Wednesday, December 20, 2006

State of the Game

Despite all my good intentions about being selective in buying games for the Christmas period my old bargain hunting nose got the better of me. I am now the proud owner of the following 6 titles: Gothic 3 , Neverwinter Nights 2, Titan Quest, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Age of Empire 3, Rise of Legends. The whole lot cost me €120 bought second hand. I amn't really sure why I bought them. Apart from AOE 3 most of these games got fairly mediocre reviews and I am very wrapped up in Guild Wars at the moment. I guess they are for the collection.

This all begs the question how long will I stick with Guild Wars? I have already been playing for two months and there is plenty more content to go even in the original chapter of the game. Add in expansions and epic missions and you can see how this game could keep me occupied for a very long time. I have to laugh whenever I read reviews of Guild Wars games where reviewers discuss how this is really all about PVP but that there is enough PVE content for about 100 hours. I have logged over 200 hours of PVE and I am still a good way from the end of the first chapter. To put this into perspective over those 200 hours I have accumulated about 250k experience points. I know of one guild mate who has earned over 10 million experience points over the course of a year and a half.

I guess I would like to reach the end of the storyline of Prophecies (the first chapter) and then I'll probably take a break. One of the nice things about Guild wars is that the low level and items cap means that you don't get left behind if you can't play every day. I could still pick up the game after a break and be able to play on an equal footing with more experienced players. I have talked about getting Nightfall in order to be able to play with guildmates but if I do get it I think I will treat it like a separate game. Bringing one character through to the conclusion of each chapter is enough for me. I might even skip Nightfall and wait till the next expansion to play again. I may need to leave my guild if I don't play for a long time because guild slots are limited. They are a friendly bunch however and I am sure they will let me back in if there are slots available when I return.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Operation Gamecube is crashing and Burning

My secret plan to buy "Happy Feet" for the gamecube hit a hitch when I discovered that that game is available on every platform known to man other than the gamecube. Gamecube games are disappearing from the universe at a frightening rate. So far I have only discovered two shops in my whole city which stock them. As recompense for the "Happy Feet" debacle I got a second hand copy of Mario sunshine adventure. This had been recommended as a great game for kids and my pair were very impressed by the intro. Nice story setting with Mario going off on Holiday. Then disaster struck - the game hung and it turned out that the disk has a big scratch.
I shall be bringing the game right back but they have no other copies of the game in stock. Arghhhh.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Christmas is coming and Santa Claus is under strict instructions to visit the Mindbending household. Needless to say the girls have asked for a lot of stuff. They are both treasures however and I am sure Santa will be kind. Sadly nobody asked Santy for proper computer games despite my best efforts in operation Nintendo. Nevertheless I have a secret plan. My girls are going to see a movie called "Happy Feet" this week. By all accounts this is a great family movie so I expect they will be enthralled. I discoveered that the "Happy Feet" video game is available for the Nintendo Gamecube so I will sneak a copy under the Chirstmas tree and see what happens.

Speaking of Santa it has been my custom to buy myself a couple of games every Christmas to see me through the holidays. The rest of the year I play scrooge and live on second hand and bargain bin offerings but at Christmas I will go full price if need be. A good shooter and a good RPG or strategy game usually keeps me entertained. This year however I am not sure what to choose. Half Life 2 Epsode 1 or Prey are probably the best FPS choices. Medieval Total War 2 is tempting but it doesn't seem to be as groundbreaking as Rome was and I already have a first rate strategy game "Company of Heroes" waiting for my attention. I'm currently reading "Q" by Luther Blisset all about the trials and tribulations of the reformation. This is a period of history I know very little about but it is quite gripping so far. Perhaps this will sway me back towards MTW2. A few good single player CRPGs have been released : Neverwinternights 2, Gothic 3 and Might and Magic but I can't see myself getting around to play any of these while I am so immersed in Guild Wars. Even though I have still got plenty of gaming to do in the original Guild Wars Prophecies campaign I will probably buy the Nightfall chapter so I can hang aound with my guild mates.

