Tuesday, August 26, 2014


The weirdest reinterpretation of the biblical lamb's blood ritual has got to be the "do not disturb" sign on a hotel door. And may the sardonic virago with the germ-warfare mop water pass us over.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Conductor" as a new MMO profession

One major difficulty in designing a "true" MMO of the sort I'm always ranting about is reconciling the so-called "casual" and "hardcore" extremes of player time investment. Travel time provides an excellent example. In order to lend a persistent world an appropriate feeling of vastness or grandeur, in order to maintain its scale, teleportation must be very heavily restricted.
Yet if for an obsessive escapist willing to live in such a world around-the-clock it's nothing much to take an hour-long cross-country trip, assume you're just an average player putting in an hour a night of active play time. But your guild wants you to spend some time moving to a new location. Or maybe you need to go visit a school / temple / business center. What do you do? What dooooo you dew?

Hop on the bus, of course. Now, most methods of automated transit in MMOs fail miserably because they are fully automated, requiring no player action at all. Thus they become the only means of travel, the easy way out. What we need is a way to saddle those "hardcore" players with too much time on their hands with others' timesinks. Create manually player-driven vehicles with passenger space.
In effect, this has already been the rule in both versions of Planetside at the very least. A long dropship or APC trip is a chance for all but the driver and his gunners to go AFK for a minute. Don't look at me like that. You've all done it.

So extend the concept. Create safe spots, transit hubs or designated stops all over the game map, but no automated service to them. Allow passengers to choose where they will accept to be disembarked. Make disembarking automated and allow it while offline. So one player charges a stipend for taking passengers in a vehicle he's likely already using for cargo trips, or provides that service to his guild. Passengers get on board then log off. As the vehicle hits designated stops, passengers automatically leave the vehicle, and will be at the new location when they log in.

Wrinkles abound, of course, but that's half the fun.
What if the vehicle gets destroyed? Killing off the passengers would likely be a bit much to swallow, but waking up in the middle of nowhere, possibly in bandit territory, might be amusing, so as to provide that thrill of the unforseen but not leave players entirely helpless. Possibly notify the passengers of the vehicle's destruction while logging in and allow them to choose a spot where they were "thrown from the vehicle" within a variable radius.
How do you prevent hostage situations? The vehicle isn't destroyed but left to rot in the middle of nowhere to incapacitate the passengers. Allow them to teleport back to the stop at which they boarded? In order to prevent this from being abusable as teleportation, no trading should be allowed within the vehicle.
How much loot should passengers be allowed to carry? Obviously it shouldn't be so much as to cut into freight shipping as a game mechanic, but it must be enough to allow casual players to arrive somewhat ready for whatever they need at their destination.
Pickpocketing allowed in passenger compartments? Luggage thieving? Counteracted by the driver's spot/listen check or whatever the equivalent might be? Probably too easily abusable as trading to teleport goods if the escape mechanic above is allowed.
Traveller's insurance? I dunno, just throwing ideas out there.

In any case, one thing's for sure, we might have a new playable class on our hands.

"Haaaaail to the bus-driver, bus-driver, bus-driver..."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Tale In the Desert

It's often remarked that MMOs, unless deliberately scuttled by their parent company, pretty much never die out. They limp along as wastelands haunted by a fanatical clique of subscribers constantly validating and reinforcing each others' inertia. Though I still hold fond memories of A Tale in the Desert from a decade ago, I must regretfully admit it's been stuck in that lamentable state of MMO undeath for years now. The verdant hills lining the banks of the Nile, once bustling with activity and so cluttered with player structures that space was at a premium, have now reverted to their naturally barren state. In itself, this both reveals the desperate dependence of a true MMO on its playerbase and qualifies ATITD as one of the few true MMO experiences to have existed. As the game is currently free-to-play during an extended interregnum (being handed off to a new programmer) this would be the perfect time to jump into the sandbox. Pun intended.

Given that much of ATITD's decline was due to its developer's waning interest and attention, new ownership might bring hope to some old fans. Unfortunately, there's very little to work with. Graphics ca. Y2K fail to immediately catch the eye. No combat. No physics. Yet still...

