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Posts Tagged ‘games’

Give a Penny, Save a Penny

July 10, 2012 2 comments

Penny Arcade announced today that they initiated a Kickstarter project to completely remove ads from their site. There’s been a fair amount of hate and outrage over this decision.  Most of it comes down to the fact “for three hundred dollars the penny arcade guys will install adblock plus on your browser” (courtesy of @dogboner) or “Penny Arcade breaks rule one of Kickstarter” (courtesy of @misterbrilliant).

Well @dogboner, @misterbrilliant, and others: you’re kind of missing the point that money kills journalism.

Sure, you can just install ad blocker to not see the ads.  That doesn’t mean those ads away and the reason they exist remains.  Journalism on any topic, especially in a huge industry like gaming, is an invaluable public service. Given how much money we all collectively spend on games these days, I’d hope that more people would appreciate the kind of honest feedback and criticism that PA offers its fans.  I personally value their opinions and love that they are trying to be transparent about conflicts of interest. Giving them some money to help that goal is the least I can do given how much money they have saved me thanks to their coverage. [Incidentally, thanks for encouraging me to skip Prometheus, Tycho… that was $20-30 saved right there on a trip to see a bad movie.]

I was an analyst for the government and military for the past five years, so I absolutely appreciate the necessity of knowing who or what is influencing the sources information you rely on. No one can play and test every game out there, so we all rely on people like the writers Penny Arcade supports to do some of the leg work for us, finding the good games and criticizing the bad.  Penny Arcade goes one step further and gives us humor too (and for free). They’re like Steven Colbert compared to Fox and MSNBC of the gaming journalism world, complete with a Penny-Arcade Nation thanks to conferences and scholarships they sponsor.

Maybe the critics prefer game coverage that reads like the author is on the company payroll and takes jabs at viewers asking questions answered in coverage they may not have read among the hundreds of websites clamoring for attention around a game’s announcement.  That is totally their prerogative.   If you don’t want to support the site or don’t have the means to do so, that is completely within your rights. I personally don’t pay for the New York times because I don’t think their writing is shoulders above many other news sources, but I would pay for Penny Arcade compared to many other gaming sites. I think they offer unique and useful coverage and would hate to see them succumb to the whims of advertisers.

So today I am going to be one of those people pledging help Penny Arcade achieve their goal. Choose not to if you want, but just remember to thank those of us who do when the quality of the site improves and you reap the rewards for free.

Quest Creep

April 22, 2012 2 comments

I’ve been trying to do more running lately. While it’s not directly related the Quest, it ends up being important because my mind decides to go into rapid fire idea generation mode while out on these runs. The skeleton game ideas I’ve been tossing around for awhile really need fleshing out and these runs end up kick-starting that process. I get back to the house physically exhausted and mentally charged, sit down in front of the keyboard while I try to cool off, and start digging for ways to bring my ideas to life. These deep dives into the independent gaming communities of the web end up being as frustrating and humbling as they are enlightening, mostly because they reveal how much I still have to learn and how far away I am from reaching the goal of a playable demo for these ideas.

I never expected game design and development to be easy; on the contrary, I knew it was going to be demanding. Where I seem to have miscalculated was where I though I might be able to cut corners. In many ways, I’ve often found myself searching for a few hours for a faster / easier / simpler way to do something only to realize that I would have probably gotten more done by devoting those few hours to just learning something more elementary. For instance, I spent the better part of today searching for open source gaming engines, trying to find one that would let me jump right in. Naively, I thought that someone would have spent the time building such a tool, but in a lot of ways, that’s like expecting someone to build a program to automatically make money and then give it away for free.  Still, I found several tools that attempted to give me what I wanted, but the tools I found were either incomplete or too inflexible to do what I wanted them to do. That’s not meant as a point of criticism of independent developers, but rather a realization that I was going to have to learn to make more of those tools and adjustments myself.