Guild wars keeps getting better

I'm a late comer to the GW universe. I only started Prophecies two months ago. I am not the fastest leveller either - sixty days in and I am still working my way through the Crystal Desert with my first character. However the game keeps getting better and better. I have just conquered Elona Reach with my trusty henchmen: mission, bonus and skill captures. I did the mission first where you need to collect three pieces of a crystal. It is considerd a faily difficult mission because there is a 30 minute timer and the area is swarming with patrolling snake creatures called "The forgotten" including plenty healers and elites. It took me three attempts with henchmen. The first two tries I wiped after pulling too many mobs. A particulalry nasty wipe happened when a forgotten sage healer hid behind a wall. This split my henchmen party in two as some of us went behind the wall for the healer and some got stuck outside. On the third attempt with careful pulling and targetting I pulled it off with time to spare. The ability to force henchmen to guard a fixed spot proved invaluable in preventing my henchies from chasing fleeing mobs and aggroing fresh groups. On Monday we went back to capture my first two elite skills (mantra of recovery for mesmer and order of the vampire for necromancer). In general these crystal desert locations have has tougher mobs than I have encountered before level 20 and higher with a mix of nasty skills. I am doing pretty good though with a henchman party using two warriors, two healers and a mage for damage. I'm still using Mesmer skills. Since there is always a mix of mob types I can't afford to specialise too much so I generaly go for a domination loadout that focusses on cusing damage quickly. Empathy, Conjure Phantasm, Phantom Pain, Shatter Delusions, illusion of weakness and ressurection signet are my staples. I usually throw in an interrupt and some other damage spell.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Artificially Creating Value

On the face of it an Olympic medal isn't worth much, about €83 according to this web page .Yet people who win one often consider it to be the greatest achievement of their lives. To a small nation like my own even a single gold medal is a cause for national celebration. The real value of a gold medal comes from the difficulty of getting it. In fact the medal itself is only a symbol of the heroic achievement that getting it entailed. If Mark Spitz threw away all seven of the medals he won in Munich people would still remember his achievement in winning them.

Computer games strive to create this sort of value all the time. Most single player games reward you with a fairly inane final cinematic after downing the last boss. The cinematic itself is pretty worthless but the pride and satisfaction you get from overcoming the challenge of the game is certainly not. It is often possible to enable cheats and get to the end of the game that way. Fine if you really want to see the end credits but a considerably less fulfilling experience. However this is after all a form of entertainment and different people have different levels of ability, dexterity and above all time. I may lack the nimble fingers of a 15 year old and I certainly have many more competing demands on my time but I still want to get the the end of this game I bought. Thankfully most single player games offer a variety of difficulty settings. The quick fingered 15 year old can vanquish the game on nightmare setting while I get similar enjoyment out of playing through on normal difficulty mode. I have found that playing the game at too easy or too hard a setting greatly diminishes my enjoyment. On a curious side note: A few years back I used to play most games on the second hardest difficulty mode (the old ultraviolence setting from Doom). Recently I have started shifting the difficulty back to normal. Perhaps I am getting older but this also reflects the fact that I play more games now and I find my time is getting ever more precious.

MMORPGs really go to town in creating this type of value. There is no such thing as "finishing the game" so dedicated players strive for rewards along the way. This may be the attainment of levels, the learning of new skills and perhaps most significantly the acquiring of powerful items. Since such things are in reality no more than a few pixels on the screen the game makers go to great lengths to create value by making them hard to achieve requiring many hours of gameplay, perhaps entailing co-operation of many fellow gamers and also needing a modicum of luck in getting the correct drops. Having created this value the game makers then go to great lengths to ensure that this value is not diluted through the discovery of an easier method of obtaining the goal. This gives the players who have invested so much time and effort some comfort in knowing that their achievement will not be devalued.

I realise that my analogy with the Olympic medal winner breaks down somewhat when you look at value as perceived by society at large. The Olympic medal winner is lauded as a hero / heroine and can probably make substantial earnings from their fame. The wearer of a complete set of World of Warcraft Tier 3 armour is regarded as sad individual who has no life. Nevertheless we cannot ignore the fundamentals of the human spirit. The best answer ever given for why one should want to climb a mountain was George Mallory's "Because it is there". The wearer of the tier 3 armour knows himself the magnitude of his achievement even if his mother despairs at his ever getting a girlfriend.

