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The Secret World – But HOW is it different?

People keep asking me this and I haven’t managed to put together a satisfactory, canned, 10-words-or-less answer yet. I couldn’t manage 10 words or less if someone was sitting on my tongue, anyway.

However, I did comment over at Scary’s place (go there, it’s very scary), and I’m going to be cheap and paste my comment here because, flippant as the comment is, it does encapsulate some of what makes TSW different.

People keep asking me “But HOW is it different?” and I either can’t answer or have to spout a wall of text. Lately I’ve been keeping it to tidbits:

– I get to blow zombies up with shotguns / magic / napalm / IEDs
– I get to slice zombies into little pieces with sweet-looking katanas & fist weapons
– I get to melt faces with fire magic
– All of this while wearing a corset and a cute baby-blue bra. Or leather pants and a trenchcoat. Or a T-shirt with a kitten on it.
– The music is the ONLY game music I’ve ever liked enough to keep it turned on
– NPCs say the F-bomb. This pleases me in a game, since I use it too. Plus I like pseudo-hippies who sound like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (or Blue Velvet for that matter). F*** yeah!

Before someone reports me to the potty-mouth police, I’m not advocating swearing like a sailor. It’s not really the F-bombs. It’s the fact that, so far, the adults in the game talk like… well, adults, and not like… well, MMO NPCs. You know – “Prithee, brave adventurer, I have heard of thee! I needest help riddething mythelf of the awful rats that have infested my petticoats. Help me and I shall give thee a rotten apple core and my dead father’s old boots!”

Hyperbole, moi? But you get the idea.

I’ve added a TSW Screenshots page where, assuming I have correctly figured out how galleries work, I shall be adding a hodge-podge of screenshots. Assuming I can remember to take them in-game.

You can blow their heads clean off.

Other things that make TSW different, for me:

– It’s dark. Not lighting-dark – I’ve been asked that by a few folks who have seen screenshots that all seem very low-light / dark-toned. The sunlight is very sunlight-y, and there’s a normal day/night cycle. Maybe hype-screenshots are more impressive when they’re dark things. But no, the game isn’t dark in a lighting sense (unless, you know, it’s night – and even that’s not too bad – or you’re in a cave or a basement… but I digress). It is dark in a mood sense, while also being a little humourous, at least in the first zone. Things become a lot darker and a lot less humourous in the second zone, and that’s all I’ve seen so far.

ANYway, point is: it’s dark in a moody way. Bad shit is happening in these places and, while the Zombie apocalypse is blackly funny, it’s also very creepy. So far TSW has been pretty good at the creepy vibe.

– The game is beyond chock-full of references. Off the top of my head, John Carpenter, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, David Lynch, Coppola, various Clint Eastwoods – and they’re just the obvious ones. I’m pretty sure there’s even a Eureka reference.

– EDIT: NPCs have very interesting things to say if you’re after lore & clues & info. Click on the chat-bubble and select a topic – note, however, that each topic usually has at least 3 entries, sometimes more – so always click a topic again! It will get a tick on the line when you’re done with that topic (though sadly the tick isn’t persistent – you may have to write down who you’ve talked to).

– Making notes is a great asset in this game. I like this. I had notebooks full of notes for Asheron’s Call, and I miss having to pay attention like that. Yes, you can play the game like a WoW-jock, but if you dig you’ll find all sorts of interesting corpses. Er, info.

– This one-server many-dimensions thing the Nazgul kindly linked for us last week (here it is again) is a nice twist. No need for alts on other servers – just hook up with your buddies, regardless of what “dimension” they’re in,  and you can play together. The hardest part is fitting this in with the jargon & concepts we already have. A dimension is not a server and it’s not really an instance – and if we call it that, people are going to get awfully confused. I’m going to think of them as Bubbles, because I’m odd that way.

– I can advance at my own pace. Yeah yeah, I know many games purport to have that. But take the first zone, Kingsmouth, for instance. There are probably 30-40 different missions you can do there (I pulled that number out of my backside, so don’t go hating on anyone if it seems low). They’re scattered all around the zone and if you don’t explore you won’t find some of them. Point is, almost all of them are repeatable after a few hours – it comes out at more or less once a day for most of them. If you’re a content-devouring, get my shit and move on to the next place kind of player you can do that – but if you’re someone like me who has trouble leaving their comfort zone, or who likes trying out new weapons and whatnot, then you can keep redoing stuff (at diminishing returns) until you’re comfortable enough to move on. I like that.

Enough for now. I have a day off (I hope) and I intend to spend it playing, not blog-posting. Even if I should be installing an air conditioner for my office and a CPU cooler for my computer. Meh – tomorrow.

