Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stop making Apps please and just fix your web pages!

Santa brought me a lovely new Andoid phone - a Samsung Galaxy S and I am learning to love  and hate the world of mobile phone apps. An app is nothing more than a software application for a phone but Apple has managed to turn a simple concept into a phenomenon their Iphone App store and Google is doing its best to imitate this with the Android Market.

The rise of the app store has meant an explosion of free and low priced software for smart phones. As long as your exercise a little common sense with regard to security and privacy this is a good thing but there is one particular type of app that really annoys me: The apps that are designed to replace internet browsers.

I am talking about facebook apps, Youtube apps, Google and Gmail apps and so on. There are apps for just about every major web service and now even minor players are jumping on the app bandwagon. My local library has an app, so does my local traffic authority (for telling you about speed cameras).

Why oh why do we need these apps? Every single smart phone has a functioning web browser and all of these services can be accessed with a web browser.The web service app was a stop gap solution dating from the days when mobile phone browsers were not up to the job of displaying web content but phone browsers are getting more and more capable all the time yet the explosion of web service apps continues unchecked.

One reason why such apps are a retrograde step compared to using a web browser is that the apps rarely give full access to a sites facilities. For example the You Tube app on my phone hides all comments on a video by default  and does not allow you to leave a new comment.

Another key problem is the proliferation of mobile operating systems. We already have Iphones, Android phones, Symbian phones, Windows Phones and yet more types are on the way. Instead of wasting time writing an app for just one of these operating systems why not fix your website so it can be used viewed by a wide range of phone browsers.

While I am on the subject - making your website compatible with mobile phone browsers does not mean forcing the viewer into a cut down "mobile" mode. While some mobile browsers have limited viewing area many modern ones are full featured with excellent zooming tools. My Samsung with Android 2.2 even has Flash 10 capability. If you do offer a low resolution viewing mode for mobile users make damn sure it is optional at the users preference and please please make sure that it still offers access to all of the websites normal features. There is nothing worse than be forced into viewing a kinder-garden "mobile" version of a website and not even having access to the features you intend to use.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gaming Update

I haven't disappeared but what with Christmas and family activities it has been pretty quiet on the gaming front. Minecraft proved a big hit with my daughters. I even set up a home server to allow them play together in multi-player. I made this harder fro myself than it should have been by starting out on patch day so I had to fight with version incompatibility as well as new patch bugs. Once I got everything sorted out however it worked a treat. As an unexpected bonus I managed to set things up so you can log in single player or multiplayer and still edit the same world. The trick to doing this is to store the multiplayer server in the Saves directory of the single player game and to change the level-name in the "server.properties" file. to be the name of your single player world.  This sounds bizarre but it does work. It means that when I am not around to set up a server the girls can still log in with single player and work on their world.

The only game I have been playing is Empire total war. I am still working my way through the Road to independence campaign and I have 9 out the required 15 territories I need to beat the scenario.  Still enjoyable even if CA seem to have played somewhat fast and loose with historical accuracy on this one. The British forces I am fighting consist almost entirely of native American troops while the native American factions themselves are quite technologically advanced complete with their own artillery units.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Only a few hours left for incredible Minecraft deal.

Minecraft's world building has proven such a hit with my kids that I bought a second license with the intention of setting up our own private server for a bit of multi-player world building. Both my licenses are alpha licenses which cost €10 each. Sometime today the beta starts and the price goes up to €15.

If you have any interest in Minecraft but  haven't gotten around to buying it yet I strongly recommend buying before the price goes up. It isn't just a matter of the extra €5. Alpha purchasers also get "all future versions of the game for free" while beta purchases will only up to the first release free. Given the success of the game this makes the alpha purchase an incredible bargain for the few hours that remain at that price.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Minecraft is a bit meh isn't it...oh wait....

I'm not really into building / crafting games so I had given Minecraft a miss until yesterday when I realised that the price goes up by €5 with the release of the Beta version on the 20th December. A game that sells over 800,000 (and rising) copies at a tenner a piece despite being laughably ugly and still in alpha must have something going for it, mustn't it? I reckoned it was worth a punt for a tenner and anyway it might be something to amuse the kids who are a bit more craft minded than I am.

I logged in and paid my money before launching the browse version of the game.  I sat down with my daughter to play it for a bit. Gosh it is ugly isn't it? Single player "peaceful" mode seemed like a good place to start getting familiar with the game and thanks to paulsoaresjr's helpful video's we were soon chopping down trees and crafting basic items like torches and picks. My daughter was intrigued by the crafting interface so we started experimenting to see what other items we could make. Soon we had a shovel and a rake but the significant breakthrough was a furnace. The furnace allowed us to make some kind of baked rock and  sticking beach sand into it produce glass! This was fun. Unfortunately further attempts at discovering random crafting patterns failed. My daughter was particularly disappointed when she put a lot of effort into gathering wool from sheep but was unable to make any she could wear from it.

At this point I guessed that we might need some more exotic materials so we started tunnelling down eventually finding a small amount of a new ore that smelts into ingots of what I later found out was Iron.  Unfortunately we only got enough to make a slightly better pick. My daughter got bored and wandered off to play something else.

So much for the wondrous discoveries we dreamed of making. We had been playing for over an hour and we had nothing to show for it except for a few basic tools and a bag full of useless rock and wood. I was ready to chuck it in myself but before I logged off I thought I would see if I could make some kind of crude dwelling with all that stone and wood.

Two hours later I was still playing and the penny finally dropped. Minecraft is not just a game about discovery. It is a game about creation. It is a magnificent lego set that allows you walk around and interact with your own creations. When my daughter saw what I was doing she wanted back in and we spent several further hours playing.

The ugliness still upsets me a bit but I remembered hearing about mods which tart the game up a bit so I installed the lovely Scribblecraft skin an now everything is a lot easier on the eye. Here is my humble abode complete with mineshaft outside the front door:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Empire Total War: Guns change everything.

I have been playing Empire Total War for about 2 weeks now at a very intermittent pace. I an still working through the "Road to Independence" tutorial campaign but now that I have finally reached Chapter 3 most of the restrictions seen to be removed and it feels like a full game. Chapter 3 opened with my American rebel forces being overrun by the British redcoats at Bunker Hill which was a bit disheartening until I read that this is historically accurate.

I am enjoying Empire more than I expected having read reports of bugs and poor AI. I was initially concerned that the advent of powerful firearms would remove a lot of variety from the game because one soldier with a musket is much the same as any other. Having played a bit however I haven't had problems with bugs or AI and I find the changes to combat intriguing. There is something very satisfying about stopping an enemy charge dead in its tracks with a hail of crossfire from overlapping volleys.

Increased accuracy and damage means cannons now rule the battlefield capable of routing units before they even get into the fight.

I am still trying to figure out where cavalry fit in this new order of things. They have the advantage of mobility and flanking engaged infantry still works but the horsemen seem a lot squishier and suffer heavy losses. A frontal charge into gunfire is suicidal. Cavalry have an important role countering artillery and they can destroy cannon in seconds. If there is an infantry unit anywhere near the cannon though the cavalry probably won't make it out alive.

Edit: One other observation  about the impact of fire-arms in Empire is that the balance of power has shifted firmly in favour of defenders. The shattering impact of volley fire from prepared defenders makes charging a very risky tactic.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Are Single Player Gamers More Forgiving? Memories of Oblivion.

Much excitement about the confirmation that a new Elder Scrolls game has been confirmed for next November and that it is a direct sequel to Oblivion. Oblivion didn't impress me quite as much as it's iconic predecessor "Morrowind" but nevertheless it was  hugely impressive game and I have learned to eagerly anticipate any new release from Bethseda Softworks.

The news even inspired me to re-install Oblivion and I am currently playing a very impressive full conversion mod called  "Nehrim: At Fates Edge". Not many mods offer 50+ hours of hand crafted single player campaign so this is quite special and I will probably discuss it at more length later. The real justification for this post however was the following page from the Elder Scrolls Wiki that I stumbled upon while googling for the mod. It reminded me that Oblivion, one of the most successful single player games of the last decade widely recognised as a monumental achievement in gaming, was fundamentally broken.

The levelling system was broken. The cornerstone of any rpg is the mechanism that allows your character to get  stronger as they progress through the game and this basic system was deeply flawed in Oblivion. Thanks to an extremely finicky player progression system combined with auto scaling of monsters to the players level many many players found that their characters got weaker as they levelled up rather than stronger in comparison to the monsters they had to fight. Much of the flawed system was inherited from the game's Elder Scrolls predecessors but for some reason it was in Oblivion that the flaws were most cruelly exposed. If you need proof of how broken this system was just consider that one widely proposed strategy for overcoming the levelling problem was to prevent your character from ever levelling.  It was actually easier to finish the game with a low level character than a high level character because of the auto-levelled nature of the monsters.

