Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chainmail bikini compromise

Sex sells. I'm not going into the utter idiocy of having every male character show off his muscles and every female character show off her cleavage in every single movie/comic/game. This pattern's existence and its stupidity are assumed. This is a post about a possible compromise between quality and mass-appeal for MMOs.

Armour should always look like armour, including cloth gear for spellcasters. It should not look like it's made to show off. Players should also not be able to cosmetically alter their gear, in general. Being able to identify a player's armour quality at a glance is a logical part of MMO battlefield target priorities.

Still, cosmetic items are now too much a part of virtual life. Even i must confess a certain fondness for my characters' appearance, even if i'm purposely making them look like beggars. Within limits, dressing up is a logical requirement of social games. As much as i hate it, any game that actually wants to sell will have to make some minor allowance for pretty dresses and shiny, gold-plated, gigantic spaulders. We should, however, limit cosmetic items to towns. They should always be on a player, probably un-lootable if the game involves player corpse looting, but they should only be enabled in certain areas, such as inside a guild hall or within the confines of a city, player-owned or otherwise.

Actually, here's a nice possibility: allow city-owning guilds to pass sumptuary laws within the confines of their towns.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Atlas Shrugged Part 1

It's bad. It's not terrible. It is bad.
In part, it's the acting. Dagny is played poorly even compared to many of the supporting roles. Most of the actors, especially the lead, seem to be reading lines off a teleprompter. Rand's many declamatory, merciless lines and speeches just sound phoned in.
Before i make it sound as if i'm blaming the actors entirely, this feeling extends to the film's every other aspect. Instead of looking tense, most of the scenes look stilted. They look like unrehearsed single-take attempts, and this would hardly be the fault of the performers. The editing is cut-and-dry, as in many low-budget movies. Many shots run a second too short or too long. Characters with one or two-scene appearances get unnecessarily officious introductions. Shots of heavy machinery at work, instead of looking like background, seem to be just filler.
Modernizing the setting is irrelevant. I would have preferred it in its original post-WWII atmosphere, but given that the theme is aggressively universal, changing the setting doesn't harm the story. Even here, though, someone managed to bungle it: in the middle of a cell-phone addicted, computerized, spic-and-span society, we have a mysterious, shadowed John Galt figure that looks like a fedora and trench-coat Maltese Falcon reject.

Two conclusions: first off, Ayn Rand was not a great novelist. Much of the book's plot could be cut out as redundant, making a two-part movie unnecessary. It wouldn't be ideal, but cutting out a dozen supporting parts would have eased a lot of the unnecessary awkwardness and would probably have helped with the project's apparent budget issues. The high point of the movie is its fair attempt at staying true to the novel in form, but this resulted in most of its problems in staying true in spirit.

Thus my main point: this is Atlas Shrugged! If you're making a movie about, among other things, uncompromising dedication to quality, wait until you get the funding and other support you need. Rand wrote a book full of what she thought were pristine ideals and the idealized human, and to whatever extent her ramblings were valid, they are betrayed by a slapdash adaptation pushed onto the market because after half a century, someone had to do it.
No, someone has to do it right. If you want to do a low-budget Rand adaptation, do Anthem. You could re-use the sets from Children of Men or any post-apocalyptic movie and you'd only need half a dozen speaking roles.

As it is, this is another one of those adaptations that make me wonder if they're not really attempts to defame the books they're based on.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Insects Infestation

II was a Half-Life 2 multiplayer modification, created years ago, and even among all the interesting mods that came out at that point it stood out. Players chose to be either ants or termites (wasps were announced as a third team but the game died before they got implemented) and fought to exterminate each other's hives. They dropped pheromone trails for AI workers to follow to food sources, shot formic acid from their abdomens at each other, dropped sticky patches of feces as traps, climbed up walls and jumped off leaves, all in settings like a backyard garden, an overgrown backalley or the inside of a dead cow. It was amazingly creative, played smoothly, was both fast-paced and left room for planning and forethought, and of course, being so much better than other mods it died out much faster than hey did.

