Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Putting The Crackpipe Away

I've played Star Wars: The Old Republic for 5 weeks and gotten a Smuggler/Scoundrel up to level 37.5.  Then I used the /played command and yelped.  I've played the game for 135 hours, or 27 hours a week.  Almost 4 hours a day!  Not good.  The game was eating almost all of my spare time.  Yes, I said was.  Last night I went ahead and cancelled my subscription. 

To its credit, I have to say that SW:TOR has hooked me into a game like no other has since I first started playing World of Warcraft back in 2005.  That may sound strange coming from someone who has 3 Eve Online accounts, written 379 blog posts tagged "Eve" and is flying to Iceland to attend Fanfest in March.  How could my interest in SW:TOR be that much different than Eve?

I describe SW:TOR, like WoW, as crack.  The only place I can really enjoy the SW:TOR experience is sitting in front of my computer.  I, despite some things I have written in the past, I mostly enjoy playing.  Sometimes I hit a lull, but I knew if I just kept grinding I would receive another nugget in the form of an interesting story plot twist.  The cut scenes, as wonderful as they are, reinforced that feeling of being cut off from the world.  I might be watching television or listening to a podcast and when a cut scene appeared I had to turn the sound off in order to concentrate on the action on the screen.

Now, SW:TOR fans are probably thinking, "What's wrong with that?"  Absolutely nothing, when done in moderation.  Unfortunately, I was losing that sense of moderation.  I'd start a session on a Saturday or Sunday thinking I'd only play for one, maybe two hours.  But two hours would turn into three, into four, and finally into way too much.  I do have a life outside video games and playing SW:TOR was beginning to get in the way.

What about Eve?  I describe Eve more like a good imported beer.  Sure, I can get drunk and hung over the next day, but I usually start feeling full before I get to that point so I know when to stop.  Part of that getting full without over indulging is due to Eve not just being a video game but a virtual world.  So during the day I can listen to podcasts on my iPad at work.  On the train ride home I can tune into Eve Radio on my iPhone.  Eve Radio has really come in handy when I've traveled to Bulgaria which is one reason I'm a premium subscriber.  And because Eve is on one shard, all the news and information I hear is about my world and not about events on another realm.  So when I finally get home at night I can be satisfied by only checking my skill queue and doing my planetary interaction work because I've had my Eve fix throughout the day.  That leaves more time for doing other real life things, like exercise.  Did I mention I like to listen to Roc Weiler while walking or using my stair-stepper?

I have a couple of other reasons for wanting to unsubscribe, but all the other reasons aren't as important as making sure I keep my gaming a hobby and not something that runs my life.  A lot of my time concerning Eve fits into little nooks and crannies (called 2 hours of train rides) that I need to fill in with something anyway.  SW:TOR?  Well, no one can resist the power of the dark side of the force, at least if they are subscribed.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I'm Going To Fanfest

Over the weekend I booked my reservations to attend my first gaming convention in 10 years.  That's right, I'm going to CCP's Fanfest 2012 in Reykjavik, Iceland.  From 1994-2002 I was a regular attendee of gaming conventions, particularly GenCon (both in Milwaukee and Indianapolis) and Origins in Columbus, Ohio.  One year I even splurged and flew down to Atlanta to attend DragonCon.  So this trip will be my biggest, most expensive trip by far.

When I travel I always try to get into my destination city the day before events start.  I decided to take the opportunity to see some of Iceland so I signed up for the Golden Circle Express tour on Wednesday, which means leaving Chicago on Monday to catch the Icelandair flight to Reykjavik that arrives at 6:30 Tuesday morning.  And since I heard that if you attend the Party at the Top of the World that you should not plan on leaving the next day, I am taking a lot of aspirin with me and leaving on Monday.  I already talked with my boss and she doesn't expect me back in the office until the following Wednesday, which is good because I'm just a bit concerned about making my connecting flight.  If I miss it, I won't get home until sometime Tuesday morning.

I may have made a bit of a mistake with my choice of hotels.  I chose the CenterHotel Plaza as my hotel not only because it was available but because the hotel page lists the Plaza as the official Fanfest hotel where CCP staff visiting from offices outside Reykjavik as well as the gaming press will stay.  The CenterHotel Arnarhvoll is the closest hotel to the Harpa Concert Hall and Convention Center.  The walk from the Plaza is a nice distance as long as the weather cooperates, but if the weather turns nasty the walk will be miserable.  Also, I really didn't take into consideration dropping off my laptop before going on the Pub Crawl with a Dev.  Who knows if I'll have time to drop the laptop off at the hotel and go back on-site to start the crawl.  Heck, my tolerance for alcohol is down since I pretty much stopped drinking a couple of years ago so I don't even know if I'll be in shape to blog on-site even if laptop storage is not a problem.  But assuming that all works according to plan, staying in the same hotel as the press should be a good move.

I will probably have more to write about the trip as CCP announces further details in the days and weeks ahead.  But for now, I can say I'm going to Iceland.  Wow.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Richard Garfield's Ideas On Metagaming And Eve Online

"What is it about the metagame that breathes life into the experience of game-playing? Through the metagame, players are inducted into a larger game community. Often, the metagame is an event in which many, many people are playing—more than can possibly compete in the smaller base game. The event can become so large that no individual can know all parts of the game; while no single participant has the complete picture, each person has insight into some small piece of the game. The contributions of each participant become integral to the game event."

- Dr. Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, The Duelist #5

I used to play Magic: The Gathering back in in 1995-1997 and used to buy every issue of The Duelist.  I was excited when I found Dr. Garfield's article was now online and could read it again 16 years after I first read it.  The Duelist article was the first time I had heard the term metagame.  Back then the idea of a larger community was pretty cool.  I still think it is cool, but in Eve Online metagaming is a dirty word in some quarters.

