Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ave Pulvis

Farewell to the Arena. I have decided its time to hang up my Galea and finish with Gladiatus. The problem with online role playing games games is that they have no obvious end. There is no clear exit point at which you can leave the game with your head held high. Gladiatus is a fun diversion but it is also pretty shallow. I knew from the start that I wouldn't still be playing this time next year so I set my own personal goal that I would try to achieve before leaving. I decided to pitch for the top spot of the beginners league (Circus Fighters, level 1 to 10) or as close to it as I could get. As I worked my way up the ladder I noticed the same few players jostling for the top spot. They were all level 9 with astronomical skill levels. To take on these players and win was my personal goal.

At one point the reigning champion even challenged me. I didn't know why - I was several levels lower and he utterly annihilated me. Never mind. Things would be different when I reached those heights.

I was doing pretty well or so I thought. I worked my way down from number 10,000 to about 700 and was beginning to gear up seriously for my assault on greatness. After another successful arena bout I checked the standings again expecting to be somewhere in the 600s. Instead I found I was number 1300. In fact I was number 1300 in the levels 10 to 19 legue. You see I had taken my eye off the ball, hit level 10 and graduated to the next league without ever getting a crack at the top spot of the lower league.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. At first I was stunned because I knew I was still much weaker than those at the top of the "circus fighters" yet I had leap frogged them into the higher league. I now realise that in order to achieve my goal I should have worked hard at advancing my character without ever increasing in level. Combat prowess in Gladiatus is more skill based than level based. In addition there are no level restrictions on uber gear providing you can get your hands on it. Since training and equipment can both be bought with gold even low level players can turn themselves into formidable fighters by earning the cash to pay for training and gear.

You might wonder how a player can earn gold without advancing in level since even working in the stables will earn some XP. I reckon there are two ways: Firstly If a player has a paying account they get a daily wage. The second way is to challenge fighters who are much lower in level than you. You can steal some of their gold but will not get XP for such an easy win. That explains why I was ganked by the reigning champion. I suspect he regularly trawls through the lowbie ranks picking on the weak to stuff his coffers.

I though about playing on in the higher leagues. Things seem to be a bit more exciting - there doesn't seem to be many dormant accounts and I was challenged several times by players trying to progress. Nevertheless I decided to stay true to the spirit of my original goal. I hung up my gladius and transferred leadership of the Rudiarius guild to the next ranking member.

Lotro: Throgs continuing Progress

I am getting back into Lotro.

Throg has dinged 39 and has completed Chapter 4 book 5 of the Epic quest line. Searching for the hiding place of a vile Nazghul wounded at the waters of Bruinen, Throg and a handful of stalwart companions probed the deepest caverns of the 'Shaws troll caves. Those trolls are tough characters (lvl 40 Elite) and none too hospitable towards uninvited guests. Nevertheless Throg and his fellows taught them some manners:



Five brave adventurers tackled Eluil, the first Troll Lair but then two declared they must return home for tea (Hobbits!). Undeterred Throg and his remaining two companions pressed on. A Guardian, a Champion (Throg) and a Minstrel. One to take the blows, one to deal the blows and one to heal the blows. Throg fondly remembered his Uncle Halcin's lessons. Three monstrous trolls a time could not defeat this perfect fighting trio.

Sadly they found no trace of the wretched Nazghul. No matter. To Throg's mind it was worth it just to savour the experience of cutting a few overgrown Trolls down to size.

For myself I am learning to live with Lotro's frustrating control interface. I have abandoned all atempts to be scientific about it and I no longer try to fight the unresponsive skill queue in attempt set up the perfect combination. I simply divide my skills into those which use up fervour to deal devastating blows and those which deal lesser blows but generate fervour. If a skill from the first group is lit up and available I use it and wait till it finishes. If not I use which-ever of the fervour generators is not on cooldown. Theres a few variations involving finishing moves but for the most part that is it. Simple and effective if not quite optimum.

Friday, September 28, 2007

If you have a laser mouse then you need one of these




Its called a Fellowes Optical Mouse Mat and it is made by a company called Brite Mat. It is quite simply the best mouse mat I have every used.

You may know I have been playing Freespace 1/2 for the last few weeks. I spurned a joystick in favour of mouse control but I soon realised that my normal Logitech MX600 wireless laser mouse was not as precise as it should be. It is not a high spec gaming mouse but it is supposed to deliver a smooth 800dpi yet it was jumpy and imprecise - making accurate flying very difficult. I got suspicious when I swapped over to a seven year old Microsoft Optical mouse and found that it was much more precise. A bit of experimentation convinced me that the problem wasn't the mouse but the surface I was using the mouse on.

The problem seemed to be twin fold. First off it seems to me that the laser mouse is quite fussy about the surface texture - and it hates shiny surfaces. Secondly - My wireless mouse is quite heavy with batteries inside and stiction is a major problem. If the surface has too much friction the mouse seems to stick between moves causing jerkiness. Twitch shooters require precise jerks of the mouse jumping from one stationary position to another and stiction absolutely kills precise control in this case.

Originally I was using the surface of my wooden desk but that was hopeless and the grain seems to upset the mouse. I then tried an assortment of mousemats. Most of them were even worse than the wooden desktop especially spongy "comfort" models. The mouse just sinks down and beds in. The best thing I could find was actually the cover of a book that had a matte finish.

I discovered this Fellowes/Brite Mat by accident today when I was browsing in my local Maplin electronics shop. It was advertised as being optical mouse friendly and it only cost €8 so I grabbed one. It is brilliant. It is a hard plastic circle with a slightly rippled matte finish. It has excellent grip underneath due to a high friction underlay yet it presents very low friction to the mouse. The difference in mouse precision with the laser mouse has to be experienced to be believed. The mat is surprisingly small being only 20cm in diameter but because of the excellent precision and the convenience of the circular shape that is all you need.