The blame rested in part with its creators. The basic setup of the mod was an FPS/RTS hybrid where players relied on gathering resources to get access to buffs or soldier-caste bugs. At one point, before they had finished the basic version even, the programmers decided to implement a second game mode, completely removing the strategy element and turning it basically into a deathmatch. This had the effect of polarizing the game's already scant following into those who only wanted to play the full version (me 'n me droogs) and the majority who jumped at the chance to play without thinking.

From barely maintaining its critical mass of players to keep a few servers going, the game split into two versions, each dying out as its fanbase failed to fill even one server consistently.

The real kicker is that this is exactly what had happened to an earlier mod of the original Half-Life, Natural Selection, a case study with which II's creators must have been familiar. Those who do not remember history...

P.S.:  Seems that ModDB kept the II files up even though i can't find the creators' own site anymore. linky-linky

Legitimized cheating

So here i am playing Dragon Age, enjoying the slightly-blighted sights of Ferelden, when i start running across some downloadable content that came with my super-premium ultra-special mega-dooper collector's edition or whatever i bought. I have a feeling that it's extraneous to the game as a whole, but i have to try it, because hey, it's there, i already paid for it. The real problem turns out to be that these modules were originally created to be bought individually by players who had already bought the game, as per Bioware's long-standing 'premium module' system. This means that the developers felt the need to add incentives for players to spend their money. It isn't enough to give them new content. You have to stroke their fragile egos.
To that effect, the downloadable modules were made into crutches: easier mobs, few or no puzzles, much better rewards. This isn't just insultingly patronizing in itself, but can wreck the rest of the main campaign. It's much easier to face down those revenants and ogres when you're wearing the king's own armour and all your party members, mage or not, have blood magic powers. They basically sold players a way to cheat through the difficulty of building up their characters.

This is unfortunately a sign of the times. Every game, especially if it's online, sells its customers the right to cheat. It's not as if it's a new idea. Before World of Warcraft and all its clones, while EVE was just a wonderful deceitful dream and Everquest was just starting to prove the effectiveness of slot-machine gameplay, Project Entropia billed itself as a free-to-play MMO. The catch was that everything in the game, every gun, force field and round of ammunition was bought with real-world money. Players could take the long and painful road of farming everything, sure, but they'd soon get 'outplayed' by those willing to sink hundreds of dollars into getting an advantage. My comment on it after trying it was that it's like playing a game where cheating isn't just permitted, but is the ultimate virtue.

Years later, every type of game seems to be doing it. WoW-clone MMOs are switching to microtransactions and theme-park currency with LOTRO leading the way, at least in the western hemisphere. EVE-Online incorporated multiple accounts and real-money trading into its marketing strategy and is actively pushing players to have multiple subscriptions running at once and buy items with real money to sell in-game. Savage 2, a team FPS/RTS hybrid lets players play for free but also offers paid items that amount to a 15% boost in character stats. Team Fortress 2 lets players buy guns, though in their defense it is a much tamer version, as the weapons are usually only modifications on viable starting equipment. It's disappointing but not entirely shocking that the idea of bribing the game's publisher for cheats is now spreading to single-player games like Dragon Age.

That this is morally unjustifiable is blatantly obvious. Paying for an advantage is the most consistent definition of cheating. It's the equivalent of bribing the referee, wrestling on steroids, or as i like to put it, buying extra chess pieces for a dime a pawn and a quarter a rook. The extent to which it damages a game depends on the type of game. In a wishy-washy caricature of a theme-park MMO like LOTRO or City of Heroes, little or nothing the players do has any impact on the game world or each other, so the advantages they buy, while shameful, have little consequence as well. A world like EVE, on the other hand, where players compete with each other in both combat and economics, gets completely ruined by legitimized bribery. In simpler PvP games like Savage 2, the unfairness of it is even more glaring because there is less fluff to mask the players' interactions.

The game designers' motivation in making bad games is no mystery. They are capitalists, and selling takes precedence over creating; their goal is profit not product. Still, as always, i'll play the LaManchan self-deceiver and pretend there are still some in the world who care about what should be done, not just what's convenient. The only payment involved in a game should be the basic participation fee. Each player pays the same amount and gets the same in-game resources. That there are other illegitimate advantages to be had like more time to play or a faster computer does not justify piling more injustice into an already-frustrating environment.

