Sunday, January 31, 2010

Syphon Spirit beta - Check this out.

I am constantly amazed by people who have real artistic talent. The pinnacle of my own artistic ability was the achievement of a "D" grade in intermediate certificate art at age 15. It was a compulsory course in my school and I am pretty sure that you would need to be legally blind to get less than a D.

Anyway the source of these musings is that one of my fellow bloggers is an artist and a game designer. Please check out the beta of Anton's latest creation here. Syphon Spirit is very original and very pretty. It is also addictive. There are only a few levels in the beta but the later ones are quite tricky so enjoy.

Longing for some turn based tactics

I have a longing on me for a turn based strategy game - not a huge strategic juggernaut like Civ but something with an emphasis on turn based combat. I actually found the game I want in my collection - It is called Rim Battle Planets. It seems to be exactly what I want - turn based combat with little tanks and men running around the terrain. Sadly the game has a mean time between crashes of about 5 minutes on my PC. I have tried all the fixes I can think of - turning off all bells and whistles, running in compatibility mode, running on a single processor core but nothing works.

Looking around for an equivalent I am a bit stumped. I have plenty of real time strategy games in my collection but turn based are a rare breed. The following possibilities suggest themselves:

Kings Bounty the Legend: Possibly, but I played the demo so much that I got bored of game.
Combat Mission: Possibly, this is a lot more serious than I was looking for though.
Advanced Strategic Command:  This free game is the sort of thing I am looking for but boy is it ugly and boy is the interface clunky. Also I suspect the single player aspect is lousy.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Do you have to be an arsehole in real life to be an arsehole in game?

(Apologies for the crudity of my language but I do feel a certain robustness of expression is required to fully express what I am trying to get at).

Thanks to Syncaine I read an interesting piece about a Darkfall player called Darwoth who pulled of a series of impressive guild bank heists by tricking players into making him an officer in their guild.

I admire what Darworth achieved. It required audacity and cleverness and I believe this type of behaviour is entirely in keeping with the hardcore ethos of a game like Darkfall. This is exactly the sort of meta-game scheming that makes EVE a great game and is essential to the atmosphere of danger and mistrust that this type of game needs.

Unfortunately while I admire what he did I have nothing but contempt for Darworth himself. In his writing he comes across as a racist. He comes across as insulting and bad mannered. He comes across as a whinger. He constantly whines about what he calls zerg guilds. He whines about guard towers. He even whines about Trammel!!! Trammel happened almost a decade ago and he is still whining about it.

Am I completely naieve to think that it should be possible to role play a villain in the context of a game without being an arsehole in real life? I guess Hollywood has spoiled me. Too many David Niven and Michael Caine movies have led me to believe in the concept of the gentleman swindler who will rob you blind but with a debonair politeness.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dragon Age: How those Irish names should really be pronounced.

Perhaps you didn't realise it but a lot of the "fantasy" character names in Dragon age are actually common Irish names of Celtic Origin. Quite fitting I think given the Celtic links to the Arthurian legends. Unfortunately (if you are Irish like me) the game developers chose to go with an Anglicised pronunciation of the names that sounds completely wrong to an Irish ear. Of course it is just a game and they are entitled to pronouce the words any way they like but if you are interested in the "correct" Irish pronunciations here are some of the ones I spotted:

Eamon: should be  "Ayemon" not "Eee-mon"  (I have a brother called Eamon so I should know :) )
Riordan:  should be "Reardun" not "Reeoredan"
Niall: should be "Nile" or perhaps "Neel" but not "N-eye-al"
Fergus: should be "Fur-gus" (don't remember how it is pronounced in game)
Connor: Well its just "Connor", I think they got this one right :)
Bodhan: should be "budan" Can't remember what they did with this.

There were a few others that I can't remember now but it is clear to me that the scriptwriters used a lits of common Irish names as one of their inspirations.It is interesting to note that they have generally used modern spelling suggesting they used a list of modern Irish names rather than getting names from older celtic legends. 

