Thursday, December 31, 2009

Rambling Thoughts on Pirates, Relatives and Stephen Foster

Today is the last day of a decade and I find myself thinking once again about one of the thorny issues of our age: copyright, piracy and the ongoing impact of the digital revolution.

Visiting relatives last week I picked their child's Nintendo DS. Turning it on I was surprised to see a menu of games appear including a dozen or more of the best selling titles. A quick look at the back of the console revealed an adapter cartridge carrying a removable flash memory card. I was surprised. The child's parents are find upstanding moral people, they are not particularly technically competent. Yet they had acquired and given their six year old some €500 worth of stolen technology.

Leaving aside the morality of piracy it is not hard to see that there is considerable economic value in this type of adapter. Not only is it a convenient way of carrying your game collection but it solves the issue of kids losing their individual game cartridges. My relatives paid money for the device and its contents. The very fact that these non-tech savvy folks had acquired such a device suggests a ubiquity I had not previously suspected and makes me think that these devices are a significant factor in boosting Nintendo's console sales. Of course none of this economic value returns to the developers of games.

Coincidentally I was reading about the nineteenth century American songwriter Stephen Foster. It is no exaggeration to say that if Stephen was alive today he would be a wealthy man just on revenues from  classics such as "Hard Times", "Beautiful Dreamer" and  "My old Kentucky Home".  He lived however in a time before the establishment of strong copyright and royalty laws. Despite being the pre-eminent songwriter of his age he died in penury at the age of 37 with a grand fortune (coincidentally) of only 37 cents.

Copyright is not itself a God given right - it is an invention of man intended to  stimulate the creation of original works by providing a reward to their creators. In giving rights to creators copyright atificially restricts the rights of consumers. It is not a new thing that otherwise law abiding consumers have balked at these restrictions and have sough to bypass them perhaps making handwritten copies of sheet music or cassette tape recordings of their favourite songs. Is this morally wrong?  If a consumer makes a copy of a work that they wouldn't otherwise have paid for then there is no actual loss involved. On the other hand as poor Stephen Foster discovered the widespread availability of pirated copies of works definitely reduces the earnings potential of creators.

In the past poor quality analog copies were generally inferior to officially produced copies. This provided a natural barrier to piracy but also gave tremenduous power to the distributors of official copies of copyrighted works. The digital revolution has made it easy for just about anyone to produce perfect copies and this has greatly reduced the power of distributors. There has even been suggestions it will eventually mean the demise of content distribution as consumers can acess material directly from creators without the need for a middle man. No wonder then that it is the distributors of music, of games and of films have been at the forefront of he fight against digital piracy. Can they put off the inevitable though? Will distribution as we know it still exist in another decade. Does distribution still have a role in the dew digital age ? Could Google become the only distribution channel we need?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

For the record: Christmas gaming 2009

Actively  playing:

Dragon Age Origins: got this as a Christmas present. Very enjoyable so far this game reminds me of Never Winter Nights. I am surprised at the difficulty level on "normal" setting but then again I still haven't figured out how to set party tactics correctly and the party AI is not great. 

Red Faction Guerrilla: My one concession to Steam's Christmas sale, a steal at €12.99. I have only played the intro but any game that starts off by handing you a sledgehammer and telling you to go demolish a couple of buildings has got my attention.

Less actively playing:
EVE Online: I played five free welcome back days and am seriously thinking of resubbing for a month. The only thing is that I seriously don't have time for an mmo.

Torchlight:  I can play this for about an hour before I get totally bored but it is a useful time-water if there is nothing else happening.

Borderlands: I stopped playing this about half way through the campaign partly because a patch screwed up my graphics, partly because I could never really get the multiplayer to work properly and partly because the game gets very repetitive. Perhaps I will finish it one day.

Current Ultra-violence fix: No real shooter on the go at present. In the last month I have played a bit of Frontlines, a bit of COD4  a bit of TF2 and a bit of COD2 multiplayer (surprisingly much fun even now). I guess I am waiting for either MW2 or L4D2 to come down to a more sensible price before I get seriously stuck into another shooter.

We live in an era of game pricing madness.

There used to be a fairly established pattern of game pricing. New releases were sold at top prices. If you shopped around you might get a special offer or pre-order discount but otherwise you could wait about a  month and get the game for perhaps 75% of its new price.  Six months or so after release most games could be picked up for half their new price and after a year those titles migrated to the bargain shelves at a quarter of their original price or even less. This was a very reliable pattern - only a tiny number of titles had sufficient staying power to buck the trend of price decay. Age of Empires and Medal of Honour Allied Assault being two that I can remember but they were  the exceptions that proved the rule.

The last year has seen a revolution in pc game pricing spear headed by Steam and their fellow digital download distributors.  They have finally broken free from the artifical restrictions which held digital download prices higher than the high street (a restriction apparently imposed in order not to annoy traditional distributors). Their only variable cost is internet bandwidth so they can sell the game for almost any price and they do. A game that is priced at €49.99 today may well be on sale for €9.99 tomorrow but don't delay because the day after the price may return to €49.99 or why not €59.99.  While bargains are great for the consumer the total unpredictability of the current pricing situation makes for some very confusing game purchasing decisions. Should I buy this game I really want to play today or will I wait in the hope that it features in next weekends sale?  Unfortunately there is no real precedent to help you decide. The old rules are gone and a new pattern has yet to emerge. We live in an era of game pricing madness. The current Steam Christmas sale is perhaps the most obvious statement of this. A game that was on sale yesterday for a 50% discount may today feature at 75% discount. If I bought yesterday should I be pleased with my bargain or disappointed?  It all makes for confusing but interesting times for a game purchaser.

I suspect that this current unpredictability is just a reflection of what happens when any old regime falls and new rules have yet to be established. Once the initial heady excitement has passed new patterns will probably emerge. My expectation is that these new patterns will mean generally lower prices all round reflecting the underlying economics of digital distribution,. I strongly hope that Activision's €60 price tag for Modern Warfare 2 remains no more than an anomaly - a spirited last sortie by a soon to be extinct pricing model.  

Sunday, December 20, 2009

EVE again, if only briefly

I am very much not in an mmo mood at the moment but when EVE sent me an invitation for a free welcome back week plus offered me the free gift of a very special ship it was hard to say no.

Kudos to CCP on their installation process. No marathon patching session was involved. Just download a 2Gb client, install it and you are in the game. The graphics (especially planets) are now prettier than I remembered but I experienced quite a deal of lag. Some of this happened in relatively unpopulated systems so I wonder if my four  year old gaming computer is struggling with the new finery. Lag during a space battle  can mean death unfortunately so I will experiment with options to try and make it go away.

Ah ... the agony and the ecstasy that is EVE. How quickly it all comes back. This game really is a nerd nirvana. Although I have forgotten what I was up to before I quit I logged in to Marb Pelico find that he has stuff stored all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of stuff much of which he can't use so I can only assume he bought it in the hope of making a profit. I have no idea whether prices have risen or fallen but I set about trying to collect it all and sell it. Marb has zero trading skill so every transaction requires that he physically travel to the location of the goods many of which are in rather dodgy parts of low security space.  Fun times. I have another character parked in Jita, a trading alt as I recall and then I have my wild child, an un-trained alt in a cheap frigate who is wandering around lawless 0.0 space. I will try and fix the lag issue before resuming her adventure though because lag + gate camp is a quick route to a resurrection couch.

Do I really want to go back to an mmo again, even if it is the magnificence of EVE? Probably not, I am in a single player place at the moment, very content with my own company. Still it is nice to get a free gift although I am in agreement with Tipa on this: mine is staying in a hangar for a year or so until I can sell it for a small fortune.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How hard is it to install a new graphics card?

There is a little computer shop close to where I live. It can't compete with internet pricing for major pieces of hardware but it is a useful source of consumables. He does a pretty good deal on printer ink and on several occasions the ability to nip round the corner and buy a patch cable has gotten me out of a hole.

I was in there this morning buying ink. A customer in front of me was inquiring about a video card  upgrade.

"Can that be done on the spot if I drop the computer in" he asked

Unfortunately the young lady behind the counter was not a technician and "the engineer" as she called him would not be back for a while.

"It has to be booked in It could take a few days" was her reply.

The customer asked

"How hard is it to upgrade a video card? Do you think I could do it myself?"

The assistant was honest enough to admit she didn't know and recommended that he leave the computer with them.

Recognising a potential fellow gamer I ached to interject.

"Its easy" I could have shouted "I have changed dozens of video cards"

I could have given him a five minute crash course in swapping video cards. If he lived nearby I could even do it for him.

But then I thought what if ...

