Thursday 30 July 2009

Sandbox schmandbox

Massively covered Eve Online's latest publicity video, a self-congratulatory orgy of celebration of the word "sandbox".

I hate the word sandbox and how it has come to be such a meaningless hype word.

There's no reason for equating single server with sandbox. If WoW had only 10 000 players they could all be on the same server but it wouldn't make WoW a sandbox game.

There is no reason for equating territory control with sandbox. Warhammer is a theme park game where you can change control of territory.

The key point about sandbox is that you leave stuff out. Stuff like hand holding quest chains and quest hubs. In itself this is a bad thing. This ultimately leads to other players being your content however which can be a good thing.

But it should be possible to make other people your content in more contructive ways than simply not giving them anything else to do.

To be fair Eve is actually trying to do this with theme park style Epic Missions arcs and an expanded new player experience which will mainly be adding a hand-holding quest arc introducing Exploration.

I also think using the Butterfly Effect to describe the sequence of events described in this promotional video is ridiculous over-hype. In physics the butterfly actually causes the tornado. In this story the defence of the miner only causes the player to become a tiny cog in an ongoing alliance war. It doesn't start the war.

I actually like Eve and play it but the hype here is an insult to our intelligence.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Eve Online: a review

Just over two months into Eve Online now and I'd like to offer my thoughts. I've tried several MMOs recently with the intention of picking two to subscribe to and Eve has made the cut.

Eve Online is a space combat game of enormous complexity. It's been called a "spreadsheet in space", of its players it's been said "Eve nerds are to normal nerds what nerds are to normal people."

So why play it?

Two reasons: complexity and impact


First the complexity itself is actually pretty absorbing. It's a lot of fun planning out different strategies towards building your character's skills, building your spaceships, prioritising areas of gameplay you wish to specialise in.

In addition to the spreadsheet type stuff Eve offers a hugh layer of social complexity. You can't trust other people, scamming infiltration and espionage are very much an expected part of the gameplay.

For example the Guilding Hand Social Club infiltrated another guild under contract from an enemy of that guild to disrupt them. They manouevred their way into positions of trust then utterly gutted it.

Another fascinating example was the dissolution of one of the top alliances in the game, Band of Brothers, by a disillusioned player who defected to an enemy. This betrayal story was so interesting it was covered by much of the MMO gaming press and used as an example to illustrate how sandbox games work by Professor Richard Bartle.

It led to Goon Spymaster The Mittani becoming a columnist on Ten Ton Hammer and his posts are utterly fascinating as he reveals the Sins of a Solar Spymaster.

The latest big Eve story has reached even the BBC, an embezzlement scandal affecting a large player-run bank.


As well as the complexity the other strong reason for playing Eve is that accomplishments are meaningful. Where many other games are going down the route of "everyone is special" Eve is a brutal jungle that leaves the weak as forlorn corpses floating in the cold of space.

I've already discussed the big stories, to be honest most new players are too minor to be involved with that sort of universe-shaking story. Where the social impact of Eve will affect you is in the way you see other people behave.

Firstly you could be a spy, scammer or thief. People are friendly in Eve but always guarded.

Next people are genuinely cooperative and helpful. People cooperate because their survival is at risk. Danger makes people behave in a way which is very socially strong.

It's wonderful to play in a game world where everything has real meaning.

Money has meaning because the game is heavily run on its currency system. You can buy fabulous ships, kit them out with expensive and powerful modules. Also you can perfectly legally pay for your account with in-game money using their Plex system.

Crafting has meaning because just about everything is player made and destructible. There is a constant demand for industrialists to produce more materials of war and commerce.

Piracy has meaning because you know your victims really don't want to die. They lose their ship and possibly will lose their expensive implants too if you go the whole hog and "pod" them. (Pod means killing their escape pod in Eve, a vicious act of spurious cruelty which is wildly popular).

Territory has meaning because it is hard to win and hard to hold. (Not every Eve player plays in the contestable zones however).

