Thursday, April 30

And suddenly you remember what being a monarchy means

The driver of this car was attemtping to hit the 'bus' with our royal family.The car plowed through fencing and a crowd, killing 4 and injuring atleast 13 others only to plow into a statue (called the needle).

Not sure what to think of this beyond the obvious sadness about- and sympathy for the fatalities involved.
Mainly I'm wondering why would anyone do this? I can halfway understand trying to kill a US president, or our Prime Minister, but the Royal family is mainly a PR machine that doesn't have to pay taxes.

Very human reactions by the Royal Family

The kid in the car is a 38 year old autochtone (indigenous) Dutch citizen and already has two confirmed deaths on his conscience. Possibly 4. Now confirmed
The driver is also heavily injured and going through surgery.

Coverage on CNN is small, but there.

Wednesday, April 29

Gameplay Cycles in MMO's

Besides player-types, the Exploration, Socializing, Achievement and Killing concepts can also be used to identify cycles, or phases if you will, of gameplay in an MMO.

The Joy of Learning:

This is the first cycle, the first love, the heady days of something new and shiny. Hopefully unspoiled by such things as bugs, server crashes, client instability and downright not working features. Raph Koster feels that the Joy of Learning is a major aspect of all gameplay, and I tend to agree with him. It's not just that the popping the cherry for the first time is a more unique experience than the nth time you do the same instance, it's the uncharted territory effect.

First there's learning how to play the game mechanics. With current major trends, copy-catting WOW, trying to be different from WOW, trying to entise the huge FPS market into paying monthly fees or RMT, this can be short and sour or long and frustrating. You don't want to spend too much time on working out the initial game mechanics but you don't want to leave people floundering. Sometimes a game hits this exactly right, as Warhammer Online has done in my opinion.

Next is learning your class / archetype / whatever. Of course this overlaps, but you generally spend a long time learning your class, often artificially paced by the developers through tiers. Each tier has to bring something new to your class as well as give you #2 of some skills, #3 and #4 of others, or hide this through name changes or minute differences. Mastering your class ultimately becomes part of another cycle, for me at least.

Alting can substantially increase the cycle's length and or start a new one. That's the replay value of alts 9of a different class), provided that the last element to this cycle is of enough depth.

The last element of this cycle, and the one most responsible to extending its mean time is exploring the world and sampling its contents, meeting interesting people and killing most of them. Not surprisingly, I associate this cycle with the Explorer Trait of Richard Barttle's MUD player archetypes.

For me, this Gameplay Cycle generally lasts somewhere in between one (crud game) and four (awesome!) months and since I'm primarily an Explorer type myself, it's the heaiest.

The Ties that Bind:
Ideally, during the exploratory phase of your game-time you also explored the possibility of making new friends, connecting with-, sharing with, laughing with fellow travelers on the journey. You create ties with people, set down roots and establish a reputation and place in the world for yourself and others. This often leads to becoming part of a larger community, most commonly in the shape of a Guild, fansite or, if you're sado-masochistic, Official Forums.

Socializing is important as it ties you to people which, besides being a good thing in tiself extends your enjoyment of the game I believe, long after the newness shininess of the game has been worn off. This cycle really helps going from new and shiny sensation to a comforatable feeling like that of wearing a well worn boot that can result in a truly lasting time with the game. Of course, the drawback is that you often feel obligated to keep playing a game that holds little appeal for you anymore because your friends all still play. Some overcome this by means of multi-game Guilds, but more often than not, relations come and go with the games you play, a small percentage seem to endure and stick with you cross-games. Those you could classify as friends rather than playmates (disambiguation: No off color pun intended)

On a personal note, this is a cycle and aspect of my Player type (I'm a Socializer Secondary) I've left somewhat undernourished of late. I had a great run with Guild Wars, Guild Wars @ Gameamp and Gameamp in general. In EverQuest II I was part of a small but tight knit Clan and my time Vanguard saw of Guild Drama than I've seen in a long time or care to see much of in future. Since then, the almost 2 years since most of which I spent in a 5-team shift cycle, I've not done much in the socializing sphere/cycle.
We had some fun in AoC with the Ampian Forerunners but I for one just couldn't find the energy to make anything of it and my shifting day/night cycle makes it hard to establish persistent connections.

But I've been making the miscalculation of thinking that my Shift Cycle lends itself more to playing US servers. Out of each 10 days, on 2 of these my play-time is firmly US-like, another 2 are either off-time or EU timezone only, and 6 are both EU (late) and US (early) time. So Eu times really are better/just as good I guess.

Replay value of this aspect differs. It's more an extender than a rehasher I think. After a Guild crashes and burns, most of us don't feel up for another bout of Guild Drama. Or not immediately. Still, there's a lot of fun involved in starting up a new Guild, creating a mythos, a pathos and structure. But that sounds an awful lot like Exploration again doesn't it? I really don't see any replay value in friendship either. Again it's something to hold on to. Unless you see rekindling acquinatances as replay, then there is much value to be had.

The Socializing Cycle generally starts while Exploring is still in full swang, so counting from when that aspect starts to have diminishing returns I estimate that the social gaming keeps me interested for an additional 3 to 6 months. Potentially longer, but it hasn't happened yet. Not within a single game anyway. Counting Gameamp and gaming friendships, it's more like 3-5 years and going.

Bigger must be Better:
The next cycle of gameplay, for me is Achievement.
I don't often go for this cycle as I'm like 110% Explorer, 80% Socializer, 10% Achiever and -0,4% Killer but I remember doing this in Guild Wars.
For me Achievement can be one or two things.