At the end of the day, I think it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m just one person. Anything worth designing and developing is either going to take a long time if I insist on doing it myself or I’m going to need a team at some point. More importantly, until I do get a team, I need to have a more rational expectation of what I can accomplish in a given week and stop chasing ideas that are outside of that scope. It’s humbling to admit that, but short of cutting out the other things in my life I enjoy (like actually playing games) I just don’t see how I’ll get anything done otherwise.

The Demons We Slay For Love

April 15, 2012 1 comment

While most of the posts here are about my personal thoughts on gaming, it is impossible to give online and cooperative gaming a fair treatment without including the other players who make the games worth playing.  The collective experiences these games provide can create real world friendships and can also can also strengthen existing relationships.  I was lucky enough to find a girlfriend who not only puts up with my gaming habits, but also encourages and shares in them.   Aside from being a better writer than me,  Abby has been supporting this effort behind the scenes as my editor and moral support (though I’m sure she wants me to emphasize that she does not edit my comments).   She’s also a gamer in her own right and so I’ve asked her today to share her perspective on the games we play.


This isn’t a review, it’s a love affair

Drew asked me to blog about my experiences playing the Diablo 3 beta, since I’ve been rather absorbed in it of late. I even bought a high-end dedicated gaming machine in anticipation of the full D3 release (May 15th!). This purchase was truly selfless, in my opinion – it ensures I won’t have to bait Drew away from his computer with promises of treats and sexytimes only to claim his keyboard at the last second, leaving him standing in the kitchen with nothing but a cookie and a tear running down his cheek so I can shoot poisonous frogs through a blowdart gun at the devil’s spawn.

Which brings me to my favorite feature in the beta (and presumably the full release): I can shoot poisonous frogs through a blowdart gun.

Phantom of Anguish? Pshhh... more like Phantom of EATING FROGS

What I mean is that the abilities are unique and unexpected. In a gaming world where most classes’ abilities can be copied from game to game with slight modifications or skinning differences, D3 brings some seriously cool spells and curses that you may not have seen before. I played three characters to max level (13) twice: wizard, witch doctor, and barbarian. The witch doctor is by far my favorite – her mix of melee and ranged abilities that incorporate ghosts, zombie dogs, and magic dolls means that she can be useful in any co-op play no matter the makeup of your cohorts. Even better (for me), her abilities can be mixed and matched better than any other class to create unique combinations which set her apart from any other witch doctor I may encounter in game.

Because I want you to read this, I’m not going into all my likes and dislikes of each class. You’re going to play them all, anyway. Just be aware that there is one exception to my “awesome, unique abilities” judgment: the wizard is pretty much like most wizards and mages you’ve played before, and I think she’s still a little overpowered compared to the other classes in the beta. I’m sure they’ll fine-tune that for the full release. She also comes with a set of abilities that can be mixed and matched for distinctiveness, but there’s really one configuration that is more effective than the others, so that’s how she’ll be played. She’s awfully pretty to look at, though.

Wait, I have another favorite feature: I don’t have to listen to dialogue.

The dialogue exists. The voice acting is well done. The story is rather rich. But I never have to suffer through cut scenes where I lose control of my character, I don’t have to spend vital minutes making decisions that might or might not actually impact my character and storyline (I’m looking at you, everything Bioware has ever done). Those minutes are better spent killing imps and undead, and let’s face it, THERE’S EVIL OUT THERE and it’s my job to destroy it. Stop talking to me. You can listen while you run around doing other things, like blacksmithing or talking to a vendor, or you can skip it completely. I have, unfortunately for Drew, memorized all the dialogue in the first 13 levels and can be heard mumbling “How are criminals treated in your land? Betrayal can never be forgiven!” in my sleep. This makes for some awkward mornings. The few cut scenes that precede boss fights are worth watching once, but after that you can space bar through them. Even in co-op mode! I’m just saying, that boss ain’t gunna kill himself.

Evil babies abound

Okay, last one: Repetition is awesome.