What if he card he has bought in ignorance isn't compatible with his machine? What if it has the wrong interface or is too long for the case? What if his power supply doesn't have the six pin adapter needed? What if there isn't a driver available for his obscure operating system?  And will I really be able to prevent myself from blurting out that the Geforce4mx he just paid €150  is not exactly the bee's knees of graphics cards despite the fancy box and that he really should have gotten a BFG9000 for the same money. An what happens the first time he installs a game that doesn't work properly because it is incompatible with Nvidia or ATI cards and the guy assumes its my fault because I installed it wrong.

Regretfully I admitted to myself that I didn't want the hassle. Thats what computer shops charge installation fees for. Plus I didn't really want to do my local shop out of the few euro they would charge him for the install.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

How can I keep a detailed record of my gaming?

I would love to have a detailed record of my gaming habits - so that for example I could look back and see what games I was playing a year ago. I installed Xfire a few months back in order to avail of its gaming history feature but I am very disappointed by the statistics it keeps. It tells you what games you have played in the last week and it also keeps a record of total time spent in any one game but that is it. There is no way that I can find to analyse my past gaming on a monthly or weekly basis.

Now that I have discovered that X-Fire can cause conflicts with some games I am wondering if I really want to keep using it but I don't know of any other tool that comes close to keeping the gaming history I want. Does anyone know of a better way to keep a record of my gaming history?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Frontlines fuel of war thoughts + 2 important hints

I have played a fair bit of Frontlines Fuel of War over the last week both single player and multi-player. Apparently the game owes a lot to a Battlefield 1942 mod called Desert Combat but as I have never played either BF1942 nor Desert combat I cannot comment on any similarities although this might explain why one of the NPCs keeps complaining about being in a desert even when you are no where near one.

Single player is fun enough but does get repetitive. The tutorial and seven missions deliver about 7 hours total gameplay and even in such a short stretch you come to recognise a few basic structures that keep cropping up over and over again. There are some furious fire fights though and even on normal I found the missions challenging enough to complete.

Multi-player shows a lot more potential. You select one of four classes (assault rife, sniper, RPG or submachinegun) and one of four specialisations that will allow you to unlock things like a portable mortar cannon or an EMP beacon which disable vehicles. Vehicles play a big role in the game and there are many including a wide range of wheeled, tracked and flying vehicles. Throw in the fact that one of the specialisations allows you to control drones mini-tanks or mini-helicopters and you can see that there are many many ways to play.

Personally I think the aircraft are overpowered being both hard to hit and packing a heavy punch but that could be just sour grapes seeing as I cant fly one for nuts. Land vehicles on the other hand are if anything underpowered with tanks even being easy pickings for any aircraft or a footsoldier with an rpg.

On a typical night there are about 50 servers on line with about 500 people playing so it is usually easy enough to get into a game. Sadly the most popular maps are the ones with a heavy emphasis on aircraft which sucks a bit if like me you can't fly.  Foot soldiers are still needed however because the real objective of the game is to capture control points and that is hard to do in a jet.

All in all I would heartily recommend the game at its current bargain basement price from Steam but be aware that a number of people have experienced difficulties getting the game to run. While the game runs well for me I did have an issue that prevented me from joining Punkbuster enabled servers.

Two things to note if you do get the game: Firstly this game hates X-Fire. Disabling X-fire gave me a noticeable increase in smoothness and frame-rate.

Secondly once you have finished the main campaign be sure to check out two bonus missions that can be accessed from the options menu via the bonus codes "sp-village" and "sp-street" respectively. In my opinion these are the two toughest but also the most enjoyable missions in the game.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cheating and The Psychology of Gaming

Following on from my previous post about cheaters in online games I think it is worth making a link between cheating and the psychology of gaming achievement.

Performers might be tempted to cheat because they crave the ego boost of achievement but are not prepared to put hard work into getting it.

Masters on the other hand are prepared to slog through the game in order to earn their achievements.

This viewpoint might explain why many adults who really should know better still cheat. If you are a cheater don't expect me to feel sorry for you though just because you have a mixed up psychological alignment!

EDIT: Applying this analayis to the resons given by cheaters in the last post:

I think I started cheating because when you die in CSS you have to wait until the next round to play again. I wanted to keep playing. - PERFORMER
 Think I started cheating because I work for a living and don't have all day to learn to play a PC game just so some 12 yr old hairless scrotum can sling 'l33t' speak insults at me. PERFORMER (or perhaps just misopedic)
i loved how i can cause rage on people who take the gaming too seriously and start throwing killing threats on you etc. hilarious crap SOCIOPATH ???
I started cheating for the sole purpose of cheating: having advantages over other players. I got bored of playing the game the way it was supposed to be played: PERFORMER
I'm just really lazy and I don't feel like waiting to get the newest gear and stuff. I know it takes away the challenge, but to me, that's not really a big deal. e-peen growth is srs bsns. PERFORMER
Meh, I cheat in TF2 because the game is boring.PERFORMER
Pretty conclusive don't you think?


I have been playing a bit of Frontlines Fuel of War (single player ok, multiplayer pretty good) but there is some kind of bug that prevents people who bought the game through STEAM from accessing punkbuster (anti cheat) enabled servers. You can read about the bug here. While we wait for this to get sorted I have been limited to non protected servers. This led me to wonder once again about cheating in online games so I consulted the oracle of Google to find out about more it. I probably wish I hadn't.

Let me state categorically that I do not cheat in multiplayer games. Why do people do it? Its not like a professional sport where cheating can be a shortcut to riches. In games all you are playing for is personal pride and the very fact of cheating surely destroys that pride. 

One of my first guesses was that most of the cheating is done by kids who are too young to accept losing. That hypothesis was blown out of the water when my first google search led me to an aimbot for Frontlines which charges a subscription of €20 per month!!! I doubt if many children are paying that much to avoid the ignominy of defeat.

A bit more googling dug out forums dedicated to cheats and cheaters. I have heard about this subculture before but I expected to find something that read like the worst excesses of 4Chan and Something Awful with every poster using expletive laden leet speak. Apparently this is not the case. MPC for example is a well moderated forum with polite users politely discussing how to cheat in games. In fact the whole thing is a lot better behaved than many official game forums. It would seem that cheaters are nice people.


Apologies for that foul language outburst, I don't normally use expletives but I really don't like cheating and I don't like cheaters. Whatever reasons and whatever excuses they use to justify their cheating they are hurting other gamers and they are damaging the whole experience of gaming.  The fact that they can be polite and friendly in their own cosy forums somehow makes it worse.

A poster to MPC called Ondscan actually calls out the cheaters and asks "Why Cheat?". There is irony and honesty in equal measure in the responses he got:

I think I started cheating because when you die in CSS you have to wait until the next round to play again. I wanted to keep playing.

 Think I started cheating because I work for a living and don't have all day to learn to play a PC game just so some 12 yr old hairless scrotum can sling 'l33t' speak insults at me.

i loved how i can cause rage on people who take the gaming too seriously and start throwing killing threats on you etc. hilarious crap

I started cheating for the sole purpose of cheating: having advantages over other players. I got bored of playing the game the way it was supposed to be played:

I'm just really lazy and I don't feel like waiting to get the newest gear and stuff. I know it takes away the challenge, but to me, that's not really a big deal. e-peen growth is srs bsns.

Meh, I cheat in TF2 because the game is boring.

Friday, November 27, 2009

I have commanded armies and conquered worlds. Remembering "Double Life"

A commenter to RPS reminded me of Playstation's famous "Double Life"  advertisement today. If you have never seen it watch it now. If you have seen it watch it again. Not only do I believe this is the greatest gaming related advertisement of all time but for me it is the clearest most complete expression of why I am a gamer.

For years, I've lived a double life. In the day, I do my job I ride the bus, roll up my sleeves with the hoi polloi. But at night, I live a life of exhilaration, of missed heartbeats and adrenalin. And, if the truth be known, a life of dubious virtue.  I won't deny it I've been engaged in violence, even indulged in it. I've maimed and killed adversaries and not merely in self-defence. I've exhibited disregard for life, limb and property, and savoured every moment.  You may not think it, to look at me, but I have commanded armies and conquered worlds. And though in achieving these things I've set morality aside, I have no regrets. For though I've led a double life, at least I can say: I've lived.

If you are interested in a more complete analysis of the ad read Dejan Petroviks article here.  You can also read the citation written for the ad when it was inducted  into the CLIO hall of fame in 2007 here.

I wonder what ever happened to that little girl who uttered the immortal phrase "and conquered worlds"?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What makes a game sell?

Slashdot is proving to be a very fruitful source of gaming links today. First there was the link to the article about the psychology of achievement in games and now another interesting link to a Gamasutra article about the most important factors in game purchases. 