- Grinding: Keep killing those monsters until you collect enough tokens of some kind to buy Stuff. Where Stuff in Guild Wars was esthetically pleasing but statistically equal armor. In CoX you grind to either find or pay for those rare purple Enhancements. In most games you can grind for statistically better Stuff. I prefer doing it for fluff, and could wish that that was the only reason for anyone to grind and waste time. When more time means you become 'better' that just adds to the hardcore - casual divide. Statistical rewards mean everyone who wants to stay competitive has to stay on the ball. Sometimes it's not even about competitiveness but just plain peer pressure. Sigh, you'd think we left the playground behind.
Once again, not an Achievement player, so this is all a bit beyond me. Not only that, but i suffer from a conceit that I think my own personal player skills make up for 2-8% statistical difference.

- Raiding: Really a more complex form of grinding with similar dead-end rewards. No-one except some self deluding sods really think Raiding in itself is a good game mechanic. If it were, why aren't there any Raiding from the start games? You don't really need every minute of that long grind to max level to learn your class as you still need to learn to Raid next.

Both gear-based grinding and raiding are really a different take on the levelling game. That it's your gear that starts levelling rather than your character makes no difference. Actually it does, it makes it a clutch, much like "Alternate Advancement", lauded as a Must Have by many, really is just a bandaid on to rigid a class system.

I'd much rather see different things, like

- Long term commitments to in-game assets: Vanguard almost did this. They had you do a huge grind, as a guild, in order to get a Guild Hall built. It involved all the spheres, adventurers would be gathering resources for the crafters who had to crank out tons of materials for the construction and Diplomats had to do hundreds upon hundreds of parleys to get enough Information to acquire a Writ. it combined elemetns of Social and Achievement gameplay and as long as not too many Guild Halls were erected yet, there was a sense of discovery as well.
However, once it was all done and the building was finally up, there was nothing. Upkeep had to be paid and the resident (former) Sims(2) player would badger the crafters into getting him/her furniture to place around. But there really was no continuing effort required. No wonder many Guilds burned out shortly after. Especially the overworked Diplomats (never a big section of players, but near equal effort required) were left to their own devices. They could go on to grind for Fluff/Stat diplomatic sets. PvE Armour slightly reworked into Diplomatic gear and a note saying "You Must Find This Cool".

Age of Conan does it a bit better since your Guild Hall can be attacked, damaged and even destroyed. But that involves the Killing Cycle.

Achievement play tends to get into its own as the 'Endgame', it's no wonder that you can identify Achievement players when they rush through the carefully, lovingly handcrafted content of a recently launched game in under three weeks then complain there is no end-game, only to have their Rant Post on the Official Forums Troll-Banged because he didn't read the launch memo that raiding content would be in Real Soon Now...
Ok, that's not fair to all Achievement Players. I know for a fact that our resident Geek is an Achievement player and he's not like that. He couldn't get through a game in anything under 6 weeks ;-)
Personally I find little in the End Game or Acheivement play to find playable, let alone replayable.
But to many it's what keeps them going on and on and on following after that Tier 23 Carrot.

The King is Dead, Long Live Me!
The Killing Cycle, or gameplay.
Boy am I out of my comfort zone now.
To me this would be a last ditch effort to try and keep playing a game I've long since left.
For some it's the main ingredient though. To each their own. While I can see the glory in surviving being ganked by someone, I can't see the pleasure of ganking myself. It's really not a Cycle at all is it?

Maybe Richard Bartle was correct with his GDC Keynote Address and these 4 leftovers of his original 8 archetypes are outdated. His newfangled three player types, named Alice, Dorothy and Wendy are more apt. Though I must say that I recognize a bit of all three girls in myself. And I also think the more practically profound statement of his address was not this, but how going from Exploring & Socializing gameplay for the levelling and then switch to Achievement or Killing Play for the End Game is the wrong way to do things, is. The profounder statement that is. I should phrase that better, but that's for the next post. The presentation of his address really has me thinking. This post was just a pre-amble to the next one which'll go in more detail about Barttle's speech, just to get your mind set for my further rambling. :-)

Monday, April 27

Monday's Sunday Screenshot Showoff

Yeah yeah. So I'm a day late. You know our axim.
It's all Lani's fault!
Hmm, is it me or does this otherwise perfect escape clause leave yours truly kinda in a lurch?

This weekend (and this week to I think) has an offering for Lord of the Rings Online for $9,99
Now be warned, Turbine is extending this offer, not Codemasters, which means it's for the US only. Well, when Turbine says US only (in very fine print) they don't mean they'll exclude (or warn) European players off of their deal. They will however give you a client and account for servers in three world-time-zones, none of which are European.

Still, 10 bucks is 7.6 euro's (except when NCSoft is doing the conversion on their 10 dollar premium packs which come out at 9 euro's, which in turn convert into 12 dollars for our beloved Korean Grindfest Maker. So stop whining you US Superheroe crybabies. You're not being ripped off nearly as much as us folks in the Old Country). So I was willing to give this game one more shot. I've always been 'against' it due to Middle Earth being a vivid mental image/memory in my mind for over 20 years now and I'd rather not 'pollute' that any further than the movies did.
Not to say the movies are bad, far from it. Especially the first when the actors still tried to you know, act. But it's not the Middle Earth of my mind's eye.
A while ago Phè said I should treat it as 'Generic MMO' and ignore the rest.
I'd actually tried LotRO a long while back, back at the first free 5 day trial. I tried playing an Elven Ranger and I hated my Liv Tyler lookalike butt. It's obvious that Turbine had the same guy, or gal, who designed the Dungeons & Dragons Online hairdo's punished by having him make some more for the LotRO project. Good punishment mayhap, but why do we the player have to suffer for it?