WoW 4.2 Firelands dailies pro-tip

This is only going to interest those who are actually playing WoW and working through the Firelands dailies content, but I figured I’d post it anyway because it’s been irking me for a few days now.

The dailies come in several phases, and one of those gives you the choice of unlocking either the “Druids of the Talon” quests or the “Shadow Wardens” quests. You’ll end up unlocking both in any case, but since I have 2 level 85 chars I decided to pick different ones to open first on each character, just to compare what they were like.

It may be just me, but the Druids of the Talon content is a pain in the ass. The initial daily requires you to talk some druid type through some really nasty fire, said fire being stupidly deadly and full of mobs that want to tear your poor escort druid to shreds. Deaths the first time: 3. So maybe I suck at that – the point is, the initial daily for the Shadow Wardens just requires you to fight your way up a slope, and if anyone else is also fighting their way up you can jump in at any point. And remember, you’ll be doing this one too every day.

After that, the Druid dailies include ones that have you jumping across a chasm on little platforms — or, in my case, just jumping off the edge because I know I’ll get caught by an NPC and whisked to where I need to be. Why put in elements that nobody in their right mind wants to do once, let alone for 20-odd days? Once you’re over the chasm you have to use various hot air flows to get up and down ledges — again, interesting the first few times, yawnsome and irksome after that. In comparison, the Shadow Warden quests just require you to squish spider eggs or save spider victims, kill said spiders, and mess with a few tough (but handleable, certainly for my pally) evil droods.

Aside from all this the Druid dailies aren’t as slickly designed — I had to spend an inordinate amount of time looking stuff up after my third head-scratching “WTF? Did we do something wrong?” moment (I was duoing with a friend at the time). I didn’t have to look anything up for the Shadow Warden dailies, which is as it should be. Give me quest text that is sufficiently descriptive and a map I can consult and I’m good to go.

These are dailies we’re talking about, not dungeons, and they shouldn’t take all day or make me grind my teeth at the unnecessary level of “Look what we did! Aren’t we clever?” inserted into the quests at every conceivable opportunity.

So here’s the pro-tip: if you haven’t yet unlocked those 150-mark Druid or Shadow Warden lines, do the Shadow Warden one first. You’ll end up doing the dailies for both, but if you pick the Druids first you’ll have do those dailies twice as long as you’d have to if you picked the Shadow Wardens. I realise people’s mileage for this kind of stuff varies, and some folks might love the platform-like feel of the Druid dailies. Me, I just find them tedious and I really wish I hadn’t picked them first on my hunter. Bleh.

Oh, and here’s another tip for those doing the Break-the-Blue-Marks Enduring the Heat Shadow Warden daily. I died a couple of times the first time I did the quest because, duh, I didn’t realise that fire is bad and will burninate even my paladin if I stay in the lava pools long enough. I also had to learn that the critters in there aren’t supposed to be fought – there are too many of them and they respawn too quickly. The idea is purely to run around breaking marks (which also kills any fiery critters in range), and in the last couple of days I’ve developed a pretty good route for them. It’s by no means the only way to do the cave, but it keeps you moving steadily and doesn’t involve any backtracking except for one unavoidable dead-end, which minimises your exposure to the fiery critters chewing on your ass.

Here it is:

1. Head inside, hit the first blue mark;

2. Hang a left and run past the next blue mark (you’ll hit it in a bit and destroy all the fiery buggers on your ass), hanging a left again up the ramp to the blue mark that’s hidden in a corner. Destroy it.

3. Backtrack to the mark you just ignored; destroy it.

4. Run up the ramp to the platform in the center of the cave and destroy the mark up there.

5. Bear left (at least on the pic below) down the ramp and hit the mark at the bottom.

6. Look to your right as you’re facing the cave wall, and you’ll see a mark in the distance on the other side of a lava pool. You can reach it by running to the edge of the pool and finding the hot-air updraft. Stand near the draft (if you’re in range you’ll see air-effects around your feet), make sure you’re facing where you want to end up, and jump. Whoosh, you’ll get carried over. Hit the mark on the far side.

7. Keep running forward and hit the updraft on the far side, aiming at the seventh mark which should be visible. Destroy it.

8. Follow the path with the cave all on your left and hit the final mark. Run like hell to get out.

Elder Game sez I’m dumb

Not really, but it was tempting.

Elder Game actually says they’re tired of punditry, which I can empathise with, and I don’t even have actual MMO-developing skills to fall back on. Hence the echoing non-postiness of this site these last few months.