Most important factors (in order or importance):
1. Genre (makes sense)
2. Whether or not they enjoyed a previous game in the series (Groan. FIFA 2099 here we come) 
3. Price (Hurray!)
4. Word of mouth (one assume this involves all kinds of personal communication including online)
5. Advertising visuals. (You just gottta have explosions in it - period)

Factors having relatively little importance:
Publisher reputation (There are publishers out there who have anything other than a bad reputation?)
Metacritic scores (In my experience aggregated review scores are a reasonable if not perfect indication of quality. Pity to see that gamers pay so little heed when choosing where to spend their cash. The article does admit that word of mouth, which is important, is also related to quality so all hope is not lost )

Psychology of gaming: Are you a Performer or a Master

There is thought provoking article by Doctor Professor on his Pixel Poppers blog about the psychology of achievement in games  (discovered via Slashdot).

Doctor P points out that psychology teaches us that humanity divides into two camps when it comes to challenges. Performers love tackling easy challenges so they can overcome them and prove how great they are. Masters like tackling tough challenges so they can improve their own skill or knowledge. He then links this to gaming achievement and suggests that RPG games appeal to performers while action games appeal to masters. On realising that he himself was a natural performer who was addicted to rpgs he then made a concerted effort to retrain himself as a master because "it is the mastery orientation that is correlated with academic and professional success as well as self esteem and long term happiness".

Doctor P doesn't specifically mention mmorpgs but it is pretty clear that the guaranteed progression of the levelling game is performer heaven. On the other hand the tough challenges of end game often require serious preparation and many failed attempts before they can be overcome - these are more likely to appeal to masters surely.

I enjoy both mmorpgs and action games but I have never mastered either genre. I tend to zone out of mmos when it comes to the repetitive end game and I am generally content to wallow around mid table in multiplayer shooters. This suggests that I am a performer by nature but on the other hand I am generally very diligent at finishing single player games and I love getting stuck into a tough puzzle and worrying with it till I work it out.

I can think of some other Bloggers who have clearly identified their characteristics: Tipa of West Karana may be an avid mmorpger but anyone who spends months and months trying to overcome an obscure neo-pets puzzle is clearly a master. Bill Harris (curse you again Bill for not allowing comments) who has spent months learning to ride a unicycle  is also an obvious master.

Have we any self confessed performers out there?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Frontlines Fuel of War: €2.49 on Steam

A bargain is only a bargain if you wanted the item in the first place but nevertheless €2.49 for game that was only released last year is hard to turn down. I am downloading the game now and will report on my experiences later. By all accounts it is a fairly good shooter with strong multi-player much like the Battlefield series.  It clearly can't hav ebeen much of a commercial success or they wouldn't be selling it at €2.49 but the forums seem to indicate that Steam's give-away price is creating a resurgence of interest in the game. Hopefully this will allow me to indulge in a bit of multi-player action. Mind you those forums posts seem to indicate a fair number of folk are experiencing difficulty getting the game to work - hopefully

My own personal MW2 boycott continues despite a general perception that the boycott was a failure and despite several commenter's being quite negative against the whole idea of the boycott.  Of course a developer is allowed put any feature they like into or out of their game and of course they are also allowed to charge whatever they see fit but to me it is a very simple question of economics. The game as currently offered does not justify its price tag for me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Druids by Morgan Llywelyn

Oops - wrong blog, moved to here

Random Rewards Suck ... (until you get a shiny drop.)

Random rewards suck: Zubon describes the downside of random rewards in a blog post describing how he was unlucky on the roll for a desirable piece of loot 15 times out of 16 attempts even though he had a better than 1 in 6 chance. I have been there, I assume we all have and it is entirely soul destroying to hit a losing streak like that. Having some grasp of basic probability only makes it worse when you realise that after 15 losing rolls you have exactly the same 1 in 6 chance of winning the next roll* as you had on your very first roll. Zubon actually left the game for six months after his losing streak. I think that game developers recognise that randomness can be a great demotivator, in games like WoW and LOTRO we have seen a move towards token rewards rather than random drops as a more predictable means of allocating loot.

And yet....

Remember how good it felt when a shiny sword dropped from the very first Orc you slew. That random reward felt great and was a great motivator. The truth is that randomness only sucks when you are losing. Winning an unexpected random reward feels great.

It seems to me that it should be very easy to keep  fun side of getting random rewards while hiding the downside of demoralising losing streaks. The key lies in the word "unexpected". As long as you are not expecting a reward then you neither know nor care when you lose some behind the scenes random number calculation and don't get one.

The guiding principle is that rewards that players expect should not be random.

Examples of expected rewards are:
Anything required to complete a quest.
Anything that acts as a gate to further content (keys, radiance armour etc).
End of instance rewards such as epic armour sets and epic loot.
In fact anything that comes in a set because someone is going to be stuck looking for the last piece.
Anything needed for character progression
Anything needed to gain an achievement or a title

Rewards that players don't expect can be as random as you like.
Examples: Random world drops, random encounters with special mobs

Of course human nature also comes in to play here and as surely as you create a random world drop someone somewhere will decide that they absolutely have to have it and get annoyed when it doesn't appear after they kill ten thousand mobs. To deal with this scenario I would further suggest that any item which is a genuinely random reward should be saleable to other players. No bind on acquire for random rewards.

(* Probability theory soundly asserts that past outcomes do not affect the future outcome of random events but a certain amount of common sense is required in its real world application. If you roll a dice fifty times and it comes up 6 every time it might be prudent to doubt whether or not that dice is truly random)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What game does Borderlands remind you of?

Borderlands is a pretty unusual game and  I have been trying to think of what other game it most reminds me of. The answer, bizarrely, is Far Cry 2.

Both games are first person shooters set in large open worlds with hostile native populations. Driving features strongly in both games. Both games have a quest driven main path but both also offer plenty of side-quests and opportunities to wander off the main path for non-linear exploration. While Far Cry 2 does not have much in the way of character progression the upgrading and maintenance of weapons is a parallel to the constant search for new weapons in Borderlands. Even the much maligned "respawning enemies" feature that everyone hated in Far Cry 2 also features in Borderlands.

I really think Borderlands resembles Far Cry 2 more than it resembles previous role playing shooters System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. Those games had strong story lines and complex role playing elements whereas as Borderlands emphasises its first person shooter side.

The only problem with this comparison is that I hated Far Cry 2 while I love Borderlands. The reasons? Well  one thing that shouldn't be overlooked is that the magic of character progression solves the tedium of infinitely re-spawning mobs. Those level 3 thugs who pop up every time you leave Fyrestone are completely inconsequential at level 18.  When it boils down to it though the really important difference is that the developers of Far Cry 2 went out of their way to make the game realistic, depressingly realistic. The developers of Borderlands eschewed realism in favour of cartoony fun. Far Cy 2 was depressing. Borderlands is fun.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Borderlands: Co-op or No-op

I suppose I should have smelled a rat when the game store assistant did his best to convince me to buy Dragon Age instead of the pc version of Borderlands. I know Dragon Age is good and I will play it eventually but at the moment Borderlands with its heady blend of RPG, Shooter and Co-op is more like what I need.

My hunter character is now level 13 and I am definitely enjoying the single player game: Nice cartoony graphics, simple but enjoyable rpg elements, Fun shooter gameplay (with vehicles). The quests drive the story along nicely although there seems to be some gaps: I didn't find any quests between level 5 and 10 for example.

Multi-player is another story. The PC version's online matchmaking uses Game-spy and it is really bad. Apart from the fact that the listings are unhelpful making it hard to choose a game to join there appears to be a variety of connection problems that prevent me joining a game 9 times out of 10. I tried hosting my own games but nobody ever joined me so  I suspect the connection issues work both ways.

A quick google revealed that my problems are widespread. The two most widely touted solutions involve either port forwarding or signing up to Game-ranger. The problem with port forwarding is that everyone joining a game has to do it which explains why a lot of Borderlands' game lobbies have the word "port" or something similar crammed into the very limited number of characters allowed for naming lobbies. I decided to try the game ranger route instead.

Signing up for a free "Bronze" Game ranger account is painless. I already have Xfire and Steam on this machine and Game Ranger does not seem to interfere with either but just in case I opted to manually start game ranger when required rather than have it start automatically  with Windows. Borderlands is clearly a big hit for Gameranger - at this moment Borderlands accounts for 109 out of 270 game lobbies on the service. As a third party matchmaking service Gameranger doesn't give any in game information about the level of players or the quests they are working on. The description field is long enough to say something like:  "Level 8 to 12, Doing  Bonehead Mission" but many hosters don't bother which makes lobby selection a bit of a gamble. I decided to start my own lobby instead asking for anyone who wanted to join and help with level 11 missions. Once I set up the "room" as it is called Gameranger automatically launched the game and put me into multiplayer mode. I selected my character and started and was soon joined by several other players. Success.

