Monday, March 31, 2008

Time versus Skill, Does it Actually Matter?

My recent drubbings at the hands of more experienced COD4 players got me thinking about the age old time versus skill debate. MMORPGs tend to fall into the "time" camp with progression dependent on hours (days!) played while shooters tend to be more "skill" dependent with keen reflexes and sharp tactics required to win. Call of Duty 4 is bit of a hybrid. Players level up over time unlocking new guns and perks. However the game is well balanced and an upgrade in one area will incur a penalty somewhere else. Experienced players don't really get more powerful kit they just have a greater choice of ways to play.

Better commentators than I have mulled over this issue so I won't attempt to rehash all the usual arguments. Michael Sng offers a good analysis in his Arson and Arsenic blog.

All I will say is that for me the distinction doesn't make much difference. Ultimately time based or skill based both boil down to commitment. How committed am I to putting in the hours to grind out a full set of RAID armour? How committed am I to practising my shooter skills until I am a finely honed fps killing machine?

Honest answer to both these questions: Not very committed. Despite the fact that gaming is a major hobby of mine regularly consuming 20 or more hours every week it still comes fairly low down on my list of life's priorities.

Gaming is very important to me and I have been known to get irritable if I am away from my computer for long. However it is definitely a question of fitting gaming around the other parts of my life rather than fitting life around my gaming. Maybe this is just part and parcel of being a grown up gamer. Maybe it is the sobering influence of my non gamer wife.

Anyway it is this lack of commitment more than anything else which makes me a casual gamer. When I think about it it actually seems quite strange. I spend more than 20 hours every week on a hobby that I am not particularly good at. I imagine that if I tried to explain it to my non-gaming friends they would be surprised.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

COD4 - I wish you had an auto patcher.

To celebrate the fixing of my PC I fired up Call of Duty 4 again for a bit of online multiplayer fragging. I was pleased to see that there are still plenty of servers and players around.

I was vaguely aware that some patches had been released for the game but being more used to MMORPGs I assumed that my game was automatically being kept up to date. A quick google search however determined that the latest version of the game is 1.5 while I was still playing 1.1. It was a little surprising that I that could still play with an out of date client but I set about patching it straight away.

This turned out to be quite a nuisance to do. The game has no built in patcher so I had to find the patches on the net by myself. Then I found that the the latest patch (1.5 ) is an incremental one which requires that the game already be patched to 1.4. Finally I was frustrated to discover that neither Infinity Ward (the developer) nor Activision (the publisher) host all the required patches.


Some further googling and a few dud links later I eventually found the patches I needed. I manually downloaded and installed 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and finally 1.5. It was a surprisingly tedious process.

Once the game was fully patched I fired it up and started playing. Still plenty of servers and plenty of players but I was in for a rude shock. Previously there had been a good mix of experienced and new players. I am pretty inexperienced but I could still make the odd kill and get off the bottom rung of the score table. Now I am surrounded by many starred generals who are at the level 55 cap while I am still only a level 20 sergeant. I come last in almost every game.

The penny dropped when I read the patch notes. Different versions of the game are incompatible and play on different servers. Given the tedious patching process it is no surprise that there are still many people playing the vanilla version out of the box and of course this includes most new players. More serious players and more serious servers keep fully up to date for access to the latest maps and such. By patching my game I have moved from kindergarten into big school and I am struggling to keep up.

I don't know if this is usual multiplayer shooters. Team Fortress 2 kept itself up to date via the Steam system. I do think it is a very bad system. Some kind of auto patcher would ensure that every one is kept up to date. Perhaps the developer / publisher doesn't want to incur the expense of hosting patches. At very least they might have included a reminder which would inform players that their game is out of date and prompt them to patch it.

Now I have a dilemma. Do I continue to play on the harder 1.5 servers or do I reinstall the game in order to go back to vanilla 1.1? I guess I will try the harder servers for a bit longer. I might learn something. The huge level difference sounds intimidating but they don't really have any better gear than I have. They just know how to play better :(

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire = Miracle Cure

A cloud has (touch wood) been lifted from my digital existence.

