Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Secret World hates you precisely this much

No, really, it's quantifiable.

Ah, TSW. If only this game were a complete failure in every way. If only they'd have the decency of ruining it altogether so I can abandon it. Yet every now and then, through all the bugs, clumsy interface, theme-park grind and nonsensical, extraneous or useless features, they manage an endearing show of originality or attention to detail.

In Ibaraki's Lair for instance, a location which forces you to skip between our dimension and Hell to overcome various obstacles, you end up climbing a winding staircase in Hell only to get chased back down by a giant rolling rock, like some raider of a lost ark or something. So you switch dimensions to get past the rock and start climbing again... only to get chased back down the stairs a second time by a second rolling rock. Why? Because if you're going to use an overused pop culture reference, you may as well double down. Hilarious.

And you know, sometimes it's the little things that can make your day. For instance, accustomed to every game scrambling to lower its ESRB rating to Ned Flanders levels, I did not even consider for a second the possibility that in TSW, my pet dog might be granted a penis.

That stuff's window dressing though. TSW's combat mechanics are an unfortunate abortion of a potentially very flexible and nuanced system, cluttered with redundant and useless filler abilities, ruined by a pointless attempt to shoehorn PvP into a blatant PvE game and too severely limited by a lack of limiting stats (mana / stamina, etc.) but one of the system's high points is its refusal to let the law of averages reduce randomization to full predictability. Though you have thousands of hit points, it's often that extra ten or a hundred which will make all the difference.

And sometimes, the randomizer just gets in your face and gives you the finger.

1970 is the base unbuffed amount of hit points. Given that most boss abilities' damage ranges either in the hundreds or several thousand, rendering extra hit points either needless or pointless, it's very common for everyone except the tank on a team to run instances completely defenseless. Which is wonderful until some jackass hellspawn decides he's going to crit-pen you for precisely your last hit point, just to show you who's boss.

I miss this. I haven't seen close calls in MMOs since WoW's release. EVE was wonderful for this sort of thing, with your ship often limping out of a fight in flames with its last bar of hull points screaming in agony. Most games however, with exponential increases in player stats every level, trivialize numeric values. City of Heroes famously even refused to show players the numeric values on skills for years, for fear the scary, scary numbers would drive them screaming in terror. When it finally released that information NCSoft tried to put a marketing spin on it: this was the "real numbers initiative" because of course it takes initiative to remove the smokescreen over the numbers which have always been there.
Well, maybe it does. Everyone else is handing players decision-free stat systems in which min-maxing is the only way to go. Though TSW does as well to a great extent, hey, credit where it's due: it took some cojones for Funcom to risk frustrating and confusing its playerbase with near-misses and wiggle-room, at least once in a while.

So yeah, anatomically correct puppies, running gags and significant figures. It may not sound like much, but within the MMO market which has fostered such abysmally low expectations, even these can count as saving graces.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Shoulderpads of Giants

Art is expression, and those topics best understood are more likely to be best expressed. Much of what seems self-serving in art - music about music, painters' self-portraits, novels about writers - is often only the truest expression of artists' own concerns. This is their life, these are the wordly and etheral avenues around which wrap their thoughts and feelings. I'm not a fan of the notion of "art for art's sake" dredged up so often as justification for uninspired, thoughtless gestures passed off as somehow mysteriously meaningful in their very lack of meaning. It has been one unfortunate cardinal sin of postmodernism. However, great artists have often created excellent lessons for future generations through their more indulgent exercises in the craft.

I've been fond of Edgar Allan Poe's writing ever since listening to the parody of The Raven in that very first Simpsons Halloween Special from 1990. A Dream Within a Dream is probably my favorite poem and the one I quote as my signature on game forums. In his less angst-ridden moments, Poe seems to have had quite a bit to say against literary professions. X-ing a Paragrab or the twin farces How to Write a Blackwood Article and The Scythe of Time certainly don't pull their punches in mocking the pettiness of journalists and storytellers.

