Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Generation Facebook

"When do you think it will all become clear?
'Cause I'm being taken over by a fear."

Lily Allen - The Fear

Another year has come and gone. Generation time for the human species is what? Let's say 20 years? Less if you're a teenager in one of our slave-labor backwaters like Africa or South America and your culture denies you the right to grow at all as an individual before you start cranking out crib-stuffers. Or you live in Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas or... you know what, never mind, them demographics is a-changin'. Anyway, since I was at that dangerous "one ejaculation and your life is over" age, a whole new generation has sprung up from baby teeth to toothless baby-ish spineless adulthood.

Ah, millennials.
You disappoint me. Well, that's not entirely accurate. I never had much hope for you to begin with. However, I did not entirely predict the shape your failure would take.

A decade or more ago, walking around a mall, I wondered what form future American youth counterculture would take after the "goth" craze of my own adolescence. My conclusion, given the rise of the internet, was that the iconoclastic rebellious minority of youths of this next generation would likely adopt a bohemian, art-centered, free expression mentality. I was expecting a new beat generation. Except, you know, relevant. Maybe some hippies, but not quite so stoned. Some punks with the information to know what they're rebelling against.
Instead, this has shaped up to be the most sickeningly codependent crop of youngsters in... when did the term "fop" originate again? You like to call yourselves "millennials" to make yourselves sound grandiose? You're Generation Facebook to me. You're the generation of selfies. You're the "like" button addicts. You're the purveyors and consumers of Steam achievements. You live and die by the number of total strangers who declare themselves your friends. Your spine's a rubber band, the better to bounce your aimless chatter back and forth.

Granted, that describes most human beings of any age. Here, technology truly has damned us. Instead of taking the freedom of the internet as a chance to expand horizons, bask in diversity, break down barriers, etc. the modern age has latched on to mass communication's power as a homogenizing factor. Never has it been easier to establish communication-impeding social mores and folkways. Your twit-feed now keeps you updated second-by-second on what you should like and dislike. I mean, TV was bad enough, with baby boomers and their descendants breaking into crying fits whenever Lucy Ricardo broke a nail or beating their chests in unison with Ahrnohld the terminal barbarian. The internet though has at last put the necessary interaction into Ray Bradbury's brilliant prediction of future entertainment in Fahrenheit 451. Entertainment is now about playing to your "family." Whether you're socially netting each other, playing a game or simply ordering a bag of chips through the mail, you are being subjected to a constant barrage of operant conditioning.

Oh, you're reading my blog? How kind of you! Here's a gold star. Oh, you posted a comment? Lemme just list how many comments you've posted right next to your name so you can show off. Good boy. Gooooood boooy! Don't you feel special? Don't you feel appreciated? Do yah feehl da love!?!
Now it's your turn. Invite me to your page of booked faces to tell me how speshul I am to you. Me? Oh yes me. Me, picture #457 on your wall. Who's speshul? I am! Oh thank god thank god thank dog, I needed that. Theeere's my endorphin fix for the next five minutes.

Of course once you get accustomed to that constant high, to being praised every five minutes, always being told you've achieved achievements, always having someone officially "like" you, always making new random "friends" and always being told that your victories are not small but only large, jumbo and mega-gulp, then the real magic starts. That high becomes the baseline. Anything less than being told you're "liked" begins to feel like a failure. You begin to live for the plastic grin on salespeople's faces. You start posting more and more selfies begging like a beaten puppy for that constant validation. You stop playing any games in which there's a chance you might lose.

Want a look at the new face of humanity? Go into an online game and see players quit as soon as they get a couple of deaths on their record. Watch them surrender five minutes into a game, as soon as the virtual going gets tough. Watch them in college classrooms, sitting meekly, opinionless, blankly staring through both questions and answers until it's over and time to speak freely again - but only for mutual validation!
"Oh emm gee I love that."
"Oh emm gee, me too!"
I love lamp.
Can't go wrong with lamp.