For the last few weeks my computer has been acting up. It started crashing randomly. The events ranged from programs crashing unexpectedly to the desktop all the way to forced reboots.

I have been tearing my hair out trying to get to the bottom of it but the intermittent nature of the fault made it almost impossible to track down. On several occasions hope rose after a change appeared to grant several days of uninterrupted computing only to be dragged down once more by the hieroglypic vomit of Microsoft's blue screen of death.

I wasted many hours in failed debugging attempts focussed on the most obvious suspects: a recently changed graphics card, a new power supply and a modified chipset heatsink. I diligently performed anti virus scans, chkdsk scans and memtest scans all to no avail. Nothing I did gave me conclusive evidence of the cause of the problem and the intermittent crashes always returned.

To tell the truth the whole affair was getting me down. I began to despair of ever getting a working computer. It was a contributory factor to my decision to take a break from playing LOTRO. The last thing needed in a raid instance is a player with a flaky PC.

Then unexpectedly fate took pity on me.

I tried to install the demo of "Sins of a Solar Empire" and my PC crashed. Nothing remarkable about that. I have become depressingly familiar with unexpected visits to the reboot screen. I tried to install it again and it crashed again. In fact every time I tried to install the demo it crashed.

BUT..every install attempt resulted in a different crash at a different point in the installation. Sometimes it would crash gently to the desktop at the start of the process, other times my machine would get half way through installation and reboot. The random nature of the crashes suggested this was not a software glitch or driver compatibility issue. I dared to hope that these crashes were the direct result of my hitherto intermittent fault occurring predictably and under my control. So it turned out. "Sins" was the magical stethoscope I needed to detect the cancer at the heart of my machine.

I immediately undertook a rigorous structured debugging exercise. I redid all the scans and then proceeded to swap out components one at a time. At each step I made several attempts to install "Sins" and it let me know whether or not the fault was still present. It was a slow process but the outcome was never in any doubt. I had enough old computer junk lying around to replace every single component in the machine one piece at a time. There would be no place left to hide.

It turned out to be a dodgy memory stick. I don't know why the normally reliable Memtest386 didn't catch it. I don't know why a simple installer program was able to catch the fault with unerring accuracy.

I must buy a copy of the game, whether I play it or not. I owe it to them.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

You are only as smart as your search engine.

How do you manufacture polyethylene? Which German King was the founder of the Hapsburg Dynasty? How do you solve a quartic equation?

Twenty years ago it might have taken me several hours in a good library to answer those questions. Today I can do in a few minutes sitting at any computer in the world.

The internet gives me access to a vast archive of information but the interface between me and most of that information is a search tool. The better that search tool is the more readily I can find the information I want and in a very real sense the smarter I become.

Therefore I must thank Tipa for pointing out a free Beta of SearchMe a new visual search engine. It shows you pictures of websites responding to your search rather than text descriptions. I don't know if it will replace Google but it is fun to play with and is particularly handy for finding pages you have seen before but can't quite remember the address. I can't get it to work with Firefox tabs yet but it is only Beta so I assume this will be addressed later.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dénouement

Wow. Just Wow.

Last post I told you about the pirate adventure that Bill Harris constructed for his six year old son. I thought it was the coolest thing ever and I couldn't wait to read how it all turned out.

As expected Bill's piece about the day of the adventure makes great reading but even I was surprised at just how great it is.

What I wasn't expecting was that the core of this piece is not about the wild excitement of a six year old who thinks he has just dug up buried treasure. The real heart of the piece is Bill's painfully honest description of the moment when he realises that in creating the greatest adventure of his kid's life he has also set the youngster up for ridicule at the hands of the cynical old men of first grade.

It is a terrific piece of writing and I am not sure if I have ever read a better insight into what it is like to be a man and a father.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Last Will and Testament of Pirate Pierre L'Orange

A mysterious package arrives at the door containing a tattered piece of parchment that looks like a map to buried pirate treasure.

