Filed under Tim

The List of Demands…

So after a lot of wandering the badlands of overly restrictive MMO grouping rules, we fetched up in Firefall, which I’m quite enjoying. The game itself is decent enough, a kind of jump-pack fueled riot of colours and noises and massive areas of effect. There’s some kind of plot there to do with Nantes and an alien space plague and a crashed spaceship, which found some special crystals, while carrying out the first ever FTL jump, which mutated all the wildlife in Brazil, and gave powered exoskeletons to everyone! Now I come to explain it to someone else…

There is such a thing as trying too hard, and I think the only trope from my Sci Fi Bingo Card that I didn’t see in the opening cut-scene was “They Look Like Us Now”. (They really don’t.) But who cares! It’s astonishing how easy it is to completely ignore the plot, mission texts and what passes for any kind of narrative campaign structure and just drop in there and go utterly loopy with jetpacks and a variety of satisfying and amusing class-based weapons, powers and grenades. As long as there’s a yellow arrow to follow, the rest is entirely superfluous!

So I’m enjoying the basic jumping about and shooting things, which is hugely important. If the moment-to-moment stuff works, you often don’t need the rest of the twiddley bits, which in more turgid MMOs tend to act as an incentive to slog on through the tab targeting and hotkey rotation. Firefall plays a lot like Tabula Rasa and Defiance, I’m finding, and I always liked both of those. I play a lot of other games these days, but still find time to solo about in there.

But the main reason I’m there is because it turned out to be a decent candidate for the big Static Group Nights. We don’t ask for much from our online clubhouses, only that the game has no levels, no classes and can provide meaningful and fun content for groups of 2-13 people. That’s pretty reasonable I think, but few of the usual lineup meet our needs, and it’s always been a bit of a struggle.

We can work around some of it, and several titles have done well for our nomadic selves in the past, lasting longer than the three weeks it takes us to work out why a game won’t work for us. Old timers like Warhammer Online and Guild Wars, which despite various other faults, catered to the way our gang wanted to play. We had a few good runs at Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, and more recently Planetside 2 and Defiance have done well to cater to us. I guess EVE Online ticks most of those boxes too, but never quite gained popular traction among us. Private Server Minecraft is popular (Check the Steam Group for details of that), but I’ve never had the guts to suggest Tale in the Desert, Wurm Online or the SWGEmu! Not all our gang like Mining!

Most often we find that the Traditional Mainstream MMO is about the least well-suited to the way we want to play. World of Warcraft (and similar) have a habit of forcing us to pick specialisation roles (tank, healer, etc) which never works well for our week-by-week drop-out, drop-in attendance. Every other week, we’ll fetch up with three tanks and no healer.

They force us to play for exactly the same amount of time each week, for fear of falling behind or getting ahead, a problem further compounded by VIP/Lifetime/Founder XP Bonuses, vs F2P flat rate xp. We’re a widely varying degree of casual player, on the whole.

They force us to break up into groups of precisely five, or four, or six, or whatever arbitrary number has been picked for balancing purposes. I think it’s this last one that irks me the most, making me pick my four most favourite friends, then tell the rest to go sit on the bench. Which is frankly unacceptable, and I wonder sometimes if these games think that they are more important to me than my friends…

All of these are solved problems, by the way. City of Heroes solved levels twice; at launch with Mentoring and Sidekicking. “Have a friend who doesn’t play as much? No problem! Click here to become their level for the day. Or have them click to be your level!” They solved it a second time by extending the hijinks to the entire group. “You know what? Why don’t you just pick a level you want to be? We’re all adults here; it’ll be fine.” Many other MMOs followed suit, even including Everquest 2 of all games, so frankly if your MMO doesn’t also do this, It Is Broken.

Most MMOs have more trouble getting past the Trinity, but Rift has an admirable solution; give each class access to lots of sub-variant classes, which can carry out the different required roles as needed. My Rogue can happy flick between a Melee DPS, Support Buff/Debuff, Tank and Healer. Once I’ve set these up, I can swap them in the field with the press of a hotkey. If the roles have to be there, let anyone who is willing have a go at them, rather than forcing the same well-meaning members of the peer group to ‘take one for the team’ and be a tank or healer all the time, in every game. Dedicated players just end up grinding out one of each anyway, and likely come to resent the game for it. Yay, The Lone Lands, again!

Better yet, just get rid of them entirely. Most of the more modern MMO-ey action shooter type games tend to do this, along with Guild Wars 2. Having someone who can heal nearby is nice, but far from necessary, and other sorts of groupwork can be emphasised instead; positional play, timing, shared combos, overlapping damage types, puzzle bosses, etc. Surely we’re not still at the stage where having two team members distract the enemy while everyone wails on it (but not too much!), is still a Thing? If more than eighty percent of your players can’t get through a groupfinder queue in under two hours, It Is Broken.

