I’m Alive!

I just have a job and stuff again!  Losing Glitch as my main source of ideas for posts on top of having the demands on my time and my overall lifestyle change simultaneously hasn’t left me a lot of time or desire to write.  Certainly not to write about games, and my primary fiction piece has seen maybe a paragraph added in the last three months.  I’m not full time, but the job keeps my brain burning glucose and leaves me rather tired.  Most work nights I’m not up for gaming at all.  And MMO-gaming and the social interaction—even the casual interactions—it brings is out of the question.  I’m an introvert to the bone — even if I do not talk to anyone and only deal with emails in a day, that’s enough social interaction for me.  

For the last month, I’ve barely played GW2.  I can’t decide if I’m done with the game, or if I just don’t have the energy for an MMO.  I think it’s a bit of both — I don’t have the desire to make enough time for the game to see event content during the time frame it is available for, and I have otherwise experienced most of the content I find interesting.  Combine that with a desire to be isolated most evenings, and I’m really not logging in much.  I know from past experience—I have been me for my entire life after all—that my need for isolation will pass — the “too much interaction for the day” baseline will move as I become accustomed to the interactions required for work.  

So I’ve been asking myself what it would take to make me excited about GW2 as I grow used to the new demands on me, and the best I could come up with are two possibilities: “small group, non-dungeon, permanent content” is the first.  This means, to me, something I can pop in to with one or two other people and still have it be challenging and fun, but not something that requires a set number of people and becomes impossible without that number.  And it doesn’t have an expiration date — the last few events have passed me by — I haven’t been able to log in during each more than once or twice.  The second change that might bring me back would be entirely new environments and mechanics.  

The first of these seems likely to come eventually, though it’s quite possible that by the time it does arrive, I’ll have moved on to new pastures. I feel as if Anet has focused on event content, which is probably not a bad thing for the regular players, but I don’t feel motivated to start a task that won’t be available to finish the next time I feel like playing.  

The second seems less likely based on Anet’s own statements about not adding professions, crafts, races, or zones but focusing on free content updates that expand the existing.  I’d almost prefer that a large paid expansion was in the works to release at the one year point — the one year mark is when GW got its first expansion, and when GW2 released, I commented to several that we’d probably see one in August or September.  

Probably not.  

But such a large expansion, with more skills, more weapon skills, perhaps even a new style of combat altogether (mounted? ahem) would likely give me another 8 – 9 month surge.  

I’m not sure I’m the one they want to market to though.  My server seems otherwise healthy.  Subjectively, it seemed to reach a low point about two – three months ago and has bounced back in my absence.  My favorite way of gauging the health of the game has always been to observe gem sales — those seem to be about the same as ever, since an early rise after the honeymoon phase of the game ended.   

In the meantime, I’ve taken this time to acquaint myself with single player games I missed and to reacquaint with the ones I’ve been missing.  I’ve been playing The Cave, Blood Bowl: Chaos Edition, Tropico 4, Saints Row the Third, and XCom: Enemy Unkown.  I picked up Borderlands 2, and played it a wee bit, but it’s much better as a co-op game.  I’ve mostly ignored it in order to play with Havok, and she has even less time for gaming than I do.  

I’ve also been playing an unnamed beta. The combat feels more like I expected GW2 combat to feel, at least in the early game, so it’s getting points for that.  

For the near-future, I plan to give Age of Wushu a try.  I like the sandbox elements and the setting, though I’m not sure how I feel about their monetization strategies.  But I’d like to get a firsthand feel.  I’ll try to write about that experience, at some point.  

I’ve also been strongly considering playing Darkfall: UW.  But I think that would need to wait for me to actually feel like gaming with other humans again.  Solo Darkfall is a bad idea.  

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Update on What I’m Playing

Today feels like the right day to update what I’m playing and what I plan to be playing.  I think it has been a few months since I directly addressed this crucial issue, and I know there must be dozens of gamers just hitting refresh on my page, dying to know what I’m up to.  Or not.