Dr. Garfield's writings on the metagame, 8 years before Eve Online launched, foreshadowed the type of sov warfare we see in Eve today.
"Metagames tend to have application or meaning beyond the game itself; often, they seep into real life. Doing well in metagames may require money or stamina; it may even be influenced by things like how you dress or where you live. Some say this detracts from the game, but in my opinion it is neither good nor bad; it is simply a part of the metagame that the base game does not have. Endurance is not essential to winning a rubber of bridge, but it is essential to winning a tournament. In a game of Killer, the fact that you have an 8 A.M. class may play a significant role in your strategy. And if you are in a ping-pong ladder, it may be frustrating that the only person you can challenge is hard to pin down, but that's part of the game, too."
I'm not an expert on Eve's null sec metagame, but I try to read everything I can from people who do.  The talk of where one lives and events totally outside the game in players' normal lives calls to my mind the situation between the Cluster F**k Coalition and White Noise. which led to the CFC overrunning Branch.  And the description of the ping-pong ladder pretty much describes the difficulty of a coalition in Europe fighting a North American coalition.

Before continuing, you may want to read the full column by Dr. Garfield because I am about to introduce the writings of one of the masters of Eve's metagame, The Mittani.  The Mittani's column, Sins of a Solar Spymaster, is full of Eve sneakiness, but I'd like to point to this column "The Art of Nullsec War" as an example of how elements of metagaming apply to success at the very highest levels of Eve political game play.  I'm not going to actually do any analysis because having a high sec carebear pontificate on null sec war is pretty silly.  So what I'll do is post a video that someone did based on the column and let you decide for yourself just how much of Dr. Garfield's thoughts on the metagame actually apply to Eve Online.




Thursday, January 26, 2012

Looking Back At Podcasts: Dragging Me Into New Eden

"We don't have any advantages, so we can't obey your stupid 'space bushido'. We're going to spy, we're going to use defectors, we're going to lie, cheat, steal and be bastards." 


Tuesday's look at how my journey through MMOs resulted in my Smuggler's name in Star Wars: The Old Republic got me thinking about how I first became interested in Eve Online.  I've written before that the story around the fall of the Band of Brothers really intrigued me.  But looking back I didn't realize just how much podcasts fueled my interest.

Back in 2008 I found Virgin Worlds, a portal full of MMO podcast goodness.  I actually didn't begin listening to Eve podcasts like Warp Drive Active at first.  Most of my Eve news came from The Van Hemlock podcast which covered all MMOs at the time.  But once February 2009 came around, podcasters started talking about Eve and the BoB takedown.

My two favorite podcasts at the time were The Van Hemlock podcast and Shut Up We're Talking.  In Van Hemlock #38, the hosts Tim Dale and Jon Shute went into an in-depth discussion about Eve Online and the details around the situation.  Jon had been a corp and later an alliance leader while Tim had played on and off for years so the discussion sounded very fascinating to someone who had never played before.  Tim was actually prophetic in stating that someone was going to do the same thing to the Goons and the Goons did to BoB.

Shut Up We're Talking got into trouble when discussing Eve Online, starting with the 2008 year-end episode #40.  In reaction to  SUWT #42, an Eve blogger posted a link to a defense of the game to his blog.  On SUWT #43, the discussion of Eve got a bit more serious as the guests both played Eve in addition to host Darren Love.  The blog of the week on the show belonged to the Eve blogger who posted the link to his blog the show before, Inner Sanctum of the Ninveah.  I checked out the blog and found it was good.

Now here is where things may become interesting for those who follow the Eve blogosphere and Eve podcasts.  On SUWT #44, Kirith Kodachi made his podcasting debut opining on subjects like the introduction of RMT on Vanguard's servers, why CCP began using CGI instead of actual game play footage in trailers and a disbelief that Hello Kitty Online actually existed.


Any post of audio links that led me to play Eve is not complete without a link to Funky Bacon's interviews with Dianabolic and The Mittani.  While not a podcast, just the existence of Eve Radio helped lead me down the path to New Eden.  The interviews were pretty good too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What's In A (Legacy) Name?

On Saturday I finally finished Chapter 1 in Star Wars: The Old Republic and was able to select my legacy name.  The legacy system sounds interesting as all your characters on a server are part of a family and have the same last name.  As I typed in the name I thought of the long journey that brought me to typing those four keystrokes.

Back in 2006 I started playing my second MMORPG, EverQuest 2.  The second character I created was a female wood-elf ranger/alchemist.  Since she was an alchemist, I wanted to name her Rosemary after the medicinal herb, but the name was already taken so I settled on Rosemarie.  Eventually she became my main and I spent three years sneaking around Norrath gathering materials to make potions.

In 2009, Rosemarie reached max level in EQ2 and I moved over to Eve Online.  Having acquired the nickname Rose, I brought the name over with me to New Eden and created the Vherokior mystic Rosewalker.  I didn't choose Rosewalker as a takeoff on Skywalker; I envisioned a mystic walking around with rose-colored glasses.


Eve being Eve, CCP enticed me with a Power of Two promotion into creating an industrial character on a second account, the Vherokior drifter Wandering Rose.  Given the origin of the Vherokior as desert nomads, I thought the name "Wandering" fitting.  And over time, Wandering Rose grew from a bit player to the CEO of my personal corporation who, when not supporting Rosewalker in an auto-cannon fitted command Hurricane, flies around in a stealthed blockade runner.  So over time I didn't give up the love of sneaking around but my female avatar now didn't set up from range but instead wanted to get up close and personal with the enemy.

That brings the story to Christmas 2011 and the release of SW:TOR.  Having a pilot in Eve who loves flying a blockade runner, creating a Smuggler was a natural choice.  But would I go back to my roots and choose the ranged dps path of the Gunslinger or the more up-close and personal support style of the Scoundrel?  I chose the Scoundrel.