If you’ve played the Diablo franchise before (I haven’t), you know that part of the game is doing everything 17,000 times in order to get different loot, get achievements, and to level professions. That hasn’t changed, but since I’m an achievement whore, it makes me giddy inside. I’m not sure if in previous Diablo iterations the dungeons were well randomized, but they absolutely are in D3. There were story elements that didn’t spawn until the 15th time I’d run through the Old Cathedral. (In particular, the Templar’s tomes. When your templar first follows you, he mentions that he is on his own quest to find the tomes of his order. I had assumed up to that point that this was an element to be addressed in future levels. Lo and behold, an old ghosty templar spawned on my 15th time through and we stole his tomes.) Similarly, certain events (Matriarch’s Bones, Jar of Souls) don’t spawn every run-through, and there are achievements that go along with them. This makes your thousandth run-through totally vindicating.

By the time this beta hit wide release in the fall of 2011, most of the bugs were already worked out and Blizzard was starting to stress test the servers. What we have now is a beautifully packaged 13 levels of gameplay that makes me jump out of my jeans to play the rest of the game exactly one month from today. I’ll be pantsless until I can find some Leather Pants of Focus to replace them.

You may now call me Miss Smarty Pants.

My New Hats

April 3, 2012 1 comment

It’s probably about time that I update the Quest.  The bad news is I’m finding it harder to keep up posting here regularly.  I busted my self-imposed goal of one post a week.  Again.  The good news is why I’m taking longer to post; I’ve  been busy learning for my new job with a fairly young software development company.   It turns out that my previous background coupled with the programming and networking courses I started taking a few months ago have made me into an attractive hybrid (except without the tax benefits and lower emissions).  The company that hired me doesn’t build games, but the role I’ve been brought on to fill gives me plenty of opportunity to learn about development and work on some of my technical skills.  If all you care about is reading about my personal life, you can probably stop here.  Anyone else who likes or is curious about games, feel free to keep going.

I wrote last week(ish) about some of my thoughts about the next WoW expansion and its implications on the future of mobile gaming.  If you actually made it to the end of the post, you probably noticed I said I was not in the beta.  Now I am.  This past weekend, I was a part of the 300,000+ annual pass holders who were tossed an invite to the beta.  My lovely and talented girlfriend / editor was kind enough to grant me several hours of play time despite my having been away all week on business for my new job.  It would be criminal to waste that gift and not share some of my experience in the beta with you all.  Spoiler Alert:  There are Pandas.  Everywhere.

Many of the new features I’m excited to see in the expansion, like pet battles, are not yet implemented on the beta servers.   Much of the new class and race content is available, however, and I decided to make the most of it by trying out the games newest class and race:  the Pandaren monk.

Along with everyone else.

After making my new character, less-than-cleverly and more-than-hastily named Rollshambo, I logged into the server and was confronted by a sea of black and white fur.  It turns out that the other 299,999 invitees also decided to make pandas.  While it made the initial experience a little frustrating, I took it in stride and eventually got past some of the early bottleneck and out into the world.  I was able to play most of this content at Blizzcon 2011 anyway, so I don’t feel like I missed much by rushing through the area.  That is not meant to diminish the content, however.  The new quests and objectives are quite amusing, especially when you get to enjoy minor bugs that result in sweet headgear like this.

Yay ridiculous hats!

Online games usually demand teamwork between players to complete objectives, so support roles often end up being simultaneously the most in demand and the least played in the game.  Consequently, I usually end up playing one of them.  This was my experience playing a healer almost exclusively in World of Warcraft over the past few years.  However, doing anything for several years will make anything seem monotonous eventually, so Blizzard’s promise to give the monk a new healing style emphasizing an interactive melee experience piques my interest.  I chose the healing specialization, the Mistweaver, at level 10 and worked my way to level 25 over the weekend.  While I only have two healing spells by that point, both function differently than almost any other heals I’ve used on other characters, resulting in a unique experience even at this low level of play.  Only time and testing will tell if Blizzard can deliver on the hype of the class, but so far I like what I see.  In the meantime, I will be enjoying the fact that I have two new hats to wear:  novice software developer at work and novice bug “unintended feature” reporter in the Mists of Pandaria beta.

