Friday, November 20, 2009

For Posterity

This photo was taken in Jan 2008 ago in a bar for Luke (Feconix)'s birthday:  me attempting to strangle Ben (aka Beghn), one of my predecessors at work.  (Updated with correct info thanks to Cuppycake!)  Although I do occasionally want to strangle Ben, he actually turned out to be a really amiable guy, the kind you'd be happy to have a drink and a chat with in a pub any night.  Anyway, I had a copy of the photo at the time, but somehow managed to lose it.  Happily, Luke still had a copy and sent it to me last night, so I'm posting it here for posterity so I don't lose it again!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Links 'n' things!

There's a new blog in town ... the SOE Artists blog!  And this week there's a great article up by EverQuest II animator Tom Tobey.  Not only does he give a fascinating insight into what kind of work goes into animating characters in the game, but there's also a little sneak peek at the panda men from EverQuest II's upcoming expansion, The Sentinel's Fate.

In other news, EQ2Traders has a great preview up highlighting the crafting and live event related features coming in the next game update.  You can hop on to Test server and check it out now in person, too.

And last but not least, with this month being the 5th anniversary of EverQuest II, and this year marking the 10th anniversary of EverQuest, it's a great time to go check out Jace Hall's humorous EverQuest documentary, EverCracked!  This is being released on IGN as a 4 part series, with one part coming out per week, so be sure to keep checking back.  I've seen the whole thing and it's well worth watching - there's even a cameo by the stars of The Guild to look forward to in the last episode.  =)

EverCracked! episode 1

Sunday, November 08, 2009

What's Aion Doing Right?

I mentioned in a previous post that I'd been playing and enjoying Aion lately, somewhat to my surprise.  While I haven't had much free time to play it, aspects of it have impressed me very much and I'm still enjoying it when I can log in.

Aion seems to be one of those games where people either love it or hate it; I rarely hear anybody in between.  I actually had no intention of playing it myself, for a few reasons:  one, I hate playing humans and the only race choice in Aion looks basically human; two, I heard it was fairly centered around PvP and I don't enjoy PvP; and three, I heard it was a bit grindy, and I don't much like that either.  I was vaguely aware it was in beta, but I'd planned to play Champions Online instead since I enjoyed City of Villains a lot.  Unfortunately, Champions Online turned out to be a disappointment to the point I considered it unplayable.  So when some friends decided to play Aion and invited me to join them, I gave it a try.

I certainly won't try to claim that it's a perfect game or is going to make WoW obsolete or any such thing. The former is clearly not true and the latter seems highly unlikely, although Massively posted an article this weekend that shows the game really is apparently doing extremely well in terms of sales. In terms of game play it's pretty standard MMO fare, not a lot of innovation, and it could certainly use a bit of polishing in a few areas (see my previous post on view predicates, for example).  And they have a serious, serious bot and spammer problem - I think they are really remiss to have launched the game without having a better (read: apparently any) framework in place to address it.

In other areas, however, it's very polished indeed and very well designed. The little tutorial videos that new characters can choose to play are excellent, particularly when contrasted to Champions Online's terrible walls of unhelpful NPC text. Some nice little features like hotlinks in the quest journal are small things but extremely nice: you can click into key words in your quest to learn more about areas or NPCs referenced, and click a handy 'locate' button to mark them on your mini map for ease of finding. The "campaign" special questline that runs through the game is really great, helping the player easily identify the major plot of the game and feel as if they're making real contributions to it.  Tradeskills (I'm currently a 100 skill handicrafter) are nothing innovative and there are certainly elements I don't like there, but seem well balanced and well thought out with elements from both WoW and Vanguard, and fit well into the game's role for them.  And the main reason there is such a draw for bots and spammers is that the economy is actually very well balanced indeed, no small task in a big MMO.

