Thursday, December 22, 2011


It's roleplaying not rolesaying.

RP can only exist when there are choices to make and they carry repercussions. Standing around spewing a lot of thees and thous is a different game altogether. Even if you can move past the high school drama club re-enactments to something a tad less ridiculous, it will still be improvisational acting. That's fine, in itself, but it is, unfortunately, in itself. You're making it into a minigame. In a game, RP can and should stem from gameplay. If you're doing something noble, act noble. If you're rampaging through the countryside, start talking like Conan. Whatever the case, melding action and style into an identity is roleplaying. Style by itself is empty.

In Planetside i was once in an outfit (a.k.a. 'guild') called S.P.L.A.T. and though i forget what the backronym stood for, we specialized in air drops. That was our thing, our schtick, our gimmick. Some of us came up with catchphrases to shout as we landed on some rooftop. We chose our characters' skills accordingly. More than any amount of faux-Shakespearean chatter, this was roleplaying. It meant having an identity as a group, and giving ourselves strong points and weak ones.
I was in another guild for a little bit in A Tale in the Desert. It was called the Casbah d'Nile. We cooked, and distributed food. Some raised sheep. Others farmed. Since my house was fairly far into the desert, my specialty was gathering mushrooms and herbs. We were the cooks of Egypt, regardless of whether this was more or less profitable or prestigious than mining or monument-building.
In EVE-Online, at its high point a year or three after release, there were guilds specializing in mining, piracy, manufacturing, transport, etc. and this meant making decisions to focus on one aspect of gameplay instead of another.
Your guild has no roleplaying value if you just randomly spout archaisms at each other, arrange weddings and gatherings that have no effect on your playing style and look down your nose at anyone actually playing the game. It should go without saying that the most worthless are the endless numbers of guilds whose only group identity is 'we're liek awesomer than everyone else dood' but, moving along.

I remember one of the expansions to Neverwinter Nights, Hordes of the Underdark. I decided to play an abjurer. This made it impossible for me to defeat the final boss, who used no spells. I regret nothing. In NWN2, i played a pure spellcaster halfling druid, no shapeshifting. My strength was so low that i couldn't wear my own armor without buffing myself. I used a slingshot the entire game. I wanted to be an equalizer without nuking, so i geared my spells towards buffs and helped my NPCs do the killing.
This sort of sacrifice is necessary in order to make roleplaying choices meaningful. This is one of the great flaws of EQ/WoW clones. Playing a fighter or mage is irrelevant if the choice is merely cosmetic, if tossing spears or fireballs has the same effect. It is meaningless to have 6 different stats for your character if min-maxing is built into the game and you buff your damage in exactly the same way whether you choose an intelligence or agility-based class. It is irrelevant that you have a low strength score if it doesn't limit your options in any way.

Roleplaying, ideally, arises from game situations. My favorite example of this comes (oddly enough, given my rabid ranting against Blizzard) from WoW. I speak of the great AIDS epidemic. When the instance Zul'Gurub was first put into the game, the boss used a disease-like attack which spread from player to player and could continue indefinitely if re-applied. The catch is that some code-monkey on blizzard's staff forgot to flag some string of bits somewhere and the disease would not automatically clear when players left the instance. It did enough damage that top-level players could easily survive it with a bit of healing, but it was rapidly deadly to lower-level players. Immediately, griefers started going into the instance to contract the disease then teleporting to capital cities to infect everyone they could. It grew into a pandemic within hours. From there on, every player's experience of the event was different.
Were you one of the griefers trying to kill others?
Were you one of the victims, fighting to survive long enough to get something done?
Were you a do-gooder trying to heal the sick?
Were you an opportunist preying on weakened enemies?
Were you (like me) simply overwhelmed by the situation and forced to retreat to remote wilderness areas to escape the pandemic?
Those are RP choices, real ones. Are you a sadist, do you want others to see you as a benefactor, or just a profiteer?
I remember running into another player in a low-traffic questing area, each approaching the other carefully for fear of being infected. We then shared a few lines to the tunes of "damn, it's getting crazy in the city, i just had to get out". I remember feeling the need to make excuses for myself for giving up on healing the sick (i was a druid). That entire situation, the divergence in player attitudes and perception provided a more immersive game experience than half the quests in WoW put together, and it arose simply, naturally, from game mechanics.