My new job has 100% less balloon rides than this screenshot.

World of myCraft

March 25, 2012 4 comments

Last week, Blizzard issued a massive release of new information about Mists of Pandaria, the next expansion pack for World of Warcraft.  The information confirmed that the expansion will include a Pokemon-style mini-pet battle system announced at last year’s Blizzcon.  It also announced a new in-game faction that will allow players to take care of their own farm, reminiscent of the hit Facebook game Farmville.  While these additions are only a fragment of the new content being offered, the two games within the larger game seem to signal that Blizzard may be setting World of Warcraft up to evolve to a more immersive content delivery platform where players can tailor the kind of game experience they want while still experiencing the Warcraft universe.

Pet Battle System
source: mmo-champion.com

Massively-multiplayer persistent worlds inherently appeal to many gamers for their ability to preserve a player’s time invested playing a game.  Playing WoW’s in-game version of Pokemon or Farmville will offer players experiencing burnout entirely different game experiences within the persistent world without having to switch to a new game or platform.  Perhaps more importantly, players who never were into crawling dungeons or fighting other players in arenas now have a reason to try and perhaps stick with the franchise.   Blizzard has always had a strong track record of taking established game paradigms and expanding them in new ways, so their incorporation of highly successful game that appeal to a variety of audiences only makes sense as they attempt to make World of Warcraft more applicable to an increasingly diverse gaming audience.

Tiller’s Farm
source: mmo-champion.com

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that these alternative games within the larger game seem ripe for adaptation into mobile platforms.  Blizzard recently expressed interest in eventually offering a way to experience the game via the iPhone and other mobile platforms.   It will probably be some time before players can experience the entire game on a mobile platform, but Blizzard already offers ways to access parts of the game experience via mobile apps to chat with players in game and conduct business on the in-game auction house.  It would not surprise me if we saw mobile apps fairly soon after the expansion allowing players to engage in the pet battle system or managing their farm while on the go as well.   These new alternate games not only diversify what World of Warcraft players experience, but also potentially how they experience it, likely setting the setting the bar for future MMOs.

World of Warcraft may be getting up there in age, but these developments make me confident that Blizzard has a few more tricks to show us and that gets me even more excited to learn what the company has in store for Titan.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait like the rest of the annual pass holders out their for their turn at the Mists of Pandaria beta.

Droids Gone Wild

March 16, 2012 15 comments

This week I’m going to spend some time talking about my impressions trying out Star Wars: The Old Republic.  As the breakout MMO for BioWare, the game had a lot of hype to live up to given the company’s past performance with several blockbuster franchises such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age.  Overall, I found the leveling experience in the Old Republic to be worth the money I shelled out on the game – mostly due to BioWare’s ability to get a player involved in a great story.  But I do have some reservations about the game’s ability to draw in long term loyalty from fans.  I expect that being tied to the Star Wars franchise itself will keep the game alive for some time, but without streamlined multi-player features, I doubt that I’ll be playing the Old Republic over the long haul.  For those with attention issues, I’ve captured my key thoughts below.  Everyone else, feel free to hit the text wall at hyper speed.

SWTOR…

… plays like a single player game despite being massively multi-player.

… feels like you’re in a Star Wars movie, to include cross-planet road trips.

… offers some unique gameplay mechanics, despite replicating a lot of WoW’s game design.

… rewards players for their choices, but not necessarily the way you want.

… does a poor job of facilitating group content, a major problem for a multi-player game.

… looks to have a development team who appears to be willing to tackle the game’s weak spots.