I wonder what they do for vegetarians, or too them...

Picking up the $10,- digital download version (which includes Moria btw) on Satgurday morning as I came of my night-shift (great time for doing credit card purchases by the way) had me trying it out that same evening. This time I picked a Hobbit. Note the lack of Hobbit screenshots. There's a reason for that. Having decided that I hate LotRO, period I went and downloaded the WOW trial that Blizzard had been bombarding me with for the last two weeks. (I think my former roomy, an avid WOW player, may be behind that).
After that 47 minute (20 minutes longer than my previous record of in-game WOW time) lesson in relative suckiness, and absolute fugliness, I was willing to give LotRO yet one more try. I mean, the avatars sucked, but the land looked lush, and I could always hit that DX10 toggle. I mean, I got Vista and all, right?

So I decided not to try the last 'we have a human animation skeleton and we'll apply that to other races as no-one will notice the crappy movement' race, the unisex dwarf, but stick with a human. Somewhat lackluster and expecting the worst I was checking out the class choices when I stumbled upon a way down below entry of 'Warden'. Hmmm, Spear, Javelin (a game that knows the difference!) and a spear-wielder's shield. Interesting...
Ever since Mat Cauthon and especially Trull Sengar (just look them up, cultural barbarian!) I've had a thing for spear-wielders and judging by the little example-gameplay video for the class the animations for this class did anything but suck!

Now my little Warden Shelaugh is level 10 already and going strong. I'll be picking a crafting profession soon, so maybe that will restore my lack of faith in Turbine :-)

NCSoft doesn't care about Aion?

Hmmm, odd...

I was cancelling my CoX subscription today, I'd kept it open because I wanted to try out the Mission Architect system and I still can, until May 15th. But so far the inclination hasn't been there.
So I decided to cancel the sub and make Vanguard my official fallback MMO to play while looking for something better, or failing that newer, to come along. (more on that soon)

But here's the thing, NCSoft presents you with a voluntary exit-survey for you to take.
Now I know these things are notorious for never being updated at all, but I was surprised to notice in the "have you / are you / do you intend to be playing" category a distinct lack of Aion as a 'looking forward to' option.

That stuff like Champions Online (launches in July) or Jumpgate Evolution isn't in there (launches in June) aren't on there I can understand. You don't want to give people suggestions now do you? But your own up-and-coming MMO? That should be on there don't you think?
I probably should be thankful Auto-Assault isn't listed as an option, Tabula Rasa still is though.

On a side note, I've jsut forcably janked off the wrist-support ledge on my Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 and threw it over the balcony. I know, I know, But we're facing an unused lawn and it's raining so no-one is out there breaking the law by letting their dog poo on there. It's supposed to be ergonomic, help me combat RSI, or CANS as it's called nowadays, and all that. But;
A: I can't type worth a shite on the KB with the wrist-tension-reducing ledge up
B: I have to twist my entire body into some kind of healthy position to even type worth a shite, which gives me cramps all over. Bah!.

The judges (me) are still out on the angled keyboard sections. I still hit the wrong keys a lot, but I'm willing to tough that out for a while longer.

Sunday, April 26

FreeRealms SOE's free to choose MMO?

Disclaimer: As ever with anything posted here the cry 'It's all Lani's fault!' must always be heard, I only know of and have played the beta of this game because of links Lani provided, it really is his fault!

So what is FreeRealms? Having played for hours into double digits I still haven't a clue, one thing is for sure it has the potential to make Sony alot of money and provide many a happy hour for people who aren't willing to give them said money too.

It's important to note that the 'Free' part of it's name (as fanboys and Sony would have us believe) is the freedom to decide which activity your going to take part in and not that it's all about being F2P, FreeRealms will provide you with hours of fun for absolutely nothing but if you want to get the most out of it then of course your going to have to pay. The game has a membership fee should you choose to go that route of $5 per month, a third of your average MMO BUT not everything is included in that monthly fee, if you want a pet then you need to buy that seperately. It's an interesting mix of subscription and RMT, theres 2 ways of looking at, it's either about more choice in how you spend your money or it's about money grabbing corporations, all depending on which side of the fence you sit on.

Target audience is probably pre-teens (the whole question on responsibility and the ethics of online gaming being introduced to young kids is something that requires a post unto itself, I'll keep it zipped on that subject for now), you really need to take that into account when you login, it's graphics are akin to PS1 games , it reminds me of a platformer called Psychonauts but less quirky. In total contrast to this review I found the music to be cheap, nasty, uninspired and hard to stomach for more than 10 minutes, thankfully the game provides the option to turn it's volume down to zero, forget the lush orchestral schores your used to and say hello to something that sounds like it was composed by some advertising wizz kid on an uninspired day on something not much more technicaly advanced than a Stylophone.

The initial download of the game is a mere 50mb, in these days of 1.5gigs and up for most games it's gotta be the quickest game to access out there, that's going to play a big part in it's popularity, kids who've seen their mates play won't need to take up hours of downloading time on their parents PC, the game downloads the rest of it's content once your in and playing, I was in within minutes of deciding to give it a shot, it currently takes up 1.7gb on my HD.