When the game mechanics do not allow for this, when everything is routine, when there are no meaningful choices to make, roleplaying is extraneous. You could do the same play-acting over the phone.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

TF2, 2

My favorite class in TFC. I have a tendency toward berserker rages or suicide attacks (this being one of the reasons for my name) so a shock trooper class is usually good for me. Still, I'm a bit disgruntled with the change to pyro in TF2 because it sort of pigeonholes you into that role. I liked the ability to harass or block off hallways by scaring people off with napalm rockets and napalm grenades. Adding more melee weapons also seems a bit pointless, since the flamethrower is a close-range weapon anyway and quite powerful in its own right.

My new favorite class. Combat in TF2 tends more towards close-quarters than in TFC, which means more enemies will be together to get hit by the same explosions. Delightful. The eyelander and other swords are quaint, but more of a trap for bad players. The main role of a demoman is demolition. All-melee players are bad players. When they do get kills it's by using their teammates as bait instead of actually helping to advance the team's goals.

Two things wreck snipers' odds in TF2. First off, most of the maps, as I said, are geared more towards short-range fights. Second, spies are ridiculous. They are overpowered and therefore overplayed, which means that by the time a sniper gets into position, there is probably already a spy waiting behind him. I do like the addition of the huntsman because staying on the move gives at least some chance of spotting a spy.

Probably the most improved class in the game, mostly due to being able to heal at range. The variety of weapon and healing options, from overhealing to rapid healing to speedboosting to lifestealing are also very nice.

The one glaring balance issue in the game. Only pyros can really afford to do constant spy checks. Everything else is food for spies. It's not just the invisibility or the one-hit kills. It's little tweaks like instantly disguising yourself when you get a kill or being able to endlessly disable/damage engineer buildings faster than they can repair them, or being able to 3-shot most classes even with the pistol. It's being an obvious counter to several classes while only one counters you. By the time I had played one half-hour match as a spy I had already beaten my score with every other class, some of which I had a dozen matches' worth of experience with.

Heavies, soldiers, scouts and engineers have not changed much in my view. The engineer's teleporter is very useful, but actually placing it is a sure-fire way to let a spy sap all your buildings to death. Then while you're trying to rebuild, he'll sap the teleporter too, after walking through it and backstabbing you.

Which three books would you have taken?

There's a quaint question tacked onto the ending of the old 60s film adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. I don't remember it from the novel itself. It's at 0:50 in this youtube video. The question is of course, posed to the viewer, not the housekeeper. Which three books would you take to rebuild a human civilization?

It's tempting, of course, to bring along my personally influential storybooks, but as relevant as Jubal Harshaw, John Galt or Zarathustra's  musings are, the needs of a budding society as somewhat more immediate. It is equally pointless to say one would conquer the world through Machiavelli or Sun Tzu's platitudes, as refreshing as it may be to see such clear thinking down on paper. Religious texts are vast stretches of acid-trip visions punctuated by basic moralism which the Eloi would hardly need, given their placid natures, and which i'd be able to rattle off easily enough myself if some dire need arises for indoctrination. The universal truths of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky would fall flat on their faces in an undeveloped society. No, i'm afraid this is a question of dreadfully dull practicality. Removing the Morlocks would also allow the machinery on which the Eloi are dependent to grind to a halt. The quickest steps must be in securing the physical basis for survival, at a simple enough level that reasonably intelligent minds could follow. They would also have to be something a well-stocked private library the size of that of a Victorian learned man would be likely to contain. That said:

1. Medicine - Gray's Anatomy probably. It would be a safer bet to rebuild surgery than epidemiology.
2. Physics - a second or third-year university manual as the foundation for mechanical (and hopefully electrical) engineering and construction
3. Chemistry - I am at a loss here. What's basically needed is a descriptive list of the physical properties of common compounds found in nature and their interactions. My Eloi would need to be able to recognize and exploit the resources available to them. College manuals are of little use here because they deal in examples, less in basic principles or exhaustive lists. More advanced reference materials are less likely to be commonly distributed.

