Tag Archives: gaming

Ratchet Up The Excitement!

No, this is not a post about SW:TOR. So far, I’ve been able to keep that particular affliction at bay despite the recent excitement surrounding pre-orders.

No, my hype-meter spiked today after seeing the new set of official screenshots for Rise of Isengard (I can’t seem to locate the official announcement, so I’ll just link to the CSTM post). And I have to say, I’m extremely impressed. I’ve always been a huge fan of LotRO‘s art style – in particular the racial architectures and outdoor environments (honestly, does anyone really like the character models?). But what really got me was this shot:

(click for full size)

I saw that at full size and literally said “Whoa!” (Keanu-style). If you haven’t already, take a look at the full-size version. Impressive, isn’t it?

As a photographer by training (though never by trade…how’s that for getting value from one’s education?), I can say the shot above is good, but nothing particularly impressive. Sure, the tower on the mountain is definitely intriguing and, as usual, the skybox lends significant impact to the environment. However, what it could indicate for the game is something entirely different. What got me the most excited was one detail, which I’m sincerely hoping I’m interpreting correctly. Here it is:

If I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing, those are people. A lot of people. This is the kind of settlement that I’ve always wished for in LotRO; I’m familiar enough with the lore to understand that many of the areas of Middle Earth through which we travel are supposed to be rather low in population. But I’ve always felt that too many of the areas seem downright sparse. Bree, for example, is appropriately sized for how I’d imagine it, but it never seems as if there are enough NPCs to account for the number of buildings.

The “camp” in that screenshot, however, is practically bursting with people. What that could mean about new technology behind the game, and it’s capabilities for presenting a “living world”, is very encouraging. Consider this – how many monsters do we see on screen at once, at most? One dozen? Maybe two? With those kinds of limits, how do you think Turbine will recreate something like the siege of Helm’s Deep? Or the battle at the Fields of Pelennor? With the Jackson films setting a high standard, it would be impossible for Turbine to recreate something even close. At which point we’d be left participating in sidelined skirmishes. Not exactly compelling.

Yes, I know they are just screenshots, and screenshots can be misleading. And even if they are accurate, there’s no promise that LotRO will suddenly be able to handle true crowds of NPCs and mobs. The proof will be in the seeing. But if they are representative of increased capacity, I think we’re seeing a nice incremental increase to what LotRO can deliver. We may never see a battle the size of Pelennor (which is more or less a needless desire, considering the only concern in a battle is likely what is immediately around you!), but it looks like we’re getting a step closer!

December may bring it’s requisite flurry of emotions and activity, but at this point, it’s September to which I am truly looking forward!

Advertisements

TOR: Good to Go

Collector's Edition

Turns out all the rumors and hype were true. Pre-orders for Star Wars: The Old Republic opened up this morning (for me at least) around 3:20 AM; here’s hoping everyone who wants one is able to pre-order (having read the official forum threads tonight, I feel kinda bad reading people’s posts around 3 AM who said they were off to bed…only 15 or 20 minutes more and they would have been rewarded).

I can personally confirm that Amazon has a limit of 1 copy per account, and I’ve seen statements that Origin is the same. Anyway, got my pre-order in and feeling pretty good! Very excited that there is actually a light at the end of this tunnel. I’m still trying to temper my expectations, and as this is by far the most I’ve ever spent on a Collector’s Edition, I really hope it’s worth it!

Good luck everyone!

Conundrum

As Syp notes, things have been extraordinarily quiet in the ‘sphere of late. Obviously, I haven’t found much worth writing about recently and I try to keep from rambling, so that’s led to saying very little! As I’ve only been doing this “blogging thing” for a little over a year (on and off), I’m not sure if this is a natural lull that occurs annually, or if it’s just a symptom of the current “wait-and-see” situation we’re all in. With few recent or near-term releases, and several big titles just over the horizon, it feels like everyone is just holding their breath.

Not that I haven’t been playing games; my renewed enthusiasm for LotRO continues unabated and I’ve been delving into some older titles that have sat neglected in my Steam Library. However, I’ve let my subscription to RIFT run its course. At the point where I ran out of time, I hadn’t logged into the game in weeks, so even though I feel that I missed out on a good portion of the game (I was never able to hit the level cap, or even get out of Scarwood Reach), letting go wasn’t actually much of a loss. Not that I didn’t enjoy the game, and there is a lot about RIFT that I find fun and compelling, but it just couldn’t compete for my limited time.