I can't find any reference to this mouse on Fellowes Website. The reverse of the mousemat says it is made by Brite Mat but I cannot find their web page. Here is a link to it on Maplin's website.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lotro: Orc Killing and Frustration

Now level 38, with many tasks accomplished in the Trollshaws Throg finds that the remaining tasks there are somewhat beyond his level. The Misty Mountains beckon. The bold dwarf made a sortie there to slay some snow beasts but realises that he needs at least a couple of levels of intensive training before he can really make a useful contribution in those treacherous peaks.

With that thought in mind Throg headed back to that orc infested corner of the North Downs called Dol Dinen. Many Orcs and Trolls have gathered there. No doubt they intend to sneak through the mountains to re-enforce the hordes that wreaked such devastation on the once pretty Hamlet of Trestlebridge. Throg and his fellows made those Orcs pay a dear price for the suffering they caused and he has no intention of letting this new bunch take up where there their fellows failed. In truth judging by the massive war machines they have dragged out of Angmar it is likely that their destructive ambition does not stop at Trestle bridge - Perhaps even Bree itself is the next target.

Throg is not intimidated by massive siege engines - the bigger the engine the easier the target he thinks. Thus he set off with a motley crew of adventurers to spoil some orc plans. This impromptu fellowship killed a great many orcs and trolls but lack of co-ordination prevented them from striking a decisive blow. Throg is often inclined to strike first and think later but even he now realises that a more focused strike is needed - perhaps destroying vital components of the orc war machines and then selectively thinning the ranks of officers and orc champions.

.......


Throg still has much work to do in Middle Earth but I have to admit I am getting increasingly frustrated with Lotro's controls. I have complained about them before without really understanding what is wrong. While I still don't have a complete handle on it all I understand it somewhat better since the addition of an optionally visible skill queue in the Shores of Evendim patch.

I have been playing with this queue visible for the last few days. It shows you an eggtimer for the global command cool down and the aforementioned skill queue. Queue is in fact a very generous appellation because it has a depth of exactly one skill. I now realise that all my previous thoughts about queueing up skills for combo's are completely bogus. You cannot stack up more than one skill. In fact if you press a new skill key while there is one in the queue it will be overwritten by the new skill. An attempt to quickly enter a combo of skills is doomed to failure - because in general only the first and last skills will be executed.

This is particularly frustrating for a Champion like Throg. Throg has to use his skills in particular combinations in order to build up the fervour needed to unleash the most devastating blows. Also since Champion skills favour big slow weapons with large damage per hit he generally uses weapons with a very slow speed. His current hammer is a 3.4 second per hit. That is a long time to wait before pressing the next key in the sequence and it gives lots of opportunity to press too many keys in haste.

Another frustration stems from the chaos that is a fellowship battle. With multiple enemies and multiple fellows on screen at the same time it becomes impossible to see what is going on. I know this must be common to all MMORPGS but with Lotro is just seems worse than I remember from other games. There is the issue of floaty names - if you turn on floaty names you can't see a thing. If you turn off floaty names you can see better but it become hard to figure out who to hit next. The fact that Throg is a melee character makes this so much worse. He needs to select the correct opponent, run up to them and make sure he is facing them in order to inflict damage. I know there are clever targeting and auto run options but I have tried them all and still can't get a satisfactory solution. Many enemies are "runners" who run away once they suffer too much damage. Trying to ensure that Throg is still hitting these guys is just awfully frustrating.

I got so frustrated last night I actually considered restarting as a ranged character. Some of my frustration no doubt stems from the disastrous pickup group Throg headed out with - a group that seemed intent on killing everything in sight except the quest objective. However I am not too bothered about that. I have consciously decided to play Lotro at a very casual pace and not to get concerned about leveling and such. I would be happy to spend an hour slaughtering trolls and orcs if the interface allowed me to see what was going on and the controls were responsive enough to let me feel I was actually contributing to the outcome.

Edit

The following article from the LOTRO lorebook goes into great detail about skill timers, skill queues and cooldowns. It appears to directly contradict my experience of there only being a single slot skills queue. I quote:
For example, assume skills A, B, and C are queued up
I don't get this - there is only one slot in the visible skill queue. I experimented with and I am almost certain that activating another skill overwrites the first.

I am totally confused but my game experience remains the same. The controls feel terribly unresponsive.

Sour Grapes

I won't be playing Halo 3 this week, or next week, or any time in the near future. Unless you are blind, deaf, dumb and living in one of the few parts ofthe word not yet connected to the internet you will know that Halo 3 was released with tremendous hype this week. Hype that may apparently be somewhat justified if the normally trustworthy Eurogamer is anything to go by.

I absolutely loved Halo 1 even though I waited to play it on the PC several years after every else. Sadly as a dyed in the wool PC gamer I will have to wait a long time to sample Halo3 - probably until it comes out as a sweetener with Windux2020 tm (I always knew Linus would sell out in the end).

It is an almost universally acknowledged fact (among PC gamers anyway)that the PC with mouse and keyboard control is a superior platform for first person shooters but for quite a while now economic reality has meant that big name titles will come out on console first. Economic reality and the fact that the few old codgers left playing games on PC are too old to endure teenage noob pwnage. Despite our oft muttered reminiscences about Doom 1-D the truth is we are really only able for more slow ponderous titles like World of Borecraft and incomprehensibly complex strategy games.

By the way I am thinking of asking Mrs. Santa Claus to buy me an Xbox360 for Christmas.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Name? Wots all that about then?

While I have done the odd puzzle in my time I claim no special talent in puzzle solving nor do I purport to offer a selection of tantalising brain teasers on this blog. In deference to those folk who visit looking for such diversions I have therefore changed the name of the blog to "Life is a Mind bending Puzzle" as opposed to the original "Mind Bending Puzzles". It is a quick and nasty fix but I kinda like it. Plus it's true.