Perhaps instead of a chemistry reference manual i could do with something older like a description of mid-19th-century machinery. Weaving, harvesting, smelting and the like would be greatly sped up by industrial-age inventions, and their manufacture is not so far removed from basic principles as modern technology.

I wonder if, instead, a manual of computer science would serve better as an investment in the more distant future.

So, which three books would you have taken?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Team Fortress 2

I play this occasionally with a vague feeling of nostalgia. Team Fortress Classic was one of the first games i played online. It was a delightful mix of  of rockets, cursing and bloodspatter, and in its day it was the height of first-person-shooter sophistication. Those days are past.

Luckily, someone at Valve knows they're past. If TF2 had tried to be a 'realistic' war FPS with rifles and grenades (as it was originally planned a decade before) it would have fallen flat on its face. It would have been just one more of the endless string of idiotic macho counterstrike ripoffs which teenagers play so they can pretend to know something about guns and war (and somersaulting while shooting in three directions at once with a machine gun in each hand). The technology long ago surpassed 20-player FPS games. Apparently TF2's designers knew they weren't going to give their audience anything involved enough to maintain interest,so they used a devilish secret weapon: humor. Instead of rough, tough, square-jawed, be-stubbled macho men with 'realistic' weapons, each player class is a lovely pastiche of action movie cliches or gamer attitudes. It is rare to find any product that's not afraid to laugh at itself instead of spitting out chainmail bikinis and chest-thumping bad boys.

The good part is that the game itself is not a joke. It is remarkably balanced, with some bearable exceptions (spies), the maps are well thought out and varied, and the variations on weapons for each class that players can acquire while playing are enough to keep it from getting terminally stale.

Now if only Planetside 2 could attain the same quality of gameplay while expanding it to MMO proportions, i'd be a happy camper.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Player demands and spineless developers: LOTRO style

From the latest Lord of the Rings Online patch notes:
  • The two hostile mobs in Lower Barnavon that were put there due to overwhelming player feedback have been removed due to overwhelming player feedback."
Yeah, that's cute. Barnavon is a town in which the players are meant to feel somewhat unwelcome. The NPCs' dialogue is un-trusting and ambivalent. In order to drive this point home, there were two town guards at the gate which were hostile to players. This could indeed be a nuisance when you have to kill them to get your quests then against five minutes later when you turn them in.

I applaud whichever player came up with the idea to put those hostile guards in. They add a bit more atmosphere. I can also see why many players were annoyed with them. It's quaint the first couple of times you have to kill them but wears thin by the fifth.
The morons here are the developers. You don't implement or remove something like that just because the mindless sheep demand it. You do it because it works for that particular game situation! The guards were a good idea, and all that had to be done was to double or triple their respawn timers. Instead of actually looking at the problem though, some cretin of a public relations drone just demanded complete adherence to the demands of bigger cretins on the forums.

Regardless of how quaint it sounds, no, the customer is not always right. Sometimes developers might have to make actual design decisions. Imagine that.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Team games

You know, there's a moment i really liked in The Lord of the Rings. It's when Boromir sacrifices himself to save the hobbits, and they turn around and start nudging each other and pointing and laughing at him "dude like this guy's like so noob, hey stop feeding the uruk-hai exp you noob, dude we should like totally tell Strider to kick this noob out of the fellowship" then end up dying as well because they were spending all their time running in circles and screaming and shouting instead of helping him.
Whaddayamean that's not how it happened? That's what all the cool kids are doing! Well, at least that seems to be the general atmosphere in any game. Playing online now is like wading into a grade-school football game. Every little cretin demands that you pass to him but never passes to anyone and thinks the goal of the game is to make him look like a hero. When it comes to taking any risk, making any sacrifice in order to advance the team's goals, the stalwart champions of e-peen contests bolt and run.

