Monday, April 29, 2013

Belsavis is Like Monday -- It Just Seems to Go On and On.....

Having only taken one toon to (what was then) max level on The Old Republic, I've been pleasantly surprised at how other class stories have been playing out.

I've just finished Chapter 2 on my Commando, which took far longer than I expected.  Having only the Smuggler to go on, I expected Chapter 2 to last fairly short, with an interlude at an off planet location.  The Commando's Chapter 2 disabused me of that notion, by finishing up in between Hoth and Belsavis.

It also surprised me for another reason:  I got to see my entire team in action.

That was never really an option in the Smuggler class story, so seeing my entire team storm onto the ship during the Chapter 2 story was a pleasant surprise.  And the end of that assault led to another surprise, which made it a bit hard on my next assignment.*

Still, I've found the stories in TOR to be enjoyable enough that I've been taking my time with them, enjoying each step of the way.

And now I'm looking Belsavis in the face; the one planet that I felt was never going to end.

I can now identify with how Lewis and Clark must have felt when they reached a high point in the Rocky Mountains, expecting a quick jaunt to the sea, and discovered that a huge mountain range --the Cascades-- lay before them.  Every time I thought I was reaching the end of the Belsavis questline, lo and behold there was another area to clear out.  Yes, the story was interesting, it was just spread out way too much.

That said, if you're playing a male smuggler, the ending to the class questline was very amusing.  "I thought you hated each other," Corso said to me.  So did I, but what do I know?  Apparently not enough.

But that ending is far enough in the future that I'm starting to wonder whether it's not a bad idea to go work on that Inquisitor questline for a while instead....

*Sorry, I'm not going to give away any spoilers.  They aren't big --like end of the Knight's Chapter 1 big-- but it did have an impact on me.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Just Exercising Those Facepalm Muscles, That's All

I'm not the most socially savvy person in the world.

(In other news, the sun rose today.)

Being a bit older than your average MMO player, I occasionally make misinterpretations about what other players/bloggers are saying by reading things wrong.  For example, I had always read "omw" as "Oh my word" instead of "On my way".  I just chalked the prevalence of "omw" in various chat forms to politeness rather than anything else, until the other week when I mentioned to a fellow player about it while guarding the Farm.

"It means 'on my way'," he replied.  "What on earth did you think it was?"

I could almost see the implied "doofus" added on at the end.  "I thought it meant 'oh my word'," I said, about as meekly as you could type in a chat.

There was a long awkward silence that was only broken up by an incoming group from the Blacksmith.


Shintar over at Going Commando wrote a blog post about two new questlines in TOR, the Seeker Droids and Macrobinoculars quests/dailies.  While her first impression when she heard about the binoculars was of Luke Skywalker scanning Tatooine in the original Star Wars, I instead thought of what Marty McFly's dad used them for in Back to the Future:  being a Peeping Tom.*

Perhaps that's just a generational difference, but it could also be that part of my childhood was spent BSW:  Before Star Wars.  After I'd seen the original movie in the theater, it wasn't until several years later that I saw it again --on television-- so the iconic image of Luke was lost on me.

Now THIS is far less creepy...

...than this.  Safer, too.


I'm also not the smoothest commenter in the world.  I can't tell you the number of times that I'd written a comment on a blog post which sounded good but turned out to be absolute gibberish.  Or had grammatical errors.**  Or when I type in a comment and I realize later I'd said a bit too much, which kind of leaves everything sounding awkward.

Like the time I'd asked one of my kids' teachers how she ended up with a cell number from several states over when I knew she grew up somewhere else, and she began to explain about how complicated that was and it involved grad school and whatnot.  I opened my mouth and agreed, saying that it was the sort of story you needed to tell over coffee.  It was only hours later that I realized that it sounded like I was hitting on her, which was not what I'd intended.


Then again, a lot of my social cluelessness dates back to my youth, when I was a geek back when geeks weren't cool.***  In those days, geeks were into science, reading SF&F, playing on Atari/Intellivision/Commodore 64/TI-99 consoles/computers, and playing D&D.  If you've ever had your parents throw out your D&D materials because they considered them to be Satanic, you know what I'm talking about.  I mean, I used to twitch every time I was playing Tunnels of Doom on the TI and my parents would come in, because I expected them to realize I was playing a form of D&D on the computer and they would take the thing away.****

And here, what do I do for fun?  Play D&D and Savage Worlds with the kids, Talisman with my wife and friends, and MMORPGs on the computer.

