World of Warcraft needs another perma-reward pipeline

With all of the talk and backlash at Blizzard’s tendency to give and take away rewards — i.e. “borrowed power” — with expansion cycles, I’ve been taking a step back and thinking about what matters for World of Warcraft characters in the long run.

The way I see it, we are motivated to play by three things: the experience (stories, interactions with other players), temporary rewards (gear, borrowed power systems), and permanent rewards that we collect. This last category includes:

  • Transmog
  • Weapon effects
  • Mount equipment
  • Toys
  • Pets
  • Mounts
  • Titles
  • Account unlocks (allied races, flying)

That’s right there what I’m chasing in Shadowlands — covenants, renown, gear, and whatever will evaporate in two years is just a means to getting some of these long-lasting rewards. But I have to ask, is it enough? For players who have the one mount they really love or who don’t care about pets, what entices them to keep pursuing goals?

I think that Blizzard needs to add another reward pipeline in the game to add more variety to what it already has. The obvious option is some sort of housing system, because there are so many rewards that can be added into this. Garrisons had potential, and you saw Blizz starting to expand this into a new reward pipeline (music scrolls, holiday overlays) before giving up and moving on.

But it could be something else entirely, something I’m not seeing. I hope that the team is thinking outside, rather than inside, its tightly confined boundaries for rewards in the future.

Sunday Serenade: Spider-Man, Dishonored 2, 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… 

“Space Journey Table” from Epic Pinball — I just adore the music from the ’90s shareware titles. They always tried so hard to have an “attitude.” And yes, you had to put it in quotes.

“PWRNEON” by Techno Mage — Just in case you wanted some good retro-style ’80s jam with your toast.

“Title Theme” from The Amazing Spider-Man — I like this cheery Gameboy rendition of the classic Spidey theme song.

“Fight Music 1” from Tecmo World Wrestling — The NES had some of the catchiest earworms…

“Silver and Dust” from Dishonored 2 — Such a flat-out amazing duo.

“You Spin Me Round” by Standy and Marc Korn — A fun twist on an old classic.

“Happy Face” by Jagwar Twin — Powerful song with weak lyrics. If that makes sense.

“Faint of Heart” by Tegan and Sara — Amazingly good ’80s vibe with this one!

CRPG walkthroughs are satisfying and comforting

You know how there’s a stigma — both internal and external — about lowering difficulty settings in games below “normal?” Well I’ve always sensed that there’s another stigma floating out there, perhaps less now than it used to be, that using walkthroughs for RPGs made you less of a gamer.

Honestly, I’ve done both, and generally I’ve found that I end up really enjoying a good CRPG more if I have a walkthrough at my side — either for hand-holding directions or general reference. Since I’m only playing these for me, I figure I can play them as I like. A walkthrough doesn’t remove all challenge, but it does help to play efficiently and thoroughly.

There are few things that bug me more than the thought that I’ve missed something really cool in an RPG as I go through it. Some secret, or side quest, or useful item, or what have you. It really bugs me when I get to the end of some of these games and lack the power and gear to make it through the final boss fights. Sure, I could always play a game once without a walkthrough and subsequently with them (and I have done it that way), but RPGs are huge time sinks. I don’t often have time to play one more than once with so many others sitting on the backburner.

And this is kind of weird, but having a walkthrough makes me feel like I’m gaming with someone else — the author of that document. They don’t know me, but I get to know them through the way they write it and how they talk to me in the guide. It feels personal and social… again, in a weird way.

That all said, I’ve found that with more modern CPRGs, I don’t need or desire a walkthrough too much. I went through, for example, Pillars of Eternity, The Outer Worlds, and Disco Elysium never once consulting any guides. I might if I go back to do them again, mind you, because walkthroughs can be a great way to squeeze out some unexplored freshness, but more recent titles are better about keeping you on track and making quest pickups and objectives more apparent.

How do you feel about walkthroughs? Do you use them? Do you judge others — and me — for using them?

Nostalgia Lane: Scorched Earth

In 1991, our high school moved from the old building to a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. I still have very fond memories of the “new carpet smell” of my sophomore year, as well as the marker boards, the huge science lab, and the sprawling computer lab.

I took programming for a couple of years to build off of what I had self-taught with BASIC, but in all honesty, we only did coursework about half the time. The other half was spent playing smuggled games — the most popular being Scorched Earth.