Then we're given those lovely moments of Poe just playing at writing, pushing his theory of storytelling and the impact of a unified "effect" through more experimental methods. Of the three I'm thinking of, the best and best known is probably The Bells, a rolling, roiling barrage of onomatopoeia dragging youth into the grave through a single rusting note. But then, it's the most concise. It's hard to think of anyone but literary critics and Poe fanatics sitting through something like Landor's Cottage with its painstakingly minute descriptions of the approach to significance, its page after page embodying the pregnant pause before the main action of a story, only to be cheated out of their promised narrative by the very last paragraph. It's hard to think of anyone at all enjoying The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket with its tortuously rambling abortion of a Romantic-age high seas adventure story. These are, however, even in their failings, highly valuable instructional examples as exercises in rhetoric.

We live in a short lull in the constriction of discourse. My own previous generation, this current one and possibly the next as well have access, through the Internet, not only to the greatest breadth of information in the history of the world but also to each other. We have discovered that we can be heard and are dutifully screaming each other deaf with white noise. Everyone has a blog. Rhetorical style becomes less of a taught and learned technique separating literatus from media-absorbing public, controller from controlled, than a dialectic between personality and social reinforcement. Is our online avatar our embodiment or the other way around? In a world with fewer and fewer traces of privacy remaining, we become our persona. We assume that we have to live our stories.

The petty feud Poe described in X-ing a Paragrab has digitized itself into today's forum flame-war. Endless guides and tutorials teach us just how to write Blackwood articles. In the virtual world, there's an art to being. Yet let's remember how the few true creators turned formula on its head, for the sake of the art. Look at Poe hammering that edge between ludicrous repetition and dramatic reinforcement in The Bells. See him turn the creation of an effect into the effect itself in Landor's Cottage. Watch the tendrils of a new myth creeping out of the scattered ramblings of Pym's journal. With but a pen to turn my phrases, I can turn your mind to fear a color; I can turn primate diurnal precepts on their head.

What's my point? Maybe I have none and I'm just wasting your time, one more blog among the millions. Or maybe wasting your time is the point. Maybe I'm shaggy-dogging you. Maybe it's a statement and maybe it's nostalgia. This is Art - to borrow a phrase from the master - as I found it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Nowhere Girl

Well, I can't very well come up with a song reference for a webcomic titled after a song, but it bears mentioning this is what I was reading several times over in my sophomore year of college a decade ago in between listening to Solitude Standing, So Like A Rose or The Day the World Went Away. At 3 a.m. Having not left my room in two days except for the bathroom. Aanyhooo...

Sometimes an author wants to create a more involved story which begs a certain amount of foreshadowing, an introduction to a premise or one of the characters. Sometimes these preludes, neatly focused on its more poignant aspects, can end up much more memorable than the bulk of a story. We'll never know whether this is the case with Nowhere Girl, as only its first two chapters ever made it online. But whether it would have become a relationship slice-of-life or some cyberpunk virtual reality adventure makes little difference because the first part, Imaginary Friend, stands on its own as every nobody's tale of alienation.

Nowhere Girl does not have a very original premise, nor any grand speculative forays into the unknown. It might be taken for social critique, though the social ill targeted for criticism has been fading slightly. However you don't need to share Jamie Adler's social dilemmas to identify with her utter hopelessness and loneliness. Anyone who's been a punching bag or a ghost in high school then escaped only to find the world at large but a larger prison will easily slip into Jamie's mindset of clinging to one last desperate irrational hope. It's sad, beautiful, satisfying, it's the false optimism you so badly need if you've ever been utterly alone in a five-hundred-student dormitory.

It's forty-three pages and an excellent introduction to the possibilities of comics as an artistic medium, and it contains one of the greatest lines I've ever read:
"At least the world has the decency to rain today."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

... and the women who love them.