The Slowest Dragon Age Player Ever

With my main character just getting to level 21 I finally sunk my sword into the head of the Arch Demon and freed Ferelden from the curse of the Blight.

My last savegame has a time played of 114 hours and 58 minutes.
Xfire records my having played the game for 171 Hours.

Is there an achievement for being the slowest Dragon Age player ever?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dragon Age Landsmeet - Bad Game Design or Brilliant?

[Spoilers Abound]

One of the cardinal rules of game design is that there should always be a rest, recuperate, save opportunity immediately before every boss fight and another one immediately after. I was somewhat pissed off when I finally reached the Landsmeet in Dragon Age to find this principle did not apply. It took me several tries to overcome Loghain and each time I had to endure a tedious re-run of the lead in. The biggest surprise happened when I finally did overcome him and was immediately propelled into a series of cut-scenes and dialog options.

I am still reeling from the fact that my hastily chosen choices resulted in my favourite companion deserting me forever! That ingrate. I had been cultivating his friendship all game and his approval rating was so high I thought I could surely talk him around but no chance - he was gone.

It was only after he had left that I realised he had walked off with a complete set of rare armour, and equipment. Irreplaceable stuff all of it. To think that I talked the Queen out of executing him.

I will admit that my first thought was to go back to a previous save game and tweak my choices (or at very least send him off in nothing but his underpants).  Then I remembered that there is no save game between the boss fight and this decision. If I want to avoid the consequences then I need to go back before the fight undoing perhaps perhaps 30 minutes of game play all told.


So: Is this simply bad game design by Bioware or is it a brilliant way of forcing players to live with the consequences of their decisions?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Middle Aged Gamer's Lament

I am so pumped up about the recently concluded RPS Solium Infernum Saga that I really really want to show it to some real life person. Sadly I cannot think of a single real life friend or acquaintance who is into gaming and who would appreciate this. Sod it. It is so good perhaps a non-gamer would get it. I am going to have to pick someone at random or I'll burst. 

PS: Vic Davis the creator of the game is offering a one week only discount to Rock Paper Shotgun readers . Scan the comments section of the last episode for the discount code but for heaven's sake read the saga first so you don't get any spoilers.

Making death more significant without increasing the grind

One of my favourite ever posts to this blog is called "Running the Gauntlet" based on my experience of of being ambushed by pirates in a gate camp. I can still remember the adrenaline rush when I realised that I stood to lose almost everything I owned in game if I was killed. Death in EVE is harsj but that very harshness greatly increases the emotional involvement in the game. Therefore when Tobold asked for ways to make mmos harder I immediately thought of harsher death penalties but I pulled back from fully recommending it because in reality a harsher death penalty where you lose items or lose experience or suffer some debuff ultimately boils down to a time-sink where you must spend more time to get back to where you were. Green Armadillo explains this well in his blog. The last thing mmos need is yet another timesink.

Is there a way to make death significant without it being a timesink? I have been trying to think of ways.

One thought is to use a title or award for not being killed. Many games already have such a title (like "Survivor" or "Undefeated")  but once you lose it it is gone forever so it becomes meaningless for most players after their first newbie death. How about instead a resetting title that indicates the number of days since your last defeat? A lot of folks like having a nice title so the risk of losing a few ranks could make people more wary of death even if it doesn't reduce your game strength in any way.

Another slightly more wayward thought is to have actual permadeath where you character dies and is not resurrected but but you can immediately create a successor (son or daughter) who inherits all their stuff and skills. The only thing you would lose is the original character's name and appearance. People get attached to names, I think this could work. Some thought would need to be put into the impact on gameplay though. Can people still be rezzed for example?

Another thought - remove the in game penalty and replace it with a real world financial hit. You have to pay real cash to resurrect your character. As bizarre as it sounds most free to play games already have a version of this - there is usually something you can buy in the item shop which removes the in game death penalty. I am not really supporting this though because there are way too many difficulties - the unfairness, the moral hazard of game developers making games harder to increase revenues, the lack of any in game significance and so on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rock Paper Shotgun in Hell

Solium Infernum is the kind of game I would love to be able to play but for various reasons probably never will. Apart from the logistical difficulties of getting a group of people to play with is the fact that I am not particularly competitive. I am more likely to wilt than thrive under the stress of competitive multi-player games so it is great to be able to read about others multiplayer exploits.