In reality, for the last few months I’ve found myself in a bit of a tough spot when it comes to gaming; not only have Real Life and Work become increasingly dominant, but I’ve found that on one hand the time available for gaming has been coming in smaller and smaller chunks,  and on the other my staple games have become less satisfying.  Again, not that I’m not having fun, but I constantly find myself looking for something different.

(The last three months have also taught me that when one undertakes a gaming-related project, it (ironically) leaves very little time for actually playing games! Hopefully I’ll have something more tangible to show for all of it soon. As for a silver lining, I’ve become intimately familiar with Python. So I guess there’s that.)

With most of my free time coming in small doses, my primary activity in LotRO has been to grind out remaining deeds in the “low level” areas; it’s easy to step away for several minutes when one is standing in the midst of a field of Grays who pointedly ignore you. Until you walk up and stab them, at least. However, I’ve once again found myself playing single-player titles far more than anything else. I picked up Bioshock 2 for a song on Steam, and continue to chip away at Oblivion and Dungeon Siege III. But mostly I’ve been playing Left 4 Dead. Which, in my mind, is indicative of my ongoing conundrum.

I’ve found that I’m looking for something more long-term than a single-player experience; certainly that type of experience is more tailored to the individual, but there is a factor in MMOs that is hugely appealing. It’s the, shall we say, “permanence”, though I have trouble assigning the status of permanent to anything purely digital – I’ve worked in IT for too long and know how easily these things can go *poof*.  Or rather it’s the persistence of an MMO; the idea that the things we do last, even in the smallest ways, beyond our time in the game. Mostly I attribute it to the social connections; no one in Oblivion cares if I come, go, or die and never boot up the game ever again. Not so in an MMO in which we’ve invested thousands of hours. It’s almost inevitable, by design or by incident, that we will establish relationships with other people, and that has an effect beyond the game world, no matter how small.

Even if it’s only in the pursuit of Achievements, such as in Left 4 Dead, I’ve been looking for something greater than a moment-to-moment experience. But I’ve also been craving drop-in/drop-out, immediate-action gameplay, yet I need something which also allows for easy pauses, which MMOs don’t exactly provide.  So L4D is seems to be the best option at the moment – it’s easy to get in and get out, have some fun, it’s full of action, and I have goals beyond “Survive the next wave of undead”.

Still,  I’m craving something that just doesn’t exist:

  1. an online world,
  2. with Other People,
  3. that isn’t entirely focused around slaughter,
  4. where I can jump in and out with an hour to play (or less),
  5. and where it’s okay if I step away for a few minutes.
  6. (And make it compelling and deep, in visuals and story, please!)

It’s a tall order, I know. And one I’m not likely to see filled anytime soon. And I’m rambling, so let’s try to make a point here…

What would do it for me would be if LotRO was a little less themepark and a little more sandbox; deeper crafting, better housing systems (or better yet, player-made structures/towns à la SWG!), and more exploration that doesn’t involve leaving a trail of corpses like so many breadcrumbs. Something for me to do in the world that doesn’t involve killing Orcs, or necessitate several hours investment (also spent mostly killing Orcs).

But all of that is just wishful thinking. Until then, I’m stuck with bite-sized content and the occasional extended session with the kinship. Not a bad place to be, but not exactly what I feel I’d most enjoy.

‘Welcome Home’ Party

Been a slow couple of weeks for me on every front except work (seems like every time I find a minute to post, I realize it’s been over a week since the last update – for shame!). However, the Summer Festival in LotRO has prompted a return to regular gaming sessions, if for no other reason than to partake of the festivities. Not a whole lot new for this year’s festival, but I’ve always enjoyed the Dwarf and Hobbit races (very apropos), the new mount (obviously my first acquisition) is nice, and some of the cosmetic cloaks are particularly attractive.

A few nights ago, I found myself in a unique position – I had little work needing to be done as of “Yesterday“, and I was wide awake after everyone else had gone to sleep. Naturally I logged in for some quality game time. Now, even as recent as a couple of weeks ago, my destination would have been RIFT, but as I’d been checking in more regularly due to the Festival, I decided to drop in and reconnect with the kinship while I had some primetime availability.

Best decision I’ve made in a long time. I had such a great time that I logged in the next night. And last night. I can’t remember the last time I’ve logged into any game three nights in a row. It’s been so good that, at this point, I’m thinking of letting my subscription to RIFT lapse when it comes due for renewal.

In all the excitement of exploring a new world (and I haven’t even been past Scarwood Reach/Gloamwood) and delving the possibilities of new classes and mechanics, I’d almost forgotten how much of a difference a good social circle makes. My guild in RIFT is very helpful, and there are some great people there, but we are a fairly quiet group that tend towards “playing solo together”. Whether that’s the result of this particular guild, or due to the nature of RIFT itself is debatable (and for another post, I think).