So over here in the U.S. various media streams are currently throwing around a lot of feigned outrage at the discovery that American football players are beating their girlfriends, wives and children. This of course follows the feigned outrage at finding out last year that others of the same hideously overpaid muscleheads were spewing racial slurs at each other. Before that it was, what, the fact that they were driving over pedestrians like speed bumps while the cops just shrugged? Before that it was dirty dealing in league trades. In between all of this we of course have the usual steroid addiction. Just to bring things around full circle, back in the 90s, if the glove doesn't fit, you must ... be freakin' kidding me, he got away with what?

Golly gee,  might there perhaps be some sort of pattern with these paragons of pop-culture virtue? Take some overstuffed knuckle-draggers out of Podunk, put them on the cover of magazines, pump them full of testosterone and entitlement, hand them a fortune in cash and make sure they never get prosecuted for anything. What could go wrong?

They're fucking jocks! Stop pretending you even want them to be anything other than what they are, your vicarious primal urge toward ritualized violence. They're brainless lumps of muscle who beat their wives unconscious so that you can live through their glorious incarnation of the alpha male ideal.

Ah, but see, while that's all sort of passe by now, there's an added layer of dishonesty running like drool from these slack-jawed petty thugs into our politically correct society at large. The mass media is playing this off as a "domestic violence" issue, which is to say a male issue. Oh, that brutish male oppression. Yet not a one of these vicious lumbering mouthbreathers will ever have known a cold bed or lonely night since they hit puberty.

It's women who operate sexual selection in the human species, whose standards are supposedly oh-so-high. It's women who refuse to mate with anything but the best... except that "best" always means high social rank, aggressive alpha type jackasses. It's women who have bred these traits into humanity generation after generation for hundreds of thousands of years. So don't give me any feminist crap about male oppression while hanging off the arm of some lantern-jawed meathead or cut-throat rising company star.

You deserve your lumps.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How Far Beyond Earth?

- or, the concept-death disease.

 "You are the children of a dead planet, and this death we do not comprehend. We shall take you in, but may we ask this question: will we, too, catch the planet-death disease?"
- Conversations with Planet

Few games are truly memorable. Oh, sure, we remember small anecdotes, tidbits which fit into our personal narrative. This one time I built a mag tube around the world in Alpha Centauri. However, for aspects of a game to truly become memorable, they must generally offer something outside the distilled formulas which define genre. What truly stood out there was being able to alter the game map to ring Planet with dry land and metal. "Features" are supposed to be the criteria by which we discern the worth of one game from its competition... something more specific than "we've got big bad guys you can shoot a laser / magic pistol at."

Alpha Centauri was full of features.
Its atmosphere, painstakingly amalgamated from various science fiction novels, turned the various odds and ends of flavor-text which are in other games only disparate distractions into a set of over-arching themes immersing the player in a coherent, developing world. It felt, at many times, like playing through a novel.
Unit and base customization served as a vehicle for this immersion. While good/evil/chaotic/neutral labels are treated as nominal Disneyed platitudes by most games, Meier and Reynolds' team pulled out the stops to science fiction brutality. The aliens which assault your units are not lovably Spock-ish humanoids, but the tiny, gut-wrenchingly fearsome nerve-runners of the Pandora series. As a faction leader you could act not just hyper-aggressively as in most games, but viciously, suicidally evil. Want to build torture chambers to keep your citizens in line? Nerve-gas all your enemies? Exterminate the local wildlife or befriend it? Blow a gigantic crater in Planet's surface with an uber-nuke? Go for it, signor Borgia!
Faction leaders with actual personalities and agendas, potential for supporting bases both from inside and outside their individual territories, aquatic bases, psionic combat, all of this made Alpha Centauri much more than simply Civ 2.5 - in space! It was a nerd's game, a stab at fame for experienced developers who had just left their old company to strike out on their own.