See that wood plane? That's mine. Know what makes it different from all those others in the background? It's mine! I chose a spot and plopped down a structure, and everyone who passes by that spot passes by my structure. And I pass by theirs. Thus, at its highest point during the first tellings, ATITD's otherwise barren landscape was transformed by player activity into what you'll never encounter in a theme-park MMO: a true community. Entire cities sprang up out of sand and mud. Though manifestly centered on great communal projects, the game achieved this through individual player efforts. It was up to you to decide who you were in that ancient world. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, all had their place. Some raised rabbits and sheep, planted vegetable gardens, grew flax and papyrus, mined, built monuments, etc. Me, I went off into the desert to find a little oasis and built my home far from the crowds. I collected herbs and mushrooms, raised bees and camels and once in a while took trips into town to drop off some goods and pick up the textile, metal and other goods I couldn't or didn't feel like making myself.

Where ATITD failed worst, I think, was in never truly capitalizing on this aspect, on building personal and guild identity as part of a community. Player avatars were never quite as customizable as in other RPGs, either through facial characteristics or clothing (though they used to look more authentic than that Office Space extra in the screenshot) and what's worse, the player compound, your home and chief mode of expression within the game, looked pretty much the same for everyone. There was no visual way to "hang up a shingle" and publicly advertise some service.

Instead, a level system was implemented pushing players through various challenges to build up their characters. Player suggestions for new mechanics, structures and features were implemented on a "wouldn't-it-be-cool-if" basis with little thought to how they'd fit into the game's aesthetics. What the griefers couldn't accomplish, jaded old-timers trying to maintain their excitement for a moribund world did. The playerbase shrank beneath critical mass and what were originally various regions competing with each other for glory became a vast empty ... desert, appropriately enough, dotted with small clumps of players struggling to meet arbitrary, largely self-imposed challenges which have little to do with the original concept.

Not that there weren't problems with ATITD's basic concept as well. From the start it couldn't decide whether it was a game with the rule-governed type of activities this implied, or merely a meaningless, aimless, more malleable social setting. This tendency toward freeform content (like the art or puzzle tests) which could not fit into a coherent game context made it easy prey for Second Life, which, let's admit, simply did that better. Its researched, low-key quasi-historic setting attracted many nerds who wished to stop and smell the roses, but who felt somewhat bulldozed by the rush toward higher technologies and a big finish. Wiping the slate clean every year or three certainly wasn't for everyone. The subscription cost was always rather steep for such a technologically outdated game, especially once the project stagnated. Its attempt at democracy always had to be curtailed, one step from mob rule.

Yet even though ATITD has been dead for years, its zombified corpse has a great deal to teach much richer games which have much less of a claim to the "MMO" badge than it does. For several years around the launch of World of Warcraft, thousands of players wandered the desert of old Egypt doing exactly what the game industry as a whole denies is possible: building their own homes, altering the landscape, harvesting and working finite resources and feeding them into a thriving player-driven economy, cooperating on great monuments.

You killed a dragon? Well big freakin' deal, these guys over there built the goddamn Pyramids!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Cookies and Milquetoast

"I think I used to have a voice
Now I never make a sound
I just do what I've been told
I really don't want them to come around"

Nine Inch Nails - Every Day is Exactly the Same

Back when World of Warcraft first launched, I tried getting an old acquaintance to play it with me. He created an account and ran around for the first dozen or so levels but then abandoned it like so much internet flotsam. Though he knew enough about online games to critique its combat mechanics, graphics, music, what-have-you, his main complaint was more pertinent to WoW's presupposed role as a virtual world:
"Nobody talks in that game."

Though much too caught up myself at the time in dreams of world-spanning conflicts the likes of which online games had never seen, his insight echoed ever truer to me as the years dragged on. As virtual worlds deteriorated from sandboxes to theme-parks, with all the castration of player agency implied by such a transition, topics for discussion began to vanish into the nerf-vat. Back when I was playing EVE (before that too became bogged down in its own brand of self-inflicted irrelevance) the first thing one did when logging in was catch up on galactic news. What's the state of megacorporate politics? Does our starbase need another cargo run? Any pirates in our territory we might need to chase down? How are cruiser prices trending this week? From there, discussions diverged to various plans, schemes and plots.
In a theme-park game, however, nothing ever changes and there is nothing to discuss. Ask a guild whether anything's going on and they'll shrug and point you to the raid calendar.