I've heard lots of praise of this new generation being so open, so free, so interconnected, so much less prejudiced. Bullshit. You're interconnected like the PVC pipes in your basement and just like them, you're hollow most of the time, until the shit starts flowing. You're not less prejudiced. You're just too gutless to admit your prejudices. You've imbibed that "diversity and tolerance" pablum they feed you in school for twelve years until you're unable to do anything but nod along with the political correctness. You cycle catchphrases because you've got nothing else, because your teachers never made you learn Shakespeare because it might upset you, and every grade was curved so you only need compare yourselves to each other, because all your life you've been getting points for good behavior. This is what you've grown over the past twenty years, western society: a harvest of emotional cripples for whom the nobility of honesty is only an ironic backdrop to their quality-independent mutual validation, for whom the word "friendship" amounts to the click of a mouse.

So if you're looking for someone to stand up against society's ills, look no further than... grandpa. Because these latest snot-nosed schmucks in backwards baseball caps and muscle shirts sure as hell are not going to take the chance of doing something unpopular.
There is no counterculture these days. No rebels, no young turks, no more self-hating narcissists. Just a homogenous mass of codependent lapdogs.

That's my rant. Enjoy the new year. Second verse, same as the first.
Like me on Facebook!

Friday, December 26, 2014

The First Men in the Moon

So, it's late December, which has made this a great time to do anything but watch television. Or allow oneself to be snared into work-related pretenses of collegiality. Or go shopping. Or go to any garlanded and brat-infested public place. Or you know what, just don't go outside. Hic sunt leones. Or tiny little elves draped in tinsel, just as bad. Stay inside and catch up on some antiquated science fiction instead, I say.

But what to choose? Mary Shelley? Too bleak. Jules Verne? Too adventurous. Arthur C. Clarke? Too cold. Ray Bradbury? Too warm.

H.G. Wells... hmm. You know, there's about a dozen or more books by him which nobody has ever read these days, including myself. Clinical as Clarke and venturesome as Verne with Ray's romanticism and Mary's morbidity. Good old Wells. It's always curious to hear of writers whose careers took a nosedive after their most famous works, who peaked young. Like Mark Twain and others, it's supposedly the case with Wells that he simply became too much of a downer for the public at large as he grew old and bitter, so I launched into his latter stories expecting some entertainment to suit my holiday humbug.

In the case of the dystopian near-future imagining When the Sleeper Wakes it's quite obvious why nobody would touch it with a ten-foot pole in this day and age, "the negro police" being its all-purpose boogeyman. If Europe should be ruled by Europeans, would you have been ready to say the same of Africa? The Boer War must've really gotten to you, Herb old chap.

It's less clear why The First Men in the Moon would fail to catch the public imagination. Though wikipedia references it as inspiration to a host of authors we've all heard about today, though it's been adapted to film three times over since publication, it's a fair bet that nobody you've met has ever read it, or even heard of it. Why how come now? Sure, it's got no Weeny damsels in distress like The Time Machine but it does have greed and conflict and monsters and all that good stuff which usually sells like melange-cakes.

Maybe its because we really do know now that there are no giant ant-men living inside the moon. Then again, if scientific inaccuracy ever bothered anyone, the genre would never have gotten off the ground. If we have no trouble imagining shapeshifting reptiloids living in the earth's core, then the moon being a giant orbiting ant-hill certainly wouldn't stretch our boundless credulity.

Is it because of the relatively sad ending? Granted, Hollywood has taught the public to expect a nauseatingly saccharine wrap-up of any supposedly dangerous adventure, but science fiction in general has maintained a rather more somber outlook. SciFi fans half-expect the captain to go down with the ship. This ending is certainly more rosy than that of, say, The Road.

I think the problem most have with this story overall is its inhumanity. Wells' Selenites, one of the first examples of insectoid aliens, are too... alien. Not only are there no green-skinned women to romance, nobody you can put in a slave-girl outfit, but the Selenites are unaccustomed to the idea of human greed. Yes, theirs is a society in which biology is destiny and there is no changing one's role from birth to death but guess what? It works for them. There are no plucky young alien upstarts for us mighty ape-men to uplift to true civilization. Ooooh, now that's just too much.

Heroic deaths are one thing. We can swallow that, occasionally, some heroic macho-man dying heroically beneath a heroically waving flag (star-spangled or Union Jack, doesn't make much of a difference.) Telling the public that they're not already perfect in every way, that they may not be heroes by definition, that "the land of the comparatively free" (as Ambrose Bierce put it) is not the pinnacle of evolution and social development?
Tough sell.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Big Weregeek Theory

Spoilert: If you haven't read the webcomic Weregeek yet, and you don't want me giving away the... middle, I guess, then head on over and bask in some geek subculture. It's safe, it's cozy, it's got big hairy barbarians. Just like Canada.