I’m sure I could find things to say about MMOs, but the inspiration balance is more delicate than I realised. I’m doing it for cold hard cash once a week already (writing, you pervs!), and every week I sit there thinking OMFG what am I going to write this time? It’s different when someone’s paying you, which I should have known from the start, and I’m not certain it’s different in a good way. I’ve got a whole lot of other stuff going on too, some of it pleasant, some of it less so, which distracts me from spending 30-60 minutes posting on a regular basis (i.e. more than twice a month).

And, as EG so rightly points out, there’s only so many times one can say the same thing before it becomes boring to write. It doesn’t matter whether the audience likes it or not or whether they mind the rehash — I don’t have any objection whatsoever to reading rehash on my favourite sites, but writing it is a special kind of pointless tedium that might be better spent picking one’s nose.

Blog hive-mind synchronicity in action. I’ve just spent the last few days telling myself I really should post more to this blog, because I miss it, but then stumbling on the actual content-creation part. I just don’t have much I want to write about here, not that I haven’t written a million times already anyway.

Someone get me a beta spot on TSW already. I could use the distraction. Ahem – once the NDA comes down, anyway.

Quest design – ur doin’ it rong

Here’s an example of how not to modify a quest that’s already in the game.

In WoW, there’s a daily cooking skill quest, one instance of which requires you to find 4 sacks of sugar for the poor orphans of the city. Up until about 6 weeks ago, these sugar sacks spawned in about 5 or 6 buildings around town, in a single location — it was a bit of a wait to get them all, sometimes, but mostly people would queue good-naturedly and just wait their turn. (You could also buy a sack or two at a time from certain vendors, though respawn is fairly slow. This hasn’t changed.)

A few weeks back, this was changed. The sugar sacks still spawn in the same building locations, but now they spawn in up to five different spots in each building, and they don’t spawn any faster than they used to. Which means that now everyone is running around like a loon  trying to be the lucky bastard who catches one of the 1-5 spawn locations in a given building. Any sense of good nature is gone as people snarl at and elbow each other out of the way — it’s like Sale Day at Bergdorfs, only with more F-bombs. Camping and queueing is more a case of spitting and clawing.

So the designers basically did one of two things: either they did a very well-meaning but insanely stupid thing, or they’re downright sadistic and someone thought it would be fun (for them, anyway) to make this irritating daily quest even more frustrating and time-consuming. If the former, then I’d have thought they were paid to be smarter than that, unless this got shoved off onto some noob designer; if the latter then thanks, and if I ever meet you, I will not be buying you a beer. Count on it.

It’s aliiiiiive!

It’s Psychochild’s project — and not a few other people’s too, actually, but he’s the name on the front of the packet.

It’s called Fae’s Wyrd. It haz online availability. Check it out.

I know, I know, I’m not as absent as I claimed to be. These days, even fishing doesn’t put you out of reach of communications, you know. Cute animal pic should distract you.

Blogging: the Chinese whipsaw effect?

Sometimes I love the blogosphere: it binds us together, it enables us to share and circulate ideas, and it allows us to have far-reaching and far-branching debates about all manner of gaming things under the sun.

Sometimes I loathe the blogosphere, for exactly the same reasons.

So as I read the various posts and discussions spawned by Eric of Elder Game’s original post — including my own (Eric link at top, everyone else at the end of the post) — I end up wondering: do we actually read each other, or do we just use each other as opportunities to bang on our own drums, grind our own axes, and stand on our own soapboxes?

I’m bemused and almost irked enough by it to be doing one of these petty, self-justifying set-the-record-straight posts, which in itself irritates me even further. (Doesn’t help that I’ve only had one cup of coffee, come to think of it.*) On the bright side it’s the weekend and nobody reads blog posts over the weekend, so I can mutter quietly and mostly to myself in my corner.

Record–straightening #1. I never said classes were better than not-classes. I said Eric said skill-based is hard, and I agreed with him based on my personal gaming experience. Actually, I do believe I said once or twice that classless is very rewarding, but it’s a lot more work — granted that my only “development” experience of that is for tabletop games, but while I didn’t mess about with million-dollar budgets, I do have some idea of the relative amount of work-time required between managing a classless, skill-based campaign and managing the opposite.

(For those who like this kind of thing underpinned by “evidence,” the tabletop game I ran for the longest time — about 8 years — was Ars Magica, which is pretty much a skill-based game with incredibly messy and open-ended rules, at least the ruleset we used, which was mostly 3rd ed with a smattering of 2nd, 4th and house rules.)

