Thursday 27 October 2011

Do any gamers act on principles?

I caved in yesterday on a stand I'd taken regarding SWTOR. I was annoyed they closed SWG  just to stop it competing so I had decided not to buy SWTOR. Yesterday an old friend phoned and told me he'll be playing SWTOR so I decided to pre-order it.

I feel in some ways like I've made a righteous decision to make a stand then ceded defeat partly because of the social tie, but also if I'm being very honest partly from greed for the new shiny.

How does everyone else feel about gamer ethics? Are we all just sluts, sleeping with whichever game promises the next gratification? Or are some of you out there headstrong determined people who often take a stance on a matter of principle and stick with it?

Monday 24 October 2011

Children's stories?

When I was 17 my English teacher said to the class: "The Hobbit is a great book for children and The Lord of the Rings is a great book - for children."

It was his attempt to steer us back to the established literary world of Shakespeare and Joyce and Orwell. And it was pretty successful, LOTR went from being wildly popular among us to being something we'd grown out of.

Looking back now I think he was wrong, that books aren't really for children or adults but there can be a childishness about them, an accessibility, an escapism that may appeal in general to a demographic but there's no hard and fast rule for individuals other than those which we form ourselves.

So what rules have I formed for me, myself and I?

The first is consistency. A story needs to operate in a world with clear principles. In a Tarantino film you know what will happen when people start losing it. And it's part of the story running through his oeuvre, his collection of work. In Tarantinoland when people get cross they shoot each other. It's kind of charming in its predictability, it's how his world works and it adds to the appeal.

In the latest Fry's Planet Word Stephen interviewed Peter Jackson who said this of Lord of the Rings:

What Tolkien did great with his stories and especially his use of language was that he treated them as historical.. that was a door that we entered when we went into the movies, that this isn't made up, it's not a piece of gobbledigook set on the planet Zog or some such thing. Every name, every place name, every plant name that Tolkien wrote about he based on some form of language. It was a language that sometimes he created himself it was an archaic old middle English form of language

F: like an oaken shield

J: yeah. Everything meant something, everything had a reality, it was almost like he did literally create history.

And of course he literally created a history, after his death his background notes on the fantasy world were published as a book almost as long as his trilogy.

I grew up reading heroic fiction. Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Gemmell, Cherryh, Nevyn, all full of wonderful heroes in lovingly realised worlds. Consistent worlds. Worlds that didn't make sense in relation to our world but which did make sense in relation to their own world.

To many people, including my English teacher those are worlds that are childish and trivial, but the power of stories is their effect on the hearer and everyone hears the same story differently. You can't tell another person they're wrong to be inspired by something, it's their call.

If any readers are inspired by Pandaren then good for you. Best of luck to you, I wish I was.

The reason I'm not is that, rightly or wrongly, I've seen WoW as a continuation of a story that began in my cot, a continuation of the bedtime fairy tales, the teenage sword and sorcery, a lifelong love of alternate escapist worlds. Each world varies but within itself it has consistency.

WoW has exhibited a tendency to play games with that consistency, to undermine it and surprise you. It's a gimmick that goes back to Warcraft 1. It's a gimmick that's actually quite pervasive in WoW but for the first time I think the gimmick has overtaken the world's consistency. If a quest giver in vanilla sent you to kill ten orcs with a Rolling Stones reference it didn't overpower the adventure of fighting to save the village. Nor do I think the Taurens were immersion-breaking, it's a fantasy trope that goes back to Theseus. But increasingly WoW has jettisoned the underlying theme of a fantasy world at war for more and more jokes and silliness. I don't like the holiday events, it's an intrusion of this world into the fantasy. I don't like panda-people as heroes. I don't like the purchasable My Little Pony or the children's TV zaniness of the goblin starter area.

And it's a shame that I don't because if I did I would have more fun.

Fortunately people are making games for me and people like me. Eve is rather dark, so are forthcoming titles Prime and This Secret World. Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings both do a great job of capturing the feel of their original authors' works.

So as the blogosphere draws lines in the sands over WoW's inclusion of pandas I respectfully wave to those capable of seeing the fun in head-kicking panda people in the bright shiny Azeroth future as I head towards grimmer shores.

Friday 21 October 2011

WoW: pandas... /facepalm

Well with 3 days left on my month's sub news comes in that the new Expansion will feature a new race Pandas and a new class Monks.

Too cute by far for me, it killed my will to play. I tried logging in and playing and actually got to an instance but I couldn't face it any more and logged off halfway through.

I feel like the Warhammer-based dark fantasy has become a game aimed at toddlers.

It's not the first sign of course, draenai are basically smurfs and the cash shop pony is My Little Pony, the Goblin starter area is very much designed to entertain young children.

