Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hold On While I Get My Coffee

There are certain stereotypes surrounding gamers that everyone knows, such as  the 40 year old who lives in his parents' basement or the guy with no self esteem (or social skills) who has never talked to a girl ever since puberty hit.  A stereotype peculiar to video gamers is that they spend all their money buying the latest upgrades for their computers and/or console systems.  Don't bother hitting a video gamer up for beer money, he just spent it on a new video card.

Well, if that gamer is out there, he must be made of money, because I'm surely not.

I'm still playing MMOs on the family computer, which five years ago was a middle-of-the-road Core Duo 32-bit machine running Vista.  Today, even with only a few upgrades, it's still basically that same Core Duo 32-bit machine running Vista.  I haven't even bothered to upgrade it to Win 7 because the machine is in such high demand from the entire family that I can't seem to schedule any downtime.*

Life on a machine that barely meets the minimum specs to play a game is, well, interesting.

It's a good thing I cut my teeth on gaming back in the 70's and 80's, because I'm used to long loading periods.  If you've ever loaded a saved game from cassette tape to your Commodore or TI-994/A, you know what I mean:  You start the process, hear the good old screeching of the computer data, and go get something to drink.  By the time you get back with a glass of Coke**, maybe you were lucky enough for the load to go well so you get back to playing Tunnels of Doom.  Otherwise, you had to rewind the cassette and start over.

Those old days have returned in the form of MMO loading screens.

There have been times where I actually hear the distinct sound WoW makes when a guildie logs in while I'm still in loading mode.  I've lost track of the number of times I've had someone say "Hi, Red!" in guild chat about a half a minute before I actually get to see it.  Sometimes I wonder if people think I'm blowing them off, but really, it's not you.  It's the machine.

The current load king is TOR, naturally, because I think it tries to use so much memory that I'm afraid one of these days I'm going to see stuff come oozing out of the SD chip slots.

A side effect of these long loading times is the Mysterious Floating Weapon Syndrome.  Ever walk into a high population zone and see a pair of daggers, hanging in mid-air?  Or maybe a lone double-bladed lightsaber, bobbing along?  Then you've seen a victim of MFWS, also known as "what happens when you've got a slow computer and it's trying to render a high density area on screen."  If I get up and go away, the problem resolves itself after 2-3 minutes and every nearby toon gets rendered, but if you made it into Org on Patch Day that really sucks not being able to actually see people.

Once the game is loaded, how it plays on the low end machine is a different matter entirely.  Of all the games I play, LOTRO actually plays the best.  I can't put a finger on why, because I think the graphics are more precise than, say, WoW has, but I've never had a glitch while playing at all.

Age of Conan, on the flip side, seems to cause the most issues with gameplay.  It's become bad enough that I dropped the graphics from 1440x900 down to the 1280 range, which isn't thrilling but at least it plays (relatively) smoothly.***

WoW, being the oldest MMO I play that hasn't had a major overhaul, plays well.  Even so, I had to crank down the settings on the fancy new water rendering for Cataclysm, because otherwise flying through zones like the pre-Cata Loch Modan would be akin to watching somebody filling a pool.

Oh, and I learned to avoid certain scenarios, such as some of the mob packs in AQ40, whose graphics would end up kicking me out of the game.  Dal on Tuesday nights was miserable, with single digit FPS not that uncommon.  And if you get 40 people wailing on Vann in Alterac Valley, there was a good chance I was going to be kicked back to the WoW loading screen.

Now, TOR actually plays on my machine with the graphics cranked down a bit.****  And plays pretty well, honestly, although my machine gets tons of loading screens which most people with faster computers probably never see.  Like, say, when you get out of a taxi.  Or quick travel.  Or some cut scenes.  But travelling by speeder can be an exercise in patience.

The worst zone I've been in for my computer has been Alderaan.

No, really.

It all has to do with the trees.  Every tree gets rendered, and unlike a lot of other zones that have swampy stuff in the background, Alderaan's trees are part of the foreground as well as the background.  So all those trees have to get rendered.  I'd be using the speeder bike going from point A to point B and the trees would be rendering more slowly than the speed of the bike.  That has nothing to do with the zone itself --I liked Alderaan a lot-- and everything to do with the computer.