Weregeek did something great a while ago, pulled off a bonah-fidey dramatic reveal which it had built up for years. Now, the internet is full of escapist fantasies in which our idealized teenage selves travel to some magical world to become charming princes or warrior princesses. If only we had enough rabbit-holes and looking-glasses to fall through! A few of the more daring authors even make a business of analyzing this headlong eXistenZ-style dive into fantasy. Erfworld began with that sort of questioning, even if it's become quite involved in its own world since then (which transition is itself wonderfully self-referent.) Guilded Age, a more focused and coherent incarnation of Fans before it, is doing a pretty good job of mixing fantastic reality into real fantasy.

Weregeek went a step further. The fantasy was never real. The looking-glass was only ever showing a reflection. That Gaimanesque slip between the cracks, your self-important heroics, your paranoid fantasies of persecution, were all imagined. Reality is still real and if you honestly believed it wasn't, if you were ever truly, all-consumingly immersed, then you would not be able to function.
Maaaan, way to harsh our buzz.

Of course when you've spent the entire comic building up that whiplash-inducing climax, the question of "what next" looms larger than a shadowgeek stuffed with Monty Python quotes. Sure, the comic still has quite a lot of material on which to comment, what with gamers still gaming, but having declared its main gimmick and half its content over and done with, Weregeek seems to be gradually slipping out of its niche and toward the inexorable pull of the lowest common denominator: sex.

Not bow-chicka-bow-wow, of course, but run of the mill relationship comedy. If there is one unifying trait of human psychology it's our obsession with the tiniest details of our simian mating rituals. It's not like we don't have other examples of webcomics which have gotten bogged down in such universality. PvP weathered a constant storm of criticism over it for years and boy howdy, did the geek realm ever implode over Megatokyo's temporary focus on pure moe. I tend to compare Weregeek more with The Big Bang Theory, though. Remember when that show was at least partly about trotting out one-liners like "wood for sheep" and bouncing lasers off the moon? When did it become about spending Thanksgiving at your in-laws' house?

Weregeek is not quite there yet. Still, shadowgeekery left a huge void to fill, and given that the end of that storyline was also the end of trans-reality adventuring, its void is slowly being filled with more and more hugs and kisses, with mundanity. So, what negative signs can we look out for? The beginning of the end of The Big Bang Theory was arguably the "hoo" episode - the arbitrary, utterly forced normalization and depersonalization of the character Amy Farrah Fowler. The erasure of other cast members' original gimmicks has followed in its footsteps, until the show has gotten filled with the same all-purpose "my friend's new girlfriend doesn't like me" tropes which you could get by watching Friends reruns... or any other TV show about twenty-somethings going about the business of fitting themselves into the mold society has prepared for them.

So what's the equivalent of that for Weregeek? Joel's already down for the count... but the characters who really matter are the extreme examples. Who are the Sheldon or Amy of Weregeek?

I guess that'd be Dustin and Abbie. Ooof. One down already.
When Abbie gets her "hoo" episode, it's time to shelve the comic.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Dividing Primes in AoS

One of the first things anyone will notice about AoS games (or as they're now idiotically called MOBAs) is the limited number of players per team. The most popular one, DotA, used five-player teams with three main lanes of combat, and in the spirit of murdering creativity wherever it's found, almost every game since then has copycatted that exact setup. Pixel for goddamn pixel. Demigod broke that pattern as it did many others, to its credit, and other games offer "alternate game modes" but this has amounted to even smaller teams.

Now, DotA was not an independent project. It was a mod. It depended heavily on Warcraft 3's existing mechanics. The Strength/Agi/Intel split, the number of players in a match, the six-item inventory, the size of a game map, all reflected that dependence. Almost every custom map was made for five players on a team. This was not a design choice, but a limitation imposed by WC3's multiplayer mode. Five  plus one AI per team equals six vs. six, the maximum number of participants. There is absolutely no excuse for how every AoS since then has copycatted these limitations, especially the map layout and team size.