If it hasn’t been obvious, my main game right now is clearly Glitch.  Despite that I’ve loved it since I first heard of it, I can honestly say I never expected it to take the role of my primary MMO.  For the first month or so of playing, Glitch was just an amusing distraction I played between rounds of more competitive games such as Global Agenda or League of Legends.  At this point, I can’t remember the last time I played either of those games, but the last time I played Glitch was just an hour or two back — I popped in to say hi to some friends and do a quick bit of mining before going back to more productive computer activities.

It’s the friends, the wonderfully friendly and witty people I’ve met, that have really moved Glitch from an amusement to a primary game.  I won’t try to claim that Glitch has a utopian community, but in my experience, Glitch appears to attract more adults than teens and more nice people than rude people — at least as compared to the general population of online gamers.   What this means for me is that unlike Global Agenda, where I find I usually have to ignore chat in order to enjoy myself or to avoid being horrified at the state of humanity, chat in Glitch adds to my enjoyment.

Glitch has also pushed out LotRO and CoX.  On one hand, I feel somewhat guilty for not playing those games as I made small content purchases for both, but on the other hand, the content and the games will still be there when I find myself tired of my current routines or just nostalgic for a game I haven’t touched in awhile.

Curiosity has led me to try out another free to play online game, however.  Today, I booted up Everquest II for the first time since its second attempt at converting to free to play.  I spent a bit of time trying to recover my old account, if only to have access to races and classes that are pay to unlock for free players, but I cannot seem to get any password to work and the email address associated with the account is gone, deleted a few months after Adelphia sold my town to Comcast — I still can’t decide which is worse.

While it still bothers me that most of the classes and races are locked (I cannot recreate my original character, whom I believe was a dark elf fury), I find it less bothersome now that I’ve gotten used to free to play cash shops — I don’t need to have access to all the classes before I’ve even decided if I would bother to invest anything in the game.

I haven’t played much.  In fact, all I’ve done is start a new character and then quit once I picked a starting zone, but even that was enough to realize how dated my 7 year old memories of the game are.  Though I’m sure the graphics haven’t gone backwards, they’re not as great as I remember them to be.  I’m sure in 2004 they were excellent — I’ve just been spoiled.  To be fair, with the settings cranked, the graphics aren’t much worse than what I saw during the SWTOR beta, so it’s possible the graphics have been revamped or at least given a slight boost over the years.  The starting areas are also completely different, so it will be awhile before I get to a zone I remember from the early days of the game.

In the world of offline gaming, I’m still playing Skyrim.  Sometimes, I even do a round or two of solitaire.

Expect a bit more on EQII in the future, as I will at least get through the new player experience.  Also expect Part 3 of Defining Sandbox early next week — I’ve got a draft started, but I don’t foresee the time to finish it before this weekend ends.

Wishful Thinking: Housing in Glitch

I’m going to claim that this is the start of a new series in which I will look at a feature in a game I am playing and imagine ways I would make it better.  Although I may often try and place myself in the mind of the developers and try to please as much of the community as possible while limiting the number I piss off,  I’m not going to consider time or budget or how technological limitations would effect implementation — I don’t even know what any of that means, never mind how that would affect particular gaming companies.

And so I shall call this series Wishful Thinking — it will be examples of what I would do if I were a developer and had the single goal, with no limitations, of making everything fully awesome.

As I am addicted to Glitch, I’m going to start with something that’s already on the table, Glitch’s housing system.  For both the housing system and the group “halls” (which are being described as more like private streets), there have been a lot of hints about particulars we will see when the changes are implemented.  I’m going to avoid talking about those completely and discuss a feature that hasn’t gotten any air time.

Location (repeat 3x).

Currently, Glitch homes have static locations that are accessed from streets.  Other than cave regions, most streets have some form of housing.  The houses themselves are on static blocks that anyone can visit even if they don’t live there — think Lord of the Rings housing, though without the upkeep.

quarters signquarters sign selected

Dyran Notion Quarter Sign

The current system has ups and downs.  Though a small part of me prefers housing that is actually distributed in the world and not instanced off the world, I don’t think such is a practical idea in a 2d environment.  Instancing, but public instancing that anyone can visit, is probably the best way to go for housing blocks in glitch.  I also find it nice that the access to the blocks is a physical object in the regular world that players run through.