Friendship and corp (guild) ties have meaning because they are your only help in a cruel world.

The down sides of Eve

For many people the scamming, distrust and fear of betrayal will spoil their fun. You can't trust people in Eve. Even blatant scamming of newbies is an admired way to "win" in Eve.

The UI is a massive hurdle. It's very difficult to figure out how to do even quite simple commands and some aspects (eg scanning) are highly complicated.

You will get ganked. Even if you only stay in the safe area. Safe means someone will be killed by the police if they gank you, that can be worth it if a second ship is waiting to hoover up the debris and cargos.

There is a huge learning curve in general. Either you should get under someone's wing by joining a good guild that is newbie friendly and contains veteran players or you should be prepared to do a great deal of background reading and listening. I found the Warp Drive Active show very entertaining and occasionally extremely useful.

Some parts of Eve are rather dull. Ultimately the other players are your content and you need to figure out how you will engage with people. There are multiple paths but all of them pit you against other players in some way. Despite the frequency with which the term is bandied about there are no carebears in Eve. Everyone is trying to figure out some way to get one over on the other guy, whether it's by camping a gate as a pirate or by overcharging for ammo in a warzone.

Not everyone's cup of tea but great entertainment for those of us who do enjoy its unusual brand of MMO play.

Friday 17 July 2009

Shaiya: quick look

Shaiya is a game with huge potential. It has permadeath. It is free to play with a very unobtrusive item shop. You really don't need to buy anything since you may just get killed and lose it all. Of course for some people every little edge helps and getting an edge is worth the money.

There are 3 difficulty levels and only the top difficulty features permadeath. So it's really an option for those who want it but I think it's the most interesting feature of the game. If you just want to grind mobs and never die there are so many games that cater for you. I checked Wikipedia's entry on permadeath and Shaiya is currently the only graphical MMO with permadeath as a main feature.

If you do die you can be ressed or can self ress with an item shop ress stone. The ress stone is limited, it won't help if you are PKed and corpse camped unless you can ress up and turn the fight around.

It's basically a Diablo 2 clone. The look of the game is rather mixed for me. Some things are beautifuly rendered. The characters are drawn with great care and proficiency. But then they spoil it by using a crappy text for the name plates that looks like someone lettered it in MS Paint.

The buildings and mobs are very fine art but the landscape is sometimes simple blocks of terrain like a game from the 90s.

Of course no mention of the look of the game would be complete without discussion of the main visual theme of the game: scantily clad ladies.

Apparently many eons ago some scantily clad goddess split the pint of some other scantily clad goddess and they now wage perpetual war by recruiting vast swarms of scantily clad fighters mages priests and rogues to kill the bimbettes of the opposing side. It is technically possible to pick a male character but that imho shows a profound lack of understanding of the ethos of the game. It's about scantily clad young ladies, ok?

Quest text is horribly written. It was probably badly written in the original Oriental language and after a half-assed translation it's sometimes impossible to read what is going on. Fortunately all quests start with someone who is a blue dot on your minimap and go to someone who is a yellow dot on your minimap. Once you figure out where your quest tracker is then you're golden.
(Click the book icon on the menu at the bottom, click a quest to open that quest and its quest tracker, then close the quest menu leaving the quest tracker open to see how many Short Tail Black Puma you need to kill).

If you can understand the quest text it's usually horribly tacky. For instance:
"You have chosen an Assassin's path. You can really make a killing, so I'm told."

All quests so far are either kill things or talk to someone (usually to get a kill things quest). I suspect that probably stays like that all game.

Kill quests are quite specific. If someone wants you to kill Poisonous Web Spiders he won't be fobbed off with common or garden Small Jaw Dappled Spiders.

Attack is by double-clicking and while there are hotkeys there isn't a tab target function. There are chain combos for your attacks and special moves and jumps you can use in fights. Martial animations are really good. It's possibly a better game for people who like melee than for people who like casters because the melee is so well done while the casters are a bit generic.

Up to level 5 I noticed my Assassin kills faster than my Priest and doesn't have downtime. That's just the very early stages of course.