If you haven't been following the story of Bill Harris's elaborate plot to create a real life adventure for his 6.7 year old son then get yourself over to Dubious Quality now and read all about it while the story is still hot.

Bill has laid his plans with the loving attention to detail of a true nerd. It is all coming to a climax in a few hours (the morning after a "full moon"...) and I can't wait to hear how it turns out.

Bill at this moment I almost wish you were my dad.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Friendly Fire AOE

My NWN2 "main" is a level 10 wizard. He was a bit squishy for the first couple of levels but soon gathered a collection of powerful area of effect spells. At normal difficulty setting the game became too easy because damage does not break crowd control. My wizard could wade into a bunch of mobs, stun them all and fry them all with few aoe spells.

I upped the difficulty to hardcore rules. This allows mobs to hit a bit harder but the most significant change is that area of effect spells now damage friend as well as foe. This friendly fire aoe certainly adds a new element of strategy to the game. Position and timing become critically important if you want to avoid incinerating yourself and your team.

Fallen comrades are resurrected after each battle so you could play a sacrificial strategy stunning and killing friends and foes alike. That strategy doesn't sit well with a "good" character alignment though and it is risky. Mobs often break loose from crowd control and the wizard needs to be protected.

I prefer to play slowly and cautiously. My wizard, druid and rogue hide in the shadows while a heavily buffed fighter pulls a large train of mobs into a carefully prepared crowd control trap. Once trapped the mobs are easy pickings for the rogue (sneak attack against stunned targets) and carefully placed spells. The fighter and druid pick up stragglers, keeping them away from my wizard.

Neverwinter Thoughts

I haven't logged in to Lotro in over a week and I am only now beginning to realise how much I needed a break from mmorpging. I am slowly working my way through Neverwinter Nights 2 and I love being able to play when I like and stop when I like. I love playing a game with a defined story line that will come to a definite end. I love playing a party game where I am in sole charge of all the characters.

Don't get me wrong, I am normally a sociable, chatty player but for some reason I don't feel like talking while I play at the moment.

Despite the fact that NWN2 is hitting the button for me I cannot overlook some glaring problems with the game. My biggest complaint is the appalling character and mob AI. You cannot rely on computer controlled characters to do anything other charge suicidally into battle.

Sometimes poor team AI can be got around by using AI modes which constrain AI behaviour. NWN2 has a very detailed set of AI constraints with choices such as whether or not a character will use items and several levels of spell casting aggressiveness. Sadly the game designers choose to leave out the two most important choices: passive/defensive/aggressive mode and stay/follow mode. There is simply no way to tell a character not to enter combat and the only way to get characters to stay behind while one goes scouting ahead is to turn off the AI. Bizarre. In short the AI is unusable. This would be a fatal flaw except that this is a turn base game at heart and you can freeze the action turn by turn while you micromanage things. That's what I do. I assume that's what everyone else does as well.

Perhaps a more fundamental objection is with the D&D 3.5 rule set itself. Stop telling me a spell does 5d6 point of damage, tell me it does 5-30 points of damage. Why do players have levels and monsters have hit dice? I am sorry if I upset pen and paper gamers but I really think an arcane dice based rule set has no place in a modern Computer game.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Splash Screen Mini-Game

Do you play the Splash Screen Mini-Game (SSMG)? I bet you do.

The concept of SSMG is simple enough. Start up any modern game and it begins to load an interminable sequence of splash screens. Game play involves pressing escape, return or some other key combination at exactly the right times to bypass these screens. Press the wrong combination or press the combination at the wrong time and you lose. Losing the splash screen mini-game results in your keyboard locking up and your being forced to sit through a long sequence of advertisements for every single company who was ever involved in any way with the development of the game. I counted 9 different splash screens before I got to the main menu of Neverwinter Nights 2 and I don't think this is at all unusual.