Don't get me wrong, idiotic trash-talking and making fun of scores has always been an unnecessary evil of online games. So has exploiting any weakness, any imbalance in the game's design to make yourself look good. The fear of dying in an online game is something recent though. In ye olden days of counterstrike's beta, starcraft and battlezone 2, i distinctly remember trying to curb my teammates' aggressiveness. It was like trying to leash rabid dogs. These days, it seems insecurity has taken a new form. Words, not deeds, are the battleground of the new cyberspace. The true mark of greatness is sabotaging your teammates so that you can berate them for failing and have a convenient scapegoat.

There is one simple change that needs to be made to help this issue. Stop ranking individual players in team games. Stop giving the worthless little imbeciles justification for playing for themselves instead of the team, or refusing to cooperate with other players who have worse scores than them. Stop reinforcing stupidity.

Friday, December 9, 2011

"That's just your opinion"

No, it's not. The great crime of post-modernism, as i'm sure many have remarked, is giving every idiot free license to deny the existence of truth and quality. When i give what many call my 'opinion' on a matter, it represents the truth as best i can discern it, based on the objective qualities i see in whatever i'm judging. Though my interpretation may be tainted by instinct, emotion and social pressure, there is still an objective truth which i'm attempting to reach.
To be sure, there is such a thing as subjectivity. De gustibus non est disputandum still holds true in some cases. We don't all have the same taste buds and eardrums, and i myself happen to be color deficient. I may not be able to tell azure from teal half the time, but this is hardly all that's involved in complex matters of value or validity.

I prefer Beethoven to Mozart because i find the first more involved, more passionate than the second. That may be just my opinion. I certainly cannot deny the complexity and harmony, the quality of Mozart's work. However, when i say that Justin Bieber is a worthless, vapid, no-talent piss-ant manufactured and packaged by the recording industry with no thought to quality, it's not a matter of taste. It's observation. There is an apparent lack of creativity, complexity and meaning to the good meistersinger Bieber's repertoire the discernment of which is not contingent on my physical ability to tell b-flat from b-(un-flat?)

Yes, yes, it is all too convenient to take potshots at the latest pop idol, but it does illustrate the point. Ayn Rand may have been full of it (most of the time) but the basic moral imperative to know the reasons behind one's views and actions still stands. Don't ever tell me that you 'just like' something. Why do you like it? Was movie A better written, directed or acted than movie B? Does song A have better instrumentation or lyrics than song B?

Worse than basic human thoughtlessness is the modern social pressure to acknowledge the validity of another's views. You're wrong. I'm right. I know i'm right because i can construct a logical chain of thought leading to my conclusions. If you think i'm wrong, tell me why. Do not tolerate stupidity and thoughtlessness on equal footing with reason. We do not live our lives by holding all options equal. We do not treat the simple act of walking as equally likely to spontaneously floating into space. Saying that you'd like to float away is a taste, a preference. Saying that it's likely is stupidity. This is not only true for basic physical laws, but for ideas and objects as well. Thought does not advance by random chance. Some options are better than others. A more complex work of art is better than a simplistic one because it expresses more ideas or one idea more fully. Creativity is better than repetition, truth is better than falsehood and my intelligence, the ability to discern these qualities, is better than stupidity.

Quality is advancement. Tolerance, as a societal absolute, is stagnation, waste and decomposition. The rallying cry of the mindless masses, of the thoughtless, of the animalistic filth that's choking the life out of the world is 'don't judge me'. The progressive alternative is the realization that judgment is intrinsic to awareness. Its denial is death.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What's an MMO?