Three combat lanes plus room to roam made sense given the five player limitation. Stalemates are among the most reviled downfalls of any multiplayer game. People do not want to be waltzing back and forth taking potshots at the same other player over and over again. It's boring. So is jumping together pell-mell and letting the AoE numbers rack up. The game setup must ensure that players do not distribute themselves evenly across the map in stagnant trench warfare. Dividing five by three or four suits this purpose.

So would many other divisions. The 5/3 setup is only another idiotic self-imposed limitation of developers who despise their customers too much to try giving them anything unfamiliar. It's a symptom. The disease is the mentality of slavishly copycatting DotA in an effort to copy its supposed success. However, DotA's success, like that of any "first" which the public at large encounters, is that of mob mentality, success riding its own coat-tails, being the only game in town (that leet-kiddies in Brazil and Russia know of at any rate.) That, and free. Are you offering a completely free product? If not, if you expect people to actually pay you, you might actually need to offer something more, and you may as well start with the basics. How about more players per team or a more complex map? It would make the game more complicated... and regardless of what you've been told we customers want in some power-pointed board-room pitch, I the customer am here to tell you complexity is good.
Fewer buttons to mash: good. More things to keep track of: also good. Twitch: bad. Awareness: good. Fingers: bad. Brain: good. You see where I'm going with this? Larger games need not devolve into zergfests so long as you keep the central idea of dividing players unevenly across the game board. Yes, by all means keep the notion of lanes and tower pushing. Just divide by larger primes.

It doesn't have to be primes, of course, but hey, if you're looking for something which won't devolve to a lowest-common-denominator, you may as well admit you'll wind up using an indivisible number of players. Seven players in three lanes? Not good, that's just a damage/support split in three lanes, plus one roamer. The same goes for 9/4. Seven divided by four? Much better. How about eleven players per team? Not quite FPS size, still small enough to allow for personal influence to skew the odds but large enough to complicate matters. It would allow for the development of more interesting RPG hybrid classes to outgrow the tired old nuker/tank/healer holy trinity.

So. Eleven. 11/4 might actually work: 3+3+3+2 or 3+3+2+2+1. I envision roaming supports. I'm more fond of the vision of an 11/5 or 9/5 map, which would still slightly increase player density to rise above the 1.6 ratio which prompts too many 1v1 fights. Five lanes would also create ample enough interstices to allow for more than one roamer or "jungler" and with players being spread more thinly it might result in more empty lanes, which would encourage more strategic options in the way of manipulating AI soldier waves. 11/6 might be a bit of a stretch, though. Too much 1v1 dick-measuring, not enough teamwork.

And of course there are more ways to split players than simply horizontally. So far AoS games have limited themselves to flat maps in order to imitate their RTS roots but nothing's saying lanes full of AI soldiers couldn't be featured in other game mechanics. See the Half-Life 2 mod Iron Grip: The Oppression. Tunnels, overpasses, waterways, etc. become much more relevant with FPS mechanics. Barring that, even in Warcraft 3, better AoS maps like Eve of the Apocalypse weren't afraid to experiment with flying units and even a flying hero.

Seriously, though, allow yourselves to think a bit bigger than ohemmgee 1v1 me mid!!!1
There's no reason why AoS games should be marketed only to 1v1 epeen-measuring brainless twitch-gamers.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Defense Grid 2: Why So Serious?

*edited 03/12/2015*

I now regret not having tossed my opinion of the original Defense Grid out there at some point, because my criticism of the sequel's going to seem like it applies to both titles. DG2 is what happens when developers get too high an opinion of themselves. I'm not referring here only to the relatively benign nuisance factor of an interposing interface but to the overall feel of the game.

First off, what's a Tower Defense game? When games like Dune 2, Command and Conquer and Warcraft established the Real-Time Strategy genre, their success was largely due to their more exciting, fast-paced gameplay compared to turn-based games. Unfortunately, that faster pace also tends to remove the "strategy" from the genre, especially when discussing kiddie-friendly Star/War-crafts. RTS games tend to devolve to mindless clickfests, cycling through units to give the same command a dozen times in ten seconds. Players even measure e-peens based on the most idiotic metric: "what's your APM?" (Actions Per Minute)

What do you do though if you like a fluid, real-time system but you don't feel like twitching onto your keyboard like some meth-addicted ADD brat? Some games have you only build unit spawners and place waypoints, but given the AI in most computer games is adept only in tripping and falling to its death, this can easily end up more frustrating than enjoyable. One solution is to limit the player to only one controllable unit (AoS games) - the other is Tower Defense. All the nailbiting pressure of normal RTS with 95% less spam by volume. Enemies charge in, you build turrets to destroy them before they reach their goal.