Most gamers have become adept at basic SSMG and hardly give it a second thought but there are some advanced aspects of the game that are often overlooked. Some screens can't be bypassed because the computer is actually doing useful stuff like loading the game. Attempts to bypass these screens will probably lead to the aforementioned keyboard lock-up. In addition many splash screen mini-games have a hidden Easter Egg in the form of an impressive opening cinematic hidden among the dross of promotional screens. Only the most experienced SSMG players are able to skip the adverts without bypassing the opening cinematic.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Lotro: Now with more drunkeness (and a promised expansion)

Typical.

Earlier this week I decided to take a break from Lotro. No big deal , just want to do some other stuff for a while. Made a polite announcement in my kinship forums.

Then just to spite me Turbine implement what has to be the coolest mmo festival reward ever: A beer keg who's contents are so potent that if you over indulge you pass out and wake up in a completely different part of the world. An kinmate even reported waking up with a hangover in the very nasty Giant Halls region of the Misty Mountains. Some friends he has!

If that wasn't enough to tempt me back today Turbine announce the first paid expansion for the Lotro to come with an increase in the level cap from 50 to 60.

My resolve is holding firm. I am taking a break. I just have to avoid the internet for a while that's all.

Uncanny Valley

http://cubo.cc/

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why don't they have henchmen in World of Warcraft?

or Lotro or other "full featured" mmorpgs. I don't mean limited pets I mean full blown henchmen with capabilities equivalent to those of a player character, something along the lines of Guld Wars Heroes.

Henchmen open up a lot of new gameplay possibilties and they solve an awful lot of Looking for Group problems. Henchmen make a game much more solo / small group friendly. I know a lot of old-timers shudder at the thought of playing an mmo solo but Wow and Guild Wars have shown that making a game solo friendly can lead to commercial success. Given this commercial reality I am amazed that more games have not implemented henchmen. If I were designing a game to dethrone WOW I would certainly try and include henchmen.

Getting the AI right is always going to be tricky but I think Guild Wars has solved a lot of those issues and may offer a template that can be copied. When Guild wars was released its original hencmen were lower level characters with limted player control and very poor ai (melee healers ftw). Updates over the years have greatly improved henchem AI and given the player more control over them. Heroes (a kind of uber henchman) are full characters that level up in their own right and have access to all the skills and capabilities of a player with some minor gear limitations.

Of course Guild wars characters only have eight skills on their bar at any one time so it is feasible to micromanage your main and a hencman or two. Most mmos have far more skills to juggle and this makes controlling a henchman more difficult. However I have always been surprised at the number of people who double (or even triple) box mmos playing multiple characters on multiple computers. I have asked a few of them how they do it and the trick is generally to simplify the controls - putting chracters on follow and binding important skills (for example a healers main heal skill) to easily accessed keys.

Here is a model I think would work for a more traditional MMO like Wow or Lotro or EQ2: Create a number of generic henchmen to cover the main roles: Tank, Heal, DPS, Crowd Control. Make them as powerful as player characters but give them a simplified skill set that covers the main functions of that archetype. Each player can have a maximum of one henchman of level equivalent to their own. Hencham AI would allow for the ususal options (follow/stay put, aggressive / defensive/passive). Players can also take more direct control of hencmen - selecting their targets and using individual skills. Skills can be individually put under AI control or not.

I really think that properly designed henchmen could be usable all the way up to Raid instances with appropriate player intervention. Of course the AI wouldn't be smart enough to tank a major boss but the player controlling it could be.

How do we handle the impact of gear level in gear centric mmos? A few ways. Perhaps players can gear up henchmen from their own inventory. Perhaps Henchmen with different levels of gear can be hired for different fees. Perhaps some kind of gear equivalence could be worked out so that the henchmans gear level reflects the gear level of the player doing the hiring.