Unfortunately, we've learned a little thing or two about how computer game developers secure and expand their playerbase, from the development pattern of online games and WoW in particular. Nerds are useful for an initial attention-grab, when you need a discerning audience which will discern you from your competitors based on actual features. You promise big features early in a product or product line and even deliver some few to whet the nerds' appetites, to get them talking and advertising your game for free. Once you've drawn them in as a core fanatic base, once you've made them invest themselves in your product, it's time to dumb everything down. Screw features. The mass-market is where the money's at, and the mass market is, well, reality-tv and sports fans. Idiots. To appeal to them, your product must advertise novelty (which the nerds will keep on doing for you for free so they don't have to admit to getting ripped off) but deliver the sort of mind-numbing blandness the less to threaten conventional minds.

In 1999, Firaxis was a start-up trying to make a name for itself. It is now one of the well-established names in the game industry, lending its customers the respectability of playing the most-referenced strategy game series of all time. Actual content, complexity, features...  well, those might get in the way. Teh internets has built a fair bit of hub-bub about the release of Beyond Earth next month. Some of us old-timers have been waiting for a sequel to Alpha Centauri for a decade and a half, stuck in one of those simmering infinite hope situations, and whatever the marketing hype does or does not state outright, Beyond Earth is blatantly meant to draw on free nerd advertising as SMAC2.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be shaping out that way. Beyond Earth is being marketed in the corporate manner: hype minus concrete details. Most troubling, though, is the apparent absence of Alpha Centauri's grandiose, globe-altering terraforming. You see, SMAC wasn't just a 4x game. It grew out of a time when the nerdy public still remembered Daisyworld and computer models had just spread from science labs to the PC. It followed in the footsteps not just of Civilization or Master of Orion, but Maxis' line of Sim games, most relevantly in this case SimEarth. Planet was not only a backdrop against which player activity played itself out, but a living, breathing thing. Its seas rose and fell, its immune system reacted to invading human presence, its winds carried moisture across continents. Planet was Gaia's sister, her bones, blood and breath the rock, seas and winds you attempted to manipulate to your advantage.

Terraforming was just one feature, true. Unit customization sounds like it might indeed be improved in Beyond Earth over SMAC, writing and voice acting might be good, might... might. But if this were a true sequel to Alpha Centauri, then one might expect it to bank on expanding its most memorable feature, the interaction with a complex simulated ecosystem, terraforming complete with raising and lowering terrain or digging moholes, the planetdeath disease. Other tidbits sap the hope of a new Alpha Centauri, like the image of a Dune-ish sandworm or other would-be kaiju in place of more subtle, insidious monsters like mindworms. More than anything though, terraforming and its impact on the rest of gameplay set the old masterpiece apart from other strategy games. Unfortunately, Firaxis is no longer selling to an informed, educated niche of science geeks and if it can't be expected to confuse its much wider audience now by making them consider prevailing winds and terrain elevations then we have to wonder about everything else they've dumbed down.

Beyond Earth is worth watching, on the off-chance Firaxis hasn't become entrenched in a mass-market mentality quite yet... but don't hold your breath, old-time SMACkers. It'll take some new start-up with dreams of glory to give us a true Alpha Centauri sequel.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Solitude for the soul ever-making

"I like songs about drifters, books about the same
They both seem to make me feel a little less insane.
Walked on off to another spot;
I still haven't gotten anywhere that I want."
Modest Mouse - The World at Large

I've had a devil of a time finding song lyrics to append to my comments on Ursula K. Le Guin's Solitude. Not that I lack musical references to isolation and alienation (far from it, as I'm an old NIN/Marilyn Manson/Garbage fan) but their focus on self-condemning internalized societal expectations of social behavior renders most songs about solitude unfit to play soundtrack to Solitude. In fashioning what she called "a planet full of introverts" Le Guin reversed the expectation of codependence which predominates human interpersonal relations. Here is a world in which it is nearly unthinkable to plead or give direct advice, in which all are taught from an early age to see our many attempts to gain mental influence over another being as despicably unethical, as sorcery.