" Every single day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain"

Without relevant in-game anchors, discussion rapidly devolved to a show of mutual social reinforcement. Generation Facebook, hopelessly addicted to the "like" button, has fabricated a new type of multiplayer guild out of polite smirks and head-nodding. In order to maintain the illusion of a community, some chatter must fill the chat screen, yet since all guilds are in practical terms identical (lacking any practical choices to make) they live in constant fear of losing members to each other through so-called "drama" so chat must be pruned of anything in the least objectionable. Don't even dream of complaining. All opinions are equal, therefore you need voice none. It's safer that way, rather than have someone whisper a guild officer that she finds your vociferous disdain for chainmail bikinis personally offensive and something really must be done about you.

"I really don't want them to come around"

Such guilds present a microcosm of the politically-correct constriction of public discourse. If you don't have anything bland to say, don't say anything at all. Pat each other on the back - but not too hard!

So what's left? Cookies, apparently. To manifest as each other's entourage, today's Twits have adopted their own little lexicon of cut-and-pasted expressions and deterministic "conversations."
Logging in or out is always a high point. It's about the only thing that actually happens, so each entrance and exit must fill an entire page of text, as half a dozen players trip over each other to greet or bid farewell to the person they haven't seen since yesterday with "wb" or "o7" or other nonsense. It's the place where everybody knows your name, even if it is interchangeable with that of any other level twelve healer.
"OMG I just got a new mouse/keyboard/backscratcher an its so awsum" is a perennial favorite. Everyone acts dutifully jealous.
"My cat is so crazy" is another classic. Cats have no opinions on politics or religion so they're deemed a safe topic.
Facetious exchanges of ideas persist even in games so oversimplified that no relevant questions remain. The answer may be blatantly obvious, but if we can reinforce our respective social roles as senior/junior members of the guild, we may as well fill a page with chatter about what the "best" item/skill/class is.
"OMG teh Sword of Ultimate Slaying just dropped" - cue excitement, really just an excuse to pat the lucky grinder on the back for pulling at that slot machine (killing that monster) for the 349th time. Again, since this reflexive head-patting prompts no judgments, it's a safe topic for discussion.
Some real-world chit-chat remains reliable in virtual worlds: weather and sports.

Yet always we come back to cookies, the mother of all social gum-flapping exercises. Ignore the type of cookie, ignore diabetes, ignore who has the cookies. The mere mention of the word is a cue for several players at once to type "omg cookies" or "gimme" or if feeling verbose, to state that, surprise-surprise, they too indeed enjoy doughy confections. Other topics exist, and each guild builds up its set of running gags which prompt mutual reinforcement as part of that in-group. Still, for over a decade and a half, through FPS and RPG, science fiction and fantasy, guild, clan, corporation or supergroup, the art of saying nothing online has retained a single, unconquerable mascot: the humble cookie.

Cookies are the very essence of non-topics, the precise middle of nowhere in that wasteland of faceless, opinionless, purposeless simulacrum of camaraderie.
 "Maybe with a glass of water on the side-"
"- for dippin'!"

Monday, August 11, 2014

Hanna keeps strange company

I find Hanna's de facto classification on IMDB amusing. According to the "people who liked this" they "also liked" five James Bond movies, Mission Impossible, the A-Team and the Hunt for Red October. Kudos to those who "also liked" Spider-Man. Hanna is not a spy movie. It's a superhero movie.

I don't mean a ridiculously over-the-top superhero like Superman, the Hulk or Captain Ugly American, but one of the better ones like Batman or the X-Men, those heroes closer in proportion to the world around them, vulnerable and limited by the shortcomings of their personalities. Hanna would intrigue Magneto. She's a post-human, a Homo superior, an uber... whatever the german word for "pixie" is.