The level of co-operation was pretty much as expected from a PUG group - including a player who only wanted to spar (he lost every time) and a level 36 character who insisted on power levelling me through a mission I wasn't even on. Nevertheless Gameranger does seem to have cracked the connection problems and has a sufficiently large Borderlands following for me to recommend it.

One thing that appears lacking in Gameranger is hotkey to access the Gameranger panel while in a game. Even if I tab out it tells me I cannot go back to Gameranger until I exit the game. That makes surfing between game lobbies a real nuisance so perhaps I am missing something. Gameranger's support information is pretty limited however leading me to suspect that it does exactly what it says it does and nothing more.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Internet for rich people

Thanks to Slashdot I have recently become aware of a whole subculture of social networking sites for rich and influential folks.  Apparently most of these work on an invite only basis.

I am a little bit miffed that my invites have not yet been forthcoming. I am after all the creator of a highly influential blog with a proven audience of 7 readers (including myself) and an income in excess of nine digits (in Cambodian Riels).  What are your waiting for?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quote of the day

Apologies to Syp who more usually does this sort of thing but I think Tipa deserves a gong for this one:

Simply put, World of Warcraft is not part of the MMORPG genre.

It is funny how much healthier the mmorpg scene looks if you do remove WOW from the picture. If you include WOW you see one all powerful market leader with a horde of failed wannabes. If you ignore WOW you can see a large variety of different and interesting games some good some bad some paying the bills some not.

But can we ignore WOW? Heaven knows that I and a lot of other former players would like to. I resent its overpowering influence on the market and I have more or less convinced myself that many many World of Warcraft players are not really gamers at all never mind mmorpgers. Me convincing myself doesn't mean its true though. WOW exists. It is big. Whether it really is an mmorpg or not it is kind of hard to ignore

Quick impressions of the Left 4 Dead 2 demo

( based on two single player run throughs and two pick up group multi-player run throughs. )

Graphics seems a little better than Left for dead 1 but ran just as well for me on an aging mid range machine.

The maps feel bigger and less linear but it is hard to draw conclusions based on only two maps in the demo.

The infected look scarier.

The new types of infected add more variety to the game but I suspect there isn't enough in the demo to fully appreciate all their roles.

There is a wider selection of weapons which is good. There isn't such a simplistic distinction between normal weapons and upgraded weapons even though some weapons are definitely more powerful than others. My favourite so far is the AK47. It is very powerful and insanely accurate.

The melee weapons are fun but gimmicky. If you equip a melee weapon you lose your pistols and twin pistols are just better than a melee weapon. Nevertheless I imagine there will be lots of fun to be had with melee only servers and such.

There is a wider range of accessories available including adrenaline and a defibrillator. In our run throughs on normal difficulty we didn't have to use any of these. Perhaps they play a bigger role at higher difficulty settings.

I really like two parts of the demo - a park where you thread your way though hedgerows avoiding or confronting infected as you see fit and also the "alarm" section where you must run a twisting path through a gauntlet of infected to silence a ringing alarm. Sadly the demo peters out after this gauntlet run - it ends on whimper rather than a bang.

Overall impression - good but not spectacularly better than L4D1. I do wonder if the demo does the game full justice. I think a lot of thought went into the new special infected and the new weapons but there isn't enough space in the demo to see them all in their intended roles. The spitter for example spews toxic bile on the ground which is a minor nuisance in the open maps of the demo but could  be deadly in a narrow indoors map.

Monday, November 09, 2009

A (long) question about how Micro-transactions will change our hobby

Arnold Hendrick writes thoughtful information packed articles about the mmorpg business and one of his posts about "Selling Mmos" prompted me to write down a question that has been brewing  in my head. The short version of the question is "What impact will the rise of micro-transactions have on gaming from a customer perspective?" 

I wrote a much longer version of the question in a comment to Arnold so being lazy I will copy the comment here:

Great article Arnold full of interesting information and insights. My knowledge of game development and marketing is very limited but I am a long time game playing customer. I am still trying to work out what impact the apparently unstoppable rise of micro-transactions is going to have on my hobby from a customer’s perspective.

I can see several good things about micro-transactions: They offer a business model that allows smaller companies to compete with the industry giants which increases the choice and variety of games on offer. In theory free to play with micro-transaction offers the customer all the choice. Customers can sample a wide variety of games at little or no cost and once they choose to play a game they can pay as much or as little as they like.

Unfortunately the reality in many cases does not seem to be as customer friendly. My two biggest concerns are i) The impact on game design (games will be designed as grind fests order to maximise item shop revenues rather than customer entertainment) and ii) Micro-transaction systems which are designed to squeeze excessive amounts of money from a small number of addicted customers. I call this “customer abuse”.

You mention four types of item commonly sold in an item shop:
1) Faster advancement, 2) tedium shortcuts, 3) appearance selection and 4) Item access.

To me 1) and 2) are almost always problematical. If a game is fun to play why would people want to pay to skip parts of it? There is a moral hazard here encouraging designers to design grind fests in order to encourage people to spend money to bypass the grind. As these items are usually consumables they are also a prime vehicle for customer abuse. We read about addicted customers spending hundreds of dollars a month in item shops and I imagine a good deal of this goes on pots and other consumables.

I don’t have a problem with 3) even though I think Blizzards $10 for a non combat pet is just bad value.

I have mixed views about 4). I don’t really have a problem with people paying for items but I can see dangers. If getting powerful items is one of the main objectives of the game then allowing people to buy powerful items for cash may be game breaking. One common form of customer abuse is to introduce a gambling system where you buy a box with an unknown item in it. It may be high quality or it may not. I have read of addicted players spending large sums opening such boxes in the hope of gettign a good item.

I am perhaps most surprised that you don’t mention a 5th item shop category: 5) pay for access to content. This is very unproblematic and in my mind provides the best deal for the customer – you buy the parts for the game you want to play. The incentive on developers is to make an interesting compelling game so that customers want to buy more of it.

I have recently broken my own micro-transaction taboo and have started playing Dungeons and Dragons online. I have even bought stuff in the item shop. I am happy enough with Turbines implementation because a lot of the item shop stuff is “pay for content” and I also think that the existence of a monthly subscription option limits the potential for customer abuse.

My question for the future is this: given the apparent inevitability of micro-transactions for everything will this mean a descent into grind-fest games surviving on the revenues from a small number of their most addicted customers or will market forces ensure that only interesting, fun to play games with non abusive item shops survive?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

DDO: Wizard versatility

First dungeon run last night: We encountered a locked door that neither I nor my cleric hireling could open. No problem. Once we had killed all the monsters we headed back to the nearest shrine and after a quick rest I swapped out "Melfs Acid Arrow" for "Knock" a spell which allows me to open locks.

In a second dungeon we were stopped by a door which had a minimum strength requirement to open. Again no problem - another visit to a shrine allowed me to swap in "Bulls Strength" a buff spell which gave me the strength I needed to open the door.

Versatility is the hallmark of a Wizard. Without question Sorcerers are better at casting spells. Both Wizards and Sorcerers can choose from the same list of arcane spells but sorcerers cast faster and they have more spell points which allows them to go on casting longer. Sorcerers cannot however swap spells mid mission. In fact they can only swap spells once every few days and they pay dearly to do so. Wizards can swap their spells freely in any tavern and they can swap after resting at a shrine during a mission. Shrines are on a fairly long cooldown but in an emergency there is the option of leaving the dungeon,  popping into the nearest tavern and legging it back before the dungeon resets.

If you have any one job you want doing a Sorcerer can probably do it better than a Wizard. The Wizard on the other hand brings the advantage of far greater flexibility.  That flexibility is a huge advantage to a solo player. As a wizard I can use spells that help make up for the lack of a rogue or a warrior in my party but a sorcerer would be unwilling to waste a valuable slot on such rarely used spells.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

DDO: Look after the copper and the gold will look after itself. NOT!

Dungeons and Dragons online has possibly the most confusing currency system of any game I have yet played.

In the first instance there are too many types of coins: Platinum, Gold, Silver and Copper. Copper is useless. Even at level 1 everything costs silver or gold and by level 3 I routinely buy things that cost 100's or 1000's of gold.

The next problem is that the multiplier between tiers of coin is only 10 as opposed to the more usual 100. I am sure I will eventually get used to this but even after two weeks playing I still need to remind myself that 50 silver is  equal in value to 5 gold.