You may wonder why I chose the name "Mind Bending Puzzles" in the fist place. The truth is that it originated some years back when I was looking for a user name for some website. I was fed up of signing on as Freddy259 so I glanced around my desk for inspiration. My eye fell on a calendar that I had received as a present the previous Christmas that had a puzzle for every day of the year. The calendar was boldly named "Mind Bending Puzzles". I liked the name and it stuck.

Monday, September 24, 2007

MMORPG Addiction

A couple of things came together today to set me thinking about MMORPGs and MMORPG addiction.

Firstly Tobold had an article about Raid Lockouts where he seems to take the line that although Raid Lockouts are an inconvenience to players they are basically a good thing because they force people to have well organised guilds. I quote:
There must be incentives not only for playing together one evening, but for staying together and making compromises for each others needs.

The second thing was a link from Syncaine to his blog post about the Sickness that was WOW raiding. I was particularly struck by how as main tank for a high end raiding guild he felt he could never take a night off without feeling guilty at letting 39 others down.

I can't help but make a link between these two things. The very need for group organisation and commitment that Tobold lauds is the same thing that made Syncaine and many others like him slaves to the game.

While I was playing WOW I read several stories like Syncaines. In fact stories like his helped to convince me that I should leave before getting embroiled in WOW's end game.

I know it is not just a simple issue of saying MMORPGs are bad. I know there are personality issues involved. I know that many people love the social side of raiding and manage to integrate it into happy and fulfilled lives but I do think that every MMORPG player should spend some time reading about MMORPG addiction before getting too involved in these games. Nick Yee's Daedelus project is a good academic source but for some more personal insights subscribe to the WOW Widows newsgroup.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bad Things Come in Three's...

.. or so they say. Well this has been a week of bad luck for me with three annoying break downs. On Tuesday Lotro stopped working for me then on Wednesday my car broke down finally on Friday our washing machine stopped working. All three breakdowns proved to be non-trivial hard to fix issues and each in its own way has proved to be significant annoyance over the last few days.

In my household I am considered to be the fixer of electrical stuff which includes computers and washing machines. My attempts to kick start Lotro were frustratingly unsuccessful despite getting much help from the Codemasters tech support people.

The washing machine proved similarly intractable. For starters it is a built in appliance,well built in. It seemed like I had to dismantle half our kitchen to get at the thing. Then it turned out to have a solid outer shell with no obvious access panel. Eventually I had to turn it on its side in order to gain restricted entry from the base.

My repair skills do not stretch to automobiles so when my car rolled to a juddering halt on the side of a public road I had to call in a mechanic. Then I discovered that the mechanic who usually services my car is on holiday leaving me to contact someone I had never used before. This gentleman towed my car to his garage on Wednesday and it hasn't moved from there since. Last I heard (on Friday) the mechanic muttered something about timing belts and stripping down the engine. I am almost afraid to ring him on Monday to find out what happens next.

The good news is that washing machine and Lotro are now fixed. The washing machine had a clogged drain pump which needed dismantling and cleaning out. Lotro was not working because of a problem with Internet Explorer. I never use IE (I'm a Firefox man) so I didn't realise it wasn't working but apparently Lotro's launcher needs it. If problems come in threes then perhaps solutions come in threes also - fingers crossed I get good news on my car tomorrow.

On the gaming front Lotro being out of action allowed me to spend more time on Freespace 2 (much better than 1 even though the game play is almost identical - there is a blog post in this later about the relative importance of game play versus graphics). I also delved back into Guild Wars Nightfall. Despite my reservations about the world being lifeless I really began to enjoy it. Guild Wars does away with all the time wasting annoyances that plague most MMORPGs. If ever they figure out how to attach the guild wars mechanic onto a full world type MMORPG I don't think I play anything else ever again.

Oh and I've been indulging in a fair bit of Gladiatus too. Lord knows why - it is entirely pointless but I have worked my way up to 1300 in the Arena rankings. That is 1300th place in the lowest league of the arena. Fear me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Why I left World of Warcraft (including some thoughts on Guilds)

Following my recent frustrations with LOTRO DM Osbon mentioned that he was thinking of going back to WOW and asked if I might consider the same. Even though it is eighteen months since I stopped playing I felt an involuntary wince at the suggestion of going back. That set me thinking of why I left the game and why it still causes such an emotional reaction.

One reason I left was that I was spending far too much time on the game. After four months of playing I was logging in for three to four hours every day and spending hours more browsing internet forums, blogs and help sites relating to the game. Although I have been a gamer for many years this was my first MMORPG and I was ultimately appalled by the amount of time involved. This was time that was robbed from family, from real life activities at home and in work and it was time robbed from enjoying other games. To make matters worse I realised that even though this was an unacceptable time commitment for me it still only put me in the casual player category - far below the commitment of dedicated end game raiders.

Another less obvious but perhaps more lingering reason was my terrible disillusionment at what WOW end-game does to Guilds. Like many newbie MMORPGers I played the game for some time before joining a Guild. Being invited into a friendly casual guild was a revelation opening up new dimensions to my gaming experience. As I have said this guild was friendly and casually oriented. Guild chat was used for gossip. High level members helped out lower levels. The Guild organised regular events like treasure hunts which were open to all. Guild meetings often ended in a drunken Tavern crawl. Even though real life commitments often prevented me from contributing fully to guild events I really enjoyed the friendliness of it all.

As the server matured more players began to reach the level cap and in order to continue their advancement they were forced to look seriously at their play style and at their guild. If these players wanted to continue advancing they would have to become a lot less casual and that meant either the guild must change or they must abandon it for a more serious "end game" focussed guild. My internet reading convinced me that this problem wasn't unique to our guild or to our server. I came across many many stories of friendly fun guilds who failed to survive the transition to end-game.

