Saturday, June 28, 2008

Eve Online: Ruptured

In the end I opted for the solid and reliable Rupture over the fast and deadly Stabber. The "hit and run specialist" Stabber does look like a lot of fun but having been stuck with frigates and destroyers for a long time I wanted to experiment with something beefier for a change.

I haven't quite cracked the rupture fit out yet. It has an abundance of low slots which suggest armour tanking (armour tanking modules all require low slots). Yet I struggle to get a decent defence rating from an armour tank. Amour repairers just don't seem to repair as quickly as shield repairers and there are no equivalents of the shield boost amplifier modules which speed up the rate of shield repairers even further. So I return to shield tanking and even though this is limited by the Ruptures lack of mid slots (only 3) I still manage to get a better result than with armour tanking.

I doing level 2's to increase my faction standing to the point where I can access a decent level 3 agent. Decent in this case meaning an agent in safe high security space who is not half way across the galaxy from my current home port. Given that I was comfortably doing level 2's in a destroyer it is no surprise that the bigger rupture makes them even easier. I have settled on the following passive shield tank configuration using cheap tech 1 modules (click to enlarge):


The key to this setup is the two large Azeotropic shield extenders in the mid slots which increase the ruptures shields from a base of 1876 to to 7050 hit points. The Rupture has only three mid slots and with one filled with an afterburner there is no room for shield hardeners but with over 7000 shield points you can survive anything a level 2 throws at you for a long time even without hardeners.

My low slots support the passive shield tank. Damage Control increases the defence of shield, armour and hull - a nice insurance policy. The Shield Power Relays increase shield recharge at the expense of cap recharge. With three of them I can tank a sustained 53dps (uniform damage distribution) while my capacitor recharge rate is still enough to supply all my needs. The overdrive injector is a bit of a luxury but I like being the fastest thing on the map. Not only does it speed up getting around but I find it is easier to set up and hold the correct aggro pattern when you are faster than the things you are shooting at. Level 2's have lots of 550m/s frigates and the over drive injector increases my afterburner enabled speed from 523 m/s to 610 m/s at the expense of some cargo space.

Most level 2 missions have massed fleets of frigates and I found that with my low weapons skills I can't even hit a frigate with a cruiser sized medium turret. Therefore I have opted for frigate sized small artillery turrets. Add this to my low weapons skills and the fact that I have filled my low slots with defensive modules instead of weapons upgrades and the net result is a pathetically low 80 DPS. Ruptures I have seen on the internet have 300+ DPS but 80dps is enough to kill most of the stuff found in a level 2. I found that I couldn't kill the tech 2 Arch-Gistum cruisers in the Recon mision (you don't have to kill them - you just run to the gate). I guess when I get to level 3's I will have to try and up my offence somewhat.

Not an optimised fitting by any means but it certainly makes level 2 missions easy. In most missions you can tank whatever damage they throw at you. On a couple of occasions I was distracted from the PC so I just grabbed aggro, released drones and let them kill stuff while I was off doing something else. There are a few level 2's with high incoming DPS though (Damsel in Distress and Recon come to mind) so I don't recommend AFK missioning as general principle :)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

MMORPGs: Tobold invents the PUPDoG

One of Tobold's posts today got me thinking. He proposes an institutionalised system of guild hopping where players automatically join a guild to do a dungeon and then move on to a new guild when they have they are ready for the next dungeon. Tobold wrote this piece with tongue in cheek to highlight the current trend of guild hopping in World of Warcraft, a trend he believes is damaging to the game in the long run. Yet as I read it I realised that I would love just such a system.

I like effortlessly casual social interaction. I like multiplayer shooters where you share a few gaming moments with randomly selected players. I even like pugging in mmorpgs. Guilds are great but they do involve effort, effort in game and effort out of game (forums, administration and schedules).

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed LOTRO so much was that I had great experiences with pick up groups. Partly this was because the community was bit more mature than WOW and partly this was because the game did a great job of training people into grouping.