Just in case anybody missed it the folk at Rock Paper Shotgun are giving a serialised account of a recent game of Solium Infernum the turn based strategy game set in Hell. With linked blogs describing the unfolding perfidy from multiple points of view this is easily the best game walk through I have every read. Solium is a deep multi-layered game and the ongoing insights into the players minds as they learn the complexities game and develop ever more fiendish plans is totally gripping.

PS: Vic Davis the creator of the game is offering a one week only discount to Rock Paper Shotgun readers . Scan the comments section of the last episode for the discount code but for heaven's sake read the saga first so you don't get any spoilers. 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Another idea about PVP games - Rock Paper Scissors

Somehow I ended up reading Kieron Gillens RPS piece about  and something struck me about pvp games in general. Travian is a kind of online mmo/rts hybrid and from what I can make out the big guys beat on the small guys and this process continues until an even bigger guy comes along to beat on them. In Travian this process is so institutionalised that they call it "farming" but I think it sums up a lot of multiplayer pvp games.

When you think about this is a pretty tedious game mechanic - player A will always be bigger and stronger than player B who in turn will always be bigger and stronger than player C.

Why not spice things up a bit by introducing a tried and trusted formula for gameplay success: Rock Paper Scissors. In essence to make this work you need at leat three categories of players - Category A are stonger than Category B, CAtegory B are stronger than Catergory C but lo and behold Category C turn out to be stonger than Category A!

One way to implement this would be to implement a special category of players (lets call them bandits) who have special bonuses against high level experienced players but who have extreme weakness to newer less experienced players. Imagine the interesting game-play situations that could bring about.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google Versus China

Let me be absolutely clear that I don't really trust Google. I have huge admiration for their technology, their vision  and their foresight. I also accept that the famous "Do No Evil" motto is a genuine aspiration and not just a barefaced lie.  However Google is an extremely wealthy extremely powerful organisation who have a virtual strangle hold over one of the worlds most important resources. History has shown again and again that when you mix large amounts of power with large amounts of wealth and throw in a healty dollop of human nature principles eventually go out the window.

Given that position I have to admit astonishment at Google's recent announcement of a change in their approach to China. They are no longer going to comply with Chinese Government request's to censor search results for the Chinese market. Allowing for the language of diplomacy this seems to me to be a declaration of war between a multinational corporation and a global superpower.

Can a mere company hope to win such a war? Surely not  - if the company flaunts the law of the land then the Chinese government can shut down their local operations and even arrest any local employees. Google would be forced to pull out of China completely and the Chinese could contine business as usual behind their great firewall. There are other search engines after all, probably even a few home grown ones.  

Is this really a decision being made on principle? Is there a political motivation behind it? Was there any US government involvement in the decision? Are there any economic reasons why Google would consider this move? Is there any possibility that a move like this could start a ripple of awareness among the population of the worlds largest nation who live behind the great firewall of China?  I don't know the answer to any of these questions but I do think it will be very interesting to watch how this unfolds. 
 
Discalimer: I recognise the irony of the fact that I am writing this article on a blogging service owned and provided to me for free by Google.  

Dragon Age: Thoughts on the Tactics System

Things were looking grim. My dwarven rogue was fighting for his life, my mages were out of mana, Alastair's warrior shield  was the only thing protecting the squishy casters hiding behind him but he was being hacked from all sides and would surely succumb in seconds. Finally overcoming his opponent my rogue turned  fully expecting to see Alastair dead and the mages being chopped to pieces but then an amazing thing happened. As Alastair was moments from death the witch Morrigan had scraped together enough mana to cast her one and only protective spell which put a force field around Alastair. His enraged opponents tried to cut through the field but their blows could no longer hurt him. Trapped within the force field Alastair could make no further contribution to the battle himself but while his opponents continued their futile attempts to hack through the barrier it was a simple matter for my stealthy rogue to sneak up behind each one in turn and finish them off with a knife in the back. 