So onto the gameplay, and this is where I find it hard to describe this game as an MMO or even to pidgeon hole it. Their are no classes to choose from, just 2 races, human or pixie, the choice being either cute or super cute, neither has any impact on gameplay. Customising your character is fairly limited although you have more choice if you subscribe. There are no classes because you decide which 'jobs' your going to pursue, for free players these consist of - Postman, Chef, Ninja, Brawler and Kart Driver, if you decide to subscribe your choice widens to include Medic, Wizard, Ranger and Blacksmith. Each can be leveled up at your own leisure to a max level of 20, there are also other jobs such as Miner and Pet Trainer (you can be a pet trainer for free but you need to buy a pet with real cash) which fall under your general 'Adventurer job, although I've yet to get my adventuring level beyond 1 ?

Quests are simple and are the usual fed-ex, kill x amount or gather x amount format though most are designed to draw you into the mini games, Quests are also designed to draw you into subscribing, a quest chain can come to a premature halt unless you subscribe.

The quests and therefore the mini games are all about advancing one of your jobs, the Kart Driver job just means getting better and winning more in either Demolition Derbys or Go Kart Racing, I didn't pursue that job as the controls are quite sensitive and I'm just plain rubbish at it, coming last so often was getting embarassing. The reason I put the question mark after the word MMO in the title is because the term MMO hardly applies to this game, racing is one of the few times you will have to come into contact with other players.

Gathering and crafting - the game does involve both, the Chef recipes require you to gather items as well as prepare the dishes, the cooked dish is useful as they provide buffs in a more traditional MMO way. Both the gathering and cooking for Chef dishes take part in Flash 2D minigames, gathering (same is true with mining as the picture example) is done via a game that is a total remake of the popular flash game Bejeweled, not a bad thing if you enjoyed that game.

How useful Mining is I've yet to fathom as I've only seen one recipe that uses metal, a wand for wizards which as I'm not going to subscribe is useless to me.

Combat is instanced and can be initiated whenever you see a creature with crossed swords above it's head or enter the entrance to a dungeon. Everyone starts with the combat class of Brawler, you start with 2 simple skills, attack and a round kick for hitting multiple mobs, you gain 'stars' during combat which can be used to boost skills, as you level you also access more skills. Combat is simple and comes in varying degrees of difficulty, you can see the difficulty level before you choose to accept. You can solo everything or you can choose to team up. All combat instances will adjust themselves to suit your current level which means areas have no level requirements, the instance will also adjust depending on how may people enter, rumour also has it that in dungeons certain bosses will only spawn with a large team entering, the loot apparently scales too. Sadly as everything can be done solo I am very doubtful that many people will actually get to see or test this aspect out. Teams can be created without the need for a (subscription paying) Medic player if you have enough health and mana pots. I found the combat quite fun and some of it quite challenging, you dont get killed, you get 'knocked out', the combat quests give a bonus for not getting knocked out or you fail if you get knocked out too many times.

The world , as it currently stands, can be walked across in about an hour. Theres a variety in its look but the 'world' isnt that important here, it's all about the instanced game play whether its the 3d combat, racing or pet training or the 2d flash based games such as gathering, cooking or tower defense games. Travelling is by either foot or by warp stones, you unlock a warp stone simply by finding it.

As a 'serious' gamer it's the kind of game I would usually avoid and not bother even looking at but as Lani linked to it i figured it may have some worth, that worth is finding something that has plenty of ways to distract yourself for half an hour or so with something simple and fun to do, considering how painless it was to get in it's something that will stay on my machine when I want that mindless distraction outside my current 'real' mmo.

I'm still intrigued by this scaling dungeon malarchy so if anyone wants to join me to give it a go...? :)

Trying a new dish

Gado Gado

Next time I'll go with stir-fried veggies as is my custom.
Boilling removes too much of the flavour and by the judge of the waste watter, a lot of minerals too.
Or I'll dust off the old steamer.

Tuesday, April 21

Game Review: Drakensang: The Dark Eye

Today I bring you a game I've been playing while Phè was off in the Dutch Mountains and will be playing while she's off to the Down Under:
Drakensang, the Dark Eye. Or Das Schwarze Auge as it's called in the original German. Das Schwarze Auge is the most famous German P&P RPG and Drakensang is the first Computer Game adaptation of it in over ten years. It's a Single Player four man Party real-time-tactics-with-space-to-pause RPG by German Studio Radon labs and it plays the nostalgia card in a big, big way. It was released in Germany last August and a de-localized version has recently been released to the wider public and is currently available on Steam.

Back in the days of Dungeons & Dragons glory, the Germans were anxiously looking for a German RPG. Mostly because D&D didn't come in german for a long time. Das Schwarze Auge was the answer. While not known in the US (D&D) or the UK (Warhammer) it did spread to a Dutch version (Oog des Meesters) for a while but that never took off as the Dutch are perfectly happy mangling and mispronouncing the English language in the name of having fun. While the world 'Aventuria' is a Generic Fantasy Setting from a Mass production Plant, this makes it readily accessible even though Drakensang is not a Dungeons & Dragons RPG but uses a very different system. Which is its first selling point if you ask me.

In the Party real-time-tactics-with-space-to-pause RPG genre, D&D has been setting the tone ever since the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series by Bioware and Black Isle (later Obsidian) studios. Of course there was the Dungeon Quest line, but that really was Party Diablo and in a league of its own. The main benefit to this is that unlike with a 6 man D&D group, you don't immediately know what makes a good group makeup. With a D&D game you'd set up your perfect/preferred group by rote almost, even with superficial changes to the system and/or computer adaptations over the years. With Drakensang, you get a fresh new start

Look and feel and play:
Drakensang puts it all out, all the classic quests and gameplay elements of the good old days of party-based RPG's with current day graphics and audio. It's obvious that the folks at Radon labs really, really love the genre. The game is a treat for any fan of those games I mentioned. Even if that was before your time, but you do know Nevewinter Nights (Bioware) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (Obsidian, formerly Black Isle) or even the more SciFi Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware) and KotOR II (Obsidian) you will enjoy this game. Assuming you're familiar with the genre, Drakensang plays just differently enough from the D&D classics to be refreshing and challenging.