I'm still amazed at it all.

When I read about boss fights, raids, gear optimization, and (even) dailies, a small part of the back of my head is going "Are you kidding me?  Don't break this down into minutae; this is awesome!  We're playing a game that would have gotten you slotted for deprogramming a quarter century ago!"

I see reports from PAX, BlizzCon, and ComicCon, and still pinch myself that there's not a book/game burning in sight.*****  The gamers and geeks have emerged from the basements and proclaim their geekdom in public.

And yet I go to work and circulate among other parents, pretending that other side of me doesn't exist.  At most I can occasionally chat about comic book movies, because their popularity extends beyond Geek circles.  When I go into the office, I try to make sure the background on my laptop is a plain, unassuming gray, not the WoW or TOR backgrounds I typically use.  When surrounded by suits, the last thing you want to do is rock the boat.

"Um, Yeah.  You're planning on filling out those
TPS reports after you finish that quest line, right?" 

I know, far too well, how negatively geeky activities are perceived in some quarters.  When someone shouted out "I love you, man!" to Ghostcrawler at BlizzCon, a part of me winced.  I remember middle school and high school, when you just kept your head down and tried not to stand out.  Even ol' Pat Robertson has recently resurfaced, talking about how there was a game called Dungeons and Dragons that led people astray.  (Newsflash to Pat, it's still around.)  If perception is indeed reality, to these people little has changed since the 80's, except that the geeks are now easier to spot in public.

In fact, if you try to get approved for telecommuting while it's known in the office that you're a gamer, you'll find it harder than you think.  After all, you do just play games all day, don't you?  Why should you get paid for that?


I suppose that all things considered, it could be worse.  I'd much rather be occasionally clueless than intentionally cruel. And while there are times it seems that there are far more of those out there in MMO space, it's still good to know that there are decent people out there too.  Even if they're a bit of a doofus, like me.

*Before you ask, no, I never did that.  I knew one kid who did and got in big trouble with his Dad for that, however.

**Which have an unfortunate habit of showing up in a comment on an author's blog, which makes you feel like you're back in grade school and you just got an F in sentence diagramming.

***Okay, they aren't cool now, either, but comparatively speaking today's nerds have it easy.  Not that you could convince my kids of that.

****They never did.  I chalked that one up to Pat Robertson not having the TI Home Computer on his list of Things Corrupting America's Youth.  But Rush and Triumph, two of my favorite bands, were; the cover of Hemispheres alone nearly cost me my cassette tape collection.

*****Unfortunately, the Westboro Baptist Church does attend.  They're better off being ignored, anyway.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Few Miscellaneous Thoughts for a Rainy Wednesday

It might not be pouring where you are, but is sure is outside of my window.

Although it looks gloomy, I don't mind.  Not today, anyway, when the plants have woken from their (excessive) Winter slumber.

Which reminds me; I was perusing old patch notes --really really old patch notes-- for WoW when I came across the note announcing the grand improvement of Weather in Azeroth.  That surprised me a bit, since I'd assumed that having rain fall randomly in a zone would be a minor thing.  Still, it wasn't there at release, but showed up sometime prior to BC.

While some other MMOs seem to not bother with things such as graphical changes based on the time of day or having "weather" impact the scenery (::cough:: TOR ::cough::), they get around other issues such as seasons by focusing on a small part of a planet for the questlines.  MMOs based on a single world don't have such a luxury, and yet they never seem to change the scenery in a zone based on the season.

I can understand the reasoning behind a reluctance to concentrate on these things --it not only takes up valuable developer time but adds to the horsepower needed to run a game-- but the next time an MMO touts "Weather" as a feature I'm going to be a bit skeptical.


It was bound to happen, but somebody finally started using raid announcements in WoW BGs.

Ever since WoW changed BG chat to Raid chat, I was waiting for some BG leader to decide to take advantage of Raid announcements to start ordering people around.

If you know nothing else about pickup BGs, you should know that there's always someone who thinks they can lead, and there's always about 5 people ready to tell that person that they're doing it wrong.

Now, inject raid announcements into the mix.  Wait for everything to combust, and.....

Oh yeah.  You can see what's coming, right?

This all went down in Arathi Basin.  That BG confounds the Alliance more than it has any right to, and I've no idea why.