Players eventually found ways around it and learned to game the system to achieve optimum levelling. Needless to say this puts stringent restrictions on your choice of character build and none of the default character archetypes were useful for this. The hoops that you had to go through to prevent gimping your character were completely immersion breaking in a game that holds immersion as one of its major selling points.  For example a character needs to deliberately avoid using their preferred weapon type to prevent over-levelling that skill and all characters have to minimise the use of running and jumping to keep their athletics skill under control.

Can you imagine the furore if an mmorpg was released with a similarly broken levelling system?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Metro 2033: Moscow What has Become of You?

Thanks to a heavy snowfall I had the perfect excuse to spend the weekend indoors playing Metro 2033 bought in last weeks Steam Sale.

It is a very Russian game. The post apocalyptic setting and the art style remind me a lot of Stalker but the gameplay is more linear. Indeed it owes a lot to half life. I actually enjoyed the game very much. Sometimes a good old fashioned on rails shooter is exactly what you need. The game does have a few tricks up its sleeve most notably the use of ammunition as currency leaving you with a constant dilemma about whether to shoot your bullets or spend them. Restricting the availability of ammunition is a tried and trusted way of increasing the tension in a horror game and for the most part this achieves the same effect but there are a few places where I found it annoying. In the early part of the game there are shops offering cool weapons and upgrades but I never knew whether I could afford to spend the ammo on them or not and by the time I got a handle on which ammunition I wanted to keep and which I was prepared to spend I ran out of shops to spend it in!

A few minor niggles aside though the game was very enjoyable overall. Well recommended.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Empire Total War. Another brilliant (not!) tutorial from CA.

I bought Empire Total War in Steam's sale. I love Total War games but one ritual every time I get a new one is to try out the tutorial. To date they have all been uniformly awful. Would Empire manage to buck the trend?

The good news is that Empire appears to have addressed the most serious issue from previous Total War tutorials. Previous games had badly corralled tutorial campaigns that allowed noobies to break the tutorial by wandering off script. Given that the scripts were often non-intuitive getting to the end of the tutorial without breaking it was actually harder than just jumping in and playing the game. Empire avoids this nicely by straight jacketing the player and only allowing a very limited range of actions during the "Road to Independence" tutorial campaign.

Unfortunately no-one seems to have told the in game adviser. After winning my first battle and capturing an Indian settlement the advisor helpfully suggested that I construct some buildings. Good advice except that those buildings are disabled at this point in the tutorial. A short while later I was told about the new feature that allows generals to recruit in the field. Sadly I wasn't informed that that feature doesn't work at that stage of the tutorial either. Not long after the ever helpful adviser strongly recommended that I upgrade my fishing port and build a navy. Sorry but that feature isn't available in the tutorial. The most disconcerting moment though had to be when the adviser warned in in anxious voice that my population were starving and that I urgently needed to upgrade my farms. You have perhaps correctly guessed that farms cannot be upgraded at this point.

Full marks Creative Assembly for an unbroken record of tutorial awfulness.  This is my fifth Total War game so at least I had some idea where the missing commands are likely to be. Nevertheless I still wasted a fair bit of time looking around to see if they had moved before finally accepting that they just don't work in the tutorial. I imagine a genuinely new player being completely confused by this though and probably being convinced that they are doing something wrong because they aren't able to find the commands that the helpful adviser is talking about.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lotro: Cheating With the Cash Shop

Perhaps the most controversial items in the F2P Lotro Cash are the stat tomes which give permanent increases to of a characters base stats. For example  approximately €5 buys you a tome of Vitality which permanently increases your vitality by 10. You can purchase up to 5 ranks of each stat tome for a total of +50 to each stat (in Europe the limit is currently +30 soon to be lifted).  To put these numbers in perspective: 50 points of might would increase my Champions melee damage by about 3% and a piece of end game armour  typically gives a total increase of between 100 and 150 points spread across several stats. 50 points in any stat is not a game breaker but it does make a difference.

In theory the stat tomes drop in the game but the drop rate is extremely low and nobody seriously believes that farming them is realistic.  If you want the benefit of those extra stats you have to pony up the cash.

Since so much of an mmorpg players time is spent trying to earn infinitesimal upgrades to a character's basic abilities it does feel a bit like cheating to be able to buy this type of upgrade in the store. I personally would prefer if they weren't there.  The one mitigating factor is that Lotro has a fairly low cap on each stat (currently 650).  A character equipped in end game gear will probably hit that cap on their most important stats once they are buffed up for raids and instances.

My Champion  has his key stats of might and vitality over 600 un-buffed and any time I join a raid these are buffed up to the cap. Given this I had planned to ignore stat tomes completely but then Turbine / Codemasters sucker punched me with a 50% off deal on stat tomes. Sure I don't need those extra points but wouldn't it be nicer to  have them than not? What about your auxilliary stats like Fate and Will - currently languishing about 150. Sure these aren't very important for Champions but wouldn't it be nice to have a bit more power or a bit more in combat morale regeneration? Don't forget of course they will probably never be cheaper again.

I caved in a blew the bulk of the free points Codemasters gave me on a 20 point boost for each of my basic stats. At least I didn't spend any real cash yet but having seen how easily I can be suckered into buying something just because it is on sale I am now worried about what they will put on sale to tempt me next week.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Give me back My Documents

The hard drive of a modern computer holds tens of thousands of files stored in a labyrinthine tangle of folders and sub folders. It used to be comforting therefore to know that there was always one folder called "My Documents" that belonged to you and in which you could store your personal stuff in a special place where it would always be easy to find.

Sadly this is no longer the case if you are a gamer. For the last few years games have taken to using and abusing "My Documents" as if it were there own personal playground. My own computer was a clean install only a few months back and already "My Documents" looks more like the catalogue of a game shop than a collection of personal files:




It started out with good intentions. A decade ago games stored all of the players personal information (save games, config files, screenshots) in sub-folders of the program directory. This was not ideal because the information was very hard to find should you ever want to carry your game progress from one computer to another and it was also not ideal for computers which were shared between multiple users. Looking around for a new place to store this data which would be both easy to find and personal to each user, game developers settled on the "My Documents" folder. The idea quickly caught on and today most games use this directory to store user information. It wouldn't be so bad if they all adhered to good practise and only put their stuff in the "My Games" sub folder but sadly a lot of companies just create their own new directory in "My Documents" and use that. After a year of so of active gaming your "My Documents" folder becomes a cluttered mess.

Since moving to Windows 7 I have stopped using "My Documents" altogether because of this clutter. I find it easier to create alternative folders for my personal files and use the handy libraries feature of Window 7 to keep track of where they all are. I do miss it though.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dogfighter, I think I love this game.

My shooter of choice at present is indie fly em up Dogfighter. It is available for cheap on Steam and it is a total blast. Imagine the shooty madness of Quake combined with an arcade biplane fighter game.

The funny thing is I suck at shooters and I suck at flying games but I love this.  I am using mouse and keyboard to control the plane and I find I can fairly fling it around the sky. I am sure I could probably pull tighter turns with a joystick but the increased precision of the mouse compensates. It took me a couple of hours to get the hang of the controls before it clicked.

Favourite Aircraft:  Swift Strike Fighter. It is all about speed.
Favourite Weapon: Hard to say I love them all but probably the shotgun just for the improbability of using one in an aircraft. Absolutely lethal when used correctly.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lotro: Quick Impressions after one week of Free to Play Transition

I love the new zone of Endewaith. Even though it is pretty much optional from a levelling point of view it is the prettiest region of the game since the Shire. There are even some hobbits hidden in there if you look hard.

The scale-able dungeons are also a big hit with plenty of groups being organised for once neglected zones of the Great Barrow, Helogorod, Annuminas and the Eregion 3 man instances.

My thoughts on the cash shop are generally positive so far. Some folks have compained the "Go to Store and Buy Stuff" buttons that crop up all over th game now but hey, shopping is fun so I don't really mind. I got a generous allocation of free points as a lifer and I am some way from spending it all yet. I did buy a permanent discount on horse travel, some scrolls to speed up deed grinding and  horse riding skill for a low level alt.