But there is a downside.  Because the instances have a physical presence in the world of Ur, locations sell out.  Areas that have quick access to more than one type of region sell out the quickest.  The most expensive, 50k currant, homes also sell out.  Tiny Speck has been regularly adding more signs — and therefore more blocks and more houses — and has added a column, the 5000s, to all existing signs.

If housing is to remain physically linked to particular regions, I think the current sign has to go.  I find it unfortunate and think the current sign has a simplistic, amiable character, but it lacks expandability.  A vertical scroll bar and a list format are necessary if addresses are to continue to infinity.

Of course that’s thinking pretty small for Wishful Thinking (if you capitalize the idea, it becomes a real thing you are forced to commit to — I read that somewhere or saw it on Oprah).   I’d really like to see a rethinking—or at least new options—as to what makes a neighborhood.

They’ve hinted that we’d have more control over whom our neighbors will be.  Although I would live with it, I wouldn’t be happy if “neighbors” came to mean no more than “other players whose homes I can visit instantly be selecting a street sign at my own house.”  While that would be fine as one possibility, what would really be excellent would be to tie housing location to group halls.

Before The Great Unlaunching of 2011, we were expecting an update that would include group halls — we were also told that group halls would be more like private streets.  The mining group I am part of already had plans for building our own, we’ve speculated on what the requirements might be, and a number of us had begun hoarding material in anticipation of release.

I suspect we will still have the option to build group streets.  I suspect the reason why we are no longer expecting that update soon* is that it has now become tangled up in The Big Update.  I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the two will actually launch together.  I’m hoping we have the option to not only build our own houses but also to build a neighborhood block street with friends and then build our houses within that shared block.

But even that wouldn’t be ideal alone.  While this would please community-centered glitchen such as myself, there are solo players who might actually prefer not to be connected to any blocks.  There’s a phenomenon in Glitch known as the Housing Authority.  While most housing authorities are simply groups that members of the same neighborhood can join giving them a neighborhood forum and chat room, some of them have been created in order to encourage group interaction in neighborhoods, which has occasionally led to alleged harassment of their more solo-minded neighbors.

For these players, I imagine they’d like their homes to be refuges.  And I think they should have the option of not having a block at all.  If homes and group streets are somehow tied to physical locations in Ur, I think these players should be able to build homes that they can access directly from the street quarter sign or whatever replaces it.

In that case, some of them might like a street sign or teleporter that gives them easy access to their friends’ homes and the private blocks they are allowed to visit.  In this scenario, a street sign or other item right in front of a glitch’s home is an excellent idea, just as long as I can have a physical neighborhood with my friends too.

* Coincidentally, the rumor of a release date that I mentioned in my last post for The Big Update was actually the old rumor about the group hall update.  So sue me.   The release date for The Big Update is actually rumored for around the end of Quarter 1 2012.

Defining Sandbox Part 2: Character Power Progression

When I last left off exploring this commonly used bit of mmo jargon, I had decided that “the difference between a sandbox and a theme park MMO seems related to choice, the nature of those choices, and the limitations placed on those choices.”  I had also implicated that it is not just any choice that distinguishes between these types of games but more the ends of those choices.  In theme parks, any choice in how and where to play inevitably leads to the same end: increasing character level and acquiring new gear.  On the other hand, sandbox goals could possibly all lead to progressing character power, but that a sandbox allows variability in the definition of character power, rather than defining the power of all players, regardless of play style, by their character’s level and gear.

In order to be perceived as a sandbox, MMOs must leave a lot of what defines success and power up to the player community.  This leads to another misunderstanding regarding the meaning of sandbox: I’ve seen it written in many comment sections, likely by players who have not enjoyed current or past sandbox offerings, that “sandbox is just another word for no content.”  While I can, and certainly will before this series is over, debate what counts as content, I believe most people making this statement refer to quests and other such content that provides story.  While many games thought of as sandboxes have lacked any dev-driven story-based missions, I do not believe this lack actually is necessary to remain a sandbox.  However, for the game to feel like a sandbox, this content should be at most of equal importance to player-driven content.