What a clever witch Morrigan is to think of saving the day like that. Then again of course she is, she is doing exactly what I told her to do. There it is right in the list of her tactics commands: If "ally health <10%" then "cast Force Field".



The tactics system is a major innovation in Dragon Age allowing you to tailor your parties AI in quite a detailed fashion. I have grown to like it a lot and I get particular satisfaction when I see one of my party carry out my pre-programmed commands. The above scenario has actually happened by the way. More than once that single force field spell which seems out of place among Morrigan's array of offensive spells, has saved the day.

Unfortunately the system is far from perfect. Bioware admit as much when they note that at anything above easy difficulty level you will need to bypass the programmed behaviour and micro-manage your parties actions using the pause function.  In my experience autopilot using tactics works well for a warrior, an archer or a healing mage but doesn't really work for a melee rogue (because there is no way to tell the rogue to get behind an opponent for a backstab) or for an offensive mage (because there are too many spells and too many friendly fire effects to be considered). Nevertheless it is an interesting innovation that adds to game-play and gives some insight into the way developers have been programming AI for years.

I do hope this system gets take up by more games and hopefully expanded upon. I have some thoughts about extra features that would make the tactics more useful.:

1. I think it is unfortunate that Dragon Age puts an artificial low limit on the number of tactics slots available that can only be increased by spending skill points. A skill is a skill while a tactic is simply a programming tool - they shouldn't be confused.

2. The lack of commands relating to positioning is particularly frustrating. There is only one global move / stay command for all characters. Even something as simple as telling your archer to stay put on this piece of high ground while your melee charge into battle is hard to do. It should be possible to individually tell characters whether to to stay put or move.

3. Related to 2 - there needs to be some way to tell rogues in particular to try and attack enemies from the rear in order to avail of back stab opportunities.

4. The tactics system in Dragon Age is quite confusing in relation to targeting. Each tactic has one condition and one action that will be carried out if that condition is met. While you can often specify an explicit target for the condition you never get to specify an explicit target for the action. I think the target of the action is usually assumed to be the target of the condition but it is not always obvious. I think the system would me much more powerful if you could always explicitly state the target of both the condition and the action and this targeting should include general cases like "any member of my party" or "my current target". 

Examples from the current Dragon Age System:

a. If "I am being attacked in melee" then "cast freeze" - It isn't clear who you will freeze. I think it will be the melee attacker but it could also be your current target.

b. If  "Enemy has heavy Armour" then "Use ability Shatter Armour". Does this mean that you will break off your current fight to chase down a heavy armour wearer or does it mean that you will  use shatter armour in your current fight if your opponent has heavy armour?


Improved system with more explicit targeting:

a. If  target:"this character" condition: "is being attacked in melee" then action: "Cast Freeze" on target "cause of condition".

b. If target: "My current target" is condition: "wearing heavy armour" then action:"Shatter Armour" on target " my current target"


5. Dragon Age's tactics system is more complex than it first looks. It even has flow control with "goto" ability. The documentation does not explain it properly unfortunately. According to Dragon Age wiki users appear to have found out by trial and error that once a condition is met and a tactic executed the pointer is reset to the top of the list of tactics. That is a vital piece of information. It means that tactics that lie below commonly met conditions may never be evaluated. For example if (as I once did) you put all your buffs at the top of the list of tactics with condition "any" then the first buff will be executed repeatedly and no other tactic will ever be looked at. A programming system with this level of complexity needs proper documentation.

Dragon Age: 114 hours and counting

The 114 hours X-fire is currently recording for my play-time in Dragon Age is misleading because I have a habit of leaving the game running while I go off and do other things but the fact remains that this is a long game. Perhaps a bit too long for my liking. I like finishing games and this is a game I started on Christmas day intending to finish over the holiday period. No chance. The holidays are long over and I still haven't convinced the dwarves to support my cause before I head off to the Landsmeet.