After Alderaan, I spent a lot of time on Newegg, drooling over new motherboards, until I got a look at the price.  This was exactly like what I was doing two years ago, when I was grumbling about the "new water" of Cata.  It's okay to look, but for me at this time this sort of upgrade isn't necessary.  Considering that "playing MMOs" is only a small portion of what the machine is used for, I can't justify the cost.

But that's okay.  Really.  You can play these games on a machine with the minimum spec levels, you just have to be patient.

*Besides, do I really want to risk a potential disaster by upgrading the OS on the only machine we have?

**Coffee came later.  Come on, do you think I'd really drank coffee when I was twelve?

***The server I'm on is in Europe, and the lag there shows up in a slight delay between when I hit a button and it registers.  Kind of annoying, but if I don't try to do too much, I'm okay.

****This actually happened in Gen Chat on TOR:
Player 1: Is anyone lagging?
Player 2: A little
Me: I'm at 99, which is pretty steady for me.
Player 2: Maybe it's your machine.
Player 1: Prolly not.
Me: Yeah, if I can run without lagging on my old machine, he's probably fine.
Player 2: Old is relative in this group.  Mine's a slower quad.
Me:  Mine was a middle of the pack core duo 5 years ago.
Player 1: O.o
Player 2: Holy Shit!  It actually runs?
Me: Yeah.  Had to crank the graphics down a bit, but it runs.

Friday, July 27, 2012

This Fence is Pretty Darned Comfortable, That's Why

I suppose that it was only a matter of time before we got a hard date on Mists.  Whether that hard date will hold (or slip like Diablo III did) remains to be seen, but for the moment we have September 25th as the drop date.

Given the way things work out, I guess we're looking at late August for the pre-release patch.

The guild Soul and I are in is on hiatus and has been since earlier this year, so I presume that people will start trickling back in over the next month or two.  What I'm not sure of is a) how many will return and b) how long people will stay.

As for me, I think I'm going to adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward Mists.

This isn't exactly a new position, as I've been on the fence ever since Mists was announced, but I'm going to follow through on my idea to retire my current two mains and have them join Quintalan relaxing by the Dal Fountain.  However, I'm not going to promote my Lock, Adelwulf, to main status.  In fact, I may get him to L84 and make him a twink for the time being.

So, if not a toon I've got right now, what have I got in mind?

Having leveled an Affliction Warlock through BGs  (and their graveyards), I sure do have ideas.  And the best way to study the biggest enemy that a Lock has is to create one.

Yes, I'm going Rogue.

By my estimations, if I created a Rogue in the next few weeks and leveled that toon via BGs, I'd probably reach L85 sometime in December.  That's a long time before I'd actually need the Mists expac, which should work fine for my finances.  By the time I'd be ready to set sail to Pandaria, the new zones will already be devoid of life, just like Cata's were by the time Neve and Tom got there a few months after release.

Will I miss out on the chaos and insanity of everyone getting to the new zones?  Oh, I'm sure I will, but that also means that my older PC won't feel the strain of too many toons nearby.  It also means avoiding the fights over resources.  And, for this ex-PvP server player, it means fewer flashbacks of the inn at Tarren Mill.

One thing that will happen, however, will be a huge wave of Pandarens entering BGs, all of which will have Asian ripoffs for names.  ("Mr. Tauren Bullburgers, meet Mr. Pandaren Chopupyoursuey".)

And I'm absolutely certain I'll be on when the release drops with a big bowl of popcorn, because I sure wouldn't want to miss the collective angst of the Trade Chat crazies.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Messing with my Head

Just to remind me that an MMO isn't all sweetness and light, I encountered an Imperial L50 on Tatooine the other day.  Or rather, he sought me out.

You know the type:  the player that likes to mess with the lowbies.  In a PvP environment, they'd be the person decimating Tarren Mill or invading the Crossroads.  In PvE, however, if you don't attack them they can't do that to you at all, so they park themselves atop your toon, wiggling around, trying to freak you out in the hope that they cause you to mess up so they can gank you.*

I remember quite well one day, years ago now, when Quintalan was just reaching L20, and he was finishing up the pre-Cata Silverpine Forest.  This was back when I was on a West Coast PvP server, and I was quite aware of the free-for-all that awaited me when I crossed into Hillsbrad.**  Perhaps I wasn't thinking straight; it was 6 AM that day and I probably was waiting on my coffee.   I was at the gates to Shadowfang Keep, poking around and admiring the moon over the keep, when all hell broke loose.