Once again. In a purely theoretical sense I still don’t see what’s so contentious about “skill-based is harder to design and balance than class-based” — I really don’t. As an extremely general statement, it seems pretty straightforward to me. Given the perils of speaking for others at this stage, I won’t — but I certainly never said that just because something is more difficult to design, nobody should bother with it.

Record-straightening #2. I never made any comments about easy/hard and choice/not-choice. Other people’s drums. Sure, I have stuff to say about those things, but I didn’t say them in that post.

I’m still boggling at how this has, once again, become a debate about easy-mode versus iron-man Mr. Real Player, even in terms of development. If you like structure, you’re a sheeple. If you like to be able to screw up your character without hope of recovery, you’re a brave pioneer forging ahead into the wilds of game adventure.

Yeah, whatever.

Yes, I’m paraphrasing rather inaccurately. I felt it was my turn.

I’m definitely starting to think it would be useful for the gaming community as a whole to lose the “if it made me want to chew my arms off, it was BETTER” elitist attitude we’re dragging around with us whether we notice it or not. There are arguments to be made for both simplicity and complexity and they’re a great deal more, um, complicated than simply saying one is better than the other, which is a pretty meaningless assertion without context, actually.

I’m done griping now. Move along. Nothing to see here, classy or otherwise.

~

* Please. No advice on how I should quit drinking so much coffee if it makes me that grumpy. Can’t a person even use hyperbole on her site anymore without being adviced-at? I’m really just grumpy by nature and coffee has nothing to do with it. Now get off my damn lawn!

Classless is a pain in the assless

(Edited with further reading posts at the end.)

Sad classless panda is sad.

AKA: Elder Game’s Eric reckons “classless” is really rather more difficult to design for MMOs than most people are willing to admit. My first reaction was Noooooo! Do not say this! Do not want to hear it! Lalalala!

But common sense generally recognises itself, and certainly in the case of Asheron’s Call what Eric writes jibes exactly with my own experience as a player. Yes, you could technically put your experience points anywhere you liked in AC, and for example end up with a character built like a stick-insect who was capable of crossing the entire map in under two minutes, they ran that fast. But you wouldn’t be able to fight those pesky reedsharks nipping at your backside while you ran, and you’d be easy prey for any zephyr or lounging virindi waiting to shoot a lightning bolt up it.

I know all about this, because my first character — first ever, fresh off the Pen’n’Paper table MMO character — was made in an attempt to approximate reasonable tabletop RPG design. In other words I was careful not to min/max my stats while still having one stat that was a little above the rest, and I picked a nice, rounded variety of skills (Monster appraisal!) that I thought would help me in this new world of online role-playing.

As a result, Eloise was a gimp and remained a gimp for a long time, until it became possible to slowly move stats from one attribute to another and to drop/acquire skills. The very fact that the AC community rapidly evolved a term for being a sub-optimal character — “gimp” — shows that the players, at least, perceived some builds as good and most others as, well, crap. And while players are asshats and often meaner than a sackful of weasels, many of them also know how to crunch a mean number and the whole gimp/not-gimp thing wasn’t just a matter of perception. There were smart ways to spend you character creation and xp points, and there were less smart ways. The smart ways would enable you to kick the crap out of mobs, which is essentially what one does in most MMOs… and the less smart ways would have you struggling to do the same thing while wondering where you went wrong and why you were at the lifestone yet again.

(Tangent time. There’s always someone who asks “Why didn’t you just reroll?” and I’m never sure how to answer that because simply asking the question implies a wide chasm between how the asker and I approach our characters in games. Sure, lots of characters get made for the purposes of trying something out or experimenting with a given role and then usually get deleted. But in many cases, the characters I make in MMOs will gel and become characters, not just waldoes for me to manipulate in the game world, and rerolling is just plain murder. There’s a point up to which that can be done — past that point, it’s not happening. And as I said, if I have to explain it or if you’re asking, we’re probably not on the same gaming/character page to begin with.)

I demand the freedom to be a gimp!

Sure. Here, have it. There are times when we’re all happy to play a sub-optimal character, either because it’s fun or because we’re role-playing or because we’re kinky that way, or even because such a build can fill a particular specialist niche in a game, like crafting mules in AC. Whatever — when you have a classless game, you’ll have kinky-build characters. The stick insect. The quick hulk with no hit points. The mage with the enormous brain and BITE ME tattooed on his chest.