The physical "supersoldier" side of things is just a pretext for various action sequences, quite the same high-kicking Hollywood martial theatrics you'd see in any spy/action movie. Of course, the real point is Hanna's cold-bloodedness, her inhuman lack of emotion, right? Yet we've all seen entirely too many movies praising human irrationality, making a villain or prop of the inhumanly detached. Hanna is not Dr. Moreau or Spock. She is not a wind-up toy. She is a good heroine for the same reason Hannibal Lecter was such an excellent villain in '91. They're funhouse reflections of each other, two forks of the same path.

Pop culture teaches us the propriety of emotional susceptibility, the virtues of love, piety, family, humbleness, marriage, altruism and everything else to make the individual incapable of resisting the tide of animal social interdependence. Yet what of those minds comparatively free of such weaknesses? We are taught to fear the cold-blooded through that unstoppable Hollywood effluvium of stone-faced psychopathic villains dispatched by the grunting all-too-human hero in his quest to get the girl and return the status quo (minute 50 for evil henchmen, 80 for the mad scientist.) If Hanna truly were in line with James Bond and the A-Team, Hanna herself could not have been the main character.

But what if a decreased or otherwise atypical emotional response is not a guarantee of sadism? What if psychopathy is not as dirty a word as we've been led to believe? What if the overwhelming stream of pop-psychology is, perish the thought, wrong? What if those who do not automatically smile in response to a smile are simply more... free?

Free to choose. To decide.
An inhuman concept, indeed.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sins of a Dark Age - ambivalence

If my former victims think I might be slightly bitter about getting banned from SoaDA, well then, you don't know me very well.
I'm very bitter. No, really, I'm definitely the type to hold grudges. I still haven't forgiven my fifth-grade math teacher for criticizing my long division, and she's probably dead by now.
Buuuut, I guess that shouldn't prevent me from also pointing out the game's positive qualities.

To do so, you have to consider its place in the greater scheme of AoS games' development within the greater RTS genre. Real-Time-Strategy games, especially Blizzard's war, star and other crafts within which the AoS concept spread, tend to be hopelessly light on Strategy. They reward button-mashing almost exclusively. Games like Demigod, DotA, HoN, LoL or SoaDA are single-unit strategy, placing the player in a very short role-playing scenario every match, giving you a single hero to control as part of a greater conflict. You are, basically, a Hero of Might and/or Magic. And so are the other several players in the game, some of which are trying to kill you.
It's not a very complicated concept. It's what World of Warcraft promised to be before it degenerated into a meaningless grind/farm: a strategy game from a single unit's perspective.

Aside from lending RTS gameplay a more visceral role-playing feel, letting players identify with their chosen hero for half an hour at a time, this also reduced the dependence on button-mashing. Most of the Warcraft 3 maps which popularized the genre gave the player only 3-5 buttons to press in addition to mouse-movement. The emphasis is to be on situational awareness and strategic planning, building up one's character and team throughout a match. From this basic setup, one might rebuild the entire RTS concept as centered on strategy and teamwork. Context-sensitive hero abilities, improving the team's AI-controlled soldier waves, altering their course through the map, securing various resources.

Unfortunately, it turned out the limited basic notion of being a "badass dude" beating up other "badass dudes" was very idiot-friendly and suited for mass-consumption without any strategic involvement. In the end it was one of the most simplistic War3 AoS maps, DotA, which won the popularity contest, and just as the MMO genre has been nothing but WoW copycats for the past decades AoS games came to be seen as DotA clones and were re-branded as multiplayer online battle Arenas so as to remove any notion that strategy should interfere in the routine of measuring e-peen size over kill/death ratios and item farming. League of Legends, the big market success story, was a shameless DotA clone which brought many necessary balance changes but few if any new features into the old formula.