The NPCs vendors don't help the situation by routinely ignoring platinum when quoting prices. The ingredients to inscribe a level 2 spell for example are quoted at 420 gold instead of 42 platinum.

Finally and perhaps the most confusing thing of all is that your purse does not automatically convert coins to the largest denomination. For example my purse might contain: 21 Platinum, 194 Gold, 211 Silver and 384 Copper. Can I afford to buy level 2 inscription materials which are quoted at 420 gold? 

Is this some kind of slavish adherence to the AD&D ruleset? I don't know but how hard can it be to implement a simple algorithm to add up the coins in your purse?

By the way the answer is yes. I can afford the inscription materials and I will have 0 platinum, 8 gold, 9 silver and 4 copper left over. 

Not So Free Realms

Thank you to Green Armadillo for highlighting the fact that Free Realms is going to put a barrier in at level 5 beyond which you must be a subscriber to advance. As Green Armadillo himself puts it:
"Free Realms is now all but officially a subscription game with a free trial, rather than a free to play game with an item shop and optional subscription"
I know very little about Free Realms having only played one character up to (coincidentally) level 5 but on the face of it this is a staggering move. For quite some time it has appeared that microtransactions were an unstoppable force which would eventually signal the death of the subscription model. Turbine's recent move of DDO from compulsory to optional subscriptions has reportedly been a big success. Sony are the only company I have heard of moving back towards a compulsory subscription model.

Without more information it is hard to read this. I assume Sony are doing it because they think it will make them more money but is this because they have decided that their non subscription players are costing them more than they are worth? If so this has implications for all Free to Play Games.As one of the commenters to Green Armadillo asks "So F2P does not work then?"

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Torchlight Is not For me

Lets face it, when it boils down to it every computer game is a pointless waste of time. Some games try to hide this fact with engaging story lines and complex game-play. Torchlight on the other hand celebrates its pointlessness and glorifies in it. It is the very incarnation of progress quest with added button pressing and better graphics. Meet monster, press button,  kill monster,  loot better gear, level up, meet tougher monster .... repeat. There are some embellishments involving pets, enchanting and gems but the essence remains unchanged. The game's quests and dungeons may be scripted but they just as easily be procedurally generated from what I have seen of the demo.

I know that a lot of people love this.   Wilhelm2451 and other bloggers whose opinions I respect are full of the game's praises but I still don't get it. I don't care if it follows in the illustrious foosteps of Diablo, Dungeon Siege, Titan Quest and its own direct antecedent Fate. I find the game boring.

There are times when we all can use a bit of mindless button mashing but I think that this market segment is very well covered by free to play flash games. To my mind both Sonny and Monsters Den have more depth than I have seen in Torchlight.

EDIT: On second reading my post above comes across more negatively than is warranted. For balance I should point out that Torchlight is very well made with a very well polished interface.The combat though repetitive is well done and the sounds in particular are very satisfying. The game is actually a lot of fun to play at first. Its just that I find this type of game play gets repetitive. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that it remains compulsive long after it has ceased being entertaining.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

DDO: Autwind Where's your Trousers? (I hate Ooze)

You may wonder why Autwind Horogood, that precocious scholar of the arcane arts, is running around Stormreach in his underwear. If you are astute you may even have noticed the distinct lack of an imposing wizardly staff in his hands.

How has this sorry state of affairs come to pass? Oozes. That is what has led to this.  Squelchy slimy fetid oozes.

Autwind is working his way through a quest arc set in the Kobold infested tunnels of Storm-reach waterworks. Things went well enough for the first couple of missions and large numbers of Kobold were slaughtered.The third mission is set in Clan Tunnelworm's lair and these particular Kobolds are rather remiss in their housekeeping. The lair is filled with rapidly respawning grey oozing creatures. Not only are these oozes immune to my fiery magics they also exude an acidic slime which dissolves weapons and clothing. One minute Autwind was a powerful wizard commanding terrible arcane forces,the next minute he was standing in his underwear looking at the broken fragments of his staff. Autwind managed to complete the instance anyway with the help of his trusty hireling cleric but running around naked in a dangerous lair is no fun.

The repair bills for this are probably going to bankrupt me. I have already spent most of my cash learning new spells (surprisingly expensive by the way) and I amn't getting enough loot from these missions to cover the repairs. This may indeed mark the end of my career as a solo adventurer. Its not just that the missions are getting harder it is also that the economics of DDO seem to be firmly stacked against soloing. Most of the loot from an adventure comes from chests and quest rewards. As far as I can tell these are independent of party size. No /roll is required here, everybody gets to loot the chest. The solo adventurer takes longer to complete a mission and has a much higher repair bill but only gets the same rewards.  

Friday, October 30, 2009

Reasons I will not be buying Modern Warfare 2 on the 12th November

I have bought every Call of Duty game available for the PC. I think that Call of Duty Modern Warfare was a stunning achievement which raised the bar for both single and multiplayer gaming. I am very much looking forward to playing Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2 but I will not be buying it on the release date of 12th November. These are my reasons why.

Partly it is because the dedicated server issue has upset me. It not just because I think it is a bad decision although the case against it is strong. What really really upsets me is the response from Infinity Ward representatives. This sounds like a company that has no respect for PC gamers. I am a PC gamer.

Even more important that the dedicated server issue though is the price of the game. Quite simply €60 is more than I am prepared to pay to download this game. In a recent comment to an RPS article a poster called Bhazor summed up my feelings about game pricing almost perfectly:
"But I wouldn’t say this was budget priced but more rid range. To me budget is £0-£9.99, mid range is £10-£25, full price is £26-£34 and £35 is taking the piss Infinity Ward. Anything over £10 requires at least one reviewer I trust saying I need this."

Of course companies are allowed to charge whatever they like for their products. I have no doubt that Activision has a room full of MBA graduates who can justify this price tag. I also fully expect that the game will make a truckload of money even without Bhazor's custom and mine. I do wonder though if they might not make more money by lowering the price. Steam's experiments with weekend deals and Turbine's experience with DDO unlimited seem to indicate that there is plenty of room to increase revenue by lowering game prices. For digitally distributed games the marginal cost per unit is very low so any increase in revenue has a big impact on bottom line profit.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

MBPs musing on Entropia Universe, Online Poker, Spread Trading and Investing in Stocks and Shares

Simple proof that playing Entropia Universe is a bad idea if you expect to make money out of it: Look at all the money going in and all the money going out. All of the money going in comes from players. The money going out goes back to players less a cut for the developer Mind Ark. The total amount of money going back out to players is therefore less than the total amount going it. It follows that on average players get less back than they put in.

The same logic applies to many other activities

Simple proof that playing poker online is a bad investment if you expect to make money out of it: Look at all the money going in and all the money going out. All of the money going in comes from players. The money going out goes back to players less a cut for the casino. The total amount of money going back out to players is therefore less than the total amount going it. It follows that on average players get less back than they put in.

Simple proof that "investing" in spread trading is a bad idea. Look at all the money going in and all the money going out. All of the money going in comes from "investors". The money going out goes back to investors less a cut for the exchange. The total amount of money going back out to "investors" is therefore less than the total amount going it. It follows that on average players get less back than they put in.

Why is investing in normal stocks and shares any different than investing in spread trading? The ONLY reason is because when you buy a share (as opposed to a derivative) you have ownership of a revenue producing asset and you are entitled to dividends from that share. When you look at the total pool of money we have money coming in from investors and money coming in from dividends. Therefore it is possible (though not guaranteed of course) that the total pool of money paid out even after brokers fees and government taxes are taken away is more than the total amount invested.

But but but ... almost everybody who invests in stocks and shares does so in the hope of getting capital growth rather than for the dividends? Well the real underlying value of a share is only the net present value of the future stream of dividends. If the you do achieve capital growth it is only because of an expected rise in the future dividend stream.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dungeon and Dragons online: The Sun Also Rises

I am pleased to announce that Autwind Horogood has put his study of the arcane arts to good use and has freed the citizens of Korthos Island from the icy grip of a Sahuagin controlled dragon. Released from the control of a Sahuagin mindflayer (Misery's Peak Mission) the dragon lifted its siege of the island bringing sunshine back to Korthoses shores and permitting ships to travel once again to Stormwind.

Again I am reminded of Guild Wars. Just as in Guild wars completing the beginner quest arc opens up access to the rest of the world and also brings about a seismic change in the landscape of the starter zone. Unlike Guild Wars however it is still possible to go back and redo starter zone quests on the "sunny side" as the post dragon version of Korthos is known. Just as well, even though I have done many of the quests on hard at this stage it may prove useful to go back and do them on expert mode later in order to farm favour (the reputation grind of DDO).

