Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Avadon Black Fortress - Can a retro rpg survive in 2012?

I have been playing a bit of "Avadon, The Black Fortress" from Spiderweb software. This is an unashamedly old school party based rpg that looks like it could have been made twenty years ago but hides a rich gaming experience underneath its ugly exterior. With its strong storyline and deep character development the game reminds me of the original Fallout and even Planescape Torment which is high  praise indeed. I have about twenty hours played and I am less than half way through my first play through so there is plenty of entertainment value in here.

Even as I was enjoying the game myself I did wonder if a younger audience would be prepared to see beyond the dated graphics and somewhat clunky controls. Happily Jeff Vogel the owner of Spiderweb software which created this game is a vocal member of the indie gaming community and he keeps an informative blog. Spiderweb is doing very well, thank you very much. Games like the Avernum and Geneforge sagas have been paying the bills since 1995 and they have actually seen a huge increase in sales since the recent release of their games on Steam and the Ipad. Perhaps the Steam buyers are old timers like myself but I doubt that is the case for the Ipad. I think it is safe to conclude that this is not just a nostalgia kick.

One of the most interesting things on Jeff's blog is following his reactions over time to the falling price of indie games. Spiderweb used to be a company that sold a small number of games at €25 a pop. Back in 2009 Jeff railed against services like Steam which were pushing the prices of indie games down to a few dollars. As Jeff says they were "creating the impression of insulting cheapness" through constant sales. Although Jeff maintained this line for quite a while he eventually gave in to market forces and experimented with discounted pricing on both Steam and the Ipad. Happily this was a success and Spiderweb appears to have successfully transitioned into a company which now sells a much larger volume of games at lower price points with overall revenues  increased. This sorted list of of Jeff's blog posts on pricing should allow you to follow the shift in Jeff's thinking.  Start at the bottom and work up for correct chronological order.

Many of Spiderweb's games are still $20 which puts them beyond impulse purchase territory for many gamers. They have sizeable free demo's however so just download one of their games and try it out to see if it is worth spending your cash. You can pick up a couple of the games on Steam for less than a tenner and Avadon itself is currently on half price sale so well worth it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

NBI Wrap-up. all the advice in one place!!!

When Syp asked me to give some advice to newbie bloggers I found myself in something of a quandary. I have been blogging for almost six years but I am not sure I have gleaned any pearly wisdom in that time to pass on. That is why I decided to pick individual posts from the history of his blog that stick in my mind and in telling the story behind those posts I hope to have highlighted a few useful lessons. All that remains is to to try and summarise all the lessons here in this my closing post of Newbie blogger Initiative 2012.

I guess the lesson from my first story behind the post is that sometimes events in a game can surprise you by raising real life issues. While this can be problematic for gaming it makes great writing material.

My  second story behind the post has a couple of different lessons: Writing about a popular new game just after release is a great time to be a blogger and also if you get bored just writing yet another ten rats try writing in character. It might not get you traffic but it sure is a lot of fun.

The third story behind the post is a reminder that you are the boss of your blog and you can go off topic once in a while and write some personal stuff.  It may not win you readers but you just might write some of your favourite ever posts this way.

The fourth story behind the post has two lessons again. The most obvious lesson is to reccommend any gaming blogger to have at  EVE. Even if you hate the game you are bound to get a couple of good posts out of it. The more geneal lesson however is that blogging gives you a completely new way of evaluating a game. In many ways whether or not you enjoy the game becomes scondary to how well it will write.

In my final story behind the post I decided to go all sensible and make the fairly straightfoward reccommendation that bloggers use simple informative titles for any post that wants to attract readers.

Oops, almost forgot. My last and perhaps most important piece of advice: Go back and read your old posts. I know of no better way to enjoy the fruits of your creativity. 

Thats it from me for this years NBI. Happy gaming and happy writing.


NBI The Story behind the post #5

This is my final story behind the post so I had better make an effort to give some useful advice for  a change and not just advice on how to write posts that no one ever reads!

Checking back through Blogger's statistics this is my most viewed post ever: http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.com/2008/12/lotro-forgotten-treasury.html

It is a tolerably competent after action report of a fairly challenging mid game instance in Lotro but it didn't stand out in my mind when I wrote it. Yet it pulled in a heap of readers and continues to pull them in to this day.