It's a simple concept, and that encompasses both the good and bad. Tower Defense has not quite yet acquired enough staple elements to qualify as a full-blown genre in its own right. In Warcraft 3, TD maps were a diversion from more stressful game types but never acquired the following of AoS maps. There was no equivalent of DotA or EotA for TD maps. TD is a sideshow.

The first campaign of Defense Grid acknowledged its sideshow nature. The aliens keep running through your maze without trying to destroy the things killing them. It's a ridiculous set-up. It's funny. When the basic concept is so comically incoherent, the last thing you want to do is try to pass it off as some convoluted Tragoedia in five acts. So to give the game some ambiance they hired one voice actor to elbow you in the ribs as he makes cheap puns and snide remarks while you go about the business of planting and upgrading towers. It was good, clean fun.
Zeke! Oh Zeke! Zeeeeeeke!

Unfortunately something terrible happened after that. Defense Grid got some good press. Microsoft endorsed it. Valve, which has every interest in cutting into Blizzard's derivative products from the Warcraft series, lent GLaDOS for a DLC pack. Word of mouth got around. Suddenly the development team started imagining they were making a major title instead of a Trine-esque play on a low-interest, derivative gimmick. DG2 takes itself very, very seriously. You find yourself listening to a radio drama involving a dozen disembodied voices and their little cliquish nettling which somehow affects the fate of the universe... yet it still has just as little to do with what you're actually performing on screen as DG1's rambling about raspberries. Across the board, DG2 wants to be seen as a much more "polished" product. The menus are glitzier, the expansive backgrounds are murder on slower video cards and the molten metal melts so much moltier. There is even multiplayer... of sorts.

Not quite so much thought seems to have been put into actual gameplay. Though a couple of necessary changes were made (for instance air and anti-air, which was never well integrated into the flow of the game, was removed) others simply made no sense (for instance the anti-air tower was kept and repurposed as a completely superfluous space-filler.) The multiplayer option is primitive and ignores the basic demand for higher program performance in competitive play. Instead of being more technologically streamlined, the multiplayer mode makes much higher demands on video cards, even in a simple 1v1. All the myriad variations on the multiplayer TD setup (co-op or vs.) which cluttered the Warcraft 3 custom game list are ignored. *Correction, I was wrong about this, some of these were implemented and were simply ignored by players.*

As a continuation of the original, DG2 is neither here nor there. Yes, it's nice to have a buff option for towers, yes the new self-healing alien type is interesting, making minor alterations to terrain has high potential for custom maps, but all this is very nearly outweighed by the nuisance value of the self-conscious high school drama club voiceovers and the game's poor performance. Let's try to pretend nothing happened. Just wait for some DLC map packs to come out and imagine you didn't just pay good money for a side-grade.

What this thing is decidedly NOT is a true sequel. There were endless worthwhile ideas in the old War3 custom map roster which might have been included - if the devs' time and funding had not gone into staging a radio drama adaptation of Alien: Resurrection. Trust me, this game genre will never be one of the big players. You are a fringe element. A TD needs compelling characters like an adventure game needs hitboxes or a computer a pair of dice.
You don't need to legitimize yourselves by giving it backstory.
I'm not buying the game so I can sit through a sales pitch for the novelization.
Just give me more ways to laser and detonate baddies and slap on some cheap "shell-shocked" jokes. Boom!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The World's End

"I'm a king without a crown hanging loose in the big town
But I'm the king of bongo, baby, I'm the king of bongo bong"
Manu Chao - Bongo Bong

So. What started with a pop-gun shot in the dark at horror comedy with Shaun of the Dead a decade ago has turned into a trilogy of hilarious parodies of genre films. No that's not right. Parodies *plus* would be the better term. It's most often said that comedy is a matter of timing, but while The World's End and its predecessors certainly show a mastery of the pause-to-punch ratio, what truly makes them stand out is the willingness to go the extra (golden) mile. It's in that extra bounce when a character falls to the ground, the extra splinter of wood flying when something breaks, the extra pre-verbal vocalization when a character is hemming and hawing during an embarrassing scene, the extra subtext in the name of a pub.