Disclaimer: When I started writing this post, I tried not to compare the Old Republic to World of Warcraft because so many others have done it.  However, many of the similarities (like the way player skills are grouped) were so obvious that it was like BioWare wanted the familiarity.  I’m relatively forgiving of those decisions because who wouldn’t want to copy some of the success of a game with over 10 million subscribers?  Where possible, I’ve tried to highlight some of the game’s unique features, many of which do not get much press despite providing substantial portions of the gameplay.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

The Old Republic continues BioWare’s track record of emphasizing player-driven story interwoven with gameplay.  I find the Star Wars movies entertaining, but I’ve never a diehard fan of the franchise . In spite of my inexperience with the Star Wars universe, playing through the game felt like I was the star in my own prequel movie.  Even though I had initially planned to only play a single character, I ended up making and leveling a character in the Republic and the Empire just to see how the plot played out for both sides on various planets.  Most MMOs struggle in that every player is a hero, so no one actually feels that way. The Old Republic’s personal stories for each class and the overarching plot woven across all of the planets eliminates that problem by letting each player feel like a real hero.

The visuals in the game contributed heavily to the overall feeling that the story was actually one of the Star Wars movies.  Planets, space stations, and abilities alike are aesthetically rendered with details true to the experience at every turn.  However, after the initial cool-factor of slicing down enemies with a lightsaber wore off, some of the environmental detail did become a bit much.  For example, planets really did start to feel like planets in both detail and physical size around level 25.  Even with a speeder at my disposal boosting my travel speed, I often took what can only be described as road trips just to move between quest hubs.  Couple that with my compulsive need to leave no stone unturned, and I ended up wasting large amounts of time just traveling.  These are forgivable sins for a novice MMO team, but it was a numbing experience and definitely detracted from the overall experience.  In total, the graphics of the Old Republic struck a good balance balance between intentionally bright and trying-too-hard-to-be-real-life graphics.

The implementation of a personal crew also went a long way to making the game’s story come to life.  Honestly, if I had to pick one feature from the game to take into future games, it would be the crew system.  Crew members offset the impact of intentionally compartmentalizing player abilities by giving you the ability to have someone along who can complement your character abilities even when soloing.  It dramatically smoothed out some of the edges in the single player experience. Even better, BioWare allows your crew members to craft items, gather resources, and even perform their own missions.  This resulted in a similar crafting system available in other games but took the emphasis off of having a player perform repetitive player tasks in favor of simply making scheduling decisions for their crew.  I am a huge fan of any system that lets players multi-task and perform some functions away from the keyboard.  I hope that the BioWare developers eventually allow players to queue their crew up for multiple back-to-back missions similar to how players could queue skills to learn offline in Eve Online.  Coupling your crew to a personal ship even offered BioWare a way to tackle the personal housing in an MMO by giving players their own real estate that does not impact the games static world space.  The technique may only work in science fiction games, but this implementation works by giving players a place to call home while still being drawn to major hubs to interact with other players and for other in-game services not available on the ships.

No system is perfect, however, and the story system did have one major wart worth mentioning.  BioWare chose to implement an alignment system tied to player choices.  Periodically through the course of the plot, player decisions are labeled light or dark.  Often these decisions are clear cut, such as letting someone go or killing them, but quite frequently the choices presented to characters are significantly more ambiguous.  In previous BioWare games, a character could do what felt right, but in the Old Republic, your light and dark decisions are tied to points which act as a form of currency for some really nice rewards, the best of which can only be purchased if you go to one extreme or the other.  This resulted in several situations when my dark-side character had to kill someone to get the dark points I need, even when I wanted to leave a character alive to provide material for future plot.  It’s unclear how much of an impact the occasional swap from light to dark would have on a character, but as a player I definitely experienced the pressure to stick with one, ultimately denying some of the choice around which the game is centered.  The good news is that BioWare has acknowledged some of the limitations in their initial design and plans to add more rewards for players walking a more neutral path.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, BioWare’s emphasis on personal story in the Old Republic completely turned me off to the game’s multi-player features.  For a game that was built and billed as a massively multi-player game, this struck me as a fairly substantial problem looking toward the game’s future.  Whenever I tried questing or some of the game scripted content for groups which BioWare has termed “flashpoints,” I became impatient and frustrated that I was not in control of the action anymore.  Waiting on my partners to choose dialogue options becomes tedious and my light-side character now carries the title “the Backstabber” because my ally in one of the game’s flashpoints decided to vent some engineers into space to deactivate a security system rather than take an alternate airlock (as I alluded earlier, my rule in these games is never kill someone unless you have to, if for no other reason than that they may offer interesting plot twists later).  I ended up leaving many group quests incomplete because the equipment and story rewards in no way justified the time scraping together a group or dealing with problems when group members got out of sync on objectives (this happened often enough for me to get very frustrated several times).  As you go up in level, the group options become more numerous as players can choose to participate in warzones, conflict flashpoints (four man adventures) and operations (larger group encounters), but the lack of an effective way to find partners for these features is also going to become an issue as the player base ages and people level characters more sporadically.