Why was this post so popular? In the first place I think it is because it was a helpful post about an area of a popular game that many players experienced diffculties with. Those who struggled with the instance came looking for solutions and those who overcame it came looking for alternative methods. None of this would have got me traffic however if I hadn't given the post the simplest most obvious name possible.  Even today my post is number 2 on a Google Search for Forgotten Treasuy and that is where all these visitors have come from. Google is extremely friendly towards bloggers but if you want it to help you then you have to help yourself first by using simple obvious names for your posts and for your blog. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The value of a Brand: Diablo 3 versus Dungeon Siege 3

It is not by chance that I have an Android phone while my wife uses an Apple product. After eighteen years of marriage it has become patently clear that we hold mutually opposing views on the value of branding. My lovely wife is a brand junkie. She has an inherent distrust of generic products and if possible she will always go for the most expensive market leading brand. I on the other hand am not so much a brand agnostic as a brand atheist. I actively seek out cheaper products and avoid buying the market leader ever. I will trawl the internet and walk the roads for lesser known alternatives and nothing pleases me quite so much as finding a little known product that costs less and performs better that the brand leader.  

I am sure this opposition was a cause of strife in the early years of our union but 18 years of happy marriage has a way of moulding a couple's habits together. Compromises become so embedded you forget they are even there. At this stage we apply our preferences to our own private purchases and simply take for granted that the labels in our larder change dramatically depending on who does the grocery shopping.

If I were in militant mood I might boast at my thriftiness in comparison to my wife's indulgence but to be honest over the years I have come to see a certain logic in her position. It is not so much a matter of brand snobbery as a matter of guaranteed performance. For every story of a bargain I picked up that met our needs she could counter with examples of shoddy substitutes that performed as meagerly as they cost.

When you buy a phone from Apple, a car from Mercedes, a tin of beans from Heinz or a detergent from Proctor and Gamble you may or may not be getting the best product and you probably aren't getting the cheapest product. You are however almost certainly getting a product which does what you expect it to do. If I were in the mood for a rant I would point out that the reason big brands usually meet expectations is because we, sheep like consumers that we are, fall for their hype and allow them to mould our expectations to miraculaously coincide with the capabilities of their own offering. Regardless, whether it is due to brainwashing or not, buy a well known brand and you are buying insurance against dissapointment.

What has this got to do with gaming? Well Tobold today wrote a piece musing on the value of the brand to Diablo 3. In a somewhat dismissive summary of the game he suggest that the Diablo brand adds as much as 20 points to the review score. I think he may be missing the point. You cannot judge Diablo without taking into account the implicit promise of the brand. The generally positive impressions I have read from others is that the game play is exactly what they expect in a Diablo game with a high degree of polish on top. This is the promise of the brand fulfilled and the game is going to make a tonne of money for Blizzard. Indeed the only question marks on the horizon relate to the innovations of requiring an always on internet and the advent of a real money auction house but it seems likely at this stage that customers may complain about these for a while but still keep playing.

Contrast this with Dungeon Siege 3. Dungeon Siege never commanded quite as much respect as Diablo but it is nevertheless a very successful brand and one would expect a sequel to benefit from that. The game itself is very good and highly enjoyable but it is not what Dungeon Siege fans expected. They expected a hack and slash dungeon crawl, what they got is closer to third person action adventure. Rather than profiting from the brand the game seems to have suffered because of it with luke warm reviews and complaints from many customers. The implicit promise of branding was not honoured and the brand itself has been tarnished.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Thumbs up for Dungeon Siege 3

I have just completed  Dungeon Siege 3 and I am giving the game a very strong thumbs up. As long as you don't approach the game with set expectations of what a hack and slash adventure should be then you will find a very enjoyable action adventure game with one of the best stories I have ever seen in a dungeon crawler. Mind you that is isn't saying much but it is refreshing to have some kind of coherent wrapper for your spree of rampant monster killing.

Yes the game has flaws even if you set aside the prejudice that "it isn't a real Hack and Slash". The biggest complaint for single player is that the itemisation and stat systems are somewhat random and generally confusing. Nevertheless it is still a great single player experience.

Multi-player has come in for criticism because it is a lot less flexible than it should be. You can help out another player by "driving" a character in their game but you cannot bring your own character. I can see the disadvantages of this system but I am  having a lot of fun playing co-op with my daughter. She is playing through on easy setting and I drop in to give her a hand whenever I am around. It literally is drop in / drop out. I pick up a second controller press a button and I get into the game.  If I drop the controller then after a few seconds my character reverts to AI control. Overall I think this system is great for local co-op where you are helping out a friend or family member but I can see why it seems rather pointless for internet play. Why would you want to jump into a strangers game and just help them out with no lasting benefit to your own character?

Warning to PC players: As with most 3rd person action games these days an Xbox 360 controller is strongly recommended and that means two are needed for local co-op.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

NBI The story behind the post #4

You know you have caught the blogging bug when you start to judge gaming experiences by how well they will write. Getting pod killed in he harsh world of EVE is not a pleasant experience but the first time it happened to me I was inspired to write this post: http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.com/2008/05/podded.html.

The game's lore suggests that memories are instantly tranferred to a clone at the moment of death but I used a bit of poetic license to imagine the first thoughts of someone waking up in a clone body with no memory of the fiery death of their predecessor.