When i said that this pattern is a sign of the times, i wasn't referring only to MMOs. Consumers expect this from the games they buy because it's what they're given in society at large. 'Tolerance' has been a buzz-word for so long in the U.S. and every culture that falls under its sway that it's taken on the magnitude of dogma. No criticism is tolerated, no notion of inferiority. Players come into a game expecting to be told they're amazing, skillful, morally justified and great in bed. The concept of attempting a difficult task for the satisfaction of success has fallen by the wayside. Today's winners go right for the instant gratification. This also leads to the astounding irrationality that's used to justify legitimizing cheating and bribery.
"Everybody should feel good. I deserve to feel good. The world owes it to me to feel good. Anyone who has any advantage over me, be it circumstance or natural aptitude, is making me feel bad. Therefore i am justified in creating circumstance which denies aptitude in order to make myself feel good and make others feel bad."

So far it may seem only a self-serving delusion, but the truly moronic aspect is every little ape's refusal to see that he might get the short end of the stick, that if he's willing to buy two accounts, there will invariably be some people with three, or if he's willing to spend a hundred dollars in the in-game store, there will be those who spend two hundred. It seems the same head-in-the-sand optimism that sells the idea of capitalism also transfers perfectly to the internet.

Friday, February 17, 2012

EVE delusions

From one of CCP's advertisement e-mails.

"The reception to EVE Online : Crucible has been so positive that we ended last year once again with more subscribers than the year before, making EVE Online the only subscription MMO to consistently grow each year."

No shit. Every player in that damn game has 2-10 accounts. No, this is not hyperbole. Ten accounts have been cited. It's some nice commentary on human nature that even though the game experience has been so unsatisfying that the game was consistently losing players every time i took a look at it, the promise of legitimized cheating, having multiple characters AFK mining, autoattacking and hauling cargo at the same time, has kept the number of subscriptions rising.


Secret world prestige classes

From an advertising e-mail sent out by Funcom:

"The Secret World is a game without traditional classes, where players are free to build the character they want by choosing from over five hundred different abilities. For players looking for a bit more direction, we have created the deck system which helps you pick certain abilities that leads to a certain play style."

From their on-site explanation:

"A deck in The Secret World is a collection of 7 active and 7 passive abilities that work well with each other. Each deck will enable the player to fulfill one or several roles, either soloing or teaming up with others. Upon collecting all 14 abilities the player is also given a kick-ass outfit, so he won't only be able to play the part, but also look the part! "

Granted, all it seems to be so far is a little helping hand to those too stupid to figure out their own character. That's bad enough in itself, coddling the idiots instead of letting them suffer the results of their own stupidity, but it's also inconsequential. Five minutes after the game comes out, the internet will be filled with guides listing every cookie-cutter build in an attempt to even the playing ground between those with more and those with less than a chimp's intelligence. In-game guides are the straw on an already-broken camel's back.

The bigger issue is the slippery slope. Give the morons a little guidance now, and they'll keep demanding more. They will demand more simplification, more obvious winning choices. What Funcom is giving the players is a set of cosmetic prestige classes. What the players will inevitably demand next and the developers just as inevitably provide is overpowered prestige classes. They will be given abilities and bonuses available only to that particular combination of 14 skills. Choosing anything else will be suicide.

So much for 'no classes'. Cretins.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Half-rambling Sphere-Park Life

I never realized before that the 'chapter' titles in Half-Life are very much like those of Michael Crichton's books. Prosaic headers like "Office Complex" and "Blast Chamber" or vaguely foreboding single-word titles like "Apprehension". That and the industrial / wilderness alternation of setting. Oh well. That's neither here nor there i suppose. Crichton's books were still at the height of popularity when the game was launched, and any similarity more likely reflects shared pop-culture. Still, chapter title style is just slightly too specific to be simply a 'zeitgeist' deal, so i have to wonder who on Valve's team was a big Jurassic Park fan.

