Guest Post: Gelatinous Cubes Make Excellent Team-Building Exercises
Jul02

Guest Post: Gelatinous Cubes Make Excellent Team-Building Exercises

Yeah, yeah, Liore is still on vacation. What a slacker! In the meantime, enjoy this excellent post by NBI participant Sonja from Soultamer Gaming.

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“At this point,” the DM brought to light to the Dungeons and Dragons table last week, “You’re really freaked out. Against your better judgement, you’ve all stuck around in the chamber to trounce this beast.” While Melody’s player counterpart faked being short of breath, the rest of us sat a little more forward as the DM moved the 4d6 a little bit closer to Finn. “So, what next?”

A fast run-down of the characters mentioned: I’m playing an elf mage (Lylien), Finn is our dwarven barbarian, Ammo is a human fighter/archer, and Melody is a halfling rogue.

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Some background on the situation: We’d been stuck in a labyrinth for a few days, followed by a mine of sorts, on our way to find Melody’s enslaved family. We’d met halflings, tieflings, dwarves, Duergar, and all sorts of other shadow-dwellers (or otherwise), only one of whom didn’t outright try to kill us, and the Gelatinous Cube before us was absolutely no exception to that rule.

The Gelatinous Cube, meanwhile, is one of the most notorious villains in the history of Dungeons and Dragons in that it’s seriously one of the weirdest things. At a Wisdom and Charisma of 1 and an Intelligence of – (which, yes, is an intentional hyphen), the Gelatinous Cube’s only motivation in its existence is to track down anyone it can get to and engulf them in its goo, devouring them and holding their items. I’ve heard it to be a milestone and major point in the experience of a player to fight one, and so far, I agree.

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“Fire,” Ammo suggested, as I relayed last messages to him telepathically before the room was better-lit, “Fire, fire, fire, fire!!” I sprinted after Finn, who had bolted, but didn’t go as far as he, blasting a ray of fire at the Cube. It sucked the fire up, and didn’t seem to do anything else. That’s what I’ve come to hate about Gelatinous Cubes, really – Not that they engulf you and make escape kind of (very) difficult – That they’re absolutely emotionless. If one were to pull an internal helmet-less Buzz Lightyear, the party would never know.

In time, the party was split around the room. The Cube had traveled in an attempt to corner Melody and Ammo, who had both sprinted away successfully, changing the Cube’s focus to Finn, who dodged an initial grab. That left me on the other side of the room, the cube still perfectly within my range of fire. At this point, whether our intelligences were seven or seventeen, we knew the stakes. Losing Finn would mean a great loss of resources, since he was carrying all the food and money. Losing Ammo would put us at a great disadvantage for ranged attacks, and put my less reliable fireballs in his place. Losing me would take away intellectual advantages and the “don’t-touch-that” repetitions, and losing Melody would strip us of any reason to even BE in the mess we’re in. We passed nervous looks around as we continued attacking, our attacks hitting or missing without any otherwise effect on the Cube.

The DM shifted in his seat, then standing. “Alright, I’ll be right back.” Bathroom break. We all nodded and sat back, passing around a box of cookies and waiting until the door to the room closed behind him. Only then did the frantic meta-gaming begin. We all had valuable skills, but we had no idea if any of them were working. On top of that, the party was split, and the threat of the Cube was almost too much to solidify an easy strategy.

“Fine, then,” one of us decided, “We won’t pull together an easy strategy.”

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If we were going to get out of here alive, we’d need to really work as a team of adventurers, and not as a conglomeration of ragtag individuals with offensive techniques (and two boxes of cookies). As we put some ideas down on my notebook and a napkin, we began to fill each other’s sentences, accommodating our own techniques to the others’ strengths. I’d be able to light flaming arrows if the archer had decent aim, and the halfling was as easy to toss around as a football if need be. Slowly, our not-so-easy strategy and plan came together.