If I were to make one change to the game it would be to eliminate most of the random encounters. Any time you journey from A to B you are more likely than not to be ambushed by a band of robbers, wolves assassins or something else out for your blood. These can be challenging fights particularly in the beginning of the game when your party is not yet optimised. On more than one occasion I returned to base to heal up and stock up on consumables only to use up everything in my first random encounter. What a time waster.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A great idea for hard core PVP games

I must be in a very funny mood this afternoon because for some reason this seems like a good idea to me:

How about if you manage to kill another player then you get to write a custom label which appears over their head for a fixed period of time. That is a fixed period of in game wandering around time so no logging off or afk hiding to wait out the timer. Needless to say the labels cannot be turned off by the ganked player.

So after a defeat "Conan the Magnificent" becomes "Conan is a big Sissy" or more probably "Conan is a %$$%% @%%&&"

I think its brilliant.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dragon Age: Is this a bug?

[Spoilers]
I recruited the mages circle to help slay the demon and free the boy in Redcliffe without killing his mother. However after I have gone into the Fade and killed the Demon I got a cutscene showing the mothers funeral voyage and the code article was updated to say that the Arlessa gave her life to save her son. Yet both the Arlessa and her son are both very much alive and I can talk to them.  Hopefully this is only a minor bug that won't bite me in the ass later. It is a slightly annoying end to what was a truly epic quest chain.

By the way I chose to send Joran into the Fade - It seemed only fair given his role in causing the mess. He has a good set of spells with useful buffs and good damage potential so it was an easy enough battle against the demon.

[End Spoilers]

Dragon Age - Dealing with those pesky gifts

I have been pretty good at cleaning junk out of my bags in Dragon Age but even still I am struggling for inventory space. One major bugbear is gifts. These are items that can be given to your companions that will improve their disposition towards you. This in turn ensures that they will hang around even if you make some decisions they disagree with and if you get the disposition high enough they will even get a few extra skills. Unfortunately not all gifts are equal. A gift that givs a +10 rating with one character may only give +1 to another. Some gifts even start plot threads if given to the right character. Once I realised this I became very cautious about giving gifts, instead hoarding them till I got a few minutes to sit down and try and figure out which character would prefer which gift. Of course I never got around to this and my bags were filling up with these gifts.

I guess if you are interested in the character background stories then you can figure out who is most likely to want what. For example religious icons will always be appreciated by the most pious character. If you are not that interested however that sounds like a very tedious process so I finally gave in and broke my rule about consulting help sites. Dragon Age Wiki's page about gifts really does tell you everything you need to know about who to give what gift to. Best of all you can read this page without really spoiling anything else in the plot. Needless to say the wiki also has a tonne of information about everything  in the game which I really don't want to know yet. Decide for yourself how deep you want to delve and please don't blame me if you cant resist the spoilers.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Dragon Age: Moral Dilemmas

I like a bit of back story but my eyes tend to glaze over at wall of text or wall of speech  cut scenes so when I saw others lauding the depth of the story in Dragon Age I thought "Yea, yea I'll probably just skip through those bits". However I am hugely impressed by a moral dilemma the game has just posed me. The basic choice I need to make is whether or not to kill a child and while it is clear that my decision will influence the path of the game substantially the  choice turns out to be a many layered one whose exact outcomes are hard to predict.This in turn leads to substantial moral ambiguity as to what choices are good and what choices are evil. How far we have come from the simplistic "Paragon of Virtue" versus "Spawn of Satan" moral dichotomy that used to be the staple of crpgs.