Crucially, it's in that extra bit of "what now" which comes after the punchline. More than Hot Fuzz or even Shaun of the Dead, The World's End drives home (in a big way) the uncomfortable realization that not everything is set to rights when a movie fades to black. Past the smoke and mirrors, after the high-kicking, in-your-face heroics, at the end of the golden mile, you're left to deal with leaden reality.

Then once again, it overturns its own moralizing. If much of the point of the movie is about the "dangers" of perpetual adolescence as quoted on wikipedia, it also does a thorough job of reminding the audience of the value of that youthful vitality. Reality is not what you make of it, but in the face of a sinisterly leaden world, only the philosopher's stone of stubborn adolescent rebellion will yield any gold whatsoever.

And it's funny. It's funny to see a washed-up self-styled king belly-flopping his way into greatness. The futility of respectability, the respectability of quixotic futility, it's all hilarious. We are ludicrous creatures, whether we bother to couch our antics in social acceptability or not. We're monkeys, and this world is our barrel. Ours, do ya hear? So grab your bestest zombie bud, damn the torpedoes and head on down to the inn to quest for adventure.

It sure as hell beats winning village of the year.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

This Mess Is an Imaginary Place

So long as Blogger breathes, or shots can screen
So long lives this to show where home has been
(sorry, Billy... but you must admit this is still better than NoFear-ing you)

Escapism is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, we're avoiding the world which for whatever reason has become simply too painful and/or boring to warrant habitation, but most of us also have some pretty good ideas for worlds we'd prefer to this one. We escape to almost as much as from. Of course noone else can ever get our own style quite right so the most memorable alternate worlds tend to be the ones which allow us some leeway in determining our surroundings. This includes indulging our nesting instinct. Little can compare, especially in a persistent multiplayer world, to walking into a little patch of that world which you've designed and decorated. Products like The Sims and Second Life have made quite a show of catering to our interior interior decorator, but they're usually either too painfully mundane or lack any sort of focus and personality. The point is to incorporate this need for den design into coherent game environments.

LotRO is by no means a real MMO. Its player housing like everything else is instanced and it contains no utility aside from a little extra inventory space. It's only marginally customizable in terms of item placement. You have a few fixed spots in which you can fit one fixed type of decoration. Two details have made it palatable for me though. First, you can set theme music for your house, from various in-game tracks. Of course that would mean more if you ever had any reason to visit your house for more than ten seconds at a time. See above-mentioned lack of functionality. Second, taxidermy! This was the first game I've played which allowed me to decorate in dead animal, complete with mammoth tusks as gateposts. Black-walled, underground rat-holes reeking of decomposition make the best hideouts, don't you think?

Also, yes, I am a Noldorin elf living in a Naugrim house - downright ecumenical of me!
However, mere sawdust-filled skins are not enough to satisfy my lycanthropic appetites. In Oblivion, since I couldn't get myself a cave or pit for my den, I made do with a bit of luxury. That's my house over there.
No, not the freshly-painted three-story mansions on the sides. No, I didn't live in the temple in the background, Hircine forfend! No, my palace is the one right dead center. As though living in a broken-down one-room shack in the bayou wasn't Vampire-Interviewey enough, my Altmer vampire self wound up decorating the place in a style inspired if anything, by Pisha's lair in VtM:Bloodlines.
Like many Elder Scrolls fans, I quickly grew addicted to collecting the game's various items, useful or not. I showed my disdain for economics by tossing gems among the refuse on my floor.

I showed my love of the written word by collecting quill pens and inkwells in addition to books.

I even hoarded farm implements, just to make sure the villagers would be short on pitchforks and torches when they stormed my door.
Mostly though, I indulged my lupine scavenger's tastes by dragging scores of bones and rotting limbs out of necromancers' lairs. After all, I could put them to so much better use. Won't you come in for supper?
Unfortunately, letting players keep hundreds of individual items scattered on the floor would be too much of a drag on a multiplayer game's resources, so this feature has been understandably absent from even the best MMOs. Ooooh, boy, did I just qualify City of Heroes as one of the "best" MMOs? What the hell am I smoking, right? But though CoH was an aimless, over-simplified, un anti-challenging grindfest, its visual artists did some amazing work both with the amazingly customizable character models and with the superhero base feature. (Its programmers, on the other hand, made the superhero base design a torturous, utterly irrational minefield of having to undo every room a dozen times when you'd find something doesn't function for random reasons #476-493.)