I have previously expressed concerns that having cash shop items which allow you to bypass grind creates a moral hazard for the developer to increase grind in order to force people into the cash shop.  I feel a bit ambivalent about these items in Lotro at the moment because the game was not immune to grind before the advent of the cash shop (deeds, crafting  and legendary weapons being the most obvious examples).  I can see the virtue of being able to pay to speed up some of the grind that is already in the game. On the other hand I hope this handy source of revenue doesn't overly influence the design of new content.

 Even more controversial than paying to speed up grind is that fact that you can buy stat increases in the cash shop. Tomes of +10 stat cost about 495 points each (about €5) and you can increase each of five basic stats by 50 points each this way (for a total cost of about €125). The tomes do drop in game but the drop rate is extremely rare and you need to find the lower level tomes in low level instances before you can use the higher level ones. For most players the only realistic way of getting these tomes is buying them. Do you need them? For most players the answer at the moment is no. Stats have a hard cap of 650 at the moment and a moderately well geared player will already be hitting the cap on their most important stats especially when buffed up for raids and instances. If you adopt a min-max mindset though these tomes could be seen as essential and that is likely to prove expensive. A longer term concern is that new content will be designed assuming that players have these stat increases. That would be very untypical of Turbine though who have always taken pains to ensure that content is accessible to players who don't have maximum gear and stats. Indeed the whole radiance gear initiative, flawed though it might have been, was an effort to avoid gear and stat inflation.

One final point about the cash shop. I think Turbine made a big error in automatically filtering the cash shop to only show items that are relevant to the currently logged in character. This is annoying for players who have multiple characters. It is also annoying if you want to plan ahead because you cannot see items which you are not yet qualified to purchase. I think is it is a basic error of salesmanship too because people love window shopping and even if folks aren't qualified for an item yet putting it on display increases anticipation.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Runes of Magic Impersonates Scammer

I thought one of the cardinal rules of internet security is that legitimate companies never ever send out emails to their customers asking them for their passwords. Knowing this rule makes it easy to resist the daily flood of scam emails purportedly from financial institutions, gaming companies and other online services informing me that my account has been compromised and that I really really really need to "click this link" and enter my password to get it all sorted out.

So when I got not one but two separate emails purporting to come from Runes of Magic asking me to "click this link" and enter my password and warning of dire consequences if I didn't, my first reaction was "Scam, bin it".


It reads like a scam. It even has one of those uniquely identifiable html links that scammers are so fond of for tagging their victims. It looks a bit more professionally done than the usual scam email but html is cheap and all of those logos are easily grabbed from the respective websites. The only reason I gave this a second thought was because the link address "frogster-online.com" sounds vaguely legitimate.

I decided to investigate. Not by clicking the link but by using a web browser to go straight to Runes of Magic's home page http://www.runesofmagic.com/en/index.html . I was quite surprised to discover a news article about the password reset confirming that the email was genuine.

I understand that RoM have to use email to contact their customers. Email is the only way for them to contact inactive players. Nevertheless I believe the email they sent out was just wrong. Savvy internet users are likely to dismiss it as a scam while  gullible internet users are more likely to fall for the next scam because the RoM email turned out to be genuine. In fact they have just created the perfect opportunity for a scammer to copy the email in every detail but modify the link to point to an infected web page.


RoM should have sent out an email telling customers of the changes and asking them to visit the official RoM website for more details. If they must include a link include a plain un-adorned link to runesofmagic.com.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Elebrandir's Horseshoe. Turbine is Messing with our Heads.

After all the patching I finally got to play the new European version of free to play Lotro for about an hour last night. Too early to say too much about it except that first impressions are all positive. I started the Volume 3 epic quest chain in the hope that it would soon bring me to the new region  but I was soon distracted from my mission when Volume 3 book 2 offered me this lovely item as one of the reward choices.

Since the release of this chapter in the US almost two months ago there has been feverish speculation on the forums as to what it actually does. Now we Europeans have gotten in on the guessing game.  Guesses include that the horse shoe might improve critical hit chance in combat, might improve a players chance in fellowship loot rolls,  might improve drop rate of rare items, might improve the outcome of legendary weapon deconstruction plus a whole host of other suggestions both intriguing and ridiculous. Turbine has remained tight lipped except for a dev named MadeofLion's  provocative assertions that the horse shoe has been "thoroughly tested" and that "it does have a verifiable in-game effect".

Numerous players claim to have done exhaustive experiments to support their ideas while yet more are convinced that the horseshoe has no effect other than to give you a buff icon indicating that you have it equipped (which is a verifiable in game effect).

Most player seem happy enough to join in the guessing game fun but a few are quite annoyed. It is  easy enough to fall into a min-max mind set in an mmorpg and not knowing whether or not they are passing up on a 0.1% extra chance to critical hit is excruciating for some. I should point out that equipping the horse shoe is not without cost. In the first place you need to choose it instead of some moderately valuable weapon scrolls as a reward for the Volume 3 Chapter 2 quest. In the second place the horse shoe fills your pocket slot depriving you of the more obvious buffs that a normal pocket item can bring.

Turbine are playing a slightly dangerous game here messing with their customers heads  and for that reason I am pretty convinced that the horse shoe does nothing (other than the aforementioned buff icon). Most of the other suggestions would be just too imbalanced to contemplate.

I still intend equipping the horse shoe the next time I de-construct some legendary weapons though.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Arkham Asylum Blues

I have been playing Batman Arkham Asylum for the last week and overall I am hugely impressed. Its a very good PC port of a very good game. The ambience and the voice acting are on a par with the best that Hollywood has to offer. Mark Hamill's Joker in particular is Oscar worthy in my opinion.

Unfortunately I have hit a problem. I am at the final boss fight and I am struggling to pull together the motivation to try and overcome it. I know exactly why too.  Arkham Asylum is at heart a third person action game. Part of that tradition is a complicated combat system involving  fancy moves and combo's.

I have managed to get through the entire game up the final boss fight without intentionally using a single combo.  Partly this is because the mouse and keyboard control scheme although generally very well done is not as combo friendly as a gampad. Partly it is because  I have never really gotten into combo fighting games. Mainly however it is because I never really needed to learn to use the combos.  I have used stealth and tactics and special weapons  and on the few occasions where I really really really had to duke it out with my fists I just mashed buttons till it was over and that usually got me through after a re-load or two.

That strategy served me well right up to the final boss fight but here I am stumped. There is no option for stealth here, nor special tactics nor special weapons. This final battle requires you to pull off fisti-cuff combos or die. I could try my random button mashing approach but my initial attempts have convinced me that the odds are not good and the number of die and reloads involved before random chance pulls off a victory for me is likely to be unacceptably high. I could take a bit of time to learn how the combo system works and practise them until I am sufficiently skilled to pull off a victory but that sounds like hard work just to see a final cut scene.

I am feeling pretty bad about this game right now. I really enjoy finishing games and getting so far just to give up is is almost unthinkable. I am not sure I am prepared to do what it takes to overcome that final hurdle though.

Lotro servers going bananas: this can only mean one thing ....

Clients crashing, servers offline ....

Yup it's patch day for European Lotro. I guess the forums would be going banana's too except they are also unobtainable.

By the way if anyone is getting a hash sum error updating the client there is a fix: you need to replace the 3 files (.js) in codemasters/browser/greprefs with the ones from the beta or the preview client. Apparently a post on the forums explains this but of course the forums are unobtainable.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Let Freedom Ring". European Lotro goes F2P on November 2nd.

After a delay of almost two months European Lotro-players will finally get the new patch and the transition to free to play on Tuesday 2nd November.

If I was to judge the mood of the european player base it is one of feverish anticipation. I know that European players were initially disappointed at the delay  and angry at the lack of explanation from Codemasters. During the first few weeks of the delay there was almost no communication from Codemasters except for a very occasional embarrassed post from a community manger telling us nothing. Eventually we got a post from the David Solari MD of Codemasters apologising for the delay and explaining it was down to contractual issues. This was an important and necessary conciliatory measure. After that post much of the anger dissipated and the anticipation began to build again.  The preview server that was put up last week was  mobbed and had login queues of three to four hours.

We have waited, how we have waited. We want this patch so badly. We want the shiny new content. We want the influx of new players. We even want the opportunity to spend our money on frivolous fluff in the item shop.

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Instant Levelling: A Different Way to Play an MMORPG

Codemasters are running a preview event for the long awaited European launch of f2P Lotro. I don't normally go in for beta's but they were giving free Turbine points for the final release so I downloaded the client and logged in. The preview is proving enormously popular by the way with three hour queues to get into the one server but that is another story.