Of course the problem with pugs normally is that you never know who you are going to get and the performance of the group generally falls to the lowest common denominator. That is why PUG raids are generally destined to fail. Tobold's proposed system of institutionalised Pick up and put down guilds (henceforth to be known as PUPDoGs) might actually solve this problem. The entry requirements would ensure that only players ready for a given level of content would be in a given guild and the as the guilds only focus on one dungeon each they might be expected to develop an institutional memory of tactics for that dungeon.

Am I the only one who likes casual social interaction? I doubt it. The history of mmos shows that there are many different types of players with many different motivations: People who play multiplayer games solo, people who never join a guild, people who play a pvp game in PVE mode. I suspect there are quite a few folk out there who would enjoy an mmo more if the burden of social interaction was reduced rather than increased.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Are MMO's really history?

My recent "MMOs are History" thing (here and here)was started as a joke but Khan's recent post on the future of MMOs has prompted me to think about this more seriously. The truth is my thoughts and feelings about the future of mmorpgs are quite muddled at the moment.

In the first instance I should own up to my own prejudices. I got bored of WOW, I got bored of Guild Wars, I got bored of LOTRO. I didn't just get bored of the predictable fantasy settings or the repetitive gameplay. I got bored of the whole "multiplayer experience". I got bored of grouping and raiding. I got bored of chatting to online friends. I got bored of reading and posting on guild forums. I got bored of trying to fit my life around a game's schedule. I got bored of blogging about my gaming. Even though I am now spending a fair amount of time in EVE I am effectively playing it as a single player game. I know I am missing out on most of what the game has to offer but I just amn't ready yet to get re-involved in all the small efforts required for interactive social gaming.

Nothing more than typical mmorpg burnout, you might say. You might also accuse my unsupported predictions about the end of mmorpgs of being nothing more than hubris on the part of someone who thinks that just because he is bored with a genre everyone else is too.

but....

I just can't shake the feeling that mmorpgs as we know them may already have passed their peak. This isn't a logical thought out position, more a jumble of interconnected threads. Some of the key threads are these:

- The people who are blogging about WAR or AOC or any other new MMORPG are the same folk who were blogging about Everquest, or WOW or DaoC. From that limited perspective the audience for MMOs doesn't seem to be growing and the playerbase is just getting older.

- The "time to boredom" of this player base with each new game seems to be getting shorter.

- Gamers' expectations are changing. Perhaps this is due to the dominance of consoles. Perhaps it is evidence of a wider social phenomenon. Attention spans are shorter. People want instant gratification in their gaming. Gameplay is everything. Story is nothing. Effort is a dirty word. The vast majority of the gaming public would prefer to jump up and down on a Wii fit device than play a game where you need to keep several browser windows of help files open in the background to follow what is going on.

- The dominance of WOW, The legion of me too copies, The apparent impossibility of a creative new ventures making a dent in WOW's position.

- The fact that mmorpgs demand too much from their players, particularly in terms of time commitment. This is the Achilles heel of the mmorpg business. When people realise that they can get the same social and entertainment fix elsewhere for less effort they will move on. I guess I suspect that casual social gaming is probably going to be the next big thing.

- The huge time commitment required also means that players can really only play one game at a time. This hugely limits the market for mmos and is very bad news for the legion of WOW me toos.

- Point and Click adventures. I just can't get over the thought that MMORPGs are the point and click adventures of out age. Point and clicks were the pinnacle of gaming for several years back in the late 80's early 90's and yet the audience for them departed almost overnight. People get bored. People move on.

So ... put it all together and "MMORPGs are History". I could be wrong. WAR could displace WOW and go on to break all records (I doubt it). Free to play games could become good enough to actually hold the attention of serious gamers (again I doubt it). Someone might figure out how to shoehorn World of Warcraft into a gaming console ushering in a new phenomenal growth surge in mmorpging. Casual, browser based MMOs might become huge - displacing myspace, bebo and becoming the place for youngsters to hang out online. Actually that last suggestion is quite likely but then again it won't be an mmorpg as we know it, will it?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Melmoth's "If Monopoly was an MMO"

Melmoth from Killed in a Smiling Accident is on top form with a terrific piece surmising what might have been if Monopoly had been released in the same condition as many MMOs.