And what name did I choose?  My character's name is now Skitane Rosa.  That is bad Bulgarian for Wandering Rose.  I say bad because skitane is a noun, not an adjective.  But when I selected the name I didn't know if "Rosa" would still be available since legacy names are unique.  Besides, I like the sound of Skitane better than the other Bulgarian words for wandering.

So my character's name is Skitane Rosa.  I know that when BioWare came up with the legacy system they were only concerned with their own game.  But for me my legacy name reaches back through the years and across virtual worlds.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My First Xtranormal Video: Discussing Missions

Ever since I first heard about xtranormal I wanted to make my own video using it.  After finally getting my legacy in The Old Republic Saturday, I was ready for a break from questing.  So after logging into Eve and playing around with the on-board scanner for another hour-and-a-half, I looked to write a blog entry.  Something about SW:TOR?  Didn't feel like it.  But I didn't really like the way my post on Friday about some features I like about Eve's mission system turned out.  I didn't realize the features were present and so useful until after playing SW:TOR for a few weeks but I don't think I really portrayed that adequately.  But how about a video between two people discussing it?  It works for podcasts, so why not a video?  So I rewrote the post for two people, clarified what I didn't like and posted it to YouTube.  I hope you enjoy it.



Friday, January 20, 2012

A New Appreciation For Eve's Mission System

I've spent a lot of time playing Star Wars: The Old Republic over the past 3 weeks and have done a lot of missions.  (I guess sci-fi MMOs call their quests missions).  So many missions that I actually took a break this weekend and spent about 90 minutes logged into Eve Online practicing my directional scanning.  I will keep on playing SW:TOR because I really want to finish the Smuggler's class story, at least as long as I can stand doing the missions.  Not that the missions are bad, at least compared to the themepark fantasy games I've played, but as crazy as this may sound, playing SW:TOR has given me a new appreciation for Eve's mission system.

Control - When playing SW:TOR, I have to do all the missions.  Okay, if I did the flashpoints and heroic content I could skip some of the side quests.  But I really don't have a choice if I want to get through the story.  And some of those quests I wish I could skip.  In Eve, I can choose what type of mission I want to do.  If I want to shoot the Angel Cartel, I select an agent who passes out Security missions.  If I just want to fly around and get paid to do it, I find a Distribution agent.  Sure, I lose some control if I do a storyline, COSMOS or Epic Arc mission, but I don't need to do those missions to progress in the game.  Actually, I don't need to do any missions to progress in the game, so I only do them when I really want to.

Quest Givers/Agents - In most games, I run up to a quest giver, ask for the quests, do them, and then run off never to talk to the NPC again.  In Eve, I actually do research into what agent I talk to.  What level missions does the agent give out?  What faction?  Is the agent in high-sec or low-sec?  How far away is the agent?  I guess I could put this under control, but I decide which agent I deal with, not some script writer for the game.

No kill ten rats - In every other MMO I've played has had the "kill ten rats" quest.  That is, a quest giver gives you a quest to go out and kill X number of a type of mob.  SW:TOR is really sneaky about the practice, with many missions having "bonus" stages in which you frequently kill X bosses.  In Eve, I can't remember ever doing a mission that required killing X mobs.

Improving payouts - Maybe I'm playing the game wrong, but in SW:TOR, like in other games, I do a quest, pick up the drops and collect the reward.  In Eve, I can increase the amount of money and drops I receive by learning skills like Salvaging and all of the social skills.

Story - In SW:TOR, the story is pushed right into a player's face.  Sure, I can skip the cut scenes, but that is why I bought the game in the first place.  But do I really remember all of the story?  No.  Of course, I don't remember all of the missions I've run in Eve Online either.  In fact, outside the Epic Arcs, there are very few missions that are strung together in a typical quest line.  But I've found stories while doing missions anyway.  During my grind my industrial pilot Wandering Rose seemed to pick up an admirer in the Republic Parliament agent Fratt Asmurkik.  Over Christmas, the missions aligned themselves just right and I experienced what I thought was a pretty cool story.  Perhaps I'm just weird, but I like the surprise stories that come out of my experiences.  Eve is famous for those in null and low sec but I've found them doing missions as well.

I don't want to claim that missioning in Eve is so great I race home to do them every night.  I can quite happily go two weeks without doing a mission.  But missioning in Eve is not the horrible task that a lot of bitter vets would have you believe.  Well, compared to other games anyway.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA, Bad For Sandbox MMO's?

I read an interesting article in Gamasutra called "Minecraft, Intellectual Property, and the Future of Copyright" by Terra Nova blogger Greg Lastowka that showed how Minecraft goes against the conventional wisdom when it comes to copywrite laws and game developers.  The Professor of Law at the Rutgers School of Law-Camden argues that intellectual property law in the U.S. leads game studios to develop themepark games instead of sandbox games.

In the article he uses NCSoft's battle against Marvel Comics about players creating avatars in City of Heroes that too closely resemble Marvel Comics characters.  NCSoft tried to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as a defense but a federal court refused to throw out the case.  The case never went to trial as the two companies soon after settled out of court.

Professor Lastowka then proceeded to speculate on the future.
"There is a legislative front to Viacom's efforts [against YouTube] as well. Pending bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) are essentially asking Congress to revisit the compromise enacted by the DMCA. While it seems unlikely as of today that SOPA will become law, the balance between technology and copyright may still shift to make the technology industry carry more of the burden of copyright enforcement. For instance, online payment companies that do business with sandbox game makers may face legal threats due to the copyright infringements of users.
"Unlike Hollywood and the recording industry, the game industry has perspective on both sides of the SOPA debate. The split between the ESA and developers like Riot Games demonstrates this.
"However, it seems that most of the major players in the industry are choosing to side with the content industries in the digital copyright wars. To the extent new laws work against the development of sandbox games and interactive platforms generally, this is understood as an acceptable tradeoff for stopping piracy."
Minecraft has apparently figured out a way around this trend.  But for those wondering why we don't see more sandbox games, apparently themepark games aren't just a good idea, but it's the law.