The thing that really caught my attention is the instant levelling mechanism that Turbine uses on beta servers. I guess Betas need an instant levelling mechanic so that players can test the full game. Turbine implements this via an inn that spawns at various locations bearing the somewhat humorous title of "The Eyes and Guard Tavern".

The "Eyes and Guard" is one of the most wonderful locations I have ever been in an mmorpg. It is a gloriously chaotic place. Like Dr. Who's Tardis it is much bigger inside than it looks and its various chambers contain npcs who can instantly bestow you with powers and rewards that would take months of dedicated play to earn under normal circumstances. A low level character can enter the Eyes and Guard and leave a short while later boosted to the level cap carrying a full set of epic gear.

This sounds simple enough but it is clear that Turbine implementation of the feature has grown organically over time with bits added on that conflict with earlier bits and developers availing of the opportunity to have a bit of a laugh in a non standard part of the game. The level 20 booster is in one place, the level 40 in another, the level 60 somewhere else and so on. In addition various npcs (and animals) scattered in the various chambers offer boost in reputations or mounts or epic book quests or traits and deeds. Doors lead off to numerous exotic regions scattered around Middle Earth. Indeed there appears to be a certain randomness to the whole place and every time I enter the Eyes and Guard  I seem to exit somewhere else.

Getting to the level you want is a complicated. Here is one step from a helpful forum post explaining how to get to level 65:

Now go down in the same building until you found the "Moria Training Chambers". There is a snowman standing in front of the door. Enter it and you'll find a NPC called Liu-Tsieng in the middle of the next room. Talk to him, and he'll give you a quest to get 60. Empty your bags before! Now you should be 60.

This is only one step of a process which is fraught with pitfalls. Accept the wrong quest from the wrong NPC and you break your character losing your chance to reach your desired level. Add to this the fact that the tavern itself only opens its doors (of which there are several spread around middle Earth) randomly for short periods and you will perhaps begin to understand how the Eyes and Guard has developed an almost mythical reputation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Am I too Fickle about Gaming?

Great question posed by Stabs in a comment after my blog post in which I admitted to having bought 42 games last year and only played 13 of them thoroughly.

"Do you see it as a problem that you never or briefly played so many games - are you too impulsively buying games you're not really going to play or is it still worth getting them to have a brief look?"

I gave a brief answer in my own comment but I will try to expand on it here.

I do try out the majority of the games I purchase and I do manage to immerse myself more completely in a small number of them. In fact once I latch on to a particular game I often immerse myself quite completely in one game for a few days,  or even a few weeks. One of my greatest gaming pleasures actually comes from completing games and once a game gets its hooks into me I will stick with it quite doggedly to the end of the main campaign. For this reason I quite like the modern trend towards shorter more intense single player games and I simply ignore gamer achievements, DLC and other mechanisms that are used to artificially add longevity to games.

Of course with so many games to play it does sometimes happen that I get distracted from a game before I reach its natural conclusion. If I wasn't enjoying the game that is not a problem but there are a small number of titles I regret not having played more thoroughly. I tell myself that one day I will get back to them but it rarely happens.

My play-style does limit what I can hope to achieve in certain types of game.  Competitive multi-payer gaming of any sort is more or less out because I am not prepared to commit for long enough to build up any ability. MMORPGs could be a problem but I appear to have struck a comfortable compromise with Lotro where  I play for a couple of months and then take a year break and Turbine have been kind enough not to add content at such a rate that I cannot catch up.

Gaming Acquisitions since last Friday: Disciples 2 Gold Pack (Original Game plus two expansions), Batman Arkham Asylum, Lotro Europe F2P preview client, Dogfight (Aerial combat).

Games played since last Friday: Disciples 2 (half way through tutorial), Batman Arkham Asylum (about two thirds of way through main campaign),  Lotro original (Joined a kin raid to Barad Guldur last night), Lotro F2P preview (spent half an hour starting a new character and getting him to Archet). Dogfight (installed and played about 10 minutes of tutorial. Might join RPS event on Friday).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Approximately a years worth of gaming statistics

In a moment of boredom I fired up a spreadsheet to try and analyse how many games I bought last year, how much I paid for them and how many of them I have actually played. There is a bit of estimation involved because I am too lazy to go back over old credit card bills but in general I think my figures are pretty sound.

Please note I only include full feature games that I first acquired in the period from November 2009 to the present. I do include full featured games that I got for free but I don't include Flash games. I include mmorpgs that I either started or bought a paid expansion for during the year.

Level of play is a somewhat subjective measure. Zero percent means I never even played the tutorial. 100% means I finished the main campaign of a single player or I spent a substantial amount of time in multiplayer.

Please note that all of the games were legally acquired. I don't pirate games.

Number of new PC Games Acquired from November 2009 to October 2010:
Games from Steam:  28
Other Digital Downloads: 7
Mmorpg: 4
Hardcopy Purchase: 3
Total New Games: 42

Prices Paid
Number of games above €20.01: 3 (7% of total)
Number of games above €10.01: 9 ( 21%)
Number of games €10 or below: 33 (79%)
 Number of games that cost me nothing: 5 (12%)
Total Spend on new games: €392.00
Average Price per game: €9.33

How many have I played?:
Number of new games I have never played: 4
Number of new game I have played thoroughly: 13
Average play rate: 47%

Friday, October 22, 2010

I love Guild Wars Skill System but ...

I think Guild Wars's skill system is terrific but it does make it harder to  get back into the game after a break.You have to select a working build from hundreds of available skills and remembering what they all do and how they interact is not easy. To make matters worse Arena net continually tweak and modify skill functions. I think they do this deliberately to keep the meta game interesting to prevent "flavour of the month" builds from becoming too dominant.

I haven't played Guild Wars since April 2009 so I am completely befuddled. I have a vague notion of trying out the Eye of the North Expansion which I added to my account some time ago but never played. There is also something called the Hall of Monuments which I have heard ties in to Guild Wars 2 but about which I know little else.

I have two high end characters who are probably good enough for eye of the North: a Mesmer and a Paragon. The Paragon ( a heavily armoured buffer / support class) is easier to play but I have a hankering to go back to my Mesmer just as soon as I can make some sense out of the confusing array of skills.

Sadly I don't even have the luxury of  picking up where I left off. It is more than two years since I last played this MEsmer and when I logged he had a confusing build with most of his skills points invested in the off spec Necromancy attributes. I think this was some kind of farming build I was experimenting with but it certainly wouldn't be suitable for general adventuring. Starting again from scratch I decided to focus on the Domination skill line because that is where most of a Mesmers direct damage skills lie and it used to be recommended as the easiest line for a Mesmer to play.  A number of skills that I remember seem to have changed functionality but in general I was happy to see that Mesmer skills seem to be stronger on average than I remember. For example the iconic Mesmer skill Empathy which hexes an opponent so they injure themself every time they attack now weakens the attack as well as damaging the attacker. Anyway here is what I ended up with: http://gw.gamependium.com/tools/builds/template/?key=OQBDAmwzOxAhgG4EoCkBEBMO

The idea being I cast mindwrack on a foe and then proceed to strip them of their energy using spirit shackles , energy surge and energy burn. Mind wrack does a little bit of damage along the way and when their energy finally reaches zero mindwrack delivers (hopefully) a killer blow. I have empathy in there because I just like the skill and I remember it being generally useful against all kinds of foes. I also equipped wastrel's worry because I remember it being a great boss killer. Perhaps it still is, I don't know, but even if it isn't surely those foe that I strip energy from won't be in a position to use a skill for at least three seconds allowing wastrel's worry to deliver some nice aoe damage. The Sunspear rebirth signet is a one shot ressurection skill that will allow me to ressurect the healer if things get really messy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Midway's Area 51: A Free Shooter Game

I have always enjoyed a bit of sci-fi shooter so when I discovered that Midway's Area 51 is now completely free to play I downloaded a copy from here

The game got fairly lacklustre reviews when it came out in 2005 and I can understand why. It is a game that was already out of date when it was released. Area 51 doesn't do anything that Half Life, Halo and Unreal weren't doing much much earlier and the graphics and game-play are more 2001 than 2005. Happily the passing of time makes this fault seem less relevant. What the game does do it does very well and it is now possible to enjoy it much as you might enjoy any other retro game.

The game-play, involving shooting a variety of humanoid and alien opponents with a selection of mundane and exotic weaponry is too familiar to warrant explanation. You do get the ability to morph into a hard hitting virus spitting mutant which provides an alternative way to play through levels without really being stronger than the normal gun toting human.