In particular the use of little cut-scenes to highlight the campaign quests is an example to us all of how they could be used really effectively. The storyline about your character 'recovering' his or her lost memories draws the player right into the story and make them feel really special - in what other game do you get to fly around, fighting armies, and battling uber monsters... at level 6? The use of cut scenes and "visions" to flash forward and preview how cool and powerful you WILL be if you keep playing is a very effective technique that really pulls you in and makes you feel special.  Look at these screenshots, which are game content I was experiencing at level 6:

Really?  Flying around in fantastic armor in a stunning landscape, fighting powerful and awesome looking evil Balaur?  How can this not win, compared to most standard MMO games where at level 6 you're generally running around in your underwear, or at best grungy brown leather, trying to find a rusty sword to smack rats with?  Aion is absolutely outstanding at making you feel special, from sequences like the above to cut scenes at the completion of important quest lines where you see yourself surrounded by the entire village cheering you.  Heck yes.

One of my minor peeves with RPG style games is when you complete some huge epic questline that the game tells you is super important, and you return to the questgiver having saved the entire world, and the guy says "hey thanks, here's some gold!" and never mentions it again, and nobody else ever mentions it again or even seems to know about it.  That pretty much sucks, yes.  And happily, Aion tries to avoid this and do it right.  Make the player feel important, and they will in turn feel it is important to keep playing.

The other thing that really gets my attention is just how darn pretty the world is.  I just love looking around a beautiful world and ever since EQ1 I've been amassing an enormous collection of screenshots of beautiful views from various virtual worlds.  Call me an MMO tourist if you like, but I love finding things of beauty in the world and taking those screenshots.  It's one thing I love about EQ2, and Aion is also a beautiful, detailed world just begging me to hit that screenshot button over and over.

Chanter on an airship in the sky canals of Sanctum:

Newbie spiritmaster standing in the woods:

A specific area that annoys me very much about the art in many computer games (MMOs or not) is how they claim to be set in other worlds, and often populated with nonhuman races, but then the animals all over the world are just the same old animals we see on earth (and almost always North America).  Really, how many times do I need to see spiders, wolves, and rats?  If a world's ecosystem did not evolve humans, why does it make sense that it evolved every other animal that exists on earth?  And most of all, why does the game team expect me to take it seriously that this is another world, when all the flora and fauna are straight out of my back yard?  It's not just irritating, it's immersion breaking, and very sloppy design in my opinion.  And I hate it.  So I have been delighted to see Aion broke away from this.  What their art team seems to generally have done is take 2 or 3 familiar earth animals and then hybridize them into some new creature.  Similar enough looking to not seem completely weird to players, and for it to be believable that this creature could fill the same ecological niche as its earth equivalents, but original and not the same old rats, spiders, and wolves that have been boring players in every computer game since The Bard's Tale.

Darus - some kind of adorable sheep/kangaroo hybrid, with perhaps a touch of mountain goat?

A snuffler, an armadillo/mole/anteater cross?

A kirca - a kangaroo rat meets an armadillo?  These little hopping guys are so adorable, I fell of a cliff trying to screenshot them the first time I saw them.

A tog: a cross between a wild boar and a bulldog, having a really bad day:

Instead of wolves we have the worg: a lean, mean mix of fox, hyena, wolf, and perhaps a touch of rabid badger:

The ever so charming potcrab, some sort of lobster/crab hybrid, which always looks like it's smiling:

A sparkle, which appears to be a cross between a firefly and a stag beetle:

A porgus, which appears to be a tiger/pig mix with an almost monkey-like face:

Larail, a greenish hare/kangaroo sort of thing with almost ostrich-like feet:

I love the level of detail that's gone into creating all these original critters.  The same level of detail also impressed me hugely when I noticed that the player characters have idle animations that are weather and terrain specific.

When it rains, if you've gone idle for a moment, characters start to look up at the sky, hold up their hands to feel the rain, and then pull out a leaf umbrella to shelter under.

In hot terrain, characters fan themselves to keep cool.

If you go idle in water, characters will bend down and splash the water, or try to catch fish.

Small touches, but completely unexpected: when I first noticed it, I was absolutely delighted.  I really love finding little details in game worlds and the level of attention that the Aion artists have paid to small details has so far continued to surprise and impress me over and over.

