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Worlds of Borecraft

World of Warcraft - a dull blade

Like most teenage video game addicts in the late 80’s, I fantasized about being able to play my favourite games online along with my friends and any number of random strangers. In those days doing such a thing on an average home computer was absurdly beyond the reach of technology. It wasn’t long before commercial multi-user games appeared though, such as Shades, a game I longed to try but sadly I was unable to convince my parents to invest in a modem for that sole purpose.

I eventually realised the dream while I was at university, where I started playing an obscure multi-user game called Nanvaent. It still exists, basking in the same text-based glory that it had back in 1996. I played Nanvaent and played it hard over the next seven years, eventually becoming a “creator” or coder. Indeed I suspect it was instrumental in my failing to complete my doctorate, and equally instrumental in ensuring I was able to salvage a career as a programmer from the ashes of my academic dreams. And once I’d made that switch, I never touched the game again.

I stopped playing partly because I became too busy to devote the proper time to it, but also because I grew to understand that the basic idea of a multi-user role-playing game was founded on a nonsense. Nanvaent, like all multi-user games before and since, was full of quests many of which chained together into a plot of sorts. But all those quests were open to each and every new character. You might go and kill Grimtooth and his relatives and earn your quest points but Grimtooth still returned to the bar of the Hole and Firkin every ten minutes or so for repeated slaughter by aspiring questers or, indeed, any powerful characters who fancied the xp and the loot. The same applied to every non-player character and every quest in the game.

This inconsistency fundamentally destroyed my suspension of disbelief in the game. It was categorically not what I wanted from a roleplaying game. I wanted story, narrative and the chance to role-play, to lose myself in another world, a fantastic place that I could nevertheless believe in. Text-based multi-user games could give me none of that. And as far as I can tell in spite of all the advances in hardware and software in the intervening 25 years their modern descendants, MMORPGs, still can’t. What both kinds of games can and do offer is the possibility of exploring a fantasy world alongside a very large number of fellow humans instead of the digital constructs that have stalked the corridors of computerised dungeons since the advent of computer games.

Yes, they really are that addictive

That is a big offering. Anyone who’s ever played a computer adventure game of any sort will have bemoaned the necessarily shallow interactions you can have with the characters and monsters in single player games. Multi-player versions of those games solve this by giving you lots of other real people to interact with. But it’s a trade off, because to gain that sense of reality, you have to sacrifice the reality inherent in a linear, single-player experience.

Which brings up the big question of “which is better”? To which there is of course no one answer as different people expect different things from their games. For me, narrative wins every time. For other people the powerful sense of community offered by jointly delving into a make-believe world is what pushes their buttons. It’s not to be underestimated: it kept me playing Nanvaent for seven years. And far be it from me to proffer judgement on what people should or should not enjoy in games. But here’s the aspect I do find puzzling: I get a similar sense of community engagement from participating in websites such as this one. What drives some people to choose a highly addictive source for their online chat kicks instead?

The clue is in the question. It’s not a choice, but an addiction. The response-reward model at the heart of almost all computer RPGs is incredibly addictive. It comprises basically the entirety of the appeal in the multi-million selling Diablo series. Likewise, the sense of instant connectivity offered by online communities is also oddly compulsive, as wryly highlighted by this famous XKCD cartoon. Computer interaction is inherently obsessive. So with MMORPGs, players are hit with a triple whammy of digital crack. And once you’ve tasted that sweet nectar, there’s no going back, even when you realise the sugar is poisoning your body and your mind.

Diablo 3 - game, or addiction machine?

Truth be told, knowledge of my own weakness and fear of enslavement is a large part of what originally kept me away from MMORPGs. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found the appeal of online gaming generally to have diminished. There was once a time when I’d cram in as much of the original Team Fortress mod as I could manage. But servers nowadays are too often populated by a hideous mixture of the repellently aggressive who’ll abuse you during and after every game, and the repellently obsessive who’ll put in hour upon hour of solo play to learn the maps and relentlessly thrash any lesser mortal who sets foot on their domain. Often these two stereotypes are both applicable to the same individuals. Playing against them isn’t fun: it’s the equivalent of choosing to stand up and be bullied.