Perhaps the biggest eye opener for me was when the leader of the largest and most prominent guild on the server publicly announced his resignation so that he could take a humble foot soldier position in a raiding guild. The large guild was of course a casual guild and despite its size it was unable to withstand the transition to end-game. According to Warcraft Realms that guild has only one active member left today. The fact is that WOW's end game destroys guilds. In particular it destroys friendly casual guilds, the kind of guild I want to play with. I still haven't forgiven WOW for that.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Currently not playing.....

...Lord of the Rings Online.

Last Tuesdays patch to LOTRO has borked the game for me. I have been unable to connect to the game since. At first I thought it was extended server downtime after the patch but then I realised that everyone else is up and running again. A very helpful support person on the LOTRO Europe forums is helping me work through the problem. I am amazed to find a customer support person who responds instantly to emails at 10PM at night! Under their direction I have done a complete re-install, I have played around with firewalls, antivirus, Microsoft.Net and my ADSL modem /router configuration but sadly nothing works so far.

Perhaps this is poetic justice for my rant about MMORPG timesinks. Despite my complaints in that post I really feel the need for a bout of multiplayer gaming and the heady excitement of Gladiatus doesn't quite cut it (notwithstanding my gratitude to those of you who responded to my request for challenges from real human players - thank you one and all.)

I even ventured back into Guild Wars for a bit. There has been changes to the game since I went away including the addition of hard mode PVE campaigns and a new expansion called Eye of the North. I have a lot of fondness for Guild Wars and I suspect that many people who played with early GW and dismissed it as mainly PVP might be surprised at just how much PVE content the game now has. I was happy to see I haven't been de-guilded despite my absence and a couple of people even welcomed me back. Combat in Guild Wars is fast and furious and you need to be on the ball to play well but unfortunately I couldn't work up the enthusiasm. After people had welcomed me back I felt a bit guilty sneaking out again but who knows - I may have a go at GWEN soon.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang?

A couple of firsts:

1. This is my first attempt at publishing to the blog by email. If you can read this you will know I have succeeded. I suppose leaving an email back door open is a bit risky because any spammer who works out your address can add rubbish to the blog. At least Blogger gives you the option to add lots of random letters to the email address so hopefully that will deter hackers.

2.I have started my first ever Guild in Gladiatus!!! Don't get too excited because Guilds don't do much in the game but we do have a nifty cape (designed by yours truly) and a guild hovel. Membership has already soared to two with another application on the way. Exponential growth is predicted (not)! Nevertheless all are welcome. The Guild name is Rudiarius and if you want to join just apply via the guild panel or drop a mail to Hortius on server 7. Don't expect us to go raiding anytime soon - I take a very relaxed view of the duties of guild leadership.

To quote Wikipedia
Rudiarius: A gladiator who had won his freedom (received his wooden sword or rudis) but chooses to remain a gladiator. Not all continued to fight and there was a hierarchy of rudiarii such as trainers, helpers, referees, fighters etc. These were very popular with the public as they were experienced and could be relied on to provide a good show.

Don't worry - use of the wooden sword is optional for Guild members.

To be honest I am surprised that I am still playing Gladiatus. I guess I worked through the boredom barrier and just kept playing -  it takes so little effort to keep playing that I just log in while I am browsing other stuff and set the next action in motion. Only four thousand more people ahead of me in the arena rankings - I can almost smell the laurel wreath now!!!

Apologies once more if you clicked the above link and got mugged. I know it is unscrupulous of me but you won't die from it, I promise.

Aside: How I wish that Gary Glitter hadn't turned out to be a pedophile.  His  music was quite iconic for those like me who were kids in the early 1970's. The title of this blog article comes from his 1973 hit "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I am)" but I don't feel entirely comfortable using stuff from someone who can do that to kids.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My very first tagging.

So I have been tagged with my very first Meme - Thank you DM Osbon. I used to feel unwanted and unloved but now I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Four jobs I have had in my life (not including my current job):
- Design Engineer
- Product Manager
- Managing Director
- Tea Boy

Four Films I have watched again and again:
- Aliens
- Singing in the Rain
- Starship Troopers
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (It was a long time ago ALRIGHT!)


Four places I have lived:

* Dublin
* Cork
* Dublin
* Dublin

Four Programmes I love to watch:

* I don't really watch TV - Pass.

Four Places I have been on vacation:

* The Aran Islands
* Alice Springs
* Inverness
* New York

Four of my favourite foods:

* Irish Stew
* Medium Rare Fillet Steak, no sauce thankyou but perhaps some freshly ground black pepper.
* Just about any kind of fresh seafood, preferably a big platter of it.
* McVities Digestive

Four favourite drinks:

* Pint of Guinness
* Black Bush (neat)
* Tea (tiny drop of milk, no sugar)
* Water

Four places I would rather be right now:

* Nowhere - I am perfectly content where I am.

Now here is the embarrassing bit - I cannot tag anybody else. Not on principle, not in a huff but because the I cannot think of anyone else in the world who is likely to read this blog who hasn't been tagged already. Everyone on my blogroll has already done it. For the sake of keeping up appearances I'll tag my pet rabbit, my two pet goldfish and gaming pioneer Rob Markovic.

The Wheel Pauses - Robert Jordan RIP

It was with great sadness that I read yesterday of the death of Robert Jordan author of the Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels.

I have been reading Wheel of time for about 12 years and it has been a rollercoaster ride of excitement, immersion, creativity and at times immense frustration. You see Wheel of Time is not really twelve novels each with its own beginning middle and end. The individual books are just chapters of one immense story. And what a story it is is. And what a world it is set in - perhaps the most enthralling, most detailed, most populated, most engrossing world in all of fantasy.