But it’s the arbitrary group-sizing that I keep coming back to and swearing at. I’m a big fan of the excellent MMOsketeers Podcast, and over recent months I’ve been listening to the troubles they’ve been having trying to three-man four-man dungeons in The Elder Scolls Online. There are three of them, you see, and rather than grab some silent random Efficiency-Bot 8000 from an LFG tool, they’d rather just play among themselves. Not an unreasonable request – playing with silent random strangers in MMOs generally makes me feel uncomfortable too. But the game is punishing them for nonconformity. Very recently, they’ve found a fourth and by all counts, everything is going swimmingly. Let’s just hope they don’t have another friend turn up, or things will get awkward again!

I listen, and nod and sigh. We’ve always struggled on in a similar spirit, making life difficult for ourselves by shortmanning it, rather than abandon our own social ties in favour of what… artificial ones the game seeks to manufacture expressly for the purpose of pixel bosses and pixel loot? We’re stubborn though, and when faced with six players at a five-man instance, will usually struggle with two groups of three rather than make someone go away.

Perhaps it’s not so sinister. Perhaps making dynamically scaling content is hard. Still, there are solutions; City of Heroes (spotting a pattern here…) solved this in elegant mathematical fashion with its zone events and world bosses; no matter how many people showed up and at what level, the bosses were somehow always ‘just right’, for every participant. Rift and Defiance, with the Rift/Arkfall public quest type mini-events manage to dynamically adjust the challenge on the fly stepping up enemy numbers and stats depending how effective you all were on the preceeding phase or wave. Every now and then it would go spectacularly wrong, but mostly it works well. Lotro’s Skirmishes were cruder; simply offering many different group-sizings to choose from, leaving it to us to find something suitable. Again – the trust; “You choose – you know what you want best.”

Firefall seems to have legs. It doesn’t have mentoring or sidekicking that I’ve seen, but does provide you with five selectable batteframes, (classes), which act as in-game alts, allowing different players to drop back to a lower levelled ‘self’ on the fly, and carry on. Not ideal, but manageable. The Tank, Healer, DPS thing is sort of there, but so lightly applied as to be negligible, so we ignore it entirely! Healing is nice, but anyone can pick fallen comrades up and anyone can stock up with simple crafted health packs. The group size thing is giving us troubles though. Six is a group, and more is a Platoon, which is fine, but the usual multi-group cobblers starts to apply. Kills made by Group A don’t give xp to Group B, etc, etc. Shortsighted! We get by though, and rather than seek out actual Raids, we tend to just Platoon up and go attack the Solo Content for People Who Are Five Levels Higher than us. A compromise, but it mostly works for us.

The ideal Friday Night game is something we’ve almost found, several times, but never quite. Firefall will do for now, but I doubt we’ll stop looking any time soon. I just wished we all lived nearer – could just go down the pub!

The Hints of Satiation…

So another Steam Sale has come and gone. Given the bizarre and ungrateful reaction that the last one provoked in me (see the final Season 3 How To Murder Time Podcast for excessive whining on that), I mostly gave this one a miss. Besides, there’ll be another one along in a month I expect. I did briefly have a peek at the list and love what they’ve done with the new infinitely scrolling sales list; the session became positively Sisyphean at one point; scroll scroll scroll, must search for bargains….FOREVER!

On the whole though, the overloading stimulus of it all more or less convinced me to give up on the concept of “browsing” on Steam, and now, I’ll just stick to occasional checks on specific titles I’ve been waiting for, lurking for the inevitable £2.49 threshold to hit. The Wish-list approach seems the only way to sanely interact with Steam nowadays, but that might just be me.

 

It did all remind me of a good old chat we were having on Mumble a few weeks back, where the following was brought up and we all had a go:

https://steamdb.info/calculator/

Not a Valve site and I make no guarantees as to what they do or don’t do with any Steam Login or password you use there, but typing in just your Steam ID, selecting a currency and pressing Go will swiftly come back with precisely how much you’ve ever spent in Valve’s platform dominating digi-O-mart. It also works on other people, which is a bit worrying; presumably this is all publicly available API data which is just being used to do some simple calculations. Since you can easily find out anyway, I’ll save you a click and own up to £489 spent on 53 games.

 

Totalled up like that, it’s a bit alarming, but that was over 10 years, and I think I’ve probably got my money’s worth. I certainly wasn’t the biggest number when we all tried it and I’m pretty sure the Co-Host has a significant lead on me too.