My own favourite:

The tutorial for new players was confusing and often entirely contradictory, this lead to many early games with players moving anti-clockwise around the board and falling off into space, because that section of the board was still missing.

There's lots more. Go read it here

Eve Online: Stabber or Rupture

The trouble with playing a hardcore multiplayer PVP game in solo PVE mode is that you burn up the limited content pretty quickly and then boredom sets it. My PST Thrasher is owning level 2 missions now and the heady fun of tweaking a new build has pretty much dissipated.

I need more excitement and it looks like the best way to get it will be to move up a notch to level 3 missions. My dinky destroyer ain't going to cut it in level 3's (a lot of folk use battleships) so I am going to have to upgrade to a cruiser.

The question now is: What Minmatar cruiser? The entry level Bellicose isn't very good apparently and the Scythe is a mining/support vehicle. That narrows it down to a Stabber or a Rupture which is really a very interesting choice.

The Rupture is a more traditional heavily tanked slow damage dealer. The Stabber is fast and light, optimised for hit and run tactics. Which of these should I get to try level 3 missions in?

My first thought is to go for a Stabber. Minmatar ships are all about speed and I love the ability speed gives you to control a battle. On the other hand flying a Stabber sounds a lot like flying a big frigate or destroyer. The Rupture on the other hand would allow me to experience a play style I haven't tried before. It has five low slots which should allow me to build a very solid armour tank.

Fun decisions. The only boring thing is that I still have to grind a bunch of level 2's to get access to lvl 3 agents. At least I can use the time to train up some useful cruiser skills.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Eve online: Thrasher love

The destroyer is an unloved beast in Eve online. Intended mainly as an anti-frigate class they have proven to be easy prey for bigger ships and many folk skip them entirely or consign them to the ignominious role of salvager/loot gatherer, choosing other ships to do the actual fighting.

Many folk skip the destroyer, but not me.

I have recently started doing level 2 missions. Apparently these are balanced for cruiser class vessels but I have not yet trained cruisers so I am using a Thrasher destroyer and having a lot of fun. The blobs of enemies in these missions have enough DPS to chew up a destroyer very quickly. There are even some nasties with warp scramblers and webbers to prevent you from running away when things get tough. In order to survive I prepare for the missions carefully looking up what to expect and adjusting my ship fit out and strategy accordingly.

Its going well so far and I have done about ten missions without losing a ship. I have yet to get the "Human Cattle" mission which is a notorious ship killer but I am looking forward to giving it a try. I know I could probably do these faster if I trained up a cruiser but I imagine it would probably be a lot less enjoyable. I know some folks do these level 2's in a Rifter frigate. Now that is living dangerously.

I vary the set up a bit depending on the mission but mainly I use the Thrasher as a passive shield tanked artillery boat. Picture of load out from the excellent Eve Fitting Tool (click to enlarge):

The key to using this set-up is to keep the afterburner on constantly and use superior speed to choose a distance which keeps you safe from much of the enemy damage while still allowing you to hit them. I use Eve-Survival to suss out the missions in conjunction with Eveinfo's npc ship guide. Eveinfo actually has its own terrific mission database but sadly it is quite out of date and you cannot always rely on it.

Having chosen an optimal range for fighting then choose an appropriate shield hardener to reduce the most prominent type of long range damage that will still get to you. The above fit-out is optimised for thermal damage and the 36 figure against sustained defence means that this rig can absorb 36 dps of pure thermal damage forever without the tank breaking.

The passive shield tank is a doddle to use. Capacitor regenerates (+3.1) faster than it drains (-2.9) so I never run out even with afterburner and shield hardener on all the time. A quirk of passive shield tanking is that maximum shield regeneration occurs at about 30% shield. As long as shields remain above this point you are in no danger. If shields ever fall below this point (say 25%) the the tank is broken and you must warp out.