But enough is enough. WoW is simply not a game for my demographic any more.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Eve Online: a harsh winter in Georgia

I was very sorry to see that Eve's owner CCP Games has had to lay off 20% of its staff. 120 people have lost their jobs mainly in Georgia, USA staff who were working on World Of Darkness. WoD is not canceled but its future must be in some doubt.

It's a horrible time of year to lose your job as it's tough to get a new one in the pre-Christmas period. My very best wishes to all the staff affected.

It must be a very bitter time for the former White Wolf staff. White Wolf was one of the top tabletop RPG companies. Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Forsaken and Mage: The Awakening are superb games that took the genre away from its high fantasy roots. They must have felt when they merged with CCP in 2006 that the titles were in safe and loving hands.

So what went wrong?

Basically CCP over-extended. Hiring more and more staff based on a tradition of exponential growth it ended up too bloated. It's not complete disaster, Eve is a cash cow and will I think have a favourably received Expansion this Winter. I expect it to push back to previous subscriber number and concurrent user highs. Hopefully they'll be a little more restrained with the extra cash if so.

In the longer term I have my doubts about DUST 514. It's a PS3 only shooter that affects the Eve power structure. I think it will attract some Eve power gamers (Something Awful for instance will encourage a strong DUST guild to support their very strong Eve guild) but generally speaking console players don't stick to one game for long. They need to attract both Eve players who don't usually console AND console players who don't usually play MMOs. I do think though there's some satisfaction to be had from the feeling that fragging a load of reds is contributing to carving out an empire somewhere. DUST may feel more significant than your average shooter.

Once DUST is released though they will be in a much stronger position. Games always need more staff to develop than they do to manage live. And even a disappointing launch will bring more revenue in than pre-launch when you don't get any.

Hopefully at that point investment in WoD will pick up again.

One of the casualties of the cuts has been the customer service team, including forum moderators CCP Fallout and CCP Zymurgist. A lot of players are confused by this as they see the cuts as a consequence of bad customer relations.

I don't think the cuts are really a consequence of bad customer relations although that didn't help. (And the players who in June urged everyone to unsub for "the good of Eve" certainly contributed). CCP was over-extended and was relying on growth to pay the bills. The disappointing summer expansion meant the subscriber base didn't grow. People haven't lost their jobs because there was a riot at Jita people have lost their jobs because the game failed to become more interesting.

The cut of the CS team is similar to something I saw when I was working in the City of London as a librarian. When companies are in trouble they cut peripheral staff. The banks kept bankers and sacked librarians (even though we were terrifically cost-effective). CCP has kept people who develop Eve and sacked people who manage the perception of Eve. Equally understandable, equally short-sighted.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?


This Winter's expansion looks like it will be really fun with a new problem for industrialists and a new target for pvpers in the form of player-owned customs offices. Popular re-balances are coming, particularly a capital ship nerf and a hybrid turret buff. I think it's an Expansion that will boost numbers. DUST, as I've said, will provide more money once launched than it does while in development, that's axiomatic. And WOD will eventually, unless complete disaster strikes, get back on track. There is room for a stylish, sinister Vampire roleplaying game in the MMO market.

Best wishes to CCP staff, present and former.

Monday 17 October 2011

What to play, what to play?

Like most of the bloggers I regularly read the last few months have seen something of a lull. The year started with Cataclysm which lured most of us back for a look. Rift was fun for a bit then palled. Since then it's been awfully quiet in MMOland.

Over the last couple of months I've played WoW, Eve, Titan Quest, Diablo 2 and Everquest 2.

I invested £9 in a month of WoW in anticipation of the LFR. I actually thought it was coming sooner than it really is. It seems unlikely it will be here before mid-November now as it's on the Public Test Realm and there's still a lot of work to be done.

So I pootled around with other characters, mostly doing PvE with the LFD system. I leveled a Warlock to 40. I liked the Goblin starter area, it has a lot of charm. Even so my tolerance for Kill Ten Rats quests is at an all time low. Even though the quests are now miles more varied and interesting than before I get fed up very quickly, I was struggling to stay interested till level 15 (which is achieved in a ludicrously short time). I think that's me, not WoW. After a decade of excessive MMO questing I'm just about quested out for this lifetime.

The low level dungeons were great fun and the queue time was incredibly short. We're talking 2-5 minutes wait as a dps. I played with a level 1-40, a level 35-44, 80-82 and a level 85 and in each case dps wait is really low. So much better than Rift where it was possible to queue for 5 hours without a group happening.