Playing against your friends, on the other hand, is fun. It’s more fun if you can actually be in the same room, but given the time and space constraints of our modern, grown-up lives, I’ll take a network connection and a headset as an acceptable alternative. And of course the multiplayer component of most games allows us to create private, password protected realms for doing just that. But MMORPGs thrive on packing as many gamers as possible into the same realms. For them, it’s not an option and everyone is exposed to the trolls and the griefers and the obsessive-compulsive in all their hideous glory whether they want to be or not. Some multi-player games, such as Day Z, make a virtue of this, but the MMORPG needs a real sense of community and cooperation to function.

These then, are the reasons I find the allure of MMORPGs rather baffling. They offer no sense of coherent narrative. They are dangerously addictive. The communities they create have an unfortunate tendency to exclusivity. I find that a sufficiently elevated soap box to climb on and lecture other gamers on the deficiencies of the genre as a whole from a great height. But am only one individual. And surely, eleven million World of Warcraft subscribers can’t all be wrong. Can they?

The Slippery Slope of Diablo’s DRM

Diablo 3's DRM model means it belongs more to Blizzard or your ISP than you - are you happy with this model for all digital media

There’s been no shortage of pixels expended on Diablo III over the past couple of weeks. Reviews have mostly been very positive, some critics have talked about its worryingly addictive qualities in the face of what ought to seem like relatively weak play and a lot of gamers got very angry over their inability to play right after launch due to server overload. Some people have made light of this and, in fairness, entitlement-rage in gamers is never a pretty sight. But to me, this is indeed an occasion for rage. Serious rage. Just not over entitlement.

The fury unleashed by the initial unavailability of the game was a consequence of its DRM model, which requires players to be online all the time even when playing solo. However, that DRM has other consequences that don’t seem to have been widely considered. It means that if your broadband provider has a blip, as is not uncommon, the game boots you out and you may loose progress. If there’s a broadband outage, you can’t play. If, like me, you’re fond of taking a laptop on road trips or flights to help keep yourself entertained, then Diablo 3 as the source of that entertainment is not an option. The product which you’ve paid good money for is not really yours at all – your access to it hangs on the whim of a number of outside agencies who at any time may fail to live up to the service you expect, or pull the plug entirely. There are advantages too, of course, such as the ease with which you can join multi-player games and cloud storage for your characters, but Blizzard could easily have given you these benefits of always-online as an option, providing a get-out clause for people who want to play on the move. They didn’t.

This is a new and extremely dangerous precedent. Think about it for a moment: by accepting that this is a valid model for the publisher of a video game to thwart pirates, you are effectively condoning similar action by the purveyor of any digital content. You’re telling the people making the next generation of games consoles that you don’t mind if you can only play a game on it – any game at all – when it’s online. How about if you couldn’t watch the DVDs you own without an internet connection? How about if you couldn’t play the MP3s you own, or read the e-books you’ve bought, without an internet connection? Does that suddenly seem so fair and reasonable as it does with a video game?

If you think I’m overstating the issues, then perhaps you should know that copyright people are very happy to leverage child pornography in order to get governments and legislators to do what they want. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with here, and to think they aren’t looking at the widespread acceptable of the Diablo III DRM model and not twitching with delight, or that that it’s not being stored as ammunition for use in the debate over denying access to used games, is naive. If you’re a Diablo III owner, I suggest you at least stop and think about the wider ramifications of what you’re signing up to before you next play the game, otherwise the unfortunate consequences could be with you sooner than you think.