If Robert had one fault it is that he never seemed to be able to pull all the threads of his story together to finish it. When I started reading "The Eye of World" 12 years ago I was quickly hooked and immediately looked for the follow on novels. At first each episode was more enthralling than the last with staggering twists and exquisite detail of description and storyline. Round about book 5 or 6 I came to realise that there was no sign of this great saga ever coming to a close. Each book introduced new characters and new story lines without making any attempt to close any of the already numerous plot threads. Since then Robert has published a new book about once every two years. I and countless others have avidly bought each one hoping to find out how the great tale is finally resolved. There are so many characters at this stage and so many plot lines that I have to resort to fansites and online FAQs to remind me of who is who. I have been following Wheel of Time since 1995. Others got hooked as far back as 1990 when "The Eye of the World" was originally published. Its is no surprise that many fans lost heart at such a long span of time. Even some of the fansites seemed to lose enthusiasm.

About a year ago Robert Jordan announced that he was suffering from a rare terminal illness. The joke that many of his readers had quipped about Robert dying before the series was finished suddenly became a stark possiblity. Robert himself promised to do all he could to finish "A Memory of Light" the 12th and last episode of his great oeuvre before his departure.

Robert has now left us and "A Memory of Light" is unpublished. This post from Robert's brother/cousin reminds us that not finding out how a story ends pales into insignificance beside the loss of a person. Nevertheless it would be a shame for this great epic to remain unfinished.

The good news is that the interweb is abuzz with rumours that the novel may be finished but as yet unpublished or that RJ's family members may endeavor to finish it for him from his notes.

If you have not read Wheel of Time then I urge you to do so. Read it and enjoy but read it in the full knowledge that this epic saga may wrap you up for days, weeks , months. It may require you to immerse yourself in online faqs and and help sites to keep track of what is happening and after all that you may still be left wondering how it all ends.

By the way there was an excellent First Person Shooter game released for the PC set in the Wheel of Time universe. I played it as recently as last year and while the graphics are very out of date the use of magic is quite innovative and the gameplay is still fresh. I don't know where you might buy a legal copy these days but it has probably turned up on the (cough, cough) abandonware sites by now.

The wheel pauses but just as in the novels it never really stops. I am sure that readers will continue to lose themselves in the Wheel of Time many years from now. Given the breadth, depth and truly epic nature of this great saga I think that Wheel of Time out of all the various fantasy series is the one most likely to find a spot beside Tolkien's Middle Earth in the canon of English Literature.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Timesinks

As I speak Throg is waxing 55 pieces of Lebethron in order to achieve Artisan level forestry. This process will take about 5 minutes during which time my character is locked up and all I can do is watch a progress bar repeatedly fill up and reset. I choose not to watch that - I'll blog instead thank you.

This is not fun. This is pointless time-wasting. I wouldn't even bother only Throg needs that skill in order to prospect higher level ores and since one of Throgs main income streams comes from selling ore he better do it.

Yawn. I know why games do this. I know that progress in game is time related and all things must take a certain amount of time. I know developers must ensure that character don't burn through content too quickly so there must be time sinks in the game.

I know but I don't care. I don't want to wait around while I watch a progress bar. I don't want to have to compromise my enjoyment just to satisfy the requirements of the game developers.

A long time ago I did a course in marketing. One of the things that stuck in my mind is the following: Early entrants into a new market often force their customers to make compromises in order to suit themselves (the suppliers). For example Ford forced every customer to have a black car because it saved manufacturing cost. A proven strategy for attacking the market lead of early entrants is to discover those types of compromise and give the customer what they want instead. Give them multi-colour cars in other words.

Current MMORPGS force their customers to make all kinds of unpleasant compromises just to suit the needs of the game developers. Guild Wars abandoned most of the time sinks but it forced players to make an even worse compromise - to live in a lifeless instanced World. The game that figures out how to make a living breathing world without these stupid compromises will probably be the game that unseats World of Warcraft.

When that game comes out I will play it. In the meantime I'm not sure if I am prepared to keep playing the current generation of MMORPGs.

Lotro once more

I logged into Lotro last night for the first time since June. There was a hefty download before I could log in but it is all for the best because it included a free update - adding Chapter 10 to the game.
Throg's combat skills were a bit rusty after his summer holiday and it took a couple of close shaves before my dwarf champion got back into the swing of things. Throg's journal is full of group quests and I was concerned that the bulk of the server might have passed him by at this stage making it hard to find a group. Happily that does not seem to be the case. Almost immediately I spotted a call for one of Throg's quests in the Looking for Fellowship channel. Throg signed up and the impromptu PUG consisting of Throg and two minstrels quickly fought their way through the quest chain first finding some lost dwarves and then dealing with elite trolls in the aptly named TrollShaws.

I am not sure if I want to get back to playing MMORPGs seriously but that experience reminded me just how enjoyable adventuring can be when you are in a group that works.

This morning I experienced the less pleasant side of MMORPGing. First I wasted an hour waiting for a pick up group to get off the ground before it eventually dissolved without accomplishing anything. Then I spent another hour housekeeping - clearing out my bags, repairing armour, putting stuff up for sale on the AH.

I know that time sinks and and waiting around are major features of every MMORPG but at this point I don't think I am prepared to put up with that. If I go back to playing this type of game I want it to be on my terms. I want to be able to play whenever I like for as little or as long as I like. I want to be able to log on for an hour and achieve something.

Perhaps I need to go back to Guild Wars. It really is a game that is friendly to busy people with virtually no timesinks and short missions that can be accomplished in an hour of playing time. Sadly I got a little bored of the Guild Wars world. There is a new expansion out now but I haven't yet been able to work up the motivation to check it out.

By the way I noticed that there doesn't appear to be any more servers than there were in June. It seems that Lotro subscriber numbers have not increased significantly since the beginning of the summer.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I love Mouselook. (with grateful thanks to Rob Markovic)

My last post set me thinking about "Mouselook" or "Freelook" as Wikipedia calls it.