I saw a flash of yellow bars and then the skull of a much-much higher level toon as he descended upon my young Paladin, jumping and swinging and yelling some nonsense in Common.

"Oh god," I thought, "I'm going to die.  I'm about to get creamed."

I quickly bubbled and then used my Hearthstone to get out, all the while praying that I wasn't going to get ganked in the middle of nowhere.

Once I'd Hearthed back to Silvermoon, I realized that I'd been had.  He wasn't going to attack me at all; I wasn't flagged for PvP, and I was in a Horde controlled area.  I felt incredibly foolish that I'd fallen for such a juvenile tactic, yet at the same time I itched to get back at him.

Fast forwarding to the present, I knew just how to respond to such idiocy when the Empire player tried messing with me.

I was in the middle of a quest that bordered on a Heroic area, so I was keeping an eye on my positioning.  The last thing I needed was having several elites decide to pay me and my Wookie a visit.  I was examining the next mob when my screen was filled with an Imperial on a speeder, bouncing and wiggling atop my Gunslinger.

"Oh great, just what I need," I grumbled.

My toon yawned and made a rude gesture.

"Hmmph."  I don't know what the guy expected, but he certainly didn't expect that.  The Imperial player stopped all movement for several heartbeats, then flew away on his speeder.

I sent a message out in Gen Chat about the guy, telling any fellow lowbies in the area to ignore him and he'll go away.  Because you never know if you've got a true newbie around, after all.

*Or, failing that, they attempt to kill the quest givers.

**Q was actually my second toon; a Blood Elf Priest named Gdaan was my first.  I manged to actually get him to around the mid-L20s before I finally decided on Q as my main.  (The reason for the strangeness of the name was simple:  I thought I could put in a ' in the name, and discovered that wasn't the case.  Since I didn't have a backup name to use, G'Daan became Gdaan, and that was that.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Those Who Can, Play;
Those Who Can't, Crank it up to Eleven

As my family will tell you, I like music.

I'm one of those people who can't play an instrument worth a damn, but I've spent a lot of my time surrounded by music.  I worked a DJ shift in college, listened to shortwave radio for the world music (now easily found over the internet), volunteered at our local Celtic festival to help run sound and do stage work*, and spent time supporting the arts as much as I could.  It would figure, I suppose, that I really enjoy the music in video games, such as this gem from 1998:

It isn't exactly news to gamers that video game soundtracks had reached movie soundtrack quality, but the wider world only seemed to take notice when Christopher Tin's Baba Yetu, the main theme for Civilization IV, won a Grammy in 2011 for Best Instrumental Arrangement With Vocalist(s):

In that spirit, I thought I'd take a quick look at some of my favorite pieces in the MMOs I play, and you're welcome to add your own favorite in the comments.

The largest MMO out there, WoW, has some of the most impressive soundtracks as well.  The music ranges from the classic:

to the solo piece:

to the Appalachian inspired:

But my favorite piece in WoW has to be this one:

It feels like the composers were channeling Brian Eno and adding a sinister guitar riff atop it.  WoW has a history of music that evokes and complements the scenery of a region, but for some reason they really hit one out of the park with the soundtrack to Hellfire Peninsula.  This music isn't in your face, it isn't classic inspirational/emotional raid boss fight type of stuff, but it's there, lurking.  And when the ground shakes at the approach of a Fel Reaver at the same time as the guitar riff starts, look out.

By contrast, Lord of the Rings Online has a soundtrack that is understated and designed to fit neatly into the background.  Like Middle-earth itself, the music is part of the tapestry surrounding the fields of the Shire or the halls of stone in Thorin's Gate.  It's there, and you notice it from time to time --just enter a tavern-- but it never comes to the forefront.  

Unless, say, you manage to make it to Rivendell for the first time:

When you hear that music, you know the long run is finally over.  You can relax; you're at Elrond's house at last.