The story's title is not loneliness, but solitude. Solitude is not a lack. Introversion is not a disease or deficiency. Solitude is privacy and though social interactions may serve as observational fodder, private thought is the true vehicle for personal growth. Eleven-Soro is populated not by faceless masses of people but by individual persons. Given that it drops such philosophical distinctions on you with the casual ease of internal monologue, ignoring how alien they must seem to most, err... people... it's not surprising that Solitude is not one of Le Guin's more famous works. It has the feel of an offhand exercise, a by-the-by niche product hovering somewhere along the edges of the Hainish universe, an illustration of the sort of individualistic anarchism excluded by the political situation of The Dispossessed.

The bulk of the story is devoted to the question of breeding and child-rearing in a society which denies its tribal apes a tribal structure. Here unfortunately the author's chauvinist streak crops up as in other works, with males being seen as a destructive element necessarily kept at a distance and tolerated only for rare reproductive purposes. Society, such as it is, is female. However, it comes across as no more annoying than, for instance, Robert Heinlein's comically one-dimensional female characters - alien creatures with perplexing motivations. Paradoxically, while Sorovian men are little more than hapless, rabid, overgrown chimps, the book's female characters end up encompassing attitudes quite easily recognizable as stereotypically male. Women being generally more social than men by default, the shift of the entire spectrum of interaction away from sociability puts them in an awkward position normally reserved only for the male nerd archetype of sitcoms.

But male or female, Solitude's target audience of introverts will likely find in the narrator's life a cathartic illustration of the difficulty and necessity for personal growth unrestricted by others' attempts at mental control, of "making a soul" as the locals put it. Whatever the author's intent, this did not come together as a story of males and females but of individuals. Individuality being such a taboo in human society, Solitude stands as a welcome reminder that despite societal condemnation of privacy, your life as yourself, the soul you make, is existence.

"I'm kicking it off like a bug in the breeze
'Cause is anyone out there inside me?"
Heather Nova - Virus of the Mind

"And she says I've come to set a twisted thing straight
And she says I've come to lighten this dark heart"
Suzanne Vega - Solitude Standing

Saturday, September 6, 2014

It's a whole new game

Imagine launching yourself down a water-slide. You slip and steady yourself, pick up speed and learn to lean into curves, you flow with the current, aero and hydro-dynamic... yet as you reach the bottom, instead of cannonballing into a gigantic warm pool, you slow, and slow, and slow, and get gradually tipped over the side onto a rubber mat. You're handed a towel and told that the rubber-mat chapter of sliding is meant to maintain the freshness and novelty of slide-play - that it is, in fact, an improvement on the concept, as shown in these carefully powerpointed focus-group studies.
Somewhere behind you, ecstatically screeching youngsters splash into a sunny pool.

1. Boom - and that's the game, now.

I haven't been in the mood for much lately. Don't wanna write, dun wanna read, dun wan' no new movies or games or nuthin' that might prove an unpleasant surprise. So instead I've opted for dependable unpleasantness:
Defense of the Ancients (possibly #2, it's kinda hard to tell)

But it turns out this was a good time to dive back into yon murky waters, since I get to catch the re-introduction of one of DotA's more controversial stabs at creativity, the Goblin Techies. Choosing this hero allows you to create invisible minefields powerful enough to remotely one-shot even the toughest enemies in a very satisfying pyroclastic illustration of the term "overkill" - very aggravating if you're on the receiving end. In itself, this is great. The techies function much more in the way heroes should in a team strategy game.... strategically. Predict the enemy's movements, plan your trap, catch an opportune moment when no-one's looking and set up some nasty surprises. Nothing so crass as direct confrontation.
That the techies should be so unusual within DotA's greater scheme is a perfect encapsulation of the game's failings. The techies are a good hero, a strategic hero. DotA is not a strategic game. It's a twitchfest in which macho strength and agility heroes (jocks) beat on intel-based nerds until they drop. Its basic draw is the chance to play an athletic, rich and invincible warrior beating a scrawny spellcaster's teeth in, in a very personal and in-your-face manner. The techies are a better basic concept... but they don't fit into the game plan. It's not about unfairness - DotA was built around imbalance - but things feel very differently with techies in the field: an entire playerbase suddenly has to start worrying about surveying large areas where the techies might be setting traps. People have to learn to think in terms of choke points, tactical retreats and planned offensives.