Of course, I’m left with the burden of explaining player-driven content in such a way that does not specify exactly what that type of content might be.  I’m going to tentatively claim that player-driven content that enables players to personally define what is meant by power progression generally consists of game mechanics that allow players to permanently affect the game world for all players.  This can be anything from player built towns to war over territory to obtaining and monopolizing a resource.  Other players should be able to see what you have done and be affected by it.

However, and this is a big however, player actions that have an effect on others does not, does not, does not require traditional combat PvP.   I simply mean that the passage of player A through the game world has the potential to change what player B will find or do when she wanders through the same areas later. The world is not static, nor is it phased — whatever I see, you see, he sees, and she sees.  Coming back to the metaphor of theme park versus sandbox, in an actual theme park I am free to enjoy the rides, but if I were to attempt to change or modify them in some way, I’m sure I’d be arrested for some sort of crime.  On the other hand, when we give our children sandboxes, we encourage them to change its initial state, a smooth plane of sand, into whatever catches their fancy.  When the streetlights come on, we will tell the child it is time to come inside, but otherwise, there is no point in which we say to the child “You’re done.  You’ve won the sandbox.  You’ve created all the castles you can create.”  Children outgrow sandboxes, but they do not “finish the sandbox.”  There is no defined end — success is defined by the child.  And such is also true of character power in a sandbox.  It will be defined differently by every individual depending on what segment of the game’s mechanics most interest the player.  It might be traditional combat power, but it can also be social, political, or financial.

There’s quite a bit for me to chew on here, never mind anyone reading along, so again I will stop and let it stew.  Apparently, I am locking down my thoughts on the topic as I write them, so I will likely put all of these posts together in a more refined, united article with its own tab, eventually.  Next time I will go back to freedom of choice and oppose it to another ill-defined bit of gaming jargon: “linearity.”   That next entry  will likely spend more time defining “linear” games than sandboxes.

But someday I will get to a final definition of some kind, I swear.

Defining Sandbox: Part 1

Words are hard.  Here I am, a person who communicates continuously via the written word and is paid to craft words for others, and I know that despite my “expertise,” most of what I’ve written in my lifetime, if not all of it, can be misunderstood or interpreted from angles I did not imagine while writing.  Jargon is both a boon and a bane: although it allows people from the same fields to quickly communicate complicated ideas, people from different fields may use the same word to mean different things.  But the worst jargon comes in young fields, such as gaming criticism, where it seems assumed that “everyone knows” what it means without any discussion.

So have I justified talking about the meaning of the word “sandbox” in gaming and in the growing lexicon of mmo jargon?  Since I’m already writing this, I’ll go with the answer most convenient for me: yes.   So how do we define sandbox?  How is it being used out there?

Searching google for “define sandbox mmo,” the first relevant hit I come across is this hub page. The author, Tahamtan, equates sandbox games with freedom of choice.  He goes on to more details, including the claim that the players make the rules rather than developers, and specifics such as classless skill systems and customizable appearances, some of which I agree with and some seem optional at best and otherwise completely arbitrary.   I strongly agree with the freedom of choice bit, but I don’t think that’s enough detail to eliminate games that are commonly called theme parks.  I found a second blog post attempting to explain a personal definition of sandbox, but he focuses even more on the details than this first author.  And most of those details are lifted straight from UO.  UO is certainly a sandbox, at least everyone who has played it seems to think so, but I’m more interested in creating a definition of sandbox that includes any MMO generally agreed to be a sandbox (Ultima Online, SWG pre-NGE, Eve, Darkfall, Wurm Online, and such) while excluding any games generally agreed to be theme parks (WoW, Rift, Warhammer, etc.)

Sandbox games can certainly be said to depend on freedom of choice, but to what extent is freedom of choice limited in a theme park?   There’s a common argument about WoW that claims WoW offers choice despite generally being considered a theme park by most mmo bloggers and reviewers.  And it is certainly true that there are options available in WoW.  Although the most common path is to follow quests, players can choose to ignore the quests and grind mobs.  Players could also put together a regular group to crawl instances or exclusively use the dungeon finder and complete instances with PUGs.  At a certain point, though I cannot recall when, PvP becomes another viable option.