The one area where the game really stands out is in the number of conspiracy theories it manages to cram into one script. Of course alien encounters and government cover ups are absolutely mandatory given the setting but it also manages to drag in the Illuminati, the Kennedy assassination, faked moon-landings, fluoridation of water and just about any other crackpot conspiracy theory you can think of. There is actually quite a complex story being told throughout the game with the aid of cut scenes between chapters and a host of secret documents that you must pick up and "scan" along the way. Scanning reads the document into your data files which is quite a nice touch except that I cannot find any way to access the data file from within the game. You need to exit the game you are playing in order to consult the archives. This really is a bizarre design choice given that some of the information is useful for playing the game.

I must warn anyone thinking of playing the game about a couple of serious issues:

1. There is an intermittent graphics fault whereby the in game lighting disappears leaving you in a pitch black environment. Happily I fond a workaround that turns the lights back on - alt tab out to another window (I leave task manager running in the background just for this purpose) and then alt tab back to the game and, hey presto, vision is restored.
2. The second fault is that there are intermittent crashes to desktop when the game breaks for a cutscene. It crashes before the game saves leaving you to repeat from the last checkpoint. This happens up to 50% of the time and has even happened to me after a boss fight.

These faults might be specific to my combination of an ATI graphics card and Windows 7 64 bit but I couldn't find help for either fault on the net. Given that Midway are in receivership there is no likelihood of official support. Happily the game has very well placed checkpoints and you never have to replay more than about five minutes of game but I know that even this would be a deal breaker for many. I guess it is a good sign of how much I am enjoying the game that I am prepared to put up with it.

PS. Apparently the free release of this game was sponsored by the US Airforce back in 2008 and there are supposed to be recruiting ads interspersed at various points in the game. I haven't seen any ads at all so I wonder if that is related to my crashes. Could it be that the game is going off to look for an ad server which is now offline?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pop Crack: The Tale of a Woman's Descent into Video Game Addiction

This story is not really mine to write but if I don't write it will never be written. In any case I don't think she reads my blog too regularly so I think I'll get away with it.

Despite my own obsession with PC games my beautiful wife has never really warmed to the hobby. In the early days of our relationship I tried to share my enthusiasm but "Doom" and its mass murdering ilk had no appeal for her. At one stage "Simon the Sorcerer" looked to be a minor breakthrough. She did show some interest in the game's puzzle solving  but a hobby which keeps participants up alone till  three in the morning does not mesh well with newly married bliss. For a time gaming became an uncomfortable element in our relationship. Sometimes dismissed as a foolish waste of time and sometimes challenged as an insidious  rival.

Years passed. We built a life together. We built a family together. Maturity, understanding, love and trust combined to allow the freedom to pursue independent hobbies. My gaming has become an accepted part of our life but not a shared part. For one brief moment it looked as if the social aspect of mmorpgs might provide a common interest but it quickly became apparent that while the social aspect was appealing to my wife the combat focus was not. I became reconciled to the fact that she would never really become a fellow gamer.

PopCap came into our lives through the medium of Peggle Nights. It was on sale if I recall and I downloaded it in order to sample a taste of the casual gaming revolution without any expectation of lasting interest. I played it for a few hours and completed  a few levels. While I was hugely impressed by the polish and quality of the game I soon grew bored of the repetitive format and moved on. That would have been that except that the attractive presentation caught my wife's eye and she decided to have a go.

That was all it took. She played and she played. The colourful presentation, the affirming jingles and  the compelling game-play grabbed her. She played and she played. My wife has a very competitive spirit (which I by the way do not) and she became obsessed with completing the main campaign and subsequently with completing the other challenges. She played and she played.

I had heard about PopCap. I had read about PopCap. I knew that they were the best at what they do but I seem to lack the gene that this particular style of game is so carefully crafted to ensnare. I could only look on with somewhat academic interest at my wife's growing gaming obsession.

Eventually she began to exhaust the possibilities of Peggle but then "Plants Versus Zombies" arrived. Again I must take credit  (blame) for having spotted it in a Steam sale and creating a Steam account for my wife in order to play it. Plants versus Zombies is undoubtedly a work of brilliance, a transcending achievement of gaming. I may lack the receptors for this particular strain of narcotic but even I recognise how much more potently it manifests itself in Zombies than in Peggle.  Peggle grabbed my wife and held her for a while but Zombies consumed her.

She played Zombies obsessively. She played in the morning. She played in the evening. She played when she should not have been playing. Late at night she would turn on a computer for an hour of Zombies before bed and then toss and turn, unable to sleep after the ferocious concentration of zombie fighting. I could only observe. My own personality and my relationship with gaming are very different. Even at the height of her obsession I was probably spending more hours gaming than she was but my gaming did not drain me. I have never lost sleep over gaming. Indeed I find an hour spent in a virtual world is an excellent way of de-stressing before sleep.

The main campaign of Zombies is really only the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous  side games and a host of achievements to earn. My wife has played them all and earned them all. She has finished "Plants verus Zombies". Knowing the gap that this would create in her life I downloaded a copy of "Bejewelled 2" when PopCap offered it for free in an anniversary promotion. My wife installed it and started playing it and liked it.

Two days after starting Bejewelled my wife stopped mid game and said:
 "No. I do not want to do this any more. I do not want to be like this any more"
 She uninstalled the games. She told me not to get her any more games.

I have been gaming a long time and I am comfortable with my gaming. I feel it is a positive part of my life. My wife was not comfortable with her gaming. Gaming does not make her feel good about herself.  She has decided to stop.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Isn't Multitasking Great?

Right now I am running Lotro in a window (just watching the chat screen to see if any interesting groups come up) while playing Left 4 Dead 2 while downloading Area 51 (Free Download, Ad Supported) while writing this blog post. CPU usage is 10% rising to about 60% when I actually start shooting Zombies.



The second screen is an old Dell monitor courtesy of my brother who recently upgraded his PC and was throwing this out. I hooked it up to my machine and I have fallen in love with dual monitors. Now that PCs are powerful enough to actually run more than one programme at a time I find it really improves productivity. When I am working I find I can review a document on one screen while typing my comments on the other. When gaming I can have a browser open on one screen while a game is being played on the other. One minor annoyance is that most games demand focus if you want to run them in full screen mode. Left 4 dead is somewhat unusual in that it has a border less windowed mode that behaves like full screen but allows you to change the focus to another application without minimising the game.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lotro: End Game Fever

Hm....
Less than a week ago I decided I had gone as far as I could comfortably go in Lotro and was  trying to decide whether to quit and wait for the next patch or to dabble in a few end game dungeons.

A few days later I find I have slipped rapidly into end game mindset. I have been  running instances. I have started deliberating over incremental improvements in stats. I have refreshed my personal equipment and I have made a decent start on collecting some end game armour.

Thanks entirely to the generosity of more experienced players who were willing to  show me the ropes in dungeons I have amassed 90 radiance out of the 120 radiance required for entry into the current end game raid Barad Gularan. In fact 90 radiance would already allow me into two lower tier raids "The Watcher" and "Dar Narbugud but these aren't run as often any more as attention is focussed on the main raid of BG.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of my slipping into end game mindset is that I  have even done a fair bit of grinding: killing hundreds of beasts in order to tweak the virtue deeds for my class.

All of this is quite out of character for me but for the moment I am having a blast.  I will need to watch my playing time if I keep this up though, particularly when grouping. It is one thing to spend four hour a night soloing when you can pick up the game and put it down as real life requires. Spending four hours doing group  content is much more demanding of attention and family don't get a look in.

Aside: The new "Great Inspiration" buff that is designed to allow solo players complete volume 1 content is a complete boon for grinding slayer deeds. Instances that used to need a group to run can now be blitzed solo. If you can find a book instance that has the mob you need to kill then the buff turns it into a kill fest. I used it to kill 80 elite Angmarim in the Forges of Tham Mirdain in about half an hour last night. I didn't even need to leave the instance to reset the mobs, just stepping out of the final room would reset it with about 15 Angmarim each time.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Call of Juarez: It's all about the story telling.

I have just finished Call of Juarez Bound in Blood. It is a more conventional shooter than the first game and takes fewer risks with the gameplay but it feels more polished overall.