SoaDA is to LoL what LoL was to DotA, and therein lie most of its flaws. It slavishly molds itself into the threadbare old three-lane, five-player setup. It uses the same inventory and item upgrade recipe system from DotA. It uses the same imbecilic resource system (last-hitting enemy soldiers and heroes for cash) and the same 4+2 skill system from League of Legends. Its shallow, fifteen-level skill system allows players to max all skills at maximum level every game instead of making them choose. It copies the moronic notion of a "carry" which DotA popularized, glorifying the nuker from the team RPG nuker/tank/healer holy trinity.

Its positive qualities come mostly not in the form of advancement but of mitigating the negative effects of all that DotA idiocy. Last-hitting shares some money with nearby teammates. Skill leveling is better balanced, allowing more patterns than in LoL. The two extra globally-available hero spells can be upgraded instead of being the same every game. The "blink" spell is better balanced, preventing it from being a must-have as in LoL. Invisibility is more appropriately scarce. Towers are more powerful, making them a more meaningful feature on the battlefield. "Carries" are not the unstoppable juggernauts they are in DotA or even LoL. The jungle is put to better use through the quest system.

Speaking of which. If you ever call the developers out on the lack of strategic options (resources, unit upgrades, interaction with the team AI) they will likely immediately retort that the team quest system will eventually solve all of that. This is indeed SoaDA's one major addition to the game concept, their holy grail in the bid for popularity. In all fairness, they were doing quite a bit with it by the time I got booted. Here's how it goes:
Three or four times in a match, a quest announcement pops up. Temporary objectives spawn in various spots on the map. They play out like various team FPS scenarios: capture the flag, capture and hold, escort teammate, escort object, etc. The team completing one of these quests receives various rewards like improved NPC waves, a big gryphon which adds itself to one advancing NPC wave, a bit of cash, a tower-disabling ability so you can chase enemies past their defenses, a temporary map revealing ability, and usually a team-wide stat buff as a bonus.

This does add a fair bit of strategy, it's true. Capture-and-hold instead of securing resource nodes, assassinating an enemy flag-carrier, killing specific NPCs for a quest, using the temporary buffs as an advantage for a big push, these are valid team-oriented tasks. I'm willing to concede the team-quest system has more strategic potential than I'd have thought at first glance. I'm still not crazy about having the quest order pre-determined at the start of a match (I'd prefer more player choice in objectives) but I'd be a hypocrite if I outright denounced it after I myself suggested a Rogue-like system of algorithmically-determined features for team games last month.

So as far as gameplay goes, SoaDA is neither here nor there. It lacks the strategic scope or artistic flair of Demigod or the old WAR3 map Eve of the Apocalypse, the most promising incarnations of the AoS concept I've ever seen, but it also rises above the likes of DotA2, LoL or HoN... slightly, ever-so-slightly. It is, from what I know, currently the best AoS out there, even if "best" is a relative term not amounting to much. Unfortunately, with its competition all marketing to Brazilian/Russian twelve-year-olds who have no terms for comparison, SoaDA didn't really have to try very hard.
Artistically, it does use a very welcome, slightly darker and more realistic design setting it far apart from the anime-ripoff MOBAs littering the internet these days. Conceptually, the heroes are truer, less self-ridiculing fantasy archetypes (Drengar shouting "fight until your blades are dull!" or Vallamere's resounding "stand together!" are prime illustrations) and thus overall SoaDA is a much more pleasant environment in which to spend a few matches.

Unfortunately, Ironclad's worst decisions have nothing to do with the AoS concept.

First off, I was exasperated to find they were forcing their playerbase onto Steam, given my feelings about that disgusting perversion of digital distribution, and was also quite perplexed at the choice... until I saw their microtransaction system. I'm guessing the big draw was not only Steam's use as an ad-spamming and update platform, but the Steam marketplace. Yes, unfortunately, SoaDA has jumped on the legitimized cheating bandwagon along with the rest of the game industry. Players can acquire various permanent items to boost their in-game stats or take the shortcut of buying them with real money. The stat boosts don't look like much, but as I've previously ranted it takes very little to skew the odds. Hell, if cheating didn't skew the odds, it wouldn't be so popular that companies like Ironclad feel compelled to take bribes to allow it.