Monday, January 16, 2012

SOPA Failscade


"SOPA is misguided. 
"SOPA is nuking from orbit.
"SOPA is just so dumb.
"SOPA is legislation that, at its very base level, is contrary to human interaction. Human interaction is what my employer, as a game publisher, thrives on. We design whole universes around it."

I didn't expect to write another post on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act so soon, but events changed over the weekend.  On Thursday night, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D, VT), the co-author of PIPA pulled back on the measure that would allow courts the ability to issue injunctions against the use of a domain name while an investigation into illicit content use occurs.  This was followed by six Republican senators who had voted to approve PIPA in the Senate Judiciary Committee writing a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) asking that PIPA not be put onto the floor on 24 January as planned.  Sen. Reid plans to hold the debate and vote as planned.

Over in the House, Leahy's action was followed by SOPA author House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R, TX) who issued a statement Friday stating he would remove the foreign DNS blocking language from the bill.  On Saturday, House Oversight Committee chairman Dan Issa (R, CA) announced he was cancelling his planned hearings on the DNS provisions in SOPA after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced that the House will not vote on SOPA until there is "consensus" on the bill.

With the chief authors of the bills retreating in both the House and Senate, the Obama administration issued a statement Saturday favoring the opponents of SOPA and PIPA.  I'm sure that the Obama campaign has looked for a way to delay this fight between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, two of the campaign's major financial backers, until after the elections and it appears to have gotten its wish.  While the statement did favor opponents (i.e., Silicon Valley), the statement also leaves some wiggle room for anti-piracy measures that Hollywood wants.  But given the language in the statement, I really don't see anything occurring this year.

However, I hope the pressure against the legislation continues.  Bill Reader of PJ Media read both SOPA and PIPA and led me to another reason for gamers to oppose the bills.
"Title Two of SOPA is well known on the internet because it offers censorship of a completely different kind. Pages 54-59, right at the beginning, enumerate a number of changes to Title 17 and 18 of the U.S.C. which, if they passed, could do some very nasty things to copyright laws in the United States."
...
"The biggest concern is that this change will be used to stymie critiques of games, movies, et cetera. This change alone would certainly wreak havoc on several internet cottage industries, including sites that do “Let’s Play” game playthroughs, or certain song reviews. Potentially even reviews of short games would be affected, with more possibly following depending on strictness of interpretation."
And since the whole SOPA/PIPA fight crosses party boundaries on both side of the debate, I'll just leave you with a conclusion from Mr. Reader on a possible reason for that to occur.
"I find it hard to disagree with those arguing that both bills could be exploited to censor foreign internet sites. Censoring of foreign sites being one of the signature policies of China, I think that the largely bipartisan backlash I’ve seen is fully justified. I also think that some aspects of the bill, such as the “punishment first, appeal second” approach, which is very much in the spirit of “guilty until proven innocent,” resonate as wrong with a wide band of Americans on both sides of the aisle.
"So, while I didn’t see some of the specific loopholes I’ve heard mentioned, the takeaway is that there are definitely plenty of ways both bills could be exploited in the name of censorship, both foreign and domestic. And there are enough loopholes that no simple editing session is going to fix these bills.
"The only remedy: they’ve both got to go."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Countdown to SOPA

The debate on the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate is getting closer to coming for a vote.  As much as we hear about the partisan wars in Washington these days, the debate over protecting intellectual property rights vs defending the freedom of the Internet transcends political parties and even ideological bounds.  Those backing the entertainment industry (i.e. the music and movie industries) include liberal Democrats such as the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and head of the Democratic National Committee Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and conservatives like Rep. Pete King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and Tea Party favorite Sen. Mark Rubio.  Those backing the technology sector includes Tea Party favorites Sen. Rand Paul and failed presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann and liberal Democrats House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee.  Looking at that collection of names any follower of U.S. politics knows that Internet legislation makes strange bedfellows.

I am against the measures because of my concerns about Internet security.  Stewart Baker, the first Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security, also blogs at The Volokh Conspiracy and offered up how SOPA will greatly damage efforts to implement DNSSEC.  DNSSEC is an authentication method developers could implement in browsers or browser plug-ins to help defeat cyber attacks by giving each website a signed credential that must be shown to the browser by the domain name system server before the connection can be completed.  Mr. Baker explains:
"Unfortunately, the things a browser does to bypass a criminal site will also defeat SOPA’s scheme for blocking pirate sites.  SOPA envisions the AG telling ISPs to block the address of www.piracy.com.  So the browsers get no information about www.piracy.com from the ISP’s DNS server. Faced with silence from that server, the browser will go into fraud-prevention mode, casting about to find another DNS server that can give it the address.  Eventually, it will find a server in, say, Canada.  Free from the Attorney’ General’s jurisdiction, the server will provide a signed address for piracy.com, and the browser will take its user to the authenticated site.
"That’s what the browser should do if it’s dealing with a hijacked DNS server.  But browser code can’t tell the Attorney General from a hijacker, so it will end up treating them both the same. And from the AG’s point of view, the browser’s efforts to find an authoritative DNS server will look like a deliberate effort to evade his blocking order.
"The latest version of SOPA will feed that view.  It allows the AG to sue 'any entity that knowingly and willfully provides …a product … designed by such entity or by another in concert with such entity for the circumvention or bypassing of' the AG’s blocking orders.
"It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this provision is aimed squarely at the browser companies. Browsers implementing DNSSEC will have to circumvent and bypass criminal blocking, and in the process, they will also circumvent and bypass SOPA orders. The new bill allows the AG to sue the browsers if he decides he cares more about enforcing his blocking orders than about the security risks faced by Internet users. Indeed, the opaque language about 'another in concert with such entity' makes perfect sense in the context of browser extensions.  It allows the AG to sue not just browsers but also add-ons with this feature."
An event occurred yesterday that gives an Eve Online angle to the fight.   Reddit, the home of TEST Alliance Please Ignore, has gone on the warpath against SOPA and PIPA and claimed another scalp in the form of the Chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan from Wisconsin.  Reddit had already led a boycott that made GoDaddy.com reverse its stance on SOPA and had begun Operation Pull Ryan.  After Ryan's opponent, Democrat Rob Zerban, raised $15,000 in 48 hours, Ryan issued a statement opposing SOPA.