As I waited for the BG to start, I perused the lists to see how the classes broke out.  Then the announcements began.

Need 5 people to cross water to assault BS
5 people pls
We'll kick ass
Need 5 people to cross water to BS

Okay, I thought, this is different.  So when Arathi Basin began, I parked myself down at the Stables to watch the show.*

Of the 15 people on our team, 14 crossed the water to the Blacksmith.

"...and nobody went to GM or LM," I said in chat.

"Keep pressing to Farm!" the Raid announcement replied.

You can pretty much guess what happened from there.  The assault on the Farm collapsed, and the Horde rallied to push against the Blacksmith and the Stables, capturing the Blacksmith.  The BG began to fall apart at that point, for whenever a Raid announcement came "5 to GM go!", about 10 toons wheeled and went to the Gold Mine.

"What a bunch of idiots!" one person grumbled.

A DK pulled up to a stop next to me.  "Stop sending those messages!" he said in chat.

"I know what I'm doing!" the BG Leader replied.

"No you don't!  This isn't a raid!"

"Shut up!"

I just kind of rolled my eyes at the spectacle.  While the raid announcement does have its use, in a pick-up game it's a bit of overkill.

*I've kind of given up on being on offense in AB when so few people actually play defense on bases they capture.  Given that --as a Rogue-- I'm usually in the shadows, an apparently empty base is a far too inviting target for the opposite faction.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Paging ELIZA... ELIZA, White Courtesy Phone, Please....

I was going to write about something else, but the Boston Marathon bombing happened, and I pretty much threw my paragraphs into the bit bucket.

I'm not going to comment on the bombing itself or speculate on who the perpetrators were --not that I haven't been doing it on my own time as it is-- but because this isn't the forum for it.  But while I had been turning over things related to the bombing, I sat down at the computer and played around on some MMOs to clear my mind a bit.

For a change, I found them vaguely unsatisfying.

At first I wasn't sure why, but the more I played the more certain I became that the source of my discontent had more to do with the nature of MMOs and PvE content.

When you play an MMO, you're following a specific storyline.  Or you're performing a set of tasks.  While the story itself might be new to you, it is the same story for everyone.  The Wrathgate still unfolds the same way.  The Desolator story in TOR will follow the same pattern.  Sure, small things change in the TOR questlines --after all, that's what Bioware does-- but the big pattern stays the same.

The theme park MMO, for all of its popularity, is not oriented toward spontaneity.  Random bolts out of the blue simply have no place in the game.  If there is something random that pops up, just wait a bit and you'll see that it comes back after a set amount of time.  The truly random elements in a game like WoW or TOR or the others are what the players make for themselves.

While it does sound like that is how things ought to be, the problem with the concept of the players making their own spontaneity are twofold:  there are far more NPCs on an average MMO server than there are actual players, and you have to have buy-in from other players to make such spontaneous actions occur.


In case you haven't noticed, the Fruit Vendor in Shattrath City doesn't talk back to you beyond a few basic set phrases.  While the recycled interplay between the Fruit Vendor and her grumpy neighbors is amusing, you never get a chance to insert yourself into the conversation.  Likewise, there have been times when I've been tempted to chat up the Cheese Vendor and her "woe is me" routine in Falconwing Square, but I can't.  The most a toon can do is buy something from her, or if you're the opposite faction, kill her.

Not exactly a lot of interaction there.

Even when there is an "event", such as the All Hallow's Eve Headless Horseman event, did you notice that the vendor (or other) NPCs just kind of stand around and do nothing?  No interaction with the world at all.

In TOR, about half of the background characters in an area aren't clickable at all; they're there just to fill up the scene.

While you can make a successful argument that world interaction would be more effectively done on an RP server, what about the person going questing in Felwood?  If a region is empty, about the best you can do is strike up one sided conversations with various NPCs.

While I was bored in Arathi one day, waiting for the BG queue to pop, I did just that.  It lasted about two or three sentences until somebody landed at the Alliance flightpoint, saw the bubble still hanging in the air, and said "L2P noob; they don't talk back!"  He then took off on a twilight drake.

I kind of just rolled my eyes and waited for the BG in silence.

At the very least, something like the old Eliza program* would be nice to give you the impression that you're conversing with an NPC.


Okay, NPCs aside, when was the last time something completely unexpected and unplanned --and not connected to a quest either-- happened in an MMO that came out of the PvE environment?