So, with all that said,what about the gameplay itself?  I'm only level 20 (max is 50), so it's a little early to pass final judgement.  It's a bit more grindy than, say, EQ2, but not necessarily in a horrible way.  Many modern MMOs are highly quest-focused so that questing becomes the most efficient method of levelling up.  Aion takes a step back - while there are still plenty of quests and they are good to do, just plain killing stuff is also apparently quite acceptable as a levelling method, and in this it has almost a retro feel that reminds me a bit of EQ1, but without the ridiculous penalties and with lots more polish.  There have been plenty of quests so far, although the sudden jump at times between solo and group quests was a little jarring.  The quests are certainly nothing innovative, consisting almost entirely of "kill 10 X" or "talk to Y", although they're generally done with a high degree of polish and a very robust storyline, as mentioned.

I don't think this is a game that will suck me in long term the way EQ2 did: it's just not deep enough for that in the areas that are important to me.  (Other people's mileage may vary, obviously not every game appeals to every person equally.)  I'm guessing that most likely I will keep playing until either the solo gameplay is exhausted, or I'm forced into PvP content.  I'm not sure how far this will take me, but a gorgeous world, an interesting storyline, and a compelling narrative for my character's progression are keeping me coming back so far.  I was glad to see the Massively article that suggests the game is doing well, though.  While it's certainly not a perfect game by any means, I really like the things it's done right and I hope that it'll be successful enough give it time to address its weaker points, and to encourage future games learn from its strengths.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

G.I.R.L. blog: A Touch of Hero Worship

This week on SOE's GIRL blog I talked a little bit about Felicia Day, creator of the web series "The Guild":

A Touch of Hero Worship

What I didn't mention (as it wasn't quite finished when I actually wrote the post) was that I decided to dress as Felicia Day's character Codex from "Do You Wanna Date My Avatar" for Halloween this year.

And to do that, required a little bit of Real Life tradeskilling.

Fortunately, out of all the costumes from The Guild, Codex's looked to be the simplest to make.

Unfortunately, I'm really not that good at sewing things and can only plod along at the most basic level! I do have a sewing machine now (it was a Christmas present last year) but all I've made with it so far has been a small quilt, some curtains for the house, and some linings for bags I've crocheted. This was a step beyond that!

Still, I picked up some fabric and a corset pattern, and a white bra to use as the foundation of the dress, and learned a lot.  Mostly, I learned why people charge $500 for corsets they sell online.  They are a pain to make, even with helpful tips from the lady at the fabric store!  (Best tip:  use the large size plastic cable ties from Home Depot instead of commercial corset boning.  Much cheaper and generally stronger too!)

From this:

To this:

I broke 3 sewing machine needles in the process and ran out of time so the staff and accessories (like kneepads and bracers) are less detailed than I would like, but on the whole I'm pretty happy with it as a first attempt!  If I wear it again I may try to improve some of those details I didn't have time for this year.

(The Dr. Horrible lab coat was something I made last year.  We couldn't find a side-closing lab coat like Dr. Horrible's, so I converted a front-button one to a side-button one, added some details, and embroidered the little caduceus logo on the pocket - that caduceus along took almost 3 hours!)

The funniest observation came from "Dr. Horrible" as Halloween approached and I was madly trying to finish up the sewing.

"Are you going to dye your hair too?" he asked (since Codex/Felicia Day is in fact a redhead).

"Good grief no, that's way too much effort," was my immediate reflexive response.  At which he just looked at me for a moment and then pointed out that relative to the weeks of sewing effort I'd already put into the thing, dyeing hair really wasn't much effort at all.  And I had to laugh at myself a bit because it was very true.

Nonetheless I did not dye my hair. Probably because making the costume was interesting and a tradeskill challenge; dyeing hair is a nuisance and smelly and not fun at all.  You gotta draw a line somewhere, after all!

Anyway, as I said in the GIRL blog post, Felicia Day is a pretty impressive lady and a great role model for girls in gaming (for anybody, in fact).  If you haven't yet watched The Guild, visit their site, find season 1, and get started.  Episodes are very short, generally 3-7 minutes, and if you've ever played any MMO I guarantee you'll find it hilarious.  You can also buy the DVD now and support a great independently produced show.  And incidentally, I was not paid to say any of this ... it's just true.  So go do it.  =)

Friday, November 06, 2009

The darker side of Facebook applications

No original thoughts from me in this post, but I know quite a few people read this blog who don't necessarily read other gaming news sites, so I thought I'd share a few articles about the shadier side of Facebook/MySpace games and applications that have been receiving a lot of attention within the gaming industry lately. (Those who actually work in the industry have probably already read them, please do feel free to skip the rest of this post if so!)