On Wednesday 18 January the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will conduct hearings on issues related on SOPA and PIPA.  Chairman Darrell Issa (R. CA), an opponent of SOPA, will bring opponents of the measure like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, the above quoted Stewart Baker, venture capitalist Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures and Michael Macleod-Ball, the American Civil Liberties' first amendment counsel.

For those wanting to know more about SOPA and PIPA, here are some links to informative articles opposing the measures.  Sorry, but I don't feel like being "fair and balanced".

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Should BioWare Attend PR School In Reykjavik?

To say that CCP endured some bad PR last summer over the launch of Eve Online's Incarna expansion might be the understatement of the year.  One thing that will upset players is unexpected poor performance.  For those who regularly read dev blogs, the fact that system requirements were increasing caused some stir among the player base.  Those who don't pay attention received a rude shock at Incarna's launch although I don't think anyone expected the compaints about players' CPUs melting when loading Captains Quarters.  Given that many players hated the idea of Walking in Stations, these hardware problems created fertile ground for the other revelations that came out at the end of June.  Given the bad press that led Massively.com to list CCP's problems as the fourth most important MMORPG story of 2011, one might think that other companies would take notice, right?

Maybe not.  BioWare is beginning to face a similar problem with Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Currently the player issues with poor frame rates is beginning to make it past the official forums.  Bloggers like Tobold reported during the early start period that computers that could run World of Warcraft at 80 frames per second had a very reduced frame per second rate when running SWTOR.  Now, WoW has the reputation of being able to run on a toaster, but Tobold and the commenters on his blog back up the comments being left on the official forums.

So are the official minimum requirements too optimistic?  Not according to BioWare.  SWTOR game director James Ohlen told Eurogamer:
"The thing is, for the most part, 95 per cent - oh I can't give you the exact percentage - most of our players aren't really having performance concerns," James Ohlen told Eurogamer.
"However, we know that it's important that there is a smaller group of people usually with lower end machines that are having problems in some areas. And one of the most important things for us to grow our service is to continue to bring in more players, including those players who only have low-end machines.
"So we have a client team, a team of programmers, whose entire job is to optimise the code, find out where some of the issues are, and then fix that up.
"Most of the performance issues are localised though," he added. "They're things that we can track down. I would call them bugs." (emphasis mine)
I started out writing this post wanting to compare CCP and BioWare's reaction to issues.  But excluding what happened with Incarna when people in leadership positions let their egos get in the way, CCP since I began playing Eve Online generally has owned up to poor coding and efforts like Team Gridlock's War on Lag are generally applauded by players.  But I'm still having issues wrapping around James Ohlen's response.  Let me sum it up using a little different language:
  1. BioWare sets up minimum system requirements.
  2. Players buy the game with computers meeting those requirements.
  3. The game has bugs that lead lower-end machines to have low fps rates (less than 10) in certain places.
  4. ???
  5. The players are experiencing a hardware problem!

And that is ignoring all the players complaining who claim to have mid- to high-end computers.

Now, in fairness to BioWare, CCP deals with a committed player base of techno-geeks who love watching the devs kill bugs.  SWTOR just launched and players will find it easy to walk away after their first month so BioWare may feel they can't admit to mistakes and are willing to see 5-10% of their players walk away after their first month as the lesser of two evils.

Before anyone thinks I am having issues with frame rates, I can report that out of the issues I have experienced while playing the game, low frame rates are not one of them.  So to all Eve players, if you can run Captain's Quarters, you can run SWTOR.  But having lived through the Summer of Rage, I get nervous when I buy a game and see a post like this on the official forums:
bump for the development team that failed in warhammer and have failed in swtor 
bump for using a well known broken engine the hero-engine 
bump for using this engine knowing full well it has massive fps an stability issues in crowded areas such as citys an quest hubs in mmo's
bump for pretending this issue doesnt exist 
bump for ignoring all the closed > launch testers that report this issue over and over again 
bump for the biased paid reviews of swtor that make no mention of the games issues
bump for the indian an mexican call centre customer support staff that have trouble grasping the idea of english an that ati drivers dont work on nvidia gtx 580's
bump for all the pc gamers fed up with EA branded products that are 95% console ports and the other 5% are unoptimised garbage using broken engines like this here hero-engine
bump for all the people who have joined the "never buying EA again" club 
bump for all those who run bf3 an skyrim on ultra @ 120 fps but cant get more then 30 in swtor on any graphic setting

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Mittani Is Not In New Hampshire

Today is the day of the New Hampshire primaries, the first primary election in the United States that the major political parties use to select their presidential nominees for the election in November.  The leading candidate in the Republican Party is Mitt Romney.  Since Mitt is not his first name, the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll asked 951 respondents what his real first name is.  Two percent replied "Mittens".