I'm told that rather than WoW-like permastealth high level Rogues get the ability to appear to be a member of the other faction. That's really pretty cool. All sorts of devious ideas occur such as pretending to be an elite pvp guild and recruiting people then taking them aside and murdering them.

I'm also told that levelling gets very slow on the harder modes. Not necessarily a bad thing in a permadeath game. Just be prepared for a lot of grinding if you get into this game enough to play it at the highest difficulty.

The interesting aspects of the game are the social dynamics that emerge from the extreme harshness of the mechanics and very original combat animations and spells. It's particularly interesting to have the tank healer dps trinity doing dungeons in a permadeath game. Bet the dungeon-delvers that survive are really great groups, no semi-afk slackers here.

The downsides are the very simple gameplay - it's just kill stuff, explore, kill more stuff, fight someone. It lacks the depth of most MMOs. I also discovered to my surprise that I'm a quest text snob. Before this game and RoM I didn't even think I read quest text. After trying two games with poor grammar, spelling and writing I find that it really matters to me and it's very offputting to me when done badly. That will probably wear off if I play the game more and don't need to explore.

If you like killing this is a really good F2P game. It wasn't quite the game for me at this time but I'm certainly not going to uninstall it any time soon. However I would say it's a game I'll play in small doses because of the annoying quest text and dumbed down kill boars quests. Like many MMOs though it will clearly become more interesting at end game when it changes from being generic fantasy grind to a nail-bitingly dangerous killer game.

Anarchy Online: Quick look

I downloaded and tried Anarchy Online.

Anarchy Online is a Sci Fi MMO dating from 1991. It famously had one of the worst launches in MMO history although that is rather ancient history now. It used to be a subscription game and is now free-to-play. A quick glance at the microtransaction list suggests this is very much a game you enjoy extensively without paying unlike some F2P games which really require you to pay to get much fun out of them.

Anarchy Online has a very interesting backstory of a dystopian future. It has a wonderfully original and imaginative range of character classes based mainly on nanotech.

It didn't quite download right for me. I discovered afterwards that this is almost certainly because I was alt tabbed during the install. If you decide to try it install it when you have something to do that doesn't need the PC.

I could still have a look at it despite the download glitches (which messed up the display of chat).

It looks very dated indeed. It looks less up-to-date even than older games like Starcraft. I found the graphics very off-putting. I'm sure that would become less of an issue if you stuck with it for a few weeks but it's a high initial barrier.

The UI is very different from most other games. It's not a bad UI, it just clearly demands a lot of work to learn it. Another high initial barrier.

In the end after a brief look and inflicting some random violence on the local wildlife I decided not to re-download it. I do think it is one of the better free to play options if you are willing to learn the UI and adjust to the graphics.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Runes of Magic: first impressions

A week into Runes of Magic I thought I'd tell everyone how I found the game.

Runes of magic is clearly a WoW clone but reminds me more of 2005 WoW than 2009 WoW.

Much of the features and functionality is more like early WoW as is the pacing. It has a refreshing energy. People are keen to play in lowbie areas and develop their characters and learn the game. It's a better place to be now than The Barrens of Kalimdor with a feel like the Barrens in 2005.

The interface was the same as WoW except the autorun default. It's as if they moved that one button just so they could say we're not copying WoW. Honest!

UnWoWlike features
Impact pvp. The game features guild castles. I'm not sure if these can be attacked.

It allows you to gank on the pvp server after level 15 but ganking turns you outlaw. Outlaw players have their names appear as red to other players. I did feel a genuine frisson of excitement when I saw a red and went into fight/fright mode which is a reaction just about every non-red has. In other words if you gank and are not much higher than other people you will be constantly attacked by the non-red 95% of the server population on a pvp server.

Pvp also features looting although I didn't seem to drop anything when I was ganked. I believe the chance to drop loot for your gankers increases as you become more of an outlaw.