It started (at least in the public eye) last week, when TechCrunch columnist Michael Arrington attended the Virtual Goods Summit in San Francisco. Social media focused companies like game developer Zynga (YoVille, Texas Hold'Em, FarmVille, and similar games) and advertiser Offerpal Media (an agent for many of the targeted advertisements you see on Facebook) were in attendance. In the Q&A session of the final panel, he took the opportunity to confront representatives of these companies on what he called "the completely unethical way that they are going about achieving that success." Anu Shukla, the CEO of Offerpal, gave an emphatic rebuttal to his accusations. If you're interested in watching their exchange, you can see the video here:

Essentially, Arrington accused these companies of making their money in extremely unethical ways, with detailed examples to back up his claims, and Shukla refuted his arguments. Once the summit ended, both parties in the debate used their respective blogs to re-state and further detail their side of the story.

Initially, both sides presented strong arguments and it wasn't entirely easy to tell exactly where the truth lay in a very grey area. However, if you follow the Arrington link above you'll see a series of updates to the story that have occurred just in the past week, which speak pretty loudly for themselves. The highlights included:

Further updates will no doubt be forthcoming from Michael Arrington's column on TechCrunch, and it certainly seems likely that this isn't the end of the changes that will happen in this area.

So there you go, if you missed this little bit of industry intrigue, now you're enlightened. I have no particular point to make other than to share some interesting information, but hopefully this all will lead to good things for users of MySpace and Facebook apps, as well as a better environment for game development companies themselves that does not actually put ethical behaviour at a disadvantage!

(I also must confess that watching the back-and-forth unfolding of this argument this week has also been the best can't-look-away-from-the-train-wreck type industry entertainment since watching Brad McQuaid self destruct.)

Tangentially, if you're curious about what kind of information the Facebook applications you click on can learn about you, check out this interesting talk given in September by my friend Paul Fenwick. Heck, listen to it just for the charming Aussie accent.

Now carry on back to your regularly scheduled tradeskilling!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What do players want?

Selections from recent player-submitted in-game feedback ...


Text: i think it would be pretty neat if sk/pally's squire helped out their masters, even if they just miss all the time or do like 2 damage, they just stand around and watch their masters get beat on.. also same thing would be cool for rangers companions, they just eat grass while im being killed, doesnt seem like they love me very much, so much for being my companion =(


please re-work the conj water pet hydromancer she is in dire need of a upgrade, fasters spell casting ? better healing,, more function, AT LEAST A DRESS LOL


Text: I think it would be a fabulous idea if you guys would make us a closet door! Kinda like the guild hall door we can put in our house...but the closet door wld zone us into a room where we can store all of our appearance gear (since we have such a abundance of it now hehe). That way we can zone in and try on our outfits


Text: IMHO Lore and Legends Quests are NOTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Given!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Priority!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thgey should have!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! in this new Dumb A/A whatever Stuff .. you all designed ~!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PERIOD CASE CLOSED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I wish better Designers and Programmers with Brains could be found but I know they cannot/.... this game suffers badly from wrongheaddedness, and marketeers Morons etc... I could go on but it is losing it's Shine


Text: SoL apperance Dagger and the Whips should be usable by Mages. Sad that the only mage usable whips are both events. Void storm and now the Spire event apperance one.


Text: I really wish you'd let us customise the appearance of Hirelings and general Amenity NPCs in the Guild Hall; way too often I find that our banker has suddenly and tragically gone bald, only to re-grow the hair in a few weeks.


Text: Turbo Button for the Kiddy Balloon Rides in the moors


Text: I waould LOVE a slayer status for UNICORNS!!


