it. Another more gracious way would be to thank players for their diligence in finding the issue and projecting an image of the studio and players working together to improve the game.

Cordovan? This was his response: “In terms of your surprise that me watching a video on Friday afternoon doesn’t lead to changes in the release notes on a Monday morning Bullroarer preview: ok. Besides the reality that my watching one particular video has little bearing on prior awareness of the issue, nor the work that we know needs to be done, it also is highly unlikely that we would turn around a game build for Bullroarer on a weekend like that.”

He’s not swearing at anyone or anything, but do you see it? It’s that hunched over, defensive snarkiness that comes out in so many of his posts. It’s a “get off my back” response to criticism that jabs back at the community. It’s condescending and not helpful at all.

I’m just tired of this. I’ve been calling SSG out on its poor comms for years now, and nothing seems to be improving. Sometimes we get good bursts of information, but it’s never consistent. The end result is a community that often feels as if it’s at odds with the studio, and probably vice-versa. I’d love to see this improve, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

KOTOR: I have a bad feeling about this…

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

After doing two adventure games back-to-back, I felt it was time to head back into a classic CRPG. And while I’ve done (most of) KOTOR 2 for Retro Gaming, I haven’t ever gone through the original BioWare classic. I think I’ve played it through, all the way, at least twice in the past, but it has been a long while and I would love to revisit the first game and see how the Old Republic gaming series first took root. I’m sure parts of it, like the graphics, haven’t aged that well, but I’ve always had very fond memories of first playing this one my old gaming PC as a bachelor, filling the nights with adventures in a galaxy far, far away.

As with KOTOR 2, for this playthrough I’m going to buck against the expectations of becoming a lightsaber-wielding Jedi and instead focus more on building an unorthodox dual blaster Scoundrel (who just so happens to have force powers because the game foists those on you whether you want them or not). I’m also going light side, as I don’t see a lot of added benefit in being a murder hobo jerk, and I don’t really want those force powers anyway.

KOTOR begins with that hoary RPG trope — video game amnesia. Syppi awakes on the Endar Spire, a Republic ship that’s currently under attack. Even as she has no memory of who she is or what she’s doing here, Captain Exposition up there runs in and says that the ship’s been boarded by the Sith and we need to go protect the uppity Jedi — Bastila Shan — with our level 1 naked bodies.

Soon we’re introduced to Carth, the resident whiny man-baby of KOTOR. BioWare is legally required to put one of these characters into each of its games as a companion, and this is the guy we got. He kind of makes you want to go down the dark side, just to tweak his nose.

Being set thousands of years before the Star Wars movies, KOTOR couldn’t completely ape all of the design elements, although it could homage them to death. So instead of the white stormtrooper outfits, the Sith troopers here have this neat gold reflective armor that I quite like. The Republic look just as dorky as the Rebel extras did in the films.

What I don’t completely buy is the use of swords. I mean, they go out of their way to say that these are VIBROswords and thereby can parry lightsabers because of… vibration… I guess? Sword fighting like this doesn’t fit, nor does it look anywhere as cool as blaster fire, with its sparks and laser light show.

With dark Jedi all over the ship, there’s this palpable sense of danger for us newly minted souls. We can’t stand up to them, so it’s all about fleeing and surviving to fight another day.

The good news? Syppi is able to escape from the Endar Spire before it completely blows up (and then mostly reconstructs itself to fall into large, explorable pieces onto the planet below for SWTOR). The bad news? Carth is along for the ride. Sigh. Carth, I can’t wait to ditch you, because you are going to get ditched so hard it’ll change your part, pal.

As Syppi lays unconscious for the second time in the last 20 minutes, she has a dream vision of Bastila fighting a faceless dark Jedi. I guess it’s a good thing that this ship has in-flight entertainment, although it’s pretty short.