Monday, January 29, 2007

From the ashes of failure ....

Perhaps the best epitaph for my failed attempt at introducing my daughters to video games through the purchase of a Nintendo Gamecube was my five year old's question: "But Daddy - is it a Nintendo DS?". Now this beautiful smart five year old doesn't know one end of a gamepad from the other and has resisted all attempts at introducing her to one but she is sufficiently plugged into the all pervaisve consumerist zeitgeist to know that a Nintendo DS is cool while the second hand box of junk her daddy has bought is not. Guess who felt like the most out of touch (not to mention stingy) Daddy that day?

However from the ashes of failure rises the phoenix of hope. Quite independently of my efforts my daughters were introduced to an online site called Club Penguin by one of their friends. I checked this out to see that all was safe and well and imagine my amazement to discover that it is in fact an MMORPG. There aren't too many dragons to kill but it is an online world where players interact and play games to earn cash to buy rewards. It even has player housing. The environment seems safe enough although I am still keeping an eye on them. Just yesterday my seven year old asked if she could upgrade from a limited account to a subscription account. My daughter has asked for a subscription to an mmorpg! Now my wife was with us and I did my best to act like a responsible parent, pointing out that her birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and that we could consider it then if she is still interested but inside I shouted "Hell, yes!"

I grant you that many parents would consider introducing a child to the time sink world of MMORPGs to be one step above feeding them crack cocaine. I cannot see my girls ever getting sucked in to that extent however. For one thing they have the good influence of their mother who's attention span for gaming extends to about half an hour every six months or so. For another they have many other things going on in their lives. Also they have me and I am not such a reprobate as to let that happen. It would however be so wonderful to be able to share with my daughters just a little bit of a hobby that means so much to me.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Thoughts about STEAM and online game distribution

A couple of years back I bought a copy of the recently released Half Life 2 for my PC. This game had been getting outstanding reviews so I raced home in heady anticipation of first person shooter goodness. I knew that the game used STEAM and an internet connection was required to activate it but since I had the game files on DVD I thought that couldn't take long. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Microsoft's online product activation for windows XP. How wrong I was. Steam proceeded to download many megabbytes of patches for the game over my 56k dial up internet and this took many hours. Worse still was the fact that for the first few weeks every day there seemed to be some new multi-megabyte patch so when I sat down to play the game Steam would spend a half an hour or so downloading the latest patch before I could actually shoot anything. I eventually figured out how to get the game to play in offline mode but not before I had concluded that online game distribution in general and Steam in particular were to be avoided like the plague in future.

Fast forward a few years and broadband has made downloading games much less painful while STEAM itself has become a lot more user friendly. I have actually bought a few Games online through STEAM and I must admit that playing a game through Steam with no CD required is actually a lot less painful than searching for the disk and then going off looking for the latest patches. As proof of my conversion from Steam hater to Steam liker consider that I have just installed two Games "Prey" and "Dark Messiah of Might and Magic" through Steam even though I actually have a Disk copy of both games. As long as it is in the STEAM catalog they allow you to use your retail keycode to install the game through steam, leaving the disks in the box. Thats a lovely service considering that Valve get no money from that deal. On my 2MB broadband it still takes a few hours to download a game through steam but at least it arrives fully patched and I will never have to look for the disks again. If I want to play on another computer Steam will happily re-install the game for me.