Photographic proof Romney is not The Mittani
Source: Vanity Fair

As we all know, there is only one Mittens.  That's right, our beloved CSM6 chairman, dictator of the Cluster #### Coalition and King of Space, The Mittani.  So for the two percent or so of Americans who may think that Mittens is running for president, don't worry, he is not.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Arresting Development

MMORPG's differ from single-player computer games because they rely on keeping players involved in the games for months, even years.  So how do game developers do that?  Many games rely on raids to keep players interested.  Warhammer Online came up with the Tome of Knowledge that Blizzard copied to create its achievement system for World of Warcraft to give players something else to do.  Other games like Eve Online and Dark Age of Camelot rely on player vs player warfare as the focus of game play.  But one thing I've noticed is that developers try to slow down the rate at which a character develops their characters' skills.

Eve Online's time-based skill training system is probably the most obvious example of limiting the advancement of a player's skills.  Eve is a skill-based, not level-based, game and skills are learned in real time whether a player is logged into the game or not.  Many people complain about the system because they cannot advance their skills through their game play.  I actually like the system because I don't have to do certain useless things in order to become better.  For example, the skill system keeps me from having to make a lot of useless items in order to become better at manufacturing.  Another advantage is that I can work on my missile skills while running a cargo of blueprints through low-sec.  But while the skill system does have benefits for players, the system also keeps players subscribed even when interest wanes because players can always justify the subscription price because they are still training wanted skills.

Most other MMORPGs are level-based, not skill-based.  One law of MMO development is that players will always run through a game's content faster than the developers can create it.  So the trick for developers is to make a game that is so interesting that players what to hit the level cap and raid while at the same time don't want to play for hours every day and quickly burn through the content.  Blizzard's Rob Pardo came up with a solution.
"In World of Warcraft what they did when they first designed the game was they had an experience system that would, over time, lower the amount of experience you got because [Blizzard] wanted to encourage people to play for like two hours at a time instead of twelve hours at a time. So the longer you played you’d get this experience degradation and then it would bottom out and at that point it would be a fixed rate of experience. And people just hated it.
"And so they went back and [Blizzard's Rob Pardo] was like allright, basically what we did was we made everything in the game take twice as much experience to achieve as before and then we flipped it. So actually what happens is you start getting 200% experience and eventually it goes back down to 100%. So that effectively now how they spin it is that if you log out for a while you get this 200% boost when you log back in! And then over time it goes away and you just get regular 100% experience. It’s EXACTLY the same as it was before, except NOW everyone is like 'Fuck yeah, Blizzard, this is exactly what I want!'"
While the system doesn't keep a lot of players from hitting the level cap in WoW quickly I know from personal experience that when I saw by bonus xp about to end in both WoW and EverQuest 2 that I knew it was time to stop playing for the night.

What worked for games published in 2004 is still used today.  Star Wars: The Old Republic uses a rest bonus xp system if a character logs out of the game in a cantina or a ship.  But from my experience, the rate of the bonus seems to be about 1/2 what I received while playing in old Vanilla WoW or in EverQuest 2.  That could be because BioWare is concerned with keeping players subscribed after their free month for buying the game is up.  I'm currently playing the Smuggler class story and am finding that just playing the single player elements after the rest bonus expired had me on Tatooine a full level below the recommended level.  That has led me to not only spend hours grinding mobs to catch up but to also not play as much over the last few days.

Yes, SWTOR is a multiplayer game and that means I should play with others more.  But BioWare is really depending on players to play exactly through all the story they created.  Anyone who tries to skip part of the story is going to encounter hurdles.  That's fair, but then again I've played MMOs for over 6 years now.  I wonder what all those players who are jumping into the genre for the first time because this is Star Wars think.  I'll have to pay closer attention to the chat to find out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

20 Is The New 30

I remember listening to a podcast (I think it was Shut Up, We're Talking) and listening to a discussion about how MMOs seemed to bog down in design when a player reached level 30 or so.  The idea was that game designers were focused on making the beginning of the game so good that it hooks players and end game content to retain players that an area in the middle levels dropped off in quality and felt like it was put in just as a bridge to the good stuff.  Looking back, going through Stranglethorn Vale in Vanilla World of Warcraft felt very much like that.  In EverQuest 2 I lost the desire to play my paladin when I hit level 31 in Zek but I managed to power through the pain with my ranger.  Level 30 was not a good time.

This past year I've noticed that I am hitting that meh feeling in games around level 20 instead of level 30.  Is that because I moved to the sandbox called Eve Online and have less tolerance?  Given that PvE in Eve is pretty much of a grind I don't think so.  I think the reason is that game developers have decided they only need to spend the first 20 levels hooking a player and have to devote more resources to producing end game content (i.e. raids) before launch.  Without that end game content, the players who race through the game start complaining that they have nothing to do and then a negative word-of-mouth campaign begins.

I think the trend began with Age Of Conan and its infamous Tortage experience where the game changed completely at level 20 and leaving Tortage Island.  I can't tell for sure because I played the other major MMO to come out at that time, Warhammer Online, and never made it past level 13.

For me, the two major MMO titles published in 2011 were RIFT and Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I enjoyed RIFT up until about level 18 but the game just became a log for me around level 21 and so I left the game.  Currently I'm playing SWTOR and I've hit a wall at level 23.  Do I really want to go on?

The wall I've hit is partially my fault, I think.  Having played Eve Online for 2 1/2 years I'm used to a universe I can just wander around in at will.  The only limits are the skills I've learned and the amount of isk I've earned.  SWTOR is a very theme park game and not following the way the developers wants you to play can lead to difficulties.  Take for example space combat.  My character is a smuggler.  Why in the world would I put my ship at risk in combat, especially for a corrupt Republic?  And believe me, the Republic is corrupt.  The same goes for ground combat.  I am only in it for the money and I have a stealth belt.  Why do I want to leave a huge body count behind me when I don't have to.  And to tell the truth, I haven't seen very many groups looking for healers.  On the last two planets I've been on, the count in local chat hasn't excceded 60 and been more around 40 when I've been playing.  Let's just say that I barely was level 23 when I arrived on Tatooine and the mobs in the quests I'm fighting are level 25.  I might have to do something I've never done before.  Grind mobs.  Ugh!