Craving More Guild Wars 2

If you bought into the hype of a wholly re-imagined MMO, Guild Wars 2 will likely spark a tinge of disappointment, but it’s a temporary affliction. MMO-players have certain expectations, and some staples of the genre work just as they are, so trashing all of that ‘just because’ would probably amount to video game suicide.

While most MMO developers focus on giving familiar features a unique spin, ArenaNet is re-examining the core purposes and implementations of those features. It’s a subtle, but very important difference.

A prominent example of this reworking in Guild Wars 2 can be seen when numerous players converge upon the same quest-goal. In TERA, which I recently wrote about, I was tasked with defeating a minor boss, as were a dozen other players. Since no one was willing to group together and simultaneously complete the quest, we all waited in a circle in hopes of landing the first blow when the boss respawned.

In Guild Wars 2, every player who participates in a portion of a battle can walk away with a completed quest, XP based on the level of contribution, and a potential reward. I don’t ‘think’ that the presence of additional players reduces the rewards given to others, nor does it matter. A minute shaved off one fight is a minute to jump into another battle. Plus, the lack of competition to snag a kill first imbues every encounter with a sense of camaraderie. I have never seen players so willing and eager to lend helping hands and revive downed players.

Opinions regarding the Dynamic Events have been mixed, with many people comparing them to the Public Quests of games such as Warhammer Online. The key difference is variety. There are some events that continuously cycle, but there are also events that appear sporadically for players in the right place at the right time, and ArenaNet has been vocal about the desire to constantly inject Guild Wars 2 with new events at every level. The overarching feeling is that you can entertain yourself for hours on end, and be rewarded, without officially accepting a single quest.

While roaming the countryside and partaking in battles as I saw fit, I became acutely aware of just how much padding is in a typical MMO – time spent traveling, waiting for quests, crafting materials, etc. With multiple fast-travel options in every zone (no cooldowns required) and the ability to use the auction house from any location (pickup still requires a vendor), it’s clear that boredom is one emotion that ArenaNet wants to eradicate.

This anti-timesink mentality is extremely evident in the crafting system. If you’re a crafter, you undoubtedly know the pain of realizing that someone beat you to punch by a few minutes and is systematically sucking every node dry of materials. In Guild Wars 2, nodes not only respawn faster, but players who simultaneously interact with a node both receive materials. When it comes time to craft a large number of identical items, they are created in bulk; no lunch breaks while waiting for 50 individual timers to count down.

I’ve been trying to find an MMO, new or old, to fill the void until Guild Wars 2’s unannounced release date, but I already feel spoiled. Fallen Earth? Way too much traveling. TERA? Too much quest-grinding. EVE Online? I better concentrate on my real-life financials first. While Guild Wars 2 may not spark a revolution, it is incredibly high on action and low on time-sucking filler, and that is exactly what I’m craving in an MMO.

War of the Roses First Gameplay Trailer

YouTube video

Paradox has unveiled the first bits of gameplay footage for War of the Roses, the company’s upcoming online medieval battle sim. This looks incredibly Mount & Bladey, eh?

Todd got a hands on look at this one when he flew out to Sweden for the Big Paradox Convention (party). He had this to say then:

An online-focused game of authentic medieval combat set in the dynastic civil war era of 15th century England in which the houses of Lancaster and York fought for the country’s throne. It features over 60 faithfully rendered weapons spread among 15 weapon classes. Armors, including light, medium, and heavy variants, are highly modable to give each player a unique look. Horses, both armored and unarmored, are included and require strategy adjustments on the battlefield. A five category perk system lets players specialized in specific combat roles (offensive, defensive, support, etc.).

Paradox producer and director of business development, Shams Jorjani, without hesitation, said this game is “going to be one of the best online combat multiplayer games ever released.” And, certainly, it fulfills Paradox’s stated goal of not trying to out-feature other games, but instead focus on one gameplay component and execute on it. In that vein, this is the dream game for fans of the multiplayer piece of Mount & Blade: Warband.