Some of the missions have fast webbing/scramming interceptors (for example Intercept the saboteurs) . The trick here is to pull the interceptors away from their escorts before they get close enough to web you. Once the posse is far enough behind kill the interceptor and then pick off the others at leisure.

Perhaps the most difficult missions I have come across have large blobs of fighters armed with long range missiles (for example Damsel in Distress) . My sniping tactics don't work here because if I am close enough to hit them they can hit me. I have had success with two approaches: The safe way is to snipe them one at a time watching my tank and warping out when my shield gets below 25%. Once the shield has recovered I go back in and finish them off. A riskier but faster approach is to swap the artillery for seven autocannons and a rocket launcher. I close in on the enemy and use these high dps close range weapons to kill them quickly before they can whittle down my tank.

More info on shield tanking, both passive and active can be found here and here. Your own skills will affect what you can fit and how it performs of course so ultimately you need to play around with EFT yourself to see what you can achieve. My own few words of advice for using EFT are to try and maximise the sustained defence rating (sustainable DPS) while ensuring that your capacitor recharge is still higher than its drain. Also be sure to right click on the defence panel and set the expected damage profile. The default profile assumes uniform damage distribution across all damage types which is virtually never the case in practise. Having a high effective hit points figure can also be a useful cushion of comfort if ever the expected DPS exceeds the sustained capability of your tank.

I have become a bit of a fan of passive shield tanking. Critics might point out that you can achieve a much higher temporary defence with active shield tanking. For as along as your capacitor lasts that is. One way of looking at active shield tanking is that you are turning capacitor energy into shield at a conversion rate of approximately 1:1. For the a Thrasher with just over 500 points of capacitor energy that would give me about an additional 500 point of shield boost but passive tanking gives me more than that from a single shield extender plus higher sustained defence to boot.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saga of the Seven Suns by Kevin Anderson, Book 6 Metal Swarm

A quick look at Kevin Anderson's bio reveals a catalog of "written to order" novels based on well known licenses. Many of these are collaborations and for much of his career he has churned out three books a year. Oh and did I mention that he has been linked with what is (in my opinion) the nuttiest religion on the planet (who's name I won't mention for fear of being sued).

I have to admit, that track record doesn't inspire me with confidence but please put any past prejudices you have aside and give Seven Suns a try. The series is absolutely terrific teeming with plots, subplots and a varied tapestry of characters. It is Anderson's own original work and I suspect it is more of a labour of love than many of his "written to order" novels.

This is not high science fiction. This is pure space opera and the only science is of the di-lithium crystal variety. Nevertheless it is a great great read.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gears of War: Co op gaming on a PC

I finished Gears of War on Hardcore mode (not as uber as its sounds - it is actually the medium setting) and I decided to try out some of the multiplayer options. The normal range of player versus player modes is on offer but what immediately caught my eye was co-op mode.

Co-op is old hat to console gamers but it is relatively rare in the PC field so I had to give it a go. Co-op mode used to mean playing with a friend in the same room on a split screen. Nowadays Co-op mode allows you to play with some random player on the internet. Gears of war does allow private matches with friends but only for those who pay for a gold subscription to Windows Live. Silver members like me must trust to the public lists to find a partner. Could a random player be trusted to watch my back?

Being used to the vast lists of servers that offer themselves for multiplayer games like COD4 and TF2 I was at first disappointed to discover that there were precisely zero9 co-op matches available for me to join. I refreshed the screen a few times but nothing came up.

I would have given up at that point but luckily I spotted the option to host my own game. Within minutes a new player joined me and we indulged in a spot of co-operative monster fragging. Very enjoyable and much easier than solo play to be honest. The happy truth is that no matter how bad a human partner is they are still far better than the AI companions you get in solo play.
I have since set up a few more games and each time I found a partner very quickly. I have also joined other players' games although I have never seen more than three on offer and most of the time there are none. I think that the one plus one nature of co-op means that games never stay on the list for very long. Never fear, hosting your own game is a good way of getting a partner.