As a Superhero, I designed the most rational base I could for my three-man supergroup, separating all our loot into color-coded rooms with an industrial / laboratory decor conducive to crafting.
City of Heroes' visuals excelled in both level of detail and fluidity, allowing you to overlap and mix many elements and place them wherever you wanted on the floor with a Sims-level degree of freedom. For instance, after I was done with the utilitarian rooms of our base, I had some space left over, so I decided our base was going to be a technocratic outpost with one wall breaking into an archaeological excavation.
Of Course, no faux-sciencey lair would be complete without a Van de Graaff generator or some Jacob's ladders.
All praise and glory to the dark gods... of Science!
And if my group-oriented project hinted at my predilection for dank pits with the archaeology angle, over on the villain side of the game I had already given up on finding a worthwhile group of players so I ended up as a one-man band creating a villain lair for all my alts. Hail and grace unto CoH's artistic directors, designers and rank-and-file pixel-monkeys for making one of the general decor categories a sewer. Nothing pleased me more than fashioning a dirt-pit in a grime-encrusted tunnel to serve as my lair, and though the finished product was unfortunately lost when the NCSoft abandoned the game and shut it down, I still have a few pictures from early stages of construction.
I think uncle Fester had one of these
Hey, I may be a comic-book inhuman monster... but I do read, you know
No MMOs that I know of since, or indeed few or no games whatsoever except the likes of Spore, have put so much emphasis on player creativity. Despite all its heinous faults, City of Heroes will always have a place in my heart for that.
However, even CoH failed in integrating design with utility... largely because there was no utility to be had. And if CoH stayed afloat for eight years, the next game I'll be talking about vaporized in beta. Dawntide was to be the MMO dream come true, a persistent world filled with player interaction of every type, from open PvP and looting to interdependent crafting skills and a system of transporting goods requiring some involvement therefore encouraging a true player economy, to large cooperative projects like buildings. These would be more than cosmetic. Farms would produce food, a forge you built was actually the place where you hammered your steel, your house could be attacked and looted, etc. It was also made very promising by its relatively sedate, well-proportioned character models and world design.

Alas and alack for the world that never was, the archipelago where you and your guild could stake out a plot of land or even a little island of your own. The following pictures are of a little village my guild or five or so players built ourselves before the game shut down. Among other high points, those boats were fully functional and could carry cargo.
Two cottages and our keep during construction.
Wave to the nice guildies on the shore, sea-wolf
Our community had grown by this point. We each had our own house. The enclosure on the left was part of some sort of farm.
Despite LotRO's artistic charm, Oblivion's indulgence of excess or CoH's flexibility, it's Dawntide's failed promise I regret most. Variation can grow over time. Art and immersion can be improved. However, nothing makes up for a lack of player agency in games. My kingdom for a rideable horse, an openable door, a lock-picked treasure chest. What makes an imaginary house a home is not just prefabricated decor but remembering every brick you baked to add to the construction site, every herb you ground in a mortar to make the paint. It's walking out the door of your little cottage and seeing your neighbour's ducks and sheep wandering about in their enclosure.

Give me Dawntide, and we can add CoH, Elder Scrolls or Middle-Earth to it; chacun a son gout. However, before anything else, we need that reality of virtuality, that tangible place which your character molds. Give me persistence, options and impact and somehow, in some fashion, I will find a way to dig myself a rot-littered dank pit for my den. Function first, then form.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No Smear Shakespeare!

Forsooth, I find it utterly disconcerting that the top hit (usually the top two or three hits) when looking up a Shakespearean quotation online is always No Fear Shakespeare. Yes, this is obviously exactly what the anglophone public, especially the notoriously ugly ones, need right now as the American empire is giving way to the Chinese one. Shelter yourselves even from your own past, wrap yourselves in the safety blanket of contemporary slang. It's not as though an ability to place yourself in another place and time speaks at all of one's mental development. As though it weren't bad enough when an entire generation grew up thinking Romeo and Juliet is like, OMyGaw, totally a rip-off of West Side Story!

Your grandchildren will have to learn Mandarin. The least you can do is figure out for yourselves what the late middle English version of "fo' reals" might be.