I had no idea that Scorched Earth was a huge hit globally. All I knew is that my classmates and I were obsessed with this multiplayer artillery game.

Scorched Earth didn’t look immediately impressive, but that was deceptive. You would set up matches with a whole lot of options, and then every player would take turns lining up shots and trying to wipe each other out to be the last tank standing.

What made Scorched Earth so dang fun was that it was brimming with crazy options and weapons. You weren’t just shooting little artillery shells; you were lobbing nukes, MIRVs, napalm, bouncing bombs, and so on. Tanks could move and use various gadgets like shields and parachutes to try to extend their lifespan. And the battlefield could get really nuts with dirt geysering everywhere, wind blowing shots to and fro, and even gravity being switched off.

If you didn’t have friends to play against, the computer was always willing to take on the role of opponent. I liked how the different CPU tanks would have their own personalities and skill levels, sometimes even smack talking you while they tried to murder your face.

Scorched Earth put gameplay first over presentation, becoming a shareware classic for the ages. And, bonus, it got me through some really boring weeks of high school, so there’s that.

KOTOR: Wishing on a Star Forge

(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.)

When I first played through KOTOR, I remember being insanely excited at being able to go to Yavin as part of this new, post-release DLC that BioWare put out. It was a bit of a let-down, alas; instead of seeing where the Rebel base would be in A New Hope, Yavin here is pretty much a small space station with a fight and a pricey vendor.

Poor left behind Bastila, she’s enjoying a weekend stay at Darth Malak’s Torture Resort and Spa. He’s trying to turn her to the dark side, mostly via high voltage current, and she’s, “No, no, I’ll never do it!”

Meanwhile, Syppi’s crew finally puts the map together and finds the Star Forge system. Trouble is, some sort of disrupter field cripples the Ebon Hawk and forces a landing on a nearby planet for repairs. At least it’s a very pretty planet and not some dumb volcano zone.

This close to the end of the game, I don’t have as much patience with side quests and faction bickering, which this unknown world has in spades. I kind of just want to slice my way through a lot of bad guys, get to the end boss, and see that final cutscene. But I guess we’ll do it your way, BioWare, even if that means butting heads with a lot of rancors.

If you ever wanted to know what Malak looks like with his face mask removed, here you go. Being a Sith is just as bad for you as chewing tabacco, kids. I don’t recommend it. He’s being told that the Star Forge is pumping out ships like crazy (for that is what the Star Forge does — it’s a ship factory) and the Sith are getting the fleet ready to dominate the Republic.

At the top of the temple summit on the unknown world, Bastila reappears — and sporting a pretty groovy goth look. Malak finally convinced her to go full-on dark side, and it kind of suits her. And here’s where I’m bringing my personal twist to this playthrough — even though I’ve been goody two-shoes the entire way through, I’m switching to PURE DARK SIDE POWAH for the final hour! That’s right, I’m going evil in a bid to rule the galaxy. I think I’d make a good emperor. Of course, this means that I have to kill pretty much half of my companions, starting with Jolee and Juhani, but that’s a small price to pay for galactic domination.

So, yeah, not everyone is taking this betrayal with good grace. Carth runs off like the coward he is, and Mission vows to fight against Revan. Yet Big Z is stuck in the middle, having sworn a life debt to Revan. Now, what’s the really, really evil move here is to use a force power to dominate Zaalbar’s mind and make him kill his best friend Mission. I don’t have that, so I just have to take them down myself. That’s four companions down in as many minutes, plus Carth running back home to mommy. All that’s left on team Dark Side is Syppi, Bastila, Canderous, HK-47, and that other droid nobody cares about.

A mostly unseen battle rages in space around the Star Forge as Syppi, HK, and Bastila sneak aboard and conduct their own Trojan Horse raid. In typical BioWare fashion, this final level throws out of the window any real narrative, choices, or dialogue for a non-stop gauntlet of tough fights.

I’m not sadistic in real life, I’m really not, but I have to admit that there’s a kind of glee in seeing Grampa Yoda here slowly put the pieces together that he’s been six types of betrayed. Well, that’s what you get when you memory-wipe your greatest enemy and then try to get her to play ball.

It’s a bit of a letdown that the final showdown with Malak is one-on-one. After a full game of hanging out with companions, nope, it’s just you and Mr. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.