Similarly, WoW does allow for players to choose the zones they visit.  Once getting out of your racial start zone, there are frequently multiple options about where to go next.  There is not a single clear path that forces everyone to be in the same zone for the same level like there is in Forsaken World.  So with all these choices, why does the general consensus firmly place WoW in the theme park column?

Because all of these choices come with obvious limitations.  Although there are options about how to play, all of those options reach the same end: leveling your character and acquiring better equipment.  No matter how someone plays WoW, the goal remains the same.  Even when I imagine a player that gets joy primarily from exploration, visiting every in-game location still requires leveling up and getting new equipment.  Locations are designed for certain level ranges, and while there may not be something stopping a player from visiting higher level zones, players are not able to explore and survive unless they are in the right range for that zone.  The choice of where and how to level is governed by the character’s level throughout the game.  No matter what a player focuses on, leveling and new equipment will either be the end result or a necessary step along the way.

When I look at a sandbox, I find it more difficult to generalize all the goals with a single end as I have with WoW.  Although I have heard it said that the goal is still more power, the difference is in the definition of power.  In WoW, power will nearly always refer to character level and gearscore.  Some might describe power as the amount of gold they possess, but again this goal is governed by character level (higher levels acquire more gold and more valuable crafting materials) and just like character level, there is even a cap that forces players to cease pursuing gold as a game goal.

So far the difference between a sandbox and a theme park MMO seems related to choice, the nature of those choices, and the limitations placed on those choices.  This is far from the complete definition I’m searching for that clearly defines sandbox while excluding theme parks.  But this blog is the longest I’ve written so far, and if anyone is still reading I’m amazed and impressed.  Next, I will take a closer look at how “gaining power” is not a sufficient generalization for goals in a sandbox, or at the very least, how many different ways one can define “gaining power,” all while continuing to work toward a meaningful definition of sandbox.

No promises as to when, I still have a draft of WoW Hate Explained Pt. 1 to finish, and I started thinking about that months ago.

OGP: Obligatory Glitch Post & Invite Give Away

What can I say about Glitch that hasn’t already been said?  It’s a neat little game, and I can certainly say I’m really enjoying it.  I can almost make the claim that it’s currently my primary game.  It’s interspersed with bouts of Global Agenda and LoL, but otherwise, it really is my primary game right now.

But it’s definitely not for everyone.  Let’s take a look at some of the complaints I’ve seen in various comment sections around the internet:

1.  Potty humor

Ok, I only saw this one from one person, though I did see that one person post it in more than one place.  I’ll have to respectfully disagree.  While I have encountered at least one fart joke, such is far from the focus of the humor and not a common encounter.  Most of the humor is whimsical postmodern absurdity with subtle jokes based on gaming conventions.  For example, repeated actions earn various achievements, but these events will occur on numbers like 11, 17, 47, or 1001 rather than 10, 15, 45, or 1000.   There’s also a good bit of mild innuendo: butterflies must be given massages before they can be milked.  Certainly that’s an intentional reference to the infamous “happy ending,” but anyone who gets worked up about butterfly sexuality should probably take a step back.

There’s no accounting for taste of course.  It’s fair to say that some people might be turned off by the humor.  But I think it takes a bit more sensitivity to such issues than most possess.

2. What’s the point?

This is the most common complaint by far.  Sometimes accompanied with the comment: “I found all I was doing was waiting for status bars to fill up.”  Of course, there are reasons to watch status bars fill — at the most basic level, is it not possible to dismiss World of Warcraft as nothing but “running around and waiting for ability timers to reset?”  I think it is, but that neither are actually fair descriptions of what there is to do in either game.

There are several points to Glitch.  For MMO players, most of them are only interesting if you particularly enjoy crafting.  When I was first playing, my goal was to unlock every recipe I could for a couple of skill trees.  Of course, such is a finite goal.  If I keep playing, I can eventually unlock the recipes for every skill tree.  But since getting a good number of advanced recipes in a few areas, I’ve switched my goal to selling items in auctions to other players.

For me, that economic goal can occupy me forever.  But that’s still not all there is to do in Glitch.  Usually, there are Street Projects.  Street Projects allow players to gather items to build new streets, which are the game zones, thus expanding the world of Glitch.  Due to a much greater than anticipated response to the game, the initial Street Projects were fast tracked, to open more zones and spread out the population, and due again to that unexpected demand, they are not putting more out until they have created a new system that increases the number of players involved in each project.  But there was Street Projects, and there will be again.