PS: I would like to say that the title of this post is a clever literary reference to the fact that excessive mmo playing can interfere with your sex life but I am afraid I am neither literary nor clever enough to carry that off.

Why you should never ask "What's the screenshot key" in a public advice channel.


Friday, October 23, 2009

MMOs my way: What do you want and what are you prepared to do to get it?

In my experience one of the most important steps to taking control of your own mmo gaming is to make an informed decision about your  approach to end game content. During the leveling game you can log on and do whatever takes your fancy, comfortable in the knowledge that everything you do helps you level up a little bit. Once you reach end game the paths to progressing your character are likely to require much more focused playing, are likely to involve long repetition  and may even depend heavily on luck. I think that in this environment it is vital to know what you are getting in to. Decide what you want to achieve and most importantly decide what you are prepared to do to get it.

I helped out in a radiance dungeon run last night (running one of the starter dungeons which helps people gear up for raiding). It was an enjoyable encounter that was quite tricky in parts although the old timers had ran it so many times they knew all the tricks. When we killed the final boss and it came to rolling for the single radiance reward it was great to be able to say: "Pass, I don't raid so it would be a waste". When pressed further as to why I don't raid I could truthfully admit that while I enjoyed the few raids I have gone on  I amn't prepared to do all the things that raiding requires.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trials of a noob wizard in DDO

While Cap'n John and others talk cheerily about soloing DDO missions on Elite level my poor Wizard struggled to complete them  normal. (Duh..Did I mention by the way that I was doing all the missions on normal instead of solo mode because I wasn't ticking the correct box?).  The difficulty stems from the dilemma that a wizard must stand still to cast spells but is very vulnerable while standing still because the lightly armoured wizard can take very few hits (plus attacks have a chance of interrupting the spell you are trying to cast). Well I have got as far as level 2, having just completed the Aqueduct mission and I am finally beginning to get the hang of things.

I opted for the default wizard level up route. I like that you can customise your character but I amn't familiar enough with the game yet to take that plunge.

At level two I can prepare four spells. After a bit of trial and error I have opted for a fairly eclectic mix:

Mage Armour: A buff which compensates somewhat for my light robes. With the extend metamagic toggle I can get about 16 minutes duration on this which is useful.

Summon Creature: This gives me my very own sidekick (a big dog) to harry my opponents and keep them occupied while I nuke them from a safe distance. Sometimes I bring Charm Person instead which allows me to convert one of the enemies into a helper but as this only works on humans it is less generally useful. The trick to using this is to make sure the dog is summoned before the battle as it is almost impossible to successfully complete this spell while being attacked.

Hypnotism: This is a very useful crowd control spell which hypnotises nearby enemies for a variable period. This can be a life saver. While it is sometimes resisted it usually works. Very useful if you need breathing space to perform a summon spell in mid battle.

Burning Hands: I try to pack at least one nuke and this was always one of my favourite spells in NWN. It works great in DDO too. A cone of fiery damage shoots from your hands to toast any enemies in its path. The fact that it is directional means that with careful positioning you can safely use it with crowd control as long as you point it away from the mezzed mobs.

I generally wield the beginner staff (haven't got a better one yet) which does a satisfying amount of damage per whack providing the mob isn't hitting back but I also have a handy fire wand which gives me a ranged attack that doesn't consume spell points.  

In terms of stats I have chosen items to increase my hit point and spell point pools. I opted for an enhancement that boosts concentration  because concentration increases your chance of completing a spell while under attack. I made one foolish choice spending two talent points to increase my intelligence from 18 to 19 forgetting that only even numbers have any impact on the modifiers.

One useful hint to remember is that the recovery shrines recharge after 15 minutes so if you do run out of spell points you can always find a safe place and wait out the timer.

The toughest part of the game so far for me was the journey through the countryside getting to the aqueduct. I suffered my only death to date because I stumbled into a large group of enemies without proper preparation. At least with the above combination of spells I have finally gotten the hang of "normal node" beginner missions. I am now tempted to have a go at a few hard modes to try for better loot. If all else fails I can rent a hireling - the price for level 1 hirelings is much less than I make from vendoring the loot from a mission.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Europeans First First impressions of Dungeons and Dragons Online Unlimited

Spurred on by Thalian and Teshes recommendations and reassured by Elric's comment that it is posible to play on the US servers from Europe I installed DDO yesterday and spent two hours playing my noob wizard "Autwind Horogood" on the Thelanis server. In that time I got through the training instance and two beginner instances on set in a crypt and one in a store room. Fully accepting that this not even Ed Zitron could do a reasonable review after so short a play time I nevertheless want to capture my first first impressions (all good by the way).

1. The download and install were surprisingly painless. The whole thing took less than two hours for the high res client. Even minor patches to Lotro have taken longer than that.

2. No obvious discrimination against Europeans. I didn't have to falsify my address. The starter town seemed quite busy at 12:00 GMT. There was no obvious lag in the busiest areas of the town. I have only played solo missions so far but since everything is instanced I am hopeful that lag won't be a factor there either.

3. The tutorial is quite minimal. It just about sufficed for myself who has played previous mmos and who has also played a fair amount of Neverwinter Nights. You can find out quite a lot about the game by poking around talking to NPCS and asking other players but I suspect a complete beginner would struggle.

4. I love the relatively short instanced missions. I expect there may be longer missions available later but the couple of short simple missions I have done were great.

5. There is no locking on to a target! You have to aim your blows and your spells. I think this is great and greatly adds to the fun of combat. When my wizard, low on health and running out of mana was set upon by a giant rat who could eat him in one bite I survived by running  around in circles whacking it with my staff while I stayed out of reach of its jaws.

6. Health and Mana do not automatically regenerate between fights. Unless you can find a recuperation shrine you must carefully guard both to see you through to the end of the mission. Although I haven't checked I imagine you can probably buy recovery potions in the item shop. Why bother? 

7. The two beginner missions were more challenging and more enjoyable than I expected. My level 1 wizard could certainly not have auto-attacked his way through them.

8. I choose a Wizard because it is my favourite NWN class, weak at first but becoming very powerful. DDO's implementation is a little bit different to NWN. I was limited to preparing only three spells but I could cast each of them multiple times (in NWN you can only cast each prepared spell once). However I had a limited non replenishing mana pool so  I was still very limited in the total number of spells I could cast. There doesn't seem to be an equivalent of NWN's resting between fights to reset spells (which always felt a bit of a cheat) - mana can only be recuperated at a shrine and these are few and far between. I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few spells in my level 1 spell book even though I can only equip three at a time. This includes several old familiars like magic missile and mage armour. I found a wizard trainer but he refuses to teach me anything more until I have levelled up a bit. I note that other class trainers seem equally happy to talk to me so I guess that multi-classing is supported.

9. There is a lot of things I still don't know about the game (I haven't even gotten to Stormwind yet). I don't know how the item shop or premium mode works. I haven't experienced combat in a group. I noticed there are NPC hirelings you can add to your party but I haven't enough gold for one yet. I don't know how levelling works (my progress bar filled up but instead of getting to level 2, I went to level 1 rank 2).  Stats and ability modifiers seem to follow the AD&D standard and combat seems to be based on the D20 rule. (Aside: I still think that the AD&D rule-set has passed its sell by date - in this day of computers it is time to move on from multi-sided dice).

10. Perhaps my strongest first impression of the game was that it reminded me of Guild Wars: A limited shared world with with instanced missions, complex combat, complex and varied skill selection  and even the availability of NPC hirelings. In that light the transition to free to play makes perfect sense. This just doesn't feel like a €15 per month live in the virtual reality subscription game. It feels like a dip in and out for a quick mission game. 

Remember all of the above is based on a very limited play time so please excuse any errors (better still let me know so I can correct them).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nice things about Turbine making DDO Free to Play

1. I love that Turbine didn't let the game die but instead applied creativity and took a risk in turning it into a F2P.

2. I am delighted that the move seems to be working for them. 

3. Perhaps the best news of all for customers is that Turbine , just like Valve before them seem to be discovering that reducing the price of games actually makes you more money. Please let more game developers get this message. Quote:
""All aspects of our business are growing. Hundreds of thousands of new players in the world are playing for free, with a very high percentage using the store." The internal projections for growth were doubled. Even more surprising, subscriptions have gone up 40 percent since the game has gone free-to-play."

4. I like the fact that Turbines micro-transation model has a large element of pay for content rather than pay to skip the grind. Its much better to pay for stuff you like rather than to have to pay to avoid stuff you don't like and it removes the moral hazard which encourages F2P companies to design grindy games.