It is hard to talk about the Call of Juarez sequence however without commenting on the story telling: Some people loved it with one reviewer saying it is the "pinnacle of story telling in first person shooters" others hated it saying "The story’s a meandering mess of multiple villains, double-dealing women, faux-rugged heroes, terrible accents, sloppy racial stereotyping, and unmoving tragedy."  Personally I tend to agree with the more favourable assessment. I agree that the quality of the storyline is far below that which we have come to expect from literature or top notch Hollywood screenplays but this is a first person shooter video game  a medium that famously eschews any attempt at coherent storytelling The two Juarez games tell a multi-generational epic story and developers Techland have saturated the game with cut-scenes and narrative Dialogue. I particularly liked the choice of making the second game a prequel to the first and I found my experience of the game was enriched by the fact that I knew where the characters were going to end up but I had no idea how they were going to get there. More of this sort of thing, I say.

Minor gripes:
Too many duels. Every major encounter ends in a one on one duel and theses are a tedious exercise in twitch game play.
The optional side missions suck:  At two points in the game you are left to wander on our own with the choice of doing several optional side missions. These optional missions are for the most part much lower quality than the normal storyline arc. The game actually feels like the completely depressing Far Cry 2 at this point. You can skip these missions but the cash they generate is useful for upgrading your weapons. Thankfully they only happen twice in the game.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Lotro Lows and Highs

Lows: No free to play and no new content yet for Lotro Europe. Not even a clear date as to when these will be released.

In the six weeks I have been back in Middle Earth I have pretty much achieved everything I wanted to achieve before the release of the new content. I am finished the Epic books and I have equipped my level capped main character with a reasonable if not spectacular set of gear and skills. The end game grind awaits which is the point I normally get bored and move on from the game but the carrot of new content still dangles tantalisingly out there. I guess I will try and run a few more end game dungeons while I wait without making a serious effort to gear up for raiding.

Highs: I did have a minor success last night when I managed to solo a difficult quest that was recommended for a small fellowship (the Book 9: Epilogue quest set in Gath Ulunn). It is common enough to hear players talk about soloing group encounters and I am sure more experienced, better geared players would laugh at my pride in this but for me soloing the big worm pulls in this dungeon was a substantial achievement. I had to plan my tactics perfectly not just using long cool down skills but timing their use so that they gave the maximum impact. Pulling it off cheered me up.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

Currently playing through Call of Juarez:Bound in Blood in between bouts of Lotro. I really liked the first Call of Juarez game and this sequel was a complete steal on sale from Go Gamer, Eurogamer's digital download service (still on sale as of 3rd October 2010 by the way).

I am enjoying Bound in Blood so far. Just like the first game it features a very strong storyline which is in fact a prequel to the original. The Wild West setting is superbly done at least to my Hollywood trained eyes and top notch graphics and sound effects provide a great immersive experience. The quick draw bullet time mode has been expanded on with different effects for different situations but it no longer feels like an I win button. Partly this is because it no longer charges up automatically meaning that it is no longer a given that you will have it available whenever you need it. Another reason is that the enemies are a lot smarter and inclined to use cover which prevents the from being easy targets for quick draw mode.

You still play as a one of two characters - a twin six gun toting tough guy ( who we recognise as an earlier version of the reverend from the first game) or his more agile rifle wielding brother. Neither character has stealth ability so the stealth missions that made the first game so unusual are gone.  In my opinion those stealth missions missed more often than they hit so I personally don't miss them.

The opening chapter deserves special mention because it is actually a war scene set during the American Civil war and it is very well done. It makes a refreshing change from the standard second world war battle scene and even from the modern warfare version which has now become almost as ubiquitous. Sadly it only lasts for one scene but I would totally go for "Call of Duty: Johhn Reb versus the Yankees"

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Euro Lotro not free to play. Now I feel Foolish

It now appears that the rumour about European Lotro getting a never ending extension was no more than a rumour. Welcome back week ended last night.

Now there are several threads on the forum asking "But wasn't welcome back week supposed to last...?"

No official word on the issue from Codemasters or its CMs but that doesn't excuse me for having jumped on an unfounded rumour and spreading it further.  I am just going to hide under a rock for a bit and pretend it never happened. Ok?

Ask a busy man

There is an old saying:"If you want a job done ask a busy man". I have just realised that the same principle applies, at least in my case, to mmo playing. My real life work is very seasonal and after a quiet Summer I am now up to my neck in work with long irregular days. Despite this I am spending lots of time in with Lotro. After a long hard day I find a couple of hours in Middle Earth is the perfect de-stressing tool. My playing hours can be irregular, sometimes early morning, sometimes late at night. This mitigates against organised group play but nevertheless I have made great progress on my epic books with the line help of kinmates. Only the last bit of chapter 9 to do and I am up to date. I even managed to join a few radiance gear instance runs. I enjoyed these but I remain convinced that radiance gear gated raids are a step too far for me.

Doing dungeon runs with experienced players has given me an opportunity to think again about the differences between group play and solo play. Although I consider myself a thoughtful  solo player I am still a group play noob. Material for another post I think.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

European Lotro is Free to Play from Today! - Perhaps Not

BIG EDIT: Despite my post below it now seems that  welcome back week has indeed ended. Now I am red faced. It seems I may be guilty of spreading misinformation.



You may have heard hat the European launch of Free to Play (f2p)  Lotro was delayed days before the promised launch date of 10th September and we are still waiting for a confirmed date. Commentators have pointed out the missed opportunity here and have pointed out that many Europeans who would like to try Lotro may go to the current free US servers instead.

Well I just discovered that you can actually play Lotro for free with Codemasters in Europe already. This post explains it all but the gist is that returning ex subscribers can avail of a free "welcome back" deal which allows them to play for free until f2p launches while totally new players can use the free trial and they too will be able to keep playing for free until f2p launches. The welcome back package also includes accelerated XP and free horse travel for all players.

It's a pretty good arrangement actually and someone staring on the European servers today will have access to more stuff than someone starting a brand new free account on the US servers. The only problem is that Codemasters aren't telling anybody about it. The official Lotro Europe website doesn't explain it and only people who trawl Codemasters forums are likely to find out about it. Codemasters seriously need to overhaul their marketing department because this is not the first time they have had a special offer and not told anyone about it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Rules of the Club of Manhood

The rules of the club of manhood are for the most part unwritten but there are one or two that deserve to be explicitly recorded and a new one has just come to my attention:

If you just happen to be a handsome young man who just happens to be getting married to a beautiful young lady and if you also just happen to be a talented musician then DO NOT give in to the temptation to write your beloved a haunting ballad expressing your undying love. DO NOT play said ballad at your wedding. DO NOT record it on you tube. DO NOT distribute mp3's to all of your friends and acquaintances.

THINK before you do any of the above things of your fellow man. THINK of the vast bulk of us who's musical ambition stretches no further than to learn to play the radio.  THINK of the way our wives, girlfriends significant others will latch on to this song and play it over an over with far away looks in their eyes. Think man, FOR GOD SAKE THINK of the scornful glances they will then cast at us, their own untalented lumps of manhood.

Do not imagine for one moment that writing the song in French excuses your crime against mankind. In fact it makes it far far worse. Even schoolboy French is sufficient to decipher words like "amour" and "eternelle", while those untranslated passages crooned so powerfully in your manly voice serve only to increase the sense of mystery and romance in the eyes of our beguiled partners.

I am just saying. OK?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lotro Difficulty Speedbump: The Hall of Mirrors

Volume II book 7 was entirely solo as were the first few chapters of book 8 so it was quite a surprise when book 8 chapter 3 A Relic in Lumul-Nar turned out to be a very challenging 3 man instance. My Champion Throg was lucky enough to get the help of another champion and a minstrel from our kin but we were quite unprepared for the difficulty level of the instance, which I later discovered is called "The Hall of Mirrors". After many wipes and much consultation we did eventually overcome the first boss which required positional tanking and carefully timed corruption removal but it was getting very late so we didn't manage to complete the instance. You can read a fairly good walkthrough of the instance here. The key to the first boss is keeping two buffing matron wargs apart and preventing them from healing by removing a 10s corruption (buff).  For reference we had our minstrel kite one matron while two champions beat on the other and that eventually worked.

These kind of tricks are more common in 6 man content than in 3 man. Indeed tough 3 man content is all the more challenging because you are unlikely to have all of the classes you would like and you need to figure out a way to make do with the three players you have got. I am looking forward to giving it another go but it may be a while before I can get a suitable group.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Lure of Completion

I love finishing things. In single player games there is generally a final boss to be overcome and no matter how cheesy the closing cut-scene I find I can walk away with a warm glow knowing that I have completed the game.