Switching gears from Epic Fantasy to classic Sword and Sorcery, the soundtrack to Age of Conan echoes Basil Poledouris' soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian.  There's something raw and primal to pieces like this one:

Or this:

The sharp beauty of the pieces echo the barren lands of the Hyborian Age, with a heavy dose of Norse imagery thrown into the mix.

With the wealth of music generated by six movies (okay, seven if you count the Clone Wars movie) and a television series, you'd think that The Old Republic could coast a bit.  Yes, the MMO does use a bit of legacy Star Wars music (okay, a lot), but it does have a soundtrack in its own right.  The piece that most people are familiar with is the loading screen:

But among other items, each planet does have its own soundtrack as well.  This one happens to be one of my favorites, and I'll be honest in that I thought at first it was written by John Williams:

As you can see by my lists above, I avoided the "rah rah" in your face battle music.  All of the MMOs in question have great inspirational music that you might not even notice in the heat of battle (or you've turned down the in-game music so you have your own to listen to while raiding).  I was tempted to select the old Warsong Gulch BG music, because that always gets my blood flowing during a hotly contested game, but in the end I went with music that I can also pause and just listen to for a few minutes.  Try doing that in WSG and you'll be spending most of your time being corpse camped at the graveyard.

Still, I find that game music fits nicely into my playlists while I get my work done, and on my MP3 player while I'm cutting the grass or going for a walk.  Good music has a utility all its own, and I'm glad that video game composers are finally starting to get their due from the world at large.

*Don't ask me to mix sound for a recording.  It's been over a decade since I was last behind a mixing board.

EtA:  Stupid cut-and-paste issues.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Blizz Announces the Guild Mentoring Program

When the announcement of the Guild Mentoring Program for WoW came through the interwebs, I raised my eyes to heaven and said "Finally!"  Looks like someone took a page from EVE Online and decided to help noobs out by creating mentoring guilds out of a pool of volunteer guilds.

Here's the link for you to go read up the FAQ (such as it is):  Introducing the Guild Mentoring Program

At first glance, I love the idea.  It basically formalizes what some random individuals have been doing over the years, providing a destination for new players to be tutored in the ways of WoW and MMOs in general.

That said, I do have some questions/concerns how this will work out:

  • The portion about identifying and inviting new players into the mentoring guild does make me wonder how that'll work in practice.  People can be prickly about such things, and if they feel like they're being given a hard sell, this could backfire.  Also, how the mentoring guild will determine that a player is new is going to be a challenge; people create new alts all the time, and if you don't have the funds/don't care about transferring heirlooms over, a new alt could seem a lot like a new player.  The same goes for an already experienced MMO player who just happens to be new to WoW.
  • A three month tour of duty (or three months in the barrel if you prefer that slang) might not be enough time for new players.  I still wonder just how some people are able to power level their way through to max level, no matter what MMO I'm on, because it seems like they have to be spending almost every waking moment playing to do just that.
  • Will the new players be encouraged to 'leave the nest' once they've got things down, or will this merely become a clever recruiting tool for guilds lucky enough to be chosen?  I can easily see that some guilds will look on this initiative as the latter and try to pad their raiding ranks this way.
  • What happens to the mentoring guild if drama breaks out?  I don't think I need to say anything else, other than a big guild breakup while in the tour of duty would have the opposite of the intended effect.
Still, I think it's a decent first step.  I suspect that the smartest move in the long run is to create a permanent Mentoring Guild for each faction on each server and ask for volunteers to help staff it.  Blizz might be surprised at how many people would put in some volunteer time in a Mentoring Guild to help people along.  This might even counter Trade Chat and the scum and villany that pervade it.

One final thought:  while I think EVE Online's idea of EVE University is a great idea all MMOs should emulate, some need it more than others.  LOTRO and TOR have a friendly enough community that the needs of a Mentoring Program are served by Gen Chat.  AoC's F2P Gen Chat is pretty dead right now, with only gold spammers for the most part, so a mentoring program could be useful there.  But WoW, being the 900 lb gorilla and having the rep of being populated with "L2P NOOB!" denizens, definitely needs something to show that not everybody is an asshat in the game.

Now, if they could do something about the nerd ragers in BGs......