Yet this raises extra difficulties in a multiplayer on-line game because different players come with different levels of ability and different levels of commitment yet all come expecting (and paying for) entertainment. If a casual player can obtain the gilded sword of uberness in 10 hours on easy setting while the hard core player spends 100 hours on high difficulty to get the same piece then the more committed player can feel quite rightly that their efforts have been devalued. For this reason it is rare to find adjustable difficulty levels in MMORPGs and cheat modes are completely outlawed. Unfortunately this then puts the casual player at a disadvantage. They will never get to own the gilded sword of uberness and experience the added gameplay that it permits despite paying the same price for the game as the hard core player. This of course is the age old "casuals versus hard core" debate and I do not propose to solve it here. I do want to comment on a couple of models for dealing with these issues that I have experienced.

Pre-Burning Crusade World of Warcraft set up powerful items (armour and weapons) as the most valuable rewards in the game. The only way to obtain these powerful items was to invest enormous amounts of time in end game activities such as raiding, grinding faction or pvp play. Of these methods raiding was probably the quickest in terms of reward versus time invested but it also required the most co-operation with other so was not amenable to solo player or players who could not commit regularly to group play. This scheme certainly created value and Blizzard took strong steps to ensure that value was conserved even to the extent to banning several long term players who were caught using exploits to speed up the route to rewards. In my opinion it is unfortunate that these items were not just symbols of achievement but actually gave boosts to player capabilities as well. This put the more casual player at an ever increasing disadvantage and effectively shut them out from large sections of gameplay. Encounters that are designed for players kitted out in uber gear are just not accessible to more casual players. The problem kept getting worse as each new tranche of high end content was added. One feels compelled to ask why Blizzard even bothered to add the Naxramas dungeon for example when such a small percentage of their player base will ever get to experience it.

Blizzard are playing a balancing game between the needs of casual and hardcore players and they have responded by levelling the field for players in the new Burning Crusade expansion, making easy to get items in the expansion as powerful as uber leet gear from before. They have taken even more drastic steps with PVP changing the reward structure so totally that pvp now looks like the easiest method of getting high end rewards whereas previously it was the hardest. These steps should certainly please casual players but the hard core may well feel aggrieved that their past efforts have been devalued.

Guild wars adopts a somewhat different approach. I know Guild Wars is not a true MMORPG but there are so many similarities that the comparison is still valid. In it's Player versus environment game Guild Wars does not invest so much value in rare items. A casual player working through the story line can fairly quickly get themselves outfitted in the best armour in the game. There are special skills to capture and rare green drops to be collected but these do not require the gargantuan levels of effort demanded in a game like WOW. In any case the increase in abilities provided is not so great as to imbalance the whole game. Where then are the rewards that encourage people to invest thousands of hours in the game? Most of these rewards might be called "Vanity" rewards. A set of armour for example that actually has the same specifications as default armour but looks prettier. Also there are Titles that may be earned for achieving certain feats: "Explorer" for exploring every corner of the map, "Survivor" for getting to a high level without dying and so on. Some of the titles are quite humorous for example "Drunkard" for excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages and "Unlucky" for losing at games of chance. People do seem committed to strive for these vanity rewards even though they convey little or no advantage in gameplay. In the PVP game Guild Wars used to require that players first unlock skills by playing through the PVE game but NCsoft have since introduced the ability to buy all the skills you need for PVP. At first glance this appears to devalue the efforts put in by players who have already earned all their skills the hard way but I haven't heard too many complaints about it.

Personally I prefer Guild Wars way of doing things. Rewards are mainly symbolic much in the way an Olympic medal is but that does not undermine their value. I know that I will probably never earn the survivor title but I do admire those who have done. I like playing a game where I know that all regions of the game are accessible even to a casual player like myself. And if I do happen to meet a multi titled hard core player in a pvp arena they will still probably wipe the floor with me but it will be due to their playing skill and not because of the +20 PWN NOOB gear they are wearing. Guild wars is a much less popular game than World of Warcraft but I do not think that the reward system is at fault for this. I think it would be possible to build a fully fledged social MMORPG with all of the beauty and diversity of WOW but with a reward system closer to the honorary titles of Guild Wars.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Operation Gamecube Update