The Graphics engine and overall art look are pretty close to Fable II in look and feel, though a little less cartoony on the whole, It uses a lot of soft and bright colors that'll make you think of the first two Shrek movies, while Fable II would be more, ehm, name a Disney movie? Over all the game screams Xbox 360 at me. Oddly enough it is only available on PC for now. Bu this may change in the future.
Anyway, you should be clicking on some of the liberally included images for a good representative look of the game.

The differences between Drakensang's 4 man party system and classic D&D 4 man party games has caused me to restart the game twice already. Once because I'd mucked up my team's stats due to my unfamiliarity with the system and once because I realized that the game was going out of its way to provide your Fighter Type 'main hero' with a supporting cast. Something that made my Rogue player character fit in the team like a square in a round hole. So The second time I rerolled I abandonded my charming, haggling sweet- & fast-talking Rogue in favor of an Elven Fighter, who uses light armor, a spear and casts a bit of magic. Kinda like the D&D Paladin, except completely different in every way except the basic group-role.

The Story:
The story isn't all that great. essentially you're going to singlehandedly, with three stalward companions, save the world from Evil Cultists who killed your friend and are trying to destroy the Dragons who left the world ages ago. THey've got some bad youth trauma's to deal with obviously. And obviously the Dragons aren't as gone as first assumed...
It's certainly not Bioware grade for sure. Though I must admit that it comes close to Bioware's Neverwinter which was more about setting up and showcasing the Aurora Engine for subsequent player-made content than it was to tell a great story, which Bioware subsequently set about doing through the follow up Premium Content packs. (Which did well in contrast to most of Betheasda's attemtps along the same lines, mainly because Bioware gives value for money each time and Behtesda about once in four packs)
In scope it's close to Neverwinter's main story arc but misses some of the in depth side-quests and NPC dialogue. Still, there's a lot of fun to be had and I didn't mind replaying the content through the two restarts. I managed to pick up on quests I missed and or failed (you can fail quests) the first time round. Besides, Cliche and classic are two sides of the same coin really.

I did notice a few glitches in the English translation which, given the Quest Journal's rather terse style, can cause problems if one doesn't know for instance that Elric and Eelco are pretty much different language versions of the same name. English Voice Acting is mediocre with compulsory fake Scotch accents for the dwarfs but mercifully brief and mostly limited to the NPCs' first address. Some core Quest stuff has more than basic voice over, and those actors tend to be of higher quality. I suspect the German version's probably better in this regard.

Gameplay: 8/10: Because it's refreshingly not D&D and focuses more on taking down tough monsters than mowing through countless hordes of enemies.
Graphics: 8/10: While the particle effects could be better *cough* fireball *cough* overall it looks pretty good and the art style is consistent. Just when I thought I'd be getting tired of the same dungeon / sewer tileset, they sprung a different one at me.
Story: 7/10: You can't do much spectacular with this background, the story keeps you going and paces the game nicely so far. I could rank this a 6, but somehow I don't want to.
Localization: 7/10: I feel this could have been handled better and the glitches / idiosyncracities are surmountable. It's probably due to everyone being used to do this the other way round, English to German rather than German to English.
Replay Value: 7/10 I restarted twice without it becoming a real problem. You may have noticed though that I mentioned the game and especially your party members are rather Player-playes-a-Warrior centric. This may stiffle true replay value. Then again you're probably more adept at setting up your party after having played through the whole game, which i haven't yet.
Overall: 7.5/10 as the localization really isn't that big of a deal. Triple A straight-to-English games have had more Quest Journal bugs than this game.

Wednesday, April 15

DX10, adding 10% more Bling! to Age of Conan

On the last day of my reawakened account I took some screenshots in AoC while on my spliffy new PC.
It has DX10 and a beast of a videocard that can handle all AoC throws at it.

Thunder River:
Left: DX9 Advanced Grass is turned off, all other settings at max.
Right: DX10 Advanced grass is turned on, it sways in the wind.

Here you can see how advanced grass makes Poitain even more lush than it already was.
This grass is the main advancement if you ask me. The regular grass is pretty ok, but it would rotate on the ground to face your camera.
This makes AoC more like Elder Scrolls III: Oblivion. (A s006 DX9 game)

The new grass does have one major drawback, it's not always lit.
By unlit I mean that it isn't susceptible to local light sources but is always lit by default light.
The result is sunflooded grasses in the shadows.
Also barely visible in this picture is another feature which I decided to turn off within minutes.

But first another 'glam shot'.
Wild Lands of Zelata with all sliders on max and furthest viewing distance.

The setting "Screen Space Ambient Occlusion Lighting", besides having a horribly long name is one that takes away more than it adds.

To explain what it does, imagine a warm sunny summer day under a tree canopy. Imagine how this creates a kind of moving pattern of shadow and light on the ground? Now imagine everything, ground, walls, roofs, trees under that kind of lighting. Looks pretty spliffy yes? Until you move. You see the AoC implementation doesn't actually work with real trees (not to mention this effect is on in the middle of the dessert as well) but a single static mesh. So if you take a step forward, so does the pattern.
Sadly I didn't get any screenshots that showed this feature clearly and properly.

This setting can be nice. Of course you don't turn it on the whole way.
I got it at 25% and got this nice warm light for it.
It's nearly identical to DX9's HDR systems.