But no player in their right mind wants all kinky all the time, no matter how loftily they may speaketh of RP and how it’s only the character that matters, not the numbers. I call bollocks on that one. Most of the time you want a character that will perform consistently within the parameters of the given game, given some variance for player skill (said variance being, er, rather variable depending on what game you’re playing). Most players, for that matter, want to know that their character SmashMouth001 is almost identical to SmashMouth002, and that the only real difference between them is that SM001-player actually knows how to mash buttons and in what order, whereas poor SM002-player does not. I’m not sure I’m that happy to be part of the herd, but classes are what they are in most games and they do provide a way to compare and contrast oneself with other players when it comes to examining roles and one’s performance of said role. They also make it a damn sight easier for designers when it comes to examining metrics and seeing how one group of players is doing in comparison to another.

Beyond that, though, it was also pretty obvious pretty quickly in AC that mages — anyone with any kind of magical skills, of which there were 4 major schools — had a gigantic leg up over anyone who didn’t. Pure combat mages basically kicked everyone else’s ass, in most cases, and any character with even a smidge of magic was usually far superior (better survivability, better buffs, better heals, whatever) to a similar character who had, say, picked Person and Monster appraisal over magic.

Secret and Classless

So here’s what worries me, since I’m so busy waiting on The Secret World even though I’ve said nary a thing about it lately. (It’s playing hard to get? I’ll play blind blogger. So nerh.) From the on-site blurb:

Freeform gameplay – Experience a game that has no classes or levels. Truly freeform character customization allows you to create the alter-ego you want to play, and gameplay that goes beyond the usually rigid MMO structure allows you to play the game the way you want to play it.

Hundreds of powers – Wield fiery katanas, gold-plated pistols, and deadly automatic rifles. Learn martial arts, black magic and voodoo. Choose from hundreds of powers to create a character completely customized to your liking.

Yeah! Um… uh oh… Ack!

Now, a few of the other things that have been said do indicate that classlessness does not imply role-lessness, and if there’s one thing MMO players are conscious of these days it’s roles, perhaps even more than classes. So although you’re not called a “fighter”, it sounds like you can pick a power deck (or whatever it’ll be called) that will allow you to perform fightery-type roles, or healery-type roles, or whatever it is you want to play that day. Maybe. If it’s done right.

It’s not that it can’t be done, and that’s not what EG’s Eric is saying (mostly, I think). It’s that it’s a lot more expensive and intensive and it’s a pain in the ass once you have designed it. I can see that — that actually makes perfect sense, sadly. I’ll just have to hope that the TSW team are aware of this and have worked out how to present us with a classless, level-less system while still having some pretty rigid, manageable mechanics underneath.

I’m having trouble working out how a fiery katana is going to compete with a deadly automatic rifle, for instance. (Okay, that could just be part of the “wear what you like, it’s not what you’re actually using” appearance system they’ve been talking about… but what if it isn’t?) How are they going to avoid having a handful of optimal builds — or powersets or whatever they’ll be called — and a million gimp builds? Because for every Jane who doesn’t mind that it takes her a bit longer to kill that zombie or that she can’t down that boss because her character is gimped, there will be 999 Joes who resent that very much and will always make sure they use the best available build the community has worked out, no matter how cookie-cutter it may be. Killing shit > original build. Killing shit easily / killing elite shit > other stuff.  You get my drift. We gamers have fairly simple minds when it comes to certain mechanics.

Ultimately, classless and level-less and number-less weren’t that easy to manage even in tabletop RP, and that’s not just because we RP geeks love us some numbers and some dice*. It’s because classes and levels and numbers-based mechanics provide us with systems that help ensure at least a modicum of parity and a reasonable amount of fairness all the way around the table, both between the players themselves and between the players and the person running the game session. And indeed, a diceless RPG system is harder to set up and maintain as a GM than a more rigid system — I’ve been there. That’s not to say it isn’t rewarding, but it certainly is more difficult and more time-consuming to manage. (Players bitching that other players have more powers or can do more. Players bitching that they should be able to do A B or C, when a more mechanics-based system would enable you to just say no. Making sure confrontations are confrontational and not constant cakewalks. Et-ad-nauseam-cetera.)

I guess we’ll see, as far as TSW is concerned.

And one day there may even be a beta and I may even be in it. Shut up, vaaaaaaporwaaaarrrrre raven!

Further reading

Aim for the Head – The Skills of EVE

Psychochild – Stay Classy

Rampant Coyote – Defending the lack of Class

Tish Tosh Tesh – Classes, Trinity and Balance, Oh, My

(slightly tangential, or at least inspired by a whole different original post) Big Bear Butt – The (Un)Holy Trinity

~

* Amber. Yes, I know. One exception does not actually entirely disprove the contention.

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