Saturday, July 7, 2012

On Mists and 'The Smart Kids'

Anne Stickney stirred up a bit of a hornets nest with her post on WoW Insider The Smart Kids -- Or Why Cataclysm Failed to Impress.  Her points about the complaints with Cataclysm --that it was not what we thought we wanted-- struck a bit of a nerve with people.

I can't say I disagree with her assessment that people thought they wanted one thing, such as a revamped Old World, and it turned out that they really wanted was something new and innovative.  However, her assertions that Mists has what will cure the complainers' ills has me raising an eyebrow in skepticism.

One thing that I have to point out is that the beta people say the stuff about Mists that they were saying about Cata:  how great, new, and interesting it is.  Remember how people got excited about having to work in the new instances, and how they made you use CC, etc. etc?  Well, that excitement didn't last long in Cata, and I don't expect it to last long in Mists either.

Blizz doesn't want to sit on its laurels, because pleasing only the complainers is a reactionary thing.  They want to grow beyond 10 mil subs, but the problem is that gaining new subs is becoming more and more difficult.  To a new sub, Pandaria is all about the endgame, because they have to go from L1-L85 just to get to Pandaria.  Want to start as a new sub with a Pandaren?  It's going to cost you, because you have to buy the whole shebang.  (Yes, Blizz does specials, but if you don't know someone who plays, then Blizz' specials are an unknown item.)

If Blizz pleases only a portion of the playerbase --like they did in Cata-- they'll be hard pressed to stand still.  The race to L90 is already being plotted out, and the talent changes haven't exactly put the theorycrafters out of business, either.  Pet Battles will keep theorycrafters busy as well; anybody who watches games of MtG in action knows that Magic players (and their Pokemon kin) are out for blood.  Before I hear someone tell me that "Oh, but it's all about FUN!", I'll say this:  are you nuts?  Don't people remember the Beanie Baby craze, where collectors when absolutely bananas over those stuffed animals?  I've seen how obsessive collectors can be --just go to a flea market and watch the sideshow-- and Blizz could be unleashing something they did not intend by mixing theorycrafting with pet collecting.

What I'm saying is that Mists isn't going to be a panacea.  It's going to have good points and bad points, and there will be unintended consequences of actions.  Take LFR for instance.  LFR is going to have a much larger impact on Mists than it did on Cata, and its mere presence will cause people to burn through endgame content more quickly than ever before.  So, while there may be more endgame content at launch, Blizz may find people complaining that they're bored just as quickly as with Cata.

Blizz is also a business, so they're going to make some decisions on economics rather than pleasing the player base.  Just because WoW is raking in cash doesn't mean that Blizz is not under pressure from Activision to increase profits.  If there's one rule of today's Wall Street, it's what have you done for me lately.  "Oh, that's great, you brought in $XXX this year.  But that's the same as last year.  Where's the growth potential?  Why haven't you increased subscriptions?  What is your plan to expand into the high growth Asian market?  How are you keeping your costs down?"

When viewed through the lens of the 'smart kids', as Anne did, I really don't see any other MMO that would cause the 'smart kids' to leave and stick with, because the EQ/WoW/standard MMO model is still the dominant form out there.  Perhaps if they wanted a true challenge, there's EVE Online*, but really, it's easier to complain than to actually try something different.

*The Secret World holds some promise of breaking the traditional mold, but it's still too early to tell.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Where's my Peace and Quiet?

Anybody who has created a new toon in WoW the past several years knows that with a few exceptions, the starting zones have been empty of life.  Sure, there was the surge in Goblins and Worgen the first few months of Cataclysm, and there was the Death Knight invasion at the beginning of Wrath, but in general you simply don't see a lot of activity in the starting zones.*

The situation is so bad that Blizz is considering a specialized form of server merge to make the intro zones seem more active, on the premise that Blizz is losing potential new subs because "there's nobody on WoW".

The funny thing is, among the MMOs I've played, WoW is the deadest game at the low levels.

Sure, you could argue that the F2P nature of some games like Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan means that you'll see higher numbers of people trying those games out.  In the case of AoC, detractors will point out that the Tortage intro area is the best developed part of the game as well.  LOTRO has the benefit of name recognition among non-gamers, and has a more developed F2P area than AoC.

Then we come to a title like The Old Republic.