I guess it’s only a problem if you aren’t getting value for the amount spent. In my case, the “Games not played” stat, a.k.a “The Pile Of Shame” is a bit worrying at 11 (21%), particularly given how disapproving of that I am in others, but much of it is the free bits of Half Life 2 and Counterstrike that everyone gets, and a couple are things that I know I’ve bought, but am Saving For A Rainy Day.

I do that, which is sort of the point I’m getting at. I often feel guilt at not being a good enough consumer, not supporting the industry appropriately. I take too darn long to play these games, never pay full price for any of it, never shell out for bonus figurines and whatnot, never buy stuff when they want me to, or nearly enough of it, and worse of all, I often develop hankerings to play these things again, years after they were in any way cool or fashionable. As a point, I currently happen to be playing Fallout 3, the first Puzzle Quest, and Guild Wars. One.

 

See for me, these games never go away, which is why I am often very cross about the whole abandonware thing. I’d happily pay someone for these old games, but no-one wants to earn my money a lot of the time! I’m also slightly furious when short-sighted game, OS and hardware designers refuse to give a toss about backward compatibility. Planned obsolescence is a sort of heresy in my world-view! Why make the same thing, badly and on purpose, over and over, when you could make a fine thing once, then make something entirely new next! Good things should last forever! A computer game is for life, not just 16 hours!

 

Anyway, it all goes some way to explaining why I’m such a flippin’ hipster when it comes to The New Things. It’s not so much that I liked it better before it was mainstream (i.e. commercially available), it’s more that I’ve not finished with the Things I Already Had Yet! And it only gets worse with each new game; a game which, if it’s even remotely good, I will continue to replay once every two to three years or so in rotation with all the others I still have, going back to Baldur’s Gate, System Shock and beyond. (“Anyone for a Lords of Midnight Hotseat Marathon?”) Adding in MMOs, which all seem to be free now and by design have no satisfactory ending, and I start to wonder if there won’t come a time, perhaps soon, when I Will Have Enough Games. Fin. The End. No more purchasing required. Ever.

 

It’s an odd thought.

 

Incidentally, that £489 is tied up in entirely non-physical goods, which effectively vanish if Valve turn off the 486 that runs Steam, which is chilling in it’s own way. I like to think that Valve’s last act on this Earth will be to throw the big “Deactivate the DRM” switch, releasing all our bought and paid-for games into our own custodianship, but I’m notably naïve. And anyway, in this giddy ‘Canticle for Lebowitz‘ type future I’m imagining for us all, we’ll probably be fighting each other with pointy sticks for the last pouch of Rad-Away, long before Steam’s absence becomes a problem.

I shall try to stop obsessing about Steam soon. Until then, don’t have nightmares!

Virtual Virtual Warfare

1.8GB of patient downloading later, Game Update 4 for Planetside 2 arrived. I have to say, SOE are really earning their wages with the update schedule of this thing, cracking on with many and significant improvements month by month since release, to a game that didn’t even launch that broken in the first place.

You can find the full patch notes here:

PS2 Official Forums: GU4 Patch Notes

 

Loads of things there as usual, but the big headline item is the new VR Training Area, which I’ve already had a run about in and think is genius. Accessible from the Warp Terminal screen as a small button beneath the islands, this takes you to a Star Trek Holodeck inspired mini zone containing terminals, shooting ranges, a large bit of Indar-Greenery style terrain to drive and fly about on, and even a practice Watchtower structure in one corner. Apparently, it even has a Quad Bike racing course, which as yet is incomplete, but Soon…

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Street Sovereignty

So in spite of myself, I appear to now be liking Ingress, the Google Citizen Monitoring System masked as Augmented Reality Game. That it is recording my every move for some sinister future purpose, I do not doubt, but figure that Google already know my… well, pretty much everything that I do online and over email anyway by now, so where is the additional harm?

The thing still seems to be in beta, but I don’t recall any NDA being mentioned and don’t generally care about those anyway. Basic gameplay is somewhat new and interesting to me, never having had a phone capable of this stuff before. Two factions, the Enlightened and the Resistance are battling it out in a secret invisible and made-up world, trying to have the most territory under their control at any given time. Something to do with Mind Units, which isn’t sinister AT ALL!

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Reviewlets: A30 Walker & M60 Bulldog

Two guns for my newest favourite Planetside 2 vehicle, the Galaxy. The Galaxy is a highly situational choice; a twelve-man troop transport VTOL aircraft and is very iconic, being a firm favourite from the first game. Unless you just want to use it as a flying kamikaze bomb to burn up otherwise unwanted Aerospace resources, you’ll want at least five crew for this plane to get the most out of it; a pilot and four gunners. Seven additional passengers can be loaded for the full 11-man paradrop on target facilities, and the whole paradrop thing is the Galaxy’s primary purpose – rapid redeployment across awkward or distant terrain. Everyone except the pilot is protected from falling damage when jumping from this plane, at any height. Static and regular squads should be looking to have a few members practice and pimp their Galaxies to increase squad mobility in general. To beat the Acquisition Timers and Resource Costs, have several Galaxy Pilots work in rotation.