In the unlikely event that you are not familiar with the term this refers to the control technique that is used in nearly every first person game on the PC since the mid 1990's. For reference I will outline the main details at the bottom of this post but many gamers will be intimately familiar with this already.

Mouselook has been a great boon to PC gamers. On the one hand its standardisation allows gamers to move easily from one first person game to the next with a very short learning curve. In the same way that learning to drive allows you to drive any car, learning mouselook allows you to play any PC first person game. Of course mouselook wasn't adopted as the standard by accident. It happens to be a suprememly fluid and intuitive control scheme for moving your character around in a virtual 3D world. In fact I don't believe a better scheme exists. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is the fact that console first person games which cannot implement mouselook due to the lack of a mouse invariably have some kind of auto-aim feature to compensate for the imprecision of the joystick equivalent.

Although Quake from 1996 is the game which popularised mouselook on the PC there were earlier games that used this technique. Wikipedia credits the Macintosh game Marathon from 1994 with the first implementation. I myself first came across mouse and keyboard controls when playing the 1995 game Descent. Descent is a flying game and the developers strongly reccommended the use of a joystick. The controls were configurable however and a post on usenet alerted me to the ability to set up mouse and keyboard control. I have never looked back.

In a fit of nostaligia I tried to find that usenet post using Google groups. I think it was probably this thread dated MArch 1995. I cant find Rob Markovic's original post but the link quotes his description of a mouselook control scheme. In modern implementations the WASD keys are generally used instead of the arrow keys that Rob recommends because they are better positioned for the left hand. I don't know what became of Rob Markovic but I think he is one of the great unsung pioneers of PC gaming. Thank you Rob.

By the way, Parallax the company who developed Descent gave birth to Volition who developed Freespace so I guess it is entirely fitting that I should again ignore Freespace's default control scheme to rig up mouselook

To be fair I should point out that mouse and keyboard control gives some people quite severe nauseous headaches. The ability to rapidly pan a 3D view around probably sends some confusing messages to the brain. I used to suffer from headaches like that myself but since the advent of fast graphics cards, high resolutions graphics and fast screen refresh rates I have not experienced this to any great extent. A couple of years ago I re-installed original DOOM and found that its low res graphics still gave me feelings of nausea after a prolonged playing session.

Perhaps the greatest problem with mouselook control is that it may soon cease to be. The hard economics of the gaming industry means that consoles are now the platform of choice for major releases. MMORPGs and Strategy games are fighting a valiant rearguard battle for the PC but all the major first person shooters now come out on console first.

Brief Description of Mouse and keyboard control (aka mouselook aka WASD) as used in PC based first person shooter games.


In its canonical form it goes like this:

Mouse adjusts the direction a person is looking.

W and S move the player forwards and backwards respectively. This feels very natural. The player walks forwards or backwards in the direction they are looking.

A and D slide the person sideways perpendicular to the direction they are looking. This is an unusual movement in real life (a kind of sidestep) but it became embedded in the standard due to the technique of circle strafing

Left Mouse click fires primary weapon at the item currently in the centre of the screen (often indicated by an aiming reticule).

Mouse wheel and or number keys change between weapons

The above points are almost universally adhered to but there are a few other conventions that are very common:

Space Bar: jump
C: Crouch
Shift: Run or Walk
R: Reload
Q,E: Peek around corners
Right mouse button: alternate weapon or alternate fire mode or weapon zoom mode.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Freespace

Freespace 2 is a game I have always wanted to play. I can still recall seeing the big box artwork of a major space battle and promising myself I would play that game some day. Reviews confirmed that the game was a cracker with awesome space battles to be experienced.

(Image taken from the official Freespace 2 website:)

I actually did buy a budget Freespace compilation a few years later with Freespace 2 and its predecessor but I never got around to playing them until now. Finding myself at a gaming loose end this week my eyes fell on the box and I decided to have a go.

Although Freespace 2 received more critical acclaim it seemed appropriate to have a go at the original first so I installed it and am working my way through it.

Conflict Freespace dates from the late 1990's and it shows. Graphics are poor, much worse than Homeworld for example. The control system is complicated, every button on the keyyboard seems to be used. Nevertheless there is an enjoyable zap-em-up in there once you get the hang of it. I am rushing through the game on an easy setting in order to get to its reputedly much improved offspring.

I hit one snag. Being a flight simulator the game is designed for joystick control and I suck at using a joystick. Thankfully mouse control is supported and with a bit of poking around (reversing the Y-Axis) I managed to get a decent "mouse look" control going.

If you have ever thought about it there is a fundamental difference between mouselook and joystick control. A mouse directly controls where you are looking while the joystick controls the velocity at which your view point is changing. When you move the mouse to a position the reticule moves with you and stops when you stop. When you move a joystick the reticule begins to move and continues to move until you return the joystick to its centre point.In control theory speak the joystick has an additional integrator in the loop which increases system lag and can lead to instability. Having played a fair few FPS games I am very comfortable with mouselook and I find it works superbly for spaceship control - in fact I find it makes the game easier because aiming is more precise.

Monday, September 10, 2007

How Nerdy are you?

Thanks to Tipa at West Karana for pointing this out to me:

NerdTests.com says I'm a Cool Nerd King.  What are you?  Click here!


Overall I think its pretty accurate. I am a qualified EE so it would be embarassing if I didn't score high on the science and Maths. I am pleased enough that I scored higher on the History/Literature than SciFi/Comics. I suppose that is what puts me on the "Cool" nerd category as opposed to the "Dork" nerd category. That and the fact that I have actually seen a real woman naked, I guess.

At a bit of a gaming crossroads. Bioschock finished. Company of Heroes only one mission to go. Gladiatus getting boring. Have dug out Freespace (the orignal one) for a bit of space shoot em up.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Bioshock: My Favourite Plasmid

I have just finished Bioshock, hurray. One of my favourite aspects of the game was the choice of playing styles available through the use of plasmids and gene tonics. Gene tonics are passive upgrades that enhance selected abilities while plasmids are active skills that you can use like magic spells in other games. Here are my thoughts on the main plasmids in the game and my selection of a personal favourite.