Dual classes. This is wierd. It's basically compulsory alting. Whatever you want to play you have to pick a second class and you're somewhat gimped if you don't develop it. For all this the player base simply judges you on level. They'd rather take a level 28 Knight (tank) than a 27 Knight/27 Priest. Probably because they don't understand the mechanics. One thing that took me a long time to discover is there is a second starter area that you get given the ability to Teleport to at level 10. That';s meant to be for levelling your second class.

Spell specialisation. Instead of a talent tree they've gone for the ability to pick certain of your spells or abiities to put talent points directly into to improve them. This is actually pretty hard to get right at first (and changing talents is an item shop item albeit one that is cheap and therefore within pretty reach of non-paying gameplay).

The problem I have with it is you will end up just using one button. If you put a load of points into maxxing one attack and then max your passives (boosting your main special attack and your autoattack) why would you waste points developing a secondary attack? WoW's Shadowbolt spamming Warlocks revisited.

Perhaps someone will crunch the numbers and prove me wrong but so far two things leap out at me. 1) One button talent specs are best. 2) I've spent my points wrong. Sigh, here comes another re-roll.

Player housing. The player housing is pretty generic unless you buy items for cash. You get a room with a storage chest and a house maid. My friend has invested in two crafting stations and a wall-mounted Tiger's head that allows his flat to give him rest exp. The crafting stations give slightly higher exp per combine.

Player housing seems to have been targetted by business analysts as the area of gameplay where RMT is most viable. It was the first area targetted by EQ2's item shop. I think that people who like this part of the game will get a rough ride with microtransaction games in general because they seem to be seen as an easy target. It's certainly true in RoM, you can only do minimal house decoration for free.

Guild levels. You can level up your guild by getting guild members to contribute. These systems seem rather unfair to me when they're contribution-based. You end up with 20% of the people doing 80% of the work. I much prefer Eve's system where you can simply set a guild tax that everyone automatically pays. Still I'm not contributing so I shouldn't grumble when my hard working guildies build me a castle. It will be a nice place to count my vast stores of gold made from selling resources on the auction house.

The look
It's a pretty nice-looking fantasy world. The artwork is slightly skewed towards things that cost money. The mounts can be breath-takingly gorgeous but even the rather drab basic mount has been the source of some controversy recently.

We saw an awesome looking Knight posing in town last night with level 50 epics and demonic bat wings. His armour made his seem like a balrog. /drool.

The quests/story/lore
The game is clearly written and translated by people with a poor grasp of English. In addition to rather prosaic mistakes there are the occasional hilarious ones. The names are quite wonderful in their randomness. There's a vendor called Vendor. There's no understanding of the distinction between exotic English names like Aragorn and prosaic English names so the countryside abounds with mysterious wizards called things like "Pete" and "Chris". There's a guy called Wooky (hey, that must be a good English name cos there was a guy called Wooky in Star Wars, right? Wasn't there?)

The Healer experience
There are no drinks in RoM. You restore mana by gearing for Wisdom and drinking mana pots.

This is a horrible system for 2009. It's actually quite reminiscent of 2005 when waiting for healer mana was a significant part of grouping. Throttling aggro was also part of the game with dps obediently waiting for 3 sunders. In 2009 the landscape has changed and healing like this is simply horrible.

I did a group where I was the only healer and we had 8 people. I was the last one there and they immediately pulled. I buffed the tank and kept him healed. People then started whining that they weren't buffed (while ninja pulling). Buffing someone with the 2 single target buffs I have eats up about a third of my mana. Per person. There were 8 to buff and I was busy healing the tank. Next people cheerfully ripped aggro and whined for heals.

Now this is a game where by level 20 everyone has been given about 500 free healing potions. So these guys were standing there on 10% life while I had 30% mana and was healing the tank whining about not getting heals and too cheap to just drink a pot. Sigh. And if I did heal them they just ninja pulled and got down to 10% again and started whining for heals.