I won't be showing spectacular DX 10 underwater shots because quite frankly DX10 in AoC is rather underwhelming compared to older DX9 games. These surface reflections (a DX9 setting btw) do look nice though.

All in all I must say that the DX10 additions to Age of Conan add a layer of bling to the already stunningly gorgeous engine. Though 2 out of the 4 new things are a bit underwhelming and one I actually turn off immediately.

But mostly it shows that nine tenths of DX10 bling is also available in DX9.

This makes sense since DX10 is essentially a total rewrite of DX9 (which had become a reather convoluted API over the years) with only a few things added on top of that.
Going from Shader Model 2 to 3 on DX9 has more noticable effects.

*Caveat: The lighting and underwhelming caustics may be due to me having an ATI card and Funcom having a HW deal with nVidia. Meaning they get free hardware and API support for that brand but not for AMD/ATI.

Games should know what I want

I wanted to write something for you guys, and in the interest of assisting Lani with lowering the bar ;) here it is...

I recently took one of those Jung personality tests. It told me I'm an ISTP. Clicking on a link to tell me what that was, it said I was a crafter/artisan. I guess maybe that's why I tend to enjoy crafting in games so much.

Anyway, I have yet to find me a crafting system in a game that completely satisfies me. Something that totally relies on my skill an not on some random chance method.
I did enjoy crafting a tad in World of Warcraft; however, it was more of a collection system. You had to gather the appropriate elements and once you had them, with the click of a button, voila! Your item is crafted. It does well for the sense of accomplishment, but does absolutely nothing in having pride in your work. Once you've crafted something, you can tack your name to the list of a thousand other people that have crafted exactly the same item.
Many crafting systems are typically the same. Go get one alligator eyeball, two hollowed out flamingo legs, and a phoenix feather and all of a sudden you have a fancy looking telescope that resurrects people... just like everyone else.

The closest crafting system I've found yet is that in Vanguard Saga of Heroes. For those that don't know, check out Phe's excellent post about it (Phe, you did write one here somehwere, right?) or here we go...

First you have to gather the materials. No biggie, we aren't God, we can't make something from nothing. Then you have to prepare the pieces. Once you have the pieces, you have to put them together. Sounds simple right? Not really. When you craft something, depending on how well you spend your crafting points (argh!!) and a little bit of luck (argh!! x2), your item is assigned a quality which determines some of it's stats. Notice my frustration with "crafting points" and "luck?" Those are what makes Vanguard's crafting system so much better than the rest of them, and yet makes me long for the simplicity of WoW (oops, I think my desire for instant gratification is showing.).

I long for a crafting system that allows me freedom from luck and yet requires skill. Vanguard offers use of skill, if you enjoy resource management in deciding how and when to spend your points. I'm not a fan. Typically I either way undershoot my spending (thus ending up with poor quality items) or else I overshoot and waste my time, blood, sweat, tears, hopes, and dreams...(excuse me while I go sob quietly in a corner for a moment). In any case, have you ever had a time when you felt like your head was trying to simultaneously implode and explode? That's about the feeling I get when I've spent too much time trying to play the numbers game that is Vanguard's crafting.

And then the luck...complications (argh!! x3). There doesn't seem like rhyme or reason to when they come up. You'll be crafting happily along and all of a sudden all the hinges unhinge themselves and run off with the bolts of their own volition. Not fun.
But there's definitely satisfaction in knowing "I MADE THIS!" when you get that good quality item as the fruit of your labors. So they did something right. Perhaps it's rooted in the complexity of the system. All that luck and number crunching are worth something after all? I'm sure, but that doesn't mean I'm happy with it. I'd rather be crunching fingers under a hammer because I suck at hitting the nails (or because I'm awesome at hitting the (finger)nails), than crunching numbers only to find out that my luck ran out about 10 barrel straps ago.

So, what would make an awesome crafting system IMO? I don't know. There's a reason I'm not in game design. I'll wait for someone to make it then I'll tell them if they got it right on or not. ;) Also...what good would it be for me to answer all the questions? There would leave no room for discussion, because I know I'm right. *insert evil laugh here*

Despite the love/hate relationship I had with Vanguard's crafting in the past, I still think it's the best (and here's the qualifier) of all the MMOs I've played so far.

-the entity formerly known as BP (blackphoenix for you non-acronymic (wee, I made a word (wanting to see how many parenthesis I can embed here (are you confused yet? I am.))) folk)

Saturday, April 11

Some assembly required

Like the title says, some assembly is required. The DVD R/W thing not in packaging is one that I'm transferring from my old PC.
Actually, it comes from the pc I had before my current old one. It's burned 10 DVD's and 6 CD's in 6 years time. *shrug* I don't burn much. Previously I'd cleared this old table in my library so I could use it for assembly. As it happens a very groundy wall-mounted heater was right next to me as well, so that too was covered.

Now don't go all huffy about me thinking my home rates an actual library, it's not all that posh.
But since this row of bookcases is the most prominent feature of the room (there's another half-height set of bookcases against the other wall) and me not liking the word bookroom....
Note the heater in the back.

Some assembly done. Note the top-mounted full-width fan. That's gonna keep my baby cool.
Bigger fans == less noise. I'm not succumbing to all the male testosterone that the imagery on the packaging is trying to incur.
Also note the placement of the PSU, the Power Supply Unit which is at the bottom, and for my geek cred the row of O'Reilly books in the back. I also see my fav psychology book from University (I dropped out) on the lower shelf.

Now that is just plain handy!