Our time together that evening was, as usual, cut short. My table often plays until a certain time (or convenient end to an encounter) and picks up again the following week. We left the library in an excited huff, our minds formulating ideas to bring to the table next Wednesday. But one thing was for certain: In a turn of unfortunate happenstance (or perhaps just the DM’s idea of a good time), a wacky, legendary beast had turned us from mere individuals to a single team of multi-talented adventurers. Burning down a wave of kobolds was an exercise of the past, with a glob of passage-shaped goo being our lone adversary. We were no longer a child, a chef, a solider, and a sage – We were a party, and a party to stay.

Cat Context 78: Dragon Age, Final Fantasy, Director’s Cuts
Jul01

Cat Context 78: Dragon Age, Final Fantasy, Director’s Cuts

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Liore left Elly and Aro at home with keys to the liquor cabinet, so naturally, they took advantage of it. There is some talk about Dragon Age 2(!), Final Fantasy ignorance, and various Director’s Cuts of movies.

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* Free Music Archive page for our theme, in THE crowd by The Years

Guest Post: Community Backlash and Developer Interaction

Liore is on vacation and so Dahakha kindly agreed to fill in for the day. You can find his blog, Star-Fired Beef, right here.

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Anyone who follows MMO news, particularly the major MMOs, knows that the various companies competing for our time and money do some things, make some decisions, that are not highly regarded by the playerbase. The resulting explosion is inevitably, yet tiresomely acted out in two major steps. Ground Zero is the forums of the “villain” company of the moment and the accompanying social media (mostly Twitter, in my experience). This is where the direct, and often the most vicious, feedback occurs. The secondary fallout occurs on blogs and MMO news sites, where at least a little restraint is shown by the howling masses and where you are more likely to find the thoughtful, constructive critiques. Not that those don’t exist at Ground Zero as well, but they are regularly buried under the ravings of those who feel that politeness and respect are a sign of weakness.

The latest brouhaha is on over at ArenaNet, thanks to their announcement of the pricetag on the upcoming expansion. Ravious pointed out some of the ways that the developers – i.e. the actual artists, not the company as a whole – are being affected by the backlash. It is a sad indictment of our hobby’s community that this behaviour exists, of course, but is it made worse by the easy public access to individual employees? Or rather, is it beneficial for anyone except the haters for a company to encourage or require non-PR staff to have work-related social media accounts?

Why do it?
It seems like Twitter has prompted a massive increase in the number of developers who have a public face. I know that there was a sense of “greater engagement with our fans will give us good PR” at some point, and so there was a push by the suits to have the developers discuss their (as yet unreleased) work with the public a lot more than had previously been the case. Blizzard did it – I think Ghostcrawler becoming *the* name for WoW was a direct result of this policy. The ArenaNet team were way more open about their vision and what they were doing in the buildup to GW2’s release, and have continued to remain accessible to the public. SOE/Daybreak made whole Blueprints to emphasize just how much they were interacting with the community with EQN and Landmark. And most of the eagerly-awaited crowdfunded MMOs – Star Citizen, Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, etc – go out of their way to keep up a constant stream of communication with their fans.

The main benefit – I would argue the only benefit – of such direct public engagement is the creation of a more personal relationship with the player. The players get to feel like they are respected as people, and their thoughts and feelings are being taken into consideration when games are designed or changed. This presumably strengthens the bond of loyalty to the company and/or the product. But is it worth it?

Drop it like it’s hot
This all looks great on paper. And it probably works a treat as long as the players are mostly content or happy with what you are doing. But as soon as something controversial or unpalatable crops up, WELL. It instantly becomes clear (at least to me) that this policy of more communication, more interaction, more personal and instantaneous feedback is nothing but a way for players to elevate themselves. Instead of treating the developers as people, and having a civilised discussion, a negotiation regarding the design direction being taken, the players see this policy of availability as an invitation to dictate. To demand satisfactory service, as if the developers are their employees, not the studio’s.

