Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Currently Reading: Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

I had to stop reading Dan Simmon's "The Terror" once the party got around to eating one another. The book is just too depressing. I hate not finishing a book so I may have another go at it later.

In the meantime I am continuing my Alastair Reynolds binge with "Pushing Ice". It is not a Revelation Space novel which makes an interesting change. The story is set in the near future when mankind is still confined to our own solar system. A routine cometary ice mining expedition is interrupted when one of the moons of Saturn shucks off its outer layers and reveals alien machinery underneath. The erstwhile ice miners are sent in pursuit of the moon turned spaceship as it speeds out of the solar system.

I amn't finished yet but so far I am enjoying it greatly. Some of the lead characters are pretty annoying which can be a big turn off for me but the inventiveness of the plot is keeping me hooked. I just want to find out what happens next. I am deliberately avoiding reviews of the book because I really don't want to spoil the plot for myself.

Crysis? What Crysis? Just press F5.

Like many modern shooters and indeed like Far Cry before it Crysis uses automatic checkpoints to save a players progress through the game. Ideally you should have a checkpoint at the end of each significant encounter. Sadly the checkpoints in Crysis seem somewhat random. Some follow one another with no fighting at all in between while on at least one occasion I counted five significant encounters between checkpoints.

In fact I had to repeat that particular stretch at least ten times to get through. The more encounters you have between checkpoints the greater the chance of dying and the more frustrated and pissed off the player becomes as they have to play through that section over and over again.

I was about to abandon the game in disgust when a quick glance at the control setup revealed that Crysis actually has quick save. Its bound to F5. Duh...

Crysis's predecessor Far Cry did not have quick save and suffered from the same randomness of checkpoints. I think it may be a consequence of the open nature of Cryteks games that their checkpoints are so bad. In a more linear game like Call of Duty 4 every player follows the same route through the game and you can place checkpoints at obvious places. In Crytek's games there are many routes to an objective and it is much harder to choose where to place the checkpoints. So we are stuck with quicksave.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

EVE: Marb Pelico the Underachiever

It started well, I had my bio all worked out.

Marb Pellico is not a corporation man. He has little desire to fly big lumbering Capital ships. He has opted for the life of a space faring tramp, a laid back vagabond flying a beat up ship from system to system picking up odd jobs. He does his best to stay just the right side of the law, more out of self preservation than altruistism. He earns his living through (mostly legal) trading and if repair bills need to be paid he volunteers for the occasional pirate hunt.

Marb is always looking out for the one big deal that will put him on easy street but his reluctance to think through the consequences of his actions have led him into many close scrapes. He generally to escape with his skin if little else. While his ship might look like a flying scrapheap it has a few surprises in store for any pirate who thinks to get a jump on Marb. His skills are good enough to hold his own in a fight but Marb remains a firm believer in the "He who fights and runs away" school of combat.

Financially he just about pays his bills but that one big deal just never seems to work out for him. It is clear to every one but Marb himself that he never will get to retire to the private pleasure resort on Palnaris that he is always talking about.

One week into my EVE trial I realised that Marb had achieved everything I set out for him to do. He has a collection of tech 1 Frigates and the skills to fly them. He has found a couple of lucrative trade runs. He can handle any of the level 1 frigate missions. He has enough cash to buy anything that he has the skills to use.

Sure he has only experienced a tiny fraction of the incredibly complex world of EVE. He has never risked his neck in 0.0 space, he has never even engaged in pvp combat, he has never joined a proper corporation, he has barely scratched the surface of Eve's magnificent economic simulation, he has never flown anything bigger than a Frigate. He has just done everything I set out for him to do.

I really hadn't expected him to get so far so quickly. Earning money in particular has turned out to be a lot easier than I expected. I wonder if it was always the case or if this is just the effects of Mudflation.

Now I am at a loss as to what to do next. Clearly I was under ambitious in setting goals for Marb. I have trained him up to fly destroyers but I am not sure a destroyer fits into the image I have created for him. There is an array of advanced "Tech 2" frigates to work up to but they all fill specialised combat roles and don't fit with my Space Tramp vision at all. The only Tech 2 ship which makes sense is a blockade runner (a kind of freighter with a few survival tricks up it's sleeve). Earning the cash and skills to fly one of those would certainly keep Marb busy for months but I'm not enthusiastic about it. I can't get over the notion that flying a very expensive ship which is specifically designed to ferry valuable cargo through dangerous regions of space is the Eve equivalent of wearing a "Come get me" sign.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Eve: I am a millionaire!