With Malak killed, the Star Forge falls under Revan’s control, and the Republic fleet is destroyed. All hail Revan! All hail KOTOR!

And that’s it — the end of one of the finest CRPGs that BioWare ever produced. It still holds up great over a decade and a half later, although I won’t deny that there are some frayed edges (especially with the graphics and some of the systems design). For the purpose of keeping this playthrough at a manageable length, I didn’t go into all of the companion or side stories, but there’s a really good amount of content on hand here.

It was nice to revisit KOTOR, but I may have played this one too many times for it to really hold any surprise or deep joy. Looking at it from SWTOR’s perspective, I can see many things I actually prefer more about the MMO — including the stories. It was a good foundation for the future, is what I’m trying to say.

Battle Bards Episode 183: Theme parks

This episode is your ticket to the greatest amusement park experience known to gamers! With cotton candy and ride tickets in hand, the Battle Bards rush into the gates of their favorite theme parks — and theme parks WITHIN theme park MMOs! So what do amusement parks sound like in online roleplaying games? Find out in this fantastic spectacle of an episode!

Episode 183 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Shopping Arcade 1” from MapleStory 2, “Nar Shadda” from SWTOR, and “Dream Carnival” from Hello Kitty Online)
  • “Themepark Overture” from Lineage 2
  • “Mudskipper Calliope” from RuneScape
  • “Darkmoon Faire Hero” from World of Warcraft
  • “Fantastic Theme Park” from MapleStory 
  • “Blizzard World” from Overwatch
  • “Carnival of Death” from The Secret World
  • “Gold Saucer” from Final Fantasy XIV
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener note from Katriana
  • Jukebox picks: “A Sit By the Water” from A Monster’s Expedition, “Forest” from The Smurfs (NES), and 
  • Outro (feat. “Fairie Funland Trailer Theme” from Revelation Online)

World of Warcraft: Of trees and vampires

Two weeks, two days. That’s how long it ended up taking me to get through the first four leveling zones of World of Warcraft’s Shadowlands. It’s a little faster than I had anticipated, but still way, way slower than many others I’ve seen.

Some of my guildies are absolutely gaga over Ardenweald, and it’s clearly a zone that’s designed to be visually impressive and attractive. Lots of blues and purples and swirly trees and ain’t nature amazing?

But for me, it was too much, trying too hard while not really delivering that great of a narrative arc. I think it’s because WoW has dipped into the well of “beautiful nature corrupted by local evil, please go exterminate it and bring our flowers back” far too many times to make this feel anything other than a retread. It was fine. Eye candy, but nothing more. At least I hit level 60 in the middle of this zone, so that’s one milestone completed.

In contrast, Revendreth was a whole heap of fun. Despite being a Warcrafty ripoff of classic Transylvania/Bram Stoker tropes, it fashioned together a stunning gothic zone that’s brimming with personality. I was laughing at a lot of the quest text and quotes, especially from the little gremlin guys, and who wouldn’t find the Mad Duke a great companion?

I also found that it didn’t take any effort on my part to stay engaged with this zone’s story, formulaic though it was. I was a really interesting design decision to have the vampires (sorry, venthyr) take after the uglier looks from vampire movie history than the modern drop-dead leather model aesthetic.

As an aside, am I the only one who is wondering if there are going to be allied races that spring from any of these zones? Because I can totally see it, especially with Bastion and Revendreth.

Now that the leveling journey is done, it’s time to figure out what the endgame looks like. I want to figure out what gaming routine and long-term objectives to pursue so that I’m not wasting my time doing too much in one area and not enough in another part that would benefit me more. Plus, I’m curious if any of this will be fun on a base enjoyment level.

SWTOR: The Yeti strikes back!

Even though I allegedly gave myself permission to play only Shadowlands this month, I started to feel the weird imbalance of only encountering one MMO every day. So I decided to get back to my old pattern of flipping between two games during nightly gaming sessions, and I figured that SWTOR was due for a one-month return.

In this case, I came back to my old, old main — Yeti the Operative. I had left her stranded in the second chapter of Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion back in summer 2019. So here’s my project: I’m going to finish KOTET by the end of December. You can do it, Syp! Thanks man, I appreciate the self-pep talk.