The only thing I can think of the past year or so was the Rakghoul event on Tatooine in TOR.  WoW draws a complete blank, because even the pre-launch events (of which there were none for Pandaria) are completely scripted.  Hell, they're often completely analyzed and dissected online prior to the event actually happening.  And the other MMOs I play... Well, they take their cues from WoW.  'Nuff said.

In a sense, I get the feeling that a totally random event would not be welcome by a certain portion of the MMO populace.  After all, look at how people approach the game:  analyzing gear, where to get it, what instances to run, what dailies to do, what mats to farm, and analyzing all of the boss fights, all in the pursuit of being completely ready for anything.

Hey everybody!  I'm raid ready!

If you think people like the unexpected, try saying "So, what's this raid about?  Are there any interesting boss mechanics?" in LFR.

On the flip side, I remember reading about the reactions when the Rakghoul event dropped:  completely and totally unexpected by the general populace, and there was no advance warning in the blogosphere.  Just "BLAM!" and it was there.

Zombies.  In Star Wars.

The Walking Dead Goes to Tatooine.  Deal with it, toons!

Why can't that sort of thing happen more often in MMOs?

Is it the fear of widespread apathy from the gamer populace?  The dreaded "Oh, this thing only drops iL483 gear" dismissal?  Or is it a "we play to our strengths, and plotting the unexpected doesn't fit into that?"

Whatever the reason, breaking out of the same-old same-old can provide memorable moments in MMOs that prefer the tried and true.

*Surely I can't be the only person who remembers ELIZA, can I?  (And don't you DARE call me Shirley!)

Monday, April 8, 2013

On a Clear Day, I Can See Pandaria

I may be a Wrath baby, but there was always something exciting about passing through the Dark Portal and into Outland on a toon for the first time.  When my rogue passed through into the barren wasteland of Hellfire Peninsula, crawling with demons and Fel Orcs, it brought a smile to my face.*

I've yet to figure out why starting out on the Borean Tundra or Howling Fjord doesn't inspire the same reaction out of me.

Boring Borean Tundra is vast, sprawling, and feels totally disjointed.  The Horde and Alliance outposts in the northern part of the zone seem like a clumsy method of introducing the Taunka and Mechagnomes --the Taunka outpost in the SE part of the zone does a much better job for the Horde-- and I often get the feeling that the flight point is there merely to provide a connection between the main bases in the zone and Sholazar Basin.  I like Coldarra and the Taunka village as well as the DEHTA compound, but the best quest zone in the Borean is Thassarian's quest line.

By contrast, Howling Fjord is more focused, the scenery more beautiful, and plants the seeds of the quest lines that bear fruit in both the Wrathgate and Storm Peaks.  But there are only so many Viking rip-offs one can take before it starts to get old.**  The same goes for the Forsaken, where after a while you start to wonder if the writers were using Jeremy Irons' character from the Dungeons and Dragons movie as a model.

Perhaps the biggest reason why I'm not that fond of the Wrath intro zones boils down to the storytelling itself:  Blizzard does best when it is a) being completely original and not basing storyline elements off of a real world counterpart, and b) when they are trying not to do too much.  If the storylines are too much to remember, or you're led too much by the nose, a zone loses its luster.

Look at Storm Peaks versus Icecrown.  While both have quests that end two separate storylines, the better of the two is the more original one:  Icecrown.  In Storm Peaks, while I do enjoy the zone better than Howling Fjord, the quests are an exercise in "spot the Norse myth behind the story".  The Icecrown storyline is all about the Death Knights and the Crusaders, where groaners are limited to the Valhalla and Eye of Sauron references.

In the end, these detours into Hellfire and Borean Tundra are just so I can gear up enough to press onward.  My rogue is only two expacs behind, now, but reaching L70 means I'm that much closer to my goal of leveling up to Pandaria via BGs.  The path has been painfully slow at times, but the end is in sight.

And I really hope that I'm not going to be wincing at all of the sly in-jokes when I reach Pandaria.

*The minimal level of cooperation between Alliance and Horde never hurt either.

**The biggest eye-roller isn't in Howling Fjord at all, but in Borean Tundra:  Hagar Heigarr the Horrible.  Considering Hagar the comic strip jumped the shark back when I was a kid, I can only groan when I see that name in the Tuskarr area.  What's next, a storyline with names from Funky Winkerbean?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

You Never Forget Your First Time

As I've been watching my kids play LOTRO and TOR, I've been thinking about my own history with MMOs.