Four days into my EVE trial and I have a crisp 1,000,000 isk in my wallet. My exuberant joy at such unexpected affluence is tempered somewhat from reading Van Hemlock's blog where he mentions that he earns about 30 million in a single 1.5 hour combat mission. Ah well, wealth in an MMOPRG is always relative.

I am especially pleased that none of my cash to date has come from the boring drudgery of asteroid mining. I hope to avoid mining for the duration of my EVE career if I can. I see myself more as an independent pilot struggling to make enough isk to keep his flying rust bucket in star ship fuel. I've made a few profitable trades but most of my earnings to date come from missions and the bounty on npc pirates that inevitably crop up during them.

Speaking of missions I have already had a fairly rude awakening. I had read that level 1 missions were designed to be completed in a frigate so after breezing through the tutorial and follow on ten part training mission I went off and signed up for my first "proper" level 1 mission - something about killing several waves of Angel pirates. Off I headed to the instance only to find myself sitting in a pod five minutes later wondering where it all went wrong.

The angels come in big bunches ranging from moderate threat level Gislii Thugs to very high threat level Gislii Hunters and Impalers. Attempting to get in close and carve them up with gattling gun fire from my slasher proved suicidal. I switched to a Breacher and tried to hold the angels at a distance while I pounded them with long range missile fire. This approach was a bit more successful but unfortunately they also have missiles and other long range weapons and eventually they wore me down. Finally I hit on the somewhat cowardly tactic of using drones from a Probe frigate to thin them out while I stand off at a safe distance. Those drones are slippery buggers and they generally manage to stay alive long enough to take out a couple of enemy frigates. Once the numbers are thinned sufficiently I can fly in close and mop up the survivors with gattling gun fire. It is fairly slow progress. It takes careful positioning and pulling to keep the numbers manageable and I have had a few close escapes. I also have to make frequenct trips back to base to stock up on drones. Happily the starter drones I am using are cheap and the bounty on the pirates more than covers the cost of drones.

EDIT - Thanks to Van Hemlocks timely advice I am happy to say that I am no longer sacrificing drones with wild abandon. I used his suggested tactics to complete another instance of the mission that caused me so much grief earlier and no drones were harmed in the process. Following VH's advice I let the mobs target me before using my afterburner enhanced speed to stand off at a safe distance while my drones went to work. I also swapped my gatling guns for a canon which allowed me to contribute with potshots from long distance. The trickiest bit is lining up the mobs correctly before a pull to ensure that you don't get pushed into another group while standing off.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Have I given up reading?

You may have noticed that the "currently reading slot" hasn't changed in a couple of weeks. I haven't given up reading - its just that I am struggling a bit with Dam Simmons "The Terror". It isn't a bad book. Its a very good book and a gripping read. Unfortunately it is also unmercifully depressing.

It is is the tale of a doomed arctic expedition from the 19th century. As if they didn't have enough to contend with getting stuck in the ice and facing starvation or freezing to death a monster has started eating them one by one.

The whole story just gets more and more harrowing. Its based on a real expedition (apart from the monster of course) and none of the real characters made it out alive so I can's see even a glimmer of a happy ending.

World of Warcraft is Dethroned

Not many folk agree with my somewhat tongue in cheek assertion that MMOs are no more than a passing fad. Indeed SirBruce's latest mmo subscription charts show mmo subscription growth continuing on an exponential path.

Of course most of that growth comes from World of Warcraft which has now become so dominant in the MMORPG field that it is hard to see any new game ever displacing it. Its simple economic logic, a virtuous cycle:

1. Blizzard have the best MMORPG out there so they attract more players.
2. They attract more players so they make higher profits (much higher profits)
3. Higher profits give them more money to invest in developing the the game ensuring that their game remains the best MMORPG out there.
4. Go to step 1.

Curiously this brings me back to my "passing fad" post because I still think the core argument of that post makes a lot of sense. Current generation mmorpgs (including World of Warcraft) force their customers to make unpleasant compromises (particularly spending a long time doing boring stuff) in order to maximise the game companies profit. The best way to compete with a business model like that is to offer a product with similar benefits that does not force the customer to make those compromises.