And that's a problem. Potentially useless, potentially devastating, the techies (one playable hero out of dozens) alter the basic function and flow of gameplay. Games are partly about developing a very specialized set of skills, and it's a perfectly reasonable expectation that further expansion of any particular game concept, its progression, should build on those skills. It's very clumsy design that which, after a few score matches played, suddenly allows a single game element to negate the basic ruleset - yet all too common. If DotA has some excuse for this (having been after all developed in the truest sense of the word by amateurs) this sort of random oncogenic end-game mutation has taken over much more expensive projects as well.

2. Lord of the now-powerless rings.

Take LotRO, for instance, a basic third-person online RPG. You choose your class, walk around, and use skills, from your basic firebolts to the even more basic fire-balls. These skills, to a great extent, are the gameplay and your identity. Your hero's skills (the arrows and fireballs you shoot, the sword you swing, the extent to which you can heal yourself and your companions) are your method of interacting with the game world. However, the Helm's Deep expansion presented players with a new type of content: "epic" battles. They were meant partly to incorporate level-scaling, to compensate somewhat for the ludicrous amount of time new players are forced to invest in order to catch up to and play with their top-level buddies, and thus are accessible from level ten. A level ten character in LotRO has access to only a handful of skills and no gear to speak of, so to even the playing field, an entirely new interface was overlaid on the existing one.

All of a sudden, after a hundred levels during which you've dutifully ground out your hard-earned array of magic missiles and axe-swings, you're faced with half-hour affairs during which, instead of fighting, your main task is playing whack-a-mole with siege ladders and constantly refreshing the same order on squads of soldiers. Were the entire game built around this, it might have turned out to be a much better experience than LotRO's simplistic hack'n'slash, but to someone who's spent months and years polishing those hack / slash skill icons in his character's taskbar, seeing them suddenly lying there lonely and snubbed can feel, quite rightly, like being cheated out of a pay-off.

3. I'll trade you one toy for your ten.

Some features are just too central to a game concept to be abandoned in the interest of novelty value. If in a third-person RPG the interface and the player's activity revolves around the skill buttons, in a First-Person-Shooter this focus is on your... shooter(s). Here the miscreant is once again Valve.
Half-Life has remained one of the most important reference points in computer games. It was a lovely piece of work all-in-all: atmospheric, action-packed, clever, well-organized and very satisfying. Its ending, among other things, was appropriately cathartic. Though you lose all your guns halfway through the story (and get thrown into a trash compactor, but that's a different matter) you gradually recover them all and then some, and by the time you reach the end boss you're packing enough heat to level a medium-sized city. The final fight had you let loose at a kaiju with whatever you wished, all your rifles, shotgun, rockets, gluon streams and alien hornet cannon in an appropriately climactic grand finale.
Half-Life 2, on the other hand, while an expertly orchestrated adventure in most respects, failed miserably in its final stretch. Your minutely, lovingly-assembled arsenal is taken from you in a cinematic and you spend the final moment of the game knocking some panels out of place with a nerf cannon. Whether or not this was anti-climactic in terms of storytelling is not the point. Games are interactive endeavors playing off of and manipulating the players' input. To suddenly place severe constraints on that input just at the culmination of the player's efforts can sour the whole experience.