My only regret now is that I played through the whole game solo before indulging in co-op. I thought I had better hone my skills in single player before embarrassing myself in public. In reality co-op is easier than single player (and more fun) and would have been a great way of getting through some of the tough levels more quickly.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Is music becoming less important to young people?

OK, I am a bit out on a limb here. This is an area in which I have no qualifications and in truth about which I know very little. However I want to share a question that came to me the other day while I was comparing the lives of my children with my own memories of life at that age.

I noticed that music and musicians seem to be less important to my children and their friends than they were to my peers at the same age. It seems that a teenage girl today is more likely to have a poster of a footballer on her bedroom wall than a pop star.

This seems to me to be a sea change. Ever since the 1950's music, in particular popular music, has been the defining theme of youth culture. People of all ages have listened to and enjoyed music since prehistoric ties but for anyone who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century music was far far more than just a source of entertainment. My generation and the generations around mine were shaped and defined by the music we listened to. However I haven't seen any evidence that this was always the case and I guess it is possible that it may not continue to be the case in the future.

It is well known that the music industry is going through difficult times with changing business models and an overall decline in sales. A quick Google search on the subject will provide ample evidence and lots of possible reasons.

Some would blame the pirates who enjoy vast amounts of music without paying for the privilege. Some would point to short term thinking and mismanagement on the part of the music industry. Others would suggest that the quality of the music on offer has declined.

What if it is no more than the passing of a cultural phase. What if the legacy of the cultural revolution of the 50's and 60's has peaked and is now fading? So with this thought in mind I ask: Is music becoming less important to young people?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Peter Hamilton: The Dreaming Void

New releases torture me.

I don't buy hardback books because they are too big and awkward to fit into pockets or briefcases. When a new title comes out that I want to read I am forced to wait enviously until the first hardback run has sold out. As if to prolong my agony many publishers then bring out a large format paperback with all the size and cost disadvantages of hardback but without even the attraction of robustness. I generally hold off another six months or so for the small paperback edition which size is more appropriate to my nomadic reading habits.

It was an unexpected treat therefore on discovering a new book from one of my favourite authors to realise that I had serendipitously managed to miss the hardback release and there it was sitting on the shelf in paperback, demanding to be bought.

"The Dreaming Void" is the start of a new trilogy set 1500 years into the future of Hamilton's previous Commonwealth Saga novels. The plot so far as I have covered it concerns the plans of a human religious group to make pilgrimage into the mysterious void at the centre of our galaxy and the reactions of the various races and factions that populate the galaxy to this plan. Many believe that the pilgrimage could trigger a catastrophic enlargement of the void while others seek to exploit the movement for their own ends.

In typical Hamilton style the book paints a vivid picture of a universe populated with a varied collection of well drawn characters. Unfortunately the story is quite slow moving. I am over 700 pages in and not much has happened. It feels like the author is still setting the scene and introducing characters in advance of kicking off the story proper. Perhaps the pace will pick up in the next book of the trilogy but "Dreaming" lacks the immediate suck you in punch of Hamilton's previous sequence opening novels.

A noteworthy feature of the novel is the way Hamilton has linked it to the previous Commonwealth Saga. Over the intervening 1500 years technology, politics and exploration have completely changed the setting. To all intensive purposes Hamilton could be writing a completely unconnected saga. He has chosen however, to link them through subtle references to history and through the device of longevity. Several characters from the previous saga re-appear in the new book. Even this is not as strong a link as it could be because the passage of time and the adoption of various gene and psyche altering technologies has allowed these characters to change roles and even personalities.

I don't normally read authors' blogs. Perhaps discovering a real human behind the fantasy is too much like breaking the fourth wall. Peter Hamilton's blog however is well organised and not too verbose. If you like that sort of thing you can find it here.