Has it really been almost four years since I began playing?  It feels like even longer.  I did try a Middle-earth MUD back in the mid-90s --as well as the MMO-like online game that GEnie had (that used the old Rolemaster system for the ruleset)--  I never really dipped my toes into a modern MMO until the end of Summer in 2009.

While I can't remember all of the details regarding the first time I logged in, I remember one overwhelming emotion:  fear.

It seems silly now, given what I know how MMOs work, but I was expecting an "emperor has no clothes" moment when I signed into WoW for the first time.  I'd read up enough to know that there was a starting zone, but beyond that the WoW lore left me so confused that I figured I'd fail any surprise "geek test" that might appear before I got my bearings.  The one thing I didn't want was the "Hey, look at the noob!" and "L2P noob!" pursuing me on my first screw-up.

I also was painfully aware that the magical "pause" feature I loved in Baldur's Gate I, II, and Neverwinter Nights was non-existent.  I did not like RTS games very much because they forced you to think faster than I wanted to; like any long time boardgamer, I was accustomed to examining the board, thinking out strategy, and playing things out slowly.  I was not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants player, and here I was playing the ultimate RTS game.

The narration that's supposed to set the scene for my new toon made absolutely no sense, either.  I now know that it was referencing events at the end of Burning Crusade, but I had no idea what on earth the narrator was talking about.  I kept wanting to say "Wait!  Wait!  Who the hell are you talking about?  What treachery?  What disasters?"  But there was no time to stop and look up the WoW lore on the website.  It was time to start playing.

Naturally, less than a minute after seeing my toon appear in front of the first questgiver in Sunstrider Isle, I received an invitation to a duel.  I had no idea what the hell it meant, but I knew I wasn't going to say yes to anything.  The would-be duelist ignored me and began harassing the next bunch of new toons as they ported in.

It took a bit, but I slowly worked my way through the first few quests.  The format was different than what I was used to, and the concept of an arcade-like push the button to attack took some getting used to.  By that time, Soul's wife had appeared and she gave me some tutoring while we moved in the general direction of Silvermoon City.*

As we passed Falconwing Square, I had no idea of the size of Azeroth, and the on-screen map meant absolutely nothing to me.  Neither did Silvermoon City itself, where I was introduced to the Auction House and a few other places.**  But when Soul popped in as a Death Knight, I was stunned.  Here I was, used to the old D&D system of L1-20ish, and here was a toon with L56!  And remembering what little I understood of WoW lore, weren't we supposed to be fighting these Death Knights?

I kept my mouth shut and just let things go.

And the music....  The music was disquieting.  Silvermoon City's theme was dramatic, but the background music in Eversong, that stuck with me.  I had this vague feeling that all was not right, and the fact that monsters were so close by bothered me a lot as well.***  Here was this supposed big city in WoW, and yet the enemies were almost literally at the gate in what you could (charitably) describe as a time of peace.  This is not what you'd expect in the D&D worlds I've campaigned in; usually you had to travel a day or so (and often longer) before finding some nasties to fight.

Truly this was a place where civilization was teetering on the edge of destruction.

After I'd logged, I still wasn't sure what to make of WoW or MMOs in general.  They were... different than what I was used to.  But one thing that definitely surprised me was how little I was noticed by the populace at large.  This became even more apparent when I entered into Org for the first time; when I was surrounded by people who truly didn't give one whit about my toon at all.  (Except those who wanted to recruit me to a guild; there were way too many of those out there.)

There was enough interest in the game to keep me going until I got my sea legs, but it was definitely not love at first sight.  WoW really had a learning curve, and even though it was a slight one comparatively speaking, it was enough for someone completely uninitiated in MMOs to have second thoughts.

But in the long run, I'm glad I stuck it out.  I often wonder, however, just how many people were like me but didn't keep trying until they got the game.

* I also learned all about how Priests were squishy, and the concept of a Cleric as an armor wearing and mace wielding healer from my pencil and paper RPGs met the WoW version of reality.

**Travelling to Org came on my next session, and I very nearly ended up taking a zeppelin to Stranglethorn by mistake.

***In the original Baldur's Gate, there's an early cutscene where you see an idyllic farm with a little girl going out to play, and as she wanders down the lane you see two kobolds appear behind the hedge in the foreground.  It's that sort of foreboding that I got while playing WoW that first time.