Mmorpgs are unfinished by design. There is no end of game. Nevertheless a certain completionist satisfaction can still be had from finished various subgoals of which there are many. Complete a certain quest arc, complete a certain reputation grind, complete a certain armour set, complete a certain deed or collection.

Completing things was pretty much the theme of my weekend in Lotro. On Friday night I had the help of a kinship group to complete the quests in Volume II book 6. In this book the hard pressed dwarven expeditionary forcein Moria were forced to ask for Eleven help to suppress the evil that has taken over the once great dwarven stronghold. With considerable effort on Throg's part the elves of Lothlorien agreed to help not because of any love of dwarves but because they realise that the evil has to be countered and they hope to find out what happened to the great wizard Gandalf (Mithrandir in the Elven tongue) following his battle with the Balrog Durin's Bane.

Vol II book 7 was easy enough to complete solo and with the aid of a combined force of elves and dwarves we managed to capture Mazog the vile leader of the Moria orcs. The screenshot below is from book 8 but it is the same Mazog trying to escape.



Finishing book six also earned Throg the legendary skill Deathstorm. This sparked another bit of completionism as Throg now lacks only one legendary skill. The final legendary requires kindred reputation with the Iron Guards of Moria and given my feeling about grind it isn't surprising that I put this off for so long. Neverthesless I made a determined effort to get the rep required over the weekend. Thankfully Turbine have included a number of ways to earn reputation. Perhaps the most efficient are a couple of solo dungeons in Hadubab (Durins way) which give a hefty chunk of rep but can only be run once a day. Some quests also give reputation so I got a further boost from a quest arc in the East of Durin's way involving a Morroval Queen who has nefarious plans for the corpse of Durin's Bane. Although the quests didn't give as much rep as I hoped I did get a few rep item drops which helped me on my way. As an added bonus killing all those morrovals helped completed a deed which raised my innocence virtue to the cap of 10. Score another point for completeness. I draw the line at killing random mobs in the hope of getting rep drops however so I didn't actually complete the rep grind yet. I am prepared to wait a few days more running the dungeons when they are available for the final few points.

The final legendary I seek by the way is called Continuous Blood Rage. Its a kind of Berzerker mode which makes a Champion virtually unstoppable and ramps up damage over time but has a very high morale (health) cost and makes you virtually unhealable. Everything I have read suggests it is a suicide skill that I will probably never use but hey,  completeness is its own reward.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

I know where all those funny names come from.

When writers go looking for suitable fantasy sounding names for their characters one of the most reliable sources is to borrow phrases from the Celtic languages: Welsh, Breton, Irish and Scot's Gaelic. Although I speak English as my main language I did learn Gaelic in school so I am always interested to look out for Celtic influences in my fantasy games and novels. This evening playing Lord of the rings I came across a character in volume 3 book who has been thrown out of her tribe and is called Gun Ain which she explains means "without a name". I immediately recognised the Gaelic phrase "gan ainm" gan being without and ainm meaning name.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

I don't really do grind

Wikipedia defines grind as "the process of engaging in repetitive and/or non-entertaining gameplay in order to gain access to other features within the game". I don't really do grind. When Painkiller asked me to repeat all of the levels on a harder difficulty setting just to unlock a bonus ending I declined. As far as I am concerned I have finished the game. I don't really do grind.

Its not that grinding is always a bad thing. Think of knitting, think of fishing. Many hobbies of older times worked on similar principles. There is something relaxing about doing the same familiar task over and over in the knowledge that the repetition will eventually add up to a longed for reward. Indeed it could that in today's "I want it now" world grinding in games is a welcome return to delayed gratification and may even be good for the soul. Nevertheless I don't fish and I don't knit and in gaming I don't do grind.

That puts me at something of a disadvantage when it come to mmorpgs because the whole business model requires that players will repeat the same limited amount of content over and over in order to achieve in game rewards. If you aren't prepared to do the grind then you aren't allowed to have the shiny. I am not immune to the lure of shiny rewards. Every time I play an mmorpg I eventually find myself slipping into grind mode,  repeating some repetitive action over and over in pursuit of a reward but my innate dislike of grinding usually rebels and more often than not I end up leaving the game before my grind is finished.

Returning to Lotro recently after an absence of almost a year I reckoned I would be immune to grind because I am so far behind the rest of my kin that there is no point trying to catch up. They are all off raiding radiance gated dungeons whereas I don't even meet the requirements for the dungeon before the dungeon before last. I do miss the fun of challenging group content but with a gap so large why bother.

Except that Turbine have thought of that. Realising that radiance gated progression was creating an impenetrable barrier to new players they introduced a range of new ways to get it. Mirkwood has several three and six man dungeons that allow you to bypass the Moria radiance grind. The forthcoming free to play expansion is re-scaling some older dungeons and the new rewards will include radiance armour. Thinking about this my mind starts to wander. If I start running these new instances repeatedly (and do the complementary skirmish runs which are also necessary) I will eventually be able to catch up and once again I will be able to raid with my kin.

STOP!

Time for a reality check. I don't do grind. If I set out to run those dungeons repeatedly just so I can gear up for further raiding then in all likelihood I will abandon the game a bored couple of weeks later.

There is a bright side however. These new dungeons runs are likely to be very popular when they come out and they have NO RADIANCE GATING. Therefore I won't be excluded from joining them. Rather than seeing them as a means to an end, a necessary grind in order to access end game raiding why not enjoy them for what they are? Challenging group content that I won't be excluded from. It isn't really grind if you are doing it because you enjoy the content.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Dol Guldur


Sauron's fortress of Dol Guldur dominates the skyline of Eastern Mirkwood. It is from here that the evil one sends his forces to attack the Elves of Lothlorien. Now the tree dwellers are fighting back and the army of the Malledhrim is massing in Thangulhad to assault Sauron's vile stronghold. The dwarven champion Throg is pleased to note that for once the Elves have set aside their usual tactics of trying to defeat orcs by singing to trees and picking berries in favour of more traditional means of assault using iron and fire and large rocks.  He is particularly gratified to see that they have called on the support of dwarven siege engineers who are no doubt responsible for the impressive looking catapults you see in the picture. 

Dol Guldur is currently the "End Game" of Lotro. Home to the hardest bosses living in the toughest instances with the most onerous entry requirements. When I first caught sight of the place I was impressed both by the massive forbidding fortress itself and the bustling Elven war camp in its shadow. I decided to go up for a closer look, not expecting to get very far with my lone level 64 dwarf. Surprisingly I managed to walk all the way into the fortress and right up to all of the end game instances. There were plenty of high level orcs around but no bunches so it was easy to tackle them one at a time. I only saw two elites on the whole journey and both were easily avoided. I walked on past the warg pens, past the dungeon, past the sword hall, past Sammath Gul past all of the end game instances of Lotro right up to the final Raid instance of Barad Guldur. In fact here is Throg smiling for a photo in front of the first two Mobs in the raid instance:

The fact that a lone player, not yet maximum level can casually saunter up to the hardest dungeons in the game shows just how much the design philosophy of Lotro has changed since first release. The dungeons themselves are still tough group encounters but every where outside the dungeons is soloable. Contrast this with the original Lotro: a defining feature of Shadows of Angmar was that large parts of the world were effectively off limits to solo players. Regions like Dol Dinen, Carn Dum and Barad Gularan were populated with dangerous groups of elite mobs that effectively made them no go areas for solo players. The journey out to the Rift of Nurz Ghashu raid instance was so treacherous that even raid groups tried to avoid it by porting in players if at all possible. How times have changed.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Lotro Update: Onwards into Mirkwood

At level 63 Throg is about a third of the way through the soloable content of Mirkwood, nicely on track for the upcoming expansion to be released with free to play in 12 days time.

Although it is over a year old now Mirkwood is new to me and it is interesting to see how many of the subtle changes that previous expansions played around with have come together in Mirkwood as a unified whole. A players progress through through the Forest is driven by quests in a linear progression from hub to hub. As you finish the quest chains in one place you are directed to the next hub. Itemised quest rewards have been replaced entirely by collectable tokens. Tokens in various quantities can be exchanged for gear and consumables.

In considerable contrast to the radiant elven forest of Lothlorien, Mirkwood is a dark and dangerous place populated by Orcs and savage beasts. All of the quests I have come across so far have been solo-able but soloing still presents a challenge. Much of the action takes place in camps full of fast re-spawning mobs with random patrols. Individual mobs are no match for a player you need to keep your wits about you to avoid being overwhelmed by adds. This type of content can be soloed but there is ample incentive to group up in order to reduce the danger and speed up progress.