EDIT: I have just finished "The Dreaming Void" and I am happy to report that the pace picks up substantially in the last 10% of the book. There is enough in those last few chapters to leave me very hopeful for the next book and Hamilton leaves several cliffhangers just to heighten the anticipation. The follow on ("The temporal Void") should be out in a year or so. Now If I can only manage to avoid noticing the hardback release....

Friday, June 06, 2008

Terra Nova agrees with MBP

Terra Nova are the "Harvard" of MMORPG blogging so I feel it necessary to gloat that the good folk at TN seem to be coming around to support my statement that "MMORPGS are History".

Yes, Yes I know that Age of Conan has had a very successful launch. I know that anticipation for Warhammer Online is building up to frenzied proportions. I know that there are new child friendly MMO's being launched every day. I admit that I have just renewed my subscription to EVE online. I admit that I have even signed up for a new free to play MMO (NosTale) but some day, somehow my prediction will eventually come to pass and MBP will surely be hailed forever more as the visionary who said it first.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Gears of War - Pretty Good Except for the Magic Spacebar.

Looking for a bit of mindless shooting fun I went out and bought myself Gears of War (PC version).

When the PC version came out in November 2007 reviews were very positive. The general opinion is that the PC version improves on the very successful Xbox360 version from a year earlier.

With just over an hours playing time my first impressions are good. It is a fun fast paced shooter with great graphics and sound. Some commentators have complained about high system requirements but it looks absolutely beautiful and plays perfectly on my aging 7900gtx. I am running at 1600x 1050 with high quality graphics . DX10 is of course unavailable on my setup so perhaps the DX10 functionality is what is causing slowdowns for others.

Although it is fast paced Gears is not mindless. On the middle difficulty setting (oddly named - hard core) it takes about half a clip to down even the most basic mob. This is too long to leave yourself exposed to enemy fire. Hiding and shooting from cover is a vital component of game play. The enemies ("The Locust") also exhibit a moderate level of AI employing cover themselves and executing the odd flanking manoeuvre.

Some folks have complained about the fact that you have to register on Windows Live to play the game. In truth you don't have to register but you are informed that you will be unable to save your progress if you don't!. Happily the basic free level of Windows live suffices so I don't really mind but the registration process itself was awful involving multiple restarts. It felt more like installing an MMORPG than a single player game.

My only real gripe with the game so far concerns a feature I call the Magic Spacebar. The spacebar can either cause you to duck or to jump depending where you are. It can also initiate a few other "cool moves" (tm) including rolls and sprints depending on the context.

Think about it: The same key that causes you to crouch can also cause you to jump. That is a recipe for disaster in a busy fire fight. Instinctively hitting space at the wrong time may cause you to leap into the air instead of ducking for cover while jumping over obstacles involves an unnecessary combination of ducking before jumping.

Why?

Why not have one button for duck and one button for jump? Why not let somebody crouch anywhere and jump anywhere? Although I am not personally a fan of "cool moves"(tm) in shooters these could easily be incorporated without resorting to a magic button. For example a quick tap on an arrow key while crouched could initiate a roll.

Magic buttons pops up a lot in third person action games and it seems to be a legacy of their console heritage. There may well have been a time when consoles were so limited in processing power and memory that player freedom had to be restricted so that they could only run, jump or crouch in certain predefined locations but those days are long gone and modern consoles can easily handle free form gaming. The limited number of buttons on a hand held controller is a more persistent issue but there are (just) enough buttons to cover all the main shooter functions without doubling up. Unfortunately Gears has chosen to assign one button to a pretty useless "Look at Place of Interest" button and has opted to combine crouch, jump and a bunch of other stuff in this one magic button.

Its not a deal breaker for me and I am getting used to it. The percentage of times when I try to duck and end up jumping up into a hail of fire is reducing. I just wish they had opted for something like COD4's much praised controls. For reference COD4's console control system can be seen here while Gears of War's controls are here.