It is easy to point to Community Managers and PR reps and press releases and say, “this is just the wall of corporate-speak, do the developers ever get to actually hear what we, the players, want?” But on the other hand, if the results of breaking down that corporate wall is having the developers treated like personal servants who can never get anything right, is it not better for that wall to stay up? At least for the time being, until we can find other, less overwhelming ways to facilitate more direct interaction between players and developers.

I would personally prefer to have less direct interaction with developers if it means they don’t have to put up with the bullshit that comes from the community via social media. A developer who is less stressed from having to deal with direct backlash from the public – and who is not driven to despise the people they are making a game for as a result – is bound to do better work, in my opinion. Leave the community interaction to the people hired for that purpose, and let them get on with their jobs.

Guest Post: Clothes make the Hero, not levels or achievements

Liore is on vacation, but blogging never sleeps! Or, um, something like that. Today’s post is by Murf from the blog Murf Versus.

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For the first five minutes of my MMORPG career, I was stuck in the new player tutorial that Origin had added in their Renaissance expansion for Ultima Online. Once I had arrived amongst the adventurers of the realm, I knew one thing immediately: I needed new clothes.

Looking good matters in MMOs. Like theories of evolution guided by sexuality, there are certain rewards that draw players to flames (the kind you aren’t supposed to stand in) as if they were moths. Progression is driven by the need to look better, to be more attractive to your mates, or to show off to others. Whether you are a powergamer or a roleplayer, a ganker or a crafter, a collector or a flavor-of-the month, having an avatar that looks good unites us all.

I felt the urge to look better immediately upon seeing how good others looked, sitting around Britain’s bank in their finest gold plate or dyed black robes. I felt it even more when I journeyed over to EverQuest. It will sound strange to some, but EQ didn’t have level requirements on gear. As long as it fit your race (yes, gear had a size, so no Ogres running around in tiny breastplates or Gnomes hiding inside their Ogre-sized leggings), you could wear almost anything. For me and my low teens self, my greatest aspiration was to own a full set of Bronze Armor on my Dwarven Cleric.

I had a few pieces, but I could never find anyone with the few I needed. When I did, they wanted too much money. Bronze lent itself more to the orange-side of the color spectrum, but that made it even cooler. While everyone else was equipped with drab leathers or dreary chain mails, I had bits of bright metallic orange all over my person.

Sadly, I never completed that set.

City of Heroes made looking good an art form (and easier). Instead of assembling your costume from bits and pieces you had pulled off the corpses of fallen enemies, the game started you off with an incredible character creator. I loved it. Not only could I assemble a guild of number-themed ninjas alongside a few school buddies, but I could do so before even entering the game. Better yet, wealthy benefactors regularly held costume contests to reward those amongst the rabble who had exquisite taste. I even won one once.

While it looked fine at the time, EverQuest II’s gear was rarely attractive outside of owning a completed set. Like many MMOs, a patchwork accumulation of gear made you look like a three year old who just dressed itself for the first time. To solve this problem, the game had display slots, and to do this day I consider them the gold standard of how a MMO should be designed.

Essentially, you had two sets of slots: one for gear with stats that counted and the other with gear you wanted to display on your avatar. This was particularly important as my bard, Album Platinumbound, had assembled his first tier of class-based armor, but it had worn out its use. Rather than look like a plebeian, I got to keep my shiny blue armor which matched perfectly with my charismatic personality.

Other MMOs have added things like transmogrification where you can make one item look like another or they have added in micro-transactions for purely cosmetic pieces of armor. While both are okay systems, neither is my preference. Still, it is so, so important to remember how powerful looking good can be. Both go a long way toward making that possible.

How one looks says a lot about what you’ve been doing with your time, and I personally enjoy the status symbols that come with the right gear. At the height of my raiding career, I was a foppish troll with a giant sword, but others knew me as such and thought that because I had the gear I also was an amazing player. It just so happened I could back up the armor I wore, but that’s a different story.