BioWare has yet to implement patch 1.2, but the preview appears address some of the features the game seems to sorely lack such as more max level content.  One of the most unique features to be added will be the first stage of the game’s legacy system which encourages players to make new characters and level all over again.  Leveling up over and over is definitely more compelling in this game than others, and legacy will make it even better, but it will still lose its appeal.  So, I still have my reservations as to whether the company will be able to produce content fast enough to keep people occupied. Interestingly however, for the past few months, BioWare had a job vacancy for a social systems designer.  The position description included designing unique dynamic content for max level players.  The fact that the position is gone now gives me hope that we’ll see more complex design at the end-game in the future.

HireIt

March 8, 2012 1 comment

Thanks to my friend Sarah for bringing this article to my attention.  The article discusses how games are being used to effectively crowdsource and solve scientific problems.  In light of my previous post about the educational and social value of games over other forms of entertainment, I think it’s worth highlighting here.

Slate’s article continues the story of FoldIt, an experiment by the University of Washington that offered a game to the general populace which challenged players to build proteins into specific enzymes.  “Within hours, thousands of people were both competing against (and collaborating with) one another.  After three weeks, they had succeeded where the microbiologists and the computers had failed,” by identifying an elusive enzyme used by viruses like HIV.   Rather than simply discuss the medical puzzle at the heart of the game, the article highlights a personnel puzzle by showing that often the best people to solve a sophisticated problem did not have and, in fact, did not need background in the field.  This challenges conventional wisdom that a certain amount of experience, training, or education is needed to excel in a particular position.  That’s not to say these measures are unimportant, but as the FoldIt case displays, a PHD or experience with a certain problem set did not correlate to the cognitive skills necessary to solve certain issues despite that these items are more easily highlighted on a resume:

Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.

Human resource representatives are able to quickly and efficiently match people to jobs based upon data-points from game-play.  The game acts as a vehicle to capture and measure soft skills that are usually difficult to quantify and prioritize them over hard skills that usually show up on a resume, but may not actually reflect a person’s aptitude for the kind of work needed.

This paradigm could revolutionize the way other career areas are staffed, particularly in an knowledge- and information-based economy where many fields place a high emphasis on cognitive ability.  For instance, the title “analyst” (near and dear to my heart) does not tell much about a person’s ability to actually analyze an issue or problem.   Supplemental details in an analyst’s resume cannot show how the person thinks, rather they tell a story about the kinds of things the person has previously thought about.   An interview might provide a better glimpse into an applicant’s particular aptitudes, but probably not in a single conversation where often the skills being showcased are the applicant’s negotiation skills.  Those skills may be useful if you’re looking for a political analyst or hostage negotiator, but they are probably useless if you need someone to find a pattern in shipping documents when investigating an illicit network.   Events designed to allow applicants to show their work, either through specific scenario questions or in an applied exercise are more revealing.   Artists keep portfolios to show their work, but it can often be difficult for someone in knowledge- or information-based job to do the same – especially if they cannot carry their work from one field to another due to proprietary or classification conflicts.  On the other hand, a game emphasizing specific cognitive processes needed for certain tasks could go a long way to identifying the right people to fit the job.

We may be a ways off from that future, but I doubt it’s completely beyond our reach.  In the meantime, if I ever start a company, I’m pretty sure the interview process will include a trial by pixelated fire.