I'm going to fight through the pain to get my legacy by finishing the class story on Alderaan.  I'm just hoping that the experience gets better and that 30 is the new 40.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

SOPA: An Eve Angle

One of the political battles in the United States that should interest on-line gamers concerns legislation called Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.  The major backers of the bills are the entertainment (movie, music) industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce while Internet-based businesses like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, eBay, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL and LinkedIn oppose the measures.  SOPA, the more restrictive measure, would basically impose a "death penalty" on Internet web sites in that the federal government could obtain a court order that it could serve on internet providers, making a web site basically disappear.

So how could this affect on-line gamers?  I think after last year when the Sony Playstation Network was hacked twice and SOE had to suspend its MMO service that players are nervous about Internet security.  According to an article on CNET, SOPA could damage efforts to make the Internet more secure.
"The idea of DNSSEC is to promote end-to-end encryption of domain names, meaning there's no break in the chain between, say, Wellsfargo.com and its customer. Requiring Internet providers to redirect allegedly piratical domain names to, say, the FBI's servers isn't compatible with DNSSEC.
"Rep. Dan Lungren, who heads the Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity, has said that an 'unintended consequence' of SOPA would be to 'undercut' the effort his panel has been making to promote DNSSEC.
"The Sandia National Laboratories, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, has also raised concerns about SOPA, saying it is 'unlikely to be effective' and will 'negatively impact U.S. and global cybersecurity and Internet functionality.' And Stewart Baker, the former policy chief at the Department of Homeland Security who's now in private practice, warned in an op-ed that SOPA 'runs directly counter' to the House's own cybersecurity efforts."
Another way that gamers could be impacted is if the opponents of SOPA like Google, Facebook and Wikipedia use the "nuclear option" and go dark for a period of time in protest.  Many games use Twitter to reach out to their player base when things go bad, but the biggest impact of getting nuked could be for gamers searching for answers when playing their games.

Drilling further down, how can this issue affect my primary game, Eve Online?  Currently Eve's developer, CCP, has a huge financial stake in its new game, DUST 514.  The game is designed to link into Eve Online, meaning that a successful launch of DUST will benefit Eve.  But that future could depend on the stability of the Playstation Network.  For the second year in a row, Anonymous plans to target Sony, this time for the Japanese company's support of SOPA.  Although the gaming division of Sony has announced that they do not support SOPA and never have, a list put out by the House Judicial Committe lists Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Sony Music Entertainment and Sony Music Nashville as supporting the measure.  While Anonymous has announced it does not plan to target Sony customers, any cyber attacks on Sony could impact the DUST 514 beta, perhaps even leading to a delay in the game's launch.

Of course, SOPA could provide some benefits.  One of the big issues in Eve Online, as in other games, is botting and illicit real money transactions.  If game companies can ask the government to impose the "death penalty" on those types of sites, then they will take a huge financial hit.  And on a personal note, I may need to disable all the hyperlinks in the posts I've made on CCP's War on Bots™ or I might find the "death penalty" imposed on me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

First Impressions of Star Wars: The Old Republic

I will admit up front that I originally did not intend to play Star Wars: The Old Republic this close to launch.  I had not heard a lot of good things about SWTOR so I fully intended to wait 6 months or for news that the game was a total bust and not waste my money.  I wanted to play eventually because a combination of World of Warcraft + Dragon Age in the Star Wars universe is just too intriguing to pass on.  I managed to hold out for 6 days.

After playing for 8 days I managed to get to level 21 on one character so please don't take this as a review of the game.  Instead, these are just my first impressions of my first week playing SWTOR.

Character Creation - While not as complex and customizable as the one in Eve Online, making my avatar was simple and I had a character I was pleased with.  One thing I noticed is that each of the attributes on the slider bar has a number so I just recorded the numbers in case I want to duplicate the look on another character.  That actually came in handy because I didn't understand how names are created in SWTOR.

When it comes to last names, SWTOR is like EverQuest 2 in that a character does not receive a second name at creation.  That's not quite right either.  SWTOR has something called the legacy system.  So if I want a last name then I need to finish chapter 1 of the story on a character.  Once a last name is picked, that is the "legacy" name for all characters on a server.  And for those interested, the maximum number of characters on an account is 40, with a maximum of 8 on a server.  The description from BioWare is 40 characters on 5 servers, so I do not know if that indicates an account can only have characters on 5 servers.

Classes - The classes come straight out of Star Wars lore, with both the Sith and the Republic having mirror classes.  I chose the Smuggler class because the class fits in with how I play in Eve Online.  I like flying through low security space in a cloaky blockade runner, so the Smuggler class was a natural.  Each class actually is composed of two sub-classes that are acquired from a mission giver at level 10.  The advanced classes for Smuggler are the Scoundrel and the Gunslinger.  The two remind me of EQ2's Assassin and Ranger classes.  My blockade running pilot in Eve favors getting up close and personal with autocannons as well as buffing others with gang links so choosing the Scoundrel felt right.  Besides, I played a ranger in EQ2 and playing an assassin-type character would make my first experiences in SWTOR more different.

Companions - The companion system feels very much like that found in Dragon Age, at least in combat.  The combat system is not exactly the same as only one companion can accompany a player and players cannot jump into the companion's body and take direct control.  But companions left on the ship don't necessarily remain idle just because they do not accompany the player.  They can engage in independent missions and actually craft all of the player-made items, which is nice to restock items while I'm running around adventuring.  At this point, I think the way that companions are implemented may be the biggest type of innovation that SWTOR brings to MMOs.