That first night in LotRO, I happened to log in just as the group running Ost Dunhoth (or trying to run it!) was losing a member. I dropped in, and though we didn’t make it very far, it was a blast. Even getting trampled by oliphants multiple times was enjoyable as we all tried to get through the “gate puzzle” (I don’t know the name of the wing in which it’s found, but I think it’s the first challenge of Ost Dunhoth).

After a few attempts, and losing a few raid members to sleep/work/what-have-you, those of us left decided to run through Sammath Gul. Not entirely a challenge, as most of us had already been through it start to finish, but it’s a really fun run, and it let us relax and actually socialize instead of focusing solely on the task at hand. And socialize we did! I haven’t laughed as hard while gaming in probably a year or more! I’m all for the developers providing us with challenging content, but sometimes it’s valuable to just be able to play alongside friends; to share a fun experience that requires teamwork but doesn’t require absolute, laserbeam focus.

So after months of infrequent logins, I’ve come home to the game that has been a second home to me for years.  The whole experience has completely renewed my love of LotRO and re-fired my drive to get in and keep playing. Yet, oddly enough, what hasn’t returned was the feeling of grind that was so prevalent in everything I was doing before my hiatus. One might say, “Absence makes the heart blah blah blah”, but I think it has more to do with leaving behind the manic Completionist thinking. I was so focused on “The Endgame” and checking off every task on every list, for just my main, that I think forgot to simply have fun.

Hopefully we’ll have no more of that! I have no doubt that, at some point, I will find myself in the same position of being left with little to do but grind. But after taking some time off, I’ve got a nice chunk of content on which to “catch up”, and it’s likely that Isengard will drop before I’ve even gotten that far. That, and I think I’ve learned my lesson – when the burn of grind starts setting in, don’t try to power through it. Step back and remember the fun.

Double-Edged Sword

The thing about game trailers is that while they can really sell a game, if your trailers shoot so much farther than your game ever will, you’re probably setting your fans up for some major disappointment. A good trailer can truly make a game, but even an amazing trailer can do more damage if it shows the wrong things.

After the first day of E3, a couple of things have really stood out (Microsoft blew it, Sony on the rebound), but more than anything two trailers caught my attention.

So cool, and yet...

Naturally, the new CG trailer from The Old Republic looks amazing and, as a device for storytelling, is beyond compare. Like Brian, I liked it more than the prequel movies and I sincerely hope that they include HD versions of these trailers in one form or another when they actually get around to selling the game. But I have developed a serious problem with the trailers, especially as more details and video of the actual game are released. As nice as they are, they’re just too much smoke and mirrors (I know, shocker!). The combat will NEVER be like what we see in those trailers. Which is what we all really want, and which BioWare is selling us, and which they will never be able to deliver. Massive disenchantment ensues.

And after seeing the new information on the Advanced Classes page, it’s becoming clear that while BioWare may be forging new ground in terms of a story-driven experience, they aren’t exactly pushing any envelopes when it comes to combat. Which feels like another wasted opportunity, especially considering that games such as Vindictus have already proven that the “tried-and-true” mechanics of MMO combat don’t need to be assumed. And, honestly, if I’m standing in front of an enemy and it takes more than a single hit with a lightsaber to take them down, you’re not really providing me with the “Jedi Experience”, are you?

So, while I loved it as a Star Wars short film and as an “artifact” of lore for BioWare’s efforts, I’m really disappointed in what I’m seeing (or more accurately, not seeing) about the game.

Just plain cool.

On the other end of the spectrum was the released trailer for Kingdoms of Amalur: the Reckoning. I realize that the game on display in the video is not an MMO, but it is the precursor to 38 Studio’s upcoming MMO project, codenamed Copernicus. I think it’s safe to say that Reckoning is basically a testbed for the MMO version – build the engine, refine the gameplay, and set the stage for the world and story of Copernicus. So while the actual combat of Copernicus may not look exactly like Reckoning, I think it provides us with a safe, educated guess.

The difference between my reactions to the two trailers couldn’t be much different. While I shrugged with a “Meh.” at the TOR trailer (I don’t care how nice your CG trailer looks…SHOW ME THE GAME!), the trailer for Reckoning got me crazy-excited to get my hands on it. I’m sure that not all of what was shown was actual gameplay footage (some of it was clearly cutscenes), but enough of it was obviously showing how the actual game will play. It showed the engine at work (beautiful!) and a handful of powers/skills/manuevers from a sample of classes (the “Rogue” backstab-palm-strike at 0:55 was insane!). That is the combat I want to be playing – active and dynamic, where position, timing and choices make a difference. Something where I’m not standing still, trading two dozen blows back and forth in a race to see who falls over first. Where fighting a giant involves getting thrown around and doesn’t involve stabbing it in the toes until it dies.