I tried tanking and burned out after about a dozen. The problem was that many in the WoW community are very rigid about how things should be done. My view is that if I'm tanking, I'm driving the bus and other people should just follow me. Unfortunately this seems to be everyone else's view too so you get shouted at for going the wrong way after picking Option B of two equally valid options. I followed up my game experiences by reading the forums and it's clear that tanks are expected to be "thick-skinned" and that screaming at the tank is normal, in much the same way that one might curse a jam jar lid that is reluctant to come off. OK, fair enough, I don't want to be anyone's jam jar lid. Dps on the other hand is more laid back than ever and the game actually plays like Diablo 2. Race to the monsters, unload with everything, grab what sparkles, race to the next lot. Occasionally the train falls off the track but while it's on the rails it's a lot of fun.

Unfortunately it becomes less fun at higher levels. The higher you go the more stressed people are, the more particular the monsters are. "Did you stand there to kill me, no no no, sorry, I absolutely refuse to be killed unless you stand 2 inches to your left." I did a ZulGurub with my 85 Death Knight and people were most put out they couldn't votekick me. I played just about every boss wrong and it didn't matter until the last one where we wiped after I didn't realise you have to stand under some domes. We got him at the second attempt though. It was a little unpleasant to feel my dps was terrible. Apparently 14k dps is borderline these days and I was doing 7k. Oddly the standards players impose have no relation to whether they are winning or losing. One shotting every boss is not enough these days, people expect specific metrics.

So that's WoW. I may have another month at some point next year when short of interesting games, sadly it's very low on my ranking of fun games (and not really more fun for me than EQ2 or Lotro, it's just the very short wait times for LFD make it a solid option).

Eve I play in a very passive way. I really like the routine of training skills and doing PI and market orders. Occasionally I'll have a burst of pvp enthusiasm. The issue I have with Eve pvp is that I'll inevitably get ordered to fly a ship I haven't trained and people will get pissy about low participation. It's annoying to be bollocked for not showing up in a Zealot when I can't fly a Zealot (nor can half the corp). Still Eve is a great second game as you feel like you're progressing along nicely even when you're not really playing it.

EQ2 has liberalised its gathering via a new AA tree. Historically rares really have been rare, there's now a AA skill you can take that gives +1% chance per harvest to find one. One per cent more when previously you were at 0.001% (or that's what it felt like) is awesome and I've been hoovering up resources to level up my stable of crafters. This I found surprisingly addictive. I probably did about 150 levels of crafter in September across several characters. There's also a LFD system imminent which I'm looking forward to trying after my WoW month runs out.

Diablo 2 and Titan Quest I've played in order to fend off my Diablo 3 angst. I stopped playing D2 for a bit as they're resetting the Ladder on 25th October and a new Ladder season is quite exciting. Titan Quest is a very fun and very Diablo 2-like game set in Ancient Greece. It's actually a little difficult. There are 3 difficulty settings and I'm on the easiest and getting absolutely mauled at about level 5. I've rolled up a different class however and that's probably the best way forward. I had a brief dip into multiplayer and the first mob I met utterly murdered my level 1 character, I think I'll stick to single player for the time being.

So that's it for me for now. The next few weeks hold WoW, TitanQuest and Eve. That's a 2004 game, a 2006 game and a 2003 game. Let's hope there's some gems in all the exciting unreleased games we're currently reading hype for.

Otherwise I'll probably be reduced to Facebook.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Eve Online: Game down, evegate down

Navigating to Eve's official forums gets you this message:

We were ganked

We'll counter-attack as soon as
we properly outnumber them


Attempting to log into the game gets you this message:


Proxy not connected to sol servers

I assume sol means shit outta luck. Good to see fanatical nerds everywhere are still raging at CCP. For one moment I thought all might have been forgiven.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Eve Online: End of an Ice Age?

Another interesting week in Eve.

The Goons have decided to strangle the production of an obscure fuel so that they can make large profits while upsetting a lot of other players - both very much in keeping with their stated Alliance aims.

The Ancient Gaming Noob reported it a couple of days ago and the Gallente Ice Interdiction is proceeding according to plan. Jita Oxygen Isotopes price is up from 400 a couple of days ago to 800 with a high point of 5000.03. Yesterday evening it was 1300. I sold some of mine for 1200 and some for 1000.

The detailed version of the plan is explained by Mittani but in simpler form this is how it works. Most asteroid belts have minerals but a small amount have ice, great big icebergs in space. These can be mined by players. Each of the 4 Empire powers have their own racial ice type that is found in their space and in nearby nullsec. No ice is found in W-space.

The Goons are trying to prevent anyone from mining Gallente ice in quantity. While some ice belts are in unfriendly nullsec even these can be interdicted by an afk cloaker. But nullsec ice is not significant to the market. The main concentration of effort is on 17 high sec Gallente systems.