I think it works and I like the post very much. At the end the newly revived clone dis-owns the foolishness that got his predecessor killed. This was actually a true reflection of my own thoughts about the game at that point. Getting pod killed for the first time is a right of passage in the game. I have heard of several players who never made it past that point. Those who persist are likely to be pod killed many times more in the future but it is that first death to the guns of another player that makes you grow up. You may have heard that EVE is a harsh game but until you have your plans ruined by another player you cannot really appreciate what that means. Perhaps the hardest lesson is that you have no one to blame but yourself. Someone else may have fired the shot it was your own foolishness which gave them the opportunity to do it.

For a relatively niche game EVE punches far above is weight in terms of write-ability. I know of no other mmorpg that provides so much drama and intrigue at every level of the game and I could have picked several other EVE tales for this "story behind he post" slot.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not THAT hack and slash dungeon crawler

While the rest of the world waits eagerly for the release of Diablo 3 next week I am indulging in a bit of Dungeon Siege 3 courtesy of a Get Games sale this weekend.

The game got very mixed reviews when it was released so I am pleasantly surprised at how much I am enjoying it so far. I can see how it annoyed fans of the Dungeon Siege series - it eschews many standard elements of a standard dungeon crawler with very limited set of skills and no control over party members. In many ways it plays more like a third party action adventure than a dungeon crawler and indeed a game pad is strongly recommended even for the PC version. Moving quickly and accurately is  is all important especially in the regular challenging boss fights.

To be honest I think I prefer this formula to the repetitive combat of a more traditional dungeon crawler. While I have never played Diablo 1 or 2 I did get sufficiently bored of Titan Quest not to finished the game. I finished Torchlight but I came to hate the procedurally generated dungeons by the end of the game. Even the original Dungeon Siege took me over two years to complete because I could only stomach it for short stretches.  Dungeon Siege 3 seems to have a more tightly scripted story line with more meaningful combat. So far I like it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Single Player Strategy Games

I love the single player campaigns of real time strategy (RTS) games. Games like Homeworld, Sacrifice, and Battle for Middle Earth have provided me with some of my all time favourite gaming experiences. Yet I am almost embarassed to admit I like the single player version of these games because "everybody" knows that these games only come into their own in multiplayer. Everybody it appears except for me.

It is absoluely true that muliplayer RTS gaming is very popular. Starcraft is a gaming phenomenon but plenty of other RTS series like Age of Empires, Command and Conquer and Company of Heroes have built up large loyal followings. It is the multiplayer crowd who contribute to the longevity of these titles as is evidenced by patches being produced long after release invariably targeting multiplayer balance issues.

It is also true that single player is a much easier challenge than multiplayer. No computer can hope to match the cleverness and unpredictability of a skilled human player. Nevertheless I like it. I like the fact that the computer is predictable. I like the fact that you can keep trying different strategies until you find one that works. I also like that you get a story line and a sense of progression in the single player game. I like that the game has an ending that you can aim for. These things are important to me.

While it is true that the computer opponent can never provide the challenge of a real player most single player RTS games compensate for this by "cheating" and giving your computer opponent an overwhelming advantage in resources at the start of each level. A player who is new to the genre is likely to struggle at first and get totally overwhelmed. Having played many of these games over the years I have found that you almost always have to go through the following stages:

1. Survive
2. Build
3. Conquer 

The first stage, survival, is usually the hardest because you are probably out manned and out gunned. In the early levels the game may be kind and leave you alone to get a toe hold but once you progress beyond the beginner levels you are going to find yourself under attack from the get go. It will take full concentration to survive the onslaught as you try to gather resources and establish a basic infrastructure. During this phase you must do anything and everyhing that is required to reduce the threat of enemy attacks to a manageable level. This could mean establishing permanent defences or it may include pre-emptive raids to disable or destroy nearby enemy facilities.

Eventually you reach a tipping point where you have more resources coming in than you need to defend your holdings. Once you reach this point you can hide behind your defences and start to put the excess resource to good use. Now is the time to consolidate and build. Advance through the technology tree and build a huge army.

The Conquest stage begins when you judge your army is big enough or more likely when you get bored and decide to take your massive army and carve a swathe of destruction across the map. Care is still needed here because while you have been amassing a huge army it is likely that your computer component has been doing the same. Be prepared for massive battles between high end units.

Sometimes a game will try to mix things up a little. A popular technique is to have triggered events that start when you reach a certain spot or capture a certain objective. Sometimes these will force you go back a few steps such as capturing an objective triggering a huge assault on your base focing you back into survival mode as you call troops back to defend.

This rumination on single player RTS is brought about by the campaign of Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War which has sat on my shelf for many years and which I have only recently started to play.