In a post today Tobold imagines a game where:

Imagine that once you leveled up to level 70, you could get a set of blue gear with useful stats for your class relatively easily by various means, and that this was the best gear available in the game. No raid epics, no PvP epics, nothing. It would mean that if you entered an arena, you'd be sure that your opponent had exactly the same gear as you do, and suddenly the whole system becomes skill-based instead of gear-based. It would mean that all raid dungeons from Karazhan to Sunwell Plateau would necessarily be much closer to each other in difficulty level, and your guild could go raiding whereever they wanted, just based on your skills in beating the various boss encounters, not on your gear. The only rewards would be things like titles and trophies.

Of course the more astute among you will realise that Tobold has just described Guild Wars. While Guild Wars has been very successful it is nowhere close to dethroning World of Warcraft. Maybe this is because of all the stuff Guild Wars doesn't have: It relies on instances and therefore lacks a real "World" feeling. It doesn't have crafting or music or mounts or houses any of the other peripheral stuff that gives richness to an mmorpg world. It doesn't have a monthly fee! While many would see this as an advantage it limits the game in several ways. It limits the amount of money the developers can spend adding cool stuff to the game. It probably also means the game has a less mature player base which may be off putting for many core MMORPG players.

So where does all this lead: Perhaps a new type of MMORPG with a Guild Warsesque model can save the genre from its not very obviously approaching doom. On the other hand perhaps I was right the first time - the whole thing is just a passing fad. I am off to play COD4 until the fuss blows over.

PS. DM Osbons latest initiative has prompted me to also to sign up for a three week trial of Eve. I've done the trial before and I don't expect to last beyond the three weeks this time either but I may get a post out of my experiences.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Richard Bartle on the Future of MMOs

After my rant about the (non) future of mmos, based on nothing more scientific than a bad dream, I think it is only appropriate to link to the views of someone who knows quite a bit more about virtual worlds than I do. Richard Bartle's presentation to IMGDC on three possible futures for MMOs is a well thought out piece. It is also a terrific bit of Powerpoint theatre. Enjoy.

Thanks to Bill Harris and his ever entertaining Dubious Quality Blog for drawing my attention to it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

MMORPGS are no more than a passing fad

I had a revelation this morning as I was dozing in that half state between waking and sleeping. MMORPGs are the "point and click" adventure games of our era. Just like adventure games in the 1980s and 1990s they have enjoyed an explosive growth in popularity. Also just like point and click adventure games they have a fundamental flaw in that the games themselves are really quite boring.

I did a business course a few years back and one of the enduring lessons that stuck with me was that many market leading products force their customers to make compromises in order to suit the manufacturer. Once alternatives become available which do not force customers to make those compromises the market leader is doomed. MMORPGS force their customers to endure hundred of hours of boring repetitive game play so that publishers can extract the maximum number of ongoing subscriptions from a limited amount of content. This is an unsustainable business model once alternatives become available which offer similar gaming benefits without the tedium.

Therefore on the basis of no research whatsoever I am going to go with my hunch and pronounce that the MMORPGs are passing fad that will vanish quite rapidly some day in the near future when players wake up and realise that there are many more enjoyable ways to invest their gaming hours.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Can Gaming Make You Less Violent?

A recent research paper that suggest that video gaming can help reduce anger and make people more relaxed has been getting a fair mount of internet publicity. Mind you another paper presented at the same conference (in my home town of Dublin) suggests that heavy gamers become like sufferers of the autistic disorder Asberger's syndrome.

I can empathise with gaming helping people to relax. I have always found an enjoyable fragging session to be a good way of winding down before bed. My wife on the other hand gets entirely wound up after a gaming session and refuses to play any game late at night.

It is a pity in that the violence research only considered World of Warcraft players. The highly stylised rule based combat of an MMO cannot compare in terms of violence with the ruthless killing found in most FPS games.

I am replaying the single player campaign of COD4. Violence abounds of course but the level "Death From Above" still stands out as the most callous kill fest I have ever experienced in any video game. You control the weapons of flying gunship literally pouring death down onto the hapless enemies below. The casual commentary of your companions is chilling in the extreme. If you have not played the game you can see a video capture here. It is long enough to be tedious sadly but if you can - fast forward to the final jocular comment: "This is gonna be one hell of a highlight reel".