What the devil does 'massive' mean for an online game? These days it's no more than a marketing gimmick, something anyone slaps onto any product to give it that appeal, you know, for the kids?
The easy answer that I've seen trotted out by any player who doesn't actually know what to say is 'lots of players on at once'. My response to this: you're suckers, and being treated as such by game companies. Congratulations, you're part of the problem. Ten chess players playing on five boards are playing five different games even if they're in the same room and a thousand players playing fifty separate instances are playing fifty different games. They are not playing the same 'massive' game.
When the first of these products came out, Ultima Online and Asheron's Call and the like, they were indeed trying to offer something new. The internet was full of multiplayer games. We could laser each other to death on 20-player FPS servers, blow up each others' bases in 6-player Starcraft games or team up with a couple of other players in cooperative PvE games like Diablo. Calling a game 'massive' was meant to symbolize something more. These games were meant to be the all-encompassing escapist fantasy of cyberpunk scifi, an entire brave new world into which we could plug ourselves. It was meant to be the matrix.

The key element here is interaction, and I'll stick with my chess player comparison for a bit. The ten chess players are not playing one 'massive' chess game because they have no potential interaction with each other. If I take your pawn, this action does not affect the other four boards. Even in a tournament, every match starts fresh.
In order for a computer game to offer interaction among thousands of players, it required more permanence, a stable, persistent game world which the players simply enter and exit, leaving their mark upon each other. Every action you take would, in this scenario, have the potential to ripple out through a butterfly effect through the entire game world. Say you're at the market trying to buy a new piece of leather armour because your clan is about to pick a fight with another one. I steal your coin purse leaving you bare-serked. Because of this you get killed in the fight, losing a crucial strategic location, thereby allowing the enemy to invade your castle, and your entire fifty-person clan is now homeless. Way to go, hotshot. It doesn't stop there, though. Your enemies, emboldened and enriched by their victory and plunder, continue to grind the entire world under the iron heel of... well, so forth.

Interaction in a virtual world just as in the real one can take many forms, but they must all have repercussions. Direct confrontation, trading, resource-gathering, everything should impact other players either by providing or denying them access to something, taking something they have or setting them back in some way. In the currently popular marketing scheme, nothing has any effect. Players going into separate instances are just like the chess players in my example: they don't affect each other. You go in, do your thing, and when you're done the instance closes behind you and nothing you've done has done anything. This brings me back to the reason I called you (us?) all suckers at the beginning, and that'd be the monthly fees.

A true persistent world is more costly to maintain. I know nothing about computer science, but I can only assume the constant interaction between hundreds of players all in one virtual space requires better hardware than separate twenty-player servers. With every action having repercussions, the game would require constant arbitration, which means the company must keep game masters on staff. Balance becomes more and more important as players can affect each other. The slightest advantage will become a flavor of the month, and this means the company must be constantly making the appropriate changes, so it cannot simply release the game and leave it with a skeleton crew of GMs. All of this high maintenance justified the new subscription business model. Suddenly companies saw the chance to sell more expensive products, but their next logical step was to cut costs. This meant removing precisely the player interaction which required all that maintenance. Removing PvP was one solution, as this limited the effect of player actions. Trivializing everything removed the need for arbitration. Death no longer costs you anything, and being the first on site to kill a monster and loot it doesn't matter because the monster pops right back up a minute later. The biggest change, however, was instancing, which brought the number of players involved in anything back down to pre-MMO levels and pre-MMO costs. The monthly fees stayed, though, as did the 'MMO' catchphrase plastered on every game ad down to three-button browser games.