At the same time, while status is important – especially as a reward for something challenging – we all want to look good. Not just in MMOs, but in RPGs as well, people expect to progress from tin cans strapped together to a shining suit of ekphrasistic armor crafted by Hephaestus himself. That should be something afforded to all players, no matter the time they invest in the game, as long as a suitable amount of time and effort have been spent as payment for the desired look.

I say give it to those at the top a little quicker, maybe added a few lights or extra spikes, but otherwise have it available to all. Better year, make sets that anyone can access, but only a select few can customize or outfit with trophies earned by challenging accolades. Or, you know, just let everyone look good and stop giving a damn about having a reward at the end of the rainbow, when we all know people will journey to rainbow’s end with or without the pot of gold.

All I know is looking good matters – I don’t much care how anyone gets there.

GW2 and Heart of Thorns: Has Steam Devaluation Finally Hit MMOs?
Jun22

GW2 and Heart of Thorns: Has Steam Devaluation Finally Hit MMOs?

Yesterday this blog post “about the liberating and energizing effects of complete commercial failure” made the rounds on Twitter. The very indie studio behind critical successes Tale of Tales, Sunset, and more are shutting their doors and getting out of the game industry. The post outlines some of the ways that the developers didn’t succeed, but at the end of the day it simply seems that in the current market players didn’t want to pay $20 or even $10 for their game.

It’s a problem that I can sympathize with, although I too am part of the plague of deal-seeking buyers. The Steam Summer Sale just ended, and I spent less than I have in years. In past sales I’ve felt frustrated by a lack of fresh, new games to buy, but that wasn’t the problem this time. This year, I just can’t make myself pay more than $9.99 for a game.

Witcher 3 is getting great reviews, and I’ve already sorted it into the “maybe in the Christmas sale” bucket. I actually really want Shadows of Mordor, both because the game is apparently great and because I really like this blog post by Tzufit on playing the game as a lady character. The game is maybe a year old and dropped to $25 during the Summer Sale… and it’s still too rich for my blood. I mean, I could buy it now, or I could wait until the Fall or Winter sale and get it for $15. That’s a pretty clear choice for me, and I already have a thousand literal hours of games that I own and have never played.

Look at all these games I didn't buy!

Look at all these games I didn’t buy!

The Guild Wars 2 expansion kicked off pre-orders during a rather flashy segment on the PC showcase at E3. Heart of Thorns costs $50, and includes the base game. This is the first paid expansion that Arenanet has introduced since the game launched over three years ago. The response to this news has been mixed at best, and includes a rather popular Reddit campaign encouraging people to boycott. To be fair there are a number of concerns about what is included in Heart of Thorns, but the message from a vocal segment of players is that they are just not getting $50 of value from this piece of software.

I wrote just a couple of paragraphs ago that I refuse to pay more than $9.99 for a game, and sharp-eyed readers may have caught that I was totally lying. Of course I’ll pay more than that for a game! I just spent $40 on the FFXIV expansion, Heavensward! I’ve bought every single World of Warcraft expansion for $60 a piece. I bought WildStar for $50.

For the last few years, stores like Steam and Humble Bundle have been driving down the prices of PC games and the corresponding expectations of buyers, and yet the price of MMOs has remained relatively the same since the days of Everquest. There are of course extended costs associated with MMOs that help maintain those prices — servers don’t manage themselves — but even in the era of the omnipresent online multiplayer, MMO prices have remained fairly stable.

The backlash against Heart of Thorns is interesting, though. If I can buy a AAA title like Watchdogs for $15 when it’s only a year old, I can see why some people would feel skittish about spending three times that amount on an MMO.

I am not at all saying that MMOs and their expansions aren’t worth their cost. If anything, the games we buy on Steam are worth much more than we’re willing to pay, and honestly $50 every three years for Guild Wars 2 players is still a pretty great deal. But are MMO prices finally feeling the effect of Steam-ified devaluation?

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