Part of the strength of this move comes from the nature of ice mining. The gameplay is that you turn your lasers on and about 6-10 minutes later you find a couple of blocks of ice in your hold. Depending on your mining style you may click and drag it at that point. (I ice mine with a cargo expanded ship and just dock it when it's full). It requires no more attention than at most a glance and a drag n drop once every 10 minutes or so. It is essentially an afk playstyle, it's like watching paint dry.

Because no one pays attention when mining ice this makes the people who do it very vulnerable to gankers. What's more many ice miners are bots anyway.

It's perfectly feasible to gank people in high sec with a cheap insured ship. If you ferry ships out to a safe spot you can even do this with a character with negative 10 security status (nominally a game feature to stop people ganking infinitely, clearly not quite working as intended). It's the kind of gameplay that, like so much of Eve, has a lot of built-in downtime in this case partly because you have to wait out a 15 minute timer after each gank.

It seems perfectly feasible to me that Goons can keep this up practically forever. Even if they're fighting in nullsec on one account they can have an alt account or two locking down the ice belts in high sec. Out of 7000 players in their alliance they need just 17 to park an alt at each belt to watch for miners.  The only thing that might stop them is getting bored. And even if the Goons get bored someone else might gank the ice miners.

This means the fuel they are interdicted will rocket in price. I happened to have some on expensive sell orders, they've already been snapped up making me 1.5 billion isk. (The equivalent of about 4 months free game time).

Every commodity in Eve is extensively stockpiled as a general rule of thumb. So even if they completely stop supplies reaching the market it will still take a while to completely run out. But the price has already rocketed.

So how many kills have there been?

Well the Goonfleet killboard is here: It doesn't have a total but it credits the top ten killers with 174 kills. Over 75% are Mackinaws, a fitted Mackinaw was about 180m before this started (the price is soaring). So about 200 kills from Goonfleet plus more from allies not shown on that killboard (like Test Alliance).

That may only be the tip of the iceberg (ho ho!) however. In Deninard, an ice system in high sec Gallente, there have been 525 Ship Kills and 42 Pod kills in the last 24 hours. That's just one system out of 17! Brapelille has seen the deaths of 511 player ships and 22 pods.

A poster on Kugutsumen estimated it takes about 30 hours of ice mining for a Mackinaw to pay for itself. If the life expectancy of a Mack dips below 30 hours we can expect to see people stopping mining. Once some Macks stop the life expectancy of the brave few who continue decreases so with a little effort we could soon hit a point where just about no one mines ice in Gallente high sec and the few who try are almost instantly killed by hordes of bored gankers with nothing to gank.

Can the ice supply be replaced? Well stockpilers may be liquidating their stockpiles now as the price has already tripled. The Drone russians have access to nullsec Blue Ice, as of course do the Goons and their allies. Both I think can be expected to mine and sell. It is however relatively easy to interdict. Take a stealth bomber alt to an ice system and sit there cloaked. No one will mine and if they do you get a free kill. The miners aren't really defensible as it's so boring an activity. No one's going to sit there all day in a combat ship on the chance that the neutral in system is going to have a go at an ice miner.

To add to the intrigue Goons are using their position on the CSM and their influence with the development team to try to get ice further restricted. After some talk of removing it from high sec completely the devs are looking at depletable icebergs, at belts that can be exhausted.

So what lessons can be learned?

First there's probably a very good investment opportunity in Oxygen Isotopes even at the inflated Jita price. Some speculators are cashing in but it's very likely that it will keep going up. It may not seem true in the short term if a lot of people cash in but stockpiles are finite and many Oxytope consumers are locked into that fuel type (supercap pilots and Gallente POS managers).

Next there's a busy secondary market in Gallente space selling to both sides. Mackinaws and Brutixes are going to sell very nicely for the next week or two. The cheapest Mackinaw I saw in Essence Region was 199m (usual price about 125m). Likewise for modules and even implants - many miners are getting podded. Be careful supplying Macks though - at some point the market will crash as people realise there's no point undocking one.

Next if you're building a POS or training for capital ships if possible avoid the ones that use Gallente fuel (Gallente control towers, Erebus titan, Anshar jump freighter, Moros Dreadnought, Thanatos carrier, Nyx supercarrier). Fuel will get expensive and may simply not be available at all at times.

There may be knockon effects like a rise in the cost of moon minerals and T2 products but that's less dependable.

It hurts POS managers a lot more than supercap pilots. Most supercap pilots are very rich and all of them are backed by their alliances.

You may be able to ninja salvage in Gallente ice belts. There will be lots of nice dead ships. Be careful though - there will be loads of suicide gankers about!