Throg being chased by a bevvy of winged ladies
Case in point is the Morrival infested castle of Dannenglor. This crumbling ruin teems with vicious harpy like morrivals. Most of them are paired off so you cannot take them one at a time and an abundance of fast re-spawning patrols means that you can easily find your self fighting three or more of these at a time. One of the most common types called the Morvul Slave is a hard hitting mob that does a tonne of shadow damage which is not mitigated by armour. To me these feel way overpowered for a normal level mob and Throg's first attempts at breaching the castle ended with him running for his life.


There are nine quest to be completed in there in several chains which require repeated entry so I persevered and eventually with much careful pulling and a lot of wall hugging finished them all. Picture of me tacking the final boss mob as proof:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mafia 2 Reviews are out ...

... and they are to say the least mixed. Top marks from Gameinformer and a miserable 4/10 from the usually reliable Eurogamer except that there is also a 10/10 from Eurogamer.fr. As I said, mixed. Most worrying is the fact that even reviewers who seem to understand that Mafia is not GTA have still scored the game badly.

Given my impossibly high expectations I am genuinely worried now. The one glimmer of hope comes from Bill Harris at Dubious Quality. Bill is not a professional reviewer but he is someone who's opinion I trust, particularly on games that don't appeal to everyone like Mount and Blade and Red Faction Guerilla. Bill has only played the game for a few hours though.

I have decided to hold off purchasing. Partly because I am as a rule frugal about buying games and I don't want to waste the price of a new release on a turkey but also because I don't want my dreams of a superb Mafia sequel to be shattered.  At very least I will wait for Bill Harris to rack up a few more playing hours.

Friday, August 27, 2010

GET ME OUT! Unsubscription blues.

About once a week I get a large email from a large concert ticket selling agency detailing their latest offers. I have grown almost immune to to the flood of Viagra emails that have thankfully reduced to a trickle now that spam filtering has matured but this particular email really bugs me.

The thing is I know this is a legitimate company because they are a well known a subsidiary of the largest ticket distributor in this part of the world. What annoys me to the point of frustration is that I am utterly unable to un-subscribe from their mailing list.

Each new missive starts with the line
"This is not unsolicited email - you have previously opted in to receive XXXXXX mailings"
I am pretty sure this is not true. I have never bought anything from this company and I have no interest in their particular line of business. I may have bought stuff from their parent company but I am pretty fastidious at finding and ticking the box that says "don't send me spam" and I never get mailings from the parent.

What really really annoys me though his that each weeks mailing ends with the line: "If you would like to be removed from our mailing list please click unsubscribe Please do not reply to this message, as this email was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming mail."

I have clicked that link each week and it does nothing. Figuring it could be an email incompatibility issue I have tried opening the email in a different email client and  clicking the link. Nothing happens. I have examined the source code of the email for a valid unsubscribe link and I can't find one.

I have searched their website for unsubscribe information and found nothing useful.  I have tried  logging in with my email address but they claim I have no account. I have emailed their customer support and I have received no response. I even considered creating a new account with my own email address in order to log in and try to unsubscribe after logging in but I pulled back for fear that I would end up with two unwanted emails per week instead of one.

I know I can just flag them as spam and let the spam filter weed them out but it really annoys me that I cannot unsubscribe from the mailing list of a legitimate company.

The City of Trees: a Lotro Update

I am back playing my dwarf Champion Throg with the general intention of soloing him up to the level cap in time for the expansion that comes with Free to Play on 10th September. After all this soloing It will be nice to be part of the buzz that comes from everyone doing new content for the first time together.

Throg had languished just outside Lothlorien since last October but thankfully he was very close to the rep level needed to proceed into the Elven forest itself. This unavoidable grind with only a limited number of rep quests to repeat  was one of the contributory factors to my quitting the game for almost a year.  Imagine my delight on getting in to discover that yet another rep grind is required to get into the city itself. Happily there are more than enough interesting quests in the forest to allow you to build up the required level of rep without repeating anything. Indeed Lothlorien Forest offers the choice between combat against an orc incursion in the North West corner or a whole bunch of tree hugging berry picking quests in the west. I spent a pleasant few days of varied questing acquiring the rep needed to get into the Caras Galadhon. When I eventually got into the City of Trees it turned out to be incredibly beautiful and also incredibly frustrating to navigate. The vast array of multilevelled platforms high in the trees is impossible to represent on a 2D map. Long circular stairways provide access to the treetops but if you search around you can find instant travel ladders which eliminate the long climb. The flet runner quest series which requires you to navigate around the treetops with very tight time limits is really challenging. There are plenty of other quests to pick up in there too all of which give a combination of Galadhrim rep and collectable token rewards (gold and silver leaf). With a high enough rep you can exchange these tokens for epic rewards so it provides a mechanism for  non raiders to get high quality gear. As far as I could tell this gear doe not have the radiance required for access to end game raids however so it is not a mechanism for bypassing the raid progression path.

A dwarf in the City of Trees. (Note that Throg has abandoned the Mohawk and overalls in favour of a more mature look)

I thought briefly about farming for some of this gear but Mirkwood beckons. I am sure that Lothlorien's level 60 gear will be outclassed by newer level 65 stuff and I am keen to to get through Mirkwood before Sep 10th.  I left Caras Galadhon behind me and took the boat across the Anduin to the much darker and bleaker forest of Mirkwood.

NB: I am pretty sure you can get to Mirkwood with out the detour into Caras Galahon. As long as you have earned acquaintance status with he Galadhrim you could walk through Lotlorien and catch the boat straight across the Anduin. I do think it is worth a few days diversion though to see the most beautiful city of the Elves in Middle Earth.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Personal Viewpoint on Buying Used Games

Today's hullabaloo is all about the ethics of buying used games. Cory Ledesma from THQ started it by declaring  in a CVG Interview that "when the game's bought used we get cheated". Tycho from Penny Arcade rowed in in support here and here. Hundred of commenters have come out on either side of this debate and in the blogosphere Syncaine has declared his agreement while Syp and others have come out strongly against.

I firmly believe that I should obtain a legitimate license for every piece of software I use but I don't feel particularly philanthropic towards game developers and I will try and get that license legally the lowest cost to myself. If a developer allows their game to be legally traded second hand, or if they allow it to be deeply discounted on Steam or if they choose to offer it in a "pay what you like" sale then I will happily take that license for the lowest cost possible and feel good about it. I will admit that my conscience genuinely prompts me to pay about €5 for "pay what you like" but I remain deeply suspicious of this type of give away and the way it obfuscates the purchasing decision.

One of the main arguments used against second hand sales is that none of the money goes to the developers of  games.   I think if you take a bigger view of the market you will see this is not true. Much of the money spent on second hand games goes back into the hands of gamers who will in turn use that money to buy more games. Where does Gamestop get those second hand games from? They get them from gamers who TRADE THEM IN TO BUY NEW RELEASES.  If you completely prevented second hand sales then there would be less money overall flowing into the games market and there would also be lower sales of new games.

Ultimately it boils down to economics 101 and the downwards sloping demand curve. You cannot beat the curve and force people at the lower price end of the curve to pay more.  If games were only every available at full price then sales would be a lot smaller than they are now.  The differentiation in the market with brand new shrink wrap game available on day of release at a high price, second hand slightly grubby games available a few weeks later at a  discount and budget versions available after while after that is actually very good for the market as a whole and helps to maximise the total revenue from the sale of games.

A game company arguing against second hand sales is being very short-sighted because killing second hand sales would reduce the overall amount of money being spend on games and would ultimately hurt their business. The only valid gripe with second hand sales is that perhaps the retailers are getting too big a slice of the overall revenue pie.




Ultimately this is a non argument though because it is entirely within the control of the game companies. They can intervene at the business level by renegotiating a higher cut from the retailers. They can intervene at the price level by bringing out discounted versions of a game to compete head on with second hand sales. They can intervene at game level by having phone home activation and limited installs. They can intervene at a legal level with restrictive licensing clauses. Would these move increase or decrease the game companies revenue. I don't know but if they are really concerned about second hand sales then they are plenty of things they can do about it rather than trying to pin a guilt trip on their customers.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

This made me chuckle

A poster to Slashdot talking about the first instance of a video ad in a printed magazine:
And which high-tech magazine is leading the charge? Wired? Popular Mechanics? 
Nope. "Successful Farming."