To derail that train of thought: Crichton's schtick is tapping into the masses' paranoia about new technology. He feeds off the mad scientist archetype without using it specifically.  I haven't kept up with his novels (the luddite overtones wear thin after a while) but i don't remember any of them dealing with an invasion from an alternate universe. I mean, ok, there's been no news item about interdimensional travel to start the mass hysteria he uses as free advertising (like cloning, prions or nanotech) but still, you'd think he'd get around to it.

Huh. Training that thought-derailment a bit farther, i wonder at the relationship between Sphere and A Brief History of Time. Apparently they came out in reverse order so it's not a direct link, but i don't know what other news items might have spurred both books. Then again, the late 80s were full of time travel stories, a la Terminator.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Aeon of Strife & co.

There is a very old variation on real-time strategy games. Teams of players controlling only one unit each are allied to computer-controlled armies continually fighting on a battlefield. The players must push towards the enemy AI's base until they destroy the main building, be it castle, dark tower of sorcery, magic crystal or chess king. As far as i can tell, this idea was around since Command and Conquer: Red Alert, with its 'sole survivor' modification. It became popular in Starcraft with a custom map called Aeon of Strife, which i never actually played.
It was also one of the two perennial favorites of Warcraft 3 players, along with tower defense. Dozens of maps appeared, most not making it past their second version. The most popular was Defense of the Ancients (DotA) whose popularity in fact served as sufficient proof of concept to justify founding companies to create marketable ripoffs.

Overall, the best version of this concept was Demigod, which unfortunately died due to player frustration due to lack of testing, servers and players due to Stardock's unfortunate habit of supporting good developers by not actually providing the advertising and other support they need.
The best proof of concept was a Warcraft 3 map called Eve of the Apocalypse. I still miss the old custom game list name EotA>DotA.
DotA itself was actually one of the worst. It owed its popularity partly to being one of the worst, partly to its playability. While other maps crashed, lagged or simply frustrated players out of the game with their glitches, DotA was always quickly patched to keep every version playable. Kudos. It was also dumbed down to only a shadow of what the game could be. Lack of kudos.

The odd part of marketing this concept is its relation to normal RTS games. Because the player only controls one unit, the first impression is that this is necessarily a simplification. In reality, it only removes the worst aspect of real-time strategy: the lack of strategy. Most RTS games are clickfests, rewarding micromanagement over any sort of actual thought. Players are even stupid enough to rank each other based on their 'APM' (actions per minute), the number of commands recorded by the game client from each particular player.

Having just one unit to control fixes this mostly. There are still micromanagement problems. The most common is giving players items they need to activate on the fly in combat in addition to their character's skills. Demigod failed in keeping its summoning system simple by giving players the option to micromanage, if not the hordes of AI-player creatures, at least the half-dozen minions summonable by 'general' player characters. Still, it can be a vast improvement. Demigod's best feature, just as EotA's, was the focus on improving the team's AI. Instead of spending money on items alone, players had to invest in improving the AI's capabilities with new units, siege weapons, bonus damage, all the usual upgrades. This put the strategy back into things. A team could completely dominate a game in terms of kills and still lose if the opposing team springs a few waves of catapults with damage buffs on them. Another option is giving players the ability to set waypoints for AI waves to attack, giving them some control while reducing the clickfest element from flipping through a dozen units every second to one order to the AI every two or five minutes.

Unfortunately, putting more emphasis on thought than on reaction time scares away the leet-kiddies, and players who would enjoy the concept in its strategy-heavy form don't expect complexity or subtlety from a game that seemingly simplifies the RTS form into a deathmatch, so it's difficult pinning down a target audience especially since no company investing in these games has the money for large-scale advertising. The result, of course, is that the dumbed-down versions (Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends) have gotten steadily more successful, while the much better attempts like Demigod are stillborn.

A bad joke or two

1. A woman usually doesn't prostitute herself unless her economic status is unbearably low. When her life starts sucking, so does she.

2. If you're frustrated with Yahweh's priesthood's rather stern disapproval of sexuality, you may want to consider a conversion to the 'party hearty' atmosphere of the northern pantheon. In other words, go Frigg yourself.

Thank you, i'll be here all week!