Text: Make a global politics channel and force all political conversations to be had there sick of the daily arguments in open level chat thats spams my chat windows and too many people to constantly ignore



Text: I want to thank you for the great Halloween event this year! This zone is incredibly well done - probably the best in EQ2. It's full of immersion and flavor - I wish more zones were like this! I laughed so hard at the old man telling me to get off his lawn, and the halfling who says she's a friend, not food. Great job guys! I love it!


Text: Ooh, the trees in New tunaria. They are awesome, and need to be seen elsewhere! So beautiful :)


Text: Please change the "opulent female gold blouse" to not show gloves.

Lovely gown + gauntlets = fashion no-no



Text: Grandma Blumble on Nektulos Beach responds with a male voice. I'm pretty sure that's wrong.


Text: The Nights Of The Dead Baleful Scarecrow Costume is trueley amazing you should really consider making them a race :)


Text: I only recently turned up the foliage enough to see much of it... and I think the way it mashes down when you pass, then springs back up, is fabulous! Bravo to whoever put in that detail, it's seriously cool. :)


Text: You guys should add a "mutiny" button to the raid window. Require like 3/4's of the raid to vote on it, but the end goal is to replace who is raid leader.


(I'd just love to know what circumstances led to that last feedback being submitted... =) All I know was it was from Lucan De Lere server, and the player appeared to be in the Palace of the Ancient One.)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and the Moral

Evizaer over at That's A Terrible Idea posted a nice discussion of the overuse of good vs evil in games. It's certainly not just talking about MMOs, but the comments apply very much to MMOs as well as other types of game. And since I work in MMOs, I had a few thoughts relating to them.

Looking back at the original EverQuest, which set a lot of the base assumptions that subsequent MMOs have adopted, the races were extremely closely tied to moral choices. If you were a particular race you could not be certain classes and you could not worship certain gods. For example, if you were a dark elf, you could never become a paladin and you could never worship Tunare, the goddess of nature/growth. Your moral "worth" was unalterably tied to your race, an assumption that is actually extremely offensive and bigoted if you were to think about it in real world terms, and (as Evizaer points out) it seems remarkable that we accept this so easily in games.

In EverQuest II, although we didn't want to change the flavour of the world with its races and gods, we moved away from many of the original restrictions, and allowed all races to become any class and worship any god, although some races still start off naturally biased to evil or good. In EverQuest II a dark elf who wishes to reject his evil upbringing must betray his or her starting city and move to a good aligned city, at which point he or she forsakes the option of becoming an "evil" class profession (like necromancer) but can now choose from the "good" class options such as paladins.

This would seem to be a much better way to separate moral choices from racial origins and you'd think it would be very popular. And it was indeed welcomed by many. Nonetheless, "all races, all classes" (sometimes referred to as ARAC) was actually quite a controversial decision back in the day and there are still many players whose gaming origins are far back in the first EverQuest who deeply dislike this aspect of EverQuest II.

Although I agree that the base assumption that moral worth is inseparably tied to race is repulsive in the real world, I don't necessarily think that these players who prefer their games this way are racist or generally horrible people. Rather, I think that many people see games as more symbolic than actual representations of the real world. Like a simple child's fairy tale, games can tell us stories about the world by representing concepts very simply. The real world is very complex and confusing. In fairy tales, and in games, we can retreat from reality for a time and relax in a world where things can be black and white, good and evil, us and them. It's hard to fight evil in the real world with its shades of grey; in a game, you can ride forth in your shining armour and smite evil without any doubts about the moral ambivalence of your actions.

Some players definitely do embrace a more realistic portrayal of good and evil, but there are clearly many who do still prefer a more black and white game world. I really like the list of alternate choice suggestions in Evizaer's post, and I think that some of those could make very interesting games. Nonetheless I suspect that despite the unarguable logic of that post, we are never going to see the end of games with a good/evil divide. It's one of the most fundamental concepts in the human mind and one around which is based a vast amount of our literature, culture, and particularly religion. Certainly games could do a better job of making the division more subtle and less of a Jesus/Hitler divide. But I suspect the basic concept of the world being good/evil is always going to be appealing to people, and therefore games that allow us to explore that dichotomy are going to continue to be widely appealing, regardless of how tired the game designers may get of the concept.