I did love getting back into this character. I missed her weird array of toxic, poisonous attacks and general Chiss attitude. As I got into it, I took a road trip with the new Empress of the Sith and got stranded with her on a surface of a planet that has horrible cell phone reception. At least she’s there to lug around all my awesome, because it’s too much for one person to carry.

Even though I’ve played Yeti more or less light side in the past, sometimes she gets pretty hellbent on revenge. You know, such as when the former Republic leader decides to have her assassinated in order to take over the alliance. Oh, Soresh, you done messed up big time.

As the action barreled forward, Yeti had the opportunity to take back the Gravestone after its abduction. Unfortunately, crazy Vaylin decided to drop by, so this became a big ol’ confrontation. There were some suitably tense moments when I wasn’t 100% sure how the game was going to play out scenes, but those got defanged when nobody got killed and nothing got resolved.

Instead, good guys and bad alike got stranded on a weird abandoned city-planet of Iokath. It was a little eerie, with no living souls and a whole bunch of murderous droids running all over the place. Man, these expansions loved droids as enemies. Never got old for the developers!

While I certainly like the forward momentum of a single, narrative-rich storyline, the complete absence of other players is downright eerie. I had forgotten how strange this part of the game was. Sure, I could jump out to go back to the fleet and see if I could hook up with a guild, but I don’t want to disrupt the flow here.

Also, I’m just chuffed to spend more time with Vette. She’s a peach.

So here’s a rule for any video game, ever. If you walk into a room with a giant but completely motionless robot or monster, you are 100% assured that it will come to life and become a boss fight. The good news here is that when I was done fighting it, we fixed it up and let my character jump into the cockpit to go step on bad droids for a good 20 minutes.

Sunday Serenade: Chex Quest, Dragon Sound, 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… 

“Landing Zone” from Chex Quest — A game called “Chex Quest” had no right coming up with actually good music, don’t you think?

“Calling” by Mr. Sid and Laura van Dam — This’ll make a good addition to my workout mix.

“From Now On” by Gabry Ponte — First song of the week that really caught my ear. Every time I replay it, I crank the volume just a scooch louder.

“Against the Ninja” by Dragon Sound — The hit song from 1987’s Miami Connection now can be your life’s theme song!

“You Make Me Feel” by Lexton — Just some no-nonsense feel-good music. Needed that today.

“Dreamy” by DJ UOFO — Dreamy? Try groovy.

“Ending” from Jazz Jackrabbit — There’s a really catchy hook tucked away in this track. Of course, it’s Jazz Jackrabbit, so I should expect that.

Octopath Traveler: Looking for a group

I’m not super sucked into Octopath Traveler — at least, not yet — but I am really warming up to some of its aspects. The combat in particular is pretty satisfying, and I like how I’m not completely lost and confused at this stage.

I’ve also been playing the game with a controller ever since my second session. That isn’t something I do with computer games — pretty much *ever* — but this title was clearly designed for a controller and is awkward as all get out with just the keyboard. I don’t resent having to use a controller, although the rumble pack in mine is way too aggressive and wants to vibrate my hand off.

With my first character under my belt, I’m following the game’s gentle instruction to go around and assemble the other seven main characters. I figure that just going around the game map clockwise should do fine for this, so next up was Alfyn.

This was a good move, since Alfyn is a healer who wants to go out and heal the world or somesuch. Honestly, his introduction is really lame, but I do like his upbeat attitude and the fact that he brings much-needed heals to the table.

With a second character in the party, we head up north for a third. It’s a very relaxed kind of trip, allowing me to level up from fights, explore nooks and crannies, and otherwise enjoy the gorgeous backdrops.

It’s a good thing that I’m not in a rush, because the trip really does take a while — especially with all the random fights. The good news is that I’m getting very practiced with taking down mobs. I wish that I was seeing gear drops, but hey, levels are levels. Can’t hurt to have more of them!

Here, the small party enters some northern forest… very dreamy.

It’s here that I start in on the tale of H’aanit (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), a hunter in the dark woods who lost her master a year ago. Square-Enix does seem to love dousing particular cultures in its RPGs with super ye olde fashioned speeche, and this place gets the heaviest dose I’ve ever seen.

For such a “dignified” hunter of renown, H’aanit ends up fighting the doofiest-looking boss I’ve seen yet in this game. Derpy derpy do. And what about the drool situation, there?

Ah well, at least now I have a party of three to call my own!