I suppose Electro Bolt has to be the "most useful" plasmid. It stuns enemies, it disables machines, it opens doors and it turns water into a seething pool of electric death. This is the first plasmid you get and it is the one Plasmid that I never swapped out over the full course of the game. In fact I became so dependent on the ability to stun opponents that I really struggled when enemies with electric immunity popped up towards the end of the game. Most useful doesn't necessarily mean most fun though so lets consider some others.

Telekinesis, the ability to move stuff around has a lot of potential for fun particularly with the ability to modify the environment and use assorted items of junk as traps and weapons. It is also great for returning flaming missiles to their originators. In order to get the most out of telekenesis though you would have to work at it and I didn't spend much time with it. It just isn't my play style I suppose.

Incinerate certainly creates fireworks and it is amazing how many things in this game can be set alight. I was disappointed by how little damage incineration seems to do though. This might have been better if I took the appropriate gene tonics to maximise fire damage but I didn't.

Winter Blast is the the chilly counterpart to incinerate. I never got to like this. It always seemed to be a desperate race against time to try and shatter the frozen enemy before they thawed and even if you were successful shattered corpses give no loot.

Enrage turns a hostile mob into an ally. I used this skill early on when facing groups of enemies but I grew to dislike it after a few failed attempts. The problem is that if there are no other targets in sight the enraged enemy will turn on you. That doesn't work well with a stealthy playstyle. You are more or less forced to confront mobs en masse in order to use it successfully.

Hypnotise Big Daddy is a great plasmid. These guys really kick ass and I got a great buzz out of having my own personal Frankenstein monster to fight by my side. Unlike Enrage there are no bad side effects. The hypnotised Big Dad won't turn on you if there are no other targets around and won't turn on you when the effect wears off. Unfortunately when a Big Daddy stomps around the earth literally moves. The whole screen jumps up and down with every step. At first this seems like a cool effect but it becomes tedious if not downright nausea inducing if you have to endure it for any length of time.

Security Bullseye makes the recipient a target for the security system in your place. Meh ...I never really used it. I preferred to hack security devices myself to achieve the same effect.

Cyclone Trap allows you to lay tornado traps that throw enemies into the air and dash them to the ground. I never used this. I guess trapping just isn't my style.

OK enough beating around the bush. The time has come to reveal my all time favourite plasmid. And the winner is...

Insect Swarm: A swarm of bees flies out of your hand and stings the daylights of any enemy that happens to be in their path. At first I thought this was just a novelty but then I realised that in the right circumstances the swarm can do a huge amount of damage to a group of enemies, more I think than a single shot of any other plasmid or weapon. Part of the joy of using bees though is that its affects aren't always predictable. The swarm doesn't shoot out like a bullet towards its target. Instead it seems to meander. Sometimes an enemy will avoid the heart of the swarm and endure only one or two stings. At other times the enemy will get stuck in the middle of the angry swarm and dance like a swatting lunatic as the angry bees slowly whittle their life down to zero. Beware though lest a stray bee sting an unwanted target. Even one bee sting is enough to send a Big Daddy tearing after you in revenge. To me this unpredictability is part of the joy of using insect swarm. One of my favourite tactics was to sneak up to a group, release a swarm and then leg it before the first sting alerted the enemies. From my secure hiding place I waited for the buzzing and accompanying shrieks to die down before going out to inspect the damage. I have even killed Big Daddies this way although it takes a few swarms and a bit of stealthy patience.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Surround Sound Problems

Bioshock is an eerily atmospheric game. To get the most out of the game I dug out my four channel surround sound speakers that had been out of commission for a couple of months. My five year old Soundblaster Audigy and Cambridge Soundworks FPS2000 quadrophonic speakers are not exactly state of the art but they can produce some sweet surround sound when they are used properly. Unfortunately I noticed some bizarre problems with the spatial audio in Bioshock. Even though I was definitely getting sound out of all four speakers the sounds didn't seem to be coming from the right direction. In particular there was a distracting "deaf spot" when a sound was directly behind me. Time to do some trouble shooting.

I double checked my wiring and it was OK so I decided to try updating my sound card drivers. I have had some unpleasant experiences with Creative's driver install procedure in the past but I am happy to report that things are much improved if not yet perfect. On the plus side it was easy enough to find the right driver and software through the downloads section of this page. Also the installer did a good job of detecting the previous driver and un-installing it. My biggest gripe is that I was unable to install the updated Soundblaster application software because it refuses to install unless it finds a previous installation. It looks like I would have to find my five year old install CD and start with that in order to get the update. Why are Creative so protective about their application software? I can't imagine that Creative application software is likely to be pirated - it's not much use to someone who didn't buy the hardware in the first place.

Without application software I had no easy way of testing my speaker set-up. Free surround sound software seems to be thin on the ground. Maven-Wizard looks like the perfect solution but the program doesn't seem to work on Windows XP. The install directory does have some useful multichannel sound samples though so I was able to verify that all my speakers are working. By the way I was unable to find a download link on Maven3Ds own site so I got the program here.

The good news is that the new driver fixed most of my sound issues in Bio-shock and I now have four channel surround sound. I find it greatly improves the immersion of the game when you can locate enemies by the direction their sound is coming from. It is still not perfect. The sound is really only 2D not 3D. There are no speakers above your head or beneath your chair. Also some sound effects within the game seem to be ambient rather than fixed to an object. Nevertheless I am delighted to be able to get such good use out of a five year old sound system. Pity I can't say the same about a five year old graphics card! Sadly some new games have stopped supporting quadrophonic surround sound and I may be forced to upgrade to 5.1 or 7.1 speakers. I shudder to think what I would need to spend to get equivalent quality in a new set of speakers though.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Far Cry Again - Now with Videos

After all the excitement about free Far Cry I just had to fire it up and fight through a few levels. Boy do I love this game even though it is often b*stard hard. I am going to have to make a real effort to put it away again in order to finish Bioshock.