For balance I shoud mention a few not nice things:

1. Dungeons and Dragons Online Europe is still not Free to play :(.

2. In addition to adventure packs (pay for content) there is still the usual gamut of faster XP scrolls and other pay to skip the grind stuff in the item shop. These things are always a warning sign to me that parts of the game must be awfully boring if people are willing to pay to skip them.

2. Going a micro transaction rich model removes the ceiling on how much a game costs you. Committed players will probably end up spending more in the long run than in the old subscription only days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mr. Big Bank Executive You Owe Me.

This is a reply to Tobold post today about a Fair Distribution of Profits from Banking.

Tobold if you set-up up a company selling mousetraps and it goes bust due to mis-managament then I may feel sorry for you but unless I was foolish enough to invest in your enterprise I don't end up paying your bills.

The past year has shown us very clearly that this is not the case for financial institutions. Every citizen ends up paying dearly for  mistakes in the banking and financial services sector.

This shows us that although we didn't realise it at the time  they were actually gambling with public money, our money, because of our dependence on a working financial sector and the public necessity of underwriting their bad debts.

Of course this means that that we need strong regulation to prevent financial institutions from gambling recklessly with our money. This is a lesson we seem to have to re-learn every few decades.

I believe it also means that it is absolutely wrong for the profits of gambling with funds implicitly underwritten by the public purse to be commandeered by such a small group. Any claims that these are a super elite who can only be motivated to do the wonderful things they do by astronomical salaries and bonuses are made laughable by the rampant evidence of outrageous incompetence, general untrustworthiness and greed motivated recklessness that these high paid high flyers have exhibited over the last few years. Yes cap salaries. Yes get rid of ridiculous bonuses. In fact not only do I want to limit indivduals ability to cream off an excessive return from taking risks with my money I also want to ensure that the institutions themselves are forced to pay us back for that "free underwriting" they enjoy. Perhaps this means part public ownership. Perhaps it means higher taxation. Perhaps it means being forced to pay hefty "financial insurance" premiums. 

A New Theory of Organisation Behaviour

Being the proud possessor of an MBA and having worked in organisations large and small right from start-up all the way to managing director level of a multi-national subsidiary I think this is absolutely brilliant:

Thanks to Slashdot for the link.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lotro:Pulling one mob away from a bunch.

I am sure this is well known to most players but I thought I'd write it up just in case somebody finds it useful.

While soloing it is common to come across groups of mobs that are close enough together that hitting one will arouse the whole group. Most classes can handle two equal mobs at a time but three or more can get hairy so it is useful to be able to pull one mob away from a group to tackle on its own. As long as you have space to run to this can usually be done with careful pulling.

The basic principle to remember is that a mob you have damaged will chase you for longer than a mob you haven't. First make sure you have a safe path to run away. Then pick the mob you want to bring down first and damage them with a ranged attack. Then turn and run down your safe path. Glance over your shoulder occasionally to see if any of your pursuers have given up. Those you haven't attacked will generally retreat before the mob you have damaged. Be careful not to run too far or even that mob will reset.

It is generally best to pull melee mobs first when doing this because they are sure to chase you but be careful that you get out of range of any ranged pursuers before standing to fight.

Pay me what you think I am worth.

I am actually glad that I already own World of Goo because if I didn't I would probably feel it necessary to avail of their current  "Pay what you think it is worth" offer. Its not the first time I have seen an offer like this but it is the first time I have seen it on a game that I was interested in and it creates an interesting dilemma.

If I was going to avail of the offer I would have to decide what to pay for the game. I try to be honest. I don't want to steal the game but how much is a game worth anyway?

The easiest cop out would be to note that  the game was on sale for €20before the offer and to pay that amount but that would is not an honest answer to the question of how much I think the game is worth.

How much is any game worth? In truth  I think that all games are overpriced. If I ruled the world there would be a price cap of €25 on AAA gaming titles. I don't have a logical explanation for this its just what my heart tells me and although I do sometimes spend more than this to get  a premium title shortly after release it always pains me to do so. I suppose I could scale back from that figure for an indie title that doesn't have the big budget budget glamour of a AAA but is acknowledged to be a gaming classic and great fun to play. Perhaps €10? On the other hand maybe even that is too much for a game that I could have for free if I wanted.

Economists argue over whether the value of an item is intrinsic (ie the cost of producing the item) or subjective (determined by supply and demand). Applying the intrinsic value principle I have to accept that it costs time and effort to produce a game but to supply me with one extra downloaded copy costs little more than the badwidth involved. The intrinsic value of a downloaded game is as close to zero as makes no difference. Subjective value doesn't help much either - regardless of how great the demand supply is effectively unlimited so even by this measure the value of the game is zero.

The more I think about this the more I become convinced that the only honest response to an offer like this is to download the game and pay nothing at all. Zero. Anything else is not an expression of value but merely a gesture of charity towards the suppliers of the game. If you feel the game suppliers are in need of charity go right ahead and make a donation but otherwise the only logical answer is "I think your game is worth €0.00".

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Playing mmorpgs my way Part V: "Good Enough"

I have been playing a lot of Lotro recently and I am enjoying it very much despite there being a number of things about the game which could drive me to despair if I let them: the legendary weapon grind, the virtue grind, the radiance / raid progression grind.  The trick, for me, to not getting demoralised by game features I detest is the realisation that my characters don't have to be "the best". All they really need to be is "good enough". This is a very simple and you might think obvious position but it takes a conscious decision to embrace its implications. Game chat, game forums and gaming related blogs bombard us with specifications and stats. It takes a real effort to avoid slipping into a min-max mind set. It is well worth this effort though. It gives you the freedom to ignore those aspects of games that you don't like.  Adopting this position has improved my enjoyment of the game immensely. To borrow a phrase from previous commentators: I have learned to enjoy the journey without being too concerned about the destination.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

If ....

If, in years to come, a more enlightened future generation proves beyond doubt that the massively multiplayer games of the early 21st century were genuinely harmful, that they exploited vulnerabilities in the human psyche and that in addition to being thieves of time they also caused irreparable damage to the intellect and personalities of players, how then should we consider people who embraced these games even more fully than we did ourselves? Should we look down upon this hardcore with scorn for having been so foolish as to abandon themselves completely to the affliction or should we admire them for having grasped the fleeting moment and lived it to the maximum.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why does Google keep showing me the same ads over and over?

I don't really know how Google ads work but I can't help noticing that the same ads crop up again and again. Either these few advertisers  can afford to flood every computer in the world constantly with their particular promotion or else Google is using its rather intimate knowledge of me and my personal preferences to tailor the ads it shows me. Given the number of ads I see repeated from small companies who surely don't have multi-million dollar budgets I guess the latter.

If this is the case I can understand  why mmorpg players have been plagued with those salacious Evony ads  but I am somewhat miffed that Google has now decided to bombard me with the following:

I get this offer to  "Cut down 3lbs of your belly every week" at least ten times a day. What facet of my lifestyle could possibly have convinced Google that I need to lose some weight?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Anonymous No More: Google and Facial Recognition

Last night my wife downloaded the new version of Google Picasa. It has a really cool new feature called facial recognition. Simply idenitfy a person's face in a few photos and Picasa can search your computer and identify all the other photo's of that person. It even matched up baby photos to the right kids. I believe Flickr has had a similar feature for a few months now but whoever invented it this is a hugely impressive technology.

Of course it is a very convenient way of organising your photo's but it is much much more than that. How long before Google incorporates face search into its flagship internet search engine. How long before every picture of you that was ever taken and put in print or posted to some obscure website becomes identifiable and traceable to you? What about the time you appeared as an anonymous face at the back of a group of protesters when you were a idealistic young student? What about the time you were topless on a beach and appeared  in the background of another holidaymakers snapshot? Previously only celebrities had to worry about the privacy of their images because the effort involved in tying an image to a person was just not worth it in the case of us ordinary folks. Now all that has changed.

Its not all gloom, doom and big brother. No doubt there will  be beneficial uses of this technology as well as harmful ones but the fact is the world is now a different place. There is no going back.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Braid Completed

Just finished Braid.

The last world (perversely named "World 1") sucks a bit unfortunately. Up to then I had more or less ignored the nonsensical storyline and concentrated on the clever puzzles. In the last world the clever puzzles take a back seat and the nonsensical storyline gets rammed down your throat. Well I finished it and I read every word of text in the game and all I can say about the story is: "It's nonsensical".

Its a pity that the game ends on such a downer because it really is a beautiful piece of work.

In the interest of honesty I must admit to having cheated twice. I read hints for two jigsaw pieces. I'm not proud of it but I ran out of patience. One of the times was a head slapping "Aghhh ... I should have known that" moment but the other was one of the trickiest puzzles in the game (the middle puzzle piece in the "elevator action" level). I don't know if I would ever have spotted the trick left to myself.