Second, SoaDA has jumped on another bandwagon - the one I martyred myself under. It pretends to police its playerbase. Emphasis on pretends. The Pretense of objectivity, pervading as it does every aspect of our "don't you judge me" society leads an increasing majority of online game companies to set up draconic means of sweeping player dissatisfaction under the rug. "Don't rock the boat" is the name of the metagame. You're allowed to wreck the game for other players by refusing to cooperate and even encouraged to do so by individual stat-tracking. You're not allowed to call others idiots for refusing to play a team game for the team. You're not allowed to curse, but you can sabotage your team by refusing to play and sitting at spawn to force your team to surrender because you personally have decided you no longer want to finish the thirty-minute match you signed up for. You can get reported for the low score you acquired through repeated deaths as a "feeder" but not for sabotaging your teammates by pretending to join a fight and then running away with full health. You never get blamed for causing a loss through complacency - only through "breaking the meta." You can't say four letter words... unless they're "noob" or "rox" (i maintain (5+3)/2=4 letters) or "lulz."

In this climate, it's not griefers who get punished, but those who actually give a rat's ass about the game itself, who are insulted by every brain-dead little snot playing a team game only to boost his personal stats.

I was only the first victim. Ironclad is creating a community of underhanded brats who constantly backstab and grief each other avoiding only the obvious triggers they know GMs scan for in a game transcript or 24x speed-through of a match replay. Remember your teachers who always just shrugged and told you to keep quiet when you complained the class bully was sticking a sharpened pencil in your back because the bully just smiled innocently and played nice for the big boss? That's the community created by any system of player reports and transcript-skimming, by pretending that the response to a crime is the crime itself: a playground custom-designed for quiet, brown-nosing bullies, rewarding facetiousness and punishing integrity. A cubicle farm. Shut up and RMT us some more cash.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Ergo Proxy

Pure intention juxtaposed will set two lovers' souls in motion,
Disintegrating as it goes,
Testing our communication.

Tool - Schism

Twenty-three freakin' episodes, almost a dozen hours, and the moment when it all clicks, the moment when I finally knew - not suspected or expected or assumed - what the series was about, the core idea and juxtaposition behind the plot, was the very last couple of sentences, the backdrop for the final scene.

I'm not much of an anime fan. Sturgeon's Law applies as in every other medium: ninety percent of everything is crap, and most of the rest is partially craptacular, a chore you sit through for the good parts if you're committed enough to grit your teeth. Ergo Proxy, if I'm to judge from my limited experience with the medium, makes rather few concessions to the mass market. It's not nearly as experimental as Lain (pun intended) yet also eschews many of the common heroic tropes of such series - tropes much more recognizable in Wolf's Rain or Cowboy Bebop, for example.

Some of Ergo Proxy's flaws do stem from concessions to form - slightly more fights than necessary, a few scenes stretched to fit a preconception of drama, comic relief a bit too jarringly wedged in between slices of plot - while others stem from the attempt to move away from these norms. As the show dances between psychological exploration and unraveling the setting's nature through vague hints and revelations, it hinges on its audience's expectations. This is a niche product, a series for those who readily accept inhuman mental states and apocalyptic landscapes. Even so, some hints were too vague while others bulldozed too abruptly over the pace of storytelling (the game-show episode) and other gimmicks were largely meaningless (the whole theme-park episode should have been a five-minute footnote.) Many scenes (fights especially, natch) were overplayed or overextended for purely visual purposes, but it's hard to fault the creators for that. "Proxy prances through gothic locales" may not sound like much but it's a very satisfying use of the animator's art.

Still. I suppose the advantage here is that this series is just as easy to approach for anime fans and non-such. Watch the dust which isn't dust. Watch the skies, watch the bare rock. Trace the stark, twisting architecture. Revel in decay and abortion of meaning, in failed social experiments and the apocalyptic nihilism of mad gods reeling from fate's grip. Don't come at it like a linear narrative or like a mystery novel. Ergo Proxy both expands outwards into its setting and regresses into its history. Its totality is best absorbed as a Lovecraftian unfolding of terrible realization, something like Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.

I've done the math, enough to know the dangers of a second-guessing