What about loot distribution? Guild wars gives henchmen an equal share of the loot and it works surprisingly well. Of course henchmen won't be part of any loot distribution system so they will probably roll on everything. People may be upset to see an epic drop going into the henchman's back pocket but thats the deal if you need to hire one of these guys. An alternative approach would be to give the hencman no loot but pay them a fixed fee depending on the henchman's level and the mission dificulty.

Would henchmen destroy the game by discouraging grouping. I don't think so. Since each payer can only have one henchman you still need a bunch of players to tackle harder missions. The correct use of henchmen could even train people in to playing with tanks / healers etc. I can also see a rich stream of new game play possiblities as people try to work throuhg difficult missions with various types of henchmen.

My Blog Doesn't work in Firefox anymore!

Since yesterday My blog front page has appeared corrupted whenever I try to browse it in Firefox. It looks fine in IE7. I diabled all my firefxox add ons and it still doesn work (all I get is a page of un-rendered html.)

If anyone knows anything about this I'd appreciate any suggestions.

Edit: Problem solved. It went away of its own accord. Good job too because according to sitemeter the vast majority of the visitors to this blog use Firefox. I am a Firefox user myself so I probably skew the numbers but I have been using FF2 for a while and FF1 accounts for 43% of my visitors.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Neverwinter Nights 2

I am commemorating Gary Gygax's passing in my own small way by finally installing and playing the copy of Neverwinter Nights 2 that has sat on my shelf for over a year.

The camera controls are a bit of a struggle and as ever the D&D rule set has always seemed bizarrely unintuitive to me but nevertheless I am having fun. It is a refreshing change from mmorpging actually.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I'm sorry, what did you say your name was again?

If ever you are introduced to me please don't be offended when I fail to utter your name correctly less than five minutes after. Its not personal. I just can't remember names. I never could. It seems I was born that way.

Over the course of 40 plus years this failing has caused me to commit many social gaffes and has led to a number of embarrassing meetings with past friends who I remember very well in every way except for their name.

There was one occasion however when I failed to remember a name on which I look back fondly despite it being embarrassing at the time.

I happened in my final years in university. It was not a particularly memorable period of my life. I was drifting through the closing stages of my course slowly coming to terms with the realisation that very soon I would have to leave college and get a real job.

I bumped into a girl I used to know from my school days. When I say used to know, I mean this was someone I had suffered a couple of humiliating defeats to in school debating.

Although we had gone to the same university our paths had not crossed. This lady had become a leading light in the college scene. The only dent I ever made on the college social circuit was a minor position with the sleepy Mathematical society (not a hotly contested post). In terms of social significance there was a very large gulf between us so it is not surprising that we did not generally mix in the same circles.

At the time I bumped into her this young lady was running an active, enthusiastic and ultimately successful campaign for leadership of the college's largest and most influential society. This was an organisation famous (infamous) throughout the country as a breeding ground for leading media personalities, politicians and other bastions of Irish society. Her name was emblazoned in large letters all over the Campus and her smiling face looked down from many election posters.

There was a chance meeting in the college canteen. I doubt I would have had the nerve to introduce myself but she turned and said hello, addressing me by name. I opened my mouth to return the greeting and then..

Vocal chords froze as I realised that I could not remember this girls name. The pause was too long to escape notice. My anguish must have been visible as I strained to drag the missing name from my un-compliant memory.

It was awful it was embarrassing and suddenly it was there - a name came into my head.

"Hello Elizabeth" I stuttered.

Her name was not Elizabeth. I should have known this because she was standing under a large poster on which her name was printed in foot high letters. To the left and to the right were many many posters carrying large smiling pictures of this girl with her (correct) name printed in large bold letters.

"My name is Isabel" she replied frostily and walked off.

I never saw her in person or spoke to her again although I did take note of her victory in the election and subsequent coronation as queen of the college social scene.

At the time I was mortally embarrassed but when I got over that I began to feel a tiny bit proud of the event. Perhaps I am just being spiteful but perhaps in some small unknowing way I struck a blow for nobodies that day. We may not be glowing stars of society and many people may not even notice that we exist but hey, we can forget famous peoples names too.