Edit: I have just read a bit more about the game and I realise that there are a few easter eggs including a secondary ending. Apparently you can only get that if you find some hidden stars before you complete the third world which means that it is completely blocked once you finish game normally. Bizarre game design. I certainly amn't going to replay the game just to see it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Speed listening to Podcasts

I would like to listen to more podcasts but I don't have the time. The trouble with pod-casts is that they take too long to listen to and you cannot skim through them quickly to find the bits of interest.I have been playing around with an open source audio tool called "Best Practise" to see if I could speed up a pod-cast while still retaining comprehension.

The problem with increasing the playback speed of audio is that pitch increases in proportion to the speed increase. Everybody ends up sounding like "Alvin and the Chipmunks". Best practise has some very clever algorithms which allow independent control of pitch and speed.

If you leave the pitch control in the middle and increase the playing speed it will endeavour to keep the pitch correct. From what I can tell it does this by chopping out bits because by the time you get to 200% speed the audio is unintelligible. This is where the pitch slider comes in handy. By letting the pitch slider increase slightly you get more of the missing phrases back and the speech become intelligible again. 

A bit of trial and error is required but I found a good compromise at 150% speed and +1 half tone of pitch.   If you are in a hurry 200% speed becomes legible at +6 half tones but the voices get a bit squeaky.

For reference 12 half tones corresponds to one octave or a doubling of pitch so 200% speed and +12 half tones is just raw speeding up with no pitch correction. This is very unpleasant and hard to listen to.

There is another button called anti-aliasing which removes some warbling artefacts but can reduce comprehension at high speeds. I prefer to leave it on.

I used pod-casts from Van Hemlock and Epic Dolls  to check my settings on both male and female voices  and the 150% +1 half tone setting works well for both. The only nuisance is that you need to download an mp3 version of the pod cast to use Best Practise on it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Who needs balance?

I have already admitted how bad I am at Team Fortress 2 but that doesn't stop me googling around the webs looking for tips. Thus it was that I stumbled across a guide to competitive TF2 play and it was an eye opener.  The players are more skilled of course and work in teams but they also play by different rules. Criticals hits are disabled for example and some weapon choices are banned.

Perhaps the biggest eye opener was how few of the nine available classes are commonly used in competitive play. The most common team has six players one medic, one demo-man, two scouts and two soldiers. The iconic heavy rarely gets a look in. The medic and demo man are considered so powerful that you are limited to only one per team while nobody brings a spies or engineers.

"Imbalance",  you cry " The demo-man must be nerfed".  Indeed if this were an mmorpg  that is almost certainly what would happen if one class was deemed to be so much stronger than others.  Players who spend hours developing their chosen class would be incensed to discover that the  class was useless at the high level game. In a shooter though it is not such a problem. If one class is too weak for you you can instantly re-roll. Players are happy to figure out what works and go with it.

Currently Playing

This is a place holder post really. My gaming hours in the last week have been spread between Lotro, Team Fortress 2 and Braid.

In Lotro my Lore Master Ceoldir  is now level 36, working his way around  Evendim doing white / yellow quests that are slightly above his level. It is going well though I notice that Ceoldir has far lower morale (health) than characters of similar level I see around (in one extreme case I saw a Captain with twice as much morale). Some of this may be gear related but I suspect much of it is class design. The LM is a powerful flexible class but as a trade off they can take very few hits.

I enjoy Team Fortress 2 but I am pretty bad at it. To do well at the game you need three things:  an organised team, knowledge , and personal skill. I play on public servers so team organisation is usually non existent. My knowledge of the game, its maps and its classes has definitely improved but my personal skilll level seems stuck in a rut and I cannot hit moving targets for love or money.

I am slowly working my way through Braid, now  just one jigsaw piece short of solving the fifth world. It is called the fifth world but it is actually only the fourth jigsaw puzzle leading me to think that some time traveling jiggery pokery will transport me back to the missing first world later. Time distortion is a common theme in all the worlds but each introduces its own kink. In this fifth world the puzzles are all about using a time shifted shadow of yourself to work in tandem with your present existence to reach the goals.

Apart from the cleverness of the puzzles the game is very well paced,  at least for me. I find I can solve one or two puzzles (levels) in a session but if I try to do more I will inevitably fail to progress. I have learned to take a break at these points leaving the game for a day or so until I can return to it with a fresh mind in order to go on.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Proud of Myself

I saved a child today, an eight year old boy who got stuck on the side of a mountain.

My family and I were taking advantage if some lovely September sunshine and climbing a local mountain called the Great Sugar loaf. This peak is only 500m high but it gets steep near the top and makes for an energetic 40 minute climb with a bit of hands and knees clambering at the end. That is if you take the well beaten path. If on the other hand you try to climb up the wrong side you are faced with unstable scree where every step threatens to dislodge a landslide taking you and half the mountain with it.

We had already reached the top and were making a leisurely descent when we spotted a lady in some distress. Her eight year old son had on his own initiative attempted to climb up one of the scree falls and was now stuck half way up an unstable slope. The mother could not reach her child and the boy having just realised his peril was frozen in place.

My wife asked a worried passer by whether or not the mother had a "man with her to help" (so much for 40 years of feminism) and on being told no she bravely volunteered ME to climb up and save the boy.

There was no way the unstable rock slide the boy had clambered up would support my 90 kg frame so I had to climb up a parallel route and slowly work my way over. This was decidedly scary. On several occasions I found myself prostrated to the side of the mountain trying to keep the loose rocks in place by force of will alone.

The one thing that gave me hope was that in between scree falls there were sporadic patches of heather. Common Heather (Caluna Vulgaris) is wonderful stuff. It covers mountain and moor with a beautiful purple coat but it is also unbelievably tough, resistant to grazing, burning, physical damage, and having a 90kg man hanging off the side of a mountain merely by its purchase on the rocky ground. I can think of no better plant on which to bet your life so I formed a plan that would bring the boy up to the top of the mountain by following the trails of heather. We were as close to top as bottom and I figured ascending would be safer than descending.

There was a problem.

The lad was strangely reluctant to relinquish his unstable rocky perch for the safety of a firm grasp of heather. Thinking that he underestimated the sturdiness of the plant I tried to reassure and coax him to follow the heathery trail upwards. Long minutes passed with both of us clinging to the side of the mountain before the boy admitted that he didn't want to grab the heather because he had seen a wasp in it.

There were one or two wasps flying about but not many. In any case this is Ireland. We don't have killer wasps, killer bees, killer snakes or killer anything else. I can categorically assure you that the minor discomfort of an Irish wasp sting is infinitely preferable to plunging to one's death. Still the boy had a phobia of wasps and refused to avail of the safety of the heather.

I re-assured, I cajoled, I made up stories about non stinging mountain wasps but the lad remained resolutely suspicious. When I eventually wore him down he began to move slowly, ever so slowly along a path which gave him some purchase on the heather while minimising his contact with it. I followed slowly behind him one hand supporting his back, one hand grasped firmly around the life saving heather.

Inch by inch we ascended with encouragement and advice being shouted from his mother at the summit and my own family below. It took a while but we finally reached the top and safety. There was a round of applause from onlookers but given the surly look the boy gave me as he ran to his mother I imagine his first words were to complain about the man who tried to get him stung by wasps.

Braid: Cheap on Steam this Weekend

Currently playing Braid the time twisting puzzle game that is cleverly disguised as a marioesque platformer.

I have only solved the first two jigsaw puzzles so far but I love the game. Normally I struggle to like break through indie games but Braid is doing it for me. Just don't be put off by all that pseudo intellectual guff. Its a very clever, very pretty puzzle game. Solve it and enjoy it.

Available on Steam this weekend for under a fiver.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Announcing a New Valve Boycott. Gabe Newell take note (please).

Apparently organising a boycott of one of Valve's games is the new way to get an all expenses paid trip to Seattle.

I herewith announce a boycott of Half Life 2 Episode 3, Portal 2, Half Lives 3 and 4, Team Fortress 3, The Purple box, the Green box, and the Yellow box if it comes to that. All of these games are summarily declared to be objectionable for numerous alleged reasons and Valve's stance with regard to any of these titles is declared to be wholly unacceptable.

Sign below to indicate your support of this righteous crusade. (The first 50 signatories will enter a draw to become official boycott committee members who are eligible to accompany me on any forthcoming trip to Valve's offices.)

Apparently I have a coffee problem

 A couple of weeks ago my wife alerted me to the fact that I had developed an occasional odour problem. This surprised and distressed me som...