There’s also an endgame option, of sorts.  Players that have the piety skill can band together to drive off the Rook, a giant bird that attacks streets that have been neglected.

For such a simple looking flash game, there’s a lot of depth to Glitch.  I’ve been playing for almost two weeks, and I still haven’t explored much to do with alchemy or tinkering.  There are a number of house models I can upgrade to still.  And there are a lot of players looking for my goods on the market.

I still have two invites to give away.  I don’t think they are actually necessary to join the game, but I believe without one there is a waiting period of anywhere from a day to a week.  If anyone wants one, let me know in the comments.

1/23/2012 ETA: I am out of invites, but I do keep getting search engine hits with terms such as “glitch invite.”  Getting into the game without an invite should be possible though there may be a waiting period between creating an account and actually being allowed in the game.  I just created an account for an extra email of mine and will report back once I know how long it took that account to be accepted.

Whoops, I lied

I swear I really had no intention of playing City of Heroes after briefly checking it out yesterday.  However, I’ve been dying to try out Going Rogue content since it released last year.  The release was right around the time I became aware my tenuous financial situation was much less temporary than I had hoped, and rather than dish out $30 or so on top of my $15 subscription fee, I quit the game.  But shortly after making a post yesterday, I realized that for only $15, I could go do exactly what I would have done on GR’s release day — log in and create a Praetorian and level him or her up to 20.

As someone who subscribed more than once for varying lengths of time, I’m just short of my Tier V Paragon Rewards which would unlock the premium classes: Controller and Mastermind.  I have auction house access for life, but I fall quite a bit short of Tier VII which would let me use the invention system for life.  That means my main’s primary build is useless — some 90% of his enhancements are inventions.  I was disappointed by this at first, but I’ve figured out that a 30 day invention license only costs about a buck.  I figure I can easily play a month or two leveling up some alts, and when I eventually purchase access to the Going Rogue post-level 20 alignment system, I can use the leftover points from yesterday’s purchase and this future purchase to unlock inventions for a month. If I’m still playing after that, I can occasionally purchase points whenever I want to use one of my level 50s.

So my f2p gaming hasn’t exactly been free to play, but putting CoH aside, let’s recap.  About two months ago I spent $15 to get Elite Agent status in Global Agenda.  That’s a one time purchase that need never be repeated, so I think of that as the box price.  So I’ve spent $15 on this former subscription game for two months of enjoyment, and theoretically need not ever pay again and can continue to enjoy it indefinitely.

I’ve been playing LotRO for about a month and a half, and I’ve spent $7.99 there.  I’ve also spent little to no time with the content that unlocked and probably have another month or more before I do clear those quests.

So at the end of October, I should be looking back on three months of gaming, playing an MMO and one pseudo-MMO for the first two months and adding a second MMO for the final month.  Two games for three months and one game for one month for a grand total of $38.  If these were still subscription games, this same experience would have cost me $105 (at $15 per month per game).  I’m pretty damn satisfied and pleased with my penny pinching.

Sure, the limitations these games can place on free players may occasionally be inconvenient,  but I can address each limitation when my level of involvement in the game, and time invested, justifies it.  A few months from now, I may buy a few months of LotRO VIP to unlock the extra bags and character slots.  That’s a maximum of $30 (though there are a lot of deals on game time cards that are still floating around the retail world so it probably won’t even be that), so potentially, after three to four months, I will have paid only $38 and just be starting my two months of VIP time.  That’s a damn good value — I have a lot of trouble ever picturing myself dishing out $60 and then agreeing to a subscription ever again.  At least, not when it comes to a theme park — some 90% of time in such games is dedicated to leveling alone, and I’m not surrendering massive amounts of cash to be all alone in a world full of other people who are also all alone.

I’m really not all impressed with my fellow gamers for their willingness to pay monthly fees for massively single player games.  Somewhere some marketing guy or gal is laughing all the way to the bank, telling friends about how they convinced us to both buy and rent their product simultaneously.