Added to this is a loot system like Diablo 2 or early Alterac Valley where the first person to click the corpse gets the loot (unless its Uncommon or higher). So in addition to the usual healer stress there's an extra level of stress because you have to stand in melee range spam clicking badly wounded mobs while your tank dies from lack of attention. I got whined at for standing too far forward.

As soon as the predictable wipe to a stupid ninja pull I left. And got called various names, unlike the dpser who had bailed on us a few minutes eariler with everyone giving him a cheerful goodbye.

Such is the life of a ROM healer.

There are work-arounds.

1. Chain pot. You can neck a blue every 15 seconds. If you're happy to burn a couple of hundred pots per run on players who are too cheap to drink a red pot you can certainly cope.

2. Stack healers. I now form groups with 2-3 healers out of 6 group members. It's slower but you're not stressing someone.

3. Get boosted. Boosts are ubiquitous in this game with lots of bored high level players having very little to do except help others catch up.

The Rogue experience
Giving up on the healer I tried the Rogue. It's a pretty fun class. Nice straightforward button mash dps with a very effective stealth and a treasure drop rate bonus. Also it was rather nice to switch from the priest which people judged and found inadequate to a class where no one cares what you do. In a game without damage meters I could /follow the tank and go read a book and no one would notice.

I also appreciated the irony that in a game that is to some extent about money and money (if you're not paying) may well be about grinding the slacker dps class that grinds 3 times as fast as the healer gets a $ bonus on top.

Spinks made a post about the sexist way ROM is advertised. Perhaps it's just as well she won't be trying the game because if she thinks the poster art is bad it's best she never discovers the house maids. Nuff said.

RoM is a game you can play for free. In fact it's probably more interesting to play a free RoM character than to sub to WoW just to level another alt if you've done WoW to death already.
Having said that real money can give you a significantly enhanced playing experience.
The main thing it will do is let you level quicker. It will let you have a permanent mount. You can hire storage space but that's really expensive even for people who don't mind paying some money towards the gameplay.
Diamonds have beome an economic item in their own right. People are insisting on them as currency for certain trades, reminiscent of the Stones of Jordan currency in Diablo 2. People are hoarding them and stockpiling them. People are buying them off the auction house and relisting them higher.
There is no question in my mind that this economy will hyper-inflate. As more people reach end game and try to get shop items in exchange for raid loot drops there will be more pressure on the diamond supply relative to the amount of people buying them for real money. Even the people buying them for real money are best advised to keep them as diamonds (which are going up relative to gold) rather than sell them on the auction house. You can already buy 500 million gold for $4.99 or something ridiculous like that. The economic system threatens to become a disaster.

Hardcore raiding and microtransactions?
The big question for the future is whether RoM's raiding end game is sufficiently absorbing that people will get fanatical about it in the way they did for WoW. If they do then the game will make a lot of money from obsessive hardcore raiders buying items for advantage.
As with other raiding end-games the burden will not be spread evenly. People expect more commitment from their main tank than from some random dpser or raid healer. There's a real money item called a Phoenix feather or some such that revives you instantly on full life if killed. That's a must for a raid main tank in a serious guild. Yet most guilds will probably have room for some semi-slacker spots. It will be interesting to see how it works out - will hardcore RoM guilds require everyone to be a payer?

Saturday 4 July 2009

Stabbed Up

Welcome to Stabbed Up.

I decided that since I'm a game hopper and an altoholic my previous attempts at blogging based on a particular game or character class were too limited.

Well actually they were hopelessly optimistic. Ah Death Knight, this is the class I will play forever!

How long have I known me again? Long enough not to believe that tripe for a moment. Yet still I feel for it. Sigh.

Stabbed Up is a play on the name of some of my characters as well as my blogging handle, Stabs.

Stabbed Up is a London expression for knived, giving the blog an element of violence which fits quite neatly into its topic of video game.

Stabbed Up is reminiscent of stitched up, London slang for betrayed. Like most emo game nerds I am constantly being betrayed by game developers who fix their game just as I was enjoying some particular loophole or over-powered class. Sniff.

I hope you enjoy reading.