Sure, it's got that name recognition, but so did Star Trek Online.  It's also got its detractors, saying that the game is dead and a failure.

Then why are the intro and lowbie zones so busy?

When I tried TOR on one of the free weekends a month or two back, I found the intro zone for the Trooper and Smuggler filled with people (>100).  This was before any talk of server consolidation became a reality, and according to some statistical analyses contains the least played class (Smuggler) in the game.

After hemming and hawing about it,** I picked up the game last week, logged in to get access to the Smuggler I started, and found over 100 people in Coruscant alone.  Each planet I've been to since (Taris and Nar Shaddaa) has had a similar population level in the (late) evenings.  These aren't twinks, but people leveling actual toons.

When was the last time that you saw 100+ people in (Ashenvale + Northern Barrens) or (Loch Modan + Wetlands) that didn't involve a holiday event?  Outside of the first month after 4.0.1 dropped, I can't think of any the past 3-4 years.  Hell, the past month or two the population in Stormwind in an evenly divided server (Ysera) has been averaging 45-50 people a night.  That's right:  the big central home for an entire faction is averaging less population than a lowbie leveling zone in TOR.  Is it the end of an expac?  Sure!  But do you expect more than 50 people in your home city on an average night, even at this late date?  Yes!  And the week after D3 dropped, the population plunged to 20-25 people before recovering.

Getting back to the low level zones, perhaps the maturity of WoW hurts it the most in these areas, since the entire MMO is geared toward endgame.

Look at it this way:  how many recent posts geared toward Mists are talking about endgame already?  How many are saying "well, if your guild wants to raid you have to be at L90 by XXX date after launch, so you'd better get ready"?  How many are plotting out all the class changes for Mists, so you'll be ready to get to L90 and raid as soon as you can?

To me, this means that the focus of the two MMO populations is completely different.

Design intent or not, the TOR population's values are different than WoW's.  I could make a very successful argument that WoW's population is big enough that you can't make any generalizations, but at the same time the focus of WoW's expansions and content are mostly on the endgame.  When they did attempt to rework the Old World in Cata the results were incomplete at best, and Blizzard took a PR beating from people who complained there wasn't enough to do once they got to L85.

TOR suffers from the "there's nothing to do at L50!" stigma, so maybe the leveling activity is part of a desire of people to explore all of the Class stories.  I tend to doubt this, however, due to one other item:  Gen Chat itself.

Unlike the other MMOs I've played, I've noticed a lot more basic MMO questions in TOR's Gen Chat.  Yesterday, I fielded a question about using the word "drop" in MMO parlance, and I could tell by my conversation that the person on the other end was completely new to the game and MMOs in general.  People were less inclined in Gen Chat to say "L2P noob!" as well, in an almost LOTRO level of tolerance.  That doesn't mean that TOR is free of spammers in Gen Chat; on Taris there were enough Chuck Norris jokes I quipped that "Barrens Chat has been reborn in Taris."***

Does this mean that TOR is better than WoW?

No, it doesn't.  It just means that TOR is different than WoW.  Pronunciations by the suits and pundits aside, TOR caters to a different sort of player than WoW does.  Sure, the mechanics are similar, and most of the 'under the hood' character development is similar, but TOR seems to have taken over the mantle of "the first MMO you'll ever play" from WoW.****

Blizzard knows what it is good at --endgame and an expansive world that somehow works (if you ignore the story continuity issues)-- and if it sticks to that for Mists, it will do well.  If it tries to somehow 'outdo TOR' to lure those new MMO players over, it may be making a Cataclysm-sized mistake by trying to turn a game with a high intro cost into something it's not.  Mists is set to drop probably by October at the latest, and we'll see what Blizz has in mind with their marketing campaign.

Until then, I guess it's safe to say that if you want peace and quiet in your leveling, go hang out in Azeroth for a while.

*And lowbie zones.  Of course, when 4.0.1 dropped and all of the quests changed, the lowbie zones were a hive of activity for a month and a half until Cata dropped, then they almost instantly dried up.

**And running the numbers for the budget.

***I got several LOLs from Gen Chat on that quip, which made it worth my while.

****Although for my money, I'd suggest people try LOTRO first.  It's F2P, after all, so you're not out of money if you don't like the concept.