The background to my decision is this:
[BIG WOBBLY SPOILER ALERT]After helping the villagers of Redcliffe fend off waves of  undead zombies I have traced the source of the outbreak to the local lord's son who happens to be possessed by a demon. I am assured that the simplest way to end the scourge is to slay the boy child. The mother pleads for her son's life so I search further and discover that she is actually to blame because she tried to hide her son's developing magical talent from the Circle of Mages who might have taken him away and taught him to use magic safely. Instead she hired some renegade wizard to try and tutor him in secret and with disastrous results. Did I mention that this wizard was actually an assassin sent to poison her husband the lord? Well I had met him earlier in the dungeons where he was thrown after being found out but conniving me had let him out hoping to recruit him to my band of adventurers (mages are awesomely powerful in this game). He actually ran off when I invited him to join me but popped up again as I was contemplating whether or not to kill the boy with the "good news" that it might be possible to slay the demon without killing the boy if I let him use the forbidden diabolical "Blood Magic" that he practises in secret. The only problem is he will have to sacrifice a living victim to weave this spell. The tearful mother immediately offers her life to save the child's. This seems a pretty fair deal given her role in the tragedy but I make further inquiries: Can I slay the demon without harming either mother or child? Well apparently there may be a way if I can convince a whole troupe of mages from the Circle itself to intervene.

I will probably try the  Circle of Mages route even though it seems like the most complicated but just to see what happens I went ahead and confronted the Demon/Boy. After an epic battle the child lies on the floor near death but my moral dilemma doesn't end here. The sobbing mother comes in and holds her dying child. She asks me to leave the room for a few minutes so that she can put him to rest peacefully.  Can I trust her to go through with it? The demon is waiting just below the surface looking for a chance to escape. Should I not just deliver the coup de grace myself. Choice choices.

[END OF SPOILER ALERT]

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Advertising Shaving Products

As we clear away the detritus of Christmas I contemplate my newly expanded collection of men's toiletries and read yet another idiotic blurb which tries to link my morning shave to the ascent of Everest.

This attempt at glamourising the mundane activity of shaving is absolutely typical. The folks marketing shaving products have always tried to use glamour, adventure and sex to sell their products.

I think they are completely missing the point. I doubt there is a man on the planet who considers shaving to be an adventurous activity. It is a basic utilitarian function and we know it.

Perhaps these products are marketed at women who are buying for their menfolk but I really think there is a gap in the market for a shaving product marketed directly at men.

How about something that looks like a Leatherman tool: beaten out of sheet metal and packed full of technology and function. Instead of advertising it with images of James Bond absailing down Everest have a guy in blue overalls with oil stained fingers demonstrate how the titanium reinforced blade can cut through Kevlar body armour.

I'd buy that.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dragon Age Thoughts

  • It is refreshing in this day and age to come across a game which is challenging even on the "Normal" difficulty setting. Some 30 hours into the game I still wipe regularly and have to go back and rethink my strategy.

  • Character progression is very sloooow. After 30 hours I am still only level 8 and you only get one skill and one talent per level. That isn't nearly enough to explore all the options I would like to try out.

  • Itemisation is not particularly impressive. My level 8 Rogue is still wearing gear he picked up in the starter zone. You pick up plenty of junk in your adventures but genuine upgrades are few and far between.

  • A rogue was probably not the best choice as a main character. I had visions of creating a high utility character who could skulk about stealthily opening locks, disabling traps and taking out enemies with devastating backstabs. In practise the rogue can do one of those things but not all of them. The rogue doesn't get any additional skill points and the very slow progression means you just don't get enough points to do multiple jobs. One big surprise is that a rogue can make a fine archer if you pick the right skills. Unfortunately I only realised this after I had already set my rogue down the path of being a gimped melee fighter.

  • Mages seem to be the most powerful class in the game. I use the hench-person Morrigan as a crowd control mage. It is no exaggeration to say that she can single handedly win battles.

  • I really haven't gotten the hang of the combat tactics function. It sounds very powerful - allowing you to tell your henchmen exactly when to use key skills. Unfortunately it seems to miss some basic commands like telling a rogue to stand behind a mob when attacking or telling one character to stand still while another moves. I still find myself doing a lot of micro-management.

  • Despite my niggles I am still very much enjoying the game. I have deliberately avoided reading guides and walk-throughs which is unusual for me. I know this means I will miss out on some key features but it means that everything I do discover is a genuine surprise.