Okay, so I made that last part up – so far we haven’t seen any giant fights from Reckoning. But it certainly can’t get any worse than what we’ve already been subject to from the likes of EverQuest 2, LotRO, and RIFT when it comes to battling the gigantism-inclined.

The point being, the Reckoning trailer did everything right that the TOR trailer didn’t. Don’t show me what you know I wish the game would be like, show me how it will be when I start playing! Sadly, what we’re seeing is not what we’ll get when it comes to The Old Republic. In their defense, BioWare isn’t exactly known for blazing a trail when it comes to gameplay mechanics. But you’re playing with a very dangerous crowd when you start working with the Star Wars franchise; I don’t think there is a more rabid fanbase out there. CG trailers are nice, and they might help you sell a game, but they will cut you badly when it’s apparent that you can’t deliver on the experience you set up in people’s heads!

Kingdoms of Amalur? Absolutely YES! The Old Republic? Meh.

Winner Winner

Just screams "WINNER", doesn't it?

The issue of equal opportunity in the games I play (or “Return on Investment”) is one that I struggle with constantly; I agree with SynCaine that the Everybody Wins philosophy is a short-term cheat with seriously detrimental long-term implications.  If we don’t know how to lose, and lose graciously, not only are we are handicapping ourselves for the realities all around us, but we rob ourselves of any real value achieved in winning when we actually manage it. However, as an adult with a handful (admittedly small-ish) of actual responsibilities and limited free time, I feel the pull of maximized return on my effort. Time is, after all, the most precious of commodities; disposable cash I’ve got (somewhat), free time for gaming, not so much.

As the father of two young boys, the whole subject is very real for me – team sports are looming on the horizon. And while I want my boys to succeed, it’s more important to me that they learn the nature, and true value, of competition. It’s not about the winning or receiving praise and recognition. It’s about striving to be the best that you can. The outcome, win or lose, should be secondary, at best, to the real purpose at hand; winning should be the bonus, not the goal (or worse, the expectation). This is a lesson I very much want my kids to learn, and if they don’t take to it in team sports, well, there’s always activities that are more individual or less competitive. I’ve had a very recent, personal experience with this; an organization with whom I’ve worked and learned for several years has decided to elevate me to the “next level”. It was an extraordinary feeling, having years of work recognized by those you respect, and I want them to feel that same sense of pride. But they have to earn it.

However, the lessons of competition are never something I would expect them to learn from MMOs; at least, not any of the current crop that are finding mass appeal. Because Syn is right – WoW and its brethren don’t really encourage players to improve. Not in a competitive, “top of the heap” sense. For that I might (someday) point them to strategy games or shooters or…*gasp*… Real World team sports!

Case in Point

But there are lessons to be learned, even in the themeparks as they stand today. Lessons such as cooperation, teamwork, and courtesy to others (okay, maybe not in WoW); social skills like leadership, coordinating groups, and listening. I guess it really depends on what you seek going into these games. If you’re looking for skill-based, sink-or-swim game design maybe the themeparks aren’t for you. Which begs the question – why are you playing RIFT (or WoW, or LotRO, or whatever)?

I know my personal answer (story, story, STORY!). Which always leads me to my constant conundrum – paying the price to see the sights. I love a great challenge, but don’t have the availability to tackle the current design for “challenge” in MMOs (a.k.a. “the grind”). And while I wouldn’t want any game I play to go down the Path of Ultimate Accessibility a la WoW, I don’t really have the time to burn playing the truly challenging alternatives. My drive is always to experience the content – all of it – whether it’s in the form of stories/quests or simply exploration.

Like I said, I’ve got more disposable money than free time, which is convenient for the corporate “sponsors” of our favorite pastime! To whom do you think they’re going to cater – the competitive-but-nonetheless-niche-audience cyberathlete or the time-starved-wallet-heavy buttonmasher?

Sorry, Syn.

Playing For Pure Fun

Googling "Pure Fun"...really?

Funny how you sit down every morning intending to get that post written that’s been buzzing around in your head, and every day there’s a new distraction that keeps you from writing it. It’s almost like they expect me to work for my paycheck…

In all seriousness (please don’t fire me!), it’s a combination of two factors which has kept me away from gaming for yet another week. One, being very busy at work, and two, keeping myself extraordinarily busy with personal work while at home – both ending in good, solid results. But not exactly conducive to pursuing hobbies.