Motherboard partially assembled, I added three rows of memory to a grand total of 6GB.
For extra cred see if you can recognize some of the old games the boxes of which I kept and are on that shelf in the back.
Also note that's an entire shelf with just O'Reilly books. I'm a nerd :-)
(I also cheat, there's two editions on Javascript & DHTML each there. Couldn't bear throwing them out though)

Motherboard complete with CPU and Big Ass Fan and some cabling attached so I won't have to cut and bruise my fingers trying to attach them after mounting.

Nearly done now. THe big black horizontal bar is the videocard.
I'm NOT a case modder, hence I don't give a fart about neat cabling. Airflow is barely impeached by cables so screw that.
Beyond the 3 fans you see here and the two you can deduce being there, there's an additional 2 fans mounted to the front. One of those will be on and blowing cool air over my barely lukewarm harddisks straight over my videocard. Ok, so maybe I should clean up that cabling just a bit. Maybe some day replace that DVD-R/W which is the noisiest part now.

And now the case is closed.
Once again, not a case modder. I don't care about how it looks.
Well I do a bit, which is why you don't get to see how it looks 'lit up' with blue leds from the case, slightly different blue along with green and amber from the motherboard, and to nauseatingly top of the light-show the CPU fan has a salmon pink glow.
The net result is not pretty. Who cares? Not this blogger who knows this case is ending up beneath a desk anyway.

Friday, April 10

Bloggy thingy is like really intimidating

After we sort of got surprised by our own seemingly endless flow of stuff to type Lani created Bodycount!. As a result of that post I started firing off emails to all kind of people. Well, not really all kind of people, more to a few great people I call friends. And all of them were happy to hear from me, and even more happy to see the three of us are still doing our 'thing'. One response I got back sums up so perfectly how all of them think. I think.

Soooo... i read your bloggy thingy :D its good seeing you all back together on the same page again I got little happy tears. I have never read a blog, norposted on one. So its like really intemidating to me. I guess i will be a lurker till i figure it out. :D

I'll leave it to you to figure out who said that. But I would have actually very much agreed with it a month or two ago. Hell, even this morning I felt like that. But 10 comments later I have my groove again.

I think our blog is not really a blog. Not in the sense of the soapbox telling the world how it is. It is more like the pub at the corner. We say things here that don't fit in the chat window online, or make sense as a private email. And just like in the pub, it is a case of the more the merrier. Is there anything we can do to make it more accessable?

Wednesday, April 8

Anarchist screenshot posting

Having been labeled as an anarchist how could I not rise to the bait ? FC are currently running a very early public test version of the Commons District for AoC on the test server, an area larger than I expected but as visually stunning as I'd come to expect for AoC.

View from the commons looking back at Old Tarantia

Entrance to the graveyard

Landscape looking back towards the Commons from the rear of the graveyard

This is from a system not good enough to run AoC to it's full beauty (forget DX10) but nonetheless fine eye candy.

Sunday, April 5

Sunday Screenshot Showoff Post #2

With Phè out of blogging commission for the week and Geek a self admitted disciplineless anarchist. I guess this weeks Sunday Screenshot Showoff Topic is once again up to me.

The consequences of this are that this week's topic will be an ode to Coilla, my little ADHD Goblin Rogue in Vanguard.
I love how she looks right now. She's got together a set of social armor all in shades of purple and pink to complement her green skin. I'm actually working on a second set, jungle togs.
Don't worry, in both outfits she's bristling with weaponry, ranging from the oversized crossbow you could stab someone with to the huge crossguardless Raider's Shortsword and the nicely curved throatslitter. Not visible is her arsenal of flechette and smoke bombs and poison dart blower.
In all honesty, I'm not using half her arsenal or abilities.
Regarless, she's a joy to work with, though I do get turned around a lot in the Jungle.

Coilla's working on getting herself a Shadowhound Mount to ride. Eventually she'll be aiming for an Mortak Okami Mount but that's a looooong way off. For the time being she's making due with a little wolfpup named Timber.

Creepy crawling into Trengal Keep in search of Worgs.

Can't reach to slit your throat? No prob. Plenty of other arteries to pick from

Trying to teach Timber some tricks

Coilla's more a dog person than a cat person. Sorry

Random image of dawn over Infineum Plateau in Qalia.
No Coilla in this picture

Just look at that shish-ke-bab cooking set

Ding 30! Checking out the City Faction Moutns.
Nice doggy.

Think I'll go for the Shadowhound instead.

The oft maligned Unreal Engine

I was reading an article about the possible cancellation of the Stargate Worlds MMO, which has been in dire financial straits since the end of last year. And there it was, the inevitable "I don't know the first thing about software development, Engines or project management, but I say the fault is that they're using the Unreal Engine which is obviously not good for anything other than FPS games", except they leave out the bit where they explain they're totally unqualified to make such a statement.

Even without being a software engineer yourself, without having been on the inside and seen the myriad of ways an MMO project can and will fail without it being the fault of a licensed bit of proven middleware technology, it should be possible for people to see the stupidty of blithely blaming said piece of middleware.

Let's start with statistics:
MMO's using the the Unreal 2 or 3 engine:
And yet-to-be-launched MMO projects: That's 8 succesfully launched MMO's made with the Unreal Engine and at least two of the three forthcoming launches will see the light of day I'm sure (the latter two). I don't know much about Mortal Online and Huxley is well, Huxley. SGW is the game that probably won't see the light of day. All because Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment chose the Unreal Engine accoriding to mister 'X'.
But remember, for each MMO project that sees launch there's nine others that don't. That's 72 MMO's not using the Unreal Engine and failed. Statisticly speaking you have a better chance at launching using the Unreal Engine than if you built your own from scratch. And there's a reason for that; Not using middleware, als known as trying to re-invent all the wheels on uour cart, is a much higher risk than making use of a licensed engine, or two.