4. It's all over but the gimmie.

Planescape: Torment, at least as noteworthy a project as Half-Life, was an RPG centered on the traditional routine of killing things and completing tasks in order to advance not only the story but one's character. Shortly before the end, however, you're handed a massive exp reward which in effect brings all players, regardless of their previous success, to the same level. Not only that, but you're separated from all the colorful characters' whose companionship you've cultivated throughout your journey of self-discovery and made to fight your way through the final stages alone. Anticlimactic? Not quite, in terms of storytelling - this sequence of events was fitting. Yet from a gameplay perspective, this last stage was all too forgettable. Your efforts invalidated by a hand-out of experience, your strategy negated by removal of your main tools, you find yourself wondering when the real game will start again.

5. Eturnity liess uhhed uv uss, ahnd beeheind.

One of the staples of the Civilization series has been the exodus from a climatically-destabilized Earth aboard a colony ship, an end-game rush lending some urgency to your empire-building. In the series' brilliant spin-off, Alpha Centauri, the concept was taken a bit further. Inspired by stories like the Pandora series, Planet is the eighth of seven factions, a reactive AI participant in gameplay whose power and level of activity ramp up to implacably apocalyptic levels toward the end. It's a whole new game, and as your improvements explode into fungal forests and swarms of locusts lay waste to your cities you can find attempted deicide taking up much more of your attention than exterminating other mere mortals like yourself.
However, in counterpoint to previous examples, Alpha Centauri does not restrict player agency in order to make its big finish seem new and exciting. The tools you use to hold off Planet's attacks and rebuild are the same military units and terraformers you've been building up all game. Your infrastructure depends on the same cities. You are still you, and your intent is still manifest in your approach to the endgame. One need not render existing game mechanics and previous player effort useless in order to introduce an end-game quirk. Novelty must be introduced along a continuum.

Have you drunk your fill?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The unskilled labourers' guild, Azeroth local 666

You know, I once wanted to be a part of the carpenters' guild, but I've never been much of a joiner.

But seriously, folks, words have meanings. The names we give to our online associations are meant to represent the practical motivations for associating. After all, there must be a reason to put up with each others' bullshit ... right? So what does it mean to be part of a guild?

Not much, these days. The concept has degenerated along with the activity which spawned it. Your only choices are the generic:
1. L33t-kiddies. We r teh awsum doodz n we liek killz all!!!1 Easily impressed by phat lewtz and calling everything from toast to political parties teh gay!!! After all, if you spent 500 hours farming the same instance, you must be good! Otherwise u r teh gay! Guild name formed out of any permutation of flame/skulls/dark/legion/chaos/wolves/squad/blood/etc. (!!!) Will delineate in greatly detailed forum posts how they're above such things as arguing on forums.
2. Church ladies. The main requirement here is to lack any capacity for critical thought whatsoever. Never argue or you might make someone cry. Guild name usually a vague Sindarin rip-off. Easily impressed by cosmetic items bought at the game's cash shop. Constantly reassuring each other of how "mature" they are though it's never quite clear what they're being mature about since they have nothing to discuss. Sure they've never bothered actually learning anything about the game they're using as a chat room, but as long as you can yammer on about the weather and politely pretend to give a rat's ass about the daily lives of people you'll never meet, you're golden. OMG cookies! Faux-shakespearean rolesaying a plus.

In both cases, joining is as easy as asking. Of course, you'll be forced to register on a website with forums mainly used for introductory threads. Hi, I'm Bob, I like games an I think this game is awesome! OMG so do we!
You'll also be made to formally state you accept the guild's terms of conduct. No worries. This is purely a gesture of obeissance, your symbolic subordination to the will of the group. At any rate, it's always the same few paragraphs touting "respect" -  read "conformism" - copied and pasted for over a decade from one guild's website to the next, from one game to another. While gamers' lack of self-awareness in this as in everything else always grates, one can't entirely blame their assumption of such generic facades for their meaningless associations. They have merely adapted to environments which deny meaning, which provide no criteria for differentiation. Denmark a prison? Why then the world is one.