The secondary purpose of the plane is a bit more hit and miss; the ‘Galaxy Gunship’ concept from PS1. With all armaments upgraded from the stock M20 Drake average-at-everything heavy machine guns, can the Galaxy become a potent offensive unit in its own right?

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Thoughts on Squad Leading

Planetside 2 continues to entertain, and like most of these MMOs for me these days, seems to shine as a venue for good friends to have quite casual social hijinks of an average evening. Some of us are better than others at the whole shooty shooty thing, but there’s a good general atmosphere on Mumble in the Fire Rounds Rapid outfit of which I seem to have become somewhat in charge of.

We’re there to have fun, of course, but there is an actual game going on too, and I’m slowly learning what is involved in leading a squad in PS2. One of the great and unique selling points of PS2 over, say Borderlands, Halo or Battlefield 19-whatever is the sheer scale of the fighting. These are really large maps, with a LOT of participants, dozens at any given base and likely thousands overall. Making some kind of sense of it all is very much part of squad leading. Continue reading

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Reviewlets: Saron HRB & G40-F Ranger

Two ground vehicle weapons today. These are a funny thing to review well, especially in the multi-crew vehicles, since you, the paying customer, will rarely be using them yourselves. The person who spawns the vehicle is also the person who gets to fit all the modules and weapons on it, including the big ticket unlockable turrets. This basically ends up with you putting down cash in a game for the better enjoyment of other people, which is an odd state of affairs.

Naturally, this will appeal to regular squad-folk more than determined soloists, although perhaps those with an eye on bigger empire-wide picture may see the benefits in acts of cash-shop altruism which give random gunners the tools to perform better. Very hit and miss, literally! I’m lucky enough to have a fairly large squad of regulars for our nights out in there and this opens options for effective coordination in the multi-crew vehicles, which we use a lot; Sunderer, Galaxy, Magrider and Liberator.

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Reviewlets: Solstice SF & Eidolon

So here we are in an F2P Age, more or less; a state of affairs which generates mixed feelings among many. I always liked the idea in principle, but with provisos. Opportunities for idiocy and avarice certainly do exist more now than under the one-monthly-fits-all age, and it’s very much up to us to evaluate all new cash shop offers carefully, with an eye to what is right for us. I always thought that this would be our new role as MMO bloggers; to highlight and scorn the stupid, but also to assess and praise the good ideas too, in the form of mini-reviews of the new and more granular level of consumerism we now have in front of us. The dedicated LOTRO blog and podcast Casual Stroll To Mordor illustrates what I mean, with regular reviews of specific items and deals, along with recommendations (or otherwise) from folks who know a bit about what they’re talking about.

I’ve found those helpful in the past and would love to see more of this sort of thing across the whole genre; expert players giving detailed scrutiny to specifics, rather than the same old tired ‘All F2P is Bad/Good’ rhetoric.

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Roadmaps and Rapid Rounds

Meanwhile, in games which aren’t Guild Wars 2, Planetside 2 is going pretty well. Getting the K/D out of the way right now, I seem to be consistently coming in at 0.3 or so, which is similar enough to my six years of on and off Planetside 1 play. Sometimes I finish a night with over 1.0! It doesn’t matter though, because the main reason I loved Planetside 1 was the sheer spectacle of the ongoing massive fighting, which very much exists in the sequel.

The differences between the first and second games are many and varied, but the essential spirit of the game seems intact. The art and engine are both huge improvements on the first game, delivering a very modern feel to basic gameplay, on a par with current console shooters in a way that Planetside 1 never really managed against Counterstrike and its contemporaries.

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I, Mesmer: Shattering

Guild Wars 1 has Attributes, alterable point scores in four or five disciplines for each class, which govern how powerful the skills of that discipline are, and also which carry some innate passive effects as well. For the Memser, these would be Fast Casting, Domination, Inspiration and Illusion. One of these would be the Primary Attribute (Fast Casting for the Mesmer), and unique to that class. It was this, and the armour piece stats, which would make a Mesmer/Ranger subtly different to a Ranger/Mesmer, who would get Expertise instead.

Guild Wars 2 has gone with a more conventional Talent Tree style of customisation, often using the same names, but something of the spirit of the Primary Attribute lives on in the Profession Mechanic. This is different for each class and usually involves the F1-F4 keys, and the UI area just above the Weapon Slots. For the Mesmer, this is Shattering.

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