My conversion to on-line game distribution isn't without some hesitation however. There are still several big disdvantages. If your internet connection goes down you may be unable to play. Worse still if your distributor goes bust (ie Triton) you may lose the game forever. You are also relying on your distributor to keep up to date with the latest patches. I guess Steam seems likely to stick around and they do seem to adopt a gamer friendly approach towards patches and such. They also allow offline mode although I haven't had to test this yet. An even thornier issue relates to ownership and transferability. If you have a disk you can install it and play it now or in fifty years time providing you can still get the hardware required. You can give or sell the disk to someone else and they can install it and play it. I know that in the new speak of digital copyright and license agreements you theoretically don't own anything. In therory you have only bought the rights to play a game. Some game licenses explicitly forbid selling a game second hand. I'm sorry I don't buy that. My own personal morality allows me to buy a second hand game play it with a clear conscience. If a game is distributed online of course it become much harder if not impossible to transfer ownership. Digital distribution also allows much tighter control over pricing and interferes somwhat with traditional market forces. Brand new games often cost less online than buying the retail version in my local game shop. After a couple of months however thebricks and mortar retailer will discount their remaining inventory and you can usually get a title for a fraction of the initial price. Prices online fall much more slowly if at all. For example I bought "Dark Messiah" and "Prey" for approximately half of what they would cost me on Steam. To be honest this is probably my favorite way to use Steam. I can shop around and get a game for a god price. I have a hardcopy with disk and manual. I can play through steam and enjoy the advantages but if valve goes belly up I can still play from my disks. Of course registering my game on steam does mean I can probably never sell it to someone else but I can live with that.

For a purely online game such as World of Warcraft my preference for a physical disk is meaningless. Such games cannot be played without an online server. Its curious however that Blizzard forces you to buy a retail copy in order to play WOW. You can download the whole game and play a free trial for 10 days but to continue playing you have to buy a box from a traditional retailer in order to get an access code. I assume this is a commercial decision - they want to leverage the selling power of big name retailers. I don't know if this has been a major contributory factor in the success of WOW but it does show that game producers cannot afford to ignore box and CD distribution yet.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

From Guild Wars to Prey

Its been a fairly busy gaming week for me. Last Sunday I played the last two missions of Guild Wars Prophecies. I have defeated the Lich Lord and have saved Ascalon. The last mission was tough enough with horrible Titan's everywhere. It took me two attempts and the successful attempt would have ended in a total wipe except that I went ME/Mo and brought a rebirth skill. This handy ressurect skill allows henchmen to be resurrected and pulled to your current location - great for rescuing corpses from the middle of a bunch of mobs. I went with all henchies as usual despite getting a couple of offers for guildies to join. The trouble is I go very slowly with numerous breaks and I doubt if anyone else would put up with me. My Mesmer was packing an energy denial / damage loadout with Power Drain, Empathy, Spirit Shackles, Energy surge, Energy burn, Mindwrack and Wastrel' s worry . Quite a successful skill set out and fun to play. Empathy and Spirit shackles reduce an enemies health and energy respectively every time they attack. Energy Surge and Energy burn also remove energy and do a nice chunk of damage with it. The real fun happens when the mob finally hits zero energy - triggering Mindwrack for yet more damage and allowing me to use wastrels worry to punish them for not using a skill (which they can't because they have no energy!!!). I have to admit though tha tcareful control of my henchmen was far more important to my success than my own personal skill set. Titans are tricky because killing the wrong one can actually spawn two new enemies so you need to be very selective with your targets and kill them in the correct order. For reference my strong advice is to kill titans one at a time in the following order: First every Spark of the Titans, then any Hand or Fist of the Titans, then any Burning Titans and finally any Risen Ashen Hulk. Killing a Hulk gives you a new hand and fist which together are more dangerous than the original hulk so only kill hulks when everything else is dead and only one at a time.

I have plenty more GW to play, the recently purchased Nightfall chapter is waiting for me, but I promised myself a break from GW when I got this far so I have been playing the first person shooter Prey. Prey is an interesting title that took about 10 years with various false starts to finally get out the door. It is actually quite a good FPS but it feels a bit dated. Running around shooting things inside a spaceship is very old hat at this stage. Prey does have quite a few unique features - it plays very weird tricks with gravity - allowing you to walk up walls in certain places. A couple of very clever levels have you walking around a mini- moon type structure. It also uses portals to instantly go from one spot to another. A third novel feature is the use of a spirit mode. Sadly none of these innovations manage to drag the game play into the 21st century. I wonder if this is just a symptom of the impending death of the traditional First Person Shooter? FPS titles don't seem to grab the same headlines they used to. I wonder will they go the way of the Point and Click adventure?