So now, we're paying MMO costs for what is basically Counterstrike or Diablo.

 edit 2017/04/16
(mostly commas and capitalizations, but also the following)

At the time I wrote this, the long-term cash flow of a subscription model was gradually giving way to the immediate cash grab of digital rights management as the principal motivation for putting every possible game online. The MMO label was a reliable way to make customers swallow the otherwise perennially unpopular DRM scrutiny, but it has led to a reliable observation that any title which consists of 95% single-player level and gear-grinding has no business being online. As keeping customers under constant surveillance also facilitated datamining and market manipulation, MMOs and MOBAs joined in the brave new frontier of completely hollow dress-up games.
More recently, some developers have been marketing mixed online / offline RPGs like Shroud of the Avatar, cutting costs further by reducing server use while still demanding regular log-ins.
The MMO label, however, seems to have finally been poisoned for the masses, the sheer tedium of WoW-clone gameplay sinking in at long last after fifteen years of the same crap. Funcom de-branded its big-budget flop The Secret World from an MMO to a "shared-world action RPG" when it was relaunched as Secret World Legends.

From the other angle, many smaller developers are promising to bring back the 90s by reinstating the logical MMO expectations of a fully interconnected player-driven world, like City State Entertainment with Camelot Unchained. Or Dual Universe, Star Citizen and a slew of smaller titles. It remains to be seen whether anything comes of this, as similar attempts over the past decades have yielded vaporware (Dawntide) or degeneration into rampant legitimized cheating, zerg guild pandering and other exploitation (EVE, Darkfall.)

For now, two things seem to have come of the industry's attempts to force DRM by MMO-ing every possible game.
1) CD Projeckt has been doing quite well for itself with its DRM-free distribution service, despite most of the industry refusing to deal with them.
2) The most popular online games after World of Warcraft's hey-day have been either FPSes or small-team PvP games like MOBAs, TF2 or Overwatch, a bastard of the two concepts. These basically embody the best features of WoW-clone class-based team gameplay with the hollow pretense of "massiveness" stripped away.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On the subject of laziness

I'm not lazy, i'm a coward. It's been two weeks since i made my first post. I had intended to follow it up immediately with a bit of rambling on the subject of online identities and avatars. I had ideas, you see. I also have a distinct impression that i'm not good enough. I'm not sure what i should be good enough for, given the half-hearted, risk-free, freeform and self-serving nature of this venture into the world of soapboxing, but i'm quite terrified that i'll be a disappointment to every me involved.
It was not, however, a sign of laziness. I am ridiculously invested in most anything i do. I've seen laziness. It amounts to expecting things to come to you. Cowards like me, however, would be quite willing to work themselves to death for a noble cause... if there were no risk of failure. Our social animal nature makes us eager to please. We do everything that is socially advantageous and shy away from embarrassment, shame and ridicule. We fear failure.

It is a bit surprising to remember one event that seems to link me, through this fear, to the human condition. A professor in some college-level basic literacy course assigned his students the task of describing one of their faults. He was disappointed to find that most of them said something to the effect of 'i'm a lazy bum'. I don't think they were being honest. They were saving face, in a self-deprecating way which still allowed them to complete their assignment. Instead of admitting a true weakness or failure, it was more socially convenient to admit to not trying.
So, isn't that extra effort of covering up their faults with faux-laziness... heh, i do like a bit of irony.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The all-important first post.

I'd like to have something meaningful as an opener, a world-shaking declaration of war of some sort. It seems that all I can find myself piecing together, though, is some sort of answer to the tabu question "why blog"?

Because I'm deluding myself. Despite knowing full well that I'll have just as many readers online as on my desktop or a crumpled napkin in my pocket, I want the illusion that I'm addressing the world like Zarathustra from his mountaintop. I indulge in this fantasy quite often, being somewhat of a shut-in in what's commonly termed the real world, and this leads conveniently enough to the question of what will show up here.

I have no specific agenda for this blog. It will consist of whatever's on the tip of my tongue on a particular day. That being said, I spend much of my time in escapist fantasies, so it will likely consist of commentary on computer games, webcomics, movies of a more or less 'artsy' bent, science fiction or fantasy stories, the state of scientific education, shallow but hopefully clearheaded philosophical musings and other nerdy, antisocial topics.

There is obviously more to be said here, but for now I've made such a gigantic step by finally getting my public confessional started that I'm off to pat myself on the back. Deep breath, aaaaand... publish !