A guild ideally designates not only a group of players but its character, the particular niche they have or are planning to carve out for themselves within the greater game world. When there is no such niche to carve, no territory to claim, no incentive to specialize, no constraints within which to work, then players themselves are reduced to faceless, interchangeable unskilled laborers. Grinders. Farmers. Peasantfolk.

A guild implies a trade. In an idealized virtual world, a true MMORPG, individual players would be forced to choose a single race, a single class, and skill variety would be sufficiently restricted to promote the acquisition of only one or two gathering/crafting professions out of dozens. High-quality crafting facilities would be cooperative projects and an assemblage of players would gravitate toward a particular branch of activities. Resources would be location-specific within the game world, further encouraging specialization depending on whatever patch of virtual dirt a group of players manages to secure for themselves. If you happen to be sitting on a fine patch of forest, then members of your guild would be motivated to specialize in cutting and re-growing those trees and various lumber-related activities, from arrows to castle support beams. The crafting facilities you build will likely reflect the use you expect to get from them, again based on your location.
While you likely would never reach something as specialized as a "carpenter's" guild, localized, depletable resources and restrictive personal skill specialization are much more likely to yield player associations with a more trade-oriented philosophy.

Various game mechanics would also go a long way toward punishing the lack of standards evidenced by both leet-kiddie and church lady groups. Competition for limited resources in itself would push leaders to recruit competent participants, not just brown-nosers to sing in tune with their idiosyncrasies. If communal goods are at a premium and can be stolen, then trust becomes paramount and it becomes important to distinguish the truly trustworthy from mere backstabbing sycophants. The more game activities acquire consequence, the more important players' reliability becomes, their purposeful involvement in the activities of that virtual world as opposed to simply logging in to go through the motions every night. When players can directly or indirectly affect each other, ethical behavior becomes a reality - from PKing to anti-PKing and everything in between. This also does a great deal to turn the meaningless rolesaying of WoW-clones into actual roleplaying: if you say you're a Lawful Good warrior of justice, what the devil are you doing hiding in bushes waiting to ambush passers-by? Guilds become segregated by the acceptability of such behavior.

And so on. It's important to note here that the difference between an idealized RPG guild and its current WoW-clone incarnation is best expressed as a series of lacks, culminating in a homogenized lowest-common-denominator lack of options. A lack of repercussions, of ramifications, of possibilities for interaction within the game world, have all contributed to an environment where, regardless of whether you look at a leet-kiddie or church lady guild, the principal virtue is conformity to the superficial whims of guild leaders who, in the absence of any pressure toward success, surround themselves in convenient echo-chambers. The cusp of this degradation of the guild concept was quite well exemplified, as with the rest of the MMO genre's decline, in WoW's early years. As World of Warcraft gradually abandoned true objectives for PvP, crafting interdependencies, control of resources, then abandoned world PvP altogether and dumbed down then shrank its PvE, it razed off layer after layer of demands on players - thus removing opportunities for players to show their quality.

At WoW's launch we used to interview guild applicants. We'd invite them on a couple of instance runs to see how they act. We'd do a background check on the forums to see if their names popped up in any scandals. We'd ask around other guilds about them.
Two years later, with everyone simply farming the same instance of the month and the game world as a whole serving merely as a transit hub between instances, with tanking reduced to an AoE cry, healing to a skill tree specialization and damage to single-minded min-maxing, with both meaning and difficulty removed, guilds had already become a free-for-all open-invite affair. The farce of guild charters which has persisted since then is merely a smokescreen masking the utter lack of meaningful choice, as relevant as the list of rules nailed to ten-year-olds' back-yard clubhouses, window-dressing for thoughtless cliquishness.

These are not guilds. Their clannish behavior aside, they are not even clans in the old FPS sense of competing teams. And, despite the nature of MMO gameplay as mindless unskilled farming, they cannot even be called unskilled worker unions... at least not until they rise up to demand their rights. You have a right to quality. Demand world conflict, demand controllable resources, demand an interconnected, persistent virtual world. Demand an environment giving you the right to call yourselves "guilds" again.