Ground Combat - In general, the combat at times is not smooth.  I found that by changing the Ability Action Queue Window value (found at the bottom of the Controls window in Preferences) down to 0.0 helped with my own attacks but I still saw enemies performing death flops a second or two after I killed them.  Looking at my Scoundrel's skills and abilities, the combat is pretty brutal looking.  One of my favorite moves is to have my companion lasso an enemy to us, then I kick him in the groin, hit him over the head and then place a shotgun to the back of his head and pull the trigger.  At least that is what it looks like.  The Scoundrel also has crowd control abilities.  So far I have an 8 second area of effect stun and a tranquilizer ability that keeps an enemy out of combat for 60 seconds as long as I conduct the attack before combat begins and no one damages the mob.  I am really enjoying the combat.  I would rate the combat excellent if the graphics just worked better.

Space Combat - I have only attempted to do one space combat mission.  If I don't have to, I won't do another.  I had very little control over my ship, which might make sense since I was part of a squadron being guided by a commander.  The combat in SWTOR felt like I was in an 80s arcade game.   The space combat in Eve Online is much more satisfying.  

Story - BioWare placed a lot of faith in presenting the story which they called the "fourth pillar" of role playing games.  One of the reasons I chose not to wait is that I wanted to see the story told in the cut scenes.  I loved the scenes in Dragon Age and I wanted to see how BioWare did with the Star Wars universe.  So far I am really impressed.  The desire to see the next part of the story is leading me to play a bit more than I really should.  Players who skip the cut scenes are cheating themselves of the best part of the game.

Conclusion - Despite the flaws in the game listed above, I love playing The Old Republic.  I haven't felt this eager to get back to playing a game every night since I started playing World of Warcraft back in 2005.  The question is: how long will the game keep my interest?  BioWare is concerned about that, which is why they came up with the legacy system.  So for now SWTOR is the biggest western sci-fi MMORPG.  Will it last til the end of the year?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Looking Ahead to 2012 And Back At 2011

Happy New Year!  I usually prefer to look ahead to the new year but I made some predictions for 2011 and I should look at how well I did before moving on to looking at 2012.  So here is a look back to see just how insightful I really was.

New Games:  I made predictions about two games, Star Wars: The Old Republic and RIFT.  I almost predicted that SW:TOR would launch in 2012 but chickened out and stated that SW:TOR would launch in December 2011.  I got that prediction right.  RIFT is a little different story.  I got the Q1 launch date correct but not the number of subscribers.  Even though Trion has never released numbers, the MMO page on Xfire on 1 January indicated that RIFT players spent half the time in-game as Eve Online players.  Since I predicted a subscription base of 300-400 thousand for RIFT, I will consider that a missed prediction.

Existing Games:  This category is why I should never make predictions.  I only made predictions about three games: Eve Online, EverQuest 2 and Star Wars: Galaxies.  First, Eve.  Looking back one would never know that is the game I play the most.  I wrote that Incarna would lead to a new peak concurrent user record over 67,000 users.  Eve did set a PCU record of 63,170 but not during June or July.  The disaster that was Incarna also helped to ensure that the number of subscribers fell below the 380-400 thousand I predicted at year end.

For EverQuest 2, my predictions didn't work too well either.  Because SOE doesn't release numbers, I'm not sure if the players who proclaimed they were moving to RIFT came back.  I did predict rumors of a second round of server merges but I think SOE just finished the first round of mergers less than two weeks ago.  And of course, my prediction that the free-to-play service for EQ2 would remain separate from the subscription servers failed when EQ2 went F2P on 6 December.

Finally, my predictions about Star Wars: Galaxies.  Sure, they all came true, but that is because LucasArts pulled the plug on the IP so no work was done.

Eve Multi-media:  I have to say that Incarna really hurt the creative community surrounding Eve Online.  Because Incarna basically was a Minmatar closet instead of actual walking in stations with the never released establishments that I thought would lead to a lot of machinima being produced.  I did predict that there would be 10 Eve-related podcasts and I could claim that.  Looking at the Eve Pod Pack page, I count nine podcasts I consider to be active, ten if I count Voices from the Void which seems to be in indefinite hiatus.

What's Ahead For 2012?  I won't have any predictions for 2012 but I will tell some of the stories I expect will dominate the MMO news.

1.  Star Wars: The Old Republic.  The game is going to dominate the MMO coverage for at least the first half of 2012 and possibly all year.  I think everyone is going to play.  I've even broken down and started playing the game.  The question hanging over the game and the genre is will the game maintain player interest throughout the year.

2.  DUST 514.  If SW:TOR is newsworthy because of the sheer amount of money spent on developing the game, then DUST 514 will be a major story because of the innovation (or folly) of the attempt to merge a PC MMORPG and a console first person shooter (MMOFPS?) into one virtual world.  I keep hearing and reading gamers complain about a lack of imagination in games as all developers try to imitate World of Warcraft.  One thing about the Viking spaceship developers in Iceland is that they are stretching the boundaries of game design.

3.  New Game Announcements.  I expect that this year gamers will find out more details about three eagerly awaited projects: Blizzard's Titan, SOE's EverQuest Next, and 38 Studios' Copernicus.  None of these MMORPGs will debut in 2012 but the companies will tease us with enough news to make us believe these will be the games that will dominate 2013, although I believe 2014 is more realistic.

4.  Real Life Politics.  I expect that the real world will inject itself into our games in 2012.  I'm not sure exactly how yet, but between a lot of governments needing money, the U.S. presidential election in November and whatever is really happening in China, gamers will have the real world chase them into their virtual world safe havens.

That's it for now.  As I wrote above, I'm not good at the whole prediction business so expect to see a lot of things occur that I failed to see.