Tuesday, May 08, 2012

NBI The Story Behind the Post #3

One of the nice things about having a blog is that it you don't always have to stick to topic. You may be writing a gaming blog but if there is some other issue you want to get off your chest or just to tell the world about then your blog is your own personal soapbox and no one else can tell you what to write in it.

Of course just because you can go off topic doesn't necessarily mean you should. Personally I like it when a blogger allows bits of their personal life to bleed into their gaming blog but I suspect that a blog which strays too long and too far from its core theme is going to lose audience. Amusing stories about a blogger's kids or pet dog entertain me and make me feel closer to the author. Long diatribes about politics, economics or religion bore me and turn me off. 

Anyway I have never been one to allow "the rules of blogging" to influence what I write about and this post about "The Dreamer" is one of my favourite posts even though it has nothing to do with gaming. It is about someone I love very much and that makes it special to me.

Reading back on the few rare posts I have written about my family actually makes me regret not keeping a blog or diary specifically about them. Writing captures things than a photo or video never can. The child in that post is a teenager now and her life is full of the busyness that brings. The dreaming is still there but you might miss it in the whirl of activities brought about by school and friends and growing up. 

Thursday, May 03, 2012

NBI: The Story behind the post #2

Lotro launched in April 2007 and I played from the very beginning. The launch of  new game is a great time to be a blogger. There are lots of new things to write about and an eager audience who want to  extend their gaming experience by reading. Invariably an impromptu blogging ring forms and you can get a good amount of traffic by linking to and being linked from others who are writing about the game.

In my fairly limited experience  I found that "How to" posts that are clearly labelled as such can act as traffic magnets during the early stages of a game.  However the most fun I had blogging about Lotro came from a series of posts written in character about my Dwarven Champion Throg. These posts never got me a lot of traffic but they were great fun to write and still give me great pleasure now when I read back over them. As post of the day I'll pick this one: A Sojourn in the Shire. I think I got the tone of the post just right as my proudly feisty dwarf considers the peaceful demeanour of the hobbits with benign arrogance.

Hint for new bloggers - post titles are hugely important because they are what attract readers. An established blogger can get away with literary references and clever puns in titles but I strongly advise a new writer to keep it simple. Always mention the name of the game and then state what the post is about.  "Diablo 3 Ranged Weapons are Overpowered" is a good example that should attract some readers and of course anything like "How to make gold in GW2" is a traffic magnet but any talk about earning gold may attract the wrong kind of traffic.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

NBI: The story behind the post #1

I started blogging in 2006 and this: Too Old to be Playing Games is one of my favourite posts from that year.

I like it because it is  a story in three parts. The first part is a familiar tale of the pick up group (PUG) from hell. The setting is Guild Wars but it could be any mmorpg. I think is is almost mandatory for every mmorpg blogger to write about the downside of playing with random people on the internet. The second part of this tale recounts the silver lining when one member of that PUG turned out to know what he was doing and how he and I finished the quest together. We chatted as we made progress and it turned out we shared other interests apart from gaming. The third part ... well I think I will leave you to find out the third part for yourself but the third part of the tale is the one that made me think and is the reason I still remember that post almost six years later.

Newbie Blogger Initiative - Time to Get Blogging.

Have you ever considered writing a blog of your own? Well how about starting now?

Massively staff writer Justin Olivetti, aka Syp, proprietor of the Bio Break blog has launched the Newbie Blogger initiative to try and encourage  new writers to start their own mmorpg blogs and he has asked me (along with some 70 other mmorpg bloggers) to participate as sponsors.

I was actually surprised to be asked because I don't have a celebrity blog that has thousands of readers. Nevertheless I have written a lot of stuff here since that fateful day in 2006 when I tapped on the door and snuck my way into blogging. I have made friends through blogging and it has given me much pleasure. It has enabled me to participate in a community of gamers and writers and it gives me a platform and an identity in the online world. Don't underestimate the value of blogging as a creative outlet. Most of us never get the chance to really write stuff once you leave school so it is terrific as an adult to look over something I have created and put up there for the world to see.

So if you have ever thought about it - how about starting today? Sign up for Blogger or Wordpress or any other free blogging service and start writing. Write about games, write about life, write about something you enjoy. Then get yourself over to the Newbie Blogger forums and sign up. You will get help and support and, shock horror, you will get readers who actually read your stuff and who will help you to get more readers.

For my own contribution to the initiative, in addition to giving advice to fledgling bloggers I have decided to do a bit of a retrospective. I will pick some posts from the past six years of this blog that are special to me for various reasons. I will try to tell the story behind those posts in the hope that it will encourage others to experience the pleasures of blogging.

EDIT: Syp has put up an official kickoff post here:  http://biobreak.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/new-bloggers-we-want-you-announcing-the-newbie-blogger-initiative/