The week hasn’t been a total wash for the games, though, as I was able to get a few hours in for LotRO‘s Spring Festival last night, and have spent a good deal of time playing LEGO games on the Wii with my older son. Mostly Star Wars and Indiana Jones – two titles I am more than thrilled that he enjoys, and in which I’m more than happy to invest some quality time. Especially if I can share it with the kids. Even my wife gets in on the action from time to time, but mostly as a helper to figure out the puzzles and occasionally lend a hand when I cannot. Extraordinary! It’s almost as if the system were designed to bring families together…

I have to say that I am in complete and utter awe at my son’s ability to learn and adapt. For a five year old to be playing a platforming game rated ‘E10’ – and beating his parents! – may not be that unusual these days, but it sure is impressive to me. I don’t remember the process I went through towards becoming ‘A Gamer’, or what it was like to attain the skills common to our hobby or learn the conventions we all take for granted. But I do remember that it was a long, lonely journey of many hours with the Commodore 64/Nintendo/Playstation/PC. Eventually my sister was old enough to join me, but we didn’t have anyone to introduce us to video games or help me through the initial learning curve. Only parents who were open-minded enough, and willing enough, to let us play. And, because I knew that eventually he’d want to play video games, I did worry a little about how to help him learn. Turns out that was a completely useless concern.

It’s almost as if my son has no learning curve whatsoever; or, one so shallow that you’d need insanely precise scientific apparatus to accurately measure it. Generally, he only has to see something once to get the hang of it, and can already remember the process for clearing most levels. There are a few parts with which he needs help, but those are becoming increasingly few and further apart. I know I am biased, and that this particular event must be utterly alien to the older generations, but it makes me proud to watch him play. Most times, I have more fun watching him than I do actually playing. Most, but not all! Sometimes the Old Man wants to get in there and swing a lightsaber or whip!

I have noticed a key difference, however, in the ways and reasons the two of us play. And I don’t think I’m alone in this; I think many gamer parents would probably say the same types of things. My son plays for the sheer enjoyment of getting from the Start to the End – go from Point A to Point B, solve the puzzles and getting to the next cutscene or area. That’s it. I play to “complete”, or “beat”, the game – see all the areas and finish all of the achievements. Not that either way is more right or more wrong, just that we each find Fun in different aspects of the game. And, to be honest, I think I enjoy his way more. If only I could get past the instincts 2+ decades of gaming have accrued.

He plays for the pure fun of playing. For the doing, not the finishing. His only reason for pushing through a level is to see what comes next; he’s never finished a game and realized that that’s it. That he can either go back and play it again, or move onto something else. These things are infinite to him, so he doesn’t feel the need to squeeze every last ounce out of them. At some point we, both gamers and developers, crossed a line where the ideas of value and retention – and for developers, profit – became real considerations. The Age of Achievements and Leaderboards and Cash Shop Cosmetics was born. In a way, it makes me a little sad for the Gamer I’ve become; that I’m (clightly) manic about being thorough, and plumbing the breadth and depth of every game I take on. Those can be wonderful things – breadth and depth – but they tend to engender a kind of desperate need to check off every item on someone else’s list.

So I revel in the Gamer that he is right now, and I truly enjoy playing beside him. It occasionally let’s me sink back into the kind of fun I once had. Not that I don’t have fun now, but it’s of a different kind. His is more simple and, in some ways, more vibrant.

I think it would be a good study to take video of my wife and I watching him play (at the very least, it would be mildly amusing). We quietly cringe as he works his way through a level, vocally offering encouragement to disguise our “stress”. Though it’s for two very different reasons. My wife is like my son; get to the end as quickly and efficiently as possible, but she would probably be able to do it a bit faster than he can (for now!). Not for a time-based achievement, but more a “It’s the Destination, not the Journey” thing. It’s why she won’t watch me play, ever.

I cringe because he doesn’t care about points or achievements; he’ll grab silver and gold dots (worth 10 and 100 points each, respectively) if they are in his path, but will quite obviously pass up blues and purples (1000 and 10,000, respectively) that are only a few steps away. He doesn’t care to fulfill the “True Adventurer” or “True Jedi” or “Mad Gamerzzz” achievement for the level, or to find all the treasure chests/power cores/self-validating-booster-thingies.

This drives me up a wall, and more than once I’ve found myself going back through an area to collect dots after he’s handed me the Wii-mote to help him with something small like making a hard jump. He complains, a bit, but I know it’s whats best for him. Or me.

Whatever.