Anyway now for an mbp first -I am going to try and attach a couple of videos I captured using Fraps.

First off some Sniper Rifle Pwnage:


And for those who think Bioshock has the best water effects ever - Here's something you CAN'T do in Bioshock:


By the way the original Fraps vidoes were full screen uncompressed files taking up hundreds of Megabytes so I used Windows Movie Maker to compress them using the 512k Broadband setting.

Far Cry for Free!!!

All the hullabaloo about the stunning graphics of Graphics of Bioshock reminded me of a game that was released four years ago that remains in my opinion the greatest shooter ever and also by far the prettiest.
Just look at that that beautiful vista. Just look at that stunning tropical lagoon. Yes they are waves gentling breaking on the shore. Yes you can swim in those crystal clear waters - they are populated by swimming fishes and waving plant life. Sure this may have fewer post processing effects or whatnot than Bioshock but it is drop dead gorgeous and being four year old technology that runs like a dream on modern hardware.

If you haven't played FarCry then shame on you but you can now download an ad supported version and play the whole game for Free. I can't vouch for how intrusive the ads are because I paid for my copy but it has to be worth it just to experience those beautiful tropical scenes. Fileplanet link here.

Be warned Far Cry is a tough old school shooter. There is no resurrection in this game and you will live or die based on your mouse and keyboard skills. If you are unsure of your ability to pull off head shots from half way across the island then I advise playing a stealthy game - using the lush tropical vegetation to sneak around your opponents and take them out when they least expect it.

Apparently Ubisoft have also released Prince of Persia and a Rayman game under this ad supported scheme. I read about it here. Fair play to them I say. I think this is a terrific initiative.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Gladiatus: I am a Hero of the Arena

In between bouts of Bioshock I am leveling a Roman gladiator through the new (to me) browser based online RPG "Gladiatus, Hero of Rome". TO be more accurate I am levelling my gladiator while playing Bioshock. How is this possible you may ask. Have I suddenly developed ambidextrous multi-boxing skills?

Not really. You see Gladiatus is a game of fairly limited interactivity. For example my heroic Gladiator is cleaning out stables to earn a few gold coins as we speak, a task that doesn't require any explicit attention from me. Indeed he is quite happy to do that while my computer is switched off. Quite a lot of Gladiatus involves logging in asking your character to do something and then coming back when the job is done.

In addition to sweeping out stables your gladiator can explore a number of dangerous locations and undertake quests in order to build up his skills, wealth and equipment. Of course the real purpose of the game is to exploit these skills in order to vanquish fellow human players in the Roman arena. A strict ladder system is enforced you can only progress by fighting and vanquishing one of the four players immediately above you in the ladder. Given that my humble gladiator was ranked around 10,000th on his server when he joined you can imagine the long hard slog it will be for him to fight his way to the top. There is some light at the end of the tunnel however. I suspect that only every 10th number is actually allocated because he seems to be jumping in leaps of 40 places. Also many of the lower numbers are non-players who signed up and never leveled their characters so beating them is no problem at all.

In addition to the ladder you can also issue a challenge to any other named opponent for a small fee. I don't think this allows you to make progress on the ladder but does allow for grudge matches. By the way challenges are never declined and matches are immediately resolved. If you are challenged while you are away from your computer you will have a message when you return telling your whether you won or lost.

In addition to combat there are a number of vendors and there is an active market place for users to buy and sell their treasures. There is also the most unforgiving auction house I have ever come across in an online game. If you are outbid in an auction you lose the full amount of your bid. Players cannot place items for sale in the auction house but instead various high level goods appear for sale. Since auctions last for a random, undisclosed amount of time actually acquiring an item without losing your bid is an exercise in brinkmanship.

The game is a bit confusing at first and there is a lack of documentation but with the aid of the active forum you can quickly muddle it out. It seems to be very popular judging by the level of forum activity and the fact that there are already seven active servers with apparently thousands of players on each.

The thing is quite addictive and I find it an amusing diversion to have it going in one tab of my browser while I am looking at other things. Sadly, having reached the dizzy heights of arena rank 8751 I must admit that the whole game is ultimately rather pointless. Progress in the game is ruled almost entirely by the clock - you can only fight one arena opponent every 15 minutes for example and missions take a set period of real time. You quickly figure out that the key to progress is to adopt a slavish schedule of logging on regularly in order to start the next task. Alarm bells rang when I browsed the forums and noticed that high level players have to indulge in "account sitting": playing someone else's account in order to maintain their rate of progress while they are away. Ah well - there is always progress quest.

By the way Gladiatus is a commercial enterprise from a German company called Gameforge . Although the game is free to play they have several ways of earning their money. Firstly there is the option of purchasing premium mode for around €3 per month. This gives you a daily wage and also reduces the time between fights and missions. Effectively premium mode allows you to progress far more quickly. In addition to premium mode there is also the option to purchase "rubies" for real cash which can be traded for high end items in game. Significantly rubies allow the user to buy out high level items from the auction house without risking the loss of their bid. I should also point out that the terms and conditions have a clause which reserves the right to give your contact details to third parties for promotional purposes. I haven't received anything from anyone other than Gameforge yet but if you do decide to join the game you might want to use an unimportant email account to register.

You can try Gladiatus for yourself here (The link is safe but I will receive some notional kudos for directing you to it. If you have a problem with that you can go in through the front door by googling Gladiatus.)

By the way if you do create a character on server number 7 please feel free to issue a challenge to Hortius (currently level 4). Most of my arena battles to date have been against dormant accounts and it would be nice to fight a few live players.