Besides the Hero Engine (this site is worth a visit) by Simultronics there still isn't all that much in the way of middleware available for the MMO market. Until very recently, 2006/2007, there really wasn't all that much middleware to make use of. The only engine you could license for it and which was halfway useful would have to be an FPS engine. What an MMO needs and an FPS game need form a rendering engien is pretty much the same. Textures, skeletons & wireframes, animation pathing, lighting and particles. The 'Boom! Headshot' stuff isn't actually the engine. That's game-logic, Something else entirely. After Epic realized that their Unreal Engine 2 was infact pretty darn suitable for MMO's and RPGs they designed Unreal Engine 3 with that in mind and expanded their services to suit those types of games.

But some of the above mentioned MMO's didn't do well and that could possibly be laid at the Engine's door?

Vanguard doesn't do all that well on an engine level, there's no denying that. The fact that some devs swore not to have a single line of Epic code left by launch and saddly succeeded may have had more to do with that than the choice of Engine. Vanguard's road to laucnh would make a great book on how not to run a project. In fact you can blame everything except Epic for this one, given the lack of a single line of Epic made code in the finished product.
Fury was out for less than 10 months. Was this due to the engine? Tabula Rasa wasn't made with the Unreal Engine and it suffered a similar fate. Very similar in fact. In both instances the basic gameplay didn't appeal to enough people. Maybe the one needed more PvE elements and the other more PvP? In both cases it wasn't the 3D graphics that were at fault.

The Chronicles of Spellborn is doing iffy but without stretching my NDA too much let me just say that there were more similarities between the development cycle of Vanguard and TCoS then just the engine they used.

You see the Unreal Engine is provided as is, fully documented and all. Additional tooling can be gotten as well. There's online forum support and additional support contracts that may be gotten. Everything has a price of course. It's a know quantity in your project. Something a project manager will kill for. Or at least sleep with your mother in law with for. Time not needed to re-invent the wheel, I mean make a graphics engine half as good as Epic's, is time you can spend on making your game mechanics more fun than Fury and Tabula Rasa's.
In this day and age, you'd be stupid not to use middleware like the Unreal Engine or the Hero Engine and several other kits, like networking / communications / market & financial systems because you reduce risk immensely as well as development time. Since we're talking 10-50 Milion dollar investments and you just can't know if your team can built their own engine from scratch before the money runs out.
Heroe Engine tries to be an all-in-one solution. I.e. it does tons more for you than the Unreal Engine does. As such it has a much greater impact on your project than Unreal Engine would.

But looking at the entire list of games using the Unreal Engines, you'd think it is actually possible to make a decent game using the engine since so many other outfits managed to do so and propser. Note that only about half of those games are actually FPS games. One could almost say that anyone blithely blaming the Unreal Engine for a failed MMO project without very substantial evidence is actually talking out of his bony arse.

Ach, it's simple scape-goating by the Interweb Citizen. No-one expects other people to talk sense anymore, do they? I mean, you're anonymous, there's no requirement to make sense.

Friday, April 3

Vanguard: Living in Telon

One of the features of Vanguard, Saga of Heroes which I liked a lot more than Phèdre did, is housing. Kettle used to have her cute little cabin in what's called Northern Stonepike Ridge in eastern Thestra:

Don't be fooled by the Griffin, you could barely reach it by bird. It's a nice Highlands in the Snow kinda place. I loved it.

Since rejoining the game I realized I'd really like a little hovel to call my own again.So with Phè "out of the way", she's in Chicago for the week, I set about finding a different location to put my hat down this time. I checked several locations in Qalia first. The spot of our Legion's HQ has become deserted and to be honest the Qalian islands all look the same to me with circular rows of houses. Neat if you got a bunch of friends to stake out one such circle, but otherwise it's too suburbian.

See? Kettle loving her home :-)

Kettle went on to check the Kojani islands for options, spurred on by Coilla who hails from Martok which has two housing islands nearby.
As it happened, the slot next to Sajeera, an old friend from the Legion was free and available. It used to belong to another officer in the Legion, but like so many he has since moved on.
Much as I like the Kojani flora, I just don't like the buildings, mostly the interiors. This is aggravated by the fact that I love the Martok style. So if I were to build a home here, that'd be a scabbed wound I'd keep picking at.

So back to Thestra we went and after much scanning of shores and islands for the perfect spot, I settled upon...
The same exact spot I put my old cabin on.
I have no idea why it was even still available. People don't like bear-traps and pike-fences in their backyards? Or is there a problem with a Level 35 Frostwing winging through the front yard every 25 minutes?

So, after putting down 10 Gold for the plot and nearly a whole Platinum (100 Gold) for materials I built me a small Thestran one story house with thatched roofing and moved in. As you can see, picking the same spot had me at least pcikign a different style home. The Cabin's the cheapest Thestran house you can build, the One Story is just a bit posher, though nothing compared to the two Big House options.

Even though all the materials that had gone into the original cabin were lost to me, all my old posessions had been kept for me in escrow. So furnishing my home wouldn't be bankrupting me immediately. In addition to that, some veteran rewards had come my way and these mainly consist of furniture sets yo play with.

Being a Halfling means having a well stocked larder

Notice how Kettle changed a bit over time, without my intervention.
Devs made some changes to the 'skeletons'.

Two vet rewards: a Rindol Field's Halfling sized bed, and the Martok one (the fur rug)