Friday, April 04, 2008

COD4 Multiplayer Map Layouts

Detailed photographic maps at rllmuk forums here. The author has even given names to the major landmarks but I am not aware that these names are in common use.

Simplified schematic maps at nextgenboards available here.

I have a terrible innate sense of direction but I am actually a very good navigator once I have a map in front of me or in my head. I never get lost in a US city with square blocks but I quickly become disoriented in European cities with winding streets and "blocks" that have other than four corners. In gaming this has meant that I am completely incapable of learning the maps by just playing through them. I need to see a picture.

COD4 Newsflash: I no longer completely suck

This most is more in hope of salving some wounded pride than in expectation that you will want to read me blowing my own trumpet. Since my initial humiliations following my upgrade to the latest rev of COD4 I have played a few sessions and I am pleased to report that I am no longer the bottom of the table noobtard. Although most of the players are much further advanced than my humble 22 levels I seem to be able to make some impact and position myself around mid table in most of the games I play.

Partly this is due to choice of server. Many of the servers available advertise hardcore team based games. While these can be very enjoyable it is very difficult for a lone player to make an impact and you become easy pickings for any sort of co-ordinated opposition. I generally fare much better on free for all matches where it is every man for himself.

I am also getting smarter at choosing the right weapon for the map. My beloved M16 assault rifle is superb at medium to long distances in relatively open maps but cannot put lead in the air quickly enough to win run and gun battles in more confined spaces. The MP5 submachine gun has proven to be my saviour in these cases. The heavier so called "light" machine guns offer even more devastating killing potential but they restrict mobility too much for my liking.

I have played in a couple of very crowded free for all games with over 30 players. These games are complete mayhem but enjoyable if you are in the right mood. Running around with a submachine gun and grenades you can rack up a fearsome number of kills. Almost every where you look there is someone to hit. Camping, particularly spawn camping (players hiding near a spawn point to kill others as they spawn) is a nuisance but you quickly get to know the preferred hiding spots. A well placed grenade works wonders at flushing them out.

There are no penalties for dying so fast and furious killing on a crowded server is the quickest way to gain XP and advance. I still enjoy slower paced games however. Perhaps my favourite round to date was a free for all in hardcore mode with only four players on one of the urban maps (crossfire I think). We had no Hud and no minimap so we played a slow cat and mouse game tracking down enemies by sound.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Currently Reading: Alastair Reynolds and Dan Simmons

I have just completed my fourth Alastair Reynolds novel: "Absolution Gap". "Absolution" concludes the story arc begun in Revelation Space although Reynolds has written other stories set in the same universe which pad out the lives of characters from these books.

I have pretty mixed feelings about "Absolution Gap". It has the best beginning and best middle of the series in my opinion and the character development of the main protagonist (a pig named Scorpio) is terrific. Unfortunately the ending of the book is really really bad. It will take a big spoiler to tell you how bad. I am going to try an use an analogy but it is still a spoiler so please skip the next paragraph if you intend to read these books yourself.

SPOILER (Highlight to read)
To understand how bad the ending of Absolution Gap is imagine a series of books about a war between two countries (say England versus Germany). After series of gripping novels in which the advantage swings back and forth leaving you guessing as to who will triumph you finally get to the last few pages of the last chapter of the last book and it goes like this:

A new country called America (who we have never mentioned before) suddenly appears and helps the English to beat the Germans and that was the end of the war. Some time after that another new country called Russia appears and they are more powerful than either the English or the Americans and will probably wipe them out at some time in the future.

The End.

That is what the ending of "Absolution Gap is like"

The ending is awful not just because of rabbits pulled out of hats in the last few pages to resolve the plot. It is also awful because it leaves you with the feeling that everything the protagonists did up to that point is actually irrelevant to the outcome of the story.

I am going to take a break from Reynolds for a while. I have just picked up "The Terror" by Dan Simmons. Simmons's Hyperion quartet is a sublime masterwork of modern Science Fiction so I was surprised to see that this is a historical horror story targeted at a more mainstream audience. It comes with glowing reviews from the likes of Stephen King. Intriguing. I shall report back later.