My not so secret campaign to get other members of my family involved in video games through the purchase of a second hand gamecube is having mixed results. Donkey Konga is a big hit with my wife and the girls. The Lady of the house has firmly established herself as the best drummer in the family. I am not completely satisfied however - hitting a pair of plastic bongo drums doesn't feel like real gaming to me. Sadly the other games I bought seem to have less appeal. Most worrying is the fact that both my wife and girls have taken an aversion to the game controller. My wife announced that she is hopeless at using that kind of thing and the girls have more or less followed suit. In fairness to the beautiful lady when I explained to her that this was important to me she did spend a couple of hours with me playing through Monkey Ball Adventure. This is quite a tough game to control for joy pad novice because the rolling monkey balls have inertia and don't just immediately go the way you want them to. Nevertheless we both kind of got the hang of it after the session. God bless the woman. Love is forcing your self to play video games to please your husband.

This game may still be too tricky for my 6 and 8 year old I fear. I went looking for other games. As far as I can tell there is only one shop in my city still selling gamecube games so I don't mind stocking up on a few before they disappear altogether. Sadly none of the games available seem appropriate. There is no point in my getting adult games for the gamecube - I can play those on my PC. I would love to get a co-operative game that is suitable for kids but most of the multi-player modes are competitive rather than co-operative. My girls just aren't into competitive and the difference in abilities makes competition pointless. A co-operative game might be a hit though.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

So I finally caved in a bought a games console

After a lifetime of dedication to PC games I have finally bought my first ever games console. It's not actually for me - it's for the wife and kids. Most parents lament the excessive amount of time their kids spend on the playstation. My family on the other hand shows almost no interest in computer games leaving me a very lonely gamer. Partly this is temperament, they prefer other pastimes and partly this is due to type of game I play on the PC. My lovely wife and girls just don't like the violent often complicated PC games that I go for. So I've bought a games console in the hope that an infusion of Japanese monkey hopping and banana collecting will give my family a small appreciation of my own hobby. I bought a second hand Nintendo Game cube for €40. This is a console that was never very popular and has in fact just become obsolete. Only a few game stores even sell games for the cube any more. Before you accuse me of total miserliness I must counter with the fact that the game cube was always recognised as a superb console for kids. It has a number of first rate jumpy banana type games and much fewer video game nasties like the GTA series. The fact that the console was cheap and that games can be bought second hand for as little as a tenner is a bonus. I amn't too hopeful that this will catch on - I expect the girls will play it for a day or two and get bored so a €500 investment in an xbox 360 would have been totally pointless. I got three games with the console: Donkey Konga (complete with Bongos) , Sonic Mega Collection (which is a port of some old Sega Mega drive games) and Monkey Ball adventure (Monkeys, Bananas, bouncing). The Monkey Ball game just confuses me but perhaps the kids will make something of it. Donkey Konga is already proving a big hit. Not too sure about the Sonic games - perhaps these are a bit past their sell by date. In fact all of this has cause me to think about what happens to older games and older gaming hardware. Why is a game that was considered terrific four years ago a complete bore today? Material for another post I think.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Where is the pink LEGO?

Yesterday I discovered LEGO's superb Digital Designer program (also known as lego factory). This is a fully fledged computer aided design (CAD) program that allows you to construct a vrtual lego model from a huge variety of bricks. The program is powerful yet extremely easy to use - a superb programming achievement. Even more amazing is the fact that having designed your virtual masterpiece you can then buy the pieces you need to make it all at the click of a button. There must be a very sophiticated warehousing system behind this that allows lego to pick individual kits for every order. I am happy to report that lego digital designer got the thumbs up from my two kids (5 and 7). However something became apparent very quickly as we built our virtual models. You can have any colour brick you want as long as it is a very masculine red or white, green, grey or blue. There are no pink or purple bricks. I thought this was surely an oversight. Surely lots of girls like to play with lego and they might appreciate the more feminine colours. A quick trawl of the website revealed that lego don't make a range of pink bricks. The do offer a range of "Clickit" toys aimed at girls which focusses on jewelry design but it is not the same thing. You can't build trees and houses and people with it. Googling around showed some people on Ebay selling a rare item called a "Girls Pink Fantasy Bucket". I could find no reference to this item in the current lego product offering. Perhaps this was a failed marketing experiment. I find this hard to understand. Are girls really not interested in the world's greatest creative toy? I am so surprised I think I will write to LEGO and ask them about it.